"Where are you going?" Doyle asked, eyebrow arched. As I strode towards the parking lot, he was standing by the table I’d just abandoned with his arms crossed as much as he was able while carrying a big puffy package under one of them.
"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 snickered as she fell in. She had 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!"
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, hotshot? It'll take Arthur and his pals a while to fix this, and they'll never let you live it down. You’ll have to sit the hearings out… and I doubt Arthur will let it slide that you let newbie Guinevere go off all on her lonesome!"
He let me go.
"Sorry, sorry!" I called out to our growing audience. "Misunderstanding! Fine, yes, thanks, I’m fine…"
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. "Put 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 Guin 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."
He was hot but trying to keep his cool. Had I pushed him too far?
He is on the edge, unstable. We do not want to lose him here. That said, Guinevere would be proud enough not to lose face.
"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 phone. That way, if something happens and we get separated, we’re not out of touch. And before you try to hand me the extra one in your pocket that you had around just in case, no. I don’t care how secure it is. I’m not trying to learn a new gadget on the fly."
Excellent. This lets him off without embarrassing him, but you stood your ground.
"Your-" he started, and then he shook his head with a little smile. "You are Guinevere. Very well. But I get to make a few modifications to your phone while we are en route."
"Deal. Has your ‘transport’ got room for my dog?"
Cavill wagged his tail enthusiastically, ears perked, head cocked. He sat at attention like a doggie who really wanted to find out whosagoodboy? Who is it? Is it me? Who?
Doyle looked as if he’d just realized that there was a dog click-clacking his nails down the halls alongside us. "How did—? Never mind. You realize we are going to the Capitol building, correct?"
"You realize that my father is a Senator, correct?" I retorted. "I get a free pass. Also, Arthur says he’s cleared. Also, I apparently have super powers. I’ll leave him with Phil. I’ll use my Queen voice."
Vivian cocked an eyebrow, but she had the mask back up. "It’s very persuasive."
Doyle’s eyes fluttered as he read information off his contacts. "Your father’s chief of staff." He laughed. "The man’s a bit of a troll. He won’t like that."
"He’ll love it," I agreed. "Phil’s my biggest fan. Unless he’s part of this League that’s trying to kill me. Then he probably doesn’t like me much. Oooh, that would make a lot of sense…"
Doyle started to explain why that would be terrible, but it had something to do with politics. I had about as much luck following him as I’d had when my father had gone on about the hearings a few nights ago. As far as I was concerned, "Politics" was somewhere between "Astronomy" and "Russian literature" in their utter uselessness - though given the accusations about President Triumph, perhaps knowing a bit about the Russian psychology might be useful?
Of course, that was if you cared about that at all, which I truly didn’t. Politics. 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’d been getting off of the flight from Yemen, and the news had a field day with Senator DeGrace’s tweenage daughter’s ignorance of the role of the American press in perpetuating the myth of American exceptionalism.
Ugh. Boredom from talking politics was more likely to kill me than the Red-Handed League. Did these people seriously believe I was Guinevere? They must not know that I barely squeaked out a "C" in Government.
Doyle kept talking while we walked, happier now that we were more or less back to his plan. Unbidden, my mind started identifying the persona of each of the bit players around us as we walked. The variety was astounding, once you could see it. Lots of Arthur-types, which wasn’t that surprising given his proximity. But there were plenty of others.
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 unconsciously, and Doyle matched me like a dancer. "Strains the mind, does it not?"
He gestured vaguely with his free hand at the people who walked past us into and out of the building. "All of them, all people, 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.
"If I’m to understand your metaphor of nail polish as war paint correctly, what you’re wearing won’t do. If I may be so bold - and tread upon the myth a bit - you need proper armor." 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 tight-fitting black dress, the sort that fit any occasion. It was sexy if you were sexy; classy if you were classy. I wasn’t quite sure what it would be on me.
I could tell at a glance that it would fit me perfectly.
I said, "Tell me there’s not underwear somewhere in there."
Is it possible to pale and blush at the same time? If your name is Doyle, the answer is yes. "No, I would never-"
"Good," I smiled. "Because I don’t wear underwear."
