1. In battle
Wendy was doing pretty well for herself, all things considered, until she hit Brazil.
When she'd set off on this journey – ignoring a tiny voice in her head that asked if she wasn’t a little too young and a little too foolish, since the tiny voice sounded suspiciously like her court-appointed guardian – she hadn't really imagined it taking so much distance and so much time. While she knew she was in it for the long haul, whatever that ended up being, there were some things she was starting to realize she hadn't planned for.
Navigating her way around the boondocks of a foreign country without a map was one. Not speaking more than ten words of Portuguese was another. Pissed off luchadores was a third.
Come to think of it, she probably could have handled the first two just fine if it weren't for that third one.
She ducked for cover as furniture started flying around the restaurant, hoping that the luchadores wouldn't notice that their indiscriminant rage wasn't reaching her.
"Are you all right?"
Oh, great. Some dumb white guy had seen her hide behind the bar and come to check on her. Even better, he was talking loud like he thought she was deaf, which was plenty loud enough to get the luchadores' attention.
"You've got to be [BLEEP]ing kidding me," Wendy snapped, and rolled away seconds before the bar split in half, thanks to one of her new masked wrestler friends.
"Not to worry, miss, I can handle this," Dumb White Guy said, standing tall and proud and utterly, utterly destroyable.
Wendy had half a mind to use his impending murder as a distraction for her escape, but she felt bad. The guy had been looking out for her, after all, and it wasn't his fault he was dumb.
The luchadores started circling around like sharks in the water. White Guy hit a martial arts pose, and for one second, everyone stayed perfectly in place.
"Tag team this, [BLEEP]ers," Wendy shouted. She'd climbed on top of a chair and grabbed an abandoned waitress's tray, which she promptly brought down, as hard as she could, on the head of the nearest wrestler.
Things got a little chaotic after that.
It turned out White Guy wasn't just some poser; he actually had some pretty good moves. It was enough for them not to get killed, anyway, with Wendy throwing anything she could get her hands on at the luchadores, including one particularly nasty potted cactus.
It wasn't quite enough for them to win the fight.
Wendy was starting to get desperate; there were no possible weapons in reach and the luchadores had them surrounded.
White Guy didn't seem to mind, at first, but his mood suddenly changed. "Oh, phooey."
Wendy looked in the same direction and felt her spirits plummet. Another luchador had just arrived, giving the wrestlers more than enough muscle to take down two stupid tourists.
"Is this the best you can do?" the new luchador said, gazing scornfully at them through his yellow and black mask. Wendy suddenly felt the urge to scuff her shoes on the ground, and resisted. "Very sloppy work."
The reaction from the other luchadores was immediate; "Sensei Ping!" they cried, but not, as Wendy had expected, from joy. They sounded almost...scared?
"I almost had them," White Guy said, ignoring the outcry and focusing just on Sensei Ping. "The girl distracted me."
"The eagle on the nest must still listen to the wind in the trees," Sensei Ping said, whatever that was supposed to mean. White Guy looked thoroughly bummed.
"Prepare to die!" the luchadores shouted.
"Sensei Ping was not talking to you," Sensei Ping said. "If you insist on interrupting, Sensei Ping will have to destroy you."
And he did, so quickly that Wendy could hardly follow what was happening.
"Oh my God," Wendy breathed, as the carnage settled.
"Miss, are you all right?" White Guy asked. He peered closely at her and so got a face full of Wendy's exuberance.
"That was amazing!" Wendy yelled. She rushed up to Sensei Ping who, cool and collected as he had been facing a dozen crazed wrestlers, seemed completely perplexed by her adolescent Latina fervor. "How did you do that?"
"Sensei Ping is the greatest warrior in the world," White Guy explained proudly.
"So you're, like, his back-up dancer?"
He looked a little put out, but also like he was trying not to look put out. "His apprentice."
Wendy had the best idea she'd had since she'd thought of coming to South America. "Can I be your apprentice, too?" she asked Sensei Ping.
The response was swift. "No."
"Please? I'm really good! At Street Fighter. But it's the same idea! And I took out that guy." She nudged one of the fallen luchadores with her toe.
"Sensei Ping already has an apprentice," Sensei Ping answered.
Wendy looked jealously back at White Guy. "Yeah, but he's sloppy."
"You said so yourself. And I mean, you could keep him, I could just kind of sit in on a few lessons. I won't be in your hair for long, I promise."
"Sensei Ping has already given you your answer. You should leave, before Sensei Ping gets angry."
Wendy wanted Sensei Ping to be happy. He'd been perfectly calm when he'd laid out the stampede of homicidal wrestlers; she didn't want to think what he could do if he were angry.
But Wendy also wanted Sensei Ping to teach her. Who knew when she would next make enemies? And she couldn't count on not one but two cavalries to come charging in every day. So she did something extreme.
She said "Please."
Her body betrayed her, eyes welling up with tears and throat closing up before she could get any more than that out.
Sensei Ping was unmoved. His apprentice was not.
"Miss," he said, drawing close to her again and putting a hand on her shoulder. "Is there someone we can take you to? Relatives? Friends?"
Wendy shook her head and looked down. Damn it, she was not going to cry. "No, it's just me."
"By yourself? How old are you?"
"Eighteen," she said, looking up and daring him to call her a liar. He obviously didn't believe her, but she was not about to tell him she was a runaway. She'd made it too far to get sent back to her foster home now.
"Pardon my saying so, but you don't seem like you're from around here."
"I'm not. I'm looking for someone."
"Perhaps it would be better if you contacted the authorities..."
"They're useless! They didn't even try looking, they just gave up. So now it's my job." She turned to Sensei Ping, defiance silencing her fear. "Some of the people out here I meet, they're not very nice. If I have to spend my whole time worrying about them, that takes me longer to find who I'm looking for. Just teach me enough that I don't have to worry."
