Axel sat in the loading dock. It was nearly midday and it was as hot as an oven. A little drop of sweat made its way down his face to the point of his chin. It hung there for a moment, then dropped down to the green collar of his Handy Pavilion shirt, where it soaked into the fabric. Axel ignored it. His eyes were focused on a spot between the Place O’ Pets’ building and a parked truck. He could only see a little sliver through this gap – a busy roadway, and beyond that a small section of concrete wall, painted an unpleasant yellow.
The DIY Barn.
“Hot out, eh?”
Axel was aware of the voice in the same way he was aware of the drops of sweat down his face--there, but distant from his thoughts. He heard his own voice reply: “Going to get hotter, they say.”
“Sounds about bloody right.”
Axel did not look around. The other voice belonged to Norman, an affable idiot who worked in Power Tools. From what Axel could gather, Norman had wanted to work in hardware ever since he had been a small child. Is a man who has achieved his life’s ambition at the age of eighteen a man to be envied or pitied? Axel didn’t know, and didn’t care to think about it.
Norman continued to make polite conversation and Axel devoted as little brainpower as possible to answering. Fortunately, the boy was only talking about tennis. Axel had long since developed a simple algorithm for holding his own in tennis conversations. Lucky the lad wasn’t keen on cricket. Even with all his genius, Axel found cricket simply baffling.
Axel’s mouth was saying something about clay courts when he saw it. The armoured van. He checked his watch. 11.43. The van was not quite regular, varying it's arrival time by as much as twenty minutes. That would have to be accounted for in the plan.
Not that the plan was well formed at this point. It couldn't be close to any of his previous schemes or he'd be the prime suspect. Something low key then. Sleeping gas? No, security guards tended to carry rebreathers these days... what then?
"Freeze rays?" Norman said.
Axel reddened, realising he'd been muttering out loud.
"It's nothing," Axel said.
"Don't worry, mate. You should hear some of the shit that goes on in my head when I have a brainfart, hey?"
Charming. Still, the lad didn't seem concerned or curious, and that was what mattered.
The van left. It had been there for five minutes fewer than usual. Axel shook his head. This was why he'd stuck to world domination. It took big, grandiose schemes, not the sort of intricate complexity you need for a heist.
Axel took a cigarette, and offered another to Norman, who declined.
"Oh," Norman said. 'That big guy was asking after you.'
Axel’s spine went cold. "Which big guy?"
"Don't know his name. He's in here pretty often. He keeps breaking shit and claiming it was like that when he bought it. You know, you were talking to him last week. He looks a bit like Captain Stellar--if Stellar wore glasses, but."
"What did you tell him?"
"He asked about your promotion. I said that you pretty much had it, since Gino quit when they cut his hours and Mags went over to the DIY Barn. He seemed pretty stoked for you."
The door opened and Marlon stuck his head out. "Norman? A word."
The lad popped back inside. Axel felt sorry to see him go. He sucked angrily on his cigarette. There was something about the shirts that Handy Pavilion made its employees wear. In some troublesome way, it made the wearers more… solid? That wasn’t quite the right word, but it would do. People wearing them held Axel’s attention in a way that most people did not.
It was confusing.
Axel finished his smoke and stubbed it out with the toe of his work boot. As he did, the cracked red fire door opened again, and Norman slumped out. Something was wrong. To his surprise, Axel found himself asking what the problem was even before working out how to use Norman's state to his advantage.
"They're going to fire me," Norman said. He was clearly holding back tears. Axel wasn't quite sure how to react.
"Aren't they happy with the job you're doing?"
"It's not that. It's DIY Barn." He seemed to have more to say, but clamped his mouth shut. He didn't have to say any more. Axel knew what was going on. Layoffs. Last on, first off. That put two heads right on the chopping block - Norman's and Fiona's.
That gave Axel two immediate allies. Norman would be of moderate value, but Fiona could be a real help to his plan. He smiled. His desire to help his coworkers and his more natural desires seemed to be coming back into line. He wiped the sweat off his brow with the back of his hand. Yes, Norman and Fiona could be persuadable.
Depending on how many people Marlon would be letting go at once, Donna in Lighting would be next in line. But recruiting her would mean crossing Sadie, the formidable Lighting team leader, and he wasn’t ready for that. Not yet. Belinda? The checkout operator with the terrible jokes? Marlon would be happy to let go of her, but she had seniority over a number of the people in Gardening…
"So, you planning on robbing the DIY Barn?"
It wasn’t just the words that made Axel flinch, it was Norman’s tone. It was conversational, as if he were asking what Axel was doing on the weekend, or whether he could lend him twenty until payday.
"Mate, I might not be the sharpest tool in the shed," Norman said, "But you see a supervillain eyeing armoured cars and talking about freeze rays, you don’t have to be a genius to do the maths on that one. If you’re going for it, I’m in. Don’t worry, I don’t want the money. You got to launder it and shit and like on Breaking Bad. Looks complicated. No, I just want to take those smug bastards down a peg."
Behind Axel’s sternum and above his solar plexus, he felt an unfamiliar warm feeling. It felt odd, wrong, out of place, and yet it was strangely pleasant. His felt his face crinkle.
What was it about those shirts?