Helen should have seen it coming.
There had been rumours for weeks - ever since the completion of the make up department’s stylish refit. The whole department had been done up in white, aluminium, and glass. Cabinets gleamed. The white marble floor sparkled. The floor around each of the various counters shimmered - brushed aluminium pathways circled each counter, stylishly separating one section from another. It had become like working in a kind of makeup-selling Nirvana. There was something that was really getting people’s goat, though….
Ever since the refit, the staff room was down to about half it’s former size - hardly enough for almost two dozen busy women! The down-sizing had been blamed on an as yet off limits adjacent ‘executive lounge’. When it was going to be accessible - and to whom - was the contentious issue. And those rumours just got stronger.
Suspicions were raised when Mr Ligbus called a staff meeting late one Friday. There were hand outs and everything. So, the rumours were true. A uniform was to be introduced - well, to be exact, a new dress code - but a new dress code so strict it may as well have been a uniform. It was all part of management’s new strategy of “brand cohesion”.
White was the colour of choice, apparently. And flourishes of silver. You might just be able to get away with light grey. But Mr Ligbus made it very clear that gold jewellery was out. It was very important. For the cohesion. Consultants and so on. Clean, crisp lines. A blank canvas through which true beauty could shine. He seemed very adamant about it. Passionate almost. His ever-present entourage seemed more stoic.
Helen thought Darcy (who worked at the perfumes counter) had summed up the general feeling of everyone else present with a quiet cough that sounded suspiciously like a carefully masked expletive. While his minions’ eyes probed the gathering for the culprit, a dutifully smiling Mr Ligbus continued unabated. Beginning Monday week, the new regime would be introduced, heralding in a new era of unprecedented customer satisfaction. An awkward silence followed in which a round of applause failed to happen. After a few moments a meagre spattering was supplied by Mr Ligbus’ background associates. He seemed satisfied with that and nodded stiffly.
“Excellent. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to…”
His hand flailed a vague gesture as he trailed off.
“..and so on.” he concluded. Another sharp smile and he whirled out of the room, his wife, accountant and personal assistant pulled along in his wake.
The hour that remained of the day was actually less subdued than usual - Helen guessed that hers wasn’t the only counter where hushed, animated discussions were taking place about the state of the workplace. Discussions took on a still more dubious tone however, when Rachel, who shared Helen’s counter, was called into Mr Ligbus’ office a few minutes before closing.
By the time the rest of the women were locking the cases and setting the alarms, Rachel emerged from the office on the verge of tears. As she collected her bag and jacket she seemed unwilling to discuss anything with anyone, but on her way out she managed to squeak “I’ve been fired” in a cracked voice. There were gasps of outrage and claims from some that they should give Ligbus a piece of their mind. Bravado gave way to sympathy however and a small group joined Rachel for some goodbye drinks at a nearby bar.
Between double-vodka-and-oranges, Rachel explained that her well-renowned tardiness was the explanation given to her by Mr Ligbus. True, she’d had a number of warnings about her lateness. And true Mr Ligbus had claimed that the most recent was her last. And, in fact, it had to be said that the tills rarely balanced if she’d been anywhere near them in the course of a day. But…….fired? It just wasn’t fair.
The following Monday a realisation fell into place for Helen. Without being nasty, Rachel had never been the greatest of lookers. She wasn’t ugly. Not particularly. Just not…….attractive. But when everyone was introduced to Rachel’s replacement on Monday morning, suspicions were further raised about the motivation behind Rachel’s dismissal.
The new woman was stunning.
When everyone had gathered at Helen’s counter, Mr Ligbus clapped once, more loudly than necessary.
“Good morning, ladies. I’d like to introduce you to Lina Hayley. Lina will be joining Helen here at the foundations desk. I’d like you all to make her welcome.”
As Mr Ligbus got each of the staff to introduce themselves, Helen gave her new co-worker a brief look-over. Slick honey-blonde hair was pulled back from her face and held up by silver pins in a stylish, decorative arrangement. She had cheekbones so high her sharp blue eyes seemed to have to peer out over them. A fine narrow nose, full lips and a pointed, angular chin. She was tall, too. And somehow both slender and curved. The new recruit had definitely been given the low-down on the new dress code - her white satin one-piece dress reached half way to the knee and had a halter-neck top, that appeared (from where Helen stood) to be mostly back-less. The shimmering fabric hung loosely from the woman’s statuesque frame, but could not disguise her obvious curves. It definitely wasn’t an outfit you wanted to wear in a strong breeze - things were likely to get blown all askew. Jewellery was understated - a dull silvery bracelet at one wrist and a narrow brushed aluminium choker clasped around the neck. Likewise the shoes looked uncannily like they were cast from aluminium - pristine heels contributing two, maybe three inches to the woman’s stature. Helen was having trouble picking the woman’s age. She had flawless, young looking skin, but seemed to have an air of confidence that suggested her apparent youth was the result of clever age-disguising tricks. If the woman turned out to be in her thirties Helen wouldn’t be overly surprised - but the elegant blonde would really have to know makeup. She looked fantastic - whatever her age.
“And finally this is……” Mr Ligbus prompted. Helen suddenly realised he was pointing at her. She stepped forward and reached out her hand.
“Uh…Helen. Hi Lina. Nice to meet you.”
Helen wouldn’t have said that the woman smiled, exactly. It was more a slow acknowledging nod. Lina’s grasp was surprisingly firm.
“Hallo Helen. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Helen was a little surprised to hear a rather well-to-do English accent. The voice was smooth, serene and mature. The woman definitely wasn’t as young as she made out. Maybe she had a very good plastic surgeon - up this close, her skin still appeared flawless. Helen couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but there was something a little icy about her too. Maybe it was the eyes. They were pale blue, ringed by a darker circle - Helen guessed they were contacts. Or maybe it was just her immaculate, pristine get up. Helen smiled as they shook hands. There seemed to be the hint of a smile to Lina’s face - or was it just that unfailing confidence? The stunning blonde woman looked back to Mr Ligbus who tapped his fingers together and grinned as if relieved slightly.
“Right. Great. Well, back to work everyone. Lina, let me know if you have any problems.”
“Yes, Mr Ligbus.” the woman answered smoothly.
As the man went to stride off, Helen made a somewhat strangled call.
That indomitable smile turned back to face her.
“Yeah, uh…..Helen, was it?”
“Yes. Ah……Do you want me to show Lina the ropes at all?”
The faintest glimmer of a frown flashed briefly across the man’s face, then realisation.
“Oh! Yeah! Yes of course. Yes. You go right ahead. By all means. Good idea. Mmm.”
He nodded one more time, looked at Lina, hesitated, then turned and finally strode away.
Helen watched him go as Lina stepped around behind the counter. Helen rolled her eyes.
“Don’t worry about him. He’s always like that. You’ll get used to it.”
Lina just looked back at her. Her expression was still impossible to read. Helen wasn’t sure if she’d just got herself into trouble.
“Well, I guess the first thing is to familiarise yourself with the catalogue.” Helen suggested after a moment. She retrieved it from a low cupboard under the counter and opened the bulky black folder on the counter top.
“All the product brochures are in alphabetical order by manufacturer.” she explained, flipping casually through a few pages, “I wouldn’t worry about getting to know all the products straight away. A lot of these prices are out of date, actually, but it’s a start.”
She pushed the folder toward Lina and those icy eyes glanced down at it for a moment.
“I am familiar with the products available, thank you Helen.” that precisely measured voice explained. Was that sarcasm? Helen really couldn’t tell. The English couldn’t speak without being sarcastic, could they?
