So you want to know what it's like to be a store detective? Well, I guess I don't blame you. You see me standing nonchalantly in the doorway of your local supermarket or megastore and think Hey! I could do with a piece of that sweet action. Harry, people say to me, it must give you one hell of a buzz to know that you're the only thing standing between the good people of Tiverton and absolute anarchy. Well I can't argue with that. But it isn't all smart uniforms, shiny shoes and a five per cent discount on everything in store except for alcohol, baby food and feminine hygiene products. If you want to survive in this game you've got to be tough. You've got to be smart. And you've got to keep your wits about you, otherwise the whole shooting match will just chew you up, spit you out and leave you a burnt out silhouette of the man you once were.
Still interested? Let me tell you about it: a typical twenty-four hour on the front line of retail security.
I guess it was one of those baking hot June days, when the rain arrived suddenly from out of a cloudless sky in a flurry of fat drops, slapping the pavement silly and sizzling with each wet splop. Then, just as suddenly, it was over, leaving everyone stunned and wondering what the hell had hit them, as the sun reappeared and the ground began to steam.
And boy, that wasn't the only thing that was steaming! Glenda on the deli counter was getting a little hot under the collar too. I could feel her eyes burning into me, could sense her undressing me in her mind. Well that was too bad, I was strictly off limits. One night was all we had. One night of explosive, Latin passion behind Mario's, Tiverton's premier Italian restaurant. She knew the score at the time. When you're a store detective you're married to the job. We don't make connections. We can't afford to. Life is too precarious. I've see too many eager young bloods disappear up frozen foods in pursuit of a suspect, never to be seen again; seen too many grieving widows standing by the graveside, the earth sodden with their salty tears.
So Glenda would just have to go hungry. It was hard on the kid, but kinder in the long run. Besides, on this day of all days I was far too preoccupied to bill and coo with drippy shop girls. My highly trained eyes were firmly fixed on a suspect.
He was short, stocky, Caucasian and about seven years old, with flashing lights in his trainers and a Spiderman t-shirt. A real player. He showed all the classic signs. Kept his eyes firmly averted as he waited for the storm to break. There was that look about him, you know, as if butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. Okay, so his gran probably adored him. Mother doted on him, no question about it. Sure, so he had his folks twisted around his devious little finger, but to my practised eye everything about him screamed villain. The nervous stance, the set expression, not to mention the bulge in his pocket where he had stashed approximately £1.52's worth of pick and mix.
The rain passed. He made his move. Ha! You know, I smile when I picture it now, but I don't think that kid believed his luck when he didn't feel my hand on his shoulder as he left the store. Pah! He was small fry, so I let him go. So what - the bastard will get what's coming to him sooner or later. But for now he could wait. Hey, you don't get to be Tiverton's number one store detective by getting all wishy-washy. This job turns you into a tough nut. Sure, you start off brimming with the milk of human kindness, but it soon turns sour and before you know it you're just a mess of evil cheese. Once you've been on the wrong end of a French stick after cornering some old broad up the pre-packed poultry, you soon wise up.
Believe me, I've heard all the stories:
"I just need this cat food for my starving baby."
"My boy has asthma and he needs these video games."
"I'm liberating this copy of John Denver's Greatest Hits for the good of the human race."
Hey! Spare me the sob story - it's not gonna play, lady. Put the CD on the ground, take three steps back and hit the deck! I'm authorised to exercise deadly force - don't mess with me! And ninety-nine times out of a hundred they make like a little baa lamb and do just exactly as they're told. Plastic hip or no plastic hip, they go down just as easy.
But today I was after a bigger fish. I'd spotted him earlier: tubby, middle-aged, dressed in a crumpled and creased business suit as if he'd just stepped out of the office. Oh yeah, to the untrained eye he had every affectation of respectability. He even exchanged pleasantries with the staff as he flitted around the store, plucking items from the shelf to fill his basket like a chubby little bumble bee darting from flower to flower. But that kinda thing isn't gonna deceive a seasoned old gumshoe like me. It was all just a little bit too perfect. Maybe everyone else saw him as a regular joe, but he didn't fool me for one fat moment.
So then, what do we have? The suspect's in our sights, so what's the next move? If you were in my position you'd probably be thinking about challenging him. And that's where you'd be dead wrong, my friend. The trick with these guys is to hold back, to play the waiting game. You pay out the line; you let him take a hold of the bait. Sure, you may have to give your rod a tug every now and then to keep him interested, but hey, we're all human. Hell, the perp may even break loose, but that's okay. Keep a cool head, hold your nerve. There'll be other opportunities.
Me? I'm a hunter. I have an instinct for these things. I can track the suspect through the aisles, spot the tell-tale signs of a furtive rummage through the discounted chilled goods, sniff out his spoor among the mixed spices. If they double back along pet foods or take a detour through household cleaning products, then I'll hold off. It's no worry, I know where they are, but I'm too smart to get to close and spook them.
This guy knew all the moves - he wandered methodically through the store, stopped to pick up jars, read labels. He even had the nerve to stop and speak to one of the staff, all smart chat and bonhomie. One realcool customer, and I almost admired him for it. Almost.
