Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Fiction #35: Albert Choi

100% ORIGINAL

I went into the job interview not knowing what to expect.

The owner of the store, Mr. Merchant, was a middle-aged man. He was starting to lose his hair, and what was left of it was greying. As we talked, he smiled a half-smile, his bright white teeth just peeking through his thin lips.

He asked me only two questions.

The first: "Do you have any experience in shopkeeping?"

"Yes," I answered. "I was a customer service associate at Pages. It’s a booksto—"

"Good."

The interruption startled me, but I kept my cool. Recently, I had been going through a long string of job interviews, so I had gotten pretty good at acting "professional."

I continued. "If you’d like, I can tell you a bit more about my past work. I also have several positive references from—"

"That won’t be necessary."

I was again surprised, but didn’t say anything.

The buzzing fluorescent lights above us cast a cold glow on the white walls of the shop. It was being renovated and hadn’t opened yet. There was dust on the white linoleum floor, and on the empty chrome-plated wire racks. Each rack had three or four levels of shelves.

Apart from the shelves, and the two chairs we were sitting in, the room was empty.

He asked his second question: "Can you keep a secret?"

I blinked. What kind of interview question was that? "Uh… yes…?"

He squinted and stared into my eyes. I fought to keep myself from blinking, to endure his scrutiny without showing weakness.

Long seconds passed before he said, "Good. I believe you. You’re hired."

The interview had lasted five minutes at most. I was a little weirded out. There was something strange about the guy. That smile… it was permanently stuck on his face.

I should have turned him down and walked out. But then, I thought of the rent payment coming up soon, and of my almost-empty bank account.

"When do I start?" I said.

* * *

I got a call from Mr. Merchant three weeks later, telling me to come to work.

"We’re opening soon," he said.

The store was near the intersection of two busy streets, in the famous shopping district of the city. A prime location. The neighbouring shops screamed of class, with their mood lighting and huge clean windows.
The new sign above Mr. Merchant’s entrance, in plain Helvetica font, displayed the name of the store: FAÇADE.

I walked in, expecting to see the store fully stocked and ready for business. To my surprise, it looked almost like a carbon copy of my memory from three weeks ago. There was a new cash register on the counter at the back, but everything else was the same: the walls were still white, and the floor was that same boring linoleum tile. The fluorescent lights gave the whole thing that sterile hospital feeling. And the metal racks? Empty.

I stood there, in the pathetic little store which seemed to have nothing to sell. Even when the inventory came in, it was all so dull, and would never attract the high-society types that shopped in this neighbourhood.
It was depressing, and it became even more so when I realized that this job would probably not last long. I would be diving into the classifieds again very soon.

Behind me, a bell dinged as the door opened, and a young woman walked in.

"Hello," she said, taking off her toque. A mess of dark, curly hair stuck to the hat, and she had to brush it back down with her hands.

"Hi," I said.

"You working for Mr. Merchant too?"

"Yeah." I told her my name.

"I’m Annie," she said. "What’s up with this place? There’s nothing here."

Before I could respond, Mr. Merchant appeared behind the cashier’s counter. I hadn’t seen him coming; he was just suddenly there. There was a back corridor, which led to a stockroom, so I figured he must have come from there.

"Welcome, you two," he said, smiling his half-smile. "Now, your first task…"

* * *


Across the road from Façade, there was a kitchenware store called The Chef’s Dream. Annie and I were there, pushing shopping carts.

"Buy one of everything," Mr. Merchant had instructed us.

I didn’t know why we were doing this, and was getting embarrassed at the looks that the other customers were giving us. But still, I felt more comfortable than I was at Façade. Warm incandescent lighting, lush carpeting, the scent of potpourri in the air: it was a posh shopping experience. Of course, all that elegance and extravagance showed up in the price tags as well.

The cashier, a grandmotherly lady, rang us up. Pots, pans, knives; bowls, plates, cups; glass, ceramic, steel. The train of merchandise kept rolling on the conveyer belt. The cashier gave us a suspicious glance, so I said, "Yeah, we’re opening a restaurant."

She seemed unconvinced, but didn’t ask any questions, because the customer is always right, especially when the customer is about to walk out with a four-figure purchase. Even when we pulled out the wads of cash that Mr. Merchant had given us for this mission, she wasn’t fazed.

We brought the stuff back to Façade. Mr. Merchant immediately sifted through the boxes and bags of kitchenware, and his half-smile grew into a full grin.

"Well done," he said. "You two go home now. Tomorrow, we open at 9 sharp!"

* * *

When I arrived the next morning, Annie was already there. Mr. Merchant was nowhere to be seen.

