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Secret Sleuth Book 4

A reviled supermarket CEO meets his expiration date

The executive who’s responsible for widely hated changes at the biggest grocery store in Haines Tavern, Kentucky, arrives for a tour  … and doesn’t leave alive. Sheila and Clara are on the scene – buying dog treats, of course – and on the case. Can they pick out the ingredients for the right solution?

~ ~ ~ ~

This whodunit with humor is the fourth book in USA Today bestselling author Patricia McLinn’s cozy mystery series, Secret Sleuth, which begins with a murder on a transatlantic cruise in Death on the Diversion. In Death on Torrid Avenue and later books, accidental investigator Sheila Mackey returns to dry land in the Midwest, where mysteries abound in her new home in small-town Kentucky.

Praise for the Secret Sleuth series

“[Death on the Diversion] is such an enjoyable story, reminiscent of Agatha Christie's style, with a good study of human nature and plenty of humor. Great start to a new series!” – 5-star review 

“[Death on Torrid Avenue] is told with a lot of humor and the characters are good company. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and am looking forward to the next story.” – 5-star review 

Genres:
Excerpt:

DAY ONE
Monday

CHAPTER ONE

Orange juice.

That’s what entangled my friend Clara Woodrow and me in a murder.

Not a lot of people can say that.

Clara, still apologizing for our detour to the Jolly Roger grocery store off the highway, even though I’d said it was fine, said, “Ned’s so easygoing about most things and he does love his orange juice. He’s coming in really late tonight from his business trip, and then he has meetings early tomorrow morning, poor baby. This way he’ll at least have his orange juice before he goes.”

The detour was from the direct route between a meeting we’d been at and my house.

I’d approved the detour to the Roger, as the store was commonly called, despite it eating into the time I’d mentally assigned to writing today, as I pursued a goal of writing my first novel, something no one else in Haines Tavern knew about.

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Something no one else anywhere knew about.

This was not the first time I’d let my assigned writing time be overrun by other activities, though it was the first time orange juice was the culprit.

“I read a wonderful book on oranges once that said orange juice for breakfast is widely considered an American habit, though, in fact, people in other countries do drink it for breakfast. And sometimes all the rest of the day. They also do things like clean floors with oranges,” I said. “Half an orange in each hand, down on their knees, scrubbing.”

I had time to expand on my memories of the book Oranges by John McPhee, because the Roger was some distance down the rolling highway. Isolated even from a sparse crop of strip malls that bloomed between North Bend County’s largest town – Stringer – and its county seat – Haines Tavern, where we both lived.

The Roger sat back from the highway at a rising point in that roadway’s endless up and down existence, tucked back on a solitary loop of a road that leads to nowhere except the grocery store, a bank branch on one side of it, and a cut-rate (pun intended) hair place on the other.

It was as if the buildings were outcasts, pushed firmly beyond the invisible yet widely understood borders of Haines Tavern, Kentucky.

Heck, the townspeople allowed the dog park, with its attendant noise and pooh, and the jail, ditto, to be built closer to the center of town than the Roger. That should tell you about where it ranked in their estimation. They’d shop there for the convenience, but they weren’t proud of it.

To hear the people of Haines Tavern talk, they exclusively patronized Shep’s Market, the generations-old little store near the center of town. Yet I ran into a higher percentage of people I knew at the Roger than at Shep’s.

Still, if we’d been in town, I’d wager Clara would have opted for Shep’s Market. But Roger’s represented a far shorter detour than Shep’s from where we’d been, which was the aforementioned Torrid Avenue Dog Park.

If we’d been coming with the dogs from the park, I’d have stayed in Clara’s SUV with the dogs, running the AC full blast, because even in September, it was too warm for the dogs to stay in a sun-soaked vehicle. Alternatively, Ned would have been orange juice-less – and, thus, according to him, breakfastless -- the next morning.

But we’d left our dogs at my house for this trip to the dog park, which involved a meeting with parks officials about adding an area with agility equipment. Clara and I had been elected to represent users of the dog park in a close-run election.

In other words, Donna, the dog park’s czarina, said someone was needed to attend this meeting. No one volunteered. No one she approved of, anyway.