"A rabbit who does not watch for the hawk's shadow is food for the hatchlings," Sensei Ping told her. "Do you understand this?"
Wendy nodded. "I stand by what I said, though."
"Very well. I shall train you for your quest." Wendy smiled in triumph; even White Guy looked pleased. "If – "
Oh, Wendy did not like the sound of that 'if'.
" – You can defeat Clarence in battle."
Clarence? Wendy wondered, for a second, but the apprentice's slack-jawed expression gave that one away.
"You can't be serious," Clarence protested. His attention was on Sensei Ping; his surprise lasted much longer than Wendy's. Sucks for him.
Wendy kicked him, hard as she could, in the knee. He fell to the ground, but rolled away from her follow up blow, and quickly got back on his feet.
Wendy's best bet had been to take him out while she had the element of surprise. Now that that was gone, she wasn't sure what she could do. It was further complicated by the fact that she didn't really want to hurt Clarence.
She feinted left and dodged right around him, trying to get behind him so she could put him in a headlock. She didn't quite manage, and he shook her off. He was almost gentle about it, like he didn't want to hurt her either, which was nicer than she would have been if he'd kicked her in the knee before she was ready to fight.
She tried to get a few straight jabs in at him, hearing her father's coaching from years and years ago; but she hadn't done anything like this in long time, preferring video game violence to the real deal, and it showed. Clarence barely reacted when her hits landed, and even taking it easy on her, his punches packed a hell of a lot more weight.
Wendy stumbled back, thigh catching painfully on the corner of a table. Clarence was closing in like he was going to put an end to this. Her hand reached out, found a wine glass that was not only somehow unturned after the day's carnage but was miraculously full, and threw it into Clarence's face.
He tried to blink it off, but it took him too long. Crouching low to maximize her impact, Wendy flew at Clarence, hitting him in his mid-section and tripping him over a fallen luchador. He went down hard, but she went down right after him.
Clarence threw a punch to buy himself time to get back up, and either his impaired vision made him misjudge the distance or he'd changed his mind about going easy on Wendy, because that sucker hurt. A lot. She winced and just tried her best to get away, any way she could. She ended up half under a table, trying to catch her breath, while her ribs treated every expanse of her lungs as a betrayal.
Her opponent was back on his feet already. Bastard. Wendy was going to make him pay for that, even if she couldn't beat him; she was going to go down swinging, and not let anyone treat her like a kid.
Clarence reached for her, under the table, and the second he touched her arm she exploded back into action, twisted his arm back around him and pulled herself up using him like a lifeline – But he turned with the force of her movement and freed his arm – Her side hurt where he'd hit her - Now he was facing her – She stumbled back, but the ground was covered in bodies – Her father’s voice reminder her to stay on your feet, stay on your feet –
One word from Sensei Ping had Clarence ready to throw in the towel, but only for a second. He probably remembered how Wendy had caught him off-guard before the match hadn't started, and he left her no such opportunity now.
"I'm not a kid," Wendy protested.
"Do not lie to Sensei Ping," the master snapped at her. He walked closer, and she felt mesmerized by his eyes, peering out through his mask. They were judging her. "You are a little girl who does not know enough to stay home where it is safe. You know nothing of fighting. You are reckless and wild and you are going to get yourself killed proceeding as you have."
Wendy looked straight at him the whole time. There was a sound behind her, like Clarence was going to say something, but she didn't look. She was going to prove, in this at least, that she could be every bit as tough as Sensei Ping.
Sensei Ping was still giving her that look. "You are foolishly relentless. Someone needs to teach you how to better use that impulse of yours. It might as well be Sensei Ping."
His words took a second to sink in. When they did, Wendy's face broke into a huge smile. "You mean it?" She could have hugged him at that moment, but she thought moving her arms as little as possible was probably a good idea, and also that Sensei Ping didn't seem like the hugging type.
"Do not make me regret this," Sensei Ping warned her, and swooped off ominously.
Before she could worry about those parting words, Clarence pounced on her.
"You were incredible!" he said, and okay, wow, Clarence was the hugging type. "I'm sorry about that punch..."
"No, it's okay. I'm sorry about your knee."
"It was a learning opportunity." Clarence shrugged it off pretty magnanimously. He was way too cheerful to follow Sensei Ping around, Wendy decided; was he going to end up surly and scary too? And how did Ping put up with his cheeriness?
"Come on," Clarence continued. "We have food and medicine at our camp site."
"Sounds good," Wendy said, not asking where that was. She'd just have to make it however far away it might be.
Clarence was looking at her out of the corner of his eye, a little too knowingly. Maybe he wasn't just a dumb white guy after all. He casually offered her an arm, like they were aristocrats entering a ball, and not like he thought she needed the help getting around.
What the hell. She could use all the friends she could make. There wasn't anyone left for her in the US, and down here there was only her father, lost somewhere when his plane disappeared, needing her to find him. Who knew? Maybe Clarence could help her with that.
She took his arm and walked off with him into the sunset.
2. On a hunch
Being a temp was not something Wendy derived a lot of pride and joy from, but she had some standards, and they told her that if she was going to be a temp she might as well be a halfway decent one. So she did the phone-calling and note-taking and copy-making and coffee-fetching without too much complaining in front of her bosses and without messing anything up deliberately, and she usually paid enough attention not to mess things up accidentally.
She paid just enough attention, in fact, to notice that something was weird at the office when she came in on Monday.
All right, at first she just thought it was, you know, Monday that was getting everyone down. But by lunchtime she figured that something hinky was going on.
By two o'clock, in a fit of boredom, she even decided she was going to try and figure out what that hinky thing was.
