It was with no small annoyance that I glanced at the hall clock approaching the Starbucks at CIA Headquarters the next morning. Nine-oh-three on the dot.
I crossed my arms irritably, then uncrossed them, and then recrossed them. The damned green jacket wasn’t just unfashionable: its bulk seemed to make my skin not fit my frame. Nothing was comfortable.
Naturally, my fidgeting attracted no attention, because, well... Green Shirt. I'd heard others tell stories of how thoroughly we were ignored. One woman swore that she'd been on an elevator with a couple who started making out right there in front of her one evening. I was pretty sure it wasn't true, but at times it was easy to believe.
Impressions flickered across my eyeballs. Familiar faces that weren’t. That man in the silver tie… was that…? Nah. And then there was the woman in the cute pumps with matching yellow earrings. She could have been my seventh grade English teacher, except that she didn’t have the same funny walk.
It was happening again. Everywhere I looked, I saw someone I almost recognized. I rubbed my eyes. Sleep deprivation, had to be: I’d barely slept last night. And now I was to meet the mystery man with the funny name right when he’d said I would. I wondered who he would look like.
I had tried not to be on time. I'd dragged my feet leaving the squad room, and the whole way down the hall. Every part of me wanted this "Holmes" character to be wrong about his oh-so-confident prediction. And it wasn't as if my morning had gone on any sort of schedule up until that point.
Dogs, as it turns out, require a certain degree of care, and Cavill had needed not only the usual food and water and walk, but also protection from the ire of my parents at their thinks-she's-so-clever daughter who had brought him home in the first place. You'd have thought I'd showed up with a face-tattooed sex offender and announced that I was having his baby. "A lot of responsibility," bemoaned my father, with the implicit assurance that I would kill this dog just like the several goldfish, hamster, guinea pig, and lizard before him.
My mother offered the standard line about pit bulls being maneaters with locking jaws, and utterly refused to believe that he was the same breed as the Pete the Pup from The Little Rascals. Actually, I don’t think she’d ever seen The Little Rascals: not a big cultural touchstone in Yemen, and I’d only found out about the show during my internet search for “pit bulls +safe +family -attacks -dangerous -bites”. Most Yemenis didn't much care for dogs, and the decade or so of bad rap that pits had received in American media didn't help. Neither did the sheaf of printouts I had deposited on my mother’s lap that evening full of charts and statistics showing that the breed accounted for fewer serious bites than Labradors. She might be a college professor, but evidently Statistics wasn’t on the Cultural Anthropology curriculum. Mom wouldn't go near him, and invoked al-Mumit - one of the ninety-nine names of Allah that means “the Destroyer” - at one point when he tried to go for a slurpy kiss.
She only switched to Arabic when she was really mad.
Then there was the dog himself, who utterly refused to remain by himself for more than two seconds. He might have been sensibly scared of my parents trying to sneak in and glare at him right in his fragile emotions, I don’t know. What I do know is that when I'd tried to go to the bathroom, I thought he was going to break down the door with the sheer force of his whining. He wound up getting his way, curling huffily into a ball on the bathroom rug where he could keep a reproachful eye on me to ensure that I didn't somehow pull a vanishing act on him mid-stream.
I was at least able to keep him mostly out of the shower: we settled on him sticking in his head and moping in the far corner while I pretended to ignore him. Every few seconds, he'd catch some spray in his eye or up his nose, and would shake his whole body as if he were having some kind of seizure. Unlike many pits, his tail and ears hadn't been clipped, so when he shook, they whacked into the walls with enough force to knock my conditioner onto the floor. Twice.
Which put me in a somewhat awkward position when I had to leave for work. “He is not having the run of my house,” my mother informed me. My father had shrugged expressively, and then glanced at my mother to made sure she’d seen that he had done it.
“He’ll stay in my room,” I promised.
“He will not pee in this house,” my mother commanded.
“He’ll be fine,” I promised. “I’ll explain it to him.”
“You have yet to explain it to me,” her eyes flashed. “And if you so much as wave a printout around, we will find out if you can stay in your room all day without peeing on the carpet. Don’t think that I can’t ground you because you’re eighteen.”
