The wall of heat hit me hard as I opened the door to the department store and stepped inside. I kept moving forwards, stepping under the fan that pumped heat into the doorway.
“Oh, I’m sorry sir, we’re not officially open yet,” the girl who came towards me looked about my age, an older teen, or maybe in her early twenties. She looked flustered as she tried to shoo me back out the door.
“Hey,” I smiled, “Um … I’m looking for Mr Williamson.”
“That’s fine, but you must wait until we open,” she said.
“No, you don’t understand, I’m his new assistant, I’m Oliver,” I reached into my pocket to pull out my phone intending to show her the text messages. “I was told to come here this morning.”
“Where’s your store identification?” she asked.
“I’m new, no one’s given me anything yet,” I said as she stepped forward, trying to back me out the door.
“Anna stop tormenting my new dogsbody.” Mr Williamson said approaching behind the girl, Anna, who lost her rigid posture and relaxed. She grinned at me.
“Got you, newbie,” she snorted a giggle. I rolled my eyes.
“You got me,” I said. “Hilarious.” She turned to look at Mr Williamson.
“Aww, Jack your new one’s not got as much spine as the last one, he will not be much fun.”
“Hey, Oliver’s got plenty of spine. Just maybe he didn’t want to mouth off the minute he walked through the door on his first day.” Mr Williamson came over and smiled at me. I offered him a smile back and tried to quell the nerves in my gut. Mr Williamson was my best friend’s dad. I’d been around him plenty over the years, but it still felt strange to be working for him. “Come on,” he said gesturing me to follow him. “I hate the perfume section, the damn place stinks.” He turned and headed off at a brisk pace.
I followed, jogging at first to keep up. We walked up the escalator which hadn’t been turned on yet, Mr Williamson lead me over to the photography section where his little studio was.
“Jason said you passed your exams,” he said.
“Um … yes, Mr Williamson.” I nodded.
“What’s with calling me Mr Williamson? You haven’t called me that since you were tiny,” he laughed.
“Well, we’re at work, it seemed appropriate,” I felt my face flush red.
“Call me Jack. Are you thinking of going to university after you finish your gap year?”
“Maybe,” I said as he led me behind the abstract backdrop he used for portraits. “I’m not sure, there are a few photography courses I like, but lots of people are telling me that practical experience is worth more.”
“Well,” he said showing me to a small door. “In here,” he opened the door, and I slipped inside a dark room. “Keep going forward there’s another door that leads to our ‘break room’”
“We have our own break room?” I said. Jack shrugged.
“Sort of, it’s more of a closet. Just put your bag and coat inside and then come back out and I’ll show you around.”
“Thanks,” I smiled and felt my way forward through the darkness. My hands hit a wall after a few steps, and I fumbled until I felt the edges of a door. Opening it, I saw Jack wasn’t lying. The room was tiny but big enough for a small table with two chairs. I had to squeeze round it to reach the coat hooks on the wall. Leaving my bag and coat behind I went out to where Jack was waiting.
“You know, practical experience is good, but so is a degree, both is best,” he said as I came to stand with him. “We’ll see how you go this summer and maybe if you’re any good I’ll keep you on weekends and holidays so you can get some experience while you do a degree.” I blinked at him, taken back.
“That, would be amazing, but I’ve not even done my first day yet. I might be terrible.” I said, Jack laughed.
“Hopefully not,” he said. “Besides, Jason showed me your blog; you do good work for someone with no formal training. You’ve got potential.” I opened my mouth to object, but he held up his hand silencing me. “But you’re right, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, we’ll see how we make a proper decision closer to the end of the summer.” I nodded.
“Thank you, Mr Williamson,” I said.
“Jack,” he smiled.
“Thank you, Jack. I appreciate it.” The lights came on brighter, and the bland store music came on.
“Oh, looks like we’re open already. Come on, I’ll show you round properly.”
I spent the morning with Jack as he showed me where everything was, how to operate the equipment and what packages we offered. I reviewed the software, watching Jack develop and print out a set of portraits he’d taken the day before. The printer was immense. Apparently, we could even put pictures onto canvas if we needed to. I was eager to try it, but Jack stopped me and pulled me back onto the storefront.
“We’ve got a booking at 11,” he smirked. “Don’t look so disappointed, kid. You’ll get your chance to play with everything in good time.”
“Really? You do a lot of canvases?”
“A fair few,” he muttered straightening some backdrops. “Now shut up and help me pull the green backdrop forward.” I stepped over the wires for the lighting and grabbed an edge of the green backdrop. With a bit of effort, we manoeuvred it to the front.
“Why don’t you roll them away when you’re not using them?” I grumbled watching Jack settle the background into place.
“Cause, it’s a hell of a lot easier to show people what we’ve got if they’re open, rather than pulling them all out every time someone wants a look,” Jack said.
“Um excuse me?” a woman’s voice caused me to turn around.
“Hello,” I smiled my best employee smile. The woman smiled back for a split second before taking a step back. “I’m Oliver, can I help you?”
“Um, how much is it?” she asked.
“That depends on what you’re looking for,” I said. “If it’s passport, then it’ll be £5:00, if you want proper portrait then the cost depends on how big and how many if you want…”
“A family picture,” she interrupted. “Just one, landscape to go over the fireplace. Um, there’s, me, my husband, and two children.”
“Come and have a look at our sizes and you can pick out what you like best,” Jack stepped in and took over from me, steering the woman towards the wall where the example photos were hanging. He spoke to her softly for a few minutes before calling to me to put an appointment in the diary.
