SHOPPING MALL TRAGEDY, blared the newspaper headline. And then the punchline below: Shopper Plunges To Death In Shocking Accident.
Robyn scanned the headline cynically. Accident my arse, she thought. Half an hour in these places was enough to make anyone want to top themselves. Still, might be an interesting read.
She grabbed the tabloid, and stuffed it in her shopping basket before advancing into the supermarket.
She wandered into the fresh produce area, the sweet smell of fruit tempting her towards a lovely display of shiny red apples that were on special. A woman with a child stuffed in her trolley followed her, the child whooping in shrill bursts. Shaking her head in dismay, Robyn bypassed the apples and escaped towards the seafood vendor instead.
Oh well, while she was here...
A paper-wrapped piece of fish in her basket, Robyn paused and scanned the aisle signs for her next purchase. Before she had time to consider, the familiar sound of squealing resumed behind her and Robyn quickly darted down the cereal aisle to avoid that dratted woman with her child. Shop assistants mechanically grabbed generic cereal from their trolleys and stacked the plain packaged boxes onto the shelves. Unable to get near the selection of the cheaper cereal and unwilling to come back, Robyn settled for a small box of wildly overpriced muesli, reassured by the long list of things that it didn’t contain. She hadn’t even worried about some of these things until the label proclaimed them to be absent!
After some navigation, Robyn eventually reached the bathroom and medical aisle to pick up some shampoo. Which was all she had actually come in for, she thought dismally as she viewed the several items already in her basket. The woman with the screaming child rounded the corner with a deafening blast. Good God, was this woman following her??
Robyn grabbed the nearest shampoo bottle and quickly continued down the aisle, only to find her way blocked by two crossed trolleys, the owners of which were having a leisurely, long-winded chat. Robyn tried desperately to catch their attention. “Excuse me,” she entreated through clenched teeth. “Can I get through here, please?”
The women stared in open-mouth shock at the rudeness, and one of them swung her trolley to the side with a long-suffering huff through pursed lips. Robyn squeezed through the gap, her head aching with tension and that damn kid’s screaming. Good Christ, couldn’t the woman paste some duct tape over her child’s mouth or something?
Oh good. Painkillers!
The supermarket had run out of generic aspirin (again!), so Robyn grabbed a packet of branded painkillers. Paused. Grabbed another packet. It was that kind of day.
Finally, time to go through the checkout. The line inched forward agonisingly slowly, giving her plenty of time to survey all the sweetly colourful temptations on the way to the counter. A chocolate bar, breath mints, and an insanely expensive bottle of water made their way into her basket before she could break free of the checkout and plan her next steps.
Hmm, maybe a quick visit to the toilets, then grab some lunch. She resignedly joined the queue in the ladies’ restroom. And God almighty, what was that smell?? A fart and a series of splashes from the end aisle answered her question, and she wrinkled her face in disgust, looking for empathy from her fellow sufferers. The impassive faces in the queue continued to stare ahead with patient blankness.
Dear Lord, couldn’t anyone else smell that? Robyn decided she didn’t need to pee THAT badly, and fought her way out with a rising sense of panic when nobody ... would ... bloody well ... MOVE!!!!
She finally burst back into the restroom foyer and gave a sad smile of sympathy to the unfortunate cleaning lady propped up in the corner, but the woman continued to stare blankly into space. Well, fine. Whatever.
The first thing Robyn saw when she hit the relatively fresh air was a specialty tea shop. It shone like a saviour through a gap in the crowd, beckoning her with the promise of rest and breathing space.
She headed determinedly in that direction, ordered a tiny cup of vanilla cinnamon chamomile chai, and sank gratefully into a vacant seat, embracing the peace. She would have expected a little more tea for ten dollars, but at least there was enough to wash down two painkillers. She savoured the remains of the tea while the small cafe started to fill with customers, ignoring the increasingly black looks from the counter staff. For ten dollars, she would darn well use this space for as long as it took!
She looked up as someone came over and stood at her table. A thuggish looking youth stood there with a cup of coffee. He wore a dark hoodie over a cap, which hid the top half of his face in menacing shadow. She could make out part of a tattoo crawling out of his shirt and up his neck, disappearing into the darkness. More blue ink covered his pale hands, and continued up his thin arms.
He didn’t say anything, just stood there staring at her. Robyn felt her skin crawl, and her breathing quickened as she grabbed her belongings and left the café. She didn’t look back, but could feel him staring after her.
She plunged back into the surging crowd of shoppers. Where on earth did all these people come from??
Robyn zigzagged the best she could, but made little progress. Why was it that no matter which direction she went, everyone else was always going the opposite way??
She finally broke free, only to come up against a line of shuffling old beasts strung out in an impassable line.
Robyn tacked back and forth in frustration, but couldn’t get through the line. Loud sighs and throat clearing went ignored. An opportunity arose as they passed by a boutique T-shirt store, and Robyn darted around the line into the shop. Her overtaking strategy was promptly thwarted as a predatory shop assistant pounced on her.
