#4076 A set of the most frequently used kitchen knives, including two carving knives, a filleting knife, and a paring knife. All with carbon steel blades and rosewood handles. Our best quality. $57.
“Do you have any really sharp knives?” asked the tremulous voice. “Something that will cut through bone and gristle?”
Lucy Stone stifled a yawn, adjusted her headset, and typed the code for “knives” on the computer keyboard in front of her. Instantly the screen glowed with the eleven varieties of knives sold by Country Cousins, the giant mail-order country store.
“What kind of knives were you thinking of?” Lucy inquired politely. “Hunting knives, fishing knives, pocket knives, kitchen knives . . . ?”
“Kitchen knives, of course,” snapped the voice. “Homer hasn't been out of the house for forty years.”
Lucy hit the code for “kitchen knives,” and the screen listed six sets of kitchen knives.
“I'm sure we have something that will do. How about a set of four carbon steel knives with rosewood handles for fifty-seven dollars?”
“What is carbon steel? Is it really sharp?” insisted the voice.
“Well, some cooks prefer it because it's easy to sharpen. However, it doesn't hold an edge as long as stainless steel. We also have the same set in stainless steel for fifty-seven dollars.”
“I don't know which to get. Homer loves to cut and carve. He's really an artist at the dinner table.” The voice became confidential. “I've always believed he would have been a gifted surgeon. That unfortunate incident in medical school simply unnerved him.”
Lucy stifled the urge to encourage further confidences. “Then carbon steel is probably your best bet,” she advised. She then mentioned a related product, a technique her sales manager insisted upon. “You could also get him a sharpening steel. He would probably enjoy using it.”
“You mean one of those things you draw the blade against before carving? Seems to me Poppa had one of those. I think you're right; I'm sure Homer would enjoy doing that. It would add a touch of drama. How much are those?”
“We have one with a rosewood handle for eighteen dollars.”
“I'll take the knives and the steel.”
“All right,” said Lucy, smiling with satisfaction. “I need some information from you, and we'll ship them right away.” She finished typing in the woman's name, address, and credit card number. “Thank you for your order. Call Country Cousins again, soon.” She arched her back, stretched her arms, and checked the clock. Almost ten. Three hours until her shift ended at one
Lucy didn't mind working at Country Cousins. Like many of the tourists who came to Tinker's Cove in the summer, she was fascinated by the quaint old country store on Main Street. Inside, there were crockery, kitchen utensils, penny candy, and sturdy country clothes as well as fishing, hunting, and camping equipment. The porch with its ten-foot-long deacon's bench, the sloping floors of scuffed, bare wood, and the huge potbellied stove were all authentic, they just weren't the whole story. For the truth was, most of Country Cousins' business came from catalog sales and was conducted at a mammoth steel warehouse on the outskirts of Tinker's Cove. There, state-of-the-art telephone and computer systems enabled hundreds of employees like Lucy to sell, pack, and ship millions of dollars' worth of merchandise twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty-four days a year. Country Cousins was closed on Christmas Day. All merchandise was sold with an unconditional guarantee: “We're not happy unless you are.”
“It's quiet tonight, isn't it, Lucy?” said Beverly Thompson, the grandmotherly woman who had the computer station next to Lucy.
“It sure is. And only ten days until Christmas.”
“Are you all ready for Christmas?”
“Not by a long shot,” Lucy said. “I haven't finished the fisherman's sweater I'm making for Bill, I still have to make an angel costume for Elizabeth to wear in the church pageant, and I have to bake six dozen cookies for Sue Finch's cookie exchange. And,” she continued, “I still have quite a bit of shopping to do. How about you?”
“Oh, I'm pretty well finished. Of course, now that the kids are scattered from Washington to San Francisco there isn't so much to do.” Beverly's voice was wistful. “I just have something sent from the catalog.”
“Don't knock it,” advised Lucy. “I have my mother and Bill's folks coming. Christmas is an awful lot of work. I like Halloween, myself. All you need is a mask and a bag of candy.”
“Why don't you all pack up and spend Christmas at Grandma's?” asked Beverly. “I'd love to have my brood back for the holidays.” Beverly sighed as she thought of the neat stack of presents waiting in her closet, which she would open all by herself on Christmas morning.
“Oh, we started having Christmas at our house back in the granola years when we had chickens and goats and woodstoves. We couldn't leave or the animals would starve and the pipes would freeze! Now everyone expects it.” Lucy shrugged, pausing to take an order for a flannel nightgown.
“I don't know how you girls do it,” said Beverly, picking up the conversation. “You work half the night, and then you take care of your families all day.”
“It isn't so bad. I like it a lot better than cashiering at the IGA or working at the bank. When I did that my whole check went for day care.”
“But when do you sleep?” asked Beverly, yawning.
“Oh, I usually nap when Sara does. She's only four,” answered Lucy, stretching and yawning herself. “It isn't sleep I miss, it's sex. How about you, Ruthie?” Lucy asked the woman on her other side. “Are you getting any lately?”
Ruthie whooped. “Are you kidding? He works all day, I work all night, and the baby wakes up at five.” She lowered her voice and spoke in a confidential tone to Lucy and Beverly. “I've asked Santa for a night in a motel.”
The three women laughed, and Lucy realized that the thing she liked best about working the night phones at Country Cousins was the companionship and camaraderie of the other women. If you wanted to know what was going on in Tinker's Cove, Country Cousins was the place to be, because absolutely everyone worked there, or had worked there, or knew someone who did. It was an institution; it had been in business for years, selling sporting goods to a small but faithful following of customers. Then fashion seized upon the preppy look, and the demand for Country Cousins' sturdy one hundred percent wool and cotton clothes soared. Preppy was followed by country, and in a few short years Country Cousins had become a household word in most American homes.
