|Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons|
“It’s only for one year,” Darla Wilson told her reflection in the mirror. “One year isn’t going to kill you.”
As she applied the last swoops of mascara, she heard her dear departed husband’s voice in her head: “That which doesn’t kill you may make you stronger, but it’s still attempted murder.” Darla laughed, as she’d done so many times at Bernie’s wit. She threw the tube into her makeup kit and sighed. Oh, how she missed that man, now more than ever. If Bernie hadn’t died, she wouldn’t be prepping herself to become C.F. Pratt’s newest sales clerk.
Okay, she amended in her head as she went out to catch the 5:15 bus, it’s not Bernie’s fault she had to go back into retail after 40 years. That honor belonged to Irma Doltmeyer. Irma Doltmeyer who singlehandedly got the city of Alcott to shut down its only real library, thus ending Darla’s 40-year stint as its head librarian. Imagine, a town named Alcott without a library!
Darla fumed during the short ride into town, even though she managed to smile at those who greeted her. Everyone in town knew Darla and most commiserated with her situation, except Irma Doltmeyer’s sycophants, of course, which, as it turned out, ran the city council. She’d managed to convince them that people who actually read anything other than something on a computer could use the high school library, or drive to Newcastle to use their library. Or read their books online! Darla shuddered as she stepped off the bus two blocks from C.F. Pratt’s, which with the demise of the library, was the town’s oldest and most venerable institution.
People like Irma Doltmeyer didn’t understand places like the library or even Pratt’s for that matter. A library was akin to a religious sanctuary and its librarians like priests of learning, leading their flocks to knowledge. And Pratt’s, well Pratt’s employed honest-to-God sales clerks, not gum-snapping teenyboppers who didn’t know the difference between a chemise and a chemistry set. And the store had those and everything in between – three floors of well-made, top-of-the-line merchandise with not one thing stamped Made in China. Darla should know: she worked there right out of high school and well into her 20s.
As she stepped into the store’s distinct interior, Darla waited for her eyes to adjust and breathed in the sweet smell of well-polished wood, the clean scent of lovingly folded linens and the understated floral scent of the many vases of flowers that graced each sales station. The old, slightly slanted oak floors beneath her feet creaked and groaned, making her smile. They’d always creaked for as far back as she could remember. The place hadn’t changed a bit.
“Mrs. Wilson!” a voice called out from behind a glass display case, “welcome to C.F. Pratt’s! We’re so happy to have you back with us!” Up popped the unmistakable head of Ginnie Snowden, she of the snow-white hair and bright fuchsia lipstick. She, too, hadn’t changed a wink since Darla worked there last. She had to be at least 80 if she was a day.
“Mrs. Snowden,” Darla said, coming around the counter to embrace the woman, “still hard at it, I see.”
“Indeed, Mrs. Wilson,” the old woman said, chuckling. “They’ll have to carry me out of this place, I’m afraid. It’s too bad we no longer carry caskets on the third floor as we used to.” She looked wistfully upward, then clasped Darla’s hands into hers. “Oh, my dear, I am so very sorry about the library,” she said. “I know you loved it so. I shall miss your astute reading recommendations and the very place itself.” She lowered her voice. “Is it true that they’re going to tear it down to build another bank?”
“Thank you, Mrs. Snowden,” Darla said, holding back tears. “And I’m afraid the rumors about a bank are true.” She, too, lowered her voice. “The mayor’s brother-in-law,” she said, nodding.
“Say no more!” Mrs. Snowden cried. “I know the lay of the land.” She gestured around the still-empty store. “The only good to be said of it all is that you’re here, you’ve come back to us.”
Just then the ancient, metal-barred elevator clanked to a halt. The doors shuddered open and out came C.F. Pratt Jr., son of the store’s founder, and C.F. Pratt, III, who guided his father’s wheelchair over to the jewelry counter where the woman waited. The old man looked up at Darla with rheumy eyes and held up a palsied hand to her. She grasped it warmly.
