Christian had not been at work the day the meteor struck. He was glad of that. He worried every time the glass skull picked up a spot of dirt, and the thought of a scratch terrified him beyond belief. The whole Handy Pavilion shaking at the impact… that might have given him a heart attack, straight up.
Now he stood behind the power tools counter, polishing the skull with a soft cloth as Belinda told him about the incident. Buck Dusty had already told him, but since all the laconic cowboy had said was, “Reckon that was a bad’n,” Christian was a little short on details.
“So was it an alien, or something?” Christian said once she got up to the part with the monster. He held the skull up to the light. Ostensibly this was to check his polishing, but even after all this time he was hoping he could see his mistress, the Phantasm, in there. As usual, he could not.
“Nah, it was a demon,” Belinda said. “Like the one in Lord of the Rings, sort of. Only it didn’t have horns or a whip.”
“So it was more generic sort of fiery demon?”
“Like a clone?”
“Like it was cloned from another demon using generic science?”
Christian screwed up his eyes, but when he opened them, she was still there.
“No, like an average looking demon,” he said, wondering what an average demon looked like.
“Yeah, I guess,” Belinda said. “He was summoned by a sorcerer, I heard.”
“‘Scuse me, are you going to sell me a router, or do I have to try some place else?” Christian looked up to see a red-faced old man glaring at him. He wondered how long the man had been there, unnoticed. He needn’t have wondered.
“Ten bloody minutes I’ve been waiting here while you turkeys blab about some movie,” he snapped. “Demons and Hobbits and stuff. I’m a paying customer! You don’t have a lot of those at the moment, so if I were you I’d be tryin’ to do me bloody job, right?”
Christian rose and, after a twenty minute diatribe about poor standards, high prices and some strange race of beings called ‘m’lenyools’, the old fellow stomped off with a new router and Christian retook his place at the counter. To his surprise, Belinda was still there, making faces into the reflective surface of the skull.
“Isn’t your break over, yet?” he said.
“I’m not on a break,” she said. “Meant to be working in Seasonal, but all the people from Bathrooms with nothing to do have taken it over. It’s bullshit.”
Christian smiled half-heartedly. He honestly couldn’t give a damn. If what those plumbers had said was true, then the pocket dimension that had been underneath the Pavilion had collapsed into the skull that had once powered it, and the Phantasm was trapped inside. That was what mattered. Yes, she had been a cruel and manipulative mistress to Christian but…
Buck Dusty moseyed into the power tools section. He nodded at Christian and touched the brim of his hat to Belinda. “Ma’am,” he said. Belinda gave an awkward smile. Christian was pretty sure she was keen on Buck. Better him than me, he thought.
“Back from your break, Dust?” Christian said.
“Where are you from, Buck?” Belinda asked. “I always wondered. I mean I know you’re from the States, but…”
“I was born in Tombstone, Arizona, ma’am,” Buck said. “My family lived there since after the war.”
“World War II?” Belinda said.
“The Civil War?”
Belinda’s knowledge of history seemed to come to an end here, so she didn’t push matters. “So your family came from England?”
“Some,” Buck said. “Some settled the West after they had to leave Roanoke Island. Others came a different way. My granpappy was from Baghdad.”
Christian laughed. Buck turned on him wordlessly. Christian hated it when he did that. Buck was a quiet, gentle guy but his stare was one of the most terrifying things Christian had seen.
“Baghdad… To Tombstone,” Christian said, swallowing hard to get that lump out of his throat.
“What of it?”
“‘Born in Babylonia,'” Christian quoted. “‘Moved to Arizona.'”
Buck didn’t move a muscle, and yet somehow made himself twice as intimidating. Involuntarily, Christian backed up a step. For a long time nobody moved. A tumbleweed did not roll between the co-workers, but Christian wouldn’t have been surprised if it had. With one last glare Buck turned away.
“Got some bench vices to unpack,” he said, moseying off.
Christian breathed, realising that this was the first time he’d done so in nearly a minute. Unperturbed, Belinda was cleaning under her fingernails with a small chisel.
“So how do you know it was a demon?” Christian said. If Belinda wasn’t going to go away, he felt he should at least make conversation.
“He’s an alchemist,” Belinda said. “I didn’t believe him when he told me, but he’s got it on his business card, so…”
An alchemist. Christian pursed his lips. The Phantasm of the Pavilion had warned him against alchemists. She had despised them with a passion, but had never told him why. Still, someone who knew something about the occult arts might be just what he needed if he was to rescue the Phantasm from her transdimensional glass prison.
“Belinda,” he said, “do you still have this guy’s card?”
She rifled through her purse until she found it, then passed it to him. Christian realised that in all the time he’d known Belinda, that was the first time he’d ever felt grateful to her.