I fumbled with the computer; but got the Outlook program opened and put the appointment in while Jack finished up seeing the lady. She left looking just as worried as when she had arrived.
We spent the rest of the day shooting two portraits, dealing with enquiries, and cleaning the equipment. We ate lunch together in our little break room and finished the day off by closing the section.
“Are you not coming home?” I asked when Jack didn’t collect his coat.
“Not just yet, I’ve got a bit of prep to do for tomorrow,” he smiled at me. I frowned, wondering why we hadn’t done it this afternoon, it wasn’t like we’d been that busy. But I shrugged it off and headed out to get the bus.
I spent dinner that evening explaining to mum and dad about Jack’s plans, keeping me on to work for him while I studied. I went to bed that night feeling quietly confident about my future.
The following day I arrived early only to get stuck outside. I waited for several long minutes before one of the security spotted me and came over.
“Not open yet,” he grumbled at me.
“I know mate,” I offered him a smile. “I work here, started yesterday.”
“Oh, employee entrance is round the side, come on I’ll show ya,” he walked off, and I followed. We went around the side of the building into an alleyway. The door here was small and looked heavy. But it opened easily with a push.
“Thanks,” I smiled again. “That’ll save time.”
“I open it at 8:00 am to let the cleaners in,” the security man mumbled, and with a short nod, he walked off. I headed in and turned in what I hoped was the right direction; I eventually found my way to our section. Jack had beaten me in; he was already fiddling with an old-looking camera.
“Hey kiddo,” he said looking up. “Drop your stuff off and head down to the main office by the front door, you must sign a load of paperwork, then get your backside back up here, I want you to see this.”
“Ok.,” I dropped my bag and coat in the little break room and trotted down to the main office.
I knocked and was welcomed into a small room, big enough only for a desk and two filing cabinets. The lady behind the desk was shorter than me and had trouble reaching over it to take my hand.
“Hello, Oliver, I’m Sandra, I do all the HR here.”
I spent most of the morning with Sandra filling in paperwork, the health and safety papers for the job were immense. My contract was long and in small font but to be honest, as long as I got paid at the end of the month I didn’t care much. I wasn’t planning on spending the rest of my life here, just the next couple of years. I escaped with a sore wrist and ink-stained fingers but made it back to Jack before our appointment arrived.
“Hey,” he smiled at me. “You lived.”
“I might have crippled my wrist,” I muttered rotating my hand to work out the stiffness.
“Yeah, Sandra loves her paperwork,” Jack said. “Come and see this,” he gestured towards the old camera.
“What’s that old thing?” I said.
“Hey, watch the tone, this old thing is a very special camera. If you behave yourself, one day I might show you how to use it.” He lifted a roll of film up from the desk and put it in the camera.
“Wait, where’s the SD card?” I said. Jack snorted at me. “No really, where is it?” He said nothing. “Really? It uses film; you’re kidding me?”
“Nope,” Jack said. “It uses film, get over it.” He made a face at me, and I couldn’t help but smile at him.
“I suppose we can call it retro,” I muttered.
“I prefer purist,” he said.
“Old and crap,” I snorted.
“Um, excuse me,” a woman’s voice said behind us. I turned to see the woman from yesterday.
“Hello,” I smiled at her. She had a strained smile on her face and was holding a struggling toddler by the hand and a pushchair containing a sleeping baby with her other hand. Behind her stood a thin man in a suit. The man looked behind me at our equipment with a sneer.
“We’ve got an appointment, at 11,” the woman mumbled. “My name’s Hammond.”
“Oh yes, Mrs Hammond,” Jack stepped forward, all smiles and reached out to shake Mrs Hammonds occupied hands. He paused when he noticed her predicament and withdrew his hand. “Come this way, you can leave the pushchair over here, and we’ll get you in position.”
“Um is there a bathroom I can use to sort the kids out?” she asked. Jack nodded and pointed her towards the end of the floor close to the restaurant. She toddled off dragging the unwilling toddler and still steering the pushchair single-handed while Mr Hammond waited.
“So, what model do you use?” Mr Hammond asked. Jack launched into what sounded like a pretty rehearsed spiel about the camera and the lights. I toned it out and watched Mr Hammond. I could feel the distaste coming off him in waves, everything about him exuded dislike, he did not want to be here and didn’t care that we knew it. He kept looking at himself and then brushing at his suit as if it had somehow become contaminated by being in here with us.
I waited behind him and Jack, and after a few moments, Mrs Hammond came back. The unhappy toddler was still unhappy, although the tears were gone, the baby was still asleep.
“Finally,” Mr Hammond grumbled. Everyone pretended not to hear.
“Ok, Mrs Hammond if you want to take a seat here with the little one in your lap.” Jack directed. Mrs Hammond lifted the baby out of the pushchair and tried to sit, but couldn’t get her clothes sorted while holding the baby. I waited a moment for Mr Hammond to offer to help, but he stayed a few feet away grumbling. So I stepped up.
“I can hold him while you settle,” I offered, she gave me a grateful smile.
“I don’t want to be a bother,” she said. “I’ll just sit like this.”
“Nonsense,” I said. “You’re paying for a nice photograph, it’s part of my job to make sure you get that photograph. There’s no rush,” she blushed but handed the baby to me. He was warm and heavy in my arms. Mrs Hammond sorted herself out and straightened her clothes before reaching out for the baby. I handed him back and turned to Jack.
“Right Mr Hammond if you could stand slightly behind and to the left. Then we’ll put this little one in front of you next to his mum,” Jack said.
The unhappy toddler remained unhappy but followed Jack’s instructions well enough when Jack mentioned he had a bucket of sweets for good children who took their pictures nicely.
