“The Eagle has landed,” To’mas’s voice spoke directly into Alan’s ear.
Alan slapped his forehead and was about to reprimand To’mas, but someone was ahead of him: a female voice spoke over the store’s ethwork.
“The Eagle,” it said, “has indeed landed. And she is listening.”
“Uh,” To’mas said eloquently.
“Brilliant, To’mas,” Alan said aloud, not transmitting it over the network.
“All employees not currently engaged in customer relations to the back of the store, please,” the female voice intoned.
One by one, the employees gathered in the store conference room. Waiting for them was a tall woman in her mid- to late-thirties with dark skin, silky black hair, and sharp features. She wore a fashionable pantsuit and an observant, calculating expression. She also had a bulletshield on her belt and an ornate, old-looking longsword hanging at her side. The employees lined up in front of her except for Alan, who stood just behind her and to the side.
“Good to see all of you again,” Paru said. “I have Alice minding the store while we meet. I hear that you’ve had an exciting month.”
The employees didn’t respond except for a few nods and a murmur or two, so Paru continued. “As store manager, it’s my responsibility to ensure that the operation of the store continues apace regardless of any on-the-job threats. I understand that things have been difficult; there has nearly been a knight’s duel, and now we have a potential mimic infestation.”
“Regardless,” she continued, “this is not a Nouri-Mart. This is the Securemarket™. Do you all recall what we provide?” A few nods. “Tell me, then.”
The employees all intoned, “We provide the safest shopping experience in New Washington.”
“That’s right,” she said. “We do. And you have; congratulations. You have all done well. But you have come very close to real disaster. What if the CKs had dueled and a customer had been injured? What if Miss Anderson had not been present to interpose herself between the mimic and the customer?”
“I take pride in having each and every one of you as employees,” Paru said. “Unique pride for each of you. In return for that pride and the faith that you can run this store under Alan’s supervision, I have one single expectation for you, and that expectation is diligence. You are all capable of living up to this expectation, but it will not live up to itself. I require diligence concerning the store’s needs, diligence concerning the fulfilling of your duties, and most importantly diligence concerning the safety of our customers.”
Paru paused and swept her eyes across the gathered employees. “Is that clear?”
“Yes,” the employees said raggedly.
“I’m sorry, is that clear?”
“Yes!” the employees barked.
“Good!” Paru shouted back, smiling for the first time. “Then I am proud to announce that due to her proactive handling of two crises within the store and her improvements in fulfillment of duty and responsibility, Stephen Anderson shall be hereby promoted to the rank of B-Class employee upon the completion of the pursuant shellwork and shall be subject to all of the privileges and responsibilities thereof.”
Steve face-faulted, and the other employees broke into applause.
“Well,” Paru said. “The exterminator was supposed to be here by now. I guess I’ll have to help you all mind the store until he arrives.”
To their credit, the employees managed not to grumble aloud.
“Congratulations on your promotion, Stephen,” Paru said, reaching stride with Steve.
Steve smiled, still looking a little overwhelmed by the news. “Thank you, Paru,” she responded. “I have to admit I never really expected to reach B-Rank.”
“A little ambition, I think, would suit you well,” Paru responded sagely. “I know we can’t have you forever, but the skills you earn here will be there for you when you become a gunsmith in your own right.”
“Okay,” Steve replied.
“Would you mind giving me some of your opinions about the way that your shift is operating?”
“What do you think of Alan?”
Steve thought about that for a moment. “Alan’s a good manager,” Steve said. “I mean, he doesn’t really share much with us—the other employees, I mean—but I guess that kind of makes sense, right? He’s just being professional.”
“Mmm,” Paru responded, bobbing her head.
“But when it comes right down to it, he’s good at looking out for us, and he encourages us when we do well. Alan’s all right.” She paused, and then looked up at Paru curiously. “How old is he, d’you know?”
“Twenty-four or twenty-five,” Paru replied.
“Ha!” Steve said triumphantly. “Zap owes me twen—uh. An apology. Twenty apologies.”
Paru magnanimously let the comment go. “To’mas?”
“To’mas is cool,” Steve said, smiling. “He does his work well, but he’s really easygoing. I think we’ll probably lose him when he gets his A-Rank Pistol-Cert though.”
“I see,” Paru said. “How about Zap Bradshaw? He’s the newest employee here.” She stopped walking, prompting Steve to do the same, and pointed at Zap, who was talking animatedly with a customer, a blonde human girl.
Steve cleared her throat. “Zap’s a good employee. Sometimes he’s a bit too big for his britches, but he’s enthusiastic.”
“How do you feel about the fact that you outrank him now?” Paru said, turning her piercing gaze on Steve.
Steve stared back. Through a sudden cold sweat, she tried not to resemble a prey animal too much, having the very vivid impression that Paru might pounce on her and devour her. “I’m not sure what you mean,” she said.
“All right,” Paru responded. “How about Loren Waites?”
“Incredibly boring,” Steve replied, “but efficient and obedient. Sometimes I forget that he even works here.”
“Matt Del Fye?”
