The secret word is: "Shop."
The Dingleman Mall . . . a massive marketing mecca right in the heart of Northeast Southweston. A sprawling combination of both enclosed and open air two-level architectural fluidity designed for ultimate efficiency in modern shopping convenience. And business there is booming.
"There's been an explosion at the Dingleman Mall?" Doomsday asked worriedly.
"No, Doomsday," I moaned.
"Oh. Sorry, P.T.," Doomsday offered.
"That's okay," I said, then I continued with my opening narration.
As I was saying, business there is booming. Maybe a little too much. Why have sales at mall stores suddenly shot up over five hundred percent? Why are women all over the city turning into raging shopaholics?
"I give up," Doomsday interrupted again. "Why?"
"And why do we care?" Bugs asked.
"I don't know," I admitted. "But maybe someone will come in and share a personal account with us that will inevitably draw us into the case."
"A really pretty someone!" Bugs speculated.
"A someone with long legs and sparkling eyes," I sighed.
"A someone who has food with them!" Doomsday added hopefully.
"And since Doc isn't here yet, the rest of us will have a shot this week!" Bugs pointed out.
The door opened and we held our breaths anxiously. A moment later we all released our breaths in sputters when we saw it was only Sgt. Vinton. He was looking especially tired and worried.
"Oh, you're not a girl!" Bugs complained.
"You don't even have any food," Doomsday pouted.
"And your eyes are bloodshot," I noted. "Is something wrong, Sergeant?"
"Oh, nothing to concern you boys," Sgt. Vinton sighed, but he continued anyway. "It's Mrs. Vinton. I don't know what's gotten into her. She's constantly shopping, buying stuff we don't need and can't possibly use. Last night she came home with her car packed full of sundries."
"Mmmm, ice cream sundries?" Doomsday asked.
"I don't even know where she's getting the money for all these things," Sgt. Vinton continued.
"It sounds like a serious problem," I agreed.
"Why don't you just tell her to stop?" Bugs asked.
"I have asked her to stop," Sgt. Vinton explains. "She promises she will, but then the next day she's out shopping again." He sighed, running a tired hand over his face. "Anyway, it's nothing for you boys to worry about." Sgt. Vinton pulled a file from one of the cabinets and exited the room.
"Very curious," I hummed.
"Yes," Doomsday agreed. "How could she get all those sundries home without them melting?"
"No, I mean, Sgt. Vinton's wife's behavior sounds exactly like what I described in the opening narration," I said.
"You mean she's booming?" Doomsday asked with confusion.
"Well, I think it's terrible," Bugs said. "Making poor Sgt. Vinton worry like that on his meager paycheck. She should be ashamed!"
Bugs slapped the top of the television set, which flickered on at the beginning of a Klinsinger report. We gathered around to watch. Kurt Klinsinger was at his desk, surrounded by shopping bags and various oddball items.
"Tonight we look at consumerism," he began. "What drives ordinary women to turn into raging shopaholics? In this age of rampant materialism, are we losing sight of the values and morals which should truly be important to us? Is the sparkling appeal of impulse shopping ruining our lives? It is the opinion of this reporter that we should take a moment to step outside of the shopping centers and take stock of this big, wonderful world around us before we completely lose sight of our goals and ourselves." The figure of a woman doddered in front of the screen and set several shopping bags down on the desk, blocking the camera's view of Klinsinger. "Mom! Please! I told you, I there's no more room here!"
I hit the top of the television set to turn it off. "Guys, something strange is definitely happening here. Klinsinger's mom has also become a shopaholic!"
"So something is causing the middle-aged and older women of Northeast Southweston to go on wild shopping sprees?" Bugs asked.
"It would appear so," I nodded.
"But how?" Doomsday asked.
"I don't know," I admitted. "But maybe when Doc gets here he'll have some ideas."
The door opened and Doc entered, carrying several shopping bags. "Sorry I'm late," he said, setting the bags down on the desk. "Do we have any cases going yet?"
"Well, we do have something strange . . . that . . . we're . . . um . . . " I began, but my voice trailed off as several men entered the room, carrying even more shopping bags.
