Danielle shouldered the big, heavy staff door open and slouched inside the MaxiMart building, with Teresa scurrying to catch up before the door slammed shut behind her.
“Morning,” Theresa said, and if it wasn’t exactly bright and cheerful, it was as close as anyone got an hour or two before the sun rose at the start of a ten-hour shift.
“Morning,” Danielle replied. She unzipped the big, baggy, and above all warm hoodie that smelled wonderfully of her boyfriend and shrugged out of it, revealing the bright blue MaxiMart polo shirt underneath, along with her nametag:
Welcome to MaxiMart!
She hung the hoodie up on the peg by her locker and stowed her purse in the locker itself. Around this point she conceded that she was leaving Theresa hanging. “How’s it going?”
Theresa gave her a smile that was, again, not exactly genuine, but was nonetheless as close as anyone got in their situation. Much closer than Danielle’s own smile, if truth be told. She shucked off her raincoat to reveal an identical blue polo shirt. Weird, Danielle thought, how just wearing the same top made them seem almost identical, when the other woman was three inches shorter, much hippier, about ten years older, and a blonde to Danielle’s almost-black brown curls.
“Oh, you know,” Theresa said. “A little tired, but that’s OK. Rinie’s not sleeping well at the moment, so nor are we. But Max isn’t working til the afternoon, so he’s getting her and Jack breakfasted and getting Jack to school, so I had a bit of a lie in this morning!”
Danielle didn’t point out that Theresa’s lie in had ended in time to get two buses, one into town from her suburb, one back out of town to the shopping development MaxiMart dominated, before they started work at seven a.m. Theresa genuinely was a happy person in spite of what Danielle saw as the shared curse of their employer. Why chip at someone else’s happiness when she had little enough of her own?
“Glad to hear it,” she said instead, and swiped her employee card. The door to the staffroom clicked audibly and the lock buzzed for entry.
Theresa followed suit, registering her own arrival on-site and readiness for work, and Danielle opened the door for them. “How about you?” Theresa asked.
“Well, Kurt’s out of town, so I just watched Netflix until about an hour after I should’ve gone to bed, then finally got myself some sleep,” she said. “Frozen pizza is a godsend.”
Theresa smiled awkwardly. “It’s good that you can be self-sufficient,” she said. Danielle made sure to turn away from her friend before she smiled at that herself. It was something Theresa said every time Kurt wasn’t around - and Danielle didn’t mind nearly so much as her friend clearly would have, when her lover was away. When he was in town, she got plenty of his attention; she just couldn’t predict when he was going to be away.
Kurt worked in haulage, officially. Danielle was honestly convinced he was a criminal at this point, but he was also a doting, caring boyfriend and frankly if being a criminal was the best way to put food on their shared table she was going to be OK with it.
The staffroom was busy enough that further conversation wasn’t going to be possible; in fact, Danielle realised as she looked around, the staffroom was much busier than she’d seen it outside that one disastrous Christmas party.
People had been called in on their days off for this; she could also see, lined up in a row against the far wall with set jaws and arms folded, most of the night shift, on their feet but dog tired. There was going to be an Announcement.
Danielle hated announcements from head office. They never made life easier or better and they rarely made for more money in her pocket. Truth be told she’d had feelers out for the past two years to get out of retail and find a job doing more or less anything else, but it wasn’t happening.
Mr Speight was standing near the TV screen, fiddling with a clipboard. The store manager was nowhere to be seen, but then he never was - he let Speight deal with pretty much everything while drawing a bigger salary and sitting at home on his ass.
Danielle took advantage of the brief lull and the anticipation to slip through the gathered ranks of MaxiMart employees and take up position nearer the coffee facilities. Glancing back over her shoulder, she caught Theresa’s eye, mouthed a silent question, and got a thumbs-up in response, so she started making two cups of instant coffee with plenty of sugar and cream to take the edge off the vile flavour that accompanied the caffeine hit.
