Inevitably, you will come into open conflict with New Camelot. Arthur has ever been a wily foe, and his incarnation working as an intelligence officer will only have enhanced that. You must think one step ahead of him.
I waved to Arthur as I made my way along the crowded street up to the restaurant. He was standing out in front like he owned the place, dark jacket unbuttoned, with his hands on his hips. He looked tired, and pursed his lips when he saw me.
“That’s a different look than the last time I saw you,” he said by way of a greeting.
The credit cards I’d purloined from Moriarty yesterday were still active, and I’d continued to abuse them. The yellow and green dress I was wearing might not have been 3-D printed by Doyle’s robot helpers and only had one zipper, but it had been on-the-spot tailored by a fifty-something Russian lady. Her attention to my rounder parts had been a little uncomfortable, but when I’d slid into the results of her handiwork… let’s just say her attentions were going to draw other people’s attention. My butt looked intensely awesome. It was almost too bad to have to sit down on it.
I hugged him as a greeting of my own, and he stiffened. This was... awkward.
I tried banter. “You clean up nicely, yourself. I’m glad you also chose a different outfit.”
He barked a laugh. “I’m pretty sure tactical gear wouldn’t meet the dress code. Shall we get off the street?”
It was a frosty reception, all told, but he did hold the door open for me. I winked, and despite the press of people on the street said, “It’s not every day a girl gets an audience with a king. Wouldn’t have missed it.”
The Black Velvet Lounge was a well-heeled hole in the wall that you’d have missed completely from the street. Only a small brass placard outside distinguished it from the brick face of the nondescript building that contained it. It was situated along a major road near the Clarendon Metro stop in Arlington, Virginia, but none of the people walking by us even gave it a second glance. It was the perfect place for a spy, really: camouflaged in plain sight. As I entered, its true nature became apparent: there were brass rails at the bar, high-backed chairs around low tables, and the reek of men lurking in shadows, smoking cigars.
The host greeted Arthur by name, and we were quickly ushered through the front of the restaurant to what appeared to be the entrance to the kitchen. It was yet another illusion: the swinging door had a thumbprint scanner hidden in a recess in the paneling, and when the host held his thumb to it, he nodded at Arthur.
“They change the password every day,” Arthur murmured to me. He leaned toward the door. “Peppercorn,” he said, and a lock clicked open to admit us.
Immediately, the cigar smoke odor faded away as a puff of air washed over us. “We keep this room at positive pressure,” the host explained to me with a grin. “It keeps out the riff-raff.”
They waited for me to cross the threshold. Tucking my purse under my arm, I passed between them into the back room. The carpet here was plush and opulent, with a fleur-de-lis pattern inlaid with gold thread. The walls were dark cherry, covered at regular intervals with strips of velvet that alternated black and royal purple. A fresco of a sun-dappled field covered the ceiling, and beautiful landscape paintings adorned the walls. The whole room was maybe thirty feet square, accommodating only four small tables and another bar made of the same cherry as the walls. There was a large fireplace in one corner, currently un-lit. Through the glass doors at the back of the room, I could see a small patio, done in the style of an English garden, with high, painted walls that helped complete the illusion.
After seeing Arthur inside, our host led us to one of the two free tables and got us seated. The table was tall, and my feet dangled on the chair. I scooted in and set my purse in my lap under the table. Glasses of water seemed to materialize out of thin air as we situated ourselves. The wait staff here was good.
“I’m Harris,” said an athletic looking guy in his mid-twenties. “I’ll be taking care of you tonight. Can I start you with anything?”
“I’ll take an old-fashioned,” said Arthur. He looked over at me. He knew my age, but his expression suggested that he'd go along with whatever I wanted. I wouldn’t be carded tonight.
“I’ll have a Chateau Montelena Estate 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon,” I said without blinking. “If you don’t have that, the 2003 Domaine Rebourseau Chambertin will do.”
Harris looked flustered as Arthur raised an eyebrow. “We, ah… we’re kind of a whiskey joint. I can check…?”
I rolled my eyes. “Don’t worry about it. Just bring me Johnny Blue, neat. You’re acquainted with Johnny, I assume?”
Harris nodded eagerly and departed.
Arthur still had a raised eyebrow. “Those are two hundred dollar bottles if you buy them from a retailer.”
“Johnny is no slouch, either,” I added. “My dad did- doesn’t believe in drinking by halves. Don’t worry, I’m a modern lady. My treat.”
"You definitely were not what I expected," he nodded, mouth in a hard line. "You've had a busy day."
“I had a delightful afternoon with Gavin, if that’s what you’re talking about.”
He went very pale. “Yes,” he pursed his lips, “he said as much. He didn't see you coming, either.”