“Now then,” Jack put himself behind the camera. “If you could come forward a bit, Mr Hammond,” he said while looking through the camera. “Right Mrs Hammond, the baby, can you turn him a little more towards me? Lovely. Oliver move light five a bit to the right.” I scurried forward to follow the instruction; the light was hot, I could feel the heat from it even though it was a good few feet above me. “More,” Jack said. “There, perfect.” I heard the camera’s shutter click and whirr as it took the picture. I remembered one of my dad’s ancient camera’s had made noises like that.
“Is that it?” Mr Hammond said looking at his watch. “I’ve got a meeting to get to.”
“Just one more,” Jack said. “Now smile, big smiles.” The camera clicked and whirred again. The moment it stopped Mr Hammond stalked off in silence.
“Um, sorry about that,” Mrs Hammond mumbled. “I booked the appointment late he’s got a meeting at 12:00 pm.”
“It’s only just gone 11 am,” I said. “He’ll make it fine.” I had no idea where Mr Hammond had to go to, but Mrs Hammond looked so worried that I couldn’t help but try to comfort her.
“Sweeties!” the toddler shouted. “Sweeties, sweeties, sweeties.”
“Ok. little man,” Jack smiled although it didn’t reach his eyes. “I’ve got them right here,” he reached under the counter and pulled out a small Halloween pail full of various sweets.
“Just one, Michael,” Mrs Hammond said. Michael turned a firm, disapproving frown at his mother, but she held her ground. “One,” she said. Michael left with one sweet.
“Right, let’s get this off to development.,” Jack said when Mrs Hammond had left.
“You think she’s O.K.?” I asked.
“Sure, why do you ask?” Jack said.
“She seemed freaked out,” I said.
“She’s got two very young kids, something would be wrong if she wasn’t frazzled,” Jack said.
“But that guy was a jerk,” I said.
“He was worried about his meeting,” Jack dismissed. “Probably didn’t want to be here getting photos done when he’s got other stuff on his mind.”
“Still though,” I said.
“Therefore, I run all my family’s appointments past Helen before booking them,” Jack said. “Helen would tear me a new one if I made an appointment that clashed with her work.” Jack smiled and reached out to put a hand on my shoulder. “Try not to let other people’s family drama get to you. You’ll see a lot.” He must have noted my expression because he laughed. “You’ll get to see a lot of the good stuff too though.”
I followed Jack as he headed to the darkroom and removed the film. The lights turned down and red, and we let our eyes adjust for a moment or two, then Jack opened the camera slowly. He let it breathe for a moment before reaching for a pair of tweezers and gently lifting out the film. I thought he would develop it here; we had the gear. But he opened a silver envelope and put the film inside. He treated it like it was made of gold dust, fragile and valuable.
“O.K.” he closed the envelope and turning to face me, held it in front of his chest. “I’m trusting you with this; it’s more important than you know.” He looked at the envelope in his hands. “Maybe I’d better …. no, no.” He held the envelope out to me, and I took it. It was heavy, heavier than I had expected. I felt the envelope under my fingers, it wasn’t made of paper or card, it was fabric, but it was heavy like metal. Thinly woven metal.
“What is it?” I asked. Jack shrugged.
“Take it,” he said. “I’ll write the address,” he turned, and I followed him out of the dark room. The light blinded me for a moment, I almost stumbled into Jack when he stopped at the counter.
“Where?” I said frowning at the envelope. “Why can’t we just do it here?”
“Because these are special, they have to be sent off world,” Jack said scribbling down an address.
“Off world?” I said.
“Off-site, I said off-site,” Jack said shoving a scrap of paper at me.
“You know this place?” he said, I read the address. I knew it; it wasn’t far.
“Sure, but that’s a junk shop,” I said.
“Yeah well it does this, now get going kiddo,” Jack smiled widely. “Tell you what, deliver this and then take the rest of the afternoon off; I’ll make sure you get paid for it.”
“Really?” I said surprised; it wasn’t even midday yet.
“Sure, now get going, this needs to be done fast, fast, fast.” Jack started nudging me towards the exit.
“Hang on let me get my bag,” I darted around him holding the envelope close.
“Careful!” he snapped. “Don’t crush it, that film is very delicate, any damage and it’ll be useless.”
“I’m careful,” I muttered but adjusted my grip on the envelope, anyway. I grabbed my bag and coat and turned to go back out.
“Just … really, kid. Please be careful, be fast but be careful.” He patted my shoulder. “Now clear off.”
“I’ll text you when I drop it off, so you don’t worry too much,” I let my tone go patronising and walked away quicker.
“Gee, thanks,” Jack said. I turned and heard him call out behind me. “But do that, text me.”
I trotted out of the store before he could change his mind about letting me go. I liked my job, but it was the start of the summer, a beautiful day where it’s warm enough that you don’t need a coat but still cool enough to be comfortable.
As soon as I stepped out onto the street, the breeze hit me, and I smiled. The smell of onions hit me too, and my stomach rumbled. I walked past the food stall on the corner. I had a job to do; then I could get lunch. I turned another corner and walked into the shade, and away from the city centre. I wove my way through the crowds; the envelope held tight. I loosened my grip a little to stop from damaging the contents. Glancing down at it, I frowned, what kind of film needed to be transported in a metal envelope?
Once out of the centre I turned west and headed into what could jokingly be called the arts district, two galleries remained open, and there was some music stops still hanging on, but most of this district was closed down, boarded up and empty. The junk shop was just past the arts district.
