In the doghouse
3:23 pm, the day before the day before Christmas
"And there were no signs of any disturbance?" the Middleman asked.
"Other than the fact that someone did that to my doghouse?" the witness--a local homeowner named Charles Brown--responded, gesturing towards the garishly decorated and lit doghouse in his backyard. Gold garland glittered in the blink blink blink of hundreds of twinkling red and green lights. A sign wishing everyone a Merry Christmas blinked in counterpoint. "No."
Wendy was impressed. You didn't see that kind of quality kitsch every day. "I'm sure it was just a prank," she said. "Neighborhood kids or something."
She, Mr. Brown, and the Middleman all glanced over at the eternally blinking lights, winced, and looked away.
"I'm sure," Mr. Brown said, pained and disbelieving.
"But you haven't taken it down," she pointed out.
"It's not hooked into my electricity," he replied, "so I haven't made it a priority. Snoopy sleeps inside in the winter, so it's no inconvenience. Except for how it blinks all night."
Wendy didn't mention how it was an affront to anyone with eyes. She figured he already knew.
"Thank you for your time," said the Middleman, offering a firm handshake of commiseration and confidence.
As they walked back to the car, Wendy said, "This doesn't seem like it's our kind of thing, boss. Are we sure it wasn't neighborhood kids? I mean, he did name his dog Snoopy."
The Middleman paused, leaning one arm on the roof of the Middlemobile. "Did you look at the power source for the lights, Dubbie?"
The Middleman pulled out his Middlephone and showed her pictures of neatly wrapped cables all leading to a small gray box that blinked slowly, at a rhythm different from both the Christmas lights and the sign. There was no power cord leading away from the box.
"This is clearly not terrestrial technology."
"It would revolutionize the power industry if we could recreate it," he said.
"But we can't?"
"But we can't," he agreed. "Not because it's our job to hide extraterrestrial incursions." The Middlemobile ran on biodiesel, so she knew he was all about alternative energy sources where available. The repeated lectures had made that clear. He was almost as bad as Lacey was regarding veganism. "But because even Ida hasn't been able to figure it out yet."
"Huh." That usually meant bad things, even if they were wrapped up in twinkly lights.
"Exactly. If the power source is contained in this small box, and it's nontoxic to people, animals, and the environment, well." He gave her a look that was somewhere between hopeful and hopeless. "It would be an elegant solution to a lot of problems."
Her ears perked at his phrasing. "Sheer elegance in its simplicity?"
His mouth quirked unhappily. "That's what I'm afraid of."
Up on the roof
7:17 am, the morning of the night before Christmas
"Up on the roof, there arose such a clatter, I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter."
Wendy blinked at the witness she was interviewing; she didn't think she could blame this on not having had coffee yet. "I'm sorry, could you repeat that?"
"No need," the Middleman said. "We'll take it from here, Mr. Moore." He pointed to the hatch above the stairwell. "That leads to the roof?"
Mr. Moore didn't speak, he just nodded, his eyes big and round and scared, and then he offered them a ladder.
The sun was just coming up on the horizon, and the air was cold when Wendy pushed the hatch open and levered herself up onto the roof. The snow which had fallen overnight was mostly undisturbed, except for a scattering of tracks over the back bedroom, undoubtedly the source of the sound that had startled Mr. Moore from his bed.
"Yukon Cornelius, Dubbie! Look at this!"
Wendy looked at the confused mess of tracks he was pointing to, and then looked back at her boss, who was waving his BTRS scanner over the area. "Is that--Is that what I think it is?"
She'd worked for O2STK for over a year now, and learning about mobbed up gorilla super geniuses and finicky extraterrestrials was old hat, but this--If this was true, it was more amazing than all of that put together.
"No," he answered shortly, reading the results from the scanner.