She assigned us.

“A whole book on oranges?” Clara asked. “You have to give me the title of that one, too, Sheila.”

“You don’t have to read every book I mention. No one will expect you to have read every book out there.”

Since she’d begun an online course to train to be a virtual assistant for authors, she’d been on a maniacal reading binge, in addition to the readings for the course and doing assignments.

“Not every book. But a lot more than I have. And you recommend such wonderful books. Not like what they made us read in school. So depressing. Turned me off reading for years. I still wouldn’t be reading if it weren’t for you and your great-aunt’s books.”

The topic of my Great-Aunt Kit, particularly the sub-topic of her books, tiptoed us right up to the edge of a precipice I did not want to go over. The landing from that precipice would be on an unforgiving bed of sharp, protruding rocks also known as secrets.

Kit’s secrets. My secrets. Our secrets.

“Gee, will you look at that. Don’t see that every day in Haines Tavern,” I said in a brilliant and subtle change of subject.

I was aided by there actually being something unusual to look at in front of the Roger.

It was one of those SUV limousines. Not the super long ones like kids rent for prom, but the kind executives get driven around in so they don’t ever have to stop being important. It had an extra section between the front and back doors, plus a raised roof over the passenger compartment. As we got closer, I saw the Range Rover branding.

It also had bright orange safety cones set out around it, clearly intended to keep all plebian vehicles well away from it glistening surfaces.

The likely cone-setter was a barrel-chested suit-wearing man slowly walking around the vehicle with a cloth in one hand, attending to the glisten.

As Clara’s path took us close to the car, he turned and stared at her dog-toting, Kentucky dust-wearing, not of this decade SUV, as if daring us to bring that vehicular mutt any closer to his pristine purebred.

I had an urge to grab a grocery cart, pass right between the cones, and ram the side of the limo-SUV.

Good thing I was still inside a moving vehicle. Made it much easier to withstand that temptation.

Clara parked with an aplomb I wouldn’t have achieved in that size vehicle, we got out, and without discussion met at the front of her SUV, which would take us right past the limo-SUV, rather than the more direct route to the main doors.

“Who do you think it belongs to?” Clara whispered, tipping her head toward the vehicle that could probably hold all the dogs from the dog park in a pinch.

I suppressed a grin at the glisten-attender’s reaction to that scenario.

“No idea. Can’t see a celebrity popping into the Roger, even if they did find themselves in North Bend County. Were there any special events scheduled?”

She lifted a shoulder, then had to re-seat her shoulder bag’s strap, which had dropped off her shoulder. “I never pay attention to the stuff they do here.”

We’d need to adjust our path eventually or we’d run right into the vehicle, but rather than angling away, we kept straight on, with a right-angle turn in our near futures.

The driver continued his circuit. He opened the farthest back door on the driver’s side, giving us a view inside. Not his intention, I suspected, but a bonus from our angle.

A desk setup was pushed back from the leather chair-like back seat, probably to let its occupant get out. Computing devices and a screen sat on the desk. On the passenger side of the compartment, another desk with similar tools was set up in front of a somewhat more spartan rear-facing seat.

“Definitely not a celeb,” I murmured to Clara, as we made the right angle turn under the watchful eyes of the guy in the suit, who appeared to be dusting already dust-free surfaces.

“No,” she agreed mournfully. “No glitter in sight. All work and no play. Some comfort, though. They sure have more leg room with that format than if they faced each other.”

“Could accomplish the same thing with two passengers sitting side by side. I bet this is to keep the hierarchy fully enforced, with the underling in the rear-facing seat.”

“Smart,” she said admiringly. “I mean you, not the rear seat limo guy.”

We were grinning at each other as we entered the store and encountered Petey.

It was more common to see him out in the parking lot, even when winter had been its coldest, than inside. So that was another oddity, along with the SUV limo.

Petey operated as a cross between a cart wrangler and a Walmart greeter.

He’d called me by name the first time I’d shopped at the Roger. I still don’t know how he did that. But he called everybody by name. And even the most curmudgeonly soon learned his name and used it in return.

