Late afternoon, New Year's Eve
The holidays had proven to be a quiet time at Jolly Fats Wehawken Employment Agency, and that suited Wendy Watson just fine. The lull in intergalactic, interplanetary, intraplanetary, and minor domestic threats had offered time to spend with her mom (two Latinas and a Feliz Navidad); with her beau, Tyler Ford (their first Christmas together, not as romantic as it could have been); and with her BFF and roomie, Lacey Thornfield (for whom eco-chic decorating wasn't just a passion, it was an obsessive compulsive disorder). The last was especially important, considering that Dr. Barbara Thornfield, M.D., Ph.D., and mother of said BFF had bailed on yet another hoped-for visit by her neglected daughter. Something about a crisis in North Korea relating to Kim Jong-il's hair.
Of course, nothing good lasts forever, and now it was the afternoon of New Year's Eve and Ida had called her in, for reasons Wendy remained dubious of. She found herself kitted up in her uniform, idly flipping through books of Middle Lore, staring at the clock, all alone. As in, Ida had snapped, with no regret whatsoever, "Sorry to ruin your 4:20!" and then disappeared into some O2STK black hole, and Boss wasn't here at all. At all.
Maybe Boss man had gone to be with family for the Winter Shopping Festival. Stranger things had happened in Wendy's short time as a Middleman trainee. He had never given her any reason to believe he had a family, though. Despite the clues of a mysterious past that he dropped like tantalizing petit fours, Wendy was pretty much convinced that her boss had been grown in a vat.
"Ya been at the chronic again, haven't ya? Snap out of it!" Ida barked from behind her. Wendy's eyes flew open.
"Give me a reason." That came out more petulantly than she'd intended.
"I'll give you one-hundred and forty of 'em, toots," Ida replied, slapping a bunch of printouts on her lap.
"One-hundred and forty what?" Wendy asked, not especially intrigued by the numbers on paper.
"There's a Mondohertz?"
"You're durn tootin' there is. You'd know that if you ever bothered to read some of that stuff you're looking at." Ida glared pointedly at the books. "The only ones who use that frequency are aliens."
"How many hertzes are there?" Wendy asked, making a mental note to look into the communications section of her decidedly not-well-worn manual.
"We're still finding out. Maybe you'll be the genius who sorts that one out." She snorted in her patented "as if" manner.
"Tarnation, Ida!" The Middleman said, bursting through the door, holding one of his uniform jackets in his hand. "I can't sew this button on properly."
Wendy stood up. "Hold it, Betsy Ross. A sewing emergency? This is why I've been sitting here, bored to death on New Year's Eve afternoon, while the rest of the world is at the liquor store buying up all the low-shelf liquor and breaking out the illegal fireworks?"
Boss turned his attention to Wendy. "Only boring people are bored, Dubbie. There's a wealth of Middle Lore right at your fingertips."
"So," Wendy said. "The Middleman, trained at the feet of Sensei Ping, one of the few people on earth to master the Chalice of Agony, a man who speaks at least twelve languages, can't sew a button on? Interesting. Why don't you just send the jacket back to O2STK and get a new one?" Wendy asked, because that's certainly what she would do.
"Reduce, reuse, recycle, Wendy. There's no reason to get new things when a simple repair will do." No wonder Lacey was in love with him.
"Al Gore would be so proud. Sniff." Wendy mimed wiping a mock tear away.
"Just give it here," Ida barked, and held out her hand.
"Thank you, Ida. Now. What was it you were in such a lather about?"
"Got a couple of big blips here. First is a 140 Mondohertz spike. Same location, an unusual amount of terygillium was detected." She made air quotes on "unusual amount." "O2STK thinks there's some shenanigans going on out there today."
"Hmm. The use of that frequency would indicate it's clearly extraterrestrial in origin," Boss said.
"Ya think, Carl Sagan?" Ida responded.
"Why do only aliens use it?" Wendy asked the Middleman, since there was never any point to asking Ida a question like that.
He said, "We became aware of the Mondohertz frequency only during the alien invasions of the 1950s. Earth technology is woefully inadequate for communicating with extraterrestrial worlds, so it's been quite beneficial for us to know so we can monitor activity."
"The alien invasions of the '50s?" Wendy asked, curious. "You mean 'Klaatu barada nikto' actually meant something?"
