“What does this one do?” Milala asked, pointing at a deep-fryer.
“Again, this is all normal. Also, you can probably read it on the packaging.” Lasha whispered back.
“Oh, so this is for cooking. Marvie can you-”
“It’s way too big!” Lasha hissed. “Come now, I said the phones are over here.”
“I might have to get one of those ‘jobs’.”
Lasha finally reached the smart phone aisle. Fortunately, the service person for this area appeared busy with an elderly man, so now was the time. The current generation of phones were all kept inside a glass cabinet only an employee could open, but some of the older models were just on the shelves.
“We’ll also need one of these sim cards. At least I hope so. My last phone was set up by my mom and I left that in my old home.”
“Got ‘em, let’s get out of here.” Marvie whispered.
Lasha didn’t see Marvie swipe anything and after double-checking, didn’t even find any wares missing. She trusted it was part of Marvie’s plan and followed her outside. Marvie went through the scanners first to see if they could detect the stolen item through her flesh. The size of the button she had seen tied to the box made Lasha a bit nervous.
The alarm went off. It was natural to be startled by it, even if it didn’t even go off on you. Marvie waited for an employee to come to her, some blonde woman who already looked overwhelmed with the situation. Somehow, Lasha thought she’d be confronted right there, but realized that they would of course go pull her into a side room to not do this in front of customers. She just hoped Marvie could handle the interrogation on her own. She and Milala found a bench outside and waited. They shouldn’t do anything that would expose Marvie as a shapeshifter in there. Marvie had made a point to give herself light clothing that couldn’t hide anything. The phone in the box wasn’t something you could just hide in your pocket. Though, it’s not like they knew exactly what she stole. It could’ve been something small. But it’s not like they’d strip her naked in there. At that point, they’d just let it go, right?
“Hey, was that your friend?” Another employee suddenly stood by them, this one with clean cut dark hair and cold eyes.
“Uh, yes!” Lasha said in panic but that probably was the best answer. They did see them enter the shop together.
“Did you see her steal anything?”
“No, we just took a look around and then noticed that we all forgot our wallets at home.” Lasha said, hoping to also give a plausible reason why none of them could ID themselves.
“All three of you? Look, she’s not gonna get the death penalty for stealing. It’s best to just be honest.”
Lasha tried to come up with a better response than just saying no. Fortunately, she saw the other employee come back with Marvie.
“Sorry, it looks like someone used your friend as a scapegoat.”
“Huh?” their co-worker asked.
“We looked at the security footage. Something was stolen but these girls were already on their way out when it happened. I don’t know how, but the real thief must’ve snuck by alongside this girl. Did any of you two see anyone?” “No, all my attention was drawn to the alarm.” Lasha said.
“Well, we’re sorry for the mistake. Here, have a gift card for compensation. You’re always welcome in our store!” They gave each of them a 15 pound gift card.
“Oh, thank you, no worries!”
“Is this enough for the deep-fryer in aisle 3?” Milala asked. Lasha dragged her away while the employees struggled to answer.
“Let’s not push it.”
A safe distance away, Lasha finally asked: “Okay, so what did you do?”
Marvie expelled the phone from her chest but Lasha pushed it back in. “No, it’s still got the alarm thing on it, let’s keep it in there for now.”
“Okay. But my plan worked perfectly, right? Here’s what I did: I replaced the items with shapeshifted copies!”
“You can do that?”
“Sure. I can’t fully separate them from my body though, so they were still connected by thin hairs. When we were almost out, I retrieved the copies back into my body, so it looked like someone stole them after us.”
“Oh, that’s genius!” Milala cheered. “And then you shapeshifted a fake body leaving the store!”
“Well, no, they just came up with that explanation themselves. That would’ve really rounded it out though.”
“Oh… still pretty good.”
“So, what now?”
“We should get out of the open to assemble the phone and get rid of the button.” Lasha explained. “Hmm… Maybe we can use your trick to buy us a hotel room for a base of operation. They wouldn’t use one of those money scanners, right?”
“You should know, I can only authentically recreate things I’ve gotten a good look at.”
“Right. We need to get our hands on a 20-pound bill or something… Let me try something.”
Lasha picked someone out of the crowd who looked like they had some cash on them. She found a woman with dark hair who looked like she could empathize with the struggles of a young adult.
“Hey, sorry, could you spare, like, twenty pounds? We really mismanaged our money and don’t have any left for a bus ticket home.”
The woman looked them over, then pulled out her wallet. ”Maybe. I might have to go find an ATM…” she looked around at the shops. “I was on the way to my car, I can also offer you a ride, if you want… though last time I did that I got shot by a cop.” She smiled but didn’t get the anticipated reaction. “Wait, that sounds bad out of context, it was actually…” she trailed off and stared at Lasha. Did something give her away? She should be the least suspicious person in her group, being an actual human.
