None of the classic drifting down a long, dark tunnel. The Middleman was rocketing upward like an express elevator, and everything still hurt.
His head banged into something. The dull ache counteracted some of the pain from his leg. Steadied himself against a rough surface. When he could see again the Middleman found himself sitting on an oak branch thicker than his arm. Twelve or fifteen feet off the ground. The kid crouched on another branch a quarter of the tree trunk away, breathing hard, eyes wide. He was in even better shape than the Middleman had realized, getting them both up to safety with no advance notice like that. "Nice one," the older man said dizzily. "Tarzan would be proud." I'll introduce you next time he's in town.
"There are no. Such things. As werewolves." The kid seemed personally offended.
"You may have been misinformed. The good news is their body shape is maxed out for running, not for jumping." The Middleman looked down. Three hundred lean pounds of hair-covered muscle, its body too wolfish to get up beyond a half-crouch. It showed two-inch fangs in frustration. Only the eyes still looked human, and they were insane with blood lust. Obsidian-sharp claws ringed paws the size of dinner plates. Which were treading over ...
"Oh, phooey." Too clever for my own good. "Kid, next time leave me and grab the rifle."
"Next time?" It took the kid a few seconds to find more words. "Fuck."
"Now, now. Profanity cheapens the soul and weakens the mind. Anyway, dirty words wear out fast in this job." The Middleman got a better look at him, stopped being facetious. One leg of the kid's heavy jeans was shredded at the knee. "Did it get you? Teeth or claws or some of both?"
"Report, sailor." The Middleman snapped. "Did teeth break skin at any point?"
"Sir." The familiar routine seemed to steady the kid. He checked his torn clothes, showed three shallow parallel scratches. "Just claws, I think." His eyes moved. "But it got you."
The Middleman looked down. Four separate straight-in punctures, two on each side of the calf muscle in the healthier part of his bad leg. The rest of the leg was demanding so much attention that he hadn't noticed the new injury. He kept his swearing internal, since he was trying to set a good example. "Yep. You're right." He found a pre-loaded hypodermic in one of his jacket pockets, pulled off the cap with his teeth. Injected himself in the muscle just above the bite site, one more entry in tonight's Things That Are Not Fun list.
"Colloidal silver in a neutral saline solution," the Middleman said. "Alternative-medicine types drink the stuff, think it cures anything from hangnails to cancer. It doesn't. But it can burn out a werewolf infection if you catch it early enough."
The beast was clawing steadily at the base of the tree. It wasn't going to sever the trunk or dig up major roots anytime soon, but the Middleman knew it wouldn't give up.
The kid looked down too. "You said, animal control. Is that what you're here for, giving him his shots?"
The Middleman shook his head. "Way too late for that poor bastard. The most it'll do is kill him. This isn't his first full moon, it's his second. Two months ago when he got bitten, the ... the old Middleman got his sire but missed him. Working without backup. Last month ... I'd gotten promoted but I couldn't walk. No use to anyone. Fido here was on the run. He killed six people at a truck stop. None of them converted; they were ripped to shreds. Maybe you saw it on the news. The cops blamed a drug gang juiced to the eyeballs on PCP."
His head dipped in weariness. "Not Fido. His name was Bill Mercer, which we didn't find out in time to do him any good. He didn't know what was happening, but he had gut instincts good enough to stay away from his wife and daughters. He's as much a victim as that six-course meal. Those deaths are on me. I can't do this job alone. I'll never be healthy enough again to do it alone. I need you, kid."
"You really are desperate." Almost a joke. The danger was bringing the kid to life, in a manic sort of way. Something to live for, or something to die from... His voice was calm under the energy, a professional on the job. "So those were silver bullets?" Nod. "I emptied the clip. I swear I hit it at least three times."
"You probably did, but it's a tough shot even with silver. You have to peg the heart, like a vampire, or the brain, like a zombie."
The kid paused, visibly putting "vampires and zombies exist too?" away for later. Or already having an accurate guess. "Thanks for the damn briefing."
"You weren't going to believe me until you'd seen it; I needed that startle reaction. I admit I overdid it. Listen." The Middleman's voice had gone flat. "You want a briefing, here we go. If this goes bad, that new watch is going to start talking to you. A crabby lady named Ida -- think of her as James Bond's whole support staff from M to Q. She'll talk you through the rest. A lot of your SEAL training will apply. You're getting all this pretty fast, yeah, but some of us have had less warning."