"Just set them down anywhere, fellas," Doc instructed. The men set the bags down and filed back outside.
"What is all this?" Bugs asked.
"Hmm? Oh, just some stuff I bought," Doc explained.
"Yeah, but why are you bringing it in here?" Bugs asked as he started to inspect the various bags.
"I ran out of closet space at my house," Doc answered.
"You ran out of closet space?" I asked in disbelief. "Doc, you live in a mansion. You have at least seven huge walk-in closets at your house!"
"Yeah, well, those don't hold as much as you think they would," Doc stated.
"Okay, I can sort of understand the electronic equipment and books," Bugs said, peeking into yet another bag. "But why did you buy a whole bag full of purple knee socks? They don't even match your suit."
"They were on sale," Doc explained simply.
"Did you happen to buy any sundries?" Doomsday asked hopefully, joining Bugs in inspecting the bags. "I'm hungry!"
"Doc, are you feeling all right?" I asked as I sat on the edge of the desk.
"I feel fine," Doc assured me. "Why?"
"Oh nothing . . . it's just . . . well . . . can you explain why you bought . . . " I inspected the bag closest to me, quickly counting the contents. " . . . twenty-seven alligator-shaped inflatable pool toys?"
Doc looked conflicted and finally answered, "I . . . don't . . . know. It doesn't make much sense, does it?"
"Now this is curious," I said.
"If you think twenty-seven alligator-shaped inflatable pool toys is curious, you don't even want to know what's in this bag!" Bugs reported.
"No, I mean, Doc seems to have caught the shopaholic bug, too," I explained. "But how?"
"Yeah, so far we've only heard about older women who've been buying up stuff," Bugs agreed.
"Today's Tuesday. When did you start feeling the urge to buy things?" I asked Doc.
"I'm not sure," Doc confessed. "Since yesterday, I guess."
"Good, and what did you do yesterday?" I asked.
"Let's see . . . I got up, had breakfast, went to the library . . . um, then later I went to the mall," Doc explained.
"Ah, the mall!" I said, snapping my fingers. "That's very interesting! What did you do at the mall?"
Doc seemed to hesitate a little, then replied, "I had some things to pick up."
"You picked up some things all right!" Bugs scoffed.
"Did anything unusual happen while you were at the mall?" I asked.
Doc thought about this then sighed, "No, nothing that I can recall."
"What are you thinking, P.T.?" Bugs asked.
"I'm not sure yet, but I have a feeling the Dingleman Mall is at the center of all this," I hummed. "If only we had one more clear connection to go on . . . "
The door opened and a young girl entered. She was short in stature but seemed taller than she actually was. This is because she was wearing a hat that was adorned with a wide variety of fruits piled on top of her brunette head.
"It's Carmen Miranda!" I commented.
The girl looked startled. "My name is Carmen, but not Miranda," she explained. "I work at the Dingleman Mall."
"At the costume store?" Doomsday asked. "Your hat looks good enough to eat!"
"No, I work at a food stand," Carmen explained. "Fruit on a Stick. We sell a wide variety of fruit on sticks . . . strawberries, apples, oranges, grapes, watermelon, figs and ba . . . "
"That's very interesting!" I shouted, interrupting her before she could say the word you can never say in front of Bugs because it upsets him very much. I motioned to Doc, who was standing behind Carmen. He quickly reached up and pulled the banana from her hat, hiding it behind his back.
"I hope you can help me," Carmen said. "I'm about to lose my mind!"
"Lost and found is just left of the admitting desk," Doomsday offered helpfully.
"Something really strange is happening at the mall," she explained. "Women are going crazy buying everything! And then they're hungry, so they mob my stand!"
"I would think that would be a good thing," Doc noted.
"The increase in business would be great but I can't keep up with the demand!" Carmen complained. "Especially not when they're buying ten or twenty fruit sticks at a time! I'm exhausted! I can't keep up with the pace!"
I stood up from the desk and announced, "This definitely sounds like a job for C.A.P.E.R.!"
"Who?" Carmen asked.