"No?" Wendy had never considered herself particularly gullible and she'd stopped believing in Santa at the ripe old age of seven, when she'd caught her mother eating the sugar cookies she'd left out on Christmas Eve, but the Middleman seemed like the type who'd believed long past the intrusion of reality.
"No." He gestured with the scanner. "There's trace evidence of extraterrestrial elements." He scooped some of the disturbed snow into an evidence baggie.
"The same as the ones who decorated Snoopy's doghouse?"
"It looks that way, but we'll need Ida to confirm." His mouth thinned and she was going to ask what his problem with Christmas was--she kept telling herself not to, but she was going to anyway, when he said, "Not the usual intergalactic hooligans this time, either."
"Okay," she said. "I get that we could be looking at something bigger and more dangerous than usual," which was really saying something given some of the things they'd faced together, "but what is your deal with Christmas? Do you not like it?"
"I love Christmas," the Middleman said bleakly. "And it really steams my clams when some joker from Maranga IV starts getting people's hopes up that Santa exists when he doesn't."
"Isn't Christmas about hope, though?"
He flicked a sidelong glance in her direction and then sighed, some of the outraged stiffness in his shoulders easing. "You're right, Dubbie. But gosh darn it, this is false hope, and I can't condone it."
"If you say so," she replied dubiously, since after all, wasn't it just more of the same lie parents had been feeding kids for a hundred years? She wasn't in the mood to argue, though. They had aliens to catch.
And, apparently, a chimney to sweep, just in case the perp had gotten stuck in the act.
The Mid-City Mall Winter Wonderland Pavilion
9:03 am, still the morning of the night before Christmas
"Goodness gracious me, some Grinch stole our Christmas tree!" the mall manager exclaimed. "The thieves left nothing but some small bits of wire. They even stole the fake logs for the fake fire." She gestured to the sadly bare holiday display. "They took all the fake presents and left empty shelves. They even took all of the fake plastic elves!"
"Did they at least leave the last can of Christmas Who hash?" Wendy asked from behind the lid of her coffee cup.
The Middleman frowned repressively at her over his scanner, but she couldn't help it. The manager didn't even notice. She was too busy fretting at the mall Santa who'd just shown up for work to discover that his winter wonderland had been stripped bare.
"What am I going to do?" the mall manager said. "Pictures with Santa start in twenty minutes!"
"Cover the backdrop with paper and provide crayons," Wendy suggested. "Let the kids draw their own backgrounds while they wait in line."
She could practically see the light go on the woman's brain. "Yes, that's exactly what we'll do, we have just enough time. We'll give them crayons and paper while standing in line. Then they can see Santa and it all will be fine!"
She scurried away and Wendy felt like she'd at least made the woman's day a little better.
They spent the next fifteen minutes scanning the area for signs of aliens, and then left when the parents on line started giving them annoyed looks for delaying Santa's arrival.
12:26 pm, the afternoon before Christmas
Ida was still processing the data they'd collected, playing mahjong, and glaring at Wendy crankily as she ate her ham and provolone with garlic aioli on rosemary ciabatta. Stopping at the mall food court on the way out had proved unexpectedly delicious.
"C'mon, boss," Wendy said when she'd finished eating, her chair tipped back and feet kicked up on her desk, "you're saying never before?"
"Not as long as I've been a Middleman, Dubbie."
"Well, there was that one time, the year before we recruited you, actually."
"I knew it," she said. "'Up on the rooftop, click click click.' How is that not the opening of a horror movie?" She shuddered theatrically. It was better to get him talking about past incidents than to let him brood over whatever they were facing now, especially given his recent lack of holiday cheer. At least there hadn't been a body in Mr. Moore's chimney.
He nodded. "There were some too cool for school teenagers from West Side High who summoned a Krampus."
"Do tell," she said delightedly, letting her chair and her feet hit the floor and leaning forward. "Was there mayhem?"
