It was nearing closing time when Stacey Olmo got his first customer.
It had been a quiet day, and Lindell Street had seen little trade, as had Stacey's store.
But Stacey wasn't surprised. The world had fallen out of love with bobbleheads, or so it seemed.
Now, that wouldn't seem so bad to most, but Stacey owned Olmo's Original Bobblehead Emporium, a store that, once upon a time, was known as the number one stop for pop culture collectables and anything bobblehead related.
But times had changed. And Stacey's stock was gathering dust.
"Welcome to Olmo's Original Bobblehead Emporium," Stacey said as his visitor approached the counter, "how can I help?"
"I'd like to return this."
Stacey's heart sank. That made it the fourth return this month.
"Sure," Stacey winced, checking the details on the receipt, "no problem."
Popping open the till Stacey sighed at the emptiness inside. He took his time, contemplating which note to evict, handing it over reluctantly.
The customer thanked him, and Stacey turned his attention to the bobblehead, spinning it in his hand, inspecting it. The beechwood was unscathed, the paintwork like new.
"Oh, there's nothing wrong with it," the customer said, sieving his refund through bony fingers, "I just picked up one of those new bobbleheads from Mel's. I'm going to start collecting them from now on. They're really something. You should check –", he stopped himself, face aglow, suddenly remembering where he was.
Stacey's eyes narrowed.
"Yeah, Mel's," the customer hesitated before going on, "that new bobblehead store up in Widdershins."
Stacey's pondering let a silence fall between them, and after a few moments, cheeks still aflush, the customer offered another murmur of awkward thanks and turned, making his way across the floor, stopping here and there to glance down at the shelves. Nothing more than an attempt at well-mannered pity, Stacey thought.
When the door closed shut, Stacey grabbed the Yellow Pages and flipped it open, finding the letter M for Mel's. His finger trailed down. There. Mel's Toy Shack, 103 Arlington Street, Widdershins.
Stacey could feel his face getting hot. Was this the reason his store had seen such a sudden decline in sales? And if so, what was so special about this new wave of bobbleheads? Could they really be that different from his own? Stacey had to see for himself.
Penning a ring around the address, Stacey tore out the page and slipped it into his pocket. The Yellow Pages went back below the counter, flattening the latest pile of final notice letters.
Widdershins was a two-hour drive, and Stacey wasted no time locking up the shop and jumping into his car. With a roadmap stretched across his lap, Stacey barrelled up the motorway, the radio dulled down to a low whisper. He was too angry to listen to anything.
At just over halfway, Stacey slowed and pulled into a petrol station, filling up. In the distance, dark clouds started to gather.
"£32.60," the attendant said, his yawn landing on the plastic shield between them. Below the cloud of tired, shrinking breath, Stacey noticed a poster, the words' missing' emblazoned across the top. Geraldine Taylor, last seen leaving the local tavern two days ago. Geraldine had green eyes and freckles. A pencil held up a bun of reddish hair. The attendant cleared his throat.
Muttering an apology, Stacey handed over the money for the petrol and thumbed at the loose change from his pocket, deciding against the chocolate bar and energy drink and setting them back down on the counter with a huff. The attendant smirked and prodded at the till deducting the discarded items from the total.
Stacey set off again, his windscreen wipers thwacking away the rain as it fell. When the map told him to take the next exit, Stacey found himself on a much narrower road, surrounded by tall pine trees. The sky had darkened by the time Widdershins came into view some twenty minutes later, and after a quick lap of the high street, Stacey circled back and found a parking space.
One of the locals told him he could find Mel's Toy Shack just beyond the cinema, so Stacey headed that way, contemplating whether or not to visit a cosy-looking coffee shop before the confrontation. Confrontation, Stacey thought. He wasn't even sure what he was going to say.
There had been plenty of time for thinking during the journey up to Widdershins, but Stacey had used that time to play out a range of unrealistic scenarios, none of which were particularly helpful.
Skipping on the coffee, Stacey found Mel's Toy Shack a few streets down, tucked away beneath a gloomy underpass. The neon sign in the front window was blinding, stretching all the way out to the curb. A bell announced Stacey's arrival, and he swept his shoes against the welcome mat, rubbing his hands together to see off the cold. He took a look around, moving between the aisles. The space was small, and the shelves were mostly empty, aside from a few toys and board games.
Stacey scratched at his stubble. He didn't understand. There was nothing extraordinary about Mel's Toy Shack. Most of the toys, from the few he could see, were bland and outdated. Where were these world-famous bobbleheads, Stacey wondered. He found a shop assistant pottering about behind the counter at the front of the store.
"Evening," the assistant said, looking up, "horrible weather we've been having."
But Stacey didn't hear him. He was too busy looking at the shelves lining the wall behind him. Bobblehead figures. Three of them.