“Mom, he’ll be—“
“Not. One. Drop. Or I swear <
I knew that my mother hadn’t cooked a thing since we’d moved to America, and if she tried to roast the dog, we’d have to call the fire department. Making ridiculous threats was good news: it meant she hadn’t come up with anything more mundane.
Still. There’s something about your mother waggling her finger in your face that makes you want to make Very Bad Choices.
Thankfully, my mouth was too busy pondering the small matter of the corpse I’d found yesterday to really screw things up for me. It had cooperatively yawned at her, which had gotten a dangerous cocked-head-with-eyebrow-raised, but something about the flatness in my face had defused the coming explosion. She stalked off muttering about how she’d failed as a mother and we would never have nice things again.
I’d been relieved, and raced back to brief Cavill on the results of our discussion. That yawn had been for real, though. I hadn’t made any sort of plans for the dog because I’d been up the better part of the night pondering Guin Drake’s death from every angle. There wasn’t a lot to go on. The pills had been nondescript, but oddly familiar. Unfortunately, “familiar” meant that from color and dimensions I could narrow it down to any of over a dozen prescriptions that were locally available. I’d interned at a pharmacy last summer, and while the pharmacist hadn’t been looking had catalogued photographs of four-hundred-seventy-three different prescription drugs. You never knew when that sort of thing would be useful.
There had also been mint tea. The pills were obvious, and I’d have Vic take a look at them for me to pick them apart and see if my pet theory was correct. The tea, I hadn’t been able to sample, but it was another likely vector for whatever poison had killed Guin Drake. Given how full the cup had been, the number of odorless or nearly-odorless poisons that could kill a woman of her height and weight but remain undetected by human taste buds while dissolved in approximately two ounces of a hot liquid… well, let’s just say that I didn’t have that information because my first suggestion for my tenth grade science fair project had been vetoed out of hand by my let’s-just-call-her-unadventurous Bio teacher. (Bitch.)
She’d wanted me to breed peas. We had settled on “Re-agents Precipitated by Hemoglobin”, which had proved far more useful.
Guin Drake’s death was a mystery, and this Doyle Holmes guy had sounded like he knew all about it. It was not reassuring to think there were people who knew more than I did about crime scenes that I’d disturbed.
If I had one thing to break my grumpiness, it was my father's assurance that I'd have an apartment by that weekend. He'd made a promise, after all, and when my mother was out of earshot he also muttered something about hoping she waited that long before filing divorce papers over how he'd put bad thoughts into my head. He’d discreetly scratched Cavill behind the ears, but had fled before he was discovered giving comfort to the enemy.
So that was good. This silver lining supposed that I didn't wind up in jail in the next twenty minutes or so, but I didn't think that was very likely. Holmes certainly wasn't a police officer.
"Ms. DeGrace," he intoned, from so close behind me that I jumped. "A pleasure to meet you in the flesh."
He was tall and narrow, almost gaunt. And damnably quiet when he wanted to be, it seemed. He had a mop of dark hair in no particular style, with eyes like a fencer's foil. He was wearing a black collared shirt with no tie, and his gray slacks tapered down to fashionable-yet-sensible black shoes, tied with an unusual knot.
He looked a hell of a lot like every actor who'd ever played Sherlock Holmes. I was disappointed at the effrontery of it.
"Mr. Holmes," I greeted him. “You already know my name, so I won’t bother introducing myself. I’m sorry, my instructions weren't very clear as to where I'd be escorting you today?" Ending statements with question marks conveys youth and uncertainty. It makes people underestimate you.
"No," he arched his eyebrow, "they wouldn't have been. Favors make the world go round: I helped your chief out of a certain situation. He helped introduce me to you. Walk with me. And please, call me Doyle." The Starbucks sat next to the cafeteria, in the glass hallway that formed the boundary between the Old and New Headquarters Buildings. Doyle headed towards what everyone called OHB. I stretched my legs to keep up.
"Did you bring it?" he asked, not looking at me.
He won't think it's cute if you're impish.
"The ruckus? Yes, I always bring the ruckus," I replied. “It’s right here, waiting for you to beat around the bush a little more. People who know me describe me as very protective of the bush, and my dislike of unnecessarily vague pronouns."
