The New Kid
Traditionally, Middlemen preferred to see potential apprentices in life-or-death situations before making any kind of job offer. Nothing could substitute for getting a firsthand look at him (or her, the Middleman amended) under the gun. Now he took a deep breath and waited for the right psychological moment before he stepped in.
A bar-room game of eight-ball wasn't anything like stressful enough to make that call. But it was a start. The Middleman got his bad leg under him and moved forward as his candidate sank the last ball.
The Middleman said a name. He didn't offer his own in return. "Nice grouping." The kid's eyes barely flickered up from the table. If he recognized the reference he didn't care. "Can I play? Twenty dollars a ball." He got a noncommittal noise back that he took as a yes.
'Kid' shouldn't have been the right word. The younger man was a bit past twenty-six, and had spent most of his adult life in the physical and emotional pressure cooker of the Navy's SEAL program. It still fit. Wide-eyed, a bit of a snub nose, clear unlined features. He'd probably been carded the first time he'd come to the bar. One of the snapshots in his file, from before the trouble, had caught a radiant, guileless grin that made him look like a very tall twelve. I don't know if you can get all that back, but I think the job could save your life.
The kid looked thinner across the chest and arms than he had in his last military photos. The muscle mass hadn't gone slack but it was reduced, bones showing a little at wrists and elbows. He couldn't be making much pool sharking, even though he didn't seem to be drinking it. The one beer on the corner of the table was missing so little it was probably evaporation. He wasn't smoking, either. He hadn't smoked before his almost-honorable discharge from the SEALs, but ten weeks was plenty of time for a motivated man to pick up bad habits. If he was trying the self-destructive route, he was picky about means.
But he hadn't done anything else, either. Even with his Navy record grubby around the edges, the SEAL name and skills could have made him several kinds of living. Or an ordinary job; his military-legal troubles were settled. Instead, he'd gotten a by-the-week hotel room all of fifty miles down the coast from his old base. Just far enough that he didn't expect to see familiar faces, the Middleman judged.
The older man sank two shots in a row. It was a trivial feat of hand-eye coordination for someone with his training. He suspected the same of his opponent. Purposely missed on the next shot, because standing still hurt his leg more than moving around. "Your turn."
The former SEAL aimed three shots with machine-like accuracy before he looked up. "You were in here last night, and Wednesday, but you're not from around here. And you seem unusually interested in pool." A pause. "If that's a pass, I'd feel terrible breaking your other leg."
"You and me both." That fight wouldn't be a foregone conclusion even now; he'd learned a lot from Sensei Ping. But no need to get off-topic. "I want to talk to you. I need your help."
The light brown eyes didn't react. "If you're a reporter? Not going to feel terrible at all."
The Middleman fell back on borrowed words. "Reputation is what other people think about you. Honor is what you know about yourself."
That started a crack in the younger man's armor of indifference. His expression was human for a second, and hurting. "I'm screwed either way." The kid shut down again, fixed his eyes back on the pool table. "Look, you're not the first with a sales pitch. You're about the fifth. 'International consultants.' 'Private offensive and defensive operations.' I'm not a mercenary."
What are you, that's the question. "Neither am I. But it's an absorbing job, lots of variety. Tonight -- you notice it's full moon? -- it's about somebody's escaped pet wolf. Captive-raised, so it has no fear of human beings. There's also reason to think it might be rabid. I need to take this thing down tonight. I could use backup."
A one-sided sneer. It didn't suit the kid at all. "Because nobody does animal control for a living. That's the stupidest story I've ever heard."
"And yet it's true." All but one adjective. "Let me put it this way, kid. You've got skills that are practically unique. I want to give you a chance to use them for the good of mankind." The kid's lip curled still more at the dramatic wording. "Try it once. It might be interesting."
No answer. The Middleman tightened the screws. "Or you can get yourself a couple of hundred dollars sharking pool. And come back next night and do it again. And again. What could I have up my sleeve worse than that?"
That argument, for all the wrong reasons, tipped the balance. "Interesting? I'll hold you to that." The kid put down his pool cue.
The Middleman had rented a local vehicle, a tall pickup with four wheel drive. He didn't relax when his candidate got into the truck with him. Plenty of other hurdles, long- and short-term alike. He opened a metal box under the seat. "Some basic equipment. This is a communicator." He handed over a bulky watch. The kid put it on with no great interest.
"And general safety precautions." A semi-auto pistol. That tapped into the kid's professionalism. He checked the action, the clip, took a round out of the chamber for a closer look. The weight wasn't too different from a standard full-metal-jacket cartridge. If he'd noticed it was unusually shiny for steel, he didn't remark on it. He examined the firing pin in a bit more detail, looked across. "It works," the Middleman said. "Would you like to shoot some tin cans before we hit the woods?"
Shrug. "You didn't mention your name."
And here's the first hurdle now. "I'm just the Middleman. That's the way it works. In my job you give up everything. Medals, rank, glory. Buddies to tell you you're a hero." The younger man's eyes closed. "Future, past. Your name. Your life, eventually. And it can be a pretty short eventually. Not many of us are as lucky as I was." The Middleman shifted his bad leg until the pain showed.
The sneer came back. "Sounds like you have a recruiting problem. Want to hear why?"
"Fortunately, we only need two at a time. A Middleman, and a trainee learning the ropes until he moves up."
