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The Want Book Mystery

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Peggy Cole is a self-published author who enjoys writing fiction stories, book reviews and articles about simpler times.

The Want Book was kept on a shelf beneath the cash register.

The Want Book was kept on a shelf beneath the cash register.

Bolts and Nuts

Evelyn and Richard dropped everything to accept the offer. With hard work and diligence, they would one day own the store. Or, at least, that was the general idea they got from Richard's childhood mentor, an aging man with no children.

They were ready for a change in their mundane lives; ready to leave the big city; ready to take on new roles in a place with a future. They sold their house, rented a U-Haul, packed their belongings, and moved across the state on a spoken promise.

the-want-book-mystery

It was an old-fashioned sort of place, not like the big box stores with everything under the sun. They sold the kind of things people thought they needed whether it was shovels, garden hoses or cut-to-measure pipe for plumbing projects

There were household items like casserole dishes, canning equipment, and a few kitchen gadgets like toasters and mixers, and, of course, the assorted collection of nuts and bolts in open metal bins along the wall. There were dozens of other things you'd likely find in a hardware store. And if they didn't have what you needed, just ask.

Every morning, a selection of colorful lawn mowers and wheelbarrows were rolled out to the sidewalk in front of the picture window and put on display. Each night, the merchandise was rolled back inside awaiting the light of a new day.

the-want-book-mystery

Secret Formulas and Concoctions

In the paint area at the back of the store, old-fashioned balance scales measured out the amounts of tint to add to base paint and make the desired color. Need house paint? No problem. Automotive paint? Two car dealerships in town were the store's best customers.

A paint-splattered mechanical shaker took up space next to the booth for mixing the top-secret formulas for various years of cars and house paint. Notes lined the margins on recipes in the thick manufacturer's book of specs that lay open on the counter, its worn pages spread and dog-eared like last year's Sears catalog.

But that wasn't "The Want Book." No, that was kept under the register for when people came in and didn't find what they needed. They wrote it down on the next available line of The Want Book. And if it were found to be worthy and deserving, an order would be placed to stock the item.

Anything You Want

The Facilities

Her first morning alone at the store, Evelyn opened the door to the bathroom and gasped. The room was a haven for germs. Years of grime, streaks, stains and who knew what else drizzled down the walls and over the porcelain fixtures. It might win a contest for the filthiest place she'd ever seen.

Spurred on by a need to use the facilities, she worked quickly gathering what she would need from the shelves of the store: a galvanized bucket, a long-handled scrub brush and a box of Spic-n-Span. The hot water spigot spun uselessly at the shallow sink. From the cold tap, she mixed up a cleansing solution one cup at a time from the spigot to the bucket.

While she scrubbed, she wondered if there were a secret ladies' room where the store owner's wife, Mary, went. In her week at the store, she'd never seen her leave the office other than to walk to and from the parking lot to her creaky chair and stack of accounting books. Evelyn also wondered when she'd be trained on the books. So far, Mary hadn't seemed too willing.

Give Me One Reason To Stay Here

First Customer of the Day

She looked around at the results of her efforts in the bathroom. Beneath the top range of her reach, the walls took on a gleam possibly unseen for years. She was about to bring a ladder from the store to finish the walls when the bell at the entrance chimed, signaling the arrival of the day's first customer. She was on first shift, alone in the store after a week of training with Clive and then Harold, the store's long-time employee. She quickly washed her hands and headed out front.

"Yes sir, may I help you?" she asked the scruffy-looking man in overalls. He gave her the once over from her blond curls to the orange platform shoes under the short dress that exposed most of her slender legs.

"Yeah," he answered. "I want to talk to the man in charge."

"That would be me," she answered, keeping her smirk in check.

He asked for a six-foot length of pipe threaded at both ends. She headed straight for the bin, happy that Clive had extensively trained her on that task. Evelyn loaded the pipe into the thread-cutting machine and started it rotating. Over the noise of the machinery she asked the customer, "Anything else?"

