[5 PM, TUESDAY, ON A STEAM LOCOMOTIVE IN SOUTHERN MONTANA]
Wendy Watson wished for the third or fourth time that she’d thought to put her hair up before they’d climbed onto the top of the train. “Isn’t this a little too action-hero-y, even for us? Running across the back of some overgrown nine-year-old’s Lionel set?” she shouted over the clatter of the wheels below them and the rush of the fifty-mile-an-hour wind.
“You meet the bad guys where they are, Dubbie,” the Middleman replied, somehow managing to sound matter-of-fact despite having to shout. “Preferably before they find an inconvenient tunnel.” He turned to face her and dropped into the space between two cars; she sighed and crept forward, clambering down the ladder behind him.
There was, predictably, a mook just inside the door to the coal car. She watched as her boss expertly kicked him in three pressure points and then tossed the unconscious henchman towards her, getting the thumb-ties out just in time to secure him. Then she noticed something. “Hey, he’s not armed,” she noted aloud; it was almost as noisy in here as on the top of the train.
The Middleman shook his head. “They wouldn’t take a risk on igniting the coal dust in here, and neither should we. We’ll have to rely on hand-to-hand techniques to nail the Rail Baron. Stay close, and keep an eye out.”
The space between the coal car and the engine compartment was dark and blanketed with smoke; Wendy snapped on the Middlelight as her boss dropped to one knee and whipped out the lock-picks. The tumblers clicked almost immediately. She scowled and wiped a streak of soot off of her cheek. “Too easy?” she mouthed; loud enough to hear out here might be audible in the engine itself.
“Expecting us,” the Middleman mouthed back. “Probably won’t shoot at the coal car. Keep between it and the Baron.” Without standing, he kicked the door open; orange light and another gout of smoke rolled out.
“So,” giggled a nervous baritone voice, “the Middleman and his lovely assistant have come for me at last.” The Rail Baron peeked at them from between two copper-plated boilers that reached from floor to ceiling, nearly knocking off his stovepipe hat; his long waxed mustache trembled as he spoke. “Do you really think you can keep this train from reaching San Francisco with its precious cargo?”
“We’ve done that already.” The Middleman whipped a remote from his pocket, pointed it behind him, and pressed the button; a small explosion sounded somewhere behind them. The engine jerked, then began to speed up. “The boxcars will come to a stop somewhere in Gillikin Valley, where the Department of Transportation is already on their way to come pick them up. You’re through, Baron. Now, are you going to come quietly?”
“Surely you know better than to ask that question by now. Has anyone ever actually taken you up on it?” The Rail Baron twirled the tip of his Vandyke beard. “And surely you don’t think I’d be up here alone, without a single guard?” He reached up with both hands, and slapped the boilers twice. “Get them, my minions!”
With remarkable speed for their size, the two boilers unfolded into a pair of rotund golems that stood and staggered towards them, clicking, ticking, and creaking as they came. The Middleman stepped to the left and assumed the Tiger Claw stance. “Dubbie, see if you can get past them and nab the Baron; I’ll take care of these kettle-bellies,” he barked.
It wasn’t quite that easy; the portly robots moved much faster than they looked. Wendy dodged and tried to trip the left one, and got nothing but a bruised ankle for her trouble. “Great, well-balanced clockwork guards,” she muttered, ducking under a galvanized uppercut.
“If they were iron, they’d rust,” the Middleman noted as he caught a copper-plated leg and spun the golem a quarter-turn. “What’s copper’s weakness? Electroplating?”
Instead of responding, Wendy dove for the floor and somersaulted between her robot’s legs, popping up just behind him. Reaching up just above her head height, she made a grab for a protrusion in the middle of the golem’s back. She missed, jinked right, and made another jump shot; this time her aim was good. She turned the flat piece vertical and yanked, hard; the key came out in her hand, and the golem whirred to a halt. "They're overgrown wind-up toys!" she shouted over the engine's clatter.
“Excellent work!” The Middleman did a reverse-judo flip, hauling himself over his robot’s shoulder and landing flat on both feet as Wendy jockeyed for position. “Alley oop!” He held out both hands linked; she set the ball of one foot firmly in his palm and accepted the boost to above the robot’s shoulders. The second key came out with ease.