But these weren't regular bobblehead figurines. These were different. Stacey squinted at the collection. Two of them were vaguely similar, longish hair, beards, both dressed in shabby attire, a tattered anorak, and scruffy windbreaker, sleeping bags slung over tiny shoulders. Those two looked as though they came as a pair. The last remaining one, though, stood out from the others.
The assistant followed Stacey's gaze.
"Can you believe we started the day with forty of those things!"
Must be nice, Stacey thought, noticing the empty spaces between each figure. The prices listed below each one were extortionate — ten times what Stacey charged for his own.
"Can I see that one?" Stacey asked, "the one on the end there."
The assistant nodded and wiped his hands on his vest, grabbing the figurine and setting it down on the counter.
Stacey glared over the large squarish head, small body, and large, circular eyes. Green eyes, with a glint he couldn't quite place. There were freckles, perfectly painted. And reddish hair, held in place by a pencil. The craftsmanship was incredible, down to every detail.
"You make these in town?" Stacey asked. The material was like nothing he had ever seen or felt before, remarkably different to the beechwood figurines he sold at the emporium.
"You could say that," the assistant grinned, "say, you want me to bag that one up for you?"
Stacey was about to answer when the phone rang. The assistant held up a hand and took the call, turning to glance up at the shelves.
"You saw it in the store earlier, huh?" he said, "what's that? The one with the red raincoat? No, sorry, that one went this afternoon".
Looking around, Stacey palmed the bobblehead that looked eerily like Geraldine Taylor and explored the aisles he hadn't yet seen, wondering if he would find any more bobbleheads.
Instead, he came across a door leading to the backroom. With a quick glance behind him, Stacey ducked inside. He had to find out who Mel's supplier was. There was no way his stock at the emporium could compete, not with this new material, whatever it was. At the far end of the backroom, a loading dock sat in the gloom, rain tapping on the shutters.
To his right, Stacey found an office, peering through the gap in the door before stepping inside. A bank of CCTV screens mapped the wall, cameras covering the store and the street outside.
Stacey watched the shop assistant from above, the phone still pressed against his ear. He wouldn't be distracted for too much longer. Stacey knew he had to find something quick. The desk below the monitors offered little, and Stacey pushed aside old coffee cups and ashtrays filled to the brim with cigarette butts, squinting at random pieces of paper, hoping he might find an invoice from Mel's supplier.
One of the monitors facing the street was suddenly busy with movement, and a car pulled up to the shutters. Stacey heard the thud of a car door closing and moved to the doorway. The shutters opened halfway, and he could see a car trundling quietly in the haze, rain cascading down from an open boot. Stacey moved back towards the store.
He would have to come back another day. Maybe there was a hotel where he could rest up for the night. Either way, he needed to get out of there before he was caught snooping. With his eyes still on the shutter, Stacey turned, his elbow grazing an old broom handle and knocking it away from the wall. Before he could stop it, the broom fell, hitting the floor with a loud clang.
"Derek, that you?"
Stacey chose not to respond, his heart pounding. A figure stooped beneath the shutter, flicking on a light switch. The room was suddenly bright, and Stacey had to shield his eyes.
"Thought you were my cousin," growled the figure, shaking off his jacket and hanging it on the wall, "what are you doing back here, anyway?"
When Stacey's eyes adjusted to the light, he saw a tall man, possibly in his mid-twenties, his dark hair flattened by the rain. There was a holster strapped around his waist, the purple-green metallic glint of what appeared to be a gun poking out over the leather. Stacey thought it looked like some kind of toy.
"I'm guessing you're Mel?"
The figure didn't flinch.
"That's right. And you are?"
"My name's Stacey Olmo. I run a store not too far from here. Olmo's Original Bobblehead Emporium".
"That so. What can I do for you?"
"I'd like to know where you get your bobbleheads," Stacey said boldly, seeing no point in lying. He tried not to look at the holster.
"I'm sure you would! Now tell me, why would I just hand that information over to a competitor?"
"That's fair. Maybe instead, you can tell me a little more about the characters you've created. They're unlike anything I've ever seen before".
Mel sighed deeply, clearly agitated.
"Listen, you're upset, envious even, I get it. Do you know how many Stacey Olmos we've had in here over the past few months? Tons. All of them complaining, all of them wanting to know where we get our bobbleheads. Do yourself a favour, settle up at the front desk and go back to that store of yours. There's only one place people want to get their bobbleheads from now on, and that's Mel's".
"That may be so," Stacey said, glancing over the bobblehead in his hand, "but what will people say when they find out your bobbleheads are inspired by missing posters? Missing locals, to be exact".
Mel looked up and raised an eyebrow.
"Now why would you say a thing like that?"
"I stopped at a petrol station on the way up here. There was a missing poster at the counter," Stacey held up the bobblehead, "safe to say the girl in the poster looks an awful lot like one of your £100 bobbleheads".
