Market Forces

Richard Morgan

Prologue

Checkout.

The shiny black plastic swipes through.

Nothing.

The machine fails in its habitual insectile chittering and the screen blinks, as if outraged at what it has been fed. The checkout girl looks up at the woman who has handed her the card and smiles a little too widely. It’s a smile that contains as much genuine emotion as there is fruit juice in a carton of Five Fruit D-Lish.

‘Are you sure you want to use this card?’

Up to her arms in bagged shopping, the woman sets down the two-year-old she has been propping against the checkout flange and looks back to where her husband is still unloading the last of the brightly coloured tins and bags from the trolley.

‘Martin?’

‘Yeah, what?’ Voice irritable with the household task they’ve just completed.

‘The card doesn’t. . .’

‘Doesn’t what?’ He meets her eyes and reads the distress there, then switches to the checkout girl. His voice comes out tight. ‘Run it again, please. Must have glitched.’

The girl shrugs and swipes the card a second time. The screen flickers with the same disdain.

TRANSACTION DENIED.

The girl takes the card and hands it back to the woman. A small pocket of quiet expands around the action, bubbling out past the conveyor belt to the boy at the next checkout unit and to the three customers waiting behind Martin. In a few more seconds it will dissolve into the slither of whispering.

‘Would you like to try another card.’

‘This is ridiculous,’ snaps Martin. ‘That account had funds as of the first of the month. I’ve just been paid.’

‘I can run the card a third time,’ offers the girl with studied indifference.



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