At last official count, Gowing, Maine was home to 20,331 (7,495 households; 5,540 families) and boasted no fewer than five village centers, notwithstanding that the entire suburban town covered only just more than 20 square miles, some of it water, most of it forested, except where cleared for residential or agricultural use. North Gowing featured several commercial complexes and condominium developments, but also the North Gowing Recreational Area (known—and pronounced, rather unfortunately—as “NGRA”), which contained a swimming pond, an open air auditorium, playing fields, and hiking trails. East Gowing was originally a small commercial area that had grown up around a train station, but the advent of the automobile, and the demise of that branch of the railroad, led to the area’s becoming largely residential. West Gowing was primarily commercial. South Gowing had once been the most industrialized area of the town, with many mills that used water power generated by the nearby Fort Bend Pond, but had long since been mostly abandoned. Gowing Center was the civic hub of the town, the site of the town hall, the public library, a children’s playground, the fire station, a church, the post office, and several strip malls.

On Monday, August first, a new link in the Jobber Jack chain of hardware stores (“When Jack offers a hand, jobs get easier!”) had opened in the strip mall on Spinney Road, in the one-story building formerly occupied by the Ballyhoo Video. The Spinney Road Jobber Jack wasn’t the smallest unit in the franchise, but it was far from the largest. On the other hand, Spinney Road wasn’t the most traveled street in Gowing, or even in Gowing Center. All the same, Robert (Bob) Creeley—who, at age 42, had moved to Gowing to manage the store—had made sure to hire the best of the local applicants to compose his initial core staff. Janeane Hannon, nineteen and home from Duquette Community College on summer break would be his cashier (until she returned to school in the Fall, anyway); Randy Brown, 26, would be the store’s stockperson (and, having dropped out of high school, was likely to remain there for as long as the store would employ him). The store had looked immaculate for its grand opening. Every shelf was packed with fresh merchandise; nothing that Jobber Jack sold wasn’t available on Day One. (Only the pre-printed applications for the frequent shopper discount program hadn’t arrived on time, though corporate assured Bob that a carton would be delivered as soon as possible). Bob, Janeane, and Randy each looked as professional as one could in a purple Jobber Jack polo shirt and blue jeans. The ribbon-cutting had been publicized in the Pennysaver and the Gowing Public. Still, only six people showed up on the first day. And only fifteen in the first week.

“A lot of people go away for the summer,” Janeane told Bob, but it wasn’t true: Most residents of Gowing never left Gowing. Randy, for instance, said that he’d never been out of the town. And even Janeane had only been as far away as Duquette, she confessed, which wasn’t very far from Gowing at all.

“It’s okay,” Bob said. “Business’ll pick up.”

In the meantime, however, there was precious little for the three employees of the Spinney Road Jobber Jack to do each day. Few customers meant minimal disturbance of the merchandise, so Randy didn’t need to restock; instead, he kept everything—the floors, the shelves, the counters, the windows, even the doorknobs—spotless. Some former boss must have told him, If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean, and Randy must have taken it to heart.

There was just about nothing for Janeane to do when no one was buying anything, though. For that matter, there was very little for Bob himself to do. He was afraid that Janeane might quit, even if—or because—she was being paid $7.50 an hour just to stand around. So Bob came up with a game for the three of them to play in the second week.

Business indeed did pick up some; the store was soon averaging one customer an hour. (For whatever reason, Bob observed, there was almost never more than one customer in the store at any time—and when there was, it was two people and they were together: a mother with a small child in tow, say, or a couple of itinerant gardeners.) When someone bought something—although the game was much more fun when someone bought more than one thing—the store’s three employees would collaboratively imagine what the customer was going to use the item(s) purchased for. And the more outlandish, of course, the better.