Helen pulled the folder back, closed it and put it back under the counter. When she stood up again Lina was looking out across the shop floor in apparent disinterest - but her expression was as serene as ever.
“So, what’s your experience? I mean - have you worked in make up before?” Helen prompted after another few moments. Those icy contacts swung round to look at her again.
“Yes. I have extensive experience.” was the complete reply. Then the blonde beauty just looked out across the store again, her gaze moving slowly here and there.
“Uh….Yeah. But where have you worked?” Helen pressed. Again that cool expression looked back toward her, but for a second Lina didn’t reply - she just stared. Then for the first time her expression actually changed. Was it finally a smile? Almost. It was actually more just a faintly sympathetic expression, but it was close enough for now.
“I’m sorry Helen. I am not permitted to divulge that information.”
Lina’s reply was delivered pleasantly in that precisely enunciated accent - almost apologetically - but what was with “not permitted”? And who says “divulge”? Helen decided that Brits were crazy and just nodded.
“Uh….OK. Um…So…..Have you been in the States long?”
There was another brief pause while Lina’s serene expression returned and she looked out across the store again. “No, not long.” she said, failing even to look at Helen. Jeez! This was like getting blood out of a stone! Helen persisted, in spite of the woman’s dismissive air.
“Well, are you married?…Single?….Kids?” she pressed. After a moment, this got the blonde woman’s attention again. “I’m sorry Helen. That’s rather a personal question, don’t you think?”
Helen half gasped/half chuckled. Frankly, she was getting a little frustrated with this ‘ice queen’ act.
“Excuse me?” she managed through mild exasperation. There was a brief awkward silence, then Lina spoke again.
“I think we should concentrate on our work, don’t you?” she explained smoothly.
What was with this woman? Was this just culture shock? “OK. Fine.” Helen gave up and opted to tidy the counter displays instead.
The rest of the morning Lina barely piped up at all - apart from when the occasional customer came to the counter. Then she was polite and studiously serene with her, “May I be of any assistance?”s, and her “Oh yes, ma’am. That matches your skin tone perfectly.”s, and her “Shall I wrap that for you?”s.
The rest of the time - ice.
Helen tried starting conversations a couple more times, but got the clear impression that Miss Hayley was not interested in friendly chit-chat. Helen even invited Lina to lunch to which the stunning woman replied, “I’m sorry Helen. I don’t do lunch.”
and resumed surveying the middle distance for any sign of customers. Helen rolled her eyes and left.
She was joined at lunch by a couple of the other girls who asked what Helen thought of the ‘new girl’. Helen wasn’t sure what to say. There wasn’t much she could tell them. She could only shrug. Lina had barely spoken, after all. Someone suggested that it might be first day nerves.
Half an hour later Helen returned to her counter. After lunch, the rest of the afternoon dragged by. Lina remained a virtual mute unless there were customers to serve. Once or twice when Helen was serving and Lina was not otherwise engaged, the stunning new recruit actually interrupted and corrected Helen’s advice. Helen politely thanked her for the help and asked when she was going on her break.
“Thank you Helen, but I do not require a break.” the serene woman explained smoothly.
Late in the afternoon Helen heard a muffled yell from somewhere in the store - it sounded like it might have come from Mr Ligbus’ office. The yelling grew suddenly clearer.
“That’s bullshit - and you know it!”
It was one of the girls - Becks? - and she wasn’t happy. A door slammed and there were hurried footsteps off to her right. Helen craned her neck sideways out over the counter to get a better view. Yeah - it was Becks from the perfume counter. Helen caught a glimpse of her storming out into the mall with her jacket and bag slung over one arm. A couple of the girls were following her. Her friend, Darcy, called after her a few times, apparently to no avail. Helen exchanged uneasy glances with Paula and Lisa at the counter opposite then noticed Lina again. Her expression was still utterly content as her gaze shifted smoothly around the store. Helen looked at Paula and Lisa again, who she noticed were sharing the slightly spooked expression that she guessed must have been on her own face.
It didn’t take long for the story to circulate. Becks had been fired for stealing. Cash found in her hand-bag added up to the till shortages from last week - apparently. But no-one could really believe Becks would have done that. If she’d stolen the money, she’d at least have the sense to leave it at home. There was talk of a frame up as well. After Ligbus had asked Becks to bring her bag to the office, Darcy had followed and sneaked closer to his office to listen. He’d got Becks to open the bag in front of him. She’d had no explanation for the cash, but swore - literally - that she had not stolen it. She’d been fired then and there, and then stormed out. Needless to say, the rest of the afternoon was basically taken up with resentful discussions about how best to roast Ligbus slowly over hot coals.
Lina didn’t seem at all interested. Helen was beginning to suspect that Miss Hayley was a bit of a management brown-noser. At closing, the stylish Brit insisted that Helen should go and leave her to close the cabinets and set the alarms. Helen almost got into an argument with the obstinate woman, but chose instead to leave her to it. If she wanted to impress the boss, so be it.
Predictably, Lina was already waiting patiently behind the counter when Helen arrived at work the next morning. Helen noticed she seemed to be wearing exactly the same outfit as the previous day. Maybe it was wash day. At least Helen had got a greeting out of the normally tight-lipped Lina - but there was still something icy about that well-enunciated English accent. Helen went to the staff room to drop off her bag and jacket, and when she returned, Lina spoke up again.
“Mister Ligbus has an announcement to make.” she said smoothly, then she walked elegantly off. Helen hesitated, then followed, her field of vision taken up with Lina’s serene movements - hips swaying, hands poised - all toned bare back and legs, swaying skirt and shimmering heels. Helen was led to the perfume counter, where the rest of the staff were gathering.
Standing behind the counter, flanked by a beaming Mr Ligbus and a scowling Darcy, was a tall brunette. Steep eyebrows accentuated slanted cheekbones and a square jaw. Her slick brown hair was parted slightly to one side and pulled back into a short bobbed pony tail. She was utterly stylish and stunning.
Mister ligbus explained that this was Estelle Grant. She was to join Darcy at the perfumes counter. According to Ligbus she’d been brought in in a rush over-night. Lots of late night phone calls to agencies and the like.
The shapely new recruit looked out from the counter confidently. Not exactly smiling, but……..that expression was familiar. Helen frowned.
Miss Grant just happened to own an ensemble outfit that fitted perfectly with the new dress code. It was almost as if she shopped at the same store as Lina - the strappy silver-sequinned top and light grey skirt she wore looked elegant and chic. What defied explanation though, was the choker clasped tightly around her neck - a narrow dull metallic ring identical to Lina’s.
There were the same muted greetings. Estelle spoke smoothly and clearly in a round voice that sounded a little like she’d worked in radio. Helen frowned again when Lina and the new woman shook hands. Though they spoke in different accents, they seemed to share the same dismissive air. The same kind of illusive, icy demeanour. When Helen shook Estelle’s hand, she noticed that though the woman’s eyes were a soft dark brown, there was something there that reminded Helen of Lina too. Maybe it was just their get up that made the two stunning women seem even more similar. Helen glanced her up and down. Estelle’s spangley top was scant, but stylish. The skirt hugged curvy hips, clinging to Estelle’s thighs down to the knee. And…………..OK - this was officially getting weird. The woman had dully shimmering heels exactly like Lina’s.
“Nice shoes.” Helen mumbled uneasily.
“Thank you, Helen.” the attractive woman responded mildly.
