The Solitaire Kingdom

The copy shop was quiet, as it was supposed to be on a Tuesday afternoon. In the corner, an old box air-conditioner hissed, grumbling as the thermostat kicked in. The sun had scorched everyone off the street, which was empty save for a few hot ovens parked across the other side.

Frankie's own car was one of these ovens; he knew that when the sun grew tired and slung a path over to the west later that afternoon it would still be cooking inside. He would open the door to the sweet smell of freshly baked vinyl and cracked dashboard. Not that it really bothered him; his car was a piece of shit.

Frankie was the shop's only Customer Service Assistant. For most of the day, he sat behind the tall counter and took orders. Occasionally, the phone would ring, sometimes he would clear out the till and go to the bank, or go buy milk. Most of the time, he sat and clicked. There wasn't much else he could do; copying is not the most difficult or stimulating business to be in.

So Frankie would take advantage of the limited selection of games at his disposal. By now he was a master at Solitaire, could clear the expert level on Minesweeper in under two minutes, and was working on his pinball score. If Jenny, the Assistant Manager, ever decided she needed something from the front counter, it didn't matter, because Frankie was quick with the mouse. He could pull up any old spreadsheet and start doing ledger entries. She could never sneak up on him, because she had a heavy high-heeled walk. She also smelt like Old Ladies' Perfume, so when she was around Frankie would stick his nose in a cup of coffee and go for a cigarette afterwards.

This was fine by Jenny, because she thought Frankie was a hard worker. She told him so once, and he laughed. In response Jenny had told him not to be so modest.

"We're looking for someone to be in charge of the new shop, Frankie." She had come around earlier that morning, with a large stack of files under one arm and a bunch of keys bristling at her waist. Frankie took one whiff of her and reached for his lukewarm coffee. There's nothing worse than instant coffee gone cold, but Frankie took a sip anyway. "Why don't you ever ask Glenn for a transfer or something? You'd get better pay, you know. We can hire someone else to do the reception."

Frankie shook his head; he couldn't stomach the thought of applying for promotion at Glenn's Copyfast. $14.21 an hour was fine with him.

"I don't want to move to the new shop." Frankie's eyes drifted towards the collar of Jenny's white shirt. It was stained beige with foundation. Frankie never understood why she caked the stuff on like that. Especially on her neck. "I'm pretty happy here, you know."

"Suit yourself." Jenny shrugged, hugging her stack of documents. Frankie read a sliver of contempt in the corners of her lips; they were turned down ever so slightly. He knew what she was thinking.

"Yeah." Frankie turned to his computer screen and started typing random numbers. A jangle of keys behind him, followed by several heavy steps on the lino, indicating that the conversation was over.

Frankie shook his head. The stale memory of that conversation made him want a cigarette, even though the sun was pounding the rooftops outside.

Where's your ambition darling? He fished around in the top drawer, pushing aside stacks of post-it notes and used pens.

Frankie grasped his half-empty pack of cigarettes just as jangling of keys told him the prison warden was still around. He slammed the drawer shut and clicked around on his computer.

"Oh yeah, forgot to tell you." Jenny's caked-up face appeared from around the corner. "There's a new girl coming in this afternoon; she's the temp we hired for the holidays. She's just coming around this afternoon to sort her payment stuff, but she starts tomorrow."

"Oh, right." Frankie shrugged, hiding his irritation. He preferred having the front to himself; there was little enough work as it was. "Well thanks for letting me know."

"She's Glenn's niece, her name's Donna." Jenny disappeared, and Frankie retrieved his cigarettes. He transferred the desk phone to another line and went outside. There was little chance anyone would come in while he was out.

Stepping out of the office was like jumping into a swimming pool, only in reverse. Frankie felt as if someone had just blasted him in the face with a blow dryer. His urge to smoke disappeared, but he was going to have one anyway. Something to do. He paced slowly towards a bus shelter, which was angled the wrong way in the afternoon sun, the shade covering only his face as he sat down.

Frankie lit up and inhaled slowly. It felt like he was breathing in dust.

He heard footsteps, and turned his head, catching a glimpse of a thin shadow. The girl walked past, glanced at him, dismissed him, and strode on. Frankie didn't get a good look at her; his only thought was that she was wearing far too many clothes for this kind of weather. Nice ankles, though.

He heard a door slam and sucked furiously on his cigarette, because that was the heavy glass door of the copy shop. She must have gone in.

Frankie got up, feeling dissatisfied. He had wanted to enjoy that little, smouldering stub, and now he was crushing it with his foot on the gum-spotted pavement.

The girl was wearing a cardigan in forty-degree heat. She was standing at the counter, peering over the top, her back ramrod straight. She rang the counter bell twice; neat, short little taps.

"Can I help you?" Frankie glanced at the air-conditioner as he stepped inside; he had been expecting it to be much cooler. The brown box coughed, as if it were making an effort. The girl turned around and looked at him, standing in a weird pose with her hands clasped in front of her. Her lips were pursed into a kind of frown. Later, Frankie realized that was her default expression.

