The Obmil Emporium

The brass plaque positioned to one side of the heavy glass door read: "Obmil Emporium." Amanda considered herself fortunate to have found the place. Nobody had heard of it.

Tucking the little box, sporting a gilt-edged card bearing the message, "A Gift From Aunt Charlotte, Courtesy Of Obmil Emporium, Regent Street," under her arm, Amanda entered.

In vain, she had racked her brains trying to envision where on Regent Street the Obmil Emporium might be. She thought she knew every inch of the fashionable thoroughfare, but eventually reached the conclusion that she was apparently less well-informed than she had imagined. The address on the card, however, had been misleading. The location was not Regent Street proper, but situated in an adjacent courtyard.

The narrow facade was equally deceiving, communicating the impression that the interior of the establishment must surely be simply a small specialty store, but nothing could have been further from the truth. Amanda was astounded at the grand...albeit archaic...vista lurking beyond the threshold.

She wrinkled her nose at the musty odor of mothballs and lavender, so reminiscent of Aunt Charlotte. She half-expected to see the old lady sitting upon one of the high-backed chairs, upholstered in rust-red velvet, conveniently placed in front of several counters. Quite obviously, the Obmil Emporium catered to a select clientele: the Rich and Antiquated.

Again, Amanda questioned Aunt Charlotte's sudden show of presumed generosity; pondered the reason behind the unexpected gift. The ancient biddy despised her and usually made no bones about such aversion. She had loathed Amanda's mother with a passion...a "common and vulgar waitress," with the unmitigated gall to marry the sole heir to the Underwood fortune. Even the death of Amanda's parents in a boating accident had not softened Aunt Charlotte's unrelenting heart.

Of course, the gift had probably been intended as an insult. The obnoxious pillbox hat with its beaded veil was a hopelessly outmoded monstrosity. In any event, Amanda never wore headgear. Aunt Charlotte was well aware of that and must have known her niece would return the hideous object.

Amanda failed to notice the sales associate until a voice queried, "Does Madam require assistance?" The tone was polite, but slightly arrogant and somewhat disquieting. The woman noted Amanda's box. "Millinery Department is to the right."

Amanda stifled a nervous chuckle. Millinery? People actually still used that word? She watched the woman glide away, as though her sensible, low-heeled pumps were equipped with miniature wheels.

Feeling vaguely inferior, Amanda deposited Aunt Charlotte's gift on the counter of said "Millinery Department." The saleslady, who bore a striking resemblance to the one from whom Amanda had taken directions only moments before, regarded the box with a quizzical air.

"It's not quite my style," Amanda explained. "Perhaps I could exchange it for something else?" For the life of her, Amanda could not imagine what she would want instead, but sensed it to be the appropriate proposal.

Removing the hat, the woman inspected it carefully, seemingly expecting to find a colony of lice breeding copiously beneath the band of grosgrain ribbon which encircled the crown.

"I haven't worn it," protested Amanda indignantly. "I didn't even try it on."

The woman replaced the lid and returned the box to Amanda. "The Obmil Emporium is not in the habit of making exchanges," she simpered haughtily.

Amanda could believe that. She wouldn't have been at all shocked to discover that the old matriarch Queen Victoria herself, in search of a black, bombazine dress and white lace cap, had recently stepped regally across the self-same floorboards upon which she was now standing. They probably still had a plentiful supply of both items in stock. It came as no surprise whatsoever that the cash registers were of the prehistoric "till" variety and that there was not one display signifying the "preferred choice" of charge card. Amanda seriously doubted they understood the meaning of the term.

The woman opened a receipt book and inserted a fresh sheet of carbon paper between the pages. "If Madam will give me her account number, I will ensure the correct amount is credited."

Amanda sighed. "I don't have an account here."

The woman snorted disdainfully. "Then Madam is obliged to go to the Refund Desk." She motioned at a broad staircase snaking downward and replaced the book underneath the counter. "Basement Level," she urged. "If Madam will follow the signs."

Passively, Amanda retrieved her package and did as she had been instructed. Upon entering the applicable room, Amanda was handed a numbered ticket, evidencing that she had been assigned the status of 25,224. An easel, ostensibly displaying the shopper currently being attended to, exhibited "17." Amanda stared. If that were correct, she'd be here until doomsday!

"I'll just come back later," she muttered, but the aged sales assistant, who bore an uncanny resemblance to the pair with whom Amanda had already been in contact, barred the way.

Amanda speculated that all Obmil Emporium employees might be related. Still, she theorized, take any given quantity of elderly, nondescript women, scrape the hair into a tight, French twist, put them in a starched white blouse and calf-length grey skirt, and it would be virtually impossible to distinguish one from the other. Such uniform appearance left little leeway for individuality.

"Madam cannot leave until she receives her refund," Amanda was informed with authority. Resigning herself to the obvious inevitable, she shrugged and sat down. Since she appeared to be the sole dissatisfied customer in the small foyer, maybe she'd be next despite the designated number on her ticket. One could only hope!

"Peculiar name for a store," Amanda remarked to the woman, as much to pass the time as anything. "O-B-M-I-L. Sounds like the name of an Arabic sheik or something."

The saleslady leaned over Amanda's shoulder and laughed. It was a mirthless and thoroughly unpleasant sound. Amanda noticed that dust motes had ostensibly accumulated in the wrinkles around the pale and eerily vacant eyes.

"Perhaps," the woman suggested drily, "Madam should try pronouncing it backward?

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