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Copyright Ben Westerham 2018. All rights reserved.
An Unforgettable Stranger
The lights in the Boston department store never were very helpful when it came to making a woman’s skin look as good as it could. The harsh, white glare always seemed to draw attention to the inevitable little imperfections. The lines and the pimples, the fine, short hairs that couldn’t normally be seen. Sunlight was better. Its warmth was more forgiving, even for the most difficult of skin, but the make-up counter where Beth Krazwik plied her trade was so far from daylight it was almost dark whenever the lights were turned off and that presented something of a challenge where her customers were concerned.
As she dabbed a little colour on to the cheek of a plump, nervous lady, who remained unconvinced of the product’s effectiveness, Beth held back a sigh of frustration and hoped, as she’d done so many times before, that her customer wouldn’t see the blemished skin as clearly as she could. She lost so many sales when they looked in the mirror and those mean-spirited lights got to work, drawing attention to everything that could not be fully repaired or patched up. The lady shook her head, insisted it was no good and promptly turned and fled. The smile pinned on Beth’s face dropped away in an instant.
She replaced the lid on the smooth, circular container and slipped it back on to the shelf, then took the damp cloth she kept in a small dish and cleaned her fingers with her care and exactitude. Cleanliness might be next to Godliness, but it was also simply hygienic.
In the silence of the now deserted floor, Beth found her mind drifting. It wasn’t that her job was unpleasant. She liked the customers, most of the time. Especially those who lingered long enough to share little snippets of their lives and their loves. She found her colleagues friendly and good company. And, best of all, she didn’t have to spend her days, from beginning to end, sitting at a desk, tapping away at a typewriter, bored out of her mind, as so many of her friends did. It sounded hellish.
All the same, she couldn’t deny there was something missing. Perhaps it was a semblance of excitement or the rush of a drama. Some disaster that threw them all into a mad, mad panic and required the spectacular to put things to rights. Or? Or what? She didn’t really know. It was simply there, on the edge of her world, just out of sight, as if awaiting its moment.
He caught her eye as soon as he stepped out of the elevator. Tall and slim, with such a beautiful face and those deep, brown eyes that held her rapt from the first. He hesitated for a brief moment, not appearing to notice her staring, then stepped away to his left, half-lost among the leather scent of handbags and the silky smooth scarves. He walked with a casual and elegant grace that betrayed no sense of unease at this visit to such an alien land, where women were usually the sole inhabitants. Most men looked awkward. What mission, she wondered, had brought him here to brighten and lighten her day? What little trinket or outrageously expensive luxury did he seek? And for whom? A wife? A lover? Or perhaps a sister or a mother.
Still he seemed not to have noticed her and still she watched his every move. The gloves he caressed then returned to their shelf, the blood-red scarf he let fall across a single finger. A single manicured finger, she noticed. He was close enough now for her to make out such details. And still he appeared not to have seen her.
All the more was the surprise when he stopped his browsing and walked the last few yards right up to her counter. A tingle rippled up her spine and her body tensed. She tried to look away, but knew it was too late. A little warmth grew into her cheeks. As he stopped in front of her with a smile on his flawless face, the spice-tinged scent of his cologne lit her senses in so many ways. It was, she knew, fair to say he had her full and undivided attention.
“Can I help you?” The words were hers, she knew, but for a moment it seemed as if they came from somewhere else, so entranced was she by the new arrival.
“I rather hope you can.” His voice was full and deep, filled with education and self-assurance.
She wanted to purr, like a contented cat, but that really wouldn’t do. No ring on his wedding finger. She wondered at the possible.
Maybe it was her own pre-conceptions or her wishful imagination, but when he produced a gun from his jacket pocket and held it low against the counter top, it seemed extraordinary that such a man as this should resort to crime. She stared, not certain she was seeing right. This man? A gun? A crime?
The smile never left his lips and not a jot of stress or worry crossed his handsome face. It was all so very strange. Not at all what she would have expected from such a situation.
“Please accept my apologies for the inconvenience and unease,” he continued, in the same smooth manner. “It’s not my intention to cause you any harm. I would, though, be grateful if you’d pop the cash in that register into a bag and pass it to me.”
High-end watches had once been sold from the counter and, as she stood motionless, her eyes fixed on the gun, her right foot pressed against the side of the old panic alarm, hesitating, uncertain. Did she really want to see harm done to him? To cause him to be whisked away to prison, where he would fester and wallow until he’d done his time. It was odd, she thought, that she should consider anything else. But perhaps he was that very thing she had been missing. That something, whatever it was, that had been just out of view, almost there but never quite.
“If you wouldn’t mind,” he prompted, still calm, still self-assured.
She didn’t say a thing, merely opened the cash register and placed its modest contents into a small paper bag. Why her, she wondered? There were other, more valuable counters in the store where his takings would be far greater. Maybe it was because her floor was often so very quiet on a weekday afternoon or perhaps it was on an impulse, not something planned and pre-meditated. She handed him the bag, still without saying a word.
“Thank you. You’ll probably feel better for a glass of water,” he proposed with apparent sincerity.
As he turned and strolled away, she swivelled her foot on the high heel of the shoe, then let the sole come down on to the hard, plastic button. The alarm would be silent, everywhere other than in the guards’ room. And they were quick, there with her in less than two minutes, eager for information, anxious to take action before the opportunity had passed them by.