"G’morning," she said, but she was distracted. When I looked around, I saw why.

The metal shelves were filled. Pots, pans, knives; bowls, plates, cups; glass, ceramic, steel: everything that we had bought yesterday. But, there was… more of it.

On one of the racks, there was a salad bowl that I remembered getting from The Chef’s Dream. I had bought one, but here was a whole stack of them. I looked at the price tag; we were selling it for half of what it was going for across the street.

Where had this inventory come from? An overnight delivery?

I had no time to think about these questions, because the front door opened with a ding, and our first customers came in. It was a young couple. They held hands and strolled around, enthusiastically pointing at whatever caught their eye.

"These placemats will be great for the new place," the guy said, and the girl nodded in agreement. When he saw the price tag, he beamed greedily, but his girlfriend was a bit wary.

"Where was this made?" she asked me. "Is it good quality? We don’t want any of that knockoff stuff."

"Um…" I began, not sure what to tell them. "Yeah, it’s good…"

Mr. Merchant was suddenly behind the cashier’s counter, having pulled his appear-from-nowhere act again.
He announced to the customers: "It’s 100% authentic, 100% original."

The couple went to talk to him. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but Mr. Merchant must have impressed them with his sales pitch, because they were soon walking out with their new placemats, and some matching cutlery, too.

Annie said to me, "He just threw us into the job, didn’t he? No training or anything. I don’t even know what we’re supposed to be doing."

"Yeah," I replied. "Let’s talk to him later."

We didn’t get the chance. Customers kept coming, and Annie and I would greet them until they had real questions. Then, Mr. Merchant would appear, and we would watch idly as he gave his spiel. The customers left with bags full of purchases, and lighter wallets. Whenever it died down, Mr. Merchant would go to the back corridor and disappear. And when it picked up again, there he was. At one point, he was talking to seven or eight customers at once; they gathered around him like curious circus-goers around a sideshow barker. He played the part well, grinning the whole time.

"Those guys across the street, they’re trying to rip you off. My stuff is just as good, for half the price. I get it directly from the manufacturer. 100% original."

During one of our lulls, as Mr. Merchant was heading for the back room, I tried to follow him.

"Mr. Merchant, sir," I called out.

He stopped walking, but didn’t turn around.

"I was just wondering, what would you like us to do?" I asked. "Can you tell us a bit about the merchandise?
We could probably help you with the customers."

Still facing away from me, he replied, "No, no. I’ll have a special job for you… well, one of you. You’ll find out soon." As he walked into the dark corridor, he added, "And don’t come back here."

When it was time to go home, Annie and I discussed the incident.

"That was so weird," she said. "He’s really creepy."

"Yeah, no kidding," I said. "Whatever… I’m only working here because I need the money."

"Yeah, me too." She put her toque on, her dark curls peeking out from underneath. "You know what was really crazy? I think every single person who came in bought something. I’ve worked in a lot of stores before, and that never happens."

She turned off the lights, and as each fluorescent tube flickered off, I looked at the metal shelves. They had started the day loaded with goods, but now, they were almost bare.

* * *

The next morning, I arrived at work to find that all the racks were full again.

"Did you see this stuff come in?" I asked Annie.

"No, I just got here too."

"Oh. I thought maybe you saw a delivery truck or something." I looked for Mr. Merchant but, of course, he wasn’t there. "Wait here, I’m going to go check it out."

I headed towards the back corridor.

Annie tried to stop me. "Hold on… he said not to go back there."

"Don’t worry… what’s he gonna do?"

The hallway was dimly lit, and the door to the storeroom was shut and locked. A sign with big red letters read: KEEP OUT.

I looked at the gap under the door to see if there were any signs of light or movement. It was dark in there. I shivered; the hallway felt several degrees colder than the front of the shop.
When I knocked on the door, the sound was muffled, like I was underwater. I knocked harder, but the noise still came back hollow and weak.

"Mr. Merchant?" I called out.

From behind the door, I heard his voice, but it was so quiet that I could barely hear him. It sounded like he was shouting from a mile away.

"Go away!" he said. "I’ll be right out."

I obeyed, and went back to the front. I nodded weakly at Annie.

"I told you not to go back there," Mr. Merchant said when he appeared a few minutes later. His usual half-smile was replaced by a scowl. "You must follow my instructions."

"Sorry," I said. "I just wanted to ask… how did you restock everything? We were almost cleared out yesterday."

Mr. Merchant shook his bald head. "I’m afraid that’s not for you to know. Not anymore." He turned to Annie and said, "Please come with me."

To me, he said, "You’re on the cash register from now on."