"Well," the Middleman chuckled, "not exactly. You see, the language used by the writers on that film, and most of the others, wasn't technically correct, because the scripts were vetted by the Middle Office. Details were fudged and names were changed to protect. . . well, everyone."
"Awesome," Wendy said. "It's kinda nice to know that staying inside watching the Saturday afternoon science fiction movie, when I could have been outside playing in the fresh air, wasn't totally wasted."
"Are the imbecile twins going to investigate?" Ida asked, taking her glasses off. "I got plans for New Year's and they don't include sitting here listening to you bobbleheads jaw while I'm missing the top shelf liquor and an open bar."
"You're a robot!" Wendy said. "You don't drink anything. If you did, you'd probably just steal a bottle of Old Overcoat from a wino."
"At least I don't have my hand on a 40, puffing on a blunt," Ida shot back.
"Ladies!" The Middleman interjected. "There will be plenty of time for everyone's festivities." He straightened his jacket and added, "It's time to get our motors running, Dubbie, and head out on the highway."
Wendy, however, wished very much that this wasn't the day they were looking for adventure and whatever came their way. "Born to be wild," she muttered, and followed him out the door.
Later afternoon, getting on toward evening, New Year's Eve
On the outskirts of town
In the Middlemobile, Wendy listened patiently as she drove along while Boss explained hertzes -- Mondo and otherwise -- alien communication protocols, and elements not found on Earth.
"So," she said, when he eventually left a small opening, "what did you do over the Winter Shopping Festival days? Go home to Mom? Sit in your lonely home -- I assume you have a home -- singing 'Blue Christmas' and drinking egg nog while staring at the lights? Or maybe you stayed at the office and did a Secret Santa gift exchange with Ida and someone at O2STK you don't even know for sure exists."
As usual, the boss deflected. "I had a very pleasant holiday. And how was yours? I hope you spent some quality time with your mother. Has she met your new beau yet?"
"No, no. We're not sliding down that slippery slope just yet. Although there were some hours of my life wasted on college football, listening to the hell of the babbling sportscasters. Besides, Tyler was busy planning the Fatboy New Year's Eve charity gala benefit party event of two years, so the Bluetooth kind of took anything romantic out of it. But hey. Open bar."
"An excellent endeavor." He furrowed his brow. "Boy howdy. Everyone certainly seems fixated on liquor today."
"That's New Year's for you. Don't tell me that you wouldn't drink even a glass of champagne for something special like New Year's Eve?" Sometimes the Boss took his choice to live a Dudley Doright life just a little too far. Hmm. Maybe he had a sordid past as an alcoholic.
"Oh, I've been known to tipple when the occasion truly calls for it, Dubbie. At least a little bit. No point carrying it to excess, of course."
Well, so much for that theory.
"Lacey is coming with me to the charity gala benefit party event of two years. You should come with us. We'll need to find you a costume," she added, doubtful that she could actually wean him off the be like Ike look.
"I think we take the next left," the boss said, ignoring her. They drove past a long string of chain-link fences ringing gulag-style warehouse buildings in a long row, which shortly began to make Wendy feel depressed despite the sunny, briskly cold day.
"Ah ha! Here's our coordinates." Wendy said. "The Mirror Has Two Faces Glass and Mirror Company. Residential, commercial, specialty. North America's leading mirrorball manufacturer." She turned into the parking lot. "Which ID do we use?"
Boss pushed the magic ID box open and pulled two out.
The doors were not locked and they were able to go right in, even though it was a weekend when a business should normally be shut down. They walked past the front desk and on to the manufacturing floor.
There were glass shards all over, and tools on the floor. On a table in the middle of the floor, small squares of mirror lay in a pile. A hanging fluorescent light swung idly above them; someone had clearly just been in here. "Looks like signs of a struggle -- look at all this broken glass everywhere," Boss commented.
Hello, Captain Obvious. "Um. . .Boss, it's a glass factory."
The Middleman pulled out his BTRS and scanned the room. "Dubbie, we've got trouble."
"Right here in River City? Trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with. . ."
"S and that stands for saturnium," he answered.
"Aaw, that doesn't rhyme," Wendy lamented.