“Nooooo!” The Rail Baron dropped to his knees. “Now my mighty empire of steam and clockwork will never come to pass!”
“You’d never make America forget the miracles of electricity, gasoline, and diesel, no matter how much hypnotic vapor you released into the atmosphere,” the Middleman stated, tilting his chin towards the roof. “You’re coming with us, Baron. And you’re going to face modern justice, not some Victorian barrister in a powdered wig. Say goodbye to your gilded friends - and your New Gilded Era.” The cuffs came down with a satisfying click.
Wendy nudged the clockwork bodyguard closest to her; it toppled into the other, and they slumped to the floor with a clang. “Say good night, Tik-Tok,” she announced.
[8:39 PM, THE HALLWAY TO THE ILLEGALLY SUBLET FLAT WENDY SHARES WITH ANOTHER PHOTOGENIC YOUNG ARTIST]
Wendy took one last futile swipe at her hair with the comb and stuck it back in her pocket. At least she’d gotten the worst of the wind-snarls out of it. The grating rattled comfortingly as she stepped into her hallway.
“Yo, Wendy Watson,” called a familiar voice from down the hallway.
“Hey, Noser,” she answered with a wave.
“Do you believe?” he asked, shifting his grip on his guitar - an electric this time, a Stratocaster clone, it looked like, with a tiny amp sitting next to him. That was new.
“I’m a believer,” she agreed, heading towards her own door in no particular hurry.
“Gimme something to believe in,” Noser asked, grinning.
“Believe in yourself?”
“Not good enough.” Noser shook his head.
“Believe in me?” Wendy tried again.
“Better,” laughed Noser, “but not what I had in mind.”
“Believe in a thing called love?”
Wendy stopped to think. “Believe in miracles, ‘cause I’m one?”
“Right on. I’ll take it.” Noser started strumming, idly adding notes to a G chord, as Wendy tugged her keys from her pocket and let herself in to the apartment.
Her first thought was that the kitchen had exploded and then been coated in fire-resistant foam. She quickly revised that to a much smaller explosion of what might have been whipped cream, although that still didn’t make much sense - her roommate was vegan. “Lacey, what’s going on?”
Lacey popped up from behind the counter, her hair covered in white fluff. “Oh, hi, Dub-Dub! I was working on trying to make a dessert topping for the Manic Coconut Pie out of whipped tofu, but I got distracted thinking about making kinetic sculptures out of organic whole-wheat bread dough and ran the blender too long, and then wham, tofu foam everywhere.” She rinsed a sponge out in the sink and continued, “And it doesn’t really complement the texture of the pie, either, but I’m thinking it’ll work great as insulation on the bread dough sculptures.” Lacey squeezed the sponge and began wiping down the cabinet doors. “How was work?”
“Not too bad. Put in a little overtime.” Wendy edged around the corner of the counter. “Is it safe to open the fridge?”
“Safe, yeah, but it might still be a little messy,” Lacey conceded. “Hold on a minute.” She tossed Wendy a dishtowel.
Wendy wrapped the towel around the handle, tugged it open, and started poking around the endless stack of take-out containers, looking for one that might still be good. “Is the Soy-Rice Vanilla Frozen Dream really not good enough for the Manic Coconut Pie?”
“I think it is,” Lacey sighed, “but no one else seems to think so. Even you said the texture was a little stiff.” She scrutinized the cabinets, found them adequately clean, and began on the countertop.
“Sure,” Wendy agreed, finally unearthing Sunday’s leftover fried rice, “but the pie’s jiggly, so it all balances out.” She dumped the rice onto a plate and shoved it in the microwave before any of the to-fluff could fall into it.
“True, and it came out a lot better than the Pumpkinhead Pie from a couple of months ago,” Lacey agreed cautiously. She took another swipe at the counters, then stepped back. “I think that’s most of it. I’m going to mop the floor and then go make some sketches for the dough mobile.”
“Sounds good.” Wendy retrieved her meal and headed for the stairs to her studio space.
“Oh,” Lacey added as she hunted in the cabinet for the mop, “Tyler called - he said he’s going with his boss to a last-minute conference in Toronto, but he thinks he’ll be back in time for your breakfast date on Saturday.”