I’d guess his age between sixty and seventy. He came up to my shoulder. He never failed to smile and say hello.

Except now.

A blonde woman wearing the store uniform with a pin on her dark blue vest that read Hi, I’m Jacqueline Yancik,  assistant store manager, How Can I Help You? put her hand on his arm in a consoling gesture, then hurried after a clot of people congregated where the register lines emptied out under a wall holding a line of stiff photos of the store’s management team.

Petey turned toward us – or more likely the exit door – with his head down.

“Petey, what is all this?  Who’s here?” Clara asked.

He looked up, produced a grimaced version of his usual smile. “CEO. Rod Birchall.”

“CEO of what?”

“The chain.”

“The CEO of the Jolly Roger chain? Here? Why?”

“Don’t know. Yelled at some guy in the parking lot. Yelled at me. Yelled at her.” His head-jerk indicated the departing assistant manager. “Probably yelling at somebody else now.”

As badly as this unpleasantness appeared to have put Petey off his usual cheerfulness, he still pulled a cart – a small one in response to Clara’s gesture -- free of the others in the stack and presented it to Clara. But without a smile. And then he walked past us and out through the automatic door.

“Apparently the CEO of Jolly Roger came to Haines Tavern to yell at people,” I summarized. “Clara, let’s get the OJ and get out of here before he yells at us.”

She side-eyed me with a glimmer of mischief. “Don’t you want to hear what he’s yelling about first? See a big CEO up close and personal?”

I’d seen more than a few in the years I’d spent in Manhattan, being known to the world by a different name and as the author of a book that became a movie, winning awards and setting records in each medium.  The catch being that I hadn’t actually written the book. My great-aunt had.

A fact that very few people knew. Of those few people only one lived in Haines Tavern. Me.

The people here knew me as Sheila Mackey. With no literary identity attached.

For myself, I would have skipped getting a closer viewing of this CEO. Or any other CEO.

Too many CEOs remind me of sea lions.

They’re smart and can be fun to watch from a distance. A long distance. Because up close you realize they’re noisy, have been known to snatch away small pets, and stink of putrid fish. Considering their diet, that’s not surprising – the sea lions’ diet, not the CEOs’.

But who was I to deny Clara the opportunity to experience a CEO? After all, everyone should go see sea lions in person. Once.

Besides, I might have an opportunity to ask if his was the brilliant mind behind associating a chain of grocery stores with piracy. Way to make customers think they’re getting a good deal.

“Sure.”

Since she’d already started wheeling the cart in the direction of the knot of people Petey had indicated and the assistant manager had now joined, it was a foregone conclusion, but I voiced my agreement to make it official as I trailed her.

In addition to that assistant manager named Jacqueline, the knot included a woman I’d seen once or twice in passing at the dog park – she and her setter mix often were leaving as I arrived with Gracie, my collie – but had never officially met.

Not only did I not know her name, I didn’t know her dog’s name, which made her next-best to a total stranger to me.

“Do you know her?” I asked Clara, indicating the woman by shifting my eyes.

“No. Shh.”

Also part of the knot were three store employees in red vests and nametags with something under their names I couldn’t read, three or four more people I took for customers, a gangly young man in a white dress shirt and slacks with one arm wrapped across his waist as if his stomach hurt and a phone in his other hand, and the obvious CEO.

Obvious not only because he was the focus of the group and because his pristine white shirt and suit pants had been tailored by masters you’ve never heard of because they would never be so gauche as to advertise, but because he had the thrust-out chest, lifted head, and minimalist chin of a sea lion.

Though that might have been a coincidence.

Also, he was the one talking.

“…making this the most convenient and best choice for all shoppers in…”

At the CEO’s pause, the gangly young man stepped forward, whispering.

The older man spoke loudly, as if that wiped out that he’d been fed his line by whisper. “…North Bent County. We’re--.”

“Bend, not Bent,” corrected a voice from my left.

“—devoted to accomplishing that and in record time. Since I took over, we’ve improved by leaps and bounds, but we won’t be satisfied with just improvement. We want to be perfect.”

A woman with gray wings to her upswept hair and glasses on the tip of her nose, which facilitated looking over them at him in disapproval, slid into a crack in his discourse.

