MIDDLE-APARTMENT, 5.56AM MIDDLETIME.
For the Middleman, the day started like any day - with piping hot oatmeal, icy cold moo juice, and the sweet country stylings of a man who loved no one but his horse.
He hummed along. He was up to the part where the horse wouldn't take no other man's bridle, no he wouldn't take no other man's bridle, when Ida's face appeared on the Middlewatch.
"Boss," she said. "Quit bouncing quarters off your bed and get down to Saltzman Road. Owner's reporting a suspicious break-in. O2STK's reporting an extremely suspicious break-in."
127 SALTZMAN RD, 11.54AM HAWAII-ALEUTIAN TIME.
The Middleman held up a clump of fur to the light pouring through the broken window. His heart sank. It was as he'd feared from the moment he'd heard 'And those godless hoodlums ate all the peanut butter'.
"The junkfood wrappers," he said to Wendy. "The distinctive lingering odor. It all points to but one villain. Ursine therianthrope."
Wendy came over to peer at the fur. "Theri-?"
"Were-bears," he said grimly. "The most heinous of all the weres."
"Really?" Wendy said. She picked up some fur and examined it for herself. "Worse even than those pesky were-ducks?"
"Oh, I'll say!" The very idea! The Middleman huffed out a laugh. "Were-bears account for more than 79% of all were-related deaths. Were-ducks, on the other hand, a mere 2%."
Wendy raised her eyebrows. "Wow, those are... pretty obscure statistics to have at your fingertips, Hy Turkin."
There were more where those came from, the Middleman thought: were-sheep 8%, were-camels 3%, were-wood pigeons 0.8%. "Preparation is the key to success," he reminded her. "You see, Dubbie, this isn't my first dance at the were-do. I was but a wet-behind-the-ears recruit when I first encountered those perfidious bears. And I'm afraid to say they caught me with my pants down."
"No." He tweezered a sample of fur into a plastic bag and sealed it up. "I vastly underestimated their viciousness, their intelligence, and their extraordinary sense of smell. For eleven days and nights, I chased them over land and over sea, before finally losing them in the great forests of Alaska." He gazed through the broken glass, remembering the despair he'd felt when the trail had gone cold.
"And on that final night, looking out into the bear-bare wilderness, I vowed that if ever they did return, I would be waiting for them - armed with statistics and the latest in man-bear combat techniques."
"Really?" Wendy said. She suddenly sounded interested. "Sensei Ping covered alligators, crocodiles, gharials, and the larger primates, but he never mentioned bears."
"I'll be happy to share my techniques, Dubbie. Knowledge shared is knowledge multiplied."
"Fighting bears!" Wendy said. "Cool!"
Her enthusiasm was of course admirable, but there was nothing cool about fighting bears. "Hand-to-paw combat is always a last resort," the Middleman said severely.
Afterwards, as they walked back to the Middlemobile, Wendy said: "Death by duck?"
The Middleman got into the car. "Agonizing, slow, and beak-related. You'll be happy to know that justice was swift and severe." He dialled up HQ.
"Ida," he said grimly. "Get on the HEYDAR. The bears are back in town."
On the tiny screen, Ida raised her eyebrows. "You're not the only one with a live one, sugar. You better get down here lickety split."
Genetically engineered squid 800 to 1; Runaway cow 500 to 1; Everting ray 100 to 1; Opposite Day-related chaos 90 to 1; Big Foot 80 to 1; Swamp monster 40 to 1; Succubus 5 to 1.
JOLLY FATS WEEHAWKIN TEMP AGENCY, STILL EARLY.
The live one, it turned out, was Roxy. She was in the reception room, looking immaculate and displeased. "Finally!" she said. "Roomba here was starting to work my last nerve."
Ida sneered. "The pleasure was all mine, Barbie." She looked at the Middleman. "I do not get paid to succu-sit!"
"MM," Roxy said. She was smiling like she wanted to take a little bite out of someone's soul. Maybe his. Her eyes flashed red at him. The Middleman tried not to flush. It was wrong, but that always gave him a slight frisson.
"The waiting," Roxy said. "The backchat, the hideous police-state decor... Someone less patient might think you didn't want my intel at all."
The Middleman held up his hands placatingly. He looked at Wendy for help.
Wendy shrugged. "I got nothing," she said.
"Roxy." The Middleman took a step closer to her. "Rox. You know we're always grateful for your information. And I know it must be-" he looked at Ida meaningfully "-extremely important for you to come here in person at this very early hour".
The red slowly faded from Roxy's eyes. "Now, that's more like it," she said. "Let's step into your office." She waved an imperious hand at Ida. "Frumpbot, fetch the coffee."
A HYPOTHETICAL PLACE AT A HYPOTHETICAL TIME.
At first after Wendy died, the Middleman and Tyler easily kept pace with the supervillains.
They defeated Dr Lynn and his disenvoweling gun. And The Foot, whose bionic leg had the crushing power of an industrial compactor. (Her other leg was her Achilles heel.)