This was oh-so-very wrong. I was pretty sure that this was the scene in the movie where the two people are having very different conversations, and that the joke was going to be on me. Still, I had to spin this out, keep him talking. Only after I was sure we had Moriarty's hard drive in hand would I let myself worry about getting out of here.
That, and the other thing. The one I hadn't mentioned to Vivian.
“I have a way with older men,” I smiled slyly. “But how are you doing? It can’t have been an easy day.”
He sighed, and took a long sip of the drink that had appeared in front of him. I frowned at the paltry splash of liquor that had been delivered to me. I probably didn’t need to get drunk tonight, but this was just sad.
“It was… contradictory,” he mused. “I buried my wife this morning. The press thinks it was a suicide, but we know better, don’t we?” It was a rhetorical question, and he continued without pausing. “But I’m going to be busy, I think. I got calls today from the Majority Whip and the heads of both parties’ National Committees. It seems that everybody thinks I should be President.”
He gave me a long look. “Then I found out that a good friend had been murdered. That I had a snake in my garden, claiming to be an ally. And now," he took another sip of his liquor, "I am having a drink with you."
Something started to sink in my stomach. Another murder? Was Moriarty making her play? Who? I hadn't seen Doyle for a few hours...
"Oh no," I breathed. "Who? What happened?"
"Are we really...? Fine," he snapped. "The SUVs all have transponders. We found Gavin a couple miles off of the Beltway, in a pretty undeveloped stretch of road. Trees on either side, perfect for an ambush. He was full of holes from a couple of small-caliber rifles. It was a professional job: two shooters, both excellent shots. Not a single stray round on, say, the passenger side. It was a ballsy extraction. Something that my wife might have done."
Gavin was dead! The way Arthur was looking at me... "You've had a busy day." And then I immediately jumped to the man who'd given me a polygraph just a few hours before. The man who'd been murdered.
"Something that my wife might have done."
This wasn't going to be pretty.
He shook his head mournfully, but his jaw was clenched in rage, and his temple throbbed. "I've read every version of every story of us. I've been on the lookout for you my whole life. I... I thought that I had staved off this fate. Yet here you are. We dance the dance that we always do, and no matter how watchful I am, I can't see you coming."
Arthur was getting the wrong idea about me, but it didn't matter. Right now, all that mattered was the clock.
“Why does it all have to be like this?” I asked. “Whatever happened to freedom of choice?”
The question seemed to take him by surprise. “I don’t really know. Mer- someone told me a long time ago that it was the universe speaking to who we really were.”
“Merlin. You were about to say Merlin.”
He flushed. “I don’t… things didn’t end well between us. I don’t think about him often.” Arthur reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a pen. “He did give me this, though.”
He laughed harshly. “Actually, I lost the original cap in a lake a while ago. This one fit nicely. Not important now. When he gave it to me, he called it the King’s Word. It came half-buried in a granite block. He told me that only the true king could wield it safely. He was quite emphatic on that point, actually. He said it would destroy a lesser man.”
“You pulled the pen from the stone, and it made you king? How very modern. And yet, not.”
Arthur shrugged. “It is what it is. That was a long time ago. I still use the pen, though.” He pursed his lips. “It’s what I use to sign lethal authority memos. I’ve probably killed as many people with it as my predecessors did with their own. And then there was Senator Rance.” He frowned. “I haven’t thought about Merlin in a while.”
I cocked my head. “But… Doyle? Oh, come on, this has got to be the least well-kept secret in CIA Headquarters,” I scoffed at his feigned look of confusion. “Doyle is Merlin. Give me some credit.”
He pursed his lips. “Not even… my wife didn’t even know that. Gavin knew. That’s it. I haven’t even told Lance. And I’ve kept Doyle at an arm’s length from everything. So yes, it is surprising that you’d know that. This Camelot doesn’t have a Merlin.”
This was dangerous territory, but I was onto something... and it was all dangerous territory right now. Call it remnants of Holmes, or maybe just plain Gwen had some instincts of her own, but there was something here. And Arthur seemed ready to talk. There was something about feeling untouchable that loosened the tongue.
“Too dangerous. When someone like that is around, telling everyone how everything should be, and being right so often, we forgot to ask if he could ever be wrong.”
I sucked in a breath. “You make it sound like there was something that happened in the past.”
He nodded grimly. “A long time ago. Doyle’s predecessor. I banished him from Camelot.”
“After I confronted him, Doyle told me he’d been called something like ten years ago,” I lied.
Arthur nodded. “That sounds right.”
My heart was beating fast. “Was it on May Day?” I asked.
Slowly, Arthur shook his head. I thought for a second that he was contradicting me, but the rueful, pained grin on his lips painted a different picture.