“You have London Broil on sale at this store.” Her clear, precise voice stirred memories of a high school English teacher.

“Glad you like your local Jolly Roger.” If his non-responsive answer hadn’t already given it away, his turned-away head as he scanned the aisle signs, would have made it clear he wasn’t paying attention.

“I do not like Jolly Roger at all at the moment. You have not improved, but rather, regressed. The London Broil that I desire is no longer available. The gentlemen at the meat counter, who have previously supplied exactly what I desire, informed me they can no longer cut it for me. They tell me that rules from corporate headquarters have been handed down limiting the varieties meat that can be cut at the stores, hamstringing the butchers, as it were. Further, I have ascertained that you are the party responsible for this change and others equally unwelcomed.”

“Hamstringing butchers,” Clara repeated under her breath. “That’s good.”

Still not looking at the woman, the CEO glanced around at the store employees and his gangly assistant, who wasn’t as young as he’d appeared at first look. “This is the entrenched thinking we have to overcome, since we know that meat production is far more profitable when we centralize it.”

Seemed to me he was faulting the woman for not being happy to sacrifice getting London Broil the way she liked it as long as it improved the Jolly Roger’s bottom line … and, presumably, its CEO’s annual bonus.

Yeah, that’s what most consumers want first and foremost – to fatten stores’ and CEO’s bottom lines.

“You’re not producing meat. You’re cutting it,” grumbled a man standing across the group from the teacher, a man in his early forties, dressed in worn jeans, sneakers, and a white shirt, with the sleeves rolled back on powerful forearms.

The CEO named Rod Birchall, according to Petey, paid no attention. Not to the man, not to the woman voicing the complaint. He seemed to think the matter was settled.

She didn’t, which was clear from her you’re-about-to-be-sent-to-the-principal’s office expression.

“Your profit relies on having customers, which you will not have with these changes,” the woman said.

“Plenty of pre-packaged available,” the assistant said with nervous heartiness.

As if he hadn’t spoken, Rod Birchall said, “All the cuts you could want are here. All of them. We offer more choices than ever before--”

“Not true.” Again, the woman’s support came from man on the opposite side of the group.

His right hand was raised slightly. At first, I thought he’d formed a fist. But the position of his hand was more elongated than that. More like a tennis racquet grip? No, that wasn’t quite right, either. Yet there was something familiar…

The CEO interrupted my musing by trying that old trick that if you didn’t have reason or logic on your side, just keep repeating and maybe somebody will fall for it. “More choice than ever before and--.”

“No. Prepackaging limits a purchaser’s choices.” Giving up on reading the man’s grip, I read his expression. Not a satisfied customer. “You’re selling them mostly white meat.”

White meat? But the woman had talked about red meat – London Broil. Not to mention, her complaint centered on whether meat could be cut to a customer’s specifications in the store.

I might have been distracted by the non-sequitur, but she wasn’t. She took control again.

“Indeed, there is no choice at all, in effect, because your packages offer only meat that is far too thin. Pork chops you can see through – no wonder people say it’s dry. It is like trying to cook tissue paper. And that is what it tastes like in the end. In addition to the supposed London Broil in your packages, which could not be sliced to serve, because it would be like trying to slice a pancake.”

“Some people do like it thin and--” started the assistant store manager.

Birchall talked over her, as CEOs tend to do. “Statistically, shoppers prefer thin.”

“None of those shoppers eat at my table,” the London Broil woman said curtly. “Are you going to return to having customers inform the butcher how they want their meat cut?”

“No,” Birchall said. “Machines are more efficient and cost less. Butchers are remnants of past centuries. It’s past time they moved aside for more efficient and cost-effective means.”

Didn’t seem to me to be a good strategy to irritate and dismiss people who knew how to handle cleavers. On the other hand, this guy seemed determined to irritate everybody, including customers.

And he wasn’t done.  “Besides, we can’t have butchers taking all day with customers. Centralizing the meat-cutting keeps traffic moving through the store. More efficient.”

“Prices haven’t dropped to reflect any supposed efficiency,” said the vaguely familiar man, his face now red.

