Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Sixteen years ago.
"I need a drink," the sailor growled to the barkeep. "Whiskey, straight."
At the other man's hesitation, the man jerked his head, sending wisps of black hair cascading toward the trail of bodies on the floor that led to his stool. Eight men lay in various states of disrepair. Some were groaning and clutching themselves; others were too far gone for that, and had drifted into the small mercy of unconsciousness.
"I can get it myself, if you're of no use to me."
The barkeep, who'd had enough cunning to evade the mutaween for years now, let his trembling fingers find a bottle of Johnny Walker and tried not to think about the cost to replace all the bottles that had been smashed when the ninth body had been flung over his cowering head and into the rail of spirits behind him. He started to slosh the liquor into a dirty glass, but the man at his bar languidly reached across and snatched it out of his hands.
"No need for that," the sailor grinned, and took a long pull from the bottle. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he gestured vaguely at the amber liquid in the glass the barkeep still held. "You look like you could use some of that yourself. Drink with me. And don't give me any garbage about what's haram."
The bartender's eyes flicked over to the two other people left conscious in the room. The new belly dancer had been a classy addition, he'd thought, but she was having a hell of a first day. She cowered behind the makeshift stage that had taken over the center of the small room, eyes wide with fear.
The other man, down at the end of the bar, took a slow sip from his glass, and nodded to the barkeep. The dip of the man's head was full of assurance, but the man holding the glass of Johnny Walker wasn't certain that what it was assuring was in any way comforting. He thought it might mean more broken bottles of whiskey.
He thought he needed the drink. He downed it in one go.
The sailor grinned. "See? We drink together. There's no reason we can't be friends!" He eased back onto the barstool, and added, "Unless of course you also object to questions about the death of Ali al-a-Din?"
Wordlessly, the bartender shook his head. When the man at the other end of the bar cleared his throat, the host nearly fainted with relief.
"You seem quite invested in unraveling the mystery, my dear boy."
He spoke English, but appeared unbothered by the Arabic that had just been exchanged. His accent was British, as were the elbow pads on his tweed jacket. He was short, but not overly short, and thin, without being too thin. His face was more or less symmetric. He was extremely unremarkable.
But then he looked at you, and his eyes bored through yours and into your skull and snaked their way down into your soul and saw your deepest, darkest secrets, and laughed at them. Because his own were so much darker.
The sailor pushed back from the bar, whiskey bottle in hand, and sauntered over the bodies of the men who had attacked him when he'd started asking questions. It had been a remarkably short fight, and he had laughed the whole time like he was telling jokes with his best friends. He had been telling jokes, bawdy ones, mostly about the mothers of the men he was breaking.
Easing his way toward the other man, he gestured at the prone figures, and asked in flawless English, "Do these belong to you?"
The eyes blazed. "Not anymore. For what I was paying them, I'd have expected them to last at least a little bit longer, even against Sinbad the Sailor."
The other man gave a slight nod and a bow. "At your service. But I believe you have me at a disadvantage, mister...?"
The small man nodded back. "Correct. I do have you at a disadvantage."
Sinbad laughed, hearty and genuinely amused. "You're a funny one, Mr. Correct. I don't find myself overly persuaded by your opening argument." He jerked his head backward at the scene behind him.
"It's 'Professor'," was the other man's only reply.
He waited, with his burning eyes, and something in them slithered its way down Sinbad's spine.
"I've faced down whales the size of islands, and snakes that can swallow elephants," Sinbad boasted. "What threat could you pose me?"
The Professor didn't answer his question. Instead, he cocked his head slightly and asked, "Why do you care about the murder of al-a-Din? What's the carpet peddler to you?"
"No one," Sinbad rumbled. "But he's a favorite of my mistress. She herself called upon me to respond in kind."
"Ah," came the reply. "The Mother of Stories seeks to defend herself. And you are what she sends?" He scoffed. "She does not know who pursues her, then."
With blinding speed, the sailor smashed the whiskey bottle on the bar and drove the razor's edge at the other man's throat. It slid open his skin and hovered there, just a fraction of an inch deep. A promise.
A trickle of blood made its way down the Professor's neck.
Sinbad whispered, "Why don't you tell me, then?"
The Professor seemed unmoved. "Or what? You'll kill me? I assume you believe that I killed al-a-Din, so I understand that your mission is to extinguish me. Hardly a good bargaining posture for getting me to open up to you."
"I've already opened you up. Your death doesn't have to be fast," Sinbad snarled. "You have fingers. Would you like to remain attached to them?"
A bead of sweat crept down from the Professor's sandy hair. Sinbad grinned. "Nervous?"
"Warm," the other man replied. "It is beyond my considerable imagining how people have been scrabbling over this blister on the the world for as long as they have."
"Read the Qu'ran," murmured the sailor. "Or your bible, if you will. The stories will tell you why. You should know the power of stories, if you are one of us."
The professor coughed gently, trying to move his throat as little as possible. He was sweating profusely now.
"Right..." he said, blinking salt from his eyes. "Stories. Where... where did you say your mistress was?"
"Hah!" laughed Sinbad again. "You speak of bargaining postures, and yet you try to trap me in words. I think... I think that something is wrong with you, my friend."
The swarthy man lowered his makeshift blade as the Englishman erupted into a coughing fit. He gasped, sucking at the air as if he had suddenly run a four minute mile.
"No..." he wheezed. "She... said..." His eyes unfocused, and he clawed at Sinbad. "I'm not... I'm an... actor... I was... on... location..."
The sailor stood quickly up and backed a half-step away from the dying man. "What deviltry is this...?" He whipped his head around, dark hair cutting through the hazy atmosphere.
The bartender was gurgling quietly behind the bar. None of the other men in the bar were moving. At all. Even their chests.
Noiselessly, the dancing girl gyrated on the stage. Her hips slid back and forth opposite her shoulders, and her neck swung in counterpoint, like a snake. Her eyes, though... her eyes... they bored into Sinbad's, and into his skull and snaked their way down into his soul and saw his deepest, darkest secrets, and laughed at them.
Because her own were so much darker. So very much.
"Have I got your attention?" she purred.
Sinbad felt something in his chest, and shook his head in disbelief. "They said... they said al-a-Din was killed by poison. How..." he wheezed, "... how did you know which bottle I would drink from?"
She smiled, and as the poison began to take his vision, he thought that her teeth were fangs. "I didn't. I poisoned them all."
"All of them... just to get to me?"
She nodded. "What are they to me? What is anyone? You are merely a means to an end. I have no use for your life."
"Will... will you kill her? My... mistress?" Sinbad's heart ached, and not merely because it was beating at two hundred beats per minute.
The dancing girl stopped her writhing. Her eyes blazed. "Oh yes, my dear. I will kill her. And all of her children. Until none, are left, not even myself. Especially myself."
Sinbad was on the floor, clutching at his chest. He didn't know how he got there, but numbness was radiating out from the center of his being and into his fingertips. The dancing girl's face filled his vision. She was pretty, but it was like she was carved from marble... from ice. So... cold.
Except the eyes. Those burning eyes.
"Got a light?" she inquired. But he couldn't answer. He couldn't do anything at all.
Nimble fingers flicked into the pocket of his pants, and withdrew a matchbook.
"The Sesame Cave Hotel." She scoffed. "It figures."
There was a scratch, and a blossom of fire sprang sulfurously to life. With a casual flick, the woman tossed it behind the bar. She watched the flames for a moment, with her burning eyes. Then she sneered dismissively at them, and sauntered out of the bar.
The flames grew. After long minutes, a raven fluttered down through the open door into the room that was being swallowed by an inferno. Another joined it. They looked around the room, gazing from the door to the bar, then back to the corner of the room, then to the stage, and finally to the door again. The birds moved in perfect synchrony, their heads like a pair of eyes belonging to one far away.
One of them croaked into the fire. It crackled and roared in response. The other raven croaked back once more.
"No, brothers," rasped a voice. As if lifted by an invisible hand, Sinbad's corpse lifted its head, twisting it round, twisting, twisting. The neck bones snapped until the head could face the ravens and the flames. "She is not the one. This is not the end. Your Ragnarok has not yet frozen its way upon us, nor will fallen angels yet rage against their Creator. There is still one who will rise. A sword unsheathed. A queen reborn. A story retold."
"Then..." the head lolled to one side, "then, the gods will tremble."

Chapter 01: A Study in Shamrock
Humans. We are the animals who tell stories. From Adam to Zorro, Santa to Shaitan, Bill to Ted... stories are supposed to help prepare us for the world in all its moments of excellence and disappointment.
This is a story about how stories have failed us.
In dusty hills of Yemen that birthed me, they tell little girls that if they please God with their modesty they may grow up to bear sons who are the Lions of Submission. When you think about it, this makes no sense whatsoever. Not only do “lions” and “submission” not belong in the same phrase, but how’s a mistress of meekness supposed to raise some kind of Arab luchador? It’s ever-so-slightly less ridiculous in Arabic, but it still stinks like something that fell out of the backside of a goat. My highest aspiration in life was defined entirely by how I pleased God, or my husband? What about how I pleased myself? It didn’t make sense to me when I was two years old, and when I confronted the imam about it in front of my mother - who was an Arab, a woman, and a professor of English Literature, among other non-sequiturs - she got that weird smile that said that she was proud of me and embarrassed by me at the same time.
Moving to America as the adopted daughter of an oil exec-cum-Senator should seem like a dream to someone who spent a significant portion of her childhood peeing into a hole in the ground. But in America, you had to swallow bullshit by the bucket just to cross the street. I loved my stepdad, but American politics made no sense. The two "parties" - a ridiculous American term for coagulations of angry graybeards who celebrated nothing except power - seemed to agree only on the notions that America was the greatest nation in the world and that no one anywhere else had rights. American life was even weirder. Men were supposed to be single jerks until they became married simpletons, boys were not allowed to get into scraps in the schoolyard, girls were valuable only as objects of conquest, and women were to fade into invisibility primarily by means of starvation. "Reality TV" was a thing... and even more of a contradiction than "Lions of Submission." It was all ludicrous.
But that was fine. I had a secret. I knew my story.
It was amazing, how a secret could be your friend when no one else would. You could sullenly whisper it into your gym locker after Brandy Whitebread had made fun of your thick, undisciplined hair because it wouldn't be politically correct to make fun of your skin that was just a shade more mocha than her spray-on tan. You could whisper to it under the covers late at night, instead of to Joe Quarterback who you might once have had a stupid crush on until he said something about "sand niggers", a term that nobody had used in like a decade and he totally knew you were there around the corner and he just wanted to see what you would do.
My secret meant that I knew that when Joe Quarterback went home, his mom was pickled drunk and for years his dad hadn't been able to see him play football over the rim of his cell phone. I knew that Brandy Whitebread made sure that she kept her calorie count under two hundred on two days out of the week (Wednesday and Sunday) but couldn't manage to get her five-eight frame under one-oh-three. She did this because she'd read that intermittent fasting would make up for her brother telling her that she was fat because he'd heard it from their dad, who'd been talking about someone on television who Brandy had read in a magazine was a size zero. Lately, she'd been wondering if her teen-perfect breasts were too small, and was trying to figure out if she could guilt her daddy into paying for a boob job.
My secret meant that I knew everyone else's secrets.
It meant that I cried once a year, on May Day, and that for the remaining five hundred twenty-five thousand, nine-hundred and forty-four minutes per year, I knew precisely what my purpose in life was. (Yes, even when I was asleep.) I didn't have a friend in the world, because every moment not spent fulfilling my mission was wasted.
Also because my secret was batshit crazy and I knew it was true but still sometimes barely believed it. Nobody else would understand.
Also because fuck Joe and Brandy. I didn't need their bullshit stories. I knew exactly who I was. I’d read it in a book.
So two months after graduation, I eased my new Audi past the guard shack outside of the Central Intelligence Agency on my second day of work. Inside the tiny building of brick and mirrored glass was a man with a gun big enough to punch through an elephant made of cinder blocks eight hundred times per minute. He didn't even need to open the door to kill you.
I had no friends except a high school diploma, I had a secret, and I had a birth certificate from a part of the world that we were actively bombing. CIA? Yeah, I was lucky my stepdad was on the Intelligence Committee. America at least did nepotism right.
The road split as the trees reached overhead, and I joined the line of dark men and women proceeding to the security checkpoint that straddled the path ahead. To the right, the fork led to the Visitor's Center, where just yesterday I'd nervously presented myself for onboarding. Then, I'd needed my ID, my social security number, a second photo ID, and I'd brought my diploma for moral support. Today, the only thing standing between me and Agency headquarters was a scanner, and the heavily-armed man holding it.
I clutched at my identification: a small badge with only a photograph. There was no adornment, nothing indicating to any who might find it if it were picked up on the street that it was anything but an ordinary identification card. Of course, that curious discoverer might puzzle at the lack of a name, lack of a logo, lack of anything that might signal what this photo badge could possibly identify. It was conspicuous in its plainness.
There were circuits and stuff in there. As I pulled the car to a halt in front of the guard, I rolled the window down and presented it to him. He was a big man in a police officer's uniform, looking for all the world like he could be strolling through a downtown neighborhood, making sure people didn't jaywalk or go streaking or murder one another.
Except that in one hand, he was holding a funny little scanner-thing, and the other one rested on the M16A2 assault rifle that was slung over his shoulder.
"Morning!" he greeted me brightly, eyes flickering to my badge, my face, my boobs. He reached the scanner out, and it made an anticlimactic beep. He nodded his head at my boobs, and I drove on.
Well, I started to. Then I stopped the car.
"Have a nice day, Rick!" I waved back at the puzzled officer. "Also, stop telling yourself that your wife is probably cheating on you: she isn't. She loves you. She's being weird because she's pregnant but she never wanted kids and hasn't figured out yet how to tell you that she wants to keep the baby. That cute new blonde you've been flirting with isn't worth it. Clean up your life. And still have that nice day!"
He looked like he was choking for a second, and then blinked away my tail lights.
Everyone else's secrets.
I followed traffic into the parking lot, where my eyes lit immediately upon a free spot close to the building’s entrance. The time on the Audi's dashboard clock read eight fifty-three: seven minutes until these reserved spaces became fair game to anybody. Should I roll the dice on getting a CIA parking ticket on my second day of work, or trudge my way the ten-plus minute walk in from the purple lot?
No one important enough to merit a parking pass starts at nine at the Agency. If they are coming in today, they would be here already. The CIA doesn't have a police force large enough to patrol for scofflaws: the only way you are getting a parking ticket is if the person whose spot you've purloined complains. But then they have to get an officer out here before the nine o'clock cutoff to validate the complaint. Given the likely distribution of security personnel available to respond to non-emergency complaints...
I pulled my green blazer off of the seat next to me and wove my way through the rows of tightly-packed cars, intuitively picking the best line toward the walking path. In some places, the cars were spaced so close together that you could barely squeeze through, so I avoided those. The trick was to walk as straight a line as possible to your goal while not finding yourself blocked in between an SUV and an absurdly masculine pickup truck. I looked back on my course with some satisfaction and took a moment to watch the others who were headed in the same direction as myself, evaluating their strategies. Most of them simply walked the long way down the open aisles, not even trying. It puzzled me that no one else could see the optimal strategy.
The first parking lot, where I'd parked, was just to the southwest of the Old Headquarters Building. The main gate was behind me and to my right as I started down the narrow asphalt path that appeared to lead into the woods once more. The woods were one of many misdirections in this place, for as I passed through the chirping of crickets and the scurrying of squirrels for only a few dozen steps, I found myself at an edifice.
An ugly, graffiti-covered slab blocked my way, marred by an overwrought slogan about the wind crying and a sprayed yellow man with a long nose. It was a piece of the Berlin Wall, and I was standing on the side of it from which the West looked into Communist East Germany. As I walked around it on the path, I passed steel Czech hedgehog anti-tank obstacles like one would have seen on the eastern side of the Wall, oddly incongruous with the lush greenery and sculpted gardens that emerged as CIA Headquarters appeared surreptitiously before me.
It was an odd choice, I reflected, to put CIA Headquarters on the Soviet side of the wall. The better to keep tabs on them, I supposed.
I headed up the stairs to the entrance. This wasn't the one they showed in the movies, with the giant Agency logo on the floor and the wall of honor marking the death of men and women whose names history would never know. No real spy came in that way: it was strictly for show. The southeast entrance was one of the main ways into what Agency folk referred to as "OHB": the Old Headquarters Building.
I studied myself in the reflection of the glass as I came to the top of the short flight of concrete stairs. Average height, skin the color of teak, dark hair pulled back into as tame a ponytail as my patience for such things allowed. I wasn't what you'd call athletic, but I also wasn't much of an eater: I tended to get completely wrapped up in whatever I was into at the moment to the exclusion of everything else, sometimes including breathing. I had an okay figure, as far as I could tell. My mother had despaired for years that I was hopeless at makeup, until she finally convinced me that a year spent in the drama department would help me understand the human condition. I don't know if she was right about that, but I could at least put mascara on without getting too much in my hair, knew how to make my green eyes stand out, and could run in heels.
For a moment, another reflection caught my eye: a blonde woman with a severe haircut and pinched cheeks. She emerged from the driver's side of a red SUV that she parked casually on the curb by the entrance, leaving the engine running. She stood out from the rest of the crowd by virtue of her brash, scarlet pantsuit. Her squared shoulders and narrowed eyes projected the aura of someone whose drive matched her ambitions. When she walked, she didn’t look down; she didn’t look from side to side.
She looked… so familiar.
Yet I’d never met her before. It was a strange sensation.
She stopped inside to argue with the security officer at the desk about something, and I passed by her and the familiar feeling. As I headed inside and the turnstiles signaled their approval of my badge and PIN code with a loud chirp, I felt a thrill shiver up my spine. I couldn't help but feel like I'd fooled them all; I couldn't really be walking through CIA Headquarters on my own, barely eighteen, of detestable pedigree and with more questions than befit my station. Yet nobody looked twice at me. As I shouldered my way into my green blazer, the inattention became a void that sucked at me, made me want to scream at them all, those dark-clad men and women who held the fate of the world in their crooked minds.
I was eighteen, and often noticed. My skin, my accent, and, yes, some other parts of me... beneath that coat of shamrock, they smeared away into the kind of invisibility that the spies around me trained for years to attain. With one wardrobe selection, I had gone off the grid.
My secret tickled at my hindbrain. As I stood there, a long blank hallway in front of me and a museum of Agency history on my right, it was as if I'd caught a faint patina on the air, a wisp of a familiar memory. It could be nothing else.
He was here.
"Excuse me, sorry," a man jostled past. He'd been staring to one side - looking at the woman in scarlet - and I had just been standing there in the entryway, lost inside myself. Some kind of collision was predestined. He turned to check on me as he swept by, and I got a glimpse of a shaved head, ice blue eyes actually seeing me over a knife of a nose. Another surge of familiarity raced through me; I knew this man, I was sure of it. I had never seen him before in my life, but I knew him nonetheless. He looked at me with authority and warmth all at once, the way my mother did. His eyes lingered on mine for a second, and they didn't drift. Then, satisfied that I'd survived the bump, he turned purposefully forward, never slowing.
I pressed myself up against a wall and let the world sweep past. That was... odd. My heart was beating fast, but it was exciting enough just to be here, and I'd been surprised...
Come now. Coincidences are for other people.
Twice in as many minutes, I’d had the sensation of knowing someone who I’d never seen before. It had been happening more to me lately: the guy who’d done my in-processing paperwork had reminded me so strongly of my tenth grade biology teacher that I’d almost greeted him by name. It was something that happened from time to time, but lately it was a daily occurrence. It was as if the rest of the world was becoming more real… or I was.
"Hey, Gwen!" came a cheerful hail. A young man in a green jacket that matched mine had just come through the turnstiles and was homing in on me. His brown hair was an awkward tangle, and his limbs could barely do better.
"Hi Mort," I waved halfheartedly, resenting the intrusion into the strange moment I'd just had.
"First day!" he huffed, and I slid off of the wall to pace him. It seemed the only thing to do in the face of his familiarity.
"Second," I corrected. "We had that security thing all day yesterday."
He waved it off. "The one where they tried to tell us about computer security with the game show, complete with buzzers? Come on, do you think you're going to be touching a computer in here?" Not needing a response, he barreled on. "I mean today's the day when we get our first assignments. Who do you think it's going to be? Ambassador? Foreign dignitary?"
I sighed. "I think probably a janitor or repairman who doesn't have a security clearance. An ambassador gets someone more important to show him around."
"Don't set your sights so low!" he shouted, and punched the air. Then he looked at me from the corner of his eye to see if I'd seen it, while simultaneously not wanting me to see him looking.
The juxtaposition tugged at me: his enthusiasm was honest, and yet also a show, useless unless I saw it. He is showing off what a sexually-suitable partner he is. He wants your attention.
I gave it to him for a couple of seconds. I let my eyes flick over stray hairs on his cuff, the knot on his tie, the belt on its smallest notch, the scuff mark on the front of his shoe. I sighed. He had no secrets worth telling. He was just... ordinary.
Mort started to make a turn right before the wooden submarine at the end of the hallway, a relic of some clandestine operation of years past. Something had caught my eye. "Hang on," I murmured, veering away. I felt his eyes on me as I homed in on the bulletin board next to the sub, and for the first time was glad for the way the green jacket rendered away my curves.
A wall near the elevator bank was plastered with papers advertising things that spies needed, or needed to be rid of. They were banality itself: lamps, two motorcycles, an old set of china, an African carving. I ignored the post looking for a roommate; it was another sort of roommate that I needed.
I tore off the last of the strips of paper that hung from the bottom of the flyer, and nearly rebounded off of Mort, who was a close follower. He let our "oh, excuse me" dance go on a tad longer than it should have, and then peered past me as I put a civil amount of space between us.
"You're getting a dog?"
I shrugged. "My dad won't pay for the apartment if I'm living alone."
"And a dog counts?"
"This one does." I grinned. Even Senator DeGrace could hardly argue that his little girl wouldn't be safe living with a pit bull. The dog looked like a bicep wrapped around a jawline.
"Most people would just get a roommate," Mort pressed, and I could hear a question within that statement.
"No thanks," I answered the question. Mort reminded me of that scrawny kid in middle school who was always trying to prove himself to the cool guys: terminally insecure, surrounded by a buffer of glibness. He was certain that if he hung around long enough, you'd have to give in and have sex with him.
"Pardon?" He hadn't been expecting me to see through him.
"I'm not interested in having sex with you," I stated, voice flat.
"Uh... who said anything about...?" He unconsciously ran his hand through his hair.
"Since we met yesterday, I've noticed that you speak more rapidly when you think I'm watching you. You laugh when you aren't being funny and then check to see if I'm laughing along. You've looked below my neckline seven times in the last two minutes. Based on the sudden aroma of anti-perspirant, you are currently sweating more than you were when you caught up with me. You were mentioning a roommate to gauge by my answer whether or not I had a boyfriend. I don't. But I'm also not interested in having sex with you. I'd sincerely appreciate it if you didn't waste any more tissues on sweaty thoughts of me and instead you relaxed and tried to be a friend. You seem genuinely nice."
He stared, mouth open slightly, and then closed it. I interrupted his next sentence.
"Please don't call me a name. I've had to give that speech nine times since I was eleven. I've been called a bitch four times, an ice queen once, and too into myself twice. Once the guy just ran away."
He was quick enough on his feet to do some mental arithmetic. "What about the ninth?"
I shrugged. "That's up to you."
He grinned. "So you're saying there's a chance."
I rolled my eyes. "Ignoring what I'm saying: not as endearing as you imagine it to be. Don't break your own heart. You seem like a basically nice guy, so you've been warned, which is more than most women would give you. Now come on: we'll be late for work."
"What do you do for the not-nice guys?" he trailed after me.
"Bartitsu," I muttered.
We walked in silence for a minute. "Okay," he said, stopping outside the door to the squad room where we would get our first assignment, "you're right. You did me a favor. Nobody just comes out and says it like that. So I'll do you a favor and tell you this: the fact that you will only makes you more intriguing to guys like me who think you might be good for more than just bedroom kung fu. Think about it. Maybe telling me this makes sense logically, but that doesn't change what I want." He paused, and I nodded reluctantly. "Luckily, I'm used to not getting what I want. I'm going to walk through that door and go to work and not get all wound up in you. But that also means that we're not going to hang out, because I have a few too many beautiful 'just friends'."
I smiled. "That's fair. And thank you. I'm sorry it's got to be that way. You really do seem nice."
And then he turned away and did as he’d promised. It was more courtesy than most boys showed. Mort had a few years on me: maybe that was the difference between boys and men.
He really meant it, too. My secret meant that I knew that he wasn't bullshitting me. For a second, I let myself be intrigued by the rare breed of man who just respected my wishes. Then I put it out of my head and went to work.
It turned out that I didn't get an ambassador.
"What happened to Shauna?" asked the hunched woman in the janitor's uniform before me. I apologized and told her that I had no idea, and explained that it's my first day as a Green Shirt, and that I'd be escorting her around today. Yes, this what I was doing instead of Yale: I was babysitting the lady with the vacuum cleaner. Daughter of a Senator or no, it's hard to get a glamorous CIA job when you're eighteen.
She squinted suspiciously at me for a few moments, and then took up her monologue wherever she'd left off with Shauna the day before. I glanced up, but Mort was already back-slapping a mustachioed man pushing a cart full of tools, and he faded away amidst the sound of hushed dirty jokes and laughter.
The cleaning lady's name was Pat, and my job was to basically stay out of her way as she did her rounds. She had wispy gray hair, a mouth that sucked into her face, and a chin that jutted out of it. She dragged her wheeled trash can from room to room as I awkwardly yelled, "Uncleared!" as quietly as I could every time I badged into a new one.
I could have screamed it at the top of my lungs. If I'd thought I was invisible before, that word made me inaudible as well: no one even looked up to see what breed of the great unwashed had entered their august company. It wasn't worth the CIA's dollar to get every janitor or maintenance guy a Top Secret security clearance, and it wasn't worth a spy's time to pay attention when the bored-looking girl with the mocha skin gave the classified equivalent of an airline safety presentation. Pat couldn't wander around without me because she had no security clearance; I had no reason to be in the building at all except to take her around.
CIA was a pretty cosmopolitan place - that, or my skin tones faded out to green under the coat as surely as the rest of me. There were no funny glances at my exotic appearance. Then again, the charitable explanation held some water: I saw more than a few other Arabs as I went around. They at least acknowledged my existence.
"... and then he asked if I was a linguist," chatted one of them to his pals, quickly acknowledging me with his eyes. "I mean, it was the Deputy Chief of Ops! I was like, 'um, no, I'm an analyst on the Saudi desk...'"
Cosmopolitan. Right.
The rooms all started to blend into the next. I tried to stay alert for anything that could help me find my target here in this huge complex, but there were only so many featureless doors I could see down beige hallways with gray carpets before my mind started to shut down in self-defense. I began to tune out. At some point, I realized that Pat was talking to me directly.
"... from Shenandoah County, and Shauna was born in DC, bless her heart. Where are you from?"
"Pennsylvania," I offered, but there was no glint of motive in Pat's eyes. "Er, by way of Yemen."
"That in one of the Dakotas?" Her crinkled face broke into new lines of puzzlement.
"It's near Saudi Arabia," I explained, launching automatically into my Of Course You've Never Heard of The Place You're Bombing riff. "But it's poor and there's a lot of people who are angry with America there. It's hard--" I paused, because there was something about Pat's neutral stare that absorbed any righteous indignation I still harbored.
"My first dad got killed while I was little," I offered. "Mom remarried an oil exec and we came here. He adopted me. It was a while ago."
Pat explained to me how poor Shenandoah County was, and asked if Yemen was anything like that. Unbidden, memory crashed over me in crystalline detail.
Waking up to the smell of sizzling goat as dusk falls on Eid, my stomach rumbling. There is no roof, but the plastic sheeting flutters limply in the zephyrs of evening, and I can see the moon, which the imam said had been split by the Prophet -- peace be upon him. My mother, beautiful beneath her veil, smiles with her eyes and strokes my hair as we walk through the dusty street toward the place where the women prepare the feast. The radio hisses on, and then off, because there is nothing but static since the local amir determined that music was haram. Later: my mother's face, eyes no longer smiling, telling me that my father was dead, and that we had to leave...
"Something like that," I murmured. "Yemen is something like that."
"Must be nice to be here, then," Pat grinned. "I sure don't miss goin' outside to do my business on them cold mornings..." She bustled off, and I smiled after her. It was nice to be here.
As we went, I caught snippets of conversations:
"... we've got a cut of him talking to an unidentified male that lines up with the report from LZTRIFECTA..."
"... so I sent out an email telling everybody that I would be shutting the Nagios server down in ten minutes..."
"... pulled the metadata and did a two-step associates query with no hits on our boy..."
"... hah, yeah, good luck getting Legal to sign off on that one... fucking Snowden!"
None of this was meant for my ears, but it didn't matter much: absent context, LZTRIFECTA might be a hidden mole, a spy satellite, or the pizza boy for all I knew. Yeah, I was hearing more than my green-clad ears were supposed to, but it didn't mean anything to me. It was tantalizing... yet oddly reassuring: maybe I could fool them into letting me into their vaults, but they weren't straight up giving me the keys to the kingdom.
Pat, on the other hand, had not only the keys, but had a map of every shadowy corner of the whole place. I may have been the one to get her in the door, but there was no mistaking who belonged there and who didn't. The harried spies who were tasked with solving crimes before they ever happened, mostly they took a second to smile at Pat, and ask her how she was doing, wish her a good day, and sincerely thank her for carrying away their garbage and dusting their cubicles. They all seemed fond of her, and a few of them would chat with her about inconsequential trivia while their computers flashed cryptic messages behind them.
After a few rooms, I started tuning back in and listening to what she was saying, and it was fascinating. She knew an amazing amount about everyone in the building.
"That man, very nice, he's got three little kids and he's always showing pictures of their soccer practice, bless their hearts... ...she's new in the office, and is having a hard time, poor dear, here so late all the time... ... miss makeup there is definitely sleeping with the branch chief; I've cleaned their trash cans, if you know what I mean..."
When I started prodding her with questions about this and that, she became even more animated. She couldn't tell me a thing about what any of these people are working on, but after a morning with her, I felt like I'd been spying on the people here for years. No names, but I could tell you how they took their coffee, when they took their breaks, which ones drank too much...
... and I knew which door hid the man I'd come here to find. Pat didn't know any national security information, but she knew a staggering amount of context. Thoughts of LZTRIFECTA were replaced by those of a room on the third floor. It had to be. He couldn't be anyone else.
He took his coffee black as night and sweet as sin.
My mind was spinning when I realized that it was already lunchtime. I was reluctant to leave Pat, but it was time to take a break, and I had a phone call to make.
As it turned out, finding a phone I could use was a bit of a pain. No cell phones were allowed in the building, so I had to hunt down a landline - one that wasn't set up for super-secret phone calls between spies. The phone number in my pocket was for one of the regular sorts of phones - a "green line", Pat had told me, because they apparently used to actually have green phones for unsecured calls - and it turned out that CIA wasn't too keen on just leaving open lines laying around all over the place. I wound up finding one in the break room where us green shirts hid out when not on assignment.
"Drake," clipped the voice on the other end of the line.
"Hi," I stammered, knocked off by the no-nonsense tone. "I'm calling about the dog?"
"Cavill? Oh, thank God!" Instantly, she softened. "We've been having a hell of a time trying to place him. We're tandem PCSing in a month, and we've absolutely got to find him a good home, but we haven't found a match yet. He's picky. I actually showed him to--" she paused, thought better of it, redirected. "Can I meet you at three in the parking deck on the second level? We'll know quickly if he doesn't like you. I'll have him there. Somebody with an Audi and a death wish stole my regular parking space, and those goddamn meter maids in security won't... never mind. I can use the branch parking pass when I come back. The garage might be a better spot for it in this heat."
I swallowed, and then I realized what she had asked. "What, today?" I blubbered. I sounded like a moron.
"Yes," she answered quickly, a hint of her prior impatience in her voice once more. This Drake lady wasn't used to being questioned. "I'll have him here today. Could you take him this afternoon?"
We made arrangements for a meeting, and I hung up. Okay, I'd have to walk the dog from the garage to my car, because contrary to rumor I did not have a death wish and would not be driving a certain Audi to the meeting... but this was too perfect! Daddy had been dragging his heels on the "apartment" issue for a while, and just that morning he'd agreed that, if I could find a big dog, he'd get me a place.
I was going to need to be out from under my parents' roof if I was this close already... the third floor beckoned. Soon, I'd be doing things that my parents didn't need to see.
I couldn't imagine my father's face if I brought a dog home today, but my impertinence would as sure as anything get me my own space within a week's time. No way would my parents want a big dog crashing and peeing his way through our manicured home. I clapped my hands together in excitement. It was child's play. Elementary.
My afternoon charge was nowhere as engaging as Pat, and we spent it mostly in silence. She stolidly cleaned room after room, and within the first twenty minutes, I could feel my skin itching to be doing something, anything, as long as it didn't involve the scent of disinfectant and a conversational void so loud I couldn't hear my own thoughts. I pondered what it would actually mean to own a dog, decided that any dog belonging to Ms. Drake would be too scared not to be housebroken, and congratulated myself on being a genius.
Somewhere on the second floor, Janelle was a few steps down the hall from me as I frowned at the door she'd passed. "What about this one?" I asked. We hadn't yet skipped a single opportunity to douse a room in her mixture of bleach and napalm.
She shrugged, and shook her head. "Not that one," she said, and kept moving. "Don't clean that one." She shook her head, and mumbled something about it probably being filthy in there anyway.
I looked at the door. It looked like every other door in this place, only a number and a barely-descriptive placard. What the "Operational Resources Group" did that distinguished it from the "Mission Support Group", I had no idea, and I suspected that was part of the point. This place was an acronym wrapped in a euphemism shrouded by bureaucratic doublespeak.
I heard a muffled voice and leapt back just in time to avoid getting mowed down by the fast-moving posse that emerged at speed. Four suited men with three ties, a man in a polo shirt, and a woman who wore Converse sneakers - the last two had been giving the briefing; she dresses casually to be taken as 'one of the boys' because it's easier than being the ball-buster - they were unified by the urgent looks on their faces. Leading the way was the bald, hawkish man who'd bumped into me that morning.
We locked eyes, and he checked his stride for a second. There it was again: that feeling of familiarity. I felt myself draw in every detail in that moment: ice blue eyes with wispy blond brows, a pointed chin and high cheekbones, a mouth that could laugh or bite you in half. His pressed suit clung to him perfectly; he wore cufflinks bearing a sword and shield emblem. He was in the process of cinching his tie where it had been loosened, and I thought rashly that he looked like a knight about to ride off to battle.
He swept past again, but had slowed enough that his lieutenant pulled up short to avoid colliding with him. He held my gaze for a moment going by, but the current of immediacy bore him on and away before either of us were ready for the look to end.
Military brat, divorced, sleeps at the office more nights than not, went to community college, spent time wandering the Middle East without a guide, five-ten, one-seventy-three, champion fencer, tea drinker, his lips would taste of cinnamon...
I cut my inner monologue off. I knew who this man was. My pulse was racing.
Memory: I willed the fires and smoke to unwind, to retreat back up to the unforgiving sky...
Now: Someone is going to die.
I stood stupidly for what must have seemed a long time after the group had passed, collecting my thoughts. I was trembling, I realized, and Janelle reached out, almost touching me.
"You okay, baby?" she asked, dark creases of concern at her eyes.
"I... yeah... I was... startled."
"Them folk," she shook her head disapprovingly, "always hurrying off to the Front Office upstairs, don't never watch where they going..." Seeing that I wasn't about to lose it at my near-encounter with a swinging door, she pulled her hand back.
"It's a bitty room that's next," she clucked. "You can have a little sit-down while I clean up."
"I'm fine," I managed, but my hands were clenched, arms rigid. I forced my fingers to uncurl. "I'm fine. Let's go."
We were on the second floor. They were headed upstairs. To the Front Office. To the room on the third floor. To him.
I got through the rest of the day without embarrassing myself further, and ducked quickly out of the squad room after clocking out. I wound through hallways, some drab, some three stories tall with replica SR-71 Blackbird spy planes swooping from the ceiling. Exiting through the New Headquarters Building -- not the one with the big CIA logo on the floor, but the one with the full glass skylight and statue of Native American warriors in the middle of the lobby -- I emerged into the sweltering summer of the D.C. suburbs. I shucked the jacket in an effort not to be immediately drenched in sweat.
Ugh. At least Yemen had the decency to be a dry heat. How did people live like this?
My shift ended early today, so there weren't the hundreds of people leaving that you'd have later, but there was still a flow of people in either direction. It got marginally cooler as I entered the gloom of the garage. Ms. Drake had said that she would be parked near the stairs, and I remembered her red sport utility vehicle. The car was only a few spaces down, one aisle over from the stairs. The windows were all opened a crack, and I heard a muffled bark as I approached. I started to smile, but a little prickling in my spine froze my lips as it was forming. I could hear the worry in that bark.
Something was wrong.
I looked around, but there was no one else in sight. Quickening my pace, I came up behind the SUV. There was a large dog inside, moving around in the back seat, agitated. He saw me, and then jerked his head soundlessly forward. Any dog would have barked at the stranger coming to the car, but he didn't; he looked ahead. I followed his gaze.
A woman's form slumped against the driver's side door. She wasn't moving.
I eased around to the door. Her head had fallen up against the glass, blond hair obscuring her features, but I could tell from the angle of her head that her mouth was facing down. There was no fog of breath on the window.
I shivered, seeing her again. Even in death, I felt as if I knew her.
She was still wearing the scarlet pantsuit. I couldn't see any sign of injury: no blood, no obvious bruises. One hand lay akimbo, on top of a matching red travel bag. The frozen fingers clutched a cell phone, its display showing the text messaging screen.
"Rache", the message read, as if she'd been about to type "Rachel". But she'd already entered the phone number of the recipient; this was the message. I caught my breath when I saw whose phone number she'd entered: mine.
I hadn't given her my phone number.
I straightened, peering quickly around, but there were still no observers. Her other hand was in her lap, empty, but on the floor I could make out a small pill bottle, and two white pills. Her keys were in the ignition, partially turned, as if she had been listening to the radio while waiting.
The dog watched me, not whining, not threatening... just watching.
I didn’t have a lot of time. There was a lot to learn here: this was absolutely a crime scene. Given a few minutes, I was confident that I could puzzle together enough information to be helpful to an investigator. And yet… I felt a kinship to this animal that I couldn't explain. He was... familiar. He shouldn't have to be trapped in the car with a corpse.
Help the dog, or solve the murder?
"Okay, boy," I whispered. "Time to get you out of there."
I let my shoulders loosen and instinct took over. Smell of wax: the car's been washed today. Finger smudges on the rear driver's side door: it's been opened since the wax job. The rear door opened right away, and the dog hopped out. He immediately sniffed the neighboring car tire, and peed on it.
I let my mind whirl on as my body went on autopilot, almost in a fuge state. I fished around in the cab of the car, taking care not to disturb the body and wiping away any fingerprints I might have left. Cavill was sitting quietly on his haunches, watching me, but it wouldn't do to have a pit bull off leash; he might see someone he thought was friendly and I'd never get him under control. There it was -- red, like everything else, expensive-looking and leather -- and I eased the door closed, wiping the handle.
I hooked Cavill up, led him down to the bottom floor of the garage via the rear stairwell, farthest from the main building -- can't go back up that way, lest the strangeness of a dog call unwanted attention -- and I tied his leash to the stair railing. I hustled to my car as quickly as I dared, not letting myself run. After seven excruciating minutes, I had pulled the Audi around to pick him up. He was sitting there, head cocked, waiting for me right where I'd left him. He hadn't budged. I hopped out and unleashed him. Without a word, he jumped into the passenger seat, a doggy smile on his face. We pulled away from the garage and the site of his former owner's murder.
No sirens. There wouldn't be, would there? Not here. Still, to play it safe I took the back exit, pulling past the spy plane monument in the north lot straight onto the George Washington Parkway. No one stopped me. No one even noticed. I looked down at some point as I drifted coolly beneath the trees, Potomac River on my left and blue sky smiling over it, and I noticed that I was wearing the green jacket again. I'd put it on unconsciously while going to fetch the Audi. Of course no one had stopped me: I'd been invisible.
Cavill had curled up on the passenger seat, but was watching me curiously. His presence there jarred me out of my reverie.
"It wasn't a suicide," I explained to him. "Your mama loved you very much. She was trying to find a new mama for you, somebody tough enough to handle you." I put on a brave face. "So don't get any ideas about peeing on my tires."
He panted at me, eyes laughing.
"But that does mean that mama was murdered." His ears flattened at my harsh tone. "Don't worry, buddy. I'm going to find whoever did this. I'm going to take care of them. And you. But, you know, in different ways."
I kept talking, because it felt good to say things aloud, and he kept cocking his head like he was puzzling really hard but was pretty sure he understood what I was saying to him, and maybe it involved food?
"Your mama was PCSing soon - I asked, it means 'Permanent Change of Station', and it's an all-expenses-paid relocation to some other part of the world. Most people are excited about stuff like that. She was doing it as a tandem - with her husband - which probably means she wasn't going to some backwater like Yemen. Between the expensive suit in a place where most people go with business casual and the way she talked like she assumed you were wasting her time, she's management... she's not going someplace she doesn't want to go. She had something to live for." I took a breath.
"Then there's the location. People who kill themselves want to be found, yes, but they do it at home where it's going to be a loved one, not a total stranger. She knew I was coming, and when. The person who found her wouldn't have any emotional connection to her. The only people who act like that are the ones who are sure that no one in the world cares about them, but you were right there: you can't think that you don't matter when your dog is sitting next to you."
I took a deep breath. ”If you're killing yourself with pills, you take them all. You don't leave any lying around, because who knows if those are the two that mean the difference between getting your death wish and waking up in a hospital. Certainly, if she loved you enough to make certain that you were going to be cared for, she wouldn't leave any pills lying around that might kill you."
Cavill was suitably impressed with my logic. He sneezed apologetically.
"No reason to die, and she did it badly. No one as type A as that just lucks their way into suicide. She'd have done it right. She wasn't expecting what killed her. But it also wasn't someone who came close. You wouldn't have let that happen, would you? Someone comes to the door with murder on their mind, you wouldn't have liked that, would you?"
I took his silence as agreement. He was powerfully-built: seventy, eighty pounds, with a barrel chest and a neck thicker than my thigh. His blue-gray coat rippled as he shifted and yawned, and from that brief view into his mouth I was certain that nobody would have approached a car that he was in without his permission.
The trees had given way to clear sky as I passed Georgetown on my left, angling along the water towards National Airport. It was a beautiful drive: a lazy river on one side streamed the promise of monuments striding the world, while ducks and geese skimmed over a marshy expanse on my right. Before me, an airport tantalized with dreams of faraway lands... lands without unexpected death.
My cell phone rang. A blocked number.
"Ms. DeGrace, I'd like to be the first to congratulate you. No one saw you coming." The man's voice had an aristocratic accent. Though his words were complimentary, his tone was not.
"Thanks? I, um, who's this?" I was totally playing it cool.
"Doyle Holmes, at your service." The grin in his words said that he was enjoying the confused tone in my voice. "Or perhaps, you shall be at mine, tomorrow. I'll expect you at nine-oh-three, at the Starbucks. We have a great deal to talk about all of a sudden."
"Look, I don't--"
"Green is not really your color, Ms. DeGrace. Nine-oh-three. Leave the dog. Bring the phone. I'll need it. Also, watch your speed. There's an officer of the law just past the airport." The line went dead.
Cavill had propped himself up, rigidly staring at something in the distance, over the marsh. I squinted, and then I saw it: a tiny speck, a metallic glint, hovering a hundred yards off, then rising straight up and zipping off to the north, where a woman lay dead.
A drone.