So, for instance, when one woman in her sixties (whom Randy said he thought he recognized as Ms. Durant, once and maybe still a teacher at the junior high school) bought a build-it-yourself birdhouse kit ($13.97), carpet tacks ($6.97 for a box of 50), and a spool of simple electrical wire ($9.97/100 ft), the trio concluded, after some fifteen minutes of considered, animated discussion, that Ms. Durant intended to construct an IED to kill squirrels—using the birdhouse as the container, the tacks as shrapnel, and the wire in conjunction with a detonator (maybe an old-style fuse) and some incendiary material that she already had (possibly made from fertilizer). They had to admit amongst themselves that they really didn’t know the first thing about explosive devices, improvised or not. (Randy and his brothers fired off Roman candles and bottle rockets each year on the fourth of July, but otherwise avoided things that blew up.) Still, the three of them enjoyed ultimately picturing Ms. Durant, the junior high school teacher (maybe), crouching in some bushes, waiting for just the right moment… then pressing a button or flipping a switch, sending a current along the hundred feet of wire to the rigged decoy birdhouse (that she’d built herself—and not hastily, even though she didn’t need it to last very long at all), which would fly apart loudly and violently, riddling the intrusive, bushy-tailed rodents perched upon it with sharp metal rivets….

“Gross!” Janeane said.

“Totally,” Bob agreed.

“It’s always the quiet ones…,” Randy remarked.

But everyone in Gowing was a quiet one. Gowing was a quiet town. Gowingers didn’t typically build bombs, maim animals, or even take home sugar packets from a restaurant table after a meal.

Nevertheless,Tom Lynch bought a 24-foot extension ladder ($159.97), a gallon of hunter green exterior paint ($24.97), and a 9'x12' canvas drop cloth ($19.97). He was going to paint the drop cloth, which he would then wear like a cloak to provide camouflage when he climbed the ladder to reach a high branch of a tree from which to peep into women’s bedroom windows.

Art and Martha Tucker purchased a plastic toilet seat ($17.97) and a crevice tool for a wet/dry vacuum ($8.97), which were the key components to any time travel device.

And Andy Coleman left with a 20-gallon galvanized and corrugated aluminum trash can ($20.97), one pair of gardening shears ($26.97) and one pair of clippers ($10.97), and a four-pack of casters ($19.97), obviously to build a murderous robot.

On Wednesday of the store’s second week in business, the game came to an abrupt halt when a man neither Randy nor Janeane recognized—a man whom Janeane would later remark looked like he could have played the father on any TV show in the 1960s (though Bob said he thought she probably meant the 1950s), being that he was tall, square-jawed, straight-laced, clean-cut, and possessed of any number of other hyphenated and admirable qualities—bought from the store a roll of duct tape ($5.97), a four-pound reel of heavy twine ($4.97), and two medium-sized burlap sacks ($6.97/pair). When the man had left with his purchases, wishing the Spinney Road Jobber Jack employees a pleasant day, they were silent for a full minute before one of them spoke.

“He might look like a sitcom dad,” Randy said, “but he shops like a horror movie villain!”

This got them all laughing, if nervously. Soon enough, though, they realized how silly there were being. There was no way that the man—who had paid in cash, so they’d not been able to glean even just his name from a credit card—was actually going to kidnap anyone, tying him or her up with the twine… sealing his or her mouth with the duct tape… covering his or her head with one of the burlap sacks, even though they were almost exactly the right size to fit just that bill. They didn’t bother to imagine what other uses their likely morally upstanding customer intended for his items. Nothing they might have come up with then would or could have been more amusing than what the three of them, as one, had just—momentarily, if entirely uncharitably—contemplated.

By the following day, they’d more or less forgotten about the tall man from a bygone era and his abduction kit contents. It helped that the store was unusually busy on Thursday, with at least two customers on average each hour. Also, a young boy dropped a double-scoop ice cream cone onto the floor, so there was that incident to deal with.

On Friday, however, the tall man returned to the store in the late afternoon to buy a shovel.

No flipping way, Janeane thought. She was certain her co-workers were thinking the same thing, or something very similar. Then she had another thought: The pre-printed applications for the Jobber Jack rewards program had finally arrived, just that morning in fact, so when the man brought his shovel to the register, Janeane smiled at him, remarked that she liked the smell of his aftershave, and asked him if he’d like to sign up. She asked in the same way she might have asked a stranger at a bar if he’d like to buy her a drink.

“Sounds good,” the man said, accepting a pen from Janeane. She made sure to brush his hand with her own, lightly, to ensure that he wouldn’t change his mind.

