Storyglossia Issue 28, May 2008.

The Humming

by Heather Fowler


The building had recently been repainted a deep teal, and the majority of the offices attached to the mall had not yet been leased. Due to this, and because alternate space was temporarily necessary for the mall security's interrogation room until the regular room they had used for fifteen years was checked for asbestos and repainted, Mall Corporate came up with the idea that the security department could use a conference room near the front entrance of the second floor of the office space. They would, they decided, label that room number 34, affixing a number in the window so that while it wasn't clear from the outside of the multi office and mall complex what it was to be used for, the police could easily locate their goal when they came to drag criminals away. How they came up with 34, the mall security manager had no idea.

He didn't even think this use of a conference room was appropriate, but this was now to be where mall security would hold all individuals caught from smaller franchises at thieving or committing crimes in the greater mall proper. Initially, the security manager had argued against this use since most of these criminals detained were not the highest rung of society, and he viewed himself to be protecting the mall's resources, but he was out-ranked and out-voted. Not that he had a vote. Not that he could complain about it now.

Also, it was true that, aside from him, mall security didn't care where the room would be or what it would look like--but they could be a surly lot, those men who worked beneath him, and, in fact, most people who worked at the mall as the lower peon echelon—other than the cute college girls selling merchandise in the stores—but especially security guards, who could hardly string together intelligent, unbigoted conversation, were not those he would often consider inviting over for dinner. Even so, this had never bothered him because they were underpaid and far better people than most of the criminals they encountered, so, for the peanuts they were paid, he felt it was enough that they observed, and reported, and occasionally detained—though, all this, without violence. Security hadn't guns, stun or otherwise. They weren't like the real cops they called in to take the erring people away.

Still, the office space was a weird place to locate these people waiting for cop pick up; it had been decorated as a board room and there were nice wooden tables, two long ones butted up against each other, and expensive upholstered chairs. On the walls were pictures of important donors.

This could be bad, the security manager had advised when he complained, if whoever was held got rambunctious, broke the glass on some portraits, or decided to kick up a fit. Teenagers, for example—since his men did not tend to cuff or restrain this group once the offenders were inside the questioning room. Shoplifters on drugs—these too—since they had been known to do ludicrous things like try and bite sensor tags off with their mouths. The supervisor remembered, in particular, one woman bleeding from her lip profusely as they detained her in the other holding cell—that other room that was never cleaned and still had bits of her dried blood on the carpet that now resembled dirty smudges, innocuous, to everyone but him. But not everyone was held for the same charge. There were those in for petty larceny (under $200 of goods and merchandise) and those in for grand larceny (more than $200), and crowds of miscellaneous others, some with crimes that bordered on bizarre.

Still, the conference room was what they selected. He fought it, he failed, and now he was glad. He loved that holding cell area being farther away from his office since it was normally situated five doors down where the continuously irritating sounds coming from it were abrasive as mental Tourette's syndrome, popping up frequently in his dailies. "No, motherfucker! I told you to sit down," was the common expression. If only for this sudden relief from noise and mental static, despite that he thought the conference room as a holding cell was a dumb idea, the manager was pleased. This new room was a good two hallways and 800 yards away. He couldn't hear a thing.

All week long, he had worked hard and had both avoided visiting those waiting and been glad for the quiet. But there was an odd situation of shoplifting today—a honey-blond haired woman in a blue overcoat, a black dress, and expensive heels, carrying a shiny black patent leather bag. She had gone store to store, to seven different places, and, in plain view, grabbed one very expensive item from one shelf in each the stores and then placed it in her bag. He would have to go see her. She had piqued his curiosity.

Now, rings of shoplifters were careful with hand signals and watchers and all kinds of ruses to send sales people out of the way, but not this girl. Each time she enacted a theft, he was told, she stared right at the sales clerks at the registers.

It was just outside of the seventh store that security caught her, and when they did, in her possession was: one bottle of stolen perfume, one filched black sweater, one purloined pearl necklace, one absconded-with creamy body wash, two expensive pinched watches, and one lustrous, large seeming belt, not even in her size. When security apprehended her, even the lackluster guards liked her—those whose usual conversations with detainees often went something like: "Shut the fuck up, dickhead." "No, you shut the fuck up. I got rights!" followed by "No, you don't dumbass, honkey. So shut the fuck up, you fucker."

This time, "Ma'am, you need to follow me," they said. "And we will need to check your purse."

She smiled then said, "Certainly, gentlemen."

