Chapter 04: The Five Poker Chips

"Where are you going?" Doyle asked, eyebrow arched. As I made a left turn out of the cafeteria towards the parking lot, he was standing with his arms crossed impatiently, leaning right. "To my car," I replied with a glance over my shoulder, not stopping. "You coming?"

"I've arranged transportation," he called at my retreating form. "It's safer if we use my... will you wait?"

"No," I answered. "I'm the queen. You can keep up."

Vivian thought that I hadn't been acting like Guinevere. I wasn't going to make the same mistake with Doyle.

He hot-footed it behind me and caught me by the arm. He started to say something, but he froze when I began shouting.

"Help! This man is trying to hurt me! Someone get Security!"

Everything. Stopped. For a moment, the loudest sound was Doyle's sharp intake of breath. I glared at him, and whispered under my breath, "What part of the Sherlock Holmes story lets you magic away an assault charge? It'll take Arthur and his pals a while to fix this, and they'll never let you live it down. We'll definitely miss the hearings... or you will."

He let me go.

"Sorry, sorry!" I called out to our growing audience. "Misunderstanding!"

Motion slowly resumed around us in the hallway, but all eyes were on us - penetrating even the aura of the green blazer. People glared suspiciously at Doyle.

His hand still lingered in the air between us. Slowly, he withdrew it.

"Yes," he whispered, face flushed. "Misunderstanding."

"You're damn straight," I hissed. "Lay a hand on me again and see if I don't clear things up more explicitly."

Doyle was also heated. "No: the misunderstanding was yours. I am trying to help you not die. Do you realize that any one of the people in this hallway could belong to the League? What would you do if they came after you? We need to control as many variables as we can, and that means we don't rely on any vehicle that we haven't had under our control since before Gwen Drake died and you appeared. Unless you think that they couldn't have planted a bomb on your engine block? You have to trust me."

Too much? A little too much. Guinevere would be proud enough to need to back this down without losing face, though.

"Bullshit I have to trust you!" I hissed. "You couldn't keep a half-dozen guys with red gloves and guns out of the most secure facility in the world! What makes you think that they couldn't get to your car? And anyway," I added, somewhat lamely, "we're not going to my car to drive it. We're going to get my dog. You think I want to deal with traffic?"

"Your-" he started, and then he shook his head with a little smile. "You are Guinevere. You realize we are going to the Capitol building, correct?”

“You realize that my father is a Senator, correct?” I retorted. “I get kind of a free pass. Also I apparently have super powers. I’ll leave him with Phil.”

A brief pause. “Your father’s chief of staff.” He laughed. “He won’t like that.”

“He’ll love it,” I corrected. “Phil’s my biggest fan. What are these hearings about, again?”

Doyle started to explain, but I had about as much luck following him as I’d had when my father had gone on about them a few nights ago. As far as I was concerned, politics were somewhere between astronomy and Russian literature in their utter uselessness. My parents had stopped taking me to political rallies when my tendency to ask inconvenient questions had shown up in front of too many cameras. I was thirteen, and hadn't paid attention to that stuff ever since.

Today's hearings... my dad had been worried about them, because that other senator, the one from the... other... party? (Hadn't my father switched parties once?) Rance, wasn't it? He was doing something diabolical, possibly involving budgets. (Probably budgets; everything was budgeting.) If the CIA guys didn't say what Daddy needed them to say, then... something?

Ugh. Politics. Did these people seriously believe I was Guinevere? I was definitely not cut out to be a queen.

Doyle kept talking while we walked, happier now that we were more or less back to his plan. Unbidden, my mind started identifying the personae of the bit players around us as we walked. I counted four definite Lancelot-types on the way out, and one woman who I was certain was an Arthur type. It was interesting that so many Camelot types had been attracted to this place.

There were other types as well. It was only after a tall man with dark, slicked-back hair rushed past me into the entrance, shielding his eyes from the sun that it clicked: Dracula. I did a double-take as he retreated into the building: dressed in a black suit, pale, but with an aristocratic bearing. He'd been almost snarling at the bright morning light, and I'd caught a glimpse of canines that were just a little too sharp to be normal. He wasn't the Dracula, not the Persona, but the resemblance to the picture I had of that bloody Count in my mind was uncanny.

I slowed my pace as I passed the Berlin Wall, crossing onto the West German side once again.

"Strains the mind, does it not?" Doyle matched my slowed pace, and we paused for a moment.

Doyle gestured vaguely with his free hand at the people who walked past us into and out of the building. "All of them, containing elements of some greater truth. Were the souls of some great beings shattered, to be collected into each of us in tiny fragments? Did Homer, and Virgil, and my own namesake tell stories that reflected a greater, older truth? Honestly, we don't know. We don't know why. We only know what is."

He coughed. “Your highness.” I nodded as regally as someone who’d spent a year with the Fairfax County High Thespian Society could manage.

