Read The Overnight Online

Authors: Ramsey Campbell

The Overnight (29 page)

BOOK: The Overnight
11.52Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

He dashes up to the office to find her watching the security monitor through his doorway. Is it possible she even dared to use his extension? "What gives you the idea you can use the PA for that kind of message?" he feels profoundly restrained for enquiring.

"It's quicker than going round everyone. I thought you'd want me to save time."

"And who are you proposing to call?"

"My parents to tell them how I am so they can get some sleep. I don't think anyone can object to that when I'm on my break and not using any of the phones the shop wants to keep all to itself."

He feels alternately hot and cold from his dash or with anger. Can he believe her? Suppose she plans to call the police about Gavin and bring more inconvenience? He's considering whether he should put her on her honour, if that still means anything to Brits like her, when Ray's voice booms through the speakers. "If it's not a very long call, Anyes, you can pinch mine."

"There you are, Ray thinks he's allowed to use the PA," Agnes is pleased to inform Woody as she hurries to the stairs.

Woody's stinging eyes feel so swollen he could almost fancy that an insect bit him. He seizes the receiver in his office and sends his voice to say "Will everyone be aware that the phones are only to be used for the good of the store."

This appears to rekindle Ray's interest in the books heaped at his feet as Agnes lets herself down off the bottom of the screen and then bobs up close to him in the top left-hand quadrant. Ray slips a mobile phone out of his jacket and hands it to her with a swiftness Woody finds surreptitious. Woody takes the stairs in twos, to recommence shelving and ensure she doesn't overstay her break. She has stepped outside to phone, but is back well in time. It's only when she loiters next to Ray that Woody feels he has to interest himself in their conversation. They aren't discussing Gavin; Ray is complaining "I wanted my wife to be able to get in touch. More than likely she'll be up half the night with the baby."

"I honestly don't know what could have gone wrong. All I did was switch on and dial."

"I charged it this morning." Ray pokes a button, but nothing responds. "Still dead as mud," he takes time to notify her.

"I can't understand it. I wouldn't have left you phoneless, I hope you know." She raises her voice to call "Has anyone else got a phone?"

"Why, so you can kill theirs as well?"

"So we don't have to depend on the shop."

"I guess that's exactly what you should be doing," Woody tells everyone.

Nigel has raised his head at her appeal but has second thoughts about any offer he was proposing to make. "I left mine at home," Ross admits. "I don't know anyone who'd want to call me now."

"My boyfriend's got hold of mine," Jake is eager everyone should hear.

Greg stares hard at him and then not much more gently at Agnes. "I'm surprised you haven't got one of your own."

"I didn't bring it. I thought I could rely on the shop like we were just told. Are you saying you can lend me one?"

"I can't imagine why you'd think I would be, under any of the circumstances."

Woody sees that neither of them means to look away before the other does. He's suddenly aware of two shaven-headed men in armchairs—of how the books propped on their laps remind him of the placards contest judges hold up. "You have just a couple of minutes, Agnes," he says.

"Maybe I should stop trying to get on with people I don't. Maybe I should call it a day before you lock up."

"Can't call it a day when it isn't one," Mad remarks as she snatches a book off a Teenage shelf.

He would like to believe she intends to jolly Agnes out of her sullenness, but Woody could have managed without the interruption and without Greg's. "So long as you're aware you'll be letting every single one of your colleagues down, Agnes."

"Okay, Greg, I'm handling this."

"Greg wants you to think he only cares about this place," says Agnes. "Cares a lot more than he does about the people in it, anyway."

"I'm sure he cares about some of us deep down," says Jake.

A splutter that the shelves he's kneeling behind don't quite muffle escapes Nigel. Greg gives Woody a look that's on the way to holding him responsible and unprepared to wait long for him to intervene. He isn't entitled to confront Woody like that. Nobody here is, and the way to remind them is to deal with the actual culprit. "Agnes? Your time's up."

"You're telling me you want me to go."

Can she really think he means that? He's being made to feel as if his words have to struggle up from some unsuspected medium, emerging blurred almost beyond recognition. "Right," he says. "To go and shelve."

"You're asking me to stay."