Shortly Ligbus declared that everyone should get back to work, so the somewhat sombre throng disbanded and everyone retreated to their respective counters. Helen glanced down at Lina’s feet as they walked. She was wearing the same shoes as yesterday - and they did look identical to Estelle’s.
“Don’t you get sore feet wearing heels all the time?” Helen suggested. Lina just kept looking ahead as she walked, her heels clicking an even rhythm on the marble floor. After a moment she spoke. “I’m sorry Helen. I am unable to assist you at this time.”
Helen frowned yet again. She was becoming more and more convinced that she should never visit England. “Fine.” she mumbled in baffled resignation.
The rest of the morning passed without much more fuss. It was a bit busier so Helen didn’t have much time to notice that Lina didn’t talk much when not ‘assisting’ customers - aside from her persisting corrections.
It was pretty much the same for the rest of the week. Lina wouldn’t have anything much to say unless talking to customers or annoyingly correcting Helen’s customer advice. Lina always insisted on locking up and arrived at work before Helen. She must have had several copies of the same outfit because she was dressed identically each day. Even down to those shimmering heels. And she never took a single break.
The strange thing was - talking quietly to Darcy from the perfume counter one lunch break by the water-cooler - it seemed that Miss Estelle Grant was of a similar ilk. No nonsense. No talking, in fact. Darcy had to concede Estelle knew her stuff when talking to customers though; When the store was restocking; Up-coming fragrances. And it seemed like she’d learned all the fragrance prices off by heart.
Late that afternoon Ligbus called another meeting. There was another hand-out about the dress code to be introduced in the coming week. And there was a contract. Everyone was to read it over night and return it tomorrow, signed, if they so wished. It was simply intended to ensure that everyone was providing the best possible service for customers, apparently. Helen pointed out that he’d forgotten to give Lina and Estelle copies. Extra copies were quickly made.
Helen gave the contract a quick once over when they were back at their counter. Ligbus was taking this dress code thing a bit too seriously in her opinion. There were clauses for verbal warnings if someone’s outfit was not up to scratch and after a written warning you could be sacked for not complying. Also there was to be introduced a ‘three strikes’ system for customer service. Any mistakes or dissatisfied customers were to be ‘logged’ against the offending staff member’s name. Three ‘strikes’ and you were ‘out’. Oh, and you would be asked to leave if you didn’t sign. Helen shook her head. Her parents would be outraged - this would never have been legal before the recession. Lina didn’t seem particularly interested in her copy, her azure gaze smoothly searching the store for potential customers.
When Helen arrived at work on Friday, Lina was once again already at the counter - no big surprise considering Helen was running late. But Paula and Lisa from the counter opposite were nowhere to be seen. Helen said good morning to Lina and dropped off her coat and bag. When she came out from the staff room, she heard the raised voices. They came from off toward Libus’ office. Lina seemed unconcerned, in her usual serene state of retailing Nirvana behind the counter. Helen headed off to see what the fuss was all about.
Paula and Lisa and four or five other staff were gathered at the door to Ligbus’ office. Ligbus stood in the doorway, smiling, with his hands raised as if requesting silence. He wasn’t getting any. Most of the women had a copy of the contract Ligbus had handed out the previous day and were flipping through the pages, pointing at the words and shouting at him.
“And how will these mistakes be ‘logged’ exactly?” Lisa demanded through the cacophony. An uneasy silence fell. “I’ll expect you each to keep a record of your counter parter’s mistakes.” Ligbus explained pleasantly, “Morale building and so on.” he added. The shouting resumed.
“Ladies. Ladies. Please.” Ligbus kept saying. That indomitable smile was becoming strained.
Helen left them to it. It was true the service contract was restrictive, but in the modern job market it was legal. Since the recession and coup about a decade ago, the ball had been firmly in the court of the employer. Employees took what they could get. Helen had already signed her copy.
Back at the counter Lina was looking as content and composed as ever.
“I don’t suppose you’re worried about this contract, are you?” Helen suggested. Lina looked at her. Her head cocked slightly to one side and her eyebrows raised a little quizically.
“I’m sorry Helen. I’m not sure I understand what you mean.” she explained smoothly.
“Well, for starters, you don’t seem to have any problem keeping to the dress code.” Helen replied, gesturing up and down Lina’s familiarly immaculate outfit. Lina stared back at her through those impenetrably glacial contact lenses. “Yes Helen. My apparel complies with the dress code perfectly.” she agreed primly. Helen was about to quiz her on her toffee-nosed talk when Lisa and Paula appeared. Lisa looked pissed, frankly. She charged toward the staff room, murmuring something along the lines of not needing this shit. Paula, who had been trying to settle her down, followed her in but clearly her success was limited - Lisa emerged shortly after and left with her coat and bag. Paula followed her out of the store still attempting to talk her around. Their voices faded. Lina was looking confidently out into the store again.
Helen just waited for customers too.
Paula returned a few minutes later, dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief. Helen heard that that morning a total of four staff had told Ligbus to shove his contract where it would give him some very painful paper cuts. And they’d left that morning too - Lisa - Both Ang and Karen from lipsticks - And the other Lisa - the one from mascara.
There was a steady flow of customers all morning, but it was nothing too stressful. What was becoming increasingly annoying was the frequency of Lina’s persistent corrections. Helen lost count of the times she found herself forcing smiles at the customers and sighing,
“Yes, Thank you Lina.” through slightly gritted teeth.
Later that afternoon Ligbus swept by the counters to collect their contracts, his face creased into a rejuvenated smile. To be honest he’d seemed a bit disappointed to hear Helen had decided to stay on. She’d got the contract from her bag and handed it over. Ligbus had been about to continue on his errand when Helen reminded him to collect Lina’s. A moment’s hesitation was followed by the stuttered explanation that he’d collected hers that morning. A smile and a wink and he was gone.
That afternoon, at a particularly quiet time, Helen decided to make up some more bonus packs - they were running a little low. She’d barely started when Lina spoke.
“I am sorry Helen. This week’s bonus pack includes Revlex Toner and E-visage Hydration Lotion. You are stocking Revlex hand cream and E-visage Toner.” she pointed out.
“Uh, yeah. Does that matter?”
“You are stocking the bonus packs incorrectly.” Lina continued, with seemingly smug self-confidence, “I’m afraid I will have to log this error with management.”
“You have got to be kidding me.” Helen sighed through clenched teeth.
“You are stocking the bonus packs incorrectly. All mistakes must be logged with management.” Lina insisted confidently.
“Fine. Do it. See if I care.”
She carried on making up the packs her way.
Things on Monday morning were, frankly, surreal. As usual Lina was at the counter, dressed in her usual elegant halter-necked satin dress when Helen arrived. She spoke up immediately as Helen approached.
“Mister Ligbus has an announcement to make.” she explained.
“Good morning to you, too.” Helen replied as Lina paced purposefully away. Helen dropped off her things and set off in the same direction. When she rounded the mascara counter she stopped and stared.
Most of the staff were assembled in front of the lipstick counter. Standing in a line at one end of the counter - the focus of the gathering - were seven women. From what Helen to see, they each seemed tall, slim and stunning. Helen moved closer, joining Paula. The new women were each posed confidently, their striking flawless faces regarding the other staff with an all too familiar indomitable serenity. They were each dressed in a combination of silver sequins, white satin or light grey leather. As Helen craned her neck to get a better view, she noticed some things did not vary. Each had a narrow dull silvery choker clasped around their neck and identical dully shimmering high heels. It looked like a line up at a beauty pageant - for the ‘look-as-similar-as-possible’ section.