“He told me,” he muttered. “He told me that baby would be my undoing.” Arthur looked up, eyes wet and haunted. “It was a mistake,” he swore. “I should never have listened to that damn wizard. I never should have ordered the strike. I purged all the feeds, but sometimes I still wake up and see those explosions, and think about my son down there…”
He faded for a second, but then his eyes refocused on me with a vengeance. “And now, after all this time… I had hoped it was wrong, but Watson was right about you. You’re not Guinevere.”
He pulled out a napkin, and used his murderous pen to scrawl a name on it.
"Mordred," I read aloud. "You think I'm Mordred."
He slammed his hand down on the table, and for the first time, I noticed how quiet the room was. Nobody else was moving. They were all looking at us. They were all... men... wearing dark suits...
"Yes, goddamn you!" he hissed. "Tell me it isn't true. Go ahead. Lie to me."
Ice flooded my veins. I could lie to him, I knew suddenly. If I needed Tom Sawyer, he would be there. But I could feel someone else tapping on the door to my subconscious. Someone old, powerful. I already had a master of revenge whispering in one ear, but I did have another shoulder.
Angels? Devils? I had two of the biggest badasses in literature riding with me. I smiled.
“I’m not Mordred,” I spoke slowly. “You have no idea who I am, or what I’m capable of.”
The ice in my veins pulsed through my body. This wasn’t like it had ever been before, with any of the other spirits who had spoken through me. This was ancient. Elder.
Arthur didn’t feel it. Jaw still clenched, he asked, “So what are you doing here, then? Shouldn’t you be with your friends, trying to steal a hard drive?”
Memories flashed in my mind. It was like it had been with Holmes, but in retrospective. After seeing Arthur inside, our host led us to one of the two free tables and got us seated. This time, I saw the other guests clearly, the regulation haircuts, the bulges under their arms. “I’ll be taking care of you tonight.” Everybody in the room except Arthur and me had a gun.
“I'm not Mordred... but maybe I’m still here to take you to Camlann,” I said. “Don’t think that your friends could save you if I did.”
“If you aren’t Mordred,” he said with certainty, “then you can’t kill me. Whatever else that wizard told me, he was right about one thing: we can’t escape our destiny.”
“But yet we try.”
“We do,” he affirmed. “Let’s talk about your destiny. Things don’t look very good for you, despite your bravado.” With a snap of his fingers, guns were pointing at me from all sides. “What I don't understand is why you came here to meet me. You escaped from Gavin, you had Moriarty's hard drive, yet you came straight back into the Pendragon's den. If you're armed, it's in your purse: that dress may be more decent than the one you squirmed into last night, but it still doesn't leave a lot to the imagination. May I?"
He reached for my purse. I shrugged, and nodded.
"Breath mints, credit cards, ID, a roll of quarters, a cell phone... you know, I'd rather hoped for a pistol. Surely you're not so arrogant?" He set the empty purse back on the table, its contents splayed out.
The ice crinkled in my veins as I smiled. "You aren't going to shoot me."
"Maybe I will. Did you murder my wife?"
"Threats: hardly incentive for me to open up to you. You going to torture me next? Waterboard me? But, no: I didn't kill your wife. I haven't killed anyone. It was Moriarty, as I've explained before."
"That's a trite technicality when your people blew the hell out of Gavin to spring you before we could lock you away. Even if you didn't pull the trigger yourself-"
"Are you listening?" I snapped. "I didn't kill anyone. I didn't kill Gavin. And I'm not killing anybody in that van that you've got going around the Beltway in an effort to sniff out my colleagues."
It was true, I knew. I could see it now, unfolding in my mind's eye. Arthur thought that I was in the SUV with Gavin when someone attacked it. He thought it was to spring me from what presumably was a polygraph gone horribly wrong. He knew I wanted the hard drive and had set a trap to catch whoever else might be working with me.
I'd been set up. By whom? Robin? Vivian? Doyle? The mystery third party who'd fried Kay with lightning? Or was it just Moriarty, always Moriarty, knowing me better than I knew myself?
"What are you planning to do with that hard drive?" he pressed.
Whispers on my shoulders told a story faster than I could put it together myself.
"I don't have the fucking hard drive. Because I didn't kill anyone, because I wasn't in that SUV with Gavin when somebody shot him. This is a setup. Let me guess - you got an email from Gavin, right? Probably something really incriminating from my polygraph - like me admitting that I'd set fire to the place?"
His eyes narrowed. "Exactly. That wasn't you?"
"That was me, but let me tell you how much context you're missing: all of it. Not worth explaining. I never contacted you to invite you here. I got a message from you, that Gavin handed me after I passed his polygraph with flying colors. Either he was in on it and his associates turned on him, or, more likely, someone is playing you and I against one another."
A cell phone rang. Neither of us flinched, but our eyes met. Arthur reached into his jacket to retrieve it.
