The geographical centre of the city
The longest night of his life
The Middleman kept the beam running until the power ran out, and stood even longer staring up at the sky. The stars winked and smouldered out from the darkness, already burnt out wherever in the universe they were anchored. They faded as the sun rose low over his city, a bitter light on his red eyes.
He had believed Dubbie would make it back, despite the odds. He would give her no less respect than that – she had done everything she could to come back.
He flew out to speak to her mother, after a brief and painful meeting with Lacey, Tyler and Noser at the loft. It was only right to tell them she was dead. From the description of the world she had landed in, Wendy had shown considerable valour and skill to survive long enough to contact the other Middleman. Ida came up with the story he told, as she was packing up the personal effects from her locker.
Wendy Watson left on a business trip to Jordan, carrying contracts between two different companies on behalf of The Jolly Fats Wehawkin Employment Agency. For security reasons, she flew on a private charter plane, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. Everyone on board was lost.
It was a good enough story, and in their grief no one would question it, but The Middleman felt she deserved more. He hated lies, but he kept adding bits of them to the tale. She had never given in and recorded any code 47s. He read the shocked faces and devised small comforts.
The trip had been unexpected, otherwise she certainly would have said her farewells to her friends and family. She was upbeat and helpful before the flight left. She loved airplanes. She had taken her sketchpad to work on the plane. She told him he owed her a great lunch once she got back. She seemed to be enjoying her job.
He told her mother Wendy was wearing a skirt and blouse when she flew to Jordan, and the older woman smiled gratefully. She had taught her girl to dress well, she told him. She didn't know if she had shoes for the funeral and she wanted to look right.
The worst idea in his head now was that Wendy wasn't dead, but trapped and forever out of reach.
The Middleman took Ms. Watson to the mall and helped her shop, buying a black dress to wear to her lost daughter's memorial. He agreed it was perfectly okay to wear sandals if they were black and formal. He held her mother's hand in the airplane. He booked her hotel and showed up early to drive her to the service. He worked the clasp on her pearls. He held her up as she wept helplessly over the blown up image of a younger Dubbie on prom night.
Tyler, Lacey and Noser had brought some of her paintings to put on stands around the portrait. They each spoke a few words. Lacey, who had started crying when she saw him at the door alone before he said a word, cried throughout the day. Tyler was awkward in a tie he kept slipping through his fingers, his eyes deeply pained. Noser was stoic, but he seemed to cut his remarks short upon telling the mourners Wendy had always been able to guess the song he quoted, and throw the next line back. There were many other people from her college, and a few young Asian men he assumed were the surly ex-boyfriends. Sensei Ping sent a single lotus flower.
Ben showed up with a video camera, and The Middleman put a gargantuan amount of restraint into only decking him once. After Tyler and Noser had shown him out, it was last call for speakers. He caught Ms. Watson's pleading glance before she buried her eyes in her handkerchief. Wendy's mother was quite a lady, and she deserved to hear all the good he had seen in her daughter.
“Wendy Watson was rather impatient during her interview,” he began. “She and my receptionist have never been able to get past the personality clash they had from the first moment. But she was funny, witty, very quick. She never needed to have anything explained more than once, and she had boatloads of initiative. She could hold her own in any situation, no matter how odd, and it saved me on any number of occasions. I told her she could easily have my job some day, and she often set out to prove she could have my job that day by bossing me around.”
There was a wave of muted, genuine laughter and he smiled fondly.
“Whenever she criticized my methods she had good reasoning and I valued the fresh perspective. Her intellect would have served her well in any profession, and I'm honoured she chose to work for me. Art was her first calling, but it never interfered. In hindsight, I wish I could correct the times working for me interfered with her art and her friendships. Life is too short and hers was . . . “
The lies beat out from his chest like thunder, and he put his hand up to quell the guilt. She was gone to these people. She was gone to this world. This was more than most of his peers had received at their ends. Wendy had needed more recognition than his own silent brooding. This was for the best, even if it was a lie.
“We had too little time with Dubbie, and I will miss her for the rest of my life.”
He managed to step away from the podium before the tears came, hot and painful, dripping down his chin onto his jacket. The priest let him stare at the portrait for a long time before patting his arm and gesturing him down from the stage. Ms. Watson held his hand firmly and Lacey rubbed his back.
He was invited to the gathering after the memorial but only stayed a few minutes. There was still a villain on the loose and he felt Tyler's inquiring glances a few times. He supposed he had said more than a typical boss would, but it was pure. He would miss Dubbie forever, and always regret her loss. It was just passionate compared to Tyler's story about fixing her old car for her, and that much emotion might have taken away from her boyfriend's peace of mind. It was unintentional. Those people had each other to talk about her in the future, and he just had his thoughts.
After checking in with Lacey and Ms. Watson, The Middleman walked out of the loft. His empty hands trembled. He went to HQ, sat against her locker and held her jacket, remembering.
