"Who's responsible for this?" The manager held up a reel of film and shook it at some nameless intern. "These last few commercials? Why haven't I had a chance to screen them? They can't just be released like this, without my approval! I have to make sure these are up to snuff or it's your ass. You hear me? Not mine, but yours." He grinned as the young man practically ran toward the viewing room with the film.
Once they were settled and ready to go, he said, "All right, let's see the first one. I hope these aren't trash, because I really don't have time to arrange these shoots again."
"Go, Jimmy, go!" A man waved his baseball cap from the stands, then cheered. "Score!" He looked at the people around him. "That's my son, the one who just scored, that's my boy!"
The triumphant boy waved at his dad as he was lifted onto his teammate's shoulders after his run won the game.
An announcement came over a loudspeaker. "Congratulations, Bears! And thank you, Tigers, for a great game. Everyone is invited to the annual Bake Sale and Craft Fair behind the home stands. Be sure and pick something up, and help support your local youth athletics."
As people started wandering to the various tables that were set up, one boy pointed at the table full of finger foods, cheeses and simple snacks. "Jimmy, let's get one of these." But Jimmy pulled him to the left. "Who wants cheese? Let's get some cookies!"
A large screeeatch came from the loudspeaker, and a Buddy Holly song blared out. Jimmy found found himself face to face with a large panda holding a baseball bat. The boy gasped and put his arms up, as if to deflect a blow from the bat. Then he screamed as the panda bent over, grabbed his hips and, with one swift, downward motion, pantsed him.
He cupped his hands over his crotch and started trying to run, stiff-legged, with his pants around his ankles, wailing all the way. Then the panda turned to the table of cookies and cakes, stared for a moment at the open-mouthed woman standing behind a tray of cinnamon rolls, and smashed them with the bat before working his way down the table, cookies, cakes and crisped rice treats flying every direction.
One stunned woman carefully held out a pink-frosted cupcake, raised her eyebrows, smiled and nodded, as if to appease the beast with sweets. The panda took it, making her smile broadly in relief for a moment, before it tossed the cupcake into the air and swatted it with the bat.
Tagline: A paw holds up a tray of cheeses, while a man's booming voice says, "Never say no to Panda!"
The manager nodded. "Not bad, not bad. Too bad he couldn't have actually clocked the kid or the old lady with that bat, though," he said with a chuckle. "You know what they say about publicity—oh, you probably don't. As is, it's probably just violent enough to get some people up in arms, which is good. Is this next one linked in with that kids' movie?"
"The Madagascar tie-in, yes sir."
"It's a marketing pot of gold if everyone's pleased and we can advertise their DVDs on the cheese packaging. Fast food joints do this crap all the time and they rake it in." He chuckled a little. It was good to be the boss, or at least boss enough to be in a position to get a nice reward if that all worked out. "Okay, roll the damn thing."
The penguins stood on each other's shoulders, hidden inside a trench coat, a hat, a ski mask and sunglasses. They lumbered along in the grocery store like a drunken invisible man, until they saw their quarry.
"There she is, boys," Skipper said. "That Old Lady and her infernal swinging purse--time to bring her down." Kowalski peeked out between two buttons and whispered that the coast was clear. They opened the glass door and hopped inside the freezer case, pulling the coat inside with them. Then they moved down past the bags of veggies and the frozen dinners, down toward the end that was closest to the dairy case where the Old Lady was picking things up, mumbling, and putting them back down again.
"Rico?" Skipper said.
Rico's face brightened. He coughed, gagged and produced a tiny metal disc that would help one of them throw his voice. All heads turned toward the Private, whose eyes widened in horror as he looked at the disc Rico had just hacked up. He shook his head, waved his flippers and backed away. The other penguins grabbed him and held him as Rico pried his beak open and carefully put the disk inside.
"There you go!" Kowalski said. "That's a good lad." He slapped the Private on the back, nodding his head.
The Private coughed and sputtered, then put a flipper on his forehead. "I--I swallowed it, sir."
"Who is that? Where's that coming from?" Skipper spun in a circle. Then his eyebrows dropped as realization dawned. He growled and slapped the Private.
"Well, we've made it this far, men. Time to see the mission through."