Ligbus clapped and welcomed everyone. He started by congratulating everyone on their adherence to the new dress code. It was unfortunate, apparently, that some of the staff had not been so agreeable. Thus, the new recruits. Endless weekend phone calls. Nightmare to organise, and so on. As Ligbus continued, Paula explained in a hushed voice that three more staff had refused to sign the contract by the end of business on Friday and were asked not to come back. As Helen looked back at the immaculately posed row of women, Ligbus concluded and asked them to introduce themselves, which they did in turn.
“Hello everyone. I am Dominique. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Dominique had stylishly tousled short dark hair and generous lips.
“Hello everyone. I am Antoinette. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Antoinette was blonde and slender, with large doll-like blue eyes. Both women spoke with the same measured serenity. It was a little unnerving.
“Hello everyone. I am Celeste. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
A red-head, Celeste sounded like she moonlighted as phone sex line operator. Or maybe it was just the fact that she had repeated her predecessors’ greetings so exactly that gave her voice an answer-phone-recording quality.
“Hello everyone. I am Natalya. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Natalya had jet black hair, glistening green eyes and a sultry eastern European accent. As the somewhat repetitive introductions proceeded, the whole display seemed even more like a poorly executed beauty pageant rehearsal and Ligbus began to look a little anxious.
“Hello everyone. I am Sheridan. It’s a pleasure to….”
“Alright. Thank you ladies.” Ligbus interjected, clapping his hands again, “I’m sure you’ll all get to know each other later. Well done. Back to work everyone. You know your places.”
The stunning new recruits immediately sprung into action - most striding off in various directions, shimmering heels clicking on marble and aluminium - a pair taking positions behind the lipstick counter.
The rest of the group broke up more slowly, whispering amongst themselves as they returned to work. When Helen got to her counter Lina was waiting patiently there and the dark-haired Natalya was posed expectantly at Paula’s counter. Glossy black hair was pulled back into a long straight pony tail. Her fitted white short-sleeved shirt had a risqué plunging neck line that displayed generous cleavage. A knee length grey leather skirt had a split on one side. Helen watched Paula and the new European beauty exchange pleasantries then looked at Lina. Like Natalya, she was once again serenely surveying her surroundings, her expression poised and expectant. What, exactly, was going on here? Helen looked down at Lina’s shoes. The familiar lustrous heels were reflected faintly in the matching aluminium floor.
Thankfully customers began to trickle into the store and there was little time to worry.
With several specials running in store that day, things quickly became busy and while Helen could feel herself getting increasingly irritable, Lina remained a paragon of polite efficiency.
“Certainly, sir - Do remember to retain your receipt.”
“Yes, ma’am. We’re offering a special on those today.”
“My apologies ma’am. Do return when we have that in stock, won’t you?”
The morning flew by and the customers kept coming. Toward mid day, the rush of customers gradually abated, but Lina’s politely precise poise did not.
“Yes ma’am. We’re offering a special on those today.”
“Certainly ma’am - Do remember to retain your receipt.”
“Oh yes, ma’am. That matches your skin tone perfectly.”
Finally Helen got to go to lunch. She thought she needed a bit of a walk, so she grabbed her coat from the hooks on the staff room wall. Helen looked at the other jackets hung there and frowned. Twelve jackets.
It was almost Christmas.
But only twelve jackets.
That was about half as many as the whole staff needed, wasn’t it? Nine short, if she included her own. Helen frowned and then looked at the door to the as-yet-incomplete ‘executive lounge’. It didn’t have a handle - there was a number touch-pad to it’s right on the wall. And there was a panel of familiar aluminium flooring in front of the doorway. What was going on here?
That afternoon after graciously agreeing to let Lina lock up once again, Helen made a point of waiting in her car in the car park outside. At first she felt like she was behaving a little neurotically, but after half an hour there was still no sign of Lina, or in fact, any of the ‘new girls’. After about another twenty minutes, still with no sign, Helen finally drove home.
Helen made a point of arriving early for work the next morning.
In fact she arrived so early that the staff entrance at the rear was still locked. She went around in through the mall. The mall was open, but the barred roller doors to the store were still lowered. After a few minutes of peering through the barred glass Helen could see movement. Sheridan and another of the stunning new recruits were taking their places at the lipstick counter. There was the reverberant sound of clicking heels spreading out across the store. Helen saw Ligbus’ assistant approaching the main doors from inside, so she retreated to the back entrance which was by then unlocked.
Predictably, Lina was waiting at her counter when Helen finally made her way inside.
“Hello Lina.” Helen said as she approached. Lina’s cool eyes swung to meet hers.
“Good morning, Helen. How are you?”
“I’m doing OK. You?”
“I am well, thank you.” the elegant blonde purred. Then she resumed staring out into the store, her head turning slowly but deliberately from side to side. Helen dropped off her things in the staff room - hers was the first coat on the rack - and returned to the counter. She glanced out at Natalya who was similarly posed behind the counter opposite, then back at Lina.
“Did you have a pleasant evening last night?” Helen pressed, as nonchalantly as she could manage. Again those glistening irises turned and faced her.
“I’m sorry Helen - that’s a rather personal question, don’t you think?”
Helen feigned a slight offence and gave a small shrug.
“No. Not really. I’m just wondering what you got up to last night.”
After a moment Lina’s eyebrows rose a little apologetically and her lips parted, speaking with that precise English inflection.
“I’m sorry Helen. I am not permitted to divulge that information.”
Helen nodded as Darcy appeared from the staff entrance.
“Morning, Darce” Helen called as Darcy headed toward the staffroom.
“Hey, Hel……..Hey Lina.”
Lina regarded Darcy cooly.
“Good morning, Darcy. How are you?”
“Yeah, OK I guess.”
Darcy went to drop her gear off, but Helen called out again.
“Hey Darce - check out how many jackets there are.”
“Just count the jackets in there. See if you can figure it out - ‘cos I can’t.”
Darcy gave Helen a bewildered look and disappeared for a minute or two.
When she came out, Helen had to prompt her again.
“How many jackets?”
“Oh. There were a couple I think.”
“Yeah. Yours and mine. Two. And all the other ‘new girls’ are here already.” Helen pointed out conspiratorially. Darcy shrugged.
Helen swung a hand up and down near Lina’s stylishly scant outfit.
“Hardly cold-weather wear, wouldn’t you say? Ever seen one of the new girls leave for the night?”
Darcy squinted and looked suddenly like she was catching on.
Helen just raised her eyebrows.
Darcy’s frown deepened as she looked thoughtfully at Lina - who was looking over her head out into the store. Darcy glanced over at Natalya, hesitated for another few seconds, then drifted off in the direction of her counter.
The others arrived over the next few minutes - and the first customers a few minutes later.
Most of the morning passed without much event. Lina’s considered polite precision with customers continued, as did her silence in their absence. It was only when Helen was serving a lone customer that Lina butted in once again.
“I’m sorry Ma’am. Helen has quoted the wrong price for Rexlon Mid Tone Foundation. They are on special all week at twelve forty nine.”
The customer smiled, pleasantly surprised.
“Oh, great. Thanks.”
When the customer departed, Lina spoke again, her glistening blue eyes surveying Helen confidently.
“I’m afraid your error will be logged and reported to management.”
Helen shook her head and looked back at the beaurocratic Brit in disbelief. She would have argued back, but those unwavering icy eyes convinced her that resistance was futile.
“OK. Fine” she sighed, closing her eyes and pinching the bridge of her nose.