"There was indeed." He gave a small smile at her enthusiasm. "But it was an isolated incident. Christmas is usually very quiet here at HQ. That's why these past few incidents are so unsettling. Aliens usually invade full-force or leave us alone for important cultural traditions. These pranks are a new pattern."
"Adolescents on their own version of Christmas break?" she suggested.
The Middleman looked skeptical. "It's possible, I suppose, but I'd like more information before I say for sure." He smiled at her then, genuinely, if still a bit melancholy. "I know you thought you'd have today off, and while I can't promise not a creature will be stirring, I can let you go home for the afternoon. I'll call you if anything turns up."
"You're welcome to join us. My mother might even let you carve the roast beast." It wasn't the first time she'd invited him, but he always declined.
"Thank you, Dubbie, but Ida and I will be fine. There's a Fred and Ginger marathon on PBS this year, very festive."
It was her turn to look skeptical. "If you say so."
"I do. Now why don't you get out of here, and I'll see you bright and early on Boxing Day."
Wendy stood and moved in for a hug. They'd gotten less awkward at it since they'd had to reboot reality after Manservant Neville's attempt to take over the world, but the things they remembered that no one else could still hung between them sometimes. If most of those things were named "Lacey Thornfield," well, Wendy couldn't blame him for pining. Lacey was worth it. But it wasn't going to happen any time soon, if at all, and she wasn't going to let it ruin her holiday.
"Merry Christmas, boss."
"Merry Christmas, Dubbie."
The illegal sublet Wendy shares with another photogenic young artist
4:05 pm, Christmas Eve
Wendy placed her presents under the tree and set the table for their small holiday dinner. Noser's family was off on a camping trip to Yosemite and he'd decided not to join them, and Lacey's mother was somewhere in the Middle East, tending to other people's children, so they were both joining Wendy and her mother for the holiday. It had been that way for the past couple of years, and Wendy liked the traditions they'd made for themselves.
After the delicious dinner she and her mother cooked, Lacey and Noser would sing carols while washing the dishes, and then they would watch It's a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol or Die Hard, until it was time for midnight mass
Complaining all the while, Wendy would join her mother in a pew in the back of the church, despite having given up religion the day she left home for art school. The soaring voices of the choir singing "Angels We Have Heard On High" would make her want to believe again, at least for a little while.
She had just started preheating the oven in order to cook the pork roast that was the centerpiece of their Christmas Eve dinner when her Middlewatch went blorp blorp blorp so loudly she was afraid it was going to wake her mother.
"Yeah, boss?" she said, taking it out onto the fire escape, which was cold, but far enough away from the bedroom that she wouldn't be overheard. Lacey was out, and Noser wouldn't be over until dinner was served at seven.
"Our alien has struck again, Macy's this time. I should be there in ten minutes."
"I'll meet you there."
Wendy put the loin of pork in the oven and left a note for her mother saying she'd forgotten one last gift and would be back soon.
The Candy Cane Palace at Macy's
4:15 pm, Christmas Eve
Blaring the siren and flashing the lights eased her way through the traffic, and she made it to the mall just as the Middleman was pulling up.
"What's the sitch, boss?"
"According to the HEYDAR, there's a disturbance of the peace at the Candy Cane Palace."
"Of course there is." Wendy unsnapped the holster on her gun but didn't draw it, and together they pushed their way through the mall to the center, where the snaking line of kids visiting Santa had curled around itself in horror.
Their alien quarry--a tall, slim, teal figure dressed as Santa--was tunelessly crooning, "If you sit on my lap today, a kiss a toy is the price you'll pay," to the terrified girl in its lap.
"Zuzu's petals, Dubbie! Santa's gone full creeper."
"I'll get the creeper, you get the kid."
Wendy nodded and counted it off. Once the little girl was safely behind the Middleman, she said, "Hey, Burgermeister Meisterburger, kiss this!" and stunned them with her pistol.
4:55 pm, Christmas Eve
The alien slumped over the table in Interrogation Room Four, as the Middleman excoriated them for terrifying people and getting their hopes up about Santa's existence.
