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Branch manager of a national travel company, Prudence Peters’ demotion is not the only bad news that begins a week from hell. Offices will close, more work for the remaining agents, lay-offs and no more raises. But one of Pru’s agents is fired and by week’s end she has disappeared.
Pru arrives at her office the following Monday to find a detective waiting for her. Not only is the fired agent still missing, but the supervisor has been murdered. Fearing the missing agent will be blamed for the murder, Pru sets out to find her, but everything she discovers laps over into the murder case. Head office in Atlanta claims they authorized no firings and fears for their reputation making Pru fear closure of all offices in Oregon. Then her west coast director arrives in town with her own agenda for the offices. Pru is desperate to save her office, her job and find a killer.
“What you’re saying, Claudia, is that we’re all demoted?”
“Well, not exactly, Pru.” The disembodied voice of state supervisor Claudia Gage crawled down the line of the weekly conference call and into the headsets of five Global Vacation office managers like a malevolent insect.
“The branch manager position will be eliminated nationwide and replaced with a lead agent. Atlanta has determined that computerization of the daily reports reduced the time to do them than was necessary previously. They want that extra time devoted to selling. However, they realize that someone has to organize the data and be responsible for the office, thus the creation of the new position called lead agent.”
Not only didn’t she answer my question, Pru thought, it sounds like she’d practiced the speech several times reading it verbatim from a memo.
After a brief hesitation from delivering this bitter pill, Claudia added the company’s version of a sugar cube. “Of course, the quotas will be lower than a full time selling agent.”
Not fooled, Prudence Peters mentally translated. They were expected to do all the same work with the added burden of having a sales quota. Why? Because the company wanted to downsize without speaking the dirty word. Demoting the managers, who all earned more than the ceiling created for the lead agent position, meant they wouldn’t have to give raises for a long, long time. Very clever!
Pru squelched the need to voice her thoughts, knowing it a waste of time. She and the four other managers on the call had five years experience of butting heads with their state supervisor and knew that whatever the company handed down, it was accepted without question. Oregon (meaning everyone subordinate to Claudia Gage) did not question nor require clarification of orders or directives. If Pru or any of the other managers needed anything explained further, they had to call fellow managers in other states to get it.
Even Bea Sorrell in Lake Oswego, known for her sarcasm towards the obvious ploys the company pulled, remained silent. Probably for the best, since it, too, was wasted on Claudia.
Claudia Gage had come to the company with no travel experience. Industry practices, policies and jargon were alien to her. For the five years she had managed the Global Vacation offices in Oregon, she tried in vain to hide this ignorance, while the office managers made every effort to point it out in the hopes that she would make more effort to learn. Theirs was not a mutual admiration society.
What a way to start the first bright, sunny day of summer in Portland. Pru swiveled her chair to face away from her staff, not wanting them to get curious about the faces she was making while thinking here was another dogleg in her long career in travel. She had managed the downtown, flagship branch for fifteen of her thirty years in the travel industry—twenty-three with Global.
Granted, a title change might not mean much in the over-all job description, but her familiarity with the subtle maneuverings of the company told her that this one could have several unpleasant consequences.
So it was no surprise when the demotion didn’t turn out to be the worst news delivered on the call.
“The company has decided that consolidation will be more efficient, and there will be closures. By the end of the month one office in Oregon will close and one agent from each of the remaining offices will be laid off.”
Pru heard the other four managers groan and felt she must have, too. They already worked eight to ten hour days and an occasional weekend day. She’d be the first to admit that her job was her life, but this could get out of hand. She felt a headache coming on.
Oh, and no more overtime or raises for anyone this year. The survivors were expected to take on the extra work and console themselves with the fact that they still had jobs.
“Save your questions until I arrive in your offices to do the quarterly reviews,” Claudia snapped, cutting off any chance for complaint. “I’ll see you shortly, Pru.” And she hung up.
Pru disconnected with a press of a button, pulled off her earphone and tossed it onto the clutter on her desk. The mention of closures scared her. Granted the internet and commission cuts during the economic boom years of the nineties had made being profitable much harder, but Pru’s office had done it, and the high traffic volume that started the new millennium last year had given all offices a boost. So to suddenly have her job put in jeopardy came as a shock.
She had just turned fifty—with a great party that had rocked her floating home into the wee hours—and she wasn’t feeling the least bit old. Mentally she felt in her thirties, no matter what her mirror said. And speaking of the party, it was the second date she had with that nice guy from Everything Hawaiian Tours. Why hadn’t she seen him since? Oh yeah, he called but she hadn’t managed to call back. How many weeks ago was that?
