There was an Innsbruck. After driving for what seemed like forever through dense fog and cascading sheets of rain, the headlights of Kitty 2’s car illuminated a faded wooden sign announcing that we were entering the Innsbruck city limits, although no signs of civilization were apparent.
“Well, we’ve found it,” I said.
“So far all we’ve found is a sign,” Kitty 2 said. “I’ve yet to see anything that qualifies as a town.”
“Keep going,” I said. “We’re bound to find something.”
After about a mile another sign loomed out of the fog. This one was much larger, but just as old as the city limits sign. Kitty 2 slowed down enough so that I could make out the words “Innsbruck Outlet Mall: Everything You Could Ever Want.”
“That doesn’t look too promising either,” Kitty 2 said. “If the mall were open they’d pay to keep the billboard in better shape.”
“It’s a great sign,” I said. “I don’t care if the mall is a smoldering crater. In fact I hope it is. It’s pretty easy to put a dollar value on a smoldering crater. They’re worth exactly zero dollars.”
“Does that account for inflation?” Kitty 2 asked.
“Math wasn’t your best subject was it?” I said.
Kitty 2 didn’t see fit to reply, so we drove on in silence. We entered a residential area. The rain slowed and the fog cleared up enough to see that the houses were all run down. The lawns were unkempt, and weeds grew through cracks in the sidewalks. We were the only car on the street, and no people were out walking. I chalked the desolation up to the lousy weather, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that our arrival had been noticed. I thought I saw curtains stir in the windows of some of the houses as we proceeded toward the center of town, but I couldn’t be sure.
The condition of homes improved as we proceeded through town, but Innsbruck was still a place that had been down on its luck for a while. Storefronts stood empty and street signs were rusted. A stray, half-starved mongrel sat on a street corner, eyeing us with suspicion.
“That dog might be the mayor,” Kitty 2 said. “I don’t think anyone else lives here.”
“Let’s see if we can find the mall, or someone who can tell us where the mall is,” I said. “Unless you want to ask the mayor.”
“He doesn’t look like one of those dogs that speaks, at least not English,” Kitty 2 said.
As we cruised down the street I spotted a grocery store that looked open.
“There,” I said, pointing. “Park here. We’ll go into that store and ask someone for directions.”
“You’ll go into the store and ask someone for directions,” Kitty 2 said. “I’m sitting here with the doors locked. This place gives me the creeps.”
“Fine,” I said. “I’ll be right back.”
I got out of the car and entered the store, which was empty except for a sullen looking young woman standing by the register chewing gum and looking bored.
“Excuse me,” I said.
“I was hoping you could direct me to the mall.”
That got the girl’s attention. She stood up straight and gave me a hard look.
“You don’t want to go to the mall,” she said.
“I do.” I said. “I really do want to go to the mall. I have a very good reason for wanting to go to the mall.”
“Trust me,” the girl replied. “Outsiders aren’t welcome there. If you’re not from here, and I mean really from here, then you’re out of luck. This is the strangest place I’ve ever lived. The only reason I’m here is because the store I worked for was closed, and this was my only option to transfer. I’ve been here six months and people here have barely spoken a word to me. These people are strange, and they don’t like people poking their noses into whatever it is that goes on around here. And whatever it is that goes on around here involves that mall.”
“So is the mall closed or something?” I asked.
“Not technically,” she said. “But I just don’t think you’ll find it to be a very welcoming place.”
“Look,” I said. “This has been a very confusing conversation, and really all I want are directions, so could we just skip to the part where you tell me how to get to the mall and let me decide for myself how welcoming it is?”
“Go two blocks south and turn left at the light. Then go half a mile. The mall will be on your right.”
“Thanks,” I said and left the store.
When I returned to the car Kitty 2 was looking at her phone and scowling. I knocked on the window and she unlocked the doors. I got in.
“That took you long enough,” she said.
“You ever have one of those conversations where the other person just won’t get to the point?” I asked.
“Yeah. Every time I talk to my mom,” she replied. “My mom’s not in there is she?”
“Is your mother in her twenties?”
“Nope,” Kitty 2 said. “I don’t think she was ever in her twenties. Do me a favor and see if you can get a cell signal. I’m not picking up anything. I can’t even find a wireless network.”
I checked my phone. I didn’t have service either.
“Nothing,” I said. “Let’s head toward the mall. If nothing else, they should have wireless.”