His eyes slitted at me, and I slitted mine right back. "Yes, I've got your damn phone. You've got that much on me."
"I'm appalled that you think I would blackmail you." He turned now, somehow doing it only with the top half of his body, like a belly dancer, or a snake. His eyes were the headlamps of an oncoming train. "You are in a great deal of danger, Ms. DeGrace. Not," he cut off my protest, "in any sort of law enforcement capacity. None of them will bother you about that, though I recommend you leave digging around near corpses to those of us more accustomed to it. No, I mean you are in mortal danger."
"Look, mister- Doyle," I retorted. "You can't scare me. My dad's in politics and he adopted an Arab. My parents have tried to protect me from the rape and death threats since I started getting them at age twelve. But it turns out there's this thing called the internet, and kids these days.”
I shook my head. "I get that I made a mistake, but nobody is going to disappear me. All those nice people who send multiple emails per week about raping me would notice." I stopped, and to his surprise, Doyle stopped as well. I pointed my finger at him. "But I notice things, too, like that drone that you had following me yesterday. Right next to an airport? Somehow I doubt the FAA gave that one the green light, so don't talk to me about misconduct."
I shifted my hips to better wag my finger at him. Some point up mom-frustration vented. “And I get that you've got this whole 'Sherlock Holmes' thing going for you. Tall, dark, mysterious, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle… I get it. But do you really talk like that? 'Mortal danger'?"
He blinked, twice. Even his reflexive motions were languid. "My, my," he said, after a deep inhale through his nose. "You sound just like her."
It was my turn to blink. "Like who?"
"Guinevere," he murmured, and began walking once more.
I stood for a moment, caught my breath, and then forced myself to stammer, "Wait, what?"
I ran after him.
He'd been off his perfect composure for a second, and there had been something behind his eyes... sadness? I searched his face for it when I caught up, but it had gone back to blankness. All I got for my trouble was an outstretched hand as he went.
"The phone, please." I fished around in my jacket pocket, and handed it over as discreetly as was possible in the middle of the hallway. Cell phones were strictly off-limits in CIA Headquarters, so I'd powered it off in at least a minor nod towards proper procedure. Under Doyle's wispy fingers, it sprang to life. He tapped a few times, and a picture of a dead woman filled the screen.
Guin Drake, it read.
I shivered. There was that familiar feeling again.
"Gwendolyn Ivana ar-Rahmani DeGrace," my naturalized name dripped from his tongue. "Gwen-Iv-ar, daughter of Leo DeGrace. Meet Guinevere Grace Drake. Or, you almost did."
He doesn’t know about your encounter. Your phone call to her was from the Escort Services squad room, however, so it is unlikely your association will remain unknown for long. You must-
"She was murdered," I blurted out. Wasn't this guy trying his hardest to play The Detective? I ought to have the name of the murderer in no time flat.
"Yes," he waved his hand, "I know. Your little trick with the phone made it marginally more complicated to deduce, but once I had Watson trace its whereabouts, all became clear."
He didn't respond, but a just-too-human voice hummed out, "At your service, Ms. DeGrace. I hope you are taking good care of that dog. I'm quite fond of animals." It came from nowhere, but seemed to center on Doyle.
He nodded. "It pays to have an artificial intelligence in your pocket these days," he smiled. We'd wandered far by this point, down the hallway with the portraits of CIA directors of old, past the main entrance to OHB, with the bust of President and former CIA Director George H. W. Bush and the Wall of Honor, past the entrance to the geodesic auditorium known as "the Bubble". Doyle now swept into the CIA Library, a rather mundane affair filled with books and magazines and the usual stuff you'd find in nearly any facility of lesser repute. Only one of the pair of people here looked up as we entered, and then fell back into the treatise he was reading about the socioeconomics of sub-Saharan Africa.
He looked just like an old gym teacher I'd had a few years before.
Doyle steered us deftly into an abandoned alcove, while Watson explained himself. Itself.
"I'm based in very large part on the original Watson, which you may have heard about from 'Jeopardy'. My code base and knowledge repository have had some significant upgrades since then, particularly in the realm of user interface. I communicate in realtime with Mr. Holmes via bone conducting ear strips and variably polarized contact lenses, providing him with feedback and information about the world around him while interfacing with relevant computer systems in his surroundings."