Her coworkers had been running at quarter-speed all day, and by the afternoon, they had drained their batteries completely, only a few managing the occasional burst of activity before sputtering back into a comatose state.
The first thing Wendy did was check the coffee, but no one had secretly switched it out for decaf, and she'd been drinking it all day without problem.
She went up to the cubicle nearest to her domain and poked her head in. "Hey, Margie," she said, infusing her voice with all the energy and cheer she could manage in the face of office décor and plastic plants. "You have a call on line three."
Margie continued staring blankly at her computer screen, not moving a muscle.
"Margie, there's cake in the break room!"
No response. Wendy moved closer to check that Margie was still breathing.
"Heard you had new pictures of your cats," Wendy said. "Can I see them?"
When that produced no reaction, she knew something had to be wrong.
Wendy thought about calling police or paramedics, but no one seemed hurt, per se, and she wasn't sure she could explain the situation in a way that wouldn't make it sound like a prank call. "Hi, officer, everyone at my work is really zoned out today" probably wasn't going to do the trick.
No, Wendy decided, she was going to have to figure this one out herself.
She searched every cubicle, every office, and every conference room on the floor. She even checked the rest rooms, shading her eyes until she was sure they were empty – she wasn't shy, but that didn't mean she wanted to catch her coworkers literally with their pants down. There didn't seem to be anything more unusual than the awkward decorations in the break room for Janice's birthday party.
Wendy was starting to get frustrated, but she knew that something was wrong, and the more she searched, the more determined she became to find it. It just would have helped if she'd had any idea whatsoever about what she was looking for.
While she paused to consider, she got a drink of water – because she was thirsty, not because she thought it would give her the answer. That it did give her the answer was just a bonus.
By the time Wendy pulled up to the address, she was starting to doubt the flash of brilliance that had led her halfway across the city.
It had sounded so plausible back at the office, but out of the fluorescent-light, circulated-air environment and into the real world, her idea seemed pretty weak.
Still, it was explore this train of thought or sit in an office full of living statues for another two hours until clock out time, so Wendy squared her shoulders and approached the warehouse with more confidence than she felt.
She'd expected dank, decrepit darkness to greet her inside; instead, the warehouse was organized, clean, almost clinically so. She decided that was even creepier.
If anyone was inside, Wendy didn't seem them.
She walked further into the warehouse, looking for some clue, and found only rows and rows of boxes. The monotony started to trick her; it brought back memories of doing inventory, endless counting, with nothing ever changing –
She realized something was wrong, a fraction of a second too late.
The floor had clicked underneath her foot, the noise almost imperceptible under the echo of her feet, but she'd heard it, and she'd felt the tiniest movement. She wasn't expecting trouble, though, which might have been why, as she started to jump back from the spot, bars were already springing up to trap her.
"What the [BLEEP]?" she said, since subtlety no longer seemed an option. She hammered away at the bars around her, but they were sturdy. She stepped again on the trigger spot, but it refused to undo what it had done.
"I'm afraid you won't get out that way," a voice said from behind her. Wendy whirled around and found a man standing ten feet away. He held up a remote control in one hand. "The only way out is if I push this button."
"So how about you push that button?"
The guy smiled like he meant it, like he didn't have her trapped in a cage. "No can do. You pose a bit of a problem for me, and I prefer to keep problems under control."
Wendy tried to look non-threatening, but wasn't sure she pulled it off. It was not, after all, a look she'd ever cared to cultivate. "Me? I'm not a problem for anyone."
"That raises the question of why you are here."
"I'm an artist," Wendy said. "I like to walk around town and find inspiration. For paintings. I thought this building was kind of interesting."
"A warehouse looked aesthetically inspirational?"
"Art's not just about sunsets and horses. Sometimes you have to paint the more functional things in life."
"Hmm." He pulled a watch out of his pocket, consulted it, and returned it. "You know, that was very nearly convincing. Though you really oughtn't lie; it shows weakness of character."
"It wasn't exactly a lie," Wendy muttered.
The guy held up his remote again and pushed a button. Any hopes that he'd decided to let her go vanished quickly – apparently the damn thing was a universal remote. So universal that it even controlled Wendy's wallet.
"Hey!" she shouted as her wallet flew from her side and into her captor's hands. "You can't take my wallet, you jerk!"
"I assure you, I'm not going to steal anything." He started rifling through.
"That doesn't mean you can just look through my stuff," Wendy snarled.
"An unfortunate and distasteful necessity – though one that never would have come up had you not trespassed on my property. Just food for thought." The guy pulled out her driver's license. "Let's see, Wendy Watson." He scrutinized her face, her picture, her face again, like a bouncer at a club. "Yes, that appears to be you." He moved onto the photos in her billfold. "Is this your mother?"
"Go to hell."
"She's lovely," he said, like she hadn't said anything. "And what's this? A business card for ELF Inc.?"
Wendy ground her teeth together. "Okay, so I didn't exactly stumble across your warehouse on accident."
"Miss Watson, you must think very poorly of me if you expected me to believe that your presence here was a mere coincidence."
Were those puppy dog eyes? This nutjob with the trapdoor cage who drugged her whole office actually cared if Wendy thought poorly of him. She had to get out of here. Somehow. She tried rattling the bars again, but no dice.
"Fine, I suppose I should have thought of a better cover story," Wendy admitted. "Thinking things through before I go rushing in is not always my strong suit. And I didn't really think there'd be anyone here."
"Which does make me wonder why you came at all."
Wendy threw her hands up. "I don't know. All I know is, everyone at my work has gone totally zombie, minus the brain-munching and decomposition, and the only thing out of place I can find is that we apparently switched to a new brand of bottled water for the water cooler today. So I thought I'd come check out the distributor. I didn't think that there would actually be some kind of conspiracy waiting for me to uncover it."