I stepped in through the door and coughed as I inhaled a lungful of dust. The shop smelled old, musty and something else that put me in mind of chemicals. I frowned, the smell reminded me of my old college’s science labs, not something I expected to come across in a junk shop.
I stepped forwards and bumped into a table, knocking it over, it fell, and the sound was horrendous. The cloud of dust it threw up sent me into a coughing fit.
The bang and my coughing fit brought a man trotting out of the back of the shop. He was young, only a little older than I was by the looks of things. He wore a boring brown suit that looked impeccable. It didn’t look like he’d spent his time in this dusty shop.
“Uh…” I managed.
“Can I help you?” the man’s words were polite, but his tone was abrupt.
“Um, Jack sent me, I mean Mr Williamson sent me,” I said. I held up the envelope. The man’s eyes widened, and he darted forwards. He snatched the envelope before I even realised he’d moved.
“He sent you,” he said turning the envelope over in his hands. “Odd,” he looked at me. “Those in our line of work rarely take on apprentices.”
“Our line of work? What are you talking about?” I said. The man turned away and walked to the back of the shop disappearing into the darkness.
“Tell Jack collection will be as usual,” he called. I heard a door close.
“Rude,” I muttered and left the shop. I sent Jack a quick text once outside, letting him know that I’d dropped the envelope off.
“Time for some bike time,” I muttered heading back to the centre and the bus stop, visions of my old dirt bike in my mind.
When I arrived at work the following day with doughnuts in hand, Jack grinned at the box, but the grin vanished the moment he thought I wasn’t looking. I spent my day watching him, confused. When he knew I was watching, he was all smiles and jokes, then when he thought he was alone or no one was watching he was grumbling under his breath short-tempered and angry.
“Jack,” I said after lunch when I couldn’t take his quiet anger anymore.
“Yeah, Kid?” he smiled.
“What’s up with you today?” I said. Jack flushed.
“Nothing, nothing’s up,” he said. I stared at him; he fidgeted under my gaze. “How’d you fancy working late tonight?”
“Late?” I said.
“Well, I let you go early yesterday so thought you could do with making the time up,” Jack smiled, and it looked more genuine than the rest of them had.
“You’re the one who let me go,” I said.
“Yeah, well, now I’m asking you to stay,” he said.
“What’s up?” I asked again.
“I’ve got to do a collection tonight, well this evening.” Jack glanced around, almost as if checking if anyone was listening. “The pictures from yesterday.”
“Ok, you want me to go get them from the shop?” I asked. Jack shook his head.
“No, we collect somewhere else. We go after the store closes.”
“I got to get the bus,” I mumbled.
“I’ll give you a ride home,” Jack said and not having any further reason to argue I nodded.
We spent the rest of the afternoon in comfortable silence; Jack set me to cleaning the darkroom. I made it may be halfway through the job before Jack touched my shoulder.
“Finish that tomorrow kid, we got to go.”
“Ok, you want me to pack the gear away?” I said.
“Already done it,” Jack said. “Done everything, just grab your coat and we’ll go.”
After grabbing my stuff, I followed Jack out of the store. He drove his own car to work, leaving the family car at home, I’ve never been much into cars, but this little thing looked cool. It was a small two-seater and was about as low to the road as you could manage. I watched Jack get in to see how he did it and then tried to copy him. My entrance was far less graceful, and Jack snorted a laugh at me.
“Smooth,” he said starting the engine.
“Well, maybe you should drive a car instead of something that looks like an electric razor,” I muttered.
“You sound like Helen,” he grumbled driving us out of the parking lot and onto the road. City traffic never moves fast, but Jack’s little car was small, and it zipped into places normal cars couldn’t fit. We got stuck behind a bus for a few moments which had Jack swearing.
“Damn buses,” he grumbled as the bus pulled in and he was able to speed up past it.
“What’s the rush?” I said.
“Don’t want to be late, and we’re cutting it close,” I expected him to glance at his watch, but he leant forward to look at the sun. “Damn it,” he sped up down the road so abruptly that I tensed and closed my eyes. “You pee in my car, and I kill you,” Jack muttered.
“Maybe you should stop driving like a crazy person then,” I snapped.
“We cannot be late,” Jack said and took a corner fast enough to knock me into the window. “I hate driving in the damn city.” Jack jumped a red light, I heard several horns blare at us.
“I think I’ll walk home,” I said.
“I promise to drive carefully on the way back,” Jack said. “Can’t afford to now though.”
“What’s the big rush, isn’t it just pictures?” I said still not opening my eyes.
“There’s no just about it, kid,” Jack said. “Here we go.” I opened my eyes to see us pulling into one of the two dumps on the outskirts of the city.
“You realise how shifty this looks. We’re not doing anything with drugs right?” I said. Jack laughed stopping the car.
“No kid, I promise, no drugs involved.”
“Better not be,” I muttered and clambered out of the car. I followed Jack as he walked deeper into the dump. It was getting dark now, and the place was deserted.
“How’d we even get in here this late?” I asked.
“They know me,” Jack muttered. He stopped walking next to a battered old VW van and put his hands in his pockets. “The sun’s almost down. Won’t be long now,” he said.
“Why do we have to wait until it’s dark?” I said. I thought about making a comment about vampires but decided against it; Jack was tense, his entire body was rigid.
“Because they won’t come in the light, they never do,” Jack said.
“This is so weird,” I said. We waited in silence for a while until I was about to point out it was dark now and still no creepy or suspicious people had arrived when I heard footsteps. Jack tensed I’d never seen him this worried before. He’d been calmer when Helen had gone into labour, and he’d had to sort out an emergency sitter for Jason and me before taking her to the hospital.