She pushed that unpleasant thought away and replaced it with another. If the worst happened and she had to go out looking for a new job, would she have to worry about age discrimination, being considered too high salaried or over qualified? How depressing was that? To chase stomach-churning thoughts away, she moved her thoughts to her agents, remembering one had to be laid off by month end. She assessed her four agents’ good points as her eyes moved from desk to desk lined up from the front door to her own in the back of the office.
Harriet, her senior agent and one of the top producing cruise specialists on the West Coast, made the million-dollar club every year. She was safe. Gwen, her Asian and South Pacific expert, always made quota and occasionally hit the million-dollar club. She should be safe, and if not, she could bounce to another office anywhere in the country. She’d done it before.
Pru ran her fingers through her blonde hair, messing it into the look most people were used to seeing on her, then grabbed a bunch and squeezed. The pressure on the roots acted as a stimulant to her scalp and usually curbed her headaches. This time it just hurt. She grimaced and felt every line on her face crease deeper, but kept thinking.
Two agents left. Meg Shultz manned the front desk. Like Claudia, she was hired five years ago and handled the majority of walk-ins that wanted small packages and wholesale air tickets. She was a satisfactory agent in a company that did not employ receptionists.
The other was Pru’s newbie of two years. June Withers had spectacular sales, many of which were from California, clients that had stayed with her when she moved up to Portland. She had made quota her first year.
Against them: Harriet was the oldest and highest salaried; Gwen’s north Pacific business had been dwindling for the last several years; Meg had never made quota, and June was the last one hired.
It would not be her decision to make, but if she had to speculate, she expected the company to stand by Harriet. Making the million-dollar club fifteen years in a row and having a clientele that would cruise the river Styx if she recommended it made her a keeper. And though June should be the one to go, her large group sales and the fact that she was a friend of Claudia’s made it doubtful. Gwen’s sales were as good as June’s, so that left Meg. Well, at least she’d have severance with health care for several weeks while she looked for another job.
Irene, her cashier and bookkeeper, fell under a different management branch in the company. As lead agent for all the cashiers in Oregon, she had a job until the last door closed. No sense worrying about her.
With these last two thoughts, Pru felt the headache begin to fade. It returned with a vengeance when the glass entrance to the office flew open and Claudia Gage swept in like a sandstorm. She stopped in front of Pru’s desk and dropped her purse and briefcase on the client chair.
Pru had not expected her so soon. She must have left her office the moment she hung up from the conference call.
“I have a few announcements to make to the staff before I start the reviews,” she chirped, in her usual brisk-though-superior tone. “When everyone is off calls, get them over here in front of your desk.”
Expecting more bad news, and feeling a need to be contrary, Pru asked, “Now, Claudia, during working hours?” Discussions of any sort were always held after hours so as not to interfere with a business that depended on phone calls and walk-ins. At least that was company policy for as long as Pru had worked for the company.
Claudia brushed her off with a clipped response. “You’ll just have to work around it, but first I want to talk to you privately in the back room.”
~ * ~
The travel agency spread out in a wide-open space. On the left of the entrance was a bank of brochure racks extolling the last big push to Europe for summer. Next came the cashier cage where Irene sold foreign currency and travelers checks. On the opposite side were the agents’ desks lined up to the back wall where Pru sat with a clear view of all office activity. Pru waited until each agent finished a call to tell them to assemble at her desk.
Pru asked Irene and the trainee she had in the office this week to monitor calls and take messages for the agents. Irene delegated the task to her trainee, Zoey, preferring to sit in and listen to Claudia’s announcements.
Claudia Gage leaned against the front of Pru’s desk facing the agents. Pru sat behind her. The news from the conference call was bad enough, but what Claudia told her in the back room had jolted Pru severely.
Harriet and Gwen eyed Pru for some sign of what was to come. Meg sat staring into space; her always-traumatic reviews left her with palpable fear and she would never make eye contact with Claudia. Only June lifted her face with a smile of anticipation and gave Claudia her full attention.
“Before I start your quarterly evaluations, I have some unfortunate news,” Claudia began in a smooth tone that disavowed any trace of unhappiness on her part over what she was about to say. “Management on the local level will be reorganized.” She paused for effect. “Pru will no longer have the title of office manager as that position is being eliminated nationwide.”
A collective gasp accompanied all eyes turning to Pru. Claudia recalled their attention by clearing her throat. “A lead agent will do the office’s basic paperwork and will now be required to sell, though the quota will only be fifty percent of a full-time, selling agent.”
At that point, Pru swiveled her chair to stare out the window. The selling part didn’t bother her. She’d never really given it up. She had loyal clients.
“The bad part is, and I personally don’t think it’s very fair, but unfortunately, Pru will have to reapply for her job.” Again, Claudia hesitated before delivering the final zinger. “You are all eligible to apply for her position or any lead agent job you want.”
