And so Monday came, and within the boundries of the store was found a smaller store. A department, far away from any of the myriad that seperated the main shop, long walled off and compartmentalised. This used to be Steam and Pressure, but now had a different purpose: Training.
Silence rolled over the sleeping store like a really, really quiet blanket. The slam of the door echoed and faded into the gloom of the emergency lighting, and Alice was alone on the shop floor.
Pools of yellow-white light fell in cones from the ceiling, illuminating the department like the points of a grid. Some kind of furnishings area, she supposed, all lush blue carpetting and expensive sofas around idealized coffee-tables topped not with the rings from badly placed mugs, but with books of colorful illustrations, bright and shining birds, and inexplicably painted cats. She wandered around for five minutes or so, not noticing the door reopen and the suit emerge from it.
“Miss?” it said.
“Yes? Are you here to let me back out?”
“Soon. My boss would like a word with you.”
“Soon’s not really good enough, Richard. Is this likely to be quick, or do I need to phone the police?”
“Five minutes with my boss, and then I’ll walk you out. Promise”
“Five minutes. Just a second.” Alice found her phone and tapped out a message.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m telling my sister to call the police if I’m not back in the square in ten minutes. No offence, Richard, and you’re probably a nice guy, but right now I’m locked in an unfamiliar place with a guy who’s reacting really strangely, and I’m not feeling at my most trusting.” Alice pressed Send, “So lay on, Macduff.”
They went back though the door Richard had escaped though, which appeared to lead though more white corridors with blue and white tiles on the floor. Alice activated the thing on her phone she’d downloaded to track a theoretical morning run, in the hope that she could use it to get back out again if necessary. Eventually they got to a lift, the decor abruptly changing from the stark white of the corridors to a deep and comforting red carpet, wood-panelled walls, and regular pictures of similar looking men and women. One final door led to an impressive room with a desk piled with paper. A door from that led to an even more impressive room, lined with bookshelves and filling cabinets, and a huge desk with nothing on it save a silver laptop, behind which a man on the far end of middle age sat in a large leather chair.
“Dominic Maliceson” introduced Richard.
“Charmed”, oozed Maliceson.
“Alice Chatterton” said Alice.
“Please sit down” asked Maliceson, “That will be all for now, Richard. Please wait outside”
Richard left the room quietly.
“Look,” said Alice, “If you don’t want me to tell anyone about your christmas department, I won’t. I know Christmas isn’t something you usually do, and if it’s that big a deal, I’ll keep quiet”
“That’s… not it”, said Maliceson, “There are reasons we don’t generally do Christmas, and they’re quite important. Actually, I was going to ask you if you wanted a job.”
“Well, you saw someone who you had no idea about lose something, and you went out of your way to help them. While doing so, you attempted to help keep the store orderly despite it being of no consequence to you whatsoever. That’s impressed me.”
“Okay, yes, I’m looking for work at the moment. I wasn’t actually considering retail as a career, though.”
“Give it a try, until after the holidays? Two month contract? You’ll be helping customers find things, nothing too taxing. Also, I’ll need you to report to me if you see any of the departments sneaking in Christmas displays.”
“How much does it pay?”
Dominic wrote down a number on a piece of paper and slid it across the desk.
“Per week.” he clarified. It was quite a large number. “Week in arrears, two weeks notice either side after a week’s trial period. I’ll give you a full contract when my secretary gets in.”
“Subject to that… all sounds fine, I think.”
“Great. Happy to start on Tuesday?”
“Tuesday will be fine”
“Good. Pleasure to have met you.”
“Nice to meet you too.”
They shook hands.
“Richard will show you out”, said Maliceson, “Leave your address with him and I’ll send the contract tomorrow morning.”
Richard showed her out.
The contract arrived tomorrow morning.
At 8am on Tuesday, she started the job, or at least the training.
It was two weeks before anything exploded.
Everything that exists, exists within Malicesons. It’s that kind of shop. It doesn’t specialise, and it isn’t high class. Some of the departments are gilt-edged marble wonderlands of beauty and grace, others show scraps of concrete where the passing decades have caused the glue below the floor tiles to degrade into nothing.