"You're like a computer ghost," I wondered aloud, and then scolded myself for giving in to the appearance of agency. This was a sophisticated computer program, nothing more.
"If you will, Ms. DeGrace," Watson agreed amiably. "But I prefer 'digital assistant'."
"Watson helps me organize my thoughts," Doyle offered, shrugging in an almost human way. "For instance, he's reminding me now that your posture when handing over Guin Drake’s phone suggested awareness of how much trouble you'd be in for bringing a cell phone into CIA Headquarters. Well, I've brought an artificial intelligence and a suite of antennas powerful enough to punch out of concrete walls to get me realtime gigabit bandwidth. That's one hell of a lot worse than a cellular phone. You should turn me in immediately."
When I didn't, he flashed a polite smile. "Good, then. You were avoiding talking about the deceased."
He - or Watson - was reading me like one of the books surrounding us. He was trying to ease my mistrust while simultaneously keeping me off-balance. Either he was less of a people person than I was, or he was multitasking in the worst way.
“Guin Drake,” I said. “Guin, Gwen… and you say that her name was Guinevere?”
“She preferred to be addressed as ‘Guin’ in public. Felt that her full name was too formal, and too conspicuous. But her name was Guinevere."
I swallowed. "Like King Arthur's wife?"
"Not 'like' King Arthur's wife. The same." He said the last with a lean in so fast it was a lunge; the words had such intensity that for a moment I thought he was going to jump me. I felt my throat tighten.
The voice slid across my neck and made every single hair stand up on it. My belly tightened. I turned.
She was of average height, but that was the only average in her. Her hair was full and luxurious, sparkling obsidian. She flowed into the alcove, her creamy pantsuit teasing hips and breasts that wanted to push themselves into you from across the room. Her eyes were a curious tan, almost yellow, like a cat's, and her lips were as pale as her eyes. You could feel them in the small of your back as they parted and closed, spilling words that slid into you like a lover, probing and sensuous.
I was certain that I would never in my life make that sort of impression.
"Arthur told me to meet you here." She slipped a hand into the space between them. "I'm Vivian--"
"Yes," he whispered, his fingers feathering their way up hers as he took the outstretched hand in both of his. "Yes, you are. Welcome. Doyle Holmes, at your service."
They stood there, for a moment, electricity crackling between them. I felt as if they were a canyon, a great void that would suck me in and consume me without noticing. I was more than invisible; for a moment, I was less real to myself than they were.
It passed, and they uncoupled. They were not lovers, I could see that immediately. They didn't even know one another. And yet they did... Vivian seemed the more puzzled of the two of them by the familiarity, but I was sure that Doyle got off on knowing more than everyone else in the room. She was breathing fast, though. Then she noticed me noticing her.
Lips I felt myself rush in and out, stopping and razor wit starting in great heaves of whispers being, as if I existed on multiple sparring levels of reality, wanting riposte nothing more than to let go--
"Well, good," Doyle's words cut me out of my reverie, an edge in them that I'd not yet heard from him. Jealousy?
"We're all here." He looked fussy and old for a moment, and glared at me as if I had come between him and... I looked back to Vivian, but her yellow eyes reflected my querying gaze. I looked down at my shoes and let my hair fall into my face, hiding the redness blooming in my cheeks.
I hadn't been this flustered in ever. Damn. Vivian! I caught her cat’s eyes on me, and shivered. Vic had never made me shiver like that. I should have expected this with her. I felt as if--
"You feel that you know me," Doyle interrupted, "and you do. In fact, you feel like that all the time. Everyone you see looks tantalizingly familiar. Maybe you know someone who looks and acts just like someone else you've met. Or you have a friend from childhood who seems to be the 'soul mate' of a person you met only yesterday. All your boyfriends seem the same. Just walking down the street, you see a dozen people who are so familiar to you that you practically greet them."
I was all ears. That exact feeling had been happening to me again and again lately. Not just Vivian, though she'd been the strongest by far; there was the man who bumped into me yesterday, and poor Guin Drake...
