Prices slashed

A line was loosely formed outside the new store, “Slashed!” and Gayle Levy was glad to be in it. She had heard the store would be the ultimate fast paced shopping adventure and was fired up to get some great deals.

In reality, Gayle knew she didn’t need anything, she just loved the thrill of finding a bargain and had gone out for years on Black Friday to get the deal, not the item. Just a few years ago she had made the news when a group of women fought over the last 4K television at a local chain and she ended up getting it, with a few other women getting black eyes. Fortunately, No charges were filed.

The store in front of her was in an old Wal-Mart, closed from the attacks on retail from online shopping companies that offered low prices and near same day delivery for free. In the new world there was no need to even see someone else, Gayle hated the idea of that, after all, where is the fun in that. Where is that thrill of winning.

Looking around the line had grown since she arrived and over three hundred people were gathered to cram into this new store with more cars pulling up every minute. Men in grey uniforms walked around and handed people small papers.

“What’s this?” Gayle asked.

“Contract, no one gets in unless it is signed, allows video access and is a general release of liability.” the guard said.

Gayle reached in her purse, got a pen, then filled out and signed the paper. Nothing was stopping her shopping today.

A massive bell sounded. The bell was reminiscent of the bell that rang as horses were let out of the gate at popular race tracks. The doors opened wide and the signed “Slashed” lit up bright blue.

People began to push into the doors as men checked contracts. One by one people were let through as their contracts were checked then slipped into a file folder. Some were stopped to sign or change something but the line flowed with great vigor. Gayle noticed each contract being fed into a document scanner at the door and whisked off to who knows where. Gayle pressed as hard as anyone as she handed over her signed contract. As they pressed forward she found herself in a massive white room. People stood impatiently and huge fans blew air downward into the group keeping it from getting hot. A diminutive woman stood on a high podium and began talking.

“Welcome to the future of shopping!” the woman began. “My name is Lizzie, and I will be opening these doors in just a moment so you can compete for the best deals you can get anywhere, online or offline. The rules are simple, you make your best deals by getting the products you want at the best price. If you achieve certain goals you advance to the next room and get more discounts up to the fourth room where you have the opportunity to get 99% off. To advance to more savings you must get the best deal, and be chosen to move to a new level. No one moves forward unless chosen.”

There were some groans and some “ahhhs” in the audience.

“Now don’t worry,” Lizzie continued, “Everyone will walk out of here with a deal, but only the most tenacious people will move on to the challenge rooms and better and better prices! As the doors behind me open you will find your deal, and the prices will be slashed based on you and your ability to make your deal happen.”

Gayle was ready and the people around her pushed forward.

“When you hear this sound,” a groaning low pitched horn sounded, “someone has checked out and moved out of the area and is headed home or back to the start.”

“When you hear this bell,” a ring sounded like the one she had heard previously, “You will know someone is moving on to better prices and more intense competition. Is everyone ready?”

“yes,” came the weak murmur around the room.

Lizzie strained and took a deep breath, “I asked, is Everyone READY?”

Screams echoed in the room as people cheered “Yes!!!!” and the bell rang.

Gayle was pushed forward with the crowd at first and saw bin upon bin in front of her as the halls began opening in the first rooms. There were about 30 bins of difference sizes filled with merchandise. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to it. To the left was a door marked cashier, Huge men in blue uniforms pocketed the area like massive sentinels looking over a prize, everything else was about the deal. this room was massive and could hold hundreds of shoppers.

Within seconds there was a ring and Gayle could not see what happened. She did see a tall woman escorted to a door marked “2” in front of her. Guards at the door kept anyone else from thinking about going to “2” unescorted.

The bell rang again and another woman moved forward with several items in hand, then another, and another.

Gayle saw a woman with an armload of merchandise head to the cashier door and she heard the low pitched moan as the woman went out of the one way door. People were grabbing things left and right. Gayle saw something in front of her, a name brand purse worth a lot sitting on a table. She grabbed at it as another small woman grabbed it as well. The two pulled and Gayle saw a fire in the small woman’s eyes. She decided she was going to get that purse and she turned and as she did she elbowed the woman in the stomach. Choking, the woman dropped the purse.

