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41

THURSDAY EVENING WAS a busy time at the Safeway. The store stayed open late, and people stocked up on their groceries for the weekend. May didn't usually work the evening shift, since the one regularity John really liked in his life was dinner, but sometimes people got sick or fired or mislaid themselves somewhere, and May might be asked to fill in, like tonight. A little after seven now; she could quit at eight, pick out something nice for their evening repast in the deli department that wouldn't take a lot of preparation, and home she'd go. Easy.

The first thing she noticed about the guy was that the only thing he was carrying was a little packet of lightbulbs. He was on her checkout line, the people in front of him and behind him all with carts piled up to their chins, so that at first he just looked like a very easy example of the which-one-doesn't-belong-in-this picture quiz. She stood there, sliding items over the bar code reader, sliding them twice if she didn't hear that ping the first time, pushing the items onto the belt to roll on down to tonight's packer, an overweight kid with an overbite whom all the staff here knew only as Pudge, a name he didn't seem to mind, and she kept looking at the guy with the lightbulbs until finally she caught his eye and gestured with her head toward the last checkout line in the row, which was for people with six items or fewer, though the sign actually said six items or less. The guy grinned a thank-you and spread his hands a little; he'd rather stay here.

Huh. Ping. Ping. Then the lightbulb inside her head went off. He's a cop. He looks like a cop, heavy and self-confident, somebody that nobody would ever call Pudge, and he's doing something a normal person wouldn't do, which is wait in a long line of people buying out the store while he's only got one item. So that would make him not only a cop, but a cop with a particular interest in May, which could not be good news.

Her first thought was that John had been arrested, but her first thought always was that John had been arrested, so her second thought was to reject the first thought. If they'd arrested John, why come here? And if they were going to come here, why not just do a real cop thing and jump the line entirely to say what they had to say?

Well, she'd find out soon enough. A few thousand more pings and here he was, pushing the little packet of four hundred-watt frosted white bulbs toward her with a ten-dollar bill as he grinned and said, "You know, you really oughta get an answering machine."

He's from Andy, she thought, but she knew he wasn't. She said, "Oh, you must be the man John went to see a couple times."

"Naturally," he said.

Ping. She took the ten and made change as Pudge put the packet of lightbulbs into a plastic bag, and Johnny Eppick For Hire said, "So you be my answering machine. Pass on to John, he should call me. Tell him we got ignition."

I hope John doesn't plan to cheat this man, she thought. I'll have to remind him to be careful. "I'll tell him," she said. "Enjoy your light."

"Better than curse the darkness," he said, and grinned one last time, and carried his lightbulbs into the night.


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