“MIMIC!” Steve shouted.
Zap and To’mas abandoned the inventory count they had been jointly failing to do and bolted in the direction of the cereal aisle, from where they had heard Steve’s voice and where they now heard the sounds of a scuffle.
When they turned the corner, they saw a middle-aged female human customer looking on in horror as Steve used one arm to wrestle with a cereal box that was latched firmly onto her other arm. It was a box of Frutee-Oze, though rather than having a cute cartoon pixie on the front it instead had a gaping maw of sharp teeth, many of which were buried in Steve’s right forearm. The cereal box was snarling and wriggling, resisting Steve’s efforts to remove it.
To’mas’s pistol was in his hand in a moment, and he dropped to a kneeling position, sighting the cereal box. “Hold it up!” he shouted.
Steve winced, but took her hand away and put her arm into the air, making an easier target out of the box. To’mas fired. The bottom half of the cereal box exploded, splattering blood, viscera, and teeth across the aisle. The dying top half of the box twitched angrily, and Steve gripped it and tore its teeth out of her arm. She dropped the cereal-mimic on the ground and stomped on it hard, muttering curse words under her breath.
To’mas holstered his pistol with a flourish, looking extremely smug. Zap rushed forward.
“We need to get your wound cleaned up,” Zap said, his voice a little strained as he ran to Steve, “so I can cure it.”
“I’m going, I’m going,” Steve said, trying to sound annoyed, but her voice was shaky. She held her bloody and wounded arm a short distance away from her as she and Zap moved toward the back of the store. To’mas strode over to the woman with a confident smile.
“We apologize for the inconvenience, ma’am,” he said to her, leading her away from the gory mess on the floor. “I’m going to have to go clean up the aisle, but my supervisor is on his way to help you.”
Alan jogged up and resumed the spiel where To’mas had left off. “Please allow us to recommend you file an incident comment on our franchise ethersite. Your input helps us to keep Securemarket™ the safest grocery experience in New Washington. In the meantime, my associate Matt will be happy to help you continue your shopping experience as soon as I can locate him. And we can fetch cereal for you, if you still want it.”
The woman meekly asked, “Do … you have any more Frutee-Oze?”
“We don’t actually carry Frutee-Oze, ma’am,” Alan said.
The human woman looked perturbed. “But I saw a box of them.”
Alan blinked, and said slowly, “That … may have been a mimic, ma’am.”
“I thought I saw one,” the woman said.
“Ma’am,” Alan explained patiently, “Angola Foods discontinued Frutee-Oze because ColorWheels were outselling them two to one. No Securemarket™ carries Frutee-Oze any more.”
The woman scowled. “Well!” she huffed. “You can expect a complaint about this!”
“Certainly, ma’am,” Alan said coolly. “You can do that when you send in your incident comment. Is there anything else I can help you find?”
“Are you sure you don’t have any Frutee-Oze?”
Alan stared at the woman.
“Like … in the back?” she wheedled.
“Matt!” Alan shouted at the figure who had just appeared at the end of the aisles. “Come help this customer!”
“Hey!” the woman snapped.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Alan said, directing a big smile at the customer. “As shift supervisor, I must go see to my wounded employee. Matt is an excellent sales associate and should be able to answer all the questions you ask him and probably several you don’t. Don’t forget to fill out that report!”
Alan turned and walked away, pausing for only a moment to set the cereal aisle’s isolation shields using his workshell.
There were several moments of awkward silence between Matt and the customer.
“Help you?” asked Matt.
The woman adopted a wily look. “Do you carry Frutee-Oze?” she asked.
“You will die in a fire,” Matt replied.
In the small store infirmary, Zap gingerly cleaned Steve’s bite wounds with antiseptic gel and sterile pads.
“You’re being pretty thorough,” Steve said through clenched teeth, eyes watering from the pain.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever seen what happens to a mimic wound that doesn’t get cleaned,” Zap responded, “but let’s just say that you’re lucky if you get to keep the limb.”
“Great, thanks,” Steve muttered. “That really makes me feel great.”
“That’s why I’m cleaning it, you little ingrate,” Zap shot back, leaning forward a little bit. “I want the wound to be clean before I cast a spell that’ll close it up.”
“Don’t you—” Steve began, looking up, and cut her phrase short as she found her eyes locked with Zap’s, their faces no more than a centimeter away from each other. (Later, she would joke at herself that it was just like in the movies.) Steve could feel Zap’s breath on her lips. After what seemed like a long pause, Zap averted his eyes, turned his head down, and resumed daubing at the wound.
Steve cleared her throat, her face feeling hot. “Y’think there are any more? Mimics, I mean?”
“Knowing Alan,” Zap said, “he’s already on the phone yelling at Paru to hire an exterminator. He’s way too paranoid about safety to ignore the possibility of an egg clutch in the store.”
“An egg clutch,” Steve said. “That’s a fun thought.”
“They’re a bitch to ferret out,” Zap said, placing a few oiled leaves over the bite wounds. “It’s amazing that something with teeth that big can come from an egg the size of a battery. Hold still.”
He pressed the tip of his wand against the edge of Steve’s bite wounds and murmured a few words under his breath. The leaves began to wither and the bite marks pulled together, the flesh holding itself in place and mending.
Steve looked impressed. “Not bad,” she said.
“Thanks,” Zap responded with a smirk.
Alan walked through the door. “Hey,” he said. “How’re you doing?”
Steve pointed at the red lines where the nasty gashes had just been. “All better.”
“Not all better,” Zap objected. “They’re clean and closed, but they’re still there. You probably shouldn’t do any shooting or heavy lifting for a few days with that hand.”
Alan nodded. “We can work with that,” he said. “I just got off the phone with Paru. I’m concerned there might be an egg clutch in or near the store.”
Steve and Zap exchanged a knowing glance.
“Anyway, she’s going to come in with a Mimic Specialist tomorrow,” Alan said sternly, and pointed at the two employees. “So I want you two to keep the smartassery to a minimum, yeah?”
“Why Alan,” Zap said with mock innocence.
“Whatever could you mean?” Steve finished.
Alan shook his head. “Never mind,” he said. “Maybe if she sees what I have to deal with daily she’ll be more forgiving.”
Steve laughed. “I don’t think we’re talking about the same store manager, then.”
“Yeah,” Alan conceded. “Wishful thinking. Go ahead and take a smoke break, you two. I’ll see you back in the store once I finish scolding Matt for whatever it is he just said to the customer I gave him.”