Mel went to speak but stopped himself, offering a toothy smile instead.
"Is that why you carry that thing?" Stacey persisted, pointing at the gun on Mel's hip, "why you've covered this whole place with cameras? A little heavy for just your regular toy store, wouldn't you say?"
Mel's hand was fast, the iridescent gun suddenly in his grip, pointing right at Stacey.
"You know, there was me thinking it had been a disappointing night. Looks like that won't be the case after all".
Stacey raised his hands halfway. He had said too much, pushed it too far, and Mel was angry; he could see it in his eyes.
"The self-proclaimed bobblehead king," Mel mocked, circling Stacey as he backed up, "you'll make a fine one. We'll just have to find you a tiny crown".
Stacey's heart was beating faster now, much faster. Was he serious? He couldn't mean to shoot him with that thing, could he? Stacey wasn't prepared to find out. His heel knocked against the fallen broom handle.
"Listen, we can figure this out."
Mel shook his head, stepping forward.
"I'm going to need you to drop the bobblehead and lower your arms," he said, "and maybe crack a little smile. Can't have you looking all scared now, can we?"
Stacey could hear a whirring sound as the trigger felt the pull of Mel's finger. But he was quick, knowing this would be his only opportunity, digging the toe of his boot beneath the broom and flicking it towards Mel's outstretched arm.
The broom smashed against Mel's chest, snapping in half. With a loud grunt, Mel fell onto his back, winded, the gun scattering across the floor. Dropping the bobblehead, Stacey rushed over to meet him, and they tussled, rolling against the dusty concrete, crashing into a stack of cardboard boxes.
Mel wriggled free and got to his feet, landing a punch on Stacey's nose and knocking him back. They grappled again, and Stacey threw Mel to the ground, heading for the gun where it lay. But Mel tripped him at the ankle, and Stacey crashed down once more.
When Mel tried to drag him back by the leg, Stacey kicked him in the chest, sending him sprawling. Stacey took the gun in his hand and turned, trying to steady his aim. As soon as he saw the gun, Mel stopped, hands on his knees, panting.
"You don't know what you've got there, Olmo," he gasped, raising a hand, "hand it over, and we can forget this whole thing ever happened."
Stacey looked down at the gun. The barrel was short, snubbed. The shape reminded Stacey of some sort of bulbous insect. Then, suddenly, the shop assistant appeared in the doorway.
"What's going on out here!?" he yelled.
But Stacey was already pulling down on the trigger, and after a short blast of pale green light, the assistant froze before disappearing entirely, a scream barely in his throat.
There was a noise that followed, a sort of clatter, but Stacey had to shift his focus to Mel, who had picked up one end of the broken broom handle and was now charging toward him.
Stacey yanked at the trigger again, and like the assistant, Mel froze before vanishing. Only this time, when a rattle rang around the backroom, Stacey saw something fall and settle. Picking himself up, his legs trembling with shock, Stacey moved over to the small object in the centre of the room.
Bending down, Stacey almost collapsed when he saw that Mel had been replaced by a tiny version of himself. A bobblehead. Stacey couldn't believe what he was seeing. But there was no mistake. Every detail matched the man who had been standing before him just moments before. The hair, the clothes, the gun holster on his waist, although that was now empty. He was even clutching one half of the broken broom handle, but that too had shrunk to a miniature scale.
Stacey set Mel down and went to seek out the assistant, who, upon inspection, had suffered the same fate. Unlike Mel's angry scowl, the assistant's eyes were wide with terror. Stacey wondered if they could see him, if they were somehow still alive, waiting to be freed. Was there a way of turning them back? Was that even possible?
The thought made Stacey weak, and he palmed at the doorway, his mind racing.
What was this thing, he thought, looking down at the gun, still hot in his palm. What had he done? How would he explain this?
Then he remembered the cameras in the office. He wasted no time, pulling the security tapes from each console and bringing his foot down hard on each of them. At that moment, the bell from the front of the shop rang, loud and sharp.
"I'm telling you," he heard in the distance, "we should have got here earlier, we'll be lucky if there's any left!"
Stacey watched two teenagers pass through the shop, keeping himself hidden in the shadows. They gathered at the counter, talking between themselves, pointing up at the bobbleheads. Stacey thought about crawling beneath the shutter and heading back to Lindell Street, back to his quiet little store.
But he couldn't go back. Not now. Not after what he'd seen here tonight. He glanced over his shoulder. Geraldine. Mel. The assistant. He had made his decision.
When he got to the counter, the two customers already had their wallets open, money in hand. They told Stacey they'd been traveling for three hours and that their friends wouldn't stop talking about the bobblehead figurines they'd bought at Mel's Toy Shack.
Stacey sold them the last two remaining bobbleheads and told them that if they wanted more, they should visit Olmo's Original Bobblehead Emporium on Lindell Street. New stock would be in by the weekend.