In my younger days, I belonged to a branch of underground law enforcement, a sort of special ops you might say. I’ve been off the force for three months now but I still remember the good old days, risking life and limb to keep innocents out of harm’s way. It was not a flashy job. Many times I found myself shaking my head in disbelief, as I removed expired bottles of salad dressing from the shelves, obviously put there by some lazy, under-appreciative employee, willing to risk lives with their carelessness. It was removing human scum like them off the streets that made it all worth it.
For many years my lips were completely sealed about the operation, nothing more than a casual hint dropped here and there over family game night conversation. However, I was researching the credibility of the S.S.N. (Secret Shoppers Network) after I was dismissed from the force and discovered security precautions were more lax than I had originally believed.
Enemy agents have been sent in many forms in an attempt to take my life. I’ve been poisoned, hunted down like an animal, shot at and even been viciously attacked off duty in a parking lot by some of their younger female recruits posing as cookie salesman. ‘Brownies’ they called themselves, kudos for creativity girls but no sale.
I remember my first day on the field. I was young and unseasoned in the profession and a bit overeager in some areas but my training saw me through with astounding loyalty. I sat in a stuffy office room surrounded by other aspiring agents, as we were each handed our paperwork by our Director, Mr. Ydnar Htims. Now I know what you’re thinking but don’t be alarmed this is not his real name. (The S.S.N. may not have an official classification policy in place but my conscience would never allow me to release such precious information as the name of an S.S.N. director.) The woman sitting next to me seemed nervous, but I knew offering her any comfort would only turn her soft.
I never felt as proud as I did opening that wonderful standard issue yellow folder for the first time and reading through my detailed set of instructions. I admired Director Ydnar’s genuine impartiality towards us field agents. It must have taken years of training to perfect the look of just not caring that he carried so well.
As much as I would like to say I was fully confident that day, this was not the case. Though I never let on, I was afraid that I might not make it back in one or even two pieces. My very first mission would take place at Donny’s Discount Grocery and Tackle. Or as I’ve come to know it: D.D.G.T.
As I pulled into the parking lot, I looked over the papers one last time. It was a relatively simple mission looking back in comparison, one gallon of milk and a dozen doughnuts. My job as a member of the S.S.N. was to get in and out with these items as fast as possible, all while judging the character of the employees as upright citizens and looking for anything that could leave a customer less than satisfied with their visit. It’s a hard job, it doesn’t pay well, and as it would turn out, agents receive a shockingly low amount of parades in their honor but somebody had to do it.
The first thing I noticed as I walked through the doors was the employee-of-the-month picture hanging above the cart return. This ‘Cathy’ woman had one of the fakest smiles I’ve seen in retail and from that moment on, I knew they weren’t to be trusted. I grabbed a cart and one of the weekly coupon fliers to cover my face. As I flipped it open and spread out the pages, I must say I was impressed with the straight forward layout. But advertising a special on ground beef right next to the scratch-and-sniff 50%-off coupon on live bait may not have been in their best interest.
The floor was clean (that’s about all I could see from behind the flyer) with only the occasional scuff. I’d let them off on a warning. I made it to the dairy department. The electrical humming of the refrigerated section set the tone. My arm reached in towards the jug of 2% when suddenly I froze. Director Ydnar never specified. Maybe he wanted whole? Or skim? No, no, snap out of it. It’s only a test to gage your ability to improvise in high-pressure situations. Director Ydnar seemed like a whole milk kind of man, so that was my final decision.
Off to the bakery section. Ah, the bakery section. Nothing sweeter or more innocent than the little old lady behind the counter making doughnuts, right? Wrong. There was no little old lady this time. What did she know that they terminated her baking position? They had replaced her with a young boy who was slouching over and had bangs covering half of his face. What was he hiding from, covering his face like that? I was going to find out.
I approached with caution and was careful to block my face from his complete view by facing him at an angle and holding up the flyer. “Lovely weather we’re having, isn’t it?” I snuck another look over the counter as I casually turned the pages.
“I dunno man; we’re in a grocery store.” It was the lack of any particular tone in his voice that sent up a red flag. I would have to keep an eye on him as I carried out the rest of my mission.
“So uh... What sort of doughnuts would you recommend to a stranger?”
“I dunno. They didn’t tell me.” He was going to be a tough one to crack. I realized playing coy might be suspicious, so I folded up the flyer and set it in the cart. But wait a minute... Maybe this was a chance to test the employee’s ability to bounce back from unexpected situations? I quietly crumpled up the flyer and threw it over the counter at the boy. I had to resist using my childhood baseball experience and knocking him flat with a curveball and used more of a gentle toss. He looked down at the flyer which was now at his feet and then back up at me. “Are you gonna order anything dude?” He seemed nearly unscathed which was good for the report. I wasn’t going to beat around the bush any longer with formalities. I glanced down at my watch and could see I was running out of time.
“Those ashy looking powdered doughnuts look scrumptious. I’ll take twelve.” He packaged up my doughnuts before earning a mark against himself for licking the sugar off of his gloved fingers.