“Yeah, he sent me a text. We didn’t have plans before then, anyway,” Wendy acknowledged. “Good luck with the soy-curd-plosion.”
“Thanks,” Lacey called over her shoulder as Wendy jogged up the staircase.
She parked the leftover fried rice on a folding table and dropped into her chair with a sigh. It was true enough - she and Tyler hadn’t made any specific plans, and both of their jobs had more than their share of last-minute events. Still, it was a little annoying that she wouldn’t see him until the weekend. Suddenly, the reheated takeout seemed less appealing than a pint of ice cream, eaten sulkily in front of the TV.
Good thing there wasn’t any ice cream in the apartment, just the Soy-Rice Vanilla Frozen Dream. Wendy contemplated her latest canvas while picking out the roast pork bits, finally deciding that getting a good night’s sleep for once might clear out some of the creative cobwebs.
[3:42 AM, THE LOFT OF THE ILLEGALLY SUBLET FLAT WENDY SHARES WITH ANOTHER PHOTOGENIC YOUNG ARTIST]
It took Wendy nearly half a minute to realize that the beeping and flashing was coming from the Middlewatch, not her alarm. Groggily, she raised it to her ear. “What’s up?”
“Rise and shine, chickadee - get hopped up on your goofballs or whatever it is you kids are taking these days,” replied Ida’s grating voice at about 110 decibels. “We’ve got some bizarre life signs on the HADAR, and they’re approaching civilization, although,” and here her voice faded slightly as she turned away from the mic, glaring at someone off of the tiny screen, “it doesn’t exactly look like they’re in a hurry.”
The Middleman’s voice was muffled. “Ida, I don’t care if they’re creeping at a snail’s pace - we’re seeing things that shouldn’t be out there!”
“I get it, I get it,” Wendy groaned. “Let me put some pants on and I’ll be out in five.” Something banged on the level beneath her - was Lacey still up? There was a distinct smell of yeast.
“Youngsters,” Ida snorted. “Sleeping with no pants.”
“You don’t even sleep!” Wendy grumbled as she shut off the Middlewatch and crawled out of bed. Hopefully, Lacey would be distracted enough by the contents of the stand mixer not to notice her sneaking out again.
[3:58 AM, THE CAMINO AMARILLO LADRILLO HIGHWAY]
“So what were these weird life signs Ida was picking up?” Wendy asked, as the terrain around her dropped behind the vehicle at an alarming rate.
“We’re not sure,” the Middleman admitted. “What the HADAR was showing was - well, things that were registering as life forms that couldn’t possibly be.”
Wendy swallowed. “Like - the undead? Zombies again? Vampires?”
“More like the vampire puppets,” corrected her boss. “For example, as far as we can tell, the one closest to the town we’re heading towards was a sawhorse.”
“A sawhorse? Like, the wooden thing made of five boards that you block off streets with?”
“Or use to hold logs for cutting, thus the name,” the Middleman agreed. “No internal organs, clearly made of wood, absolutely impossible that it should be moving under its own power - and yet, there it was. Worse, it was registering as warmer than the surroundings, and while it didn’t clearly have a heartbeat, it did appear to be - well, if not breathing, at least trying to take in air.” He looked troubled, his brow furrowing in that peculiarly straight line it took when he faced a foe without adequate information.
Wendy raised an eyebrow. “If it didn’t have a heartbeat, how could it register as alive?”
“I don’t know, Dubbie! But the HADAR clearly indicated that it was.” The Middleman banged the heel of one hand against the steering wheel. “Great Lister’s Ghost, I hope this isn’t some sort of voodoo we’re dealing with here! Magic always raises my hackles.”
Wendy glanced at the electronic map. “How close are we to Smaragdsburg again?”
“Almost there. I think - whoa!” The Middleman yanked the wheel, sending them careening onto the shoulder. The vehicle screeched to a stop in a spray of fine gravel.
Wendy blinked. “Who just leaves a barrier in the middle of the road like that?”
“Not a barrier, Dubbie,” the Middleman said, his voice low. “A sawhorse.”