"Yes?" he spoke into the receiver. His eyes were narrow, but as he listened, he cocked his head to one side, and they began to widen.
"Understood," he said, finally. "Keep them in custody for now and get out of there. One of you can drive the bus. And get my dog to the vet."
He put the phone away quietly and closed his eyes. "My dog?” He sounded genuinely appalled.
“He’s not your dog,” I answered.
He looked at me. “Cavill? Hound of Arthur? Ring a bell?”
“Where’d you get him?” I asked, coolly.
“Afghanistan. He belonged to a doctor there who patched me up after my convoy got hit by an IED.”
“Was the doctor’s name John? Went home with PTSD and a limp? Then committed suicide?”
He cocked his head. “Yes. How did you know that?”
“Doctor? Afghanistan? Limp, PTSD… ring a bell? Do you really not read?” I made a disgusted noise. “He’s not your dog. Never has been. He was just waiting for me, because his master couldn’t make it.”
“If you say so. Your people put him onto that van?”
“Your knights knew him. When he insisted that he join them, they wouldn’t say no. Not to the boss’ dog.”
“I could barely get him to pee outside. You got him to jump onto a specific vehicle and ride along?”
“I told you: he’s not your dog.”
“Fine. How did he know when to… what did he do, anyway? Bedivere wasn’t very specific.”
“You can do amazing things these days with what you learn in high school computer science and a couple of off-the-shelf hardware kits. We spent the afternoon planting cell phones hooked to speakers set to broadcast ultrasonic frequencies at every major overpass within ten miles of Headquarters. Then we fed Cavill a bunch of cheese and gave him a laxative, along with a little bag of alka-seltzer and a tiny receiver. The receiver was rigged to make the bag pop when it came within range. Very upsetting to the stomach, but nothing dangerous.”
He stared at me for a second. “He came within range of the transmitter, and then he… shat my knights out of the van?”
“Chemical warfare is a bitch.”
Arthur shook his head in amazement. “It’s not the only one. Poor guy.”
“He got lots of tummy scratches. No animals were harmed during the execution of this caper.”
“Caper?” Arthur spat. “You think this is like robbing a casino? This is the CIA you’re dealing with.”
“No,” I contradicted, “it’s a rogue cell of armed lunatics who think they have a divine mandate to do whatever the hell they want without any sort of jurisdiction or legal framework. It’s an egomaniac who thinks that the world would be better if only it would do what he wanted. It’s a man with a giant flying hammer who can’t help but see nails, even when he knows better. Even when they’re babies.”
Arthur paled. “This isn’t about the hard drive. You just want to hurt me. You want revenge.”
“Don’t be a child,” I snapped. “It is about the hard drive. I need it. At some point soon I'm going to figure out who's got it and probably hurt them. But it’s also about what you did. Life is messy, Arthur - it doesn’t all fit into one thing or the other. If I wanted revenge I’d have picked you off with a rifle from the rooftop across the street. This is about justice. You don’t get to just blithely ignore the past while you rule over the future. You don’t get to win, not over the corpse of my brother.”
“I was there, when your drone dropped the bombs. I was just over the rise. Think about those video feeds you wake up sweating over. A little girl, staggering around the wreckage… tries to run into the fire but can’t, because it was so hot it seared the air from my lungs when I got close. Do you remember me now?”
He nodded slowly. I could almost see him pointing at the screens, see the blossom of white heat on the monitors, the black-and-white infrared video feed playing across his eyes, the little girl braving the flames until she collapsed into a coughing, sobbing heap as close as she could bear…
“I wanted nothing but your slow and painful death for a decade. I was going to kill you by inches, one baby at a time. But as I got closer to you, I had to face the reality of what that would mean. I had to face becoming a murderer, just like you. And I’m not that. I’m not a murderer. I can’t come after you with death in my heart, because that makes me just like you.”
“That’s all you see in me,” he whispered. “A baby-killer.”
“You murdered my baby brother,” I hissed. “What the hell else am I supposed to see?”
“I saved your father today,” he said. “I’ve saved a lot of people’s lives. I made a horrible, awful mistake with that baby- with your brother.”
“His name was Qadir,” I said, eyes brimming. “He had your eyes.”
“I knew better when I saw her,” he murmured, lost in history. “Morgan. It was at an embassy party in Sana’a. You didn’t have too many of those, and I was just finishing up my tour as Deputy Chief of Station. I got drunk. Everybody got drunk, and before anybody knew it we were all pairing off…” He shook his head. “This was before Gwen. I didn’t have anybody, and I had no idea…”
“Merlin told me, months later, what had happened. I was an orphan; how was I to know she was my sister? Merlin told me the child would be the death of me. He told me something had to be done. I told him to go to hell, that I wouldn’t do what he was suggesting. He got mad. He showed me all kinds of things… projections. They made sense at the time, and history has proved him right. The world is going to hell, Gwen, and I’ve tried to stop it, but I can’t, not as I am.
