“Have you tried the mortgage advisory board?” Jude droned from behind the desk, occasionally glancing out the window at the sunshine beating down on the streets and the ice cream van rolling past with its tinny music blaring.
“I already tried,” Venus replied, rocking in the chair on the opposite side of the desk. “They fired me after I accused the manager of being an imposter and I pulled on his moustache.”
“What about driving lorries?”
“I suppose being on the road would be useful,” Venus said, rubbing her chin. “But no, it would be bad if a mystery were to occur and I was out of town.”
“Are there any jobs that you’re interested in?” Jude sighed, sinking even deeper into the chair which had become far too accustomed to the shape of her body. “Or any places in town which haven’t fired you yet?”
“It’s not my fault I keep on getting fired! I just can’t concentrate on the job when there’s a mystery to solve,” Venus said, taking her pipe out of her pocket and sucked on the mouthpiece, trying to look thoughtful and distant.
“You can’t smoke in here.”
“It’s alright; it’s made of liquorice,” Venus said, taking a bite to demonstrate. The taste made her gag a little, but it looked cool, which was the most important thing.
“If you don’t try and concentrate, you’ll never be able to hold down a job,” Jude said, holding her hands behind her head.
“It’s not that I don’t want a job,” Venus said, “it’s just that all the ones I do get aren’t… parallel to my interests.”
“And what are your interests?” Jude asked.
“I wish to solve the greatest mysteries which plague the town of Shuffleforth!” Venus said, leaping onto the desk, sending several papers flying and drawing stares from the other people around her. “Be they supernatural or the work of mankind, I, Venus King, will solve them all!”
“Except you need to be a qualified detective to solve crimes,” Jude said, pulling her most important papers away before Venus could leave boot prints on them. “And the supernatural… That’s not even a real job. I don’t have any listings for ‘supernatural detective’ in my database.”
“But that’s what I want to do with my life,” Venus said, finally jumping down from the desk and settling back into her seat. “I think that’s the only thing I could be really good at.”
“Have you ever solved any actual mysteries?” Jude asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Well… I found out who was stealing all the newspapers from our street,” Venus answered, her eyes shifting slightly. “Turns out the paperboy was too lazy to deliver them all and was dumping them in the hedges behind the allotments. But isn’t there anything on that database? Anything at all?”
Jude sighed once more and took another long look through the list of jobs on her screen.
“How about this – Quidrealm. You know, the pound shop? They’ve been asking me to send them someone. And there was that girl who-”
“Yes, Madison Wilkinson. The plastic bag. I read all about it,” Venus said, sucking on her candy pipe again.
A few weeks ago, the police had found the body of a young woman named Madison Wilkinson hanging from a telephone post just outside of town. That was strange enough, but what nobody could figure out why she’d been holding a Quidrealm bag. It had been brand new, yet empty. Venus had tried her best to help the investigation, but they had pushed her away as they always did, saying something about how she ‘wasn’t qualified’ and ‘only got in the way’. Eventually the police had put it down to suicide and closed the case. But they’d never explained the plastic bag. It had been bothering Venus ever since.
“I’ll take the case!” Venus said, standing up triumphantly.
“It’s not a case; it’s a job,” Jude said. “But at least we finally found you one. Please try to keep this one for at least a few months.”
“Oh, don’t you worry,” Venus said, “I’ll give this case all the time it needs.”
She marched out of the job centre without so much as a thank you or a goodbye. Not that Jude minded. She was just glad that the girl was out of her hair. For a few days, at least. Until she lost her job again and wound up right back here.
Venus began scanning the manager’s office the moment she entered, searching for clues. The manager hadn’t seemed to notice during the interview, which Venus had aced thanks to her ‘extensive experience’ in retail. She just left out the fact that none of those jobs had lasted longer than six months.
“Well, you have enough experience. And we need somebody right away,” Kerri, the manager, said. “I’ve been short staffed the last few weeks since somebody left unexpectedly. And most of the ones the job centre send don’t last long.”
“Well, that’s not going to happen with me,” Venus said, hoping that her eyes weren’t shifting too much.
