Nalda scared the crap out of Fiona. Always had. She was tall, way taller and more solid than Fiona, and she never looked you quite directly in the eye. She had this thick European accent, and never smiled. And she was strong. Not just ‘big person’ strong, either. More like ‘forklift truck’ strong. Nalda wore sunglasses, even at night and she was forever threatening to travel back in time and kill someone.
On the other hand, she was quite good with children.
Belinda–who worked in Paints now– was off sick. Fiona had been temporarily moved from Plumbing to Paints, and every time she went to the spray paint locker, she could see the little open area between the end of aisle fifteen and the rear wall of the Pavilion. There, in a little area behind a short plastic fence, Fiona saw Nalda leading the Saturday morning kids craft group.
“Ja, you see you are too much glidder using,” Nalda said to a girl in a pink fairy princess costume. “Dat is why it is running. Go easy on der glidder, use it to accent, not overpower, der acrylic paints.”
“Thanks, Miss Robot!” the child said, hugging Nalda’s leg.
“Affection acknowledged,” Nalda said. “Now I must deal with dat little dopey boy eating der crayons. As for you: I’ll be back.”
Fiona smiled. She guessed that deep down in the killer cyborg’s cold mechanical heart, Nalda loved her job. Fiona wished she could take such joy from her own work. Maybe she could have, if she hadn’t gone along with Axel’s plans. Her terrible secret was driving a wedge between her and her coworkers. Norman was the only one she could talk to, and he’d been too cranky to talk much, since he’d been transferred to the cafeteria.
“Is that the Kids Kraft Korner?” asked the young mother of an incredibly shy looking four year old girl.
“It used to be, until someone figured out the initials and, yeah, we had to change it,” Fiona said.
The young woman squinted as she worked this one out.
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “I see. What is it now?”
“Nalda there calls it the ‘Kinder, Kunst, Kraft.'”
“Uh… Ok. Do you know if there’s room for little Bronwyn here?”
“I think so,” Fiona said. “Nalda! You have room for one more?”
Nalda walked over. From her immense height, she looked down on little Bronwyn. Fiona thought she saw a red light somewhere behind the lenses of Nalda’s sunglasses. The child looked up at the towering apparition before him, seemingly uncertain whether to cry or go straight to soiling herself. Nalda reached down and lifted the tyke by his armpits to her eye level.
“Dis one,” she said. “Dis one will be a watercolourist. I am in her eyes seeing it. Dere is fire, ja, but also delicacy. Ach. Vatercolours. Alles klar?”
With a faint whirr of servos, she took the kid into the little craft area. The child’s mother watched, open mouthed.
“Here are vatercolours. Here ist water. Important to use correct amount of water. Not too much not too little, ja? Now, vat paint you, liebchen?”
“A unicorn,” Bronwyn said.
“Gut. Later ve vill discuss proportion and colour theory. For now, paint!”
The child’s mother shot a terrified glance at Fiona. “She’s very good, you know,” Fiona said. To prove her point, she took from her pocket a key ring, with a pendant in the shape of a perfect Attic vase, black except for the red figure of an Arcadian shepherd playing his pipes. The whole thing was about five centimetres long, and made out of polymer clay.
“Did she make that?”
“One of her students did,” Fiona said, turning the little vase upside down so the woman could see the base.
“‘Timmy, age 5,'” the mother read, relaxing a little. “Well I hope Bronwyn will be all right,” she said. “I’ve heard bad things about the safety record here. Collapsing shelves and so on.”
“We had a run of bad luck,” Fiona said. She was parroting the official line, not believing a word she said. “Look, every shop has an accident now and then. Sometimes they just clump together. Like sometimes you can flip a coin ten times and it’ll split evenly between heads and tails and sometimes you’ll get ten heads or ten tails. Just probability.”
“I guess,” the mother sighed. “I’d just rather not go back to the DIY Barn again. Their Kids craft area is creepy.” To prove her point, she reached into her handbag, taking out a childish picture of a man’s head in profile. The man was jowly and bald, and his face was circled by what looked at first like ivy, but which Fiona quickly realised were wreaths of laurel. Beneath in a scrawled hand was written: “mR SmiTh, ar lEEder.”
“Huh,” Fiona said.
At this point, Christian ambled past. Fiona didn’t care for Christian. He was an extraordinarily pretty young man, who’d started as a cashier not long after the explosion of Axel’s deathray. Since then, he’d had a meteoric rise through the ranks. His sales record was second to none, edging Fiona out from her position as the rising young team-member — though that was not why she disliked him.
Christian smiled lazily at her and Fiona forced a smile in return. She was at a loss to understand his success when he always looked half asleep. He didn’t stop to talk. Fiona waited until he was out of sight, then sneered at his back.
“That guy’s a jerk,” she muttered.
She expected Bronwyn’s mother to change the subject or walk away. Instead, she smiled and adopted an ‘I’m listening’ posture.
