The Paternal Predecessor Paradox

Chapter One

Wendy Watson's cell rang as she was changing clothes at the end of a long fighting-evil work day. She glanced at the readout and grinned. "Mom! I was thinking about calling you. The thing is, next month..."

The smile faded away. "Mom?" She sank onto a locker room bench without looking behind her. Her shoulders sagged. "Sure, but can I...." She listened. "They're sure? When?" The answer took more life out of her.

The Middleman had been busy on the other side of the room, but her sudden mood change was impossible to miss. He came into her field of view, waited until she met his eyes before he sat beside her. Her hand was clammy, trembling a little. It clung to his. He'd seen her face imminent death with more composure. Wendy mouthed Dad; she was too absorbed in listening to the telephone for more.

The Middleman felt the same chill. Her father's DC-3 crashed under mysterious and as-yet-unexplained circumstances when she was fourteen. That loss had shaped every part of Wendy's life, from her fierce self-reliance to her occasional moments of despair. There wasn't the slightest chance of good news, from her expression.

Something her mother said brought the tears into the open. "Yeah. I ... absolutely. Do you need me to..." She rubbed her face on her shirt sleeve. "As soon as you get your flight information. Any time. I will." She fumbled with the telephone, got it shut off. She turned to him, swallowed. "Listen, that was my mom. She says, she got this call, they were just doing a sonar survey but..." The words slid out of control into a sob.

The Middleman put an arm around her shoulders. Dubbie's voice froze up entirely. She gulped air and let it out in a wordless sound of pain. He had guesses, but she needed to tell this her way. "They found it. My dad's plane. The Navy. In about fifty feet of water, not far down the coast from here... he never got out. They found his body. He was dead the whole time."

"I'm so sorry, Dubbie." All anyone could say. The Middleman didn't mistake it for a helpful comment.

She hid her face in his shoulder. Fisted two handfuls of his jacket in sudden anger. "I feel so stupid. I mean, of course. If he could have come home he would, he loves us. Loved us. I'm sure Mom got a grip on that years and years ago. But I wanted to think that maybe, someday ..."

"That's not stupid. It's very human."

She took in another shaky breath, sat up straighter. "I've got to deal. In a way, it's handy... God, is that why I came back to California? Because that's where he was stationed when we lost him, and I somehow thought being close .... anyway. They've got the, the, everything at the Naval base south of here. They want to tell Mom about it in person, me too I guess. It's gonna help that I live here. Mom's flying out, she doesn't know when yet. She's going to call ... I guess she'll stay at the sublet while she's here. Me too." She looked up. "I'm not trying to hide you. I'd never do that. But she can't, we can't be here..."

"I've lost people too." Including both his parents, which she knew. "Whatever help you need, a lot or a little, I'm here."

"I need Lacey. She and mom are close too, she's got to know." Wendy's expression shifted. "I mean, I need you too. Always. It's just that..."

"Of course. Lacey's always been there for you. I'll take you home."

----

At the airport, two days later, Wendy was able to function without bursting into tears. Lacey and the Middleman had set up a wordless duty rotation; they hadn't left her alone once unless she asked to be. Art Crawl members kept coming to the sublet with herbal teas and chi-balancing crystals and hot food. She'd gotten some sleep both nights. The first night, on the Middleman's shoulder on the sublet couch. The second, in their own bed clutching him like an outsized teddy bear. He didn't offer more. Wendy had wondered if her jittery, red-eyed self didn't attract him. Realized finally that whatever other gaps the Middleman had in his social experience, he knew all about sudden loss.

She took one last glance at him as her mother's flight was announced. Getting the Middleman into civilian clothes was still hard work. But he'd left off the jacket and gun belt, loosened the tie and rolled his sleeves up. The result looked like somber business casual, nothing to attract attention. Wendy had changed her uniform for her church-and-job-interview skirt suit so they weren't dressed too much alike.

Wendy had always meant to introduce her mom and her beloved. She'd never expected this kind of first meeting. "Mom's cool, really," she said in an undertone. "I told her you speak Spanish. But don't go out of your way to use it, sometimes that comes across bad. And don't tell her you paid for my car. Not so much of the "Ghosts of the Living, Dubbie!' kind of stuff. She's the best mom in the world, but this is a real bad week. Things like..."

"'I can't tell you my name or what I do, but I enjoy sleeping with your daughter?' That sort of thing?"

Wendy stared, her cheeks burning with embarrassment shading to anger. Then she read his deadpan expression, and choked with helpless laughter. "Something like that."

"I promise I won't embarrass you." The Middleman's hand only rested lightly on her arm, but it felt like a will-to-live transfusion. "You'll get through this." He didn't mean her meet-the-parent nerves.

"I know. And having you back me up ... God knows if I could have handled this a year ago." Wendy squeezed his hand.

She recognized her mother's walk from too far away to recognize faces. The next second Wendy was running without planning it, her inner five-year-old bolting for the only safety in the world. The past had such a grip on her that she was surprised when Mom's chin only reached her shoulder. "Mama." Her mother had worn the same perfume all Wendy's life. Breathing it now, adult-Wendy barely kept her child-self from crying again.

"Sweetie." Mom had a catch in her breath, too. Wendy felt her shift, look up. "Manners, dear." Mom patted her on the shoulder and slid out of the hug.

The Middleman had caught up to them and stopped a few feet off. Wendy was surprised all over again at how someone his height and width could fade into the background. A sleight-of-body-language that projected this isn't about me like a deflector shield. Now he closed the gap, held out his hand. "Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Watson. I'm Mike Middler, from Wendy's job." Bald-faced lying, though, not so much. They'd practiced that one.

Mom shook hands. "Please. I'm Inez. Thank you for picking me up; you've been such a help to Wendy at a time like this." And you'd damn well better stay that way was in her tone, but barely a nuance. Wendy remembered a prom date who hadn't been so lucky. "I was afraid we wouldn't get to the base in time for the appointment."

"Plenty of time." The Middleman took her luggage as if it weighed next to nothing.

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