"Yes." She attempted a smile, which Frankie also later realized was her smile. "I'm going to be starting work here tomorrow, and I need to sort out some details." The way she pronounced the word details, it was as if it was something sophisticated that he couldn't possibly understand, de-TAY-les.

So this must be Donna.

"Um sure." Frankie sidestepped around her, and took his seat behind the counter. "Let me just get Jenny to come out, and you can discuss the de-TAY-les with her."

Donna remained blank faced, not picking up the emphasis, or pretending not to. Frankie picked up the phone and pressed the speed-dial for Jenny's number.

"Frankie, what is it?"

"There's a girl here to see you, wants to sort out some details. I think she's the new temp."

"Oh," Jenny's tone changed. "Well, I'll be out in a sec."

Frankie put down the receiver. "She'll be out to see you in a minute." Donna looked at him, her expression unchanged.

"Thanks." She put a large, black folder on the counter and stared past Frankie. There was nothing to see but a cheap wall clock and some flimsy looking shelves that were piled with worn manila folders bristling with paper. A few reams of blank paper at the ends completed the picture. Frankie heard a clack, and the jangle of keys. He did not bother to turn as a heavy smell of musk filled the front office. Jenny was all smiles.

"Hi." She was using her best professional voice. "You must be Donna."

"Yes." Donna offered her thin, pale hand, the transaction taking place over Frankie's head. "It's nice to meet you."

From his low vantage point Frankie could observe Donna without being noticed. She had an odd smile; it was as if she was afraid her teeth were going to fall out if she opened her mouth too wide. She offered Jenny this strange half-grin and withdrew her arm in a rigid motion.

"I just wanted to fill in the payment forms, and give you my bank account information."

"Sure, no problem." Jenny turned and fished through some folders. "Here you are. This one's for your banking information, and I'll need your tax info with that as well."

Donna took the forms and looked down at Frankie, who was leaning on his elbow, one eyebrow slightly raised. He was trying to hide the fact that he was staring at her, but he was curious.

Donna's face was very pale, with just the faintest smattering of freckles dusting her nose, which pointed upwards. Her chin had a tendency to retreat into her neck, giving the impression that she was always looking down. Her pale blue eyes darted quickly from Frankie's face to the forms Jenny had given her.

"Thank you." The way she talked, it was as if the words had difficulty escaping her mouth; thangyou. Frankie decided to try and initiate a conversation.

"So, you're the new temp? Donna, is it? My name's Frankie." He smiled, a flash of teeth without any real meaning. "You starting tomorrow?" He stretched back in his office chair, swiveling around a little so he could see her better.

"Yes, I'll be here tomorrow." Donna didn't look up from her forms.

"How long are you working here for?"

"Three months." A pause, then silence. She glanced at him briefly then took a pen from her handbag and started writing.

"Oh yeah? Where did you work before you got this job? I haven't seen you around."

"I was a personal assistant, to the manager of a sporting goods store."

Frankie winced. Making conversation with this girl was like chewing broken glass. It was starting to piss him off. He decided to push on.

"Oh yeah? Which one?" The only sports store in town big enough to require a PA was the one in the mall. "Do you mean Sport All-Stars?"

"No." Donna was filling in the forms, using small, awkward movements, her hand gripping the pen like a stiff claw. "You probably wouldn't have heard of it. It's a small company that specializes in equipment for people with disabilities."

"Oh." She was right, Frankie had never heard of such a store. If he cared, he might have asked what it was called. But his mind had flipped over to more urgent matters. One thing in particular stuck in his head like a persistent burr, rubbing the wrong way against his thoughts.

Donna was annoying.

She was more than just annoying; from tomorrow onwards she was his co-worker. Frankie could already taste the awkwardness, it would hang between them, draping around him like tight bandages until he was trapped, muffled, smothered.

A world of uncomfortable silence with Frankie's tightly coiled irritation seeping out here and there in the form of snappy remarks and thinly veiled (at least to him) sarcasm.

After all, it had happened before.

Frankie had endured a few months of the same kind of discomfort last year, with a kid called Robert. Boring, boring kid. Nothing to talk about, nothing to do. They would sit side by side in the small front office, while Frankie tried to make small talk.

"So, what are you up to this weekend?"

"Oh, nothing really, I'll probably just have a quiet one at home."

"Sure. Um…"

When there was actual work for them to do, Frankie was almost glad. Better to be processing orders than sitting around, rearranging the desk. Put the paperclips over here, no, over there, wipe away used staples, get the calendar up to date, rip off all the days gone past.

Frankie would be first to intercept the jobs that came through, retreating to the back to run the copies. He would stand in front of the photocopier, watching a small, searing flash of light escape from under the lid, tracking back and forth, an all-seeing eye. The repetitive, mechanical monotone sigh of the machine was almost soothing, and he would let his mind run.