"We don't have Christmas on my planet," they said plaintively, through a translator box at the base of their throat. "All our holidays are about military victories and death. Christmas seemed fun."
"How did you even find out about it?" Wendy asked.
"You guys send all sorts of signals into space, you know. We're not supposed to interfere--you're still primitive enough that all of the older species have agreed to leave you be--"
"But the Clotharians," Wendy interrupted, "and the Manicoids?"
The alien made a tsking sound. "Impatient adolescents, eager to show dominance and curry favor with the greater powers." They shook their head. "As I was saying, we receive many broadcasts of your entertainment, though the broadcasts are often truncated."
"I guess it's a good thing you've never seen Die Hard," Wendy said.
"Oh, Nakatomi Plaza was next on my list." They smiled, baring rows of sharp, needle-like teeth. "'Now I've got a machine gun, ho ho ho!'"
"Oh dear," the Middleman said. "I'm glad we headed off that eventuality. But I have to say, your pranks haven't been in the spirit of Christmas at all."
The alien looked taken aback, or at least Wendy supposed that was what the big-eyed expression on their face meant. "They haven't?"
"No," Wendy said. "Have you ever seen any of the Christmas specials through till the end?"
"What do you mean?"
"You stole the mall Christmas tree because the Grinch did, right?" she asked.
The alien nodded.
"But Christmas comes anyway," the Middleman said. "'Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small, was singing! Without any presents at all! He hadn't stopped Christmas from coming! It came! Somehow or other, it came just the same!'"
The alien slowly blinked their big black eyes. "Without any presents? Without the roast beast?"
The Middleman nodded and quoted, "'It came without ribbons! It came without tags! It came without packages, boxes or bags!'"
"I see," the alien said. "I must think on this."
"The Grinch's heart grew three sizes that day," Wendy told them. She glanced at the Middleman, who had a thoughtful look on his face. "You can have a Christmas special marathon in the holding area while Ida contacts your people to come pick you up."
"Could I?" The alien clasped their long, many-jointed fingers together gleefully. "Best Christmas ever!"
The parking garage beneath Middleman Headquarters
5:13 pm, the night before Christmas
"Good work in there, Dubbie."
"Thanks, boss." She leaned against the Middlemobile and fixed him with a sharp look. "You wanna tell me what's really going on now?"
He sighed. "I know you think I'm a stoic robot--"
Wendy shook her head. "I don't think that."
He was finally talking, though, and he wasn't going to let her stop him. "But I do have feelings and I miss Raveena most this time of year. We used to watch musicals and drink hot cocoa by the fire on Christmas Eve, and exchange gifts at midnight, even though it wasn't a holiday she celebrated before we met. And I miss my mother's roast beef and mashed potatoes, and going caroling after dinner. And with everything that happened this year..." He gave her another sad smile. "It's hard sometimes."
"But you don't have to be alone," she insisted. "Lacey, Noser, even my mother--we'd all be thrilled to have you at dinner tonight, and again tomorrow. We'd maybe even let you carve the roast beast." She threaded her arm through his and bumped his hip with hers. "It might not be your mom's roast beef, but my mom does a mean lechón asado with rice and beans. And Lacey's made her famous tofu scramble if you don't eat pork."
Her mouth curved in a small smile. "I miss my dad," she said, "but he taught me how to make razzleberry dressing, and I make it every year. You don't want to miss out on that, do you?"
"I didn't know razzleberry dressing was a real thing," he admitted. "I wouldn't want to miss out on that."
Wendy knew better than to gloat when victory was within her grasp. "Then let's go. I don't want to keep my mother waiting."
"Yes," he said wryly, "I imagine that would put us on the naughty list."
And as they roared off in the Middlemobile, hearts warmed and eyes bright with good holiday cheer, Wendy rolled down the window and shouted, "A Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a good night!"