“It won’t do to have Guinevere meet Arthur dressed like that.“ He handed me the package that he had been carrying. It was wrapped in twine and tissue paper, but the clever knot pulled open with a light tug. The package held a conservative black dress, the sort that fit any occasion. I could tell at a glance that it would fit me perfectly. It was even bra-friendly.

“Tell me there’s not underwear somewhere in there,” I quipped.

He shook his head furiously. “No, I would never-“

“Good,” I smiled. “Because I don’t wear underwear.”

The look on his face suggested that maybe Vivian really was onto something with the way she talked. I laughed.

“I’m kidding. Thank you. Next time you’re going to give me something to slip into, maybe do it while we’re still near a bathroom?”

He frowned. “The car I called has a privacy screen for you. Whatever else you may think of me, I’m not trying to get you naked. I am trying to protect you, which is much harder to when you're in the bathroom, unless I follow you in.”

"What, so I don't get to pee until the Red Handed League is defeated?"

"Only in safe places," he affirmed. "Don't try to go all 'queen' on me, either, because my orders to keep you safe come all the way from the top."

"Mr. Holmes, I am the top. Arthur can get used to it, and so can you. As for my bladder, it is at present not in conflict with your risk-averse interpretation of your orders. I'll leave you to wonder when that will change, and how you will react to urine on your shoes."

He raised a placating eyebrow. “Are you always this difficult?"

I grinned, and started walking again. "Are you always this stodgy? Tell me how you had this dress ready for me on zero notice: it'll make you feel better."

"Ah," he brightened, long legs easily matching my stride. "My contact lenses have passive photoreceptors that act essentially like a stereoptic camera over my eyeballs. Watson can obtain precise scans of objects in the environment if I move around even a little bit. I had your measure the moment I laid eyes on you, so to speak.”

Others have thought as much, said my inside voice. I am, after all, a master of disguise.

Doyle carried on, unaware. “After that, it was a simple matter of posting your measurements to a task completion site and offering the appropriate sum of money to the first person who could bring back the specified dress. Watson is delegated to approve any transactions under a hundred thousand dollars, and this only cost eight thousand and fifty-three dollars and seventeen cents."

"I'm sorry: you paid eight thousand dollars for this dress?" I sputtered.

"It's a nice dress. And I needed it quickly. And my net worth as of this morning was in the tens of billions of dollars. I have some intellectual property related to Watson, particularly in the realm of unstructured data analysis that has proven quite profitable to internet search companies and marketers."

"It's not an eight thousand dollar dress," I insisted.

He looked at me sharply. "But it is here, now. You spend money to make money, and I'm useful to Arthur because I can get things done."

"How much did it cost to clean up the library?"

"Considerably less. Several of the Knights are well-positioned in the Security office. Had we actually gone there after your little display in the hallway, I think you would have been surprised at how quickly matters would have been resolved."

I shivered. It was unsettling to realize how thorough New Camelot's apparatus was. They could just wave their hands, and inconvenient things like murder would disappear. And these were the good guys!

We'd made our way into the parking lot and were wending our way through the rows of parked cars. I'd had less parking luck today than when I'd stolen Gwen Drake's spot the day before, so the Audi was parked a few spaces from the last in the aisle. I'd left the windows down - the air conditioning was on, but no fresh air at all had seemed cruel - so I was still a good hundred feet off when I heard the muffled barking.

Tense, anxious: a warning. Danger.

I was running before I was even aware of my body. I sprinted through the parking lot, plotting the fastest path between cars and squeezing through the tight spots without slowing. Doyle shouted after me and struggled to keep up, but I ignored him.

He wouldn't go after my dog, would he? Of course he would. Of course-

I slid between two SUVs and the Audi came into view. Noseprints smeared the windshield, but the car was intact, inside and out. I saw Cavill on point, glaring out of the driver's side window. His body was a straight line from nose to tail, pointing at...

Close-cropped red hair and careful stubble; tattoo of sword and shield on forearm showing through sleeves rolled up - faded: maybe ten, fifteen years. Ex-military, but out for a while. Right-handed. Skin pallid, not enough sun: night shift for too long, but he's off it, because nobody on the night shift wears an expensive button-up and slacks. Knife through the carotid artery and windpipe at a slight downward angle, a straight thrust from a man of greater height, except the blood pattern on the sleeve suggests-

The dying man was still on his feet as I emerged into view. Blood gushed in wet spurts around a military tactical knife protruding from both sides of his windpipe. He saw me, and his eyes grew wide in recognition. Then he collapsed, first to his knees, then hands, then down fully.

He was gone.

A small circle slipped from nerveless fingers, rolling in my direction. I stepped on it, just before Doyle crashed up behind me. Cavill erupted into throaty barking seeing someone come up so fast, but I shushed him with my hands.

My mind was making connections automatically. "Doyle," I whispered, "that's Sir Kay, isn't it?"

He was frozen, staring at the body. "Y- yes," he stammered. "One of Arthur's platoon, from his Army days. One of his oldest friends."

