Tony (pronounced with an “ah,” not an “oh”) stomps up to me and points her finger directly into my chest. She’s just a bit taller than me, which helps to cement the fact that I’m about to get beaten up really bad and then murdered. I defeated that cyborg Donald Blyth, but I ain’t gonnna beat Tony.
“Sandra told me all about your garbage shit,” she says to me with the ferocity of, well, someone fierce. I’m too frightened to come up with anything clever. “Get out of my store or I’ll gut you like I gutted the catfish I caught this weekend.”
“You’re a fisher?” I can’t help myself; I really can’t. I’m going to die and I still can’t help myself.
“I’m sorry,” I say, “but I really needed to reach you. I still need to reach you.”
“Yeah, I need to reach through your skull and give your brain a nice massage.”
She takes another step closer, so much so that our noses are nearly touching. I hate this. My personal bubble is not a toy to be played with!
“Just when I thought you couldn’t sink any further,” she tells me, “you reach depths that no human has ever sunken. You’re like James Cameron touching the Mariana Trench.”
“Oh yeah, I remember when he did that. Wasn’t that for that movie he’s trying to make, The Abyss or something?”
She scowls more than any human I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Seriously. Her veins are popping out so much that I’m worried her head will genuinely burst open. “GET OUT!”
If you don’t remember, we are NOT alone in this store. A large huddle of customers, previously browsing the idol CD section and collector’s hardcover manga aisle have now gathered around us in a circle, staring and waiting for the sparks to fly. I feel like Tony and I are trapped in some improv theater performance and the entire audience is on the edge of their proverbial seats, ready for one of us to either throw a bunch or land a smooch. And I can assure you, the latter ain’t happening.
“N-no!” I regain my composure enough to remind myself of how important this all is. “I need to ask you some questions. It’s serious.”
“I’m not going on a fucking date with you!”
“What?! Didn’t Sandra tell you—”
“I know you,” she says. “I know you better than you know yourself. And your little lies about being an investigator or some shit might work on some sixteen year old barista, but it won’t fly with me. You’re a creep, and you deserve to be treated like one.”
“Is this how you react to all your stalkers?”
“Well, considering I am very much not a stalker, I’m actually impressed by that. Exploding like this in front of the whole store to someone who may very well be a well-paying customer? Super bold, and super respectable.”
“You’re very much not a stalker?” Tony lifts her scowl for just a moment to raise a single eyebrow upwards.
“No. I have absolutely no interest in you as a human being beyond the fact that you might can provide me with some info.”
“Likewise,” she says, “but not with the info part. Just the lack of interest. If you didn’t exist, I would not have any different of a life. It might even be better.”
“I wouldn’t go THAT far, myself, but only because I really need you to help me with something immediately.”
“Not some creepy-ass romantic confession?”
“I have never, ever hit on an employee at a retail or food service business.” (Well, except for Karina, but I already knew her. You know what I mean.)
“Then you’re a better person than most.” Her anger subsides. She actually believes what I’m saying, in some miracle of a plot twist. I’m apparently the most mysteriously persuasive individual ever born, because this woman was about to gut me like a catfish, as she literally said two minutes ago. Now her scowl is just the kind where someone who hates you will convey their emotions to you openly. “You’re a horrible person, but if you really, really need help, then ask away.”
The crowd of onlookers dissipates. When it became clear that Tony and I were neither going to break out into a brawl or embrace into a spontaneous makeout session, basically every customer in the Anime Attic let out a sigh of disappointment. By now, they have all returned to their normal activities of one of two things: ogling the merchandise that shows scantily clad anime women with huge boobs and even huger weapons; or gawking at the merchandise that shows two shirtless, nipple-free young men all up on each other and sticking their giant hands down each other’s pants. To put it simply, they have resumed their normal lifestyle and have become dorks once again.
(Am I too hard on anime fans? Hahahaha no.)
“Well, first off I want to ask if you’ve been involved in any criminal activity you’re willing to admit,” I say.
“None that I’m willing to admit,” she says.
“And none that involve this very Anime Attic store, right?”
“None that I’m willing to admit,” she repeats.
“But if you understand what I’m getting at, you’ll probably run away or attack me now, like most criminals do when cornered, right?”
She tilts her head slightly to the right. “Are you mentally disturbed?”
“Okay, so you’re not involved, whew.”
“OK then, I am going to make a request that you are going to be offended by, but I swear it won’t be what you expect because I have a very good, and serious, reason for asking this.”
“Before you ask…” Tony raises one finger up.
“Is this about Legend of the Galactic Heroes?”
“Thank God,” she says. “I have gotten like nine questions about that this week, and it always takes so long to explain because of all the lore.”
“Wait, you know Legend of the Galactic Heroes?” I ask.
“Well, yeah. Someone who isn’t extremely simple-minded would be able to figure that out in a couple of seconds considering the place we are currently in.”
“Oh yeah, Anime Attic… I was trying to block it out of my mind.”
“I know the feeling.”
“Considering all the creepy dudes…”
“And the morons who take up my valuable working hours.”