“Welcome home, Mrs. Wilson,” Pratt the younger said. “Father wanted to greet you himself, though he seldom comes to the store any longer.”
Darla beamed. “I am flattered, Mr. Pratt,” she said to the old man. The skin of his hand was softer than a baby’s. She held out a hand to the son. His skin, too, though less loose, felt thin and velvety. Why, she was the youngest person in the store!
“Since Father’s stroke, he seldom speaks,” young Pratt said by way of apology for the old man’s silence. “I really must see him home now,” he added. “I will be back later today to check on your progress.” He nodded to her and to Mrs. Snowden and wheeled his father toward the door, where an attendant waited. The women stared fondly after them.
“To work then!” Mrs. Snowden said, slapping her hands together.
“To work!” Darla echoed.
As it turned out, Darla wasn’t the youngest person working in the store, but of the 12 clerks – four to a floor – she was certainly the most familiar with the store’s inventory, except for Mrs. Snowden. She was allowed to be a “floater” that day, working all the floors whenever someone needed extra help. And while it was true that the place was never thronged with customers as it had in the past, long before the big box stores out on the highway had taken over, every customer received personalized attention. Indeed, it was an unwritten rule that once a clerk assisted a customer, they continued to do so for as long as the shopper remained in the store. Still, even with a shortage of customers, there was never a shortage of things to do, from dusting to folding, to restocking and re-merchandising. It was like Darla had never left.
The morning flew by, but by lunch time, Darla was feeling every one of her 64 years. She treated herself to a cup of lobster bisque and crusty bread at the store’s rooftop restaurant, added by C.F. Pratt, III ten years before. She smiled as the warm liquid slid down her throat; it sure beat the ugly food courts and their fast food at the malls.
“Ah, there you are, Mrs. Wilson,” Pratt the younger said, weaving his way around tables toward her. He gestured to the chair next to her and she nodded. The waiter was there almost immediately with a porcelain teapot and six small cookies on a plate.
“Delightful, isn’t it?” Pratt said, looking around. He poured himself some tea, sipped at it and sighed.
“A wonderful addition,” Darla said.
“And so are you, I’m told,” Pratt said. “Your day has gone well?” While the sales clerks didn’t work on commission, Darla knew that each sale – the larger the better of course – counted toward a year-end bonus. The question wasn’t really a question.
“It’s rather like riding a bicycle,” Darla said, scooping up the last sweet drops of her soup. “The store is still much like it ever was. It’s funny, though, that it seems smaller to me. I suppose it’s a lot like going back to one’s old school; everything seemed bigger before.”
“Just so,” Pratt said, “though in terms of square footage, the store is somewhat smaller.”
“It is?” Darla couldn’t have been more surprised. Nothing seemed to be missing; it just seemed cozier.
“If you’re done with your lunch,” Pratt said, standing and brushing imaginary crumbs from his suit, “I’ll show you.”
“I’d like that,” Darla said, reaching for the bill.
“Please,” Pratt said, “today, lunch is on me.” He threw a bill on the table, though Darla assumed the man needn’t have paid a cent, and took her by the elbow.
They descended one floor in the creaky elevator and walked down a short hallway in the office section of the third floor. Pratt pulled a key from his vest pocket and inserted it into a narrow, unobtrusive door. They entered into a dim, extremely narrow hallway that stretched the length of the building.
“The insurance company insisted,” Pratt said, walking a few steps to the right. Darla followed, then stopped when he did. She was amazed to come upon a window, a window that overlooked the southwest corner of the kitchenware department. She could see Ms. Conner, one of the clerks she worked with that morning, helping a woman choose a mixer.
“One-way glass,” Pratt said.
“I had no idea,” Darla marveled. “I never even thought to look up.” Ms. Conner had been dismissed by the customer and was mopping her brow with her sleeve, frowning. Darla felt like a voyeur.