The guy raised an eyebrow. "That was some impressive attention to detail," he praised her. "You have a sharp eye."
"Yeah, well, I had a lot of time to notice things," Wendy said. "On account of how you apparently drugged all the people in my office."
"That was the plan," he told her cheerfully. "I'm not sure how you slipped by my net."
Wendy snorted. "Please, do you know how terrible bottled water is for the environment? I don't touch that stuff."
"Fair enough," he told her. "In that case, it's probably for the best that you left the office, rather than hanging around. In your current alert state, you could have gotten in the way of my plans."
"What plans?" Wendy complained. "I'm all caught in the middle of this, don't you owe me an explanation?"
The guy smiled and tossed her wallet back to her. "That wouldn't be very sporting, would it?" he asked. "But you're the detective here, you figure it out."
"I'm not a detective, I'm just a temp."
"There's no such thing as just a temp," he admonished her. "Everyone has value. Every individual contribution adds to the victory of the whole."
"Thanks, I guess?" Wendy asked. "But I don't need a pep talk. I just need you to let me go."
"Oh dear," the guy said. "That's where this gets awkward." He flashed her that uncomfortable smile that the maitre d' uses when he can't find your reservation. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to dispose of you. You understand."
Wendy's mind got hung up on the word dispose for a second, before jumping and sputtering through the rest of what he said, through the realization that the gun-looking thing he had just pulled out and pointed at her was probably, in fact, a gun. "What? No – you can't kill me, that's not fair!"
There wasn't a damn thing stopping him from killing her right then, but he paused anyway. Maybe he just liked the sound of his own voice – and it would have been, under absolutely any other circumstances, a very soothing voice – or maybe he really did want her to understand the whole "have to kill you" thing. "Think about it from my perspective for a moment. I've spent weeks putting this plan together, and now you could ruin it all through blind luck. That wouldn't be very fair either, now would it?"
"Blind luck? I thought you said I had a sharp eye," Wendy reminded him. "If your plan fails, it's because you didn't match the labels on the bottled water when you switched it out. Don't pin that on me."
The guy lowered the gun in his hand a few inches, which was enough for Wendy's heartbeat to approach normal rates again. "You know, you're absolutely right," he told her. "I seem to have gotten so wrapped up in my scheme that I'm losing track of important details." A flash of inspiration crossed his face. "I say, you're going to be in need of new employment sometime very soon. Have you ever considered a life of crime?"
"Are you serious right now, or have you just been huffing your own sedative water?" Wendy asked. "Temping isn't exactly my calling in life but I don't feel too excited about getting into the trapping people and threatening to kill them line of work, either."
"A simple 'no' would have sufficed," the guy said. "Very well. I suppose destroying you would be an injustice. But I can't let you out of here until my plan has already been completed." He looked at his watch. "The cage should let you out in approximately 58 minutes and 33 seconds."
"Approximately?" Wendy asked.
"One always strives for punctuality, of course, but sometimes these things come up," the guy answered, totally missing the sarcasm. "At that time, feel free to let yourself out. Or wait for me to return, if you've reconsidered my offer."
"Thanks, I guess. Don't be hurt if I don't wish you luck while you go do nefarious things," Wendy told him.
"I will try not to take it personally," the guy said gravely, before vanishing into the afternoon sunlight.
57 minutes and 49 seconds later
The cage door sprung open in front of Wendy, causing her to lose her game of Fruit Ninja but, more importantly, freeing her.
She did hesitate for a second before leaving, but in a long history of sketchy employers and undesirable jobs, she never had anyone trap her in a cage and point a gun at her, and you had to draw a line somewhere.
Besides, there was no way she was going to explain to her mother that she'd taken up a life of crime. She'd never have another moment of peace for the rest of her life.
She stopped again, in the doorway, wondering if she should take a look around. There was no telling what some kind of crime-boss/villain/Evil Mr. Rogers would have in his warehouse hide-out...but there was also no telling when he'd be returning, and she definitely wanted to be on more even footing before she saw him again.
She didn't doubt she'd be seeing him again.
3. At a concert
Tyler Ford was a little strange, but that's what made it all work out so well.
It was not (just) that he would spend hours arguing the merits of 28 Days Later with her. It was not (just) that he'd eat "twigs and oats" to make her best friend happy, then sneak out to get bacon cheeseburgers with her and pretend they were doing something illegal. It was not (just) that he had his own way of talking, and his own view of life, and his own personal philosophy, like he lived in a different world. A more badass world, one where weird things happened all the time, and one that she could be a part of when Tyler was around.
And maybe the band was going nowhere and they lived in an illegal sublet with a vindictive landlord and Tyler was never going to be able to buy her diamonds, but they were pretty close to perfect.
But only pretty close.
"Tyler!" Wendy called out, spotting her boyfriend scurrying past in the distance and waving him over.
By the time Tyler had arrived, Wendy had set down her paintbrushes, climbed down the ladder, and crossed to the edge of the stage, where she took a swig of water from one of Lacey's SAVE THE QUAILS water bottles.
"The mural's coming along nicely," Tyler told her, exercising great precision to land a kiss on the one spot on Wendy's face that wasn't covered in wet paint.
"You know, I think you're right," she said. "I'll admit, I had my doubts about finishing on time for the show, but provided the zombie apocalypse doesn't kick off in the next couple of hours, we should be in good shape."
"What's the face?" Wendy asked. "Does this mean you're tired of zombies? I know they've been kind of overplayed lately, but they'll make it through. They always do."
"I know, I know," Tyler said. "I have never doubted zombies as creatures of the night, storytelling devices, or parables about humanity's greatest weaknesses."
"Then what?" Wendy said. "Nervous for the show?"
"No, no, I just." Tyler ran a hand through his hair. "I got called in to work."