“At least you’re getting paid to talk to them!” I exclaim with a smile.
She does not return it.
“But, no, my questions have nothing to do with anime,” I say.
“Then… Why are you asking me?”
“Wait, if I had a question about anime, am I supposed to ask you?”
She gives me the “you’re a gigantic dumbass” look, even more strongly than usual. “That’s, uh, why I work here.”
“Wait, you’re actually an anime fan?” I ask. My eyes light up at this opportunity to turn the tables on this woman.
“I’m very knowledgeable about the medium of Eastern Union animated pop culture,” says Tony, in a stunning admission that gives me the upper hand in all future encounters for the rest of our lives. “Anime Attic hired me as a specialist to help customers.”
“And because you’re a girl.”
“Yeah. That boosts sales a lot.”
“That’s amazing,” I snicker. “You were so angry last time when I thought you were an anime fan. And it turned out to be completely right! Amazing!”
“I’m not going to help you anymore.”
“Please, I’ll do anything.”
“I bet you will.”
“Okay, anime is good and not bad.”
“And I watch anime sometimes! There. I admit it!”
Tony nods. “Okay, that’s enough for me. Shoot away.”
“I’m going to have to inform you that—” I look around the store to make sure that nobody here is obviously listening in on us— “There’s some shady shit going on at your store. Really, really bad stuff is going on right under your nose. Or your bosses’ noses, I guess.”
“Uh-huh. What kind of shady shit? The kind where strange people try to pull one over on anime specialist employees?”
“No. It’s that people are using your holo-booths to conduct illict activity.”
She does that thing where people blink a few times to register that they understood something, but didn’t understand it at all. “That is the entire point of the holo-booths,” she says. “I don’t know what you are getting at.”
“I mean illicit as in, not the normal stuff. Illegal stuff.”
“We’re a private business. None of it is illegal as long as it is not in public view.”
“No! I mean something completely unrelated to sex. At least I assume it’s completely unrelated.”
“And you haven’t noticed anything suspicious at all? Any regular customers who visit the holo-booths and nowhere else in the store?”
“Most of the customers in this store only visit the holo-booths.”
“So can you just get to the damn point already?”
“I may need your help finding some information about certain customers,” I say. “Payment info and all that.”
“You mean, committing federal financial crimes to help out someone I hate?”
“Uh, when you put it like that—”
“Absolutely not going to help you do anything like this. You are completely out of luck, not that you had any to begin with.”
“No, wait. You’ve really got to understand. I don’t want to involve you too heavily, but—” I cut myself off when I realize that this is going nowhere fast. “You know what? Come with me and I’ll show you myself.”
“Come with you where?”
“Wait… Terrible wording. What I meant to say is, ‘Let’s go together, because I need to present you with something startling.”
“Please go with me to the holo-booths.”
Her scowl deepens once again. “I knew it! You fuck!”
“No! I told you not to react like this and you did anyway!”
“Ugh, fine. But if you harrass me in the slightest, you will be in prison faster than you can say, ‘I’m a complete moron and a waste of space.’”
We ascend to the fourth floor of the Anime Attic in short time. With more customers around today than the last time I went, this entire process is even more embarrassing than before. And Tony right next to me only further enhances this feeling of shame and perversion. If my face could get redder than it is now, I can’t imagine how it would happen. Not even a combination of my middle school talent show on video tape juxtaposed with a highlight reel of drunken text messages I sent on my cellular to ex-girlfriends could match the sheer cringe-worthy power of this very moment right now.
Suddenly, I have completely lost all desire to continue this investigation. Mighty Slammer can go home free. I no longer care at all. Not one bit.
Sadly, I can’t turn back now, or Tony will think I am even worse of a person than she already does. I want her to stop hating me, not hate me even more!
We reach the holo-booth floor, where there are eight holo-booths set up to provide, uh, gratifying experiences to customers. Six of them are occupied, but by some miracle, the specific holo-booth that I am looking for is open.
“So, now what?” she asks.
“We need to go into that booth. Um, together,” I say.
“Holo-booths are not designed for two.”
“It’ll only take a second, don’t worry.” Unless someone else discovered the secret before me and the hole in the floor is empty. Then my entire life will be ruined and I will be in prison.
“Well, lead the way.”
We enter the holo-booth together, and it’s just as cramped as you’d expect. But then as I kneel on the floor and remove the little tile at the bottom, my worries are alleviated.
Because the gold is all still here, in its glittering glory. I take out one bar and show it to Tony.
She does not have a rude remark to give me. Or any remark whatsoever.
In the closing hours of the store, after the customers have all gone home and the robot cashier has been retired to its charging station for the night… Two young people sit in the manager’s office, where a certain young woman somehow has complete access due to reasons I probably will never learn. Tony is an enigma that I doubt I have the capacity to figure out.
“Thanks for doing this,” I say for about the fourth time.
“This is really fucked up,” Tony says, “but there’s nothing I can do, I guess.”