The real ... the previous Middleman had put this kid on the trainee replacement list right after his dismissal from the SEALs. That Middleman's then-apprentice had been an active participant in the process, between rounds of surgery. Neither of them expected him to survive his wounds. And then when I did, we thought I'd be the equivalent of medically discharged. Until his boss hadn't come back from a mission. Then the job was his, healthy or not. As far as he knew, he'd been the first Middleman to take the oath lying flat on his back in traction.
The previous Middleman had put this kid far down in the stack of possibles. His physical skills were top notch. On the pure combat level, Sensei Ping would mostly be polishing rough edges. And he tested smart, which wasn't guaranteed in a throat-cutter. More than one of his Navy commanders -- not the last one, obviously -- had tried to talk him into Officer Candidate School. But the previous Middleman worried about the kid's psych profile. He'd never put the ex-SEAL higher than fourth on the list.
That Middleman was in top shape himself, able to kick any extraterrestrial, extra-dimensional, extra-whatever butts that required it. The current model needed backup much more urgently.
Drop more clues. "Before I was the trainee, I was a police detective. Chicago. Homicide. One of my cases got complicated five years ago. My Middleman saved my life, and I wound up working for him."
A shred more interest from the kid. "So you've got a boss in the background?"
"Not any more." The Middleman was certain of that, if nothing else. "Line of duty."
The kid couldn't, or wouldn't, sneer at that. "Okay then." Settled back and waited for something to happen.
The Middleman gritted his teeth. God save your soul, kid, what are you using for brains? I didn't give you anything like enough proof for you to trust me. Though indifference was a more accurate word. The Middleman wanted to shake some sense into him. And make him go back to eating properly. Stick to business. Mother-henning won't help him; having a purpose might.
The Middleman had chosen his ambush site carefully. The smallish town melted into small, shabby roadside farmhouses and finally into dense pine and oak woods packed with underbrush. He'd found a clearing the day before, a hundred yards of blackberry thorn and poison ivy from the shoulder of the state highway. He pulled over. "Right through there. If you'll carry this stuff," A scoped rifle, and a rugged plastic box designed for fishing tackle, "It'll be a big help."
The Middleman had a leg brace, but it made him conspicuous and took away what little knee mobility he had left. Within ten yards he wished he'd worn it. Every badly healed break, every surgical pin, was tracing itself in three-dimensional layers of pain. Damn humid coastal climate. He thought that the kid, following him down the trail, hadn't noticed. But when a muscle spasm threw him off balance toward a thorn bush, a sudden grip on his upper arm stopped him falling. "Thanks."
"You're sure you're the right guy to chase a rabid wolf?" A note of concern alongside the sarcasm.
"It's my responsibility. I did say I could use help."
The Middleman had left firewood stacked and ready at the clearing. When they reached it, he started the fire with a gadget that wasn't strictly a lighter.
"Isn't your furry buddy afraid of fire, either?" the kid said dryly.
"Not one bit." The Middleman leaned back against a tree. "It'll come straight here." He threw a palm-sized cloth packet into the heart of the fire. "Scent attractant. Like deer musk, only more so." His magic consultant had prepared the mix. The only ingredient he was sure of was two ounces of his own blood. It would come here from the ends of the earth. Even the human form of the thing would be drawn in. "Now we wait."
The kid was starting to draw conclusions in the face of all logic. "You don't mean to see by."
The Middleman took several more items from the tackle box and distributed them in his pockets. "That would be dumb of me. Night-vision gear would make a lot more sense."
"You're a nut." Calmly. A crippled nut ten years older and two inches shorter didn't frighten the kid. "Bye. I hope you're good at hitchhiking. I'll leave your truck downtown someplace."
Bad idea. He wanted to test the kid's mettle and existential coping skills. Having him wander through the woods distracted and off guard wasn't in the plan. A thread of the sympathetic magic went back to him, too; the Middleman could feel the beast coming closer. Fast. "If I'm crazy, how do I know you signed an organ donor card two days ago?"
He couldn't read the kid's expression in the bad light, but the sudden stillness was just as revealing. "You could have done that any time in your military career. You never got around to it," the Middleman said. "Sudden change in pattern like that, it looks like you've made up your mind. Whether you're waiting for something to live for, or something to die from."
The Middlewatch put out four insistent beeps. "Also, moonrise."
"Good luck with that." Flat distaste, protecting the kid from believing a word. He started down the trail back to the highway.
The Middleman got upright again. "Hey!" That wasn't the safest direction. The creature's transformation would be instantaneous this time. And in its real form, it covered ground tremendously fast. The magic had fixed the Middleman as its only true target, but it wouldn't ignore someone right in its path. "Listen." He staggered on. "I don't care if you believe me or not..."
A growl like, literally, nothing on Earth. Subsonics that bypassed the generations of humans armed with steel or stone or fire, promised the monkey brain instant death.
Pistol shots, measured not panicked. The kid had kept his head. But he wasn't getting results. The growling went on.
The Middleman had his own handgun out. Clubbed down at a surgical scar just above his knee; blood flowed. The growl paused at the new scent. "Over here, fleabag!" He knew where to aim, but he'd only get one chance.
Something twice the weight of a man slammed into him, square against the open wound. His vision grayed out. Sorry, kid.