I slowed down the car, but had no luck with my heart rate. There was a police cruiser parked a short distance past the airport exit.
I looked down at the phone lying on the console next to me. Not the one I'd just taken a mysterious call on; my phone was back in my purse.
"Rache", shone the word on the screen. The message hadn't been sent... at least not over cellular networks. It was there on the phone: that word, and my phone number, a number that I hadn't given out.
Well then, Holmes. The game is afoot.

Chapter 02: The Red Handed League
It was with no small annoyance that I glanced at the hall clock approaching the Starbucks at CIA Headquarters the next morning. Nine-oh-three on the dot.
I crossed my arms irritably, then uncrossed them, and then recrossed them. The damned green jacket was not only unfashionable: its bulk seemed to make my skin not fit my frame. Nothing was comfortable.
Naturally, my fidgeting attracted no attention, because, well... Green Shirt. I'd heard others tell stories of how thoroughly we were ignored. One woman swore that she'd been on an elevator with a couple who started making out right there in front of her one evening. I was pretty sure it wasn't true, but at times it was easy to believe.
That man in the silver tie… was that…? Nah. And then there was the woman in the cute pumps with matching yellow earrings. She could have been my seventh grade English teacher, except that she didn’t have the same funny walk.
It was happening again. Everywhere I looked, I saw someone I almost recognized. I rubbed my eyes. Sleep deprivation, had to be: I’d barely slept last night. And now I was to meet the mystery man with the funny name right when he’d said I would. I wondered who he would look like.
I had tried not to be on time. I'd dragged my feet leaving the squad room, and the whole way down the hall. Every part of me wanted this "Holmes" character to be wrong about his oh-so-confident prediction. And it wasn't as if my morning had gone on any sort of schedule up until that point.
Dogs, as it turns out, require a certain degree of care, and Cavill had needed not only the usual food and water and walk, but also protection from the ire of my parents at their thinks-she's-so-clever daughter who had brought him home in the first place. You'd have thought I'd showed up with a face-tattooed sex offender and announced that I was having his baby. "A lot of responsibility," bemoaned my father, with the implicit assurance that I would kill this dog just like the several goldfish, hamster, guinea pig, and lizard before him.
My mother offered the standard line about pit bulls being maneaters with locking jaws, and utterly refused to believe that he was the same breed as the Pete the Pup from The Little Rascals. Actually, I don’t think she’d ever seen The Little Rascals: not a big cultural touchstone in Yemen, and I’d only found out about the show during my internet search for “pit bulls +safe +family -attacks -dangerous -bites”. Most Yemenis didn't much care for dogs, anyway, and the decade or so of bad rap that pits had received in American media didn't help. Neither did the sheaf of printouts I deposited on my mother’s lap that evening full of charts and statistics showing that the breed accounted for fewer serious bites than Labradors. She may have been a college professor in her old life, but evidently Statistics wasn’t on the English Lit curriculum. Mom wouldn't go near him, and invoked al-Mumit - one of the ninety-nine names of Allah that means “the Destroyer” - at one point when he tried to go for a slurpy kiss.
Then there was the dog himself, who utterly refused to remain by himself for more than two seconds. When I'd tried to go to the bathroom, I thought he was going to break down the door with the sheer force of his whining. He wound up getting his way, curling huffily into a ball on the bathroom rug where he could keep a reproachful eye on me to ensure that I didn't somehow pull a vanishing act on him mid-stream. I was at least able to keep him mostly out of the shower: we settled on him sticking in his head and moping in the far corner while I pretended to ignore him. Every few seconds, he'd catch some spray in his eye or up his nose, and would shake his whole body as if he were having some kind of seizure. Unlike many pits, his tail and ears hadn't been clipped, so when he shook, they whacked into the walls with enough force to knock my conditioner onto the floor. Twice.
Which put me in a somewhat awkward position when I had to leave for work. Mom wouldn't have him in the house, and certainly wouldn't walk him, and my father would be gone all day. I didn't have enough time on my lunch break to make it home and back to let him out, and we didn't have a fenced-in yard. Hence my brilliant solution: he came with. He had a nice, long pee before work, and I hoped he wouldn't do too much damage to the Audi before I had a chance to get back out there at lunchtime. Getting out of the car had been iffy -- "What's that? Over there? Did I throw a ball?” -- and then a sprint to get the door closed before he could turn around and leap out after me. I didn't really want to think about how much gas I was burning by leaving it on with the air conditioning running, but it was friggin' summer out there. At least I could rest assured that nobody was going to be stealing it, or even getting that close. The pathetic whimpering would assure anyone that, whatever was going on in there, they wanted no part of it.
Adding to my good mood was the small matter of the corpse I’d found yesterday. I’d been up the better part of the night pondering that from every angle. I’d come up with nothing much more significant than I’d already said aloud to Cavill on the drive home, and I didn’t like that. This Doyle Holmes guy had sounded like he knew all about it, and it was not reassuring to think there were people who knew more than I did about crime scenes that I’d disturbed.
If I had one thing to break my grumpiness, it was my father's assurance that I'd have an apartment by that weekend. He'd made a promise, after all, and when my mother was out of earshot he also muttered something about hoping she waited that long before filing divorce papers over how he'd put bad thoughts into my head. He’d discreetly scratched Cavill behind the ears, but had fled before he was discovered giving comfort to the enemy.
So that was good. This silver lining supposed that I didn't wind up in jail in the next twenty minutes or so, but I didn't think that was very likely. Holmes certainly wasn't a police officer.
"Ms. DeGrace," he intoned, from so close behind me that I jumped. "A pleasure to meet you in the flesh."
He was tall and narrow, almost gaunt. And damnably quiet when he wanted to be, it seemed. He had a mop of dark hair in no particular style, with eyes like a fencer's foil. He was wearing a black collared shirt with no tie, and his gray slacks tapered down to fashionable-yet-sensible black shoes, tied with an unusual knot.
He looked a hell of a lot like every actor who'd ever played Sherlock Holmes. I was disappointed at the effrontery of it.
"Mr. Holmes," I greeted him. “You already know my name, so I won’t bother introducing myself. I’m sorry, my instructions weren't very clear as to where I'd be escorting you today?" Ending statements with question marks conveys youth and uncertainty. It makes people underestimate you.
"No," he arched his eyebrow, "they wouldn't have been. Favors make the world go round: I helped your chief out of a certain situation. Walk with me. And please, call me Doyle." The Starbucks sat next to the cafeteria, in the glass hallway that formed the boundary between the Old and New Headquarters Buildings. Doyle headed towards what everyone called OHB. I stretched my legs to keep up.
"Did you bring it?" he asked, not looking at me.
He won't think it's cute if you're impish.
"The ruckus? Yes, I always bring the ruckus," I replied. "I'm known for that, and for my dislike of unnecessarily vague prepositions." His eyes slitted at me, and I slitted mine right back. "Yes, I've got your damn phone. You've got that much on me."
"I'm appalled that you think I would blackmail you." He turned, now, somehow doing it only with the top half of his body, like a belly dancer, or a snake. His eyes were the headlamps of an oncoming train. "You are in a great deal of danger, Ms. DeGrace. Not," he cut off my protest, "in any sort of law enforcement capacity. None of them will bother you about that, though I recommend you leave digging around near corpses to those of us more accustomed to it. No, I mean you are in mortal danger."
"Look, mister- Doyle," I retorted. "You can't scare me. My dad's in politics and he adopted an Arab. My parents have tried to protect me from the rape and death threats since I started getting them at twelve. But it turns out there's this thing called the internet."
I shook my head. "I get that I made a mistake, but nobody is going to disappear me. All those nice people who send multiple emails per week about raping me would notice." I stopped, and to his surprise, Doyle stopped as well. I pointed my finger at him. "But I notice things, too, like that drone that you had following me yesterday. Right next to an airport? Somehow I doubt the FAA gave that one the green light, so don't talk to me about misconduct." I shifted my hips to better wag my finger at him. "And I get that you've got this whole 'Sherlock Holmes' thing going for you. Tall, dark, mysterious, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle... I get it. But do you really talk like that? 'Mortal danger'?"
He blinked, twice. Even his reflexive motions were languid. "My, my," he said, after a deep inhale through his nose. "You sound just like her."
It was my turn to blink. "Like who?"
"Guinevere," he murmured, and began walking once more.
I stood for a moment, caught my breath, and then forced myself to stammer, "Wait, what?"
I ran after him.
He'd been off his perfect composure for a second, and there had been something behind his eyes... sadness? I searched his face for it when I caught up, but it had gone back to blankness. All I got for my trouble was an outstretched hand as he went.
"The phone, please." I fished around in my jacket pocket, and handed it over as discreetly as was possible in the middle of the hallway. Cell phones were strictly off-limits in CIA Headquarters, so I'd powered it off in at least a minor nod towards proper procedure. Under Doyle's wispy fingers, it sprang to life. He tapped a few times, and a picture of the dead woman from yesterday filled the screen.
Gwen Drake, it read.
I shivered. There was that familiar feeling again.
"Gwendolyn Ivana ar-Rahmani DeGrace," my name dripped from his tongue. "Gwen-Iv-ar, daughter of Leo DeGrace. Meet Guinevere Grace Drake. Or, you almost did."
"She was murdered," I blurted out. Wasn't this guy trying his hardest to play The Detective? I ought to have the name of the murderer in no time flat.
"Yes," he waved his hand, "I know. Your little trick with the phone made it marginally more complicated to deduce, but once I had Watson trace its whereabouts, all became clear."
He didn't respond, but a just-too-human voice hummed out, "At your service, Ms. DeGrace. I hope you are taking good care of that dog. I'm quite fond of animals." It came from nowhere, but seemed to center on Doyle.
He nodded. "It pays to have an artificial intelligence in your pocket these days," he smiled. We'd wandered far by this point, down the hallway with the portraits of CIA directors of old, past the main entrance to OHB, with the bust of George H. W. Bush and the Wall of Honor, past the entrance to the geodesic auditorium known as "the Bubble". Doyle now swept into the CIA Library, a rather mundane affair filled with books and magazines and the usual stuff you'd find in nearly any facility of lesser repute. Only one of the pair of people here looked up as we entered, and then fell back into the treatise he was reading about the socioeconomics of sub-Saharan Africa.
He looked just like an old gym teacher I'd had a few years before.
Doyle steered us deftly into an abandoned alcove, while Watson explained himself. Itself.
"I'm based in very large part on the original Watson, which you may have heard about from 'Jeopardy'. My code base and knowledge repository have had some significant upgrades since then, however, particularly in the realm of user interface. I communicate in realtime with Mr. Holmes via bone conducting ear strips and variably polarized contact lenses, providing him with feedback and information about the world around him while interfacing with relevant computer systems in his surroundings."
"You're like a computer ghost," I wondered aloud, and then scolded myself for giving in to the appearance of agency. This was a sophisticated computer program, nothing more.
"If you will, Ms. DeGrace," Watson agreed amiably. "But I prefer 'digital assistant'."
"Watson helps me organize my thoughts," Doyle offered, shrugging in an almost human way. "For instance, he's reminding me now that you thought about how much trouble you'd be in for bringing a cell phone into CIA Headquarters. Well, I've brought an artificial intelligence and a suite of antennas powerful enough to punch out of concrete walls to get me realtime gigabit bandwidth. That's one hell of a lot worse than a cellular phone. You should turn me in immediately."
When I didn't, he flashed a polite smile. "Good, then. You were avoiding talking about the deceased."
He - or Watson - was reading me like one of the books surrounding us, and I had the impression that I might be less interesting than the socioeconomics of sub-Saharan Africa. "You said her name was Gwen."
"No. Her phone said that her name was Gwen, because that was how she preferred to be addressed in public. Her name was Guinevere."
I swallowed. "Like King Arthur's wife?"
"Not 'like' King Arthur's wife. The same." He said the last with a lean in so fast it was a lunge; the words had such intensity that for a moment I thought he was going to jump me. I felt my throat tighten.
"Mr. Holmes?"
The voice slid across my neck and made every single hair stand up on it. My belly tightened. I turned.
She was of average height, but that was the only average in her. Her hair was full and luxurious, sparkling obsidian. She flowed into the alcove, her creamy pantsuit teasing hips and breasts that wanted to push themselves into you from across the room. Her eyes were a curious tan, almost yellow, like a cat's, and her lips were as pale as her eyes. You could feel them in the small of your back as they parted and closed, spilling words that slid into you like a lover, probing and sensuous.
I was certain that I would never in my life make that sort of impression.
"Arthur told me to meet you here." She slipped a hand into the space between them. "I'm Vivian--"
"Yes," he whispered, his fingers feathering their way up hers as he took the outstretched hand in both of his. "Yes, you are. Welcome. Doyle Holmes, at your service."
They stood there, for a moment, electricity crackling between them. I felt as if they were a canyon, a great void that would suck me in and consume me without noticing. I was more than invisible; for a moment, I was less real to myself than they were.
It passed, and they uncoupled. They were not lovers, I could see that immediately. They didn't even know one another. And yet they did... Vivian seemed the more puzzled of the two of them by the familiarity, but I was sure that Doyle got off on knowing more than everyone else in the room. She was breathing fast, though. Then she noticed me noticing her.
Lips I felt myself rush in and out, stopping and razor wit starting in great heaves of whispers being, as if I existed on multiple sparring levels of reality, wanting riposte nothing more than to let go--
"Well, good," Doyle's words cut me out of my reverie, an edge in them that I'd not yet heard from him. Jealousy?
"We're all here." He looked fussy and old for a moment, and glared at me as if I had come between him and... I looked back to Vivian, but her yellow eyes reflected my querying gaze. I looked down at my shoes and let my hair fall into my face, hiding the redness blooming in my cheeks.
I hadn't been this flustered in ever. I couldn't have expected this. I felt as if--
"You feel that you know me," Doyle interrupted, "and you do. In fact, you feel like that all the time. Everyone you see looks tantalizingly familiar. Maybe you know someone who looks and acts just like someone else you've met. Or you have a friend from childhood who seems to be the 'soul mate' of a person you met only yesterday. All your boyfriends seem the same. Just walking down the street, you see a dozen people who are so familiar to you that you practically greet them."
I was all ears. That exact feeling had been happening to me again and again lately. Not just Vivian, though she'd been the strongest by far; there was the man who bumped into me yesterday, and poor Gwen Drake...
As Doyle spoke, I remembered that I'd seen someone at the cafeteria who reminded me of a girl I went to school with in Pennyslvania. There was a man walking down the hallway who had reminded me of a boy I'd wanted to kiss during my sophomore year, and never had. Even Cavill seemed so familiar...
My thoughts jumped unbidden to the dog, and I hoped he was doing all right. Poor guy had been through a lot in the last twenty-four hours. It was no wonder he was so neurotic.
Thinking of Cavill snapped me out of the spell that Doyle's words were weaving. I'd been leaning in, and from the corner of my eye, I could see Vivian doing the same, similarly entranced. She'd looked as if maybe she knew the spiel, but she still looked... glazed. The words seemed crazy, but they made sense. Knowing people without knowing them; everybody felt that way, and knew that it was just a trick of the mind. I even knew the explanation of the phenomenon - the real explanation. But there was a difference between knowing and feeling.
My senses kicked into high gear, the way they always did when I was stressed or confused. The nearest row of books was all about intelligence operations during World War II. There were three copies of Operation Overlord, but one of them had been checked out much more frequently. Twelve pages were missing from that book only. Secrets within secrets: this was the one-time pad for some clandestine messaging system, and the missing pages were the key to getting the cipher right. Farther back, the alcove had two high-backed chairs at the one end, slightly obscuring us from view of the rest of the library even if someone had been looking directly at us. Given our close proximity and the size of the stack, it would have been awkward to interrupt us. This location was scouted and chosen carefully, but by someone more socially adept than Doyle. There was a strange tang to the air, a peppery sizzle so faint that Doyle's words kept obscuring it, but it was there, a sound, coming from...
Not a sound. Subsonics. Fully adult ears couldn't hear them, but I was eighteen and had a wider range than either of the others, so the noise was just barely audible. Some convenience stores used similar frequencies to annoy teenagers enough to prevent them from hanging around like they otherwise would: adults couldn't hear them because they lose those frequencies with age. I hadn't, yet.
Subsonics could influence mood, too, or make you suggestible. They were definitely there, and coming from Doyle, just like...
"You're not crazy," Doyle looked at me sharply, sensing that he was losing me. "The feeling you get when you see these people isn't some sort of misfiring synapse. It's recognition."
"There are only so many types of people in the world. Deep inside us all, we are in concordance with a Persona greater than ourselves. Some might call it the soul, others perhaps a Jungian archetype. Whatever you call it, we connect with something greater than our flesh, with a pattern of behavior... a character. The legends you have read about in stories are real, because they quite literally live on in us."
"Vivian, you’ve seen someone, recently, who had a striking impact on you.” She nodded, eyes dreamy. The subsonics are working on her.
Doyle continued. “You felt that you knew him, because he was a Merlin-type, and you are Vivian. This is what you experience every day as you see people who are typed in a way that complements your own. Romeos find Juliets, but part tragically. Hectors battle Achilles, even if only in office politics. A Frodo-type recognizes a Legolas, and will feel safe and at ease around him."
Here it comes... Doyle took a deep breath. "But in every generation, there is someone, only one, who rises to be the true personification of Romeo, and he kills himself for love of Juliet. We call ourselves 'Personae', as in, 'Dramatis'. Hector the Persona is murdered by Achilles, who gains glory for it. Vivian finds Merlin," a little shudder went through Doyle, "and seduces him for his power."
"And Guinevere finds Arthur," I whispered, heart racing. "Or, I suppose, Arthur finds Guinevere, and sweeps her away to Camelot."
"Gwen Drake was the personification of Guinevere," said Doyle. "She died. But there must always be a Guinevere, even if she is only in the making. Sometimes, she is only a tiny baby when she is called. Sometimes, she is an eighteen-year-old girl."
No. I rebelled. The subsonics were messing with me -- why was he doing that? -- this was wrong. I shook my head to clear it. I wasn't some damsel locked away in a tower. I wasn't destined to betray the man I loved and bring his kingdom to ruin. I wasn't Guinevere. I was--
"Gwen, you felt yesterday like you knew Ms. Drake. You bonded instantly with her dog - whom she hadn't been able to foist off on anyone else before you, and I assure you she'd tried. Gwen Drake was Guinevere, the Guinevere, and her dog is Cavall, the hound of Arthur. You: Gwendolyn, daughter of Leo DeGrace? Come on," he said softly. "I've seen your library records. You've read every Arthurian legend ever printed. You are Arthur's love. You are Guinevere..." he dropped to one knee, "... my queen."
I scoffed, but I did it with my inside voice. Sherlock Holmes had but one queen, and her name was Victoria. And he had one woman... the woman... My eyes flicked to Vivian.
With that, Doyle's spell over me was broken, and I felt my senses rush back in over the hiss of Watson's subsonic hymn. He thinks you're Guinevere. He believes it. There was really just one question in my mind.
What would Guinevere do?
She'd freak out.
"No," I hissed. "Stop it. I'm not a queen." I put my hands under his arm, pulled hard. "Get up. Get up!"
He moved smoothly with my command and to his feet. He seemed first confused, but then he smiled, laying his hands on my shoulders and soothing, "Not yet, my lady. You are not yet Guinevere the Queen, because you have not yet met your Arthur. You will know it when you see him. I know this is strange. But you've been feeling it more lately, that familiarity. It happens when Personae are in close proximity: the bonds that we share become irresistible. Your thoughts go to people that you've met, and you begin to understand how they relate to you, how they are a part of your story. Arthur must have his Guinevere."
And what did Guinevere get to have? Did she have her own story? Or was Doyle expecting me to just slide right into Arthur's narrative? Apparently it didn't matter who I was or what I wanted, as long as the king got to "have" me.
Then: I thought rashly that he looked like a knight about to ride off to battle. I bit my lip.
"If you're telling the truth, why the tricks? You're using--"
He cut me off. "Subsonics, yes. I told Watson they wouldn't work, not on you. Royalty won't be controlled. But you must believe. We're desperate. I've no right to do this to you, to bring you into this so quickly. But it is critical that you accept who you are, for your own sake and for the sake of New Camelot."
I shook my head again. "What about Gwen Drake? What happens to her?"
Doyle looked annoyed at being sidetracked. "She died. You and I know she was murdered, but it looks like a suicide and that's how we're going to leave things. We can't have the bit players poking too closely into the affairs of the Personae."
My eyes widened. "You're not going after her killer? But you're..." I hesitated, "... you're Sherlock Holmes! You're going to let that go unpunished, and let her life end in a lie? Her parents think she killed herself!"
Doyle gritted his teeth. "I'm sorry about her legacy. She deserved better. But given our literary progenitors, our lives are not always fair, and they are always dramatic. Her parents will never know." His eyes flashed. "But her killer will know justice."
It was an unsatisfying answer. What would Doyle do if I met the same fate? I imagined my parents at my grave, wondering how they'd failed to prevent my self-murder.
A noise, from down the aisle.
Doyle looked urgently into my eyes, shutting out even Vivian. "The Red Handed League has been targeting us lately. We don't know anything about them, which is... puzzling. Disturbing. Our sources say that they're named after the blood-red gloves they wear on their right hands, to advertise the blood they’ve spilled. They mean to murder Guinevere again, my queen. They're here!"
The smell of familiar anti-perspirant.
Doyle grabbed my shoulders, and threw me roughly to the ground. Suddenly, he'd been speaking about our immediate present.
I scrabbled back into the corner of the alcove. I had thought it would be awkward if we were interrupted, but the attacker who feinted around Doyle and wrapped a wiry arm about the dark-clad man's neck didn't seem concerned about offending our sensibilities.
A red-gloved hand caught Doyle's right hand as it flailed for balance. The sleeve behind the hand was green. My breath caught in my throat.
The hand belonged to Mort. His brown hair was still an awkward tangle, but the gleam in his eye was lethally distinct from the affable sadness he'd shown me after I'd brushed him off.
"Hello, my dear," he grinned. "Just a moment while I take out the garbage. I'm curious to find out if you've got a speech prepared for this."
My eyes flicked to Vivian, but she had her own problems: the other two who'd been here when we arrived... waiting for us. Now they were wearing red gloves on their right hands, and I remembered that I'd really hated that gym teacher. I looked around, but there was no way out that wasn't past them. We were trapped.
But not helpless, it seemed. Vivian's face showed a panicked vulnerability, but her face was a mask. I... I couldn't see past it. Neither could her attackers. Seeing only the veil of fear, one of her assailants lunged for her, not bothering with caution. She made a tiny movement, bringing her hands up to wrap around his outstretched wrists, and with a delicate pirouette underneath his grasp sent him crashing to the ground at his partner's feet. While the other man goggled at the unexpected turn, she took a short step and inserted her fingers into his windpipe. Through his throat.
"Capital," Mort nodded approvingly, and then he shoved Doyle towards Vivian. She dodged him neatly, but there was no room: she had to press herself into the stack of books as the tall man flailed by. It slowed her by only a fraction of a second, but in that time Mort had whipped out a pistol. It wasn't pointed at Vivian.
"This is a message," he told me from behind the barrel. "Don't rely on Sherlock: he can't see me coming. You have to be strong enough to stop me. Or I'll kill you. Like this."
Vivian froze. Then so did Mort, seizing up, shuddering, and collapsing to the floor.
"I hope you enjoy a few days of vertigo," Doyle rubbed his throat. "Next time, don't attack someone who carries neural disruptors. Moron." He fished a black disc out of the downed man's green jacket pocket.
Vivian smiled grimly, and slammed a fashionably-booted foot down on the temple of the man she'd thrown to the floor. He twitched a little before laying still.
"Did you just kill him?" Doyle snapped.
"Oh, gosh, that would be terrible!" Vivian deadpanned, sticking her chin out. Clearly, she'd recovered from whatever spell he'd had her under. "Hell if I know. I believe in kicking them when they're down until you're sure they'll stay that way."
Some part of Doyle looked... hungry. "We could have interrogated him!" he snapped. Then he shook his head ruefully. "He told me you were a handful."
"And you with those little girl hands," she clucked. "Besides, it doesn't look like your kid is doing so hot, so let's not get all finger-pointy."
Doyle's head whipped around. Mort was very red, twitching. Then suddenly, he sighed and lay still.
Scent of bitter almonds: cyanide poisoning.
"I... I didn't..." Doyle stammered. "The disruptor doesn't produce a lethal harmonic."
Vivian knelt over the body. "Poison pill," she pronounced with a sniff. "He came with it in his mouth. He was ready to die, rather than be captured. Either he managed to swallow it after your little trick, or else he knew he might spasm, and bit down on it. You have any enemies who know about that toy?"
Doyle shook his head grimly and helped me to my feet. "Are you all right?"
I looked down at the corpse of the man who'd just yesterday wanted to sleep with me. He hadn't had any ill will then, except sour grapes at my lack of interest. He hadn't wanted to kill me, or himself, I was positive.
My secret meant that I knew everyone else's secrets, and that definitely included Mort's. He didn't have any secrets worth mentioning. He has no motive for murder. You don't join a league of red-gloved fanatics because a girl shoots you down. But yesterday, he hadn't been a part of a secret societies. He hadn't wanted to kill.
I'd been so sure of it. But now... What did I miss? What didn't I see in him?
"He really did seem nice..." I whispered.
Doyle looked at me sharply. "You knew him?"
I hesitated, then nodded. "We started together, two days ago. He... flirted with me. He was friendly. He was... just a guy. Not... not this."
Doyle frowned. His eyes glazed over for a moment, reading words flashed invisibly in front of his eyes, and then he nodded. "There have been other reports of significant personality changes as people joined the League. Something as part of their indoctrination, perhaps."
A hoarse cry from the library beyond us made me jump. It cut off into a gurgle almost immediately. I looked at Doyle, but his eyes were unfocused again. Then he smiled, tension draining from his face.
"It's all right," he said in a hushed voice. "Though you may not want to see--"
I had already started forward, and Doyle's hand fell away from me as I moved past him. Vivian met my eyes and nodded slightly, heading in the direction of the scream a half-step ahead of me. Her arm was extended protectively backward, as if ready to throw us back out of danger.
At the end of the stack, she stopped cold and her arm went limp. I drew up short, then peered around her.
The library was a scene of absolute carnage. Bodies lay everywhere, blood coating every surface. The corpses were nondescript, or had been before their messy ends. Except for the red gloves they all wore, they were dressed for work, for just another day at the office. I had seen some of these people yesterday as I made my rounds. They were just... anybody.
In their midst stood the man with the ice blue eyes. He pulled a thin-bladed sword from the back of a downed foe, and I shuddered at how long it took to slide out of the corpse. The body jerked for a second, and then lay completely still. A gun lay beneath its limp fingers.
I counted six others, all similarly-armed. All dead. None had gotten a shot off. Only one had even had the time to scream.
He looked at us, at me. Those eyes bored into me, questioning, expecting. He was looking for someone in me, someone familiar. He wasn't finding her.
"Knight," hailed Doyle stiffly.
"Detective," he rejoined, eyes never leaving mine. "I've been waiting for you."
"Terribly sorry to keep you. Bit of a mess." Doyle frowned.
"Bit of a messy situation. Your choice of venue didn't leave me many tactical options. I trust you'll take care of cleanup?" Under the blood, he wasn't even sweating. He started towards me, and my heart jumped.
"Already done." Doyle gestured vaguely to one of the high windows, where a small metal drone whirred back and forth, camera trained inside. "Maintenance has been advised to put up the no entry signs, with the cover of a restricted briefing. Our people will be busy cleaning this up tonight, though."
Part of me couldn't help but arch an eyebrow. Ten Agency staff are killed or just disappear under mysterious circumstances on the day after an apparent suicide on Agency property, and no one is going to ask questions? New Camelot can stifle investigations? And news reports?
The man with the sword wasn't listening to Doyle or my internal monologue. Striding over the carnage he'd wrought, his eyes ran all over me. I could feel them on my face, my hair, my clothes... probing beneath my clothes. I shivered. I couldn't not know what he was thinking.
"It's so good to see you," he whispered, and took my hand with his own, careful not to smear me with anything. His lips brushed the back of my fingers, and I felt it down to the arches of my feet. "I would know you anywhere."
He's not talking to Guinevere.
He looked up at me. "Are you all right... my dear... queen?"
Something was very wrong here. Hell, who was I kidding: everything was very wrong here. My heart was doing a rock and roll drum solo. I'd made it through yesterday all right, even with the murder. I'd seen death before; after all, I grew up in a country that's mostly warzone.
But dying... Fresh, hot, inexorable. Nearly my own.
Those ice blue eyes.
Get out of here.
I pulled my hand away and began to shiver all over. "I'm not... I'm not hurt. I think I need to... sit... down..."
Strong arms wrapped around me, under my shoulders, and I let myself be borne to the ground. Not the man with the icy eyes. Vivian.
"Relax, Rambo," she snapped at him, "you'll get blood all over her. She's not just here to be your fairytale princess, and she just saw people die. Go. Stand somewhere away." She waited as he blinked in surprise. "Did I fucking stutter?"
She moved her face close to mine. Her breath smelled of mint. "Hey, shh... it's all right. Well, obviously it's not all right, and what the fuck, amirite, but you are all right. You are all right. Nobody's going to hurt you." She shook her head with a nervous smile. "I'm sorry, I suck at this. I'm really screwing this up."
Her voice dropped to a whisper. "Do you know what the hell is going on?"
"No," I whispered back, smiling a little. "But you're not doing so bad."
"Beginner's luck: I'm new at this. Are these guys dangerously insane, or is it me who's gone crazy?" It was a serious question.
I couldn't help but grin wider. "Maybe both? Did you just see that mess out there?"
"Yeah." She huffed out a breath. "In the middle of CIA Headquarters. They're just going to 'clean this up'? I am definitely losing my shit." She pondered. "You're probably a figment of my psychotic episode, but you seem okay. We should get out of here."
She had a plan. "Can you cry on command?"
"Drama club," I whispered. I took a deep breath. The thick odor of blood filled my nostrils, and then I didn't have to pretend. I started to giggle, and then choke, and my shoulders shuddered and jerked and the sting was in my eyes and poor Mort and it was all too much too much too much--
There was a hissed discussion. A mention of the Red Handed League. Someone was told to go fuck himself.
Then we were gone.

Chapter 03: A Case of Identities and Loyalties
Guinevere. You're Guinevere.
My mind raced wantonly as Vivian half-led, half-dragged me down the hallway. I kept catching glimpses of people as we went -- young guy with goatee and dark glasses: Percival, joy -- and I couldn't stop -- middle-aged woman with grim haircut and cheerful pumps: Elaine, pity and jealousy -- seeing them as if I knew them. The Personae behind their faces were practically screaming their names to me. There: an Arthur-type! My heart did a little flutter.
I was losing my grip.
Vivian's insistent tugging on my hand was not helping. Touching her was like licking a battery: it sent tingles all up and down my arm, sparking into and out of my brain with the tantalizing promise of more than I could handle. She led me directly down the hallway, jaw set, and it was as if the seas parted before us: people steered around us as if veering around an iceberg. They seemed almost unconscious of it, or if they were they sure as hell weren't making eye contact with either one of us. People who were obviously walking in pairs slid to either side as Vivian plowed us through their midst, only to merge smoothly back into step with one another as they passed around us. Even people whose backs were to us seemed to unconsciously steer out of our way. We could have run full-tilt through the crowded hallway - at the speed Vivian was walking, we nearly were - and not jarred a single elbow.
"Here," she hissed, "no one will bother us here."
"Cafeteria", read the simple block letters over the doors.
"Ah," I agreed. "Naturally, this will be more secure than a vault that takes special clearance to enter."
"The Purloined Letter," she answered. "No better place to hide than in plain sight. Also they have donuts. Ooh - this will be fun. Let's take you for a test drive."
Not relaxing her grip on me, Vivian steered me toward a man whose triceps looked like they'd been chiseled out of a particularly cosmetic piece of marble. His hair was spiked just so as to look like he hadn't spent much time with it. He had.
"You're Guinevere," whispered Vivian to me. "He's a Lancelot-type. The bit players can't help but respond to their roles when they're in our presence. He'll make himself part of your story without even realizing it."
She winked at me. "Get us some donuts." Then she let me go, with just enough momentum that I stumbled forward slightly towards Mr. Triceps.
This was not helping me relax. I shot Vivian a look of panic that I hoped would convey a certain amount of I'm emotionally fragile right now and you have just dropped me in the deep end.
Her eyelashes fluttered slowly. Learn to swim, they said.
I let my stumble go on a step or two too far, and collided with muscles that were every bit as hard as the marble I'd imagined. He'd been mid-turn, having detected my impending impact with a warrior's sense for danger. That, or the triceps had antenna: I wasn't putting anything past them.
"Ow!" I cried, rubbing my shoulder where his elbow had just barely grazed it. I grimaced in feigned pain.
His body had tensed automatically against an attacker, and upon seeing a green-shirted teenager, it relaxed immediately. I let tears well up in my eyes, and a new tension immediately filled him: Oh god, I've hit a girl.
Immediately, he was all concern. "Are you all right? I'm so sorry: I didn't see you there. Jeez, I really elbowed you, huh?"
He knows you bumped into him. But others are watching: he's saving face. You have him.
"It's okay," I sniffed. I rubbed my shoulder again.
"No, no, it's not. Here, can I get you something? My way of apologizing."
A brief flirtation later, I had two jelly donuts and a pair of cappucinos. Mr. Jason Triceps and I parted ways, and I returned to my minder. Vivian accepted her drink languidly.
"That's not how Guinevere would have done it," was all she said. She steered us to a table and sat down. She took the top off of the cappuccino and dipped a finger in, coming back out with a puff of steamed milk. Slowly, she drew her tongue down the finger, licking the foam away. It was as if I could feel her tongue in the small of my back, working its way delicately up my spine… Her feline eyes watched me all the while.
I shuddered, uncertain if this display bothered me, or if I liked it. "Do you do everything like a porn star?" I asked.
"You should watch me eat a jelly donut," she winked. She whipped her tongue out to catch the last fleck of foam on the tip of her finger, then licked her lips.
My toes curled involuntarily. "I'm wondering if we don't need a private room for that."
"You're the queen," she said. "You tell me where to put it."
I gulped. "Is that how Guinevere would have done it?" Her face betrayed nothing. It looked just like it had before she'd driven her fingers into a man's throat.
"Gwen Drake was my boss," she replied. "If she'd told me to eat a jelly donut, I'd have swallowed it in one go. And now she's dead," her eyes pinned me to my seat, "and you're here."
"Convenient, isn't it?" I agreed. "That's what you were about to say. You weren't trying to protect me from Lance. You were getting me somewhere you could interrogate me all by yourself."
Her yellow eyes told no tales.
"Well, allow me to clear up one misconception you seem to have about me. It is not fucking convenient. I've just watched you murder two people. You still have a man's skin under your fingernails. If you think that getting sucked into your little world is supposed to get me all excited, then you have been drinking too much of the Kool Aid. It was terrifying and I don't want to do it anymore. In fact, fuck it - why am I even explaining myself to you?" I pushed my chair back and stood up.
She leaned forward, smile not changing. "Two reasons. One, because you need to talk to somebody about this, and that's not going to be tall, dark, and Doyle and it's sure as hell not going to be Iceman McStabbins. I'm what you've got." She relaxed, and settled back in her chair. "And two, if you walk out that door without me, the Red Handed League is going to murder you to death, because whether or not you want to drink the Kool Aid, they have. They're apparently mad about it."
I glared at her. "I can take care of myself," I said. "Why do you want me to explain myself to you?"
She didn't blink. "Because neither of us is too sure about this 'New Camelot' business, and I want to find out which way you're going to tip."
I sat back down.
"That," I started, "is exactly what you would say if you were trying to test my loyalty."
She shook her head. "You found out about New Camelot twenty minutes ago. You don't have any loyalty yet. Points of leverage for you are gratitude at saving your life - minimal, which is interesting - and curiosity about Personae, New Camelot, the Red-Handed League, blah blah blah. There's a whiteboard somewhere."
I tilted my head forward and rised an eyebrow. "You guys have had meetings about how to manipulate me?"
"Yep," she affirmed. "And how to determine if you're a plant. There's no way to know if you're the real deal, even if Arthur does say that this Doyle guy has the best algorithms on the planet. The League has been targeting us. You could be an assassin."
I nodded. "The whole scene back there, it could have been a setup to get me on the inside. To take out Arthur. Still: I'm not a very good candidate for an assassin."
"I told them the same thing," she agreed. "You're too public. I mean, you're from Yemen. You throw up red flags just by existing. And you're the daughter of somebody on the Senate Intelligence Committee? Someone who's a friend of Arthur's? You're only useful if you're disposable, and you're only available if you're brainwashed. Are you brainwashed?"
"Not yet. Doyle was giving it a go." At her blank look, I quickly explained the subsonics.
Vivian narrowed her eyes. "That was a fucking stupid idea. We want you to trust us, but supposedly we respect you enough to trust you with the keys to the kingdom. Trying to scramble your brains because we're pressed for time... sloppy."
"What if we're looking at this wrong? Maybe Doyle was trying to brainwash you. Any weird feelings for someone who 'had a striking impact on you'?"
It was Vivian's turn to arch an eyebrow. It took a long time. "He wants to see striking impacts, he should try it again."
"Don't be too hard on him. It was Watson's idea."
"His little computer?" Vivian scoffed. "He should leave intelligence work to the professionals."
I smiled. "You mean like developing me like an asset? Yeah, you're doing a better job of it so far. But since you have to get me to trust you, that means you have to answer some of my questions, even if you are trying to control the dialogue and keep this about me." She stiffened imperceptibly, and I smiled. "That's right: I know what you're doing. So let's do it. Make me believe you."
"Heh," she sniggered. "You said, 'let's do it.' All right, all right," she waved away my glare, once-blank eyes twinkling. "You're going to ask about Doyle. He showed up yesterday, a couple hours after Gwen Drake was found. Arthur's given him full access to everything."
"If Arthur wants his wife's murder solved, he'd call in the best, right? Sherlock Holmes is the best. But you guys aren't the trusting sort. How does Arthur know Doyle isn't sleeping with the enemy?"
Vivian shook her head. "I don't know. He trusts Doyle, but won't say why. At least, not to me."
She... that last bit... she didn't have to say that. She hesitated ever so slightly before she did. She said that for you. Ask, and watch what she says carefully.
"Are you and Arthur on the outs?" I tried.
She shrugged - a little too casually. I was having a hell of a time reading her, which was a first for me. Most people were open books. Doyle had been harder to gauge than the so-called "bit players", but I'd still been able to glean what he was all about. Vivian... she was so guarded. Blank. It was nearly impossible to tell what she was letting slip, and what she wanted me to think she was letting slip.
"I'm the new girl," she answered. "I've been at the Agency a while, but I only came back to Headquarters a few weeks ago. Arthur's orders - my PCS got cut short. I hadn't heard about Personae a month ago. Arthur was the one who told me about Personae, New Camelot, all that stuff. It made a lot of sense, after he told me. I've always had an... effect on people."
"Probably has something to do with how you take your coffee," I said.
"I've been a very good girl since I got back," she said. "I haven't slept with any of Arthur's boys. Not even a blow job!"
"How unbelievably chaste," I deadpanned. "You deserve a real pat on the backside."
"Yes, please," she grinned. "My battery budget is through the roof. But even on my best behavior, I'm still working in a support department. I don't get to play with the boys and their toys."
"Who does that leave you playing with? Battery-operated devices aside."
"Meh. The usual. Reports. Metadata. Everything you can know about a bad man from ten thousand miles away." She sneered. "Not how he smells when he sweats."
"You have weird fetishes," I replied. "Why aren't you getting your dose of bad guy B.O.?"
"Best guess? There's no Merlin."
I stared at her for a minute, gathering my thoughts. "There's no Merlin in this New Camelot?"
"Doesn't leave anybody for me to vamp on and steal his magic, does it?" she answered. "That's what Vivian is supposed to do, according to the stories. Sex up the old man and take his power. Except he never showed."
"And Arthur is keeping you and your power-stealing sex away from his Merry Men," I finished.
"Wrong story. But yeah. There's nothing for a Vivian to do in this Camelot."
"And no one to do it to," I mused. I was sure I knew what and who Vivian was here to do, but I needed to test a theory. "Doyle's new in town. Does he do it for you?"
She made a face. "Too skinny. Do you think that's actually his real name?"
"It's how he introduced himself to me. But I mean, who knows?" She claims not to be interested in Doyle. Does she mean it? "Last name Holmes, first name the author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries? Who names their kid that?"
"People name their kids some awful things," Vivian grinned. "My first name's Irene. I'm sure my grandmother was a lovely woman, but please." She narrowed her eyes. "Tell anyone that and I will destroy you. It's my darkest secret."
I smiled. Excellent.
Vivian hadn't paused. "Anyway, back to thinking about my favorite topic: things that turn me on. I like my boys more like your coffee daddy."
I flushed. "He's not my-"
A slow smile spread over her lips. "You're really going to have to remove that stick if we're going to hang out. Not that I have problems with things in the ass, but I prefer it if they lead to happy endings."
For a moment, I had no idea how to respond. I'd never met anyone who talked like this. Sailors, maybe, but they were just trying to mess with you. Vivian owned it.
"Right. Um. So. What's your happy ending?" She raised an eyebrow as if to thank me for the opening, and I hastened to clarify. "What do you want to do here? What's a good outcome for you, personally?"
Her eyes searched my face for the dagger she was sure hid behind it. The question seemed to take her aback. Finding nothing she could object to, she almost didn't answer. Treachery, she understood. Sincerity, she did not.
Then she sighed. “I don’t know. I signed up here to catch bad guys. I mean, that’s what I want to do. You see that guy over there, the one young enough to know better than that bow tie? He was the one who put the pieces together on Umar al-Baddawi. You’ve never heard of Umar. That a-hole had a bomb ready to put onto a plane full of kids going to Disneyland. He’d picked the flight exactly for that reason. Bomb was undetectable. That guy over there is the reason that it never made it on board. Screw all this Camelot bullshit. I want to do that.”
“So do that! Don’t let Vivian define you. You define Vivian.”
“What are you, a talk show host? Guinevere will get to do whatever she wants. These guys already know who Vivian is, what her story is. They don’t trust me.”
“And Arthur calls all the shots at the CIA? I can’t believe that. No one man is that powerful; that’s what the bureaucracy is all about. My father told me that. He said it like it’s a good thing, and maybe he’s right.”
Vivian shrugged. “You've never heard Arthur talk. Maybe he is. He’s certainly the boss of me, according to the real world: he's the director of the counterterrorism center - the D/CTC. If I want to catch terrorists, I'll be doing it how he says.”
I frowned. “In the legends, Vivian finds her own way to power. It happens to be by stealing Merlin’s, but maybe that’s just a metaphor. Maybe you’re supposed to do your own thing, Arthur be damned.”
She grinned at me. “You sound just like her.” I blinked. “Swear to god, COPS - chief of operations; ridiculous acronym-ing of everything is a thing; get used to it - Gwen Drake told me the exact same thing, those exact words about her husband before…” Vivian swallowed. “Before some asshole killed her.”
“Yeah,” I gritted my teeth. “About that. Doyle just wants to let this go. Are you good with that?”
Her lip curled. “Arthur gave the same spiel to his knights at the morning briefing. ‘We have to let her go.’ He didn’t like it, but that’s who he is. He does things that he doesn’t like, because he thinks they’re right. It's part of what makes him good at catching bad guys.”
“Not what I asked.”
Her gaze was a knife, trying to cut me open to see if she could trust what she found. “Arthur and I don’t see eye to eye on everything. She was his fucking wife! She may have been realistic about his faults, but she loved him. Any idiot could see that. She deserves better than that from him. As far as what she deserves from me… I liked her. I think it’s bullshit that they’re letting people think the worst.”
“So what are we going to do about it?”