The bell rang and a huge man in a blue uniform walked to Gayle, and pointed her towards door 2. Escorting her she heard the bell ring again and again. More people made their way to door 2. The door swung open and Gayle was in a new room. There was Lizzie, standing on a new podium. She began to speak.

“Welcome to level 2 where prices are better than any online location could offer! We offer the best pricing because our backers are interested in you and your shopping habits! Get ready to experience shopping like never before in our Electronics Area! Make sure you get a cart to keep your purchases safe!”

People saw the row of carts and began taking the steel reinforced monstrosities and putting their items in the carts. The carts had grates on them that pulled over the front of the top opening making it difficult to reach in. Gayle got a cart, put the purse in it and pulled on the handle closing the top off with a steel grate. She played with the handle and the grate slid up and down on rubber gliders easily. She saw others playing with the lever that worked the grate, and wondered how cutthroat the prices would be to set this type of cart up.

Guards in orange shirts and blue pants opened the next set of doors and the group of perhaps 50 men and women rushed the next room. Gayle pushed forward and was happy her cart was not one from grocery stores. The wheels and bearings were slick and easy and pivoted so easily they seemed to read her mind. Gayle wound her way through the bins and grabbed a few watches and saw the price was hundreds less than normal. A woman grabbed an Apple Watch from her and threw it in their cart. Gayle was furious but saw another one and grabbed it. She put it in her own cart and began to move on when a man started to reach into her cart for the watch, smiling at her with an obvious disdain. Gayle grabbed the grate lever and pulled hard closing on the mans arm. He winced and began to pull back, but as Gayle allowed a little opening for him to withdraw he began to reach in again. Gayle jammed the lever hard and he yelped looking a her with obvious anger. His arm pinned he swung at her with his free arm. Gayle grabbed the lever and slammed it over and over until the man began to tear up and started to pull away. Gayle was not having it and pulled again and again catching the mans hand as he pulled out and seeing bruise and blood as he cradled his arm. As the man backed away from Gayle her eyes glared with righteous indignation.

A guard in an orange shirt came up to the man and escorted him out of the area through the door marked “cashier” and she heard the low groan again. Moments later a guard came to her and she was concerned she was in trouble, but instead the man escorted her to a door marked “3” on the wall, and for the first time in room 2 the bells sounded.

Gayle and her cart were now in a smaller podium room with Lizzie walking to the podium. A massive woman with a bit of blood on her lip and a few items in her cart joined Gayle. Then a man with mussed hair and a slight limp with a fuller cart. He was followed by a short woman with a blonde ponytail that looked like a soccer mom, she popped her gum with her half full cart and Gayle could see a little blood on her running suit.

Soon about 20 people were in the room and as the door opened Gayle could see more and more people entering room 2. Each time the door opened she could hear the groaning klaxon or the ringing bells, over and over like some massive assembly line of shopping.

Lizzie began talking again. “Welcome to level 3. I have a special gift for all of you in here, a 20% off coupon on your cart so far!” Men in green shirts began passing out the coupons to each person in the room.

“Are you ready for kitchen deals?” Lizzie asked.

The room was filled with nervous energy and everyone in that room screamed. “Yes!!!!!”

The bells rang and everyone, including Gayle ran forward with their carts. Gayle grabbed the Ninja blender and threw it in her cart for a great deal off. There were only a few and another big woman in black spandex grabbed one but was knocked down and kicked as a man took it from her. He put it in his cart and Gayle heard the bell sound. She saw the man escorted to the door marked “4” on the side of the room. The big woman in black spandex stood and grabbed a “Kitchen Aid” mixer and as a smaller woman reached for it swung the box by the handle and knocked the smaller woman reaching for it across the floor. The big woman in black spandex put the mixer in her cart but as the other smaller woman struggled to get up, she also opened her cart and took a bunch of items and moved them over to her waiting cart.

The smaller woman on the floor dove onto her and started swinging. As she did Gayle moved to the big woman’s cart and took the Mixer. Opening her cart and putting it in Gayle moved away from that scene. Gayle grabbed a knife block from a display and put it in her cart. She then came to a display of meat tenderizers and grabbed one. A hand was on her shoulder and she turned to find the big woman in black spandex swinging at her.

