Mags Davidson looked at her phone again. The text was brief.
No one else recognized me when I was in. Please don't tell anyone you saw me. I will contact you soon. I promise. Love, JJ.
Not the best at following directions, Mags replied. The response was immediate.
Uh-oh! That number won't work. Please make sure it's a valid US mobile number from a supported provider.
"What the hell?" Mags whispered. Did JJ have a throwaway phone? JJ could barely operate a standard computer keyboard, the likes of which had been in existence for years and years. How would JJ even know to buy a disposable cell phone? Something was off. Something was creepy off, but Mags just couldn't put her finger on it.
Maybe JJ was out of the country. Mags always assumed JJ's mother lived locally, but maybe she didn't. But, weren't cell phones designed to work anywhere in the world? Unless JJ's mother lived on Mars, that didn't seem to be a reasonable explanation.
Mags pulled her Sonic milkshake from her secret hiding place, and took a sip to calm her nerves. The chocolate and banana was heavenly. It was worth risking the wrath of Stockwell to sneak it onto the front end. She'd never been caught.
If asked to recount the event, Mags wasn't sure she could explain what had actually happened. A delicious sliver of chocolate and banana concoction slid up the straw, into her mouth and down her throat. Carefully, she lifted the cup to the light to see how much was left, to determine how much she'd have to pace herself to keep the treat alive until the end of her shift.
That's when all hell broke loose!
The bottom fell off the cup.
She spun around.
She tried to find something to stop the milkshake eruption.
Chocolate and banana milkshake covered nearly the entire Customer Service area.
"Shit," she whispered.
She shoved the ruined cup into the closest garbage receptacle, and spastically tried to clean herself off. Her Tommy shirt was covered with milkshake, as was the floor, the counter, and every customer service necessity implement within ten feet.
The stapler was dripping.
The tape roll was, as well.
About that time, Bernice arrived.
"What the hell happened?" Bernice asked.
"The cup broke. The effing cup broke, and my milkshake is gone. It's dead. It's everywhere, and I wanted it. I needed it! What am I going to do?" Mags squealed.
"Relax. I'll sneak out and get you another one. Let's get this mess cleaned up. Who knows where Stockwell is lurking about. He could be here any minute," Bernice cautioned.
"The Shop Vac!" Mags yelled. "Get the Shop Vac!" In her haste, Mags slid in the puddle of shake, miraculously stayed on her feet, and chest bumped Bernice, transferring a large quantity of milkshake onto the shirt of the younger associate.
"Nice," Bernice said. "Don't move. Let me do it. You could get us both killed."
"Okay," Mags whined. "Oh, my God! Stockwell's coming. He's coming!"
"Get down. Hide. Hide in the mop and broom closet. Quick!" Bernice said, with more calm than she felt.
"That shit is filthy!" Mags groaned.
"Get in there now!" Bernice demanded.
Mags did. She squeezed herself into the Rubbermaid closet and prayed for death.
Bernice could hear Stockwell's phone ringing, that persistent chirping that seemed to live in her ear canals. She heard that chirping everywhere! Quick thinking had always been one of Bernice's best qualities, and it didn't fail her this time. She ducked into the one place she knew the cameras wouldn't see. She looked both ways for customers, finding none, which was an act of God in itself. She checked a second time for Tommy employees. The only one in range was Penelope, and Bernice threw her a look that clearly said....
Without a moment's hesitation, Bernice grabbed the primer with the busted lid, the very one she'd taken back as a damaged return, moments before the meeting had begun. She flung it as far and wide as she could, and then ran to the sand bucket. Like a madwoman, she started pouring the sand onto the primer, and the milkshake.
She'd made a bigger mess, but at least this one was explainable.
Stockwell rounded the corner by the light bulb aisle, putting himself in visual range. Remembering the shirt, Bernice crouched, grabbed two handfuls of sand, and rubbed it all over her chest. In her haste, the sand had gone everywhere, and Bernice looked like she'd spent the day at the beach.
Stockwell arrived just as Bernice stood upright, and his jaw went slack.
"What in the Sam hell?" Stockwell whispered.
"Primer accident," Bernice announced, incredibly proud of herself.
"Good Lord. I guess," Stockwell said, finally closing his mouth. "What happened to you?"
"I fell in it," Bernice said.
"You okay?" Stockwell asked.
"Yup," Bernice quipped.
"You don't want to go home?" Stockwell asked, incredulously.
"Not really," Bernice whispered.
"You're possibly legitimately injured, and you aren't asking to leave?" Stockwell looked shocked.
"Bernice, you are turning a real corner here. You're like a dark horse. One to watch. I am incredibly impressed by you," Stockwell said. He paused, and seemed to be thinking deeply.
Maybe I should ask Bernice to be my partner. Stockwell thought, but the thought was fleeting. He already had someone in mind, and he'd planned to take his choice aside, as soon as he could.
