Claudia Lebeau sat across the desk from Ms Shan. Ms Shan sat behind the MDF desk in her little office, her fingers steepled in front of her. The office was small and while it had some very pleasant associations for Mrs Lebrau, right then it seemed oppressive. It was airless and the only decoration was a small brass statute, a dying peace lily and a one of those posters that is meant to inspire but somehow only serve to bring the spirit a little closer to breaking.
"Officially, I can take no action," Claudia Lebeau said.
"I understand," Jasu Shan replied, and it was the worst thing she could possibly have said.
If Jasu had argued, Claudia had arguments. If she'd shouted, Claudia could have stalked off in a huff. If she'd threatened, well, Claudia could have reminded her that she was in no position to make more enemies.
Instead, she'd simply agreed.
"If this… this war between the Handy Pavilion and the DIY Barn gets underway, that will be bad for the Super Centre. But if the Super Centre gets involved, that could bring the Mega Centre into the conflict, and who knows where that will lead?" Claudia said. She stood behind the rickety chair that faced Jasu's desk. There had been times when she'd been more comfortable in that room; much more comfortable. Now, the windowless, airless little space seemed like a prison cell. It took all she had not to fling open the door and run for safety.
"Of course," Jasu said. She did not meet Claudia's gaze. Her eyes were fastened to a little brass figure on her desk of a woman on horseback.
"I… I wish I could help."
"I know you do," Jasu said. "But let's be honest, an actual shooting war between hardware shops is a pretty unusual occurrence. And what do the other shops have to lose if the Handy Pavilion goes down? Nothing. But if they fight and lose, then they risk all. Karl from the stationary shop tried to help and he's struggling for his life. That's a warning to the others, as much as a call to action for us. Why are you standing? Take a seat."
Claudia sat, only part of her discomfort coming from the wobbly chair. "How is Karl, anyway?"
Jasu sat back and sipped at her tea. "His doctor tells me he was conscious for ten minutes yesterday," she said. "Apparently that was enough time for him to explain the connection between the Knights Templar and the Banana Splits. The doctors thinks he'll recover, and they'd prefer that he do so as soon as possible."
"I'm glad he's out of the woods," Claudia said. "But Jasu… I… I don't want you to get…"
A knock on the door stopped her mid plea. It turned out to be big, bald Ali from Power Tools. His eyes flickered from Jasu to Claudia and his cheeks darkened. Ali was usually polite enough to Claudia, but right then he was clearly making up his mind not to acknowledge her. Claudia sighed. That seemed to be a common reaction amongst Pavilion staff, to seeing their manager's lover. Frankly, Jasu didn't help, refusing to acknowledge the situation even though clearly everyone knew.
"Uh, I found this," Ali said, holding out a scratched-looking mobile phone.
"Lost and found is behind the key cutting counter," Jasu said, without much emotion.
"Yeah, usually," Ali said. "I found it out back, in the loading dock. Figure it probably belongs to one of us. Maybe a delivery guy. It's got a password, so I can't check who owns it."
"Maybe I can fix it?" Claudia said.
Jasu started slightly, looking up from her brass horsewoman. With no option to do otherwise, Ali looked at Claudia. She held out her hand and, after a moment's hesitation, he passed her the phone.
"Used to manage a phone repair place," she said. "Learnt a trick or two. Battery's low, but I think it will hold up long enough for me to get in."
Ali looked impressed in spite of himself. "Don't you need a computer? USB cable, that sorta shit?"
"No, I know a trick with this model. It's not that hard to bypass the password. That's why they took it off the market. Hang on, it'll just take a minute."
The room was barely spacious enough for two people, and Ali was a big guy. He stood awkwardly in the narrow gap between the door and the filing cabinet.
"How are your people?" Jasu said.
"Goin' good, Ms Shan," Ali said. With the change of subject, Claudia noted, he stood up straighter and spoke more certainly. "Been drilling the fu—the fellows in unarmed combat after hours. They're getting better, mostly. Keep trying to tell Belinda not to go below the belt, yeah? Save it for the Barnlings, yeah? But she won't listen, she's a vicious b— Uh… battler. Vicious battler."
Ordinarily, this would have annoyed Claudia, but honestly she had too much on her plate to care, what with her love preparing herself for war and the fact that the reset button on the phone seemed to be damaged, requiring extreme finesse to engage it with a paperclip. But if she could make it happen… that was the weak point of that model of smartphone, the short lived Yonggary 1000. Once you'd engaged the reset, you had a second in which to swipe the screen, bypassing the password. Once the phone turned on again, it would go straight the main screen.
"Belinda?" Jasu said. "Ghanaian woman with a wooden leg?"
"No, Ms Shan," Ali said. "That's… Uh… Actually, we don't have anyone here like that."
"And any sign of that missing guy?"
"Christian? No, Ms Shan," Ali said. "I thought maybe those Barn cu—cowards, those Barn cowards might of got him. But Buck Dusty says he spoke to Chris just before he left and reckons he's a deserter."
"Well, technically, what happened is he quit without notice," Jasu said. "Which, as a casual employee, he's perfectly entitled to do."
"One to look at it," Ali said.
"It is the legally correct way of looking at it."
"Legally, hardware shops don't go to war, Miss."
Perhaps that was why Claudia was having such a hard time processing this? Because what was going on was not a thing that really ever had to--
"Got you, you fucker!" she shouted.
"Ay! Language!" Ali snapped.
The reset window popped up and she swiped frantically until the 'Yongarry: Made in "South" Korea' exit screen lit up.
"Let's see… Oh! It's Christian's phone!" Claudia said. "Very low power."
"Must of left it when he run away," Ali said.
"Maybe. But then why wouldn't he come back to get it?"
Jasu stood and walked around to Claudia's side, causing Ali to flatten himself against the door. "Are there any recent calls?"
"Isn't that an invasion of pr…"
"Damn it, if Buck was wrong then Christian might be in trouble."
"Most recent call is a couple of days ago," Claudia said. "To a number labeled 'Mum'. Nothing recent in texts… Voice recorder app open? That's strange. Only one file... I don’t think he used it much."
She looked up from the phone, to find both Jasu and Ali looking at her with deep concern. Which one was Christian again? It didn't matter. The Pavilion personnel shouldn't have been Mrs Lebeau's concern at all. But somehow, they were.
Claudia hit play, and heard two voices talking. She recognised one of the voices as that of Mr Smith, the manager of the DIY Barn. "Who's the other guy?"
"Shh! It's Buck Dusty, ay?" Ali said. His face was frozen into a frown, and his hands shook like he was itching to punch someone. They all listened to the end in silence.
"They still want to kill Karl!" Claudia said.
"What happened to Christian?" Ali said.
"Buck is a traitor," Jasu said.
Yes, Claudia thought. That was probably the most significant takeaway from that.
"Well if this Buck guy doesn't know we're onto him, we can use that to our advantage," Claudia said. "We can feed him false information. Follow him to see who he talks to."
"Bash his fucking face in," Ali said, his face darkening, his hands trembling.
"Or that," Claudia conceded.
"Ali," Jasu said. "Where's Buck now?"
In a second, the blood drained from Ali's face. "He's on bodyguard duty, miss," he whispered. "He's looking after Axel!"
The room was small. The chaos caused by all three of its occupants running out the door at the same time was considerable.