On her first visit, Pauline sorted old, partially used spices and cleaned residue off the shelves that housed them. She found it disgusting that such items were even offered for sale; they weren’t rare or even old enough to be valuable, just everyday used, slightly-rusted McCormick spice containers with various powders leaching out of them. Pauline decided that she didn’t really want to know where they had come from, some dead person’s estate no doubt. Lost in her reverie, she didn’t notice the shadow of the man standing behind her, watching. She turned and gaped at him, hastily dropping a small tin of what was once nutmeg.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you,” the man rasped and bent down to scoop up the dropped spice tin. “Name’s Chester. I’m Betty Lou’s hubby. I just wanted to meet the new young thing she’s got cleaning the shop now. Her last girl Dinah left unexpectedly. Just up and vanished.”
Chester stood there with his hand outstretched, his thin fingers clasped around the tin. He was a scant twig of a man, not even six feet tall, with dramatically bony features and dark brown eyes that came across as deep black pools without distinguishing the iris from the pupil. His thinning grey hair wired its way across the top of his balding head. A red and black plaid shirt draped itself over him as if still on its hanger. He gave the air about his extended gaunt hand a quick wave. Pauline hesitantly reached out and grabbed the nutmeg.
“Nice to meet you…” he exclaimed. “What was your name again?”
“Oh, sorry” she said with a jolt, “I’m Pauline. I’m going to school at the College of Art and Design, studying fashion. I’m here working off that mannequin,” she said gesturing to the elegant beauty that had transfixed her when she first stopped in.
“That’s good to hear,” Chester responded. “Just stay out of trouble and do what Betty Lou needs done, and you’ll have her worked off in no time.” His dark eyes sparkled as he smiled wryly. “Oh, and one more thing,” Chester said as his face and voice dropped. “Don’t be going downstairs – just a broom closet and my workshop down there. Nothing for you to be concerned with.” His black eyes deepened with a sinister undertone.
“Sure,” Pauline answered, glancing at the dark, empty stairs in the corner of the shop. Chester slunk off to chat with Betty Lou at the register while Pauline finished cleaning spice tins, warily shooting a glance at the stairs every so often. There was a soft swishing sound emanating from the basement, perhaps something mechanical like an overworked sump pump but seemingly echoing through a hollow space, more like a scuttling in the walls from mice or rats or something larger.