She looked at me appraisingly. “You’re the new hotness. You really want Gwen Drake’s legacy getting in your way?”
“Guinevere’s legacy is already in my way. What’s one more thing?” I shook my head. “I think Arthur and I aren’t going to see eye to eye on much.”
Vivian's eyes were right at my level. They gave me a long look. Then, with a grin, she exclaimed, "You saucy little minx! Are you a rebel? Oh, they aren't going to like that!"
I grinned right back. "Call me a petulant teenager, then. I've never even kissed a boy, and they think I'm going to marry a guy who widowed his wife yesterday? Somebody who's apparently friends with my dad?" I snorted, did my best Valley Girl impression. "As if."
Vivian giggled. "Yeah, wouldn't that be an awkward Senate hearing? 'Hi Leo, nice to see you again, your daughter has a great rack.' I'm sure that would go over well."
I blushed, but she shook her head eagerly. "No, really. It is a nice rack. Very perky. What kind of bra are you wearing? Arthur's going to be all, 'oooh, booooobs'! I can't wait. Should we go up there right now and show him? Oh, come on," she wheedled, "I'll show him mine too if it makes you feel better."
I felt the flush extend down to my toes, possibly past them. "Cut it out," I snapped. "Your call on flashing your boss, but Arthur is just going to have to wait on my boobs, nice or not."
"Oh, don't get all cranky. I'm just messing with you. Apparently you think I should be showing my goods off to Doyle." She stuck her tongue out. "Now we're even."
I couldn't help laughing. Vivian wasn't... malicious, not really. She'd just found a soft spot and couldn't stop poking it.
"All right, all right, fair enough. Except..." I sighed. "Except it isn't, really, because apparently it's my fate to be with Arthur. Isn't that how this works? I'm Guinevere, and he's Arthur, so even if he's still sad about his wife, he's got to be with me?"
"I'm not sure," Vivian answered. "I think that's part of the gig, yeah. But Arthur told me we also have free will. It's not just that you're fated to be with him. It's also that you'll want to. If you're the real deal, anyway."
I raised an eyebrow. "We'll see. What else am I in for? You said I can make people do what I want, even if I did somehow do it wrong earlier."
"It's not that you can make them do whatever you want. It's that the bit players - everybody who isn't a Persona - will treat you like Guinevere. They'll act like you're the queen, and you have every right to tell them what to do. They'll also be careful what they say around you, afraid that they'll anger you. It'll be more true with people who are Camelot-types, but if you focus on somebody, you can suck them into your story."
I waggled my eyebrows. "And you say you haven't slept with anybody in Camelot? They're all supposed to be ga-ga for Vivian, when she shows up."
She looked guilty for a second. "I... may have made a pass at Arthur. Not my finest moment! I'm over it! Don't look at me like that!" She held her hands up in mock self-defense.
I was leaning over the table at her, eyes narrowed. It was an aggressive, possessive posture. I straightened, as if catching myself.
"Right. Arthur, who I don't care about. Did you show him your boobs?"
She laughed in relief. "Almost. We may have had a few drinks up in Lance's vault, after al-Baddawi."
Good. She believes you were angry. She believes in Guinevere.
"Lance's vault? Is that on the second floor?"
She nodded. "Yeah. Lance Haran. Chief of the Operational Resources Group." Her voice dropped to a whisper, even in the middle of CIA Headquarters. "The ones who fly the Predators."
"Haran... Haran..." I closed my eyes for a moment. "Haran was Lot's father. In the Koran. Or the Old Testament, whatever. What?" I asked, at her incredulous stare.
"How do you know that?"
"Lot's one of the Prophets of Islam. How do you not know that?"
We looked at each other. Lance Haran. Haran, father of Lot, whose wife got turned into a pillar of salt. Lance-Lot.
Lancelot. A knight about to ride off to battle.
"Okay," Vivian heaved out a breath, "seriously. Have you been seeing people you know, but you don't know? Because Lancelot, Doyle Holmes... and that guy, over there, with the breakfast burrito... that guy, I swear to god I know him and not in just the I've-seen-you-in-the-hallway kind of way, but I don't. I have no idea who he is."
I nodded. "I think it's our Personae. They're recognizing other Camelot-types. I think he's a Percival-type."
"Because of how he's eating his burrito? I don't know," I replied. "Don't stare at him! Aw, now he thinks we're weirdos."
She looked askance at me. "Two hot women staring at you? Honey, boys don't think that's weird. They think that's what's supposed to happen."
"He looked away awfully fast."
"Some boys are like that. It's a fifty-fifty shot if you fuck them that they'll either be super awkward, or super attentive. Either way, needy after the deed's done. I'm trying to help you, here. Also, he's like twice your age. Not that that's a bad thing, because boys your age are crap in the sack. What?"
I glared. "I was implying that maybe he had an ulterior motive for watching us. Like," my voice dropped, "we caught him red-handed?"
She didn't miss a beat. "Yeah, I'd been thinking that, too. You've got to stop letting me mess with you so much. Those guys at the library: I'd seen most of them around. None of them had ever tried to kill me before."
Burrito-man stood up quickly, and we both tensed. She did it just like I did: without seeming to. Her movements didn't jerk, or slow down, or do anything different. But there was a sudden intensity behind them. If she'd been holding a glass of water, she would have shattered it, but the water would have been too scared to go anywhere.
Then the man turned and walked away from us without a glance. My eyes met Vivian's.
"So... I'm a queen who's supposed to marry somebody my dad's age, and there's a secret society of killers out there who could be literally anyone that I meet, and if they kill me, nobody is going to investigate it because apparently like a dozen people can get killed at CIA Headquarters within twenty-four hours and King Arthur can snap his fingers and Sherlock Holmes will sweep it under the rug. Is that about right?"
Vivian nodded, still uneasy. "When you put it like that, a nympho who thinks you've got nice tits isn't so bad, eh?"
I laughed weakly. "You can stay."
"You're only saying that because I'll throat-punch anyone who tries to hurt you."
"Aww, you're sweet. I'm also saying that because I love your lipstick. Where'd you get it?"
She looked up and to the left. "Uh... I think from a Japanese diplomat's bathroom. And no, I know what you're thinking, and I did not fuck him. I did help him choose a good set of heels to match the dress he was wearing. So there."
"They'll make an honest woman of you yet."
She scoffed. "Not likely. But I'm going to give a good report about you to Arthur."
"Does that mean you trust me?"
She smiled, with her teeth. "I don't trust anybody. But I do like you. Since I tend to prefer people with serious personality defects, that's probably a bad sign for Arthur. But it also means I'll help you out."
"Do you know any heels that will go with a green blazer?"
"Oh, are you also a cross-dresser? How is it that you all have bigger boobs than me? Anyway, Lance will be thrilled!"
Ah. Yeah. Lancelot. How did one look one's future husband in the eye, when everybody knew you'd be sleeping with his best friend within a week?
She saw my hesitation, and softened. "Too soon?"
I nodded. "I guess I'll cross that bridge when I come to it."
She smiled. "Trust me: it won't be a problem."
Her eyes flickered up behind me and latched onto something. She didn't show any alarm, nor did she go blank like she had before, when the burrito man had made sudden moves. She took a long sip of her coffee, and I saw for the first time that there was a piece of a napkin stuck to the bottom of it. It had a phone number on it.
The handwriting: jagged, cramped. Numeral one slants to the left and the two zeroes are non-uniform. Written with the non-dominant hand, under the table. Small white flecks at the edges: the napkin is secured to the bottom of the cup with foamed milk residue that had been left on her fingers. She hadn't decided to give this number when she walked into the room, but made the decision within sixty seconds of licking it off of her fingers, before it dried. When she revealed that she wasn't sure about New Camelot: she committed then. That means she was being forthright about her wavering allegiance, and that Arthur doesn't suspect it. She chose to make herself vulnerable. This number is important to her. Arthur doesn't know about it.
I memorized it instantly.
"Doyle Holmes," Vivian purred as I felt a presence behind me. She leaned back, pushing a chair out with her foot. She was wearing cream, open-toed shoes, with her nails finished in a French manicure style. The heels were four inches long, and as her leg slid out from her pants, I saw the reptilian tip of a tail tattooed on her leg. The sight of it made the mind wander up that leg, higher...
She flicked her toes with a pop, and the chair lurched toward Doyle. He and I both jumped. We had been staring.
Doyle steadied himself quickly, adjusting the gift-wrapped package that he held under his arm. "No thank you, Miss-"
"Vivian," she admonished. "I insist."
His back straightened, and he didn't sit. "Do you?" he murmured. "Very well, Vivian, Arthur is looking forward to your report. I trust all was as I promised you it would be?"
"Oh, I do look forward to giving Arthur my report. Yes, Doyle, our new Gwen is just fine. No surprises whatsoever."
Doyle's eyes widened, and darted to me for a second. "I hardly think-" he started, but Vivian kept right on going.
"As you predicted, she was grateful when it was clear that New Camelot would protect her in the wake of an attack on her person. She was - what was your word? - overawed at discovering her role as Guinevere, and is excited to meet her Arthur. She looks forward to doing whatever she can to assist our efforts. Isn't that right, my queen?"
A false report, stroking Doyle's ego by confirming his predictions while simultaneously shaming him in front of the subject of those predictions. She is helping Doyle relax about you, but she is also antagonizing him. She is also showing you that she intends to make good on her promise to ingratiate you to Arthur. Interesting. Why is she so motivated to help you?
Doyle did practically beg to be antagonized. "Oh, yes," I nodded eagerly. "I've been so impressed by Vivian's stewardship, I'm thinking of recommending her to Arthur as a confidant and counselor... what with there being no Merlin in Camelot. Don't you think she'd make a great advisor? I do."
Doyle's eyes narrowed at us both. "I see that you've been getting to know one another. I look forward to hearing all about your discussion."
"What-" Vivian started, but she stopped as I began at the same time. She smiled, and inclined her head in deference.
"What, no drone reading our lips?" I jutted my chin out at him.
His lips did a smile-thing that was not actually a smile. "No, I trust that Arthur's people know how to do their jobs. I'm sure that Vivian made an exemplary queen-sitter while I did mine. The Library has been documented, and Watson is crunching the numbers. We will soon know all that can be learned about our attackers."
He stepped behind my chair, moving as if to help pull it out behind me. "While he works, Gwen and I should spend some time together. I have so many questions, after all, and we have a busy day ahead of us. There's the hearing to get to." I could hear the smugness in his voice as he told Vivian, "Arthur does look forward to reading your report, but he very much would like to meet this young woman himself."
My heart skipped a beat.
"We're... we're going to see Arthur?" I stood up quickly, and Doyle smoothly pulled the chair from behind me, as he'd intended. I looked up at him, and his dark eyes shone with excitement.
"Indeed. He's testifying in a small matter your father may have mentioned..."
"What, on the Hill? Politics?" I frowned. "I hate politics. They're so boring!"
I could hear Vivian's smile. "Won't she make a fun Guinevere!"
She also stood. Her face was blank again as she looked me up and down. Then she nodded. "You kids have a fun time today. I'll go write my little report. Maybe I'll have Lance review it before I turn it in. I'll bet Lancelot gets a kick out of my report on how to handle Guinevere."
Doyle seemed oblivious to her attempts to bait him. "Rush hour is clearing," he announced. "We shouldn't have any trouble on the road."
I caught Vivian's eye. "Thanks for getting me coffee," I told her. A known untruth, signifying that the next thing you say will also be untrue. Initiating coded conversation. "I'm sure Doyle will take good care of me from here."
She inclined her head in understanding. "I think you can count on him to look out for you. He'll stay close. It's good to have someone you can call on for help if you need it."
She doesn't trust Doyle to keep you safe, but she will stay close. To be helpful? Or appear trustworthy so that you will not question her motives? Intriguing that she believes that you are capable of memorizing a phone number flashed surreptitiously for a half-second. Most would not normally assume that Guinevere would be so perceptive.
I smiled at her, then Doyle. "I seem to have found myself in good hands. Shall we, Mr. Holmes?"
He extended an arm. "After you, your Highness."
I felt Vivian's eyes on my back the whole way out of the cafeteria. Our interaction had left me unsettled. If anything, I had more questions than I'd had when we walked in here. Who was this woman, really? Why did she want to help me? For that matter, what was Doyle's agenda, really? What had I gotten myself into?
As we made our way out of the large room, I heard Mort's words echo in my memory: Don't rely on Sherlock: he can't see me coming.
I was certain of only one thing: I wasn't out of danger yet. Nowhere close to it.

Chapter 04: The Five Poker Chips
"Where are you going?" Doyle asked, eyebrow arched. As I made a left turn out of the cafeteria towards the parking lot, he was standing with his arms crossed impatiently, leaning right.
"To my car," I replied with a glance over my shoulder, not stopping. "You coming?"
"I've arranged transportation," he called at my retreating form. "It's safer if we use my... will you wait?"
"No," I answered. "I'm the queen. You can keep up."
Vivian thought that I hadn't been acting like Guinevere. I wasn't going to make the same mistake with Doyle.
He hot-footed it behind me and caught me by the arm. He started to say something, but he froze when I began shouting.
"Help! This man is trying to hurt me! Someone get Security!"
Everything. Stopped. For a moment, the loudest sound was Doyle's sharp intake of breath. I glared at him, and whispered under my breath, "What part of the Sherlock Holmes story lets you magic away an assault charge? It'll take Arthur and his pals a while to fix this, and they'll never let you live it down. We'll definitely miss the hearings... or you will."
He let me go.
"Sorry, sorry!" I called out to our growing audience. "Misunderstanding!"
Motion slowly resumed around us in the hallway, but all eyes were on us - penetrating even the aura of the green blazer. People glared suspiciously at Doyle.
His hand still lingered in the air between us. Slowly, he withdrew it.
"Yes," he whispered, face flushed. "Misunderstanding."
"You're damn straight," I hissed. "Lay a hand on me again and see if I don't clear things up more explicitly."
Doyle was also heated. "No: the misunderstanding was yours. I am trying to help you not die. Do you realize that any one of the people in this hallway could belong to the League? What would you do if they came after you? We need to control as many variables as we can, and that means we don't rely on any vehicle that we haven't had under our control since before Gwen Drake died and you appeared. Unless you think that they couldn't have planted a bomb on your engine block? You have to trust me."
Too much? A little too much. Guinevere would be proud enough to need to back this down without losing face, though.
"Bullshit I have to trust you!" I hissed. "You couldn't keep a half-dozen guys with red gloves and guns out of the most secure facility in the world! What makes you think that they couldn't get to your car? And anyway," I added, somewhat lamely, "we're not going to my car to drive it. We're going to get my dog. You think I want to deal with traffic?"
"Your-" he started, and then he shook his head with a little smile. "You are Guinevere. You realize we are going to the Capitol building, correct?”
“You realize that my father is a Senator, correct?” I retorted. “I get kind of a free pass. Also I apparently have super powers. I’ll leave him with Phil.”
A brief pause. “Your father’s chief of staff.” He laughed. “He won’t like that.”
“He’ll love it,” I corrected. “Phil’s my biggest fan. What are these hearings about, again?”
Doyle started to explain, but I had about as much luck following him as I’d had when my father had gone on about them a few nights ago. As far as I was concerned, politics were somewhere between astronomy and Russian literature in their utter uselessness. My parents had stopped taking me to political rallies when my tendency to ask inconvenient questions had shown up in front of too many cameras. I was thirteen, and hadn't paid attention to that stuff ever since.
Today's hearings... my dad had been worried about them, because that other senator, the one from the... other... party? (Hadn't my father switched parties once?) Rance, wasn't it? He was doing something diabolical, possibly involving budgets. (Probably budgets; everything was budgeting.) If the CIA guys didn't say what Daddy needed them to say, then... something?
Ugh. Politics. Did these people seriously believe I was Guinevere? I was definitely not cut out to be a queen.
Doyle kept talking while we walked, happier now that we were more or less back to his plan. Unbidden, my mind started identifying the personae of the bit players around us as we walked. I counted four definite Lancelot-types on the way out, and one woman who I was certain was an Arthur type. It was interesting that so many Camelot types had been attracted to this place.
There were other types as well. It was only after a tall man with dark, slicked-back hair rushed past me into the entrance, shielding his eyes from the sun that it clicked: Dracula. I did a double-take as he retreated into the building: dressed in a black suit, pale, but with an aristocratic bearing. He'd been almost snarling at the bright morning light, and I'd caught a glimpse of canines that were just a little too sharp to be normal. He wasn't the Dracula, not the Persona, but the resemblance to the picture I had of that bloody Count in my mind was uncanny.
I slowed my pace as I passed the Berlin Wall, crossing onto the West German side once again.
"Strains the mind, does it not?" Doyle matched my slowed pace, and we paused for a moment.
Doyle gestured vaguely with his free hand at the people who walked past us into and out of the building. "All of them, containing elements of some greater truth. Were the souls of some great beings shattered, to be collected into each of us in tiny fragments? Did Homer, and Virgil, and my own namesake tell stories that reflected a greater, older truth? Honestly, we don't know. We don't know why. We only know what is."
He coughed. “Your highness.” I nodded as regally as someone who’d spent a year with the Fairfax County High Thespian Society could manage.
“It won’t do to have Guinevere meet Arthur dressed like that.“ He handed me the package that he had been carrying. It was wrapped in twine and tissue paper, but the clever knot pulled open with a light tug. The package held a conservative black dress, the sort that fit any occasion. I could tell at a glance that it would fit me perfectly. It was even bra-friendly.
“Tell me there’s not underwear somewhere in there,” I quipped.
He shook his head furiously. “No, I would never-“
“Good,” I smiled. “Because I don’t wear underwear.”
The look on his face suggested that maybe Vivian really was onto something with the way she talked. I laughed.
“I’m kidding. Thank you. Next time you’re going to give me something to slip into, maybe do it while we’re still near a bathroom?”
He frowned. “The car I called has a privacy screen for you. Whatever else you may think of me, I’m not trying to get you naked. I am trying to protect you, which is much harder to when you're in the bathroom, unless I follow you in.”
"What, so I don't get to pee until the Red Handed League is defeated?"
"Only in safe places," he affirmed. "Don't try to go all 'queen' on me, either, because my orders to keep you safe come all the way from the top."
"Mr. Holmes, I am the top. Arthur can get used to it, and so can you. As for my bladder, it is at present not in conflict with your risk-averse interpretation of your orders. I'll leave you to wonder when that will change, and how you will react to urine on your shoes."
He raised a placating eyebrow. “Are you always this difficult?"
I grinned, and started walking again. "Are you always this stodgy? Tell me how you had this dress ready for me on zero notice: it'll make you feel better."
"Ah," he brightened, long legs easily matching my stride. "My contact lenses have passive photoreceptors that act essentially like a stereoptic camera over my eyeballs. Watson can obtain precise scans of objects in the environment if I move around even a little bit. I had your measure the moment I laid eyes on you, so to speak.”
Others have thought as much, said my inside voice. I am, after all, a master of disguise.
Doyle carried on, unaware. “After that, it was a simple matter of posting your measurements to a task completion site and offering the appropriate sum of money to the first person who could bring back the specified dress. Watson is delegated to approve any transactions under a hundred thousand dollars, and this only cost eight thousand and fifty-three dollars and seventeen cents."
"I'm sorry: you paid eight thousand dollars for this dress?" I sputtered.
"It's a nice dress. And I needed it quickly. And my net worth as of this morning was in the tens of billions of dollars. I have some intellectual property related to Watson, particularly in the realm of unstructured data analysis that has proven quite profitable to internet search companies and marketers."
"It's not an eight thousand dollar dress," I insisted.
He looked at me sharply. "But it is here, now. You spend money to make money, and I'm useful to Arthur because I can get things done."
"How much did it cost to clean up the library?"
"Considerably less. Several of the Knights are well-positioned in the Security office. Had we actually gone there after your little display in the hallway, I think you would have been surprised at how quickly matters would have been resolved."
I shivered. It was unsettling to realize how thorough New Camelot's apparatus was. They could just wave their hands, and inconvenient things like murder would disappear. And these were the good guys!
We'd made our way into the parking lot and were wending our way through the rows of parked cars. I'd had less parking luck today than when I'd stolen Gwen Drake's spot the day before, so the Audi was parked a few spaces from the last in the aisle. I'd left the windows down - the air conditioning was on, but no fresh air at all had seemed cruel - so I was still a good hundred feet off when I heard the muffled barking.
Tense, anxious: a warning. Danger.
I was running before I was even aware of my body. I sprinted through the parking lot, plotting the fastest path between cars and squeezing through the tight spots without slowing. Doyle shouted after me and struggled to keep up, but I ignored him.
He wouldn't go after my dog, would he?
Of course he would. Of course-
I slid between two SUVs and the Audi came into view. Noseprints smeared the windshield, but the car was intact, inside and out. I saw Cavill on point, glaring out of the driver's side window. His body was a straight line from nose to tail, pointing at...
Close-cropped red hair and careful stubble; tattoo of sword and shield on forearm showing through sleeves rolled up - faded: maybe ten, fifteen years. Ex-military, but out for a while. Right-handed. Skin pallid, not enough sun: night shift for too long, but he's off it, because nobody on the night shift wears an expensive button-up and slacks. Knife through the carotid artery and windpipe at a slight downward angle, a straight thrust from a man of greater height, except the blood pattern on the sleeve suggests-
The dying man was still on his feet as I emerged into view. Blood gushed in wet spurts around a military tactical knife protruding from both sides of his windpipe. He saw me, and his eyes grew wide in recognition. Then he collapsed, first to his knees, then hands, then down fully.
He was gone.
A small circle slipped from nerveless fingers, rolling in my direction. I stepped on it, just before Doyle crashed up behind me. Cavill erupted into throaty barking seeing someone come up so fast, but I shushed him with my hands.
My mind was making connections automatically. "Doyle," I whispered, "that's Sir Kay, isn't it?"
He was frozen, staring at the body. "Y- yes," he stammered. "One of Arthur's platoon, from his Army days. One of his oldest friends."
I looked sharply at him. He wasn't all the way here, but I couldn't tell if he was interfacing with Watson or if he was in shock. "Doyle. Doyle. Are you up in the air here? A drone?" He mumbled something, and I shook him. "The murderer, Doyle! He has to still be here! This just happened! He's still here!"
To his credit, Doyle snapped out of it immediately. He whispered under his breath, and his eyes scanned around us. I could see flickers of light tracing off of them: his contact lenses also had some sort of heads-up display.
"Nobody," he hissed. "There's nobody. Twelve people within a hundred yards... patterns of movement indicate nothing unusual: they're just headed to work. No one headed towards us, nor away at any speed. Scanning out to the fence line..." A pause. "Nothing. Nothing at all. Nobody hiding under a car; I'd see it on thermal. There are a few warm engine blocks, but nothing anyone could have gotten to fast enough, not to mention that the clearance under most vehicles doesn't actually allow for a human to hide..."
We both had the same thought, with the Audi humming away to keep Cavill cool in the warm summer's morning. Doyle dropped to the ground before I could stop him, and reached the same conclusion that I had: "Nobody here."
Nobody? Impossible.
Out loud I only said, "Just poor Kay."
Doyle pulled himself into a crouch to examine the body, muttering about "the improbable". Quickly, I reached down to pull the object from under my shoe. A poker chip, with the handwritten word "Missing" on it. A man's writing, hasty; sleep-deprived, having trouble in the morning sun. Conclusion: the deceased. I slipped it into a pocket.
Carefully, Doyle rolled Kay over. I couldn't tear my eyes off of the knife. There was something about the angle… the way his right hand was covered in blood, but not his left. He had no cuts on his palms: he hadn't been trying to ward off a knife blow. He had no other injuries.
A person stabbed through the neck claws at the weapon with both hands: anything to get the foreign object out. The victim has blood on only one hand. He resisted using both hands to dislodge the blade... or never made any attempt to do so, and instead got the blood on his right hand when he-
His right hand. Red blood. Red-handed.
He did this to himself. He stabbed himself in the neck.
This body was a message meant for me: Anyone, anywhere. Even someone in Arthur's inner circle.
The next dagger could come from anywhere. I looked around: there were at least eight other people in the parking lot. No one looking at us, but...
"Doyle," I hissed. "There's no time to get to your ride. We've got to get out of here. Now."
He paused only a moment, to pass his hand over Kay's face, closing his eyes. "Rest easy," he whispered.
"Back seat," I snapped at him. He started to protest, but I cut him off. "How are you going to protect me if you're busy driving?"
He got in.
Cavill was still switched on and anxious, but I swear he grinned at me as I slid into the driver's seat. Doyle got a few whacks from a furiously-wagging tail as he squeezed himself into the back, but he bore them without complaint. The air in the car was redolent with dog breath, but at least there were no fouler aromas: Cavill's bowels had borne his imprisonment stoically enough.
I tossed the dress on the passenger seat and reached for a bottle of water that I had in the console. As a rule, I hated to disturb a crime scene, but it was starting to become a habit. I poured it into the puddle of blood pooling around the Audi's tires, and kicked the car into gear. I looked in my rear view as we drove off. The tire tracks we made through Kay's blood had already begun to fade, diluted with water on the hot pavement. It was far from perfect, but should make it a little tougher on any investigators to match my car to the scene.
"It's thicker than water," Doyle nodded approvingly. "Good thinking, highness. No need for anyone to know we were here." I could see him studying me in the rearview mirror. "You handled yourself well there."
I rather agreed. “Not so helpless as you’d imagined?”
“The damsel was less distressed than advertised,” he agreed. “I’ll try to make sure you have no further need to steel yourself thus.”
“Oh, good. You're not going to try to kill me? You can stay.” I eased us out of the CIA compound and turned left onto Route 123. Just as it had been the last time I’d fled a crime scene, no one so much as motioned for us to slow down.
As we drove toward the GW Parkway, Doyle and I were alone. Time to feel him out.
“So that man, Sir Kay… he and Arthur were close?”
“Yes. Kay has a… storied history in the Arthurian tales, but we'd managed to avoid reliving the worst of the stories about Kay thus far. None of the fights, none of the buffoonery. Kay doesn't get the easiest treatment in most of the stories, but we were getting Camelot right. Now... and so soon after Guin- your predecessor... it will be hard on everyone."
"There's not another Kay waiting in the wings?"
"Somewhere, yes. But we haven't found him. He may not even be far: where many of us avatars gather, others tend to congregate. We may get lucky." He hesitated. "But frankly, we don't need Kay for Camelot to succeed. In many of the legends, he breaks camp with Arthur anyway. If you were going to pick one of the knights to murder, he would be the least disruptive to our plans. Not like a Guinevere. We had to know where she was, in case the worst happened."
A chill ran through me. "Do... do you have, what, backup copies of all of us, ready to reboot if there’s a problem? Another Arthur? Another Lancelot?"
"Yes," he said simply. “I have a database of likely candidates. It’s near-impossible to tell until they are tested, but I’ve had an eighty-seven percent success rate in predicting Persona emergences in the past. Camelot is too important not to survive us.”
I frowned in the rearview. “So devoted to New Camelot? I thought you were new in town.”
“I am. But I’ve worked for Arthur for longer than that. He’s the preeminent champion of justice in all of literature. He brought about the concept of Might for Right. Sherlock Holmes is nothing if not a pursuer of justice.”
Nothing, indeed.
He went on. “So, yes, we do have others who will step in, if need be. But honestly... I don't know how many more we can lose, even if we do bring the next Arthur, or next Lancelot in. We're on the knife's edge, my lady. We're trying to get the story right this time, to bring about real peace and justice for the world. But it's not as easy as it sounds. Arthur may be eternal, but opportunities are fleeting. It might be centuries more before we could recreate the circumstances we face today."
"So I'm not expendable?"
"Hah. Very much no. Any of the knights will defend you with their lives. As will I. Holmes may not be part of Arthur's legend, but he is certainly one of its heirs. Holmes protects people. How better than to do so on a grand scale than to bring a place of true peace into the world?"
I cocked my head. “But what if I screw it up? What if I’m not a good Guinevere?”
“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, and we’ll see a brave new world.”
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 that things will be different, just because they are involved. But we are our stories: things are never different.”
“Except that isn't what you actually believe. You think that this time you’re getting Camelot right. No one is afraid that Lancelot and I are going to…”
I drifted off as we merged onto the Parkway, trees to our right, a river to the left. My eyes focused on something in the rearview.
“Knock it off with that, please. Just call me Gwen. And, it’s nothing. Have you already gotten us seats at the hearings, or should I call?"
I could feel him smile without looking. "Already taken care of. We have two saved for us in the back."
"In the back? You should have let me call. All right, eyes sideways, mister." I popped off my seatbelt and began unbuttoning my top. Tinted windows were a good thing.
"Are you--"
“We’re going to be running late for the hearings as it is. This isn’t my first time at the Capitol: it’s going to be a pain to change there, and I’ll just have to keep track of this stupid green jacket anyway. No, I’ll change here.” My eyes focused on the rearview mirror, and the car that was clearly following us. “This won’t take more than a minute. Don’t tell my dad. And stop looking.”
Doyle was about to protest again. "Royal. Command. Also, driver rules. Shut it and look somewhere else. Go play with Watson or something."
He sighed and I could see in the rearview that he was dutifully averting his eyes. I wriggled out of my shirt and bra, and glanced down at the dress in the seat next to me. It wasn't too covered in dog hair yet, but Cavill was excitedly squirmy.
Doyle's voice came tense from the back seat: "We've got a tail. Three back, left lane."
Very good, Sherlock.
“A tail? Like, someone coming after us? I’m half-naked up here!”
“You have tinted windows. I’d be less worried about your modesty than about your life,” was his 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? You're going to dive-bomb them? But there are other people on the road!"
He half-turned towards me, and I shouted at him: “Eyes!”
He whipped back around and muttered something under his breath to Watson. To me, angrily: “I will try to keep others out of the blast radius, but this debate is wasting time! Unless I can mark where I need the drone to strike, we will be very dead in thirteen seconds! Men are coming to kill you!"
“Men,” I spat. With my breasts so exposed, I was suddenly very conscious of the distinction. He would try? Was he seriously about to have an armed drone conduct an airstrike ten feet away from us? With other cars on the road?
I slammed on the brakes. The car jolted, and my elbow hit the window button. Warm summer air rushed into the cabin.
Cavill skidded from his perch on the front seat into the footwell, and Doyle practically fell into my lap. "What are you--?" he started, but I shouted him down.
"Back! Seat! Eyes!" I elbowed him as hard as I could until he retreated to the back seat.
With my sudden change in speed, the tail car raced up next to us, and its passengers and I got a very good look at one another. The men coming to kill me were really just a couple of guys. One was a little pudgy, thick sideburns, a loosened tie. The driver was young, maybe three or four years on me, wearing a pink polo.
Both had red gloves and guns.
But neither were pointing anything at me, yet. The two men just stared, faces a mixture of shock and admiration. This wasn’t the reception they had been expecting.
I twisted slightly to give them a better view, and waved.
"Hi there!" I shouted. "Assholes."
I shifted my torso in and down, at the same time nudging the Audi close enough to their car that our mirrors almost touched. Next to me, a tensed-up ball of nerves exploded. Cavill hurtled to the window like a pissed-off missile, snarling and barking, foam flecking his lips.
The driver flinched. He jerked the wheel, 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.
I couldn’t see a damn thing and barely had a grip on the steering wheel. As soon as I saw the tail flash across my rear view, I leaned into the brake as hard as I dared. The antilock brakes shuddered under my foot, and we pulled to a smooth stop in the right lane.
Wrapping the dress awkwardly around my chest, I jumped out of the car before Doyle could untangle himself in the back seat. Cavill hopped lightly down beside me.
I looked behind us to see if anyone else was planning to join the fracas. If the traffic could talk, it would have said something along the lines of, “what in the immortal fuck?” Cars were stopped dead, people staring.
But this was DC and they had stuff to do. A ways back, a horn honked. The people who were in front started creeping around the Audi after making sure I didn’t have any imminent plans to send any of them off the road, either.
I ran toward the crashed car, thanking my drama teacher as ever for the lessons on moving in heels. Cavill shot ahead of me and leapt up on the smoking hood in a single bound. He planted two big paws on the spiderwebbed windshield and suggested with the tilt of his head and his ears that he would dearly love to make new friends with the spleen of anyone foolish enough to move quickly. He didn’t bark, just stared.
I tore the driver’s side door open. The men inside were not doing well. The fat man's right wrist had been snapped just above his red glove, and not the way you break your wrist when you fall on it wrong. I saw bone. Blood streamed freely from his forehead, pouring around his left hand that he was using to try to stanch the flow. He had not been wearing his seat belt.
The gunshot wound in the younger man's thigh, where the fat man's weapon had discharged before he'd had a chance to drop it, looked tame by comparison. Polo boy had both hands wrapped around his leg, and you couldn’t tell which hand had the glove and which was just soaked in blood. He looked for all the world as if he'd wished he'd learned valuable moral lessons a little earlier in life.
"Guns make my dog really anxious," I apologized. "Do you want to exchange insurance information?"
Then I noticed the two poker chips in the cup holder.
"'Scuse me," I leaned in very close to the younger of the two, doing my level best not to dip my makeshift boob coverage into anything that looked biological. I snagged the chips, and slid back out of the car. The young guy was starting to go into shock, and the fat man was incoherent. I sighed, resisted the urge to make some pithy remark about having flashed them, and sauntered back to the car from which Doyle had finally extricated himself.
“What are you doing?” he roared at me.
“Jeez, I was making sure those guys were okay,” I retorted. “We were just in an accident.”
“An- Get in the car.” His tone was worthy of Guinevere herself. “Back. Seat. I am driving the rest of the way.”
For once, I didn’t argue. I slid in the open rear door, and Cavill hopped in behind me. Doyle closed the door behind us with a slam, and then squeezed into the front seat. He tore away and into traffic, whipping the Audi ferociously forward.
“Seven separate calls describing the accident!” he spat. “Including descriptions of this car. I just dropped three thousand dollars to have a new vehicle waiting for us in a parking garage in Rosslyn. We can’t keep driving this. I’ll have someone take it back to your residence this evening.”
He shook his head. “I just cannot understand what you were thinking! I had the situation under control.”
“Yeah, a drone strike is ‘under control’,” I muttered, shrugging my way back into the bra that I’d found in the back seat. He didn’t seem to hear me.
“This is what we get for bringing you in so quickly. You’re a child. It’s partially my fault, for expecting you not to act like such a clueless princess!”
Doyle kept barking. After sliding the dress down over my torso, I buckled in. Discreetly, I slipped the poker chips out and looked at them. "You" and "Is". "Missing you is..."
“Did you hear me?” he asked, still in lecture mode.
“Hm?” I asked, all innocence. “I’m sorry, I stopped listening somewhere around ‘blah blah blah thank you, Gwen, everything turned out totally fine!’ You did say thank you, didn’t you? You’ve still got an expensive drone in the air and didn’t accidentally kill a bunch of people on the road thereby causing massive media attention, thanks to me.”
His eyes in the rearview looked like he might really lose it, but he squeezed them shut for a moment and took a deep breath.
“Um,” I started, “don’t you kind of need to see in order to drive?”
Through gritted teeth, he explained: “There’s a drone overhead… thanks to you. I have a perfectly clear view.” He took another breath, and opened his eyes.
"I also have a clear view from another eye in the sky of the corpse of a good man, which has just been discovered by CIA Security. This comes a day after another death, also one of our number. Two deaths of Personae, so quickly? This is not the first time in history that a Persona has sought the deaths of his own kind. There is a fanciful legend of dark times when many Personae die suddenly. The 'Blood Sacrifice', it is called. It is said that one of our ranks ascends to a kind of godhood… but at the expense of the old order. It appears that someone believes the legend. New Camelot is assembled all in one place: the largest gathering of our kind in a century. Someone thinks us to be easy prey.
“You have to understand. My drones don’t matter. Those people driving back there don’t matter. You matter. You are Guinevere, and you must live. Arthur's coronation will happen soon. We've planned this for generations. The Once and Future King will ascend to the throne, and we can start to heal the world. Make wrongs right. Bring civilization and justice and Might for Right to the whole of mankind.
"If you die, none of that is possible. None of the other Guinevere candidates I’ve found have half the promise that you do. You are perfect. Do you understand? Do you see how important you are? Without you as Guinevere, New Camelot doesn’t stand a chance. The world will just…” He shook his head, and met my eyes again in the rearview.
“Gwen, do you think the world is a nice place?”
Memory: I willed the fires and smoke to unwind, to retreat back up to the unforgiving sky...
I shivered. “Not really.”
“Do you want to make it better?”
I nodded. “Y- yes.”
“Me too. And to do that, you have to be careful. You have a good heart, to be concerned even about men who were trying to hurt you. But 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’s being earnest. He believes it.
“That’s some speech,” I said. I sighed. “Look, I’m not trying to jam you up, and I definitely don’t want to die. This… this is all a bit much for me. I’m not used to thinking in terms of acceptable collateral damage.”
He nodded. “It’s… distasteful. And I swear, as soon as we have a moment’s peace, I will come up with a more sound operational plan for your security. But things are very fluid right now, and I would very much like your help in ensuring that you remain safe. Here,” he suggested, “I will make you an offer. If we ever find ourselves in a similar situation, where you need to make sure that someone is all right, just tell me. I promise to do it for you. I promise to take on any danger for you, as long as it keeps you safe.”
“That’s bizarrely sweet. All right,” I agreed. “You have a deal.”
“If it makes you feel any better, the men who were in that car have been attended by the police. They are in stable medical condition, and they are not saying anything about you to law enforcement.”
“Well, that’s 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, Mr. Holmes. Look in my eyes. Believe it.”
He looked. And he did believe. I could see the crinkle of a smile at the edges of his eyes, though.
Missing you is…
One word left. Apparently we weren't done for the day.
We pulled off of the Parkway in Rosslyn, just outside of the District. Outside a nondescript parking garage, we swapped cars with a forty-ish woman who looked like she’d just come from yoga. Her luxury SUV smelled strongly of vanilla. She raised an eyebrow when she saw Cavill, but apparently three grand bought a certain amount of “no questions asked”. And pet stain remover.
I left the poker chips in the Audi. Might need them later, but I didn’t want to have to keep track of them. Or worry about hiding them from my escort.
Doyle drove confidently, flowing smoothly through traffic. Every now and then he’d cut a merge close enough that we got honked at, but he paid it no mind. When I commented on it after the fourth time, he gestured skyward. “I have precise measurements of the spaces between the vehicles on the road, and an optimal path plotted to our destination, updated in realtime. We had sixteen inches there, and even assuming an abysmally slow reaction time, he had well over two seconds to correct his speed before we had a collision.”
“Do you have precise measurements of how terrifying you are? Because I would measure it somewhere around five hundred milli-stevens.”
He cocked his head. “Milli-stevens?”
“Yeah. You measure terrifyingness in units of Steven King, obviously. You're somewhere at The Stand level. Maybe Pet Semetary.”
“Obviously. Not It?”
“That represents absolute terrifyingness. Not even Steven King is that scary.”
He laughed, and for a while, the silence was easy.
Doyle’s eye in the sky 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 from lunch to have people leaving, but too far from the start of business to have people coming. The security guard didn't so much as look up from his crossword as we entered, which should have been a blessing given the fact that he was pretty definitely not supposed to let dogs into the building, even for Senators' daughters. I'd been planning on crossing that bridge when we came to it, but-
But someone had already burned it down. He was dead.
Blood rushed from my face. Another one… another death. My knees trembled, and I felt… empty. I dug my fingernails into my palm, but I couldn’t feel the pain. I couldn’t feel anything.
I'd met this man before, I was sure of it. "Stan", read the tag on his chest. He'd hailed my father as we walked in together at some point, and they'd exchanged a few words about their kids.
She's the best thing I've ever done, my father said in my memories. He'd smiled at me, and I'd had to stop him from ruffling my hair. Don't tell my wife.
Hah! Stan had a rich, full laugh. My girl's gonna be a doctor next year, can you imagine? My little baby girl... can't wait to see that day.
He hadn't.
Tears welled up in my eyes. Doyle slid around the desk, fingers feeling for a pulse to confirm the obvious. He looked up, met my gaze, and shook his head quietly.
"Are you all right? You're shaking."
"No!" I hissed in fury. "I'm not goddamn all right! This," I waved at Stan's body, "this was because of me. Someone is killing people just to send me a message. Just to let me know he can."
Doyle looked at me levelly. "The Red Handed League," he spat.
"He knew exactly where we'd be, back in the parking lot. Exactly. Just like you did. He knew down to the second when we'd get to the car, and how to evade your drones. He knew I'd check on the tail car, after it crashed. He knew we'd come through the back entrance to my father's office, instead of going straight to the hearings." I drew myself up and pointed a finger at his chest. "We both know who this is, don't we, Sherlock?"
The name hung in the air between us.
"How did he do it?" I whispered. I was shaking with 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. No kidding.
"Missing you is murder."
The tears pushed up then, and I choked on a sob. Helplessness. Anger. Guilt. The poker chip slipped from my fingers and rolled under the desk.
My fault. This is my fault.
For a second, my control slipped. Through the tears, I saw... everything.
Lips still full; skin still blanches and turns pink as Doyle touches him: he'd 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 didn't have a badge to get into the building, you didn't get in without putting your name in the book. There -- a sign in the corner, announcing that this entrance was closed. The dust... so eloquent! It clearly showed that the sign was now almost an inch from where it usually sat: it had been up in the doorway, directing would-be comers away from this area until the killer had moved it back, just moments before we'd arrived. Any sooner than that and someone else would have blundered in. The killer hadn't gone out through the door, or we'd have seen him pass us. We'd just missed him. He was still in the building. No -- he worked here. Someone Stan knew, trusted. Someone he'd let behind him, not knowing that he had a --
"Needle," Doyle announced triumphantly. "There's a mark on the neck, just here. Fast-acting poison, probably a neurotoxin. Given the placement, it would have gone straight through the carotid artery to the brain." He paused, softened. "He probably didn't suffer."
Sensations were still crashing into my brain, but with effort, I put them away, one by one. Doyle wore expensive cologne, masking a slight smell of ozone from whatever tech he had secreted about his body. Cavill's nails clattering on the floor as he sniffed the body. The dog cocked his head, and took off toward the inside of the building. He got to the door that Stan would have buzzed us through, and whined. His nose was twitching furiously.
Yes! I exulted. He's on the trail.
"Buzz us in," I commanded Doyle. "We've got a murderer to catch."
He eyed me grimly. "I'll go first. If anything happens, let me and the dog take care of it. Promise me."
I clenched my fists and nodded a lie at him. "I promise."
With a click, we were inside, racing after Cavill as he bounded down the halls. The Senate office buildings were... well, they were a lot like other office buildings, I supposed, with more flags. They bore little resemblance to the ornate wood paneling and marble of the official chambers.
Nevertheless, it was more than a little unusual to see a big dog running through the hallways, and the several people we encountered scrambled out of our way in surprised haste. We had one or two yells after us, but I ignored them. Not important. All that was important was finding...
Cavill had stopped in front of a door, a satisfied grin on his doggy face.
Oh. Oh, no.
"Leonard DeGrace", the door read. I shouldered Doyle out of the way.
"Dad!" I cried out, bursting through the door. "Dad, are you--?"
An office full of staffers looked on me in confusion. My father's chief of staff, Phil -- an Igor-persona, it figures -- straightened up from the desk he'd been bent over.
"Gwen? What the--?"
"Dad!" I gasped. "Where's my dad?"
"Honey, what's wrong?" The words were meant to sound tender, but they just amplified his obvious annoyance. Phil was thirty-two, no kids and a string of divorces already. He was a career right-hand-man who had no time for distractions and less time for those of us who distracted Senator DeGrace from whatever it was that Phil so fervently believed his boss was meant to be doing.
"I just--" I looked around. There was nothing out of the ordinary here. This was my dad's office, running just like it was supposed to. Except for the pit bull and freaked-out teenager in the middle of it.
I swallowed. "Um, sorry. I... really needed to see him about something."
