15:20: Sir Lewis Birchmore of Lorenz Municipality, Inc. was released from active duty for the day. He stepped onto the rail still in his full Corporate Knight business-combat suit and headed for the 14th and Neimuth Ave. station.
15:33: Sir Drake Kunimitsu of Better Living Ltd., who had the day off, decided that it would be a good time to do his grocery shopping for the week. He threw on a t-shirt, a pair of jeans, and his kit and rose before leaving his condominium. He started walking toward the nearby Securemarket™. While he was walking, he stopped to chat with a hot dog vendor he knew.
15:43: Sir Lewis Birchmore entered the 15th and Neimuth Securemarket™. He went immediately to the beer aisle and perused the selection.
15:45: Sir Drake Kunimitsu entered the 15th and Neimuth Securemarket™. He walked to the carts, took one, and headed down one of the aisles.
15:46: Alan Morganstern, the afternoon shift manager of the 15th and Neimuth Securemarket™, received a local ping on his workshell. He tapped his earbud and heard the voice of To’mas Bonvent, a store employee, in his ear.
“We’ve got two Knights in the store, Alan.”
Alan disconnected the call and quickly tapped a store-wide alert into his workshell, walking the length of the store with long strides. After a moment of surveying, he got two responses back:
“Got the one in the beer aisle.” Steve wrote.
“Tailing the one with the cart.” Zap responded.
Alan entered a message into his shell. Roses?
From Steve: “Blue with gold trim.”
From Zap: “Yellow fading to white.”
“Fuck,” Alan said aloud. “Political attack dogs.” He tapped his earbud once more. “To’mas.”
“Would you be a dear and go man the stun turret console? I’ll alter your clearance in a moment.”
“That’s a yes, I assume.”
“Uh, sure thing, boss man. I’m on it.”
By 15:49, the Securemarket™ employees were all prowling the store like black ops troopers getting into ambush positions.
On the far left side of the store, Sir Lewis Birchmore looked to his right and spotted a short girl with curly auburn hair in an employee’s apron. She was busy doing a bad job of trying to look discreet. Realizing she had been found, the girl strode up to him and gave a tight smile.
“You seem to be having some trouble deciding,” she said to him.
“I am going to a party,” the knight told her. “I normally drink Dragonback, but it is too expensive to bring to a party.”
“So you need something cheap?” the girl asked him, adopting a vacant expression.
“No, not cheap,” Lewis said, his mouth pressing into a thin line. “I do not want to seem cheap.”
“So something nice, then?” the girl asked him stupidly.
“Don’t worry about it,” Sir Birchmore said, rolling his eyes. “I think I can probably find something,”
“No, wait!” the girl said, her voice a bit strained and far too cheerful. “I know a lot about beer!”
Sir Lewis stared at her.
Across the store, Zap’s earpiece (which he had put on ready mode) came to life with Alan’s voice. “Steve’s stalling the other guy. Hurry this one.”
Zap murmured a quick affirmation and ducked into the aisle where the casually-dressed knight was pushing his cart, leaning against it. He swept to the knight’s side and greeted him warmly.
The knight jumped, his hand flying to the hilt of his blade. Zap backed off hurriedly. The knight relaxed upon seeing Zap’s apron.
“Sorry ’bout that,” the knight said, nodding to Zap.
“Hazard of the job!” Zap chirped, his eyes a little too wide. “Can I help you find what you’re looking for today?”
“Oh, I’ve got a list,” the knight responded, holding up his pocketshell. There was a full shopping list on it. Zap’s smile faltered a bit.
“Ahaha! A list, awesome! Looks like it’d be best to start in the produce aisle, which is two down.” Zap pointed.
“I know,” the knight said, smiling. “I live two blocks away, Zap. I shop here every week.”
Zap stood dumbfounded for a moment, then laughed. “Of course! Sir, um…”
“Sir Kunimitsu! Right! I didn’t recognize you without your suit an’ tie.”
“I’m usually coming home from work,” the knight replied. “But it’s my day off and I figured I’d get this out of the way. How’s Alan doing? Has he played any gigs lately?”
“Excuse me?” Zap looked baffled.
“Any gigs. With his band.”
Zap shook his head, his face incredulous. “Alan has a band?”
From the front of the store, Alan paced a small circle. “Come on, come on, report…” he muttered to himself. A moment later, he heard Zap’s voice in his ear.
“Sir Kunimitsu has a big damn shopping list,” Zap said. “Beer is on it. I’m sending him to the produce aisle, tell Steve to get the other guy dealt with!”
