Part Nine

Wendy Watson had a two-inch-wide slit to see through, at the edge of a window, toward the altar of a demonic undersea god. Its half-human followers, over a hundred of them, were gathered eagerly around the platform. The Middleman, her boss and incidentally the love of her life, moved through the crowd in disguise. He carried a box that could contain and shut down the mystically powerful idol on the altar. Get to it, steal it, get out again alive. Another Middleman, years ago, had failed at the third step. Wendy's father had died alongside him.

Her cheek rested on the cool, smooth wood of a rifle stock. The telescopic sight brought the altar so close she could see the coarse weave of the hybrids' ceremonial robes. Not today.

Wendy spared a glance at a much closer hybrid, efficiently hog-tied on the floor behind her. 'Frog-lizard' seemed to cover it. Besides a basic human body shape, the creature was nauseatingly alien. Huge round eyes, hairless skin. Most of it had the moist translucency of a frog's. Fine-toothed ridges of heavier, scaly skin covered the top of its shoulders, the skin over the collarbones, a broad flat patch on the sternum. With its long flowing robes 'borrowed,' Wendy could see that the creature had no nipples or belly button. It still wore a folded loincloth, which was absolutely fine with her.

"Sit tight, stay calm," Wendy said. "You'll be griping to your buddies in a couple of hours over algae beers or whatever. He told the truth; we won't kill anybody if we can get out of it." She thought. "If he'd made a promise to a ... spider or a maggot, he'd keep it. That lets you in too."

Gunfire. Wendy, her face a death mask, tore the wicker screen off the window. The robed hybrids were storming over their own altar, or a standing figure close to it, piling on like a football team. Another pistol shot in the middle of the chaos; one of them fell backward. Wendy moved the rifle bolt, sighted. She couldn't mistake the one tall human among the hunched shapes. One trigger squeeze, and the hybrid closest behind him lost most of its head.

Slapped the bolt for her second shot. Rough hands dragged her away from the window before she could fire. The hybrid they'd tied up threw her against the far wall. The lizard scales snagged and tore at her flimsy gauze clothes. Another serrated ridge of them along the outside of his forearms, from wrist to elbow-point. That's how. And he'd timed his escape well.

She'd heard three pistol shots, nothing since. "Don't hurt him," Wendy said urgently. "Don't let them hurt him. I surrender. We both surrender." Both her guns were out of reach. She gripped the high collar of her hippie blouse in both hands, yanked. The cotton tore all the way to the shirt hem.

The hybrid's panting-dog expression was probably a smile. It shouted gurgling, sibilant words out through the open window. "Wise choice," it said. "We'll treat you like a queen. Your children will live a thousand years."

"Is that so." Wendy took a measured breath. "Then I've got a nice surprise for you." She covered the creature's eyes with the palms of her hands.

The natural magic clinging to her skin seared him like a steak, without the pleasant smell. Wendy followed when it flinched back, kept contact until the hybrid crawled away screaming. "Well, I like it." Wendy didn't know, didn't care, if she'd blinded it-him or only gotten the eyelids. She ran back to the window.

Her Middleman was still alive, still fighting. If her mock surrender had caused any break in the melee, it was over. Everything moved too fast. Wendy didn't dare shoot again. The fraction of a second between aiming and the bullet's arrival could put his head downrange instead of an enemy's. His skin must be burning the hybrid mob too, but it didn't stop them. The Navy SEAL part of him had full ascendancy. Wendy had never seen him fight to kill before, not even in the Yucatan. He was only alive, despite his skill, because most of them were unarmed and unprepared for trouble.

A hybrid behind swung a long improvised club at the Middleman's head. Some kind of scrap wood with one blunt end and one jagged one. It might as well have handed the weapon over gift-wrapped.

The blur of motion now had nothing of Sensei Ping in it. That infantry thing with bayonets and rifle butts. The sharp end wasn't very sharp; tearing instead of clean stabs. The most human ones had red blood, the most Deep One-like a green ichor. The half-changed ones somewhere in between, a septic-looking tan.