Wendy debated asking “Seriously?”, but by now, she knew that was futile. She reached for her sidearm with one hand and the door handle with the other. “Well, let’s get it out of the road one way or anoth-”
It was, she reflected as the Middlecar took the brunt of its sudden charge, much faster than she’d been expecting. Good thing Sensei Ping had taught her the Butterfly Feet maneuver.
The Middleman was already out of the driver’s seat, pistol at the ready. He crouched slightly, using the vehicle as cover. “That’s a pretty narrow profile it’s got there, isn’t it?” he mused, squinting a bit.
“Not as bad as the Lost Skeletons of Cadavra we took out a few weeks ago,” Wendy pointed out as she dodged a second charge. The sawhorse’s wooden legs skidded against the loose gravel as it tried to turn around. Wendy edged towards the trunk of the Middlecar, and noted, “I think you have a clear shot before it comes around again.”
“It’s got the turning radius of a six-foot two-by-four,” the Middleman agreed, and fired twice. Splinters scattered across the asphalt. “Uh-oh, Dubbie. I don’t think bullets are slowing it down any.”
“Of course.” She popped the trunk and began rummaging in the massive tool kit. “It’s not like it has vital organs or anything, right?”
“Zombie horde tactics, then.” The Middleman braced himself. “Take out the legs first.”
“Got it,” Wendy stated, brandishing a hatchet. “Get me clear.”
The Middleman looked back, startled. “You can’t be serious, Dubbie!”
“Why not?” she asked. The sawhorse clattered forward; she held steady until it was nearly on her, then performed the Bee-Stung Monkey’s Leap followed by a downward forearm chop. The hatchet impacted the exact middle of the sawhorse’s crossbeam; wood chips flew back and upwards. Something made a squeaky noise, and the sawhorse’s legs scraped against the asphalt. She swung again, and again; on the fourth blow, there was a sharp crack, and the sawhorse split into two pieces.
The Middleman relaxed visibly. “Well, that’s one monstrosity taken care of,” he stated flatly.
“I’m not sure about that,” Wendy said dubiously. “It’s still moving.”
And indeed, it was. The two halves were trying to shuffle towards her; even the chips and splinters were crawling towards the car.
“That’s kind of disturbing,” Wendy stated.
“Obviously, we’re going to have to use the cleansing power of fire to take care of this monstrosity,” the Middleman observed. “Fortunately, I was prepared for the possibility.” He reached into one of his numerous jacket pockets and pulled out a can of lighter fluid. “Do you have -?”
“Yeah, I got it.” Wendy plucked her father’s lighter from her pants pocket and flicked it as the Middleman squirted the squirming lumber; again, something squealed as the flames jumped into the cool night air. “Can these things feel pain?”
“Let’s hope not, Dubbie.” The Middleman climbed back into the car. “I suspect we’ll have to light up a great many more.”
She climbed in and buckled her seat belt. “Um,” she asked, “why aren’t we heading on?”
The Middleman gave her a scolding look. “Dubbie, a Boy Scout never leaves a fire unattended.”
“Right.” She settled her chin on the dashboard to wait.
[5:13 AM, THE TOWN SQUARE OF SMARAGDSBURG]
“The place looks deserted,” Wendy observed. It was true; while there were no tumbleweeds, and the lawns were bright green and neatly manicured, the place might as well have been a ghost town for all the human activity going on.
“Perhaps they’ve all fled from the living impossibilities,” the Middleman suggested. “If we weren’t charged with containing or destroying them, I might well do so myself.”
“The sawhorse wasn’t that scary,” Wendy objected.
“Not by itself, no, but the idea that the wood itself could be impregnated with an unnatural life - Van Leeuwenhoek's Lenses, it’s just against the natural order of things, Dubbie,” the Middleman said, in tones vehement even for him. “It went straight down to the fibers. Even the ashes were still trying to crawl after us until we drove over them a few times. Don’t you think that’s worth being a little scared of, Dubbie?” He turned around. “Dubbie?”
“Not so much,” she replied, trying to sound nonchalant. The yellow VW Beetle that had her pinned between its front bumper and the brick wall of the store behind her rumbled its engine.
“Dubbie, don’t move!” the Middleman ordered. “That thing could snap both your legs.”
