Axel looked down at the pile of glass terrarium bottles he’d just unpacked, and realised that he’d put them all on the wrong shelf. In his frustration, he kicked the base of the shelving unit, which hurt his toe far more than it did the massive steel form of the unit.
Why didn’t Captain Stellar just fight him?
That was the thing. A week before, Stellar had confronted him about the incident with the death ray. He’d guessed everything. Everything!
Axel ought to have known that Stellar would figure it out eventually, once he’d sobered up and pulled himself together. But no, he had been caught flatfooted. His mind had raced, searching for some strategy for fighting Stellar without causing any damage to the Handy Pavilion. But before he’d even finished ironing out the issues with his third contingency plan, Stellar had waved goodbye and walked away.
Ever since then, Axel had been off his game.
“Herr Platzoff? Axel?”
Axel shook his head. It sunk into his brain that Nalda was waving a hand in front of his face.
“Sorry. I was miles away.”
“Apology accepted,” Nalda said. “Metaphor comprehended. Have you been thinking about der issue of der Phantasm?”
The Phantasm! Axel almost smiled. Yes, the Mystery of the Phantasm of the Pavilion. That might serve to distract his mighty brain from Stellar’s – what the Hell was Stellar playing at, anyway?
Axel forced himself to concentrate. “Now, you saw this black-clad figure go into the toilets, yes?”
“But didn’t come out?”
“And you saw it with your own eyes? This isn’t just what Fiona told you?”
Nalda removed her sunglasses. Where her eyes should have been were digital readouts — red, 1980s style digital readouts. “Ja, I see her mit mein own photoreceptors.”
So not a trick of the light, or Fiona’s imagination playing up on her. “Then the logical solution is that there’s a hidden exit from the toilet. Quite aside from the Phantasm, that’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.”
“Ja, but dat is der problem. Ve check. Ve tap on ground, tap on vall, und nothing. Yesterday, Ms Shen gives permission to remove the tiles, so Adam broke the tiles mit a sledgehammer.”
“Adam? Never ceases to amaze me, that guy. What did he find?”
“Nothing. Nothing out of der ordinary at all.”
The problem was an intriguing one. Axel was pretty sure that the Phantasm wasn’t a real ghost. Bruce would have said something otherwise. Even so, there was clearly something very wrong about Stellar just walking away like that. That wasn’t how this worked. When the hero figures out the villain’s plot, there’s a fight. Those are just the rules.
Axel shook his head again, harder this time. Focus, Axel. Focus!
“Do you think it’s dose people,” Nalda said. “You know. Der DIY Barn people.”
“Not their style,” Axel said. “Inasmuch as they have any style at all.”
“Dey make me so angry sometimes, dose Barnlings,” Nalda said. “Sometimes, I just want to go backwards in time and kill—”
“This Phantasm,” Axel said, as much to focus his own mind as to focus Nalda’s, “Clearly has some sort of superhuman ability. I suspect that he can’t teleport, because then he could have escaped from anywhere, with no need to run into the khazi. Maybe there was some portal in the toilet? Some dimensional gateway? That might explain—”
And then Captain Stellar walked past. Just right past. As he got to the corner of the aisle, he turned a little and nodded in a half-interested way, then walked on. He turned again and was gone.
Every muscle in Axel’s body tensed. Who the hell did that guy think he was? Who? Some nobody, a schnook in glasses who thought he was a big deal because he possessed the Power Golden? Did he really just think he could make his own rules like that? Stellar was a superhero, damn it! His job was to enforcing the rules, not making them up.
“Are you all right, Axel?”
Nalda looked concerned — though her ‘concerned’ look was not very different from her ‘sad’ look, or her ‘angry’ look, and all of these looks were mere variants on her ‘impassive’ look.
“Vould you like me to…”
“No, Nalda,” Axel snapped. “I would not like you to go backwards in time and kill that man.”
“Nein, I mean do you want me to get some bandages for your hand.”
Axel looked down. The glass bottle he’d been holding had broken in two, and his hand was bleeding. A moment later, the pain hit his brain and he winced.
“Thank you, Nalda. That would be very kind.”
She assured him she’d be back, leaving him standing there. The riotous whirl of his thoughts prevented his mighty brain from thinking very hard about the question of the Phantasm. His fists clenched and his eyes felt hot.
Kill Stellar? No. Out of the question. There were too many things to do, too many important things. If Stellar attacked, Axel would have to defend himself, but he couldn’t voluntarily extend the conflict to a broken-down retired superhero. And yet, Stellar’s presence was clearly making it difficult to do those other things. Maybe too difficult.
Calm, Axel thought. I need to calm my thoughts. But how?
Axel looked up at the terrarium bottles and laughed. Of course! It was so simple. The Handy Pavilion itself would be his saviour, just as it had been in the past. Nalda was returning with a sterile dressing, but Axel had already forgotten the gash in his palm. He was looking at the bottles and thinking of the aisles and aisles of wood, paint, glue, tools.
“I think I need a hobby,” he told Nalda.