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Southern Ohio doesn't just get plagues of locusts every seventeen years. We get plagues of ladybugs. Not the kindly ladybugs of folklore, or the ones that eat aphids, either. Ours are imported Asian ladybugs that bite, stink when you squish them, and like to fly into whatever you're drinking, right before you raise your glass to your lips.
The only consolation I have is that they flick quite nicely and tend to bounce off the walls if they don't realize what's happening and fly away first.
Not that I'm writing a dissertation on ladybugs, but I had just scored a goal with ladybug #17 when the director opened my office door with a sealed envelope in one hand.
"Karen?" She stared at the notepaper goal I'd taped to the wall opposite my desk and raised an eyebrow. "They are annoying little irritants, aren't they?"
I straightened in my chair. "They're everywhere! In the books, in my tea, on the windows--" I had brushed them out of my hair that morning, and shaken them out of my clothes.
"Well, hopefully we'll be rid of some of them soon," the director said, handing me the envelope. "The board has accepted a bid from one of the local exterminators to treat all the library branches. I want you to make the arrangements and work it out with the staff. It should probably be done when the library is closed, so you might have to work overtime."
That sounded easy enough, and I certainly didn't mind the extra money. I tore open the envelope and glanced at the name that appeared on the letterhead of the bid. "The Gentle Touch"? It sounded more like a massage parlor than an exterminator. "'A natural, safe solution to pest control'?"
"They're new in thearea, I gather," the director said. "If you have any problems, let me know." She vanished from my doorway before I could reply.
I took a closer look at their bid. From what I remembered of the other bids, The Gentle Touch was cheapest, which practically assured them the job since the library board did not like to spend money on anything not having to do with libraries. Pest control did not count.
Unlike the other bids, however, The Gentle Touch had a few caveats. They required a minimum of six hours--starting at midnight--alone in each building, with all staff gone from the premises. No one was to set foot inside the building for six more hours after that. All food and drink had to be removed from the building before treatment, which didn't bode well for their claim of a 'natural, safe solution to pest control'.
I picked up my phone and dialed the number on the letterhead.
"The Gentle Touch. How may I help you?" The voice on the other end had a distinct Southern origin, breathy and feminine.
I identified myself and explained that the library had accepted their bid for pest removal. "I have a few questions, though, before we schedule a date and time."
"So do we." I heard a tapping sound on the line. "Do you have a personal fax machine, ma'am?"
"I have an electronic fax number that goes right to my computer," I said, a bit put off by her tone. "Do you--"
I had intended to say 'need the number', but my computer informed me that I had new mail before I could finish my sentence. I double clicked on the new message and silently started to read the instructions for completing the attached form.
"If you fill out the form and email it back, we'll contact you with an appointment date and time," the lady said. "I'm Darla Manning. If you have any other questions, just call back and ask for me."
"How did you get my number?" I asked. "It's supposed to be private."
Darla's laugh was more of a giggle. "We have our ways. Thank you for choosing The Gentle Touch!"
Before I could inquire about prior customers of The Gentle Touch or question their caveats, Darla hung up.
I stared at the phone for a moment, then pressed redial.
"The Gentle Touch, how may I help you?"
It sounded like Darla's voice, right down to the twang. "Is this Darla Manning?"
"No, I'm sorry, ma'am. How may I help you?"
"Can I speak to Darla Manning?"
"No, I'm sorry, ma'am. Darla is unavailable at the moment. May I help you?"
Again, I explained who I was and why I was calling. "I have a couple of questions before I fill out your form. I had intended to ask Darla, but we got disconnected." The least I could do was give her the benefit of my doubt.
More tapping. "I'm sorry, ma'am, but Darla is your Personal Account Representative. She will have to answer all of your questions. Please fill out our informational form and I'll transfer you to her voicemail." A click. A beep. Another click.
"Wait!" Too late. I listened to the dial tone with growing frustration as a ladybug crawled across my computer screen. Normally, I gave customer service representatives a break, because I knew how horrible it was to be on the receiving end of an irate customer's phone call. I tried to be extra nice, and complimented those businesses whose employees treated me courteously.