They overcame Madame Rocket and the Spin Doctor and DJ Harmony, a radio shock jock who, weary of creating division, had decided to bring harmony and togetherness to the peoples of the world - by squeezing all of the land back into the supercontinent Vaalbara. He managed to cause two small earthquakes and to shift South America eleven miles closer to Africa before they took him down.
The first villain to slip through the net was the re-emerged Candle.
He returned not as a zombie from the grave, but as a spray-tanned, botoxed retiree with heavy gold chains and a renewed vigor for life. He'd been living in Miami for the past 15 years.
"The women there," he said to the Middleman from his perch on one of the bank's writing counters. He made a gesture with his hands that the Middleman sincerely hoped was intended as emphasis. The melting raygun in his hand rose and fell. "The weed!" he continued. "The parties - hoo boy. Those were some crazy parties with some crazy women. One night, I had-"
"Thank you," the Middleman interrupted hastily. "If you wouldn't mind, I'd like to return to the issues at hand - item one, releasing the hostages."
"No, thank you," muttered Tyler.
The Candle looked disdainful. "You young people," he said. "It's all 'Go, go, go. Get to the point, Gramps. I have to download my face to my Twitterbox'. I preferred your predecessor. He didn't mind a chat."
"Well, you're dealing with us now," the Middleman said. "But if you really want to chat..." He shook his head. "Why did you do it? Why did you fake finding Jesus? Why did you fake your own death?"
The Candle looked indignant. "My faith is as strong as ever. Everything I steal today will be in the pockets of the poor tomorrow. And this is only the beginning! I'm going to eliminate poverty and create the best schools in the world and make cosmetic surgery available to all!"
He went on like that for some time. The Middleman didn't believe him for a second, and he could see Tyler rolling his eyes. But - perhaps Stockholmed or gullible or, Tyler said, "brainwashed, backstabbing weasels" - the hostages took it all to heart. With very little urging from the Candle, they tied up the Middleman and Tyler with their own shoelaces while the Candle escaped with the cash. It was a terrible day for crimefighting.
After that, they began to lose more and more: to Dr Shock and The Wasp, to Helen the Embarrasser, to The Crisper, The Duchess, The Incredible Sting. They neutralized the daring duo of The Potato and The Peeler, but on the whole they were losing more than they won. A lot of people died.
After a time, the supervillains began to join forces.
MIDDLEMAN HQ, NO TIME LIKE THE PRESENT.
"A prophecy?" Wendy said. "A prophecy where I'm dead?"
"Angels of Harlem, Roxy!" the Middleman said. He sounded appalled. "If I'd known this was going to be your intel, I'd have- well, I wouldn't have said, 'Please listen carefully, Dubbie'!"
Roxy ground her teeth. Her morning had begun with two disgustingly early phone calls and a tedious trip to the Underworld to confirm the math with Pierre de Fermat. Fermat had been wearing a hideous collar the size of a baby's bib. Roxy hadn't been able to take her eyes off it.
She breathed. Irritation led to rage, she reminded herself. Rage led to glowing red eyes. And glowing red eyes led to falling off the wagon and sucking down souls like milkshakes. She wasn't going down that path again. She smiled around clenched teeth. "MM," she said. "I went to a lot of trouble to bring you this information. Are you telling me you're not going to listen?"
"A prophecy where I'm dead."
Dear God, Roxy thought. The child was repeating herself like Rainman.
The Middleman touched Wendy's arm. "You must understand two things, Dubbie. The first is that I will do everything in my power to keep you from harm. And the second is that Underworld prophesizing is all about probability and possibility: it's as unpredictable and as repugnant as gambling. In fact, in the some parts of the Underworld, they do bet on it."
"So you're saying... Dead people are betting on whether I'm going to die?"
"Not just dead people. The Underworld underworld is a diverse and vibrant community."
"And the betting is more about how," Roxy said. After all, the mortals were all going to die in the end. She sipped her coffee. "And as usual, everyone seems to be missing the salient point: supervillains taking over the world. This is disastrous for all of us."
"Oh, like you won't switch back to sucking souls the moment the wind changes," Ida said. And if Roxy hadn't known better, she'd have thought Ida was looking a bit pale. Who would've thought Jet Jaguar had it in her?
"Dubbie," the Middleman said. "In all likelihood, this prophecy will never come to pass. And if it does, it could be for an entirely different universe. It may even describe a universe in which you were never born at all."
"Oh," Wendy said. "I guess that's comforting. Sort of."
Oh, for God's sake, Roxy thought. "I know the dark arts make you uncomfortable," she said to the Middleman, "but pull your head out of the sands of stupidity and smell the train thundering into the tunnel. I'm not talking about silly mortal pastimes like palm reading and tea leaves. I'm talking about serious intel from the best oracles in the Underworld: Fermat, Bayes, Kolmogorov, von Mises."
"A prophecy wh-" Wendy started to say again. She seemed to realize she was repeating herself and stopped. "Uh-" she said. "So how am I going to die?"
"Could we please stop using the word 'die' and all of its derivatives?" the Middleman said. "It's entirely inaccurate."
Wendy rolled her eyes. "How will the probability that I'm not alive approach one?"