Vivian managed to beam with pride while simultaneously keeping a total poker face. It was almost as awesome as the way Doyle started choking on his own gasped breath.
I let it go on for a satisfying moment, then released him from my wiles. "I’m joking. It's a nice dress, thank you. It'll even work with the bra I'm wearing, which I feel like somehow you knew already and okay now I'm back to being creeped out. Also, 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?"
"The price of foolish risks is an audience while you urinate," he affirmed. "Luckily for us both, Vivian is here."
"Doyle, you’re a peach," Vivian agreed, too quickly.
"That means easily bruised," I offered. "She’s just sayin’."
I swear that Vivian purred.
He clung fast. "My orders come from the top, ladies. It’s her or me in there."
"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 very expensive 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. "In addition to being data display devices, my contact lenses have passive photoreceptors that act essentially like a stereoptic camera over my eyeballs. Watson can obtain precise telemetry of any object 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 WATSON calculated a ninety-three percent chance we would need it. 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. My mother owned those sort of dresses. This was nice, but not that.
He looked at me sharply. "But it is here, now, before I even knew why I would need it. 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!
There are no "good guys" and "bad guys". There are only people in varying degrees of desperation and capacities for violence.
I was such a cynic.
We'd made our way into the parking lot and were wending our way through the rows of parked cars. I hadn’t encountered any unusually powerful Personae on the drive in this morning, so instead of the Purple Lot, the Audi was parked a few spaces from the last in the aisle.
Without warning, Cavill took off running toward the car.
Dog! Dog running in traffic! No bueno!
I was running before I was even aware of my body. I sprinted through the parking lot, tracking Cavill’s movements and predicting his likely course without even being consciously aware of it. Doyle and Vivian shouted after me and struggled to keep up, but I ignored them.
Why had he taken off like that? Something was wrong…
… and if something is wrong, something is likely very wrong. Gwen, this is a trap.
I didn’t slow down. A trap for me? Or a trap for…
The next few things happened very quickly. First, Cavill disappeared into a gap between two parked cars. On the other side of those cars was the Audi.
I skidded through the gap a split second behind him. Time seemed to slow down as I took in every detail:
Stocky, muscular man standing at the other end of the aisle between the Audi and the neighboring SUV. 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 works days now, because no one 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 with no hesitation…
The dying man was still on his feet as Doyle and Vivian caught up. 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.
Just like that, he was gone.
A small circle slipped from nerveless fingers, rolling in my direction. I stepped on it before either of the others had torn their eyes away from the scene of self-slaughter. Then Cavill erupted into throaty barking at the police officer who had just rounded the corner. Sunburnt head, eyes wide, sidearm out with haste that just begged us to give him an excuse.
"Freeze!" shouted Rick. His gun whipped between the air, and I could see his pupils contract into tiny pinpricks as adrenaline made his autonomic nervous system attempt to protect him from extraneous information. He was seeking the biggest threat.
Cavill barked furiously at the intruder. The pistol swung towards him.
"Hey!" shouted Vivian. "Mr. Serve-and-Protect! Stand down!"
Rick’s eyes were bugging out. He wasn’t listening, not to any voices outside his own head. He’d just stepped in a growing puddle of blood, and he was by no means convinced that the threat was over.
"Officer!" shouted Doyle. "We are not-"
"Pregnant wife!" I shouted. "Clean up your life!"
The gun paused its arc towards my dog. "Terrorist girl?"
Everyone was staring at me. Even Cavill had stopped barking.
"What did your wife say?" I asked him. He’d dipped the muzzle of his pistol down, staring at me incredulously. It wasn’t pointed at anyone in particular, and I wanted to keep it that way. Keep him focused on me, not the off-leash pit bull one leap from his jugular.
"She-" he stammered. "How… how did you know? She swears she’s never met you."
I started to respond, but Doyle cut me off, breaking the spell.
"Gwen. We’ve got two police cruisers inbound. Ninety seconds and a little over two minutes. Mr. Over-eager must have called in backup as he approached."