“Great thinking!” Bob commended her afterward, when the customer—now self-identified as Douglas Pratt, of Hosmer Lane (which Randy knew was in South Gowing)—had gone again, with his purchase ($32.97).

“Are you going to call the cops?” Janeane asked Bob. But Bob didn’t think he could. That is, he didn’t think he should. He—they, really—still had no reason to suspect that Mr. Pratt had used, was using, or intended to use the items he had obtained, lawfully, from the Spinney Road Jobber Jack for any improper purpose, and it would be un-neighborly at best—and reckless at worst—to accuse him formally of anything.

“But should I find myself in his neighborhood,” Bob said, “and near his house, I suppose I might glance into his yard.”

“You’re never gonna be near where he lives,” Randy put in. “Not accidentally.” And of course Randy was correct. On the one hand, Bob Creeley knew that it was not his place to level accusations about another person without anything remotely like proof of wrongdoing. On the other hand, Bob suspected he might have some civic duty to look into the matter further. But he certainly didn’t want to be seen sniffing around outside any one’s home, miles from his own.

“So you go when he’s not there,” Randy suggested.

“How would I know when that is?”

“Well, you can arrange for him to be out.” Bob wondered why Randy would know this, but then realized that it was nothing more than common sense. Randy might not have had much book learning, but he did seem to have some practical knowledge.

Before Bob could ask how he might get Douglas Pratt out of his residence—which they were presuming was a freestanding one-family house and not, say, a unit in an apartment building where one would have to be buzzed in (there were no doormen in Gowing)—for long enough to allow Bob to get a good look at least the external premises, Janeane informed them that she had another idea.

“I’ll call him,” she said. “I’ll call him on Monday and tell him that he’s won the store’s Grand Opening prize drawing.”

“What drawing?” Bob asked.

“It’s not real,” Janeane said. “But he won’t know that. I’ll tell him that everyone who bought anything in our first two weeks of business was automatically entered, and I’ll tell him the prize is… a three-minute shopping spree in the store. Whatever he can bring to the counter in three minutes, he gets for free!”

“Whoa!” Bob said. “That could add up to thousands of dollars!”

“Make it two minutes,” Randy suggested.

“And only what fits in a basket. Not a cart,” Bob clarified. “One of the hand baskets.”

“And I can take off the shelves the most expensive small items,” Randy added, “just while Pratt’s in the store, so he can’t pick those.”

“Good idea,” Bob said. “Okay, so you’ll call him on Monday and tell him he’s won this spree, Janeane. And you’ll tell him that we’ll just need to know when he’d like to come in and do it. And when we know when he’ll be here, I’ll plan to be at his place.”

“What if it’s too late, though?” Janeane asked, second-guessing her own idea.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, if we wait until Monday to call, what if he says he can’t come back to the store until later in the week. Meanwhile, what if he’s got someone tied up in his basement or garage right now?”

“I don’t think he does,” Randy interposed. “Maybe yesterday he had a live victim, but today he’s got a corpse. Remember that he came in for a shovel.”

Bob and Janeane agreed that that made sense, and in that case there was little to no harm in waiting.

On Monday, the phone call to Douglas Pratt went perfectly smoothly. Not only did he not question the fact of a contest (that the employees of the Spinney Road Jobber Jack had invented for his benefit, as it were), but he sounded genuinely grateful to have won (not knowing, of course, that no one else could have won in his stead). And because he happened to need to pick up a few more things from the store, he said, he could swing by the following morning… if that was all right with them. Janeane said it was, absolutely. Ten o’clock? she suggested.

Ten o’clock, Douglas Pratt confirmed.

Janeane reported to Bob immediately.

“So you should be at his place at nine thirty,” Randy advised, “out of sight, but close enough to watch him leave. Assuming he’ll be coming here straight from home.”

“Right,” Bob agreed.

“And don’t dawdle,” Randy added. “Figure you’ll have half an hour at the very most, assuming he’ll be going straight home from here.”


“And if a neighbor sees you, just pretend you’re reading a meter. In fact, you probably should bring a clipboard. I’ll get you one.”

At eleven a.m. on Tuesday, Bob Creeley came into the store, which was empty but for Randy and Janeane.

Well…?” they asked him as soon as he stepped inside.