Roxy took another sip of coffee. "Let's just say that there are several possibilities in play."
"Five bucks says it's bears," Ida said.
"Gambling," the Middleman muttered. He downed his glass of milk. "I've never thought much of the mathematics of Bayes," he added.
Were-duck 800 to 1; Genetically engineered squid 500 to 1; Melting ray 25 to 1;
Shrinking ray 24 to 1; Were-bear 6/1; Succubus 3/1.
SOUL ADDICTS ANONYMOUS MEETING, QUITE A LONG TIME AGO.
The first time Roxy met the Middleman - new flavor - he'd been standing outside a Soul Addicts Anonymous meeting.
"Gum?" he'd said. And he'd looked so earnest and wholesome and ripe that she'd just wanted to bite into him like an apple.
She was on the wagon, though, so she took the gum instead. "I take it you're the new sidekick."
"No, I-" his voice seemed to waver a little. "I've been promoted."
Roxy swallowed. She'd liked the previous guy. Mortals, she thought. It was so important not to get attached. "It's a dangerous career you've chosen," she said.
"It's a choice I don't regret," he said with ridiculous earnestness.
She looked him up and down. His predecessor had had style. This guy... "I've seen prison uniforms with more flair."
He patted his ugly jacket self-consciously. "I've been trying out some new looks. Each Middleman has his own unique style."
"Style," Roxy said, "is Coco Chanel. What you're wearing is a lifetime of regrets."
He looked at her like he had no idea who Coco Chanel was. And she thought: well, at least I won't get attached to this one.
HQ DOJO, 11.15AM ON THE DOT.
Afterwards, the Middleman took Wendy straight to the dojo.
"Bear-combat training," he said firmly.
He hadn't wanted to frighten her back there, but an Underworld prophecy of doom was- well, it was a concern.
But she hardly needed the training. The Middleman was at first deeply relieved at how quickly she was picking up the moves, and then a little alarmed at how much gusto she was putting into them.
"Miracle on Ice, Wendy Watson! What part of 'Go easy on the little guy this time' did you not understand?" he said. He retrieved Interrodroid Nine-Thousand's severed head from under the weapons cabinet and waved it at her emphatically. "Do you know how much robot heads cost?"
"I can't help it," Wendy said. "Every time you put him in that furry bear costume, the training just kicks in and hyah! Hyah!" She flung out the Forearm of Torment.
The Middleman dodged. "Perhaps we should add meditation to our training schedule. As Sensei Ping says: 'The relaxed warrior plucks the first ray of the day'".
"Come on, you were a little impressed," Wendy said. She grinned. "When he countered with Drumming Duck Feet and I counter-countered with Endangering Swans."
The Middleman tried to look stern, but she had been impressive. His chest felt tight. He wondered if all of the other Middlemen had felt this proud of their trainees. His own guru had had a good poker face. "It was certainly effective," he conceded. "Just remember that every time you sever his head, I have to prepare a report. 'Reason for part replacement: damaged by Wendy Watson' isn't going to cut it forever".
"Okay, okay," Wendy said.
The Middleman followed her out of the room, and for the first time since Roxy had said 'prophecy', he found himself starting to relax.
Wendy was Sensei Ping's best and favorite student, he thought. Surely she could take care of herself.
HOME OF A FABULOUSLY WEALTHY COLLECTOR OF MAGICAL ARTIFACTS, THE WITCHING HOUR.
The second time the Middleman met Roxy, she was carrying out a heist, stealing a Loch Ness Monster egg from a fabulously wealthy collector.
"Ma'am, you don't want to do this," he said to her. They were both hanging upside down from different ends of the ceiling.
"Actually, I really, really do," Roxy said. She pointed at the egg, making her rope sway gently back and forth. "Do you have any idea how much that thing is worth on the black market?"
"About $3.5 million, give or take a couple of thousand," the Middleman said. He tensed himself, and then did a neat backflip, and landed between two of the laser security beams.
Roxy rolled her eyes. "No one likes a show-off," she called down to him. Then she flipped and landed just as neatly and a little closer to the egg.
And then it was a race. The Middleman rolled and jumped. He could see Roxy moving out of the corner of his eye. When he got to the glass case, she was just ducking under the last beam. He stepped between her and the egg.
"You don't want to do this," he said.
"Oh, really? Because I don't know your feelings on materialism, but I really like money."
"I'm no communist, ma'am, but neither do I condone thievery. Now, you have a choice. You can climb back into the building's foolishly designed ventilation system and go home. Or you can take another step, and watch me reach out my hand, trip the alarm, and get us both surrounded by bloodthirsty guards armed to the eyeballs. I don't know about you, but I know how I'd rather spend my evening."
"MM," Roxy said. "Can I call you MM?" She took a small step closer to him, and then raised her eyebrows, daring him to trip the alarm.
"Ma'am," he said warningly.
Roxy took another step and another and another, and they were suddenly so close that the Middleman could feel her breath, warm against his neck. His skin tingled. He tried to keep breathing normally.
She put her hand on his chest. "Are you frightened?" she said. "I've killed men like you for snacks."
