The Eckerd drugstore merger story was back in the news yesterday, no doubt frustrating longtime sector watchers who are at this point aching for a little less conversation and a little more action (apologies to Elvis). But while the timing of any deal is impossible to predict, the stars now seem to be aligning in the direction of an actual transaction involving J.C. Penney (NYSE:JCP) and its long-on-the-market Eckerd chain.

Yesterday, a Merrill Lynch research note said that CVS (NYSE:CVS) Chairman and CEO Tom Ryan cancelled an appearance at an investor conference scheduled for today. Such conferences are an increasingly important part of a top executive's job, and the implication is that Ryan wouldn't want to be put in a position to have to comment on an in-process mergers and acquisitions deal.

Recent media reports have CVS and Canadian-owned Jean Coutu in talks to split Eckerd along North-South lines, with the former getting some 1,200 Southern stores and Coutu bagging the balance, about 1,500. Rite Aid (NYSE:RAD) is also a player for the Southern assets. A CVS/Jean Coutu deal, however, probably makes the most sense of any of the drug mergers discussed lately.

Walgreens (NYSE:WAG), still the national power based on store count, might theoretically be interested but isn't merger-minded. CVS, meanwhile, arguably has better financial resources than Rite Aid (based on cash net of long-term debt). (CVS has also been linked with Longs DrugStores (NYSE:LDG), but Eckerd likely represents a bigger and better deal.)

Either way, J.C. Penney no longer counts Eckerd as a continuing operation, and its investors will surely cheer the removal of the division from its books -- as well as the additional financial pop it will need to compete in the cutthroat retail space.

The addition of 1,200 new stores to either CVS or Rite Aid stands to instantly create a market leader, with Walgreens at about 4,300 stores, compared with roughly 4,200 and 3,400 for CVS and Rite Aid, respectively.

Talk about this ongoing saga on our J.C. Penney discussion boards.

Fool contributor Dave Marino-Nachison doesn't own any of the companies in this story.