It was just before twelve, while Helen and the shapely stickler-for-detail were restocking one of the satellite foundation displays, when a customer approached Lina.
“Excuse me. I was wondering if you could tell me how much these cost.”
Lina stood smoothly upright and surveyed the woman who held up a range of eyeshadows each in a separate small container.
“I’m sorry ma’am. I am unable to assist you at this time. If you speak to one of our staff at the eyeshadow counter, they will be only too pleased to help you.” she suggested pleasantly.
The woman huffed.
“You’re the third one to tell me that. That counter is packed. And it’s way over on the other side of the store now. Can’t you just tell me how much these are?”
“I’m sorry ma’am. I am otherwise engaged. Please see another member of staff who may be able to assist you.”
Crouched down on the floor, restocking the lowest shelves, Helen smiled.
“Say, Lina - are you refusing to serve a customer?”
Out of the corner of her eye Helen noticed Lina turning to look at her as she continued.
“I wouldn’t want to have to report this to management. Wouldn’t look too good, would it?” Helen pressed, not looking up from her work. There was a brief awkward silence, then Lina spoke.
“That will not be necessary, Helen.” she insisted smoothly. She immediately turned away from the customer and headed back toward their counter. The customer looked outraged.
“What? You won’t serve me?”
Lina seemed to ignore her, her shimmering heels clicking evenly on the pristine marble flooring as she walked elegantly away - hands poised, hips swaying. The inflamed customer looked to Helen.
“What’s going on here? ….It’s because I’m fat, isn’t it!”” she blurted. Still crouched down, Helen tried not to laugh and just shrugged sheepishly, looking off in the direction of the elegantly retreating shapely blonde. When Lina reached the aluminium flooring that circled the counter, she stopped. For a moment she stood completely still, then she turned smoothly and paced slowly back.
“OK - Fine! Keep your stupid make up!” the customer fumed, hurling them to the ground. They bounced and scattered in Lina’s direction and the customer stormed off. As Lina stepped forward a few of the flat containers bounced around her shoes - a couple sliding under a nearby display. Lina stopped and looked here and there as the discarded articles slid to rest. The shapely blonde turned carefully around and stepped elegantly back to the counter, walking around it and then bending down and disappearing. Shortly she reappeared with a small plastic bag in hand and stepped out and forward confidently, stopping after a couple paces to reach down and bend forward at the waist - with a flexibility that suggested gymnastic ability. She collected a stray eyeshadow case. The flawlessly made up blonde straightened smoothly and turned slightly to her left, taking another couple steps forward. Helen watched as she meticulously collected the remaining visible stray articles of make up, all the while with a serenely satisfied expression that, Helen reflected, made it look strangely as if she was plucking flowers in an English field somewhere. She seemed to take extra care with the cases that had popped open, plucking them delicately from the floor and placing then in her bag. Standing upright once again, Lina turned and strode off toward the staff room. Helen frowned and stood.
“Uh…Lina? Where are you going?”
The slender blonde stopped and turned back to face her.
“Damaged goods should be disposed of immediately. I am disposing of these damaged goods.” she explained dismissively. Helen glanced at the floor. There were purplish marks here and there where several cases had burst open.
“Well you might as well get a sponge while you’re there.”
Lina’s head cocked to one side slightly and her eyebrows raised politely.
“Excuse me Helen? I’m not sure I understand what you mean.”
“The eyeshadows made some marks on the floor. You might need a sponge to clean it off.” Helen suggested. Lina looked like she was almost about to reply, then instead she turned and walked back toward the counter. Helen frowned curiously as the blonde British beauty reached the counter, stopped and turned back to face her.
“I am sorry Helen, I am not required to perform clean up operations.” Lina recited.
“Ohhhhh…kaayyyyy.” Helen sighed, “But I don’t think Mister Ligbus will be happy to see these marks.”
Lina’s head lowered slightly and those pale blue eyes looked smoothly here and there. Then she looked up at Helen again.
“I did not make those marks, Helen. I am not required to perform clean up operations.”
“Well, you’re right - the customer made the marks. But you pissed her off. Which makes this mess your responsibility - don’t you think? Or I dunno - maybe I could tell management you’re shirking your responsibilities…..”
Lina stared for a moment.
“I am not required to perform clean up operations.” she insisted cooly.
“Well, you’re clearing up the cases.” Helen pointed out. Lina’s calm, pristine expression did not falter.
“Damaged goods should be disposed of immediately. I am disposing of these damaged goods.” the flawless blonde repeated. Sensing another fight brewing, Helen raised her hands and sighed.
“OK. OK. But don’t come to me, when Ligbus blows his top over this mess.”
Helen crouched down again and got back to restocking the display as Lina turned on the toes of her shoes and stepped away toward the staff room with characteristic measured elegance. Helen rolled her eyes and glanced after her.
That’s when she noticed something.
From her low view point, Helen could see the underside of Lina’s pristine shoes as they flicked up behind her with each rhythmic step. The soles looked black, like leather or plastic - but there was something on the bottom of Lina’s right shoe. Helen squinted to make sure she was seeing it right. The ball of the sole was mostly taken up by a rectangular metallic plate - like something from a tap-dancing shoe. As the blonde walked away, hips swayed in carefully measured rhythm. Delicately poised hands swung back and forward precisely. Dully shining heels click, click, clicked her forward. Like clockwork. And that metal plate flicked up on each alternate step until Lina disappeared behind the staff room door.
Helen blinked and immediately began to wonder if she’d been seeing things.
A minute later Lina emerged from the staff room, pacing as confidently as ever, that aloof expression indomitably self assured. Helen noticed that though the shapely sales assistant was walking purposefully in an outfit that clearly precluded the wearing of a bra, that pert bust seemed set like stone - well, at the very least like too-firm rubber. She definitely had a good plastic surgeon.
A moment later Lina had rejoined Helen at the display. The two women continued working in silence until Helen glanced across at the woman’s glistening high heels and noticed a small powdery purple mark on the shimmering toe where an open eye-shadow case must have struck.
“Hey - you’ve got a mark on your shoe.” Helen pointing out. Lina stopped her work and looked down at the shimmering shoe. Then Helen got an idea.
”Oh, gee - I hope that doesn’t break the dress code.” she pressed, “Wouldn’t want to have to report that to Ligbus.” Lina looked down at Helen.
“My attire complies with the dress code perfectly. ” she proclaimed pleasantly. Helen clucked her tongue dubiously.
“Well, I doubt it does with that dirty shoe. I don’t recall smeared purple being one of the permitted colours….“
Lina bent forward slightly and looked down at the discoloured shoe again. Helen shrugged resolutely.
“That’s it - you’ll just have to take them off.” she suggested reluctantly, rolling her eyes.
Lina looked back at her again.
“Our attire should comply with the dress code.” Lina pointed out. Helen bit her lip, thinking for a second, and then raised her eyebrows excitedly.
“Well - come to think of it - there’s nothing in the dress code that actually says you have to wear shoes. Just that any footwear should be white or grey. Technically being barefoot wouldn’t break the dress code, would it?” Helen looked back at the shoe and tutted again, “But that shoe - I really should report it. Really.”
Lina looked down at the purple-smeared shoe and blinked slowly. Then she straightened suddenly and walked off toward their counter. Helen peered suspiciously at that strange metallic rectangle as it flicked up behind Lina with each alternate step. Having reached the aluminium surround, the elegantly poised blonde paused and then turned to face Helen again and walked straight back out to meet her.
