Chapter 51

“Eighty-five!” Michelle-Bear shouted.

“Do you do substitutions?” an iron-haired woman said, holding up her handshell. It displayed the number ‘85’ in a large font.

“At this hour?” Michelle-Bear said piteously. “…sure, what’ll it be?”

“Eighty-six!” Click shouted.

“I want the chipotle mayonnaise on my cheesesteak,” the woman said.

“I’m eighty-six,” a blue-haired woman in her forties said.

“Excuse me, I’m eighty-six,” the bald, cuckolded customer from Chapter 1 said.

“Okay,” Michelle-Bear replied to the woman with gray hair. “That’s fine. What kind of cheese?”

“I beg your pardon!” the blue-haired woman said. “Are you trying to cut in line?!”

“May I see your shells, please?” Click asked.

“Provolone,” said the iron-haired woman.

“Okay!” Michelle-Bear said.

“No, I’m not!” the bald man said. “I am number eighty-six.”

“If you’ll show me your shells, please—” Click tried to interject.

“Eighty-three!” Zap said, appearing between Michelle-Bear and Click. He held a wrapped sandwich over his head triumphantly.

“I’m eighty-three,” a man said, and tried to shoulder his way through the crowd.

“I am eighty-six!” the blue-haired woman shouted at the bald man.

“I’m sorry, folks, but I’m going to eighty-six both of you if you don’t show me your shells,” Click hissed through a plastic smile.

The two, startled, stopped arguing. They pulled out their shells and opened the Securemarket™ Applet.

“Oh,” the blue-haired woman said. “I’m eighty-nine.”

“Can I please see your applet real quick?” Zap asked as the customer reached for the sandwich. The customer nodded and fumbled at his belt, then showed its surface to Zap.

“Okay, sir,” Click asked. “How can I help you?”

“Do you do substitutions?” the bald man asked.

“At this hour?” Click sighed. “Sure. What’ll it be?”

“Iyesu,” Steve said, surveying the crowd at the deli counter.

“Well, it’s clearly popular,” Alan said.

“I’m not sure I’m going to be able to handle that shit,” Steve said. “I definitely heard the word ‘substitutions’ at least four times as I casually walked by. If somebody asks me to do a substitution I’m pretty sure that there will be a fire.”

“It’s not nice to joke about hurting customers,” Alan chided.

“That’s not what I meant,” Steve said. “I’m talking about what happens when I try to take liberties with a recipe.”

Alan made a noise of uncomfortable understanding.

“Eighty-nine!” shouted Zap, holding up a sandwich.

“It’s about time,” said the blue-haired woman.

“Ninety!” Michelle-Bear followed, also holding a sandwich.

“How much longer is shift?” Click asked, folding the sandwich on the counter over his knife.

“Two and a half hours,” Zap said.

“Shoot me,” Michelle-Bear murmured as she handed the sandwich off to a customer.

“Good bid,” Click replied, “but nobody behind this counter has a gun.”

Michelle-Bear sighed. “Ninety-two!” she shouted.

“Do you do substitutions?”

“At—sure,” Michelle-Bear said. “What’ll it be?”

“How are Click and Zap?” Steve asked. She peeked around the corner at the Deli Counter, where the subjects of her inquiry stood as if in a daze.

“They’re a little shell-shocked,” Michelle-Bear replied, still looking as bushy-tailed as ever. “I don’t think either of them expected it to be this busy.”

“Damn good thing we had an experienced waitress working the counter,” Steve said.

“Oh, it’s nothing,” Michelle-Bear said. “Anyway, I’m going to take the boys out for a drink to help them get over their trauma. Want to come?”

“How long’ll you be there?” Steve asked. “I’m gonna go to the range first.”

“You going every day now?”

“Yeah!” Steve said with a grin. “My aim improved so much on the retreat, I wanna keep in the habit.”

“Good for you,” Michelle-Bear said. “Call me when you’re done!”

“If Nalley wants to come, can she?”

“No,” Michelle-Bear said with a sunny smile. “I fucking hate that bitch.”

“Aight, I’ll ask her if she wants to come.”

“I think I’m going to go make myself a sandwich,” Michelle-Bear said. “I’m hungry.”

“Bring me back some olives,” Steve said. She dug in her pocket and retrieved a credit chit. She glanced at its color and tossed it to Michelle-Bear.

“Will do. See you tonight!”

“Maybe,” Steve corrected.

“See you tonight!” Michelle-Bear said, then turned and bounded toward the counter.

“Mark!” Steve shouted.

In unison, Nalley and Steve raised their pistols and fired five measured shots. They lowered their pistols and surveyed their handiwork; a small smile crept onto Steve’s face.

Nalley raised her eyebrows. “Steve, that’s … you’re getting really good.”

“I know,” Steve said happily. “Gotta say, things are really looking up for me.”

“Yeah, about that!” Nalley said as she ejected the magazine from her pistol. “I need to hear more about this boyfriend of yours!”

“Well, he’s into guns,” Steve said as she released her own magazine. “And he’s very sweet. I’m going to have dinner with his parents this week.”

The women picked up a handful of bullets and began to refill their magazines.

“Are you nervous?” Nalley asked. “I was very nervous about meeting Alan’s parents for the first time. Uh, as a person.”

“Yeah, kinda,” Steve said. “But Mike’s an adult, you know? It’s not like it matters that much if his parents approve or don’t approve. I’ll try to make a good impression, but I’m not gonna let it stress me out.”

“Okay,” Nalley said with a nod.

The two slid the magazines home, turned toward the refreshed targets and chambered the first round. They took a ready stance, their pistols pointed toward the ground in front of them.

“On my mark… —oh!” Steve began, shouting as she remembered something.

Nalley twitched. “Don’t do that!” she admonished.

“I trust you to not kirk out on me,” Steve said. “Listen, do you want to go out for a drink after this?”

“Sure!” Nalley replied.

“Michelle-Bear took Zap and Click out. They’ve had a stressful day.”

“Oh, okay.” Nalley furrowed her brow. “Wait, didn’t Zap have a date with Pazi tonight?”

The girls exchanged troubled looks.

“Did he?” Steve asked.

“I think so,” Nalley said. “I thought he said something like that.”


“Do—do you think we should call and remind him?”

Steve set her jaw. “Far as I have come, I am not going to call Zap to remind him that he should be lubing up his girlfriend with a dinner date.”

Nalley blushed furiously and stared at the floor.

“But maybe,” Steve said, sighing, “you should give him a call, yes.”

“Okay,” Nalley said, flicking the safety of her pistol on and setting it down. She reached for her shell.

Outside of the 15th Street Watering Hole, all was quiet.

A young man burst from the bar’s doorway and ran down the street full-tilt.

A homeless man watched him run by, smoking a cigarette.