"Nah, I guess that'll do me today." He shuffled his feet, then, looked around, his eyes landing on a glass-front display cabinet of Case knives. "Wait a minute," he said, tapping on the glass. "Lemme' see that whittler bone-handled number."

You Can Call Me Al

Pipes and Knives

Evelyn went behind the counter, found the cabinet key, unlocked the back, and pulled out tray of knives from the stock inside. A chime sounded as the threading machine completed its task and she removed the pipe and smeared the end with lubricant.

"This ain't the knife I'm looking for," the customer told her. "Want me one of those stag-handled jobs."

"I'll write it in The Want Book," she answered, pulling out the composition book from under the counter. She got his name and phone number to call when his item came in and he paid and left with the pipe. Folks around town knew if they wanted something, they could usually get it at Clive's store.

The next time the Case salesman made a call to the store, old Clive himself placed the order for the regular customer who wanted the knife. As they swapped stories and gossip in the tiny office next to the paint area, Clive pulled two bottles of Coke from the round-top refrigerator and offered one to the vendor. On the floor beside the old Westinghouse, a wooden case held a collection of empty bottles, rinsed and ready to be exchanged for full bottles at the next delivery.

If You Want It Here It Is, Come and Get It

Thinking Outside of the Box

After the vendor left, Clive headed for the storage area at the back, stopping in the freshly-cleaned bathroom on his way. He exited, but his expression never changed, clearly not noticing any difference in the smell or appearance of the small room.

"Where the hell are those boxes?" he asked standing in the dusty storage area. Moments later, he stomped back out front and stood in the center of the showroom floor.

"Who's seen the box for that Lawn Boy mower out front?" Hal slithered into his narrow paint cubby and ducked behind a shelf of cans, feigning an emergency inventory. Clive repeated the question with more emphasis. Evelyn stepped forward and answered.

"I broke it down yesterday and put it out with the trash."

"What possessed you to do such a thing?" he asked, his voice screeching. "Customers expect their merchandise to come with a box!" His face turned an ugly shade of red as he retreated to the office and closed the door. His voice carried through the thin walls as he explained the missing cardboard box to the customer on the phone.

"They deserve a box to go with their purchase," he screamed through the closed door. She walked back to housewares section and continued mopping the floor.

Wicked Game

Moments later, Clive came out of the office, set a freshly opened Coke on the counter and reached underneath scrabbling for The Want Book. With a pencil in his right hand he opened the book and flipped through, licking a finger to get to the last page with writing. Pages fluttered as he scrolled past entries.

"What in Heaven's name is this?" he shrieked. He turned the book around and opened it facing the room. The stubs of several pages remained where the sheaves had been ripped out.

"Why in the living daylight would someone tear pages out of The Book?" Clive could be heard across the entire store as he paced the aisles between well-worn shelves. No one answered.

"They should know better!" he exclaimed with a huge frown.

Each employee was called into the office, in turn with murmurs leaking from behind closed-door meetings. Each staff member was questioned on the missing pages.

“Did you do it?” Clive would ask at the end of each interrogation session. Part-timers and full-time staff alike denied any part in the sabotage of The Want Book. Days passed with tension mounting in every transaction.

the-want-book-mystery

At the end of the week, Evelyn and her husband Richard were called in to a second session in the small office at the back of the hardware store.

“Mary and I have come to a hard decision,” Clive began. There was no offer of Cokes from the humming refrigerator; no invitation to take a chair. Mary focused her eyes downward on the ledger book, although her stubby pencil remained in her hand.

“This arrangement just isn’t working out for us,” Clive said. “You both need to find employment elsewhere.”

And with that said, he and Mary left the store and Richard and his childhood friend parted company. No one ever discovered who tore the pages out of The Want Book. Moments after the couple left, a chuckle could be heard in the paint area as the shaker mixed another gallon of paint.

© 2019 Peg Cole

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