Alan tapped his earbud. “Steve, get Sir Fuckface his beer and usher him to the front. The other guy’s a regular and he’s doing his shopping.”
The curly-haired girl’s eyes looked distant for a moment, then her smile faded and she looked at Sir Birchmore with a lucid expression. Her vapid tone gone, she pointed at a 12-pack of St. Liam brand ale.
“St. Liam,” she drawled, “is a good, solid ale with a relatively obscure name but reputable packaging and an excellent flavor. It’s inexpensive because it’s a niche brand, but heavy drinkers favor it.”
The knight stared at the girl, completely nonplussed.
“It’s hard to find, but I suggested that we stock it, so we do,” the girl said and gestured at the beer.
“I suppose you do know a lot about beer, Miss … Steve…” the knight said slowly.
“I’m apprenticed to an alcoholic,” the girl said, and gestured to the beer again.
“I see. And to whom are you apprenticed?”
“Messianic the Gunsmith,” Steve said, gesturing forcefully at the beer. “He loves St. Liam. That’s the beer you want to take to your party. You want to take it now. The beer.”
Sir Lewis’s eyebrows rose, eyeing Steve with a growing look of appraisal. “Such a beautiful girl, an apprentice gunsmith, and so knowledgeable about fine ales?” he said in what he imagined was an alluring voice.
Steve stared at the knight for a moment before speaking. “What are you, like fifty?”
Sir Lewis bristled. “I am thirty-nine.”
“How bout I carry this beer to the front for you sir?” Steve said in a strained voice, hauling the case of beer onto her shoulder and bustling down the aisle.
Sir Lewis stared at her ass as she went.
“Such fire,” he murmured, then followed her.
Alan’s voice sounded in Zap’s ear. “Steve’s got the other knight headed toward the checkout lanes. Try to get Sir Kunimitsu to the back of the store; if he needs any meat now is the time to get it.”
Zap shook his head and smiled to the knight beside him. “Sorry, what was that you just said?”
“I said I’m not really into any popular music,” Sir Drake said. “I kind of like the old jazz standards, the ones that survived the Snowfall.”
“I don’t have much experience with jazz,” Zap admitted. “I mostly listen to pop music. Ellis Manteaux, Rubeus, Life Rising…”
“Rubeus is a very talented man,” Sir Drake said.
“So, you needed meat, didn’t you?” Zap said, his smile nervous.
Sir Drake sighed. “Ground beef,” he said. “For the kids. They like burgers. Someday I’ll get them to appreciate a good steak. I get mine specially delivered, you know, from Amazon farms. Until then, though … burgers.”
“Burgers,” Zap commiserated, nodding with very convincing regret. “Well, let’s get it over with.” He patted the knight on the shoulder and led him toward the butcher section of the store.
At the front of the store, Sir Birchmore approached a checkout device to see that the girl named Steve had already placed the case of St. Liam beer in the detection area. She gave him a small, rather forced smile as he approached.
“How would you like to pay for this, sir?”
“Birchmore,” Sir Birchmore said, as though Steve had been waiting for his name. “Sir Lewis Birchmore.”
“Aaand how would you like to pay for that, Sir Birchmore?” Steve asked, gritting her teeth.
“Company chargebus,” Sir Lewis said, producing a small, sleek chargebus and holding it out to Steve. She smiled and gestured to the console and the bus port on it. Frowning, Sir Lewis plugged the chargebus in and watched as the total appeared on the screen.
“Well!” Steve said with obvious relief. “Glad to have helped you out! I know you really must be getting to your party, so I’ll let you get to that!” She deftly hoisted the 12-pack and thrust it upon the knight, who took the box with both hands before he could think of doing aught else.
The small girl hurried around him and ushered him to the door with quick, shuffling steps. “Thanks so much for shopping at the Securemarket™!” she said as they went to the door. “We’ll see you later! I must be going, my manager’s calling! Work, you know! Ha ha!”
“Miss Steve, I—” Sir Birchmore’s words fell on deaf ears. Once she had deposited Sir Lewis Birchmore at the store’s exit, she scurried away and vanished into one of the store’s aisles. Frowning again, the knight shifted the case of beer under one arm and exited the store.
Alan watched Sir Lewis leave and tapped his earbud. “He’s gone. How you doing, Steve?”
“I need a solvent shower,” she replied. “And a shot of Dragon’s Breath. And a raise.”
“I’ll have the first two arranged,” Alan replied. He looked across the store and saw Zap and Sir Drake Kunimitsu emerging from the beer aisle, Sir Drake’s cart full of groceries. He smiled and sighed.