After a bit of mall walking, headed for room 34, the guards began to treat her as a lady, a little deferentially, and when they alerted the security manager they had detained her and said she was very nice (the boss who had already seen her from his cameras, but only her back), he shook his head. "Maybe she's crazy," he said. "Look at that ass. She is hot though."

"Oh, no, no," one of the guards said then. "Don't be crass, boss. She's very nice."

He felt more than a little shocked one of these goons would defend a shoplifter, usually considering himself to be the one with class. "She's a thief," he said.

"Howie's waiting with her in that new holding room thing now," the other guard said. "Lucky him. Why do I have to scout the food court for vandals?"

"Because it's your job," the security manager said. Actually, it was this odd defense of and polite interest in a detainee that made the supervisor go and check out the situation. These guards, normally around the block boys, had almost fallen over each other to defend her--they who defended no one. It was like she had them enthralled. "Well, did you call the cops yet?" he asked as a follow up. "On the woman?"

"Not yet," they said, and because of this, he got up from his desk and walked to the room labeled 34. When he got there, he noticed the woman was pretty, but she sat very still until she heard him and looked up when he arrived to wave hello. Her hello was so friendly and businesslike, it was like he had walked into that office/holding cell because she had called him in for a meeting, with her as his boss, to change some policy or update him on some new and irritating spate of mall procedure decisions. But she smiled pleasantly, one leg crossed over the other, and stared at the things she'd stolen then, which were laid out on the table as if equally spaced on that surface to make each just a little bit easier to be tagged and bagged. The supervisor then signaled the guard standing near her and told him that he could go back to mall duty.

He himself, the supervisor, would handle the police.

"Would you like to have a seat?" the woman asked when the guard left, non-plussed.

He looked at her lips, mauve and shiny, her hair, immaculately coiffed in an up-do, and her skin—milky from the top of her forehead down to the cleavage she so amply displayed by the deep dropping V of the black dress's neckline. Her voice was soft. "So tell me. Are the police coming?" she asked. "You can take your little report. Here's what I did: I walked into a few stores and stole things. Quite a few. And here they are. There. Report done." Her voice was singsong in tonality. It varied with what she said and he found that he, too, was drawn in by it.

"Soon," he replied. "I'm about to call them."

"Oh, all right," she said, "Go ahead; I'll wait . . . "

He sat across from her. She made no sign of bolting. She took off her coat and placed it on the chair behind her. There was a lull in the conversation where he wrote his report, his remarks recorded in triplicate, while she examined her shiny, buffed nails. Finally, because he could not figure her out and her calm was pervasive, he asked, "Did you want to go to jail?"

"Oh," she said. "I had been planning on it, but this would be a good, yes—a very good time." She uncrossed her legs and re-crossed them and he could see a small gleam of white lace between the shadows of her thighs as she did. "What a nice room this is," she said then. "Pictures on the walls, too. I guess I—I guess I thought this would be different, somehow. Like the room would smell of old body odor and have an unkempt door or something. It would be bare, or relatively bare. Like a cell. But this is like a board room." She paused, then said, "Say, did you want to have sex, maybe, right now?" This last part was said like an afterthought.

The security supervisor was shocked. "What?" he asked, thinking: I could lose my job. What—does she want me to release her or think I'll take a bribe or something, to not call the police?

"It's just that if I go to jail," she said, "I would like to have had at least a little sex before that, and you seem like a nice man."

"Interesting idea," he said, but he was thinking: There are no cameras in here. And, yes, he would like to take her now on this conference table, because wouldn't that be an interesting thing to think about going home today—but what if this was a joke on her part? He asked, "Are you kidding me? You want to have sex with me?"

"Yes," she said. "Right now."

"Uh, well . . . " he said.

"You see, I don't have any diseases," she said. "And I'm on the pill, so I won't get pregnant. And I see you have a ring, so you are likely not in a high risk group. Plus, I like you." She pulled up the skirt of her dress so that it flirted with the tops of her pale thighs. She wore no nylons. He could see her underwear well then, perfectly well.

"Are you trying to negotiate an exchange of some kind?" he asked. "Like, you do this, and I don't call the police?" About the ring, he did not bother to tell her that he and his wife had separated because, really, this meant nothing. He had been with no other women since then. He was, she was right, low risk.

"Oh, no, I'm not negotiating," she said. "I want you to call the police. But it's like I just mentioned, I would like to have at least one bit of recent sex if I get sent away to the slammer. So, oblige me, okay?" She stood and walked towards him. She put her arms around his neck and pressed her body close to his. "Do this," she whispered in his ear, as if she knew him well. "Do me. You won't regret it."