Malicesons exists on the edge of a square. When it was founded, the square was the village common, but now it’s a faux-rustic cobbled wasteland of artfully angled marble-facade concrete walls forming a complex labyrinth around a crumbing war memorial, black and grey as the sky above it, shimmering and glinting gently in the sheen granted by the halfhearted drizzle of the British home counties.
Alice was beginning to get very tied of sitting by the war memorial in the rain, and of having nothing to do. Once or twice she had peeked into the bank her sister was meeting in, but there was no sign. So she was considering in her own mind whether the warmth of drinking coffee would be worth the trouble of getting up and finding a coffee shop, when suddenly a man in an ill-fitting suit ran very close by her. There was nothing so very remarkable about that, and nor did Alice think it so very out of the ordinary to hear the man say to him self “Fucksocks, I’m going to be late a-fucking-gain”, but when actually he took a pocketwatch out of his ill-fitting waistcoat pocket, looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for his wallet had been pulled out with the pocketwatch and landed on her shoe. So, being a fairly diligent and friendly sort, she walked briskly after the running man. He paused at a small side-door to one side of the giant glass Malicesons enterence, scrabbled at his pocket for some keys, and waved his keyfob at a worn bit of wood by the door. The door opened, and he hurried though. Alice caught the door before it closed, and followed him, not really thinking of how she was going to get out again. The door clicked closed behind them.
The store wasn’t open yet, and wouldn’t be for an hour or more, and the corridor Alice found herself in was brightly lit, absolutely still, and silent save for the squeaking of the trainers of the hurrying suit, and the quiet echo of Alice’s boots on the tiles. The corridors went on and on for a while, passing a few wooden doors white save for a small label. “Jams” said one, “Maps & Pictures” said another. The man in the suit stopped at the end of the corridor, which was capped with a painting of autumn leaves, and turned left though a door, where Alice followed him a moment or two later.
The shop was dark and still as she exited the corridor, looking around to find the man in the suit and slightly regretting the decision to follow him in the first place. They appeared to be in a furnishing department, full of deep sofas and glass tables topped with fruit that would be tempting were it not entirely wax. She spotted him in the near distance, and picked up the pace to follow him. As she passed a shelf Alice noticed something and paused. A small plastic snowman lay forlornly on the path in front of her, obvious and crushable in the middle of the carpet. She picked it up and looked around for the shelf it had fallen off, but couldn’t see one. Alice wasn’t surprised – Maliceson’s not having any kind of Christmas department was almost proverbial – but then the query remained, where had it come from?
She walked towards the man in the ill-fitting suit, who in turn was heading towards a door. Not wanting to drag this out further, and wondering why she hadn’t thought of it earlier, she called out to him.
“Hello? Excuse me?”
The effect was somewhat electric. The suit appeared to jump a couple of feet in the air, presumably taking the occupant with in. He span around and landed like a watered cat, spikes and sharp edges as far as could be made. There were a lot of sharp edges, too. He – the badge on the suit pocket said “Richard”, which could also be the occupant – was medium height and would have been slightly shorter than Alice even without her heels and his weird semi-crouch defensive stance. Resisting the urge to laugh at him, Alice waited patiently until he gathered enough of himself together to say:
“Who are you? How did you get in?”
“My name is Alice, and you dropped this outside. I’ve been trying to catch you up to give it to you.” Alice handed him his wallet.
“Oh,” said presumably-Richard, “Thank you. Thank you very much. I should show you out, though. We’re not actually open, and you shouldn’t really be here.”
“Sure”, said Alice, “Oh, I picked up this, you should put it where it belongs, or in lost property or something.” she gave him the snowman.
If the effect of calling out to him shocked Richard, it was a slight tremor compared to how he reacted to the snowman. Turning white as a sheet, he actually seemed to cower from it for a second or so, before whipping a handkerchief from his pocket and grabbing it from her hand before she could react. At this point he bolted directly for the same door he was originally heading to, which slammed shut – locked, she discovered shortly afterwards – behind him, leaving Alice alone in the dark and empty store, as the echo of the door’s closing faded across the shop away from her.