Bill and Jonesy entered a minute or so later, smiling sheepishly, and Speight marked them off on his clipboard, tucked it under his arm, and clapped his hands for attention. Danielle glanced back to the two last entrants. Bill looked embarrassed and made a show of checking his watch - not actually late, but he might have thought he was - but Jonesy, as always, just looked amused.
That man was immune to disciplinary procedures and write-ups by the simple fact of not caring, but even if he gave the higher-ups conniptions, he got work done in the end and counted for a lot when it came to morale. Danielle was always glad to have him on her shift.
“Right,” Speight said. “Listen up, everyone. There’s an announcement to be made. And, uh… it’s big.
“I don’t need to tell you that it’s been a bad year for the store. I did try to get better bonuses for you.” A groundswell of murmuring began. Danielle didn’t think Speight had tried very hard, but she was sure he wouldn’t out and out lie. It was nice that there’d been some attempt.
“Turns out,” Speight continued, “a lot of MaxiMarts had a bad year, too. Nearly all of them. And as a result, uh -” He looked around the crowd. Danielle watched him try to gauge their mood, brace himself, and continue. “The company owners have sold out. As of lunchtime today, we are a part of the Mandatum family of companies.”
There was uproar. Not because anyone was shouting, but because in the confined space, too many people trying to make themselves heard created a wall of sound. Danielle flinched at it; she knew Theresa would be doing the same. Speight was trying to make himself heard, but that didn’t work. The entire staffroom were suddenly nervous and most of them were too tired to have much of a filter on what they wanted to say.
Eventually the hubbub died down enough for people to notice him waving his clipboard and his pen in the air like an airport worker trying to guide a plane in to land.
“OK, OK, settle down,” Speight said, loudly enough to be heard, and there was finally the quiet he needed to continue. Theresa had made good use of the time to squeeze through the crowd; Danielle handed her a mug of coffee, which she took with appreciation. “Let me just go through what we know, and please, do not shoot the messenger, OK?” He looked around the group meaningfully and Danielle braced herself to hear the word ‘layoffs’.
“So. First things first. This deal has been in the works for a while and MaxiMart requested personnel files and reviews as part of making the offer - which I did not know when we did your last evaluations.” Danielle glanced back toward Jonesy before her brain caught up with the logic to why, but if anyone was sure to have had a bad evaluation, it was Jonesy.
Not that you’d know it from his expression; if anything, his grin was even wider. Some people are blessed with the confidence that makes employment just another funny joke.
“We know they’re going to want to make some changes. I don’t know what those are, but it’s very possible some of us will be cut, and new people will be brought in. Maybe even from out of town. I know Mandatum is sending someone down for on-the-spot evaluation. One good thing - we’ve been told that after evaluation, wages for our hourly staff will go up by a dollar an hour. It’s not a lot, but it’ll make a difference for me, I know that much.”
“Guess I get to treat myself to Dominos once a week,” Jonesy said loudly. He was still grinning but since the last time Danielle saw him, he’d started chewing gum into the bargain. Most of the staff laughed, but Danielle was actually grateful to him; it put things in perspective.
“Guess you do,” Speight agreed. “Now I don’t know whether we’re still getting our wages re-evaluated at the next proper review or not, but I’m hoping this is in addition to anything like that. I’ve got one other piece of information you’ll want, though.” He tossed his clipboard toward the desk by his side. It landed with a loud clap and Speight grinned. “Our old manager has already been released from the Mandatum family.”
The entire staffroom cheered.
“Right. That’s all I’ve got. Anything else I’ll give you when I see you about next week’s rota instead of calling you back in. If you’re off shift, get on home. If not, I’ll see you on the shop floor.”
“Well, that’s exciting,” Theresa said as the group began to break up. Danielle shrugged. “Let’s hope,” she said. “But let’s hope we’re both still here this time next month.”
“Oh, well,” Theresa clucked her tongue. “They’d be fools to get rid of either of us.”
“Yeah.” Danielle downed the last of her coffee and set the mug by the sink. “Let’s hope they aren’t fools.”
