Chapter 21

Alan chewed on the end of his stylus absently, his eyes methodically scanning the surface of his tabletshell. He was near the front of the store, standing next to a wall of frozen dinners. A customer passed by, but Alan didn’t look up; he was too engrossed in the message on the shell’s surface.

After a few minutes, Alan seemed to come to his senses. He nodded once, sniffled, and walked to the front of the store. He tapped the shell and said, “Can I get everybody out here?”

One by one, the employees filtered to the front. Steve showed up first, her curls bobbing as she sauntered up to Alan. She folded her arms and waited. Zap trundled in, his pitch-black hair severely tousled and dark circles under his eyes. To’mas arrived shortly thereafter, trailing nearly-visible afterglow. Loren arrived, nondescript as ever, and was eventually followed by Matt, who could have been there the whole time—Alan had not seen him arrive.

“Uh, hi kids,” Alan said, running his hand through his hair. “As you’re all aware, we’ve got the retreat coming up in less than a month now. All of you are due to be there, and I hope you’ve all started on the administrative work that it requires. I don’t want to be short on anybody’s talents because they forgot to register their certs properly.”

The employees nodded sparsely. Alan continued.

“Well, I’m sure most of you are also aware that this season’s retreat has been particularly hellish for us, since a bunch of branches that were going to do the retreat next season are actually doing it this one. This means a lot of staff will be shifting around. Now. This is making a mess of my life all of a sudden, but there’s one point that you all actually have to deal with: we’re gonna gain a new temporary employee.”

The employees exchanged looks of surprise and curiosity.

“Uh, technically he’s already supposed to be here,” Alan said just as somebody came in the front door.

It was a short young man, appearing to be in his late teens or early twenties, and definitely no taller than 160 centimeters, taller than Steve but not by much. He had unusually pale skin for a New Washingtonian, and his bright green hair made him stand out even more. So did his face, which was round and delicately beautiful. Perhaps most unusual, though, was the pair of insect-like antennae protruding from the front of his head.

Upon close scrutiny, a pair of insect-like wings could be seen emerging from the bottom of the neon yellow coat he wore.

“Looks like I’m just in time!” the bizarre-looking stranger said, approaching the group with a winning smile. “I’m Click, the transfer employee.”

“Right,” Alan said, “over here, please. Click, I’m Alan Morganstern, the afternoon shift manager. I believe you’ve already met our store manager Paru Dupree.”

“Absolutely,” Click said, shaking Alan’s hand. “I’m looking forward to working with her.”

Click swept a pair of caution-orange eyes over the crowd. “Hello, all,” he said cheerfully. “I’m Click, and I’ll be working with you for the next few weeks. I’m going to be on your team during the retreat, so I hope we all get along. And in case you’re wondering, I am a faerie, so I hope that’s not going to be a problem for anybody. I promise I do my work and don’t prank too much.”

“Right,” Alan said. “Click, that’s Steve Anderson, this shift’s B-Rank employee. She’s effectively the assistant manager, though not officially. When in doubt, do what she says.”

“With that face, I would anyway,” Click responded, smiling brightly. Steve blushed a little, but smiled and shook Click’s hand.

“Down the line, our other employees are Zap Bradshaw, To’mas Bonvent, Matthew Del Fye, and Loren Waites.”

Click shook hands with the other employees. All seemed at least marginally affected by the young man’s infectiously cheerful attitude, and most were smiling after the introductions were done.

“Well, I think that we can learn to integrate Click into our happy little afternoon shift family,” Alan said.

“I’m sure we’ll be fine,” Click said, confident. “We all work at the Securemarket™, after all.” It sounded a bit strange, but it actually seemed to bolster the employees’ confidence, and all looked cheerful.

“Okay, everybody, let’s get back to work,” Alan said. “Click, come with me so we can get all this stupid shellwork done.”

Zap and Steve walked down the aisle together, half-heartedly scouting for customers.

“New guy,” Zap said inquisitively.

“Yeah,” Steve replied. “That was one hell of a surprise.”

“What do you think of him?”

“I’m not trying to be offensive,” Steve said, “but I haven’t met a whole lot of faeries who were totally trustworthy. If this guy is, more power to him, but I’m going to reserve my judgment for now.”

“I think he’s nice,” Zap said.

“He is nice,” Steve said. “And he’s got a smile that could melt faces like a Shadow Priest in PvP. But in some ways isn’t that actually more suspicious?”

“I guess, maybe.”

“No, don’t get me wrong,” Steve put her hands up in a defensive gesture. “I’m not saying one way or the other. He could have a Guardian’s heart, for all I know. I just ain’t decided.”

“I wonder what his Glamour is.”

“Yeah, we’re gonna want to know that,” Steve said, nodding. “And his certs.”

Zap paused for a moment, then knit his brow. “Alan said something about stores that weren’t going to go to the retreat this month actually doing so.”

“Yeah,” Steve said. “I’m not really privy to that kind of information, but my understanding is that some stores couldn’t do this season, so they switched things around and stores that would normally be off our cycle will actually be going.”

“Uh,” Zap said. “Did you hear anything about the 11th Street location?”

“No,” Steve said curiously. “Why?”

Click, having shed his coat and donned a Securemarket™ apron, appeared very suddenly from around the corner. “Hey guys,” he said, smiling, “I’m ready for work! What’s the customer load like for you?”

“Generally pretty light earlier in the day,” Zap said once he’d recovered from the surprise of Click’s sudden appearance, “and a bit heavier later on, toward dinnertime. When people start getting out of their shifts, that’s when they really start showing up.”

“Hey Click,” Steve said, “we were just wondering about your certs.”

“I’m a red sash in Wu-Shu style Shaolin,” Click said, “which I use basic Glamour weaving to augment.”

“What’s your special Glamour magic?” Steve asked.

“It’s kind of complicated,” Click said, cocking his head. His antennae waved. “Do you know what a Granfalloon Technique is?”

“No,” Steve and Zap said simultaneously.

“Then I’ll explain later this week,” Click said. “Once things are settled a bit. Have you got anything for me to do right now?”

“Familiarize yourself with the section locations,” Steve said. “Customers get lost easy.”

Click nodded and strode down the aisle, his wings fluttering slightly. Once he was out of sight, Steve turned to Zap and said, “I just realized something.”

“What’s that?” Zap asked.

“With you and Click, we’ve got two onomatopoeias working here.”

“Frankly, I’m surprised you don’t count Matt.”

“MATT!” Matt shouted, appearing from out of nowhere and startling the other two employees. They glared at him and he smiled back.

“Hi, Matt,” Zap said.

“You should buy some ice cream before you go home,” Matt told Zap. “Your girl just hit her period.”

Zap and Steve both stared at Matt, stricken. Steve opened and closed her mouth a few times, then turned and strode away.

“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” Zap said flatly to Matt.

Matt shrugged. “Just helpin’.”

Zap slumped and nodded. “What flavor?” he asked.

“Azuki bean.”