She sinuously rubbed her body against his and he knew his arousal was plain to her then since he felt the heat of her crotch rubbing against his and there could be no doubt as to what he was feeling. "Please," she said. "Why not? I'm not worried about you."

Before he knew it, she had sat on the edge of the conference table, pulled her panties off and slid them to the floor and then lay down on top of the table and hiked up her skirt again so that he could see her immaculate bikini wax. "What are you waiting for?" she asked, in her little, soft voice, still wearing her four-inch high heels. And it was as if she had just said, "Please pass the cream," or "Hand me the sugar," on some odd coffee break from his imagination, but, "I imagine no one can see me at this level," she said then. "Because the window is a bit higher. So, come on, now. Please, let's waste no time."

She reached down to stroke herself. He watched the slick slide of two fingers, her index and her middle, moving and slipping all over the pinkest part of herself. Watching this, hard already, he thought only: I can't not do this. He got closer and knelt before the table, still watching her fingers and watching them close. "I have to call the police," he said uneasily, too honest to let her assume he might help with anything he couldn't follow through on. "I can't not call them; understand?"

"I understand," she said. Her fingers slid majestically into and out of and over and on top of herself. She gasped, lifting her head to look at him, and then rolled her eyes before saying, "So do that. Call. But get going. Hurry up. I could use some of you in here. In a fucking hurry." And, "Are we going to fuck or not?" Even the word "fuck," from her, sounded soft, and he got closer to her then, even closer and so close he smelled her scent and a faint waft of her perfume infused with lilies. He thrust his tongue inside her, deep, and let it sweep over and above the opening, back and forth, slowly. Then, after he watched her have her first orgasm, he stood by the edge of the table, grabbed her ankles, pulled her ass to the tablešs edge, and penetrated her before pulling her torso up towards his. As their bodies met outside of the view of the window frame, he began kissing her in earnest. "Yes," she said as he began to move within her. "That feels marvelous. Finally. Yes. And now, the sex. Take me somewhere wonderful with that." Her voice was breathy. She laid back flat and he caressed her hips as he took her.

Before he knew it, he was coming inside of her, and as he did, he leaned over her body on the table as she caressed and clung to his back. He was only a bit disappointed it had not lasted longer, because inside of her, he admitted later to himself, had felt so warm and wet that he wished he could have lasted more than a few moments—but even about this, she was delicate and kind, not the sort of woman to call him out. When he was done, she sighed, squeezing him with her internal muscles as if to pull out the very last drops of his semen, and said, "Thank you. That was nice."

"I'm sorry that did not last longer," he replied.

"It was good," she said. "And I would like a cigarette now, though I know I can't have one. But call the police already, would you please, darling? It has to happen soon."

"What?" he asked.

"Your call. To the police," she said.

He was thinking: I have to let her off now—or should try to help her. But there was plenty of proof she had stolen what she had stolen, which topped the grand larceny tally. Besides, at least three of the stores she stole from had videotape so there was no real clean way to let her go. But he was also thinking: This is the best day I've ever had at work. And: Short though it was, his last orgasm was better than the last several he had enjoyed, barely, with his ex-wife. And: he would never see this boardroom the same way again. He felt like a secret king now. It struck him as kind of fitting that this place, where many idiotic decisions were made and would be made, would now be the place in the mall where he, prey to these decisions, could remember having fucked a woman as he got paid as he did it, and he smiled then.

"Your call has to happen soon," she repeated, a bit more urgently, sitting up. "To the police. Please make it happen."

"Okay, I'll make the call," he said.

"Yes, do," she replied, her voice still soft, still mesmerizing. "Please, now."

He made the call. When he got off the phone, she looked at the wall clock and breathed a sigh of relief. "I'm so glad," she said. "They will take me away soon. And then I'll go in for questioning. And I'll call home and leave a message. And then I'll call my lawyer, just before I get notified of things."

Now he fancied himself a bit smarter than the men he supervised from day to day—but this perplexed him. "Why do you want to be arrested?" he asked. "What things?" He was thinking things, too, like: I would like to see her naked—next time, somewhere else, like in my bed.

"In case things go wrong," she said. "In case they go terribly wrong as I've planned them."

"What are you talking about?" he asked.

"Can I tell you a secret?" she replied.

"Uh. Sure," he said.