But though they were rapid and thorough in the extreme, there was no more sign of the tall, handsome stranger who had stolen her takings with such confidence and class. They let her go home early, once the police had taken a statement. Told her she must be sure to take it easy and give herself time to recover from such a hideous experience. Hideous, she wondered? Had it really been that bad? Had it really been bad at all?
The odd thing was, during the days and weeks that followed, she found herself looking time and again for that beautiful face and those manicured hands, hoping, then longing to see the man once more. And when her eyes weren’t roving the floor searching for a sight of him, her mind was filled with thoughts of this passing stranger.
She began to recognise within herself a growing sense of discontent and the feeling that something was missing from her life. It was ridiculous, she had told herself at first. She’d spent barely two or perhaps three minutes in his company and he’d said so very little. And he was dangerous, an armed criminal. What on earth was there to be attracted to in a man like that?
But he wouldn’t leave her alone. The vacant, daydream-filled days were soon followed by evenings at home sat in front of the TV, where she would become aware, after long periods of time, that she hadn’t been paying the slightest bit of attention to whatever was being shown. Her head was filled with thoughts of where he might be, what he might be doing and a myriad other questions for which she could expect no answers.
When, one morning, a colleague bounced into work bursting with news of her own engagement and forthcoming wedding, Beth said and did all the right things, just like the others, but inside she felt strangely empty. The news barely caused a ripple on the surface of her own life. But hadn’t she herself wanted such things as marriage, children, holidays to sunny parts? The whole happy families piece? Now she didn’t know what she really wanted, other than one thing. And that one thing, that one man, who continued to grow in her heart and her mind, was gone and unobtainable.
She lectured herself about her own stupidity and tried as best she could to bring her life back to something like normal. Perhaps she ought to make more of an effort to find herself a man. It had been a while, over two years in fact, since she’d cast aside her last suitor, who’d felt it not unreasonable to welcome more than just the one woman into his ugly, self-centred life. Yes, she’d try again, keep her eyes open for some elegant, well-built specimen who would wine her and dine her and shower her with presents and kindness.
And for a time the dark-eyed stranger, who’d become such an obsession, receded into the shadows and life became more or less normal. Until, that is, she read the report in the newspaper about a man who had been shot dead in a department store across town. He had been caught in the act of holding up a middle-aged woman who worked alone at a counter at Richmond and Drakes and gunned down when he attempted to escape. But it wasn’t a member of the store’s security team who shot him. It was a female customer, who happened upon the scene and who kept in her handbag a small revolver, which she was fully trained to use. She had shot him twice and he had been pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. His name was currently unknown.
Beth stared at the words on the paper, the world around her receding into the background. It couldn’t, could it? Surely not. Surely he was too careful to be surprised like that? No, he was too sure, too practised to make a mistake like that. He must be. He must. She read the words again and had the same thoughts once more, but she couldn’t throw off the creeping sense that something she so longed for was now lost from her life forever. If it had once been a remote prospect, then now it seemed an impossible one. Tears welled in her eyes and a tremor rippled through her body. She sat down on the stool behind her counter, silent, her hands in her lap and just stared at the floor.
Beth didn’t know how long she had been sitting there when she heard a man cough. She looked up. He was old, thin, the skin on his face a sea of deep wrinkles. It might have helped if he had smiled, but all he did was hold out a swamp green scarf he’d chosen from hundreds. It was ugly. She took his money and gave back the scarf in a small paper bag and thanked him for his custom. He left without saying a word.
She knew now what she was going to do and with that certainty came a surprising sense of relief, as if a burden had been lifted from her slender shoulders. She smiled. Life would be different now, better. The restlessness that had lingered on the outer edges of her life was an itch she now knew how to scratch and that was exactly what she intended to do. The smile on her face grew. Whoever would have thought her life would take such a turn. Beth left her counter, collected her coat and bag from the staff room and, without saying a word to anyone, walked out of the building, filled with the self-assurance and confidence she’d recognised in that unknown man who’d made such an unexpected impact on her life.
The following day, a tall brunette wearing a calf-length, buff-coloured raincoat walked into the menswear department of a store in the city’s main shopping district. It was the middle of the afternoon and the floor was devoid of other customers, save for a lone, elderly man fussing over a selection of socks. The woman began to peruse a collection of expensive cotton shirts, seemingly uncertain what she wanted, all the while moving step-by-step closer to the counter where a lone young man waited for his next customer.
He’d noticed her, of course. It was so quiet he could hardly have missed her. She was beautiful, the kind of woman he’d love to take home. But there was something else about her. It took him a moment or two to work out what it was that gave her that something extra, something not many other women possessed. It was there in the way she stood, the way she walked and most of all in those deep, green eyes. She oozed a confidence and self-assurance he could only dream of possessing himself and it had a sex appeal all of its own, powerful, even at a distance.
The elderly man gave up his attempt at selecting a new pair of socks and wandered unevenly away to the elevator. As soon as the doors closed to take him away, the young man behind the counter found himself starring directly into those deep, green eyes, transfixed and unable to speak. She smiled. If she’d not had him hooked already, then she most definitely did now. She’d made his day, though he couldn’t possibly go so far as to tell her that. Others had been sacked for less.
Indeed, he would remember those eyes even more than he would the gun she produced from her handbag before demanding he empty the contents of his till into a small silk pouch she provided for the purpose. And he would never forget that warm, calm, confident voice that reached out to him across the counter and eased him into compliance, then left him standing speechless as she turned and strolled away.
** End **
Shorts in the Dark
Every month you will find a new short story here, always with a darker criminal theme. Below is April's story. Enjoy!