But the advent of complicated computer-generated menus and automated systems succeeded only in driving my blood pressure to the boiling point. When I called a company, I wanted to speak to a person who would answer all my questions, not hang up on me twice.
I crumpled the bid in my hand and contemplated calling them back. Would it really help to fill out their form? I double-clicked on the attachment, waited until my virus scan declared it to be clean, and watched as a page of questions appeared on my screen.
Thank you for choosing The Gentle Touch as your pest removal source. Please complete the following questionnaire and return it to your personal Account Representative as soon as possible to expedite your claim.
1. Please describe, in detail, the nature of your infestation problem.
Well, that was easy. I typed in 'ladybugs' and the screen refreshed.
2. Have you or anyone else had an allergic reaction to the pest in question? (Common symptoms include: loss of appetite, loss of blood, lethargy, sun sensitivity)
Were people actually allergic to ladybugs? I flicked one off my keyboard as I typed in 'no' and watched the screen refresh again.
3. How many people are employed by your organization?
I had to think about that one. The library system had three branches, plus the main branch in Amington. Counting the part-time staff (who should be counted, after all, but often weren't) the library system had fifty-two employees.
4. Do any of these employees have unusual habits and/or hobbies?
What did that have to do with pest control? And how was I supposed to know? I guess it was entirely possible that Penny was a drag racing champion on the side, but I had my doubts. I typed in 'not that I know of'.
5. Are you certain?
I couldn't lie. I typed in 'no' again.
6. Would you say it is possible that one or more of your employees have very unique dietary restrictions?
This questionnaire was beginning to make The Gentle Touch sound less and less like a pest control company. The line of questions seemed innocent enough, but what were they aiming at? Did they think one of the employees was responsible for the ladybug infestation? But again, being totally honest, I typed in 'yes', because Ivy had very special dietary restrictions. Vampires usually did.
7. Do any of your employees have unusual allergic reactions to various every day items? (Common examples include: metal allergies, sunlight, certain woods, and certain herbs)
Metal allergies? Sunlight? I thought of Ivy again. What kind of pest control company was The Gentle Touch? I picked up the phone and hit redial.
"The Gentle Touch, how may I help you?"
Another Darla clone.
"I need to speak with Darla Manning, please." Question #8 read: Have any of your employees ever disappeared under mysterious circumstances?
"I'm sorry, ma'am. Darla is away from her desk. Please hold and I'll transfer you to her--"
This time, I managed to interrupt her before she transferred me. "I'll hold. I've already been disconnected twice." Question #9 read: Do any of your employees take sick days or personal time during every full moon?
"I'm sorry, ma'am, but company policy forbids--"
I straightened up in my chair. "I'll hold. Darla is supposed to be my personal Account Representative, and if I don't get some answers soon, I'll take the library's business elsewhere!"
Question #10: Would you consider yourself a religious person?
The Darla clone sighed. "Please hold. Your personal Account Representative will be with you shortly."
Another beep, but canned music blared out of the receiver instead of a dial tone this time. A dubious improvement.
I spent my time on hold browsing the rest of the questions. They ranged in focus from 'When was the last time you visited a graveyard?' to 'Have you ever had any experiences you could not explain?'
None of the questions had anything to do with pest control. At least not the kind of pests exterminators were usually concerned about.
"The Gentle Touch, this is Darla speaking. How may I help you?"
To my ear, it sounded like the same voice as before, but what did I know?
"Darla, this is Karen Montgomery from the library." I waited for her to say something, but I heard only that infernal tapping on the other end. "I'm in the middle of filling out your questionnaire, and I have a few questions."
More taps. "Yes, I see. Although question number seven should be self-explanatory. There are examples--"
Before she could start in on the examples or hang up on me again, I asked, "What do these questions have to do with getting rid of the ladybugs that are plaguing the library?" A second later, I realized that she somehow knew which question I had stopped at. "And how do you know I was on question seven?"