"My apologies. But I'm detecting what looks to be the signature of our terygillium, and. . . yes, there it is, a cache of saturnium." He went to a drum stamped with "Hazardous Materials" and pulled out a plastic box emblazoned with a skull and crossbones. "I can only surmise that the entity or entities used this firm to manufacture some sort of weapon or other dangerous device."
"I would think that a dangerous device would be, by definition, a weapon." Wendy frowned. "Also -- and this seems possibly more important than my previous point -- how do you know it's dangerous? Aren't you jumping to conclusions? Aren't you assuming? You know what assuming does."
"Yes, unfortunately all too well, Dubbie." He stood quietly, lost in thought, before snapping back to reality. "But you see, that's where you're mistaken: A trained Middleman doesn't jump to conclusions. Saturnium, when combined with the terygillium, becomes capable of creating a space-rifting warp that could cause worldwide destruction and panic -- one wrong move and it's goodbye, Mr. Chips!"
He dabbed his finger inside the case and tasted it. "Yes, definitely saturnium."
"Ew!" Wendy said, and shuddered. "I can't believe you'd put that in your mouth! You're like this character from a TV show I used to watch. This Mountie, he would put anything in his mouth. Why are you even doing that?"
"Every element has a signature taste." He said it like it was the most obvious answer in the world.
"What if it's radioactive? I didn't pay a lot of attention in science class, but aren't all the -iums radioactive?"
"Saturnium isn't. It's highly restricted for that reason -- it would be much more difficult to track if ne'er-do-wells were to use it in a weapon. Like this, for instance. Most people, in fact, don't know it even exists."
"If your tongue turns green, you're on your own." Wendy pointed toward the loading area. "This doesn't add up -- the doors are open, there's an empty box of saturnium just lying around, but it doesn't really seem like there's been any sign of mirrorball mischief. Let's go look over there." She was most emphatically not on board the mystery train today.
They pulled out their weapons and crept carefully toward the back. Suddenly the door to the men's room opened and a shadowy figure rushed out. They both jumped, pointing their weapons at him. He screamed a girly scream and threw his hands up.
"Heart of glass!" Boss shouted, tugging his jacket down and smoothing his hair. It took a lot to rattle her boss.
The guy was about sixty to seventy years of age, perfectly normal looking, and somewhat frightened, judging by the scared-horse level of white showing in his eyes. Definitely not an alien, since the BTRS remained resolutely silent.
"Who are you?" he asked weakly.
"We'll ask the questions, if you don't mind," Boss said with grim menace. He pulled out his ID, as did Wendy. "I'm Steven Rubell and this is my associate, Gloria Gaynor, with the American Association of Discotheque Suppliers."
"What do you want?" he asked suspiciously, scrutinizing their IDs. It wasn't Wendy's best photo; it had been humid that day and she looked like a black-topped mushroom.
"We're here investigating a report of highly classified materials. Not the sort of thing a member of our association would have access to. We need to know what they've been used for, by whom, and how you obtained them?"
Turning sideways and leaning toward the Middleman, Wendy said, sotto voce, "Boss, you're practically asking him to monologue."
"If my intuition is correct, this situation's as dire as a hamster in a flaming Habitrail. Why hide a weapon in a mirrorball right before New Year's if you're not going to detonate it at a celebration?"
"That's diabolical!" Wendy exclaimed. "Who would want to party-poop everyone's favorite night?"
"Aye, there's the rub, Dubbie. If it's aliens, it could be anyone from Andorians to Zygons. This man is our only hope."
"Somehow he doesn't seem like the Obi-Wan type to me." Wendy sighed and turned to the man. "I have a party to get to and someone to kiss at midnight. Did you make something dastardly with the materials or not? Clock's ticking here."
"We didn't even know what they were for!" The man's face was red from panic. "This guy called a month or so ago, and he wanted our largest mirrorball. Did everything over the phone. They needed it by December thirty-first at the latest. He sent us some designs for a unique interior. It was just a box with a special power source. But we didn't know they were classified materials! He provided them for us. We're not normally open on weekends, but I came in special so they could pick it up for tonight. He paid up front right after the order.
"When he got here, he had a couple. . .um, guys, I guess, with him. I was a little spooked, you know, here all alone. I couldn't really see them, because they were wearing hooded cloaks and their faces were covered. I know how crazy that sounds."