As Doyle spoke, I remembered that I'd seen someone at the cafeteria who reminded me of a girl I went to school with in Pennsylvania. There was a man walking down the hallway who had reminded me of a boy I'd wanted to kiss during my sophomore year, and never had. Even Cavill seemed so familiar...
My thoughts jumped unbidden to the dog, and I hoped he was doing all right. Poor guy had been through a lot in the last twenty-four hours. It was no wonder he was so neurotic.
Thinking of Cavill snapped me out of the spell that Doyle's words were weaving. I'd been leaning in, and from the corner of my eye, I could see Vivian doing the same, similarly entranced. She'd looked as if maybe she knew the spiel, but she still looked... glazed. The words seemed crazy, but they made sense. Knowing people without knowing them; everybody felt that way, and knew that it was just a trick of the mind. I even knew the explanation of the phenomenon - the real explanation. But there was a difference between knowing and feeling.
My senses kicked into high gear, the way they always did when I was stressed or confused. The nearest row of books was all about intelligence operations during World War II. There were three copies of Operation Overlord, but one of them had been checked out much more frequently. Twelve pages were missing from that book only. Secrets within secrets: this was the one-time pad for some clandestine messaging system, and the missing pages were the key to getting the cipher right. Farther back, the alcove had two high-backed chairs at the one end, slightly obscuring us from view of the rest of the library even if someone had been looking directly at us. Given our close proximity and the size of the stack, it would have been awkward to interrupt us. This location was scouted and chosen carefully, but by someone more socially adept than Doyle. There was a strange tang to the air, a peppery sizzle so faint that Doyle's words kept obscuring it, but it was there, a sound, coming from...
Not a sound. Subsonics. Fully adult ears couldn't hear them, but I was eighteen and had a wider range than either of the others, so the noise was just barely audible. Some convenience stores used similar frequencies to annoy teenagers enough to prevent them from hanging around like they otherwise would: adults couldn't hear them because they lose those frequencies with age. I hadn't, yet.
Subsonics could influence mood, too, or make you suggestible. They were definitely there, and coming from Doyle, just like...
"You're not crazy," Doyle looked at me sharply, sensing that he was losing me. "The feeling you get when you see these people isn't some sort of misfiring synapse. It's recognition."
Recognition, indeed. This man was trying to brainwash me! My limbs felt dull, sluggish. It was working.
"There are only so many types of people in the world. Deep inside us all, we are in concordance with a Persona greater than ourselves. Some might call it the soul, others perhaps a Jungian archetype. Whatever you call it, we connect with something greater than our flesh, with a pattern of behavior... a character. The legends you have read about in stories are real, because they quite literally live on in us."
"Vivian, you’ve seen someone, recently, who had a striking impact on you.” She nodded, eyes dreamy. The subsonics are working on her.
Doyle continued. “You felt that you knew him, because he was a Merlin-type, and you are Vivian. This is what you experience every day as you see people who are typed in a way that complements your own. Romeos find Juliets, but part tragically. Hectors battle Achilles, even if only in office politics. A Frodo-type recognizes a Legolas, and will feel safe and at ease around him."
Here it comes... Doyle took a deep breath. "But in every generation, there is someone, only one, who rises to be the true personification of Romeo, and he kills himself for love of Juliet. We call ourselves 'Personae', as in, 'Dramatis'. Hector the Persona is murdered by Achilles, who gains glory for it. Vivian finds Merlin," a little shudder went through Doyle, "and seduces him for his power."
"And Guinevere finds Arthur," I whispered, heart racing. This was it. "Or, I suppose, Arthur finds Guinevere, and sweeps her away to Camelot."
"Gwen Drake was the personification of Guinevere," said Doyle. "She died. But there must always be a Guinevere, even if she is only in the making. Sometimes, she is only a tiny baby when she is called. Sometimes, she is an eighteen-year-old girl."