The geographical centre of the city
The night she realized she was completely screwed
You took what comfort you could, Wendy thought. In whatever form it came, even asshole bikers with no capacity for understanding. If he lost his world he'd probably sit back with a beer bong and congratulate himself at being displaced. She wanted to fall down and sob.
The terse, rough pat on her back stopped and she flicked off the machine before it blew up in their faces. Lacey smiled and pointed behind them. Both Wendy and The Middleman turned abruptly, but it was just Noser coming to escort her friend back to the strip club. He'd been shot, but he would recover.
“Oh, Dub Dub, I'm sorry,” she said sympathetically. “You were always tougher than me, and I do okay. You'll be fine. A lot of the girls live at the loft if you want to crash there for tonight.”
Wendy accepted the hug her friend offered. She had been broke a lot but never literally penniless and homeless. It was nice Lacey was the forgiving person she cherished in her own universe. It was the source of her small amount of hope.
“I think . . . I'm going to go with The Middleman here and see if we can't figure out something else we can try,” she said apologetically.
He gave her a look that wasn't mean, but not friendly either. Lacey glared and Wendy tilted her chin up challengingly.
“You just pissed off the other me a whole lot. I don't know if you know my looks, but the one she was giving you last was enraged.”
He arched his uncovered eyebrow. “I'm familiar,” he smirked.
“You! Be nice to her! She's lost in an alternate universe,” Lacey scolded him. By her side, Noser gave a short nod.
The Middleman was packing up the futuristic metal thingy and shrugged. “I won't eat the cupcake. She's decent backup and I piss a lot of people off.”
He made it sound so threatening, but she was pretty sure it was some kind of admission of tolerance, so Wendy sent Lacey and Noser home. When she figured out some way to get a Fatboy ID she would visit, but there was a huge aching pressing on her temples. She needed a shower, food and sleep. Then she could wake up and process being stuck.
“Get the stand,” he griped.
Wendy picked it up and folded it under her arm, following him back to an abandoned parking lot. She was shocked for a moment when he put his elbow through a window, but hid it. He was The Middleman in a post-apocalyptic world, and he stole cars. It was only slightly weirder than space cockroaches.
She didn't speak until he let her into HQ and put the equipment away. The void in the middle of the room where the Middle hog used to be seemed to bother him. She didn't touch his arm like she would have done at home.
“There's a bunk room, and the locker room,” he told her. “Probably in the same places you left them. Uniforms in the lockers. Food in the kitchen. Don't trust Ida if she offers to cook, she's lousy at it. No tastebuds.”
Wendy was nearly bowled over by the semblance of a conversation. She nodded and he disappeared down the hallway. She looked down at her Evil Wendy costume and sighed. It was long past time to wash that off.
She found the locker room mostly the same, except it only had one large stall instead of two. Accommodating two people probably sent the wrong message to the one night stands, she thought snidely.
For whatever odd reason, that was the thing that made her cry, so she stripped down quickly and started the shower. He hadn't ripped the pipes out of the walls and pawned them, at least. When she threw down her pants an object clattered out. She leaned over and picked up the tennis bracelet, glinting at her with something that reminded her of home. 69 had proved all Middleman were not created equal, but her Middleman was a good man. She tucked the bracelet in a pocket and turned on the shower.
There was hot water, which she hadn't been sure to expect, and the tiles were very clean. Ida was unkind but she didn't let things get messy. Wendy stood under the spray and leaned her forearms over her head. With her face on the white tiles she could only see her own blurry reflection. She had taken a shower in this place only a day previously. Her world existed. She didn't exist in it, currently, but that was an issue she could work with.
The door opened behind her and she flinched. She looked back and frowned at The Middleman.
“Hot water doesn't last long,” he said. His voice was flat, but he did a scan up and down her body. “Leave some for me.”
He sat on a bench and started peeling the chaps off. Wendy washed her hair and ran soap over her skin as fast as she could. She trusted him, sort of, and she showered with her Middleman all the time. But her Middleman didn't look at her like that or call her cupcake. He didn't roll his hips just to make her look at his crotch.
“All yours,” she said, moving past him. He was down to his boxers and his eyepatch. He might not take the eyepatch off. She wrapped herself in a towel and grabbed her dirty clothes.
“We'll make plans tomorrow. You'll need a Fatboy ID and I had some contacts on the inside if they're still alive. I need some transportation to replace the Middle hog. If we're going to bust out the old man it's going to be a lot harder now. She moved him to a different location.”
She opened her mouth and snapped it shut again. He made a small hand gesture urging her on.
“How do we know she didn't kill him?”
“She's been taking a risk keeping him alive all this time. That hasn't changed. You can't prove what you saw and even if you could,” he replied. “People are broken. They'll stand up for themselves only when they feel safe. It's going to take a hell of a lot.”
She could drag herself around like she didn't belong or she could get up each morning and be the Middleman's apprentice. The basics were all there, if slightly different. She could take out her frustrations on Ida's tanorexia.
“We'll figure it out, Boss,” she said, holding his gaze. He blinked, surprised, she thought. He didn't disagree. She threw on a Jolly Fats t-shirt and went to bed before she pushed her luck too far.