"So," Fiona said.
"So," Norman said.
They sat at a wicker table, just by the plastic jerry cans in the Outdoor Furniture section. Not that long ago, Adam would have chased them away, but even he'd stopped caring. A grim, defensive mood had settled over the Handy Pavilion and customer numbers were at an all-time low.
"It's just that sort of a bloody morning, isn't it? Norman said.
"We have to give ourselves up," Fiona said. "We can't stay free while Sadie takes the blame for the armoured cat heist. There's not even any reason for her to go to prison any more. She was only confessing to save Axel."
"Sure. But you got to remember, there's a long process to run through before Sadie is convicted. Sure, we really should turn ourselves in, so as to free her. But right now, the Pavilion needs boots on the ground. We might not be as important as Axel in the grand scheme of things, but with Christian, Sadie, Axel and poor bloody Carlos out of the running…"
Fiona's head sunk into her hands. "So what are we going to do?"
"Keep fighting until the fight is over. Then we can afford to think of ethics."
Fiona gestured around the empty store. "Why? What's the point? We've already lost everything worth fighting for. We've lost. Why does no one see that?"
Norman rubbed his eyes and swore. "What do you want me to say? 'You only lose when you give up' or something? I'm not a fucking motivational poster. All I know is a lot of people took a hit just so we'd still be here to take on those DIY Barn pricks. Are we going to win? Don't know. Probably not. But I'm not letting my friends down."
Fiona glared at him. "You know, Ms Shan will never want you."
Instantly, Norman's olive face went bright red. "Yeah. I know. You know what? That doesn't change anything. All right? It doesn't change anything at all."
"Excuse me," a well-dressed male customer said.
"Mate, you must be the only customer in the store," Norman said. "Can't you find another staff member?"
"Honestly? I'd love to. I'm looking for a guy named 'Christian' in particular. Been trying to find him the last two days. Point me to him, and I'll be on my way."
"Christian is MIA," Fiona said.
"What does that mean? He on leave or something?"
"No, literally MIA. We think he's been captured by our enemies in the DIY Barn, but…"
"It's not just that I don't care," the customer interjected hurriedly. "Not caring implies a lack of interest. What I have is something like anti-interest. I actively don't want to know, you know? It's like I'd be offended if you told me. Look, forget Christian, he's not important. I just have to fix his crystal skull situation. I just need to take care of my side of the contract, so I can move on. Christian can go to Hell."
Fiona and Norman looked at each other and shrugged.
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Norman said. "But last I saw that skull, Fanaka had it. I'll go see if it's still with him."
Fanaka was in the staff room/armoury. The customer, Mr Pennington, was left at the door as Norman and Fiona went in to see him. Fanaka was red eyed and twitchy--both things probably related to the dozens of empty coffee cups that littered the room.
"Oh, hello, hello, Forman and Nioma, yes. Finished repairs on AA gun, yes, all done."
"Are you okay, Mr Fanaka?" Fiona said.
Fanaka gave a broad smile and pulled back his hunched shoulders to show that he was fine. The effect was undercut when he replied in some unfamiliar language for several sentences before realising what he was doing.
"Fine…" he said, switching back to English. "Perfectly fine. Axel getting arrested was a setback, that's all. I can take care of his side of things, as well as my own."
Fiona glared at Norman, who ignored her. "Do you still have that glass skull that Christian used to have?"
"Oh, yes, yes," Fanaka said. "It's right here!"
He gestured at a bathroom cabinet, on top of which was part of an industrial workbench. Clamped into the jaws of the workbench was a thick length of copper pipe, in which was nested several narrower lengths of pipe. A flexible length of silvery shower hose ran from the cabinet to the end of the pipe.
"That some sort of death ray?" Norman asked.
"Probably," Fanaka said. "No time to test it, no time, never time… Kuna tu si masaa ya kutosha katika siku..."
Again, Norman and Fiona exchanged glances. It was that sort of morning.
"It's a focused R-Beam emmitter," Fanak said. "Powered by a sort of pan-dimensional-artifact-crystal-skull-deally-o. I was going to tell Axel I had it, but I didn't get the chance."
"Well, can we borrow the skull?" Fiona said. "Seems like one of the last things Christian did before he vanished was ask this alchemist guy to use it to rescue his friend from some sort of dimensional prison."
"I didn't follow any of that after the word 'skull.'" Fanaka said. "But I can't let you borrow it, it's a thing of unimaginable—dare I say, unspeakable..."
"Fine then. Don't scratch it."
Norman watched as Fiona carefully removed the skull from the nylon clamps that held it in place. "Are you sure this is a good idea?" he said. "We're sure this guy doesn't work for the Barn or anything? I mean, maybe that's why they grabbed Christian in the first place? To get their mitts on this?"
"I don't know," Fiona said. "It's not that I trust Pennington it's that... It's his story. He rings false, but his story rings true, somehow. Like it's the last thing you'd come up with if you were trying to lie to someone."
"Yeah, whatever," Fanaka said. "Just take it outside."
Pennington stood outside, impatiently tapping his foot. "Right. Let's do this. Open portal to skull's internal dimension, pull Christian's friend out, get the fuck out of here, start shopping at at the Lower Westville Handy Pavilion. Let's get started:"
The alchemist placed the skull on the floor in the space between fire extinguishers and fire alarms. Taking chalk from his pocket, he drew a circle around the crystal and started silently dancing around it, his arms and legs describing strange angles in the air as he moved.
"My God, it's true," Norman whispered.
"All those black people were right. We really can't dance," he said, grinning as Fiona smacked him in the arm.
Pennington finished dancing. "Right, that should do it. Dimensional bridge formed. It's just a case of Christian's friend finding the door."
"The door to the bridge?" Norman said, raising an eyebrow.
"Mate, nobody likes a smartarse," Pennington said.
And then, with a pop, a large pile of black rags was sitting on the concrete.
"Done and done," Pennington said. "You see Christian, you tell him contract concluded, and if you were to add something about him fucking himself, that would suit me too. Goodbye!"
He stalked away. "What a wanker," Norman muttered.
Fiona nudged the pile of rags with the toe of her boot, and jumped back when the pile moved. Groaning, it rose to its feet, a stocky figure in the filthy remains of a black velvet cape. As the rags resolved themselves into a human shape, Fiona gasped as she recognised the battered black hat that sat above the bone-white mask that covered the newcomer's face.
"The Phantasm!" she squeaked.
Norman swore. "This just gets weirder and weirder."
The Phantasm staggered groggily, leaning a hand against a shelving unit to stay upright.
Fiona looked at Norman. "You want to do it?"
Norman grinned. "No, go on. You give it a go! You deserve some fun."
Fiona cleared her throat. "Let's see who you really are!" she beamed, snatching the mask from the Phantasm's face. "Gasp... It's... Gwen Harper? Wow. I should have gasped for real."
"Seriously?" Norman said. "Gwen?"
It was Gwen. She had a big scar ran from above her right eyebrow to her left cheek, and there were a number of smaller scars besides. But it was still recognisably her.
"And I would have got away with it too," she said, coughing something nasty onto the floor. "If it wasn't for the sudden and unexpected collapse of my secret pocket dimensional headquarters."
Once again, Norman and Fiona exchanged glances. Gwen rolled her eyes. "Fine! And you meddling kids. Now, where's Pennington? Got to get that arsehole before he gets to his car."
The Phantasm turned, her ragged coat failing to twirl impressively as she did. She took off at a run, made it three steps, and slowed to a limping walk.
"It really has been one of those mornings," Fiona said, giving gentle chase.
"You said it."