“That’s good to hear. Stick around here for long enough and you’ll go far here at Quidrealm. In five years’ time, you could be where I am right now,” Kerri said. Venus smiled and swallowed a lump in her throat, severely hoping that it wouldn’t happen.
Of course it wouldn’t, she told herself. She was a detective. A sleuth. An investigator of both the paranormal and more-or-less normal. That was her calling and her purpose in life. She wasn’t going to be stuck here.
She was taken to a back room and given a scratchy shirt and a badge which said ‘Xander’.
“We don’t have any Venuses,” Kerri said as she rifled through the box of badges, sporting the names of employees who had already left Quidrealm behind. A surprisingly large amount for a store which had only been open for seven years, Venus noticed. “You’ll have to wear this until we can get a new one.”
“Not a problem,” Venus said as she attached ‘Xander’ to her chest. The name on her badge didn’t matter much, anyway.
“You’ll have to do something about your hair,” Kerri said as she took her in with an upturned nose.
“What’s wrong with my hair?” Venus asked as she gripped one of the curls she’d been up half the night styling just for this interview. She took pride in her blonde locks and the Victorian style curls which were so important to her aesthetic.
“You have to wear it up.”
“Oh, of course,” Venus said, finding an old rubber band in her pocket left over from a previous failed retail job. “Because of the fresh fruit and vegetables.”
“We don’t sell those.”
“Store policy,” Kerri answered. Her gaze remained fixed on Venus, still unsatisfied. “Don’t you have any proper shoes?”
“These… aren’t proper shoes?” Venus asked as she lifted one of her brown loafers, freshly polished.
“Uniform rules are black shoes only.”
“But aren’t I going to be behind the counter? Nobody will even see my shoes.”
“Wear black shoes from tomorrow,” Kerri answered, not waiting for any reply as she led Venus out the door.
So far so good, she thought. Despite her apparently inappropriate and highly illegal shoes. She’d passed the first trial and gotten through the gate. Now all she needed to do was find some more information.
“I heard about that girl who was found mur… dead with a Quidrealm bag in her hand,” Venus said as she followed Kerri through the back rooms.
“Yes,” Kerri said as she opened the door to the shop floor. It was mostly empty except for a small child pulling things out of their packages and leaving them on the floor. Neither Kerri or the child’s mother seemed to notice or remotely care. “That was terrible publicity for us. Sales went down two percent the week afterwards.”
“So how exactly did she come to have that bag in her hand?” Venus asked, reaching for the notebook and pen she always kept in her pocket. “Do you know what was in it?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Kerri said sharply as they reached the cash registers. “You know how to use an electronic register, I assume?”
“Oh yes, I’ve used lots,” Venus said. She was about to launch into several more questions about Madison’s death but Kerri spoke first.
“Lavender here will show you what to do. If you need me, I’ll be in the office,” she said before walking abruptly back the way she’d come.
“Hi, I’m Lavender!” the woman behind the counter said. Taking a single look at her, it was clear the name suited her. She bore lavender eyeshadow, lavender lipstick, and bore a scent of cheap lavender perfume which made Venus cough a little. Her smile was impossibly large and she wore her tacky uniform as if she’d been born in it.
“Venus,” she introduced herself with a handshake. No lavender nail polish, she noticed with surprise. That must have been a store policy, too.
“Welcome to the Quidrealm family!”
“Yes, we’re all a family here. Just think of me as your mum.”
Venus didn’t want to tell her that she already had a mum, even one who didn’t support her sleuthing dreams and questioned why she couldn’t find a ‘nice normal’ job and move out. But she didn’t have time to argue back before Lavender was tugging her behind the register which was to be hers.
“Alright, let’s get you all set up and then you’ll be ready to serve the customers!” Lavender said as if they were preparing to put on a parade. She grinned through Lavender’s demonstration of how the electronic register worked – which Venus already knew – and the process of serving customers – which she was more than familiar with – then had her stand and watch as she served a few customers.
“Now you’re ready to serve customers of your own,” she said as if she’d just graduated from astronaut training and was about to go on the first mission to Mars.