Phil rolled his eyes without even realizing it. "Don't worry," he said, you snotty little brat. "We don't have the keys yet, but the apartment is all arranged," you annoying waste of time. "If you and, uh... the dog... could just come back later on?" Or never? "Or better yet, I'll text you the address, and have someone meet you there with the keys."
"Oh," I said, caught off guard. "Um... thanks? Sorry? But..." I saw the annoyance mounting again, and suddenly remembered. The apartment! Living on my own all of a sudden seemed terrifying.
Focus, Gwen. Focus on why we're here.
"My dad... is he already at the hearings?"
"He's been there for an hour," said an intern. She was my age or a little older, a college student getting some experience on the Hill. Poli Sci major, but she hates how it all makes her feel. She wants to write poetry and have adventures. She's a-- "Do you want me to take you over there?"
There was a slight tone to her voice. Phil looked annoyed, but did the math in his head: Which is more annoying, the kid being here, or the intern catching a few minutes out from under my boot heel?
"Yeah," I said. "That'd be great."
"Sorry for busting in here, everybody," I waved sheepishly. "My dad was going on last night about how prepped he is for the hearings today, thanks to you. Um. Yeah. Sorry to be in the way." Phil was still icy, but I saw a few sympathetic looks. An indirect compliment from the boss could smooth over a lot.
The intern slid out from the table where she'd been working at a laptop. Her computer background was a coat of arms featuring a red shield with a white stripe. She let Cavill give her hand a sniff, and he wagged his tail furiously. She was wispy and ginger, with a dreamy look about her. I saw her meet Doyle's eyes as he leaned in the doorway: the very figure of tall, dark, and mysterious. She cast her 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…"
"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 on the committee. He's as new as your dad, just got elected last year, but he taught international affairs forever. Phil calls him 'the Professor'. But he's pretty hot stuff on the floor these days, just like your dad. They don't really get along."
Doyle and I looked at each other again. The Professor.
I swallowed slowly. "Kay, we really need to get to those hearings."

Chapter 05: The Man With the Twisted Teeth
"Absolutely not," repeated Doyle. "If Rance is who we think he is, then he he is spectacularly dangerous. You're not going in there.”
Kay shot me a concerned look as we walked between buildings. My teeth were gritted and I shook my head minutely at her.
"Doyle, that's my father in there, sparring with him. Antagonizing him. He's... sent me repeated ‘messages’ today. He obviously wants me there. What's he going to do if I don't show?"
Doyle nodded firmly. "He wants you there. All the more reason for you to disappoint him."
I stopped in my tracks. "It's my dad, Doyle."
He looked at me, a trace of sympathy flickering across his eyes. "And there is security everywhere. And Arthur. And soon, myself. Your father will be perfectly safe."
Kay waited a moment, and then interjected. "Uh... not sure what you guys are talking about and it sounds way sinister, but..." She jerked her head at Cavill. "It's not like they're going to let him in chambers. I don't know how you got him past Stan in the first place."
Doyle looked triumphant. "That settles it. I'll go in and ensure that Arthur is aware of the situation. You and Cavill can enjoy the weather."
"I thought you were supposed to keep an eye on me."
He tapped his nose and subtly pointed skyward. "I won't be far."
I crossed my arms. "Fat lot of good that's going to do if anything happens."
"I've already called and half of the Table is headed your way. Try to stay out of trouble for half an hour."
I eyed him sharply. "You don't think that maybe this was part of the plan? He knew where we'd be every step of the way. You don't think he'd anticipate that we brought the dog?"
Doyle smiled, victory in his eyes. "And who's going to do anything with this handsome fellow right here next to you?" he asked, scratching Cavill behind the ears.
My shoulders slumped in defeat. “All right. But what you promised me, it goes double for my dad, all right? Or I swear I will dance in traffic.”
He bowed slightly. “My word of honor.”
Kay gave me a funny look over her shoulder as she led Doyle under the Capitol dome. Miss you, it said. See you soon.
Whatever: they were finally gone. I heaved a sigh of relief.
The game is afoot!
I pulled my phone out of the boot where I’d concealed it before getting out of the car, and sent a quick message to the number that Vivian had given me.
“Do you like dogs? There’s a sad-looking one in front of the LoC.”
“b there in 5. some idiot f’d up the pkwy.”
That was my girl. Woman. The woman.
The Library of Congress sits across a small park from the Capitol Building. Contrary to popular belief, it does not contain a copy of every book ever published in the United States. It does have multiple entrances, making it impossible for an airborne drone to watch them all at once. Highly frustrating should one happen to be overhead: certainly something that would occupy a considerable amount of attention, even of an electronic ghost.
However, one other thing the Library has, if you happen to be a Senator’s daughter who knows the right people, is a subterranean tunnel into the Capitol building.
I tied Cavill to a bike stand and crouched in front of him. “A nice lady is going to come and take care of you,” I promised. “I’ll see you soon.”
He wagged his tail furiously. I stood up, and he stood up. He started off in a random direction that he thought that I might head in. As it turned out, he was right, but it was a short leash. Within a few paces, I was hearing a pathetic stream of whimpers and some nails scratching on the sidewalk. A few people looked my way.
“I’ll be back in a minute!” I announced to no one in particular. “Just getting a snack at the gift shop! Jeez.” The last was under my breath, but honestly, the looks I was getting! It was just an eighty-pound dog who was slowly dragging a bike rack down the sidewalk, making a noise like you’d hear if you played pinball with a band saw. Not a big deal! You’d think I’d neutered him in public.
Honestly, if I’d actually done the deed, I doubt he’d have sounded that pathetic. Poor, neurotic pooch. Vivian would be there soon.
In sixty seconds I was inside the Library, and with a little bit of fast-talking and name dropping and a call on the inside line to Phil - glad to hear from his boss’ daughter as always! - I was standing outside of the hearing chambers in five minutes flat. Vivian would have picked Cavill up by now, right?
My phone buzzed. “oh, so u really meant a dog? love him love him love him soooo cute! keeping him u will never see him again.”
Then, a few seconds later, “he’s a better kisser than my last bf.”
He was in good hands. I turned my phone off and slipped inside the chamber.
It was standing room only today: apparently people actually cared about what was going on. It had something to do with the intelligence… appropriations? But also about what we knew when? Something something money something authority argh I hated politics. I never felt so much like a stupid teenager than I did when my father got that glint in his eye. I just could not bring myself to care. Politics were my sleepy kryptonite.
Luckily, there were other matters that demanded my attention. Doyle was a few rows up from me, facing the front of the room. He looked agitated: he knew from his eye in the sky that I’d given him the slip. I surmised that he was focused now on Vivian, his only lead to my whereabouts. He’d have another drone flying in to keep an eye on her while he had one watching the Library of Congress, where I disappeared. He hadn’t gone tearing off after me, but I had no doubt that he was instructing Arthur’s people to get on my trail. I probably didn’t have very long before they asked the right questions of the right people and invaded the chamber. They'd lock me down for sure.
I focused on tracking down the other players. My father, wearing a gray suit with an azure tie and a cream pocket square: silver haired, regal. He looked strong and confident. The CIA people, as disappointingly normal-looking as they were at Headquarters. They were senior people, I was sure of that much, but politicians they were not. They didn't revel in the spotlight; they shrank from it. I didn't see a clear Arthur candidate, but perhaps I wouldn't. A King Arthur who had risen to power through espionage might not be so obvious.
And then there was Rance. If he were an evil genius, I had to pity evildoers everywhere. Disheveled, disorganized... he looked like a mop with crooked teeth. He stumbled over his words, and the words, the words, so many! I'd thought Doyle had a stilted way of speaking, but this guy made him sound like a burnt-out hard rocker. He actually asked questions that (a) broke up his points into lettered sub-points, and then (2) got mixed up midway and added numbers in just to drive me absolutely (c) brain-droolingly crazed.
There was no way. No possible way. It was a horrible coincidence.
I closed my eyes. All of the morning's adrenaline, and now this. I was shaking with pent up energy. I wanted to catch a murderer, not listen to old men quibble about the Constitutional scope of surveillance powers, whatever that meant. I mean, I thought the Constitution didn't apply in other countries? God, I hated this stuff.
I opened my eyes and let them wander while I tried to organize my thoughts. I was going to have to get out of here soon: I had maybe another five minutes before Camelot quietly showed up through the doors behind me and I had to either make a scene or make nice. I could get away with only so much on the 'headstrong girl' tactic, and after burning Doyle when I'd convinced him to trust me, they'd shut me down for sure.
There was a murderer to catch... but I was so close to where I needed to be! An opportunity ten years in the making, and Arthur was here in this very room...
I could understand why Camelot was so hot to trot about getting things right. If they'd been maneuvering behind the scenes for centuries to get where they were today, when faced with eleventh hour obstacles it would be tempting to make... compromises. With my life's goal in reach, would I risk letting it slip away?
Gwen. Come now. Failure is a possibility. These murders are certainties.
There was a murderer to catch. And I was the only one who could do it. There was no choice to make, really. I would get another shot at Arthur.
Slowly, I became aware of an... energy in the room. Tension. Faces were drawn; people were leaning in. On instinct I looked to my father, and it took me a long moment to place the emotion on his face: fear.
I'd once seen this man grimly stare down a drunk intent on proving his absolute right to bear arms in during a political rally... at my middle school. He'd started waving a pistol around, on a tear about black helicopters. My father, twenty yards away on the podium, had with quiet finality uttered three words into the microphone: "You're scaring children."
That was all it had taken. No shots fired, no big tragedy, just a head hung low and a ten point bump for my father in the polls. He wasn't the sort to get rattled, ever.
But this time the gun was pointed at him. Rance's sneer exposed teeth whose geometry would have confused Salvador Dali. The pistol in his hand was straight and solid and very easy to understand.
Apparently I had missed something.
"... and now that it's quite clear that all things are not what they seem," the soft, almost feminine voice intoned, "there is a young woman here who is also hiding something. She has a naughty little secret that she is keeping from everyone, absolutely everyone. You may think you know her, but she's always been a master of disguise. She can't hide from me. I've caught her here red-handed. I always find her, and her little dog, too!”
"Red-handed"? My blood froze. He was looking straight at me.
"Surely you'll step forward, my dear, and so we may have the truth out of you. Pip-pip! People are dying to return to their homes."
This is a pale shadow of my old foe, to make such puns. But it makes no sense! He is a powerful Senator, and now he loses everything. He is not one to give up his every advantage for mere spectacle.
And yet.
The crowd hadn't figured out who Rance was looking at, and my father's eyes were locked on the muzzle of the gun. I had a second to think, but what choice did I have? Rance was a hundred feet away; he might as well have been a mile. Damn, damn, damn! The only thing I could do was play for time.
I started to push forward through the crowd.
Rance's eyes were trained on me, but suddenly they flickered. Too slow.
With the speed of a serpent, a man rose from just behind the table where the CIA people were sitting, arm outstretched. He exploded from his seat, leaping with a single bound onto the table, and from there towards the podium. Rance staggered back, clutching his neck, and a shot rang out, just wide of my father. The man's leap took him to the edge of the podium where the Senators sat, and with a smooth motion, he planted a hand and vaulted it. He pivoted a hip, turning the move into a kick that slammed into Rance's puffy midsection and bent him in half. The two went down, and disappeared from sight behind the low wall.
There was a raspy choke, and then a wet thud. Two, maybe three seconds, from start to finish, and then it was all over but the shouting. Everyone was on their feet, and a name raced around the crowd in a low rumble.
He rose up from behind the podium wall with casual grace, and my heart skipped a beat. He was tall, like Doyle, but light where the other man was dark. His hair was blonde fading to platinum, and his beard was little more than close-cropped stubble framing a jaw set for battle. His high cheekbones underlined eyes that shone with anger. With a look of distaste, he pulled a handkerchief from a pocket and wiped blood off of his knuckles, and then from the fountain pen that he'd flung into Rance's neck.
I faded into the hubbub as Doyle began to look around for me: it must have been obvious to him who Rance had meant. I evaded his searching gaze, but with more difficulty than normal.
I could hardly take my eyes off of Arthur. It took several minutes for security to sort out who to point guns at, but he bore it with an easy smile. He was handcuffed, then released, and Rance was carried out on a stretcher - hastily enough to mean he was still alive. Cameras were everywhere, the constant strobe of flashes and the press of bodies making the place seem more like a nightclub than Senate chambers. I saw my father close to Arthur, shaking his hand and then pulling him in for a hug.
The Capitol Police had cordoned off the room immediately: no one in or out. Instinctively, I tracked the doors, and when I saw them admit a pair of men wearing dark suits, I stiffened. They were scanning the crowd, not the spectacle on the podium.
Bors. Percival. They were here for me. Time to leave.
But there was only one way to go.
I strode forward and let my Persona come to life. Normally, we were indistinguishable from the bit players, but when we wanted to take the stage, we stole the show. My dress fluttered around my knees despite the still air. I tossed my hair, and every unmanageable piece fell perfectly into place. A pimple that had been threatening to punch out of my makeup cringed and faded from existence. I cleared my throat, and every ear in the place heard it as if I’d been standing right next to them. It was as if the universe were shining a spotlight from the heavens down onto me. For a moment, all eyes in the room turned my way.
The floor was a confused tangle of senators, police, press, public, and a king. I walked unimpeded through it. A bubble in the crowd opened up before me, and closed as I passed. Subconsciously, the bit players stepped out of the way as if the lead actress had strode onto the stage.
Doyle and the others saw me, of course. For the moment, they were dumbstruck. They could see what I was up to, but they hadn’t expected me to pull a major glamour off so soon.
Then again, it was exactly the sort of thing Guinevere would do. Maybe they were reminding themselves exactly who it was they were dealing with.
"Gwennie!" my father shouted, meeting me as I made it to the end of the aisle. A tense Capitol Police officer stood his ground there against the press of the crowd. He was faltering in the face of my glamoured appearance, but I let it drop, and felt the attention of the room suck away from me. I’d made my entrance. Practically shoving the policeman aside, my father grabbed me up in a huge hug.
The pistol in his hand was straight and solid and very easy to understand.
I shivered, and felt a tear slide down my cheek. I wasn't sure whose it was. So many things I could do, but still he almost...
"Dad..." I hugged back fiercely. "Oh my god, I was so scared."
"It's okay, sweetie, it's okay. I'm fine. You're fine. In fact… you look great! How’d your mother convince you to wear a dress out in public?” He smiled and shook his head, taking a deep breath. He was talking without thinking - a mortal sin in the DeGrace household. Politicians and their sometimes too-clever-for-their-political-parents-careers daughters had to think before they spoke, always.
He got his thoughts in order. “But what are you doing here? Didn't you have work?"
"I told them I was sick. I... I know this was a big day for you." My gut twisted at the lie, but I had no good reason to be here.
He laughed, a little of the tension draining from him. "Not the way I'd expected. No idea what happened just now. But I'm glad to see you, you wouldn't even believe. Here," he guided me past the crowd, "let me introduce you to someone. I think we've decided not to arrest him."
I took a deep breath.
I'd been readying myself for this moment for almost a decade. Minutes ago, I thought I had lost the chance at it, but here I was. I’d lived for this next sixty seconds with every fiber of my being. I'd thought I was prepared.
I didn't feel prepared. I felt terrified. It could all come crashing down if I didn't get this just right...
He had been in conversation with the other CIA people, but he seemed to feel us before we even got close. His back straightened, and I saw him slowly inhale and exhale. He was... what? Steeling his nerves? He'd just leaped across a room towards a gun and saved a man's life, surely he wasn't worried about...
"Gwen." A firm tenor, filled with warmth and passion. Pain flickered behind his hazel eyes, but he wore kindness on his face. “I hadn’t expected you to be here today. I’ve heard so much about you." He paused. "From your father."
I didn't wait for Dad to introduce us. Protocol and age would normally dictate that I should call him by his last name... but I was Guinevere, dammit. I met his eye and held out my hand, and he took it.
His grip was definitive. It made my skin tingle. He smelled of lavender.
"Very pleased to finally meet you, Arthur. I'm so glad you were here today. Thank you for doing what you did. And..." I hesitated, "I'm sorry for your loss."
A complicated array of emotions played out behind his eyes. Sadness, mostly, but I saw surprise, and admiration. The first name was the right choice, then. The wash of relief that came over me at his approval was palpable... and surprising.
"Thank you. I..." He trailed off, lost in emotion. "I'm sorry. You're just so like - you took me by surprise."
My father remembered Gwen Drake's death all of a sudden, and exclaimed, "My god, I forgot myself in all the craziness! Arthur, it's horrible. Reem and I were so sorry to hear. Please let us know if there's anything, anything you need."
Your daughter, for instance?
Arthur held my hand just slightly too long, and his fingers slid along mine as we parted. He looked old, all of a sudden. The memory of his dead wife was too fresh.
"Thanks, Leo. I apologize, I... I think that I should go and sit down. With everything... I..." He looked at me, and I could read conflict all over his face.
My father shooed him off. As they turned away, I breathed a sigh of relief. I'd see him again. I knew it. I had evidence.
I looked down at the small slip of paper that Arthur had left in my hand when we'd parted.
The handwriting was hasty and masculine, from a pen dipped recently in blood. "He said to tell you: 'Miss you. See you soon.'" There was a small figure drawn as a signature: a chess piece. A king. Then an afterthought, underlined: "STAY WITH DOYLE."
A message from Rance, delivered to Arthur, to give to me. Arthur read it as a threat: the Red-Handed League was coming for Guinevere. He wanted to protect me from another assassination attempt. I didn't think that his sudden withdrawal was completely an act - those were real emotions behind his eyes - but surely at this very moment Doyle was getting explicit instructions to lock me away in a tower for my own safety. Just in case he hadn’t decided that all on his own.
I looked up. Bors and Percival were talking animatedly to the policeman my father had pulled me past. It would be child’s play for them to draw him in, make him part of the Legend for a moment. They were heroes: he would do whatever they asked. And then they’d have me.
But Rance had known Arthur would want to keep me safe. One step ahead, every step of the way: he'd known exactly how Arthur would react. He'd known how I was about to react.
He'd known that I was going to run.
Which meant that this whole charade was a feint. What was Rance going to accomplish, calling me out in public? There was no way he was walking away from this with his Senate seat intact. He’d given up power for nothing. It was a throwaway, a complete waste.
Unless the whole reason was to deliver that message to me, via Arthur. He knew Arthur would be here, knew Arthur would save my father, because that's how the story went, didn't it? Arthur rode in to save Leodegrance, his faithful follower, when rival King Rience came after him? It's where he met Leodegrance's daughter Guinevere for the first time.
It hadn't been a gamble: Rance had known how things would play out, because it had been written that way a thousand years ago. He'd known that Arthur would stop him... so he turned it to his advantage.
He wants you to run. If he hadn't upped the ante, maybe you would play the long game with him, but that's not how he wants it. This is speed chess. He doesn't want you shuttered away: he wants you out there, playing the great game, without tripping over Arthur and his people. Guinevere wouldn’t run. He knows it. Arthur knows it. He’s making you choose between Camelot and himself.
I had to end this. If I stayed, I would just be letting Arthur and his men chase after ghosts, or worse: I’d piss off Rance and he’d start sending me more messages written in corpses. There was no delaying for the sake of appearances. And I wouldn’t want to, either. The thought of sitting on my hands while one of Arthur's lapdogs...
I always find her, and her little dog, too!
Cavill. Vivian.
"Dad!" I caught him by the sleeve. He turned, and I staggered into him. "I... I need to get some space! I don't... feel... so..."
All right, I was hamming it up, but if I gave him any choice, he'd try to do what was right and make me stick around for a witness statement. Camelot would have me for sure. I clung to his arm for support.
He didn't even hesitate. I loved him for that, and felt like even more of a shit for lying to him yet again.
"Come on," he soothed, pulling me behind the Senator's podium. "You can use my entrance." He led me to the door that the Senators used to enter the chamber and handed me his security badge. "There's a few more doors to get out of here, but this should get you through them. Head back to my office; Phil will take care of you."
I could imagine how thrilled Phil would be if I followed my father's instructions. Lucky for him, he didn't need to worry. Much.
I kissed my father on the cheek and waited for the door to close. Then I was sprinting down the hallway.
I rounded a corner and practically crashed into Doyle. He put a small keycard back into his pocket. Electronic skeleton key. Another of his toys.
“Leaving so soon?” he glared. “You know you can’t do that.”
I took a deep breath. Nerve strike to the temple, inducing temporary blindness. Incapacitate.
“You’re not going to stop me, Doyle,” I told him.
“Why are you doing this?” he pleaded. “I’m just trying to keep you safe. You heard the message that Rance gave you. The League is coming for you tonight. We have to get you to safety!”
I shook my head. “You’re freaking out and trying to control everything. You believe you’ve got a safe place where all variables are measured out and defined and held within acceptable tolerances. But you thought so this morning, too, didn’t you? And then the dying started. And it’s going to continue… until I stop it.”
He scoffed. “You found out you were a Persona two hours ago. How are you going to stop anything? You can’t possibly hope to do this alone.”
I bristled. “Why? Say it.”
He hesitated. “You’re eighteen. You’re inexperienced with your Persona.”
“Really? Let’s see: Luke Skywalker. Harry Potter. How about… some kid everybody called Wart, because ‘Arthur’ had too many syllables? All of them were younger than I am when they were first tested. Nobody doubted them.” I put my index finger theatrically to pursed lips, as if pondering. “What could possibly be different between them… and me?”
Doyle gritted his teeth. “You want me to say, ‘because you’re a girl’. But it’s not about that. You’re Guinevere. She’s not a fighter.”
Fire extinguisher seven feet down the hall: spray in his face to discombobulate. Disable drone uplink while he is down.
“Maybe someone should give her a fucking chance!” I shouted. “If she were a boy, someone with a beard would give her a magical phallus and expect her to vanquish darkness by teatime!”
“I know it isn't fair. This isn't about sexism,” he spat, exasperated. “It’s about what’s written. The stories don’t prepare Guinevere for battle. We are what the world believes us to be. You’re talking about pitting - forgive me - a supporting character against one of the most dangerous men ever conceived.”
False agreement to lull him, then pick pocket: remove keycard. Evade while he is trapped.
Oh, for- Look, that is exactly the sort of thinking that’s making me ditch this guy. Fighting. Conflict. Control. It doesn’t have to be like that.
Doyle wasn’t a bad guy. He was just scared.
I squared my shoulders and pointed a finger at him. “You know and I know that this isn’t a battle that’s going to be won with a sword. Not with him. The stories don't prepare Arthur for Mordred's treachery; how do you think New Camelot will do against this enemy? And before you start to tell me what a simpleton Guinevere is, hey, message received. But times change. What if I’m smarter than you expected? Me: Gwen, standing in front of you right now. What if I’m not so helpless? What if I’ve been a Persona all along?”
“Impossible. Gwen Drake was Guinevere. My algorithm matched her with a probability of ninety-seven percent.”
“Did I just get lucky with the glamour back there? Fine. How do I know that it was Bors and Percival who showed up here looking for me? I can identify Personae on sight. Otherwise how would I know that it was Sir Kay who stuck a knife into his own neck? Oh, yeah - I figured that one out with my lady brain.” His eyes widened: Watson’s analysis of the scene must have come back. He hadn’t expected poor Guinevere to work it out on her own.
I had to keep pushing. “If you think that this is my first time in the saddle, if you think I’m some maiden-in-a-tower ‘supporting character’ who doesn’t know what she’s doing, then ask yourself why I took my bra off back on the Parkway.”
He froze. “What do you-?”
Alternate strategy showing signs of success. Persuasion: possible.
“You did a great job with the dress, Doyle. You made it appear like magic. It was even perfect for the bra I’m wearing. The straps are just right - nothing showing, see?" I did a little pirouette. "So why did I take it off while I was changing? That would be pointless, because I would only just have to put it back on. What reason could I have had to take it off?”
The gears were turning. “You… you wanted them to see you. You wanted them distracted by your body. You had a plan.”
“You’re damn straight I had a plan!” I shouted. “You were about to bomb the GW Parkway! You were so convinced of yourself that all you could see was the first thing that came to mind: the easy way. The same way Lancelot chose in the Library: violence. It's the only story you know: someone comes for you, you get them first, consequences be damned. Well guess what? You're reading the wrong stories. I know another way.”
His eyes narrowed. “And this ‘other way’ is going to work when trained killers come for you?”
“It already has. How’s your way working out? Gwen Drake is dead. Someone got to Sir Kay so hard that he’d kill himself at their say-so. The Red-Handed League traipsed into the CIA Library right under your nose and came after us. Instead of any captives we could interrogate, New Camelot's way just left a pile of bodies to hush up. Do you imagine that you’ve seen every variable here? Do you really think your safehouse is safe?”
He clenched his teeth. “What are you going to do if I disobey a direct order from my king and let you walk out of here?”
“I’m going to put a stop to the League once and for all. I’m not telling you how. I’m going to keep you safe by keeping you out of it.”
He was wavering. He could tip either way.
I let the name hang in the air between us. He didn’t look surprised to hear me utter it.
“Come on, ‘Doyle Holmes’? Really? And you have all the toys. You can do things that no mere mortal could dream.”
“Funny thing,” he said carefully, “that really is my name. The old Merlin foresaw my coming, and he knew that Arthur Drake felt no love for him. The next Merlin would have to be hidden. He… suggested the name to my parents. Yes, I'm Merlin. I've known the truth for, what, a decade already? I've been useful to Arthur so he's kept me in the wings - but distant, until recently. This is the first time I've been directly involved in New Camelot's operation. Arthur knows who I am, but none of the knights do. It’s our agreement. No one else must know.”
“I think,” he said carefully, “that you’ve known all along.”
I nodded. “There’s one Persona I knew you couldn’t be.”
He sucked in a breath. "Why are you telling me this? You didn't have to."
"Because you're basically a decent guy. Because I think you can learn. Because it's better than kicking you in the head until you fall down."
He smiled. "Considerably."
I smiled back. "I don't want to control you, Doyle, even with a boot to the temple. When you try to control everything, people push back. It makes you ugly. Sometimes you have to trust someone first, so that they can prove themselves worthy of trust." I shrugged. "I guess I'll find out with you. There's always the boot if I'm wrong."
“Well.” He let out a long breath. Then he stepped to one side. “Good hunting, Gwen.”
As I stepped past, he put a hand ever-so-lightly on my arm. His eyes twinkled. "You fight like a girl."
I nodded. "You never stood a chance. Neither will he."
Then I took off at a run. It took me three minutes to get outside to the Library of Congress.
"Gwen?" Vivian spotted me immediately. She had been storming around in front of the building. Her eyebrows were darkened in anger.
"Some red-haired bitch snatched my phone right through my window!" she exclaimed. "I was coming to pick you up, like you asked, and this skinny little cock-guzzling slut-whore just reached in my window and grabbed it out of my hand! I was doing thirty-five! The window wasn't even all the way down. She came outta nowhere! Ducked behind a box truck and then she was gone."
"She... reached into your speeding car and grabbed your phone?" I gulped. "Was this before you picked up Cavill?"
"Cavill? The- You really meant that you wanted me to come pick up your dog?"
She had no idea what I was talking about. Cavill had been gone by the time that she'd arrived.
Kay gave me a funny look over her shoulder as she led Doyle under the Capitol dome. Miss you, it said. See you soon.
I took out the piece of paper that Arthur had slipped me. "Miss you. See you soon."
I crumpled the piece of paper and tossed it on the ground. Then I pulled out the final poker chip, and handed it to Vivian with my phone. "Sorry about your phone. You can have mine."
She eyed the chip. I'd shown the letter on the front to Doyle. I hadn't shown him the back.
"The Diogenes Club." All five of the ones I'd found had the same inscription.
I nodded. "Meet me there tonight. Wear something hot. Red hot. Eleven o'clock. Don't. Tell. Arthur."
She grinned. "Clubbing on a Tuesday?"
I nodded. "Play your cards right, and you'll be clubbing a cock-guzzling slut-whore over the head."
"Red hot? You sure you're ready for that?"
"People keep questioning my competence today. Don't be my next victim."
"I'm still waiting for that pat on the backside," she grinned. "I'm just worried that you're going to hold back."
I shook my head. "No more holding back. That bitch stole my dog." I rolled my eyes up and to the left. "And, uh, killed a bunch of people. She's bad news."
"And we're doing this without Arthur?"
"They'll only get themselves killed. They don't want to let you play with their toys? That's because they only know one way to use them. This needs something more subtle than Iceman McStabbins. This needs a woman's touch."
"Yes, please," she bit her lip. "I'm getting turned on just thinking about it."
"A woman's touch, or clubbing a slut-whore?"
I grinned and shook my head. "You're horrible. Eleven o'clock."
I started back towards the Capitol.
"Won't that place be swarming with Arthur's people by now?" Vivian called after me.
"I'm a master of disguise. I've got to go get my invitation," I called back. "See you tonight!"
I bent over at the corner and picked up the briefcase that the woman standing there had put down while she played on her cell phone. I had to pause mid-step a little longer than I wanted behind a trash can while she finished fiddling; then she looked down and around frantically. I resumed my stride, appearing to walk naturally behind the trash can that obscured my purloined case. Her eyes slid over me.
Next came the cream shawl sneaking out of the backpack that a passing tourist was basically offering to the world. She was looking at an actual, honest-to-Betsy physical map, and I pretty much thought she was adorable and had great taste in scarves. A natty-looking man walking opposite me a moment later found himself divested of his pocket square with a wink and a blown kiss.
"It'll make a funny story," I called back to him. "Also, is that perfume your wife's?"
He didn't come after me.
The shawl wrapped around my shoulders, pocket square tied up in my hair like a kerchief, and - the briefcase resisted momentarily, until numbers are smoothed on zeroes except for the last digit, try each number until it popped open on the fourth try - a pair of glasses on my face and a security badge around my neck: now I was just another Capitol Hill staffer. I waved the badge around, palmed my father's senator's badge over readers, and within six minutes I was walking up to his office.
I deposited my pilfered goods two doors down, and pushed though into Senator DeGrace's chambers.
"Gwen, oh my god!" Phil cried. "Were you there?" The entirety of the office was crammed around a television in one corner, watching the 24-hour news networks rebroadcast Arthur's flying kick a dozen times per minute.
He will trap you with pointless inquiries.
"Yeah, uh, yeah. Super-scary. Speaking of, I'm kind of having an, er, lady emergency, and Kay said her purse was here somewhere?"
Phil's back straightened to mathematical perfection, and he wordlessly threw a finger out towards the desk where I'd seen her working. I raced over and snatched it up. Phil's voice echoed behind me as I crashed back through the door, "No, the ladies' room is to the left..."
Kay's purse had just the thing that I needed for my "lady emergency": cash. I dashed outside.
"Georgetown," I told the cab driver. "I need a new outfit."
The poker chip Kay had given me, and the ones that had been left as messages for me all morning had the name "The Diogenes Club" on them.
So did the dozen or so more that were in Kay's purse.
Her phone was in there, too. It had a password lock - lots stronger than your typical 4-digit string - but I didn't even need to guess at it.
If the password hadn't confirmed what I already knew, the phone's contents certainly did, all the way down to the receipt for syringes in Kay Moira Tanner's email account. One of those had made its way into Stan the security guard's neck, while sweet little Kay had distracted him.
Kay Moira Tanner. Moira-T. Moriarty. The head of the Red-Handed League.
The address for the Diogenes Club was helpfully marked in her calendar, under an entry for this evening. "Duel." My name was listed under "Invitees." Not Gwen DeGrace, though; my other name.
And just in case I felt like not attending, there was a text message waiting on the phone. It had been sent from Vivian's cell, by a hand that had plucked it out of a moving car window. It had a picture of a sheepish-looking Cavill on it, along with a message.
"Miss you. See you soon. Missing you is..."

Chapter 06: The Adventure of the Ignoble Bachelorettes
Shopping was as uneventful and expensive as I could make it. Since I was doing it on Moriarty's dime, I was up for even the petty victory of overspending. Kay could probably track my movements by checking her credit card statements online, but she wasn't coming after me until tonight. Let her wonder what I was buying at "The Pleasure Palace".
Doyle had said that he’d let me go, and I’d given him a good speech about trust, but I wasn’t an idiot: whether or not he spilled the beans about my true nature to Arthur, Doyle would be under pressure to identify my whereabouts. I didn’t want to leave breadcrumbs for him to follow. If New Camelot showed up in riot gear tonight…
Unfortunately, there was only so much cash in Kay's purse. I wanted to ditch anything that Doyle had contact with as quickly as I could, most definitely including the dress he'd given me. At eight thousand dollars, who knew what kind of circuitry might be woven into the fabric? Hence, racking up her credit cards. I bounced around town on a whim, gave Kay's phone to a homeless guy a little east of Dupont Circle, and then hit up some boutiques in Adams Morgan.
One of my trips took me past the entrance to the Diogenes Club, on the logic that if Doyle were indeed tracking me somehow, avoiding any particular area of town would draw his attention there. My trip confirmed that the establishment borrowed the name rather loosely from Mycroft Holmes' parlor of silence. It was in a still-gentrifying area of the District, and looked like it would be rocking hard by eleven.
"Grand Opening" read the sign, with a date a few days off. I wasn't worried. The club would be open tonight, and packed. A soft opening, or something hoity for the creme de la creme; it didn't matter. I had a duel to attend.
If I didn't, Cavill was dead. Despite all the other bodies thus far today, I didn’t think Moriarty would have killed him. If all Kay wanted was to kill me, there were better ways to go about it. No, she wanted something else, and for that, she'd need leverage.
I got to the Diogenes Club just before eleven. A line of people stretched down the block, laughing and passing the time in the hopes that they'd actually make it inside tonight. They probably wouldn't. Anybody who was anybody either was already inside, or had an invitation.
That hardly seemed fair. I had close to a dozen in my purse, after all, and only needed the one. Unfortunately, I had been betrayed, and was currently going nowhere.
Of all the ways this could have gone down, the freak out that I was having in an alleyway a block away from the club was the most demeaning. I'd caught a glimpse of myself in the window of a store as I'd walked past, and oh my that was a lot of leg showing! I had a vision of my dress popping and rolling up like a window shade. Was that my butt cheek hanging out? I had to get to the gym more.
Thigh-high black boots actually hid a lot of my leg, but the shortness of the white leather dress meant that I would not be bending over tonight. Then there were these... zippers. Way, way down, they went, front and back, and there were ones on the side so that the dress actually split along the leg and it wasn't like it had been covering up much leg anyway and oh my god. I'd be lucky if I didn't wind up showing off my underwear, and there wasn't a hell of a lot of that, either.
What had I been thinking? Damn those gay boys back at the last shop, damn them and their ridiculous flattery! "Oh you saucy mochachino", nothing! And damn me for believing them like a nitwit with a stolen credit card. The dress had been sitting properly on me back there, and my hair wasn't stabbing me in the back with whatever it was doing right now. I'd looked hot, instead of, what, desperate? Was that what this look was called?
A glamour would fix it, sure, but that would light up the radar of every single Persona on the block. Besides, Moriarty would never let me live it down. For however long she was going to let me live.
"Vivian!" I hissed as she suddenly strode across the mouth of the alley. "Help!"
She was alarmed at first, but when she saw me not being assassinated or gang raped, she broke out into a huge grin.
"Gwen? Oh my god!"
She was wrapped in a crimson dress styled like a kimono on the top and Japanese schoolgirl on the bottom. Stitched kanji in black and gold worked along the hems. She had similarly colored characters atop crimson nails... and painted onto crimson lips. The top of her dress had no sleeves, and instead revealed an intricately-tattooed dragon writhing across her shoulders and down her arms to just over her biceps. Stilettos skewered her black hair into a tight roll. Dark stockings clung to her legs, ending abruptly in pink skin just beneath the hemline of her dress, an effect that couldn't help but draw the mind up just a little bit higher.
She had a huge smile on her face. "You look ready to fuck somebody or fuck them up. I'm not sure which, but I love love love it."
"Really?" I whined. I was not at my best. "I mean, look at this zipper on the side. It goes all the way up to my armpit. I'm going to split open and come popping out all over somebody."
"Then I will definitely be rubbing up on you all night long. Oh, come on," she purred. "I'll be gentle. Also, there's a stitch across the zipper right there, on your hip. That thing's just for show."
"And you like the show?"
"Hotter than Qabaret," she affirmed. Rumor had it that the queer version of “Cabaret” was quite the scandalous little number. All the wags couldn’t stop huffing about it. “I will personally stab to death anyone who doesn't take you home tonight and ravish you in a manly fashion."
I grinned. I couldn't help it. "I may take you up on the stabbing, so hold onto that thought."
She posed, one hand on her hip and the other tossed back over her head. "And now you may shower me with adoration."
"You'd love it if I showered with you," I quipped, getting into it, "but I can't stand when people slather kanji all over their bodies without knowing what they mean."
She sprang back at me with something that I didn't understand a word of. And then some more, at my obvious befuddlement. Coyly: “I spent two years in Tokyo, my first PCS. Remember where I got my lipstick? Ask me about my lips."
I was curious. "I did a lot of theater and thought I was pretty good with makeup. But I've got no idea how you did that."
"Very carefully," she grinned, teeth glistening. "Ask me what they mean."
"If it's 'speak no evil,' I think we're going to incur somebody's wrath."
"Maneater," the devil smile spread from ear to ear. "Now weren't we going to see a bitch about a dog?"
She grabbed my arm, leading me out of the alley. "Doyle did pay me a visit,” she snorted. "Don't worry, I didn't tell him anything. I think he tracked me down by following your phone, so thanks very much for forcing me to entertain without even having the chance to leave a couple of sex toys out in a conspicuous place. If he’d caught me ten minutes later, I’d have been in the shower and there are all sorts of fun ways you can answer the door. It took a few minutes to get him suitably flustered. Just in case you need it: throwing a pair of panties at his face did the trick.”
“You pack spares? You don't seem old enough to have to worry about changing your undergarments,” I jabbed.
“Oh, young one,” she snickered. “It always pays to keep a thong in your pocket. Makes boys so uncomfortable when they think you just pulled it off in front of them. Palm them from the pocket, stick your hand down your pants, moan a little, throw... I have literally never had it fail me."
I laughed out loud at the image of Doyle with something lacy hanging from his nose, and it felt good. It was the first honest moment of relief I'd had since that morning.
"What's in the bag, anyway?" she asked, jerking her head at the massive designer label bag on my shoulder. It didn't quite go with the outfit, but I wanted to be prepared.
"A few odds and ends," I told her. "When we get into an argument - and we will - there's a piece of paper in the lining that has instructions on it. I'm afraid I'm going to keep you busy."
"Ooh, a catfight! Me-ow," she agreed. "I can't help but notice we're walking right past the massive line outside?"
I slipped a hand into the bag and produced a handful of poker chips. Pulling one for myself, I gave the rest to her. "Pick some people you like the look of," I said. "These are their cut-the-line passes."
She clapped her hands giddily and took the chips. "I'm your Judgment-Impaired Buddy’s Sexy Sister!" she announced to the line. "Anybody who's my special friend gets inside the club right now. So... who wants to let me ride them in public?”
Hoo, boy. Moriarty was never going to let me live this down.
In about ten seconds, we had a quartet of strapping lads bearing us aloft. I was pretty sure that the two carrying me were gay, for which my dignity was quietly thankful. This hadn't been how I'd envisioned this going down, but apparently with Vivian plans were lists of things that happened to other people. Ah, well.
A handful of tossed chips later, our growing entourage met the Great Wall of Club Security. Our noble steeds gently lowered us to the ground. While I was still busy adjusting my zippers, Vivian was bending sweetly over at the bouncer who'd come to shoo us off. "Club's full," he started. "Invitation only-"
She sighed theatrically, and cupped her hands together under her breasts. Of its own accord, the poker chip slid out from between them. I wasn’t sure if it was a glamour or just the special powers of a level 20 sex fiend, but… oh, my.
"Got your invitation right here, baby," she breathed, and all of us watching thought that this was going to take a turn toward late-night cable right then and there. The bouncer actually started to reach forward for a second, then thought better of it - the guys who'd carried us were probably close to his size and at least one of them might have had steel grills on his teeth. And Vivian...
It was clear to anybody that she was dangerous.
"Go on inside,” he whispered.
I stepped up, token more traditionally in hand. "I have to check your bag," he said, composing himself a little. Qabaret-hotness or no, I apparently lacked a certain mind-bending aura.
I'd settle for shock value. I pulled the bag open, giving him a view of a dozen sex toys of various material compositions and anatomical accuracies. "Be careful," I said, doing my best pouty face, "I'm not sure if the lube came open down there. It's strawberry flavored."
He pulled his hand back even faster than he had with Vivian. "I, uh..." he said. He looked in the bag again, concern written all over his features. He wasn't quiiiite convinced yet.
I pulled something long and steel out of the bag and ran my hand up and down it. I kept up my aura of innocence. “I don't know if this is going to be a problem for the metal detector?"
"Go on inside," he repeated, a spark dying in his eyes.
The metal detector did go crazy, and I received zero hassle. Vivian gave me an appraising stare.
"I have nothing to teach you," she shook her head. "Now I don't know about you, but I'm all shades of wound up. Let's go make somebody's night."
She took my arm again, and we sauntered into the Diogenes Club.
As we approached, the ornate oak doors opened silently before us, releasing little puffs of mist into the night. We entered a long hallway of rich mahogany, the thickly carpeted floor causing me to have to focus on walking for a few steps while I got used to the feel of three-inch heels sinking into carpet. Vivian's were even bigger - five, maybe? - but she slid along with nary a concern. A light fog swirled around the floor. Oil paintings of old men lined the walls, but each one had been defaced with spray graffiti, silly hats, or obscene captions. Their eyes followed us as we moved.
A few steps in, and the noise of the street faded... in fact, it faded absolutely. The silence was uncanny. Vivian noticed it, too, and I saw her lips move, but all that came out was a short, low moan... and then nothing. I tried to speak, myself, with similar results. I could hear my own voice ever so slightly inside my own head, but even there it felt muffled.
I marveled for a moment, and then looked more closely. The ceiling, which I had mistaken for black tile on entering, was composed of thousands upon thousands of miniature speakers. Somehow, they were broadcasting anti-frequencies of sound to cancel out all noise, even as we opened our mouths to speak.
Vivian looked impressed, and I was, too. Then she remembered how cool she was. She shrugged, gave a, "well isn't that special" sort of look, and we drifted to the end of the hallway. A pair of heavy wooden doors stood closed in front of us. They had no handles.
"I've missed you, my dear, dear nemesis," whispered a voice to my left. I whipped my head around, but there was no one there. I looked back, but Vivian was giving me a quizzical look: she hadn't heard it.
"Oh, don't worry," spoke Kay in my ear, "she can't hear me. My lips are for you alone, my dear. I've always been the only one for you."
The wood doors swung inward, flooding our ears with the din of a nightclub in full swing. People gyrated on the floors and along the catwalks. We were looking down into a room decorated like an enormous library, but there was a twist: the books on the shelves each lit up, forming great neon patterns, rippling waves or geometric shapes across the walls in time with the music. We came out on a small landing, with marble staircases descending in both directions. Tables and booths ringed the perimeter, and across the dance floor, the bar looked like the stacks of a research library filled with alcohol. I wondered if it was alphabetized.
“I want to talk to you alone. Send your slut-whore to get some drinks," said the voice in my ear, perfectly articulate through the pumping rhythm. I saw her suddenly, back to us, body draped over the railing at the opposite edge of the landing. Red hair spiraled in an intricate weave down over a black leather dress covered in zippers, with thigh-high white boots...
Oh, that catty bitch. She stole my outfit, in reverse! And she looks better than I do in it.
Vivian caught my gaze, but I shook my head minutely. “Not now,” I said. "Can you take my purse and grab us a table?" With some relief, I handed the thing to Vivian, who raised an eyebrow at its weight.
I shrugged apologetically. There was a lot of stuff in there that ran on batteries.