Rod Birchall gave him a hard look and I’d swear the odor of putrid fish wafted past us.

“It’s more efficient and cheaper for the entire chain.” This CEO was not the first person I’d encountered who seemed to think that repeating something was the same as making a valid point. He wasn’t any less annoying for not being original.

“Not for the customers,” the woman said.

He didn’t even pretend to have listened to her. “Not to mention that it makes the best sense for a store like this – a convenience, rather than a full-service store, like the one in…”

This time the gangly assistant’s whisper was audible and identifiable. “Stringer. Two stores.”

“The two stores in Stringer.”

“If we wanted convenience, we’d pick up things at the gas station,” said the setter mix’s owner from the dog park. “This place isn’t as convenient at the gas station market and doesn’t have all the things I need. It’s the worst of both worlds.”

“Then you can go to our big store – two big stores in Stringer.” When Birchall smiled, the center of his top lip didn’t lift along with the corners, reminding me of a jack-o’lantern. Only not as human.

“If I’m going that far, I’m going to other stores that have better products, greater choice, don’t cram their house brand down my throat, and have lower prices. In the meantime, this convenient Roger doesn’t carry half the items I want. You’ve got to stop having your checkout clerks ask if we found everything we were looking for, because some of us tell them what all we couldn’t find and it’s slowing down the lines even worse than usual.”

“You should talk to your store manager.” He looked toward the assistant manager.

“Kurt Verker,” she supplied. “As I started to say before, he, uh, he had to leave. He wasn’t feeling well. He’ll be so sorry to have missed your visit.”

The oldest of the red vests, a woman, coughed. The other two appeared caught between horror and a growing fear that they’d burst out laughing.

“Even when he is here, he’s not much use,” the dog park woman said. “Promises to special order and call when it comes in, but he never calls and when I ask him about it, he says he couldn’t get it – them. Any of the many things I’ve asked for. When I confront him, he mumbles on about rules from corporate and not enough room.”

“That’s true,” Jacqueline, the assistant manager, said quickly. “We need to have enough room on the shelves to stock a carton’s worth or we don’t get a product.” Considering the way the assistant manager tried to walk a tightrope between her customers and the CEO, she needed one of those long balancing poles.

“You have plenty of room for ever more house brands,” the dog park woman said. “We’re not stupid, you know. We know your stores make more money selling your house brands than you do brand names.”

“Our brands are a value offer,” Birchall said, “giving you the same product for a lower price point that--”

“That would be great if they were the same product. But most of your house brands are junk. We want the brand names that have proven their worth over years, not some jumped up imitator.”

“Our brands are superior--”

“They’re not. Your lemon concentrate has seeds in it. I even found bits of twigs in it for heaven’s sake. I want the brand I’ve been using for years and don’t need to strain first. If I you don’t offer it here--”

“Any brand name we don’t offer is because that brand name product doesn’t sell in sufficient numbers to deserve space on the shelves of this store. Blame your fellow shoppers.”

“Bull,” said the man in jeans.

The assistant store manager made an abortive gesture that might have been an instinctual plea to him not to antagonize the CEO. Whether the man interpreted it that way or not, he did not elaborate on the single word.

But the woman from the dog park kept to her point. “My fellow shoppers don’t have a choice. You don’t stock that product in this store.”

“Because it doesn’t sell,” Birchall said triumphantly, turning away from her and starting off.

“Are you serious?” She immediately answered her own question. “Yes. Seriously stupid. It can’t sell when you won’t stock it.”

She said that louder, because he was walking away, taking a path that would take him to the produce section. He waved one hand overhead without stopping.

Cheery or dismissive?

Both.

The knot divided.

With an apologetic smile over her shoulder, the assistant manager, along with Birchall’s assistant, and the trio of employees wearing red vests, caught up with the CEO, their body language conveying reluctance in various dialects.

And I didn’t think the reluctance was entirely explained by the fact they were moving closer to the home of Brussel sprouts and turnips.

Most of the grumbling group of customers left. But the man, the possible teacher, and the woman from the dog park, headed in the same direction as the Roger employees.