“Nothing to worry about,” Bob reported.

“What’d you see?”

“In no particular order,” Bob said, “I saw: a downspout that had come loose in the back of the house, now secured to a post with duct tape; a clothesline fashioned out of heavy twine; a shovel stuck in the dirt next to a newly planted rosebush… and two burlap sacks full of displaced soil nearby. Mystery solved… case dismissed,” Bob remarked. “Or whatever.”

“Any trouble?” Randy asked.

“None. Couldn’t have gone better. It’s a very quiet street. Not a particularly nice house, but I don’t want to judge. Especially now that we know that Douglas Pratt is a decent man, besides being our best customer. Which reminds me,” Bob said, “what’s the damage?”

“Just batteries,” Randy stated. “He filled his basket with batteries. Must have a lot of remote controls or something. I’ll tell you: I’d probably have done the same thing, though I might have gotten some light bulbs, too.”

“He also got a case of the small mason jars,” Janeane added, “but he paid for those. Charged them, even.”

“Great,” Bob said.

The rest of the work week was uneventful.

The following Monday morning, however, the Spinney Road Jobber Jack was not open at 8 a.m., as it should have been.

Several would-be patrons—among them Carol Durant, Art and Martha Tucker, Pat Lynch, and Andy Coleman—were waiting more or less patiently outside the store, chatting with one another, when a police cruiser pulled into the lot and two officers approached and asked those standing about to please stand aside. When a locksmith then arrived, he opened the Jobber Jack’s door to permit the officers entry.

Inside, the officers first saw that a good number of the shelves were empty, but the store was otherwise clean and orderly—as if someone had removed a substantial amount of inventory, but intentionally. Not a smash and grab, in other words—which was consistent with the fact that none of the windows of the store was broken, and the locksmith confirmed that the locks on the doors were unmolested. No one who wasn’t supposed to be able to get into the store after hours had. As it happened, there had been a medium-sized truck in the rear of the store over the weekend, but anyone who had seen it had assumed that stock was being brought in to the store, not taken out.

The cash register was empty.

The safe in the manager’s office was also empty, but the chair there was not. Robert (Bob) Creeley was sitting in his chair, dead, his throat slit, his chest and lap covered with his (mostly dried) blood. The instrument used to slit the man’s throat was on the desk next to his head. It was a pocket knife of a kind sold by the store ($49.97).

The store’s records would indicate that the last transaction of the prior week had been entered just after the strip mall’s 6 p.m. closing time: a credit card sale to one Douglas Pratt of Hosmer Lane, South Gowing. The coroner would place Bob Creeley’s time of death between 6 and 7 p.m. on Friday.

A search for his next of kin would lead the police to discover that Creeley had for two years been a person of interest to authorities in New Mexico in connection with a child pornography production and distribution operation.

When brought in for questioning, Mr. Pratt would tell the police that he had not been at the Spinney Road Jobber Jack after the previous Tuesday, and he had gone in that morning specifically because he had been called on Monday and informed that he had won a drawing. His prize, the girl who’d called had said, was an inscribed pocket knife of his choosing from any that the store sold. He had held several before choosing one. He had been told, by the store’s stock boy—Ricky, was it?—that it would take a week to get the inscription done. Mr. Pratt had asked for just his initials to be etched into the handle. And that’s why his fingerprints were on the murder weapon. He’d been framed, obviously.

Obviously. But police officers would canvass his home just the same, and there they would discover, on a shelf in a pantry, a set of small mason jars ($11.97/12-pk), the kind used typically for pickling vegetables or canning jam, and in those jars, in a colorless preserving fluid, (forcibly) severed human fingers and toes.

In the dumpster behind the Jobber Jack, police would find a Jobber Jack shopping bag filed with assorted batteries, still in their original packaging.

While Gowing Junior High School does have a record of a former student named “Randy Brown,” that woman died in 1981 and is buried in the East Gowing Cemetery. There is no such institution as Duquette Community College. The Gowing police are asking anyone with information regarding the whereabouts of persons fitting the descriptions of the stock boy and the cashier of the Spinney Road Jobber Jack to please contact the authorities at once. All calls will be kept confidential.

“A Gowing Concern” appeared in Popcorn Fiction.