Chapter 54

Steve did not bother trying to take a straight route to work. She emerged from the Rail station and began to search the street, her eyes sweeping each alleyway as she passed it. She was halfway to the store by the time that she located her quarry: a dark-skinned vagrant woman, leaning against the corner of a building.

“You!” she shouted. “You!”

“Aye?” the homeless woman who called herself Aggie replied. She saw Steve’s face and cackled. “Seen the wisdom of Old Aggie’s words, have yeh?”

“You knew!” Steve hissed, bearing down on the woman. “You knew what would happen.”

“Old Aggie knows a lot of things,” Aggie replied, leaning her head against the wall.

“You should have told me! You unfeeling cunt!” Steve spat.

“Watch your tongue! I did tell you, brat!” Aggie snapped back, her demeanor hardening. “You heard what you wanted to hear. That’s always been your way, girl.”

“What else are you keeping from me?” Steve asked. “Are you an Oracle?”

“I’m Aggie,” the old woman said, then cackled. Her casual tone returned. “I yam what I yam and that’s what I yam.”

Steve threw her hands skyward and turned in a tight circle. She jabbed a finger at Aggie. “You know, I always figured that Matt was particularly obnoxious, but I now see that fortune-tellers are just like that.”

Aggie cackled again, then broke into a wracking cough. Once recovered, she said, “Del Fye? He’s a softie. Good work with that scumbag Stiles, though.”

“So you’re an oracle,” Steve said with a nod. “Right. What the fuck am I supposed to do now? This hurts. It’s the first chance I’ve had in a long time and this bastard blindsided me. I want somebody who isn’t going to do that.”

“If you’re looking for a perfect partner,” Aggie rasped, then put two fingers to her head. “Shoot yourself! Then ask Yesu if he’ll fuck you in the ass!” Aggie burst into wheezing, painful-sounding belly laughter.

Steve stared at her, then slowly took a few steps away. Seeing that the old woman was not close to being over her own joke, she turned and walked away.

“We need to get the cops to patrol this neighborhood better,” Steve muttered as she walked into the store.

“What?” Alan asked, looking up from his tabletshell. “Why?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Steve said. “Is Matt here? I’m going to put him on cleaning the bathrooms.”

Matt on the bathrooms? But they actually need cleaning,” Alan objected.

“Restocking, then,” Steve growled. “Anything unpleasant.”

“Steve,” Alan said, “I understand that you’re going through a lot right now, but you know that Matt’s gift is erratic. If he could have warned you, he would have.”

“That’s not it, it’s—never mind!” Steve stormed away.

“Iyesu,” Alan said.

Zap walked through the store’s entrance. “Ping!” he said.

“Pong,” Alan replied a little absently. “Hey Zap, have you been keeping current on the occupation of the contested territory?”

“A little,” Zap said.

“So ‘no’, then,” Alan said with a nod. “Seems that Better Living is devoting a lot of staff to keeping the area.”

“Is Sir Drake deployed?” Zap asked.

“Not sure,” Alan said. “Maybe we should ask him. How’s Pazi with your cancellation?”

“Mm?” Zap said, caught off guard by the question. “I haven’t called her since. She seemed okay when I made the call.”

Alan gave Zap a look. “You should do something for her tonight,” he warned. “You don’t just cancel something and not make it up.”

“Oh,” Zap replied. “Okay.”

Michelle-Bear arrived on the scene, her hat’s ears barely clearing the doorframe. “Good morning, boys!”

“Morning, Michelle-Bear,” Zap said.

“Morning, kiddo,” Alan said. “Steve’s having a bad day, so be nice to her, okay?”

“When am I ever not nice to anybody?” Michelle-Bear asked, confused.

Extra-nice,” Alan said. “Give her some Michelle-Bearapy.”

“Oh!” Michelle-Bear said. “Okay!”

“Ping!” Click said as he walked in.

“Pong,” Zap said.

“Pong!” Michelle-Bear replied cheerfully.

“Pong,” Alan said. “Click, be nice to Steve. She’s just had some rough news.”

“Oh?” Click said, raising his eyebrows. “Okay, will do.”

“Also, I’m afraid I have to put you on restroom-cleaning,” Alan added.

“That’s fine,” Click said. “I just bought a new set I wanna listen to.” He walked off.

There was a short pause. Michelle-Bear’s expression was troubled.

“Zap, could you be on LP?”

“What’s up, Michelle-Bear?” Zap asked.

“I dunno,” Michelle-Bear said. “Click didn’t seem…”

“Didn’t seem what?”