"Oh, a lot less crazy than you'd think," Wendy said. "So, who was this person who ordered the mirrorball and gave you the materials?
"His name was Wallace Willard from Walla Walla, Washington. I didn't know those things were classified, honest!"
Boss looked at Wendy with a gaze that fell somewhere in between confused and pissed off. "This just frosts my flakes," he said. "Misappropriation of materials, mysterious men from Walla Walla, and cloak-wearing aliens do not provide a logical progression."
"Logic?" Wendy asked. "Hate to ask you this, Mr. Spock, but when has logic ever had anything to do with this job?"
"This is as serious as a sockful of scorpions, Dubbie, and if it's got something to do with the calendar change, we're covered in bites." He raised his wrist. "We must have Ida look for those spikes again so we can locate this questionable disco ball."
The man raised his hand timidly. "I know where they're going," he said in a tiny voice.
They wheeled on him at once. "Why didn't you say so?"
"Well, I didn't know you wanted to know!" He fidgeted, and then said, "There's a big charity benefit gala party event tonight. That's what they wanted it for."
"Sponsored by Fatboy Industries?" Wendy cried. "Boss, do you know what this means?"
"I don't," the man said.
"It means tick-tock, Wendy, these mice are running up against the clock."
New Year's Eve, party time
Fatboy Industries Palladium Theatre
The biggest charity benefit gala party event to span two years was being held at the city's largest, most lavish concert hall and exhibition space -- thus, there was a distinct lack of parking.
"Shades of Studio 54!" Boss shouted as they ran through the lavish doors of the lavish main hall. They stared unbelievingly at the lavish ceiling and its six separate mirrorballs.
Wendy merely groaned.
He pressed the button on his communication watch and said, "Ida, we need your help."
"As long as it doesn't inconvenience me. I got reservations, ya know."
"Scan the Fatboy Palladium Theatre and Event Hall for any sign of terygillium or saturnium. We've got a ceiling full of Jiffy-Pop bags and we don't know which one's going to pop."
"All right, all right, buzzkill," she grumbled, and signed off.
Wendy started toward the center when she was stopped by a familiar voice. "So, that's your idea of a costume, huh? I thought this evening might rate a little higher on your sartorial scale."
She turned and smiled at Tyler. "You, however, are rocking that tennis bracelet guy outfit." She kissed him as the Middleman turned away and appeared to be deeply engrossed in the wall murals.
"I'm a busy, busy man. Though it's good to see you talked your boss into coming." Tyler smoothed her hair, which always made Wendy feel a little Jell-O-y inside.
Boss stepped forward and offered the usual firm handshake to Tyler, saying, "I apologize for not getting Wendy home in time to change into her costume. I'm afraid we're actually still on the clock."
Wendy asked him, "You haven't by any chance talked to someone named Wallace Willard from Walla Walla, Washington, have you? Or seen anyone bring in any suspicious mirrorballs?"
"I'm not sure how I would distinguish between a suspicious mirrorball and a non-suspicious one. But no, I haven't seen anything like that. Things were pretty hectic before the party started, though," Tyler said. "Hey, you haven't even checked out the band. Look who's playing."
Up on the stage was Noser, fronting what looked like a real band, and off-stage, watching them, face glowing with pride, was Lacey. She was dressed as a 100 percent recycled post-consumer waste plastic bottle, her outfit made entirely of hemp and bamboo.
Incredulous, Wendy asked, "Noser has a band? Like, a group of musicians playing together kind of band?"
"The very kind," Tyler said. "I asked if he'd be interested in playing the gig and he got a couple of guys together. And a girl. I've never actually heard him play a note, but I figured he could use the break from working on the concept album. I wanted to surprise you."
"That's very philanthropic of you," Wendy said, and kissed him on the cheek.
"It's in my job description." He touched her hand. "So, should I be jealous of this Willard guy from Walla Walla? Is there some kind of history?"
"I've made a lot of mistakes in my life," Wendy said, "but dating someone from Walla Walla was never one of them."
Tyler nodded. "This is good to know." His earpiece blinked, so he stepped away to take a call.
"Nerts," The boss said with a weary sigh. "Dubbie, I'm afraid with all these bodies I'm having trouble singling out alien life forms. We might as well be in a Tatooine cantina."