It took every ounce of strength Pru possessed to keep from jumping out of her chair and slapping the smug smile off Claudia’s face that she was sure was there. She calmed herself by thinking of several choice names to call Claudia. She didn’t dare turn back to her agents, not wanting to see the looks of pity and in one case, satisfaction.
“So, anyone who wants to apply for the position, check the job posting page online and queue it off to Regional with a copy to me.” Pru heard some shuffling of chairs and papers and assumed Claudia was flipping through her notes.
“I’m afraid there are going to be layoffs and closures nationwide.” Not a sound this time. “Productivity will be the deciding factor in both cases. Atlanta has made their decisions and Oregon will have one of its five offices closed.” Groans filled the air. “Which office will be decided this week. Closures in the east have already started and a huge protest by regional directors over laying off top producing agents in closed offices caused Atlanta to create guidelines for the layoffs. It’s been decided that all agents in a local area will be evaluated collectively for sales, and some agents may be laid off because another agent from a closed office had better sales.”
In the midst of her agents’ shocked silence, Pru turned back to them. She still felt Harriet was safe, but not the other three. Claudia’s next words made Pru wish she had the strength to push her desk over on Claudia.
“Well, what did you expect? The industry is going through a tough time and things will get worse before they get better. Survival of the fittest and all that, not to mention working harder and whining less.”
Harriet’s look of distaste told Pru that Claudia must have smiled before she asked, “Questions?”
On that unpleasant note, Pru decided Claudia had had enough fun at their expense. She cleared her throat, and said, “Yes, a few.”
Claudia turned around and stared, obviously shocked that Pru dared to speak.
Pru smiled and said, “Not about this, though I’m sure we’ll all have plenty once the dust settles.” Harriet and Gwen were nodding. “It’s about the airlines cutting commissions again. What suggestions does the company have for increasing sales when that happens?”
Pru was positive Claudia hadn’t heard a thing about another commission cut. She didn’t pay much attention to the daily operations of the offices, believing such things were the job of the office managers.
Claudia brushed the question off with a laugh, then turned back to face the agents and said, “Boosting sales is your job. You’ll just have to sell more tours and cruises to keep up.”
Harriet and Gwen pursed their lips to keep from laughing while Meg and June lowered their heads, each for a different reason. Irene stepped away to check on her trainee.
Flustered by the agents’ response, Claudia asked, “Anything else?”
With an exaggerated sigh that Pru swore could be heard three floors up, Harriet raised a finger for Claudia’s attention then didn’t wait to be acknowledged. Small, neat, in buttoned-to-the-neck shirtwaist, one of her eyebrows always seemed standing at attention in W.C. Field mode. Using her best fingernails-on-chalkboard tone, she said, “Since the company didn’t initiate ticketing fees with the last cut, we wondered if there were plans to do so this time?”
Everyone knew perfectly well that Claudia hadn’t spoken to Regional on this subject or anything relating to it. Harriet continued, “Because the new cuts are definite and the rumor is that all commissions will be eliminated.”
Pru had no problem imagining the look Claudia must be giving Harriet at that moment. Diverting the meeting with procedural questions forced Claudia to admit she’d have to check with Regional, something she hated to do.
Claudia ended the meeting with a curt, “I have to make a few phone calls and then we’ll start the reviews.” She turned to Pru with a look that promised vengeance for that little act of sabotage.
While the staff returned to their desks, Claudia opened her briefcase, pulled out a sheet of paper and handed it to Pru. Tersely, she barked out instructions. “I want to see them in this order. Do not make any changes. I want Schultz last. I’ll let you know when to start.”
Glancing at the wall clock, Pru said, “It’s eleven-thirty. The lunch hours are starting.”
Claudia gave it some thought, then grabbed her briefcase. “I’ll be back at one.” If looks could kill, the flagship office of Global Vacations in Portland, Oregon would be a body farm.
Patricia started her career in the travel industry in New York City working for Eastern Airlines in their reservations department. She worked with one of the first computers ever used by an airline, which still required IBM card to be filled out. She moved to BOAC (before they merged with BEA and became British Airways) and worked in the refunds department and on their fares desk.
Pregnant, she and her husband moved to Oregon where she eventually became a travel agent; moving with the never-ending-changes in the industry, and ended up being forced into retirement when the large worldwide agency she worked for closed ninety percent of its branch offices. That was December 2001.
She has published several short stories, a few as mystery SF/fantasy crossover and humorous mysteries that take place in a moorage for floating homes. The first of the humorous mysteries was in the anthology Murder Across The Map. Pat lives in a floating home on the slough side of an island in The Columbia River.
Book Publisher: Wings ePress
No. of Pages: 352
Paper Weight (lb): 14.6
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