I looked sharply at him. He wasn't all the way here, but I couldn't tell if he was interfacing with Watson or if he was in shock. "Doyle. Doyle. Are you up in the air here? A drone?" He mumbled something, and I shook him. "The murderer, Doyle! He has to still be here! This just happened! He's still here!"

To his credit, Doyle snapped out of it immediately. He whispered under his breath, and his eyes scanned around us. I could see flickers of light tracing off of them: his contact lenses also had some sort of heads-up display.

"Nobody," he hissed. "There's nobody. Twelve people within a hundred yards... patterns of movement indicate nothing unusual: they're just headed to work. No one headed towards us, nor away at any speed. Scanning out to the fence line..." A pause. "Nothing. Nothing at all. Nobody hiding under a car; I'd see it on thermal. There are a few warm engine blocks, but nothing anyone could have gotten to fast enough, not to mention that the clearance under most vehicles doesn't actually allow for a human to hide..."

We both had the same thought, with the Audi humming away to keep Cavill cool in the warm summer's morning. Doyle dropped to the ground before I could stop him, and reached the same conclusion that I had: "Nobody here."

Nobody? Impossible. Out loud I only said, "Just poor Kay."

Doyle pulled himself into a crouch to examine the body, muttering about "the improbable". Quickly, I reached down to pull the object from under my shoe. A poker chip, with the handwritten word "Missing" on it. A man's writing, hasty; sleep-deprived, having trouble in the morning sun. Conclusion: the deceased. I slipped it into a pocket.

Carefully, Doyle rolled Kay over. I couldn't tear my eyes off of the knife. There was something about the angle… the way his right hand was covered in blood, but not his left. He had no cuts on his palms: he hadn't been trying to ward off a knife blow. He had no other injuries.

A person stabbed through the neck claws at the weapon with both hands: anything to get the foreign object out. The victim has blood on only one hand. He resisted using both hands to dislodge the blade... or never made any attempt to do so, and instead got the blood on his right hand when he-

His right hand. Red blood. Red-handed.

He did this to himself. This body was a message meant for me: Anyone, anywhere. Even someone in Arthur's inner circle. The dagger could come from anywhere. I looked around: there were at least eight other people in the parking lot. No one looking at us, but...

"Doyle," I hissed. "There's no time to get to your ride. We've got to get out of here. Now."

He paused only a moment, to pass his hand over Kay's face, closing his eyes. "Rest easy," he whispered.

"Back seat," I snapped at him. He started to protest, but I cut him off. "How are you going to protect me if you're busy driving?"

He got in.

Cavill was still switched on and anxious, but I swear he grinned at me as I slid into the driver's seat. Doyle got a few whacks from a furiously-wagging tail as he squeezed himself into the back, but he bore them without complaint. The air in the car was redolent with dog breath, but at least there were no fouler aromas: Cavill's bowels had borne his imprisonment stoically enough.

I tossed the dress on the passenger seat and reached for a bottle of water that I had in the console. As a rule, I hated to disturb a crime scene, but it was becoming a habit… I poured it into the puddle of blood pooling around the Audi's tires, and kicked the car into gear. I looked in my rear view as we drove off. The tire tracks we made through Kay's blood had already begun to fade, diluted with water on the hot pavement. It was far from perfect, but should make it a little tougher on any investigators to match my car to the scene.

"It's thicker than water," Doyle nodded approvingly. "Good thinking, highness. No need for anyone to know we were here." I could see him studying me in the rearview mirror. "You handled yourself well there."

I rather agreed. “Not so helpless as you’d imagined?”

“The damsel was less distressed than advertised,” he agreed. “I’ll try to make sure you have no further need to steel yourself thus.”

“Oh, good. You're not going to try to kill me? You can stay.” I eased us out of the CIA compound and turned left onto Route 123. Just as it had been the last time I’d fled a crime scene, no one so much as motioned for us to slow down.

As we drove toward the GW Parkway, Doyle and I were alone. Time to feel him out.

“So that man, Sir Kay… he and Arthur were close?”

“Yes. Kay has a… storied history in the Arthurian tales, but we'd managed to avoid reliving the worst of the stories about Kay thus far. None of the fights, none of the buffoonery. Kay doesn't get the easiest treatment in most of the stories, but we were getting Camelot right. Now... and so soon after Guin- your predecessor... it will be hard on everyone."

"There's not another Kay waiting in the wings?"

"Somewhere, yes. But we haven't found him. He may not even be far: where many of us avatars gather, others tend to congregate. We may get lucky." He hesitated. "But frankly, we don't need Kay for Camelot to succeed. In many of the legends, he breaks camp with Arthur anyway. If you were going to pick one of the knights to murder, he would be the least disruptive to our plans. Not like a Guinevere. We had to know where she was, in case the worst happened."

A chill ran through me. "Do... do you have, what, backup copies of all of us, ready to reboot if there’s a problem? Another Arthur? Another Lancelot?"