Maybe they were after Brussel sprouts and turnips, but I doubted it.

Clara and I looked at each other.

“Do you need to get home right away?” she asked.

I blithely threw my writing time under the bus. “No. And this guy has me on the edge of my metaphorical seat to see how much worse he can get.”

“I know. Let’s go.”

We followed in the wake of the remaining group.

At the customer service desk, Birchall stopped abruptly, causing a chain reaction of stops for the employees, the three customers, then Clara and me. He reached over the counter and held up a bright blue object.

“You. What is this?”

It must have been an optical illusion that the other employees shrank away from the assistant manager, because I’d swear no one moved. But as clearly as if they’d extended their digits, they were all pointing to her as the one responsible for answering.

“A … uh, stapler?” she said.

“Of course, it’s a stapler, you cretin. You must have read the memo.” He pointed the butt end of the stapler at her in accusation. “Well, didn’t you?”

“I, uh, I’m sure I did. I read them all, sir.”

“Then you weren’t capable of comprehending it. The stapler is to be on the left side of the desk. Left. Not over here on the right. And never – never – are you to use some other brand. Always a Jolly Roger brand stapler--”

“Good heavens,” I muttered to Clara. “They have house brand staplers.”

“And write memos about where to place them on the desk,” she muttered back.

“--at the customer service desk. All--”

“It kept breaking,” said the older woman in the red vest. But softly enough that the rest pretended they hadn’t heard.

“—materials used at the Customer Service desk or the registers or anywhere else customers can see are to be Jolly Roger brand. You.”

He waved toward the man who certainly seemed to be his assistant. Hard to believe Birchall didn’t know his name.

Or could not be bothered to use it.

The man hurried to beside him, a destination made more difficult to achieve because the CEO strode off without waiting for him. “Write it down.”

“Write, uh… what?”

“Stapler. Wrong kind. Wrong place. No excuse for disregarding memo.”

“Yes, sir.”

Frowning as he looked from side to side, the CEO waved a finger at his assistant. “I just had a brilliant thought. Check if making fewer cuts would lower our production costs, let us cut more butchers. We might need to switch to thick meat.”

At least the woman with the upswept hair would be happy…

“If it saves us money and we can market it as premium with a premium price, that’s even better.”

…Or not.

“You.” Birchall pointed at Jacqueline.

“Your sales are lower than they should be. You haven’t met projections for eight months.”

“I’ve only been here three, but--”

“I don’t care if you’ve been here five minutes. It’s your store now. Hit those projections or it won’t be yours long. Can’t have dead weight hanging around dragging down our numbers.”

“Sir, we sent in a report to the district manager, cc’ing you and the entire executive team. Those projections are not reasonable. We couldn’t reach them without posting nearly forty-percent growth year over year. We have stiff competition from a local store that’s an institution in Haines Tavern--”

“What does a tavern have to do with it.”

“Haines Tavern. That’s the name of this town. And--”

“Doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter. Crush that local competition. Put it out of business.”

The assistant whispered something I didn’t hear.

The CEO’s brows snapped together. He focused fully on the assistant manager for the first time – with a scowl.

“This is that rinky-dink local store that’s beating us on specials? Starting theirs just before we advertise ours? How do they know what we’re going to run next? Somebody’s got to be telling them. Are you the traitor?”

She paled. “As I said, I’ve only been here a few months, I don’t even know--”

“Make a note,” Birchall snapped to the assistant. “Management of this store has two weeks to track down the leak or they’re out.”

The assistant store manager sucked in a breath. She wasn’t the only one. Several of us reacted to his harsh threat in front of an audience. The teacher clicked her tongue. I wished it were a precursor to taking this man by the ear and escorting him to the principal’s office.

“And you haven’t fully implemented the multi-tier promotion plan we sent. Do it. Now. Should have been done weeks ago.”

“Sir, in my memo, I included the comments from customers showing it doesn’t work for our customer base. I recommended--”

“Just do it. Don’t try to think.”

“We’ll lose customers.” She spoke more strongly. Perhaps she felt she had nothing to lose. “You heard what people said about --”

“You might lose customers or a store, but we’ll make more money.”