And then came the shock. It was the briefest of movements but I spotted it: a tell-tale flicker, his eyes darting momentarily in my direction. Thank Christ I'm blessed with lightening reflexes, for if it wasn't for my prompt action I would have found myself in one mother of a stew. Back in my call centre days - another time, another life - I was famous for it. It became something of a game for my co-workers to skim a coaster at the back of my head while I was in the middle of a call. I only failed to catch it once - a failure that left me with eternal shame, the memory of a missed sale and a strange little bump on the back of my head that has never really gone away. We're all damaged people deep down - it makes us who we are.
So, I ducked behind a tower of family-sized washing powder. Three packets for the price of two - hell of a good deal. Had he seen me? Surely not. I was too nimble, too savvy, too quick. All the same, I couldn't take the risk. Besides, I'd seen enough. I broke off the chase. It was time to prepare my trap.
I went outside, to the car park where the wet tarmac glistened, and the reflections of grey clouds scurried across the gleaming windscreens. This would have to do. This would be my battleground. I looked around. There were plenty of people about, and I didn't like that. Sure, I'd take the guy down quick and clean, there'd be no question about that, but all the same I wished these good folk didn't have to see it. The dark, seedy underworld of Tiverton was something they read about in their evening newspapers, not something they had to witness in all its bloody and bone-crunching reality. Still, it couldn't be helped. I squatted down behind the trolley park and waited.
Time slows to a crawl. The seconds turn into minutes and the minutes seem like an age. The hunter steadies himself, his heart rate drops, his breathing is reduced to a whisper as he waits and he watches. I had a clear view of the main doors, my path was uninterrupted. As soon as he stepped out I would...
"Excuse me, are you all right down there?" The voice came from my elbow. She was a young woman, late twenties, I'd say, clutching her shopping bag to her chest and looking down at me with an air of matronly concern. I ignored her. Maybe she'd go away. People often do.
"I say," she said. "Are you all right? What are you doing down there?" Shush! I hissed. I hoped she'd get the hint. I hoped she'd see the danger that burned in my eyes. She didn't.
"I can go and get help, if you like?" she said. My eyes darted towards the doorway. The target could emerge any minute and this insane woman would get caught in the crossfire. I had to get rid of her. A smart blow to the chin would lay her out cold, then I could drag her behind the litter bin where she'd be safe until things quietened down. But no, that might draw attention. I told her to 'go away'. She huffed, bristled slightly then silently slotted a pound coin into one of the trolleys and wheeled it into the store.
I let out a long sigh of relief, mopped my brow but when I looked up - calamity! The suspect had already exited the store and was making his way to his car. I sprang into action. There was no time to think, but that was okay. In this business thinking only slows you down. My pulse racing, the blood pounding in my ears as it delivered much-needed oxygen to my arms, my legs and my brain. I charged some old lady aside. There would be time for the social niceties later. She went spinning off into a bollard and exploded.
I hurled myself upon the suspect and felled him in one fluid movement like the rotten and blasted oak that he was. I flipped him over, straddled him as he lay on the ground, the jars and cans and packets that had spilled from his bulging shopping bags surrounding him like an eerie chalk outline, but made of groceries. At first he was too stunned to react, but then I clamped a hand over his mouth as he tried to protest.
Store Detective, I told him. I flashed my badge and read him his rights. He protested all the more. I removed my hand from his mouth. I didn't like the things he was saying, so I quickly put it back.
By this time quite a crowd had gathered, which was irritating but not altogether unexpected. Witnesses can be useful sometimes, but there are occasions - such as when you're trying to extract information - that you don't want civilians hanging around. So I was grateful when the store manager arrived and got his staff to disperse them. Together, we took the suspect to the manager's office where we could work on him more... 'discreetly'.
I don't know. Sometimes you have a gut feeling for something - you work out all the angles, crunch the numbers, run the facts up the flagpole, turn up the heat, race through the avenues and alleyways in your head, set the video recorder and dip your fingers in the jam, but in the final analysis the figures just don't add up. That guy had stolen goods on him - I knew it, he knew it, hell, even that little old lady knew it. I saw it in her eyes right before she was consumed by the fireball. But all we could find was the stuff that he'd paid for legally. Ha! That was the sideshow, the smokescreen and if I'd been left alone with him for just twenty minutes I could have proved it, had him eating out of my hand, squealing like a baby and crying like a rat.
But the store manager didn't see it that way, so we let him slip through our fingers. Hell, not only that, but the manager gave him a fistful of vouchers as compensation, and I got carpeted into the bargain. How do you like that? Well, them's the breaks. I don't play by the rules, and I don't expect the chief to like my methods. Damn it! It's the price I pay for getting the job done.
Well, still think you could cut it as a store dick? It's a lonely life, dirty, dangerous and sometimes all the thanks you get is another kick in the pants. But sometimes... well, take this guy, 'cos here's the sequel. I've only seen him once more, when he came to spend his ill-gotten vouchers. Never seen him since, and it's no wonder. He's not going to show his thieving face around here again, not while I'm on the door. Oh yeah, Tiverton's a safer place these days, and really that's all the thanks I need.
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