It was early evening and the Super Centre was closing down. Behind the counter at Storage Universe, Delia was finishing the day's reconciliation. The work complete, she poured herself her evening tipple of a single glass of white wine, opened a notebook and readied her best pen.
Delia – as perhaps has been mentioned before – was an extremely organised person. Like many organised people who are faced with a deteriorating situation, her first step towards dealing with it was making a list.
- The Pyramid
- Stavros Theoupoulos' organisation/cult. Pro pyramid? Pro Barn?
- Alfred attempting to infiltrate Stavros' cult. Details sketchy.
- Ron – has missile. Explosives? Attack on Pyramid immanent.
- Mysterious artifacts – time watch and space measure, both from strange woman in Laplander hat.
- Surviving Barnlings on attack – near miss for Donna.
- Donna's bail extended.
- Dark Brownie – exorcism somehow leads to acquittal? Seen moping around the Centre.
It was quite a list. Where to begin? Fanaka seemed to be on Ron's case, and Delia believed that she could rely on him. Alfred's attempt to infiltrate the kebab shop was on thinner ice, but again there wasn't much Delia could do about that now. That left the Barnlings and the Brownie, neither of which were issues that Delia felt she could help with greatly.
Uncertain where to turn, Delia went to speak to her leader, Ms Shan. Ms Shan was in charge of the anti-Barn resistance, and knew of more things that were going on in the Super Centre than Delia did. Her wisdom should be a useful guide. Delia opened the trapdoor in the back of her shop and descended into the little subterranean space where Ms Shan had been hiding out.
There was no one there.
Delia was not prone to panic, but she felt a horrible void rise in her gut. There was no rear entrance to her shop and no exit from the cellar save via the trapdoor. Delia had seen Ms Shan that morning when she'd dropped off her breakfast. Since then, she'd only left the shop for a quarter of an hour to have lunch. Could Ms Shan have left then? It seemed unlikely, but other explanations involved teleportation or dimensional portals or some other idea that made Delia's head hurt.
A loud knock from upstairs snapped her from her thoughts. She clambered up the ladder to the shop, where Alfred was waiting by the door, shifting from foot to foot in impatience. When she opened the door, she saw that young Christian was waiting nearby.
"Delia," he said. "We have important information! I need to see Ms Shan."
"She's not here," Delia said.
"Right," Alfred said loudly. "Not here. Of course she's not ha ha. Can we come in anyway?"
Rolling her eyes, Delia waved Alfred and Christian through the door. "Now can we see Ms Shan?" Alfred whispered.
"She's really not here," Delia said. "She's just vanished."
"How…" Alfred began. "Never mind, we'll figure that out later. What's important is that you listen to what Christian found out."
"Right," Christian said, "In the beginning of time there was, bullshit bullshit, and there's some sort of mystical war on between vaguely defined metaphysical forces. With me so far? Anyway, our enemies in the DIY Barn hardware centre was just our dimension's version of the Barn of Shadows but the Pyramid is the work of the Grey Barn, which feigned support for the Barn of Shadows only to steal a key cosmic location. South Hertling is a strategically vital point in the Multiversal Struggle."
"That's not very interesting," Delia said. "My friend has gone missing…"
"It’s not that interesting," Christian admitted. "But it does mean that the backstories to crappy fantasy novels are actually a reflection of a cosmic truth. I've got a couple of mates who are keen Dungeons and Dragons players, and they'll be pleased to know that."
Delia glared at Christian. She did not like glaring at people who were not her employees. It seemed rude, somehow. But it worked: the lad fell silent.
"We need to find Ms Shan," Delia said. "Because she's our friend, because she's done a lot for us and…"
"But Delia…" Alfred began.
"Do you want to tell Mrs Lebeau that Ms Shan has vanished?" Delia said. "Do you?"
Alfred went bright red. "She was going to propose once the legislation went through parliament," he murmered.
"Who was going to propose?" Christian said.
"Both of them. Each trying to surprise the other. They both had rings and everything."
"And now Ms Shan is gone. How sadorable."
Delia shook her head. Boys! Always preferring some epic struggle to an immediate problem. Sometimes it was hard to get them back down to Earth.
"So how will we find her, Delia?" Alfred said.
"Perhaps I could be of assistance?" asked a high-pitched voice
The voice came from a direction it shouldn't have. The back of the store. No one there, no way in, et cetera. The speaker was a boneless cat-thing, similar to Delia's colleague, McKinley. It shared McKinley's impossibly huge eyes, but where McKinley was round, stumpy-legged and usually quadrupedal, this cat stood on two long back legs. It was black, with a white face, and in one hand it held a yellow Gladstone bag.
"Don't be afraid, Alfred," the cat said. "We're not what you believe."
"You're not evil hyperintelligent cats from another dimension?" Alfred said.
"Well, we're not evil…"
"Are. You. Going. To. Help. Find. Ms. Shan?" Delia asked. "Because that's the order of the day. I am not interested in exposition, backstory, prophecy, foreshadowing or anything, anything else. All right? My friend is missing, and I am going to help her and you are either helping me or I am ignoring you. Understand?"
"No need to get like that," the cat sulked. "I was sent to help you, and that's what I'm going to do."
"Sent? Who by?" Delia said. "No, on second thought I don't care. I'm leaving the shop, and I'm looking. Coming?"
She marched out the door. Behind her, she heard the creature whine: "By the Parliament of Cats, of course."