“There,” Jack said. I turned to see where he was looking and saw someone. At first, I thought it was the guy from the shop but then realised my mistake. This was someone else. He was dressed exactly like the guy from yesterday; they even had the same hairstyle.
“Mr Williamson,” the man said, his voice deep and soft. He reached into his jacket and pulled out an envelope; this one looked the same as the last, woven and heavy. “Stellar work as always.” He handed Jack the envelope.
“Thank you,” Jack said.
“The next itinerary is in there as well; we expect it to be fulfilled as a matter of urgency.” The man turned and walked away. I waited till he had gone before turning to Jack. Jack looked frozen in place. When the man had gone Jack let out a long breath.
“See,” he said to me. “Nothing to it. Now let’s get you home before your parents worry.”
I asked no more questions about what was going on during the drive home. Jack offered nothing, he locked the envelope in the glove box and tried to make small talk.
“I’ll see you on Monday,” Jack said as he pulled into my driveway.
“Sure thing,” I muttered getting out of the car.
I spent the weekend fretting. Something wasn’t right about this; I did not understand what, but it felt wrong. Why all the secrecy if it just pictures? Why all the cloak and dagger nonsense? It was damn strange. Jack had to be up to something; there had to be more to this than just pictures.
I went to work on Monday full of questions and no idea how to approach Jack about them. What if he got annoyed at me? What if he decided I asked too many questions, and he didn’t want to keep me on? I could lose a great opportunity. I liked photography; I had dreams, dreams that I’d never admitted to anyone of being able to travel taking pictures for magazines, maybe one day my pictures would be in the likes of the National Geographic, or one of the major newspapers. But to do that I had to get experience and an education, Jack was willing to help me get that. I couldn’t afford to mess this up just because Jack did some weird stuff occasionally.
“Hey kid,” he smiled at me when I arrived.
“Hey,” I smiled.
“I just wanted to thank you for coming with me on Friday; I bloody hate doing the pickups. You helped.”
“No problem, this is what I get paid for right?” I said.
“Sure thing,” Jack smiled. “You know if you keep going like this you’ll do great kid. You’ll have a great career, be able to get yourself a nice little place, have a family all your own.” I nodded, I had wondered a few times in the past how Jack afforded the house he and his family lived in, it wasn’t small. I assumed he’d inherited it or that Helen’s job was lucrative.
“Thanks,” I said. “I hope so.”
We spent the early morning setting up for an out of store shoot Jack had. He offered to take me along, but I still wasn’t feeling right. Something still had me uncomfortable. So I offered to stay at the store and monitor things, maybe take some bookings. Jack hesitated for a few minutes but gave in after I told him I wasn’t feeling well and would be more of a hindrance on a shoot than a help.
“All right, but you’ve got my mobile number, questions at all call me.”
“Won’t that irritate the client?” I smiled. Jack rolled his eyes.
“Client’s a dog, Oliver, he will not mind one bit,” Jack reached out and put his hand on my shoulder. “Feel better kiddo.”
“I will,” I said and watched him go. I was tempted to look through the back room, to see if I could find the envelope and have a look at what was inside it. But I decided against it, despite the weirdness I liked and respected Jack, besides chances are he wouldn’t leave something he valued lying around in the back room with the other ‘to be collected’ prints.
I thought about finding something to clean but decided against that idea. Instead, I sat at the counter and flipped through old photography magazines. I was turning the pages of a battered National Geographic fantasising about my name being under the pictures when I heard a screaming baby and wailing toddler. I looked up to see Mr Hammond marching towards me, pushchair being shoved in one hand the other arm held the wailing toddler.
“Oi,” he growled when he got to the counter.
“Um …can I help?” I asked. Mr Hammond said nothing just reached into the bag behind the pushchair and slammed two photo albums down on the table then an envelope.
“Explained this,” he snapped.
“Uh …” I managed but picked up the envelope. It held the pictures we’d taken last week, the family portrait, the one I assumed Jack had been picking up on Friday. Only Mrs Hammond wasn’t in the picture. There was Mr Hammond and the toddler. The baby was sitting on the chair alone, no Mrs Hammond.
“They came through the letterbox on Friday,” he snapped.
“Um… I’m sorry I have seen nothing like this before,” I muttered.
“But you remember that I came here with my wife!” he said. I looked at him. “Don’t give me that look,” he snapped. “Ever since we came here,” he stopped struggling to get his words right. He moved the toddler who had stopped wailing and was just staring at me. “It’s like she disappeared, but not just gone, it’s like she was never here.”
“What?” I said.
“Look,” he snapped and pushed the portrait photos to the floor opened the top photo album. It was typical family pictures. Only Mrs Hammond wasn’t in any of them. In some of them it wasn’t overly surprising, pictures of the children, or of Mr Hammond, but in others, it was obvious something was wrong. The baby would be floating in midair. Mr Hammond would be staring into space, looking at something that was not there anymore.
“Ok,” I mumbled.
“No one else even remembers she was here,” Mr Hammond’s voice cracked, and he started crying.
“Um, you want to come and sit down,” I said having no idea what else to do or say. Mr Hammond nodded and followed me into the tiny break room. The toddler started wandering around pawing at things, but there was nothing in here he could break or get hurt by so I said nothing. Mr Hammond pushed the pushchair in as far as it could get and sat down.
“What happened to my wife?” he said when I sat down.
“I don’t know what you mean,” I said.