“I know,” she said, still forcing her voice to be calm. She looked the Beetle directly in the headlights. “What’s up, Bumblebee? What do you want?”
The car’s engine made a low grumbling sound; it inched towards her.
“Hey, hey, I’m not running away,” she said, trying to smile reassuringly. She reached out and ran one hand along the hood. “I’m right here. If you were trying to kill me, you’d have charged already. So - what do you want? You want me to follow you?”
The engine’s tone raised in pitch; it stopped rolling forward, shuddering a bit.
She stroked the hood again. “What’s the story, huh? Talk to me.”
The engine purred; the Beetle seemed to lift slightly on its shocks to meet her hand.
“Poor thing,” she mused. “All it wants is to be petted.” She kept one hand on the hoot and edged around the front fender; it backed up a few inches to let her out.
The Minuteman appeared on the roof of the building. “Here, Dubbie,” he cried, dropping a coil of rope, “grab on and I’ll haul you up - oh.” He squinted. “I see you’ve made a new friend.
“Looks like it,” she said, as the Beetle brushed her leg with a fender. “I don’t think they’re inherently evil.”
“They’re not,” boomed an amplified voice from the speakers on a gazebo at the center of the town square. “They merely follow my commands to the letter. Apparently I phrased the command incorrectly for that one.” The mint-green gazebo seemed to shake for a second, despite being unoccupied. “Car, crush them under your wheels!”
The engine revved. Wendy stroked the top of the Beetle and leaned down to whisper into its passenger compartment, “Hey, hey, it’s okay. You don’t have to do what he says now. You did what he wanted the first time, right? You’re done.” It resumed its slow purr, shaking slightly.
“Looks like a touch of kindness is doing better than your perverted magic,” the Middleman announced. “Show yourself!”
“Very well.” The floor of the gazebo split and retracted, and a second floor rose from an underground chamber. It was piled with household objects - lamps, ottomans, chairs, tables, even a few butcher’s blocks and dressers - all with fans, palm leaves, folded paper, or something else broad and flat attached, sticking out at odd angles. In the center was a tired-looking old man in grey coveralls and a battered conical hat, holding a microphone and standing on an odd lumpy contraption.
“What is that?” Wendy asked, her nose wrinkling.
“It looks like two sofas, a stuffed moose head, a broom, and a bunch of palm branches,” the Middleman replied. “But that’s not important right now.” He raised his voice and called out, “Who are you, and what in the name of fine upholstery are you doing?”
“You may call me the Mighty Mombi,” the man in grey said, “and this is my army, raised through my wonderful invention, the Powder of Life!” He held up what looked like a large sugar shaker, full of crystalline grains that sparkled lightly in the dawn twilight. “For six years I have stirred four cauldrons to produce this potent potion.”
“And what do you intend to do with it?” The Middleman asked.
Mombi shrugged. “My plan is sheer elegance in its simplicity. I have animated an army of common appliances and furniture. I will travel to the city on their backs, where they will infiltrate every household. Then, when I give the word, they will all strike simultaneously - every house, every apartment, every condo brought to its knees at once!” He smiled, a crooked grin without much mirth. “I will animate the furnishings of those under my command, and grow my army more and more. To our number we will add the tractors of the rural - the trucks of the urban - the planes of the jet-set!” His voice rose in volume and pitch, nearly screaming. “The statues of parks and museums will be mine to command! Who would dare destroy the Thinker, the David? I will be all-powerful!” Suddenly he returned to a conversational level. “Anyway, that’s the plan. I leave you to the predations of the vehicle there. Minions, up, up, and away!”
“Wait!” the Middleman shouted, surging forwards, but the massed appliances on the gazebo platform began beating their fans, fronds, and other protuberances in unison. Slowly, they rose from the ground, swarming around the roof of the gazebo and fluttering westward with a clattering of makeshift wings.
“Those things can fly?” Wendy asked, disbelieving.
“It’s part of the spell,” Mombi called from the middle of the cluster. “Now, onward!” The swarm lifted over the rooftops and disappeared into the low clouds.
The Middleman spat, “Gosh darn it, Dubbie! We have to catch him, but how do we get to the Middlejet in time?”