She’d never heard of Mandatum before, and she Googled them on her way home and didn’t find much; a couple of press releases and quite a few stories of buyouts of existing chains. The company wasn’t publically traded, though many businesses where it owned a controlling interest still were; it was family owned, but unlike most of the big corporate families, they shunned even baseline publicity.
There wasn’t a big tell-all book by either a family member or an investigative journalist, but since the Allens clearly worked hard at staying off the public radar, it was possible that was less that there were no good stories and more that no publisher thought there’d be enough name recognition to sell one yet. Buying MaxiMart might change that, but Danielle was less than convinced.
She cooked dinner - ground beef, pasta, Hamburger Helper, frozen peas and Tabasco sauce - and watched Netflix for most of the evening. Despite Kurt’s hoodie she felt oddly cold, and she put it down to uncertainty. She was OK with Kurt not being around, but from time to time, on days that had her worried, she wished he was there. He could put his arm around her and she could burrow into his shoulder, rest a hand on his chest, and the things that worried her wouldn’t feel half so important anymore.
When she went into work the next morning her shift was lighter by two people. For a moment she thought they’d been laid off, but Theresa had got in earlier that morning and already got the gossip.
“We’ve had five people quit already,” she said. “Too nervous to stick around, I guess.”
Danielle took stock of actually who was missing from her shift, and immediately she felt better. Losing Jonesy would have been a blow. Losing Bill wasn’t actually going to make anyone any busier; he never seemed to get anything done of his own accord.
The Mandatum observer who’d come in to evaluate them turned out to be Morgan Allen IV, a clean-cut kid fresh out of college, 23 at most, wearing a suit that probably cost more than Danielle’s car. He was tall, filled out his suit enough to be well-built without any trace of a belly, and seemed like he hadn’t needed to think about shaving yet. He ate in the staffroom, paying for his own lunch and buying it from MaxiMart’s own value range, and finished every lunch off with two Twinkies.
He was, in short, a study of contradictions. In his self-introductory speech to her shift the day he first arrived, he hadn’t said why their MaxiMart had received his attention rather than one of the others, even though someone had clearly thought hard about that decision.
It probably meant, she decided, that the store was important enough that having a member of the family have a soft spot for it would be OK, but that it wasn’t so important it needed handling by professionals. A chance for him to prove his worth, where it shouldn’t matter too much if he screwed up.
She wasn’t convinced that was a positive sign.
Morgan was going to be working with each group in turn, and he was introduced to Theresa’s group first - all non-frozen foods.
“I’ll be working with every team in time,” he said. “And everyone we can keep on, we will. I won’t lie to you, though. Any time a business is acquired by someone new, there are always layoffs. Uh - who here liked the old store manager?”
Everyone’s response was subdued. There was too much chance this might be a test of some kind, so despite their delight when he’d been released, they mostly just made polite noises. Morgan didn’t seem too perturbed. “So… and I know this won’t make me any more popular,” he said with a slight smile, “as I move on from each team, anyone who doesn’t measure up will be let go. And no, kissing up will not help your chances unless you’re good enough to do it the same time you do your job and subtle enough I don’t notice.”
That was greeted with stony almost-silence; Jonesy, across the room from Danielle, was grinning about something and she thought she saw him make an aside to a colleague, but she had no idea what.
“We’ll be rolling each team out in the new-look MaxiMart style, as part of me finishing up with them,” he continued. “Grandpa already commissioned the rebrand. Don’t worry - we’re going to absorb the cost of new uniforms. Unlike the last lot, I gather?”
There were nods and a few grudging smiles. Nobody had liked the annual deductions from their wages for the uniform the staff handbook demanded they have. All the same, an extra dollar an hour and an annual clothes allowance were hardly the sort of thing to turn MaxiMart staff into company men.
“Alright, then,” he said, and smiled around the room. “Look, I know nobody here is going to like me. I know you’re all thinking I make more money in a week than you do in a year. And I know you’re all scared. But there’s not much of that I can do anything about, or you, so let’s just put our heads down and get through it, okay?”