"A more wretched hive of scum and villainy. . ." Wendy muttered darkly.
"Worse, I can't get any readings on these mirrorballs over the interference from Mr. Noser's band." He put his tools down. "You know what this means. We'll be forced--"
"No! Don't say it," Wendy protested.
"--to mingle. There's nothing like putting your peepers to work when it comes to good old-fashioned detecting."
She hung her head. "Well, at least I have a goal. I can peep as I mosey toward the bar," Wendy said as she squared her shoulders.
The Middleman held up a warning finger. "Not yet, Dubbie. We don't drink up until the fat lady sings."
She moved through the room, trying to get a sense of who their bad guys might be. Unfortunately, it appeared as if someone really had created a theme night of the Star Wars cantina, because a disproportionate number of guests were dressed as aliens. Whatever happened to reliable old costumes like sexy nurses and fairy-tale princes?
After what felt like hours, she heard her boss's voice in her ear. "We might as well try to count the wrinkles on a shar-pei, Dubbie, for all the luck we're having." She searched the room for him but couldn't quite make him out.
"Admittedly, it does seem like the ET costume supply store was sold out," Wendy sighed. "Nothing's bleeping for me. Any sign of which one is our dastardly disco ball? Why hasn't Ida called back?"
They both wound their separate ways toward the stage, many guests commenting "Nice costume" on the Middleman's uniform. Roxy Wasserman would have gagged if she'd heard that, Wendy thought.
"Hey, Wendy Watson," Noser acknowledged when they came up to the side of the risers. "Wendy's boss."
"Mr. Noser," the Middleman said with a quick nod, then turned to Lacey. "Miss Thornfield. You look festive."
"I didn't realize you were bringing your boss, Dub-Dub," Lacey said, and Wendy was horrified to realize Lacey was actually batting her lashes at the Middleman.
"Well, my day didn't go exactly as planned," Wendy sighed. She tilted her head sideways to simulate a broken neck and added, "Isadora Duncan will have to wait another year."
"I noticed you weren't wearing your costume." She waved her hands around. "Do you like how mine turned out?"
Boss man smiled. "It's very eco-conscious! And quite creative," he said, his eyes misty as he gazed at Lacey. Wendy rolled her eyes. Oh, PMGO.
Because it was nearing midnight, the Boss suggested Noser and his band take a break. Tyler joined them, his earpiece off at last.
After the band put their instruments down, they got something to drink. Wendy and the boss asked them about the setup process (nothing unusual), if the mirrorballs were already installed when they arrived (all done), and if they'd spoken with anyone unusual before the guests arrived.
Noser squinted. "How would you define unusual at a costume party?"
Wendy made a "you got me" face and looked eagerly at her boss. These explanations were always great.
"We have a. . .client for whom we perform. . .security for from time to time. They believe there may be an attempt to take advantage of such a well-heeled audience."
"You mean," Lacey asked with apprehension, "we could be in grave danger?"
"No, no!" the Middleman said, taking her hands. "We don't really believe there's a threat."
Wendy mimed her nose growing very long.
After some discussion that involved a great deal of verbal tap dancing by both Wendy and the Middleman, Noser and Tyler pointed out that it was just about time for the midnight countdown.
"Music calls," Noser said.
The three of them stood by the stage as the band started the countdown. "So, traditionally, someone looks for another someone to kiss at the stroke of midnight," Lacey said to the Middleman, smiling.
He ran a finger around his collar and cleared his throat. "Yes, I believe I've heard that, Lacey."
"Poor Noser doesn't have anyone to kiss," Wendy commented.
Tyler responded by squeezing her hand and saying, "I realize this is a charitable event, but I hope you're not planning to help him out with that."
"Oh, don't worry. He's concentrating on those weird chords he's supposed to play," Lacey said. Wendy and her boss exchanged glances.
"Chords?" they asked in unison.
"This guy offered a lot of money to a charity of Noser's choice if he'd play three special chords as the clock struck midnight," Tyler explained. "Noser claimed they were 'interestingly challenging.'"
"What part of paying someone to play weird chords at midnight doesn't qualify as suspicious or strange to you guys?" Wendy asked with indignation.
"Five!" the audience shouted.
The Middleman wheeled around. "Jimmy Stewart, man! What are the chords?"