"Get Penelope to help you clean this up. Thankfully, it's pretty slow right now," Stockwell commented.
"Will do," Bernice said.
Before Stockwell could leave, something rattled in the Rubbermaid closet, something named Mags.
"Shit," Bernice said, under her breath.
"What's that?" Stockwell asked.
Bernice didn't pause for a second. "A spider, sir."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Some huge spider, probably came in with one of the garden center trucks. I put it in a bin and poked some holes in the top. I'm just trying to figure out what to do with it. You want to help?" Bernice asked, trying to hide a sly smile.
"A spider?" Stockwell said nervously. "I don't think I'm the right guy for the job. Let the Garden Center employee know. I'm sure they have some kind of plan for dealing with this kind of thing. How big did you say it is?"
"Well, a little bigger than my hand, but I have pretty small hands," Bernice said, holding up a hand covered with a generous amount of milkshake, primer, and sand.
Stockwell shivered, and took a few steps back, widening the distance between himself and the closet.
"I gotta get to my office. Have Mags watch the desk while you guys clean up," Stockwell said, his voice a bit shaky. His eyes never left the closet.
"She's on her lunch. Went to get a milkshake, I think she said," Bernice said.
"Hmm. I can almost smell it. You smell chocolate and banana, Bernice?" Stockwell asked.
"No, but sometimes I smell peanut butter in the bathroom. Some kind of sensory thing, I think," Bernice said.
"I'm a little hungry. That's probably it. Thanks for cleaning this all up, Bernice. Accidents happen," Stockwell said appreciatively.
"No problem," Bernice said.
She waited a minute and a half until she was sure Stockwell was gone, then she crossed the service area to release Mags from the closet.
"He's gone," she whispered to the slit between the doors.
"He's gone," Bernice repeated, a little louder.
Bernice opened the door, and an unconscious and deathly pale Mags slid out and landed in a heap of milkshake, primer and sand.
Evidently Stockwell wasn't the only one who'd totally bought into the spider story.
Reeve Stockwell let himself into his office. He grabbed the flashlight from his desk drawer, and thoroughly examined every part of the small space.
Where there was one enormous spider, there might be two.
Stockwell shivered again, and set the flashlight down. Unless the damn things could make themselves invisible, he was in the clear. He was blissfully, blessedly, spider free.
He picked up his phone and dialed three numbers. A gruff voice answered.
"Gutz," the voice said.
"Stockwell," Reeve Stockwell replied.
"I didn't do it, sir. I'm not in a position to say who did, but it wasn't me!" Gutz explained.
"Relax. I'm not calling to blame you for anything," Stockwell replied.
Gerald Gutzenheimer was Tommy's very own conspiracy theorist. He raised questions about everything from pot holes to the single-ply toilet paper in the men's room.
Stockwell knew he faced problems bring Gutz into his confidence, but occasionally, Gutz was right. Occasionally, Gutz nailed a conspiracy right on the head.
Surely, Stockwell would have to weed through the bullshit to find anything worth pursuing, but if there was a conspiracy going on at Tommy's, Gutz would figure it out.
"You missed the meeting, Gutz," Stockwell said.
"I was stuck in traffic, sir. A log truck lost its cargo on the highway. I'll be they're in cahoots with the gas stations. I sat in amazement watching my gas gauge dwindle down. I couldn't get close enough to get any info off the truck, but I would have likee to, det me tell you."
Stockwell rolled his eyes.
"You still with me, sir?" Gutz asked.
"I'm here," Stockwell mumbled. "I'm having trouble with this computer. Darn thing keeps freezing."
"Now, that's the kind of thing that really gets me going," Gutz began. "All these computer repair stores, and computer repair websites. I'll bet they're all in cahoots with that Bill Gates fella. That Gates fella probably owns all those sites. That is a technological rip off, let me tell ya."
"Gutz, give it a rest for a minute," Stockwell said. "I might have a true conspiracy to run by you."
"You're suggesting there isn't truth in the two I just mentioned?" Gutz asked, sounding irritated.
"Not at all. I think you're on to something there, but I have one that's more pressing. I'd like to buy you dinner later on, run a few things by you," Stockwell offered.
"Not at one of those chains," Gutz barked. "Those folks are all in cahoots with food providers. Who pays ten bucks for a salad? Half that fancy crap can be picked off the side of the road. Could have picked myself a salad this morning while the highway department was playing with their wood."
Stockwell forced himself not to laugh. "Meet me out front at seven, Gutz."
"My shift ends at eight. Don't be cheatin' me out of an hour's pay, sir."
"Don't worry, Gutz. I'll fix it so you don't lose the hour," Stockwell offered.
"My wife sends her gratitude, sir. In fact, she'll probably send you a nice cheese ball of the month for giving her a night off from cooking duty," Gutz declared.
"I'll look forward to it. See you at seven," Stockwell said.
And he hung up.
And he rolled his eyes.