She followed him to the back of the store, and looked at me with a shrug.

* * *

Several weeks passed. I wasn’t happy with being a mere cashier, and I even thought about quitting. That is, until I got the first paycheque. It was the biggest paycheque I’d ever seen. I swallowed my pride. Working the cash register would be just fine.

Every day, more and more customers would come in, and without fail, they would always buy something. Every day, fewer and fewer items were left on the shelf. And every morning, I would arrive to see the shelves fully stocked again.

On the day that I was assigned to the register, Mr. Merchant and Annie had gone to the storeroom together. She had come back with a stunned look on her face. When I asked her about what had happened, all she said was: "I can’t tell you."

After that, she had started working with the customers, just like Mr. Merchant, and she also spent time in the back. I bugged her for a while to tell me what was going on, but she stayed mum, so I came up with my own theory.

I suspected that Mr. Merchant had some kind of secret supplier, probably an illegitimate manufacturer of knockoffs. But I had seen knockoffs before, and they were usually poor imitations of the originals. The stuff we sold was high-quality, indistinguishable from the source. If we were selling fakes, they were the best fakes I could imagine. That was probably why Mr. Merchant broke out his "100% original" line so often in his sales pitches.

He was probably doing these hush-hush deals from the storeroom, and needed Annie to help with loading or unloading. She seemed determined to keep the secret, and I was pretty pleased with myself for figuring it out, so I didn’t bother her about it anymore.

Sometimes, Annie and I talked during the rare quiet breaks in the store, and we got to know each other. It turned out that we went to the same college and studied type design. Both of us had started with ambitions of striking it rich and creating the next big typeface like Verdana or Georgia. Both of us had come to the sad realization that there was no money in it, and so we got jobs in retail to pay the bills. Before long, our ambitions had faded.

With that shared, failed dream, we became friends, and I forgot about the secret that she was keeping from me.

I settled into the cashier job. It was boring, but those fat paycheques kept pouring in, and I had made a friend, so how could I complain?

* * *

Annie and I were having burgers at a mall food court one day when she said, "I have to show you something." She took out a key and held it in front of my face.

"Is that what I think it is?" I asked.

"Yes. You have to see the back room."

"How did you get that?"

She brushed her curly hair away from her face. "Merchant is usually very careful, but yesterday he left his key on the counter while he was talking to some customers. I took it and made a copy."

"Uh-huh."

"So anyway, he usually goes home at around midnight. Sometimes I stay until then to help him out, but he usually shoos me away not long after we close and you leave."

"Are you sure about this?" I asked. "I don’t want you to get in trouble."

"I won’t get in trouble if you don’t tell him."

"I won’t."

"Good. Meet me there tonight at 3 a.m." She lowered her voice to a whisper, even though there was no one else around. "If you have anything small and valuable, like a piece of jewellery… bring it."

* * *

I had a gold ring that my aunt left me when she died. I never wore it, and kept it hidden in a small safe in my apartment. It felt heavy in my pocket as I headed to Façade in the middle of the night.

Annie was waiting for me, and without saying anything, she unlocked the front door and let us in. We snuck into the back corridor, and faced the door that said KEEP OUT. I felt the same chill in the air that I did before.

She had the copied key in her hand, but then she fumbled it and dropped it. I winced as I anticipated the sound of metal hitting tile, but just like the time I had knocked on this door, the noise was muted. The key hit the ground with a tiny tink.

When we got the door open and went inside, the temperature seemed to drop a few more degrees. It was very dark.

"Turn on the light," I whispered.

"There are no lights in here," Annie replied. Her voice sounded far away. "Just let your eyes adjust."
I looked in the direction of her voice, and slowly began to see her silhouette. It was hazy, like there was smoke in the room. I blinked, but it didn’t help.

There was only one object in the centre of the room. I saw the outline of a cylindrical shape that was about waist-high. On top of the cylinder, there was a black sphere. I was seeing everything in shades of grey by then, and the sphere was the only thing that was completely black.

"What is this thing?" I said.

Annie ignored my question and said, "Did you bring anything?"

"Yeah," I said, and pulled out the gold ring. She took it and walked up to the sphere.

For the next few seconds, my senses shut down, like my eyes and ears stopped working. There was no sound, no light. I couldn’t even feel my feet touching the ground, and I stuck my arms out, trying to stop myself from falling.

And then, everything was back to normal again, or as normal as it could be in a very dark, very cold storeroom.

"Sorry, I should have warned you," I heard Annie say. "You’ll get used to it."

She stuck her hand right up in my face so I could see what was in it. There were two gold rings resting on her palm.