“They’re not actually going very fast,” Wendy observed. “The magic’s not that good. I think we can drive back in less than the time it’ll take him to fly.”
“You’re right, Dubbie,” the Middleman admitted. “Back to the Middlecar!”
“I think,” Wendy said as the Beetle’s front door popped open, “that splitting up in case they dive-bomb us might be a good idea.”
The Middleman stared at the Beetle. “I don’t trust magically animated German-made economy vehicles,” he stated flatly.
“Don’t worry,” Wendy said, climbing into the driver’s seat. “I’m pretty sure this one was assembled in Mexico.”
[6:03 AM, THE OPPOSITE LANE OF THE CAMINO AMARILLO LADRILLO HIGHWAY]
“Well, the bit about the four cauldrons for six years got a hit, anyway,” Ida’s voice said through the headset. “It’s from an alchemical grimoire, the Locasta Codex, and it’s actually a failed version of the Philosopher’s Stone.” She snorted. “Funny sort of eternal life, if you ask me.”
“Never mind its dubious origins, Ida,” the Middleman’s voice crackled, “how do we defeat it? The usual purifying flames only half-did the trick.”
“Well, looking at the ingredients list,” Ida replied, “I’d guess the net result is made of small rhomboidal crystals, kinda like demonic table salt.”
“Pretty close,” Wendy agreed. She stroked the Beetle’s dashboard; it purred again and kept following the Middlecar.
“In that case, the database claims that to counteract the alchemical properties, you’d need at least three proteins that have had their forms transformed in three different ways.” Ida paused; something whirred in the background. “To defeat the fiendish incantation part, they need to be from three different plants. Looks like it doesn’t matter much which three. Lazy work, if you ask me.”
“Good work, Ida,” the Middleman said heavily. “Start looking for protein combinations we can use.”
“Actually,” Wendy broke in, “let me check on that for you.” She whipped out her phone and pressed an autodial button. “Hey, Lacey? How are those bread mobiles going?”
[9:13 AM, THE PARK-LIKE EMPTY LOT NEXT TO THE ILLEGAL SUBLET WENDY SHARES WITH ANOTHER PHOTOGENIC ARTIST]
“Hey, Wendy Watson,” Noser said, waving casually. “Did you change your work uniform? Love it.”
“Hey, Dub-Dub,” Lacey said, grinning. Her expression softened as her focus changed. “Hi, Sexy Boss Man.”
The Middleman held up the BTRS scanner; it went off with a poing. “I’m terribly sorry, but I’m going to have to ask you to go inside.” He held up a badge with an indecipherable logo. “We’re helping out with the Aeronautics Safety Association today. There’s a piece of space debris,” he pointed at the cloudy sky, “heading straight for us, and we need to clear the area.”
“But what about my art?” Lacey gestured at the formless lump of bread dough, slowly rising under its blanket of soy foam despite the morning’s chill. “I only just got the raw materials together; I haven’t even started sculpting yet!” She turned to Wendy. “It’s going to be an indictment of the automobile industry, how it contributes to pollution and global warming while ignoring the plight of the common worker.”
Noser borrowed Wendy’s binoculars and peered in the direction the Middleman had indicated. “Whoa, yeah, there is something headed towards us.” He squinted. “Looks more like a flock of flying monkeys than a satellite, though.”
“Shoddy Russian design,” Wendy said, retrieving the binoculars and turning him towards the door. “Came apart on re-entry. Lots of moving bits all tumbling together. Come on, guys, clear the area before it hits.”
“We’ll try to ensure as little damage is done to your wheat-based artwork as possible,” the Middleman said to Lacey, an odd tenderness in his eyes as he escorted her inside.
Wendy sighed as she closed the door. “Okay. Gluten stretched by kneading, soy proteins emulsified and untangled by whipping, yeast proteins denatured by the alcohol as it ferments the starch. We should be good.”
“Technically, yeast is a fungus, not a plant,” the Middleman noted. “What’s the car doing?”
“Bumblebee, no!” Wendy ran towards the Beetle as it rolled up to the edge of the dough pile and shook itself, like a dog in slow motion. “What are you doing?”