"Look, it should just be a quick little thing – " Tyler started.
"Your sound check is in twenty minutes," Wendy told him.
"I know," Tyler said. "But the band can handle that without me, and we've got Joe 90's friends opening – "
"Tyler, this is the free concert of a thousand good causes," Wendy reminded him. "Your band, my art, Lacey's unquenchable pursuit of justice – "
" – my boss needs me – "
" – he's a big boy, he can collate his own files for one night – "
" – it's a very important meeting – "
"Can't you just take one night off?" Wendy sighed.
"I can," Tyler promised. "Just not this night." He kissed her again, less carefully, and Wendy noted a smudge of green on his lips as he pulled away. "I will be back in time for the first set."
Wendy turned back to her mural. It was supposed to be the backdrop for an epic rock concert that would shake the foundations of human society, or at the very least get them all in trouble for trespassing and vandalism of an abandoned construction lot. Now it was probably just going to end up as a monument to failed good intentions.
Well, screw that. It was still her mural, and it was still her relationship, and it was still, in part, her good intentions.
She had to jog to catch up to him, finding him just as he was climbing into his car.
He looked a little wary, which just made Wendy all the more glad she'd chased after him.
"Have a good day at the office," she told him, smiling as warmly as she knew how. "Knock 'em dead."
Tyler smiled back at her, in that way that made Wendy feel all warm and goofy. "Will do," he said. "I will be a worknado, and then I shall be a rock star."
"Sounds like a busy day," Wendy said. "And here I was just going to spend my day finger painting."
"If that's what you call finger painting, I shudder to think of your poor kindergarten teachers," Tyler said.
His wristwatch beeped at them.
Tyler sighed. "That killed the moment, didn't it?"
"No, no, I think the moment is still limping along," Wendy said. "Look, I had a thought. Ask your boss to come to the show after you guys are done tonight."
"Really?" Tyler looked surprised. "I thought you weren't a big fan."
"Me?" Wendy laughed. "I barely know the guy. But bring him along. It'll be good for him to know what a talented young guy he's got on his hands."
"And maybe he'll be more inclined to give that talented young guy some time off to perfect his craft and mack on his lovely young girlfriend?" Tyler asked. "I'm onto you, Watson."
"Am I not allowed to have both an admitted and an ulterior motive?" Wendy asked.
"You are. In fact, I insist on it."
Tyler's watch beeped again, impatiently.
"Go to work," Wendy told him. "I'll put on my pearls and heels and have a pot roast in the oven when you get back."
"And by pot roast you mean Pop Tart," Tyler said.
Tyler drove away and Wendy returned to her mural, but at least they were both smiling about it.
Here was the thing: Wendy got having a job. She'd done it herself plenty of times, and yeah, maybe she was "employment challenged" at the moment, but no one was hiring and the temp agency wasn't taking her calls and the Booty Chest hadn't appreciated the confrontational art she and Lacey had committed on the premises during their brief time as scantily-clad waitresses. Still, Wendy was glad Tyler had something to do that brought in some money and made him happy.
None of that stopped her from totally hating his boss, who was an anal-retentive neat-freak Ned Flanders knock-off who was one parking ticket away from snapping and turning into a less badass Hannibal Lector.
At least, that was the personality profile she’d derived for him based on some off-hand comments Tyler had made and the snatches of conversation she’d overheard on Tyler’s weirdly, improbably James Bond wrist communicator. It was possible she was letting her irritation with Tyler’s long, unpredictable hours cloud her judgment a little, but she knew that she was mostly right, because Lacey agreed with her, because Lacey was a loyal best friend.
Wendy consciously restrained herself from talking about her hatred of Tyler's boss – who as far as she could tell didn't even have a name, hello big flashing warning sign – with Tyler, because Tyler loved his boss and loved his work. Frankly, it made Wendy feel like the girlfriend in the first act of a romantic comedy, the one who's so clingy that she doesn't let her boyfriend have any friends or interests outside their relationship, so you know that he's supposed to leave her and end up with Katherine Heigl. Not that Wendy wanted to be Katherine Heigl, either. She just didn't want to be a big rampaging green jealousy monster, especially not when being a big rampaging green rage monster was so much more appealing.
And, provided Tyler made it to the concert with boss in tow, she was now going to have the perfect target for her rage. Wonderful.
The brushwork on the rest of her mural may have turned out a bit more violent than the preceding work, but Wendy thought it served the overall piece quite well.
Tyler arrived just as Joe 90's friends (The Washington Memorials, really guys?) were finishing their second encore. They were just about good enough to justify their set and almost good enough to justify a first encore, so Tyler didn't have a chance to do much more than point Wendy toward an overdressed Army reject and say, "Girlfriend, Boss-man, Boss-man, girlfriend," before he was rushed on stage.
"You can call me Wendy," she said. "In fact, I insist on it. 'Girlfriend' would be creepy."
"A pleasure to meet you, Wendy," Tyler's boss said, pointedly not giving his own name. "Tyler has told me all about you."
"Really," Wendy said. "And here I thought you were monopolizing his time because you didn't think he had anyone else to spend it with. Since you did know, I guess that just makes you an asshole."
Tyler's boss opened and closed his mouth, twice, while Wendy committed the scene to memory.
"Oh, look, the show's starting," she said, before he could put together his words.
Tyler and the band launched into "Puppet Love," a song which walked a thin, thin line between romantic declaration and scathing social commentary. It was one of Wendy's favorites, and was enhanced tonight by an appreciative crowd – they'd managed to draw in a few hundred people, with more still arriving – and by Lacey's performance on stage.
"Wendy, I think we might have gotten off on the wrong foot – " Tyler's boss started.
"Shht," Wendy hushed him. "I love this song."
