Wellsey had always known about Axel's past. Known about his attempt to rob Fort Knox from orbit. Known about his plan to replace major world leaders with realistic marionettes, to teleport Hobart to the Sahara Desert, to turn the people of Melbourne into walking catfish.
Wellsey knew all that, but still he'd never been afraid of the man. Wellsey was an ex con. To him a scary man was someone with a shank, a grudge and a guard who owed him a favour. Axel was dangerous in a way that Wellsey could barely get his head around.
Now, though… now Wellsey was afraid, but he was afraid for his friend, not afraid of him.
"Hey, Axel," he said. Axel sat at one end of the break room table, cutting cardboard with a craft knife and a straightedge. He barely looked up to grunt his acknowledgement. At the other end of the Formica table, Adam and Belinda sat, pointedly not looking at the former villain. Wellsey sighed and took a seat next to Axel.
"What are you working on?" he said.
Wedding… oh, yes. Wellsey had heard that Zorbar and Carol were finally tying the not. Zorbar must have backed down about it being a traditional chimpanzee ceremony. Last Wellsey had heard, that was the big sticking point for Carol.
"You've, ah, you've been doing a lot of craft lately," Wellsey said.
"No, not so much."
Wellsey looked around the formerly austere room. Once, the only feature on the walls had been the noticeboard and a little halo of white tile surrounding it. Now every inch of stained white walls was covered with something. Pastels, oil paints, mosaics, copper engraving, enamelling, polymer clay, macrame. The little food preparation area was almost unusable, groaning under a pile of painted wooden boxes, glass terraria and popsicle-stick houses full of pipe-cleaner people.
"Uh…" Wellsey said.
"Uh…" he added.
Wellsey rubbed his eyes and breathed in deeply. When he opened his eyes, Axel was applying glitter to his cardboard creation.
"Uh," he said.
"I have a hobby," Axel said. "Is it wrong for a man to have a hobby?"
"Am I violating any staff guidelines?"
"Am I letting it interfere with my work?"
"Well then what's the problem?"
Wellsey felt tired. This place, it was getting to him, wearing him down. Sure, the Phantasm attacks had been dying down and the DIY Barn had mostly been bleeding the Handy Pavillion through legal means rather than sending their goon squad around, but still it was hard to be a manager here.
"Axel, I'm not talking to you as a boss. I'm your friend, too. I'm worried about you, mate."
"That's sweet of you," Axel said, not looking up.
"Damn it Axel, what's wrong?" Wellsey snapped.
Axel looked up at Wellsey. Somewhere in the back of his eyes was one of the circles of Hell.
"Wellsey, things are not right," Axel said.
Wellsey nodded and stepped back.
"The world must work a certain way if it is to make sense," Axel said. "It has been said that 'horror is when flowers sing'. Do you see? Something seemingly advantageous can be awful simply by virtue of being… not right."
Adam and Belinda were looking on with horrified curiosity. Wellsey gestured for them to leave. Axel's hands clutched into fists, released, clutched again. His breathing became more strained until he picked up the craft knife and started forming perfect letters from the card, freehand.
"Okay, Axel, spill it," Wellsey said.
"It's Captain Stellar! He knows!"
Wellsey's bald head crinkled. "What, about firing that death-ray at the DIY Barn? About what happened to Laura?"
"Everything!" Axel said, rifling through a paintbox. "Teal? Maybe teal…"
"Stellar confronted me. Thought he was going to fight me right there. But he just walked off."
Wellsey waited for the next part of the story, but Axel fell silent. That was all that had happened. Axel's arch enemy had waked away.
In Wellsey's wilder days, a cop just walking away would have been the best thing that could have happened… Or would it? Maybe it would have felt weird? Made him paranoid, edgy, wondering when the axe was going to fall?
"I think I see."
"The craft relaxes me," Axel said.
"Axel," Wellsey said. "Listen. I'm not big on the whole villain/hero thing. Back in the bad old days I was probably beneath the notice of even the minor league masked men. But think: when you used to fight Stellar, it was just business. It wasn't a personal grudge, was it? You'd try to steal the Eiffel Tower, he'd stop you. Just business. This time, though, you hurt him on a personal level, yeah? You cost him his career. You created the hero that took his place in the Vigilancers. He doesn't want you in prison, this time. He wants to hurt you."
Axel rubbed PVC glue off of his fingers. "How?"
"You're supposed to be the genius," Wellsey said. "Can't you see he's already done it?"
Axel's hands shook as he packed his craft supplies away in their carry case. He looked at Wellsey with pleading eyes. For a moment, Wellsey thought his friend might be on the verge of pulling himself together. Then Axel shook his head vigorously and hurried out of the break room.
Sighing, Wellsey sat. His hand brushed the folded cardboard thing that Axel had been making. Wellsey picked it up and opened it. A bunch of brightly coloured letters popped up in 3d.
They read: "HELP ME!"