By Shelly Reuben

In Clementine’s 18th adventure at The Happy Store, she is confronted by…well. You’ll see.

Christmas was over.

Most of the seasonal merchandise in The Happy Store had been sold, and what had not sold was now seventy-five percent off.

The last-minute buying frenzy of the week before was but a memory, and the first week after Christmas day, business was slow, slow, slow.

Only three people were working on that Monday morning: Athena Eliopoulos, the assistant manager; Betty Davis, the lead sales associate; and our heroine, Clementine Fraile. Walter Graybill, the store manager, would not be coming in until 1:30 p.m., but once there, he would stay for the rest of the day.


Clementine loved to work with Athena, Betty, and Walter. She got a great kick out of the assured way in which each dealt with whatever odd situations popped up. She had not, however, counted on them having to deal with anything or anyone as dangerous as the dark-eyed stranger.

He had walked into The Happy Store at a little after 1:00 p.m. Betty was in the office, printing sales promotion signs, and Athena was on the counter computer, filling Internet orders. Only Clementine was at the front of the store, so it was she who saw him first.

He had strong, masculine features that should have been handsome but were not, because his face was dominated by a mean mouth and black eyes that looked like boiling pots of tar. In his arms, he carried a rolled up rug.

As soon as Clementine saw him, she thought about gunfighters terrorizing small towns in old Hollywood westerns, and if she had known what hackles were, the ones on the back of her neck would have stood up in fear. But she did not know, and by now, her welcoming skills were so deeply ingrained that without hesitation, she smiled and said cheerfully, “Is there anything I can help you to find today?”

For a split second, the man’s eyes touched hers. They were so hot and so angry that she jolted back, as if she had received an electric shock. Then he snapped his head forward and strode to the rear of the store.

Sensing that something was about to be very wrong, Clementine followed.

Athena heard the angry sounds of approaching footsteps, and she looked up.

At her best, the assistant store manager was never gushingly friendly. Her impressive height and intimidating beauty might have been a drawback in retail, but with cool professionalism and calm civility, she had managed to turn both to her advantage. 

Most of The Happy Store customers liked her. This new one, however, did not. He stopped across the counter from where Athena was standing, threw down the rug, and said, “I’m returning this for cash.”

Clementine crept closer.

Athena’s jaw tightened imperceptibly, but her voice was polite. “Sir,” she asked. “Do you have a receipt?”

The man’s nostrils flared and his black eyes simmered. He growled, “I know my rights, Lady, so don’t start getting all snippy with me. I don’t want to do business with you. Get me the store manager.”

Athena picked up the rug and stepped with it away from the counter. She said icily, “I am the store manager.”

He shifted nervously from one foot to the other. Then, so angry that spittle flew out of his mouth, he shouted, “You’re showing me disrespect. I bought that rug, and I don’t need no receipt to get my money back.”


By now, Clementine had moved to a position on Athena’s right, and Betty Davis, hearing angry voices from the office, had pushed through the doors into the showroom and was approaching Athena from the left.


Athena (where, Clementine wondered, did she get her courage?) fingered two labels dangling from the end of the rug. No longer willing to play the diplomat, she said, “We always remove our tags from the merchandise before it leaves the store.”


The dangerous stranger reached over the counter and grabbed at the rug. He exploded, “You give that back to me!”

Athena held on firmly.


A tug of war ensued.


Betty Davis, looking as fragile as a one of the angel ornaments on last week’s Christmas tree, took several more steps toward Athena.


Clementine did the same on the other side.


The man’s lips curled around his clenched teeth. He snarled like a wolf, and a second time, he lunged for the rug. A second time, Athena shifted it beyond his reach.


Betty crossed her arms over her chest, stood firm, and glared at the rug thief.


Clementine duplicated Betty’s posture and stance.


Tension was palpable, and fear was in the air.


Then, as unlikely as the sound of a calliope in the middle of a war zone, the door to The Happy Store tinkled merrily, and Walter Graybill walked in.


First he brushed a mound of snowflakes off his collar. Next he looked up. 


Instantly, he assessed the situation. He saw an agitated man with hate-filled eyes. He saw Athena, her jaw thrust forward, her arms wrapped tightly around a rolled up rug. He saw Betty and Clementine, their arms folded defiantly across their chests, flanking Athena like Nubian slaves guarding the goddess of a temple.


Walter reached for his cell phone.


The eyes of the dangerous stranger darted from Walter to the phone to the women who had created an impenetrable wall around the stolen rug. Ineffectual and enraged, he bellowed, “Bitches!” Then he rushed down the aisle, deliberately rammed into Walter, and flew out the door.


Athena exhaled, as if she had been holding her breath for over a year. Betty unfolded her arms and looked down at her hands, which were trembling violently, and Clementine, too stunned to have been afraid, was trying to make sense of what had just occurred.

Walter approached.

He looked at Athena.

He looked at Betty.

He looked at Clementine.


He spoke. “My heroes,” he said.


Then he smiled his slow, steady, Walter-like smile, and just as he did every day, he stepped over to the computer, and he clocked in.





Copyright © 2019, Shelly Reuben - Originally published in The Evening Sun, Norwich, NY - Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her books, visit