Christian looked across garden furniture towards Norman in his little café apron and smirked. So less manly than his own hardware apron! All was going well. Norman was out and he, Christian was the rising star of the Handy Pavillion! Just look at him there, making coffee for Sadie and that guy with the glasses and big chin! Where would he be in five years time? Still making coffee! Where would Christian be? 2IC of the power tools section! Or even… dare he even dream it? Manager of power tools!
Of course, his success was not all down to him. He had his mentor to thank…
His shift had ended, so he made his way to the men's toilet and moved the hidden panel in the floor. Beneath was a narrow tunnel, which he descended by means of a ladder of huge cast iron staples. Hanging on one staple was an old electric lamp. He turned it on, clipped it to his belt, and continued his descent.
After an eternity of struggling downward, he was in a huge open space, dominated by an underground lake. A gondola was tied to the bottom-most rung of the ladder. Christian dropped gently into the boat, cast off, and rowed the small vessel across the smooth surface of the water. A thin mist rose from the water. Other than the faint rhythmic splash of his oars and the occasional drip of water from the ceiling, there was not a sound to be heard.
It wasn't long before Christian arrived at a little jetty, poking out of the darkness into the lake. He hitched up the gondola, and climbed ashore. Passing down a narrow tunnel, he entered a large underground room. Against one wall was a bookcase, assembled from some antique flat-pack. It was filled from top to bottom in precious tomes – 'Retail for Dummies', 'How to Succeed in Hardware', 'The Customer is Sometimes Right: a New Guide to Selling'. The rest of the room was decked out with slightly wonky lawn furniture and factory second rugs, all arranged in such exquisite taste that it almost made Christian weep. But the piece de resistance was the organ, made from an MDF worktable, PVC pipes and an old air-compressor.
At the controls to the organ, she sat, dressed head to foot in black, and playing the guitar riff from Slice of Heaven on keys made from 20x20mm pine.
"How fares the surface world, Christian," she said.
"All goes well, Mistress," Christian said. "Norman has been shamed. Your reign of terror has reduced custom. The DIY Barn is poised to strike."
He looked at her expectantly. "Excellent," she said.
"Is it not time then, my mistress?"
"For the next stage of the plan? First create a crisis, then step in to fix it. We could be running the place by weekend!"
She turned. Christian looked down, so as not to stare at the bone-white mask of polymer clay that covered so much of her face. "Oh, my pupil," she said. "You have learned so much, and yet so little. Yes, the Pavilion will pay dearly for a hand up, but first it must be truly pushed to its knees!"
"But," Christian began. He did not like to argue with the Phantasm. She was so wise, and she had raised him up from nothing to his position as the rising star of the Handy Pavilion. And yet… and yet…
"But surely, we must take care not to destroy the Pavilion completely," he said. "What do we gain by taking over the Pavilion if the Pavilion is past the point of being saved?"
It was always impossible to tell what the Phantasm was thinking. The mask hid her face, and there was never any expression in her eyes. "Of course you are right," she said. "The Pavilion wronged me. Because of it, I have lost my false face and my real ears."
Christian shifted uncomfortably. She had said that often, and he never quite knew what she meant by it, and he was ashamed to ask.
"But," the Phantasm continued, "you are still correct. We cannot let the Pavilion die. Without it, there is no purgatory for Norman, and no future for you, my protégé. We must bleed the Pavilion almost dry. Just not completely."
"So it is time?"
"Oh, young one. How little you know."
The Phantasm arose from her seat atop an enormous upturned planter, and laid a black-gloved hand on Christian's shoulder. "There will come a time for the next phase. It will come soon. But no, it will not come now."
"Yes, mistress," Christian said. Looking at those eyes, deep in the holes of the mask, brimming with fierce energy he knew that he could not say no, even if he meant it. She was right in this, as she was right in all things.
The Phantasm's eyes flicked sideways, towards the little room that contained her bed – or more accurately, her garden hammock. Christian sighed. "Of course, my mistress," he said. "But this time… You know, maybe just for a change… could you take the cape off?"
"How about at least taking off the gloves?"
The Phantasm sighed. "How about one glove?"
Christian sighed. Well, it was a start.