“Give me my mixer!” the woman screamed. A little blood dripping from her cut lip.

Gayle swung the meat tenderizer up and smacked the woman in the chin. She felt a crunch and the big woman fell back to the floor. Gayle saw the blood spray and the woman’s jaw was now at an odd angle. The guards in green came forward and the bells and groans went off at once. Gayle was escorted one way, the big woman in black spandex another.

“She asked for it,” Gayle said but soon realized she was moving to the door marked “4”.

A new woman was at a podium with only a few others in the room. The 4 waited together as others were ushered into the room and guards with red shirts wandered around the room offering water bottles to the shoppers.

“Hi” The woman said as 10 people were counted in the room. “the 10 of you will now compete in our sporting goods department. The deals are amazing, and before we start our proprietors have given each of you a 50% off coupon for any purchases you have made or will make today. Use it with your 20% coupon and your savings will be stellar!”

A muscular man to Gayle’s side said, “We aren’t gonna get in no trouble are we, I mean, I know I broke that dudes nose but he was trying to take my vacuum.”

“No, by the terms of the store agreement you are in no trouble,” she paused, “In fact it is your tenacious shopping habits that make you the best for room 4. Are you ready?”

The 10 screamed an affirmative and Gayle found her heart racing. 7 women and three men entered the room. It was larger than some others but the tables had fewer items. Gayle noticed there were camera’s in the ceiling everywhere. Gayle rushed to a counter and grabbed a tent. As someone walked towards her she opened her cart, threw in the tent and grabbed the handle of the meat tenderizer. A man reached for her cart and she swung the hammer at his hand, smashing his fingers. He pulled back and looked at her as she blew air to get her hair off her face and swung at his groin. The mans eyes opened wide and he groaned and fell to the floor writhing.

A big black man saw Gayle take the first man down and opened the man on the floors cart and emptied it into his in just seconds. Gayle ran to another table with Gerber machetes on it. She grabbed 4 of the big knives and put them in her cart. A few feet down was a table full of baseball bats and Gayle took a bat, then ducked as a small Asian woman swung one at her. Gayle backed off and moved to another table. The Asian woman hit another woman over the head with the steel baseball bat and pummeled her several times. Gayle thought she saw the woman’s head deform a little and blood began to pool under her. The Asian woman then took items from that woman’s cart.

Gayle looked back at the floor and saw the twisted body of the woman just beaten with the bat. She was now convulsing and blood was running from a gash in her head.

Gayle moved on to the next table and scrapped the contents into her cart with a sweeping arm. She had no idea what she just got but didn’t care, it was hers. A dozen boxes filled her cart and as she closed the top grate she saw she had just taken shotgun shells.

She moved to the next table and turned to see people losing interest in the sales and instead fighting like crazed lunatics over the previous items. As another person fell, the guards in red shirts picked them up and carried them out of the room trough the door marked “Cashier”. The groan sounds came one after another. There number of people reduced.

Gayle looked forward and saw the next table and grabbed the item on the table. She knew it well. A Remington 12 gauge shotgun. Gayle reached into her cart, ripped open a box of shells and loaded the weapon with 5 shots. No guard moved, no one came towards her.

Four people remained and Gayle walked back within a few feet of them all. Each was lost in their own fight. Gayle chambered a round as one man looked at her. Gayle shot him in the chest and blood sprayed as he was thrown back. Gayle’s ears rang, but she was already chambering a second round and let it loose on the woman to her right. The shot caught the woman’s arm, and removed it. The woman fell to the floor writhing. Gayle heart pounded but she would not lose!

Another woman was running toward the cashier door with her cart and Gayle let loose a third round into her back. Gayle heart pounded even faster but this was now her deal. The woman’s back peppered with blood and she fell forward into the ground. The last man, the black man who had emptied the cart earlier looked into Gayle’s eyes. He stood for a moment and pushed his cart towards her, then walked to the cashier door empty handed.

Gayle panted, she walked forward and yelled, “Hey.”

The man turned and Gayle shoved his cart to him. The man smiled and pushed the cart out the cashier door. The groan sounded.