"Yes," he said simply. “I have a database of likely candidates. It’s near-impossible to tell until they are tested, but I’ve had an eighty-seven percent success rate in predicting Persona emergences in the past. Camelot is too important not to survive us.”

I frowned in the rearview. “So devoted to New Camelot? I thought you were new in town.”

“I am. But I’ve worked for Arthur for longer than that. He’s the preeminent champion of justice in all of literature. He brought about the concept of Might for Right. Sherlock Holmes is nothing if not a pursuer of justice.”

Nothing, indeed.

He went on. “So, yes, we do have others who will step in, if need be. But honestly... I don't know how many more we can lose, even if we do bring the next Arthur, or next Lancelot in. We're on the knife's edge, my lady. We're trying to get the story right this time, to bring about real peace and justice for the world. But it's not as easy as it sounds. Arthur may be eternal, but opportunities are fleeting. It might be centuries more before we could recreate the circumstances we face today."

"So I'm not expendable?"

"Hah. Very much no. Any of the knights will defend you with their lives. As will I. Holmes may not be part of Arthur's legend, but he is certainly one of its heirs. Holmes protects people. How better than to do so on a grand scale than to bring a place of true peace into the world?"

“And that wouldn’t be easier with a Merlin in Camelot? Vivian told me that he’d never showed up. What about your algorithm there?”

He hesitated. “Arthur - Arthur Drake, that is - has… emphatic feelings about Merlin. Camelot is better without him. Merlin has too much influence over the Court, which should be loyal to Arthur’s vision alone. Merlin lacks faith: he's too clever. Clever heroes always think that things will be different, just because they are involved. But we are our stories: things are never different.”

“Except that isn't what you actually believe. You think that this time you’re getting Camelot right. No one is afraid that Lancelot and I are going to…”

I drifted off as we merged onto the Parkway, trees to our right, a river to the left. My eyes focused on something in the rearview.

“Highness?”

“Knock it off with that, please. Just call me Gwen. And, it’s nothing. Have you already gotten us seats at the hearings, or should I call?"

I could feel him smile without looking. "Already taken care of. We have two saved for us in the back."

"In the back? You should have let me call. All right, eyes sideways, mister." I popped off my seatbelt and began unbuttoning my top. Tinted windows were a good thing.

"Are you--"

“We’re going to be running late for the hearings as it is. This isn’t my first time at the Capitol: it’s going to be a pain to change there, and I’ll just have to keep track of this stupid green jacket anyway. No, I’ll change here.” My eyes focused on the rearview mirror, and the car that was clearly following us. “This won’t take more than a minute. Don’t tell my dad. And stop looking.”

Doyle was about to protest again. "Royal. Command. Also, driver rules. Shut it and look somewhere else. Go play with Watson or something."

He sighed and I could see in the rearview that he was dutifully averting his eyes. I wriggled out of my shirt and bra, and glanced down at the dress in the seat next to me. It wasn't too covered in dog hair yet, but Cavill was excitedly squirmy.

Doyle's voice came tense from the back seat: "We've got a tail. Three back, left lane."

Very good, Sherlock.

“A tail? Like, someone coming after us? I’m half-naked up here!”

“You have tinted windows. I’d be less worried about your modesty than about your life,” was his reassuring answer.

The tail car was an unremarkable import, the kind you saw a dozen of every mile. The windows were down: the thing looked old enough to have air conditioning problems, which in the DC summer almost moved me to pity. The two men inside weren't much to look at, either: the biological equivalent of the car they drove. I was sure they were cooking in there.

“Don’t panic,“ Doyle instructed. “You’ll be safe in a moment.”

“What are you doing?”

"I'm feeding telemetry data to our escort drone. None of them are weaponized, but they are full of jet fuel. I have to bring it down at just the right…”

I looked around. We weren't in rush hour anymore, but the DC area was never short on traffic. I could see the outline of a car seat in the rear of the minivan in the next lane, two cars up from our tail. The mom driving it was a weak Helen-type. She was beautiful, but looked tired. I saw her lips moving in a lullaby.

"What? You're going to dive-bomb them? But there are other people on the road!"

He half-turned towards me, and I shouted at him: “Eyes!”

He whipped back around and muttered something under his breath to Watson. To me, angrily: “I will try to keep others out of the blast radius, but this debate is wasting time! Unless I can mark where I need the drone to strike, we will be very dead in thirteen seconds! Men are coming to kill you!"

Men,” I spat. With my breasts so exposed, I was suddenly very conscious of the distinction. He would try? Was he seriously about to have an armed drone conduct an airstrike ten feet away from us? With other cars on the road?

I slammed on the brakes. The car jolted, and my elbow hit the window button. Warm summer air rushed into the cabin.

Cavill skidded from his perch on the front seat into the footwell, and Doyle practically fell into my lap. "What are you--?" he started, but I shouted him down. "Back! Seat! Eyes!" I elbowed him as hard as I could until he retreated to the back seat.

