It was almost a week before Christian saw Pennington again. This wasn’t good news. Christian was holding onto his job by a thread, and he was terrified that he’d be fired before he could speak to the alchemist.
A whole dozen people had been fired. Low performers, chronic latecomers, suspected pilferers. To be fair to Ms Shan, she didn’t play favourites – though to be unfair, that might just be because she never remembered anyone’s name. Only a couple of weeks before, Christian would have thought himself invulnerable to anything less than a complete shutdown of the Handy Pavilion, but his KPIs were all down since the Phantasm’s disappearance. He might have escaped the last round of layoffs, but the next round would take him out.
He needed Pennington’s help before that could happen.
It was a quiet Wednesday, although the word ‘quiet’ was both redundant and misleading. Every day was quiet in the Pavilion, and yet they were so understaffed that the workers were always busy. It couldn’t have been good business, letting customers in a near empty store going unserved, but that was what was happening.
The appearance of Pennington jolted Christian out of his idle thoughts. He hurriedly rang up change for a customer and told Ali that he was going for a break. Ali, who was in the middle of a conversation with a man buying a scroll-saw, was too occupied to tell him ‘no’. With a final glance at the glass skull under his desk, Christian trotted off after Pennington.
On a sudden inspiration, Christian took a photo of Pennington’s shopping trolley, then zig-zagged around a display of tomato frames to meet Pennington coming past hinges and fasteners.
“Excuse me, sir, can I have a word?” Christian said.
Pennington stopped and glared at Christian. He was a forty-ish gent with greying ginger hair. Christian didn’t know much about fashion, but every stitch on the man read ‘upper middle class’. The way he walked said ‘cadets but no actual military service’, the smirk on his face proclaimed a man who’d spend more on a bottle of wine than Christian would spend on a meal for two.
Was it too much to ask for an alchemist to be a hippie drop-out? Christian sucked down his contempt. This was good. This was usable. Know your customer– that’s how you sell.
“Can I help you?”
“That’s what I’m hoping,” Christian said. “Word is, you’re an alchemist?”
“That’s right,” Pennington said, handing Christian a card. “No offense intended, but I must warn you my fees are quite high…”
Christian suppressed a shudder of anger. “And well earned, I bet. But I was wondering if you could do me a little favour. A consultation. Don’t know if you can help, but if you could give me some advice. If you’re in the magic biz, maybe you can put me onto someone who can…”
Pennington stiffened. Yes! Ego. That’s the key to your Eastern Suburbs punter. Well, it’s the key to everyone, sooner or later, but it works a lot quicker with your Scott’s-old-boys types. “Perhaps if you tell me what the problem is I can tell you if I can be of help.”
“Well, it’s to do with a glass Skull,” Christian said. “It was powering this little pocket dimension, I reckon, but it’s not powering it any more. Friend of mine got trapped inside.”
“Well, your dimension will be cactus,” Pennington scoffed. “Hope you didn’t leave anything valuable inside. But I miiiiight be able to get your friend back. He’ll be in a sort of limbo, probably. I could make a dimensional bridge. As long as he hasn’t wandered too far into the void, he should be able to come back.”
“You have the power to do that?” Christian said, just the right note of awe in his voice.
“The power is in the Skull,” Pennington said. “All I have to do is channel it. It’s doable…”
Laura Cho came past, walking hard in pursuit of a fleeing Axel Platzoff, both screaming at each other in Cantonese. Christian’s terrible mistress, the Phantasm, had a particular dislike for both Axel and Laura but, of course, had never explained why. The thought of the Phantasm made Christian sigh. He missed her. He really missed her.
Pennington cleared his throat, clearly not happy at having the wind taken out of his sails in mid smarm. “Like I said, it’s doable… but very expensive.”
“Couldn’t you do it pro bono?” Christian said. “I mean, if you can turn lead into gold…
“That’s really more of a metaphor,” Pennington said. “For how expensive alchemical services are. Quite expensive. Yes. Very, very expensive.”
Christian nodded. “I have a brother in the Federal Police.”
“Are you trying to blackmail me?” Pennington shrugged. “Well, I think you’ll find that witchcraft is no longer a criminal offense.”
Reaching into his pocket, Christian retrieved his phone. “That’s a photo of your trolley. Looks kind of like the sort of supplies you’d be buying if you were running an ice lab. I bet the security footage shows a lot of your shopping trips look like that.”
“Ice!” Pennington smiled. “I can make subtle and exotic potions that make ice look like weak tea.”
“Sure you can, but my brother doesn’t know that.”
“If he investigates, he’ll find nothing,” Pennington sneered. “Is that all you have to work with? The threat of petty official inconvenience?”
“Yeah,” Christian said. “And me? That petty inconvenience wouldn’t threaten me. I’m used to inconvenience. But my guess is, you’re not. My guess is, a bunch of AFP clodhoppers going to your house would find nothing. But try explaining them to your missus and your neighbours.”
Pennington’s face darkened.
“Look, like you said: making this bridge is not hard to do, and you’re not using any of your own power,” Christian said. “You won’t be out of pocket, and you’ll be helping someone who never did you any harm get out of limbo.
Pennington frowned at a pile of jerry-cans, as if they were the ones who’d bamboozled him. He breathed in deeply. Come on! All right, you’re not happy — but it’s costing you nothing but pride, and you have plenty of that to spare.
“Ten dollars,” Pennington said, at last.
“I’ll help you, but it won’t be free, it will cost ten dollars. It’s a nominal fee, but it’s what’s called a ‘consideration’, and it means we have a contract. Contracts are very important in my line of work.”
Christian dug a five dollar note and a handful of change out of his jeans. As they walked back to the power tools counter, Pennington counted every coin, before tossing the silver in the charity box that was chained to the key cutting desk.
“You support ‘UFO Abductees for 9/11 Truth?'” Christian said, squinting at the box’s label.
Pennington reddened slightly. “I’ll spend my money as I wish,” he said. For emphasis, he dropped the gold coins in, too.
Back at power tools, Ali was clearly ready to give Christian several pieces of his mind. Seeing Christian with a customer, he demurred. Christian went behind his desk and…
“Gone!” he wailed. “My skull… my skull!”
“Settle down!” Ali snapped. “Not in front of customers.”
“Where’s my skull?” Christian wailed, only quieter this time.
“Shit, mate, did some prick take your paperweight?” Ali said, actually sympathetic. “Too bad, that looked expensive.”
“Did you see who took it?”
“If I saw, I wouldn’t let ’em take it, would I?”
Christian dropped his head into his hands. He was roused from his despair by Pennington tapping on his shoulder. “Well, I did my best, not my problem now, ‘kay, thanks, goodbye.”
Christian’s head rose up, meeting the startled alchemist’s eyes. “Oh, no! You’re under contract remember? I find that skull and you’re doing the deed. Consideration, remember?”
“Or,” Pennington said, his voice dripping condescension, “I could just give you your money… Shit!”
There was nothing in his pocket but a crumpled fiver. He reached into his wallet, only to find it full of cards but completely bare of folding money. “Shit!” he repeated.
Christian looked up to the nearest security camera, and knew what he had to do.