My instincts told me to sweep the premises in search of any low-life that might want to jeopardize the lives of the innocent customers. Spying must be in my blood as my instincts did not fail me. I found a suspicious looking character stocking eggs. He looked like your everyday rough-and-tumble brute and not like someone you’d expect to be handling something as delicate as eggs. The more I looked at him, his cockeyed jaw, eyebrow piercings, excessive bling jewelry and massive buck teeth, I realized not only did D.D.G.T. not have a dress code, but that I’d seen this man somewhere before. I wasn’t going to risk a blown cover on my first day as an agent and needed a disguise. It was the panic I felt in this moment that led to my later suggestion to Director Ydnar that stick-on mustaches become standard issue.
He hadn’t noticed me yet, so I had some time. The laundry aisle was nearby so I took a chance and snuck behind him. Detergent, dryer sheets, organic detergent and dryer sheet alternatives. Had it not been for my sensitive skin, I probably could have made something out of it. Fortunately enough, I was able to find a feather duster at the end of the aisle that would make a perfect beard. I used the handle to hold it firmly under my chin as I looked for something to cover my eyes. They happen to be strikingly blue and impossible to forget, so if he’d ever seen me before they’d be a dead giveaway.
I knew the snack aisle was my best bet. I was torn between the jumbo pretzels and canned potato chips. The bright ‘20% more sodium’ label lured me in and I ripped open the bag of pretzels. The guy next to me seemed confused. If only he knew the importance of what I was doing. I almost felt bad about leaving him in the dark. All I could do was salute the poor fool and carry on.
I ate the center out of two of the jumbo-pretzels and put them on my face as glasses. They wouldn’t make my eyes any less strikingly blue but they would certainly aid my creation of an alternate identity. The only problem the pretzels presented was that they didn’t stick to my face. But if my life as a spy has taught me anything it’s the ability to make the best of a lousy situation. By leaning my head back and walking slow, I was able to balance them over my eyes as I walked back to the eggs as a whole different person. Gregory. I felt like a Gregory and a Gregory I was. I felt something change deep inside of me as that duster tickled my chin and the little salt granules from the pretzels fell into my eyes. I was actually surprised that my original identity ever returned at all.
There he was, standing right in front of me. I couldn’t see him as my head was tilted back, but I could hear his heavy breathing. “Hello, punk.” It was a bold move, but it needed to be said.
“What’s that honey?” Strange, I had never heard his voice before but I certainly never expected him to sound like my grandmother. “Ralphie?” It was uncanny. “Oh Ralphie honey, you could use a shave.” It was my grandmother.
I stood up and removed the pretzels from my eyes to see that the man had disappeared into thin air and had been replaced by my grandmother and her yappy little mutant dog she was always packing around in her purse. “Hello Granny.” I had skipped breakfast that morning and was feeling a bit famished, so I ate the pretzels.
“Fluffanut Prince and I-”(Fluffanut Prince was the mutant dog)“-were just buying some eggs to feed Pa’s potato-salad addiction. But what are you doing here? You told me you got a job.”
“I’m afraid I can’t go into details, I’m on assignment.” Just at that moment Fluffanut Prince leapt, snarling and drooling everywhere, out of the purse and straight towards my face. I always knew something was off about him and I never could put my finger on until that split second, when everything seemed to be moving in slow motion, then I knew. Fluffanut Prince was an enemy agent and possibly Granny too. My training kicked in and I dodged the little bug-eyed freak, just in time to watch him fly into a rack of beef jerky.
I struck a Judo pose and prepared for my first hand-to-paw combat experience on the field. Granny had frozen with fear and dropped the eggs on floor. I was trying to decide if her look of confusion was nothing more than a ruse. Little Fluffanut had been temporarily stunned but revived quickly. He scrambled to get his furry legs under him and started galloping like a five pound stallion towards my ankles.
My childhood baseball experience would prove useful once again this mission as I swung the feather duster, landing the hit on Fluffanut Prince’s bulbous little head. He went flying past Granny, nearly knocking off her wig and causing her to jump back. I let out a yodeling Apache war cry I learned from my kid neighbor, as he knocked over a display of canned soups.
I let down my guard thinking I’d finished him off, but as I would soon learn you should never let your guard down in this cruel world. He played dead until I was close enough for him to get a nibble of my shoelace. Not a bad move, but still not as clever as what I had up my sleeve. I slipped off my shoe with Fluffanut Prince still attached and hurled it over the aisles like a grenade about to go off. At this point I was sure Granny was an enemy agent, as she ran after him, scooped him up in her purse once again and hurried out of the store.
By the end I was convinced Fluffanut was an indestructible alien robot and not really a dog. He didn’t even looked remotely affected by what had just happened as he was dragged out of the building snarling. I reported back to H.Q. with a dozen doughnuts, a jug of whole milk, one shoe, and an invaluable, hands on spying experience under my belt.
The truth was hard to swallow but I learned that day that in the S.S.N. business, no one is to be trusted. Not even your own grandmother and her indestructible alien robot dog.