Days by James Lovegrove(In this extract, our store detective hero, Frank Hubble, starts work and gets his first glimpse that day of a potential shoplifter.)

Still smarting over his cowardly behaviour in Mr Bloom’s office, Frank takes a lift from the Basement to the Red Floor, then rides a double-helix strand of escalators, zigzagging up through the levels. As one escalator after another lifts him higher and higher, a vague, dismal dread settles in his stomach. The prospect of the day ahead, with its tedium, its irritations and its unpredictable dangers, is a gloomy one, scarcely alleviated by the knowledge that for him it is going to be the last of its kind. His thoughts start to clot like bad milk, and he literally has to shake his head to disperse them. Eight hours, he tells himself. Less, counting breaks. Less than eight hours of this life to go, and then he is a free man. He can grit his teeth and endure the job for another eight hours, can’t he?

On a whim he gets off at the Blue Floor. There is never any pattern to Frank’s working day once the store opens except the timing of his breaks, which are staggered with those of his fellow Ghosts so that at least eighty per cent of the Tactical Security workforce is out on the shop floor at any given moment. He travels at random, letting impulse and the ebb and flow of events direct him. The difference between the hours leading up to opening time and the hours after is the same as the difference between waking thought and dreaming – a matter of control. Frank surrenders himself to the random.

Finding himself in Taxidermy, he wanders through to Dolls, from there to Classic Toys, and from there to Collectable Miniatures, staying with a knot of customers, then latching on to a lone browser, then hovering for a while beside an open cabinet of temptingly pocketable hand-painted thimbles.

He keeps an eye on customers carrying large shoulder-bags, customers with rolled-up newspapers clutched under their arms, customers with long coats on, customer pushing prams with blanket-swaddled toddlers on board. They could all be perfectly innocent. They could all be as guilty as sin. His job is to hope for the former but always suspect the latter.

He watches a customer engage a sales assistant in conversation, and immediately he starts looking around for an accomplice. It is an old pro trick. While one shoplifter diverts the sales assistant’s attention, his partner makes the boost. In this instance, however, it seems that the customer is on his own, and is genuinely interested in some Meissen figurines.

Then a pair of Burlingtons swan past, and Frank moves off silently in their wake.

The Burlingtons are a cult of spoilt teenage boys who parade their parents’ wealth like a badge of honour, wearing the glaringly expensive designer trainers, the crisp white socks, the tight black trousers, and the gold-moiré blouson jackets that are the unofficial uniform of their rich-kid tribe. These two, it transpires, are on the hunt for rare baseball cards, and Frank dogs them so closely that he could, if he wanted to, raise his hand and stroke the fuzz of their close-shaved hair, half of which has been dyed black, half bleached blond.

The Burlingtons lead him into Showbusiness Souvenirs, where he detaches himself from them in order to circulate among the displays of stage costumes, old props, production stills, foyer cards, autographed publicity shots of long-faded stars, and crumbling movie and concert posters preserved behind clear perspex.

The centrepiece of Showbusiness Souvenirs is a locked, reinforced-glass case that holds, among other things, a pair of incontinence pants soiled by an internationally renowned rock’n’roll star during his drug-sodden twilight years; the polyp removed from a former US president’s lower intestine; the skull of a universally despised yet unfathomably successful lue-collar comedian; the steering wheel from the car fatally crashed by a screen legend; a blunted bullet retrieved from a dictator’s shattered head by a souvenir-seeking soldier at the climax of a successful coup d’etat; the stub of the last cigar ever smoked by an unusually long-lived revolutionary leader; a specimen of blood extracted post mortem from the body of a notoriously bibulous politician and decanted into a phial disrespectfully labelled ‘100% Proof'; a preserving jar containing the aborted foetus of the love-child begotten by an actress and a prominent member of the clergy; a razor-thin cross-section of a famous theoretical physicist’s brain sandwiched between two plates of glass; and a framed arrangement of pubic-hair clippings from various porn-film artistes. All of the above items are accompanied by certificates testifying to their authenticity.

A ponytailed man in a navy blue suit is loitering beside this cabinet of curiosities, and at the sight of him Frank’s nape hairs start to prickle, as they did at the sight of the girl on the train.

There is nothing intrinsically suspicious about what the ponytailed man is doing. Plenty of people linger over the collection, gazing at the rare and expensive mortal mementoes with disgust or fascination or a ghoulish combination of the two. And he isn’t exhibiting any of the tics and mannerisms that usually prefigure an act of store-theft. His casual air seems genuine. He isn’t aiming surreptitious glances at the sales assistants or other customers, one of the ‘flagging’ signs Frank was trained to recognise. His breathing is controlled and steady. But Frank doesn’t always go by visual clues alone.

Frank would be surprised if over the course of his thirty-three-year career he hadn’t developed an instinct about shoplifters. In the same way that older deep-sea fishermen can somehow sense where the big shoals are going to be and experienced palaeontolgists sometimes seem to know that a patch of ground will yield fossils even before the first spade has struck soil, Frank can identify a potential shoplifter almost without looking. It is as if thieving thoughts send out ripples in the air like a stone cast into a pond, subtle fluctuations which he has become attuned to and which set alarm bells ringing in his subconscious. It is not the most reliable of talents, and has been known to mislead him, but as a rough guide it is right far more frequently than it is wrong.

The closer he gets to the ponytailed man, the deeper his conviction grows that the man is planning to steal something. Possibly not from this department, and certainly not from the case in front of him, not unless he is carrying a sledgehammer or a set of skeleton keys, but soon, very soon. The man is pausing here to prepare himself mentally, turning his intentions over and over in his head. Outwardly he betrays not the slightest sign of anxiety or anticipation. A professional.

When the ponytailed man finally moves away from the glass case, Frank falls in behind him and follows him like a silent second shadow.

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• Filed under Extracts • 08/11/1997 •