The men in red shirts were cleaning up and taking the fallen shoppers out of the room as Gayle gathered the carts together and moved items to her cart. A few men in black uniforms rushed in with mops and cleaned the floors even as Gayle finished loading her cart. She looked up at the dozens of camera’s. Men in grey uniforms came in and were patching walls and painting with rapid haste now. It was a theater of efficiency.

“I’m ready to check out,” Gayle said.

Lizzie walked in the room, “Of course Gayle, and the proprietors have given you this special coupon for 99% off for your fantastic shopping ability! Thank you for your tenacity! You can combine it with your other coupons making your days shopping almost free! What do you think!”

Gayle blew the hair out of her face, took the coupon and made her way out the cashier door. “It’s a lot better than shopping online!” she replied as she left the fourth room.

Behind the cameras, in another room dozens of men and women laughed. “Good job Mister McMillan. We did not see that coming. Number 77, Gayle Levy is the winner. She paid 15 to 1. Congratulations sir! The second group is setting up now, place your bets. Only 5 minutes remain until bets are locked for group 2 in the fourth room.”

Stoker

Amanda Kramer was excited yet apprehensive about her new job. She was good at what she did. As a business analyst and extreme perfectionist Amanda wanted nothing more than to make sure she exceeded every goal that was laid before her.

The building that she was working in was one that hit the papers over and over. It was a modernized wonder made from an antique wonder. Once a massive power generation station the company she now worked for had stripped it, gutted it, then rebuilt it into an ultra-modern workplace. It wasn’t just that they had built this masterpiece, it was that in the process they had kept multiple areas in near perfect historic shape.

Walking into the building she looked up to see impenetrable girders framing a modern set of doors. As she made her way inside and approach the attentive security desk staffed with almost intimidating professionals, she saw the walls in the reception area were of historic brick and those walls set off the modern aspects making it a palace of brick, steel, and glass.

Looking around, the entire area was encased in glass as though she and the security guards talking to her were in a giant fishbowl waiting for a shark to be dropped in with them. She almost felt self-conscious in her black skirt, white cotton shirt with the floral sweater, and her glossy black Prada shoes. She felt overdressed, or maybe under dressed. She just didn’t know.

Her morning flew by. She visited HR and was walked around to dozens and dozens of people.  Amanda knew she might remember faces but doubted she would remember names. She was walked to a lush office on one of the higher floors that overlooked a city that was being rebuilt and modernized like the building she was in. She could not help but be distracted as the executive explained to her a vision for making technology architecture more resilient. The subtle winding river below her seemed to beckon her to watch and the crisp skyline of the city was not only stunning it kept her mind in a fantastic place that she never knew existed.

As the executive outlined his approach, she gained clarity and realized that she was perfect for this job. Her work in cloud architecture, business continuity, disaster recovery, and highly resilient systems suddenly had her engaged with a passion few in her field could understand. She explained Information Technology approaches on moving to a hybrid cloud and in doing so reducing cost while virtually eliminating the risk that the executive had explained. She was in her element, she was happy. More importantly, the executive was happy.

At the end of her meeting her new supervisor escorted her to the cube that she had been assigned and nodded as Amanda talked. Her supervisor explained to her that she was very impressed with Amanda’s resume and her first day interaction was even more impressive.

“We’re looking forward to seeing your ideas. When do you think you can have a little something to show us?” her supervisor asked.

“Why don’t I put together some preliminary items and we can discuss them tomorrow?” Amanda said.

“You know tonight is Halloween, maybe we should wait and give you a couple of days to get settled in,” her supervisor replied.

“That’s okay,” Amanda said, “I live alone and just moved to the area. No plans for me and nothing that I’m going to do. I’ll just stay for a while and get things done.”

“We don’t want to overwork you on your first day,” her supervisor replied with an inviting smile, “but you know you better than any of us what you would like to do. Just let me know how I can help.”

Amanda was impressed. None of her previous positions had been as friendly or as excited about her let alone as engaged with her as this one. Most of her previous supervisors had been intimidated by her rapid understanding of situations and then the resolution that she could put together in very short order. Usually her supervisors we’re afraid of her, worried that she was going to try to take their jobs and as such treated her less than favorably, sometimes passively aggressive, sometimes simply aggressive. Today was so different. Everyone she had met was engaged and excited for her to be there.