“Loss prevention they call it,” Pratt said. “Daddy … er, father … fought tooth and nail against it, but it was either this or pay an ungodly fee for insurance.” They moved farther down the hall, passing window after window.
“Who, uh, watches?” Darla asked.
“We have a man, a Mr. Dunn,” Pratt said. “You probably haven’t met him yet. He spends most of his time in the ʼcombs.”
Pratt laughed. “The catacombs,” he said, indicating the long hallway. “My father dubbed them and the name stuck.”
“Where is Mr. Dunn now?” Darla asked.
“One never knows!” Pratt said, leading the way back out the way they came. “He skulks about on each floor, stalking would-be shoplifters.”
Darla was curious. As they waited in front of the elevator door, she asked, “And all this skulking, it’s paid off?”
Pratt looked thoughtful. “In terms of insurance premiums, in spades,” he said. “And while our inventory losses indicate that a thief or thieves are active, we’ve only caught a few minors here and there whose parents have made good on the thefts.”
“Interesting,” Darla said. She almost dared not say it, but over the years she’d learned to come right out with things; it was better that way. “So, this Mr. Dunn, do you think he’s up to the task?”
Pratt cut her a look, but he didn’t appear angry. “He came highly recommended,” he said, “and has been with us for some years now.”
The elevator clanged to a halt and Pratt drew open the door. “Thank you for the pleasure of your company,” he said, holding her hand a tad longer than necessary.
“The pleasure was all mine, Mr. Pratt,” Darla said, her face growing red.
Pratt smiled wistfully. “There was a time, Darla, that you called me Charles. Remember?”
Flustered, Darla stammered, “Oh dear, yes, yes, I remember.” She quickly pressed the button for the first floor wishing, for once, that the place had one of those fast, modern elevators. She could hear Pratt chuckling even after the door closed and she was inching away from the third floor. Oh dear, Darla thought, fanning herself with her hand, I’d nearly forgotten about those early days. I surely thought that he’d forgotten!
A nice, sustained run of customers made the afternoon go quickly. It helped, too, that Darla had the opportunity to share duties in the china department with Mrs. O’Malley, a wonderfully droll Irish woman – a widow like herself – who’d only recently moved to Alcott. Darla found herself fascinated by the woman’s stories and though they worked, they really did, they also sought opportunities to chatter like school girls. Darla’s feet, back and knees ached, though, so by 4:30, she began counting the minutes to 5 o’clock. She looked forward to a nice cup of hot tea in her favorite easy chair, with her feet up.
She was fronting merchandise along the bottom shelves while Mrs. O’Malley ran a dust cloth over the displays above her. Fine particles sifted down upon Darla’s head.
“Lord love us,” Mrs. O’Malley said, freezing in place. “’tis the she-devil herself. Best keep low, ducks,” she said, inching away toward an end-cap.
“What? Who?” Darla found her knees unable to straighten from being in a crouch for so long, so she did what she did at home, plop right down on her behind and stretch her cramped legs out before her.
“We call her The Destroyer,” Mrs. O’Malley whispered. “Comes in a few minutes afore closing and tears through the store willy-nilly and keeps whoever’s unlucky enough to have her long past time to fire up the kettle at home, if you get my meaning.”
Darla was beginning to get feeling back in her legs. Mrs. O’Malley had disappeared, but perhaps if Darla kept low, The Destroyer wouldn’t see her. She knew the type. There was always one. They’d demand attention and service, tear through the store unfolding this and unarranging that, then find absolutely nothing that suited them. Mrs. O’Malley was right, the unlucky clerk who assisted them would be left to clean up after them and would be kept there long after the store officially closed.
Finally, Darla managed to get to her feet; the store manager had already begun dimming the store lights and had announced its imminent closing. Maybe she’d lucked out.
“You there!” a woman’s voice came from behind her. “What does a person have to do to get service in this place?”
