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They were headed for Nashville less than five minutes later. Freedy found himself in the back of the van again, because by now they'd used up enough supplies to make room for him. He preferred it to sitting glumly amongst the glum miners -- who occasionally glared at him for taking away their video games.
'Hey, I saved your life -- again!' he wanted to shout.
The empty bleakness of the back of the van was vastly superior to sitting on one of the bikes and seeing Sheila right there on the other bike, so close but so far.
She wanted to make up with him, or so she said. Freedy was still having a hard time believing her. When he looked deep down though, he realized he did believe her -- and that's what scared him. He never wanted to feel that moment of betrayal again. He had to be sure. Absolutely sure.
Meanwhile, Freedy also had his doubts about heading for Nashville to visit Bob and Billy's mom and dad, and Jay and Jim's first cousins. If the enemy was so sophisticated they could track them down in a state park in Missouri, then surely they'd have staked out immediate family, especially since it was obvious the crew was headed in that general direction.
He decided to keep his reservations to himself for now. He'd interfered enough. How did it become his responsibility all of a sudden? Why had Garland left? What the hell did he expect Freedy to do?
Their route took them across the very northeast corner of Arkansas.
Charlie leaned over from the passenger side of the front seat. "Freedy's money helps us, but the van is burning gas like money. I think we have more than enough, but one thing this trip has taught me is to never take anything for granted. We'd best load up on supplies while we can. We'll stop at Hopperville..."
"What?" Jay seemed upset. "Hell, boss. I'd be pissed if you wanted to load up at any Price-Ceiling store, but you want to buy in Hopperville?"
"Can't be helped. It's along the route. Stay in the van if you want."
"Yeah," Jim agreed, from the driver's seat. "Jay and I have never spent a dime in Price-Ceiling and we never will!"
"Good union men," Charlie said, not disagreeing.
They started seeing the ubiquitous inverted V roof shape of the Price-Ceiling logo for miles before they reached the town itself.
Hopperville had one reason for existing and one reason only. It was corporate headquarters to the largest chain store in the world.
"What's wrong with Price-Ceiling?" Freedy asked. He spent most of his money there, for just about everything. He was vaguely aware of an anti-Price-Ceiling sentiment, but had never explored the reasons.
Bobby groaned. "Don't start!"
Both Jay and Jim looked like they were getting ready to unload on Freedy all the By-God reasons why, but Charlie just shook his head.
"Forget it, boys. We don't have enough time. Besides, when have we ever convinced anyone who wasn't already convinced?"
They passed warehouse after warehouse with the inverted V, and Freedy saw that the warehouses behind them stretched for miles. Huge trucks were backed up to them, like hungry litters of puppies.
There in the middle of the town, was the largest single store that Freedy had ever seen. The enormous parking lot looked empty, but Freedy realized that there were enough cars parked near the entrance to probably fill the lot of the comparatively tiny Price-Ceiling store at home.
Jim parked as close to the entrance as he could, and Charlie and Billy and Bob got out.
Steve and Sam puttered to a stop next to them, their normal triumphant arrival somehow muted.
"What are we doing here?" Steve asked. Sheila was sitting behind him. She got off and walked in a circle around the bikes as if trying to shake off the miles.
"Getting supplies," Charlie said, by now sounding annoyed by all the second-guessing.
"The Heart of Retail Evil," Sam said. "I never thought I see the day..."
"Hey, we get to look into the Abyss and see if it stares back," Charlie said. He looked at Steve and Sam and Sheila. "You coming along?"
"No thanks," Sheila said. "You've seen one Price-Ceiling, you've seen them all. Even if this one IS rather large."
"We're not leaving our bikes at the mercy of these rednecks!" Sam exclaimed.
Freedy almost laughed. Sam and Steve's usual biker scruffiness was accentuated by days of bad roads and bad food. They looked like the poster boys for "redneck."
"Suit yourself," Charlie said. "Me, I'm curious about how this cathedral to ruthless retail looks inside."
"Well, don't get lost," Jay said. "No, on second thought, I hope you do get lost..."
Charlie just grinned and slammed the van door. "We'll be back in a few!"
A few minutes went by, and then a few more. Then a half hour. Jay and Jim got out and walked around the parking lot, exclaiming about how atrocious it all was, how inhuman. Another half hour went by.
"Something's wrong," Freedy said.
"Yeah," Sheila sighed. "Can't these guys stay out of trouble for a day?"
"We need to go check," Freedy said. He started walking toward the entrance, and Sheila fell in by his side. He wanted to reach out for her hand but resisted. She glanced at him from the corner of her eye, as if she had recognized -- and approved of -- his impulse.