"We call corporations ‘people’ but when anyone dares to peaceably assemble to protest cops shooting black kids and choking their parents to death, we spit on them and call them animals. The average U.S. citizen is measurably worse off than they were thirty years ago, but we don’t want to guarantee a living wage. Nutrition recommendations are political, so we have more people dying of heart disease than from war because the food industry has a lobby that won’t let anyone speak common sense truth. Terrorism kills fewer people than the police do, yet I have a job and a couple billion dollars to spend on remote-control murder. The U.S. co-opts foreign governments into supporting our bombing campaigns against their citizens because no one can stop us, yet we sell the existential fear of these dirt farmers with backpack bombs to the electorate to lock in votes and pump money into defense contractor campaign supporters. Every so often you can light parts of the ocean on fire thanks to record bottom lines that are completely untouched by thousands of tons of oil-choked fish and bird corpses that wash ashore. Should I keep going? I can do this all day.
“Why does it happen? Because of us, Gwen. You and me. The Personae. The stories that we tell each other have become corrupt. Your average bit player, he honestly thinks that he’s got a chance. If he works hard and plays by the rules, he can get ahead. But whenever he tries, really gets focused on improving himself or the world, we distract him. Never mind the dream of a better world: he’s got entertainment. He knows that the black guy two doors down is a lawyer and his kid is on the honor roll, but there’s that story in his head of the violent black man. He knows that his water tastes funny, but what are you going to do, let the government regulate water quality? God, no, that would be terrible, because he’s heard the story repeated over and over that government is effective only at wasting his money.”
His eyes flashed. “The young woman from Yemen whose family died in a fiery explosion? Collateral damage. Tragic, but necessary. Mistakes were made. If we didn’t fight them over there, we’d be fighting them over here. Blood in the streets: her family, or yours? What’s it going to be?”
“It has to end. And I’m going to stop it.”
His shoulders slumped. “But I shouldn’t have ordered the strike on your brother. I should have had more faith in myself. I’ve beaten every challenge yet. I’ve made Camelot work. I could have… it didn’t have to be that way. It was a mistake. I’m so sorry.”
“That’s quite a speech,” I said. “Do you tell that to yourself every night, or just when you bother to think about the baby you murdered?”
Arthur slammed a fist down on the table. “Don’t you get it? This is bigger than your brother. This is the human race we’re talking about! This is about saving it! I'm the once and future king! Me! That's on my shoulders. Without me, we don’t have a future.” His lip curled. “Can you imagine what that’s like, that kind of pressure? I’ve done everything, sacrificed everything to keep you safe. I’ve lost friends. My wife. I sacrificed my own son to save this damn world. After that… what’s not to give? I would give anything. I have given anything.”
“Oh, my heart bleeds for you,” I sneered. “So traumatized. I was wrong about you.” He looked up with a flicker of hope. “You’re not an egomaniac. You’re just a maniac. You honestly believe that line of bullshit you just fed me; you really think it’s true! You really think you’re carrying the world on your shoulders. Because of some projections you saw. A couple of pie charts and now you think you have license to do whatever you goddamn well please because Daddy Arthur Knows Best.”
I gasped. “You know who you sound like? You sound like my birth father. You'd have liked him. You both thought you knew the One True Way. And you're both wrong.”
Arthur interrupted. “You’re willing to gamble the future of mankind on—”
“It’s not a gamble!” I cried. “I know I don’t want your future! No one else does, either. Who else in the world sits around and thinks, ‘oh, golly, I sure hope that King Arthur comes along to tell me how to think and to blow my enemies into itty bits, in his mercy’? Present company excepted,” I gestured around the room, “you’re the only one. Maybe we’ve been fed a line of bullshit, maybe a lot of it, but there are good people out there fighting the good fight and trying to make the world a better place. You just don’t have the faith to see that, or the patience to wait for it. You think things would be better if only people would listen, if only the little children would obey you, your Majesty!”
I snorted. “You know who got fed a line of bullshit? You. And you ate it all up. Old Merlin played you like a puppet, and he’s still got his hand up your ass.”
Arthur got red in the face. “This is pointless. I’m clearly not getting anywhere with you, and it’s not going to change anything for you or your friends. You’re coming with us.”
“Oh, let’s not be hasty,” I purred. “I let you have your little monologue, so do me the courtesy of playing along just a little longer. In the drama that's playing out on the Beltway, Cavill has had explosive diarrhea all over the inside of the van… Your convoy pulled over, and a bunch of armed men in tactical hopped out on the side of the highway, throwing up in the bushes.”