Darla turned slowly, hoping it wasn’t her that the woman had singled out. Unfortunately, it was. And unfortunately, Darla now realized, the voice belonged to Irma Doltmeyer, The Destroyer.
If the woman recognized Darla, she didn’t let on. More likely, Darla was just another clerk to the woman.
“Finally!” she cried. “Aren’t people interested in making sales anymore? I need help, now, with a vase.” She pronounced it vahz and stood there, hands on hips, tapping one well-shod foot.
Darla couldn’t help it, she glanced at her watch; it was five minutes to five. She put on her best customer service face and followed Irma, who was rapidly tap-tap-tapping down the main aisle. She came to a halt in front of a glass display case upon which stood a red vase filled with flowers.
“This one,” Irma said, nodding.
“I’m afraid that’s not for sale,” Darla said. “It’s the store’s and quite old. I’m sure we have others a lot like it ...”
“Not for sale?” Irma’s well-plucked eyebrows shot up. “Everything’s for sale. How much is it?”
Holding her annoyance in check with some difficulty, Darla made a quick assessment of the situation.
“Five-thousand dollars,” she said. She could be in deep trouble if the woman actually bought the thing, she figured, or the day’s hero.
Irma’s eyebrows shot up again. Darla kept her face impassive, though she wanted to laugh out loud.
“It doesn’t go with the foyer anyway,” Irma said, waving her hand dismissively. “Too red. Let me see your others.” Once more, she put her hands on her hips and tapped her foot, her handbag swaying with the movement.
It was after five. Over Irma’s shoulder Darla saw Mrs. O’Malley gesturing to her watch, rolling her eyes, then shrugging. She had her coat on. It was hard, but Darla kept on her game face.
“Right over here,” she said, walking toward a colorful display. “All sizes, colors … glass, ceramic, clay ...”
“Let me see that one.” Irma pointed to the top shelf at a large, translucent glass vase.
Darla sighed inaudibly. “I’ll need a step-stool,” she said.
“Then I suggest you get one,” Irma said nastily.
Darla turned on her heel and went in search of a stool. She didn’t feel good about it, but once out of the woman’s sight, she made quite a number of rude gestures and eye rolls. She couldn’t help herself. When she came back with the stool, Irma was gone.
“I couldn’t be so lucky,” Darla muttered. She figured Irma had just wandered off, but there’d be holy hell to pay if Darla hadn’t retrieved the vase when she got back. She slowly climbed up and carefully lifted the vase off the shelf.
“Finally!” Irma barked from behind, startling Darla.
It was a matter of either saving the vase or saving herself and Darla chose the latter. She kept her footing by grabbing onto the shelving, but the delicate vase crashed to the floor.
“Now look what you’ve done!” Irma cried, backing away from the shards of glass. “I wanted that vase!” She actually stamped her foot, glass crunching beneath it.
There wasn’t a violent bone in her body, but right then Darla wanted to smack the woman. She looked with dismay at the mess she’d have to clean up. She could feel her face growing hot and her blood actually felt like it was boiling. She opened her mouth …
“Oh, never mind!” Irma said. “You’ve made me late!”
With that, she crunched right through the mess on the floor and headed to the entrance, much to Darla’s relief. Darla wasn’t sure, exactly, what she had been going to say, but she was pretty sure it would have gotten her fired. She sighed heavily and went to get a broom.
Too exhausted to even brew a pot of tea when she got home long after 7 o’clock, Darla went right to bed. She was too angry to sleep, though, so after a night of tossing and turning she made her way groggily back to Pratt’s the next morning. She kept reminding herself that it was only for a year. Then the house would be paid off and her Social Security would kick in … she just had to get through the year, Irma Doltmeyer notwithstanding. She hobbled from the bus stop, but at the store entrance, straightened her spine and put on her Helpful Clerk Smile. It was a good thing, too, because C.F. Pratt III was waiting just inside the door for her.
“Could I see you upstairs please?” he said without preamble.