If she's trying to convince herself or any of the listeners that she has won the skirmish, she isn't clever enough. "I'm sure everyone here wants you to," Woody says for them to hear.

He realises he should have put it differently when the seated men raise their eyes to her—eyes drained of all expression. It doesn't help that nobody else is looking at her. After a pause that makes his smile twitch, she says "Maybe there are people I oughtn't to land with more work."

Once she deigns to resume shelving he returns to Gavin's. The confrontation has left his skull feeling stuffed with mud and grit. The books the seated men are holding on their laps have started to put him in mind of identity plaques in a police photograph, especially when he thinks how they must appear on the security monitor. He's beginning to wonder if the immobility of the men is distracting or infecting his staff. Aren't their movements too sluggish? He does his best to set them an example with a shelf's worth of new books before he glances at his watch. "Texts will be closing in fifteen minutes," he shouts. "Please take any final purchases to the counter."

The seated men seem unaware that the announcement has any relevance to them. Woody shelves loudly and rapidly for most of five minutes. Since this fails to stir them, he uses the phone next to Reptiles to declare "Texts will be closing in ten minutes." This has no apparent result either, nor does filing books so vigorously that he cuts a knuckle on the edge of a shelf. Well before his next proclamation is due, he's obliged to consult his watch while he sucks his rusty finger. The second hand crawls like an insect tethered on a thread around the dial, and when at last it grows vertical again he feels released to breathe. "Texts will be closing in five minutes," he and the overhead speakers say. "Would customers please make their way to the exit. The store will be open tomorrow at eight."

The seated pair could pass for statues in a museum, complete with descriptions of themselves. He's wondering how long to give them before he updates the broadcast when Nigel goes over to murmur to them. Their heads may rise an inch or so, but that's all. Before long Ray joins his colleague to no effect beyond more murmuring. Far too many of the staff are more interested in eavesdropping than shelving, which is another reason why Woody hurries to intervene. "Look, we've told you it's nothing personal," Nigel is saying. "We have to shut for the night now, that's all."

"He said you lot aren't going home," one of the men objects.

"He shouldn't have told you. I don't know why he did."

"You calling him a liar?" one says with sudden enthusiasm.

"I'm not calling him anything. I'm simply asking you politely to let us shut, and so's he."

"Shut it whenever you like."

The other seated man laughs or grunts at this before adding "Let's see who's the most politest, you or your mate."

Ray and Nigel turn to Woody with some relief instead, prompting the men to twist their heads an inch or so in his direction. Their faces are stagnant, their eyes expressionless as fog. "They've brought another of their mates," the left-hand man informs nobody or everyone.

"Reckon he's the leader of their gang."

He feels as though they have draped their inertia over him like a thickening grimy web. "My staff have asked you nicely," he says with a smile that needs some conscious maintenance. "Can you leave now, please."

"We're in no bugger's way," the right-hand man says.

"We're comfy, us," his crony adds.

"We're closed to the public now. We aren't insured for anyone but staff."

Woody's almost certain that's the case, but the men look as if they know he isn't. "Never mind saying we're public," one somewhat obscurely complains.

"We've been here every day. We deserve a bit of credit."

"Have you bought anything?" enquires Nigel.

Woody has the impression Nigel wants to make up to him for failing to eject the men, and Ray also tries by remarking "You don't seem to read much."

"Who says you've got to read to be here?"

"You lot don't all. The one that tore the book up and stuffed it in the other bugger's gob, he couldn't and he works here."

"Not any more," Woody immediately feels he had no need to say.

"You could all be like him, far as we know." Ignoring Woody, the left-hand man says to Nigel "Let's hear you read a goodnight story and maybe we'll give you some peace."

"And you read us one as well," his comrade says to Ray.

Ray and Nigel swing around from avoiding each other's eyes to meet Frank's arrival. The guard has taken long enough to quit defending the entrance from nothing except fog. "Look out, here's reinforcements," the left-hand man remarks.

"More if they're needed," Greg vows, slamming a book onto a shelf and marching over.

The men tilt their heads as if they're enjoying their slowness. "We having a fight?" one hopes, enthusiastically for them.

"If you insist," Woody says before anyone else can speak. "With the law if you don't move right now."