She kept him hushed like that, unsettled and uneasy, through "Wise Guys," "Someone Else's Fan," and "Luchadores!" which, while it wasn't the band's strongest effort, had a special place in Wendy's heart as the first song Tyler sang for her, when they were first dating and he was still figuring out all the verses.
When the band took a short break to hydrate and extricate Lacey from the elaborate web she'd spun around herself in comment on society's unjust imprisonment of the true artistic spirit, Wendy turned back to Tyler's boss. "You were saying something?" she prompted, in her best take-no-shit tone.
"Wendy, I get the impression that you don't like me very much," he started.
"I get the impression that you subject Tyler to a preposterous work schedule which probably violates all kinds of employee codes," Wendy answered. "If I'm mistaken about that, maybe we can have another shot at this first impression thing that you seem so worked up about."
"I know it can't be easy wanting to spend time with someone and having them called away all the time," Tyler's boss said. Ugh, those were such transparent empathy tactics he was using. This guy had nothing on Dr. Barbara Thornfield, M.D., Ph.D. "But Tyler's very important to our organization, and we deal with matters that, given their large scope and exotic nature, have a very limited window of opportunity."
"None of this is impressing me," Wendy told him. "It's your organization, you need to run it in a sustainable way. This level of work?" She nodded at the stage, where Tyler was currently a beaming, grinning, rocking beacon of life and energy, but where she knew he was going to be collapsing the second the set was over. "That's not sustainable. Hock your fancy Dick Tracy watches and use the funds to hire some extra help. Hell, get an intern from State, the students are dying for class credits and something they can put on their resumes. I don’t care what you do, but it’s your business and if you can’t run it that’s your problem. Tyler gets his night off.”
"It isn't that simple," Tyler's boss said. "Many of our clients value discretion highly, they wouldn't take kindly to my bringing in new faces every time someone wanted a vacation. And Tyler's already familiar with the system we use..."
Wendy stood her ground. She was shorter than this guy and still wearing paint-spackled sweatpants, but she meant business, and whatever else she could say about Tyler's boss, he wasn't so unobservant as to miss that.
He quirked his lips in something that was the opposite of a smile. "I'm still not impressing you."
"You don't think very much of me, do you?" Wendy demanded, hands on her hips to quell them from reaching out and strangling Tyler's boss. If nothing else, the paint-smeared handprints they'd leave would surely be enough evidence for the cops to pin the murder on her. "Tyler at least tries to act sneaky, and I let him think he's sneaky because it's kind of endearing. But you do not endear yourself to me, you have never done anything but the opposite of endearing yourself to me, and now you have the gall to come here and not even try to lie to my face."
Wendy had never seen a more perfect look of flabbergastment on someone's face. "I'm sorry?"
"See, I don't think you are sorry, and if you are, then it's for the wrong reasons," Wendy said. "I know Tyler isn't a temp. I know you guys are involved in all kinds of hinky shit, most of which is dangerous and some of which is probably illegal. Do you think I enjoy knowing that you are taking my boyfriend away from me, putting him in danger, and pretending like you haven't done me any wrong?"
He did, at least, have the sense to drop a pretense when it was through. "I could make you forget knowing that," he told her. "But I suspect that isn't what you want."
"No, unsurprisingly, that offer doesn't make me feel better," Wendy told him.
"Then I'm not sure how you expect me to address the situation," he replied, with a helpless gesture. "Hiring more people isn't an option, and our schedule is entirely out of my control. I suppose the problem would solve itself if Tyler quit, but you'll have to take that up with him."
"I'm not going to give Tyler ultimatums or make his choices for him, because he is an adult. Even if he does make 'vroom' noises when he plays Mario Kart. But I'm going to give you an ultimatum. You take care of Tyler, or else."
"And what exactly qualifies as an 'else'?"
Wendy bared her teeth in a humorless grin. "I'm sure I'll think of something."
He nodded. At the very least he was giving every impression of taking her seriously, but Wendy was used to people who were steeped in eight layers of irony and this guy, with his jacket and his chin and his hair, he just couldn't be real. But the way he looked into her eyes and spoke to her, that all felt sincere. "I promise you, I want Tyler to be safe just as much as you do."
"So do something about it."
"I do. Every day. I look out for him."
"And I think you can do more." The band was finishing "Atlantic Ice," and Wendy's eyes wandered over to Tyler. There was no way he'd see her in the audience, between the stage lights and the darkness over the lot, but he looked like he was searching for something. "You call him for every little emergency," Wendy said. "Do you even have anyone else to call?"
"It's a small operation," he told her.
"Some kind of covert ops, need-to-know bullshit," Wendy continued. "You'd think life would have thrown enough of that at me by now, but you'd be wrong."
Tyler's boss was still watching her, but Wendy was tired of looking at him. She just wanted to enjoy Tyler's next song, "Living Ghosts," the one he'd written over waffles, the one he'd struggled so hard to fit the word "prestidigitation" into. She liked this song, and there was no telling how many more times she'd get to hear it played live.
"There aren't many people who can do what Tyler does," his boss told her.
"I know," Wendy said. "But there has to be at least one more. Someone to help you keep an eye on him. Someone to make sure he gets his night off."
"I suppose," he replied, half to himself, "there might be one more."
There. Wendy had done what she could, until the next time, when she'd just have to do whatever she could again. For now, there was the waffle song, and even the presence of Tyler's boss couldn't diminish the waffle song.
They stood together in silence, watching Tyler perform, until the very end of the night.
4. On a job interview
The Zorbian rebels had the decency to stage their invasion during the New Year's Eve firework display over the city, which was going to make Wendy's job – well, in all honesty, mostly Ida's job – of covering the whole thing up that much easier.