“Of course!” Darla said, flustered to no end. She followed him to the elevator, wondering if she were about to get fired. Did that horrible woman lose another job for her? Did she call Pratt last night after leaving the store? Darla tried not to slouch during the long, quiet ride, but it felt like gravity was trying to pull her through the floor. They got out on the third floor, but rather than going to Pratt’s office, he unlocked a door she’d never noticed before and gestured her inside.
They climbed several steps and came into a small, cramped room with one wall made up of smoky glass that overlooked the entire third floor. Several monitors sat on the large desk.
“Please, sit,” Pratt said, indicating the only chair. She sat and looked up at him expectantly.
“I’d like you to see something,” he said, fiddling with one of the monitors. “Last night, I sent Mr. Dunn home early and took up his spot. This, by the way, is his domain.”
Darla had figured as much. She eyed the monitor, palms sweating, as she realized that she was looking at Mrs. O’Malley and herself from the night before. Her stomach leaped when she saw herself awkwardly plop down on her bottom right in the aisle. She dared not look at Pratt’s face.
Pretty soon, Mrs. O’Malley was inching away from her as Darla rose to her feet and Irma, The Destroyer, appeared in the frame. There was no sound and the footage was grainy, but Darla remembered every part of the encounter. Her stomach leapt again as she recalled going to find a step-stool. And here it was, the part that would send her packing. Darla held her breath and shut her eyes briefly, opening them just in time to see herself gesturing wildly, middle fingers aloft, a veritable murmur of birds flying from her hands. She sat perfectly still, waiting for the ax to fall. Pratt made a sound in his throat. Was he laughing?
Then she was back in the aisle, climbing the step-stool, alone … reaching for the vase … Irma appearing in the frame behind her … Darla gripping the shelf … the vase crashing down.
“I will, of course, pay for the vase” she said, finding her voice and finally looking up at Pratt.
Pratt ignored her as he fiddled with another monitor. “This is the part I want you to see,” he said. “It’s a different camera.”
Darla turned back to the screen. The camera was pointed down the leather goods aisle, one aisle over from the vases. Suddenly, there was Irma, stalking into the picture.
“Is she doing what I think she’s doing?” Darla gasped. Sure enough, Irma was snatching up wallets, gloves, anything small she could get her hands on and sweeping them into her handbag. It only took a matter of seconds, and then she was out of the frame.
“That’s where she disappeared to when I went to the stool?” Darla looked up at Pratt, eyes wide.
He sighed. “Yes, I’m afraid so,” he said. “And it’s not the first time she’s pulled this little trick. It is, as they say, her M.O.”
“I’m … I don’t know what I am,” Darla stammered.
“Amazed, perhaps?” Pratt said. “As am I. I wanted you to see this because – well, partly because of your history with the lady in question – and, partly because it was your comment about Mr. Dunn that woke me up to his role in this.”
Pratt nodded. “Mr. Dunn, as it turns out,” he said, “is Mrs. Doltmeyer’s nephew. Certainly no crime there, but almost every digital record we have features our Mrs. Doltmeyer stealing everything but the display cases. Enough evidence to have her arrested, I assure you.”
Darla’s hand flew to her mouth. “Oh my,” she said, trying not to find satisfaction in picturing Irma Doltmeyer in handcuffs, and failing. “But why would he have kept evidence against his own aunt?”
“Heaven knows. Blackmail? Arrogant complacency? Whatever the reason, it’s in the sheriff’s hands now and I assure you, C.F. Pratt’s is pressing charges and seeking restitution. Until Mr. Dunn and his aunt are taken into custody, however, I would caution you about discussing this with anyone in the store.”
“My lips are sealed,” Darla assured him.
Pratt threw back his head and laughed, much to Darla’s surprise and confusion.
“Your lips might be sealed,” he said, still laughing, “but I’ve seen those hands of yours speaking volumes!”
Darla blushed down to her toes, but inside, she was flipping Irma Doltmeyer the bird.