“She was fine before we came here. I mean she was ditzy and stressed out with the new baby, but she was still herself. After we had come here …” he shivered. “She was weird on Wednesday after she’d booked the appointment, refusing to move it when I couldn’t make it originally. She was never like that before. Then afterwards it was so strange.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“It was like she was on something, a strong drug or like she was half asleep. The moment those pictures got taken, she started to fade. Like she was losing herself, going somewhere else.”
“Well, maybe she …” I started, but Mr Hammond interrupted me.
“She literally faded,” Mr Hammond snapped. “Not metaphorically, literally. She faded. By Sunday she would be in the same room as me, and I wouldn’t see her. She screamed at me to look at her, and I didn’t even notice till she slapped me.”
“What?” I said.
“Then this morning I woke up, and she was gone. Just like that, gone.” He wiped his face. “I didn’t even notice that she was gone until I got up to get dressed. I opened the wardrobe, and it was full of blouses and skirts, and suddenly I remember that I had a wife.”
“You forgot you had a wife?” I said.
“But even then I couldn’t remember what she looked like. I knew there had been someone, a woman, and she had been my wife, but I couldn’t remember what she looked like. So I went to the albums.” He gestured to the photos in front of me. “But she wasn’t in any of them. Facebook was the same. Her and her friend Jessica they always took pictures of themselves, even if they were just going for coffee, there was always a snap to show them drinking coffee. I used to tease her; it was like she thought people wouldn’t believe her unless there was a photo.” He took a slow breath. “I called Jessica this morning, to see if she knew what had happened. But Jessica didn’t know who I was talking about. My wife’s best friend didn’t know her, acted like I was crazy.”
“You sure your wife’s hasn’t gone to Jessica’s, and they’re lying to you?” I said then bit my tongue. I had said it without thinking.
“My wife did not leave me,” Mr Hammond snapped. “She’s vanished, and no one can remember she was ever here. Her best friend doesn’t remember her at all, I don’t remember what she looks like or even what her name was!” his shouting caused the baby to cry.
“I don’t understand why you’re telling me this,” I said. “You need to report her missing to the police.”
“I’m here because all this started when we had those damned pictures taken!” Mr Hammond bellowed. “You’ve done something to my wife! Where is she!” He stood up, and I saw a big hand close on his shoulder.
“Excuse me, sir,” I recognised the voice of the security guard. “You want to come with me.”
“Not until this brat tells me what he’s done with my wife,” Mr Hammond all but screamed.
“Now sir, I doubt Oliver has done anything to your wife. But come with me, and we’ll talk this out.”
“I’m not leaving without her!” Mr Hammond bellowed.
“Sir, I will have to call the police if you don’t co-operate.” The security guard said. “You have children with you; you don’t want the police involved.” Mr Hammond stopped yelling at the reminder and with his anger suddenly snuffed out his grief came bubbling to the surface. He started weeping. He picked up the toddler, nodded silently and followed the security guard out.
They left me alone and shaking.
Jack came back after two hours, covered in dog hair and looking rather pleased with himself.
“If you’re ever having a bad day, then go take a picture of puppies,” he grinned at me putting the equipment down.
“Um there was a problem while you were out,” I mumbled. Jack stopped grinning and looked at me, his expression worried.
“You all right kiddo? You look terrible,” he said.
“I need to talk to you,” I said. We sat together in the little break room after Jack put the ‘Back in 5 min’ sign on the counter.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“Well, Mr Hammond came by while you were out,” I started. “His wife is missing.” Jack’s face lost all of its colour and that was as much of a giveaway to me as if he’d said it involved him.
“Missing, that’s terrible,” he said. “He came to ask if we’d seen her?”
“No,” I said. “He came to accuse us of taking her.”
“Taking her, that’s nonsense,” Jack said. I lifted the photo albums Mr Hammond had left behind and opened them showing Jack the photos.
“Explain this to me,” I said.
“Obviously, she’s the one taking the pictures,” Jack said after flicking through a few pages.
“Not all of them, look properly there are photos where there was a person, but now it’s just space.”
“Oliver?” Jack said.
“Mr Hammond thinks we had something to do with it. He said she faded after you took pictures of her with that weird camera.” Jack stood up and fetched the old camera. He put it on the table.
“Oliver, it’s just a camera, it doesn’t make people vanish,” Jack said. “It’s just got a fault that does something to the lighting, takes amazing portraits.”
“But what about the secretive development of the pictures,” I said.
“It’s an old camera; most places won’t deal with this film anymore; I finally found someone who can develop it, I’m happy to go along with their eccentricities for great shots.”
“But…” I said.
“I’ve photographed Jason with this camera, back when he was small, Jason’s still here,” Jack said. I swallowed starting to feel stupid for getting sucked into Mr Hammond’s delusion. “Look, kid, I’m sorry you had to deal with that today, I should have been here. But you’ve got to understand that sometimes bad things happen to people, and those left behind look for any way to rationalise it, even blaming the strangest things.” Jack took a deep breath. “You said yourself when she showed up she was stressed out, and he was a jerk. She probably just decided she’d had enough and left him.”
“But the kids,” I said.
“Chances are she’ll turn up in a day or two with divorce papers and demands for custody,” Jack said. He leant back, his hand rubbing the back of his neck. “Look, why don’t you head home, take tomorrow off, you look like hell, and this shook you up a bit.”
“All right,” I said, standing to get my coat. I felt awful. “Um Jack,” I said as I went to leave. “Sorry about that, I’m just really freaked out.”
“Don’t worry, go home, get some rest and I’ll see you on Wednesday,” Jack waved me off, closing the break room door after I left. I started out of the store but stopped and turned back after a minute. I had made a complete fool of myself; I had to apologise properly, I didn’t want Jack thinking I was crazy, I needed this job, this opportunity. I stopped when I got back to the photography department, just outside our break room, I could hear Jack inside, obviously on the telephone.