"Uh. . ." Tyler froze like a rabbit going tharn.
"Oh! I know!" Lacey cried. "One was. . . was. . .a G-minor over--"
"Judgment at midnight! There's no time to lose," Boss exclaimed, grabbing Wendy by the arm just as the audience shouted "Two!" But they were stopped before they could move by Lacey, who grabbed the Middleman and planted a big wet one right on his pillow lips, and Tyler, who threw his arms around Wendy.
The first chord sounded as confetti flew around them and the boss extricated himself from Lacey's firm grasp. Wendy left Tyler with his lips puckered just as the Middlemen dove for Noser's guitar on the second chord. Wendy was pretty sure that what happened next happened on super slo-mo, even their long, exaggerated, Shatnerian shouts of "Nnnnooooooooooo" as they flew across the stage.
The final chord was struck and there came a blinding light from the mirrorball above them. A perfectly smooth, perfectly formed door then opened at the bottom of the ball, not unlike a gangway. The light poured forth from the doorway, catching six tall blue figures in cloaks as they stood in its beam. "Wow," Wendy commented, as she and the Middleman stood up. Apparently everyone around them thought it was part of the celebration, but the boss quickly pulled a small orb-shaped thingamawhatsit from his pocket and pressed a button.
"Shield your eyes!" he shouted, and threw his arm across his eyes. She had learned her lesson a long time ago about doing what he said when he produced thingamawhatsits from out of nowhere.
Now the entire room really did move in super-duper slow motion. Wendy looked around. "Wow, squared."
"New Year's rockin' eve! It's a portal, not a weapon!" The boss made a run for the aliens, who didn't seem to be affected by the slo-mo gizmo, maybe because they were standing in the light beam. "I must request that you stop," the Middleman said.
The aliens turned to him. "We have to go home," one of them said.
"So this isn't a weapon? You're just using it as a big escalator to the stars? Why all the elaborate planning and the shenanigans with the mirrorball?" Wendy asked.
They all shared confused looks with each other. Eventually, one said, "We needed to use these coordinates in this time window. We have waited for nearly two of your years for the correct alignment to open our doorway. If you will excuse us, now, please, we have a portal to catch." They began floating up toward the gangway.
"Perhaps you could tell us who you are before you go. I represent an organization that frequently deals with alien visitors, and we have no record of you." He offered a hand to shake, but they didn't take it.
"Although there are many wonderful things here -- we are particularly fond of bacon, cozy microfiber socks, and rollercoasters -- we miss our home world." They conferred among themselves again, and the speaker said, "No offense. We did not wish to cause a disturbance and assumed that opening the portal during the charity gala benefit party event of two years would be a plan that was elegant in its simplicity."
For once, Wendy had to agree, the plan really was elegant. Or would have been, if O2STK hadn't found out about all the Mondohertz spikes and the terygillium and a certain someone hadn't made assumptions. "Can't argue with that, Boss," Wendy said, and shrugged. "Just a big old interplanetary misunderstanding."
The Middleman stepped aside. "Very well, then, carry on." He seemed very disappointed and very confused.
The aliens waved and said "Happy New Year" as they floated up the ethereal gangway and vanished inside.
"How do they all fit inside?" Wendy stared quizzically at the mirrorball as the light faded and the door closed. "I mean, that's some crazy clown-car action going on there." There was a quick flash, and then the disco ball conveniently returned to normal.
Boss took a deep breath and said, "I'll have to figure out how to write this one up. Anyway. In a few minutes, the room should return to normal speed."
She glanced around the room, amused by how everyone appeared as though they were underpowered robots. It would be fun to put them in poses, but she knew the boss would never let her do that.
"OK, the fat lady has left the building. You owe me champagne. We deserve it, I think." She dodged around the revelers to open a bottle and pour two glasses, handing one to him. Wendy held it up and said, "To the Middleman, and O2STK, and saving the world from threats real and imagined."
He clinked her glass with his, sipped, and said, "That's some darn fine bubbly, Wendy, and an outstanding toast. To which I can only add: To you, Wendy Watson, the best trainee a Middleman could ask for. Happy New Year, and may it be the first of many I wish you."
She put her arm inside the boss's and led him back toward Lacey and Tyler and Noser. Lacey would at least get this one New Year's kiss, if Wendy had anything to say about it.