Danielle would have liked time to wish Theresa good luck after an introduction like that, but Morgan swept the food team away immediately - so quickly a couple of mugs of coffee were left behind, half-drunk. Danielle took the time to pour the dregs into the sink, finished her own coffee, and went off into Electrical to get started properly.
It would be worse for her, she reminded herself. The Food Shop team was eight strong. Electrical never got more than three people working there and if nothing exciting was getting released it was down to two. She’d have to deal with Morgan’s full attention.
Morgan was with Food Shop for a week, and Danielle spent a lot of it waiting for that first group to be over. She figured there was a pretty good chance he’d go from there to Clothing - the second biggest team, since he’d started with the biggest. That would give her time to find out what the heck he thought he was looking for, so long as Theresa made it.
But Theresa was a natural people pleaser, and she was a hard worker in any case. About the only reason, so far as Danielle could see, that he might cut her was just wanting everyone to be young - and even then, Theresa hadn’t hit forty yet. Even for as physical a job as hers, she had years left they could use her for, and many of the family women who shopped in her department instinctively regarded her as an authority.
The first shift they shared after Morgan had moved on, Danielle got into work fifteen minutes early, expecting to take a decent amount of that fifteen minutes discussing things, but the staff room was surprisingly empty. She sat there and waited, drinking her coffee, until it was almost time to be out on the shop floor and she had to hurry out and start to work.
She spent the morning concerned that Theresa might be ill, might not have made it, might have been fired… But their breaks overlapped, and Danielle was surprised to come face to face with her friend.
The new MaxiMart uniform that Theresa’s team were the first in the store to model was very different. Gone was the bright blue polo shirt. In its place was a deep navy tee worn much more tightly to the figure, and - in the case of the female employees - a plunging neckline.
Theresa’s mom jeans had also been replaced with a pair of pants that clung to her hips and thighs almost as tightly as if they were leggings. Danielle had always known her friend was hippier, but seeing them emphasised with the new uniform - well, this was where Danielle saw how Theresa had always kept her husband satisfied. She wasn’t entirely sure the new shirt hadn’t been designed to give the girls a little extra lift, either.
Into the bargain, Theresa had done something to her dirty blonde ponytail, and now it was something closer to a starlet blonde, worn mostly down with her bangs swept back and tied around it in a decorative knot. She’d complemented the whole ensemble with soft purple eyeshadow and a deep, vibrant blue lipstick. She looked like a completely different woman, especially with her perky exhausted-by-work smile replaced with something warm and real.
…She was going to sell so much food to so many customers, male and female.
Danielle went over to greet her friend, and her eye fell on the new namebadge, worn proudly over her heart.
Welcome to MaxiMart
is here to make you happy!
Danielle’s jaw dropped.
“Hi, Danielle,” Theresa said, and her tone had none of the tiredness her friend was used to hearing. “You look great. How’ve you been?”
“I’ve been… fine. But Theresa, this is-”
Danielle paused for a moment, her brain scrambling to catch up with fast-changing circumstances. “Umm…”
“It’s Terri,” she said. “Theresa’s not a good MaxiMart name.”
Whatever the hell that meant.
“Um. OK. Terri, then. At work.”
“No,” Terri said, and while her voice was still warm and friendly and cheerful, there was a firmness to it as she said that. “My name is Terri, not Theresa.”
“That must have been hard for your husband to accept.”
She smiled. “I’ve made it up to him,” she said, and her eyes twinkled. There was no question what she’d meant. And Danielle, always the more adventurous and the blunter of the two, felt herself flushing just hearing this so unexpectedly.
“OK.” Danielle waved a hand to show how much that wasn’t relevant. “Anyway. Morgan. Is he going to be a problem?”
Terri’s smile got bigger and her eyes got dreamy, staring through Danielle to some fantasy image beyond her. “Morgan’s a solution,” she said, and her voice was so heavy with emotion that Danielle had a brief case of sympathetic admiration, before her brain once again caught up with how the world was changing and realised this was ridiculous.