No. I rebelled. The subsonics were messing with me - why was he doing that? - this was wrong. I shook my head to clear it. I wasn't some damsel locked away in a tower. I wasn't destined to betray the man I loved and bring his kingdom to ruin. I wasn't Guinevere. I was--
"Gwen, when you saw her corpse yesterday, you felt that you knew Guinevere. You bonded instantly with her dog - whom she hadn't been able to foist off on anyone else before you, and I assure you she'd tried. Guin Drake was Guinevere, the Guinevere, and her dog is Cavall, the hound of Arthur. You: Gwendolyn, daughter of Leo DeGrace? Come on," he said softly. "I've seen your library records. You've read every Arthurian legend ever printed. You are Arthur's love. You are Guinevere..." he dropped to one knee, "... my queen."
My inside voice scoffed. Sherlock Holmes had but one queen, and her name was Victoria. And he had one woman... the woman... My eyes flicked to Vivian.
With that, Doyle's spell over me was broken, and I felt my senses rush back in over the hiss of Watson's subsonic hymn. He thinks you're Guinevere. He believes it. There was really just one question in my mind.
What would Guinevere do?
She'd freak out.
"No," I hissed. "Stop it. I'm not a queen." I put my hands under his arm, pulled hard. "Get up. Get up!"
He moved smoothly with my command and to his feet. He seemed first confused, but then he smiled, laying his hands on my shoulders and soothing, "Not yet, my lady. You are not yet Guinevere the Queen, because you have not yet met your Arthur. You will know it when you see him. I know this is strange. But you've been feeling it more lately, that familiarity. It happens when Personae are in close proximity: the bonds that we share become irresistible. Your thoughts go to people that you've met, and you begin to understand how they relate to you, how they are a part of your story. Arthur must have his Guinevere."
And what did Guinevere get to have? Did she have her own story? Or was Doyle expecting me to just slide right into Arthur's narrative? Apparently it didn't matter who I was or what I wanted, as long as the king got to "have" me.
Then: I thought rashly that he looked like a knight about to ride off to battle. I bit my lip.
"If you're telling the truth, why the tricks? You're using--"
His eyebrows raised in surprise, but he rolled with it. "Subsonics, yes. I told Watson they wouldn't work, not on you. Royalty won't be controlled. But you must believe. We're desperate. I've no right to do this to you, to bring you into this so quickly. Most people discover the truth of their story over years, not minutes. But it is critical that you accept who you are, for your own sake and for the sake of New Camelot."
I shook my head again. "What about Guin Drake? What happens to her?"
Doyle looked annoyed at being sidetracked. "She died. You and I know she was murdered, but it looks like a suicide and that's how we're going to leave things. We can't have the bit players poking too closely into the affairs of the Personae."
My eyes widened. "You're not going after her killer? But you're..." I hesitated, "... you're Sherlock Holmes! You're going to let that go unpunished? There’s a murderer out there!"
Doyle gritted his teeth. "I'm sorry about her legacy. She deserved better. But given our literary progenitors, our lives are not always fair. New Camelot must have a Guinevere, and now that is you.” His eyes flashed. "But her killer will know justice."
It was an unsatisfying answer. What would Doyle do if I met the same fate? I imagined my parents at my grave, wondering how they'd failed to prevent my self-murder.
A noise, from down the aisle.
Doyle looked urgently into my eyes, shutting out even Vivian. "The Red Handed League has been targeting us lately. We don't know anything about them, which is... puzzling. Disturbing. Our sources say that they're named after the red gloves they wear on their right hands, to advertise the blood they’ve spilled. They mean to murder Guinevere again, my queen. They're here!"
The smell of familiar anti-perspirant.
Doyle grabbed my shoulders, and threw me roughly to the ground. Suddenly, he'd been speaking about our immediate present.
I scrabbled back into the corner of the alcove. I had thought it would be awkward if we were interrupted, but the attacker who feinted around Doyle and wrapped a wiry arm about the dark-clad man's neck didn't seem concerned about offending our sensibilities.
A red-gloved hand caught Doyle's right hand as it flailed for balance. The sleeve behind the hand was green. My breath caught in my throat.
The hand belonged to Mort. His brown hair was still an awkward tangle, but the gleam in his eye was lethally distinct from the affable sadness he'd shown me after I'd brushed him off.
"Hello, my dear," he grinned. "Just a moment while I take out the garbage. I'm curious to find out if you've got a speech prepared for this."