Somewhat to his surprise, all the rest of the miners followed. Jay and Jim looked almost smug, as if they wanted to say, 'Told you!' Steve and Sam were hiking up their pants and straightening their coats as if getting ready for a fight.
They entered the retail cathedral and stopped en masse. Their heads craned upward and beyond. Rows upon rows of merchandise, marching like Roman Legions into the distance. Sound was somehow impossibly both muted and echoing. All the merchandise overwhelmed the eyes, and all Freedy could see at first were basic colors and shapes. People looked like insects amongst the immensity of cheap goods.
Freedy saw a giant stack of Rice Krispies standing like a Tower of Babylon near the first aisle. He had a sudden image of the Moleman and felt slightly guilty. His hand went to the Key. Fallom had tried to kill him, he reminded himself. He got what he deserved.
"Howdy, folks!" A little old lady stood near the entrance. She looked like the kind of Grandma that Norman Rockwell would have rejected as too hokey to be real. But behind those kind twinkling eyes, soft halo of white hair, Freedy thought he saw an evil intelligence.
"Uh, hi," Freedy said, while the gold miners behind him scowled.
"Can I help you folks find anything?" she asked, but Freedy heard, 'What are you people doing here?'
Freedy said. "We're looking for some friends of ours, three guys --" the evil Grandma's smile slipped. "They had suspenders on," he finished lamely. Well, after all, it was a distinguishing characteristic.
"I see, why don't you let me check." Grandma went over to a small podium and spoke into a microphone. Her words echoed and bounced off the far ceilings, and every insect human in the place looked toward the front.
"We have an E-4 at the entrance. I repeat, an E-4. They are looking for their three friends."
Uh, oh. As soon as Freedy the old lady accentuated the words three friends, he knew they were in trouble. He didn't know what an E-4 was, but he suspected it wasn't good...
At that moment, they heard shouts from the back of the store. They barely heard the shouts, actually, though they were probably being shouted at the top of their lungs. Jay and Jim, Steve and Sam started running down the nearest aisle toward the back. Sheila started to follow, but Freedy grabbed her arm.
"Let's not charge in," he said. His natural caution was kicking in. These gold miners didn't seem to have an ounce of fear, whereas Freedy was overflowing with the emotion.
He started walking quickly down the front of the store, and then turned into the fourth or fifth corridor. The first aisle he reached with no one shopping in it. Sheila followed closely behind.
He broke into a trot and then slowed as he neared the back. The shouting was coming from the right, about thirty feet or so. He carefully poked his head around the corner.
"You're under arrest!" Jay and Jim were on the ground, their hands jerked painfully behind their backs by a trio of hefty security guards each. Steve and Sam were backed up against the wall, and they had some kind of weapon in their hands which they were jabbing at more guards. Were those rakes? Freedy wondered. Yeah, not only rakes, but the soft pronged kind, which as Freedy watched, the attacking guards simply brushed to the side and threw the two brothers to the ground.
"We haven't done anything!" Jim shouted.
"You're resisting arrest!" one of the guards shouted back.
"Yeah, but..." Jim sputtered to a stop as he realized that objecting to being arrested for a crime he didn't do was somehow a crime.
Charlie, and Billy and Bob were already trussed and sitting on the floor, their backs to a tower of dogfood.
"Forget it, boys. They're arresting us because of our union activities, obviously."
"No," the lead guard said. "We are arresting you for ... shoplifting. Harry here saw you shoplift some dogfood, didn't you Harry!"
Charlie laughed. It was such a genuine laugh that it sort of shocked everyone. "Which is kind of strange since I don't even have a dog!"
"Maybe you like to eat it," one of the other guards said, and reared back his foot as if to kick him.
"Now none of that," a kindly voice said, and Freedy saw the Grandma greeter walked into the middle of the chaos. "We follow the law here." Her smile fell off her face and the kindly crinkly face was transformed into a gargoyle. Deep frowning lines fell into place and her cold eyes suddenly fit the rest of her features.
"Take them in back. Lock them in the storeroom for now. The Boss will want to see them."
I'm Duncan McGeary, owner and/or operator for the last 33 years of Pegasus Books in Downtown Bend, Oregon. These days I'm writing books as well as selling them.
I'm the comic book guy. But even more so, I'm a book book guy. Books of all kinds. Big books and little books, children's and adult, fiction and non-fiction, hardback and paperback and trade paperback and graphic novels. Books with more words than pictures and books with more pictures than words. They are all part of the book world to me, and I love being surrounded by them every day.
I also have a second blog: Pegasus Books, where I list the product coming in over the next week.