"Well, I had sex with you in case that would be my last time for a while, but I need to get arrested right away. I need to be in police custody by 1:55 p.m. because I have no friends or family in the city, and therefore no alibi, but I've hired a hit man to kill my husband today, at just that time. He will do this and then I will make a call, from the jail, 'Oh, honey, please come get me out of jail. I was caught shoplifting today again and I'm so embarrassed.' Etcetera. Then, that message will be on my answering machine with a time-date stamp, and I'll get terribly worried since he isn't answering, and somehow, persuade someone to go check on him to get him to bail me out of this—but, oh no, they'll discover, he's dead—though I didn't kill him or have anything to do with it, right? And you, the supervisor of security, in this room, since I just fucked you—which actually had two purposes: the first, in case I actually do get this pinned on me somehow and go to jail then prison since I didn't want him to be the last to have touched me, and the second, just because I wanted to do this with you and thought maybe now we can keep each other's secrets, right?—will not say a word? Everything I just said is for your ears only. Do you understand?" she said then, mimicking his earlier tone.

"Yes," he said. "Yes. I do."

"Good," she said, and smiled. Then she got off the table and picked up her panties, pulling them on up over her heels and past her thighs until they sat in the right place. "It's too bad I didn't steal a new pair of panties," she said then. "These are a little wet." Then she smoothed the skirt of her dress, went back to her chair where she sat before, released her hair from its pins and brushed it straight with a brush from her purse before returning it to its immaculate state, re-applied her powder, crossed one leg over the other again, and started humming, her black lashes fluttering.

The supervisor was in shock. He was thinking: Holy-Jesus-Mary-Mother-of-God. Did she just say what I think she just said? All of it? He watched her apply a nice layer of deep red lipstick to her lips, not even using a mirror, and then he thought: Nope. I didn't hear a word.

And he drove home that day, humming the same tune she had been humming just before he left her to the police--but only after watching an artfully tearful performance for these officers where she mentioned she was a compulsive shoplifter and that she had a problem—but her husband would bail her out, really he would. If only she could find a way to call him—and soon . . .

She winked at the security manager as they escorted her away, still humming as her heels clicked down the hallway, her soft voice echoing too, rising and falling, though without clear words, and he heard the policemen start chatting her up then, just as his guards did—as if she were a nice friendly woman they met, who they happened to also be attracted to. Like the guards, they were solicitous and incredulous she had found herself in such a bind. Oh, could they help her? Could they call him? Please, let them help her.

The tune she hummed was Claire de Lune, which he normally hated, but he found he would be humming it in several variations as he thought about her on that table in that boardroom over the next few days—that same boardroom that was then closed off again a week later after the old holding cell was re-opened; for, he had always disliked that tune—but her, she was mesmerizing, happy, soft, and shiny—and he found he would be humming it again and again, because she had hummed it, for days and days—or possibly, in the back of his brain, for years and years.

And what would he say, exactly, if they asked him questions about her later? Oh, he knew well: What? Oh, no, he didn't. He was sorry. He remembered nothing. She spoke to him of nothing. In fact, he hardly spoke to her at all. Yes, that was the ticket. She did seem like a lovely girl. And that was the God's honest truth! She was well-mannered and gracious, for what he knew of her. Yes, she seemed very, very nice.

Copyright©2008 Heather Fowler

Heather Fowler received her M.A. in English and Creative Writing from Hollins University in May of 1997. Her stories have appeared in the following journals: Temenos, Mississippi Review, See You Next Tuesday, Frigg: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry, the muse apprentice guild, artisan, a journal of craft, Literary PotPourri, Exquisite Corpse, The Barcelona Review, Quercus Review,Penumbra, B & A New Fiction, Barbaric Yawp,Zoetrope All-Story Extra, Mindkites. She worked as a Guest Editor for Zoetrope All-Story Extra in March and April of 2000. Her story "Slut" won third prize at the 2000 California Writer's Conference in Monterey. Her poetry has recently been selected for joint first place in the 2007 Faringdon Online Poetry Competition judged by Professor C. C. Norris, Distinguished Research Professor at Cardiff University, and has been published in various venues including: the Map of Austin Poetry, The Coast Highway Review, the Driftwood Highway 1999 Anthology, Joe's Journal, Best of the Beach 1998, The Publication, and the Cityworks Literary Anthology, Volume 6. She is working to finalize two novels, three books of short stories, two screenplays and assorted other projects. Please feel free to contact her at