Dying in Style - Chapter 1

Chapter 1

“You’re going to kill me,” he said.

He was young, maybe twenty-five. He’d followed her outside with a sensual swagger, his Armani suit clinging to him like a wicked woman.

Fear wiped away the ugly sneer he’d had five minutes ago in the store. Now he was alone with Josie Marcus in a mall parking lot in suburban St. Louis. They were lost in a sea of empty cars, baking in the fall sunshine. The indifferent auto audience didn’t care what happened to the man. Neither did Josie.

“I’m begging you,” he said. “Don’t do it.” His full lips trembled. They were such nice lips when they pleaded for mercy.

Josie tried to feel sorry for the man. But she remembered the way he’d scorned her in the store. His upper lip had curled like a salted slug when he’d noticed her cheap jeans. He’d made her feel sexless and unfashionable. He’d practically elbowed Josie out of the way to chase after a bottle blonde with jacked-up boobs.

How many other women had he treated the same way? Josie wondered. He deserved what was going to happen to him. A quick, painless termination was too good for him.

“I’m sorry,” Josie said. “You’ve made too many mistakes. I have my orders.”

He grabbed her hand. He reeked of fear, sweat and cologne.

Josie snatched her hand back, but not before she noticed his was softer and smoother. “Don’t touch me,” she said. “Or it will be even worse.”

“Wait!” he said. Sweat slid down his forehead. “I don’t know what they pay you, but I can pay you more. How much do you want? You want my next commission check? It’s yours. And the one after that. Please, please, don’t write that report. They’ll terminate me for sure.”

She looked at his Save Chic nametag. “I’m sorry, Patrick,” she said. “But you know the rules. You are supposed to wait on every Save Chic customer, no matter what we wear. Save Chic knows that the modern jewelry buyer may not dress like a millionaire, but she could spend like one. I deliberately wore cheap jeans and a T-shirt, as the company instructed. But I had a Movado watch. That’s quality merchandise, Patrick. You should have noticed.”

She continued his indictment. “I was supposed to be greeted at the door with ‘Welcome to the Save Chic Shop.’ Instead, you sneered at me. You made me feel inferior, Patrick. I couldn’t get you to wait on me, no matter how hard I tried.

“Meanwhile, you fell all over that young blonde in the gaudy Versace. She didn’t buy a thing, did she? But I got the two-hundred-fifty-dollar sterling silver Heart Stopper necklace.”

(The necklace was a rip-off of the famous Tiffany Heart Link necklace, fifty bucks cheaper than the original, but it wasn’t polite to mention that.)

“ I had to beg you to take my money, didn’t I, Patrick?” Josie looked him in the eye. Patrick cringed. He knew it was true.

“At the cash register, you were supposed to tell me about the sale on eighteen-carat gold earrings, but you didn’t. You were supposed to say, ‘Do you have the Save Chic Discount Card? For only twenty-five dollars, you’ll get a ten-percent discount on every purchase.’ You didn’t do that, either.”

“There was a long line,” Patrick said. His languid boredom had turned to fast-talking desperation. “People hate that stupid spiel. They want to buy and get out.”

“I’m sorry, Patrick,” Josie said. “My job is to make sure you follow corporate sales procedure. How did you know I was a mystery shopper?”

“Only mystery shoppers ever listen to the whole Save Chic Discount Card thing,” Patrick said. “Everyone else tries to shut us up as soon as we start.”

Patrick dropped to his knees. Ugh, Josie thought. He’s going to grovel.

“Please, I’m begging you,” he said. “Don’t turn in that report. You have absolute power. You can save me. I’ll be fired. I’m already on probation. The boss is looking for an excuse to get rid of me. She’s old and she hates me.”

She’s thirty-five, you twit, Josie wanted to say. She’s only four years older than I am, but supervising people like you is aging her fast.

“Please, my mother is sick,” he said. “She needs an operation. I’m all she has. If I’m out of work, I can’t help her.”

“Get off your knees, Patrick,” she said. “You’ll ruin your suit. You’ll need it for your job interviews.”

“Bitch!” Patrick said, brushing off his knees.

“I bet you say that to all the girls,” Josie said.

She watched him lope off toward the mall. Sick mother indeed. Josie had only been busted three times in nine years. Each time it was by a man, and each time he’d claimed to be the sole support of his sick old mother. Josie suspected Patrick was really supporting a fat old credit-card company. He was probably in debt up to those pretty ears for boy toys: a state-of-the-art sound system, plasma TV, hot car, cool clothes. Her report would put a crimp in Patrick’s style.

He shouldn’t have dissed Josie Marcus, mystery shopper, she thought.

The mystery shopper is the suburban spy. I make my living shopping. I get paid doing something other women do for fun. It beats my other choices. I’m an ordinary-looking woman with three years of college and no special training. I could work retail, shovel fries, or clean houses for a living.