With my sudden change in speed, the tail car raced up next to us, and its passengers and I got a very good look at one another. The men coming to kill me were really just a couple of guys. One was a little pudgy, thick sideburns, a loosened tie. The driver was young, maybe three or four years on me, wearing a pink polo.

Both had red gloves and guns.

But neither were pointing anything at me, yet. The two men just stared, faces a mixture of shock and admiration. This wasn’t the reception they had been expecting.

I twisted slightly to give them a better view, and waved.

"Hi there!" I shouted. "Assholes."

I shifted my torso in and down, at the same time nudging the Audi close enough to their car that our mirrors almost touched. Next to me, a tensed-up ball of nerves exploded. Cavill hurtled to the window like a pissed-off missile, snarling and barking, foam flecking his lips.

The driver flinched. He jerked the wheel away from the frenzied animal that had just threatened to enter his life, and instead sent his crappy little car smashing into the lane divider. I heard a gunshot.

At the noise I floored the skinny pedal. We blasted forward, Cavill leaning into me as his quarry suddenly vanished behind us. They ricocheted off the guardrail and back across the lane where we had just been, finally jumping the curb and skidding thirty feet through the grass to wrap their car around a tree on the right side of the road.

I couldn’t see a damn thing and barely had a grip on the steering wheel. As soon as I saw the tail flash across my rear view, I leaned into the brake as hard as I dared. The antilock brakes shuddered under my foot, and we pulled to a smooth stop in the right lane. Wrapping the dress awkwardly around my chest, I jumped out of the car before Doyle could untangle himself in the back seat. Cavill hopped lightly down beside me.

I looked behind us to see if anyone else was planning to join the fracas. If the traffic could talk, it would have said something along the lines of, “what in the immortal fuck?” Cars were stopped dead, people staring.

But this was DC and they had stuff to do. A ways back, a horn honked. The people who were in front started creeping around the Audi after making sure I didn’t have any imminent plans to send any of them off the road, either.

I ran toward the crashed car, thanking my drama teacher as ever for the lessons on moving in heels. Cavill shot ahead of me and leapt up on the smoking hood in a single bound. He planted two big paws on the spiderwebbed windshield and suggested with the tilt of his head and his ears that he would dearly love to make new friends with the spleen of anyone foolish enough to move quickly. He didn’t bark, just stared.

I tore the driver’s side door open. The men inside were not doing well. The fat man's right wrist had been snapped just above his red glove, and not the way you break your wrist when you fall on it wrong. I saw bone. Blood streamed freely from his forehead, pouring around his left hand that he was using to try to stanch the flow. He had not been wearing his seat belt.

The gunshot wound in the younger man's thigh, where the fat man's weapon had discharged before he'd had a chance to drop it, looked tame by comparison. Polo boy had both hands wrapped around his leg, and you couldn’t tell which hand had the glove and which was just soaked in blood. He looked for all the world as if he'd wished he'd learned valuable moral lessons a little earlier in life.

"Guns make my dog really anxious," I apologized. "Do you want to exchange insurance information?"

Then I noticed the two poker chips in the cup holder.

"'Scuse me," I leaned in very close to the younger of the two, doing my level best not to dip my makeshift boob coverage into anything that looked biological. I snagged the chips, and slid back out of the car. The young guy was starting to go into shock, and the fat man was incoherent. I sighed, resisted the urge to make some pithy remark about having flashed them, and sauntered back to the car from which Doyle had finally extricated himself.

What are you doing?” he roared at me.

“Jeez, I was making sure those guys were okay,” I retorted. “We were just in an accident.”

“An- Get in the car.” His tone was worthy of Guinevere herself. “Back. Seat. I am driving the rest of the way.”

For once, I didn’t argue. I slid in the open rear door, and Cavill hopped in behind me. Doyle closed the door behind us with a slam, and then squeezed into the front seat. He tore away and into traffic, whipping the Audi ferociously forward.

Seven separate calls describing the accident!” he spat. “Including descriptions of this car. I just dropped three thousand dollars to have a new vehicle waiting for us in a parking garage in Rosslyn. We can’t keep driving this. I’ll have someone take it back to your residence this evening.”

He shook his head. “I just cannot understand what you were thinking! I had the situation under control.”

“Yeah, a drone strike is ‘under control’,” I muttered, shrugging my way back into the bra that I’d found in the back seat. He didn’t seem to hear me.

“This is what we get for bringing you in so quickly. You’re a child. It’s partially my fault, for expecting you not to act like such a clueless princess!”

Doyle kept barking. After sliding the dress down over my torso, I buckled in. Discreetly, I slipped the poker chips out and looked at them. "You" and "Is". "Missing you is..."

“Did you hear me?” he asked, still in lecture mode.

“Hm?” I asked, all innocence. “I’m sorry, I stopped listening somewhere around ‘blah blah blah thank you, Gwen, everything turned out totally fine!’ You did say thank you, didn’t you? You’ve still got an expensive drone in the air and didn’t accidentally kill a bunch of people on the road thereby causing massive media attention, thanks to me.”

