by Elizabeth Kent
The grocery store was busy, but that was a good thing. When the customers were cranky from standing in line and the checkers were too tired even to look up, it was far less likely they'd be recognized. Face scanned the gum and candy display by the checkout counter, searching automatically for Double Bubble, and tossed several packs of it into his basket as the couple in front of him started to unload their cart. Mostly it was the guy unloading the cart. The woman was too busy making sure everyone knew she was with him.
He was a handsome man if you liked that type: stocky, muscular, but lean, with a well-trimmed goatee and dark hair with just a hint of grey around the temples. Several women in the general vicinity were giving him a second or third glance. And his girlfriend noticed it. She clung to him like a barnacle, pressing her substantial and scantily-clad breasts against his arm or his back every time he turned to get something out of the cart. Occasionally she lifted out a few items with one hand, making sure to hold the other hand up, ostensibly for balance, showing the glittering gem in her cocktail ring to its best advantage. Did she know, Face wondered, that it was cubic zirconia and not diamond?
She laughed at everything the man said, even when it wasn't funny. "Put the bananas here. Can you hand me that six-pack? Didn't you pick up a loaf of rye?"
How any of that could be even faintly amusing was beyond him, but the woman tittered and pressed herself closer each time. Her hard eyes darted around, challenging the other women who dared to look at her man, and in a harsh, overly-loud voice she ticked off a list of endearments in every sentence she uttered in return: honey, sweetie, baby, lover, sugar...and on and on and on. Her insecurity lay about her shoulders like a lead-lined cloak, and Face felt as much pity as irritation as he listened to her.
"Buy me a treat, sweetie!"
The man sighed and turned around. "What kind of treat?"
Her lower lip stuck out in a pout, and her voice took on a whiney tone. "You don't know? Why do I have to tell you every time? I want a Snickers! You know I love Snickers, baby!"
Snickers. Judging from the unkind snort of laughter Face could hear from the next checkout counter, that was an ironic choice.
The man looked over the woman's head toward the magazine and candy rack. His eyes lingered on a picture of Madonna's tight-fitting shirt on the front of a National Enquirer before moving along the row of candy bars. He snagged one Snickers bar. Only one, and the smallest one, at that, and threw it on top of the other items on the counter.
"Thanks, honey," the woman said. "Hmmm, maybe you'll get a treat, too, pretty soon."
The man smiled that smile people give when they're responding to something that's supposed to be clever but really isn't. A polite acknowledgement of the effort with no particular engagement in the conversation.
Face took the National Enquirer out of its slot, adding it to his own basket, and steeling himself to wait another five minutes for enough space to clear that he could start unloading his groceries onto the conveyor belt.
From behind him came the aroma of gun oil and the whisper of leather against fabric. He looked over his shoulder as Murdock's long arm reached past him to lay a butcher paper-wrapped package in the basket and pick up the Enquirer.
"Hey, the new issue!" Murdock studied the front page avidly. "Did you know there are aliens living in the White House?"
Face smiled and started positioning a bottle of wine and package of frozen artichoke hearts on the wedge of conveyor belt that had opened up. "I suspected as much." He reached for the package Murdock had brought. "Is this the salmon?"
"Took long enough. I thought maybe you'd had to fish for it."
"I knew you'd be in line awhile, so I had the butcher clean and filet it for you."
"Thanks. That'll save some time."
"Then I'll have more time to enjoy my favorite dessert."
"Hm. I guess you will."
In front of them, the woman turned her back to the grocery cart and propped her elbows on its handle, effectively positioning her hands with their pink-tipped nails on either side of her generous bosom and silently inviting inspection of all she had to offer. Her eyes raked over both Face and Murdock and settled boldly on Face's crotch. Face automatically scanned her proportions and mentally dressed her in something less revealing and more flattering before deliberately turning away. He met Murdock's amused glance as they worked together to unload the cart, automatically arranging their purchases according to the way they'd be bagged. If she was trying to make her boyfriend jealous, she was fighting a losing battle because he'd been checking out Murdock ever since he'd joined the line. How sad. An omnivore, with twice the number of available partners, and he still hadn't found the right one.
Murdock's eyes lit up when Face unloaded the handful of bubble gum. "Great, I was almost out!" he said.
"I know." Face kept track of those things.
"Come on, Tracy, pay attention. We're done!" The irritated boyfriend yanked on the front of the cart, nearly toppling Tracy, who had to grab the side of the counter to steady herself. Her purse slid off her shoulder and fell on the floor. The man didn't even wait for her to join him as he pushed the basket down the aisle toward the automatic doors. Face bent down and picked up the purse, handed it to the woman with a friendly smile, and said, "Here you go."
She all but ripped it out of his hand in her haste to catch up with the man but did manage a "thanks" as she hurried away. The checker looked after her, shaking her head, then turned back to her work. "Did you find everything you were looking for?" she asked without looking up.
Face glanced back at Murdock, who was just unloading the last of the groceries from their cart as Face flipped open his checkbook. "Yes," he said. "I did."
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