We stood at attention and recited, "The Civilian Authority for the Protection of Everybody, Regardless."
"Tadaa!" sang Doc.
"Tadaa!" sang Doomsday.
"Tadaa!" sang Bugs.
"Tadaa!" I finished, adding a bit of a Latin Cha Cha Cha flair at the end in honor of Carmen's hat.
"Oh . . . kay," Carmen said, looking confused.
"We'll take the Big Bologna and check out the mall," I said.
"A Big Bologna?" Carmen asked, looking even more confused.
"It's parked out front," Doc explained.
"That yellow thing with the hot dog on top?" Carmen asked, then she shook her head. "And you think my hat is weird?"
"I like your hat!" Bugs said, stepping over to her.
"You do?" Carmen smiled. "And what's your name?"
"I'm Bugs," Bugs smiled.
"Bugs, do you like fruit?" Carmen asked.
"Are you kidding? I go crazy over fruit!" Bugs assured her as they walked out together.
Doc and I exchanged a worried glance as we followed.
"I like fruit, too!" Doomsday chimed in as he exited behind us, closing the door.
I parked the Big Bologna at the far end of the Dingleman Mall parking lot. Even for a weekday, parking was hard to come by and this was the closest we could get.
We piled out of the vehicle and made the long walk to the mall. "I'm going to have to get back to my stand," Carmen told us, "The mall looks busier today than ever!" She turned to Bugs and asked, "Will you be sure to stop by later? I'll make you a special Fruit on a Stick."
"Sure, we'll be by," Bugs promised.
"If we have time," I added quickly. "It looks like this investigation could take us a while."
"Okay, well, good luck!" Carmen said, and she hurried off in another direction.
We entered the complex and were amazed at the number of women running to and fro, each burdened down with countless shopping bags.
"This is even crazier than the Christmas crunch!" Bugs noted. "I'd hate to see what would happen if anyone decided to hold a white sale."
"They'd be in the black for sure," I agreed.
"Where do we start?" Doomsday asked.
I looked around and noticed that Doc was standing in front of a department store, staring longingly at the window. We walked over to him.
"I know I don't need them," Doc said, his voice pained, "but all of a sudden I feel like I have to buy a hundred pairs of galoshes."
"Keep fighting that impulse," I urged him, then said to the others, "We'd better get to the bottom of this, and quick!"
An older woman walked out of the store, her arms full of galoshes. She stopped in front of us and smiled at Doc. "Doc!" she exclaimed. "So good to see you! They're having a wonderful sale on galoshes today. Better hurry!"
The woman walked away. A moment later, Doc tried to dash into the store, but we held him back.
"Come on, Doc!" I said, holding onto his arm. "You don't need galoshes!"
"I really think I do!" Doc said, fighting us.
We finally managed to pull him away from the store and stopped in front of the large fountain in the center courtyard where various animal statues sitting just inside the outer rim spat water toward the center statuary. Doc sat down on the edge of the fountain and sighed.
"What's happening to me?" Doc asked with frustration.
"That's what we're going to find out," I promised. "Doc, are you sure you've told us everything you did yesterday?"
"Of course I did!" Doc insisted, getting to his feet and steeling himself. "I have nothing to hide! Come on . . . I can fight this impulse shopping thing. Let's go!"
"There seems to be a lot of activity going on over there." I pointed to a lower corridor of the mall which seemed particularly busy. "Let's go see what's up."
"No, I don't think we should go in that direction," Doc scoffed. "Let's go this way." He started to walk in another direction.
I thought this was rather odd behavior. It wasn't often that Doc questioned my judgement. "No, I really think we should go this way," I insisted. "Come on, guys." I started walking and Bugs and Doomsday fell in behind me. Doc hesitated a moment and then sighed, following us.
As we made our way through the crowds of older women, several of them stopped and addressed Doc. "Oh, hello!" one woman smiled to him. "I didn't expect to see you today. Are you going to . . . ?"
"Yes, yes, nice to see you, too," Doc smiled, dismissing her as he caught up with us.
"Doc, how do all of these women know you?" I asked.