The Middleman swallowed. "You're reformed," he said.
She lifted her head and her mouth brushed over his, and the Middleman finally felt a slight thrill of fear. He could pull his gun, but could he do it before she took his soul? He wasn't sure.
She smiled at him. "You're right," she said. She seemed to be breathing a little fast. "I am reformed."
MIDDLEMAN HQ, HOME TIME.
At the end of the day, Wendy insisted on going home.
"No," she said to the Middleman when he suggested he stay with her for a few days. "And hell no," she said when Roxy tried to foist Trevor on her. "What kind of a bodyguard would he be? I could kick his weedy little ass with my eyes closed."
"What about staying here then?" the Middleman said hopefully.
Wendy rolled her eyes. "Is there any more work to do?"
"Well," the Middleman conceded, "no."
"And if I were to stick around-"
"-you'd just be watching Ida search for information on the HEYDAR."
"I think I'd enjoy that," Wendy said solemnly.
The Middleman sighed. She was trained, he reminded himself. She was a trained, lethal man-and-bear killer. "All right," he said. "But keep your Middlewatch on - no code 86ing!"
"Okay, that," Wendy said, "was inappropriate."
"I'm as serious as a barrel full of bishops, Dubbie! I'm not saying you should be frightened, but when mathematicians give you a warning, it pays to be cautious."
HERE AND THERE, NOW AND THEN.
The Middleman hadn't always lived on the straight edge.
There was no precise moment when he changed, but he'd never liked profanity, so it was the easiest thing in the world to stop cussing. He did it one evening after a botched Navy training mission.
"Sir." Johnson looked up from filling out yet another requisition form. "What did you just say?"
"I said: 'Drat it all to heck with these malfunctioning ordnances. If I ever meet these manufacturers face-to-face, I'm going to give them the gosh darn business."
Johnson's eyes flickered only a little. "Yes," he said. "Absolutely. Yes, sir."
And at first it was easy. After leaving the Navy, he went back to civilian life and became the kind of man he'd always admired. There was nothing complicated about it.
He didn't cuss. He called women 'ma'am' and men 'sir'. Every time he bought milk instead of beer, it was a choice - but it was a simple choice.
And when he was recruited to the Middle organization, the role fitted over his new self like a glove.
MIDDLEMAN HQ, AFTER DARK (OUTSIDE, THAT IS - THERE ARE NO WINDOWS INSIDE HQ AND ANYHOW IT HAS BEEN BLESSED WITH ELECTRIC LIGHTING SINCE THE LATE 19TH CENTURY).
After Wendy went home, the Middleman fidgeted for a while. The bookshelves needed dusting, as did the top of the weapons cabinet and the banisters of the stairs.
When he started to polish the HEYDAR, Ida shooed him out. "Do I frisk your underwear?" she said.
There was still a little light left in the day, so the Middleman started to drive towards the duck pond. Then he changed his mind and headed for the creamery. Around halfway there, he realized he'd somehow turned on to Wendy's street. Which was ridiculous, he told himself as he parked outside her building. Ridiculous and patronizing.
He watched. He dozed. He jerked himself awake. He watched. Around 3am, someone tapped on the window, making him jump and hit his head on the car ceiling.
Roxy grinned at him. "Well, well, well," she said. "Pretending not to believe my intel, and then hypocritically stalking your sidekick in the cramped-mobile. How delicious!"
The Middleman sighed and rubbed his face tiredly as Roxy walked around to the passenger door. He needed a shave, he thought. He probably needed a bath too. He unlocked the door so she could get in.
"I'm not stalking Wendy," he said.
"Of course not. You just decided to rest your car here for a moment."
"And I did believe your intel."
"Well, I'm glad to see you're taking it seriously anyway," Roxy said. She glanced around the car and frowned. "Dear God, this new model is even smaller than the last." She wriggled and leaned back as though she were planning to stay for a while.
The Middleman blinked at her. "Rox. I don't ever want to be rude to you, but why are you here?"
He expected her to say something flip in return, but she looked at him seriously. "I asked Ida to tell me where you were. I was... concerned."
"I'm not the one in the prophecy," the Middleman reminded her. "It's Wendy you should be worrying about."
"You're the one who matters. You're the-" She looked away from him. "You're the one who matters to me."
The Middleman swallowed. There had always been... something between them, but this was probably about as close as they'd ever come to speaking about it.
"Rox," he said. Then he didn't know how to continue.
She waved her hand. "Oh, don't worry," she said. "Concern is as far as it will ever go. Mortals and succubi. It only ever ends in tears, and recriminations in the Underworld about who drained whose soul first." She dropped her eyes and busied herself with looking for something in her purse. "So anyway-" she said briskly. She pulled out a thermos. "I brought you some refreshment."
The Middleman shook his head. "I don't-"
"Relax." Roxy unscrewed the cup at the top and poured milk into it. "I didn't even put nutmeg in it." She raised her eyebrows. "It's a notorious sedative and psychotropic, you know."
The Middleman smiled at her a little wanly. "Thank you." He drank the milk. It was the good stuff. "Not that hateful skimmed kind."