“I’m through playing games,” Arthur growled. “What happened next is that your people showed up and tried to steal the hard drive that isn’t there, and wound up in custody.”
“You were a lot more fun before I called you crazy,” I pouted. “This is elegant, so let me explain. There were only so many different places you could wind up, and we had the overpasses all tagged. Once our spotter called the convoy heading south on the Beltway, the Merry Men got moving.”
“Robin Hood? You’ve got Robin Hood working for you?”
“Robin Cowl, actually. Hotshot photographer for the Times, went native after covering one too many corporate eco-disasters? Now works freelance, scaring rich old men right down to their bank accounts. She’s got friends in interesting places. Such as Broadway.”
“Bedivere said there was a tour bus for a musical. And a midget. Little John? You must be kidding.”
“Qabaret, the queer 'Cabaret'. I hear they're up for a Tony.”
Arthur decided to play along again. “They stop to 'help', and generally make a nuisance of themselves. They're actors, good at improvisation. They also enjoyed making my men extremely uncomfortable.”
“Three cheers for gay rights. How's all that going to go in New Camelot? Never mind: the Merry Gay Boys keep your knights confused and off-balance while one of them, who's dressed just like your knights, sneaks on to retrieve the hard drive. Anybody who looks in just thinks that one of their own is securing the package, and then someone very cute gets in his face to take his mind off of it.”
“Your imposter needs an iris scan and a thumbprint, both from me. You’ve got the world’s best long-distance photographer working for you, so I’m assuming that the iris scan was no problem. We’ve used that trick ourselves in the past.”
I nodded. “She’s got a hotel room with a view, a few blocks from here. I was a few minutes late and you were kind enough to wait outside.”
“She’s unreal, then, but I suppose I should expect no less from a Persona. The thumbprint is trickier. You don’t know which one, but it’s good odds that it will be my right, since I’m right-handed.”
“Pardon the fingerprint dust on your car door, when you find it later.”
“Ah, so you weren’t just late to give Robin the time she needed. Very good. But you’ve got to be able to use the print, and a scan won’t do the trick.”
I gave a sly smile. “But I also have a van full of thespian gay boys who occasionally need on-the-fly props or masks. They’ve got a 3-D printer onboard their tour bus, and I’m told they can produce rubber shapes of all sizes, textures, and consistencies. Then I was told not to ask any more questions if I didn’t want the details.”
“You printed a copy of my thumbprint that the impostor could wear. Very good. You really thought of everything, didn’t you?”
“I really did. Thank you for noticing.”
It was Arthur’s turn to smile. “I also notice that you’re surrounded, your hijackers are being detained... and you don't even have the hard drive.”
“No,” I mused. "Who do you suppose does?"
“Someone who's going to get what's coming to them. Just like you. What did you think would happen,” he arched an eyebrow, “your little crew of misfits going up against CIA-trained Knights of the Round Table?”
“What I thought was, ‘I’ll bet he asks me if I thought I’d get away with it.’ So it seems I really did think of everything. My turn for a question: what if you’re wrong? What if the world doesn’t need saving?”
He shook his head. “I remember being like you once: all idealism and hope. If the world doesn't need saving, it could certainly do a better job of making its case. If the world didn't need saving, a lot of people who died this week would still be with us. Kay. Gavin. Gwen."
He wasn't talking about me, and he choked back emotion. “Terrorists. Nuclear-armed rogue states. In the so-called free world, you’ve got corporations pumping billions into mind controlling commercials and Congressional lackeys who tell you that their golden parachutes are too big to fail. Your average citizen has to deal with a legal system so arcane that his doctor can’t tell him whether or not he’s really got cancer, so he’s hypermedicated, almost literally being poisoned by the system. Climate change deniers run their mouths so loudly that none dare ignore them, while those of us trying to do some good in the world have to testify before committees looking to crucify us on whether or not we provided every detail of our clandestine operations to the biggest leaker of classified information this side of Edward Snowden: Congress itself.”
He threw up his hands. “You can’t win, you can’t protect yourself, and the people who are supposed to protect you are either too busy covering their asses or else are lining their pockets with your children’s futures.” Leaning in, he pointed a finger at me. “Now say that you could make a difference, but it wouldn’t always be pretty. Maybe you’d fail, maybe you’d hurt people, but you had a shot at really changing things. Really put yourself in the position: you can choose to try to fix the world, or you can just let it burn. What do you do?”
I snorted. “You think you can fix the world? I stand on my earlier diagnosis. You’re crazy.”
“And you’re lazy!” he shouted. “Your pessimism tells you to do nothing, not to try, to just let it all go to shit. If everyone were like you, we’d still be praying to stone idols and drinking sewer water. My people, hell, everybody at CIA… we’re trying to make things right with the world.”