“It’s probably nothing,” Michelle-Bear said with a wave. “I’ll go prep the deli.”

She walked away.

“Ping,” Matt said as he walked in the store. “Restocking, right.”

Click shouldered his way out of the back door of the store and around the loading dock to the alleyway. He walked halfway into the alley and leaned against the wall. After a few moments, someone joined him.

“How’s the landscape?” the other person asked.

“Steve’s as cranky as can be expected,” Click said. “She seems to be trying to take it out on Matt.”

“Makes sense.”

“Also, from what I heard of him on the phone, Zap is in the doghouse with Pazi. He skipped out on a date to be with Steve last night.”

“Hm,” the stranger said. “All right. Anything else?”

“Not really,” Click said. “Are we still on for tomorrow?”

“If you can call for me without making wiseass comments, sure. Anyway, I’d better be going.”

“Okay, see you,” Click said.

The person began to walk away, but Click called, “Wait a second.”

The figure stopped.

“Is this really the right thing to do?” Click asked. “This … meddling?”

The figure shrugged slowly. “Maybe, maybe not.”

Click shoved his hands in his pockets.

“But on the other hand, nothing is being said that isn’t already known,” the person said. “We are just making those things a little harder to ignore.”

Click nodded. “Okay,” he said.

The figure walked off into the busy New Washington street and was lost in the crowd.

Click sighed and walked back toward the store.

“Here we are, ma’am. Aisle four,” Alan said, pointing down the aisle. “Powdered, dehydrated, and reduced goods. Bonito flakes should be on the right, near the end.”

“Thank you,” the woman said, and then started down the aisle.

“Hey Alan,” Zap said, rounding the corner from the next aisle. “Those yuzies I kicked out yesterday are back with like three more friends. They’re all pretty well-armed.”

Mattaku,” Alan cursed. “What are we now, the Merc district? Who picks a fight at a reputable Securemarket™? Who does that?”

“Did somebody say fight?” To’mas asked, his head poking out from above the aisle divider, which he had climbed on top of.

“To’mas! How many times have I told you not to go up there?”

“You never mean it,” To’mas said with a smile. “So … stun turret?”

“They’re not in range,” Zap said. “They headed straight to the back of the store.”

“All right, let’s go put the Fear of God into ’em. Click! Loren!” Alan called to the two, who were helping customers with the checkout machines. “We need you!” Click finished his business and jogged to the growing group of employees.

“Ok, kids, remember the manual,” Alan said as they set out toward the back of the store. “Don’t draw unless they do, but keep your weapons visible and your hands near them.”

At the back of the store, a group of four young men and two women, all of whom openly bore deadly weapons, paced. The one in the front, a boy in his late teens with a military-style buzz cut, was actually holding a shotgun drawn in one hand. When he saw Zap emerge from around the corner of an aisle, a predatory grin spread across his face.

The grin faltered somewhat when three other employees emerged from behind Zap.

“Put that gun down, chall,” Zap said, not slowing down. “Drawn piece say words you don’t mean.”

The young man’s only response was to sneer, then turn away. The entire group about-faced and began walking in the opposite direction, toward the produce section.

Their way was abruptly blocked when a shopping cart rolled into the aisle’s intersection, propelled by Michelle-Bear’s foot. Though she smiled sweetly to the yuzies, she was ready for action: her hammer was unlocked and unfolded, held to her back by its sling.

The yuzies’ faces registered disbelief that a single employee would try to block them, but for whatever reason none of them seemed willing to move past Michelle-Bear’s towering form. Their only remaining choice was the aisle leading all the way back to the front of the store.

As they walked through the aisle, Zap, Alan, and Click followed them while Michelle-Bear, Loren, and To’mas circled around to block the way to other aisles at the front of the store.

A minute later, the yuzies had been herded peacefully outside, cowed by the prospect of facing a well-trained and unified employee force. They stood outside of the store jeering and cursing for a grand total of one minute before the police arrived, scattering the group.

Alan watched cheerfully as the ringleader of the group and one of his friends who had been caught were put in cuffs.

“Good job, everybody,” he said, turning around. “You’re all—wait a second.”

“What?” Matt said.

“Matt, what the hell are you doing here?” Alan asked. “I thought you were on deli.”

“No, Michelle-Bear was,” Matt replied.

“There seemed like trouble,” Michelle-Bear said. “I wanted to make sure everything was okay.”

“Well, you helped and all,” Alan said with a growing sense of horror, “but is there anybody helping Steve with the deli?”

As if to answer, the fire alarm went off.