For a moment it seemed as if the vehicle was about to crash into the glass front of the store. But at the last minute, it came to an abrupt stop and the noise died. Seconds later, a panel on the side of the metal vehicle jerked open and a man emerged. He slammed the panel shut and made for the store without a backward glance. The vehicle’s lights flashed once and then everything was silent and still.

“This is good,” said Kerrick. “Let’s watch and see what he does.” None of the others could see clearly enough to tell what was happening inside the store, so Kerrick narrated for the rest of them. “He’s gone straight to a shelf that’s all lit up. He’s picking up a white box. Now he’s coming back to the door…”

“Without paying any coin?” asked Tip. “See, we could have done that!”

“He’s coming out… no, wait! He’s collected something from the front of the store. It looks like a kind of… it’s a cart. He’s placed the item he got from the shelf into it. Now he’s pushing the cart and going to a different shelf.”

“So at this kind of store you have to collect the items for yourself,” said Val wonderingly. “How do they stop people simply running in there and stealing them all?”

“Actually there’s a guard,” said Kerrick. “I didn’t see him before but now he’s lurking and watching the man. Definitely a guard. He must be there to prevent people from stealing the stuff.”

“What if a whole group of bandits decided to run into the store and rob it?” asked Sol. “If there were lots of them it would be too much for one guard.”

Kerrick shrugged. “If they have so much food in this city maybe there aren’t any bandits.”

“This is boring,” Tip said impatiently. “Let’s go in! We can get a cart and copy what that man did. It’ll be fine.” Without waiting for anyone to disagree with her, she hopped over the low wall and strode towards the store. Light footsteps caught up with her and she smiled at Sol. Always an ally in any adventurous situation.

“Tip, do you think we’ll find money somewhere in the store?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “Maybe we won’t. Maybe we’ll have to go out of the store without buying anything and find it somewhere else. But at least we’ll be able to see what they have for sale.”

As soon as she got close to the glass doors, they whooshed open of their own accord. Daunted, Tip stood frozen to the spot. At that point, Kerrick and Val caught them up.

“Well?” said Val. “Why are you waiting here? It’ll be fine!” She marched past and went into the store. Muttering under her breath, Tip followed. Kerrick and a giggling Sol brought up the rear.

The air inside the store was warm and smelled faintly of baking. Surely they weren’t baking at this time of night? Although Tip realised she didn’t actually know what time it was. It had been evening when they’d left the Crib, and it was dark here in this world, but she didn’t know for sure whether it was the same time. With the perpetual amber lighting in the streets, it was difficult to see how far away dawn might be.

The shelves were arranged into broad aisles with goods neatly arranged in rows. There was just SO. MUCH. FOOD. They wandered past a display of fresh produce - this time with normal colouring. The slanted displays of stacked fruit and vegetables then gave way to normal shelves where countless products were lined up in boxes, jars and shiny sacks. Most of the items were labelled with what was inside, or else the packaging featured pictures enabling them to work out what sort of food it was. Even so, there were plenty of products where they had absolutely no idea what the item was or how it was meant to be eaten.

“All the packages are very small,” Val said, picking up a packet of oats and frowning at it. “We’d have to buy lots of them in order to feed everyone at home.”

“At least we can get oats and other grains here,” said Tip. “They’re worth twice the same weight in vegetables for keeping everyone fed.”

“They’ll keep longer as well,” said Kerrick, adding in a mutter, “Not that keeping food is ever an issue at the Crib.”

“Do you think the tiger is happy?” asked Sol, staring at a dark blue box that pictured a striped animal eating golden flakes with a spoon.

A whoosh at the front of the store announced the arrival of a new patron. Tip darted to the end of the aisle to see who it was. A man stood on the threshold, blocking the magic doors’ attempts to close. He swayed on his feet seeming like he might fall over at any moment. He was muttering to himself and frowning.

A voice spoke in Tip’s ear. “If it had been my tavern, I’d have kicked him out several tankards ago.” It was Val, who had followed her to the aisle’s end.

Tip snorted. “Several dozen tankards ago, more like.”

The man stumbled into the store and then wove his way over to the vegetable display and stood blinking at it. Drawing in a deep breath, he bellowed “Wherredadaymsheeroes!”

Tip and Val eyed each other. “Sheeroes?” asked Val.

“Don’t know. But let’s try and avoid him,” said Tip. She was 95% certain that an encounter with this drunk man would go badly. She didn’t need any detailed knowledge of this strange and magical world to tell her that drunks were the same everywhere.

Tip and Val returned to the boys who were contemplating a red box picturing a boy in a green hat juggling colourful items. “Do you suppose it’s special food for jesters?” suggested Kerrick.

“There’s a drunk-” said Tip, but she didn’t get much further than that for, with a speed far greater than she would have expected from such a heavily incapacitated person, the man had already reached their aisle.

“Sheerios!” He pointed in their direction.