"Only the best for you."
The Middleman tried another smile. It still felt wan. Mortals and succubi, he thought. He hadn't realized that anyone had ever tried. It was somehow worse to know that it had been attempted and had failed.
Roxy gestured at the darkness outside. "Seen anything out there yet?"
The Middleman shook his head. Only in his mind's eye, he thought. Zombies and wild animals and killer robots.
Something must have shown in his expression, because Roxy's eyes narrowed. "You should get some sleep." He started to shake his head and she rolled her eyes. "Unless, of course, you'd rather be exhausted and useless tomorrow. Mortals!"
Sleep, the Middleman thought. He closed his eyes. Outside the car, the trees rustled like the scrape of claws. He opened his eyes. "Rox, have you ever known Underworld intel to be wrong?"
"Sure," she said, and he couldn't tell if she were lying. Her expression softened. "I promise I'll wake you if I hear anything moaning for brains. Or see any tigers."
"Or bears," the Middleman said. "Or robot mice." Or crazed sumo wrestlers, he thought. Or land sharks. Or giant spiders. Or mad scientists hellbent on destroying the world with armies of genetically engineered fighting squid. Who knew what it was going to be.
SOUL ADDICTS ANONYMOUS MEETING. MANY YEARS AGO.
The first time Roxy realized that maybe she could get attached to the new guy, was when he showed up outside another Soul Addicts Anonymous meeting wearing a surprisingly elegant black suit.
"I don't know how you usually conduct business," Roxy said. "But this isn't the most professional method of contacting someone."
"Oh," he said, as though that had never occurred to him.
Roxy shrugged. "I like the suit," she said, relenting. "You should consider it for your everyday uniform. It's stylish. You could be a kind of James Bond Middleman."
"It's for a funeral."
"Oh," Roxy said. And that was awkward.
Then they just stood there for a while. A couple of times, the Middleman opened his mouth and then he closed it, as though he wanted to say something and didn't know where to start.
Roxy tried not to look as impatient as she felt. A client was a client was money was money, she told herself.
Finally, he said, "Roxy, how much would you charge to obliterate someone so utterly that not even the shadow of their soul made it to the Underworld?"
THE STREET OUTSIDE MIDDLEMAN HQ. THE PRESENT DAY.
For the next month or so, they were all very cautious indeed. The Middleman escorted Wendy to and from Middleman HQ, and Roxy showed up at odd times - "Just to check in," she said.
But when the attack came, it was so sudden and violent that none of them could have anticipated it.
One moment, the Middleman was showing Wendy how to feed organic waste to the Middlemobile, and the next, they were fighting for their lives against a were-duck - beaked and winged and insane.
It took every move they had between them to finally bring it down.
Afterwards, they lay on the grass outside HQ and panted for a while.
"Count Chocula's marshmallows!" the Middleman gasped. Its ferocious wings.
"It was bigger than I thought it would be," Wendy said.
The Middleman nodded. It certainly had been.
Were-duck SCRATCHED; Shrinking ray 50 to 1; Were-bear 22 to 1; Succubus 20 to 1; Genetically engineered squid 18 to 1.
SAME GALAXY, A LONG TIME AGO.
The Middleman's predecessor had been a lot to live up to. "Drawing a weapon instantly escalates the situation," he'd often said. "Your brain and your words are your most valuable assets."
He was a master at negotiating. Even the supervillains had been charmed by him. "Well, if you put it like that..." they often said. And "Yes, I can see now how much harm I'm actually doing."
In the end, he was killed by two crazed were-bears. After they mauled him, they changed back into human form and monologued into the Middlewatch.
The age of Homo sapiens was over, they said. Ursoidea would inherit the earth. Their plan - when they came up with it - would be sheer elegance in its simplicity.
The Middleman traced the watch and then followed the trail of blood to his predecessor.
"Boss," he said when he saw him. "I'll-" he looked for someplace he could apply pressure, but the blood seemed to be seeping from everywhere.
"Hey, kid," his predecessor said. He tried to smile. There was blood at the corners of his mouth. "Don't look so scared. It's gonna be okay." He breathed in and out thin and fast. "Just get a sidekick half as good as you."
UP IN A TREE, LUNCH TIME.
The next attack was from a madman with a shrinking ray. "I call myself The Shrink," he screamed down from his perch in a pine tree.
"Stupid," Wendy muttered. "And ironic."
They managed to talk him down, but not before he shot at them a couple of times. One of the shots grazed Wendy's jacket. The other grazed the Middleman's hair.
"It looks fine," Wendy said, after The Shrink was taken to the Special Institute of Criminally Insane Supervillains. "It looks... It's a brand new style."
That afternoon, watching Ida search the HEYDAR, the Middleman couldn't seem to keep still.
He changed all of the Middlemobile tires and cleaned and reloaded all of the Middleweapons.
When Wendy found him, he was polishing all of the silverwear in the Middle-kitchen.
"Boss?" she said. She touched him tentatively on his arm. She was still wearing that jacket. The right lapel was noticeably smaller than the left. A slightly different angle, the Middleman thought, and that could have been an internal organ.