“Oh, totally. You’ll find out next week.”
“Next week? I figured the cold locker and tills would both be ahead of-” But Terri was shaking her head, and Danielle broke off to find out why.
“I asked Morgan to move your team forward specially,” she said. “You earn so much for MaxiMart, you do such a good job, and I think you could get yourself fast-tracked to promotion. And I’d like that.” She beamed. “We could be supervisors together!”
Danielle had never wanted the bullshit that came with being a supervisor. Keeping a team happy was hard enough when they weren’t just thinking that you earn more than them. Being responsible for getting it done? Even worse. She knew how much trouble it could be to corral shop floor workers, she was one. But then Theresa never had either.
Morgan must be one hell of a motivator. Danielle was already wondering how happy she’d be wearing the new MaxiMart top, once it was rolled out to her team. Granted, if it did have the kind of hidden chest support it seemed to, she’d love to wear it around town, but at work? Too many men came in for a new flatscreen or even just a pair of headphones and proceeded to mansplain her stock to her while staring at her chest. The new top would make that much, much worse.
She tried a couple more lines that might get Terri to open up but it seemed like Terri was now very, very keen to climb the corporate ladder.
The week went by pleasantly enough. Over time, Danielle was able to shed the feeling that her friend had abandoned her - she was still so enthusiastic about shared ideas and projects, and more than happy, during breaks, to talk about Netflix now the two of them were both watching the same show for a while. Danielle saw enough of Terri’s opinions that the idea she’d really changed didn’t hold any water any more.
Just - for whatever reason - Terri had decided to go along with what was clearly Morgan’s vision for the store.
Alvin, on her team, was less flattered by the new tight tops, but Terri proudly reported on Wednesday that he’d used his employee discount to pick up a set of weights and was going to work at turning his keg of a chest into a sixpack. Morgan Allen IV, Danielle decided, wasn’t just motivational - he was something else.
Morale in the staff room was strongly up over the week, too. By and large, the two biggest factors in morale were how many customers were actively problems and how happy management was; those had a huge effect on how the shop floor workers got through the day. With one team suddenly doing better than ever before, sales were up and management was up - and customers picking up food and something else were less likely to complain, except for a few scam artists.
Danielle kept her head down and got on with work quietly and as efficiently as she could. What she wanted was for Speight to give Morgan a positive report ahead of any training - if he thought she was already toeing the company line, maybe she’d be able to dodge some of the newest changes.
Theresa had become Terri and, she noticed later in the week, Barbara was now Barbie. Danielle had spent most of her life firmly shutting down anyone who tried to shorten her name; Danielle was pretty, and Danni, more often than not, seemed to be the name of an airhead. She’d long since accepted that some things about how people behaved around you couldn’t be changed. She’d chosen her name as a place where she could draw the line and make the difference.
Danielle was dealing with an irate ‘customer’ - in her book, you weren’t a customer until you handed over your money, but MaxiMart’s old office handbook disagreed - on Saturday morning when, to her surprise, Morgan approached the conversation.
Unlike the team he was working with, he was still wearing his ridiculously expensive suit; it had clearly been tailored perfectly to him, but it looked as lightweight and comfortable as a tee and slacks would be. He had his hands in his pockets, and he was wearing one of the new-style MaxiMart name badges. Up close, though, Danielle noticed it was slightly different:
Welcome to MaxiMart!
The Man Behind the Curtain
“Good morning, ma’am,” he said to the customer, then flashed a smile in Danielle’s direction. “I can see we’re having a little bit of a crossed-wires situation here. Can I help?”