His eyes in the rearview looked like he might really lose it, but he squeezed them shut for a moment and took a deep breath.

“Um,” I started, “don’t you kind of need to see in order to drive?”

Through gritted teeth, he explained: “There’s a drone overhead… thanks to you. I have a perfectly clear view.” He took another breath, and opened his eyes.

"I also have a clear view from another eye in the sky of the corpse of a good man, which has just been discovered by CIA Security. This comes a day after another death, also one of our number. Two deaths of Personae, so quickly? This is not the first time in history that a Persona has sought the deaths of his own kind. There is a fanciful legend of dark times when many Personae die suddenly. The 'Blood Sacrifice', it is called. It is said that one of our ranks ascends to a kind of godhood… but at the expense of the old order. It appears that someone believes the legend. New Camelot is assembled all in one place: the largest gathering of our kind in a century. Someone thinks us to be easy prey.

“You have to understand. My drones don’t matter. Those people driving back there don’t matter. You matter. You are Guinevere, and you must live. Arthur's coronation will happen soon. Days, weeks - there are still variables that have to crystallize, but it will be very soon. We've planned this for generations. The Once and Future King will ascend to the throne, and we can start to heal the world. Make wrongs right. Bring civilization and justice and Might for Right to the whole of mankind.

"If you die, none of that is possible. None of the other Guinevere candidates I’ve found have half the promise that you do. You are perfect. Do you understand? Do you see how important you are? Without you as Guinevere, New Camelot doesn’t stand a chance. The world will just…” He shook his head, and met my eyes again in the rearview.

“Gwen, do you think the world is a nice place?”

Memory: I willed the fires and smoke to unwind, to retreat back up to the unforgiving sky...

I shivered. “Not really.”

“Do you want to make it better?”

I nodded. “Y- yes.”

“Me too. And to do that, you have to be careful. You have a good heart, to be concerned even about men who were trying to hurt you. But you are more important than your sympathetic feelings. To help others, to help many, many others, you have to keep yourself safe. And I have to keep you safe. I will do whatever it takes to do that. Please help me. Please help us bring peace to the world.”

He’s being earnest. He believes it.

“That’s some speech,” I said. I sighed. “Look, I’m not trying to jam you up, and I definitely don’t want to die. This… this is all a bit much for me. I’m not used to thinking in terms of acceptable collateral damage.”

He nodded. “It’s… distasteful. And I swear, as soon as we have a moment’s peace, I will come up with a more sound operational plan for your security. But things are very fluid right now, and I would very much like your help in ensuring that you remain safe. Here,” he suggested, “I will make you an offer. If we ever find ourselves in a similar situation, where you need to make sure that someone is all right, just tell me. I promise to do it for you. I promise to take on any danger for you, as long as it keeps you safe.”

“That’s bizarrely sweet. All right,” I agreed. “You have a deal.”

“If it makes you feel any better, the men who were in that car have been attended by the police. They are in stable medical condition, and they are not saying anything about you to law enforcement.”

“Well, that’s good.” My mind drifted to the poker chips I was fiddling with. Someone had known that I would find them. Someone knew not only that the men wouldn’t kill me, but that I’d see the inside of their car.

Someone knew me all too well. I shivered at the thought.

Doyle cleared his throat. “There is… one other matter. I, ah, may not have completely succeeded at averting my eyes."

I glared at him in the mirror. “Breathe a word of this to anyone and I will make you regret your promise, Mr. Holmes. Look in my eyes. Believe it.

He looked. And he did believe. I could see the crinkle of a smile at the edges of his eyes, though.

Missing you is…

One word left. Apparently we weren't done for the day.

We pulled off of the Parkway in Rosslyn, just outside of the District. Outside a nondescript parking garage, we swapped cars with a forty-ish woman who looked like she’d just come from yoga. Her luxury SUV smelled strongly of vanilla. She raised an eyebrow when she saw Cavill, but apparently three grand bought a certain amount of “no questions asked”. And pet stain remover.

I left the poker chips in the Audi. Might need them later, but I didn’t want to have to keep track of them. Or worry about hiding them from my escort.

Doyle drove confidently, flowing smoothly through traffic. Every now and then he’d cut a merge close enough that we got honked at, but he paid it no mind. When I commented on it after the fourth time, he gestured skyward. “I have precise measurements of the spaces between the vehicles on the road, and an optimal path plotted to our destination, updated in realtime. We had sixteen inches there, and even assuming an abysmally slow reaction time, he had well over two seconds to correct his speed before we had a collision.”

“Do you have precise measurements of how terrifying you are? Because I would measure it somewhere around five hundred milli-stevens.”

He cocked his head. “Milli-stevens?”

“Yeah. You measure terrifyingness in units of Steven King, obviously. You're somewhere at The Stand level. Maybe Pet Semetary.”

“Obviously. Not It?”

“That represents absolute terrifyingness. Not even Steven King is that scary.”

