Thirty Seconds Late

An AU drabble, no challenge.

Summary: when you really need them, million-to-one chances come through nine times out of ten. This is the tenth.

Tyler leaned forward against the counter. He'd never felt so much like jumping up and strangling another person in his entire life. "I don't want to sign up as one of your temps. I don't care about that. Wendy works here, nobody's seen her in two days, and I want to know what the hell is going on."

The woman in the intensely ugly dress looked at him almost with pity. "Yeah, I can help you with that. I've got instructions. You'd better come back here with me, hon."

The big room behind the foyer was a bizarre mixture of office furniture and computer hardware, some of it apparently decades old. A silver ball like a giant Christmas ornament hung from the ceiling in the middle of the room. "Best I can do is let you see for yourself," the secretary said flatly. "Real-time holo on." A bank of tube televisions on one wall turned themselves on.

The screen showed him Wendy, but a Wendy he'd never seen before. She wore a black wet suit, a diver's knife hanging from her belt, and her expression was cold and harsh. She was in an echoing, semi-dark space that looked like a cave. She wasn't alone; a big, aging man in a red wet suit faced her. He was pointing a gun at her face. She didn't seem to care.

"... sheer elegance in its simplicity," Wendy said. "That's right, Guy. The bad guys are still saying that."

Tyler didn't understand most of the conversation -- what was a Middleman? -- but Wendy was talking for her life. She didn't show a trace of fear, or even worry. The older man's concentration broke; she got the gun, moving with a fast professionalism Tyler had never imagined. "There's still a chance to save him, I swear," the older man said urgently. Wendy motioned him through a heavy metal door at gunpoint.

The image moved to another big dark space. Another man, younger than the first, wearing a black wet suit. Something, a moving wall like a vertical sheet of fire, was backing him into a rock-walled corner of the room. He started to raise one arm, to point at Wendy, but the burning wall was already too close. "Wendy, you've got to turn off the melting ray..."

Too late. He had nowhere left to dodge. The sheet of energy kept coming, crushed him against the wall. A flash of light, and the man in the black wet suit was replaced by a formless pile of dark goo.

"Boss!" Wendy's shriek was indescribable, barely human. She charged forward; the older man shouted some warning, but the sheet of energy swallowed her too. Another lightning flash, another heap.

Tyler was on his knees; he didn't know how he'd gotten there. "It's a movie," he said harshly. "She's making a movie, that's not real. That's not what her life is like, that's not what her..."

"It doesn't hurt," the older woman said, almost gently. "We know that for certain. People have been wounded by the melting ray and lived to tell. Transmutation of matter in a tenth of a millisecond... the nerves aren't there for it to hurt."

"I want to see Wendy right now!"

"No. No you don't." The woman patted him on the shoulder. Tyler drew back angrily. "You think it's all over," she said in the same tone. "You think you can't take this. But you have no idea what you can take. You've got the same grit that she did, that they did. That's what she loved about you. Yeah, I know; she never stopped talking about you."

"You're insane," Tyler said desperately. He hadn't moved, couldn't move; he could barely see.

"You'd better get the rest of it." Her eyes moved to the screen again.

The man in the red wet suit was standing still, watching the blazing wall of energy. If he'd looked older before he was ancient now, all the life drained out of him. "Ida," he said numbly. "I was going to stop it, I was. I didn't mean..."

"We can't think about that now." The same woman's voice, on the recording's audio track, shaken. "We can't do anything. Got to," her voice choked to a stop. "Got to move on. There isn't any other way. Boss..."

He shook his head violently. "Not your boss. I haven't been your boss for forty years. She was right about that. Not the Middleman ... she was right about that too. I'm not the man he was. But I can pay my debts." He straightened a little, pushing pain away from him. "I'm sorry to leave you such a mess, Ida. Initiate Case Imperium. Alpha priority order, cannot be revoked." He squared his shoulders. "See you around, Ida." He walked into the burning, melting wall as casually as crossing a doorway. If it hurt, it didn't make him flinch.

The screen went dark. Tyler was still on the floor; his legs wouldn't hold him. That must be what melting to death felt like.

"Nobody else will ever see this," Ida said. "Credit card records will say that Wendy Watson left town yesterday, a spur-of-the-moment vacation. Acapulco, I think. Hotel records, rental car... eyewitnesses, if we need them. A couple of days from now she'll rent a small boat, go out sailing by herself for the day. Never come back. The resorts lose a couple of tourists that way every year, nobody will be surprised. Kids today are so impulsive; they bite off more than they can handle.

"People will be hurt, and they'll grieve. But they won't have to deal with ideas they could never understand. She fought evil so they don't have to ... she'll go off the radar the same way."

Tyler couldn't stop himself believing her, now. "Who the hell are you people." It was barely a question.

"The Middlemen are a centuries-old organization dedicated to fighting super-, extra-, and juxta-natural threats to what regular people think is 'the real world,'" Ida said. "There can only be one Middleman ... and one assistant, trained up to help him out and replace him if he's lost on the job. Well, when. But there's always a Middleman. You can tell, because the world hasn't been destroyed. If the chain of responsibility breaks, that's where I come in." Ida studied him. "You were offered a job once, kid; turned out you never had a chance to say yes or no about it. We've got a couple of openings again in the exciting world of temporary employment."

"You have got to be kidding."

"Serious as a German film festival, junior." Ida smiled sadly. "You can't get her back. You can't tell anyone what happened to her -- try it, and see how long you can dodge the men in the white coats. But you can pick up where she left off."