It was Buck Dusty who took the glass skull. Definitely. The security camera footage had been useless, so Christian didn’t know how he knew. But he knew. There had always been something fishy about the guy. Seriously, who wears cowboy hats to work?
Well, cowboys, obviously. Oh, and country singers. And truckers. And corrupt Texan mayors, but also honest Texas rangers. And that one guy in the commando unit who isn’t the hero, but survives for pretty fair while.
Okay, lots of people wear cowboy hats. But even so, Christian didn’t trust Buck an inch. There was just something uncanny about the man. Something eerie had slowly overcome him. When Christian had first joined the Pavilion, Buck had seemed like a friendly, happy sort of cowboy, like in the old movies his Christian’s grandfather had loved. Someone like Audie Murphy or Hoot Gibson. Now, though… Now he didn’t seem so much fun.
It was easy for Christian to sneak off to spy on Buck. His supervisor, Ali, was distracted. All the staff were distracted. Something had gone down at Zorbar and Carol’s party the night before, and a fearful uncertain pall hung over the entire Handy Pavilion. Something about that idiot Karl Wintergreen getting hurt. Christian didn’t care about the details, but he was happy to make use of the license it gave him.
He found Buck out the back, playing a mournful tune on a harmonica in a shady little cul-de-sac between a pile of discarded pallets and a broken down forklift. Christian considered confronting him directly. After all, the cowboy was holding a bag which could have been big enough to contain the skull… But no. Christian found that he didn’t trust his instinct as strongly as he might have. Instead of marching out in front of the guy, he found a hollow in the unevenly stacked pallets and watched through a narrow slit.
What was Buck up to? What was he doing?
A newcomer joined Buck in his hidey hole. It took all of Christian’s strength not to cry out or move. It was Mr Smith! The manager of the DIY Barn. For all that he’d willingly participated in the Phantasm’s schemes, Christian was at least enough of a Pavilionite to fear and suspect the Barnlings.
“Good morning, Mr Dusty,” Smith said, extending a hand. “How are you this morning?”
Buck put away his harmonica, but did not take the offered hand. “Hot. Too many flies.”
Smith looked annoyed, but he soldiered on. His presence of mind returning, Christian slowly, slowly began slipping his phone from his pocket.
“I hear Mr Wintergreen had an… unfortunate accident,” Smith said.
“I hear one of your boys shot him,” Buck drawled. “Did a bad job, too.”
Smith reddened. Christian had his phone ready, but realised that he didn’t dare take a photo. The noise might give him away… Voice recorder! Yes! That was even better. He turned it on, and stood still as a statue.
“You think you could have done better?” Smith said.
“I reckon there’s some things a man can do by halves,” Buck said. “Killin’ ain’t one of ’em.”
“In a way, I’m glad to hear you say that. I hear Wintergreen has stabilised. I need him finished.”
“I reckon even your boys can take care of a man in bed, and missin’ half a yard of his guts.”
“I need you to do it, Mr Dusty.”
“Mr Dusty was my paw,” Buck said.
“I really don’t have time for…”
“You can call me Dr Dusty,” Buck continued. “I didn’t spend all them years workin’ on my dis-eert-ation to be Mr Dusty.”
Smith blinked helplessly and brushed flies off his rapidly reddening face. “Damn it, you have to finish Wintergreen off. He knows too much. Your organisation…”
“COWBO has done plenty for you already,” Buck said. “The Grey Barn may be aligned with the Barn of Shadows, but does not serve it.”
Glad I got that recorded, Christian thought. Hate to have to figure out what this means as I go.
“You know I don’t buy any of that mystical nonsense,” Smith said. “I don’t care why COWBO is supporting us, I need Wintergreen done away with. And yes, damn it, you’re right. I can’t trust my people. Subtlety isn’t their strong suit. Can’t have them creeping into a hospital.”
It was hot in his alcove. Sweat was pouring from Christian so badly, he was barely able to hold onto his phone. A fly landed on his upper lip. He snorted through his nose as hard as he dared, but the stubborn insect only took this as an invitation to wander about a little. Christian wished he hadn’t shaved that morning. Some stubble would at least be some protection against the fly’s tickling feet.
“Well that’s too bad, hoss,” Buck said. “Your boys are all you’ve got right now. I ain’t never shot a man in the back. Ain’t planin’ to start with a man in a hospital gown. They got enough to reason to watch their backs already.”
“Well then what the hell am I going to do?” Smith wailed.
Christian tried to push the fly off his upper lip using his lower lip. It did not go well.
Buck sighed. “Find a killer that ain’t too perticerlar about who he kills, is my advice. Or step up your plans so that you’ve won before Karl can talk. Or you could be a man and do the job yourself.”
“Now look, you…” Smith began.
And then the fly went into Christian’s nose.
He sneezed loudly, finally managing to dislodge the creature, but he also reflexively jerked a hand that was holding onto a badly, stacked pallet. The decaying pine of the side gave way, causing the pile to lean alarmingly. Buck and Smith spun around to look. Christian turned to run, but his feet got tangled up and he fell onto his face. Somehow holding onto a scrap of presence of mind, he slid his phone along the ground. It came to rest under the forklift. Looking back, he expected to see the tower of pallets collapsing towards him. It swayed back and forward, then came to an anticlimactic stop.
Smith came bustling around to Christian, his face redder than ever, his shirt suddenly soaked with sweat. Buck followed behind at a mosey, rolling a cigarette as he walked. Smith tried to say something, but his words were swallowed by the sound of his gasping for air. Buck put the cigarette in his mouth and drew a gun from his apron pocket.
“Reckon you’re going to stay put and keep quiet?” Buck said.
Christian nodded before stugling to his feet. Help was only metres away, but he didn’t like his odds if he cried out.
“What have you done with my Skull?” Christian said.
“Nothin’ — yet,” Buck said, whacking Christian’s head with the gun. Christian’s brain was full of angry digital fire for a second, then he crumpled to the ground again, dazed but not unconscious.
“Oh, good one,” Smith said. “You know, we could have walked him out of here at gunpoint. Now we have to carry him.”
“I was supposed to leave a line like that hanging?” Buck said.
“Yeah, I guess that was pretty badass. What skull was he talking about?”
“Beats me. Come on, let’s get him out of here.”