The kid's expression went stony. "I'll help you tonight, sure." He looked down at the beast, a brief wry twist to his mouth; that part was hardly optional. "But I don't want your job."
"You'd be good. Maybe the best, and that's in high-powered company." The limiting factor here wasn't the kid, or the werewolf. It was how long he could keep a grip on the tree before passing out. "You qualify, no question. Not just the skills. The way you protected your team knowing what it would cost you. I wish I could give you more time to sort yourself out but hey, deadline. Werewolf."
"What fun." A cool-eyed assessment of the tactical situation; the ex-SEAL didn't trust him to give orders. "The rifle's loaded with silver too?" On the ground below them, directly underfoot for the werewolf. Getting their hands on it would be a non-trivial exercise all by itself.
"I'd be pretty stupid otherwise." Possibly a bad time for that wording. "Yeah. Silver bullets."
"Can you work your way over ..." The kid stopped. Their oak tree was an easy reach from two or three others, but only for an agile man with a strong grip. "Can you get a distraction going over that direction? Throw branches or rocks or something. We have to move that thing before anybody's getting the gun back."
The Middleman shook his head. "It doesn't think like a human, but the wolf form is pretty smart. Anyway, we've met before. It knows the smell of my blood. If the targets split up, there's no question who it'll go for."
The briefing the kid had demanded; all true, but with a sting in its tail. The Middleman watched his reaction. He didn't see the slightest hint of 'better you than me.'
"You'll have to be anywhere but here to draw it off, then," the kid said. "I can get you into a different tree. Probably. Can you climb part way down, draw its attention?"
"Down, yes." The Middleman looked at the drop. "Climb, not so much. But it's a good plan. I can make the horizontal shift; not a thing wrong with my arms. We can do this, as a team." He took a breath. "But first I want your word -- talk to Ida. Work with her, even if it's only temporary."
The kid frowned. "Or else what?"
"Or else it's going to be a long damn night in this tree until you think of a plan."
Sour smile. "Profanity cheapens the soul."
"Mine would get you change for a nickel right now. Do we have a deal?"
The kid was suspicious. "I'm not promising anything blind."
"You see? That's part of why you qualify. Promising and lying about it didn't occur to you."
An angry head shake, rejecting the praise. "Start making sense." The Middleman kept staring at him. A less bullish "how long is temporary?"
"A month. Four weeks." If you're going to get the hunger for this calling at all, that'll be plenty of time. "You had other plans?"
"I didn't plan on getting killed tonight, if that's what you mean."
"You won't." The Middleman raised an eyebrow in the kid's direction. "And?"
"Okay, then." Clearly humoring him. "If your plan works and we don't get eaten by a werewolf. Then I will spend the next month helping you and this Ida person with your golly gosh-darned job before I tell you what to do with it."
"Thanks, kid. That's a real load off my mind." Even the leg hurt less. The Middleman got a grip on a higher branch with both hands, levered himself up with his good knee. "I'll keep its attention off you. You get down, get the rifle, get the shot off. Remember, brain or heart shots. That rifle has six rounds in it."
"Any other advice?"
"Don't get bit," the Middleman said blandly. He began to work himself out from the tree trunk, arms only. Below them, the wolf raised its head. Moved a little away from the base of the tree, following the Middleman, but still in easy leaping range of both humans if they'd been on the ground.
"You too." The kid looked down, distracted. "You said it's smart. Could it understand what we were saying to each other all this time?"
"Doesn't matter. I can hold its attention." The branch started to bend slightly as the Middleman moved closer to the end. "You won't get a second chance, so move fast. Ida, did you get all that?" A squawk from his Middlewatch, but he'd taken the precaution of turning the speaker all the way down. "Code forty-seven, Ida."
"What's a …" The kid stopped. Stared.
The Middleman was well out of arm's reach. And this branch could never hold both of them. He held eye contact for a heartbeat. "Finish the job." Shifted outward still further like a child on a swing. Let go at the point of highest momentum. He heard the wolf launch itself to meet him.
Reflex, crazily, had the Middleman twist in the air and land protecting his bad leg. More reflex rolled him onto his stomach, presenting solid back instead of underbelly to the beast's attack, arms shielding his head. Teeth aimed for his jugular closed in one upper arm. The crushing part of the bite hurt more than the fangs. His vision started to darken. Being conscious hurt, but he fought to stay there.