He laughed, and for a while, the silence was easy.

Doyle’s eye in the sky led us to parking within blocks of the Capitol building. I shimmied out of the slacks that I still had on, slid back into my boots, and stepped out of the car, checking out my reflection in the window.

Mmm. Not bad.

"Doyle, I like your tailor. I’m keeping it.”

He smiled. “You owe me eight thousand dollars.”

“Hah! Take it out of the check you’re writing me for the drone that didn’t crash and burn.”

He smiled ruefully. “Stay out of trouble, and we’ll call it even.”

"All right," I said. I looked back into the car at Cavill. ”The hearings got underway a few minutes ago, but we've got to do something with you, big guy. I don't think they let dogs in the chamber. This way."

Cavill hopped out and trailed along behind, then in front, then off to one side, sniffing and peeing on things as we went. Doyle didn’t protest, so we began heading to my father’s office building. Senators and Congressmen don't just work in the Capitol building: they have their own offices. My father's was only a few doors down.

We went in the back way. The rear lobby was empty: it was too far from lunch to have people leaving, but too far from the start of business to have people coming. The security guard didn't so much as look up from his crossword as we entered, which should have been a blessing given the fact that he was pretty definitely not supposed to let dogs into the building, even for Senators' daughters. I'd been planning on crossing that bridge when we came to it, but-

But someone had already burned it down. He was dead.

Blood rushed from my face. Another one… another death. My knees trembled, and I felt… empty. I dug my fingernails into my palm, but I couldn’t feel the pain. I couldn’t feel anything.

I'd met this man before, I was sure of it. "Stan", read the tag on his chest. He'd hailed my father as we walked in together at some point, and they'd exchanged a few words about their kids.

She's the best thing I've ever done, my father said in my memories. He'd smiled at me, and I'd had to stop him from ruffling my hair. Don't tell my wife.

Hah! Stan had a rich, full laugh. My girl's gonna be a doctor next year, can you imagine? My little baby girl... can't wait to see that day.

He hadn't.

Tears welled up in my eyes. Doyle slid around the desk, fingers feeling for a pulse to confirm the obvious. He looked up, met my gaze, and shook his head quietly.

"Are you all right? You're shaking."

"No!" I hissed in fury. "I'm not goddamn all right! This," I waved at Stan's body, "this was because of me. Someone is killing people just to send me a message. Just to let me know he can."

Doyle looked at me levelly. "The Red Handed League," he spat.

"He knew exactly where we'd be, back in the parking lot. Exactly. Just like you did. He knew down to the second when we'd get to the car, and how to evade your drones. He knew I'd check on the tail car, after it crashed. He knew we'd come through the back entrance to my father's office, instead of going straight to the hearings." I drew myself up and pointed a finger at his chest. "We both know who this is, don't we, Sherlock?"

The name hung in the air between us.

"How did he do it?" I whispered. I was shaking with fury; if I spoke any louder, I'd scream at him. "How did he kill Stan?"

Doyle examined the body. As he turned away from me, I reached down and quietly picked up the poker chip sitting on the desk amidst sign-in sheets and activity logs and three-ring policy binders.

"Murder," it read. No kidding.

"Missing you is murder."

The tears pushed up then, and I choked on a sob. Helplessness. Anger. Guilt. The poker chip slipped from my fingers and rolled under the desk.

My fault. This is my fault.

For a second, my control slipped. Through the tears, I saw... everything.

Lips starting to drain: he'd been dead before we left CIA. Sign-in register was almost empty, though: nothing at all for today's date. It was early, but even at this hour there would be visitors, and if you didn't have a badge to get into the building, you didn't get in without signing. There -- a sign in the corner, announcing that this entrance was closed. The dust... so eloquent! It clearly showed that the sign was now almost an inch from where it usually sat: it had been up in the doorway, directing would-be comers away from this area until the killer had moved it back, just in time for us to arrive. Any sooner than that and someone else would have blundered in. The killer hadn't gone out through the door, or we'd have seen him pass us. We'd just missed him. He was still in the building. No -- he worked here. Someone Stan knew, trusted. Someone he'd let behind him, not knowing that he had a --

"Needle," Doyle announced triumphantly. "There's a mark on the neck, just here. Fast-acting poison, probably a neurotoxin. Given the placement, it would have gone straight through the carotid artery to the brain." He paused, softened. "He probably didn't suffer."

Sensations were still crashing into my brain, but with effort, I put them away, one by one. Doyle wore expensive cologne, masking a slight smell of ozone from whatever tech he had secreted about his body. Cavill's nails clattering on the floor as he sniffed the body. The dog cocked his head, and took off toward the inside of the building. He got to the door that Stan would have buzzed us through, and whined. His nose was twitching furiously.

Yes! I exulted. He's on the trail.

"Buzz us in," I commanded Doyle. "We've got a murderer to catch."

He eyed me grimly. "I'll go first. If anything happens, let me and the dog take care of it. Promise me."