She gave me a long look. Then she made a decision, nodded, and slipped into the club as if she were diving into the ocean. I took a deep breath, and went to meet my nemesis.
"Moriarty," I hailed.
Her voice in my ear agreed, "Caught me red-handed."
"I got your invitation," I said, coming up behind her. As I approached, the din of the club faded away into nothing, just like it had in the hallway.
For a moment, the silence was complete.
"You're impressed," she said, not turning. Her voice was huskier now than it had been this afternoon. She was slim where I was curvy, shoulder blades sticking knifelike from her back. Her hair was braided into a long ponytail, tied in three places with silver circlets. At the end of the braid hung a scintillating piece of razor-thin glass, twisting dangerously as she shifted.
"It's all smoke and mirrors, really. And lasers and speakers. The club's computer system is practically sentient. It tracks every person here and scans them sixty times per second with a low-powered ultraviolet laser. The smoke isn't just a regular fog machine; it's got particles that reflect UV nicely. We can measure the oscillations coming out of your mouth before they even reach your teeth."
"Then you recalibrate the speakers to put out anti-sound," I said. "Slick."
“I knew you would appreciate it.” She rolled over, now resting on her elbows, as if she were a lounging cat. Her ponytail flicked to and fro. The ice blue eyes scanned me up and down.
"You've changed a bit in this incarnation. It suits you. I could practically eat you up." She arched her back, drawing her hips forward and sliding her body upright like a belly dancer. The move brought her face very close to mine, and her blue eyes sparkled.
“Do you think you would like that?“ she murmured, biting her lip. “I think you would.”
She was breathing quickly, and she smelled of cinnamon. I could see the trace of a smile in her eyes, and the trace of a question as well. I hesitated. I was suddenly unsure of what was happening here.
She dipped her gaze and drew back slightly. “I…” She crossed her arms, straightened, and then leaned back on the railing again. “Never mind.”
“You’re Moriarty,” I said, as if it said everything. As if it said anything.
“So?” she asked. “Look at what I’ve created for you. Look around. Look.”
I looked. I blinked, relaxed myself. I looked.
Icarus. Cleopatra. Hamlet. Porthos. Emma Bovary. Siddhartha. George Washington. The Wicked Witch of the West, Captain Hook, Billy the Kid, Princess Buttercup, Theseus, Ali Baba, Mercutio-Peter Parker-Geronimo-Enkidu-Snake Plissken-Gretel-Hodor-MasterChiefJohntheBaptistAliceJonahFriarTuck…
I shook my head, slowing my breath. The names kept pounding in, unbidden: the turn of a head, the angle of a glass, the color of lipstick… the details said everything!
Everyone… everyone here was a Persona.
“H- how?” I stammered. “There are two hundred and thirty-seven people here!”
“I invited them,” she snapped. “You’re asking the wrong question."
She nodded, answering my thought directly. “That is the question.”
I followed her gaze to the ceiling. To the lights sliding across the walls all around us. To the drinks being served from the bar. To the strange fog that blanketed the place.
There was… something… it was just out of reach. I felt a growing sense of dread.
“I know you won’t tell me why you’ve gathered everyone here. You won’t tell me the endgame, and you won’t tell me your motive. That’s for me to guess.”
She raised a finger. “To deduce, my dear.”
I slid through the space between us, placing my arms around her and gripping the railing as she leaned back on her elbows. I straddled her outstretched legs with my own, and brought my lips next to hers. I felt her breathing stop.
My voice came out throaty, almost a moan. “But you’ll tell me the real why, I think.” The words were loud in the unnatural silence. I could practically feel my breath slide into her as she gasped, drawing me in.
My dark eyes locked up her pale ones. “Why. Me. And do better than my name.”
Creamy lids slipped down, covering up the ice beneath them. She inhaled deeply, pulling the scent of me deep inside her once more. “Oh, my dear, dear Gwen. Don’t you know?” She opened her eyes, and they were the color of a tropical sea. They glistened.
“You just met me,” I insisted. I didn’t move - toward her or away from her. I could feel her body vibrating with energy under mine. She did not let herself touch me.
Her eyes denied me. “I remember… a waterfall. You were there. I remember a lifetime in Calcutta: you were my twin brother. I remember coming for you again, when you were old, and I was still young. You were full of tricks as ever, but I made sure we finished our conversation. I had so much to say. You were the only one who could understand me.”
“I’ve known you my whole life,” she whispered. “You’ve been all that I’ve ever seen when I closed my eyes. You were the one who was missing when I rolled over in bed at night. You were the one whose absence I felt while sitting lonely on the bleachers while they squabbled and played their stupid games and couldn’t understand me. You were the one whose voice didn’t whisper me to sleep at night. I’ve lived so many lifetimes, but all I ever wanted in any of them was you, you…” she drew a ragged breath. “Always you.”
She tilted her head up, lips nearly brushing my own. Her cinnamon scent rushed forward like a lover, filling my mouth, my belly…
“This is my gift to you,” she said. “A mystery. With the greatest prize of all at stake. Everything on the line. Your perfect mind against the only other in this pathetic world that could contend with it. You solve my puzzle.”
She pulled back and away from me, sliding to stand upright and forcing me to do likewise or catch a mouthful of zippers. She jerked her head harshly over her shoulder, to the gyrating throng below.
“You solve it, or they die.”
It was my turn to catch my breath. I tingled. I felt my body buzzing, throbbing. I felt something building inside me, like an orgasm but stronger, something that would sweep aside not everything that I was, but everything that I wasn’t.
She saw it. She bit her lip. She smiled.
She felt it too.
“Oh, my Gwen,” she sighed. She reached slowly out and slid her fingertips along my cheek. With a sudden motion, she whipped her hand around the back of my head and locked her fingers around the base of my skull. I jerked back, but her grip was as inexorable as the thing that was happening between us.
“When you are alone at night, remember this moment. Remember the moment that you thrilled at the death of the innocent. Remember when a murderer gave you what no man ever will.”
She released me, and we both staggered back. I started to speak, but she looked away and waved me off.
“Go,” she rasped. “Let it happen. You’re not you, not yet. You’ve been hiding for too long. Come back to me when you’re ready to decide who lives, and who dies.”
I stood dumbstruck for a moment, trembling. She would not meet my eyes, and she said nothing more. She just stood there, head cast to the floor, leaning on the railing for support. Something sparkled from her eye, rolling down her cheek to glisten its way to the floor.
“You… you know how this ends,” I said, straightening. “You know how things are between us. One lives, and one dies. No matter what either of us wants… this ends tonight. We don’t walk out of here together. Why… why even hope for… for something else?”
Her mouth twisted. Then her body did likewise, and she was facing away from me, surveying her killing floor as she had when I walked in here.
Her voice whispered in my ear. “What if it didn’t have to be that way?”
I shook my head. She was mad. This wasn’t how it worked. And this wasn’t how we played the game. This was… this was something… new.
I turned to the stairs. The noise of the club built up around me as I left her, until the pulsing of the beat threatened to push out the thing that was swelling inside me.
The name. It was a name. Rising up. Bubbling forth. Ready to spill from my lips…
“Ten minutes,” came Kay’s voice in my ear, harshly. “You have ten minutes to give me a name. Not yours. I have a list. Tell me who my first victim is, or else find out. Tell me the name, and I’ll know you’re you. Only one person could do it.”
The world slowed around me. Facts and observations clicked together in my mind.
"Puck," I spat, a feral grin spreading across my face. "That merry wanderer of the night ... call'd Robin Goodfellow. Shall we play again?"
“Oh!” I heard her gasp, a raw noise from deep in her throat. “Oh, my dear. You've got to tell me how. The paintings?"
I nodded, feeling the name stretching under my skin like a babe in the womb. "Portraits by Pablo Picasso, Jacob van Utrecht, Caravaggio, and Thomas de Keyser: P-U-C-K. They weren't next to one another, but were all defaced by a person of small stature, convinced of her own cleverness - you give yourself away in the upstroke of the letter 'K'. It matches the slant of the smiley face on the 'Member of the Alardes Family'. Only an idiot could miss it."
"Those paintings aren't labeled," countered her disembodied voice, "and I used different colors and types of paint."
"Please," I laughed. "Don't insult me."
“Very good,” she purred. “You’ve made a believer out of me. Now… shall we play again? Ten minutes. Another name.”
Yes… I felt the wings of my soul unfurl. This… this was what I was meant for!
Everyone watched as I descended the staircase. It was like it had been back at the Capitol, but now I wasn’t doing it on purpose. I felt like I was ten feet tall. Men’s eyes gobbled me up, and women did likewise. None would dare meet my gaze. This was my place, my time.
As I reached the bottom of the stairs, Ghengis Khan and Sun Tzu nearly tripped over Tom Sawyer as they scrabbled back and out of my way. Even the Elders among us tried hard not to be caught looking. Achilles’ eyes lingered just too long on mine to have landed randomly there.
They saw me. They all saw me. Not Gwen. They saw me for who I truly was.
"What. The individual. Fuck.”
Vivian. I'd been looking everywhere but her, and she had come at me on a mission. She looked pissed. "You know what this is all about. You always have. You played me."
I felt things grind to a screeching halt. People near us were conspicuously looking elsewhere.
“Vivian,” I started, “I didn’t play you. There are lives at stake right now, more than I’d expected. Yours. I don’t have time-”
She drew herself in close, eyes glittering as the club's lights pulsed around us. "Make time."
"I can't. The clock is ticking. People are going to die unless I work this out."
"Then let me help, dammit! That's why I came!" The mask was down, and I could see her spinning in a void.
I took her hand. "You will. I promise that you will. You're going to bring me back. I'm going to be lost, and you're going to bring me back.”
I squared my shoulders. “But I'm not lost now. I'm doing what I do best. And I have to do this alone. You came because I asked, without hesitation, and I love you for that. You trusted me. Trust me just a little bit more.“
“Why?” she asked. She hadn’t pulled her hand away, not quite, but she was tensing against my gentle grip. “Maybe you didn’t lie to me about being Guinevere, but you sure as hell didn’t tell me who you really were, or what this was really about.”
“Vivian is your middle name.” Power was pouring off of me. My hair was starting to float slightly. I felt swollen with energy, ready to burst.
“Isn’t that right, Irene?” I whispered. She shuddered. “You felt it when we met. I felt it, too. Shall I tell you what your last name is?”
She cast her eyes down. “Adler,” she admitted, head hanging. “Irene Adler.”
“The woman, herself.” I squeezed her hand, and let it drop.
She looked up at me, and her eyes flickered to the landing where Kay leaned down over us. “I saw you two up there. I wasn’t… I don’t know what’s supposed to happen next.”
“What do you want to happen?”
“I want to throat punch that bitch and then drink until you make bad decisions. You, me, a bottle of wine, and a hundred feet of bungee cord. Roosevelt Bridge. Whaddaya say?”
I matched her grin. “Sounds fun. I’ll call you after,” I promised.
“Do,” she said. “Was this our catfight?”
I nodded.
“It really is you,” she laughed. “Go save these people. I’m going to go figure out who I’m taking home tonight. I want to fuck until I’m sore.”
“I think I see Bigfoot over there.” I pointed at a hirsute fellow brooding in a corner.
“Rrrrawr,” she answered. “I’ll send you pictures. Go.”
I smiled.
I turned away, away from Vivian, away from everything. The universe held fixed for a heartbeat as I pivoted from the inside out. I turned into myself. I became.
The whole game until now had depended on me being Guinevere, enough so that people who knew her instinctively would believe. I'd set up half my life for today, for the moment I would meet King Arthur, and win his heart. I'd played at Guinevere as hard as I could, channeled her in my bearing, in my lifestyle... At age nine, I'd made sure my widowed mother met Leonard DeGrace, because it was too perfect. I'd changed my name when we moved to America, all to set up the moment that had come and gone earlier today. I had lived for that moment and nothing else.
I had molded my life so that if Camelot needed a Guinevere, they would find one.
But I wasn’t Guinevere.
"Puck!" I shouted, and at the bar, a small man in a dark leather trenchcoat turned. I stalked over to him.
"You saw what went on up there," I told him. "You don't miss much."
"Nae," he said, Irish accent thicker than the beer he'd been drinking. "I surely don't. Seems like I missed a wee somethin' about oor hostess, though, dinnit?"
"You won't be missing your life, so you're welcome. Do you know who she is now?“
"Aye," he nodded. “The devil herself. Me life, you say?"
"I did. What's it worth to you?"
He grinned. Without a word, he slid off of his bar stool, and out of his coat, which he offered to me. "Ye'll be needing a coat, I imagine. Can’t be detectering in a scanty costume like that."
I slid into the jacket. It had heft, but at the same time it was an extension of my body. I ran my fingertips across a sleeve, and it was as if I could feel them on my arm beneath. This was my skin. The hell with the silly hat and the pipe: this was who I was.
I cinched it tight at the waist, and nodded at Puck. He nodded back in approval.
"Sherlock Holmes, at your service. But you can call me Gwen."

Chapter 07: Adventure in the Dancing House
Sensations crashed into me. The beat of the music, the strobing of the lights, the heat rushing off of dancing bodies, the scent of a dozen kinds of alcohol, the furtive movements of those who shrouded their deeds purposefully in darkness: all these flashed across my brain a hundred times a second.
What made me different from most people was that I catalogued each sensation, peered at it from every angle, and then filed it away for later. Nicotine, ash, and spices: Puck smokes clove cigarettes. I was not awash in sensation; I drank it in as a connoisseur would a fine wine. Each aroma, every tingle of leather under my fingertips, the whispers of air all around me: I tasted them all, picking them apart as surely as an expert might discern hints of blueberry, tangerine, and chocolate in a pinot noir.
“Oh, my dear detective,” whispered the voice of Moriarty (case file: X; synopsis: death; vulnerability: none) in my ear. “I have missed you. I know you won’t disappoint me.”
My nostrils flared and my pulse beat in time to the throbbing bass. I had a mystery to solve!
But playing Moriarty’s game was not how I would solve it. At chess, Moriarty cannot be beaten. And she only ever plays chess.
Puck (case file: 1FTR71; synopsis: fairy prince of mischief; vulnerability: impulsiveness) the Irish fairy stood next to me, watching me with a grin as he sipped a pint glass filled with what my nostrils described as an eighteen-year Laphroaig single-malt. I smiled back, wrapped my arms around his neck, and pressed a kiss to his cheek. While my hair hid my lips from any prying cameras, I whispered in his ear.
"I'm going to need some chaos in seventeen minutes. You up for it?"
He… one could only call it a cackle. “Oh, what fools these mortals be!” What happened next defied even my senses. There was almost a... ripple, but not in the air. It was as if causality itself had given a little sigh of defeat. I had a premonition that before the night was through, I might wind up looking like an ass.
With a twinkle in his eye, he put a finger on the tip of his nose. "I'm fair delighted ye think so highly of me, but yer a bit young for me. Give ol' Robin fifteen minutes or so t' let something strong impede me good judgment, and we'll see what sort o' mischief we can make together."
He twisted back to the bar and bent over backwards to tilt the bottom of his glass to the ceiling. I half turned, but rush of air across the backs of my calves, beneath the jacket I felt the slap coming at my ass before it had moved more than an inch from his side.
A test. Are you who you say you are? Evade. Send a message.
I slid to the right and locked a thumb out hard. His palm met a manicured thumbnail and he started in surprise and pain, whiskey glass jerking back downward. I whipped my hand around his and grabbed him by the wrist, bringing it up so that his palm faced the ceiling. He’d turned around, mischievous smile a little more rueful as I held his hand up between us. The skin of the palm wasn’t broken, but an angry red arc showed plain what happened to those who would toy with me.
I slid back toward him, and dipped the index finger of my other hand into his whiskey glass. He watched me as I touched the finger lightly to the base of his wrist, sliding it toward the mark on his palm. As I covered the injury in alcohol, I dug ever so slightly into the wound with my nail.
“I know you have trouble behaving yourself, Puck, and I know I’m an eighteen-year-old girl. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that I suffer fools.”
His eyes glittered at me. “Lass, I suspect they suffer you. I’m going to enjoy ye more than I’d thought I might. You’re every inch who ye mean to be. An’ perhaps more. As fer Robin Goodfellow…”
He stood up fast and pressed his palm hard into my thumbnail, breaking the fragile skin open. He hissed, but it wasn’t a human hiss of pain. It was like a cat, sending a warning.
We stood facing each other for a moment, smiling savagely, and slowly he drew his hand back. A small trickle of blood had welled from it, dribbling down his palm toward his wrist with every heartbeat. As he raised his hand to face me, the blood began to move of its own accord, wriggling like a worm, and it slid back into his body. The cut closed and faded to nothingness behind it.
“I’ll see ye in sixteen minutes,” he hissed, and his lips peeled back into a smile that stretched across his face… and stretched, and stretched, until it somehow became larger than the head that contained it. The teeth in his mouth were pointed, and there were forty-seven of them and more being revealed every moment…
I blinked. The smile was gone. I was facing an empty bar stool: Puck had vanished. Only a half-drained glass of whiskey and a leather coat convinced my mind that he had ever been there in the first place.
That was… unsettling. There are no bit players here to enforce the common laws of reality. Personae may do as their stories dictate. What have we just unleashed?
I shared Holmes’ discomfiture, but I had only six minutes and forty-five seconds to come up with the next name on Kay’s list. I had no time for worries.
I abandoned the stool and let the room wash into my senses. People orbited and collided. Lights oscillated on the walls, and mist trailed in silky coils around our legs. Bass boomed loud enough to guarantee none of us would have to worry about kidney stones. It was overwhelming. It was joyful.
There… there was something in the sensations. A pattern.
I abandon.d t.h st..l and let .h. w... into my senses. ...... .....ed an. ....ided. Lig h ts osci..a... on the walls, .... .... trailed in silky coils around our legs. .... ...... ...d enough .. ...r..tee none of us would have to worry about k i dney stones. .. ... ........ming. It .a. jo..f.l.
Clues whispered to me… but I didn’t have it yet.
Start over. What do you know?
I flashed through my contact with "Kay" earlier in the day. Rance's words. The woodwoork of the club's door. The stitching of the carpet in the hallway.
No. That wasn’t it.
My brain clicked through the people around me in succession, minute clues in their dress and bearing filtered through intellect and intuition. I'd read all of these people's stories - when you're Sherlock Holmes (case file: 0; synopsis: self; vulnerability: distraction) in a world populated by literary figures, that's what you do. Now, tiny idiosyncrasies in their dress and bearing called out their true names as loudly as if they had been floating in air over their heads. Aramis. Red Riding Hood. Faust.
I started making a list of all of the Personae I recognized. Eight seconds later, I stopped at number one hundred and sixty-three. Mostly minor characters, but there were some Elders in the mix: old stories, powerful ones. For us, that counted for a lot: Superman might be strong, but he had nothing on Samson. The longer your story had survived, the more rooted it was in the collective unconscious of the world, the harder it was to deny. Some Elders could do the impossible even in front of bit players.
Stop. You are looking at this linearly, in ordered fashion. You are playing chess. Moriarty cannot be beaten at chess. You must change the game.
My brain panned out. Past the people around me, past the scintillating walls of the nightclub, past the present. Why were we here? What was the story?
Her voice whispered in my ear. “What if it didn’t have to be that way?”
Okay… she wanted to change things. She had some sort of fixation on me. She’d given me a mystery to solve as a gift, not a challenge. She wanted to give me a thrill.
She was flirting with me.
That wasn’t the Moriarty from the stories. Kay wanted things to be different, but in our world they never were. Moriarty and Holmes dueled to the death. That was just what happened. The most she could hope for was that I was a weak Holmes who let her beat me. If I fell, a new Holmes would come along to face her. Sooner or later, Holmes would win. Holmes would kill her.
That was our fate. That was the order of the universe.
From before, Doyle’s words: There is a fanciful legend of dark times when many Personae die suddenly. The 'Blood Sacrifice', it is called. It is said that one of our ranks ascends to a kind of godhood… but at the expense of the old order.
She wanted to change things. She didn’t want us to kill one another. She wanted to destroy the old order. And she had assembled a room full of Personae…
Oh. Oh my. Kay had a list, yes: the guest list.
She was going to kill everyone.
I cast my eyes up to the balcony, where her silhouetted figure leaned catlike over the rail. She was backlit, but her outline was crisp, perfect.
”Perfect.” From the Latin, per facio, to bear all the way through until completeness. You are mistaken. Kay is not yet complete.
I shook my head. This was bigger than I’d thought, but I still had a task in front of me, and four minutes in which to complete it. I needed a name, and I was no closer to it than when I’d started.
“Sherlock Holmes,” Kay’s voice laughed in my ear. “Vulnerability: distraction.”
I practically snarled. Back to it.
Baby-faced girl, butterfly tramp stamp: Icarus (case file: 4AX21V; synopsis: fatal overachiever; vulnerability: ambition). Man with hors d'oeuvres, strike that, what's he eating? The bar doesn’t serve food. Ah: Renfield (case file: 389I2; synopsis: insect-eating henchman; vulnerability: low self esteem).
“You are seeking something.” The voice was sharp and stinging, yet sensuous. It made my skin crawl while making something deep inside me squirm and quiver. Most unsettling.
I turned to see a tall man studying me. The look on his face was vaguely curious, but somehow I could tell it was the same expression he would wear while applying a whip to exposed skin. How does that feel? What will you do now? His dark suit was tailored, and he wore an expensively white shirt partially unbuttoned. He wore his pants without a belt, because one end of it was in the hand that he held at his hip.
The other was wrapped around the neck of a thin woman in a severe black dress. Her nails and eyeshadow were both a vivid green, and her earrings dangled partially-open gold fans that looked like nothing so much as broomsticks. The look on her face was a mixture of excitement and trepidation. The belt being used as a leash around her neck was just shy of taut, allowing her no room to move without it tightening.
“What do you want, Marquis?” I asked.
He frowned, disappointed in my question. Then he smiled with only his mouth, and widened his hands as if to show he had no guile. As he did so, the belt tightened on the woman’s neck, and she staggered to the left. She righted herself quickly, resuming her erect stance as quickly as she could.
Mine, said her green-painted eyes, glaring at me. Back off.
The Marquis answered my question, hands still spread wide. “What do I ever want, my dear detective? To see what you can take. I imagine tugging all your zippers open with my teeth while you squirm away from what my fingers are doing to your-”
“You are trying to use heterodox sexual suggestions to unbalance me so that you can provoke me into making decisions with which I would not normally be comfortable,” I gulped. “It won’t work.”
I was flat-out reciting what Holmes’ voice in my head was telling me, because oh my goodness it was working. The Marquis was like a cross between the Vicomte de Valmont and a great white shark: dangerous liaisons indeed!
“Now, now,” he clucked. “I never play with someone who isn’t asking for it. Begging for it, usually. Isn’t that right, my pet?” He slapped his empty hand down across the green-eyed woman’s ass, and she gasped, a mix of pleasure and pain.
“Oh, yes, Marquis,” she moaned. “I’ve been so wicked…”
You see? said his eyes. He looked appraisingly up and down my body. “I don’t think you’d last long, anyway. What are you, seventeen?”
“Eighteen,” I almost retorted - as if it meant a damn thing! - but my inner Sherlock was a step ahead of him. He is trying to get you to prove your worth, another common tactic amongst con artists and seducers. The more you wish to prove yourself, the more he can work his will upon you.
“Young enough that you might make your current catch of the day worried that you prefer something fresher,” I replied instead. “But I know someone who’s both age-appropriate and who’s been looking for a spanking. I think she’s had a frustrating evening. I’ll send her your way. But before I do, a gesture of good faith: answer me one question each.”
The Marquis’ eyes flashed. “I saw her when you came in. We accept your terms. Shhh,” he caressed the Witch’s hair, “I promise that you’ll be happy for a break before long. And I’m certain you know how to bewitch me with your… wickedness.”
He tightened his grip on the belt, and I saw it bite down just so on her neck. She hissed, but I saw a smile creep across her open mouth.
“Yes, Marquis,” she whispered meekly.
“Very good,” he purred. “Now, I believe I was being interrogated?”
“Her first,” I said. “What color was the lettering on the invitation you received?”
Both of them froze for a moment, confused. “The… invitation?” asked the Wicked Witch of the West.
I nodded at her. “From the way you pronounce your vowels, you’re not from here. New Orleans, unless I miss my guess, which I don’t. You received a plane ticket, and and invitation. It was in a box, sealed with wax, correct? The box had had a hand-penned letter, cursive, and a formal invitation, on heavy-weight card stock. And a ruby slipper.”
“Yes… how—?”
One minute.
“Never mind that!” I snapped, almost wishing I were holding that belt. Was she really going to ask me how I knew that? “The lettering, on the invitation. What color was it?”
“White,” she shrugged. “But I don’t see what color has to do-”
Yes. Keep going.
I turned to the Marquis de Sade. “What color was the whip you found in your box?”
His eyes narrowed, and then his smile was genuine. “White,” he answered.
“You aren’t the only one who can make people do things they know they shouldn’t,” I snapped at him. “You were just so curious, weren’t you?”
“I’ve known for a long time what I was. My... heterodoxy, as you might say,” he answered. “The name that the invitation called me was so clear. It explained a great deal of my story.”
Something… something there.
“And promised more answers,” I nodded. “You didn't know who you were, before the invitation. You'd never heard about Personae. You never met your predecessors, did you?”
Both shook their heads minutely. I recalled from my files. “Both murdered. November twelfth, eight years ago,” I nodded to the Witch. “May twenty-second, four years back,” I told the Marquis.
In fact… I ran through the names I’d determined so far. Achilles: June seventh, three years past. Emma Bovary: last January. Prospero: six years ago last week…
All of them, murdered. The predecessor of every single Persona in this room had died violently within the last decade. It had been careful, subtle, apparently random; I had missed the hand behind the deaths. We so often died in violence, and she’d been clever about making their deaths fit their stories…
The Personae who were here in this room had been left with no one to guide them. No one to tell them anything about their heritage. No one to tell them who they were, or why they could do things that others couldn’t.
All murdered… across a decade… all so this new generation wouldn't know what they were. All so they would be confused about their strange feelings, the voices in their heads, their unusual abilities. All so they would be willing to come here, tonight, for answers.
Ten seconds.
A decade ago? I shivered. Kay would have been something like twelve.
She’d started off by murdering Julius Caesar. They’d found him impaled on thirteen different knives.
Seven seconds. The pattern from before. The name.
“I..e ..o.. f.. . .... ..m. .ha. I ..s,” .. a....r... “T.. .... ..s .. ....r. It e..l.i..d . g..a. ..a. .. .. st..y.”
“White,” ..e s.r..g.d. “..t I d..’t s.. ..a. c..o. ..s .. .o-”
White. Harry. Eric. Harry White? Eric White? Eric—
“Five seconds,” Kay’s voice whispered in my ear. “Who dies next?”
“Not Eric White," I announced to the confusion of the two in front of me. "Erik Weisz. Harry Houdini."
The wall of lights momentarily darkened. A box appeared in it, and a crude human figure dropped into the box, fighting the chains that were wrapped around him. Seconds later, the chains fell away, and the figure sprang from the box and took a bow.
Yes! I’d gotten it right.
“Admit it,” she purred. “You’re enjoying this.”
I looked across at the Wicked Witch. I saw the belt that had formed a leash around her neck. I saw the excitement glittering in her eyes. This was what she wanted. For the moment, she belonged to the Marquis because she thrilled at belonging to him. She was playing a game.
Moriarty and I were also playing a game. And she had me, just as surely. I knew that my eyes sparkled as well.
“Mmmm…” she murmured in my ear. “Yes… yes, we should definitely play again. Ten minutes, my dear.”
Again. We were doing it again. My eyes darted around the room. A million sounds crystallized into meaning in my ears. My nostrils flicked wide to fifty-six… fifty-nine distinct perfumes. Impressions came in, were catalogued, were put away for later, a thousand times a second. My breath was coming quickly. I felt something swelling inside me, a pressure, a pleasure. My lips parted. My toes curled. My back arched and I tilted my head back and there was so much around me all sensation so much so many everywhere I… I… ah…
A bead of sweat falls to the floor from my brow and is caught in the rush of air from the downward sweep of Ariel’s arm as it falls from where it had waved across the room to the Wolfman whose form flickers beastlike in the pulsing lights that beat a staccato rhythm across Gollum’s too-large orbs that take one-hundred-and-thirty-five percent longer to blink than even doe-eyed Bambi’s eyes as they flutter flirtatiously with Hamlet, whose clenching and unclenching hands reveal him to be as indecisive as ever in the face of what for him will be merely the little death of orgasm, a throbbing release as inexorable as the collapse of the planetary orbit made by Cleopatra and Julius Caesar across the room from one another as they try to avoid fate and pain makes the Witch cry out as sensation overwhelms her like a tornado ridden by Pecos Bill who rears his hat back and howls with the voices of a hundred people screaming to a mashup of show tunes and rap music that vibrates the air a hundred-and-fourteen times per second in revels now faded and insubstantial in pageantry that is all this is just a pageant answering to a girl on a balcony who binds the air into whispers in the ear of Theseus who has vanished into a hole in the skein of the universe so that Raskolnikov did not bump into him when the Russian murderer was pushed out of the way by Otrera mother of Amazons as she slipped back into existence from where and why was she vanished and was she in the same hole as there is Theseus where he wasn’t before and moving wrong with conservative motions atypical of an Elder like Achilles when I walked down the stairs Otrera was there and not there when Puck bled and she spoke to Theseus and he went missing and now where is Hercules?
Demigods and Elders all Hercules Theseus Otrera Achilles is the last three of the four who are here have disappeared and Hercules will come back any second now and then Achilles will disappear and come back with strange careful furtive motions like the planned and mapped gait of a red-haired murderess—
“I have a hand inside your jacket on a zipper that is currently most of the way up your thigh and if you think I can’t tear off those stitches and yank it all the way up to your armpit then you’d better realize who you are not listening to a damn word I am saying can you hear me Gwen?”
Vivian gave an experimental tug to show me that she was not fucking around.
I blinked. I was panting, a light sheen of sweat on my skin. I’d wandered from where I had been standing near the Marquis. We were near one wall, not far from the bottom of the stairwell I’d come down not ten minutes before. How long had I been…?
Yellow eyes came into focus as I reined my mind back inside my body. They widened from nervous slits to a glare.
I gulped for air. “I’m… I’m good. You, uh, you can let go now.”
She didn’t move. “Might be too late for that. I think I felt a thread pop.”
My eyes shot open. “Wha-? No!”
She pulled back with a throaty laugh. “Oh, Gwen. You poor thing. I am going to give you a heart attack someday.”
My dress retained its integrity as Vivian withdrew, her fib about a loosening thread notwithstanding. It was my turn to glare.
“Very funny, Irene. Some of us are working, here.”
She let my casual mention of her “darkest secret” pass without so much as a blink. “Looked to me like you were using something on yourself from that big-ass bag you had me carry down here. How do I get that job?”
I shook my head. “I’ve got a better job for you.” I relaxed for a moment until my senses found Achilles in the masses of us. Hercules had not yet returned from whatever hole he’d disappeared into. Achilles was just coming back from the bar, not far from the Witch and her Marquis. Where he moved, Personae parted to let him pass.
I pointed a finger. “Him.”
“Stupid surfer hair and the ass that could crack walnuts?” She pursed her lips, considering. "Pour moi? I'll take it. It's done." She stressed that last word just enough, and nodded at my look.
She finished setting it all up already? My, she certainly is efficient.
“Him,” I agreed. “Get him out of here, fast. I… I think this is going to get bad. It’ll be worse if he’s not clear.”
She started toward him, all hips. Then she paused, half-turning back to me. Over her shoulder, she asked, “How bad? Are you sure you don't need me to stab anyone for you?"
“I’ll be okay,” I lied. “You can let surfer guy do all the poking tonight. Just get him out of here fast, before the other Elders can grab you. They’re already moving.”
An arched eyebrow. “Them? They’d better stay out of my way. I've got a few frustrations to work out, and he looks like he can take it."
“He’s invulnerable, actually."
"Not to me." She stalked off after chiseled prey.
“Tsk, tsk,” clucked Kay’s tongue in my ear. “I saw you playing the detective down there for a moment. Now you’re killing my buzz. I thought we were having fun!”
“It’s not like you to play only one game of chess at once. I’m going to beat you at all of them.”
“Really?” she asked. “How’s your little Irene Adler going to convince Achilles to leave with her when every time she opens her mouth, she can do nothing but insult him?”
I started to retort, but my words were silenced as they left my mouth. It was the damn noise-canceling speakers! They could map the words that Vivian would say, and twist them against her. I had to help—
No. Moriarty underestimates Ms. Adler. She is quite persuasive.
I drew up short and watched as she strode toward Achilles. She was amping up, glamouring herself without even thinking about it. Her dark hair fluttered in an invisible breeze; she seemed to grow taller. Vivian was working it.
Achilles had stopped in front of the Witch. I couldn’t hear them from this far away, but I could read the motions of their bodies as if they were words.
Hello, pretty thing. Why are you this little man’s slave? said Achilles.
The Witch dropped her eyes and looked to the Marquis. She chose to give herself to me for the night, he answered for her. I can take her places that she has no idea she—
It’s not right, that you should be chained, Achilles cut him off, not taking his eyes off of the Witch. Lucky for you, there is a hero here who can save you.
Uh-oh. Some stories had more power than others. As I watched, I could almost see Achilles’ reality seeping out and overwriting the world around him. Elders could do it even to other Personae.
No, said the Wicked Witch. Don’t, please. Stop…
It was too late. Reality changed. Achilles was a hero, and over there was the man who was trying to take away his… Briseis, wasn’t it? That was her name. I didn’t know why I had thought she was a witch. She belonged to Achilles. No other man should have her. She loved Achilles…
My husband! her eyes shone to him. Save me!
This is wrong. She said no, yet Achilles still forces himself upon her mind. This is not what she wants. She said no.
I blinked. Holmes’ voice in my mind was definite, absolute, but I couldn’t understand it. Achilles was saving his wife; what could be wrong about that? I must have read things wrong…
Incorrect, Holmes insisted. My observations are objective, independent of narrative. The story that Achilles is telling is irrelevant. She said no. There is nothing else one need observe. Lucky for her, there is a hero here who can save her.
Suddenly, Vivian shouldered between Achilles and Bris- no, dammit, the Witch. (Of course she was a witch!) Reality contracted into familiar forms once more; Achilles jerked to a halt and cocked his head. Vivian had caught him off-guard as he was reenacting his legend, and he was feeling the shock of being forced from the world he defined back into the world that defined itself. It happened to everyone, not just Personae, and it was always a shock to be toppled from the throne of the universe.
But not such an upsetting one, as Vivian draped an arm over his shoulder and ran a manicured nail down his cheek to his chin. I saw her lips press together, the kanji written on them seeming to dance as her mouth formed a naughty smile. The finger ran from Achilles’ chin down his chest, across his stomach, over his belt buckle, and stopped between his legs.
He shook his head, a question formed silently.
“Man-eater,” she mouthed. I could tell by her posture that no sound had escaped her lips, and that was how she’d intended it.
Achilles straightened, and I could see his smile without seeing his face. He brought up a hand and took hers, and the two of them bolted for the nearest legally-mandated “EXIT” sign.
I saw Theseus move to intercept them. Otrera (case file: 1AZ0N; synopsis: daughter of the East Wind, bride of war, and mother of Amazons; vulnerability: loves to hunt) wasn’t far behind.
“I wouldn’t,” I cautioned Kay. “All the talking that needed to happen between them, just did.”
I turned and looked up the stairs. She was still leaning on the balcony ledge with her elbows, frozen in place. With the light sparkling behind her I couldn’t make out her features, but I could read frustrated helplessness all across her posture. She was doing the math, mapping the angles, foreseeing every possible outcome. She had to realize…
The two Elders stopped before they reached Achilles and Vivian. Achilles shouldered his way through the back door, and the pair was gone.
“Well,” came Kay’s words tersely in my ear, “that was no fun.”
In a second, she was going to call foul, and then she was going to up the ante. That’s how the Holmes-Moriarty game went. She made the rules, and when I surprised her, she played a trump card. I was close to figuring out something important about what was going on here, and she was about to pull the trigger on something new and force my attention elsewhere.
I had to figure out what was coming next before she completely changed the game. She was going to kill everyone, but at the same time she was doing something to the Elders, getting them to work for her. No… changing them. There was a pattern. A pattern…
I sprang up quickly on top of a nearby chair and looked out over the crowd. In my mind, I willed them to stop milling about. Time dilated: the gyrations and movements slowed. They came to a stop, and then began to rewind, moving in reverse. I had a perfect memory of everything that had happened since I'd arrived: I could play it backwards, couldn't I? I could do this. I sped them all in my mind's eye through the last ten minutes, looking for someone lurking in a corner. He'd been there when I was on the balcony before... and now he was gone. What had happened to Hercules?
I was losing it. Perfect memory or no, I had been down in the crowd for most of the time I'd been here: I hadn't actually seen everything that everyone had done. There were gaps. Time threatened to reassert itself, tugging forward against my mind's eye.
I concentrated. It was complicated, but people's movements weren't random. When you walked down a city street, you weren't alone: you were interacting with every single person you didn't collide with, stepping around one another. Some people pressed forward and expected others to move; you could predict it if you knew their psychology. Working out how the revelers would bounce off of and slide around each other was inexact, but I could do this. I could see names floating above their heads as I watched them, adjusted the dance for the personality quirks of each person… I had files on all of them. I knew how they would react, interact.
I played the scene back from where it was now, and forward from when I'd last seen Hercules. There were… discrepancies. People wound up in the wrong spots.
I did it again. I changed some of the variables in my head. One man, big, athletic. One woman, similar. Change their behavior pattern, make it less like an arrogant Elder, and more like a criminal mastermind... If you inserted them just so into the flow, then all the human perambulations worked out. You got from then to now.
All you had to know was everything.
Theseus and Otrera had come out of a screened entrance near the back of the club that even I had missed. They had been together. They'd approached Hercules, and led him back behind the screen… where?
Their movements… they moved just like Kay did. Just like Kay did. I could read the words on someone’s lips from the way their back bent and their fingers flexed, but movements weren’t just words: they were also a signature. Kay was written all over Theseus and Otrera.
My eyes fluttered and came back to the present. There: Hercules! But… but not Hercules. He was Kay, too.
Kay’s voice was insistent in my ear. “You have a name to give me, I hope? You've wasted your time on something that has nothing to do with our game. I hope you’ve been multitasking.”
“I’m not the only one who’s been up to more than one thing at once. I'm onto your little scheme with the Elders," I bluffed. "You don't play fair, so I’m not playing your game anymore. I’m shutting this down."
“I’m doing this for you!” she practically shouted at me. “You love this. You, me, our game, our dance… my new bodies... it's all for you." I heard her breathing for a moment, calming herself. "I… don't forget who I've got in a cage in the back. You may not care about these people, but you care about him. You can't save him unless you finish our game.”
"Maybe I can't. Not alone. But there's only ever been one ending to our game." I reached into the top of one of my boots and pulled out a shiny new phone that I'd prepared earlier in the day for a very special purpose. I pressed a button.
"You wanted to change the game, Moriarty. You don't need a blood sacrifice: just change. Write a new story if this one doesn't work for you. I already have. So this time I'm not alone at the top of the waterfall."
A meaty hand slapped down on my shoulder and spun me around. The phone went flying out of my hands, skittering across the club's floor between legs and gyrating bodies. No! I marked its path in my mind - thirty-two degree angle of descent passing between Tom Bombadil and Jean Valjean - and looked up into the tattooed face of someone who definitely had some leftover gorilla genetics expressing themselves.
Not Theseus. Or Hercules. Not one of Moriarty's. This is something else.
"Hey!" he shouted at me, alcohol-infused spittle flecking my lips. "I saw you earlier with my man! That's his coat you have on!"
My eyes got wide. I glanced to one side. Standing just behind the giant, Puck raised a fresh glass apologetically. He was a little early. It happened to a lot of guys.
"I, uh, think there's been a huge misunderstanding," I tried.
"Oh, you're hilarious," growled the troll. "I'm hyperthyroid, bitch."
"Ach, come onnn, Mister T," trilled Puck in mock protest. "'She means nothing to me."
I glared at Puck. Then realization dawned. Mister T? Impossible.
I looked on incredulously at the mountain of muscle in front of me.
At the same time, Puck dragged on the back of the big man's shirt. "Come on, baby, 'twas nothin', really! Hardly any tongue at all. Well, maybe a wee bit o' tongue."
“Do you believe in fairies now?" Puck's boyfriend screamed. He reared back a fist as big as my head. Tinkerbell was the jealous type.
One hand on my shoulder, the other racing toward my face. Pupils pinpricks, sweat glistening on his bald head, spit on his lips. The reek of too many appletinis. T-shirt two sizes too small; I'd still be swimming in it. We'd attracted the attention of seventeen nearby onlookers, and were getting more eyeballs every second. A sizzle in the air, noise within noise. A hum. Something... ultrasonic.
Something familiar.
Oh, Puck, you beautiful little man. Your timing couldn't have been more perfect. I’d been chasing Moriarty’s shadows the whole time I was here, distracted by the game she wanted me to play and not focused on the one she was really playing. Now it was my turn to misdirect.
I watched Tinkerbell's fist float through the air towards me. It seemed to drift lazily, a clumsy thing of meat and encumbrance. My senses sped free, ephemera, unbound by time. His other hand held me, preventing me from stepping away... but not into him, towards the fist. I ducked in, his sweaty paw brushing my cheek, and delivered a two-handed thrust into his solar plexus--
No, that was no good. Rewind. Play it again.
... towards the fist. I ducked in and under his arm, to the outside of his body, letting his blow slide over me as he tangled himself up. With a leg thrust out, I hooked his ankle as he stormed by, sending him crashing on into--
No, that was hardly fair to poor Hamlet. Rewind. Again.
... preventing me from stepping away, but biomechanics said that you could only be strong in one direction at once. I drove two fingers hard into the instep of his elbow, bending the arm holding me inward. He didn't let go of me, so this drew me forward and inside the blow, but spun me into him. Now his bulky arm was wrapped across my chest. I was pinned, but he was momentarily confused.
I screamed in my very girliest voice, "No! I don't want you to touch me! Somebody, help!"
A room full of heroes straightened up.

Chapter 08: Overcoming the Final Problem
I couldn't see Tinkerbell's face, but I could feel his head whipping around as realization dawned on him. He was holding a screaming girl against her will in a room filled with the greatest heroes the world had ever known. This wasn't going to be pretty.
A hand tapped Tinkerbell on the shoulder. He twisted, not letting me go, though his grip had loosened with uncertainty. I was face to face with a woman with straw-colored cornrows and piercing brown eyes. She had a single earring, dangling a red feather. The mint-colored tank top she wore over a tie-died ankle-length skirt showed off tautly-muscled arms. She wasn’t wearing makeup, and the lines at the corners of her eyes spoke to almost four decades behind her. She was tall for a woman, five-nine or so, though still dwarfed by the man holding me. Behind her, a slightly-built black man with white-streaked dreadlocks and round hipster glasses watched smugly.
Robin Hood and Marian. Or, presumably, Marion.
Her eyes were locked on Tinkerbell's as she jerked her chin towards me. "Hey man, I think you heard the lady. How about letting go? You don't want to do this."
She said the last gently and firmly, so confident that it was true that it had to be, just on her say-so. It wasn't a threat. He really didn't want to do this.
Subtly, others had fallen into place behind her. She had done nothing but step forward, and people were following her lead.
His grip on me relaxed further. It looked like the chaos I'd planned for was going to be foiled by a long, hard look at his life choices. I could probably push this in the other direction, but it didn't matter. Vivian had gotten the job done ahead of schedule, and I was done playing Moriarty's game.
A voice crackled in my ear. "Gwen? Gwen, can you hear me?"
"One second, Doyle," I replied under my breath. "Bit busy."