She’s currently searching through the logs in the computer systems for a transaction history of the holo-booth where the gold is. She obviously can’t see anything like credit card information or addresses or the sorts of info that will be able to identify anyone directly, but she can see names and profiles, as well as the most important part: timestamps
“This is a major part of crime fighting, after all,” I say. “You don’t want to call the cops because they’ll just take the shit with them and you’ll probably be fired in the cover-up. I’m your best hope, probably.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
“You don’t trust me?”
“I wouldn’t either, so no worries. But if you’re willing to place your trust in me, I can swear I’ll find the person or people who are doing this.”
“Are you sure that’s what you want to do?” she asks. “Wouldn’t it be much less of a small-brained decision to let it continue and steal a couple gold bars here and there while they don’t notice?”
“Tony, that is an exact path to getting murdered by whoever is doing this.”
“Not if you aren’t small-brained.”
I won’t argue it. “So, what have you found? Anything by the name of Beth McWhorter?”
“Yes,” she says. “A whole bunch of logs for that exact name, actually.”
“So you’re saying she didn’t even use a fake username to hide herself or something?”
“No, it still keeps real names here as long as they used a credit card.” Tony looks at me with disdain, but a kind of condescending smile that instinctively makes my heart want to submit to this real scary Alpha Female. “I guess you were looking to avoid that yourself, weren’t you?”
“What do you mean?”
She rotates her computer monitor over to face me. “Morgan Harding, the person who visited three times in the months of January, March, and April of 2009.”
“Wh-what?! That’s impossible!”
“It’s right here. You paid a total of one hundred dollars. A real high roller, weren’t you?”
“That isn’t me,” I insist. “Cannot be me.”
“Were you even eighteen in 2009?”
“Yeah, I was like twenty or something. Nineteen? I’ve already lost track of my own age, crap. I guess this date lines up with when I broke up with Reina, too, right? Wait—but I did NOT come to this Anime Attic, or any Anime Attic for that matter, much less partake in the holo-booths. That is a travesty and a fabrication that besmirches the Harding family name.”
“It’s right here in the receipts.”
“It’s not me, I swear it on my life. I have not a single memory of ever encountering an R-18 holo-booth up close and personal until the other day, and I didn’t spend any money that day either.”
“I guess there’s another Morgan Harding out there in Altanta, then,” she says, shrugging. “I don’t care to know them, just like I don’t care to know you.”
“So hurtful, but reciprocated very strongly.”
“I doubt that.”
“…Okay, you’re right,” I say. “I generally consider you a decent person, even if you regard me with less positivity than a serial killer.”
“I have no reason to believe you are not a serial killer.”
“I definitely am not one, that’s for sure.”
“Yeah,” she says, “and you’re definitely not into pornographic anime holo-booths.”
“I’m not! But, moving on, are there any other people besides Beth McWhorter who are ‘regulars’ to that specific holo-booth and might have a similar pattern to her?”
“Yep, found it,” she says immediately. “It’s really not that hard, to be honest.”
“Well… Not everyone is as good a sleuth as you or me.”
“We don’t belong on the same level. I won’t accept that.”
“Oh, give yourself some credit!” I exclaim. “You’re a good one.”
“Yes, I know. That’s why we aren’t on the same level.”
I’m starting to enjoy this banter between Tony and me. It’s a little reminiscent of that thing I have with Amy where she says mean things and I have to deflect them, only in this case I actually sincerely believe she means all of it. So, it’s like that thing I have with Amy, but much more depressing.
“There is another guy who comes around the same time as Beth McWhorter, just a few days apart each time. And the dates match up with the messages you showed me,” Tony says. “Phil McWhorter.”
“McAmazing,” I gasp.
“Not even close to funny. Miles away.”
“McWhorter isn’t exactly a common surname, right?” I ask. “This guy should be easy to pick out.”
“I don’t know him, so you’re out of luck there.”
“But I thought you knew so much about everything here…”
“I know a lot about anime, that’s all,” Tony says. “And you’re starting to get unbearable again, so I don’t feel like helping you anymore.” She turns off the computer and stands up from her chair.
“Fair enough. You’ve been really helpful so far. Really, thank you. This is probably a huge risk to your job and I know how much that must mean to you, what with the anime stuff and all.”
“If this job paid even a little less, I would never be here. It’s horrible.” Tony glares at me, unblinking, and then adds, “Also, my next shift at K-Store starts in a couple hours. I need to get ready for that.”
“Don’t let me keep you,” I say.
“Trust me, you certainly aren’t keeping me.”
We part ways soon afterwards, having learned far too much about each other in this time spent together.
Even as much as Tony has been an impediment on my happiness and self-esteem for most of the time I have interacted with her, she’s not THAT bad. I’m pretty much just glad she gave me the information I needed and hopefully no longer thinks I’m some creepazoid loser. Okay, maybe she still thinks that, but not the kind that does horrible things to innocent people.
With new evidence gained and way too much time wasted, I leave the Anime Attic, hopefully for the final time for the rest of my life. (Please, God, let it be the final time.)