We followed the cashier’s directions, and sure enough a mall loomed in the distance, a relic of a bygone era that man could only dimly remember; The Seventies. A seemingly endless parking lot led up to a truly wretched collection of vast, featureless rectangular buildings emblazoned with names of various manufacturers of consumer goods. I felt a piercing stab of boredom as I gazed at the drab exterior of the mall. Like any sane human male I hated malls and shopping. We now live in a glorious age where a man can sit at home in front of a computer and order a pair of pants while not wearing any pants, thus bringing us closer to the pantsless society that man has dreamed of since the dawn of pants. To me, this mall represented a more savage time. A time when the only way to buy a pair of pants in your boxer shorts while drinking a beer was to wander into a J.C. Penney’s after a particularly rough Saturday night down by the docks. I shuddered at the thought.
“I wonder if they have a Victoria’s Secret,” Kitty 2 said.
I shook my head. “We’re not here to shop, Kitty 2.” I said. “Let’s keep focused on the task at hand.”
“You’re not here to shop,” Kitty 2 said. “I need some nice underwear. Having half the world see you get hung upside down out of a window while wearing a skirt really hammers home the importance of having nice undergarments. I mean, that video is mortifying enough, but I don’t know what I’d do if I had been wearing granny panties. The term murder-suicide comes to mind, however.”
“I can’t believe you’re still angry about that. It’s been almost 24 hours. You should really work on being more forgiving.”
“I thought you didn’t want to be my therapist.”
“I don’t. And I also don’t mean you should be more forgiving of everyone, just me. I am your boss after all, and sometimes I get the impression you don’t really respect the employer-employee dynamic.”
“That might change if I got paid on a more regular basis, but don’t hold your breath,” Kitty 2 said as she pulled into the parking lot.
While the town of Innsbruck might have been empty, the mall seemed to be doing a brisk business. The gigantic parking lot was nowhere near full, but there were many more cars in it than I had expected to see. Kitty 2 swung her car into an empty space between a couple of SUVs, and we got out and walked toward the mall entrance. As we approached we got our first look at the locals when a couple of them came out of the mall clutching bags. From a distance, I could tell the couple was fashionably dressed, but as I approached I detected something unwholesome about them. They were quite pale and had bulging eyes and thick lips. The sun, which was now peeking out from behind the clouds, seemed to cause them pain, and they scurried, animal-like, to their car.
As we opened the doors to the mall entrance, we were met with a blast of cold air that made us both shiver.
“They could stand to ease up on the air conditioning a bit,” Kitty 2 said, folding her arms across her chest. “I might have to buy a sweater just to walk around in here.”
“That’s just what they want you to do,” I said. “Don’t fall for their clever tricks.”
“Would you rather I die of hypothermia?”
“Oh, now you’re just being melodramatic,” I said.
The mall’s interior was dim. It seemed like at least half of the fluorescent lights were out. I wondered if it was due to mall management skimping on maintenance or if it was a sign of something more sinister, like a problem with the wiring that would hurt the building’s value. I made a note to ask the mall manager about it. I also made a note to figure out exactly where the mall manager’s office was. Fortunately, there was one of those “You Are Here” type mall maps to tell us exactly where we were. From studying it, I learned that the mall was two levels and the stores were centered around a food court and fountain. Mall management was located in a small office on the second floor.
“Ooh, Victoria’s Secret does have a shop here,” Kitty 2 said. “I’ll meet you later in the food court.”
“Not so fast,” I said. “As my assistant you are obligated to assist me. Business first, then underwear.”
Kitty 2 sighed and rolled her eyes. “Fine. Let’s get this over with.”
I decided to have a look around before heading to the manager’s office. I wanted to get a feel for the building without anyone peering over my shoulder. I took a sharp right and wandered past a Baby Gap, Tommy Hilfiger and Banana Republic before wandering into a Rack Room Shoes. There were a few customers browsing. I was admiring a nice pair of wingtips when I noticed a woman trying on a pair of sandals out of the corner of my eye. There was nothing remarkable about her except for her webbed toes. I must have started staring because she looked up at me and scowled. Then the removed the sandals and put on her sneakers before standing up and rushing out of the store in a huff.
I found Kitty 2 in the women’s shoes aisle, trying on a pair of black pumps.
“Whadda think?” she asked.
“They look great,” I said. “But you can come back for them later.”
“I don’t need them anyway,” she said, slipping them off and putting them back in their box.
“You hungry?” I asked.
“I could eat,” she said.
The food court had all of the usual suspects: Panda Express, Sbarro, Cinnabon, and other indistinguishable purveyors of bland cuisine staffed by surly teens. At its center of was a fountain, or at least what was supposed to be a fountain. A dark monolith that reached almost to the roof stood in a stone pool of stagnant water. As we approached, I could see the monolith contained strange bas relief carvings of bizarre symbols and vaguely humanoid creatures.
