"Have you noticed Ms Shan's hair?"
Axel looked up from the cans of grout he was stacking at Norman, who leaned wistfully against the mighty shelves.
"I have not noticed Ms Shan's hair, particularly," Axel said. "What is it about her hair that I ought to have noticed?"
"It's very black," Norman said.
"Well, she is Indian," Axel said. "Black hair rather comes with the territory."
"So black," Norman shighed. "Like a really black car. But not one of those matte black ones, though. Her hair is shiny."
"I quite like those matte black cars," Axel said. "I'm thinking of buying one, as soon as the International Court of Justice lifts my driving ban."
"Well it's not that sort of black anyway," Norman said, tetchily. "It's shiny black. Like… like a really black stereo."
Axel dusted his hands and stood. "Norman," he said. "I am not the smartest man in the world. That honour belongs to Brainekles. In fact, on the world intelligence rankings, I come in a distant forth--tied with Dr Escarpment, the Man with the Clockwork Mind. Given my limited cognitive resources, it might be better if you just explained yourself directly, rather than leaving me to guess."
"Yeah, I get it," Norman said. "You aren't interested in her hair. But have you noticed her eyes?"
Axel stopped dead where he stood. "Norman, are you in love?"
"No!" Norman said. "Yes. Well, maybe."
"The reason I ask is that you've known Ms Shan for over a year now, and this is the first time I've ever heard you say anything positive about her," Axel said. "In fact the last time you mentioned her at all, she'd just turned down your request for leave and you said some very unkind things about her."
Norman reddened in anger. "Well, I didn’t know her then."
"You planning on working today, Norm?" Norman's supervisor Ali called from the end of the aisle. "That something you think you might want to do?"
"Yeah, keep your hair on," Norman said, hiking up his pants and strolling off.
Axel shook his head. The boy was growing on him, but this was stupid even by his standards. Ms Shan was twice his age, and out of his league in every way – smarter, richer, more professional. Then there was the religious issue. Ms Shan was a non-practicing Hindu, whereas Norman came from a very different background indeed.
Putting the issue aside as a young man's folly, Axel went back to his work. It was a middling busy day, and there was a lot to do. He buried himself in the mundane detail of his menial work, and for a while he was happy. Then he met the man in the white suit.
He'd seen the fellow around the centre, and thought little of him except that he disliked the man's taste in clothes. Now the man walked right up to him and tipped his ridiculous little straw hat.
"Excuse me, are you Axel Platzoff?"
"That's right," Axel said.
"I'm Karl Wintergreen. I write the centre newsletter."
Axel had never cared for journalists. When there was something he had wanted to put before the public, he had always preferred to simply take over all the television broadcasts and deliver his ultimatum that way.
"Oh, you're the guy," Axel said.
"Yes. Mostly, I'm owner/manager of the Stationary Station, over by the kebab shop, but I'm also on the Centre management committee, and of course I put out the newsletter."
"Stationary…" Axel said. "Oh, yes, the stuff we used to use before we had devices. How's that going? Shift a lot of… It's so hard to remember… Shift a lot of parchment? Typewriter ribbon? Sealing wax?"
"Your hostility is unnecessary."
"I wanted to ask you about the heist the other week."
Axel's poker face became so hard it could have stopped bullets. Seriously? The police, the real media, Captain Stellar, all of them had overlooked Axel as a suspect. And this idiot figures it out?
"I assume that this is in reference to my past," he said. "I am a law abiding citizen, and in addition I can account for my whereabouts…"
"No, no, no, you have me all wrong," Karl said. "No, I just wanted your insight on the crime. As an expert witness as it were. I didn't think you did it, Mr Platzoff. You? The man who tried to crash the International Space Station into the Beijing Olympics? The man who forced President Obama to fight President Dracula from Monster Earth? No, surely such no villain of your standing would commit such a petty and mundane crime."
It took all of Axel's self-control to keep himself from laughing. The old ego-trap? Badmouth the crime, until the villain begins to stand up for it? That one was old when Dick Tracy was in short pants. One smart guess, that was all Wintergreen had. He didn't really have the investigative chops to back it up.