* * *

After that night, life was good. I almost enjoyed being a cashier. It didn’t hurt that I was making extra money from pawning gold rings. I regretted it at first because it felt like stealing, but who was I actually stealing from?

Annie and I used the device once every few days. We could only use it so much; one night, I tried to copy twenty or thirty rings, but by the end, they started coming out dull and warped. And of course, if we used it more often, we would risk getting caught.

Still, my bank account balance grew. At this rate, maybe I’d soon be able to quit and take a few months off. Or a year. Maybe I could work on some new typeface designs.

One morning, we arrived to see the store empty. Really empty… even the steel racks were gone. My first thought was that Mr. Merchant had found us out, and it was all over.

But then, Mr. Merchant appeared from the back. He announced, "Something new for you today. Next to The Chef’s Dream, there is a clothing store, called XY Fashion. Go there." He flashed his wolf-like teeth.

"Buy one of everything."

As I grabbed colourful polo shirts and khaki pants from the shelves at XY Fashion, I was sure what would happen next: Façade would soon be selling fine menswear.

I exited XY Fashion, carrying many bags. I glanced next door at The Chef’s Dream. A sad-looking man was hanging a sign on the window. In bright orange letters, it said: CLOSED - GOING OUT OF BUSINESS.

* * *

The next day, we started selling clothes, just as I expected. So we had driven The Chef’s Dream out of business, and now we had moved on to the next target.

If I was feeling a little guilty about making money from copied jewellery, I didn’t anymore. What I did was a victimless crime. Mr. Merchant, on the other hand, was using the device to get free inventory, and driving other legitimate shops out of business.

A couple of weeks later, I met Annie in the middle of the night for one of our missions. We just churned out copies as quickly as possible: rings, necklaces, bracelets, whatever. It had become such a routine that I didn’t even feel nervous about getting caught anymore. All I felt was the thrill of making money, literally out of thin air.

I heard the click of the lock being opened.

"Quick, hide!" I said.

"There’s nowhere to hide in here!" Annie said.

The door opened, and I saw Mr. Merchant’s outline against the light outside. His round bald head turned from side to side as he scanned the room.

"Who’s there?" he called out.

He saw us, and the bags of jewellery on the ground.

"What are you doing? Get out!"

He stomped towards me and grabbed my neck. Annie jumped on Mr. Merchant from behind, screaming. I felt something hit my head hard, and then I was on the floor.

I don’t remember what happened next, but I woke up at home with a headache. The sun was just coming up.

* * *

I must have fallen back asleep, because the next thing I remember was waking up to my ringing phone. It was Annie.

"Holy shit, are you okay?" she said as soon as I picked up. "I think I blacked out or something, and then I woke up at home…"

"Me, too! What the hell happened?"

"That guy must be stronger than he looks. Must have knocked us both out and… I don’t know, carried us home or something. Like I said, stronger than he looks." She paused. "Hang on, I have another call. Oh crap, it’s him."

There was a beep as she switched to the other line. I nervously listened to the hold music.
Another beep. Annie said, "He wants me to bring the key back. I still have it in my pocket. Can you come with me? I don’t want to be alone with that guy."

"Sure," I said.

"Oh, and we’re both fired."

"Yeah, I know."

* * *

Mr. Merchant was waiting for us on the front step outside Façade. He held out his hand to Annie. She gave him the key, and he put it in his pocket.

I remembered the job interview, so many months ago, and the second question that he had asked. Can you keep a secret? He didn’t have to say anything now; we knew that we couldn’t tell anyone about this. No one would believe it, and even if they did, there would be consequences. The threat in Mr. Merchant’s eyes and smile made that clear.

Annie and I stood there, waiting to be dismissed like schoolchildren before a strict headmaster. Cars and shoppers passed by on the busy street behind us, but we were barely aware of them; in that moment, it was just us and him.

Then, abruptly, his expression changed. The menace melted away. His eyes opened wide. For the first time, he looked like a regular person, like someone’s kind uncle.

I turned to look behind me. Where The Chef’s Dream used to be, a group of people were milling around. Must be the new owners, I thought. Workers were carrying boxes through the door.

Off to the side, a man, who seemed to be in charge, was talking to two people. The two had their backs to me.

I looked more closely at the man in charge. He was balding, with greying hair. He smiled a half-smile.
One of his two companions, a girl, turned around to face us. She had dark, curly hair.

Finally, the third person turned around, too.

It was like looking into a mirror.

*

Albert Choi lives in Toronto and works as a software developer.  He writes short stories in his spare time.  This is one of his first published works, along with a story that will appear in an upcoming issue of On Spec Magazine.

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