Mystery shopping is the most exciting job I can have. People think it’s so glamorous. That always makes me laugh, especially at the end of the day, when my feet hurt from walking ten miles in the malls, and my neck and eyes ache from hours on the road. I can drive three hundred miles a day.

So why do it?

Josie loved the drama.

Like any good spy, Josie could change her appearance. She had a closet full of disguises. One day, she was a haughty lady in Prada, shopping the designer boutiques. The next day, she was a hillbilly in a halter top, slouching through concrete-floored discount stores. Josie loved the disguises, even though some of them embarrassed her mom.

Josie loved the danger.

Store employees resented mystery shoppers. The last time Josie had been busted, she’d caught a cashier red-handed in a returned-goods scam. The crooked employee figured out Josie was a mystery shopper, followed her to the parking lot and threatened to beat her up. Josie dialed 911 on her cell phone and the clerk ran off. Neither the store nor Josie ever saw the guy again.

OK, she wasn’t James Bond, but her job had more thrills than working the cash register at Kmart. Mystery shoppers had been threatened, bribed and beaten up. Just the thought gave her a little thrill. She’d die of boredom in most other jobs.

Besides, Josie had a strong sense of duty. She felt it was her job to protect and serve the average shopper.

Like that one, Josie thought. She watched a woman about forty years old, struggling with her bulky shopping bags. She was nice-looking, in neat khaki pants and a pink sweater, but sales clerks like Patrick wouldn’t give her a second look. The woman shoved the bags into her blue minivan, rearranging hockey sticks and baby car seats to make them fit.

Mrs. Minivan was the unsung shopper, the backbone of the American economy, the butt of a thousand jokes. Mrs. Minivan got up at five the morning after Thanksgiving so she could be first in line for the Christmas toy bargains at Target. Mrs. Minivan braved the surly post-Christmas crowds to buy holiday decorations at seventy-five-percent off. Then she stored them away for next year.

This was the woman Josie mystery shopped for. She thought Mrs. Minivan deserved the best. Usually, she didn’t get it. In Josie’s nine years as a mystery shopper, she’d filled out enough paperwork to cover the Mall of America.

What had become of her reports? Nothing, in most cases. She suspected many companies simply filed them away. But not always. Mystery shoppers were overworked, underpaid and despised by the stores they served. But sometimes, they had absolute power. That’s when heads rolled. Incompetent managers lost their bonuses because of her reports. Rude clerks lost their jobs. There was no appeal.

The Save Chic had a serious personnel problem. After being named in the Wall Street Journal as one of “America’s Ten Rudest Chain Stores,” its stock fell seven points. The chain hired mystery shoppers. Patrick the rude clerk was right. Corporate would hit the roof when they saw her report. He was one of the sales associates who’d ruined the chain’s reputation. He’d be fired.

Josie didn’t feel guilty. There were plenty of good sales people who could do Patrick’s job. Josie had to think about Mrs. Minivan.

Mrs. Minivan, her packages safely stowed, checked her watch, hopped in the driver’s seat and roared off. She was late for something.

Josie looked at her own watch. One o’clock. She’d better get moving. Too bad she didn’t get to keep the two-hundred-fifty-dollar silver bangle from this Save Chic. She’d have to return it to another Save Chic. People thought mystery shoppers got to keep those designer clothes and shoes they bought in the line of duty. No way. Discount store T-shirts, jeans and kids’ clothes, maybe. But expensive items went back, often to test a store’s return process. If Josie got a shopping allowance, it was embarrassingly small. Sometimes, the hardest part of her job was trying to spend twenty-five dollars in a gilded boutique.

Before she started the car, Josie locked the doors, then pulled out the hot pink Save Chic bag. Josie opened the velvet jewelry box, stared at the silver necklace and sighed. The sterling silver shone like moon glow.

Ten years ago, Nathan bought her necklaces like this. She’d had so many pretty things, so many good times. Now it was all gone. All she had left of their love was Amelia, her nine-year-old daughter.

Amelia was the major reason why Josie was a mystery shopper. The pay was lousy. She was harassed by her boss. She could have gone back to college and gotten a better job. But being a mystery shopper had one major advantage: flexible time. Josie wanted to be with her daughter. She couldn’t give Amelia a father, but Josie could give her daughter her own time. Most days, Josie could take Amelia to school and pick her up. They had time to do homework, eat dinner and even do fun things, provided Josie didn’t sit in mall parking lots, sighing over the past.

She closed the pink box and headed for the Save Chic at the Galleria Mall. Josie would feel like an idiot returning that necklace an hour after she bought it.

Except she didn’t. The minute Josie walked into this Save Chic, she knew things would go well. The hot-pink carpet was freshly vacuumed. The mirrors gleamed. The black-lacquered showcases were fingerprint-free. The chandelier didn’t have a single cobweb.