He was doing the same now, watching Donna write with her strange arthritic pen-grip.

How to get rid of her? He could give her a coffee, spiked. Wait until she was collapsed on the cold lino floor then drag her out to the paper bin behind the shop. She'd be gone with the next collection.

He could sneak up on her, whack her on the head with his solid lead paperweight (it was made in the shape of a pyramid, a good skull cracking weight), roll her up in the carpet and leave her in the store-room until it was dark. Then he would come back, heft her over his shoulder – she was only a frail little thing after all – and throw her in the trunk of his car. The best place to get rid of bodies was the landfill a few kilometers out of town. No-one would think twice about an old, rolled up carpet pitched in amongst the rubbish. The next day it would be smothered in municipal refuse.

Easier said than done. Why not just use the gun?

Frankie shook his head. These lurid fantasies would get him nowhere. He'd have to think of something more practical, more realistic. A garrotte?


Or sabotage?

The next morning, Frankie was ten minutes late. Which was quite an achievement, considering he had caught the bus into work. His car, the piece of shit, had rumbled and died earlier that morning.

Donna was sitting in his chair. Frankie almost took a step backward as he opened the door. She was using his computer, staring at the screen with freakish concentration. The pale monitor light thrown up onto her face gave her skin an eerie cast. She looked up, tucking her chin away into her alabaster neck.

"Hello." She continued to stare at Frankie. He raised an eyebrow.

"Uh, hi."

You're late.

So what?

Frankie made his way around the counter and did not look at her again. He lifted a stack from the 'in' tray and was about to open the back door when Donna stood.

"I was about to take those out." She took the sheath of paper from him. Frankie shrugged.

"Okay." She would not be able to see his shoulders tense in irritation under the pale grey shirt he was wearing. Was there really any need to have the two of them out the front? He could handle it, no problem. Donna left, and Frankie was quick to reclaim his chair. She had adjusted the back so it was straighter; rigid and uncomfortable.

Frankie undid the knob, leaned back and closed his eyes.

What to do

Donna came back, startling Frankie. It was as if she didn't exist, creeping up behind him without the slightest noise. He pretended not to notice her pointed stare; his smirk deflected her irritation quite nicely. It was his chair, anyway.

"You can stack spare copies on that shelf up there." Frankie indicated the shelf high above the desk. It leaned forward, at an angle, boxes of paper staring down at them like blank, rectangular gargoyles.

"You should rearrange that shelf." Donna pursed her lips. "It doesn't look very stable."

"Nah, it'll be fine. Been like that for years." Frankie placed his hands behind his head, smiling.

"Uh, okay." Donna lifted the sheaf of paper she was carrying high above her head, standing on her toes to reach. Frankie watched her, swiveling from side to side in his chair, sipping his luke warm coffee. He saw the tendons in her bony hands flex like small, taut cables as she strained with the bundle. It slid onto the shelf with a dull thud. Frankie tensed.

Nothing happened.

"Huh…" Frankie blinked, surprised. Not what he had been expecting. Donna's feathered eyebrows narrowed.

"Excuse me?"


"Did you say something?"

"No…" Frankie was staring at the shelf, trying to figure out which one he had missed. The angle was freakish; any sane person would not stand less than half a metre near that thing. As Frankie stood there was a faint jangle of bolts, then he heard a metal groan. One end of the shelf was slowly warping under stacks of boxes and sheafs of paper.

"That really isn't safe." Donna stepped away. The shelf tilted forward, boxes sliding and tumbling to the floor, stacks of paper falling free, a waterfall of white and grey sliding off the shelf and onto the scratched lino below, files scattered like decks of cards.

Frankie watched the flood of paper and boxes, saw the shelf twist and buck like an angry bull trying to dump its rider. Another box slid off; Donna stepped back another foot and the shelf had now lost its entire cargo and was clinging to the wall by the grace of a single, slender metal bolt.

"What…" Frankie did not finish, as he found himself collapsed amongst the boxes and the papers, his head throbbing and about to burst, his vision blurred. He writhed around and caught a glimpse of two black-stocking clad ankles, slender and shapely. "What…"'

Nice ankles, eh?

He squinted, drew a heavy breath and tried to focus. With one hand he was thrusting into his pockets, feeling for the other bolts, gripping them angrily. The other hand stretched towards the desk; he wanted to pull himself up. His coffee was splattered across the scattered files, violent sprays of brown seeping into the ink and paper, into his clothes. Part of Frankie was detached, marveling at the fact that his cup hadn't broken when he toppled to the floor.

The rest of Frankie was slowly losing his sight; now his pulse was slowing, breaths coming rough and heavy and thick. The rest of Frankie was cursing, for the coffee had been even worse this morning; luke-warm and more bitter than usual.

Then the last bolt gave, and the shelf came crashing down.