“That’s quite correct, Helen.” she agreed finally and she pushed the ankle of one foot forward, stepping first out of one shoe and then the other. On tip toes, she turned and went to bend forward, presumably to collect them, when a voice made her straighten up again.
“Excuse me miss…..”
Lina turned to face the customer - a middle-aged man who looked a little lost.
“I was wondering if you think this colour would go with a fair complexion.…”
He had in one hand a tube of lipstick.
“My wife, you see, is your…….uh…….colour.” he explained, unable to disguise an involuntary glance at Lina’s shapely figure. Lina semi-smiled apologetically.
“I’m sorry sir. I am unable to assist you at this time. If you speak to one of our staff at the lipstick counter, they will be only too pleased to help you.” the barefoot blonde suggested in her usual pleasantly dismissive tone.
“Uh, yeah but they’re both….uh……dark. I was wondering if you thought this would suit someone your colouring.”
“I’m sorry sir. I am otherwise engaged. Please see another member of staff who may be better able to assist you.”
Lina’s prim pronouncements seemed strangely pre-recorded. Helen glanced at the empty, silvery heels sitting next to the blonde beauty. She wouldn’t mind a closer look…..
“Um, Lina - You’re not refusing to serve another customer, are you? I should really report that to management this time…..” Helen pressed again. Lina looked from the customer to Helen and just stared for a moment.
“That will not be necessary, Helen.” she explained shortly. Then she turned suddenly and headed back toward their counter, walking the whole time on tip toe - leaving her shimmering shoes behind her. The appreciative customer followed. Helen got up quickly and snatched up the silvery heels.
“Uh….I’m just going for my break, OK?” she called hurriedly, heading quickly for the staff room.
From the staff room doorway Helen had one last glance in Lina’s direction - She was walking inexplicably back and forward near the counter - maybe at the customers’ request? - then Helen shut the door behind her and stepped over to the kitchen counter. She put the left shoe down on the counter and examined the other. It really did have a rectangular metallic plate on the sole. The inside of the shoe was black - plastic probably. But down in the ball of the shoe, several short silvery pins stuck up in a row.
“What the hell?”
Helen frowned and looked at the underside again. The metallic plate was positioned directly below the pins. She glanced at the kitchen counter and picked up the other shapely shoe. The inside was completely black. Helen felt inside with her fingers - it felt plastic. There didn’t seem to be any pins in this shoe, but she noticed a slightly raised squarish bump in about the same spot. Either little Miss Well-Spoken was prepared to put up with very uncomfortable shoes for the sake of fashion, or…
Helen looked across at the door to the executive lounge and down at the panel of aluminium flooring in front of it. Then she looked at the shoes again - noticed how closely they matched the flooring.
She crossed the room and looked at the key pad to the right of the door and down at the floor again. She looked at the bottom of the right shoe one last time then placed it there on the aluminium square. There was a buzz and a short hum and then Helen was slightly startled when the door slid suddenly away.
On the other side of the Helen doorway there was a dark corridor that ran from left to right. Helen stepped carefully forward and peered in around the edge of the doorway. The corridor was dully lit. To the left the corridor was a dead end. To the right, not far, the corridor turned left, away from the staffroom. Helen waited. All she could hear was a faint, deep hum.
Shortly she stepped in through the doorway and headed gingerly up the corridor, toward the corner. She was startled again by a sudden hum as the door behind her slid shut. Composing herself, she paused and summoned the courage to peer around the corner.
A moment later she saw a long, wide corridor of sorts stretching out in front of her. It was lit here and there by industrial looking red lights. And the walls were an alternating sequence of dark alcoves and wall-mounted, television screens or computer displays. On the floor up ahead, arranged in two orderly rows at either side of the corridor, Helen could see sets of silvery high heels. She stepped gingerly forward. Each pair of heels seemed to be tidily positioned, facing an alcove. Helen approached the nearest pair. As she moved forward, Helen made out the form of a shapely woman standing in the adjacent dark alcove. She was posed with her back out toward Helen - dressed in familiar satin and sequins. The curvy brunette stood utterly still, her hands resting flush against her thighs. Her feet seemed to have disappeared into a box on the floor of the alcove - it was hard to tell, in the dim light.
Helen squinted and peered into a neighbouring empty alcove. There were no shimmering heels on the floor beside it - but Helen noticed the floor there was moulded with small impressions that perfectly matched the soles and spiky heels of the shoes. The alcove itself seemed featureless apart from the black plastic floor, which had a black pedestal about the size of a hat box at it’s centre. In the top of the pedestal there were with two deep-set impressions. Helen looked closer. Both impressions seemed moulded perfectly in the shape of women’s feet. The impressions were also mostly featureless.
At the base of the left foot there were a pair of short shining pins sticking upward, about an inch apart. And inside the right impression, Helen could see a whole row of short pins sticking up from the bottom of the sculpted hole - exactly like those she’d found inside Lina’s right shoe
Helen was distracted by the monitor next to the empty alcove flickering suddenly to life. The name “Estelle” flashed on screen, along with the words “Loading - Lipsticks Module”. A computerised progress bar appeared and quickly filled up, then the screen went dead again.
Helen moved furthur up the corridor. There were over twenty alcoves here. Over half were occupied by immobile shapely women, dressed in variations of the satin-sequins-and-scanty theme. There were nine absentees. Helen turned and noticed another flickering monitor and stepped up to it.
“Lina.” she read in a hushed whisper.
The words “Warning - not responsive” were flashing repeatedly on the screen in urgent looking letters. Near the top of the screen, Helen also noticed the phrase “Module - Eye-shadow”.
Helen nodded to herself. So, Ligbus wanted to replace them all with rechargeable retail robots. She headed back to the entrance, scowling determinedly. The door opened as she approached.
She went to the kitchen counter again, collected Lina’s shoes and dumped them in the trash, then headed back out into the store.
There was a small rowdy group of customers around Helen’s counter, many of whom were demanding to speak to a manager. Lina was turning this way and that facing each customer in turn.
“I’m sorry ma’am. I am unable to assist you at this time.”
“My apologies sir. Please see another member of staff for assistance.”
“Yes ma’am. Unfortunately I am unable to provide you with service at the moment. Please try again later.”
“My apologies sir. I am unable to assist you at this time.”
As Helen approached, the barefoot blonde Brit stepped out from the counter, turning on her toes and stepping back onto the aluminium surround. For a moment she stood motionless, then she turned to the nearest, loudest customer.
“Please accept my apologies, ma’am. Another member of staff would be only too happy to serve you.”
Then to the next, in as pleasant a tone as ever.
“I’m sorry sir. This sales assistant is unable to offer appropriate service. Please try another member of staff.”
Helen interrupted Lina’s repetitious explanations and patted Lina on the shoulder.
“Apologies everyone, my friend here is new. Brand new, I think. Now - who’s first?”
There was a mad scramble of arms and products waved in Helen’s face, but a few minutes later she was dealing with the last of the cantankerous customers.
Having seen off the very last of them Helen was about to quiz Lina on her new found ineptitude when a venomous whisper spat out at her.
“What the hell’s going on here?” it demanded. It was Ligbus’ assistant and he looked pissed, leaning over the counter, his sinewy face aimed right at her. Helen smiled.
“Um..I think Lina here was experiencing some………technical difficulties, but it’s nothing I couldn’t handle.” she offered.
“I’ve had a customer report that she was refused service!” the man continued, flabbergasted.
“Well, yeah. Like I said, I think Lina was feeling a bit overloaded. With work, I mean.”
He clearly wasn ‘t listening.