“Leave the buggy Bug alone, Dubbie,” the Middleman ordered, readying his firearm. The cloud of animated appliances was visible below the cloud line and approaching - well, at moderate speed. “Remember, the goal is to lure them into the pile of pulverized plant proteins.”
Wendy swallowed as something trembled in front of her. “That may not be a problem,” she stated as a long, ropy strand uncoiled from the dough and slapped the Beetle on its front logo.
“Sister Mary Francis and her sacred cousins!” the Middleman yelped. “What did Der Kafer do to our tofu-splattered batter?”
“Never mind that,” Wendy gulped, pointing in the opposite direction, “Mopey Mombi is coming in low and fast!”
The dual-sofa hovercraft swooped between the buildings, followed by ten apartments’ worth of furniture. “How did you know this was the chosen landing site? Ah, nevermind - prepare to die!” Mombi shouted, raising the sugar shaker in one hand. A flurry of kitchen chairs promptly dove for Wendy’s head.
“Right! This way!” she shouted, vaulting backwards. A Shaker-inspired ladderback just missed her and landed directly in the center of the doughball. An angry burble accompanied the belch of gas that rocketed it back out again, into the pack.
The dough lurched forward. Wendy shouted “Attaboy!” and ducked behind it, scooping up blobs of to-fluff as they fell off and heaving them in the direction of the melee.
The Middleman got off a couple of shots before joining her. A mop and a floor lamp followed him and were swept back by another tentacle of raw bread. “I can’t tell if it’s working yet, Dubbie! We might have to prepare to fall back and regroup.”
“No, look!” she shouted, pointing. The mock-Shaker chair was on the ground, twitching feebly. “It’s working. It’s just not instant. We’ve got to buy Lacey’s loaf some time!”
“Right.” The Middleman reached for an inside pocket. “And then we’ve still got to take Mombi down.”
“I don’t see how that thing’s still holding together,” Wendy admitted as the couch-copter flew over them again. She grabbed at an extra bucket of dough and lofted it upwards; the dough glopped onto one antler of the moose head and hung there like a rubber rag. The flying contraption listed and wobbled in its flight path.
“Fools! I will destroy you all!” Mombi crowed, but he sounded significantly less sure of himself than the average supervillain. More than half of his appliance army was immobile, smeared with white foam or crusted with drying flour.
“Don’t be an idiot, Mombi,” the Middleman called back. “You’re finished. Your troops are dropping like - well, like footstools and TV trays.” Another lamp fell past him, its fan-wings separating from the shade and fluttering to the ground.
Mombi snarled, “Never! I still have the Powder of Life - I will regroup and build another army, better, faster, more powerful than before!”
“Rebuild this,” Wendy snapped, tossing the empty bucket at him. It sailed through the space where his head would have been, as his contraption dipped.
“You see? You - Augh-aahh!” Mombi’s eyes bulged as a rubber bullet impacted him squarely on the wrist; the sugar-shaker tumbled away. “No!” he cried, scrambling over the arm of the sofa.
“Wait, don’t!” Wendy yelped. “You’re too high!” She winced and turned away as he plummeted to the ground.
The Middleman wasn’t quite fast enough to catch him, either. He tucked the pistol back into his holster as he knelt at Mombi’s side. “He’s still breathing, Dubbie, but the way he landed - he’s going to have a heck of a head injury. Call 911!”
“Already on it.” Wendy closed her phone and glanced around. The ground was littered with chairs, brooms, scraps of upholstery, shattered light bulbs, and the remains of the two-sofa conveyance, which had disintegrated almost as soon as Mombi jumped out of it. The dough blob made one last heave towards the moose head, then flopped to the ground, stretched to its limit. “I think the bad-ass bread has just about had it.”
“So has someone else,” the Middleman said in a low tone.
Wendy whirled around. “Bumblebee!” She dashed over to the Beetle, which was shuddering slowly and emitting a wheezing noise from its tailpipe. “Oh, no, you got tofu’d, too!” She draped both arms across the hood. “I’m sorry, boy. I got you into this mess.”
The Middleman set a solid hand on her shoulder. “No, Mombi did,” he reminded her. “And our Germano-Mexican ally here was someone’s property before.” He paused, then continued, “But it did the right thing, giving up some of its own Powder of Life to animate the doughblob.” He knelt, and patted its front bumper. “I’m sorry I doubted you.”