Amanda worked hard and the day melted away like a chocolate bar in the July sun. Amanda’s designs and ideas flowed onto paper and since she hadn’t set up her computer at home she continued to work until she noted the sun slowly setting in the western sky.

Amanda stood up and walked to the gigantic western window glancing at the other windows that stood on every wall. The sun was blood red and the walls danced with color from the soon to be night sky. She smiled and watched the sun wink at her as it slowly set. Amanda felt excited and happy and mostly Amanda felt at home.

Darkness fell like a 2-ton weight in an old Monty Python show and soon she was bathed in the light only from the overheads. Amanda went back to her seat and continued to work. She was passionate about sharing some ideas, and just kept going, reveling in the feeling of getting things done.

She had no idea when she was finally ready to be done for the evening, she just started to feel a little weary and decided it was time. She didn’t think it was late by any means but as she stood up and stretched and looked around, she realized the view below her was no less than desolate. Even though she was on the second floor and could not see far it looked as though the city had just stopped. She remembered that it was Halloween and guessed the trick-or-treaters were scattered around the suburbs in search of candy and occasional awesome tricks on unsuspecting homeowners. She remembered as a child loving the thrill of Halloween and of course the scary stories and being scared by a holiday. Being scared always felt good and she enjoyed it more than a little.

A noise behind Amanda startled her and she jumped like a cat in an old Loony Tunes cartoon. Turning she found a giant man behind her in overalls and a white shirt. He was almost out of place. His arms looked like bridge cables and his overalls looked faded and worn as though overworked as much as he. His chiseled features were rugged but soft in their own way and his receding hairline had become a ring of hair around a soft balding area at the top of his head. Amanda felt at ease even though she should be intimidated.

“Who are you,” she asked.

“Stoker ma’am, John Stoker.”

“I’m sorry I’m so late I didn’t realize how time had flown by. It’s my first day and well, I was just trying to make a good impression and get things done,” Amanda said.

“No problem ma’am,” John said, “I was just walking around making sure everything was safe.”

“What time is it” Amanda asked realizing she hadn’t looked at either her watch nor the computer time for hours. “Oh, and I am Amanda.”

“It’s almost midnight ma’am and that’s when I do my walk around. You never know what’s going to happen on Halloween.”

“Well I was getting ready to leave,” Amanda said, “I could walk with you.”

“Sure ma’am,” Stoker said, “I will happily walk you to the door.”

Amanda gathered her items and put them in a leather tote that she carried with her. It looked almost like a large purse, but it was actually a business satchel where she carried all the things she felt she might have needed for her new job. She left her laptop knowing that she would be back in just a few hours and then she would present those ideas she had completed this evening.

“May we walk through the old area,” John Stoker asked.

Amanda wasn’t sure what he was saying but she had noticed the staircase behind the row of desks where she sat and John walked to the staircase with her following closely behind. She held her satchel and began down the red and tile stairs into another world.

The room at the bottom of the stairs was like a step back in time. The walls were made of the same brick that were by the security desk up front. Across the walls were various displays showing the power plant in different phases of its life. Four bright white lights hung from the ceiling suspended by small cables that gave them a very rugged industrial look. The doors on several walls were different than anywhere else in the building.

The doors were stainless steel or at least looked like stainless steel with brass or bronze fittings making them look inviting and techno like many of the steampunk themes she had seen lately. They were out of place from the glass and steel constructs all over the building and instead these doors looked like portals into time or at least portals to another world.

“These doors are beautiful,” Amanda said, “I can’t believe they didn’t show me these on the tour.”

“They usually show them to you on your second or third day, but everyone always finds their way here.”

On several sides of the room old brass steam gauges hung showing a slice of the past and how power used to come to be. On one wall newspaper articles were gathered in a large mural and Amanda glanced at those from the distance.

Amanda’s watch vibrated. She looked down and realized that it was now midnight. On queue there was suddenly a buzzing and as she moved towards John, she observed that the one set of doors was glowing. The stainless-steel door seemed to have a life of its own and pulsed red and gold and powerful yellowish hews. Amanda could feel the heat emanating from the door as John stepped in front of her.