“This is entirely unacceptable - and what’s all this mess?” the man persisted, flicking a hand out toward the peripheral displays.
“Mess?” Helen sighed.
“Marks on the floor. Purple marks.” he spat. Helen went to explain, but the tightly wound man interupted her.
“Get a mop and clean it up this instant.” he ordered. Helen clenched her teeth.
“Yes, sir.” she growled. Then he turned briefly to Lina, looking her up and down. He nodded.
“Well, done Lina. Keep up the good work.”
Lina’s icy gaze met his.
“Thank you sir. I aim to provide the best possible service. I am required to report an error on Helen’s part, however. Earlier today she omitted to inform a customer that Rexlon Mid Tone Foundation is on special all this week.” Helen gasped.
“Why you little….”
Ligbus’ assistant shook his head disapprovingly and tutted.
“No no no no no.” he sighed, “Not acceptable at all.”
He seemed to ponder Helen for a moment with a mischievous smile that frankly creeped Helen out a little.
“With that other mistake….”
“What other mistake?!” Helen demanded. The man nodded in Lina’s direction.
“Lina here tells us you were stocking the bonus packs incorrectly.”
Helen turned to Lina, agape.
“Why you little….” she gasped again. Ligbus’ assistant continued disapprovingly.
“One more mistake like that and you’re out. You’re just lucky we can’t figure out who’s to blame for this mess.”
Then he turned to Lina, casting an appreciative glance up and down her precision-toned body.
“Well, like I said - good work Lina. Keep it up. Oh and Helen…..”
A hand gestured vaguely in the direction of the displays - presumably indicating that Helen should get a mop and bucket. Then he paced quickly away. She gave him the bird.
Helen shot a dirty glance at Lina, but she was blissfully scanning her surroundings for customers - customers she’d presumably be unable to ‘assist’. Helen looked the shapely blonde up and down. Such poise. Such style. Such a back-stabbing cow. And a job-stealing robot to boot. Helen sighed and stomped off to the staff room.
She found herself swearing under her breath as she got a mop and bucket ready to clean up the mess that Lina had caused.
“One more mistake, my ass….” she simmered, waiting as the bucket filled with hot water.
A couple minutes later she was back out in the store lugging the bucket and mop angrily out to where the all-so-offensive make up marks had been made. She started mopping, looking up from time to time to see Lina poised and serene behind the counter.
She was cleaning one of the marks right next to a display, swinging the mop back and forward on the floor, when the mop pushed something out from under the display. It was a small case of eyeshadow. Helen leaned down and picked it up, leaving the mop balanced in the bucket. She wiped her forehead and bit her lip, examining the case for a moment, then looked over at Lina again. The robotic retail assistant remained at her post behind the counter, that too-beautiful face turning smoothly to the left and right, scanning. Helen marched over there.
“Uh…Lina….Look what I found.” Helen said, holding the makeup case as she approached. As Helen came to a stop in front of the counter, Lina’s azure irises focused on the object held up a few inches from her flawless face.
“Seems you haven’t been doing you job properly after all.” Helen continued. Those ice-blue pools swung up to meet Helen’s eyes and the head cocked to one side slightly.
“I’m sorry Helen. I’m not sure I understand what you mean.” the flawlessly made up woman explained pleasantly.
“Didn’t you say damaged goods should be disposed of immediately? Wouldn’t want to have to tell management you’ve been shirking your responsibilities…..” Helen pressed, “And you know what? Every one I find, I’ll report.”
She pocketed the case.
“That’s one. Two more and you are out of here….” she added, thrusting a thumb over her shoulder dramatically. Helen doubted management would listen to her - but at this point it was enough just to try and ruffle her robotic rival’s flawless feathers. Lina looked down at Helen’s pocket, then out toward the displays. Then those glacial eyes focused back on Helen. Those smug, generous lips parted.
“That will not be necessary, Helen.” the precisely enunciated voice stated clearly. The shapely sham-salesperson turned on her toes and made to walk out from behind the counter.
“Oh yes it will!” Helen insisted and she strode quickly back to the mop and bucket. As Lina approached elegantly on tip-toe, Helen swung the mop along the under-edges of some nearby displays, hoping to find another stray case of eyeshadow. Looking up while still mopping, she saw Lina crouching down and checking under a display with one hand. Helen was distracted by a nearby clattering sound - another case had been swept out from under the display. She laughed and bent down to retrieve it.
“Ah ha! Another one!” she gasped, holding up the case triumphantly. Lina looked over and stood gracefully. Helen was about to remind the shapely machine that “one more meant she was out” when Lina’s bare pointed left foot coming down on soapy, wet marble.
Helen yelped and swore. She’d got a shock somehow and reflexively released the wet handle of the mop. It balanced upright at an angle in the soapy bucket. Was that static electricity? Lina took another elegant step closer, the toes of her right foot meeting saturated white stone. Helen heard a strange buzzing sound and as Lina stepped forward again - hands poised, face serene - there was a loud crackle and a bright blue flash.
“JeSUS!” Helen exclaimed, backing away. A spark had spat out from under the robotic Brit’s bare right foot. Lina took another step and there was more buzzing. Her head cocked slightly to one side, the expression aloof and assured. Helen backed further away to one side as Lina continued forward - hands swinging smoothly, toned legs pacing confidently. There was another bright blue flash from between her toes and she came to an uncharacteristically abrupt halt, her pretty head - still cocked askew - turning to face Helen.
“That will not be necessary Helen.” that confident voice repeated then she leaned forward at the waist, almost bending in half - a hand reaching daintily down as that curious buzzing continued. While Lina remained posed crookedly forward and her hand searched under the nearest display, Helen heard a couple faint metallic ‘pings’ - like springs releasing - that sounded as if they had come from beneath the flawless skin of Lina’s bare back. The stunning Brit blinked a couple times then her head twitched slightly. That flawless face swivelled to look at Helen again, the expression still indomitably confident .
“You may return to the counter. Your assistance is not required.”HH
she proclaimed pleasantly, still posed with her pert rear end stuck up into the air. Helen was aware of someone else approaching, but didn’t bother to look who it was. Amidst the buzzing something fizzled faintly inside the shapely blonde. She sprung upright suddenly, her head still cocked to one side slightly, that confident gaze still fixed on Helen.
“I aim to provide the best possible service.” that generous mouth recited. There was more fizzling from somewhere and another sudden blue flash from her bare wet feet. Helen thought she could smell melting plastic. “Oh my god!” someone gasped. It was Paula. She stood not far from Helen, her hands over her mouth in shock, “She’s……a robot?”
“I’m sorry sir. I am unable to assist.” Lina continued clearly.
Helen nodded, her eyes still fixed firmly on the faulty robotic foreigner.
“Yeah. They all are, I think.” she murmured.
As Lina’s confident icy gaze lingered on her obliviously, Helen heard what sounded like a small electrical motor whirring into life. When Lina spoke again, only her lips moved. Her expression seemed fixed - though strangely confident and composed.
“I am not required to perform clean up operations. Not required.”
Helen could hear that winding motor speeding up, but Lina just remained standing on tip-toe in the soapy water - hands poised delicately at her sides - head at that curious crooked angle.
“My apologies. I am not required. Best possible.” that flawless voice explained smoothly.
Helen backed away further - Lina’s gaze seemed fixed on the now empty spot where Helen had been standing.
“What’s wrong with her?” Paula asked looking the shapely machine up and down uneasily. Helen vaguely indicated the floor.