Wendy suppressed a sob as the car shuddered its last. The headlights winked out as the engine fell silent. “I hope this was worth the loss of life, here,” she muttered. Then she leaned up like she’d been pricked. “You did get the sugar-shaker, right?”
“It’s right here,” the Middleman said, patting his left front pocket.
Lacey poked her nose out of the door. “Is it safe to come out yet - oh, wow.” She stepped all the way out and glanced around the whipped-tofu-smeared lot.
“Yes, it is,” the Middleman stated carefully, “but I’m afraid the satellite made a direct hit on your raw materials. I’m very sorry, Lacey.”
“It’s - actually,” Lacey said, her eyes tracing the battered furniture, “I think it’s okay. Uh, is any of this stuff radioactive? You weren't kidding about the shoddy Russian construction.”
Wendy glanced at the Middleman, who shook his head slightly. “Nope,” Wendy replied, “it should be okay. We got the dangerous section out already.”
Lacey picked her way over to the silent Beetle and picked up two of the scattered palm branches, laying them across the windshield like a veil. “I think I can use the rest of this, as a comment on consumer culture in the broader sense, with the auto industry here at the heart of it.” She glanced around, her mouth quirking into an expression half concerned, half inspired. “I’ll have to whip up a lot more tofu, though.”
“Then we’ll leave you to it,” the Middleman stated as a siren approached. “And now, we need to take care of this gentlemen who was sideswiped by the debris, and get the remains of the technical part of the satellite back into the hands of NASA.” He edged towards Mombi, still watching Lacey’s every move.
“Ohmigawd! Is he okay?” Lacey rushed over. “I know first aid! Well, I did, several years ago. I think my Red Cross card is expired -”
“We’ll take care of him,” the Middleman assured her as Wendy directed the paramedics over. “Good luck with your art project.”
Wendy watched the two EMTs strap Mombi to a board. “You think the falling debris excuse will hold up?” she asked under her breath.
“The O2STK will almost certainly disappear him out of the hospital,” the Middleman muttered in reply. “I don’t think we’ll have to worry about it.”
Wendy glanced back at the yellow vehicle Lacey was now balancing an off-center lampshade on top of. “Then let’s get the Powder secured before anything else gets hurt.”
[11:05 AM, MIDDLEMAN HEADQUARTERS]
Wendy watched as the Middleman sealed the sugar-shaker into a secure cubbyhole. “So, is that going to become part of the arsenal?” she asked, dubiously.
He shook his head once, hard. “It’s far too dangerous, Dubbie,” he explained. “I’m not comfortable playing with the basic stuff of life like that.” He sighed, then turned on one heel. “Ida, how does the HADAR look?”
Ida shifted under the massive HADAR headdress. “One anomalous reading back in Smaragdsburg, but it’s fading.” She followed something on the internal screen with her eyes. “Looks like it stumbled into its own modified proteins behind a restaurant.”
“That takes care of that,” the Middleman said. “Our wizard’s reign of terror is over.”
Wendy looked over at Ida. “One thing I don’t understand - was Mombi his real name? I mean, where was he from? South Africa? Australia?”
“Nice try, weed-whacker,” Ida sneered, “but tracing his fingerprint record - yes, that’s his real name, and he’s originally from the middle of nowhere, Kansas.” She turned to half-face the Middleman. “Looks like he ordered his alchemical ingredients online. You wanna make a trip to his workshop, make sure no one else can replicate his stuff?”
“Sounds like a pleasant way to spend an afternoon,” the Middleman said, grinning. “Give us the coordinates for the remaining anomaly; we’ll check that out, too.”
Wendy rubbed one eye. “Since we started at 3 AM, can we at least take a lunch break? I’m beat.”
“Sure,” the Middleman answered. “We passed a perfectly good greasy spoon on the way to Smaragdsburg. I imagine they’ll be open by now. I’m in the mood for some scrambled eggs and toast, myself.”
“Before you go fill your meat-sacks with caffeine and sucrose, you can at least unplug me this time,” grumbled Ida.
“Anything but tofu,” Wendy groaned. “And hold the sugar, too.”