“Isn’t that what was tried in Utah before the chain went bankrupt there?”

Good for Jacqueline.

Though if she thought that would dent his self-satisfaction, she was disappointed.

He’d reached the produce section, stopping to gaze around him with his hands on his hips and his stern disapproval seemingly focused on the pints of blueberries.

“The failure was implementation,” he told the blueberries. “Lazy workforce wouldn’t follow the program. Just like you. Couldn’t get good people. But the board here saw the brilliance behind it and brought me in to make it work here. Are you on the board?

“Of course not.”

“I didn’t think so. But you better get on board or you’ll be gone.”

His assistant made a sound that might have been intended as an admiring chuckle at that brilliant play on words. Birchall didn’t show any sign of hearing and the assistant cut it off.

If I’d been Jacqueline, I’d have wanted to smack the CEO for his disdain.

I wasn’t her and I still wanted to smack him.

But it seemed to fuel her. “The customers’ reactions to the Dynamic Price Reduction Program--”

“Enough about the customers. Customers have to be led. They don’t run our stores.”

The customers behind him stirred restlessly. It might only take one comment to spark a rebellion. I bet we could chase him back to his posh SUV in seconds.

A muscle in the assistant manager’s jaw throbbed. “My customers don’t like the complicated sales. With X number of items on sale for Y days and a different set of four items on sale for three days. Then weekend specials that sometimes are for Friday through Sunday, but other times just Saturday and Sunday.”

“Our data shows dynamic sales keep consumers engaged.”

“It keeps them confused, not engaged.”

The assistant huffed.

But the CEO did not appear to pay any attention as he gazed around.

She kept on anyway. “We have a fair percentage of older customers here and they don’t like sales with changing and multiple rules. They also don’t like the digital coupons that have to be loaded onto smart phones – not all of them have smart phones.”

I was sure she was right that there were individual customers who didn’t like the coupons for the reasons she said, but it struck me as an unfair generalization. I couldn’t help but think of Petey the cart guy whizzing through his photos and videos on his phone to share his grandchildren’s brilliance with us not long ago. Yet he was a grandfather. Or my Great-Aunt Kit, who I swear could show Bill Gates a thing or two, especially about word processing programs.

“Let them load them on their loyalty card using their computer.”

“Not all of them have computers.”

“Internet cafés--”

“In Haines Tavern? Have you seen an internet café in your short time in town?”

“—or libraries. Smartphones. Whatever”

“The bottom line is they’re not going to take the time. And they don’t care for all the variables. They might clip paper coupons, but they’re not going to use the digital coupons.

“Then let them pay full price if they don’t want to save money.”

I was about ready to report this guy for abuse of senior citizens, no matter how much generalization that entailed. What a jerk.

But before anyone could respond, he strode off, clearly having turned his attention on a younger demographic.

A woman with a cherubic little girl with blonde curls, had come around the corner of the last aisle and stopped abruptly, staring at the group clustered in the produce section.

Not only was the girl a pre-school cutie, but she was strapped into the grocery cart seat – not something I often see. And what held her was not the thin, twisted store belt, but a padded shoulder harness connected to the back of the seat, supplemented by straps hooked to the sides, limiting lateral movement.

No hanging sideways over the edge until her head was upside down for this kid.

I’d thought it was quite enterprising of my nephew to assume that position when I’d visited that branch of my family a while back.

Yes, I’d laughed.

Yes, I probably had encouraged him, as my sister-in-law stated in her dual scold.

Yes, I could see the potential danger.

Still. Enterprising. My nephew could go far.

This little girl wasn’t going anywhere.

Birchall stopped short, with the displays of onions and potatoes between him and the mother-daughter pair.

“You. Take a picture. Should have been doing it all along. You’re useless. No— Not me alone. Do those later. First, get the kid.”

The rumple-haired assistant had pulled out his phone at the first order, but with the second his mouth opened and he looked around in alarm.

“The kid. The kid. Get the kid for my shot. People like that stuff. Need to get something useful out of this stop.”

The assistant started toward the woman with the girl.

“You.” Birchall pointed at the oldest of the three red vest wearers, a woman with Belinda on her name tag. “Get out of my shot.”