The giant holding me rumbled, "I... I'm sorry. I just... I got so mad... When Puckie said that this little—“
Robin patted his arm soothingly. "Let's not dwell in the past, right? Just let the girl go."
He did, and the time bomb of a room defused. I slid away from him to stand next to my rescuer. Puck cooed over Tinkerbell, and led him off - away from the bar.
"Thanks for the save," I nodded at the blonde woman. She was a decade older than most other people here, and I was envious of her comfortable attire. She seemed not bothered at all that the rest of us were wearing leather and lace: this was a woman who had no fucks to give.
"My pleasure," she nodded, and extended a hand. "Robin."
"Yeah, I know." I took her hand. Her grip was as steady as her gaze. "Gwen."
“Not the name I’d have called you,” she arched an eyebrow. “Unless I’ve made some faulty… deductions?”
I laughed. “No, you hit the mark. From what I hear, you always get the shot. And this must be-”
"Whatever you've heard, it's true." Robin's companion had an affable grin and a gentle handshake. "Marion Phelps."
"Tell me you own a cleaning service."
He laughed, a full and hearty thing. He wiped his eye and shook his head. "No, but that's a good one. 'Maid Marion.' I like you." Turning to Robin, he said, "I like her. Good save, puddin'."
Robin rolled her eyes in mock annoyance, and Marion planted an apology smooch on her presented cheek. "I'm not allowed to call her that outside of the bedroom," he chuckled to me, earning a backhanded slap on the arm that sounded like it hurt. Still, the tears in his eyes were more from amusement than pain.
I liked them both immensely.
"If you two are done flirting," Robin arched an eyebrow, "would you mind telling me what's going on here? Every scumbag in town is laying low, and then a million little weird things start happening all over. The trail leads here. To get us in here, I had to pick the pocket of someone who used the phrase ‘highly illogical’ without any irony whatsoever.”
"Yes," murmured Doyle in my ear, "I'd love to hear this."
“First, I should make one other introduction. Robin, Marion, I can tell I don’t need to explain Personae to you.” She nodded silently in assent. “We’ve got someone else with us, too: Merlin. Say hi, Doyle.”
I could tell from his tone as he greeted the other two that he wasn’t thrilled, but he’d put up with me this far: he could deal.
“Doyle, I’ve got two important questions. First, have you locked Moriarty out of the audio system?”
“Yes,” he answered. “She can’t hear us, or broadcast her voice anymore. If she wants to talk to you, she’ll have to do it the old-fashioned way.”
“She’s going to send a demigod henchman to bring me to her so she can explain her evil plan?” I snarked. “Never mind; how long have I got until New Camelot gets here?”
“Twenty minutes.” He sounded almost sheepish. “I found the poker chips you’d left in the Audi. One doesn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out that you would come here. But it wasn’t until I saw Vivian leaving that I was sure. I didn’t tell Arthur until I was positive.”
“Thank you,” I said, meaning it. “I’d worried a bit about the chips. You could have let Arthur in on things hours ago. I can work with twenty minutes. Does he know…?”
Doyle hesitated. “He asked me to find out where you were. He didn’t ask me anything about who you were. I… I want to believe that you’re not out to harm us. But we must talk soon, you and I.”
“Done,” I promised. I took a breath, and looked at Robin and Marion. "We're all here because Professor Moriarty is planning to kill off as many of us as she can in one fell swoop. She believes in an ancient ritual called the blood sacrifice, and she thinks that it’s going to turn her into a goddess. She wants to change her story. She’s recruited the Elders here to her cause. Or… I’m still not sure about that. It’s like she’s pulling their strings somehow.”
I continued. "I was confident that Moriarty would be focused on me: she had been targeting me all day, and once I got here she made it clear that she’s… obsessed with me. I kept her attention on me while my partner set up a mesh network of cell phones and wireless antennas. They're under the tables all around the place. A single cell phone might not get signal, but hook enough of them to the antennas that I smuggled in here disguised as sex toys, and it was enough to punch a signal out of here and let Doyle start getting himself into Moriarty's system."
“It’s slow going right now: I’m getting terrible bandwidth for uploading Watson’s tools,” Doyle explained. “Once I find a pipe out to the internet, I’ll go in that way and be in complete control over there. Right now, I’ve got the voice synthesizers and the door locks. Security cameras next.”
Robin squinted. “If she’s planning on killing everyone, shouldn’t we be getting everyone out of here? Like, now? If the doors aren’t locked, then I say we all take the better part of valor.”
I shook my head. “Until we can neutralize whatever weapon she’s going to use, any attempt to evacuate would just make her pull the trigger early. As long as I’m trying to stop her, she’s not going to set anything off. Also, she’s got my dog.”
Marion’s brows knitted. “Your… Could we leave now? I saw those other two take off a minute ago.”
I nodded. “And I think you should. Doyle and I can handle this. We need to-”
"Heads up," interrupted Robin. "Trouble." Marion subtly shifted behind her: this wasn't their first time going into danger together.
I looked up in time to see Tinkerbell come crashing to the ground. Standing with his arms still outstretched after shoving the fairy was Hercules, a nasty grin on his face. He was about like you'd expect: tall, big muscles, long hair... but there was something off about him. Theseus stood nearby, of similar build with shorter hair. He wore the same grin.
"So you like to pick on little girls?" roared Hercules at the man on the ground. He began to circle clockwise, Theseus moving in lockstep on the other side.
I felt someone behind me, and whipped my head around as a pair of firm, strong hands came down on my shoulders. "Don't worry, my dear," Otrera cooed in my ear. "We won't let anyone hurt you."
"I'm fine," I snapped. "He didn't do any damage, and he realized he'd made a mistake. Look at him, he's terrified. You don't need to do this!"
Tinkerbell had tried to get to his feet, but Theseus put a booted foot on his tailbone and kicked him back over. "Lose your wings, fairy?" he sneered, and from his tone it was clear that the word was meant to refer to more than just a legend about a tiny girl with wings. It was uglier than that.
"D- don't," the downed man pleaded. "I was just... I'm sorry!" He caught my eye through the crowd and stretched out his hand to me. "Tell them! Tell them I'm sorry!"
Hercules chopped his hand down on the outstretched arm so fast that even I could barely see it move. There was a nasty crunch, and Tinkerbell howled in pain, curling up around an arm that now bent in an extra place.
"Don't you look at her, you cock-sucking filth!" Hercules roared.
This is wrong. The Greeks should be predisposed against intolerance of homosexuality. This is a misdirection. Moriarty wants your attention focused away from whatever she is up to.
Misdirection or not, she had my attention completely. I couldn’t just do nothing! Tinkerbell was blubbering, huge tears rolling down his cheeks. "Puckie! Tell them, Puck!" he cried, but the smaller man was nowhere to be seen.
I started to surge forward, but something strange happened: I went nowhere. Otrera's hands on my shoulders held me effortlessly in place. Damn Elder!
But the age of a story wasn't the only thing that mattered with us. Your story being old made a difference, because it had survived. But it was also a popularity contest with us: who knew your story now? And who'd ever heard of Otrera?
Sherlock Holmes, on the other hand...
Otrera would be no problem. With age and fame on his side, I wasn't so certain that I could take Hercules, but that asshole had crippled Tinkerbell already. The downed man didn’t have the time for me to sit and work out all the angles. If I was going to act, it had to be now.
I relaxed and let time slow. Absently, my hand dropped to the bottom hem of my dress and tapped out a short message on the backup phone I’d hidden there. (Of course I had a backup phone; what was I, a moron?) My network of dildo antennas had also set up a local wireless node, and I was sure the recipient would have his phone set up to connect to whatever was available. Moriarty had struck from an unexpected direction. It looked like I was going to need some help.
I couldn't just ignore Otrera, but I didn’t want this to be a fight. Best make it look like an accident: I shifted my weight subtly forward, planning to pull her off-balance and then twist away - but again, I went nowhere. Otrera relaxed her arms and tightened her fingers just enough to make me wince.
Frustrated, I executed a subtle series of shifts that would just look like nervous fidgeting, but should have rattled her arms in her sockets enough to let me slip free. Again: nothing. She anticipated my every movement and compensated for it, invisibly, almost before it had happened.
Impossible. There's no way that Otrera could react this quickly.
Ahh, my dear, but she isn't.
It was the same sort of subtext message that I'd been reading off of Achilles and the others earlier, but it had been broadcast through Otrera's fingers, into my shoulders, to be translated by my brain on the other side. This wasn't subtext, though: this was a message. This was intentional. There was only one other mind that could speak to me like that.
This was Moriarty.
My blood turned to ice. Somehow, Moriarty was inside Otrera! She was reading my subtext, translating my every tic and gesture. She was moving as fast as I was, faster: she was anticipating my every move and countering it before I even twitched.
In the world of the flesh, Theseus had just landed a vicious kick across Tinkerbell's face. The big man was bleeding from his nose and a cut over his eye as the two Elders tormented him. Why was no one doing anything?
The music had stopped; replaced by a static hiss. My eyes sped around the room: everyone was watching this man get the life beaten out of him. When it had been Tinkerbell grabbing me, they’d all been ready to come to my defense. Now, nobody was moving a muscle.
"They can't," whispered Moriarty through Otrera’s lips. "I've suppressed their voluntary nervous systems. It's the first step towards assimilation."
The gas. She'd told me that it was to reflect lasers so that the computer could read speech all throughout the room.
"I may not have told the whole truth,” she admitted. “It does do that. And a little something extra.”
Otrera laughed, sounding just like Kay had. “And here I thought you loved mysteries! Certainly you had enough to conclude I was misdirecting you. Did you not see that everything here is a ruse?”
I gritted my teeth. "The gas is some sort of psychotropic. We've been breathing your brainwashing fog since we got here."
"Oh, Holmes. It's so delightful to watch you flail about in the dark."
Crack! Hercules drove a fist into the back of Tinkerbell's head with the force of a jackhammer.
Inside. She's inside Otrera. That same smile on Hercules and Theseus... she's inside them, too!
"But you're too slow. Now it's time to shine a light."
"Oi, what if I jus' light it all up to burn it down, ye hairy-bearded thunder twat?" Puck jumped up from behind the oak top of the bar, bottles of liquor in each hand. Stuffed into the ends were bar rags, lit aflame.
Molotov cocktails.
It has been seventeen minutes, came Holmes’ voice in my head. Time for a distraction.
We were meant to look at the two flaming explosives in Puck's hands... and not the ones he'd already thrown.
Whoomp! There was a vacuum as air rushed toward Hercules and Theseus, and then twin rushes of heat. I heard a single scream, but I was too busy to pinpoint it's source: Moriarty had underestimated Puck, and I was damn sure going to use that to my advantage.
I whipped my head forward, sending my hair spraying into Otrera's face. Already focused elsewhere, she misread the slight arching of my toes that pressed my shoulders up, and she pressed down to counter. I dropped my body straight down to the floor, and she lost her balance for a split second. Fast, she was damn fast, catching herself in an instant the way you'd expect of an Amazon queen.
Then she caught a Molotov cocktail with her face.
I covered my own with my hands and rolled to the side, away from the third wash of flame. Otrera was screaming and clawing at the ruin of her flesh, and a putrid reek spilled from her in sooty waves.
Not soot. Ash. Ash and oak. Ashley Oakley, heiress to the fortune of a major arms manufacturer. Better known in our circles as little Annie Oakley, the fastest sharpshooter in the West.
She stood on the balcony, where Moriarty had left her to play body double. The figure at the top of the stairs had been backlit so conspicuously that I’d noticed it without gleaning its significance. I hadn’t actually seen Moriarty since I had left her earlier. Now, in the flames pouring off of the three Elders, Ashley was illuminated despite the backlight that Moriarty had used to prevent me from seeing who was really up there. Her platinum blonde hair flickered blue and red in the firelight.
"Got it!" came the call from behind her. I saw a wiry man hardly taller than Puck emerge, waving an assault rifle over his head. "It was like you said in your text message: somebody hostage up here. I had to defuse an autocannon, but, you know, no big."
Erik White. Security system tester. You called him when you wanted to pay top dollar in order to find out just how bad your corporate security really was. Because no lock was ever closed to Harry Houdini. I had a case file on him a foot thick: it just seemed too likely that he'd wind up as someone's pawn someday, and all of his antics could be quite instructive. Of course I'd had his phone number. Moriarty wasn't the only one who could misdirect. I'd messaged him while struggling with Otrera: where she'd stood behind me, she couldn't see my hands.
I gave him a thumbs up. "Let me guess," I called, "something large-caliber from Oakley & Harris?"
"Nailed it," he affirmed. Then looked contrite. "I'd have had your back a little sooner, but whatever mojo she's working knocked me on my ass for a minute."
"A full minute, for the greatest escape artist of all time to get out of a trap laid by the greatest criminal mastermind? Figure out how to wake up gun girl up there, or your reputation is really going to suffer.”
The levity felt good, but my heart was beating as if I'd run a four minute mile. The static hiss all around us was messing with my head: something in it was knocking on the back of my brain, trying to get in. I hadn't been here nearly as long as the others, so I hadn't been exposed to as much of Moriarty's gas... but biology was biology. If we didn't get out of here soon, I wasn't sure what would happen.
Yet if we do not turn off these speakers, it is far from clear what will happen to everyone who is standing here, frozen.
I stood, looking back through the silent crowd at Puck. He was by Tinkerbell's side, face grim. He tapped his watch. "Seventeen minutes," he called. "Ye got yer distraction right when ye asked fer it. Now we're square. And fuck you and yer girlfriend."
"Moriarty's not—” I started, but then I froze. Horrid, gurgling laughter broke apart the hissing static.
Hercules was still standing. Engulfed in flames, he had just stood there, burning. He'd been so still, and so much had been going on, we'd all just ignored him, assuming he'd met the same fate as Moriarty's other possessed Elders.
We'd been wrong. He threw back his head, blue flames eating away his mane of hair into nothing. He turned his ruined face to me. It had no eyes left, but he felt me.
"Hhhh... You can't kill me anymore... my dear." He spoke as if he had a throat full of glass. He took a shaky step toward me.
"Feckin' shite!" howled Puck, throwing the last liquor bottle. This time, Hercules caught the final Molotov before it exploded all over him. With a tiny motion, he hurled it back at Puck.
Crack! A single report from an assault rifle. Hercules' casual toss had the speed of a major league pitch, but there was an eye here sharper than the fragments of glass that scattered into a million sparkling fireflies across the room, landing at Puck's feet.
"Like, I totally don't know what's going on here, but I'm wicked pissed about it." Ashley Oakley trained the assault rifle on Hercules.
"He's the bad guy!" I shouted. "Do it, Oakley!"
"Good. Bad. I'm the girl with the gun. Call me Ash." Click! "And, um, this thing is already out of ammo? One shot? What the hey?"
Hercules took another step, and another.
"You can't stop him!" came Doyle's voice in my ear. "You have to get out of there!"
"Negative - I need you to cancel out the static," I told him. "It's got everyone catatonic. They're sitting ducks!"
With a sweep of a brawny arm, the Hercules-thing smashed a paralyzed Rosencrantz out of his way. The blow bent the man in half and sent him flying, knocking people to the floor, where they lay still.
"I can't," he said. "Whatever's broadcasting the static has a hardline, disconnected from the rest of the system. It's an auditory override. I can't cancel it out from here, either: the room's too big, and the system is only designed for spot broadcasts. I can get you a bubble where the effect is canceled: five or six feet, maybe."
I gritted my teeth. Names of those nearby flashed through my mind, strengths, weaknesses. I couldn’t save them all. So I chose.
"Robin and Marion. Are Vivian and Achilles fully clear?"
"She and… that… ahem, yes, they were out before Hercules and company got to work. Now go!"
Hercules was building up steam. He still shuffled like a zombie, but his movements were getting more deliberate. He was about ten feet away. I grabbed Robin and Marion, shaking them. "We've got to go. Now! Doyle, keep your bubble on us. Erik, the door?" I pointed to the secret door that Theseus and Otrera had taken Hercules through, shoving the groggy couple into motion.
He was still hustling down the stairs. "It's been all of thirty seconds," he complained. "Give me another twenty!"
"Get there!" I screamed. "Ash, follow Erik!"
I saw Puck struggling with Tinkerbell's inert body. "Come on, baby," he whispered. "I believe. I believe!"
He turned to me, eyes wet. "Come on, please!"
Hercules kept coming for me.
"Puck, we don't have time!"
"I'm nae leavin' him like this! I believe!"
“Highly illogical,” I grumbled, and darted around Hercules. He took a swipe at me, nearly landed it, but I dropped back and skidded under his arm on my knees.
I slid to a stop next to Puck and Tinkerbell. “This isn’t my story. What the hell do I do?"
He clapped his hands together, and Hercules cocked his head toward us. "Believe," he whispered.
I clapped my hands, looking nervously as the monster changed direction, absently bowling people over as he sniffed the air. "I believe."
"Come on, do it!" Puck begged. "Ye've got to believe he'll come back! I can't! I'm too fairy meself!"
I took a deep breath, and Hercules took a staggering step in the right direction. "I believe," I hissed. "Come on, Tink. I believe." I looked over at the abomination struggling after us.
If that is not evidence of stories unconstrained by nature’s law…
I clapped. "I believe in fairies!"
Tinkerbell shuddered, and drew a breath.
Hercules bowled past me and slammed a foot down on Tinkerbell’s spine. The big fairy breathed no more.
The sound that tore forth from Puck could have come from the monster that had killed his lover. It was guttural, terrible, a medley of shock, pain, and soul-burning rage. Puck rose to his feet, but his shadow suddenly swept large and alive, no longer fitting his body. There should have been no shadows in the dank light of the nightclub, but his was darker than mere shadow, a vacuum of light in the gloom. It slipped away from Puck and hurled itself at Hercules.
The burned Elder bowled to the floor as if hit by a truck. Puck took a step toward him, but Hercules lashed a hand up into the air, and his own shadow grabbed Puck's, and squeezed. The small man gasped in pain, and suddenly the shadow was a tiny bird, flying free of the monster's fist. Puck lost his bearings for a second - just a second - but in that time Hercules drove a backhand into his ribs that sent him flying over the bar.
I was moving, running. "Erik!" I called. "Faster! Faster! Faster would be better!"
I knew better than to look behind, but from the faces of the others, I could tell that Hercules had taken chase.
"Mmmmy d-d-dearrr..." he rumbled, too close.
Damn! Unnatural abominations are not my story. I… I don’t know what to do.
I ran. I didn’t look back. You never looked back.
Erik had pulled the door open, and Ash was through it. Robin was pushing Marion through, but it was no good, we were right on top of them. They weren't going to get through in time.
I threw myself to the floor, leg outstretched… In my mind, the story kept playing out. The possibilities split here, and there were only two.
The Elder tripped over my leg, stumbling and flailing for balance. He kept it, but he'd lost his momentum. Marion staggered through the door, with Robin right on his heels.
"Come on!" screamed Erik.
I shook my head, and kicked out hard, into the monster's knee. It was like hitting a tree trunk, but now I had the tree's attention.
"Close the damn door!" I shouted at him. "Save yourselves!"
But none of that happened.
Hercules leaped over my outstretched leg. A few strides later he caught Marion's head in his huge hand and slammed it into the door frame with crushing force. Robin had enough time to watch the light die in his eyes before Hercules caught her by the throat, lifting her off of the ground as her feet kicked feebly.
Again my mind analyzed the probable futures. In three seconds, the monster would find his grip and crush her windpipe. With Moriarty driving him, then he would drop her and watch her claw at the ruin of her throat as she choked to death next to Marion's corpse.
Three seconds. The door was right next to where Vivian and I had parted ways just minutes before. My bag was still on the table.
Two seconds. I pulled something long and steel out of the bag, taking a long step towards the thing that was choking Robin to death. The future wavered.
One second. I slammed a twelve-inch steel dildo in an underhanded strike into the instep of Hercules' elbow. The blow crushed his median nerve, and it didn't matter how much of an Elder he was: when you can't get nerve impulses from your brain to the muscles that close your fingers, you can't sign your name, much less crush anybody's windpipe. Robin dropped from literally nerveless fingers.
“Get away from her, you bitch!” I shouted, teeth bared. Moriarty was in there somewhere. I hoped she felt it.
Hercules howled, more in rage than pain, and swept his injured arm back at my face. The blow would have knocked me flat, but I'd seen him use it just seconds before on Puck. I'd mapped it, measured it, and countered it in nine possible ways already. He wasn't going to catch me with that one.
I ducked, his fist sweeping harmlessly through my hair as I passed under his arm. His blackened, ruined face loomed over me, eyes hollow sockets, nose melted away. His breath reeked of death as he gurgled, “My dea—“
"Blow me," I spat, and drove the dildo into his mouth with every ounce of strength I had. My shoulders jerked as I felt his skull crack along the top of his mouth, driving splinters of bone into his cerebellum.
I held my breath. He didn't drop. He wobbled. He clawed at me, body shuddering all over. I backpedaled, but I tripped over Robin where she lay on the floor, gasping for air. Hercules toppled after, landing on top of me. His weight was tremendous, crushing. My head cracked hard on the floor, and my vision swam. For a second, it seemed like he was everywhere, smothering me with the scent of death.
Then he was still. Panting, I scrambled out from under him.
"Is— is he dead?" Robin rasped.
"I think so. But let's not stick around to find out."
But she was talking about Marion. Blood trickled from his ears. I could read her, and her body was screaming. No, no, god, please, no, not him, take me instead, don't take him, please, he was the best thing I ever—
In the world of flesh, she pressed her lips together. She opened them. She shut them again. She passed her hand over his face, closing his dead, open eyes.
"I love you, you silly little man. I will tell you that every day until I die."
She pulled herself to her feet, and her eyes held hardly more life than Marion's had. Her jaw was clenched for murder.
"Who?" she rasped. Tell me who I am going to kill.
"Moriarty," I said. "She infected them all. I don't know how yet, but it was her. It's always her." I paused. "I'm so sorry."
Her mouth held the grimace, and her eyes said nothing, even to me. She stepped through the door without a word.
I followed her into a short hallway. It was grungy, industrial; the opposite of the opulence of the club. The single door at the other end lead to a small room with a low, drop-tile ceiling. Erik and Ash flanked the door as Robin and I stepped through into Moriarty's lair.
A bank of monitors flashed video of every angle of the club, and a microphone on the desk at its base had allowed Moriarty to speak straight to me. The chair facing the desk was empty, but I saw red hairs on it. She'd been here.
So had Hercules. Next to the monitors was the sort of steel chair that you got when you visited the gynecologist in hell. It had wrist and ankle shackles, along with straps for the head and chest. The wrist shackles had bent, but hadn't broken, perhaps because the strange rig that was mounted where a victim's head would be had taken effect. It had screens that would fit over their eyes, and headphones for the ears.
He walked in, expecting a private room with Theseus and Otrera. She jabbed a needle into his neck and Theseus wrestled the groggy Hercules into the chair. They strapped him in, and got the rig in place...
I saw two blonde hairs on the rim of the apparatus. One was a normal color of blonde, slightly kinky, as if its owner’s hair had been tightly-styled. The other was a bright platinum, almost white. I could tell from the slight disturbances here and there in the dust, the fabric of the straps, and a thousand other things too small even to put to words that the room had been given a cursory sweep by someone removing any clue of what had taken place there… but the hair had been missed. Two strands of hair.
Missed… or left for me to find. The door clicked shut behind me, and I heard Erik twist a deadbolt into place.
Naturally blonde hair occurs in only two percent of the global population. Platinum blonde hair occurs almost exclusively in children. Women who bleach their hair tend to recolor it with a more vivid yellow, adopting the observed normal tone. This hair is extremely uncommon.
Ashley has platinum blonde hair.
Oh, shit. I was trapped in here with a… what, a copy of Moriarty? One whose name Moriarty had been wanting me to guess, so that I would think that I had saved her. The whole game of me “saving” people… it wasn’t that at all! Moriarty had selected them well before I ever arrived, gotten into their heads, and set me up to trust them because that’s what you did with victims: you trusted that they really were victims. Apparently, Moriarty had read Gillian Flynn.
I’d also figured out Houdini’s name. That made two of Moriarty’s brainwashed in the room with me.
The elasticity of human hair varies widely, but blonde hair tends to straighten within twelve minutes of removal from the scalp in seventy-three percent of the population due either to dye or natural oils. In this population, only hair that has been subject to prolonged strain to the point that cells have collapsed fails to uncurl.
Robin wears cornrows.
My heart hammered in my chest.
No, no, no, it couldn’t be! Robin had pickpocketed her way into the club… or so she’d said. She had been genuinely shattered when Marion had…
”Did you not see that everything here is a ruse?”
Three of them. Three Moriarty’s. Me, three copies of my greatest foe, and a locked door.
I could hear a shift behind me: Ash was bringing her assault rifle to bear - it was not empty, despite what she'd said. God damn my inability to see through Moriarty’s lies! I wasn't sure if she was just going to execute me or if she'd try to force me into the apparatus that Moriarty had already put them all through, but it amounted to the same thing, didn’t it?
I gritted my teeth. “Reichenbach. Time to fall.”
Reaching back and grabbing the barrel of the rifle with my left hand, I spun inside Ash's line of fire. I slammed my right shoulder into her solar plexus, knocking the wind out of her, and brought the barrel up while slipping my finger inside the trigger guard and pumping three rounds into Erik's chest--
My attack was countered before I could get the barrel up: Ash dropped the butt end of the rifle down, spoiling my aim and keeping my finger out of the trigger. Erik dodged behind Robin, who hadn't moved yet. They were fighting like I was, mind three moves ahead… but they weren’t cooperating. Erik was shielding himself with Robin. Was he more important than she was for some reason?
Ash lunged forward, driving the barrel of the rifle into my ribs. She followed through with her whole body, and I felt a crack as my sixth vertebrosternal rib splintered. Then I heard another crack as she pumped a round into my chest—
I spun back before she could follow through, and her strike only grazed my rib, preventing further damage.
Sherlock Holmes, Kay’s voice laughed in my memory. Vulnerability: distraction.
I was going to have to quit fighting like a detective if I was going to get out of this. I could hold my own in combat, but it wasn’t my metier. I was usually able to come out ahead thanks to my ability to always be six moves ahead of my opponent. The Moriartys… they were too fast. They fought like me, always plotting the strike to follow…
Erik threw an elbow at me from behind, in time with a leg sweep from Ash. The dual attack should have rung my bell and landed me on my ass, but I’d seen both strikes coming and thrown myself bodily at Ash. We crashed to the ground, and I saw her scrabbling to get to her feet… slower than I was. I landed a nerve strike on her shoulder that numbed her arm and loosened her grip on the rifle.
Slow… they were slower than they should have been. They could see the next move, but not all the ones that followed. They were flawed… imperfect copies of the lethality that was the original.
There were also three of them.
Robin hadn’t attacked yet, but had dropped back into a defensive posture as Ash and I fought on the ground for the rifle. Erik advanced, throwing a kick towards my face while Ash wrapped another hand around the butt of the rifle and planted her foot on my hip, tearing the gun out of my hands—
No, I wasn’t about to let that happen: I stabbed upward with the business end of the rifle, driving it into the arch of Erik’s foot and tearing it free of Ash’s hands as I spun to my feet. I slid it into my shoulder, but Erik drove a fist into my teeth—
Again, I was too fast, jerking my head back as his hand passed harmlessly by - and wrapped his reaching fingers around the bolt handle of the rifle, tugging it back and ejecting the round. I took two steps back and cocked the rifle again, but something was wrong: nothing slid into the chamber. The weight of the weapon was wrong, too - and then I noticed Ash holding up the magazine. She’d ejected it while she was “fighting” me for it.
The rifle was empty: no bullets. Disgusted, I threw it to one side. Ash pitched the magazine after it.
They grinned identical grins, and said in unison, “Everything a ruse, my dear.”
Erik began, “Can’t have this…”
“… be too easy,” Ash finished.
They sneered again, nastily. Then, Erik pointed at the table, and Ash stretched out her hand to me, almost pleading. As one they said, “Come and join us. It only hurts for a minute.”
My eyes flicked between them and the table. Somehow, it was where you got imprinted with Moriarty. I was Sherlock Holmes: what would it do to me? I beat Moriarty; that’s what I did. I was outmatched physically, that much was clear: even if I was faster, they were sneakier. The only end to a hand-to-hand struggle with Moriarty was death. If I gave in, let them use the machine on me… what then? I should be able to beat it, right?
But it had worked on Ash, on Erik, on the Elders…
The two Moriartys took a step toward me.
There was the sound of metal sliding on metal. The crash of a kennel door opening.
“Someone’s going to join you,” Robin promised as Cavill hurtled at my nemeses. “But it might hurt for more than a minute.”
He leapt into the air towards Erik, who threw up his arms and ducked way down, under the path of the furious animal. Cavill should have sailed right over him. But while Erik was fast, Cavill was fury. His head bent itself down as he arced through the air, massive jaws wrapping themselves around Erik’s arm.
They clenched. Cavill whipped his head. With his body not anchored to the ground, the motion sent his weight twisting in a wholly different direction, eighty pounds of angry pit bull moving like a wrecking ball through the air straight for Ash’s shocked face.
Cavill smashed haunches first into her, clawing wildly with his hind legs. There were claws back there. People didn’t usually think about dog claws as worrisome, but those people didn’t have them gouging at their eyes. Ash cried out, and the three of them went down in a pile.
Moriarty was smart. Moriarty was cagey. He could think faster than a computer and come up with counters for your next attack before you’d even thought about striking.
But Cavill wasn’t thinking. He was just attacking.
Erik’s arm dragged uselessly on the floor as he scrambled away from the raging beast. Cavill’s teeth sank into his calf, and he howled as he flailed at the dog’s head. Ash was on hands and knees, but I saw a flap of skin hanging down from her face where Cavill had torn it loose.
I started to take a step forward, but Robin stepped between me and the melee. Smoothly, she raised the discarded rifle, slapped the magazine in, and cocked it.
“No, wait-” I started to shout.
“‘My dear’,” she spat. “I know who they are.”
She squeezed.
Two seconds last a long time when they are punctuated by bullets. Long enough for bodies be reduced to pulpy masses of blood and tissue. Long enough to notice how steady the hand was that guided the shots, how tight the groupings were in spite of the kick of the rifle. Long enough to notice that the live bullet that had been ejected by Erik when we fought was nowhere to be seen on the floor, and that Robin’s grip suggested something in her palm.
Long enough to start to wonder about the woman who still had one bullet left, despite the empty click in the chamber.
Did you not see that everything here is a ruse?
Robin hefted the rifle to one shoulder as the smell of gunpowder surged through the room. Two piles of meat lay there, meat that had been human bodies before tooth and bullet had reshaped them. Cavill crouched in between them, hackles still raised, teeth bared. Without removing her finger from the trigger, Robin had swept around him without so much as grazing a tuft of fur.
She started to turn toward me.
I drove the heel of my palm into her temple. I pulled the blow slightly at the last microsecond, and she crumpled but her skull did not. The rifle and the final bullet clattered to the floor.
Then the only noise was that of Cavill and me breathing heavily.
He took a step forward, nosing Robin’s inert form. A breath shuddered through her. He looked up at me.
I was trembling. “She… she had one bullet left. I couldn’t… I wouldn’t have been able to stop her, if Moriarty had gotten to her. If he was inside her. Moriarty and one bullet in Robin Hood’s body… she could kill us both with that.”
I swallowed, looking down at her. I couldn’t be sure. I didn’t know. I reviewed every clue I had, every single detail. Was she Moriarty? Was she just Robin?
I didn’t know.
Cavill came over and licked my hand. Ruffling his ears and scratching his head, I took a deep breath. It was calming, petting him.
I crouched down, scrubbing his neck with both hands and looking him over. He had some scratches and sore spots on his head and shoulder. Charging the cage wall. He tried to escape.
“You don’t much go for being crated, huh?” I asked him. He smiled, tongue lolling. He didn’t flinch when I brushed my fingers over the scrapes. “You look okay, though. She didn’t do anything to you, did she? Mean old lady.”
“Not a hair on his head, we swear. We’re not a monster. The cage was just so he wouldn’t run out the door when we opened it.”
My head whipped up at the voice, and Cavill was instantly on point.
Kay’s smile - no, Moriarty’s - loomed on the monitor banks, taking over all of them to project her head four feet wide.
"Doyle!" I shouted, "can you hear me?"
"No cameras in the control room, my dear, for just that reason. He can't read your lips, and we’re sorry to report that we can't see you, either. The microphone isn't on the network: it's a direct audio feed to me here, so we could have this conversation. Even if we hadn't been certain you would prevail, the sound of gunfire and your voice afterward lead to only one conclusion."
"There's only ever one conclusion," I spat at her. "I kill you. Even if you're cloning yourself these days."
"You're delightful.” She waved sweetly at me from the monitors. The backdrop was a brick wall; her hair rustled slightly in the breeze: she was outside somewhere, on her phone. I couldn't tell much about the brick given the quality of the connection: it was impossible to pinpoint her whereabouts. She waited expectantly.
"You've figured out a way to imprint yourself into people's minds," I started. "If you get enough of yourself in there, you can overwrite their natural persona: they become Moriarty-types. They walk like you, they talk like you, they think like you. But it's not a perfect process. They're like you, but not as fast, not as sharp."
“Oh, Sherlock. We don’t just think like Moriarty. We are Moriarty. All of us. Unlike all other Personae, I remember my past lives. It turns out that when I imprint myself on another, those past lives aren’t done yet. There’s… a connection. They can remember me, what I’m doing now. They remember my present as if it had happened to them. And I remember theirs. We share memories, experiences, thought patterns…”
“A hive mind,” I breathed.
“We’re not yet certain what we are. But you can’t kill us, Sherlock. We felt a pinch, just a pinch, when Hercules-Moriarty died. Theseus-Moriarty, Otrera-Moriarty… they perished in fire, and it only tickled us."
"The Red-Handed League was never a real thing," I blurted. "It's a reference to a fairly silly Sherlock Holmes story. It was just a lure, a dangle, one that I couldn't ignore. It was really just Moriarty, in whatever body you were wearing at the time. You used the name as a message to me, and made up a bogus story about bloody hands to feed to Arthur and his rubes."
"Ever the detective. And come after me, you did. But what now? You can’t hurt us anymore, Sherlock. No one can. It’s not just this Kay body. There are others. We are Moriarty. We are immortal. We have changed the story.”
My hands clenched. “The blood sacrifice?”
She giggled. “Oh, come on. You don’t go in for that and neither do we. A misdirection.”
“Then… why?” I asked. “Why all this? Why waste yourself, waste the Elders, waste Ash, Erik, Robin…”
She sniffed disdainfully. “The old lady there isn’t one of us. Not interested. And yes, we know that’s exactly what we would say if we wanted you to believe something false about her, but really: we know you. You suspect her now; you will always suspect her. How could we use her against you, even if she were one of us? You will never let her close.
“But why sacrifice a few hairs, a few toenails?” She grinned. “Do you know how our machine works? Images and sounds. Light and noise. The memories of a lifetime, programmed through the eyeballs and eardrums. You have to be ready to receive, with nervous system suppressed just so… but it’s just words and pictures.”
My throat tightened. “The sound system in the club. The light wall. The gas to soften them up. You… you’re imprinting yourself on all of them? Everyone out there?”
“Close, my dear,” she grinned. “You are, as ever, one step behind.”
“You’ve already done it,” I stated flatly. “You wouldn’t let me in on something that I could stop.”
“We’ve already got a few of them. Moments more and we will be legion.”
“New Camelot is walking into a trap. Arthur and his men will be here in minutes, and you’ll tear them to pieces.”
“Yes,” she said. “They are the most unified faction of Personae, and only one of them is part of us. We don’t need them, and we don’t allow for risks. We will destroy them rather than imprinting them. The media confusion and hysteria at finding a CIA strike team murdered on domestic soil where they have no business operating will lead to inquiries, exposing all of Arthur’s more… questionable deeds to the world. Misdirection: we will fade away, unnoticed.”
“But why me? That’s the one part of all this that I still don’t understand. Why am I here?”
She sighed. “I - the Kay part of us - had… desires for you. I’d hoped for something different from you. Sadly, you disappoint. Yet we can’t go killing you, now, can we? A new Sherlock called up, and we haven’t found your replacement yet? Messy. Risky, even to us. Even though you weren’t capable of destroying us, an unknown Sherlock might. No, I’m afraid you will be taking a very long and medically-managed nap. We can keep you indefinitely comatose and alive long enough to use our machine to build a map of your mind, too. Then we imprint you on someone else before you die, and create a new Sherlock to suffer the same fate.”
She shrugged. “Sorry. I wish it had worked out between us.”
I went pale. “You’re insane.”
Another long, theatrical sigh. “We’d so hoped for better from you, Gwen. This is a solution to the Holmes-Moriarty problem! You would solve our problem, too, if it meant the end of Moriarty. Don’t be self-righteous that I beat you to it. Though this… perhaps making you watch this next bit is a touch self-indulgent.”
The camera turned away from her then, panning out of an alleyway - I knew she'd been outside - and onto a view of a street. I placed it immediately: it was a short walk from the Diogenes Club, maybe six or seven minutes. Slightly longer if you were wearing huge heels, like Vivian was as she came into the shot, clinging to Achilles' arm. The two were laughing and close, clearly on their way somewhere intimate.
Ever the soldier, I saw Achilles' back straighten just before the van screeched into view. He was fast: he reached a hand up and plucked the stilettos out of Vivian's hair, and before gravity had a chance to send dark locks spilling down her shoulders he'd flung one of them inside the door that was sliding open as the van pulled alongside. The dagger found its mark, and suddenly the vehicle swerved as the driver took a knife to the throat. It crashed into a parked car ahead of the couple, and Achilles leapt through the open door with a wild cry. Vivian dropped into a crouch and took cover behind a tree as the sound of gunfire erupted. In short order, one, two, three broken bodies were thrown from the van: two through the side door that Achilles had entered, and one through the front windshield. Three more shots, and the van rocked back and forth.
Then it exploded.
As the flare died down and the scene became visible again, a human shape stepped down from the wreckage of the van, shaking his head back and forth to clear it. Surfer hair swept back and forth in his face. His clothes were burnt away, but he hardly had a scratch on him. He stood backlit, unreadable, but his posture was one of confidence and glory.
Vivian! Where's Vivian? I strained to see in the mix of gloom and inferno on the monitors. Then: Crack! Crack crack crack!
Four shots, and the camera panned back to Moriarty, her face gleeful, a fifty caliber hand cannon smoking next to it. "Spent uranium rounds," she explained. "Not enough to kill him, but they should keep him down for a bit, and a touch of uranium poisoning will slow his healing nicely. In a day or two, he'll make a nice addition to our little collective.”
She turned the camera phone she was holding back to the scene, and I saw that Achilles had dropped to his knees, head bent forward. The view wobbled as she walked toward him.
He raised his head weakly. "Ah. She said you had but one…” he coughed, yet he smiled, “… excuse me. Little something in my chest. You had but one vulnerability: distraction.”
“Yo, she-bitch!” came a voice. “Let’s go!”
There was a flash of light, and the sound of thunder. The monitors went dark, each announcing “Signal Lost” in small type.
"Achilles?" I shouted. "Vivian? Vivian! Moriarty? Anybody?"
No one answered.
Then… a laugh. From the corridor.
I opened the door. The young woman who stood there, blonde and sparkling, had once been Cinderella. But Cinderella wasn’t the one looking out from those ice blue eyes.
She wiped a tear from them as she giggled. She was actually resting against the wall of the corridor, holding herself up as she shook with laughter.
“We… we did not see that coming!” she murmured, more to herself than to me. “Poor Kay. But my, my, a good time we’ll have tonight! She can’t hold us all off. Camelot may have to wait.”
She straightened up, a syringe in her hand. “For now, be a dear and don’t make us work for this. There are lots more of us to hold you down if we need to.”
I could have warned her about the shape that was fading into view behind her. From thin air, Puck emerged into being, feet standing an inch above the floor. His body was naked, covered entirely in brown fur, with pointed ears and a nose that merged slightly with his mouth, like a hybrid of a cat and a man. Like a cat, his fingers ended in cruel claws.
I could have told Moriarty that she was about to die again before those claws sank into her neck. I could have, but I didn’t. It was fast and almost silent.
Fey Puck spat on the corpse as blood pooled out beneath his floating feet. Behind him, I saw flames flickering in the outline of the door to the club.
He coughed then, spitting blood, and wrapped an arm around his torso. Even he couldn’t shrug off a blow from Hercules, apparently. He braced himself on the wall, and looked across at me.
“Ye’ll want to be getting out o’ here, lass,” he said. His voice was toneless, empty. “Lot o’ flamin’ alcohol out there. Every bit of it I could find. I do believe this whole building’ll be down about our heads soon. What with some blighter usin' a wee bit 'o black magic to locking the doors nice an' tight, I don’t foresee many survivors.”
“Did you leave me any way out?” I asked. Smoke was beginning to pour through the door and into the corridor.
“No.” His tone didn’t change. “I surely didn’t. I'll be burnin' every last one of those murderin' fucks tonight. I just said ye’d be wanting to get out. Made no promises that ye could.”
I was tired, emotionally drained, and Puck was screwing with me. He could get me out with a snap of his fingers, and just didn't feel like it.
"Fine," I snapped, gesturing at Robin's inert form. "Get her out, at least. Moriarty had said she had someone in New Camelot, so there's at least one more of them who isn't here tonight. If I'm going to take down the last Moriarty, I'm going to need help from somebody who doesn't turn on me when the chips are down."
He surged forward, clawed hands outstretched, lunging to wrap them around my head and squeeze. I was tired, slow, and he was furious. Maybe I hadn’t struck the blow that killed his lover, but I’d been the reason that they were here tonight. I was pushing him, he was pushing me... that story had been told so too many times not to know how it ended.
But we weren’t alone. Cavill was between us suddenly, faster even than Puck had been. He didn’t attack, but the noise coming from his throat was unmistakable.
Puck froze mid-leap. He nodded to Cavill, almost in respect, and lowered his hands. Once more, he looked tired, hurt, and sad.
“I wasn’t really goin’ to do more than spook ye,” he said, as much of an apology as I was likely to get. “An if yer the real deal, ye should have no trouble thinking yer way out o' a wee burning building. I'm hurt, and pulling you and the pup with... difficult. Still, seems ye’ve got a plan, and the two o’ us-” he gestured to Robin - “still have a part to play. Fine then. I can manage just the woman. She’ll be under me protection. Ye know how ta reach me. Now ye’d best hurry.”
He moved to one side, and kept moving, his form seeming to move straight into the wall as if it were a mere shadow. He passed through it and vanished. I touched the wall where he’d disappeared: warm. Turning around, I saw Robin missing as well.
We must go. Now.
I raced back into the room, snatched up the rifle and the bullet, and slid it into the chamber. Doing a quick final scan, my eyes lit upon Moriarty's machine. The chair was just the interface: the really diabolical part was a computer. I spared thirty seconds to find it: a hefty desktop that I wasn't going to lug out of here if I had to fight my way through two hundred Moriartys.
I smashed it open with the butt of the rifle, and fished the hard drive out of the innards. Solid state, small... I tucked it into a boot.
I looked at Cavill. He looked steadily back.
I nodded, and ran.
I hit the door at the end of the corridor at a run, shouldering it open. The wall of light was still blazing with flickering images, but there was another light, too: flames roared everywhere. People were screaming. Far too few people were screaming, given how many were here, and on fire. They just… they just stood there and burned. The several who’d already been converted were desperately trying to get out through the fire doors, but some sort of vines had grown out of the oak of the doors and held them fast. They were going to die here. They were all going to die here, and they knew it.
But not me. The floor was nearly a lake of flame: I needed to buy some time with altitude. I sprinted for the nearest stairwell, heading toward the balcony where I'd spoken to Kay.