Rick blinked rapidly, fascination with me lost. "Hey!" he yelled, sensing he’d lost control of the situation. "What the hell are you people doing here? You can’t just - there’s a… a dead…"
I ignored him, my mind making connections automatically. "Doyle," I whispered, "that's Sir Kay, isn't it?"
Doyle nodded. "One of Arthur's platoon, from his Army days. One of his oldest friends."
"You!" Rick shouted at Doyle. "Stand over there! I don’t want anybody to move until my backup gets here. You’re all under arrest for accessory to murder."
"Eleven-ninety-nine," he spat into his radio. "I’ve got a one-eight-seven."
His radio hissed static. He repeated himself.
"It’s no use," Doyle advised calmly, not moving. "I’m jamming your communications. Also your personnel file has been updated to indicate multiple incidents of the use of racist epithets and of sexual harassment of female employees while on duty at the main gate. I do believe the Chief of Security is about to sign your discharge paperwork. I can assure you that if you discharge your firearm, you will be prosecuted for unlawful use of a firearm at the very least. And if the dog’s fur is so much as ruffled, the insurance company will find out about your wife’s pre-existing condition, which will guarantee that your child will be born without the benefit of either insurance or proper medical care, guaranteeing either that you are forced into bankruptcy for crushing medical debt or exposing your wife and baby to increased risk of medical complications during delivery-"
"Doyle!" I snapped. "Stop it!"
He blinked in surprise. "Gwen, I-"
"Don’t you ‘Gwen’ me while you talk about destroying this man’s life! He’s a racist, philandering bastard, but you will not do this, do you hear me? This is not justice. This is you showing him that you’ve got a bigger stick." I glared at him, not saying aloud, I had him before you butted in!
Doyle was either reading something off his contact lenses or was genuinely taken aback, I didn’t care which. "We don’t have time for this. Vivian, you’re up. Delay that first cruiser."
Vivian nodded crisply and Doyle waved his hand to indicate where she needed to be. She took off at a sprint.
"Hey!" Rick shouted, pulling the gun up. Doyle reached calmly out and put a hand on his arm. Like Mort had before him, Rick seized up and dropped to the ground.
Doyle didn’t look at me as he checked Rick’s breathing. "There. Is violent neural disruption more in keeping with your Highness’ ethic?"
With my minder distracted, 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.
"I’d rather you left him with a headache than a smoking crater where his life used to be. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hell, he was trying to do his job and wasn’t sucking at it. Getting in our way isn’t a hanging offense."
I found myself staring at Kay’s body. His hands were akimbo, the tactical knife lying a few inches away from his crimson-stained right hand.
I cocked my head. His left hand was the more callused of the two. He wasn’t right-handed, and yet he’d used that to stab himself…
His right hand. Red blood. Red-handed.
This body was a message meant for me: Anyone, anywhere. Even someone in Arthur's inner circle.
The next dagger could come from anywhere.
"Doyle," I hissed. "There's no time to get to your ride. We've got to get out of here. Now."
"I wasn’t falsifying any of that about harassment and racial slurs. It’s all accessible over external security footage, call records, and the like. Richard Preston is not a nice man. He didn’t take the news of his wife’s pregnancy very well, by the by. Heated words were exchanged. He doesn’t believe it’s his child."
"I can’t tell you how creepy it is that you know that," I rejoined. "And he might be a bastard who will say mean things when he feels powerless or afraid, but I can assure you that he knows it’s his child. And bastard or no, he loves his wife. He wouldn’t have broken out in a sweat like he did when you threatened her and their baby. I was watching him while you were pulling your party tricks. That was what hooked him."
"Are we going to argue about this, or are we going to get out of here?" he rejoined.
"Fine. 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 he hopped into the passenger seat. Doyle got a few whacks from a furiously-wagging tail as he squeezed himself into the back, but he bore them without complaint. (Dog person! I beamed internally.) The air in the car was soon redolent with dog breath.