It did also mean that Wendy was flying the fighter jet in some absolutely terrifying circumstances – cloaked, at night, against multiple hostiles, while the humans down on earth were inadvertently trying to blow her up.
She'd flown in worse. But every time she did, she thought about her father, and what circumstnaces he must have been flying in when his plane went down. And then she thought about her mother, and who would break the news to her that Wendy was never coming home again. Best case scenario Wendy could think of was Ida would magically discovery empathy immediately before making that house call. Ida was less than ideal for the task of breaking bad news to people delicately. But there wasn't anyone else.
And then Wendy stopped thinking about her parents, because she had three Zorbian attack drones on her tail and she could only fire one rocket at a time.
Math wasn't her friend tonight; one against many. But it had been that way since Raveena died, and nothing good was going to come of moping about it now.
Wendy shook off the drones long enough to shoot down two of them, but the third was persistent.
To her left, there came a kaleidoscopic burst of blue and gold; one of those fireworks that sparks small, at first, and larger a few seconds later.
Hey, there was an idea.
Wendy banked, hard, and flew into the firework, hoping she was timing this just right, because if she didn't, Ida was going to have a lot more work tomorrow than just masterminding the cover story.
The drone was starting to close in on her. Wendy's instincts were screaming at her to fly as fast as she could, to get away, but she had to keep it on her tail...close but not close enough to fire on her...
The drone closed in.
The blue and gold firework exploded in its second shower of sparks, just as the drone flew through it.
The drone exploded with it, which probably made the firework look a little lopsided and sloppy from the ground below. Wendy thought she'd never seen anything so beautiful.
"YES!" Wendy hollered to no one. "Got you, sucker!"
That was when the fourth drone snuck up on her.
"NO!" Wendy yelled. "No no no, I need that engine."
She gamed the controls frantically, looking for some solution, but her left engine was shot and the whole jet was going down. She had less than a minute.
Most of that time she spent forcing the auto-pilot to lock onto the drone. She checked that her parachute was clipped into place. And in the last spare second, she patted the sleek, shining console gently.
"That'll do, pig," she told the jet. "That'll do."
Then she ejected herself out of the jet and into the exploding night sky.
It was the stupidest, craziest thing that should never have worked, but somehow it did.
Wendy not only managed to arrive safely on the ground, but the jet successfully flew itself into the drone, destroying what Wendy hoped was the last of the airborne attack.
Once she was on the ground – in a street thankfully unoccupied, presumably because everyone was at a party or getting drunk or both – she unclipped her parachute and opened a communication line to Ida.
"Ida, talk to me," she said. "How's that invasion looking?"
"I've seen better," Ida said. "Radar isn't showing any bogies in the sky."
"Radar wasn't showing any bogies in the sky when one of them shot me down," Wendy pointed out.
"Sorry, chief," Ida shrugged. "Zorbian tech is hard to spot at the best of times. This isn't the best of times."
"Yeah, tell me about it," Wendy grimaced. "Did they manage to land any ground troops?"
"Doing a search now," Ida said. "Looks like reports are coming in of some trouble makers at a bar called MacMurray's down on 19th St."
"Are we sure this isn't just New Year's Eve nonsense?"
"Unless the kids these days all dip themselves in glowing neon body paint, it's the Zorbians."
"Can we definitively rule that out?" she asked. "Hell, I don't know what the kids are all doing these days. When did I get old?"
"When you became the Middleman," Ida said tartly. "You don't have time to do stupid shit like that any more. Now go to MacMurray's and stop this invasion before Earth becomes a new Zorbian separatist's colony. I don't like the sound of their income tax policy." She cut off the connection.
"Of course, of course," Wendy grumbled. "I'm going. I just want to know if glowing body paint is the new trend, is that so much to ask?"
She figured at the very least, she'd get inspiration for some very interesting mixed-media projects out of all of this.
Wendy had once asked Raveena,
"Why did you take me on as your apprentice?"
"I thought you had the chops," Raveena said. "And I liked you okay."
"Wow, don't flatter me too much, my head will swell up."
Raveena had looked straight through her in that uncomfortable way she had. "I'm serious," she said. "Someday you're going to have to pick an apprentice. Pick someone you can stand, but not someone you're crazy about. You need to keep your judgment clear."
MacMurray's was not, in fact, a hotbed for rebellious youth hijinks. It was a seedy, rundown place for people to come in alone, get drunk alone, and leave alone.
Wendy entered cautiously, partly because she didn't want to alert any possible Zorbians to her presence, and partly because the place stank to high heaven of stale beer and unwashed man sweat.
She had her raygun at the ready, held carefully in front of her as she checked the room for suspects.
Then she stood up, lowered her gun a tick, and put her back against the wall to watch the show.
She didn't have to check the room very hard.
Atop the unpolished bar counter was a pile of half a dozen Zorbians – unconscious, or so she gathered from their inert state and the diminished glow of their skin. The room was empty of any humans, except for a tall, brawny fellow in the middle of the room who was boxing seven rounds with the last remaining Zorbian.
Wendy watched them carefully. Zorbian's were excellent fighters, despite their small stature; on the other hand, this guy had apparently taken care of six of them already, so he must surely be a good fighter himself.
The more she watched, the more apparent it was that he was a very good fighter.
She could have easily put a stop to the whole thing with one shot of her ray gun, but something stayed her hand. Of course, there was always a chance that, good of a shot as she was, she could miss. But she thought the real reason might be the intense look on this guys face, which suggested that he wouldn't be too happy to have his punching bag taken away from him.
Wendy was giving it about ten seconds before the Zorbian ended up on the bar with his buddies, but then, she'd always had a tendency to be jump to conclusions, and the universe was constantly giving her reminders to watch herself. This was no exception.
The Zorbian scored a good shot, smashing into the boxer's right cheek and cutting it open. The guy stumbled back several feet, banged into a bar stool, and fell head over feet backwards.