“No way. You’re not that missing kid from five years ago, are you?”
“No, what are you talking about?” Lasha said, but not convincingly. At the same time, trying to solve the puzzle where they’ve met before. Was this an old neighbor? No, she mentioned that incident with the cop. Wait.
“That was you! You drove me to my house!” she burst out.
“Yes! So it is you! I’m Mary, what was your name again?”
“Right! You’ve grown!”
“So have you! World’s small, huh?”
“I got shot and then you healed me somehow. Doctors were really vexed by that. What are you doing here?”
“Oh, secret mission. But if all goes well, I can tell you everything soon.”
“I uh- I see. I don’t know what secret mission is given to a bunch of teenagers. Is it dangerous?”
“No, it’s just a secret for… geopolitical reasons. You’re not in danger for being associated with us.”
“So… you need twenty pounds for your mission?”
“Actually, we wanted to get a hotel room for the night.”
“I see. I guess you’re twenty pounds short then?”
“Well, we’ve got a secret trick for that. We actually only need the bill for a moment, you can have it back afterwards.”
“Oh, so you’re printing money, huh? Do you also have fake IDs? Should I not call you Lasha in public?”
“Oh, no we don’t. It’s all kinda procure-on-site.”
“Wouldn’t you need an ID to get a room? I don’t think they’ll just let you check in anonymously.”
“Oh… shit, I didn’t realize.”
“I mean, you can try, I’m not 100% on that. But if you just need a place to stay and you say you’re not involved in anything dangerous, you can crash at my place. It’s a shared apartment but we kicked a bunch of people out recently because they sucked, so there’s enough room.”
“That’d be nice, thank you!” Lasha agreed. She thought about telling Mary the truth as a sort of test person, but she’d have to discuss it with Milala first. She also wanted to see if she got a chance to do her a favor in return for getting her shot. Mary helped others without a second thought, it was only right she’d get a little bit back.
“So, are those your friends or just spy colleagues?” Mary asked during the drive.
“More the first.” Lasha said and looked back to the backseat.
“I’m Denise.” Marvie introduced herself.
Milala didn’t say anything. Lasha guessed she didn’t know any human names.
“And that’s Layla. She isn’t that good with talking.”
“So, back at your house, were you already involved in whatever this is? Or is this something else now?”
“Same thing I guess.”
“Your parents didn’t die because of this?”
“No. That was something else.”
“Sorry, I don’t know what else to talk to you about… uh, you got any hobbies?”
“I guess reading.”
“That’s a good way to take in ideas but I think it’s good to also have a creative hobby. Something to externalize a part of yourself, if you get what I mean. You ever tried writing something yourself?”
“I’ve tried a bunch of things but nothing really held my interest for long.”
“That’s okay. You’re still young.”
“Not running out of time to try things anytime soon.”
“What about the others? You under the same oath of silence?”
“I like cooking.” Milala said.
“Cooking is a good thing to be passionate about! To me it’s just a chore, so I eat trash more often than I should.”
“Maybe I can treat you to something today.”
“She’s really good.” Lasha said. “The stuff she made in my shitty kitchen…”
Mary saw Marvie looking disgruntled in the rearview mirror. “You not a fan, Denise?”
“No, it’s just that everyone’s talking about how good Mil- Layla’s food is and I have no way to taste it.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. My aunt worked as a cleaner for this big company and her sense of taste and smell got completely fucked by the chemicals over time. It sucks.”
Lasha was worried Marvie gave herself away there for a second.
“I mean, my doctor said it’s something they may be able to fix. I just wasn’t sure if it’s something I’m willing to change about myself.”
“Yeah, I know those feelings. Okay. we’re here.”
Mary parked on the side of the road near an apartment building. It wasn’t as tall as the buildings in the city center. The outskirts had a more manageable scale.
“It’s all the way at the top, unfortunately.” Mary apologized.
It appeared like each story was one apartment holding about six people and there were six stories in total.
When Lasha stepped into Mary’s apartment, she was shocked at the sight. It had been completely ravaged, furniture thrown about, wallpaper torn off, lamps torn out of the ceiling. A woman came out of the kitchen holding a broom. “You brought help?” she asked.
“These are Lasha, Layla and Denise. They need a place to stay. And I promise, they won’t wreck the place.”
“So this is why you kicked them out?” Milala reasoned.
“Partially. This is Tommy, my girlfriend.”
“Nice to meet you.”
“It’s not looking much better.” Mary said, trying to push a wardrobe upright. “I’ve cleaned up the kitchen. I didn’t want to get myself buried under rubble before you got home.”
“Good thinking. I happen to bring a famous cook with me too. I just hope we have enough unbroken plates.”