Doc shook his head, trying to look confused (which isn't easy for Doc because he's practically never confused). "They must be friends of my mother," he explained.
We had stopped in the center of an aisle and I noticed there seemed to be an unusual amount of activity in a storefront that was located between the Vinyl Word record store and the Dingleman Beauty Salon. A sign above the store read, "Now Open - Geddit Credit." I couldn't help but notice the long line of ladies waiting inside to get to the counter.
"Oh, there you are!" Carmen said as she ran up to us.
"Carmen! I thought we were going to come by your stand later," Bugs said.
"I had to close for the day," Carmen explained. "Ran out of fruit."
"No more fruit?" Doomsday sighed. "That's sad."
"I know," Carmen sighed. "No more strawberries, apples, oranges, grapes, watermelon, figs or ba . . . "
"Uh, do you know anything about this store here?" I asked loudly, interrupting her.
"Geddit Credit?" Carmen asked. "They opened a couple of weeks ago. It's run by Mr. Geddit. He set it up where all the stores can accept his credit cards for a small fee and that way people can apply and then use their Geddit Credit anywhere in the mall."
"Are you in on this as well?" I asked.
"Oh yes," Carmen confirmed. "He's been very good about compensating the businesses, and he only charges a small fee per transaction. One percent or so."
"Do a lot of women use these cards now?" I asked.
"Oh, a majority of them do," Carmen said. "Why?"
"What is it, P.T.?" Bugs asked.
"It just seems suspicious somehow," I said, eyeing the store. "Doc, have you ever been in this store?"
"I've never even noticed it before, to be honest," Doc assured me.
"So you don't have one of these Geddit Credit cards?" Bugs asked.
"Well, Doc wouldn't really need one, would he?" I pointed out. "He's got plenty of money."
"Although it isn't a bad idea," Doc said thoughtfully. "I mean, my parents did say something this morning about cutting me off . . . "
Doc walked into the credit card store and we followed. We observed as one middle-aged woman walked away from the counter, holding her new Geddit Credit card happily.
"Can I assist you, young men?" a man's voice asked.
We turned to see a man in his thirties with slicked-back hair and a loud plaid jacket. He grinned from ear to ear. I honestly thought we were about to be sold a used car.
"Interested in establishing a line of credit?" the man asked.
"Oh, Mr. Geddit," Carmen stepped forward, "These are my friends, the Kids from C.A.P.E.R. They're investigating the mysterious happenings around here."
"What mysterious happenings are those?" Mr. Geddit asked.
"Surely you've noticed the sudden and unnatural increase in spending going on around here amongst middle-aged and older women," Bugs said, not so subtly indicating the long line of such women in his establishment.
"Why, my dear boy!" Mr. Geddit grinned even wider as he threw an arm around Bugs' shoulder, "This is capitalism at its finest! A well-oiled machine! Supply and demand! The ebb and flow of free trade! It's the American dream!"
"Well, when you put it that way," Bugs sighed uncertainly, pulling himself free of the man's grip.
"My boys, this is progress!" Mr. Geddit continued enthusiastically. "And you can be part of this exciting new era of consumerism! Just step over here and I'll get you signed up right now."
Doc took a step toward the counter but I held him back. "Thank you, maybe later," I said, herding the others to the door to leave. We had to physically pull Doc from the store with us.
"We'll be here any time to handle all of your credit needs!" Mr. Geddit smiled and waved at us. "Just ask for me, William Geddit!"
"He seems like a nice man," Doomsday noted when we walked out of the store. The walkways were more crowded than ever with even more women running between stores.
"It's too difficult to run a full investigation when the mall is busy like this," I noted. "I think what we should do is obtain jobs as security guards and come back tonight so we can look around more thoroughly. Carmen, would you be willing to help? You know the mall better than any of us."
"Sure," Carmen agreed. "It would be nice to wear a uniform that doesn't include fruit for a change!"
"Come on, we'll go arrange it with the mall management and Sgt. Vinton," I said, and we followed Carmen to the management office, not realizing that Mr. Geddit was watching us through the window of his store as we were leaving.