“He took the job of my friend Norman in power tools,” Fiona said.
“So Norman was fired?”
“No, that’s the thing. They made him manager of the Pavilion Café, which is technically a promotion, but he hates the job. He always wanted to work in the power tool shop, but he’s helping to support his mother so he couldn’t turn down the extra money.”
“So why are you interested?”
“I haven’t worked since Bronwyn was born,” the woman said. “I miss office gossip so badly.”
That was when the trolley spun out of control.
It was one of the heavier trolleys, loaded up with plants and bags of soil, and being pushed along the rear aisle. The man who’d been pushing it gamely tried to regain control of the handle, but he slipped and fell, leaving the trolley thundering towards the Kid’s group. Fiona pushed down every protective urge in her body. Nalda could handle the trolley. She ran the other way. Past the trolley, past the fallen man, and seeking the culprit who had pushed him over
She’d run through every possibility as to who this culprit might be, the source of all the accidents. Axel had been a suspect, soon dropped. Whatever else you could say about him, he was fiercely loyal to the Pavilion. Then there had been some of staff who’d been fired. One of them might pull a cruel prank, but a weeks long campaign of terror seemed unlikely. Agents of the DIY Barn? That seemed the most likely contender.
No time for speculation now. Time to find out! Fiona skidded on the same slippery patch of floor that had caused the man to lose control of the trolley — a puddle of lubricant. Fiona managed to keep upright, barely, and reflectively reached out with her power. Fortunately, the fluid was water based. It swept away with a wave of her hand.
She almost ran past aisle twelve, when a movement caught her eye. A flapping motion, like a flag or… a cloak. A black cloak! A figure in a black cloak and hat was running away, towards the front of the store. The saboteur! It had to be.
“Stop him!” Fiona shouted. “Stop him!”
Adam from Garden Furniture made a lunge for the fleeing figure, as she passed the Enquiries counter. The black-clad form jumped, kicking off the front of the great shelves, passing over Adam’s head, and sending the poor guy to the floor. Donna from lighting might have grabbed the fugitive, but she was so shocked by what happened to Adam that her quarry felled her with a quick but effective kick to the shin.
Fiona redoubled her efforts, sprinting as fast as she could, roaring at the top of her voice for help. She wasn’t much of an athlete. Already her lungs felt like twin furnaces and her eyes swam. Some woman from Indoor Plants whose name Fiona could never remember grabbed the fugitive’s left arm, and a burly customer in a Newcastle Knights jersey grabbed the right. Fiona almost relaxed–until the black-clad villain banged his captors heads together and ran.
But the incident had slowed him. Fiona was nearly on top of him when she tripped and nearly fell. She looked back to see what she’d tripped on, but saw nothing but Angela McKenzie from Blinds and Curtains.
Fiona thought that the cloaked figure was heading for the garden centre to escape. Instead, he veered off and slipped into the toilet. The door was closed with a bang, followed by the sound of the bolt sliding into place. Fiona stood, leaning against the wall, gulping cool air into her burning lungs.
What to do now? She could increase water pressure in the toilet, blow all the gaskets… No, too much. But physically she was in no state to break down the door…
“Stand aside, Fiona.”
It was Nalda, looking just as pissed off as an emotionless cyborg can look.
“Where,” Fiona gasped. “Where did you get that leather jacket from?”
“Der Kinder are safe,” Nalda said. “Now to get der culprit.”
Fiona stood back as Nalda drove her right fist through the door, and unlocked it from the inside. “Come with me — if you want to help me beat up dis asshole.”
Nalda lead the way. Through the spots before her eyes, Fiona was dimly aware that there was a large mob of staff and customers behind them. Well they could wait their turn. Fiona followed Nalda into the little anteroom between the male and female toilets. An elderly lady emerged from the women’s room.
“Have you seen dis man?” Nalda said, holding up a hastily drawn charcoal sketch of a cloaked figure in a broad-brimmed hat.
“No, love,” the old woman said.
“Der men’s room. We haff him!”
Fiona had been in the men’s room before, but only after hours while she and Wellsey had been doing running repairs. She followed Nalda in to find…
The room was empty of people. It contained a grubby urinal and a grubbier sink. The tiny window was closed, and showed no signs of having been opened lately. That left the single, grubby cubicle.
“Wait by the door,” Nalda whispered. “He’ll try to get past me. If he succeeds, you must stop him.”
Fiona took her position. God the room smelt bad. How did men stand it? Nalda crept up to the cubicle door she opened it and called out: “Skynet in Himmel!”
As Fiona watched, Nalda walked into the cubicle. For a second, she held her breath, then the big cyborg woman walked out, holding a black hat with a broad brim. Fiona’s heart fell. They’d been close! So close!
“What do you think it means?” she said.
“What it means,” Nalda said, “is ‘fuck dis noise, I’m not until 11.45 waiting. I am taking mein break now.'”
“You know what?” Fiona said. “I think it does mean that.”