He set aside the last spoon and moved on to the forks. "Yes, Wendy?" he said.
"Are you freaking out by any chance?"
The Middleman picked up the first fork and did a careful job on the tines. He forced out a laugh. "Not at all."
"Because, personally, I'm not that worried. I've been thinking about it, and okay - say it's 20 to 1 that a were-bear's going to whack me. That's basically saying that I'm going to win 19 out of 20 were-bear fights. I'd get in a ring on those odds."
"That's not-" The Middleman bit back what he'd been about to say. "That's an excellent attitude," he said instead. He started on the next fork.
Wendy looked at him. "You do kinda seem like you're freaking out."
"Oh no," the Middleman said. "No. No, no, no, no, no."
LOCATION INDETERMINATE, SOME TIME IN THE PAST.
It was years before the Middleman found a sidekick.
Maisie Lee was the first of his handpicks to pass Sensei Ping's training. She was a pistol.
"He told me I was a puny impudent chimp with flat feet and a kick that couldn't disarm a squirrel," she said indignantly. She kicked the air. "I'd like to see the squirrel that could withstand that!"
The Middleman stared at her. She'd come out of the room under her own steam. She wasn't even limping.
"What?" she said. "Something funny?"
"You-" The Middleman shook his head. He couldn't stop smiling. He hugged her. He didn't think he'd ever been so proud of anyone in his life. "You passed," he said.
She was killed two months later by The Endmaker - a coward with a lycra suit and a genetically engineered mega-serpent. He'd hacked into the television network to show the world his creation.
"Together, we'll create a rodent-free utopia! My plan is sheer elegance in its simplicity!" he'd said.
"Someone is sheer elegance in their simplicity," Maisie had muttered.
She'd tracked him down when the HEYDAR couldn't. Then she'd dialled HQ to crow about it. "Hey, Metal Sonic!" she said to Ida. "Advanced alien technology, zero. Maisie Lee, one!" She'd been laughing.
The next time the Middleman saw her, she was staring up at the sky with nothing behind her eyes. The mega-serpent was dead beside her.
He knelt down and gently closed her eyelids. He'd done some terrible things in his time as a Navy SEAL, but he'd never done anything as terrible as that.
Were-duck SCRATCHED; Own boss after he loses his mind and becomes a new supervillain 20,000 to 1; Everting ray 60 to 1; Succubus 20 to 1; Genetically engineered squid 20 to 1; Shrinking ray SCRATCHED.
LOCAL WATER PLANT, 21.00 US NAVAL OBSERVATORY MASTER CLOCK TIME.
The next attack was from a genetically engineered land-squid. It happened at the local water plant, where the squid had been masquerading as Count Squidulous, the plant's mascot.
When the Middleman spotted the telltale tentacle tracks trailing behind it, the squid twisted out of its costume, knocked him to the ground, and began to laugh maniacally.
"You're too late," it chittered triumphantly through its voice synthesizer. "I have already released one component of my diabolical poison into the city's drinking water. Now all I have to do is add my own ink and the city will be mine. My plan is sheer elegance in-"
The Middleman grabbed it just above the ink sac and squeezed hard. It threw out its tentacles and grabbed him around the neck.
The Middleman coughed and squeezed harder. "You know what true elegant simplicity is?" he choked. "Man versus squid. Mano-a-tentacle. Just you, just me. No weapons, no plans." And then he couldn't say anything more. There were black spots in front of his eyes. Wendy was hitting the squid with the Toes of Terror, which had been known to bring down raging elephants, but the thing wasn't even flinching.
The Middleman's knees tried to buckle, but he forced them to hold him up. He squeezed even harder and it felt wonderful, he thought. It felt like a relief. He wished he could do this to every supervillain. The black spots grew bigger and he started to sag. He felt his grip weaken.
Then there was a sudden loud noise, and the squid slid to the ground. The Middleman jerked around and saw Roxy standing there. She seemed oddly pale, but when she saw him looking, she smiled and mimed blowing smoke off the top of her gun.
The Middleman tried to smile back. He felt something twist at the pit of his stomach. She'd gotten here so fast, he thought. Had she bet against the squid?
SOUL ADDICTS ANONYMOUS MEETING, QUITE A LONG TIME AGO.
"Obliteration." Roxy was a little disturbed. She kind of liked it. "That would cost considerably more than my usual consulting fee," she said. "There are certain... metaphysical consequences to destroying a soul. The people upstairs tend to frown upon it."
"But can you do it?" the Middleman said.
"Who am I obliterating?"
The Middleman looked away. "He calls himself the Endmaker, but the man is nothing. He's nothing at all. His real name is Harry Hollard."
"Is he human?" Roxy said. She was shocked. She looked at the Middleman more closely. He wouldn't be the first corrupt Middleman, but they usually had a look about them - like their souls would taste of overripe fruit. This guy still looked so wholesome that her teeth ached from wanting to bite into him.
"Let me think about it," she said.
She found him again later that night. He was sitting in his car outside Hollard's house. She'd called in some favors and done some asking around by then.
