It was a Saturday morning, and the hot sun beat down on the hardware centre. The centre’s air conditioning struggled to put up a fight, but it was still anyone’s battle.
Axel Plazoff was restocking a shelf of caulking guns, when out of the corner of his eye he spotted a familiar face. It was a handsome face, screwed up in an expression of concentration, and it belonged to a big man who examined the label on a can of exterior varnish with the intensity of a bomb-disposal expert wondering which wire to snip.
Oh God. It was Captain Stellar-- not in his uniform, just a t-shirt, shorts and sandshoes. Please, Axel thought. Please don’t let him recognise me.
Before he could get away, Stellar was walking towards him. “Excuse me, is this okay to use this on spruce… Oh, my God! Professor Devestato! Haha! How are you?”
“Hello, Captain,” Axel said.
“Oh, small world. Of course, not as small as it would be if I hadn’t destroyed your shrink ray! Been up to your old tricks?”
“No,” Axel sighed. “I’ve been legit since escaping from the Barrier Dimension.”
Stellar grimaced. “Yeah. Look, I’m sorry I had to imprison you there, but if that gluon bomb had…”
His apology was cut short by a teenager asking Axel for directions to the spray paint.
“So, anyway,” Stellar said when the pimply youth had gone, “I guess you landed on your feet? Working at Handy Pavilion? Must be a blast for someone as into DIY as you.”
There was a long pause, underscored by the distant whine of a bandsaw demonstration. “There’s an assistant shift supervisor position coming up,” Axel said. “I was thinking of applying.”
“That’s great. I might be moving into management myself. The chairmanship of the Vigilancers will be opening up, once Aquaticwoman returns to Lost Lemuria.”
There was another pause, more awkward than the first. It was broken by the sudden arrival of a man carrying a huge terracotta planter like it was made of papier-mâché.
“Vincent, did you get the varnish?” he called.
“Len! look who I ran into?” Stellar replied. “Professor Devestato!”
“Pleased to meet you Professor,” the newcomer said. “I’m Cycloman, the Human Cyclone. Vincent told me all about you. You must have nearly conquered the world, what, six times?”
“Seven. Nice to meet you, Cycloman.”
Yet another pause. The expectant silence gnawed on Axel’s brain. Must… make… small-talk…
“So are you two… you know… uh…”
“That’s right,” Stellar said. “Five years, come August.”
“Hm. It’s just that I always assumed that… uh… you and Galactic Lad…”
Cycloman stifled a laugh. Captain Stellar reddened. “I really don’t know how these things start,” Stellar said. “He’s a minor, he’s my nephew, and he’s straight. You do the maths.”
“I think Rory… I mean Galactic Lad is dating Swamp Girl from the Teen Brigade,” Cycloman added.
“No, they broke up. He’s been seeing Atomicina, lately.”
“Good. She’s more his type.”
“You think? I always thought he and Senorita Ocelota…”
Axel sighed a sigh of the damned. Stellar probably didn’t notice, but Cycloman diplomatically drew the encounter to a close. “Sorry, Professor,” he said. “Listen to us gassing on! You have work to do, and we have to get going if we’re going to make it to lunch at the Astoundings’. See you!”
Axel forced a smile the pair left. The instant they were gone, he quick-marched to the break room. Locking himself in the staff toilet, he propped himself against the sink, hyperventilating.
For the hundredth time that day, there arose unbidden from the depths of his mind an image of himself, seated on a throne of skulls that rose from a sea of blood on a burning Earth. For the hundredth time that day, he pushed the image down, down, down.
He wanted a cigarette. He wanted a vodka. Most of all he wanted to lock Captain Stellar in a sealed room, and laugh and laugh as the room slowly filled with water.
He shook his head hard to clear it, and splashed some water on his face. Back in the break room, he ran into Marlon, the floor manager. Marlon was a big man with a face like a mugshot. He sat smoking at the Formica table, occasionally flicking his ashes into an ashtray that he’d made from the room’s ‘no smoking’ sign.
“Slow day, huh?” he asked. Axel nodded automatically.
“It’s that new DIY Barn that opened down the road,” Marlon said. “They’re cutting into our business badly. Between you and me, I might have to let some of the newer people go.”
Axel breathed in sharply. His eyes closed. When they opened again, they were full of icy fire.
He reached out and took a cigarette from Marlon’s pack. His hands no longer shook. Ignoring his supervisor’s disapproving glare, he lit up and breathed in the blue smoke. Cheap supermarket cigarettes. Good enough for now.
“The DIY Barn comes for what is ours,” he said. “Let them come. They will be… dealt with.”
“Dealt with?” Marlon laughed.
“Oh, yes,” Axel said. “Most severely.”
Marlon cast an appraising eye over Axel, and what he saw made him frown. “Axel,” he said. He spoke evenly, carefully. He may have looked like an extra from a gangster picture, but Axel knew Marlon was a diplomat at heart.
“Axel, you know what your probation officer told you. You know what she told me, for God’s sake. Maybe turn it down a notch, yeah? You’re beginning to scare me.”
His words withered under Axel’s glare.
“Yes,” Axel said. “It is only the beginning.”