“Okay, To’mas, you can come down from the turret console.”
“Aw, but…” To’mas’s voice had a definite tone of disappointment. “What if he comes back? The other guy?”
“I’m taking it out of your break time if you stay in there.”
Alan watched as Sir Drake scanned the last of his groceries and paid for them. He and Zap were chatting about popular culture; with the other knight gone, Zap’s relief was obvious. Zap bagged Sir Drake’s groceries, then lined them up so that they could be placed in an easy-sling quickly.
It was just after Zap had bid Sir Drake goodbye and the knight had prepared to sling his groceries that Sir Lewis Birchmore walked back into the store.
The knights saw each other and froze, as did Steve, who had been standing at the edge of one of the aisles, To’mas, who had returned from the office, and Zap.
There was a long silence. The CKs stared at each other, and everyone else stared at them.
“Sir Kunimitsu,” Birchmore said in a flat tone.
“Sir Birchmore,” Kunimitsu replied coldly.
“You and your squad are responsible,” Birchmore intoned, “for the killing of fifty-three Lorenz Municipality employees, unrestituted thus far by your company.”
“And you,” Kunimitsu replied, “are responsible for the killing of Better Living’s Sir Dreyfuss Richmond, among other trespasses against my company.”
“Roberson vs. Filene!” Alan shouted. Both knights stared at him.
Alan took a deep breath, feeling the knights’ stares boring into him. This is the Securemarket™. We are secure. We offer the safest shopping experience in New Washington. “Roberson vs. Filene. You are not to fight here.”
In the ensuing quiet, Alan allowed himself to think for a fleeting moment that it was going to work.
Sir Lewis Birchmore sneered, “Villanueva vs. Burrows. The rivalry between Sir Kunimitsu and myself transcends the precedent set by the duel that your company has asked you to parrot. We will determine the terms of this duel and it will be here and now.”
“No!” Kunimitsu snapped. “This is not a unilateral decision, churl, and by Thrace vs. Arrowroot your insult alone should allow me to dictate all of the terms!”
“That old argument?!” Birchmore retorted, angry. “How many examples should I use to illustrate how out-of-date that duel’s terms are?”
Kunimitsu faltered for a moment.
“Here.” Birchmore said triumphantly. “Now. This duel will—”
“Sir Birchmore?” A quavering voice asked. All eyes turned toward Steve, who was standing nearby and looking pale. She cleared her throat. “Uh … Sir Lewis?”
Sir Birchmore’s face twitched.
“I, uh, I forgot,” Steve said nervously, extending her personal shell with a shaky hand. “I uh really wanted to give you my ether address.”
There was a dead silence. Everyone in the room gaped at Steve.
“It’d be great to see you sometime,” Steve blurted, her brow sweaty. “Y-you could send me a message and we could go get coffee…”
Sir Birchmore blinked, then reached into his pocket and withdrew his own shell. Both shells chirped, transferring Steve’s ether address to the knight’s shell. Steve looked ready to vomit.
Birchmore put away his shell and cleared his throat. He looked up at Sir Drake, who was gaping at him. “So. Later, then.” With that, he turned and strode away before the other knight had time to object.
Once the knight had gone, Steve leaned her back against the wall and sank to her haunches, crossing her arms tightly across her chest.
Sir Drake exploded, stricken at Steve’s sacrifice. “Miss Steve, I cannot allow you to—” he cut off at a gesture from Zap.
Alan and To’mas hurried over to Steve. Simultaneously, Alan produced a bottle of water and To’mas produced a silver flask. The staring match that followed was broken when Steve reached forward and snatched the flask from To’mas’s hand. Alan watched, then sighed and nodded.
“At some point,” Alan said to To’mas, “I’m going to have to lecture you about bringing that to work.”
“At some point I’m sure I’ll be very sorry,” replied To’mas, watching Steve take a long pull from the flask.
Having somehow managed to convince Drake to leave without delivering an oath of vengeance, Zap came over and smiled at Alan. “Steve and I are going to take all of our smoke breaks now.”
Alan straightened and nodded. “Ok, fine,” he said. “Good job, team. You all did awesome. To’mas, fucking figure out where Matt went; I need to go to the office. I’m going to submit a complaint to HQ. If they can’t get us a duel citation that a knight won’t loophole in ten seconds, I am going to do some serious yelling.”
As Alan strode toward the office, Zap helped Steve up and led her toward the back of the store. To’mas, left alone, walked over to a checkout machine. He leaned against it, got a distant look in his eyes, and sighed.
“Stun turret,” he said in a dreamy voice.