Country Cousins' phenomenal growth, which had been the subject of an article in the business section of the Sunday
New York Times,
would not have been possible without skilled management. Founded by a discouraged Maine farmer named Sam Miller in 1902, Country Cousins was still owned in 1972 by the Miller family. Fortunately for them, that was the year Sam Miller III graduated from Harvard Business School. He was followed, in 1974, by his brother Tom. Together the two brothers piloted an expansion program that made Country Cousins one of the nation's largest mail-order retailers, although it was still second cousin to the granddaddy of them all, L.L. Bean.
That had meant growth and change for Tinker's Cove. Intrigued by the folksy catalog, vacationers began seeking out the Country Cousins store. Big old homes became bed-and-breakfast inns, motels were built, and McDonald's appeared on Route 1. Soon every available piece of commercially zoned land had been snapped up and Main Street was lined with outlet stores: Dansk, Quoddy, Corning, and even a designer outlet featuring Ralph Lauren seconds. Tinker's Cove residents enjoyed their new prosperity, but they also complained about the busloads of tourists who swarmed all over town making day-to-day activities difficult, if not impossible, during July and August. In those months, then, when the phones fell quiet at Country Cousins, the operators exchanged views on when was the best time to avoid the crowds at the post office and grocery store.
There was no doubt that life in Tinker's Cove, especially in the summer, required a certain amount of planning. Doc Ryder claimed he had noticed a definite increase in stress-related illness such as ulcers and high blood pressure among his patients. On the whole, however, most people in Tinker's Cove enjoyed their new prosperity, remembering the dark days of the oil embargo when the sardine cannery closed.
“You know,” said Lucy, “I'm only a couple of hundred dollars short of making an incentive bonus this month.”
“That's terrific,” Ruthie said. “What will you do with the extra money?”
“Oh, I don't know,” Lucy said slowly, savoring the possibilities. “I think I'll take the whole family out to dinner.”
“Don't you want something for yourself?” asked Ruthie.
“Not really. Besides,” Lucy said, brightening, “if we eat out, I won't have to cook and clean up!”
There was a sudden burst of activity as calls began coming in and the women were kept busy taking orders. Around eleven-thirty the calls finally slowed down, and Lucy found herself nodding off.
“Gosh, if things don't pick up a little, I'm going to fall asleep.” She yawned. “I'll never last until one.”
“Why don't you take a break and get a cup of coffee?” Beverly suggested.
“Oh, no. If I have coffee now, I won't be able to sleep later. Maybe I'll just walk around a bit and get some fresh air. I'll be back in five minutes.”
Lucy took off her headset and made her way past the other operators in the phone room, out to the corridor. Walking slowly, stretching her arms and legs as she went, she passed the rest rooms and the break room with its coffee and snack machines. She pushed open the fire door to the outside. It had begun to snow, and the cars in the parking lot were shrouded with one or two inches of soft powder. Lucy took a deep breath of the clean, cold air and watched the flakes falling in the light of the lamps that lit the parking lot. They were large and coming down heavily; the town could get a lot of snow if it kept up all night.
Oh, no, thought Lucy. Not a snow day. A snow day meant that all three children would be home; even the nursery school Sara attended three mornings a week would be closed. She had so much to do to get ready for Christmas that she couldn't afford a snow day.
Lucy sighed and stepped back into the warm building. As the door closed it occurred to her that something wasn't quite right outside. She thought she heard a squawk like a duck quacking. But ducks don't quack at night, especially in December. Perhaps it was a laggard goose making a late migration south, or a dog barking. She opened the door for another look and realized she could hear an engine running. The cars were all mounded with snow, yet the hum of a motor broke the silence. This wasn't right, and if something wasn't right, Lucy had to get to the bottom of it.
Lucy took a wooden coat hanger from the rack near the door, wedged it between the door and the jamb, and went out to investigate. It wasn't very cold, and Lucy was comfortable enough in her jeans and wool sweater. Her high-top Reebok athletics left small prints filled with circles in the fresh snow.
As she drew closer to the row of parked cars, the noise of the humming engine grew louder. It came, she realized, from Sam Miller's BMW. The navy blue sedan with the SAM-I-AM vanity plates was covered with snow just like the other cars. The only difference was that the engine was running and a black rubber hose neatly capped one of the twin exhaust pipes and snaked around the car to the driver's window.
Lucy gasped and tried to pull open the driver's door. It was locked, but she did manage to pull the hose out of the window and then ran back into the building as fast as she could. She arrived in the phone room panting for breath and gesturing frantically with her hands.
“Call the police,” she finally managed to say to the group of concerned women who were clustered around her.
In a matter of seconds Beverly had the police station on the line.
“A suicide in the parking lot,” she repeated after Lucy. “Lucy Stone found Sam Miller's car running in the parking lot, with a hose pumping exhaust into the driver's window.” She paused. “No, we'll stay right here and we won't touch anything.”
Lucy collapsed on a chair and someone gave her a cup of sweet tea to sip. “Best thing for a shock,” they agreed solemnly.
“Imagine, he had a BMW and a Mercedes,” commented one of the girls.
“And an indoor pool,” added another.
“Really, the fanciest house in town.” They nodded in unison, and then Ruthie ventured to add, “And the fanciest wife.”
“Fancy house, fancy wife, fancy cars. It just goes to show,” said Beverly, “that fancy isn't everything.”
Then they fell silent, listening for the wail of the police cruiser's siren.