“Uh, Matt,” Steve said, scratching her head. She watched Zap point down an aisle and lead the blonde customer down it. She noticed that Matt had been watching Zap too, standing with an unused automop resting in his hand.
“Matt doesn’t really do much,” Steve said. “I guess what he’s got going for him is that he has weirdly comprehensive knowledge of the store. And every once in a while he just knows things that are really useful.”
“I see,” Paru responded, giving Steve a smile. “Do you have any other comments or questions?”
“Well,” Steve said. “Not really. Unless you know something about a black-haired girl who came in looking for one of the boys.”
“Doesn’t ring a bell,” Paru said. “Ah! There’s the Mimic specialist.” She hurried away from Steve to meet up with the man who had just entered the store, a swarthy, scarred man with graying hair and beard, sporting overalls.
Now alone, Steve looked to her left and saw Matt still standing in place, now carefully examining the mop. She was seized suddenly with an inexplicable curiosity. She strode across the floor toward Matt, closing the distance between them in moments.
“Matt,” Steve asked, “who was that black-haired girl who came and tried to find one of the boys?”
“Nalley,” Matt responded.
“Nalley?” Steve asked.
“I’m supposed to mop the floor,” Matt said, in the same tone one might say one can never truly fathom the nature of man.
“Yes,” Steve responded. “You are. Can you tell me which of the boys this Nalley was looking for?”
“No,” Matt agreed, and started swabbing the floor with the automop.
“I’m going to keep this in mind,” Steve said. “When I want you to work, I’m going to ask you questions that you don’t feel like answering.”
Matt didn’t respond to that. Steve whirled and walked back toward her manager, who had just finished speaking to the exterminator. As the man turned and walked into the aisles, Steve stopped a few paces from Paru.
“Paru,” Steve asked, a curious edge coming into her voice, “does the name ‘Nalley’ ring a bell for you?”
“Nalley?” Paru said thoughtfully. “Yes, that’s familiar…”
Steve gnawed on her lip.
“That’s the name of Alan’s, er … car, I believe?”
Steve let out her breath. “Oh, Alan’s—wait, his car?”
“I think so.”
“Um, thanks,” Steve said, discouraged. She shoved her hands in her pockets and walked back into the now-reopened cereal aisle.
“So Matt says the girl you met is named Nalley,” Zap reiterated, “and Paru thinks that Nalley’s the name of Alan’s car?”
“Yeah,” Steve said.
“So I guess the question is whether Matt was screwing with you or whether Paru doesn’t remember her supervising days very well.”
“I think Matt was screwing with me,” Steve said sourly. “Paru doesn’t seem like the sort of person who forgets things.”
“Why don’t we just ask Alan?” Zap said innocently.
“That’s embarrassing!” Steve objected. “I don’t want to do that.”
“What is this, a sitcom?!” Zap retorted, waving his arms. “You are not doing this. I’m going to ask Alan about this Nalley person. You can come or not.”
Zap started down the aisle. Steve made some noises of protest, but scurried behind Zap and kept pace with him. They approached Alan, who was checking the expiration dates on cheese.
They stopped in front of him, and Alan paused, a piece of cheese still held in his hand. He slowly turned his head, looking at the two with a suspicious expression. Zap prodded Steve.
Steve cleared her throat. “Hey, uh, Alan?” she asked.
“Who is … Nalley?”
Alan dropped the cheese. “How do you know who Nalley is?” he asked, his tone somewhat urgent.
“She … came to the store a few days ago. She gave me her name,” Steve lied.
“Why didn’t you tell me she’d come?”
“She didn’t say she was there for you,” she said. “Um, I asked Zap first and he said he didn’t know her.”
Alan stared at the two of them for several seconds, and Steve found herself momentarily nervous that he would start yelling. After a moment, he cleared his throat.
“Nalley’s my girlfriend,” he said.
“Aha!” Steve crowed, turning and pointing at Zap. “You owe me twenty more creds!”
“I didn’t put any money on that one either,” Zap said crossly, “just like I didn’t put any money on his age.”
“Whatever,” Steve said. She turned to Alan and smiled. “So? So?”
“So what?” Alan asked, bending down to pick up the cheese he had dropped into the lower shelf.
“So when do we get to meet her?”
“I can’t remember agreeing to introduce her to you yahoos,” Alan said.
“But you’ve got to!” Steve insisted. “To celebrate my promotion to B-Rank. We can all go to a bar. Come on, Alan. I just found out you’re our age, now you have to hang out with us.”
Alan stared at her. Steve couldn’t read his expression.
“So—when’re you free?” Zap said, breaking into a smile himself.
Alan rubbed his chin. “You know,” he asked, “what Paru just suggested to me?”
“What?” Steve asked.
“She said that I should make an effort to connect to my employees, to establish some rapport.”
“So my band’s playing a gig at the Three Gibbet Crossroads this Friday,” he said.
“You’ve got a band?” Steve said, more than a little incredulous.
“I knew that,” Zap said, smug.
“I have a band. And Nalley’s my bassist. You come and you see our concert, and you’ll meet Nalley and we can hang out,” he said. “Does that sound all right?”
Steve stifled a smile, cleared her throat and affected a tone of indifference. “Yeah, sure,” she said.