It wasn’t that much different than any other retail job she’d ever worked. The customer didn’t have their money ready even after waiting in line for ten minutes, answered several phone calls, and left without so much of a ‘thank you’ with their single pack of gum. He did take the time to call her ‘Xander’ in a highly mocking tone, though.
“Easy,” Venus said with a smile.
“Oh dear, Venus. You forgot the most important thing of all,” Lavender said with a slightly flattened smile which might have been her equivalent of a frown.
“What?” Venus asked. “I smiled, I said ‘thank you’ and ‘have a nice day’. I even checked his ID for the energy drink he didn’t buy.”
“But you forgot all about the upselling,” Lavender said, sweeping a hand over the box of candy hotdogs next to the counter. “You must ask every customer who comes to your counter if they want any Sweetdogs today.”
“So Quidrealm can earn more money, silly!”
“What happens if we don’t try to upsell these?”
“Then you don’t get a ranking on the leaderboard.”
“What happens if you’re at the top of the leaderboard?”
“It means you upsold the most for the week.”
“I know what it means, but what do you get? What’s the reward?”
“You get to be at the top of the leaderboard!”
Venus wanted to say more, but had a feeling that there wasn’t anything more to add. So, she turned to the next customer who had now arrived at her counter, and put on a practised fake smile.
“Welcome to Quidrealm!” she said as she reached into the customer’s basket.
“What do you mean ‘welcome’? I’ve been here for half an hour already,” the customer said, a large middle-aged woman with a face like a storm.
“I… sorry…” Venus said, trying to scan and bag her collection of discounted Easter chocolate, emoji pillows, and crisps which tasted like sandpaper. Finally bagging the last item, she caught Lavender’s enthusiastic smile and nod in the corner of her vision before she turned to the customer and asked. “Would you like any Sweetdogs today?”
“What?” the woman said, looking up from her smartphone as if she’d only just realised that Venus was there.
“Uh… Sweetdogs?” Venus asked, tapping the smiley hotdog on the back of the display box. How a candy hotdog could smile when it knew it was about to be eaten didn’t make sense to Venus, but then again she was a sleuth and not a marketing executive.
“Are they free?”
“Uh… no. They’re £1. Just like everything in the shop.”
“Why you asking me then?” the customer growled.
So much for upselling, Venus thought as she finished the transaction.
“That’s £33.10,” she read.
“What?” the customer said as if Venus had just insulted her entire family. “Why is it so expensive? I thought everything was a quid.”
“Well… you bought all the Easter chocolate and 14 bags of crisps,” Venus said. “And the plastic bags are 10p each.”
“10p for a plastic bag?”
“Yes. Plastic bags have cost that much for a while now. It’s because they’re not bio-degradable, so we want to encourage people not to use-”
“Fine, whatever!” the customer said, slamming her debit card in front of Venus, nearly denting the countertop.
“It’s contactless, madam,” Venus said, pointing to the card machine with a shaking hand.
“Well how the hell was I supposed to know that?” the customer grumbled as she made a big show of holding her card against the machine in the right direction. When it beeped and Venus’ screen recorded that the transaction had gone through, she breathed a sigh of relief. She was even more thankful when she heard the buzz of the printer spitting out the receipt and the customer picked up her heaving bags.
“Your receipt,” Venus said, handing the long stirp of paper to the customer.
“I don’t need that!” the customer said. “I thought you said you didn’t want to waste paper.”
Before Venus could say anything else, she left the store still muttering to herself. Venus turned to Lavender, who smiled back at her.
“I’m sure the next time will be better,” she said.
I’ve wanted to write a mystery story ever since watching A Series of Unfortunate Events, and this is a plot I thought of whilst I was bored at my previous retail job.
I was taking a break between the first and second drafts of a different novel and felt like writing something fun and lighthearted, and this is the result. I’d like to finish and publish it eventually, but until then I thought I’d post it here to see if anybody would like it. Let me know in the comments what you think and if you’d like to read more. Or sign up to my mailing list for updates.