"Well?" he said after she got into the car. "Can you do what I want you to do?"
Roxy pulled the obliterating ray from her purse. Her hand shook a little. Even consuming souls didn't actually destroy them. A lady never discussed the actual process, but the souls generally came out pretty much intact in the Underworld.
"Can you do what you want me to do?" she said.
The Middleman said: "If I shoot that-"
"If you shoot that at him, you'll destroy his immortal soul."
The Middleman nodded. "I understand."
Roxy snorted. "Of course you do. Because obliteration of the immortal soul is such an easy concept for mortals to understand."
She put the gun on the dashboard. The Middleman looked at it for a long time. He didn't seem to want to touch it.
After a couple of hours, Roxy leaned into the backrest and slipped off her stilettos. What a day, she thought. She closed her eyes. Maybe she fell asleep. When she opened her eyes again, the Middleman had the gun in his hands. He was staring down at it with an expression that she didn't like at all.
He looked over at her. "She was a pistol, Roxy. She was a damn pistol. She didn't deserve to go like that."
"No, I don't suppose she did," Roxy said.
The Middleman swallowed. Roxy watched the line of his throat move. He pointed the gun at the floor of the car and looked down the line of sight.
"How do you stop yourself from taking souls?" he said. He sounded conversational, as though he were only idly curious.
He had no idea, Roxy thought, how much she wanted him. In his current, vulnerable state, taking his soul would be as simple as plucking an apple from a tree.
The car felt too warm. She wanted to drag his mouth down to hers and suck the life out of him. Instead, she felt around in her purse for her two-year chip. She rolled it between her fingers. Two years.
"I make a choice," she said, reminding herself as much as telling him. "And I keep making that choice."
The Middleman breathed in shakily. "The man I am-" He stopped. "I make some very specific choices every single day. But what if I make different ones? Just now and then."
Roxy shrugged. "You're running the show now. You can be any kind of Middleman you want."
The Middleman looked at her, and Roxy thought he looked slightly more thoughtful. She still didn't like his expression, though.
"So what's he doing anyway?" She jerked her head at Hollard's house.
The Middleman passed her the binoculars. "He lays mousetraps. Then he checks the mousetraps. Then he changes the bait in the mousetraps. That's all he does."
They watched Hollard's house until dawn broke. Then the Middleman started the car and drove Roxy home.
A few days later he returned the raygun, unfired, and a few weeks after that, Roxy learned that he was setting up a new psychiatric institute for criminally insane supervillains. The cost would have been about the same as her asking fee for obliteration.
Were-duck SCRATCHED; Opposite Day-related chaos 90 to 1; Succubus 80 to 1; Big Foot 70 to 1; Everting ray 60 to 1; Genetically engineered squid SCRATCHED; Shrinking ray SCRATCHED.
MIDDLEMAN HQ, 12AM COORDINATED UNIVERSAL TIME.
"I found the bears," Ida said. "Traced them all the way home with the real-time situation recording archive."
"Nice legwork, Ida!" the Middleman said. "Now, let's blast those grizzlies all to heck!" He couldn't believe they'd finally been found.
Wendy blinked at him. "Really? I didn't think we did stuff like that."
"Oh, we have the technology," the Middleman assured her.
"I'm sure we do." Wendy looked discomfited. "I guess I don't like the idea blowing them up without even speaking to them."
"Personally, I like the idea of dynamite in the Alaskan wilderness."
"Actually, boss, they're not in Alaska - they're in Yellowstone. And I think they've gone into hibernation," Ida said. She pointed at a corner of the screen. "They went into that cave about three months ago, and they haven't come out since."
"Well, there you go," Wendy said. She looked relieved. "I guess if you think about it, all of the break-ins were peanut-butter and candy-bar thefts. They were probably stocking up for the winter."
The Middleman shook his head and kept shaking it. "No," he said. "I don't believe it, not for a moment. They're mock hibernating."
Wendy raised her eyebrows. "Mock hibernating?"
"Those bear-faced liars are lulling us into a sense of complacency and then - when we're complacent - they'll come back here with their claws and their teeth and their furry fury!"
Ida shook her head. "I've infra-redded that sucker out the wazoo. Twenty bodies go in." She pulled up another screen with red shapes curled around each other. "And three months later, twenty bodies are still in."
"That's such a load of horseshit," the Middleman said. "It's some kind of trick."
Ida looked at him. She had a very odd expression on her face. "I don't think it is," she said. She looked from the Middleman to Wendy and back again. "Do you really want me to blast them?"
The Middleman looked at Wendy's appalled face.
"Boss," she said. "Those bears are just sleeping."
The prophecy had been pretty clear: it wasn't just Wendy's life at stake - it was the whole world. The Middleman looked at the infrared image of the sleeping bears. He thought about the kind of man he strived to be. He'd made a choice to be that man.
He kept making that choice. "Stay your hand, Ida," he said. He guessed if the bears came after them, they'd just have to deal with it when it happened.
THE ILLEGAL SUBLET, 1229538158 UNIX TIME.
After work, Wendy insisted that the Middleman go home with her.