"Ah, I see what you mean," Axel said. "Well, I'd like to help, but I am trying to put all that sort of stuff in the past. Perhaps if you put me down as an unnamed source?"
"That does somewhat detract from the 'straight from the horse's mouth' aspect I was going for," Karl said.
"I see. Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you."
Axel watched Karl turn and walk away. So that was the standard of arch-nemesis you got when you were committing crimes of this low level. What was worse, he found he had to clench his teeth to avoid boasting about his dastardly crime.
That was the thing about the ego-trap. It worked.
The rest of the day was busy, so busy that Axel barely had another thought for either Norman or Karl again. A customer dropped and broke a fertilizer bag, and Axel had to organise a group to clean up the mess before it stank up the place. What was worse was that one of the big ceiling fans faltered and died and the rising heat met the rising stink, which made nobody happy.
At last, weary, exhausted, Axel managed to find some time to sneak out the back amongst the splintery piles of palates for a well-deserved smoke. He had the place to himself, and he looked through the gaps in the buildings towards the DIY Barn, but he was too exhausted to consider the next stage in his campaign. Sighing, he drew a cigarette from his pocket, and no sooner had he wrapped his lips about the paper tube than he fell to the ground, stars before his eyes.
He struggled back to his knees, before being was dragged upright. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a flash of silver, like a fire blanket or something. In front of him, though was a short bald man in a white shirt and grey pants.
"Ah, Mr Platzoff, we meet at last," the man said.
Seriously? "We meet at last?" Axel would have laughed if he could. You do not pull the old "we meet at last" dressed in business casual.
Still, play along for now. "I believe you have the advantage, Mr…"
"Smith," the man said. "I am Senior Manager at the DIY Barn."
"Nice to see you Smith," Axel said. "Now I won't have to walk all the way to the Barn to complain about the faulty Dremel you sold me."
Smith nodded to the man in the corner of Axel's vision, in the silver uniform, who swung around and punched Axel in the gut.
"You wouldn't happen to know anything about an armoured car heist would you, Mr Platzoff?" Smith said. His voice was high and nasal. Without his goon--who knew how to throw a punch, all right--Smith would seem no more threatening than a sponge.
"Only what I read in the newsletter," Axel said. Damn! The newsletter. If Wintergreen was investigating, he might have told his suspicions to Smith. Still, the man had nothing to go on but a hunch, which meant Smith had nothing to go on except hearsay of a hunch, and that had to be even less…
The rear door of the DIY Pavilion opened and Nalda from Paints came out, clutching a something that looked like a steel cigarette with an antenna sticking out of it.
"Vat is going on?" she said.
Smith glared at the silver-clad man. "I thought I told you to secure the door?"
"Oh," the silver man said, muffled by his helmet. "That door."
"It's okay, Nalda," Axel said. "Just a really amateurish shakedown."
"Which door did you think I meant?"
"I thought you were saying that my fly was open."
"Oh for…" Smith ran a hand over his bald head. "Okay, Platzoff. Consider this a warning. We're not Captain Stellar, okay? Cross us, and you'll get worse than a little punch on the jaw and a short prison stay, savvy?"
"Yeah," the silver man said. "We'll mess you up, dreadfully."
"Dreadfully," Smith sighed. "Come on!"
Smith and his goon made their exit towards the Place O' Pets carpark.
Nalda seemed to be over her initial shock, and was down the stairs to Axel in a moment. "Are you all right?"
"Fine, thanks, Nalda," he said. "Just a small problem, soon fixed. Thanks for showing up when you did."
"If dere is a problem, I could travel backwards in time and kill…"
"Thank you, Nalda, I don't think that'll be necessary," Axel said. He watched Smith and his goon vanish and shook his head.
"They didn't know anything," he said out loud. "Not really. This was just a fishing expedition. But they'll keep looking, and if they find proof…"
Nalda's donned a pair of dark glasses. "Dey'll be back."
"Yes, Nalda," Axel said. "Yes, I daresay they will."