Distract them. Wendy hauled her hybrid upright. Tipped him through the window, which had a six or eight foot drop on the village side. "Hey, Sleestaks!" She shed the rags of her shirt and dove out toward a small group. Sniper rifle in hand; Wendy could club at a beginner's level, anyway. Rolled out of her landing ... mud is soft to fall in too ... and straight at them.

Soul-magic wasn't armor, but the ones who clawed at her arms and back got hurt worse than she did. They fell back when she slapped and backhanded their faces like some girlish Barbie-fight. The Middleman saw her coming and concentrated on the ones directly in front of him, on the line between himself and Wendy.

The creatures were human enough to lose their nerve. Human enough that when one bolted, dragging a shattered leg behind it, the panic spread. Less than a minute later the square was empty except for the Middleman and the casualties.

Wendy was running out of adrenalin. She felt her sore muscles now, something wrong in her right knee that was more than soreness. Breath searing her overworked lungs like magic. Heart-pounding fear. She kept moving toward the Middleman. "Hope to hell... box," she gasped.

"Right here." No time to say anything personal but his eyes glowed with pride, gratitude for her safety. The Middleman scooped up the box and climbed the platform. The artifact in reach at last on the altar. Smooth flowing lines like something Art Deco, but repulsive on an ancient, visceral level. Its material was a deep unreflecting black, like a three-dimensional hole into some other universe.

The Middleman picked it up, dropped it instantly. The same sizzling noise they'd been inflicting on the hybrids. "I'm all right." He folded one of the ceremonial robes, used it to shield his burned hands like a potholder. The cloth smoked and charred until he had to let go again. "This magic seems to work both ways. I think I'm outclassed."

Wendy climbed up beside him. "We need tongs. A piece of rope with a slip knot. Something."

"No time." He glanced at the edges of the square. "Most of them aren't seriously hurt. They'll realize that in no time." Closed his eyes. "Hold the box open."

The Middleman probably could smother his own reflexes enough to carry the thing, even if it took his hands off. Wendy liked his hands. "Or. It's stronger when we're touching each other. You remember."

"That I do." His expression softened.

Some of the creatures had claws; the front of his shirt was ripped open too. Wendy slid into the circle of his arms, leaned back skin to skin. We'll have a nasty job even opening the first-aid kit if this doesn't work. All four of their hands reaching out. "On three."

----

The illegal sublet that Lacey Thornfield mostly had to herself, these days, was quiet. All the emotion -- loud speeches to an absent daughter, rash promises, tears -- had come and gone last night. Lacey sat at the breakfast table pretending to drink a calming herbal tea. Inez Watson, sitting opposite with a stone-cold cup of her own, wasn't even pretending.

The door opened. Wendy Watson staggered in bruised, limping, grimy, bloody in a few spots. The man behind her, in much the same condition, set a cylindrical wooden box down on the floor.

Wendy stretched out one arm, showed the Middlewatch glowing and working perfectly on her wrist. Grinning with the joy and smugness of a cat bringing home a dead bird. "Hey, Mom. Lace. Guess what we did."

-----

Epilog

Dr. Crane, U.S. Navy pathologist, sorted through his notes. This 'next-of-kin' meeting was going much better than the last one he'd held. "We were very happy to get your message, Mrs. Idamura. Speaking personally, it always breaks my heart when I have to give up on an identification. People deserve to go home to their families and friends." He slid the sealed bronze urn across the table.

"Sergeant Idamura," the spectacularly ugly older woman corrected him. Every detail of her full-dress police uniform was gleaming perfect. Dr. Crane liked her for the touch of formality; it showed respect. She handled the urn with a care that didn't match her harsh manner; she'd clearly known the man personally. "Yeah, Chris Elmedio was one of the best plainclothes detectives the West Arkham PD ever had. He doesn't have any living relatives now, but the mayor was one of his best friends. There's gonna be a little memorial at police headquarters with his ashes. We thought that was fitting for a guy who was never really off duty. We won't forget him." Her eyes moved. "I can't believe you called him some kind of dope runner."

Captain Hedison, ONI, cleared his throat. "The evidence we had to go on at the time ... obviously I'm delighted we were mistaken. Captain Watson's family will be pleased too. Apparently they didn't know themselves that he was helping your detective."