In the corridor, Noser was playing his guitar. "Yo, Wendy Watson," he said. "Yo, Wendy's boss."
"Hello, Mr Noser," the Middleman said.
"You seem troubled."
The Middleman nodded. "Troubled in mind; it's true."
"So what are you going to do?"
Wendy steered the Middleman into her sublet. "We've just gotta find a place of peace, Noser," she said. "Just gotta find a place of peace."
Wendy's place of peace was Zombiepocalypse. She pushed the Middleman onto the sofa and gave him a game controller.
"Play," she said.
The Middleman killed zombie after zombie after zombie. It was an intense relief.
He played until he was in a trance of destruction. By the time Lacey got home, he'd made it through to one of the secret levels - the zombie mall - and was working on killing every last one of those undead minimum-wage-earning suckers.
"Hi, Wendy's boss," Lacey said.
"Hi, Lacey," the Middleman mumbled. He killed the donut seller and then the ice-cream girl and then the man who sold ugly handbags and then the lady at the cell-phone trinkets store, and then zombie shoppers and zombie shoppers and zombie shoppers. At some point, he thought Wendy might have said something to him. Another time she might have been standing in front of the screen.
When Roxy got there, it felt like he'd been killing for hours.
Roxy plucked the controller from his hands. "You did well to call me, sidekick," she said.
The Middleman blinked. When he closed his eyes, he could still see zombies coming at him. And tigers and were-bears and mad scientists. His fingers twitched.
Roxy took his arm. "Come on," she said. "Time to go home."
VARIOUS TIMES AND PLACES.
Roxy was quite the wild child in her 80s. She ran with the wrong crowd - she ran the wrong crowd.
She didn't really mellow until early in her first century.
She took her last soul on her 112th birthday. She'd been on the wagon for a few months by then. She did that from time to time - she thought of it as a kind of succubus detox diet.
Her last victim woke up while she was still consuming him. He pushed at her weakly. "Stop!" he said. "Oh God, please stop, please stop, please stop."
Roxy pulled herself off him and stumbled away from the bed. She'd never had a victim wake up before. On the bed, the man moaned and reached feebly at nothing much. Roxy choked in horror. He was beyond help. She'd already taken most of his soul - what was left on the bed wouldn't survive.
She couldn't bring herself to watch. She went to the bathroom and threw up for what felt like forever. Afterwards, she cried in a friend's apartment.
"Darling, you can't say never again," her friend said. "It's unpleasant, of course. But it isn't unheard of." She made it sound as though Roxy had bitten into an apple and found a worm.
"Never," Roxy said. Never, never, never.
It wasn't as easy as that, though. After a months, the raw horror wore off. Roxy found herself looking at men's souls again, and wondering how they would taste, how good the men would feel as she was eating them.
But she kept making the choice not to kill. Eventually, she opened a halfway house for others like her. It helped to have the support.
MIDDLE-APARTMENT, 2.16AM MIDDLETIME.
Roxy drove the Middleman to his apartment and then ushered him into his kitchen. The Middleman slumped onto one of the stools at the kitchen counter. He hadn't realized how tired he was until he'd gotten home.
"MM," Roxy said. She was looking in the refrigerator. Her feet were bare. She must have kicked off her shoes somewhere, the Middleman thought. "Do you keep anything for guests?" She poured him a glass of milk, and then got herself some water from the tap.
"I rarely have guests," he said a little guiltily.
"Really? I'm so surprised. Your home is so welcoming." She sat on the stool opposite him and leaned her elbows on the counter. "So," she said. "Still feeling ursicidal?"
The Middleman thought about the bears sleeping in the cave. "They must be pretty long odds now."
Roxy nodded. She reached across the counter and smoothed down the piece of hair that hadn't been sitting right since its encounter with the shrinking ray. "Nearly 600 to 1."
The Middleman wanted to lean into her touch. But he wasn't so tired that he'd lost all control. He looked her straight in the eye. "Tell me the truth, Rox, how much money do you have riding on them? I know you didn't have anything on the squid."
Roxy looked both amused and annoyed. "MM, please. I only play for the really big bucks."
His heart sank. "Swamp monsters?"
"No, you moron," she said. But if anything, she looked more amused. "Peacefully in bed of old age. When I win, I'm going to be able to buy half the state."
The Middleman closed his eyes. Something inside him eased for the first time since he'd seen Roxy take out the squid.
"You idiot," Roxy said. She sounded gentle. "Open your eyes."
The Middleman opened his eyes. He watched a little disbelievingly as Roxy smiled at him and leaned across the counter. And they were suddenly kissing. The Middleman hesitated a moment, but it was already happening, he thought. He kissed her back and let himself enjoy it.
When he pulled away, he still had his soul.
"I've been thinking about this a lot. About the choices I make and you make," Roxy said. She looked as serious as he'd ever seen her. "I think we could be strong enough to make this work."
The Middleman wanted to believe her. He'd never wanted anything more. "But a succubus and a Middleman," he said. "The odds on that-" he shook his head.
Roxy leaned in to kiss him again. "Why don't we find out?"