“Gwen!” Doyle’s voice shouted in my ear. “The sprinkler system’s been disabled! I can’t stop the fire! I put up anti-sound bubbles around as many people as I could and slowed down whatever it was that was happening. But then the ones I hadn’t shielded started moving. You’ve got to get them out! Arthur is still too far away!”
“No!” I shouted back. “Doyle, the moving ones are Moriarty. They’re all Moriarty: she infected them all! We have to keep them in here! Oops - one sec.”
A staggering form lurched into motion in front of me: a young Asian guy who had once been Jane Eyre. Apparently they were slow when they first awoke, but I saw the look in his eyes. It was Moriarty, through and through. And he didn’t plan on letting me out of here alive.
Plans. I bashed his face in with the butt of the rifle, barely slowing down.
I took the stairs two at a time, plotting my course and re-mapping it with every step. The Moriartys were aware of me now, and there were four of them on the stairs.
“Doyle!” I shouted. “Sound grenade on the top two!”
I hoped that he could do it, because the next few seconds were a frantic bout of hand-to-hand combat with a pair of them who’d awoken early: they were getting faster, almost as quick as I was.
But not quite. And I had backup. Cavill took the first out at the legs as I swept the rifle in a wide arc, knocking him over the railing and into the flames below. I blocked an axe kick from the next with the flat of the rifle and thrust up as hard as my legs could manage, knocking him off-balance. I leapt past without looking back: I didn’t need to take him out, just get past him.
By the time I’d gotten up two more steps, Doyle had figured out my request and executed beautifully. The Moriartys grabbed their ears and screamed, letting me snake through them with ease.
I ran. I didn’t look back.
“Gwen,” Doyle’s voice came soft in my ear. “You’re talking about murdering two hundred people. Are you certain - duck in three, two, one; very good!” A bottle of something smashed into the wall just past where my head had been. “Are you certain about this? We can save at least some of them, then try to get Moriarty out.”
“No,” I huffed, almost at the top. “Puck's right - can't take the chance. How would we ever be sure that we'd exorcised them? The people who came in here are already dead. Moriarty's all that's left. If we let them out, we let her win.”
I... I wasn't sure of that. But there wasn't time to be sure. Was I two hundred deaths worth of certain?
A small cluster of them were waiting for me at the top of the stairs, blocking the doors to the soundless hallway through which Vivian and I had arrived. I could see that they had been tearing at the same sort of tendrils that had sprouted from the doors below: every branch they’d torn off had simply sprouted anew from the door, holding the handles firmly shut.
Moriarty had messed with the wrong fairy.
I readied myself for a fight, but Doyle dropped the bass on them again: six men and women sank to their knees, clutching their ears. It didn’t matter how smart you were: the right frequencies and decibel levels would scramble your brain well beyond any ability to think your way out of it.
I shoved them out of the way to clear some room by the door. All right… supernatural branches growing out of oak doors. I could set them on fire, but that would take forever. This much closer to the ceiling, I wouldn’t have that long before the smoke overwhelmed me, even if the flames didn’t do the trick first.
The branches were wrapped around the door handles. The handles were almost two inches thick, and the branches growing out of the left door were wrapped entirely around the right, and vice versa. Still, if the handle came off entirely…
I had one bullet. I stood up on the tips of my toes and propped the muzzle of the rifle on the top of the right door handle. I got it as straight as I could, took a deep breath, and squeezed the trigger with my thumb.
The recoil was almost nothing for a single shot from the heavy rifle, and the bullet tore the handle clean off. The branches started growing again immediately, and I reached down to the base of a thick one and yanked as hard as I could. The door pulled back by a good ten inches before the grasping tendrils could reach from the damaged door across to the intact one and take hold again. I pulled as hard as I could to hold it open.
"Go!” I shouted at Cavill, and he bolted through.
The door was starting to sprout more and more branches, and they were growing fast. One snaked around my right wrist as I strained to get myself in through the gap I’d made. It wrapped quickly around and tightened down on me, effectively tying me to the door. Still more tendrils were just growing across the gap, trying to block me from getting through. The branches were winning our game of tug-of-war, too: the doors started to close again.
With my left hand, I wedged the rifle long-ways through the doors, bracing them open with the body of the rifle and the bottom of the magazine. This was a tenuous solution at best: it didn't take a detective to realize my door stop wasn’t going to work for long. I threw myself into the gap.
I heaved and squirmed and struggled to get myself through, fighting both the narrow opening and the tendrils that sought to keep me inside. As the branch wrapped around my wrist started to pull me back, Cavill clamped his jaws around it and tugged: it snapped off neatly in his mouth. I was almost through when a meaty hand wrapped itself around my ankle and locked down.
Whipping my head around, I saw the disfigured face of Hercules, the hollow eyes blazing in fury at me. His jaw hung open, his head was cocked forever at a terrible angle, but his grip was as epic as ever. Most of my calf was still sticking through the doors, and I saw vines wrapped around the gun: in a second, they’d pry it out and my new nickname would be “Stumpy”.
Frantically, I unzipped my boot as far as it would go, planted my other foot on the closed door, and heaved. I pushed and thrust and swore… and tumbled backwards just in time for the doors to slam shut once again.
I sat there on the floor for a moment, chest heaving. One boot was on, one was gone, but I was more or less intact. Everything hurt. I took a moment to adjust my dress, which - ahem - was not really meant for the treatment it was receiving and was perhaps less of a perfect fit than it had been before.
“Public service announcement,” I grimaced to Cavill. “Vivian may like big boobs, but don’t try to force them through narrow, enchanted doors, like ever. Ow. Fuck. Ow.”
The other side of the door was strangely silent. The sound cancelation in the hallway had apparently been turned off, but I heard nothing coming from the other side. Whatever it had taken for Hercules to make it up the stairs after me, he apparently didn’t have anything left to try to break down thick oak doors. I was safe.
I pulled off the other boot - hard drive still intact, thankfully - and stood up. My ankle was tender where Hercules had been trying his best to tear it off, but it wasn’t broken. I could put weight on it, but I hoped we wouldn’t be running anywhere else tonight.
I coughed. The ceiling here was lower than it had been in the main room of the club, and the smoke was starting to build. I bent back down and gave Cavill a pat on the side.
“Let’s get out of here, boy.”
We made our way quickly down the hallway, smoke growing thicker with every step. By the time we’d gotten to the other end, I was crawling on hands and knees, and breathing was getting harder.
I groped up into the haze for the door handle, and my heart sank. Thick, enchanted branches held it fast.
I slumped to the floor, and Cavill crouched down next to me, head cocked quizzically.
“I… I don’t know, buddy.” I shook my head. “I just barely got through that last door when I still had an assault rifle. I… I can’t think of anything. There’s no way.”
I coughed. “I’m sorry.”
Memory: I willed the fires and smoke to unwind…
Things were getting fuzzy. I put my face close to the door frame, where a faint trickle of fresh air was creeping through. Best… best… hope… someone finds… us… Average first responder time… in the District of Columbia… what was it? Can’t… remember…
There was a noise: booted footfalls on the other side of the door. A pause. Someone shouted, “Clear!”
There was an explosion. A man with an assault rifle. I saw ice blue eyes peering curiously down at me from behind a black military balaclava.
And then I was gone.

Chapter 09: Into the Empty House
I woke with a start. Mostly I was startled at waking at all.
For a moment, there was only the throbbing weight that threatened to pound my brain into mash. I squeezed shut eyes that had flashed open, and eased myself back onto an elbow, raising my other hand to my temple. Even in the split-second they were open, I was evaluating my environs.
Dim red lighting; small room moving slightly; spartan interior with faux-leather bench seating along the two side walls and a pair of double-doors in the back. A tactical van.
I forced my eyes to remain closed as I massaged my scalp. My other senses were not so easy to rein in, particularly the taste of ash in my mouth. Cool, dry air on my skin spoke to air conditioning in the swampy heat of the D.C. summer. The way it shivered along my arms and legs also indicated that my jacket had been removed. I was still wearing the dress, but I could also tell that I was lying prone, and the thing hadn’t left much to the imagination even before I’d been fighting for my life in it. Absently, I tugged it down lower over my thighs.
My ears spoke of the gentle thrum of an engine: we were driving slowly, easily, not speeding away from a crime scene. No one was after us.
My nose was nearly as ash-clogged as my mouth, but through it I smelled two things: gun oil and lavender.
He cleared his throat, from up near my head. There were two rows of seating, and he was close to me, on the same bench where I had been laid out.
“I’m glad you’re all right,” he started. His voice was strained.
“Me, too,” I replied. My eyes flashed open. “Cavill—?”
I tried to sit up too quickly, and that plan did not work out. Smoke inhalation smacked me in the forehead until I collapsed back onto my elbows, shaky.
I heard nails scrabble on the floor, and felt a wet nose on my arm. Cavill licked me experimentally at first. Then, liking what he tasted, he really went for the gusto.
Arthur and I both laughed, and he gently pushed the dog away. “Sit,” he commanded, and the dog stopped molesting my bare arm. I opened my eyes again as Arthur sponged up the dog slobber with a handkerchief.
“I can’t believe you carry one of those things. You’re like my dad,” I jabbed without really thinking about it.
I hadn’t looked at him yet, but I heard the creak of his gear as he stiffened slightly. “Classy man, your father. I’ve been compared to worse.”
Remember, he thinks you are Guinevere.
I groaned and heaved my legs down, moving myself into a sitting position. Even with my back slumped against the side of the van, vertigo threatened to bring me down. I took a deep breath, fighting down nausea. I was not going to faint in front of this man.
As soon as my stomach and brain settled enough to allow it, I looked across at him, trying to move my head as little as possible. He was dressed head to toe in tactical gear, but he’d taken off the helmet and balaclava. His pockets were all closed with snaps, and he hadn’t loosened his flak jacket. Everything about him was in the right place, precise. Not a sandy hair was out of place.
“You should lie down,” he scolded. “You’re not ready to be up and about.”
“I won’t go far,” I promised. “Did you get the hard drive?”
He eyed me shrewdly, then nodded. “We did. It was the second thing that Lancelot gave me, after he found you.”
“The first being my jacket?”
“The first being what I thought was your corpse. You scared the hell out of me, Gwen.”
“I’m sorry,” I replied honestly. “But seriously, the air conditioning in here is set to ‘commando in full riot gear’. Can I have my jacket?”
Wordlessly, he reached down and picked it up from where it had been used as a makeshift pillow for me while I was out. I took it from him and pulled it up like a blanket.
“You going to tell me what were you thinking, running off like that? I told you to stay with Doyle.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “I was thinking that Moriarty had your number. That she’d been killing your people for a couple of days and had the taste for it. That she’d see you coming a million miles away, and execute every last one of you. Oh, what, you thought I was just some headstrong girl? That I didn’t have a plan? What about your plan? What would you have done if I told you not to go in there?”
He eyed me evenly. “I would have had Doyle kill the power to the building and gone in with flash bangs and rubber bullets. Pretty close to what I actually did, except without a building burning down all around me, with people screaming and dying inside it.”
My eyes shot wide. “Did any of them make it out? Please tell me you didn’t…”
“Make it any farther than the end of the hallway? No. My men reported hearing the sounds of people screaming from down below, but they couldn’t get through the door for a few minutes. By the time they blew it, everyone at the top of the stairs was already gone from smoke inhalation. The rest of the room was a sea of fire, and first responders were already en route. We were too late. We only pulled one person out of there: you.”
I sagged with relief. Moriarty hadn’t escaped.
Arthur didn’t miss it. “You’re acting like that’s a good thing. I think you owe me an explanation.”
An explanation? He owed me a high five, but he didn’t even know it. I let out a laugh that was more like a rasp, my throat still sore and dry from smoke. “Let me tell you what you’d have done after you killed the power and run in with rubber bullets. You’d have been facing two hundred people with the brains of the greatest criminal mastermind the world has ever known, acting in unison, each with the abilities of a Persona, including four Elders.”
Arthur stiffened. “I’m an Elder, myself. We all are.” He hesitated minutely. “We’re not so helpless.”
I rolled my eyes. “Oh, come off it. Did you not hear me? Two hundred Moriartys. Twelve knights. Do the math. Moriarty has figured out a way to imprint himself on people. He can cram his mind into the body of anyone who he can get the drop on - by which I mean anyone, ever. He knew you’d come. He knew you’d be armed. He was more than happy to sacrifice a hundred people to take you down. Ever read Black Hawk Down? Doesn’t much matter how heavily-armed you are when you’re hideously outnumbered. You’d have had rubber bullets, but you’ve got a magazine or two of full metal jackets in there, don’t you?” The flat look of his eyes was confirmation enough. “He was going to cover his tracks with the fallout from your death during an illegal domestic raid in which heavily-armed CIA commandos murdered a hundred people. In the media frenzy, the survivors of the attack would have a moment in the sun, and then they’d just fade into obscurity, because who cares about survivors, really? You were playing right into his hands.”
Arthur opened his mouth, but I kept going. “He knows you, Arthur. He can predict how you’ll react. If you think you can take him, you’ve got to assume he knows exactly what you’ll do, so you’ve got to do something different. But even if you do, he’s got someone on the inside. One of your knights. He told me so.”
“Impossible,” Arthur scoffed. “They would never betray me.”
My temple throbbed. I was in no mood for this.
Despite his arrogance, remember that Guinevere wouldn’t—
Stuff it, Sherlock.
“Oh, really?” I sat up, and the throbbing didn’t get any better, but it did make me angrier. “Your wife was murdered by someone who switched out her heart medication for sugar pills. How does that happen without an inside man? Sir Kay knifed himself in the neck! Why would he do that?”
Guinevere had no way of knowing any of that, but I did. The pills I had taken from the scene of Gwen Drake’s murder had tested negative as a threat to anything but a diabetic, and even a dozen wouldn’t be enough to put anybody into a coma. The prescription bottle they’d spilled from: that was heart medication, serious stuff. You didn’t want to go without it for long.
And the angle of the cut on Sir Kay’s neck, the blood pattern: it led to only one conclusion to anyone who knew how to look. He’d killed himself, and in a way that no one committed suicide.
No one who hadn’t been possessed by the spirit of James Moriarty, anyway. Kay had been the first message. The first clue.
Arthur had gone pale. “Did Moriarty tell you that, too?”
“Moriarty told me a lot of things,” I dodged. “You’ve been keeping some dirty secrets.”
“Part of the job,” he countered. “As is being suspicious. If Moriarty can put his mind into other bodies - and I’m not sure I buy it, but let’s go with it for the sake of argument - then he could be anyone. He could be you. You were unconscious when we found you. Vulnerable. Victims make excellent inside agents, when you want to infiltrate a hostile organization. Maybe no one cares about them for long, but they come with a story that leads people to sympathize with them and trust whatever they say.”
It got very quiet in the van. I could handle him not trusting me. Hell, it made sense. But…
I ground my teeth. “Is that what you think? That I’m a victim?”
He looked surprised. “We found you passed out from smoke inhalation inside a burning building. Either you set the fire or you fit the common definition.”
I narrowed my eyes. “I nearly gave my life making sure that the world wasn’t infected by a plague of Moriartys with super powers. And you think I’m the victim in this story?”
I lurched unsteadily to my feet. Everything got faint for a minute and I propped a hand against the wall, but I was way too mad to fall down. “Fuck this, and you. I’m out.”
I started towards the back of the van.
“We’re on the highway by now!” Arthur exclaimed. “We’re doing seventy!”
I made my way slowly in the direction of the rear doors. “Moriarty couldn’t kill me. You think a little fall is going to do the trick?”
I turned back to him. My eyes flashed dangerously. “Oh, but I forgot: I’m a victim. A fragile flower for you to swoop in and put in a glass case, protected from the world while my roots wither and die. Not a badass hero who saved you and all your men from certain death.”
Arthur stood up, and I backed further away from him. My hand brushed the handle of the rear door. “Don’t you come closer,” I warned.
He took a step, arms up, placating and reasonable.
I threw the handle.
Wind whipped into the truck as the door tore open out of my grip, waving crazily around. Headlights from a car behind us cast a flash of shadow across Arthur’s features for a second, until the driver swerved into another lane to escape the crazy girl about to leap from the black van.
Arthur squinted in the gale, but didn’t move another muscle. His hands were still up. With exaggerated slowness, he reached down and used two fingers to gently fish his sidearm out of the holster. He crouched and set it on the floor, and then used his toe to slide it three-quarters of the way across the floor between us. It wobbled as zephyrs tore around the inside of the van.
“Take it!” he shouted to be heard. “I want to talk. You don’t like what I have to say, you can blast your way out of here.”
His posture didn’t betray any dissembly. He wanted to talk.
As quickly as I dared - which wasn’t very fast at all - I took a step away from the door and crouched down to pick up the gun, keeping my eye on him all the while. He didn’t move.
I cocked it, ejecting a live round. The slide sprang forward. The gun was loaded. Oakley & Harris .45 semiautomatic, one of the most reliable pistols in the world. Heavy, hard to hold for long, but it could fire a magnum round while absorbing enough of the kick to let you get back on-target faster than any other weapon in its class. You had to be a badass to use it at all, but if you already were one, you were more lethal than anyone else on the block.
I was a badass. I leveled it at his head, squaring the sights right between his eyes.
“Fine!” I shouted back. “Let’s talk!”
His eyes widened, but he didn’t flinch. He drew one hand forward and spoke a few words into a concealed wrist mike. The road noise changed, diminishing, and after a few moments ceased completely as the door closed of its own accord.
“That’s better,” he said. “Hydraulic door system. Sometimes you don’t want your guys having to focus on opening the doors on their own. And no, you’re not trapped in here. One shot to the cylinder and you can get the door open in seconds. If you’ve got a mind to, you can kill me and then throw yourself into traffic, just like you were going to a minute ago. I won’t take long.”
He nodded at the bench along the wall. “Mind if I sit?”
I shook my head, and trailed the gun after him as he moved. It was damn heavy. I hoped he meant it about not taking long, because it would be super-embarrassing if my arm gave out and I had to switch my grip on the thing.
“Do you know what my wife did before we got together?” he asked.
It took me by surprise. “She… something paramilitary, I think?”
“Leodyne Security. You’ve never heard of them; they went out of business when you were hitting puberty. She was their backbone. Gwen was Jewish; did you know that? Born in America, but she moved to Israel after high school. She volunteered for the Israeli Defense Force. Didn’t have to. She wanted it. And she was good at it. She hooked up with Leodyne, worked ops all around the world. She was fluent in four languages, knew bits and pieces of half a dozen others.” He stopped for a second, and I saw that his eyes were wet.
“I was a too-cocky-for-his-own-good Mission Chief in a Forward Operating Base in Afghanistan. No place you’ve ever heard of there, either, because it really wasn’t supposed to be there. But in the days when we were hunting Bin Laden hard, I was right there at the tip of the spear. We were going to get that bastard.”
He took a deep breath. “What we got was more rocket-propelled grenades than you could count. We learned later that it was a stupid accident: two tribes fighting over an injury six generations old, and we were caught in the middle. We were under fire for three days. Then it stopped.”
My arms were already starting to ache. “Great war story. You want to get to the point?”
He shrugged. “It was her. She’d been operating in the area, and when the Marines couldn’t get to us, Station pulled a few strings to hire Leodyne. She stopped the war that was going on around our stupid heads, and then personally walked through my front door and told me to come with her if I wanted to live.
“I knew who she really was instantly. Guinevere. Guinevere! I was still my cocky self, though. This wasn’t how things were supposed to go. Arthur came to her rescue, not the other way around. I told her we didn’t need the help of some mercenary.”
He nodded at the pistol in my hand. “She drew that gun out of her holster and pointed it right at my head, just like you are right now. Told me she’d been hired to bring me out, but the contract was fuzzy on the topic of kneecaps. Then her eyes got wide, she moved the gun a centimeter, and fired a shot over my shoulder while shouting that I had to look out.”
He smiled ruefully. “I spun around, and she clocked me over the back of the head. I woke up in a jeep, head throbbing, with her smiling down at me.
The wetness in his eyes spilled over, and he blinked as a tear rolled down his cheek. “She told me that she knew all about my story, and that if I ever forgot who the badass hero in our story really was, she’d shoot me with my own pistol.”
He gestured vaguely at the gun in my hands. “I looked down and she’d tucked that thing down the front of my pants.”
Laughing, he shook his head. “Looks like I forgot.” He kept up the smile for a moment, but it wavered, then crumbled. He put his face down into both hands. A single sob crept out from between them.
Then he pulled his hands down his face, and got control once more. He looked at me seriously.
“I’m sorry, Gwen. Sorry that I forgot who the badass hero in this story is.”
His emotions were genuine, but I could see that he was also conflicted. In his situation, who wouldn’t be? He was looking at someone he understood to be essentially the reincarnation of his dead wife.
“If I put the gun down,” I tested, “does that mean that we trust each other?”
He shook his head. “Trust comes with time. And, frankly, I’m a suspicious bastard. Nature of the business. But I’m willing to listen to what you’ve got to tell me. And I’ll do it with an open mind.”
“Good,” I huffed. “This thing is freaking heavy.”
I ejected the magazine and cocked the slide. The last round popped out of the chamber, and the slide stayed open.
I grinned at him as I turned the empty pistol around and held it out to him.
“Can’t blame a girl for being careful, can you?”
He stood up and accepted the weapon, smiling back.
“No indeed. My… my wife was never one to take unnecessary risks, either. The pistol wasn’t loaded when she’d left it in my pants.”
We shared a laugh. It felt… natural. Easy.
Arthur hesitated. “Look, Gwen… if… if fate has decreed that there must be an… us…” He sighed. “I’ve learned better than to try to deny what’s written. But I still love her. I… I will honor you, I swear, but…”
It was my turn to put my hands up. “Woah, there, your majesty. Your wife just died, and I’m very eighteen right now. Let’s not send out save-the-date cards just yet, okay?”
He laughed, and wiped his eye. “All right. I wasn’t really looking forward to telling Leo, anyway.”
The mention of my father’s name made my back stiffen. “Oh god… mom and dad must be going out of their minds right now!”
“We’re headed to your house,” he assured me. “I don’t think you’ve suffered any permanent damage, and your father is going to wear a hole straight through to China if we don’t get you home soon. He waited until almost eight to call me, but I’m guessing from the tone in his voice that you were never really one to be home late. And after this morning… he’s had quite a day.”
I closed my eyes, grimacing at the thought of my parents so desperate. What else could I have done? Any contact, and Moriarty would have known it. She wouldn't limit herself if she thought I needed a push. They were at risk.
I shook my head. This is why Holmes avoided attachments. They made you vulnerable.
Arthur sat down. “We still have a few minutes. Tell me about Moriarty?”
"She left poker chips at her murders today..." I began. I stuck close to the truth: those hazel eyes didn't miss much. They looked deeply. They looked for omissions.
He asked questions, got me to clarify when I detailed my comings and goings throughout the day, or how we'd gotten into the club.
"... and then I, ah, kind of freaked out and hit him with a steel dildo. It had seemed like the kind of thing no bouncer would confiscate..."
It was tricky: I had to purposefully make mistakes and double back on my story, trying to confuse things. He could know that Moriarty had wanted me there, but not why... Not that I was Sherlock Holmes.
I kept Puck and Robin out of it. He probed there, as if he could feel the outline of something missing. He really was a suspicious bastard. But if anyone knew about interviewing a witness, it was me, and whenever a line of questioning came too close to the truth, I dangled another interesting lure to draw his attention elsewhere.
Finally, he was satisfied.
"Moriarty. She's not really dead, then?"
"No. She's in a new body now. But she's got them to spare."
Gritted teeth. "I'm going to kill her. Wherever she runs, I'm going to be there. I won't let her touch another hair on your head. Not,” he added, “that I don’t have every confidence you can take care of yourself. But allow me some chivalry. I take care of my people. You’ve been through more than enough already. I… I want you to be safe. I want you to see the better world that I’m making. I want you to help me make things right.”
Spontaneously, he took my hands. “This world can be a dark place, Gwen, and I know you’ve seen more than your share tonight. But it can be so beautiful. I’m going to show that to you. I’m going to show it to everyone. If only…”
The van drew to a stop on tight-packed gravel.
"Ah," he whispered. "Home. Your parents."
There had been something in his voice… something so wistful, so powerful. He was a man with a dream. He dreamed of a better world. A beautiful world.
If only…
What would it take, to make the world beautiful? What would you do for that dream, Arthur?
Memories: blue eyes, a happy laugh.
"Thanks for the ride," I said simply. "You and the ninja outfit should probably--"
He started speaking at the same time. "I'm not really dressed for--"
You couldn't help laughing at that, and we both did. Our eyes met, and then we looked away. Impulsively, I gave him a peck on the cheek, and opened the van door.
Cavill whined as I got down. Arthur gave him a good scratch on the rump before he hopped out to follow me. "Take care of her, buddy," he whispered.
A moment later, Cavill and I were alone in the long driveway. I watched as the van pulled away. Arthur… Being near him had not been how I had expected it to be. After our initial spat, it had been easy. He was charming. Gallant. He didn’t act like a man with secrets.
He didn’t act like a murderer. But if you tell yourself the right story enough times, it can cover all manner of sins.
I sighed, and looked up at my home. The lights were on, but I didn’t see anyone in the windows: nobody knew I was here, yet. Stealthily, I made my way up the drive, walking in the grass to make as little noise as possible.
The Audi was parked at the top: it had been found and driven home - probably by my father’s anal-retentive chief of staff, given the seat position. I got a little tingle of satisfaction at that: it must have driven Phil nuts. The work clothes I'd ditched were still in there.
I crouched between the car and some shrubs and pulled a quick change out of the dress with all the zippers. An improvement, but I still wasn’t quite as I’d left them this morning. My boots were history, and I didn’t have any spares in the car. Also, I reeked of smoke and was wearing about a pint of makeup.
Time to test a theory.
“Watson?” I asked aloud. “I’m pretty sure you can hear me and I need help. The lawn sprinklers aren’t supposed to come on until a little before dawn, but they’re hooked into our home automation system. Pretty sure you can hack them on, right? I’m going to need a little help if we don’t want me grounded for the rest of my life. And that’s really going to make it hard to do anything too Camelot-y, you know? So if you’re listening…”
I waited. Nothing. Cavill gnawed at an itch on his rump. Maybe I’d overestimated their paranoia? It would have been easy for Doyle to tag my work clothes with something… or leave something in the car… or just have static surveillance set up on my house. He said he’d given Watson a lot of autonomy. His little robo-daemon could surely work this sort of black magic… right?
Hissssss! Thunk-thunk-thunk-thunk-thunk-thunk… The lawn was suddenly doused in water. Cavill leapt up, and immediately charged one of the sprinklers, getting a face full of spray as he bit for the stream.
I smiled. “So you do care. Thanks, Watson!”
It will certainly be interesting to find out whether Doyle knows anything about his daemon’s activities. How autonomous is Watson, really? How much intelligence does it have? Does it have… motives?
I took a deep breath, then ran a short ways into the yard, as if I were coming up from the street. I was sopping in no time as I dashed for the door. Taking off the sodden green jacket, I wiped my face as best I could, then did the same for my arms. Hopefully the water would tamp down the worst of the fire smell, until I could shower. Similarly, I hoped I’d scraped enough of my makeup off so that my night club visit were a little less obvious.
Swallowing, I opened the door.
"Mom? Dad? What the hell’s going on with the sprink-”
My mother came flying around the corner from the kitchen at Warp Speed Mom and practically tackled both of us to the floor as she hugged me. "Habibi, oh, habibi," she kept saying as she clung to me. Over her shoulder, I saw my father sag tiredly against the wall, relief plastered all over his features. He was still wearing the same suit from earlier, just without the tie: he hadn't even taken the time to change when he got home.
My mother released me, but hung close for the interrogation. <<Where have you been?>> she began in Arabic. <<My dear one, your father almost got killed today and then you vanished! No one could reach you! You scared us!>>
"Mom," I replied, nodding at my father. He'd worked in the Middle East for years, but his Arabic was a little rusty.
She switched to her lightly-accented English without missing a beat. ”I’m just saying what he already knows I'm saying," she hissed. "Don’t be obtuse, child. As soon as I’m done hugging you, I am going to murder you until you are grounded.”
I swallowed. “Um… don’t you mean ground me until I’m dead?”
Her eyes flashed. “Depends. On. You.”
"I'm sorry," I started. Apologies never hurt more than their absence. "I... after this morning, I kind of freaked out. I met up with some people from my old Theater Club. I kind of needed an outlet.“
My mother pinned me with her gaze. "We called twenty times,” she insisted. “You must have figured out after, I do not know, the tenth call that we were worried?”
I looked as sheepish as I could. "Left my phone at work. We aren’t allowed to take them into the building… we have little cubbies for them. It's still there, powered down. You'd have gone straight to voicemail."
My father’s voice was angry. “Gwen, I was nearly shot in the face today! We’re a little on edge right now, and the last anybody saw you was when you blew through my office and announced to everyone that you had cramps!”
“Dad, that’s not how-”
“That was fourteen hours ago!” he practically bellowed. “Do you know how worried we’ve been? One of Arthur’s people called and told us your car was in a parking garage in Rosslyn! Phil had to drive it back here. That didn’t make it seem like anything horrifying had happened to you, certainly!”
“I’m sorry!” I shouted back. “I lost track of time!”
“You-” my mother sputtered. “You lost…” She shook her head, switching to Arabic in her frustration. <<The sad thing is, I actually believe that! You could spend that time staring at a crack in the wall sometimes, I swear to Allah!>>
“I didn’t have my phone!” I protested. “We were out hiking, because, jeez, I needed to get away from the city for a minute, and I bummed a ride off of somebody and didn’t have any way to call and next thing I knew it was getting dark and now I’m soaking frigging wet because the stupid sprinklers are on the fritz and it’s freezing in here and…” I sniffled. I looked at my father, remembered the gun in his face. Rance - no, it had really been Moriarty - he'd been so close to death...“And, I’m just so glad you’re not dead, Daddy!”
I threw my arms around his waist and buried my face in his chest. I thought about Senator Rance, all teeth and gun barrels. I thought about Tinkerbell getting the shit kicked out of him just to make a point. I thought about his back getting snapped because I hadn’t been fast enough. I thought about Marion’s head being crushed against a wall because I had misjudged what the monster coming for me would do. I thought about the look in Robin’s eyes, and in Puck’s.
I thought about what would happen to my parents once Moriarty got her bearings.
It wasn’t hard to cry.
After a moment, I felt arms fold around me. “Hey… hey… Gwennie Bear… hey, it’s okay…”
I sniffled, and grinned, and nestled a little deeper. “That’s a stupid nickname, Dad. It was stupid when you started calling me that when I was eleven years old. Who calls an eleven-year-old that?”
“I do,” he repeated our little routine. “And I. Am Your. Father.”
I pulled back a little, and looked up at his eyes. They were wet, too.
“Yeah. You really are.”
I turned and looked at my mother, and saw a strange look in her eyes. Suspicion, anger… and pride? Relief, certainly. My father released me, and from her expression, I thought Mom was going to make good on her threat. Instead, she started sobbing and hugging me and apologizing over and over in Arabic.
She really thought I was dead. I... I think it killed her a little. Something crawled up into my throat, and my eyes burned.
<<Not you, too, my dear one. Not you, too.>> she whispered into my neck. <<Please, you cannot let me break again.>>
<<No, mama,>> I hugged her back, my own tears falling free. <<Never.>>
My mother and I clung to one another as time swept back a decade. I hated myself for doing this to her even as I remembered screaming, begging, pleading, for the first and only time in my life denying the evidence of my own senses as I willed the fires and smoke to unwind, to retreat back up to the unforgiving sky...
I remembered everything. Everything. I could tell you what I had for breakfast on the two hundred and thirty-third day of my eleventh year. I could describe the laugh that my hazel-eyed brother had made at the strange sound that heralded his death.
It had been so happy.
After a time, I pushed the memory down, and so did my mother. We looked long into one another's eyes. We had lost much. But we were Yemeni, weren't we? Wasn't our story one of loss?
And revenge. Justice, if you were so inclined. But also revenge.
I lay in my bed for a long time that night. My eyes were open, but they weren't seeing the ceiling. They were seeing billowing flames, a million angles, all the places I could have been, all the things I could have done. There was the hum of the plane: if I'd started running right then - no good; still inside the blast radius - if I'd called out for help just then, one of the women might have picked him up and - no good; we were all so used to the planes by then that we never let ourselves look up, let alone think that we had to run - I could have thrown us both behind that old pickup truck - no good; that bomb was five hundred pounds of hate: it had tossed the truck thirty feet...
There were a million ways I could torture myself. I'd been over every single one before, over the years. It had been a while, but I was due for another session. I could have saved him, I knew I could have. If only--
"No, please..."
I sat bolt upright in bed. The words were muffled, but unmistakable. Cavill had heard them, too, and was on his feet, growling slightly.
It had been my mother's voice. It had been afraid.
At a full run, it was twenty-six steps from my room to my parents' door. There were six different places in the room where an attacker could cover the door with a gun, but only two that would work if the gun had to be pointing at my parents, too. If whoever was in there with them had tied them up, though, that changed the math…
And come on. It was Moriarty. She knew where she could stand, probably better than I did. She knew how to do this. She knew how to hurt me. Nothing was going to happen until I got there. I didn’t have to rush this. I had time to think.
But there was that fear in my mother’s voice. So I ran anyway.
I crashed through the closed door, Cavill on my heels. My eyes were used to the dark, and in the moonlight spilling blue across the room, I saw as clearly as if it were day. The air was cool and dry on my skin: I knew instantly that the windows hadn’t been opened, or the room would be humid. There were no strange smells: no gun oil, no leather or kerosene or explosives. There was no sign of anyone except my parents.
Their bedroom was spacious, with vaulted ceilings and exposed rafters running the width of the room. Their tall, king-sized bed was at the center, facing a set of bay windows that looked out onto our back yard. My parents were in their pajamas, standing facing one another on adjacent corners at the foot of the bed. Tears streaked their faces, and they were trembling in fright.
Thick nooses looped round their necks, with rope strung up over the rafters. It was a long rope, and one end was around my mother’s neck; the other around my father’s. There wasn’t much slack on it: if one jumped, the rope would jerk up on the other side. The knots were tied thick and on the side of their heads, not the back. It was only in movies that people strangled when hanged: professionals tied the knot so that it broke your neck when you dropped. Their deaths would be fast: they wouldn’t suffer, but neither would I have time to save them.
Not technically accurate. It takes approximately eleven hundred foot-pounds of torque in order to break a human neck. A drop of six feet is sufficient in most cases to generate the necessary force, but they are standing only thirty-nine inches over the ground.
There was no one else in the room. No one.
“Don’t make me…” whispered my mother. And then, "Hello, my dear..."
It wasn't her voice, the second time she spoke. It was Moriarty's. My stomach shrank, curled into itself in a cold ball. I wanted to throw up.
She was inside them. She'd been inside them... for how long?
I repeat, they are not in serious danger. The fall will not produce enough force to… unless… wait.
For a moment, on the inside I was screaming, begging, pleading... I was just Gwen, lonely Gwendolyn Ivana ar-Rahmani DeGrace, watching her parents prepare to die.
The Moriarty's behind my parents eyes saw it. They saw me wordlessly beg. My father put his hand on my mother's chest. His hand trembled as he did it, and I saw his jaw clench, but he couldn't stop it. Hers was already in place on his shoulder, waiting to push...
If they both push each other from the bed, the rope will exert upward force while gravity also works on their bodies. By the end of the drop, the resulting torque will be sufficient to cause immediate death.
But I had already known that. Maybe I hadn’t known exactly how, but I didn’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to know that Moriarty knew how to murder when she put her mind to it. My parents were going to die.
My parents. She was going to murder my fucking parents.
I didn't dare look into the future, wind time forward to see how to save them both. Because I didn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to know that I couldn’t do that, either. Seeing it... it would break me.
There was no more time for thinking. There was no more time for anything. All I could do was throw myself forward with every ounce of human strength that I had, crashing between them and smashing their arms apart. My parents teetered backwards, hands scrabbling at the air...
There was no time. There was nothing to throw, no clever way I could saw the rope in half before my parents were dangling from either end of it. As I watched them fall, I saw the sick truth of it: if I tried to hold one of them up to keep the slack in the rope, Moriarty would just fight me off, and they’d die anyway.
But if I threw my weight onto one of the ropes, bearing one of them to the ground, I could do it. I could save one of them by murdering the other one.
There was no time.
I chose.
She fought me as I pulled with all my strength on the rope, kicking and clawing and pushing me away. It was a little bit Moriarty, but a lot of furious Reem ar-Rahmani DeGrace that tried to shove me off, screaming at me to let her go, screaming at my father not to leave her, begging us both to let her to go with him.
The… the sound of my father’s neck breaking wasn’t what I expected. It was a soft pop, almost wet. I was countering her desperate flailing, trying to counter my father’s weight on the noose lest it choke her slowly. I’d almost gotten enough slack to get her head out when we heard the noise. We both froze for a split second. I closed my eyes. I couldn’t look.
She couldn’t look away. She was strong, panicked, and her husband was swinging gently a few feet away. She got her thumb into one of my shut eyes and would have taken it out if Cavill hadn't placed his jaws gently and firmly onto her leg and pulled. It swept her off balance, and I drove a palm up under her chin, hard, while sliding the noose free of her head.
She toppled backward, head cracking hard against a nightstand as she went down. I stood there on the floor, chest heaving, as I looked down at her. I saw a fluttering at her throat: a pulse. It was regular: she'd have a headache I didn't want to think about, but she'd live.
I’d let go of the rope as soon as she was free of it. I heard the last of it slip over the rafter and drop to the floor next to my father’s body.
I couldn’t see him from where I was standing. I couldn’t see the horrid angle of his neck, or the way that his tongue would puff slightly out of his mouth due to the pressure of the noose on his throat.
I knew, though. I’d seen it before, because, well… Sherlock. I knew what he would look like. So I didn’t have to see, because my imagination filled in all the gaps. I knew exactly how he looked.
I remembered everything. A not-so-chance meeting in Sana'a, a group of street urchins who'd supposedly picked his pocket; me, marching back triumphantly to return his wallet with English that I had forced to sound awkward despite my English professor mother having ensured that I’d been fluent since practically birth. Genuine warmth and gratitude that had persisted through every moment we'd had since that day.
Horseback riding lessons. Soccer matches. Science fairs. Lazy Saturday afternoons. Letting him win at chess. Hugging him tight. “Gwenie Bear.”
I remembered everything.
She's the best thing I've ever done, my father said in my memories. Don't tell my wife.
I don't remember what happened next.

Chapter 10: His Last Bow
Once upon a time, a woman who lost her brother killed her father to save her mother.
She wanted him back.
She got no answer from the angel on her shoulder, so she found herself calling on the devil 'neath a boulder.
She and her angel had danced with this devil, and when they'd discovered him not on the level they'd yanked on his tail and stepped on his toes, and now when he saw her his temper it rose.
This is the story.
There is a home in the affluent Cleveland Park neighborhood of northwest Washington, DC that does not exist. It does not appear on any map. Its driveway is at the end of the sidewalk on Ordway Street, but even that is a lie, because that driveway also connects to another house that is clearly visible from the curb. All that marks its existence is the fact that the paved part of the drive trails aimlessly off after it should end at the neighbor's garage. It looks like it just heads off to nowhere before terminating.
It goes somewhere. If you're willing to get a little dirt on your tires, you crest a small hill and head down past a few other houses that are tucked away off of the road, until you come to a solitary white post in the middle of a field. Just beyond it lies a small stone path, which begins at the top of a steep hill, and steps you down to the bottom for no apparent reason.
There is a reason. If you tap out the right sequence on the post - anywhere will do, but it's easiest if you do it near the top - and then step on the first, second, third, and fifth stones - not the fourth - and then hop the first stone on the left at the fork to land on the seventh stone the path… if you do it just right, you will see a faint glow under the eleventh stone on the right branch of the path. Lift this stone up - it is surprisingly light - and you will see a complicated panel of whatsits that are scanning your face, measuring your irises and breathing patterns, and possibly taking your horoscope. Then a gruff voice will greet you... or it won't.
"Give me one reason not to hang up right now," said the voice. "Keep it simple, Sherlock. Five. Words. Or. Less."
The woman kneeling in the grass blinked in surprise, and looked rapidly around her, as if taking in her surroundings for the first time. She was young, this woman, but no one was allowed to call you a girl on the day your father died. Her green eyes were puffy; her creamy face tear-stained. A light sheen of perspiration covered her bare arms and forehead: she was wearing a tank top and pajama bottoms, but she’d been working hard.
The pair of bodies laying next to her in the field spoke of the reason. Dual tracks of flattened grass led back to the Audi parked at the top of the rise: she’d dragged the bodies from the car down the hill. It was summer in the District: hot and muggy even at night.
At the sound of the voice on the intercom, she rocked back on her heels, as if she were going to shoot up and run away. Her eyes were wide and panicky, and her breath came rapidly. She didn’t know how she’d gotten here, and there was something wrong with her senses. She blinked, forcefully, but they didn’t clear. She was watching the world through vision blurred to mere human levels. Her ears heard only the whisper of wind and not its cause. Her nose spoke to her of night-scents, but told her nothing of the two varieties of grass competing for light, nor of the sycamore tree that stood in small clump of oaks.
She didn’t know that we had brought her here. But she knew where “here” was, and who was on the other end of the speaker.
She opened her mouth to speak, but for a moment, nothing came out. She closed it, swallowed hard. She looked over her shoulder, up the hill to the Audi. She hesitated. Looked at her parents lying there in the grass, the slow rise of her mother’s chest, and the absolute stillness of her father.
"I have my father's corpse,” she said. Her voice trembled a little. "Please."
There was a sound like a grunt from the other end of the line, and the voice said, "That's six words." Then the intercom went dead. The woman held her breath.
The hill opened. It was almost soundless: the stuff that looked-like-grass-but-wasn't peeled back to expose a titanium seam that swung slowly outward, becoming an opening eight feet wide and just as tall. A cool blue light rose up from runners along the floor of the hallway that curved down into the earth.
She remained crouched there, frozen. Her thoughts had been a jumbled mess even a short while ago, all creaking ropes and “Gwennie Bear” and a wet pop and “my dear”. We dipped into them again for a moment, but pulled out in as quickly as we’d come. The cacophony in her mind had been replaced by a singular need, an urgency for an answer; she was screaming a name in her mind, over and over.
Sherlock! Sher-loooooock!!
But we knew that no answer would come. She was close to breaking right now, but if her mind snapped, we would go with it… all of the stories, gone. She had to calm down. Gently, one of us passed a hand invisibly down over her eyelids, and she squeezed them shut. “One… two… three…” whispered the man with the scalpel. Her lips mouthed the numbers in time with him.
From the hole in the hill crept… creatures. The stench of decay came off of them in cloying waves, and the young boy pulled out a grubby chocolate bar from his trousers, waving it under her nose. It was nothing, literally nothing more than the intangible story of the thing, but her nose twitched as she counted, and her eyes did not open.
The man in black stood nearby, hand on the hilt of his rapier, figment-fingers twitching nervously. The woman’s fingers - long, delicate, devoid of any rings or nail polish - twitched in time with those of her invisible guardian. Just in case.
The things were small, humanoid, covered in fur. They ignored the woman, grabbed the two bodies roughly, and started dragging them into the hill. Their movements were fluid, coordinated: one’s arm would raise, and another’s would do the same in unison. The things moved as if they were pieces of a greater whole, bearing the woman’s parents down into darkness.
The woman’s breathing had just come under control when furious barking erupted from the car at the top of the hill, and her eyes snapped open. The ephemeral beings who had hovered over her dissipated as she sprang up, passing through them as if they had never been - and indeed, they had not. She whirled just in time to see her father’s bare feet vanish behind the curve of the wall that led from the open door into the earth.
She blinked, catching her breath, scenting the carrion on the air for the first time. She swallowed hard and squeezed her hands tightly into fists, digging her nails painfully into her palms. The concreteness of the pain seemed to ground her, and she released her fists with a little shudder. She looked up the hill to the car.