"Which way?" I asked. "Left," he answered, and I swung the car out into the lot. "Make a U-turn to the right at the end of the row and hold after you pass two dark SUVs. They’ll shield us from the cruiser coming up to investigate long enough for them to pass us by. Window is five seconds. Four. Three…"
I gunned us forward down the aisle, braked hard enough to engage the thumping of the ABS as we hit the end, and whipped back into the next row. The SUVs were right there, and as I jammed again on the fat pedal, Cavill lost it on the leather seat and slid into the passenger foot well.
For a tense moment, nothing happened but the scrabbling of a dog trying to retain his dignity. Then I heard the squeal of tires the next row over.
"Excellent driving, your Highness," Doyle complimented.
"Not so helpless as you’d imagined?"
"The damsel was less distressed than advertised," he agreed. "I’ll try to make sure the dog has no further need of a seat belt. Reverse to the end of the aisle and drive out slowly through the main gate. No one else is leaving at the moment, and the people there are all ours. Even though there should be a lockdown, they will let us by."
"You continue to scare the shit out of me."
"Penetrations could be anywhere," he agreed, "but I doubt they’ll be so brazen as to confront us here. It would be a suicide mission."
"Not what I was talking about."
He had no response, so we sat in silence as 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.
Trees and sky slid around us, and my breathing relaxed. I’d been mad at Doyle for taking things too far, but it seemed like he and I were in this together, for now. Time to make nice.
"So that man, Sir Kay… he and Arthur were close?"
Doyle exhaled the breath he’d been holding since our fight. "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."
And I’d been so ready not to be creeped out by him! "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."
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, your High- Gwen. 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?"
I cocked my head. "But what if I screw it up? What if turn out not to be in your thirteen percent error rate?"
"Don’t worry," he reassured me. "You are who you are. You don’t have to try to be anything. You are Guinevere. Historically, there have been Personae who fell out of concordance with their stories, and lost themselves. That can throw their story off for generations, sometimes… almost as if the Persona is hesitant to return to the world… But enough of that. You’re it. You’ll do fine. Just do what comes naturally. Even," he sighed, "if that means yelling at the people who are trying to protect you."
I grinned. "You’re about to tell me that Guin Drake didn’t listen to overprotective male authority figures, either."
"She didn’t," he affirmed. "If Arthur had a complaint about her, it was her inability to let him face danger alone. I’d hoped you might prove less… impulsive. But yet, here we are, rushing into danger."
"You’ll learn to love me."
He let out a curt laugh. "I’ll try to make sure you live long enough for that to happen. We’ve got a brave new world to create."
Ah, but whose? Shakespeare’s, or Huxley’s?
I replied, "Wouldn’t that 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 they’re clever enough to make bad ideas work despite themselves. 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.
"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: I know a guy. All right, eyes sideways, mister." I popped off my seatbelt and began unbuttoning my top. Tinted windows were a good thing.
"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’d 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. "I used to get into costumes with way more frills than this while my mother drove me to the theater: this won’t take more than a minute. Don’t tell my dad I wasn’t keeping both hands on the wheel. And stop looking."
Doyle was about to protest again. "Royal. Command. Also, driver rules. Shut your peepers and your pie hole, or at least the one while looking elsewhere. Go play with WATSON or something."
He sighed and I could see in the rearview that he was dutifully casting his gaze backwards. Excellent.
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."
"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 oh-so-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?" I shouted. "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. Exposed as I was, I felt suddenly very conscious of the distinction. He would try? Was he seriously about to have a drone conduct an kamikaze bombing ten feet away from us? With other cars on the road?
Yet another time today, I slammed on the brakes. The car jolted, and my elbow hit the window button. Warm summer air rushed into the cabin.
Cavill skidded back into the footwell, and Doyle practically fell into my lap. "What are you--?" he started, but I shouted him down.
"Back! Seat! Eyes! Why are you not wearing your seat belt?" 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. They 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 super-pissed-off missile, snarling and barking, foam flecking his lips.
The driver flinched. He jerked the wheel, trying to throw his body 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.
Face full of dog, I couldn’t see a damn thing and barely had a grip on the steering wheel. As soon as I heard the other car crunch into the flora, 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.
