Chapter 49

Steve sprang up the stairs of the Rail entrance with rapid-fire steps. She grinned at how much easier the physical feat seemed post-retreat; she had first noticed the difference the previous evening at the range, where her scores were markedly higher than they had been two weeks before.

She hurried down Neimuth Avenue at a brisk pace, weaving her way through the slower-moving crowd. She was not quite halfway to her store’s street corner when a raspy voice broke her commuter’s reverie.

“Wait now, dearie.”

Steve didn’t stop walking, but glanced to the side and saw an old woman with dark skin, kinky black hair, and a simple gray hoodie that was a size too big. The woman was tucked into the corner of an alley entrance. She was looking directly at Steve. Steve hurriedly averted her gaze and quickened her pace.

“I have answers for you, nut-brown rose!” the woman called as Steve passed by her. “You need answers now, old Aggie knows. You come back now, or you’ll be back later.”

Steve didn’t stop walking until she had reached the store’s entrance.

Steve shoved the door of the store open with her shoulder, walked a few paces inside and stopped in her tracks. Her eyes went wide.

Someone clapped her on the shoulder and she jumped in surprise. She turned her head to see the offender and was met with Alan’s grinning face.

“Don’t look so surprised, Miss Anderson!” he said cheerfully. “I’ve been hearing you guys toss this rumor around for weeks.”

“Yahbut…” Steve protested, turning her head back to the object that had startled her. “I didn’t expect for it to happen while we were away!”

Standing like a gleaming altar on the left side of the store (from the entrance) was a polished, beautiful deli counter, displaying rows of meats, cheeses, breads and various different salads. The polyglass glare of the counter was obscured for a moment as Paru emerged from the corner.

“Ah, hello Steve,” she said with a smile. “Do you like it?”

“Uh,” Steve said. “Well, it looks really great! But do we really have the staff to…”

“We’ll have a quick meeting about that once the rest of the shift gets here,” Paru said with a nod. “In the meantime, you’d better start going through your B-Rank duties. Coming back from the retreat doesn’t excuse you from working.”

A few minutes later, Steve’s shift takeover duties were complete and the rest of the afternoon shift employees had arrived, each one taking a few minutes to ogle the new deli section. Click was absent, naturally, not being an employee of the 15th and Neimuth store in the first place. Paru called them all to the back room, and they gathered while the morning shift watched the store.

“Well,” Paru addressed the employees. “Welcome back, everyone. You all did an excellent job at the retreat, and I look forward to seeing you use the skills you learned there in the store.”

She gestured at the door to the rest of the store. “You may have noticed that we now have a deli counter. I put in the application for one months ago, but it’s only recently been approved. I think it’ll be an excellent way to drum up business, given the number of restaurants in the area.”

“I realize that some of you may be a bit concerned about our ability to cover the deli counter, particularly since we’ll be running it at dinnertime. In response, Alan and I have interviewed a number of applicants and I am pleased to introduce you to the two newest members of our shift team.”

She walked to a door to the small room that served as a multipurpose office and shell station and knocked on its door. “All right, you two can come out now.”

The door opened. The first person behind it ducked her head and sidled under the doorframe to get through. The other person, being nearly half a meter shorter, simply strode through. Paru gestured to the two new employees.

“I think most of you know Click,” Paru said. The faerie flashed the gathered employees a winning grin and bowed a little bit. He was already wearing his employee apron over flamboyantly-dyed clothing.

“And our other new employee might also be familiar to some of you, I understand. To those for whom she is not, may I introduce Michelle-Bear Urza.”

“Hi guys,” Michelle-Bear said, her smile a little bit sheepish. She was wearing her white bear-ear hat, a powder-blue hoodie (which was emblazoned with a cartoon version of her own bear-hatted head) and a pair of cargoes, but no employee apron.

“Michelle-Bear?” Steve said, astonished. “I thought you worked at Reynaldo’s!”

“Uh, I’ll explain later,” Michelle-Bear said, scratching the back of her neck. “Management and I had a disagreement about some customer service of mine.”

“Needless to say,” Paru said, “we didn’t consider it a valid disagreement on the management’s side. We believe that Michelle-Bear’s customer service habits will suit the Securemarket™ very well.”

Michelle-Bear smiled.

“Unfortunately,” Paru added, “we had no employee aprons that were a good fit for Michelle-Bear, so we have requested a special one from Corporate. Now, I expect everyone to participate in the acclimation of our new employees to the 15th and Neimuth working environment. However. As our only B-Rank employee, Steve will be overseeing Click and Michelle-Bear’s training.”

Both of the new employees smiled, though Steve noted that Click’s seemed a bit wooden.

“Okay,” Steve said. “I’ll do my best.”

“You’ll do well, I’m sure,” Paru said. “Now everyone to work, please. I would like to release the morning shift.”