Saw the kid land like a panther beside the rifle, bring it up smooth and quick. The shot tore bone at the heaviest part of the wolf's skull, the muscle-anchoring crest. Crushing and splintering, ripping away an ear. A mortal creature's brain would be pulped by hydrostatic shock but no silver stayed in the wound. The wolf shook its head and charged the new target.
The kid's younger, faster reflexes swung the rifle around. The werewolf's jaws closed on the wooden stock instead of on him. His two arms pushing against the wolf's entire body; it couldn't last.
The Middleman dragged himself forward on his elbows. The kid registered what he was doing, gave way a calculated fraction so the wolf's back was to the wounded man. Another half a body length. Took the rest of the colloidal silver hypodermics out of his pocket in one fistful. The kid exerted all his strength and drove the creature back a few inches. The Middleman stabbed it in the thigh with all the needles at once.
The werewolf screamed like a human and went into a whole-body seizure. Its weight came down on the Middleman; he passed out.
The Middleman woke to the sound of the kid's voice, cursing steadily and creatively. Like a sailor, in fact.
His bad leg ached, with a core of sharp pain that meant he'd knocked something new loose. "Are any bones showing?" he asked mildly. Opened his eyes for an assessment. The pain in his leg was almost an old friend; it was the bitten arm he didn't want to think about. The kid had covered it with a tidy field dressing. The Middleman was propped half-upright at the base of a tree, both coats wrapped around him.
"That's your plan?" the kid demanded. "Get eaten?"
"It wouldn't have worked the other way around. And you notice, I didn't get eaten." The Middleman pulled his bandaged arm in front of him, thumbed a switch on the watch. "Ida. Emergency evac." Glanced up. The werewolf lay stiff and contorted in the dirt a few yards away. "Also, evidence disposal. Can you give me an ETA?"
"The east coast? Inside of three hours."
He breathed out. "Understood. Thank you, Ida. I've got someone I'd like you to meet, incidentally."
Nothing to do, then, but lie back and wait. "I can't point a gun at you and make you save the world," he told the kid. "Obviously. But I hope you'll keep that promise. You did good tonight. I don't know if anybody else alive could have gotten that shot off while I was still breathing." Tried not to resent it. "You're fast on your cues, too. Listen to Ida, she knows her stuff. She looks like a crabby aunt and dresses like a rainbow threw up on her, but she's really a re-purposed Skandrian battle droid. Sometimes I think she just lets us fight the bad guys so she doesn't have to miss her soap operas. Don't tell her I said that. You'll be quite a team."
The kid sat down across from him. With his anger and surliness stripped away, he looked much younger. And desperately empty. "You're hiding something. Again. Let's have it."
"It's not your fault. I'm the one who used the colloids as a weapon. But I'm just as dead as if he'd gutted me." The Middleman shrugged. "I said the shots could stop a werewolf infection if you get them early enough. Early is inside the first hour. Those hypos were all I had. And it's not the kind of thing you can find at a small-town pharmacy on a Saturday night. And Ida will get here at least two hours too late. So hi there, sorry to be in a rush – tomorrow you're the Middleman. Or no-one is."
He wet his lips. The new sharp pain in the bitten arm was getting to him. "Centuries, I don't even know how many centuries. The chain of Middlemen has never broken. You don't owe me a thing. I've got no way and no right to stop you walking away. But if you do, I'm the one who let it break."
The kid stood up. Oh. The Middleman let his eyes fall closed. "Then leave me the damn rifle."
The ex-SEAL crossed the few steps to where the rifle leaned on another tree. Tossed a small object into the Middleman's lap. "I don't see what good that'll do."
He looked down at a long-rifle cartridge. Or most of one. The brass was roughly pried open, dribbling grains of gunpowder. The solid-silver bullet was completely gone. More mangled cartridges followed, all six of them.
The Middleman pulled at the bandage around his arm. Blood flowed sluggishly. The wounds weren't closed very well. Not with six long rounds of silver stuffed into the largest holes. "You..." The Middleman tried to kick him in the ankle, missed by a yard. Just what I need, a smartass. A smart smartass.
Thanks, God. That's just what I do need.
"Medicine worked as a weapon. It was worth trying whether a weapon could work as medicine." The explanation sounded sheepish; the first emotional reaction he'd seen from the kid besides anger and disdain. "It's not like I could let you die for pissing me off." Quietly. "You seem to have something work taking risks for. I … used to."
The older man held out his hand. "Nice to meet you. I'm the Middleman. I fight comic-book evil. Want in?"
The kid took it cautiously. "We'll see."