She scuttled backward as if receiving an electric shock, while also appearing grateful the shock gave her an excuse to put space between them.

“No.” The mother blurted out the word. Getting it out seemed to open the way for more. “You may not take any pictures of my daughter, especially not with Rod Birchall.”

“You. Take care of it.”

The assistant scurried to the woman. His urgent and urging tone rose.

So did the mother’s.

“No. I said no.”

“But--”

Birchall strode to them, elbowing aside the assistant. “Ma’am. You don’t understand. It’s just a few pictures with your lovely daughter. Then we won’t need you any longer and you can be on your way.”

“My daughter and I can be on our way now, because she’s not having her photo taken with you. Ever. If you had your way, she wouldn’t be alive.”

The assistant recoiled. The CEO didn’t.

It was hard to tell if that was a result of stalwart standing his ground or the impunity of the dense.

“Nonsense.” He took hold of the end of the shopping cart and tugged it closer to the strawberries, plastered a smile on his face, and ordered the assistant. “Good background color. Get the picture, you idiot.” He added, in nearly the same voice, “Want some chocolate, little girl?”

The assistant fumbled to get the phone up to his face.

The girl’s face puckered into a cry forestalled only by surprise when her mother yanked the grocery cart back with a shout.

“Your orders have pushed food safety labeling back a decade, you…you criminal.”

The CEO hung on, the cart seesawing between the two adults, with the girl now appearing to verge on seesaw-sickness.

“We meet the standards.”

“Minimum standards your toadies set. Leaving out ingredients that can kill children like my daughter because it might make the label a line or two longer.”

“If people like you didn’t scream about the font size--”

“It’s illegible as it is now. If you make it smaller it will be as bad as leaving ingredients off. You won’t make it the size it needs to be because you don’t want to spend a few pennies more.”

“People like you don’t want to spend a few pennies more. But you’re willing to dig it out of my pocket.” He growled at the assistant, “Have you got the shot?”

“I, uh, I don’t know. I think it was on video. I might be able to get stills from that. But it might not--”

“For God’s sake--  Do you or don’t you?”

“Yes, yes, yes. I have a shot. I do. I have a shot. Yes.”

The CEO pushed off on the cart, adding momentum to his sudden release, and sending it back into the woman’s body. She bent forward with a cry.

Mommy! Mommy!

“Hysterical,” Birchall growled. “Both of ’em.”

He turned his back on them. As he strode back toward us, he scanned the witnesses, possibly looking for someone he considered worth trying to impress. If so, he didn’t find anyone.

For a second I thought the woman intended to ram the cart into his back. I think she thought that, too. But she looked at her crying daughter, gave another small cry, wheeled the cart around and hurried away, the child’s cries fading with distance.

“You,” Birchall pointed at Jacqueline. “Let’s wrap this up. You’ve failed miserably. If you’d had the right kind of shoppers here to greet me the way you were supposed to--”

Clara and I slunk backward as unobtrusively as possible. She muttered something about orange juice. I breathed a yeah.  If this guy was on the hunt for customers he hadn’t yet insulted, we did not want to be in the vicinity.

“—none of that nonsense would have happened.”

“It’s a surprise visit,” she protested. “I had no idea you were coming, much less that you--”

He turned away. “I’m going in the backroom. See what you’ve screwed up back there. Can’t be any worse than this. No. Stay. You and you.”

Those final two commands -- familiar from the dog park, yet never delivered with such disdain there -- were addressed to the assistant, who had moved to follow him, and the assistant store manager, who had not.

He snatched a sample from the stand beside a corner of the deli as he marched past, then pushed open the double swinging doors. As they thwapped closed, then re-opened a bit from the force, we heard his angry, “Good God.”

The doors settled closed and we heard nothing more.

COLLAPSE

Now in Paperback!

The print edition of Death on Covert Circle is now available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble and is coming soon to Walmart.com and other online booksellers. We have future plans for large print editions, too.Patricia McLinn, Secret Sleuth series collection, cosy cozy mystery, women sleuths, amateur detective, small-town fiction, Kentucky, dogs friends