“I need to get you out of here,” John said and started backing away from the doors.

The doors began to swell and Amanda looked on in astonished horror as the lock melted and the door swung wide. Behind the double doors figures started emerging. These were not figures of men but instead human-like figures made of molten flame. Where eyes and a mouth should have been was bright yellow and the flaming creatures lifted their arms and pointed towards John and Amanda.

“Ma’am we need to leave,” John Stoker said, “we need to leave right now.”

Amanda was stunned but John’s massive body pushed her backwards as he began backing up from the fiery figures. A short hallway was to their side and John guided her towards a set of double doors. They both bolted through the double doors but they could still see the flames on the other side.

“What are those things,” Amanda gasped.

“Ma’am it is midnight on Halloween. Those are the ghosts of the people who put their heart and soul into this building, literally.”

“What do they want?” Amanda asked with an incredulous tone.

“Well ma’am that’s hard to say. After all they are ghosts, but I would say they just are drawn to the light on these few minutes of this special day, specifically to the light of the living.”

John went around the corner and it was like a small winding maze for a moment. Behind them they felt the heat and the doors suddenly flung open and the molten men came into view.

Another set of doors allowed John and Amanda to move into a long hallway. Amanda remembered this hallway from a tour earlier in the day. It went all the way down to the cafeteria area and the main entrance and exit. As Amanda looked down the hallway with doors and offices on one side and panes of glass on the other John began to hurry her along.

The flaming men came into view walking in no particular hurry behind them. Amanda noticed as they walked each step left a fiery footprint in the carpet. Listening she could hear the sizzle of the plastic or fiber that was in that carpet as it was melting to the floor.

“We have to hurry ma’am,” John said, “we don’t have much time.”

Amanda began jogging with John down the hallway which seemed much much longer than earlier in the day.

She tripped.

“Damnit,” Amanda said as she struggled back to her feet. “Even in the heat of the moment I am still a klutz.”

John reached down and helped her up as one of the fiery men reached for her. He did not grab her but was close enough and she grabbed her arm as the hair and skin darkened and burnt. The two began a run again as the flaming pursuit resumed and lumbered towards them.

John and Amanda reached the glass doors to the security reception area and she fumbled with the door, her arm smarting with the burn. The flaming men were now on tile and each seemed to sink into the tile with each step. John pushed the door open as they closed in and Amanda screamed. She could feel the heat from them like some bad fire pit was closing in on her and John threw her into the lobby and closed the door behind her. She turned and saw John grab the fiery men and hold them from the door even as he too burst into flames. John held them fast and the doors glowed white hot, the glass bowing in the heat.

Amanda turned onto her stomach then glanced back and closed her eyes screaming. As she lifted her body up, she felt sheets beneath her. The room was in her new apartment, she was still dressed in her black skirt and white cotton shirt with the floral sweater. She lay atop of her bed which was still made. Looking to the side she saw her leather bag on a small divan, the leather contrasting with the crisp silk fabric.

The room was lit by a small lamp, and there were no flaming men, no John, just her and her new apartment.

She looked at her watch, it was 1:00 AM. She looked down at her arm, it was not burnt, but it did tingle with some type of residual energy. Amanda wondered if she had just been part of a bad dream but did not remember getting home or turning on the light. She thought of John, and wondered if he was ok, then chided herself at thinking of a figment of her imagination. Amanda rolled over and fell fast asleep.

The next morning, she came into the office and walked by the security desk. She showed her blue badge to the guard and they smiled at her. She walked to the door that had blown up in her dream, scanned her badge and walked in. The hall was intact, no fiery footprints or scorched tile was there. The hall was long, but not insurmountable and she walked down it wondering if the small museum area was a dream as well. She navigated through the winding hallway and it was there, like last night, the doors stood like silent sentinels, steel and brass protecting the room. Hiding nothing but the other side of the door.

She looked at the walls, and near the stairs she now knew would lead her to her desk she saw the picture. Men who had supported this building in the before time, and there he was, unmistakable. Near the back row stood a mountain of a man from some 70 years prior, she studied the picture, fascinated and smiled to herself for a moment. Halloween had new meaning for her as there on the back row it was unmistakable. There was John Stoker.