“Hi, my name’s Sharla, how can I help you take a bouti-shirt home today?” Sharla’s smile was friendly enough, but Robyn knew she was not leaving that shop empty handed. Shitshitshit.
She gazed desperately at the wide array of tops and settled on one that didn’t look too ... boutiquey. Plus it was reduced from $80 down to $40. Score.
Fifteen minutes later and $40 poorer, Robyn ventured out of the shop. No sign of the blockage that got her into this, thank goodness, but was that ...? She stepped back as the thuggish youth wandered past, his tattooed hands now thrust into his pockets. He was so close that she could smell his body odour mingled with the ghost of cigarette smoke. Surely he hadn’t noticed her, so why did she feel his awareness? She sensed the salesperson approaching her again and silently slid out of the shop behind hoodie-boy, careful to create some distance between them.
Right, chemist next. Mental note, avoid the pop-up marketing stall on the way. Look down, don’t make eye contact. A small group entered her peripheral vision, and she tried to look like part of the crowd. Safety in numbers, right?
After half a minute of wandering in step with her escorts, she figured they must be getting pretty close now to the pop-up and she dared a peek, her heart sinking as she realised she had been herded into the danger zone. Their traitorous deed done, the group drifted off, leaving Robyn within striking distance. She froze in place as a young saleswoman made her way over, waving a small sachet in her hand.
“Would you like to try a free sample of our age-defying hand-cream, ma’am?”
Robyn watched in disbelief as her own hand rose to take the sample in a Pavlovian response to free stuff. The trap was sprung. Before she knew it, she was trapped in a faux-leather swivel chair, her path to freedom blocked by the earnest young saleswoman, who was busily setting out a bewildering array of sparkly jars.
“My name’s Ingrid”, she stated confidently. “Have you heard of the Himalayan eternity starflower?”
Robyn hadn’t, but nodded anyway, in a valiant effort to ward off a potentially long and tedious explanation.
The saleswoman waited expectantly for Robyn to share her understanding of the plant.
“Uh, it’s a flower? From the Himalayas?” she took a stab at it, and was rewarded by a beaming smile from Ingrid.
“Yes! But it’s a very special flower.” Ingrid gushed. “The petals never die, you see. They just keep regenerating. We have harnessed the DNA and use the extract in our range of cleansers and moisturisers to help your skin regenerate, knock out wrinkles and blemishes, and even out skin tone. As you can see, I use the range myself,” the 20 year-old added, preening modestly. “This jar of moisturiser would normally retail for $800 in the store, but today you can take it home for only $500!”
Robyn nodded while half-listening to the spiel, her eyes darting from side to side in search of escape.
Wait. What? Did she say ... Robyn looked Ingrid in the eye, shocked to the core.
Ingrid smiled, and continued smoothly. “We do have a special on at the moment, though. You can have the moisturiser and cleanser set for only $400. That’s over a thousand dollars’ worth for less than half price!”
Robyn felt her face whiten, and she broke out in a sweat. She sensed her credit card curling up at the edges in horror.
“And!” Ingrid was made of stern stuff, she was not giving up easily. She rummaged through the display products. “If you buy the set, you can choose another product absolutely free!”
Robyn looked at the tiny pots of hand cream, serums, gels.
“Thanks, but I really can’t afford ...”
Ingrid beamed at her. “We take EFTPOS and credit card.” She expertly boxed up the products and handed them to Robyn. Robyn handed over her credit card, and just like that she was the proud owner of overpriced hype that she was confident she would never use.
She staggered out of the pop-up in a daze, and stood hyperventilating for a minute.
As the mists cleared, she saw a familiar hooded figure prowl past her, the smell of BO and cigarettes trailing in his wake.
This was just the last damn straw. Robyn strode after hoodie-boy and grabbed his arm.
“Why are you following me?” she demanded.
The rest of the words died in her throat as hoodie-boy turned to stare at her with soulless glass eyes. Cold blue flashes pulsed behind the lenses, and his arm grated and vibrated underneath her hand.
Everything went still. She sensed groups of people silently focusing on her, then slowly moving as one in her direction.
In the basement operations room, Craig slapped his hands on the desk in frustration. “God dammit!!” he yelled. “We’ve been made. Who the hell is operating Crimbot-II?” No-one looked at him, but he noticed one of the newbies (Ronald? Robert?) hunching defensively into his chair, his ears glowing red with guilt.
Craig spun back to his screen, watching helplessly as the female shopper was slowly surrounded by the mall’s Shop-bots. He had been going so well, masterfully maneuvring the woman toward specific brands and designated shops owned by companies that paid handsomely for this premium service. He had been so focused on his own operation that he was barely aware of the clumsy machinations of the thuggish Crimbot-II sabotaging his moves.
Oh well, at least he’d managed to rack up a pretty good dollar score on behalf of his employer first.
Five floors above, Robyn fell from the balcony, screaming as she plunged to her death.