The Private pushed the door open enough to say, "Ah, I see some Panda Cheese!" in his imitation of a woman's voice.
The Old Lady spun around, looked from side to side. "Who's there—who--?"
"Oh, but I don't like Panda Cheese. It plugs me up! I'm putting it back now. Yuck!"
The Old Lady swung her purse at the air. "What—who's going to—"
"Because Panda—Panda Cheese—Pan---stop tapping me, Kowalski!"
"But . . . but look."
As a Buddy Holly tune took the place of the elevator music that had been playing, Skipper said, "Abort the mission. Abort the mission!"
The large black and white panda they'd hoped to summon to neutralize the Old Lady stood in front of the freezer case, staring at Rico with wet, black eyes. Behind the panda, the Old Lady made karate moves, swinging her purse at an unseen foe. The panda produced a chain and a lock, and sealed the penguins inside.
Skipper slapped the Private. "If we have to resort to cannibalism to survive, men, the Private dies first."
"Sir, we're in a freezer full of food."
"Just thinking ahead."
Zoo officials came rushing into the store, and the panda pointed at the case right before the Old Lady's purse made contact with its head. The panda spun on her, paws in the air.
Tagline: The Old Lady, her normally tidy bun in a shambles and her glasses crooked on her face, stuffs her purse full of packages of cheese, screeching, "Never say no to Panda!"
"Are you kidding me?" the manager shouted. "Seriously? They want us to . . . oh good lord, show me the other one—maybe this one doesn't look like a film school reject's homework assignment. Do you have any antacid?"
Joe raced into the abandoned store followed by four other people. They all looked tired, dirty and desperate. Joe frantically looked from side to side. "Looks clear. Just grab all the non-perishable food you can find. And hurry before they smell us!"
One of the men said, "The electricity here hasn't been off long—it looks like this store stayed intact through most of the outbreak. It's not even emptied! There are even a few cartons of milk and cream here, still cool."
Joe shook his head. "They could already be starting to spoil. Non-perishables. Come on, we don't have time to screw around here. Canned goods, boxes and bags, stuff that will last us until some damn scientist finds a cure—if there are any left alive . . . ."
He stepped over a body, one that looked as if it had been chewed on. "Wonder why this one didn't reanimate?" he muttered. Then he saw that the top of the head was gone and the brain was missing.
They filled bags with canned food and things like dry noodles and prepared food that didn't require any if much cooking. One of the girls hovered over the dairy case, stuffing packages into a bag.
"I said non-perishables! We can't waste time and energy carrying food that won't be good after today. We've no way to keep it cold, you dumb b—"
One of the men grabbed Joe's arm in mid-air. "Take it easy. Everybody's scared."
Joe nodded, and instead of hitting her, he grabbed the package of cheese in her hand. "You need to carry canned food that will last us for weeks, not cheese that will start to mold in the heat!"
Disgusted, he threw the package of cheese back into the dairy case, which seemed to trigger the store's PA system—battery backup? he wondered—and an old Buddy Holly tune filled the empty store. Joe shook his head and turned only to bump into a large panda. Its one wet eye was a sickening shade of gray, and its bottom jaw hung loose on the misshapen face. The one hand it had left was in a fist, on its hip. It dragged a useless foot behind it as it lurched to the side, grabbed the arm of one of the men in Joe's group, ripped it off with a quick snap, and beat Joe about the head and shoulders with it.
It raised the bloody arm above the woman, who tore open the discarded package of cheese and shoved some into her mouth, giggling madly.
Tagline: A bloody hand smears down the camera. "Nevunnggghh osssnarhhhgg blrrrprdddkhhgggg!"
The manager stared at the blank screen.
"You're fired. Everybody's fired. Were these people on crack? Who hired this creative team? Oh my god, now that means I have to pull another team together to hurry up and replace these crappy commercials about that crappy cheese!"
The lights came up just as the manager hopped from his seat, fuming, ready to go make more heads roll. The intern pointed across the room, whimpering as he backed himself against the wall and started humming a slightly off-key version of True Love Ways.
The manager held his hands up and took a step back. "Oh no, wait, I'm just aggravated, it's not, I mean--I love cheese, I do! I'm lactose intolerant and I still eat it!"
A black, furry paw locked the door.