Perhaps the last phrase is too ambitious. Even the sense of the rest appears to take time to seep through. "You really want us going out there," the right-hand man eventually has to have confirmed.

"You got it. We really do."

"You'll be stuck all night with just them that's here," his companion points out.

"I guess we'll live."

"All right, we know where we're not wanted." An unnecessary number of seconds make themselves felt before he follows his words out of the left-hand chair. His associate heaves himself up with the same sticky gasp of moist leather, muttering "That's what we know all right."

Frank tramps after them down the Poetry aisle with Woody in his wake, and Greg stays in Woody's, leaving Ray and then Nigel to bring up the rear. They're herding the men out of the store, not being led towards the blank wall of fog that towers above the floodlights and embraces the dark. As the men shuffle off the READ ON! mat and onto the sidewalk one says "Don't reckon the bluebottles would get here too quick in this."

"He means the police," Nigel murmurs to Woody.

"There won't be a reason for me to call them now, will there? Good night," Woody bids the sullen backs as he secures the door.

The men swivel their torsos and stare at the clicking of the keypad. They haven't finished staring when their feet begin to carry them into the fog. Soon it dilutes the figures, then flattens them and fills their outlines with a shifting pallor before it absorbs them. As Woody watches to be certain they're gone for the night, he hears Nigel murmur "You rather landed us in that, didn't you, Ray?"

"Like to tell me how?"

"You didn't have to give them quite so much information just because they asked if we were leaving too."

"It's called being friendly, Nigel. That's how we are up this end of the road, and aren't we supposed to be welcoming everyone? That's the routine, isn't it, Woody?"

"I guess I can't argue with that."

"If anyone did any landing, Nigel, maybe it was you getting their backs up."

"I've had no complaints about how I handle people. I'm not expecting any either."

"Maybe it was you not being from round here did it."

"I'd say they'd have to be rather stupid, anyone who reacted that way."

"Why, aren't we allowed to notice any more if someone talks different from us?"

"More grammatically, you mean."

"Next you'll be saying I'm another thickie like someone else turned out to be."

"Hey, I talk more different than any of you," Woody intervenes. "Let's just make sure we're on our own at last with no distractions." That brings the argument to an end without his having to chide them in front of the rest of the team. He's still in control, and he raises his voice until it sounds as big as the interior. "Okay, everyone go to the edge."

Nobody does so, not even Greg. Ray and Connie look as though they want to exchange glances. "Go to the walls as far apart as you can," Woody says, grabbing the nearest phone from the counter to give himself more of a voice. "Get it now? Take a good look on the way that there's nobody else here."

Is Agnes deliberately lagging because she can claim she's only doing as she was told? As he watches her his skin crawls hot and cold, and his eyes prickle like patches of a rash. When she reaches the video section at last he succeeds in relaxing his grip on the phone, which has been creaking in his ear like a structure about to collapse. "Fine, everyone stay where you are and look around. Clear?"

He doesn't immediately understand why several of them seem close to insulted, and then he smiles at himself and, more importantly, at them. "I'm saying is the store clear?" he amplifies, and the phone does.

"Clear," Greg calls, followed by a chorus of everyone else; Woody sees their mouths move, at any rate.

"Fine, fine. Now give everyone you can see a smile." Woody lets his linger on each member of the team in turn before asking "Anyone had less than they think they deserve? Then let's be sure to keep that up for the night."

Frank emits a cough from beside the security posts. "We've all got a smile for you too, right, guys?" Woody says, and the store does in his voice.

The guard begins to turn towards the exit before at least one of them has finished smiling. "I'll be getting home, then," he mumbles, rubbing one reddened cheek.

"Thanks for your help today. Travel safe."

As Woody unbuttons the door Frank takes a heavy pace away from it; he might almost be recoiling from the prospect of the fog. "Good luck," he says too loud to be speaking only to Woody, who could almost imagine he isn't being addressed at all.

BOOK: The Overnight
11.52Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

How (Not) to Fall in Love by Lisa Brown Roberts
Fractured Eden by Steven Gossington
Spartan Gold by Clive Cussler
On the Brink by Henry M. Paulson