Cavill, braced for once, managed to keep his feet. I shoved him back into the passenger seat by the face, and he licked my hand, teeth bared in a doggy grin. He had certainly showed them.
Wrapping the dress awkwardly around my chest and holding it in place with my left hand, 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. It was weirdly quiet: where there should have been road noise, there was just the soft hum of idling engines. If 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 prick of 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 used my emergency flashers on 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 fifteen 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 had found its way into 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 a drone in the air that if it runs on jet fuel is worth well more than fifteen thousand dollars, and you didn’t accidentally kill a bunch of people on the road thereby causing massive media attention, thanks to me. Car crash: not news. Drone explodes on the highway, killing mother of two and rendering the GW Parkway impassable for a week…? Yes, I'm your hero."
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.
At least he'd said thanks.
"I also have a clear view from another eye in the sky of the corpse of a good man, which is now being transferred into a body bag by CIA Security. This comes a day after another death, a woman who but for a twist of years could have been you. Two deaths of Personae, so quickly? It’s not a coincidence. This is not the first time in history that a Persona has sought the deaths of his own kind. There is a 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. WATSON calculates an eighty-three percent likelihood 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. In the grand scheme of history, those people driving back there don’t matter. You matter. You are Guinevere, and you must live. Arthur's coronation will happen 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 ensure that, you have to be careful. You have a good heart, to be concerned even about men who were trying to hurt you.” I flushed at how he’d bought my noble lie. I hadn’t cared a bit about those men, but I’d known where to look for clues. Clues I didn’t want to share with Doyle Holmes.
He continued, “This is the burden of royalty: 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 is 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 nice for them." 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 to take on danger for me, 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.
I had more serious things on my mind than Doyle Holmes catching my topless act. Missing you is…
One word left. Apparently we weren't done for the day.
Someone else was going to die.
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 fifteen grand bought a certain amount of "no questions asked". And pet stain remover.
I left the poker chips in the Audi. It didn’t seem likely that I’d need them later, and I didn’t want to have to keep track of them. Or worry about hiding them from my escort. They weren’t the thing: the message was the thing.
Missing you is…
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 did the impossible: found us street 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 before 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 raise his head 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 someone had already burned it down. He was dead.
Blood rushed from my face. Another one… another death. Even knowing that it was coming, it hit me in the gut. A death for me. To send a message to me. 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. "Stan", read the tag on his chest. He'd hailed my father as we walked in together one day not six months ago, 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.
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.
“The League,” I sneered. “He knew exactly where we'd be, back in the parking lot. Exactly when we’d arrive to discover Sir Kay with a knife fresh through his jugular. 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?"
Two names hung in the air between us. One that I'd just uttered, and the other...
"How did he do it?" I whispered. I was shivering with rage; 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.
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 still full; skin still blanches and turns pink as Doyle touches him: he had been dead for mere minutes. Visitor 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 had no badge to get into the building, you had to put your name in the book to get past here. 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 placed in the doorway, directing would-be comers away from this area until the killer had moved it back, just moments before we'd arrived. Any sooner than that and someone else might have blundered in. This was a precision operation, with no room for error - just to send me the last piece of a death-puzzle. The timing also meant that the killer had not gone out through the door, or we would have seen him pass us. We had just missed him. He was still in the building. No -- he worked here. Someone Stan knew, trusted. Someone he had 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 me, 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 were clattering on the floor as he came over and 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 to hide crossed fingers. "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 believer in my father. A career right-hand-man, Phil 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 place 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! That had sure happened fast. Apparently my father had been appropriately afraid of my mother’s response to continued proximity to Cavill.
It seemed like such a long time ago. Several murders, at least. 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 pale blue 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… I’d swear we’ve met, but I can’t place it.“
“We haven’t met… 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.
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 the majority leader on the committee - sits opposite your dad. Total basket case, but he taught international affairs forever. Phil calls him 'the Professor'. He and your dad don't really get along."
Doyle and I looked at each other again. M. The Professor.
I swallowed. "Kay, we really need to get to those hearings."