A slender African-American woman with a name tag that said Caroleena welcomed Josie at the door. The pink bag in Josie’s hand meant thankless paperwork, but Caroleena still waited on her. “It’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind,” she said. “Now, is there anything else I can show you today?”

Caroleena would get a rave review. Josie liked this part of her job -- rewarding good people. Caroleena would take proper care of Mrs. Minivan.

It was after two o’clock by the time the return paperwork was completed and Josie was back in her car. She barely made it to the Barrington School for Boys and Girls in time. She pulled up the long curving drive and took her place in the pickup line behind the other mothers. Josie from Maplewood couldn’t believe she had a daughter in the city’s classiest private school. She loved the Barrington’s redbrick buildings with their pristine white trim. They promised a bright future. Amelia would be a doctor, a lawyer, or a CEO. She would not be a mystery shopper like her mother. Josie’s daughter would have a profession. Nobody said, “I want to be a mystery shopper when I grow up.” It was something people -- mostly women -- fell into when they had kids and needed money.

“Amelia Marcus,” the principal announced, and Josie’s daughter came running out, pulling her dark green backpack. Amelia’s long hair was flying. Her blue pants had grass stains on the knees, and her shirt was untucked. Josie hoped her daughter had not been in a fight.

Amelia flopped into the car, dragging her backpack and jacket behind her.

“Do you have a lot of homework tonight?” Josie asked.

“The usual,” Amelia said.

“Then I think it’s time for a guerrilla gorilla expedition.”

“Sweet!” Amelia said. She had a thing for the Jungle of the Apes exhibit at the St. Louis Zoo. They could practically walk to it from their home. Well, maybe that was an exaggeration, but it was darn close. Josie didn’t have time for many day-long trips, so they started making unplanned one- and two-hour stops at the zoo after school. Josie called them the guerrilla gorilla expeditions.

“Let me call your grandmother and tell her where we’ll be,” Josie said, opening her cell phone.

“She’s going to tell us not to ruin our dinner by eating junk at the zoo,” Amelia said.

“You can predict the future, oh wise one,” Josie said, when she hung up the phone.

“Grandma always says that,” Amelia said, seriously.

Josie scored a free parking spot on the street near the zoo. They crunched through the fallen sycamore leaves to the leafy, glassed-in ape habitat. The bare barred cages were long gone. These gorillas lived in a make-believe forest. Amelia could spend hours watching the big silverback male and his female companions.

“The apes are sweet,” Amelia said.

“Personally, I’m a penguin person,” Josie said.

“Don’t you like the little baby gorillas?” Amelia said.

“They’re cute,” Josie said. But she couldn’t bear to look at the adults’ sad eyes.

They watched the gorillas for nearly half an hour. Then mother and daughter wandered outside and ate hot pretzels and frozen Cokes while the sea lions sunned themselves. The day was warm, but Josie could feel the cold underneath as the sun started to sink.

“Put on your jacket, Amelia,” she said. For once, Amelia didn’t fight her.

“At school, they said our zoo is one of the best in the whole wide world,” Amelia said.

“They’re right.”

“Even better than the one in New York?” Amelia asked.

“New York looks like a dog kennel compared to us,” Josie said.

Amelia didn’t laugh. “I thought New York had everything good.”

“It doesn’t have you or me or the St. Louis Zoo,” Josie said.

Finally, Amelia giggled. “How was your day?” she asked, with one of those sudden switches into adulthood.

Josie answered her daughter with equal seriousness. “Good and bad. The good part was I met a really nice sales associate and I’ll get to give her a good report. But I met a real jerk at another store. He followed me out to the parking lot.”

“Were you afraid?” Amelia said. A tiny frown marred the soft skin on her forehead. Josie wished she hadn’t blabbed. Amelia was a natural worrier.

“I fear no man,” Josie said, holding her frozen Coke aloft like a sword. “Or woman, either, except for your grandmother, so wipe that pretzel mustard off your mouth, or she’ll know we’ve been eating zoo junk.”

“She’ll know anyway when we don’t eat dinner,” Amelia said. “What did the bad guy do when he followed you out to the parking lot?”

Her child could not be sidetracked. Amelia got that from her father.

“He tried to get me to change my mind and give him a good report.”

“You didn’t do it, did you?” At nine, Amelia was obsessed with right and wrong.

“I don’t change reports,” Josie said. “Not ever. Not for any reason, no matter how much trouble it causes. Right is right.”

Josie would remember her answer in the weeks to come, when three people were dead. If Josie hadn’t been so stubborn, if she’d softened her report a little, would any of them be alive today?

Fortunately, Amelia never asked her that question.

Published on  July 4th, 2016