“Let’s go,” hissed Tip, putting out her arms to herd her friends away. Val caught Sol’s hand and towed him down the aisle. Kerrick couldn’t move quickly due to his limp so Tip stayed at his pace rather than leaving him.

The shambling drunk lurched directly for them. Before they could react, he darted forward and shoved past them in order to grab an armful of colourful boxes off the shelf behind Tip and Kerrick. The force of his sudden movement knocked Tip off-balance. She twisted to avoid falling onto Kerrick and instead landed heavily on her behind. The impact was a direct hit on the swollen lump at the base of her spine and sent shockwaves through her back and legs. Tip cried out from the intensity of the pain.

“Hey,” Kerrick yelled.

“Immigrants! Go home!” roared the drunk, shaking a box at him. “Bums!”

“What’s going on here?” called a deep voice. The guard had reached their aisle. He had dark brown skin like the skilled metalworkers who journeyed from the southern lands to work in Grevick foundry. He bore a black, L-shaped item that he held in front of him like a weapon.

Tip was momentarily paralysed while the pain surged in her back and legs and she sat dumbly, unable to think or process.

“Sir,” called Kerrick. “This man pushed my sister over.”

“He’s completely inebriated,” Val exclaimed. She had returned and was standing with one hand on her hip, the other clasping Sol’s hand like she was his mother. Her voice had shifted subtly, making her sound older and richer. “Is this how you let customers be harassed in your store?” she asked, sounding so indignant that Tip almost wanted to cringe on the guard’s behalf. “It’s disgraceful. How do you expect to do any business if customers cannot do their shopping in peace!”

The drunk man had stopped yelling and was blinking at Val as if he couldn’t quite place her.

“I’m so sorry, Ma’am,” apologised the guard. He turned to the drunk. “Sir, I’ll have to ask you to leave.”

The fight seemed to have gone out of the drunk man. He meekly relinquished the boxes and allowed himself to be escorted from the store. The guard returned and apologised to them again, adding that they were welcome to call on him or on one of his colleagues if they needed any help. He directed all of his apologies to Val, despite Kerrick clearly being older.

The shooting pains in Tip’s back and legs had subsided and with Kerrick help’s she was able to get back on her feet. “Well,” she remarked. “That was interesting.”

“Unpleasant, I call it,” said Val. “Should we leave? We don’t want to be here if something else like that happens.”

“We’re not leaving until we’ve bought food to take home to the others,” said Tip. With a flourish, she produced a leather wallet and opened it to check inside for money.

“Tip! Is that the drunk man’s coin pouch?” exclaimed Val as Sol crowed in delight.

“Serves him right, I’d say,” snorted Kerrick. “Teach him to shove people like that.”

Inside the wallet was a small compartment that held only a few coins. Barely enough for any of the items on the shelves. Tip had already noticed the price labels and got a feel for the range of prices. In another section of the wallet was a large amount of green paper. A bell chimed in Tip’s mind. She’d heard tales of far-distant lands where they used paper as money. What an odd system.

Extracting the stack of paper, Tip looked carefully at the numbers in the corners and did a quick count of the stack. “Right,” she said to the others. “We’ve got just over three hundred dollars. That’s what the currency is called here. All the items have labels to tell you how much it costs. We’d better add up the cost as we go so we know we’ll be able to pay for it.”

“Should we really take that man’s money?” Val looked torn.

“Which does more good?” Tip asked fiercely. “Spending it on food for the kids, or that man spending it on more drink?”

“When you put it that way…” Val grinned. “Ok, let’s be organised about this.” Turning to the shelves, she began compiling a list aloud. Sol was sent for a cart, and then another as their pile of groceries grew. Many times there didn’t seem to be much difference between similar items other than the colour of the packaging and so Tip let the price decide every time. Kerrick even discovered a different section of the store where bulk items were kept, and they swapped several small packets of staples for 10-kilo sacks.

When they arrived at the counter to pay, Tip was feeling confident about their purchases. She had been through the store several times, checking and re-checking the prices and she was 98% certain that their total would be within the amount of dollars they had to spend.

The girl at the counter swished everything over a lighted platform where a beeping sound indicated its registration. A handy illuminated screen kept a running total of their purchases. But that’s where the trouble started…

The girl was only a few items into their pile when Tip began to see that something was wrong. The total was already slightly higher than it should have been. As the items piled up on the other side of the platform, the discrepancy grew. She wanted to shout to the girl to stop, but for the first time in her life, Tip felt tongue-tied. How could she have calculated wrong? Were the prices displayed on the shelves inaccurate? Was it all an elaborate jest meant to expose the poorer customers? Was there a hidden service change of some kind?

The girl passed the final item across and the lit display showed the final total.

It was $319.58.


About the author


Bio: I write fantasy and humorous tales with a twist of magic. I'm currently working on a full-length manuscript but somehow I'm never satisfied with a single project so my smaller works get posted here. If you like what you read, the completed stories are also available to download as ebooks from my website:

I'd love to hear what you think of my stories so feel free to leave comments. I'm also happy to trade feedback as long as you write in a similar genre.

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