"Civilians are so damn disorganized," Idamura said. "But what are you gonna do? Same thing with your bulletin trying to get ID on your John Doe. This Cuban chick in the office, civilian clerk, just plain lost it. Her skinny can would be out on the street if I had my way." A shrug. "As long as the screwup got fixed. You guys are only human."

----

Inez Watson hadn't trusted her husband's urn to the mercies of airport baggage handling. She carried it cradled in one arm instead of more usual carry-on luggage. Her daughter and her ... daughter's friend were in full uniform, apart from laser guns, as their own kind of tribute. She barely stopped herself from straightening Wendy's shirt collar a little. Turned to the tall man. "I'm still not sure what to call you."

"Whatever you prefer," the Middleman said gravely. A slight wince. "Within reason."

Inez smiled a little. Lacey Thornfield, now that she had full information, kept trying "Middie" over everyone else's objections. "Mike suits you, I think. Doesn't call for too many explanations." Inez's hand wanted to linger on his shoulder. There was no denying Wendy had found a handsome one. "Your word; they'll go through you first."

He nodded. Wendy elbowed him aside to face her mother directly. "Hey. Not so shabby here myself."

"Of course not." Inez had been putting off one other job until the last moment. The last moment was here. She brought a sealed silver vial from her purse and handed it to Wendy. Squeezed her daughter's hand over it a long moment before letting go. "You're sure this respects your father's memory."

"He stood guard for ten years," the Middleman said. "Protecting the human race beyond anything he'd ever promised to do. He still can. I hope I can be that ... serviceable in some way when it's my time."

"Don't be in such a rush," Wendy said quickly. "Sorry, mom. That's just how he talks."

"I know." And he never said a truer word when he called you valiant. Inez embraced her warrior daughter. A watery smile. "Make me proud."

-----

Given the existence of the Middle-jet, -submarine, and -powered armor, the Middle-ocean-going-sailboat wasn't all that surprising. The Middleman stood easily on the shifting deck -- his Navy side was in charge today -- and checked a brass sextant against a vintage mechanical clock.

"The GPS is working just fine," Wendy remarked, from the base of the mast. "Also, a perfectly good thing called an 'engine' back there. All the cool kids use them these days."

"Just being cautious. Belt and suspenders." He unwrapped a rope from what was apparently a belaying pin. "Can you haul this line to port a few meters? No, my left."

Wendy fastened it at the new spot. "Actually this is kind of fun, if we weren't on the job."

A smile like sunlight. "Then we'll do it again sometime." He waved over the railing. "Anywhere here should be fine. "We're over the subduction zone between the Pacific and North American tectonic plates; parallels the San Andreas Fault. In the short term, the container will be buried in silt at the ocean bottom. In the long term -- I mean that in the full geological sense of the word -- it'll disappear into the molten mantle under the Earth's crust. I think even the Deep Ones will find that hard to deal with."

"Roxy said, fire and earth." Wendy started unfastening a container clamped to the deck. Two layers of welded titanium, weighted with cast iron, packed solid with waterproof insulation around a custom-made rowan wood box. And a bronze funeral urn, and a small silver vial. Wendy laid her hands on top of the container. "There ought to be words for a time like this. There ought to be some kind of, I don't know. Parade. Fireworks. Medals."

"That's not what they signed up for," the Middleman said. "The world is still here, that's their reward. You know what they did, and I know; that's enough."

He laid his hands on the box next to Wendy's. Glanced across at an unrailed edge of the deck. "On three."

-------

Acknowledgements:

First and most obviously, H.P. Lovecraft's classic "Shadow Over Innsmouth." A few course corrections here and there from Charles Stross' The Jennifer Morgue. Which if you haven't read it, why not? In fact, start with The Atrocity Archive; these characters are clearly operating in the Middleman's world or one very much like it. There's a third book in the set coming out soon.

The caustic effects of True Love come from the Harry Dresden series by Jim Butcher, who also deserves your reading time, and book money. A Harry-Wendy snarking contest would be something to see.