My eyes flicked to Vivian, but she had her own problems: the other two who'd been here when we arrived... waiting for us. Now they were wearing red gloves on their right hands, and I remembered that I'd really hated that gym teacher. I looked around, but there was no way out that wasn't past them. We were trapped.
But not helpless, it seemed. Vivian's face showed a panicked vulnerability, but her face was a mask. I... I couldn't see past it. Neither could her attackers. Seeing only the veil of fear, one of her assailants lunged for her, not bothering with caution. She made a tiny movement, bringing her hands up to wrap around his outstretched wrists, and with a delicate pirouette underneath his grasp sent him crashing to the ground at his partner's feet. While the other man goggled at the unexpected turn, she took a short step and inserted her fingers into his windpipe. Through the skin of his throat.
"Capital," Mort nodded approvingly, and then he shoved Doyle towards Vivian. She dodged him neatly, but there was no room: she had to press herself into the stack of books as the tall man flailed by. It slowed her by only a fraction of a second, but in that time Mort had whipped out a pistol. It wasn't pointed at Vivian.
"This is a message," he told me from behind the barrel. "Don't rely on Sherlock: he can't see me coming. You have to be strong enough to stop me. Or I'll kill you. Like this."
Vivian froze. Then so did Mort, seizing up, shuddering, and collapsing to the floor.
"I hope you enjoy a few days of vertigo," Doyle rubbed his throat. "Next time, don't attack someone who carries neural disruptors. Moron." He fished a black disc out of the downed man's green jacket pocket.
Vivian smiled grimly, and slammed a fashionably-booted foot down on the temple of the man she'd thrown to the floor. He twitched a little before laying still.
"Did you just kill him?" Doyle snapped.
"Oh, gosh, that would be terrible!" Vivian deadpanned, sticking her chin out. Clearly, she'd recovered from whatever spell he'd had her under. "Hell if I know. I believe in kicking them when they're down until you're sure they'll stay that way."
Some part of Doyle looked... hungry. "We could have interrogated him!" he snapped. Then he shook his head ruefully. "He told me you were a handful."
"And you with those dainty little hands," she clucked. "Besides, it doesn't look like your kid is doing so hot, so let's not get all finger-pointy."
Doyle's head whipped around. Mort was very red, twitching. Then suddenly, he sighed and lay still.
Scent of bitter almonds: cyanide poisoning.
"I... I didn't..." Doyle stammered. "The disruptor doesn't produce a lethal harmonic."
Vivian knelt over the body. "Poison pill," she pronounced with a sniff. "He came with it in his mouth. He was ready to die, rather than be captured. Either he managed to swallow it after your little trick, or else he knew he might spasm, and bit down on it. You have any enemies who know about that toy? Could be a lead on the League.”
Doyle shook his head grimly and helped me to my feet. "Are you all right?"
I looked down at the corpse of the man who'd just yesterday wanted to sleep with me. He hadn't had any ill will then, except sour grapes at my lack of interest. He hadn't wanted to kill me, or himself, I was positive.
Mort had no motive for murder. You don't join a league of red-gloved fanatics because a girl shoots you down. But yesterday, he’d had no secrets worth mentioning, I was certain. He hadn't been a part of a secret society. He hadn't wanted to kill.
I'd been so sure of it. But now... What did I miss? What didn't I see in him?
"He really did seem nice..." I whispered.
Doyle looked at me sharply. "You knew him?"
I hesitated, then nodded. "We started together, two days ago. He... flirted with me. He was friendly. He was... just a guy. Not... not this."
Doyle frowned. His eyes glazed over for a moment, reading words flashed invisibly in front of his eyes, and then he nodded. "There have been other reports of significant personality changes as people joined the League. A result of their indoctrination, perhaps."
A hoarse cry from the library beyond us made me jump. It cut off into a gurgle almost immediately. I looked at Doyle, but his eyes were unfocused again. Then he smiled, tension draining from his face.
"It's all right," he said in a hushed voice. "Though you may not want to see-"
I had already started forward, and Doyle's hand fell away from me as I moved past him. Vivian met my eyes and nodded slightly, heading in the direction of the scream a half-step ahead of me. Her arm was extended protectively backward, as if ready to throw herself on top of me, to get us out of danger.