“I can’t say I get modern art,” I told Kitty 2, gesturing to the monolith.
“I kinda like it,” Kitty 2 said. “It reminds me of the cover art on my dad’s old prog rock albums.”
We wandered through the food court, looking for a place to eat. The Sbarro had three anchovy pizzas ready to go and nothing else. There was a Mexican place where the pictures of food on the menu board had an unnerving number of tentacles sticking out of them. We settled on Panda Express, where a lone worker was leaning against the counter, arms crossed. He didn’t make eye contact as we approached, but he did speak.
“Welcome to Panda Express,” he said. “How may I help you?”
“I’ll have the beef and broccoli,” I said. “And anything you can tell me about the mall manager.”
The teen snorted and looked up at me.
“You mean Haddock?”
“If he’s the manager, yes.”
“Guy’s a jerk,” the kid said. “Thinks he’s a king. Treats everyone around here like dirt. Whenever he eats here, I spit in his food. He’s always sucking up to the suits, as if he’s ever got a chance of being anything other than a retail monkey.”
“You seen him today?”
“Yeah,” the teen said. “Me and Randy were smoking out back on our break and he came out and told us to get back to work, even though we still had five minutes left, douche.”
Kitty 2 ordered General Tso’s Chicken. The teen handed us our styrofoam containers of food, and we found a table. We wolfed down our bland meals in silence, and then headed towards the escalators. I noticed we were drawing a lot of looks from the locals, most of whom bore some degree of resemblance to the couple we had passed in the parking lot. They were careful not to stare, but they glanced at us and quickly turned away, the same way you might sneak a peek at an attractive woman and hope not to get caught. It occurred to me that I was with Kitty 2, and that might account for all the glances. She was quite attractive, especially compared to the women I’d seen here.
We stepped onto the escalator and rode to the second floor. After some hunting, we found a long corridor that led to a door marked “Mall Manager’s Office.” I knocked and got no response, so I turned the knob. It was unlocked, so Kitty 2 and I stepped inside. We startled a portly man sitting behind a cluttered desk. His office was dim, but even in the darkness I could tell he seemed to have a bad case of psoriasis, giving him a scaly appearance. He wore a pair of cheap khakis and a white short-sleeved dress shirt usually only seen on NASA employees, as well as what I strongly suspected was a clip-on paisley tie. He sighed when he saw us, and scowled.
“Are you the manager of this fine establishment?” I asked.
“Yes,” the man croaked. “I’m Richard Haddock, and I manage this mall. Who are you and what are you doing in my office?”
I handed the scaly man my business card. He looked at it and frowned.
“I have been retained to assess the value of this property by a client who is interested in purchasing it,” I said.
Haddock threw my business card into the garbage can by his desk.
“I’m afraid your client has been misinformed,” Haddock said. “The Innsbruck Outlet Mall is not now, nor will it ever be, for sale. I’m sorry your time has been wasted in this fashion, but I’m going to have to ask you to leave. I’m very busy.”
“Were you this rude to Oliver Barley when he came by?” I asked.
Haddock parted his thick lips as if to start yelling, but then thought better of it. Instead, he took a deep breath and exhaled, filling the office with the scent of anchovies. I surmised he had eaten at Sbarro for lunch. I wondered if he’d figured out the kid at Panda Express was spitting in his food.
“I’m afraid I’ve never met anyone who goes by that name. Now, I’m going to have to ask you to leave the premises. I can’t have you poking around unaccompanied. If you don’t leave now, I will call mall security.”
“We’re not afraid of mall rent-a-cops,” Kitty 2 said.
“Rent-a-cops will be the least of your problems if you stick around,” Haddock replied, snatching a stress ball up off his desk and giving it a squeeze. I was certain he was pretending his hand was wrapped around Kitty 2’s windpipe as his grasp tightened on the ball and his scaly knuckles turned pale.
“Are you sure there isn’t someone else we could speak with?” I asked.
“No,” Haddock replied. “There isn’t.”
“All right,” I said. “Apparently there’s been some miscommunication here. I’m sorry we disturbed you.”
I left the office with Kitty 2 right behind me.
“Well that went well,” Kitty 2 said. “Now what?”
I pulled out my phone. I still had no signal, and it didn’t look like the mall had an open wi-fi network.
“I might go back into town,” I said. “And look at the records on file in city hall to see if I can figure out who owns this dump. Call me crazy, but I’m not sure that guy was exactly in the loop on things. By the look of things, I’m not sure anyone would bother to tell him if the place was for sale. You can stay here and shop if you want.”
“No thanks,” Kitty 2 said. “This place doesn’t seem all that welcoming.”