I clenched my fists, but I nodded. "I promise."

With a click, we were inside, racing after Cavill as he bounded down the halls. The Senate office buildings were... well, they were a lot like other office buildings, I supposed, with more flags. They bore little resemblance to the ornate wood paneling and marble of the official chambers. Nevertheless, it was more than a little unusual to see a big dog running through the hallways, and the several people we encountered scrambled out of our way in surprised haste. We had one or two yells after us, but I ignored them. Not important. All that was important was finding...

Cavill had stopped in front of a door, a satisfied grin on his doggy face.

Oh. Oh, no.

"Leonard DeGrace", the door read. I shouldered Doyle out of the way.

"Dad!" I cried out, bursting through the door. "Dad, are you--?"

An office full of staffers looked on me in confusion. My father's chief of staff, Phil -- an Igor-persona, it figures -- straightened up from the desk he'd been bent over.

"Gwen? What the--?"

"Dad!" I gasped. "Where's my dad?"

"Honey, what's wrong?" The words were meant to sound tender, but they just amplified his obvious annoyance. Phil was thirty-two, no kids and a string of divorces already. He was a career right-hand-man who had no time for distractions and less time for those of us who distracted Senator DeGrace from whatever it was that Phil so fervently believed his boss was meant to be doing.

"I just--" I looked around. There was nothing out of the ordinary here. This was my dad's office, running just like it was supposed to. Except for the pit bull and freaked-out teenager in the middle of it.

I swallowed. "Um, sorry. I... really needed to see him about something."

Phil rolled his eyes without even realizing it. "Don't worry," he said, you snotty little brat. "We don't have the keys yet, but the apartment is all arranged," you annoying waste of time. "If you and, uh... the dog... could just come back later on?" Or never? "Or better yet, I'll text you the address, and have someone meet you there with the keys."

"Oh," I said, caught off guard. "Um... thanks? Sorry? But..." I saw the annoyance mounting again, and suddenly remembered. The apartment! Living on my own all of a sudden seemed terrifying.

Focus, Gwen. Focus on why we're here.

"My dad... is he already at the hearings?"

"He's been there for an hour," said an intern. She was my age or a little older, a college student getting some experience on the Hill. Poli Sci major, but she hates how it all makes her feel. She wants to write poetry and have adventures. She's a-- "Do you want me to take you over there?"

There was a slight tone to her voice. Phil looked annoyed, but did the math in his head: Which is more annoying, the kid being here, or the intern catching a few minutes out from under my boot heel?

"Yeah," I said. "That'd be great."

"Sorry for busting in here, everybody," I waved sheepishly. "My dad was going on last night about how prepped he is for the hearings today, thanks to you. Um. Yeah. Sorry to be in the way." Phil was still icy, but I saw a few sympathetic looks. An indirect compliment from the boss could smooth over a lot.

The intern slid out from the table where she'd been working at a laptop. Her computer background was a coat of arms featuring a red shield with a white stripe. She let Cavill give her hand a sniff, and he wagged his tail furiously. She was wispy and ginger, with a dreamy look about her. I saw her meet Doyle's eyes as he leaned in the doorway: the very figure of tall, dark, and mysterious. She cast her eyes down and hid a smile in her hair as he held the door for her.

I followed her out into the hallway. After the door closed behind Doyle, she gave an apologetic smile. She unconsciously tucked a wisp of red hair behind her ear, revealing an earring in the shape of a pair of crossed swords. "Sorry about Phil. It's been kind of a madhouse lately."

"No," I insisted, "I'm sorry. It's my fault. I can't believe I just barged in here, all woooo!" I made a fluttering gesture with my hands and bounced my head back and forth.

She laughed. "I'm Kay."

I gasped, and Doyle stiffened. Close-cropped red hair and careful stubble. Tattoo of sword and shield on forearm...

"Yeah... you are, aren't you?"

She cocked her head at me. "Have we met before? I mean, obviously I know who you are, but you look so familiar…"

"Not... exactly." I glanced at Doyle, but he shook his head minutely. I agreed. There wasn't time.

She shrugged it off. "Well, you're the second unexpected guest we've had today. Just after Senator-- er, your dad left, that douchebag Rance showed up. He was on about something, and Phil got all huffy. That's part of why he was so wound up. But... it's weird. Rance seemed to know you'd be here later. He came straight over to me on the way out. Told me to give you this."

She held out her hand. It had a poker chip in it.

Slowly, I reached out and took it. It had a single letter on it.

"M."

"Missing you is murder. M."

A cold knot was tightening in my stomach. "He was heading to the hearings, wasn't he? He was going to be in them, right?"

"Yeah. He's on the committee. He's as new as your dad, just got elected last year, but he taught international affairs forever. Phil calls him 'the Professor'. But he's pretty hot stuff on the floor these days, just like your dad. They don't really get along."

Doyle and I looked at each other again. The Professor.

I swallowed slowly. "Kay, we really need to get to those hearings."

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