At the end of the stack, she stopped cold and her arm went limp. I drew up short, then peered around her.
The library was a scene of absolute carnage. Bodies lay everywhere, blood coating every surface. The corpses were nondescript, or had been before their messy ends. Except for the red gloves they all wore, they were dressed for work, for just another day at the office. I had seen some of these people yesterday as I made my rounds. They were just... anybody.
In their midst stood the man with the ice blue eyes. He pulled a thin-bladed sword from the back of a downed foe, and I shuddered at how long it took to slide out of the corpse. The body jerked for a second, and then lay completely still. A gun lay beneath its limp fingers.
I counted six others, all similarly-armed. All dead. None had gotten a shot off. Only one had even had the time to scream.
He looked at us, at me. Those eyes bored into me, questioning, expecting. He was looking for someone in me, someone familiar. He wasn't finding her.
"Knight," hailed Doyle stiffly.
"Detective," he rejoined, eyes never leaving mine. "I've been waiting for you."
"Terribly sorry to keep you. Bit of a mess." Doyle frowned.
"Bit of a messy situation. Your choice of venue didn't leave me many tactical options. I trust you'll take care of cleanup?" Under the blood, he wasn't even sweating. He started towards me, and my heart jumped.
"Already done." Doyle gestured vaguely to one of the high windows, where a small metal drone whirred back and forth, camera trained inside. "Maintenance has been advised to put up the no entry signs, with the cover of a restricted briefing. Our people will be busy cleaning this up tonight, though."
Part of me couldn't help but arch an eyebrow. Ten Agency staff are killed or just disappear under mysterious circumstances on the day after an apparent suicide on Agency property, and no one is going to ask questions? New Camelot can stifle investigations? And news reports?
The man with the sword wasn't listening to Doyle or my internal monologue. Striding over the carnage he'd wrought, his eyes ran all over me. I could feel them on my face, my hair, my clothes... probing beneath my clothes. I shivered. I couldn't not know what he was thinking.
"It's so good to see you," he whispered, and took my hand with his own, careful not to smear me with anything. His lips brushed the back of my fingers, and I felt it down to the arches of my feet. "I would know you anywhere."
He's not talking to Guinevere.
He looked up at me. "Are you all right... my dear... queen?"
Something was very wrong here.
Hell, who was I kidding: everything was very wrong here. My heart was doing a rock and roll drum solo. I'd made it through yesterday all right, even with the murder. I'd seen death before; after all, I grew up in a country that was mostly warzone.
But dying... Fresh, hot, inexorable. Nearly my own.
Those ice blue eyes.
You’re still in danger. Get out of here.
I pulled my hand away and began to shiver all over. "I'm not... I'm not hurt. I think I need to... sit... down..."
Strong arms wrapped around me, under my shoulders, and I let myself be borne to the ground. Not the man with the icy eyes. Vivian.
"Relax, Rambo," she snapped at him, "you'll get blood all over her. She's not just here to be your fairytale princess, and she just saw people die. Go. Stand somewhere away." She waited as he blinked in surprise. "Did I fucking stutter?"
She moved her face close to mine. She smelled of lavender. "Hey, shh... it's all right. Well, obviously it's not all right, and what the fuck, right? But you are all right. You are all right. Nobody's going to hurt you." She shook her head with a nervous smile. "I'm sorry, I suck at this. I'm really screwing this up."
“Yes, mostly,” I whispered back, smiling a little. "But not completely.”
“Hah! Good girl. Snarky is good. I tried to tell them not to underestimate you, but they have penises.”
I couldn't help but grin wider. “Sometimes it’s useful when they don’t know what you’re capable of. I could faint, if you don’t want to blow your cover.”
She had a plan. “What about tears?”
"Drama club," I whispered. I took a deep breath. The thick odor of blood filled my nostrils, and then I didn't have to pretend. I started to giggle, and then choke, and my shoulders shuddered and jerked and the sting was in my eyes and poor Mort and it was all too much too much too much--
There was a hissed discussion. A mention of the Red Handed League, and danger. Someone was told to go fuck himself.
Then we were gone.