“You don't understand me," I countered. "I believe in the people you have working for you. The men and women who do what you do, they're trying their damnedest to see the world become a better place. Men like Roger Stevens: not knights, not characters, just people… they're going to do it, someday. My fear is that before that day comes, they all have to become men like you.”
I continued. “Me, I’m an optimist. I believe in things like laws. I believe that people get things wrong all the time, but that they can fix them, that they can get better. I believe that people slip and fall from grace every single day, but that they can change things. I believe in letting them try, rather than forcing them into your version of right and wrong. I’ve lived in that country, where one man’s whims dictated life and death. And then I lived in the same country once that man fell, where another man’s whims were life and death. I didn’t like it much.”
“Who, President Saleh? He was a monster. You’re not giving his successor enough credit. The revolution changed things.”
“I’m not talking about President Hadi. He’s a puppet. I’m talking about the man who didn’t give a damn about the laws of Yemen, who did whatever he wanted and killed whomever he chose, because he thought he was right and they were wrong. I’m talking about a man who executed criminals without a trial, because he had a secret file in front of him that said that they were bad.”
I stood up from my chair, and five guns were thrust out at me, but I didn’t give them a glance. I pointed a finger right back at Arthur.
“I’m talking about you. You think you're the hero in this story, but you're the villain in mine.”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “Ever read Wicked? Any hero can be the villain in someone else's story. You can tear me down all you want, if that’s all you know how to do. I’m trying to build something. I’ve worked hard at it, and I’m going to see it through. It’s easy to say ‘I would never’ when you don’t have the power to fix things. You can say that you’d never order the drone strike, but no one’s ever come to you with that file that says that this guy is planning to blow up a plane heading into Chicago, or spread botulism through the Portland Farmer’s Market."
His eyes glinted. "You’ve never had to make a hard call. Tell me how your principles hold up once you do.”
My parents teetered backwards, hands scrabbling at the air... There was no time. I chose.
“Fuck you,” I said, trembling. “We’re done here. I've got a date at Madam Elegant's.”
Arthur looked blank. “Is that supposed to mean something to me?”
“I wouldn't imagine. It’s where Lance was fucking your wife.”
For the first time this evening, Arthur did something unexpected. He laughed out loud. “Now you’re really barking up the wrong tree. Lance and Gwen were close, very close, it’s true. They were the same age, too. But Lance is as gay as the day is long. He and Bors have been hooking up on and off for years. I think they’re off at the moment, but it never lasts. Gay marriage will be alive and well in New Camelot, I assure you.”
“It's so good to see you," he whispered. “I would know you anywhere.”
Back at the Library, he hadn’t been talking to Guinevere. Holmes had noticed it at the time, but in all the confusion afterward, I just forgot about it. Holmes wouldn’t have, and would have puzzled over it…
“Are you all right... my dear… queen?”
Oh, no, no, no.
Moriarty had told me that she'd had a man inside the Round Table. And she had.
Pieces were clicking together left and right in my mind. Whoever killed Gwen Drake would have had to be someone she trusted, someone she’d been close to. The pills I’d found weren’t poison: according to the bottle, they were supposed to be prescription heart medication. But they weren’t: my tests that night had shown that they were just sugar and baking soda. Gwen Drake hadn’t been poisoned; she’d been left to die without the medicine she needed. It could have happened at any time, but the person who killed her knew it would happen at just the right moment… because that’s how it always happened in our stories, wasn’t it?
Lancelot. Lancelot was Moriarty.
He'd swapped Gwen Drake's pills out and left dummy data on her cell phone to lead me astray. He knew I'd find her, and he knew I’d swipe the phone, because Moriarty knew Holmes better than he knew the face he saw in the mirror. He knew Gwen DeGrace was Holmes, and he knew that I had set myself up to seem to be Guinevere. Any mention of Madam Elegant's would confirm it, because only Moriarty and the person who dug through Gwen Drake's phone would even make that association. Lance and Gwen Drake had never hooked up, but Moriarty had sure hooked Gwen DeGrace. Hook, line, and sinker.
I shivered. It was Gwen Drake’s death that had gotten me in. Moriarty had made all this possible.
And he knew I’d stay close: as Lancelot, he knew that I would have to spend time with him, to keep up the ruse of Guinevere. When I played the part, he’d responded, because that’s what I would expect Lancelot to do…
And that meant that Puck was going there to have sex with him, without knowing who it was he was really meeting. Puck might have had a chance at getting away from Moriarty if he went in smart, but without a warning… oh god, Moriarty would think he was me! He’d eat him alive!
There was no way to get a message to Puck. He wouldn't come for the purple pansy again, not at this stage. I had only one shot at saving him, and it would put me right in the center of the web.