“… screwed it up, it’s not my fault,” he said. “Your clean up was sloppy … I know because her husband was at my store ranting and raving with a bunch of old pictures. It’s obvious your people screwed this up. Now you need to go talk to your manager or star command, or the galactic senate or whatever the hell you have and get this sorted out right now.”
I heard something fall over; it sounded like Jack had kicked something. I didn’t go inside; instead, I backed away and turned heading out of the store as fast as possible, my stomach in knots.
The following day had me pulling up outside of Jack’s house. I parked my bike and headed to the door.
“Hey Ollie,” Jason smiled at me as he opened the door. “Come in.”
“Hey,” I smiled and followed him inside.
“How’ve you been?” Jason said as we walked to the kitchen. I was only half listening; instead, I was looking around the house. I had been here so many times over the years, but it was odd how I had never realised just how big it was. This place was huge and expensively decorated. “If it weren’t for dad raving about you, I would have thought you were dead.”
“Yeah,” I shrugged. “Sorry for going quiet, I’ve been busy.”
“Yeah, dad said,” Jason said.
“Is your dad here now?” I said.
“Nah, he’s at work, why aren’t you with him?” Jason said.
“Sick day,” I said. “I’ve been feeling peaky for a while now, so figured I’d come and infect you.” Jason smiled.
“Good, I was getting jealous,” he said.
“Huh?” I asked.
“You hardly talk to me for over a week, you spend all your time with my dad, and all he’s done since you started is rave about you,” Jason said.
“Well, I work for him now, and I am amazing,” I said. “But sorry Jase, I didn’t mean to be a jerk.”
“I’m joking,” Jason said. “Jeeze, Ollie what’s up with you?”
“Nothing, just feeling weird that’s all,” I shrugged again.
“Well, I’ve got the Xbox set up, two multipacks of crisps and three litres of coke, come on we’ll go blow up some aliens,” Jason grabbed a big bag of crisps and a bottle of coke out of the fridge and headed into the living room.
“Sounds good,” I forced a smile. “Just let me go to the loo first, and I’ll be rescuing your backside in no time.”
“Rescue me? Ha! In your dreams,” Jason called from the living room as I headed up the stairs.
Reaching the top of the stairs I headed passed the three bedrooms, towards the bathroom. But instead of going inside I headed passed it to the room next to it, Jack’s office/home studio. I tested the doorknob, half expecting the door to be locked, but it opened easily. The office was a mess; the desk was huge and littered with papers, old pictures and several cameras. A few tripods were leaning against the wall in the corner, and one of the three filing cabinets had a drawer half open.
“Bloody hell Jack,” I muttered creeping into the room.
I had no idea what I was looking for, but there had to be something here, something to explain the weird behaviour I’d been trying to figure it out. It could be drugs but why would Jack send out the film if it was drugs? There had to be more to it than this though; it couldn’t just be pictures, why all the mystery bullshit if it was just some family pictures. I looked through the papers on the desk, careful not to disturb things too much, although with the state of things it was doubtful Jack would even notice.
There was nothing on the desk; all the drawers were full of rubbish, bits of old cameras and notebooks. I looked in the filing cabinets, most of the paperwork here was basic household stuff mixed in with Jack’s business paperwork. I flicked through some old invoices before trying to open the bottom drawer. It was locked.
I looked around for a key, but there was no way I was finding it in this mess. Instead, I grabbed a pair of thin scissors and slid them into the lock. It was a cheap-looking filing cabinet, like the ones we had at school. Jason and I had spent some time bored in the library and had figured out that you could turn the locks on these easy if you could get something thin enough to fit into the lock.
The drawer opened after a few tries. It was mostly empty except for a bunch of empty metal envelopes, some film canisters and a plain white envelope. I picked up the white envelope and pulled out the sheet of paper. It was a list, male late teens, female late sixties, male obese, female redhead; the list went on like that listing ten people all together and at the bottom of the list a date and a figure over £60k. The bottom of the paper was covered in odd symbols, the kind that usually turns up when your printer goes haywire.
“What the hell Jack?” I said.
“What the hell are you doing up there, giving birth?” Jason called from downstairs. I dropped the sheet, before frantically putting it back and closing the drawer. Nipping into the bathroom, I flushed the toilet before heading back downstairs.
“Told you I wasn’t feeling great,” I said.
“Wimp,” Jason said. “You just don’t want me to make you look bad when I get the best kill count.”
I spent the rest of my Sunday afternoon with Jason, trying to distract myself from what I had found in Jacks filing cabinet. I had found a shopping list of people, thoughts of human trafficking and kidnapping whirled in my mind making me distracted, Jason won every competition in the game but didn’t seem to notice how distracted I was.
Jack turned up that evening while we were still playing. His expression was terrible, his eyes were dark and his mouth set in a firm line.
“Oh Ollie,” he said when he saw me. “Feeling better are we?”
“After he clogged up the toilet,” Jason said. “He was in there for ages!”
“Jase!” I snapped. “I doubt your dad wants to know about my bowel movements.”
“I’d rather not if it’s all the same,” Jack said and headed into the kitchen. “Your mum not back?”
“Not yet,” Jason called starting the game up again from where he’d paused it when Jack came in.