Wendy had to hand it to the guy. He was a pro. It was only the work of a second for him to roll back onto his feet and find his stance again; but Wendy wasn't leaving anything to chance. A Zorbian could do a lot of harm in a second, especially one as fiesty as this.
"Hey! Scales McGee," Wendy called, getting the alien's attention. She raised the raygun and pointed it straight at him, with a firm unwavering grip that said 'however fast you think you can move, I can drop you faster than that.' "I want answers, and I want them now."
There was a tickering noise as the Zorbian spoke, before its translation box picked up the words. "You can torture me if you want. I will tell you no information."
"Look, I'm trying to do us both a favor here," Wendy said. "I'm trying to save us all from this botched up invasion you have going on. You aren't going to win; all that's going to happen is any other people you have roaming around here are going to get themselves into a lot of trouble. So if you can tell me the placement of your remaining troops, I can get them out of the mess you've put them into."
"I tell you nothing," the Zorbian said.
The boxer, who had moved behind the Zorbian at this point, tapped him on the shoulder.
"Hey, bub, you forgot something," the boxer said, as the Zorbian turned around.
The second the alien was facing him, the boxer cold-clocked him with a mean looking right hook.
The Zorbian dropped to the ground, bioluminescent skin fading to a faint flicker.
"I needed him talking," Wendy told the boxer, annoyance coming through in her voice.
"He didn't seem interested," the boxer said. "And I owed it to him." He gestured roughly at the open gashes on his cheek, but didn't make any move to stop the bleeding.
"You didn't think maybe a glowing fish man was the sort of thing you shouldn't have messed with?" Wendy asked him.
"Glowing, fish," the guy spat on the floor. "A troublemaker's a troublemaker, I know what to do with a [BLEEP] when one comes into my bar and tries to start something."
"You certainly are a charming piece of work," Wendy told him. "You got a name?"
"Colton," the guy said.
"Colton, I'm going to need you to clear this bar," she told him.
"I'm not finished with my drink yet," he told her, and sat on a stool, surrounded by unconscious Zorbians.
Wendy's watch beeped at her.
"What's the situation, Ida?"
"More trouble. MacClaine's, on 30th."
Wendy glared at her phone. "What, is their strategy to take over all the bars?"
"I can think of worse ones," Ida told her.
"Send over a droid to pick up the Zorbians here at MacMurray's, would you?" she said, then glanced back up at her boxer for a moment. He was draining the last of his glass. She wrinkled her nose. "And tell them to bring a fire hose."
Colton look up at her as she cut off the call. "More glowing fish people?" he asked.
"More troublemakers," she said, checking her ray gun. "Don't worry, your whiskey's safe."
"My whiskey's empty," he told her. "And I'm not in the habit of taking more than I've paid for."
"Oh, well, nice to know there are lines you don't cross," Wendy told him.
Colton stood up. "You've got another fight on your hands."
"Something like that," Wendy said. "Though this time I'm really hoping that I can actually talk to some of them before they end up like sashimi."
"Guess that could be arranged," Colton said. "Long as you don’t take your time."
"Wait, you think you're coming along?" Wendy asked.
"Like I said. I don't like [BLEEPERS] who cause trouble in bars."
"Unless it's yourself," Wendy said.
Her watch beeped again.
"When you're finished in MacClaine's, looks like some of them are in Baxter's Brewery," Ida said.
Wendy sighed and lowered her wristwatch.
She sized up Colton. She didn't like the look of him. She didn't like the smell of him. But he was good in a fight and he hadn't blinked at any of the weirdness going on and he seemed to have some sort of moral compass in there somewhere.
"Fine," she said. "But keep up. And leave me at least one Zorbian to talk to."
"I'll do my best," Colton told her. "Long as you can handle yourself."
"Of course I can," Wendy told him. "I'm the Middleman."
"The [BLEEP] does that mean?"
Wendy grinned at him. "You're about to find out."
He didn't look impressed, but he followed as she led him out into the darkness of night.
5. For the second time
Wendy experienced one of those profound moments of déjà vu, so real and so strong, that she lost all track of what was happening.
All she was doing was riding the elevator up to her apartment. Nothing weird there. What was up with today? That's right, she was late late late, stupid temp job; Tyler was going to miss his own launch party, and Lacey and Perfect Warren and Noser were all going to be waiting for her...
"Are you all right?" a voice asked, right next to her.
Wendy yelped. How had she not noticed there was someone else in the elevator with her?
"Sorry, I didn't mean to alarm you." The guy looked genuinely apologetic. He also looked weird – no one had worn a jacket like that since the '50s, and whose hair was ever that perfectly in place? "You looked dizzy, for a moment."
"Yeah, I'm fine," Wendy shook her head. Normalcy was rapidly restoring itself, and she felt great. Absolutely perfect, except for one little gnat of a thought buzzing around the back of her mind, just out of reach. It couldn't have been important.
The elevator door opened.
"Are you sure? Would you like me to walk you to your door?"
Maybe the guy was some kind of serial killer, but Wendy couldn't quite make herself buy that. "Why not? You can catch me if I faint from womanly vapors."
"Oh, I don't think that will ever happen."
The walk down the hall was a short one, the door to Wendy's apartment already open. Shouts from her friends inside greeted her, and she broke into a grin. "Here we are," she announced. "Thanks for looking out for me, I guess." A thought occurred to her – Mr. Clean-shaven and Respectable didn't look like he lived in an illegal sublet. "Did you need something?"
He smiled a little, but didn't look either amused or happy. "Just to see you off safely. Goodbye, Dubbie."
Wendy was halfway through the door before she did a double take. "Dubbie?" She turned to ask her escort what he meant.
The hallway was empty.