“That’s a surprise,” I whispered. “We should end this now.”
“About time,” Arthur agreed. “Are you going to come quietly? This doesn’t have to get bloody.”
“You’ll notice that none of your knights caught so much as a smack upside the head today. I’m not here to hurt anyone. Do you like sandwiches?”
He cocked his head. “Not the question I expected. I suppose I like them well enough. I’m partial to roast beef. Why?”
“I love a good Monte Cristo. Takes some time to prepare, but you can think about it for ages… plan just how you want to do it. I’ve had a long time to think about this, Arthur. About just how to serve up the justice you so richly deserve.”
I smiled, and pulled a small wire loose from between my breasts. With exaggerated care, I spoke into the end. “Agent Street, Robin, would you say that you’ve heard enough?”
A gruff voice crackled over the room's speakers. “Yeah. Don’t go anywhere, Drake. You’re under arrest. I've got a room full of FBI agents up front. Kid, I'm giving you five more minutes.”
Arthur wasn't the only one who could plant his people in a room ahead of time. According to Agent Street, most restaurant owners didn't even require a warrant, as long as the agents pretending to be customers were buying.
My phone buzzed simultaneously on the table. The text from Robin read, “Yep. I’ll start working on the exposé.”
“An admission of murder. Megalomania. Not going to play well in courts of law or public opinion, Arthur.”
“The Count of…" he gasped, shaking his head in denial. "Unlawful recording. It'll never stick," he gasped.
"It doesn't have to. It'll get both eyes and backs turned on you, and Robin will tell you that's all it takes to bring down a man in power. You're finished. And just so you don’t get lonely, the same thing that’s about to happen to you is happening right now to your knights on the side of the Beltway. You want to talk unlawful? Let's talk about the detention of a whole theater production by CIA staff officers who have no actual law enforcement authority. All recorded, by the way, and do you really think that none of your knights made any sort of homophobic remark when faced with men trying to lick them? The front page needs a second story.”
Moving deliberately, I started removing my earrings. They molded easily under my fingers, and I put one into my ear. “But you have a lot of friends and I’m not a complete optimist, so I imagine you’ll at least be granted bail. Three things. First, Lancelot is Moriarty. He killed your wife. I'm going to return the favor, but in case something goes wrong, you should know.”
I put the second earplug in, and my voice echoed weirdly in my head. “Second, it's absurdly easy to hide a flash-bang up your dress.”
You can buy the craziest things at Army/Navy stores, I swear. I shifted my hips slightly and let the grenade drop down from where I'd been holding it between my thighs. It had been strapped to my leg, and maneuvering it to where I could drop it without stripping naked had been maybe the trickiest part of the whole operation. Arthur had mistaken my fidgeting in my seat for nervousness.
Grenade? Fifty bucks. The look on six men's faces as I tipped the grenade off of the toe of my shoe and into their midst?
In my day, I yearned to hear the song of the Sirens. But what worked for my men will also shield you.
I squeezed my eyes shut as the room lit up as if the father of the gods himself had hurled a bolt of lightning into its center. Thanks to Odysseus’ wax earplugs, the cacophony that followed was hardly louder than a rock concert. I rocked back as the pressure wave from the explosion hit me. A flash bang was a grenade, after all, albeit with only a small amount of the explosive stuff, contained in a hard shell to prevent shrapnel. It was a shove, but I had been prepared for it, and I kept my feet, even wearing heels.
When I unclenched my eyes a moment later, it was clear that Arthur and his men hadn’t fared so well. They were all on the floor, guns dropped, holding their heads and struggling through the vertigo even to lie down properly.
Except Arthur. He’d managed to get an arm up over his eyes, and he was clutching his chair with a grip of steel. The man was keeping his feet through sheer force of will. Whatever else he might be, Arthur was a fighter.
So was Odysseus. Reaching across the table, I picked up the roll of quarters and slid them into my palm. I turned to face Arthur.
“Third: I lied about not hurting anyone. That sound you’re hearing? The ringing in your ears?” I knew he couldn’t hear me, but I still had to say it. “That’s the last time you’ll ever hear that frequency. Night-night.”
I slugged him. There was no way he could dodge in his condition; even by myself I could have landed it. With the might that could string the bow of Apollo behind it, Arthur didn’t have a chance. My fist met his chin and he spun to the floor. He lay still.
I stood over him for a long moment, fist clenched tight. There he was, the murderer of my brother. I had three seconds before Agent Street burst through that door. It would only take one to end him, and no one could stop me. Odysseus cried out for it: vengeance was the way of the Greeks. It was the way of the Yemenis, too.
He’s a madman who would put the world into gilded chains, whispered the hero of the Trojan war. You can stop him. You can save the world.
Deep inside me, something familiar bristled.
What Would Sherlock Do?