The customer - early middle-age, bottle red hair, clearly straight in after her running group in a bright blue baggy T-shirt with sweat circles under the pits and hot pink leggings, probably only just starting to pick up a little budge after what had clearly been an athletic life, Gucci knock-off bag tucked incongruously under her arm, turned to Morgan and blinked in surprise. “Are you the manager?” she asked. Her eyes narrowed. “You seem a little young…”
“I assure you, ma’am, I’m old enough for my duties,” Morgan said, and flashed that same smile to the customer. “Thank you, though. I have a punishing skin care regimen.” Which was a lie - he was, Danielle had confirmed for her own satisfaction, recently graduated from college. She’d expected the requisite MBA and had been quite surprised when it turned out he’d majored in American Literature. Sure, hidden depths were supposed to be hidden, but that didn’t apply to anyone quite that shallow.
She sniffed. “Well, that’s as maybe,” she said, but her attention was completely away from Danielle now, and there was a smile on her lips. Whether she was amused by Morgan or saw a chance to rain shit on Danielle was harder to tell.
“So,” Morgan continued, “what seems to be the problem?” Without looking to Danielle, he raised a hand just above his waist, hand open, palm down, and made a ‘shush’ gesture outside the customer’s field of view. Danielle relaxed just a fraction - the man had some level of retail experience. That gave her a moment’s weird kinship with him, despite the complete lack of anything else in common.
“This stupid woman is telling me you’re out of the big Sony soundbars for projector TVs.” Morgan glanced across to Danielle, eyebrows raised; she let her lips thin and shrugged in silent answer. He reached into his suit and took out a tiny notebook, then a ridiculous pen, a bulky chromed tube ending in a fat cap, which he removed to reveal a fountain pen nib.
“And you have your heart set on a Sony?” He clipped the cap to the back end of the pen, then drove his thumb down onto the top of the cap, which clicked like a ballpoint. Danielle frowned for a moment; something about that didn’t make a lick of sense, but the customer was nodding, her jaw jutting out with determination, and Danielle’s attention was on her.
“Of course. They’re the best.” She nodded again, although there seemed to be less decision.
Morgan actually looked across to Danielle properly at this point. “Was she looking for a specific model, ah… Danielle?” he asked.
“The G700, sir,” she said. Sir might not be the way he wanted to play this, but - well, better safe than sorry. Much better safe than sorry.
“Alright, then.” He smiled at the customer again and clicked the end of his pen one more time; must be a nervous habit. “Are you sure it has to be Sony? I can assure you, we work to stock the very best products.”
“Well…” She flushed slightly from his attentions, but she also seemed to be screwing up her eyes a little. Danielle couldn’t blame her; there was one of those electronic whines around that’s high enough pitch it doesn’t entirely register as sound, and it was getting to both of them. “What else would you suggest?”
Morgan looked up to Danielle. “Take the lead,” he directed, his voice just gentle enough that it didn’t feel like an order - or maybe that was just the release of tension as she realised he was taking the store’s side, rather than her own.
She promptly turned and started discussing the merits of other soundbars in the G700’s price range, and the customer was almost decided when Morgan broke into the conversation again.
“You know, though, these are very good, but I think if you’re prepared to spend a little more, you could do better.” He clicked the cap of his pen again, and Danielle wrote it off as a reflex habit. Very strange, though - he hadn’t bothered writing anything in his notebook after he took his pen out, and he was carrying it around with the nib out on display.
After a moment’s hesitation, the customer turned to Danielle. “What would you recommend?” she asked, and the two of them bargained her up to a thousand-dollar purchase.
She put it in her trolley and wheeled it off toward the till happily, and Morgan capped his pen and put it and the notebook away again. “Customers,” he said. “They never actually know what they want, they just think they do.”
Rather than say anything, Danielle nodded. Morgan grinned at her, his eyes trailing up and down her body, and nodded. “Good work,” he said. “I’m going to kibitz with your team next week. OK?”
Danielle nodded again, and Morgan strutted off, walking with the confidence of someone who owned not just the place but all the staff within.
At least that high whine was gone, but Danielle frowned all the same. She didn’t want to have to deal with this; she kind of just wanted her job to go on as it had been. But with a review next week and the promise or threat of a new employee handbook on the horizon, that would never happen.
Maybe she’d be able to tap into the delight that Terri had about that after she’d actually worked with Morgan…