“The water. I think she’s……..short circuiting.” she replied uneasily.
That whirring motor wound faster. There was a more pronounced crackle and Lina’s head twitched again, an eyelid flickering.
“I am required to report. Required. Yes sir.”
Her hands sprung into motion; elbows bending slightly; arms moving alternately forward and back slightly. As that strained electric motor spun faster and faster her head slowly tilted more and more to the side. Both her eyelids fluttered. The motor wound even more furiously.
“Another staff member. Unable to assist. My apologies. Accept. Accept.”
Helen heard another spring give way and a soft steely tinkling sound. Then a sudden loud bang made Paula yell and Helen jump back. That straining electric motor finally wound down. Lina’s head straightened and wobbled stiffly then she spun awkwardly around on her toes. After a half-turn she sprung into forward motion, still walking on tip-toe - though it seemed like the robotic retailer was having some trouble balancing. Those poised hands now swung with considered precision - the movements more hurried and stilted - each step seemed rushed and jerky. As Lina made awkward progress back toward the counter Helen noticed something else.
A section of Lina’s steely choker was askew, sticking out from the back of her neck at an angle as if on a hinge. “Please see another. Unable. Unable. I am not required.”
Helen stepped after the oblivious blonde and peered closer at the jutting piece of jewellery. There was the strong odour of burning plastic. Popped open as it was, the slim section of choker exposed a narrow rectangular hole in the back of Lina’s slender neck. Helen could see another computerised socket inside, but as she caught up and tried to get an even closer look there was a flash of sparks. She jumped back and just watched Lina go. A faint haze of smoke billowed around the overcharged automaton.
Helen heard Paula gasp again. She was pointing at Lina’s feet, her other hand still at her mouth. Helen looked too. As Lina walked stiffly away the soles of her bare wet feet flicked up behind her. On the ball of each foot there was a small black rectangle. With each step puffs of black smoke appeared from what Helen could only guess were computer sockets of some kind.
“To perform. Not required. Please see another. Unable.” Lina chattered pleasantly. When the shapely blonde reached the counter Helen was surprised to see her walk right into it. That toned torso tipped forward then straightened awkwardly. Then she just stood there with her hands resting at her sides, a thin veil of smoke rising up around her. Helen and Paula exchanged glances then walked over. Helen peered around Lina’s right shoulder.
The blonde Brit’s head twitched then swivelled slightly in Helen’s direction. Helen could hear cooling, ticking sounds from inside the blonde’s tall slender body. The stench of melted rubber made Helen cough.
“Uh. Are you feeling OK?” Helen pried uneasily looking Lina up and down. Lina just stared. A half-hearted fizzle of sparks flashed from the socket in her neck.
“You are in such trouble….” Paula whispered. Helen frowned.
“What? - it wasn’t my fault. She was the one who walked out there!” she insisted, “Anyway with any luck she’ll be fine. She just needs to cool off - right Lina?”
Lina’s full lips parted, her confident gaze fixed off in the distance somewhere.
“Please see. I am unable. Yes mister. Please see please see please see…..” she intoned droly. Paula rolled her eyes. “Yeah - she’ll be fine.” she scoffed.
That was when the sprinklers started.
Paula swore. Helen heard startled yells from around the store. For a moment Lina remained stock still in the torrential downpour. Her decoratively arranged hair sagged slowly in the deluge. Her scant dress clung wetly to her curves. Then as the floor around her became more and more drenched, Helen heard ominous electronic crackling. Helen backed away through the rain. Suddenly there was another bright blue flash. Lina’s body wobbled and then swivelled to the right. Helen could hear motors winding, servos straining. Lina’s eye’s looked characteristically aloof.
“Best possible. Not required.” the short-circuiting shop assistant droned automatically taking a few steps forward, buzzing and fizzling constantly. Her make up was running in the wet, her expression oblivious.
Another blue flash. Helen noticed more smoke - but not from Lina. It was appearing from the floor - from the edge of the aluminium surround where it met the white marble. A pair of startled, laughing customers ran by. Helen looked over at Paula’s counter. Through the downpour she could see Natalya still at her post. She seemed to be turning left and right indecisively - and leaning forward and straightening mechanically. Helen glanced down at the aluminium flooring again. Lina was short-circuiting their controlling computer - through the floor!
“What the HELL is going on here!” Helen heard someone bellow. It was Ligus’ assistant with a soggy newspaper held over his head. Helen shrugged as obviously as she could.
“I don’t know - ask her!” she called, pointing at the smouldering sparking salesperson walking stiffly around the counter.
“Oh my god! Lina! Lina!” the man called, moving around the counter after her. Lina was speaking, but over the noise of the heavy shower Helen could not hear what she was saying - either that or the failing curvaceous creation wasn’t speaking coherent words anymore.
Across the store Helen saw another one of Ligbus’ bionic beauties pacing confidently through the drizzle. The drenched brunette - Sheridan? - seemed unfazed by any theoretical computer problems until she walked straight into a display, bounced off it and fell backward. Lying on her back the shapely prostrate woman seemed to want to keep walking. Arms swung back and forward, legs kicked up and down sending that shapely sodden torso twisting awkwardly side to side. Helen noticed Natalya now seemed to be standing completely still at an unsual angle, her head cocked to one side, one shoulder raised up almost to her ear.
Another bright flash from Lina’s direction regained Helen’s attention. Ligbus’ assistant yelped and jumped away. He’d touched the drenched robotic damsel who was now standing stationary behind the counter. Her toned upper body was twitching forward and back, head cocking from side to side, the mouth forming apparently random shapes as puffs of smoke appeared. Her hair clung heavily to her face which in the wet looked like too-shiny plastic. The make up was smeared and running. Those formerly glacial eyes seemed completely disinterested and vacant. As that curvaceous torso twisted jerkily about, the dress clung here and there - the nipples of her too-pert breasts showing through the drenched fabric.
“Lina!” Ligbus’ right hand man yelled desperately again. He moved closer again, but seemed unwilling to touch the short circuiting shop assistant.
Over the spattering hiss of falling water Helen heard a sudden continuous crackling from inside the abortive blonde. Eyelids fluttered. That moist, smouldering mouth snarled unnaturally. Motors wound furiously. Ligbus’ man retreated a little as his shapely servant’s internal circuits whined and sputtered. Then, with a final definitive ‘bang’, that wet torso jerked back, bounced and began to tip slowly forward. Motors fizzled, slowed and wound down. Smoke trailed from a mouth that hung inelegantly agape. Slowly that rubber-firm bust pressed down onto the counter and then the head lowered smoothly, the forehead coming to rest on its wet surface. Ligbus’ assistant looked on in horror. Smoke trailed from the exposed socket in Lina’s silvery choker, which still sputtered and fizzled in the falling drizzle.
After a few moments Ligbus’ assistant looked up from his expired sales-bot and glared at Helen.
“You…..are FIRED!!” he bellowed, pointing a sinewy finger in Helen’s direction.
Helen sighed and looked at the floor. Then she shrugged.
“Y’know what? Fine. I don’t need this. Your perfect robotic sales assistant here was dumb enough to take off her shoes and then walked out onto a wet floor. She short-circuited herself. She set off the sprinklers too. But no, I’m betting you don’t want to hear that.”
Helen went to walk off, but then pointed at the still smouldering shapely blonde lying face down on the counter, adding,
“Hey - if you manage to get your pretty robo-toys working again you might want to add a no smoking clause to their contracts.”
With that she walked off to the staff room and got her coat. The rest of the staff - well, those who were still able - left with her.