“All right, I’ll start dinner when she gets in, you’re welcome to stay Ollie,” Jack said, coming out of the kitchen and heading upstairs. As he walked upstairs, my blood ran cold, I hadn’t locked the drawer. I listened as Jack moved around upstairs, my hands shaking. I couldn’t decide what to do, do I say nothing, plead ignorance, or do I confront him. I had to do something, I couldn’t, what if Jack was involved in human trafficking? I had to do something.
My legs crumpled under me the first time I tried to get up, Jason gave me an odd look.
“Legs asleep,” I said, my voice shaking as I got to my feet. “Just need to have a word with your dad, be back in a minute.”
“Better be,” Jason muttered as I stumbled over to the stairs. Opening the door to Jack’s office, I found him looking out the window, the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet open.
“How much did you find?” he asked as I closed the door.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Enough to tell me you’re involved in something bad.” Jack snorted.
“I’m not involved in anything,” he said turning to look at me.
“Bullshit,” I said. “Something’s up and you’re involved. Who did you give her picture to?”
“What?” he said. “Who?”
“You know who I mean. Tell me who did you give her picture to!” I snapped. “Jack you’re my best friend’s dad, how can you be involved with something like this!”
“Involved with what!” Jack said.
“Human trafficking, kidnapping I don’t know,” I said. Jack laughed. “You take pictures of a woman with an old, and I assume untraceable camera, you give the picture to these shady guys operating out of an old junk shop, you accept odd packages from guys in dumps then the woman goes missing. You’ve got a shopping list in your filing cabinet and a price.”
“You’ve got it wrong Oliver,” Jack said coming to stand in front of me. “It’s not what you think.”
“We’ll see what the police think,” I said and glared hard at Jack. “How could you?” I said taking a step back. Jack grabbed my wrist and held tight.
“Just listen for a minute; I swear it’s not human trafficking or kidnapping,” he snapped.
“Then what is it, how could it be anything else!” I said. Jack rolled his eyes, pulling me out of the way he stepped to the door and locked it. When he turned back, he spoke in hushed tones.
“You think human trafficking can remove people from old photos, from other people’s memories,” Jack said. I sucked in a breath. “Hammond told you that, did he? I bet no one else, but him remembers his wife even existed.”
“Jack, what’s going on?” I said feeling a chill run up my spine.
“She’s gone,” Jack said. “They needed someone of a certain type, Mrs Hammond fit their needs, so I sent her to them. That’s all.”
“That’s all!” I snapped. “They kidnapped her!”
“Not exactly,” Jack said. “She faded in our world and went to theirs.” He took a deep breath. “It takes a few days usually.”
“You’re not making any sense, who are they?” I snapped.
“I don’t know what they are, but they call themselves Collectors. They said they came here years ago. They take people. They used to do it directly, snatching people out of fields and off country roads, spaceships and tractor beams and whatnot. But now they’re more selective. They only take those people who fit their needs. Naturally, they need agents on the ground to find those people.”
“Agents, Jack, what are you talking about?!” I snapped.
“Christ sake Oliver, aliens!” Jack slammed his hand down on the table. “Bloody ET, X-Files, Men In Black, Aliens.”
“But you?” I said, unable to get my head around what he was saying. He was mad, he’d fallen into human trafficking and to justify it he’d invented an elaborate sci-fi story.
“I’m one of their agents. They gave me the camera, and I get an itinerary every six months. I take the pictures, and if they agree with my choices, then those who I snap vanish and it’s like they never existed.” He leant back. “I get paid each time I send them someone. Kind of like a commission. It’s odd for someone to remember when someone has gone though.”
“What?” I said.
“Mr Hammond, he must have loved his wife,” Jack said almost whimsically. “Normally the memories stay gone, sometimes the people might remember them in a dream, but it’s very rare for them to remember someone once we have taken them.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“I would have introduced you to this slowly Oliver,” Jack said. “You would have understood; then you could have taken over from me. I’ve got enough money now; I can retire. But someone needs to replace me, and I’d rather give this…” he lifted the old camera out of his work bag. “To someone I trust.”
“You want me to do this?” I snapped. “No Jack, I will not help you sell people!”
“I’m not selling people,” Jack said. “I just take the pictures.”
“You’re human trafficking; you’re just making this alien bullshit up to scare me,” I snapped. “Well, I’m not falling for it, I’m going to the police.”
“And tell them what?” Jack asked. “That woman never existed? I told you they take the person and the memories of the person, she never existed.”
“They don’t take everything; her clothes were still there, I bet her paper records were,” I snapped. Jack laughed.
“You honestly think they haven’t infiltrated the system? You think they’ve infiltrated a department store but not the government? You think they would leave a paper trail?” Jack snorted.
“They left things this time,” I said.
“The cleanup team were sloppy; it was an exception, not the rule. I’ve been doing this for twenty-odd years now, kid, and you want to know how many times something like this has happened before? Once, just once.”
“Fuck you,” I snapped “I’ve got to do something.” I turned to the door, reaching to unlock it.
“It’s a shame Oliver, you do good work, and it’s a real shame.” The camera flashed, and I heard the whirr of the film being wound. I went lightheaded.
“What did you do?” I snapped.
“I’m sorry Oliver, I really am,” Jack said. He’d taken my picture. I had to get the film; I had to stop him sending it to them! I started towards him but Jack was faster than I expected, he struck out, something connected with the side of my head and my world went dark.
I came to on Jason’s bed, with Jason leaning over me. My head throbbed, and my vision blurred.
“You’re awake,” Jason looked relieved. “Dad said you passed out.”
“Go call his parents,” Jack’s voice came from behind Jason. Jason stood up and left. Jack leant over me. “I’m sorry Oliver,” he said. “They’ll have you by the morning.”