“You want me to take off what for this assignment?” Josie Marcus asked. She stared right in the red, ratlike eyes of her boss, Harry the Horrible. They jumped like gigged frogs.
“Uh, your top,” Harry said. The manager of Suttin Services was completely clothed, except for the little bulges of hairy fat that escaped through his gaping shirt.
“Is that all?” Josie knew Harry wasn’t telling her everything. She had a ten-year-old daughter. Josie was an expert at ferreting out half-truths.
Harry flinched. “And your bosom thingie,” he said. “Your bra.”
“I’m supposed to strip naked for a mystery-shopping job?” Josie clenched her hands to keep from punching her flabby boss.
Harry took one look at her eyes and grabbed the St. Louis phone book. He held it in front of him like a shield. Josie was only five foot six, but she was mad enough to deck the guy.
“Just your top half,” she said. “And there are no men around. It’s all girls.”
“Women,” Josie said. “Grown women are not girls. Unless you want me to strip at a grade school.”
“Okay, women,” he said, quickly. “I need you for this job. All women wear bras. It’s no big deal. Especially for you.”
Josie’s glare should have lasered every hair off his hide.
“I wasn’t getting personal,” Harry said. “I meant that you – as a female person – are used to taking off your clothes in doctors’ offices and when you get your annual chest squashing.”
“What’s that?” Josie asked.
“My mom gets them to make sure she doesn’t have cancer,” Harry said.
“Those are called mammograms,” Josie said. “My mother gets them, too.” She tried to hide a smile. From what her mom said, Harry had given an accurate description of the procedure.
“Please, Josie. I’m not talking dirty. I just don’t know how to say it right.” The big oaf was pleading now. He had the charm of an unkissed toad.
“You sure don’t,” Josie said. She looked through his office door into the main room of Suttin Services. Dust motes danced in the early-morning light, haloing the IT guy working on a computer. The sun gilded a muscular telephone repairman installing another inside line. None of the staff or the other mystery shoppers had arrived yet.
“There are two men in the office now,” Josie said. “Take off your shirt and show them your chest.” Josie would have bet her next paycheck his breasts were bigger than hers.
Harry clutched the phone book to his chest, horrified as a maiden aunt propositioned by a randy priest.
“I couldn’t,” he said. “That’s different.”
“Why?” Josie said. “They’re strangers. And guys. You’ll never see them again. You’re a man. You can walk around at the pool without a shirt. I can’t.”
“I’m the boss,” Harry said, trying to cover himself with dignity.
“And I’m a peon. So I should go naked?”
“No,” Harry said. “Can I back up and start again? I didn’t get off on the right foot. Desiree Lingerie, the fancy ladies underwear chain, wants you to mystery-shop their store at Plaza Venetia. They’ve had a complaint about one of their saleswomen. I mean persons. Did I say it right?”
“Saleswoman is correct,” Josie said.
“What I was trying to say is that every woman gets measured for a bra, so you’d be used to the process of undressing like that.”
“Every woman with some bucks gets measured,” Josie said. “The rest of us buy our bras off the rack at stores. Target doesn’t have bra fitters.”
“Desiree Lingerie is more upscale than that,” Harry said. “But it’s for women only. It’s supposed to be a place where women feel comfortable with their bodies. They got a complaint that one of their saleswomen is making rude remarks about the size of their customers’ –”
Harry stopped while he mentally searched for the proper word. “Chests!” he finally said.
“What do I get paid for these insults?” Josie asked.
“You’ll make your usual fee,” Harry said, “but there’s an extra benefit. Desiree Lingerie is not returnable. You’d get to keep the bras and panties, up to two hundred dollars’ worth.”
Now that was a bonus, Josie thought. She had a new boyfriend and lacy underwear was a frivolity she couldn’t afford.
“Where’s the store?” Josie asked.
“Plaza Venetia in West County, where the superrich shop. Nice atmosphere. Pleasant people. Good working conditions.”
“That’s the most expensive mall in the area,” Josie said. “For two hundred bucks, I’ll be lucky to get one bra.”
“But it will be a great bra,” Harry said. He knew he’d almost sold her on the job. He reached into his desk and pulled out a sheet of paper. “Here’s the list of questions. You have to ask for Rosa. She’s the saleswoman the company wants checked out. They have two complaints that she made rude comments about women’s chests. She’s a Latina, so they can’t fire her. Political correctness, EEOC and all that.”
“Plus she could be innocent,” Josie said.
“Well, there’s that,” Harry said. “But Desiree is taking the complaints seriously enough to investigate. The company wants some ammunition, and they want it documented in writing. Maybe you’d like to take that friend of yours. What’s her name?”
“Alyce,” Josie said. “Does she get paid?”
“No, but she can keep her bra, too. She’s a big lady.” Harry pantomimed large rounds in the air. “And you’re . . .” He stopped, catching himself like a runner about to go over a cliff. “And you’re not.” He made a small cup with his hands. Very small.
“So between the two of you, you’d cover . . .” Harry stopped and looked frightened.
Josie decided to take pity on the miserable worm. “We’d cover two different body types,” she said. “I’ll ask Alyce if she has the time.”
“Why wouldn’t she?” Harry said. “She’s just a housewife.”
That remark made Josie seethe. But she remembered that Harry was still her boss.
“Alyce is a full-time homemaker,” Josie said.
“That’s what you call a rich housewife,” Harry said. “She’s got a house cleaner and a nanny, doesn’t she?”
“And a two-year-old, a husband, and a dog,” Josie said. “She doesn’t sit at home eating bonbons, waiting to go running around to stores with me.”
“Isn’t her husband some kind of rich lawyer?” Harry asked. “It’s not like she needs the money.”
Josie wondered if Harry was reminding her that she did need the money. She was a single mother with a ten-year-old daughter to support. Josie and Alyce had met on a civic committee. Both had volunteered to help beautify Manchester Road, a major thoroughfare that tied their two neighborhoods together. The committee had long since dissolved, but Josie and Alyce had stayed friends.
On the surface, the two women seemed to have little in common. Alyce loved the bucolic splendor of the Estates at Wood Winds, the gated community in an exclusive western suburb. Josie thought the twisty country lanes and bare-branched winter woods were lonely. She thrived in the noise and variety of Maplewood, an old suburb on the edge of downtown St. Louis.
The women were physical opposites, too. Josie was thin, short and dark-haired. Alyce was pale and blond, a generous, full-figured woman who loved cooking. Josie could barely fry an egg.
Josie lived downstairs in her mother’s two-family flat. Her home looked like the “before” side of a do-it-yourself project. She was fascinated by Alyce’s white silk sofas with sensuous piles of pillows, soft rugs in muted grays and blues, and tall sunlit windows free of tiny finger smudges. Yet Alyce never fussed at her guests, or used plastic covers, coasters, or protective runners to spare her expensive décor.
Josie had never solved the mystery of how Alyce achieved this domestic perfection. Even if Josie had a nanny, a decorator, and a housekeeper, she didn’t think her home would look as flawless or feel as comfortable.
Perhaps their differences were the key to their unlikely friendship: Josie liked to visit Alyce’s well-ordered home, but didn’t want to live there. Alyce was a bit bored by her own perfection and enjoyed Josie’s zingy outings.
Josie guessed her friend would go along on this undercover underwear adventure, but she wouldn’t let Harry take Alyce for granted. Not after he said she was “just a housewife.”
“I’ll call Alyce and see if she’ll consider going,” Josie said.
“Good.” Harry looked relieved.
“But you’re asking a busy woman to drop everything at the last minute,” Josie said. “If you’re not going to pay her, I want two bras with matching panties for both of us.”
“You got it,” Harry said. “There’s just one hook.”
“There always is,” Josie said.
“You’ll have to go this morning.”
“That will depend on Alyce’s babysitter,” Josie said.
“Do I have to get her a bra, too?” Harry asked.