“Cavill,” she whispered. From nowhere, the man in black nodded his head in respect. She hadn’t needed another guardian. The Faithful Companion was here for her.
Moving with purpose, she climbed the hill and opened the door to the car. The big dog hopped down, his body forming a hard line pointing at the entrance to the hill. His hackles were up, and a low growl rumbled from his throat.
“Yeah,” she whispered. “I know. I know, buddy. This is the kind of idea that gets your head swapped onto someone else’s body. You don’t have to come.”
The animal sat back on his haunches at the sound of her voice, and opened his mouth in a giant grin. Lead on, he seemed to say to her. I’ll follow you into hell itself.
She rested a hand on his head, drawing strength from the solidity of it. She looked down the hill, and scratched the dog absently.
“Okay,” she whispered. “Okay. Just us, then. Let’s do this.”
No, Gwen. We are with you.
She turned her head, as if she’d heard… but that was impossible, and she shrugged her way forward, down the hill. Cavill trotted behind her, his motions deceptively relaxed.
“I’ve been here before,” she explained to him, more for the reassurance of the sound of a voice, any voice, even her own.
“There are… monkeys. Or what used to be monkeys. He’s done something to their brains. They’re not… quite… just don’t try to bite one, okay? They probably have diseases.”
They crossed the threshold, into the hill. Into another’s story. We were not welcome there. The doors swung shut, the hill closed, and they were gone. We couldn’t help. We couldn’t follow. All we could do was listen… listen as Gwen wrote her own story.
My story does not end here, she said, over and over in her mind. My story does not end here. My story does not end here.
My story does not end here. If I kept telling myself that, then maybe, just maybe…
The only light down here was this sepulchral blue coming from the runners along the floor. The walls and ceiling were made from welded steel, giving them an industrial look. Strange shadows moved ahead of us, ghosting across the ceiling as the hallway wound down in a clockwise corkscrew into the earth. The hall was… eight feet or so wide. The grade of the incline was… ah… two percent?
I was estimating. Estimating! Me! The one who’d been disqualified from the eighth grade jelly bean jar guessing competition because I got the number of jelly beans exactly right after looking at the jar for ten seconds.
I didn’t know how wide the corridor was. About eight feet. I shuddered. It felt dirty, like lying about something stupid to someone who knew better.
As we walked, the path continued to curve tightly around and down, a massive spiral ramp into the earth. A faint squeaking ahead suggested that my father's body had been loaded onto a cart, which was being pushed along just out of sight. We could have caught up, but… maybe it was better if we didn’t.
How was this going to play out? We were visitors to the home of a sociopath who was dangerously obsessed with neurological development and enhancement. Brains - he was really, really excited about brains.
And mine wasn't working properly. I hadn't hit my head or anything... but I'd lost count of how many steps we'd taken since we left the door. I was having trouble determining the grade of the slope we were on... which meant that I didn't know how far underground we were.
I thought back to my previous visit, tried to count my steps and remember the layout of the place... and couldn't.
My pace slowed. I couldn't remember. That was impossible. I remembered everything!
No. Sherlock Holmes remembered everything.
"Oh my..." I covered my mouth with my hand to silence anything that I might let slip. The walls had ears, probably literally, and what he heard might kill me.
I was losing my concordance with Holmes. Faintly, imperfectly, I remembered what Doyle had explained on our ride to the hearings. It was rare, super-rare, but when someone stopped acting like their persona, the ties between them broke. When their stories no longer matched, it could cause the persona to vanish for generations.
That was why Sherlock wouldn’t answer. He was fading away, and with him, the superhuman abilities he’d provided me. Perfect memory. Razor-sharp senses. The ability to predict the future based on logical deduction, or see into the past based on present clues.
All gone.
Why? Wandering away from Holmes-like behavior in order to pretend to be Guinevere hadn't put me far enough off of Holmes to weaken my connection to him. He was a master of disguise, after all: pretending to be someone else was exactly what he would do. And I'd been Holmes with a vengeance all day long: on a case, battling Moriarty! What was more Holmes-like than that? I was living the life. Everything about me was just like him.
Until tonight... until my father died. Moriarty never killed Sherlock Holmes' father.
Really? That? That was enough?
I giggled a bit, despite my hand clapped over my lips. It was insane! I could go from the embodiment of the greatest detective in history to... to just plain old Gwen... all for something that happened to me? To someone I loved? Something I had no control over?
Cavill whined, his head cocked to one side looking up at me.
I'd stopped in my tracks, and he had stopped just ahead. My eyes were brimming with tears.
We were going to die down here. I couldn't do this. I couldn't handle... him. He was too smart, too fast on his feet. His mind was like Holmes’, all angles and deductions. He made the rules down here. He had good reason to hate me, and wouldn't think twice about killing me if he thought it wouldn't be trouble. Holmes could have thought his way out of this. But... just Gwen? I didn't even know who that was! I’d been Sherlock Holmes since I was a baby! What could Gwen do?
I heard the squeaking stop, a short ways ahead of us. It hadn’t mattered that I had quit walking. We… we were there. I couldn’t just stand here. Could I still get back out? No, that was stupid: the door was locked and we’d walked far enough that even if it weren’t, he’d have it clamped tight long before I got there. If I tried to run now, he’d know for sure that something was up. I moved a trembling hand away from my mouth. We were dead for sure if I didn't--
There was something written on the palm. "You're not alone, my dear."
It was my handwriting. I'd left myself a message. No - Holmes had left me a message!
Not alone... not alone...
A rush of relief filled me. Okay... okay, I could do this. I’d been Sherlock my whole life; who knew him better? Maybe I couldn’t count jelly beans, but if I needed to convince someone else that I was still Holmes, I just had to channel him. It was like those bracelets that the kids who went to bible camp wore: What Would Sherlock Do?
He'd eat this guy's lunch, that's what he'd do. He'd already know exactly what would happen next: all he would be looking for would be confirmation that his deductions were correct.
All I had to know was everything.
Ooookay, that was going to be a problem. I didn't know anything.
No. I knew that, somehow, Holmes had sent me here. Desperate, fading away, he'd put me into this, with nothing more than a dog and my own wits. He thought I could do this.
No. He never does anything on a hunch. He knows I can do this.
I took a step forward. Cavill wagged his tail at me.
I was in the underground lair of a genius who had no capacity for human emotion. He was obsessed with perfecting the human brain, exploring its unlimited potential. As a trial run of his consciousness-expanding regimen, he'd made a bunch of monkeys hyperintelligent. They were basically human child-level, but that was still pretty damn impressive for a monkey.
He was good with brains. Brains... my parents! Moriarty was still inside my mother's head. If anybody could get her out...
And then there was my father. His brain had been dead for an hour, maybe an hour and a half. But our host had well-documented experience with dead brains. And he'd been perfecting his technique. It was crazy, but... maybe...
Hope flickered. It wasn’t much, but… Sherlock thought I could do it. Knew I could do it. Was I going to make a liar out of him?
A cough from around the corner roused me into taking another step. My heart was beating fast. I thought that I knew why I was there… but how…
"You're not alone, my dear."
We rounded the corner.
He straightened up from inspecting my father's body on a wheeled cart as we approached, pocketing some instrument in his white lab coat as he rose. My mother was draped facedown on a second cart nearby, hanging haphazardly over the edge, as if she were nothing. Goddamn monkeys!
I wanted to go forward to her, set her gently down, cradle her… and then I caught him studying me. I met his eyes. They were piercing, so dark they were almost black. His hair matched his eyes, slicked back Jersey-style. Underneath the lab coat, he wore a dirty white tank top and blue jeans. His chest was tightly-muscled, and overall he gave off a greasy vibe. He looked like a junior Mafioso who was playing doctor. But those eyes... like black holes. They took light in, but gave nothing out. No emotion. No clue. If his eyes were a window to his soul, it was one-way glass.
Or else there was nothing back there.
"Vic," I hailed.
"Sherlock," he jerked his chin in Jersey greeting. "But you don't go for that much, do you? You go by your other name. Why's that, I wonder?"
"Gwen's the name my father gave me." It was close enough to the truth. He'd let me pick whatever I wanted when we came over here from Yemen. He'd given me the chance to become someone new.
Eight years later, I was taking that chance for real as I tried not to look at his corpse. Instead, I met Vic's gaze, dared him to question me while standing over the dead. He might not give a damn about other people's feelings, but he knew how to play the game.
He clucked his tongue, pursed his lips, and let me have this one. "Arright, arright, I get you. What I don't get is how you show your face around here after that shit you pulled a while back."
"Come on, Vic. That was a long time ago."
"Six fuckin' months ago you torched my first human trials!" He spat on the floor. "I been researching this serum since before your boobs came in. It's going to change the world."
My heart lurched at his sudden fury. Those eyes… I clenched my fists. Holmes wouldn’t back down; neither could I. ”It’s going to give people seizures, just like it did six months ago. Two almost died. Maybe you shouldn't have mixed it in with heroin?"
He sneered. "Yeah, yeah, but there was the ones who got better. Kicked the drugs. Some went back to school. I kind of fuckin' lost track, what with not bein' able to show my face above ground if I don't want some gangbanger to blow it off!"
His anger was pure, burning white hot with no thought to consequence. I'd taken his world away, his beloved experiments. He was looking for a chink in my armor. If I faltered, we were dead.
Don’t. Back. Down.
I shook my head. "Your bed. Lie in it. Don't mess with drug dealers."
"My bed? You pointed them at me! They had no clue, but you had to go stickin' your nose in..." I couldn't help but notice that there were at least six monkeys behind him in the hallway. They... stood. Not like monkeys stand. Patiently. They were paying attention.
They were waiting for the order to tear us apart. If I kept winding him up, it was going to be coming aaaany time now...
What Would Sherlock Do? "You're not alone, my dear." My dear... only Moriarty called me that! There was a second message!
"Kay Moira Tanner," I blurted. He stopped. I took a deep breath. I had no idea what I was doing here. "Student. She... got hooked up with some of your special sauce. It made her smart. Crazy-smart. Sherlock Holmes smart. But crazy. Moriarty crazy. I just got through with a run-in: not pretty. Have you looked at the news tonight?"
He stiffened. "That nightclub?"
"Nothing wrong with your brains," I affirmed. "Except that they created another monster."
It was a lie that hit him like a punch to the gut. Moriarty had nothing to do with him, but it was plausible. What Would Sherlock Do? Find a weakness. Exploit it. Remove the threat.
Whatever Vic might be, he understood monsters. And he feared them. He feared seeing himself inside them.
He shook his head. "Not possible. None of the other subjects got violent. The serum bolsters orderly thought processes. She shouldn't have degraded--"
"Oh, her thought processes were very orderly. She had a perfectly ordered plan to kill everyone."
He cocked his head. "Were? Had?"
"Dead," I affirmed.
His demeanor changed in an instant. His eyes were bright. "Where's the body?" All thought of the victims was gone, if it had ever been there in the first place: his obsession was setting in. "I need that body!”
Oh, Sherlock, you genius.
“You’re a smart guy,” I prodded. “Where do the police keep dead bodies?”
He nodded. “The morgue. But thanks to some-fucking-one, I can’t set foot anywhere near that place. You ain’t helping your case too much, Gwen.”
I forced my lips into something like a smile. He was playing along - at least, I thought he was playing along, because I wasn’t one hundred percent sure that I was playing the game that Sherlock had meant for me to play… but if I was… “She murdered over two hundred people, Vic. You go snooping around and they'll figure you out, get you for Accessory. You'll take the rap for everything."
Please let this work… please let this work…
I spread my hands. ”Forget about the body. I can get you something better. I can get you her mind. I can get you her masterpiece."
He'd been worked up, but he froze, leaned in. "... I'm listening."
Lecture mode came almost too easily. I clasped my hands behind my back and started to pace back and forth in the hallway. ”She followed in your footsteps, though I doubt she had any idea. Instead of drugs, she built a machine. She uploaded an imprint of her consciousness into it. You don't need her brain. You've got her mind, in binary. Or, I do.”
He looked skeptical. "There are neurological structures that-- the brain matters, is what I'm sayin'. Just an imprint won't..." he trailed off. He was working it out.
I gave him a second to consider, and then prodded, "Why'd you start on all this, anyway? To make sure that your next creation didn't go crazy, that's why. You already figured out how to bring back the dead. You needed to stabilize the mind, so that it didn't snap under the strain. The brain was only the path you chose in order to get there."
"Yeah, but... all my work is on brain-mind interaction. No brain, and I don't know how to--"
"You've got a brain. Two of them. She's inside my parents, Vic. That's why we're here. I want her out of my mom." I gulped. "And I want my dad back."
Emotion washed over me, and I swallowed again, hard. Tears welled up, and the lump in my throat was suddenly going to choke me if my heart didn't explode first. I clenched my jaw and dug my fingernails into my palms. Hold it together... hold it together...
Slowly, Vic looked down at my father, and then up at my mother on the floor next to me. The pieces were clicking together for him.
"You said there was a machine." He tasted the words as they came out.
"I have it." Close to true: Arthur's people collected it. I had no idea how I would get it from them, but if it could get my parents back...
"You get me this doodad, and I give you your parents..." He pretended to mull it over, but I saw the spark in his eye. It didn't take Sherlock Holmes to know what he was thinking.
A grin spread over his features. "You're going to get me this machine, and it's going to have this girl's digitized brain patterns in it. And until you get it, I've got your parents." He shook his head. "Don't seem like I've got much downside. You must be desperate."
"My father is dead, and my mom's got a psychopath living in her head. She'll try to kill me as soon as she wakes up. How the fuck do you think I am?" My forced smile turned to a snarl, and my hands were fists. All the rage, all the fear, all the loss of the day, and this son of a bitch was goddamn playing with--
"A'ight, a'ight, calm down. We can both get a good thing out of this.” He put his hands up, just as Arthur had hours before. “I bring pops back, and use this doohickey to get his brain back on line. I’ve got your mom as a test case to make sure I know how things work. Yes,” he cut me off, “that’s how it’s going to be, because I don’t have anybody else who got brain-dumped by someone who knew how to use the thing for sure. That’s the deal. When can I expect my new toy?"
I narrowed my eyes. I didn’t like the thought of him playing with my mother like some kind of toy… but it wasn’t like I had a ton of leverage.
”How long until you're ready with my parents?"
"Won't know until you give me what you promised. But... a day? Two? For your old man, mostly. Takes some prep."
My heart leapt. “Right now I made sure it’s where even I couldn’t get to it. Safeguard in case you decided to get really stupid. There’s a timer: you'll have it in two days." He'd take it sooner if I was able to get it, but no sense in seeming uncertain about things. If he thought I wasn't Holmes anymore...
He nodded. “Two days.”
“Keep her under,” I nodded at my mom. Wouldn’t do to have Moriarty undermining me while she was here alone with goddamn Frankenstein. “You really can’t imagine what she’s capable of. What she can make people think. Make them do.”
His imagination filled in the gap. ”Those people at the club," he murmured. "Were they... like us?”
"Yeah," I said. “Personae.”
"You know I don't go for that mystic mumbo-jumbo."
I arched an eyebrow. "You live in an underground mad scientist's lair and work with hyperintelligent monkeys. Tell me that doesn't sound weird to you."
“Don’t call it mad science," he snapped, but the harshness wasn’t really behind his voice anymore. He was distracted, gears turning already. "Anybody could do it. I still think that it's all just causality. You get people who have certain predispositions, biologically-speaking, and filter them through our cultural heritage, the stories we tell ourselves about why the sun rises and why people suck, and there are a limited set of possible outcomes. They act like certain types because that's how those type of people act, given the right models. They look and dress a certain way because when you're six feet tall and lean and blonde and wear glasses, there are only so many possible ways you can dress and look good. European Personae look different over there. Act different, too. Africans... I've met a few. It ain't like what you see here."
"Why are you asking about this?" I was genuinely puzzled. Sherlock might have known, but I didn't.
Vic didn't notice my lacking perspicacity. Instead, his black eyes glittered. “Because someone on my serum went toe-to-toe with you. And won. Oh, sure, she died. But if she’s got a brain-copying toy, then what’s it matter? Maybe she’s still out there, in a new body, just waiting for you. She could be ‘round that next corner. Maybe I think you’re getting a little taste of what you done to me. And maybe I think that if I can take a fuckin’ junkie and make her into that, then I’m on to something, after all…”
He wasn’t going to kill me. He was gloating at the thought that someone else would. The adrenaline swept out of me in a rush. All of a sudden, I was beyond exhausted.
“We through here?"
He was already looking down at my father, wheels turning as he prepared in his mind. "Yeah," he said. "You know the way out?"
I looked at my father, and looked quickly away. He was just too... dead. I crossed past Vic to my mother, and kissed her forehead. <<I'll be back,>> I whispered in Arabic. <<I swear.>>
I straightened. "You can do this, right? You can bring him back? Because if you can't--"
He waved it away. "You see these monkeys?" I nodded. "It worked on them."
"Reanimated monkeys with the smarts of a three-year-old. Very reassuring. I want my father back.”
"Get outta here. I can do it." His black eyes glittered. "Unless you want a demonstration? Your pooch over there don’t look too smart. Want to see what I can do to him?”
My lip curled. “You’d just embarrass yourself. His skull’s tougher than bone saws. We'll see you in two days."
I took one last look at my mother. Her brow was furrowed, as if she were suffering.
<<See you soon, mom.>>
It was a long walk back to the surface. I'd been pushing too hard today, and suddenly my reserves were just my own, just Gwen's. I didn't have anybody else to draw on.
My fingers drifted aimlessly to Cavill, scratching him behind the ears.
"You're not alone, my dear," I murmured.
Is this going to work? Come on, Sherlock, just one little whisper. That guy's as twisted as spaghetti in a blender. He killed a bunch of monkeys and brought them back to life, just to see if he could do it! Did you see how they were, Holmes? Did you see?
There was no answer. I spent the rest of the walk in silence, both inside my head and out. The door was open when we got to the surface, but the night air that should have cooled me was hot, sticky, stifling. The breeze on my ears sounded of whispers, almost like a chorus of voices, eager to see me again.
I took a deep breath, feeling bolstered, as if lifted up by invisible hands. I looked up at the sky. There were too many stars to count, even for Sherlock Holmes, but… I thought of the nights of my childhood, lying awake in the summers under those same stars...
... and I could barely remember them. I slowed my pace as I climbed the stone path. I tried to picture my first father, my birth father... and I couldn't. I couldn't remember his face. My brother... the little baby with the hazel eyes... he was faded, foggy, a lump of baby and a color. Was his hair straight... or was he bald? What did his laugh sound like? I couldn't... Oh, god, I’d lost him! I couldn’t remember… I’d lost him!
But I could remember the flames.
I sank to the ground, sobbing, before I was even aware that my legs had failed me. I couldn't remember him! I'd always remembered everything... but now I wasn't that person anymore, and he was gone. The good times... why hadn't I relived the good times as often as the bad? The laughs? The feel of him on my skin? Now I couldn't...
My baby brother was gone. He'd been dead for years, but now he was gone.
I sure goddamn felt like I was alone.
"Fuck you, Sherlock Holmes," I whispered into the grass. "For letting me carry him this long, only to leave me when I fucking needed you, and to take him with you. To leave me alone.”
My vision swam, and I heard the chorus in my ears again. Everything was distant, the whole world flowing like a stream away from me. I was losing myself again, just like before. It was too much. My brother, my parents... gone, gone...
Someone was there. I felt it before I saw anything. Eyes burning, I saw a blurry figure leaning on the Audi, which was parked on the grass at the top of the rise. Dark clothes... tall, lean... a mask... a sword?
I wiped my eyes to clear them. The figure was gone. The car was there, and as I staggered towards it, I saw no footprints in the grass, not even a bent blade.
"You're not alone," came the voice behind me. It came from down low, almost petulant, like a kid. I caught a whiff of chocolate.
I spun around. Only the night.
"No," I put my hands to my temples, sobbing again. I squeezed my eyes shut. "No, no, no, please, don't, just... just let me be..."
"Tho' we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are," declared a new voice. I covered my ears, but still it rang on, not muffled in the slightest. It was ancient, strong: "One equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find... and not to yield."
The voice paused, changed again with a twang.
"And we aim to misbehave."
"Please," I begged, blindly, "please leave me alone..."
A new voice. Cold. Harsh. Steel. Familiar. Dearly-missed. ”You are not alone. We will not leave you. The game is afoot."
I felt something pressed into my hands, and my eyes shot open.
For a moment, just a moment, he was there. Tall. Dark coat. Pipe. Hat.
"We carried you this far," he murmured, "and now it is you, Gwen, who will carry us. After what happened at the club tonight, we are untethered. We need a champion to hold us here. To speak for us. To live our stories. You are strong enough. You are smart enough. You are woman enough to succeed where another would have failed.
“Find justice. Save your parents. Save us all. Find Gwen.”
And then my eyes snapped open again, and I was standing in the empty field. A lone scarecrow looked on, affixed to the post at the top of the rise - had that been there before? I couldn't remember. The car door was open, and Cavill was waiting inside, a quizzical expression on his doggy face. He hadn't seen or heard any of what just transpired, I knew.
Had it all been in my head? Was I losing my mind? Was any of it real?
In my hands, I held a small manila file. Its tab read, "Moriarty". I waved it experimentally. Cavill cocked his head.
This. This was real. I opened it.
I remembered it. Not perfectly, not like before, but I knew what this was. It was a series of notes and instructions for what to do if Moriarty did what she always struggled to do. It was what to do if Moriarty killed me.
It was Sherlock Holmes' last will and testament, the disposition of his intellect, his wisdom. It was how to win. It was his every insight into how to beat his nemesis.
But it wasn't about Moriarty. It just took Moriarty into account.
It was about Arthur.

Chapter 11: A Morsel for a Monarch
The first requirement will be proof of Arthur Drake's involvement in unlawful lethal action. This will only be available to someone with trusted access to CIA's most closely-held covert action programs. The best possible scenario is to make them a trusted partner in the investigation: trust begets trust.
Once trusted access is obtained, most barriers will fall, but New Camelot will keep its own people close to this information, the better to control it. An intelligence official not connected to New Camelot is the best source for obtaining this information without compromising the investigation. New Camelot will have these individuals under scrutiny, so it may be necessary to distract them in order to recover this information surreptitiously…
Morning penetrated my consciousness with an audible point. The sharp note of a text alert on the last of the phones that I'd bought the day before slid into my ear and jabbed insistently at my cortex. I groaned.
Everything was sore. I'd slept in my car amidst the scattered contents of the file that Holmes had left me, and my body was making its objections clear. Back, neck, an odd ache in my left leg... I hoped this wouldn't become a habit.
I hadn't dared go home. Not only were the memories there too fresh, but since Moriarty could strike with impunity there, the idea that I would be baring my throat to her as I slept had seemed... unsound. I'd found a quasirandom number generator online, got myself some local latitude and longitude coordinates after a few tries, and counted on the pit bull in the front seat to do any necessary talking to would-be molesters.
It had been an unlovely strip of street, but a big dog needs no explanations. No one disturbed my slumber but ghosts.
Until now. There was that damned alert again! I fumbled for it, sleep still wrestling for control of my nervous system. My fingers finally closed around the phone, and I brought it to my bleary eyes.
"Help," read the text.
"Immediate evac," came the second.
"WHERE ARE YOU?" roared the third.
Vivian. Vivian! In the craziness last night, I'd forgotten all about her. Last I had seen, she was with Achilles when they were attacked. I hadn't seen what had happened to her in the fray.
She'd sent her location, and as I pulled it up, I saw that she was at the George Washington University Hospital. My phone told me it would be forty minutes with traffic, but I didn't have any better options.
"OMW," I keyed, and maneuvered into the driver's seat.
She blew up my phone the whole way there. From what I pieced together, Doyle was there, wasn't letting her leave, and was driving her nuts. He was lucky her stilettoes were missing, etc., etc.
An hour and fifteen minutes later, I did my best to explain my way past the front desk.
"Sister. We're adopted," I explained to the glaring clerk. "Yes, we kept our birth names. Look, I can find the way by myself, thanks..."
Hospital corridors all look the same, and I wasn't quite feeling myself. Whoever that was. It took me three tries and an exasperated orderly to get to the right room, but I eventually made it.
Vivian and Doyle were there. She was hooked to an intravenous drip and a heart rate monitor pinged next to the bed. She didn't have any obvious injuries, but still had half a layer of makeup on from our outing the previous evening. Doyle was wearing the same clothes I'd seen him in yesterday, looking tired.
"You look like shit," she hailed as I came through the door to room 314. "What happened?"
I wasn't ready to have this discussion, and Doyle was sitting right next to her... which meant Watson. I had my concerns about his so-called "digital assistant." I dodged.
"Someone interrupted my beauty sleep," I grumped. "Coffee's on you. What are we waiting for?"
Doyle jumped up out of the chair next to her bed, where he'd apparently spent as fitful a night as I had. "She has a concussion," he shook his head. "She can't go anywhere."
I looked at Vivian's eyes. Sherlock would have read in them: You see what I'm dealing with, here? It didn't take Holmes to see her frustration.
"Doyle, she's a big girl. If they'd let her play pro football on it, I think she can walk out of here."
He crossed his arms. "Paramedics found her at the scene of a vehicular explosion, lying near a pile of corpses, including a woman who'd been killed by a lightning strike. One that missed the nearby trees in order to hit her. Do you suppose that is a coincidence? It’s not safe.”
“A lightning strike?” I hadn’t seen what had happened to Kay, only that there had been a voice, and then a flash of light. I’d assumed it was Vivian, but if it hadn’t been her… who else were we dealing with, here?
What kind of Persona had the power to pull down lightning on a clear night in the middle of downtown D.C.? Even if there weren’t any witnesses, you didn’t get power like that too often in literature. It was a short list.
Merlin was right near the top.
“So… that wasn’t you?” I eyed him keenly. I was lacking Holmes’ lie detection capabilities, but I wasn’t completely helpless. His surprised response seemed genuine enough, though.
“Wha- no! Lightning? That’s not… I’m not…” He glanced sideways at Vivian, then shrugged.
“I’m not that sort of Merlin, apparently. Also - and let me use some magic words here for emphasis - ixnay on the erlin-may. If we're supposed to be keeping one another's secrets and all that. I assume you told Vivian, too.”
"Call it a woman's intuition," she said mysteriously.
I arched an eyebrow but let it pass. We had more important things than whatever was going on between the two of them. “Okay, Doyle, we have an unknown player. Just great. But, look: whoever it is fried Moriarty and left Vivian untouched. That doesn’t sound like our enemy.”
“Arthur would say that any unknown should be presumed to be hostile until we can evaluate its intentions,” Doyle objected.
“Arthur’s not here,” I snapped, a little too harshly. Doyle and Vivian both blinked.
Vivian recovered first. ”He's not my dad,” she rolled her eyes. "He is not the boss of me. Well... okay. He is the boss of me, so if he tells me not to come to work, I'll stay home. Where I'm not staying is the hospital." Her eyes flashed. "I've got a score to settle."
"Get in line," I growled, and at the venom in my voice, Vivian and Doyle exchanged a look. "You can have what's left after they pull her out of the wood chipper."
"All right!" Vivian punched the air. "That's my girl! Let's go to Home Depot! I know the guy at the rental counter. What?" she asked at Doyle's quizzical expression. "I'm a homeowner. You should see some of the shit they got away with, building cheap homes for vets in the fifties. I've got the store card."
He sighed. "The doctor said-"
"Fuck the doctor!" she exclaimed. "Which I may do, because I did not get laid last night and I am cranky about it. I would at least go down on him if he'd sign some papers hint hint hint!” The last was practically shouted at the door.
"You... you know you can just leave, right?" I asked.
Vivian looked at me with open surprise. Doyle just looked cross.
"Just... leave?" I nodded. “You know I have a concussion, right? And no wallet. Terrible idea. I’m not going to make it very far on my own."
"Which is where she comes in, yes, yes, no.” Doyle actually put his foot down as he said it. "Do not take the clothes you brought for her out of that bag. This is a terrible idea. The last time you didn't listen to Arthur, look-"
“Don’t,” I warned. “I had a really bad night and I can make your death look like an accident."
“Oh, threats. Perfect!” he sneered. “Maybe I was wrong to keep your identity a secret, Sherlock. That mistake can be easily rectified.”
At the name, I flinched. I couldn’t help it. Tears brimmed in my eyes.
“Jesus, Doyle, lay off her,” Vivian chimed in. “In fact, why don’t both of you calm the fuck down? It sounds like there’s some serious shit going on and we should maybe not be fighting each other right now.”
Doyle and I glared at each other for another moment, but I broke eye contact first. I sighed heavily.
“You’re right. I’m sorry, Doyle, honestly. After… after we all got split up last night, something bad happened.” My throat threatened to close up and I swallowed hard. “She killed my dad. Moriarty killed my…”
A wet pop. A creak of rope.
At first I couldn’t control my jaw as it shuddered. I tried to finish the sentence, say the word. My chin just wouldn’t cooperate. Then I couldn’t see. Then my knees went.
Doyle grabbed me as I collapsed to the floor, but I was only dimly aware of him. Why were the horrible memories the only ones that were left?
As I regained my senses, the only sounds in the room were my choking sobs and the incessant beep of Vivian’s heart monitor. I was on the floor, curled up, with my head in Doyle’s lap. He had a hand uneasily on my shoulder, seeming not quite to know what to do with the outburst of emotion.
I trembled all over, and pulled myself together. I propped myself up on a hand, and wiped my eyes. I looked up at the others. Doyle: awkward, confused, not quite able to look at me, jaw set in a grim line. Vivian: beautiful, held back by the machines binding her to the bed, eyes flowing as freely as mine had, wanting to go to me. I felt immensely grateful to her.
“Gwen, oh, honey,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry. Your dad… fuck, your dad?” She put a hand to her mouth at the taste of the words, as if she wanted to wipe them off her tongue.
"Yeah," I confirmed. "And Moriarty is inside my mom. Used her damn machine to put her mind in both of them, and tried to make them kill each other. I could... only save one of them."
Doyle cocked his head. "Moriarty is still in your mother?"
I nodded. "And I'm going to get her out." I swallowed hard, not sure if I should tell anyone about the really insane part of my plan. There's a maniac with undead chimpanzees who is going to bring my dad back to life after we steal Moriarty's device from the Once and Future King.
Yeah... better to keep that to myself, for now.
"I need Moriarty's machine. By tomorrow."
Doyle nodded thoughtfully. "We should be able to figure it out by then. I'll talk to Arthur. I trust your mother is somewhere safe?"
"No!" I blurted. "Arthur can't... have... you going between us right now," I finished lamely. "I'll talk to him."
Doyle shrugged, but Vivian eyed me keenly. Her eyes flickered to Doyle, then met mine again. Pointedly.
I inclined my head slightly. No way to keep her out of this, now. And I could frankly use her in my corner. Doyle was too close to Arthur, too inclined to seek his approval for anything. Vivian, on the other hand, wasn't fully in Arthur's camp. And she was just crazy enough to think that working with Vic Frankenstein might not be the worst idea in the whole universe. She would help me.
Probably. The mask was up, or else I just sucked at reading people now. I couldn't tell was behind that look.
"Doyle, I'm going to need Vivian's help on a few things. Before you go getting all huffy, I will keep an eye on her and I swear if she even wobbles a little I will put a pillow under her and scream for a medic. But if someone is after us - and other than Moriarty I'm not convinced that's the case, even if we don't know who the mystery electrician is - then she's a sitting duck here just as surely as she's vulnerable out there. May as well get her to Arthur and company where there are a bunch of people with stabby lightning rods to keep her a little safer."
He didn't like it, but he nodded in concession.
"For now, Vivian, anybody who tries to stop you, just repeat after me: 'Against Medical Advice'. They might make you sign something, which you can do if you're feeling polite. They've got your name for insurance purposes." I tossed the gym bag at her that I'd found in the trunk - one that I didn't remember packing, which was full of clothes and toiletries. Holmes had been busy while getting us out of the house last night.
"Get out of that gown and let's roll."
She grinned and tore off the electrodes that were connecting her to the heart monitor. A nurse arrived with impressive speed, and Vivian informed her that she could choose which person in the room would pull the IV out within the next ten seconds. She jerked her head at me.
"I think she was a Girl Scout or something."
The nurse looked desperately at Doyle, who rolled his eyes.
"Don't look at me. I'm a billionaire. We all have phobias and bizarre sexual fetishes. Take your best guess which one this is?"
It probably wasn't the gentlest IV removal in history, but the nurse was grimly efficient. Bandage in place, Vivian hopped off of the bed while the nurse mumbled something about going to get a doctor.
Doyle continued his habit of not quite missing a woman lose her clothing, but Vivian seemed to enjoy taunting him. She shimmied out of the gown before even opening the bag, and rifled through it completely in the nude, bent over at the waist, bare ass thrust in his direction. The writhing of the dragon tattoos across her back and shoulders made even this sterile medical setting into something that could definitely turn pornographic given half a chance. It was my turn to roll my eyes.
With some small finagling and signing of papers, we made it down to the Audi. Cavill wagged his tail furiously as he saw Vivian, and gave Doyle a bark of greeting.
"Let me guess," he arched his eyebrow, "this time I'm sharing the back seat?"
"No," I said levelly. "You have errands to run. You're a billionaire, and I have a shopping list. We're heading to CIA Headquarters, so just stick this stuff in my trunk when you've got it all together."
I handed him a slip of paper that I'd pulled out of the folder that Holmes had left me. The handwriting was all mine, but some of it was inked more recently. Some of it, I'd planned a long time ago.
"A roll of quarters...?" Doyle asked. "Why don't I just get you a laundry machine? A laxative? What on earth is all this for?"
I tapped the side of my head. "Plans. I've got an arch nemesis to foil. And I don't plan on going over a waterfall. Can you get it all?"
He gave me a look. "It will be waiting for us when we get there. Watson's already scanned it and placed the appropriate orders. Why on earth do you need a purple pa-"
I cut him off. "I suspected as much. There's writing on the back. Turn Watson off. Get that stuff, too, and take it to the location marked. Don't turn him back on until you're back at Headquarters. This bit has to happen off the grid."
He cocked his head. "I use Watson for everything. He's secure, and he's never let me down. There's no reason not to let him-"
"Off the grid," I interrupted. "It'll be good to stretch your legs. You think now that Moriarty has a taste of what Watson can do, that she won't be searching for him? And there's our unknown party out there - we have no idea what they can do. Don't just humor me, here. Promise."
He squinted in annoyance, then shrugged. "Have it your way. I'll see you in a few hours." He and Vivian shared a look, and he headed off toward the elevator.
I turned to her "All right. Saddle up. We've got other business."
"Oh?" she raised her own eyebrow. "You going to tell me what's really going on here?"
"Yeah," I grinned. "But first we have that shower scene we talked about last night."
An hour later, we stood outside the locker room of the gym in CIA Headquarters' basement. It was filled with old fitness equipment that wore the accumulated sweat of decades of spies. At nearly ten o'clock in the morning, there were only a handful of people whose schedules permitted them to contribute their own.
"I don't think this is what Doyle had in mind," Vivian frowned. "It definitely wasn't what I had been picturing."
"I didn't want to come off as too desperate. You haven't even bought me dinner yet," I deadpanned. "Now come on and let's get naked."
"I'm just sayin', I was an hour ago offering to go down on a guy in order to get me out of the hospital. You better watch yourself in there."
"It sounds as if I should be watching you."
"I hope you will be."
"Can you think of anything less sexy than a locker room shower?" I asked.
"You ever been to - never mind, I think I may need a shower more than sex. You're a genius."
"I was trying to be polite, but now that you mention it..."
The banter took us into the communal shower area, where thanks to the sparse workout crowd, we were alone together. It was a no-frills affair, not even fashionable in the mid-1970s, with shower heads spaced out evenly around the perimeter of the room. The walls and floor were mostly gray tile, with occasional pink ones in case anybody got confused about which locker room they'd wandered into. There were little dividers sticking out from the wall at chest level that offered a modicum of privacy, but apparently the government didn't go for luxuries like shower curtains.
I needed a shower almost as badly as Vivian, and for a few moments, I relished the hot spray running over my body, feeling the weight of my hair increase as it soaked the water in. I glanced over at my partner in crime, who was similarly ecstatic. Her tattoos wriggled and swam in the water running in rivulets over her. Without turning, she asked, "So why are we really here?"
"Doyle," I answered. "I needed someplace I could be sure he and his electronics couldn't follow. You've scrubbed? I don't have any idea what kind of stuff he might have stuck on you."
"I'm clean," she nodded.
"We should be safe to talk in here, then," I asked. "Any listening devices he might've slipped onto your clothing will catch the sound of the showers, and I doubt even Watson could pick much out of the static."
"Yes, yes, I get all that. You think you're the first woman I've showered with in the name of national security?" She grinned at me. "I meant, what's the story? What aren't you telling Arthur? You're planning to steal Moriarty's machine, right?"
"You look pleased with yourself. You ought to be a detective or something." She snorted. "You've heard of Doctor Frankenstein?"
"Duh," she said. "King of e-stim."
"He's going to bring my dad back," I said flatly.
She started at me. She opened her mouth. She closed it.
"Why?" she managed.
"Because he's the only one who can. Because it's in his story. Because Moriarty doesn't get to win. Because..." I hung my head. It hurt even to say it. Somehow it was harder even than losing my parents. Losing Holmes had been like losing my whole self. Without him, I didn't know who I was.
"I'm out of concordance," I explained. "When Moriarty killed my dad... that never happened in the stories. I'm not Sherlock Holmes anymore. He's gone. I need him back. If I undo it... if I un-kill my father... maybe..."
She was quiet for a while. Finally, she shook her head.
"You had one hell of a night, girl. And I get that you're pissed. But this plan... you're talking about stealing from King Arthur to give a psychotic genie in a bottle to Dr. Frankenstein. So that he can turn your dad into a flesh golem and yes I dated a guy for a while who was really into D&D so I know what that is and it's gross. Do you really trust him to do it? Or to get Moriarty out of your mom's head? What about Doyle?"
"Doyle might be able to figure things out with my mom. Exorcising demons... that might be up his alley. Bringing back the dead? Not in his skill set."
She shook her head again, more firmly. "Gwen, no. This is crazy. This is wrong. It's going to go all to hell and you know it. I can see that you do. You're desperate, and I get that, more than you can possibly realize, but it's not going to work."
"It will work," I insisted. "I've got... a file. A plan. One that I made a few years ago, because when you're Sherlock Holmes you think about a lot of really crazy stuff, including what might happen if you're ever not yourself anymore. If you're ever not Sherlock Holmes."
I was teetering away from the truth here, but she was right: I was desperate. Holmes had said I could do this, but in the light of day I couldn't tell what was crazier: trying to bring my dad back from the dead, or trying to bring down Camelot without him.
"I made a plan. Sherlock Holmes made a plan. And I'm executing it."
She blew out a breath. "Why? Why not just walk away? I mean, I get it about your parents, and that's a good reason. But this? The Persona thing? It's not like it's all rainbows and unicorns and super powers. It's a lot of tough shit to deal with, drama and angst and messy deaths. You die and then come back - you really want to go over a waterfall? Or do half the other shit that Sherlock Holmes gets up to? Big fan of cocaine yet? You will be."
She stared me down, hard. "Maybe you're better off without him."
Memories of fire. Flames billowing, heat so intense you could die. No more laughter.
In the spray, my eyes teared up again. I took a deep breath. "You know that I'm from Yemen. Do you know where exactly I was born? As-Sa'id."
Vivian flinched. She knew as-Sa'id from satellite pictures and intelligence reports.
"It's okay," I promised. "I'm not here to blow anybody up as some sort of terrorist sleeper. My mother was my father's second wife, but she grew up in Aden. She wasn't all about the militant stuff. She took me away to Sana'a as soon as she could manage it; she was basically the whole English Lit department at Sana’a University. She kept me mostly away from my birth father."
I shook my head. "I didn't ever spend much time with him, and I don't remember much anymore. You wouldn't have gotten along, though. You'd have called him a terrorist."
The word echoed slightly amidst the hissing of the showers. I was laying my soul as bare as my body, and it wasn't all going to be to her liking.
"You're using the past tense," Vivian said, voice neutral. The mask was up.
"We got word in Sana'a one day, from one of his cousins. There had been an explosion. Not a plane: he'd been building a bomb, and I guess he crossed the wires wrong."
"It happens," she said. "Lots of bad people come to bad ends that way."
"He was my father. I didn't shed many tears, but... he used to throw me up so high. I'd squeal, and tell him to go higher. 'Aelaa, 'aelaa... I thought that maybe, just maybe, he'd get it right and I would fly.” I swallowed. "The message was that we had to come south right away. My mother didn't want to: she was afraid we'd be trapped down there. But the cousin swore that the amir wouldn't try to marry her to another mujahadin, like they usually do with the wives of fighters. This was a family matter."
"We got there in the heat of the summer. It had been a long ride, and we got to the village after stopping at my father's grave. Our escort swore that he could smell the musk of the righteous even through the soil, but I couldn't smell anything except the qat he was chewing. There was no musk; Allah apparently didn't think my father was so holy. My mom didn't say anything, and she had to stay veiled, so I couldn't see anything but her eyes. But I could see that they were dry."
"When we got to the village, the amir came out to greet us. He didn't say much, just some perfunctory welcome; all I remember was how he wasn't an old man like I had expected. He might've been younger than my mother. Then the women took us in to see the baby."
I gritted my teeth. "I can't remember him anymore, not really. I remember that he was... he was beautiful. He had these clear, hazel eyes, I remember that so well. And he laughed, all the time. He hardly ever cried. I was in love with him immediately. He was my baby. I was eight."
"My father's first wife had been an American. He had met her while abroad during his college days, before he got religious, and they had parted ways before my mother came into the picture. The baby was hers. The women didn't want to tell us that it wasn't my father's, but it didn't take a detective to figure it out. There was no trace of him in that baby."
"His mother had left him in the village two months before, and had never returned. She'd made my father swear to protect him, and nobody could say against what. When he died... we were the only family that anyone could find."
"We stayed in the village for almost a year, and I spent every day with him. Playing. Laughing. He laughed so much..." I took a minute, caught up not in memory, but in its absence. Remembering him had been a part of who I was, too.
"His name was Qadir. It means 'fate', more or less. He was badly-named."
"The drone came out of nowhere, like they always did. We practically didn't hear them anymore, because they were everywhere, but we almost never heard them get loud. We were just outside of the village, playing in the shade of a tree while some of the men skinned some goats. They had rifles, but everybody did; it was Yemen, after all. One of the tribes might decide your people had wronged them forty years ago and it was time to get payback, or the military might decide they needed to make an example... everybody carried guns."
"By the time anyone realized how loud the drone was, it was too late. I had wandered away to pee, just for a minute. I remember screaming. Qadir was playing by the truck with one of the young guys who had a son about his age, and they were both laughing..."
I swallowed, blinked, wiped my eyes. "It was fast. He was just... gone. We left the village a few days later."
Vivian had her mouth covered with her hand. Tears sparkled in her eyes. "Gwen, I'm so sorry," she whispered. "I... I don't..."
"You don't have to," I managed. "It wasn't you. It took me a year to work out who it was. I was nine, mind you, but this is still Sherlock Holmes we're talking about. It had been a plane, but it was so unlike any strike I could find anything out about. It was just... wanton. None of the men who had been with us had anything to do with anything even remotely connected to militants, terrorists... they were farmers. Most everyone believed that America just bombed whoever they felt like, and, let's face it, that was true... but there were patterns to who America felt like killing. Sherlock Holmes couldn't miss that, either. This didn't fit the pattern. It didn't make sense."
"Until I found out my father's first wife's name: Morgan. Then it all started coming together. Then there was a story to follow."
"Morgan La Fey, Morganna... whatever the legends call her, she is King Arthur's half-sister by his father, Uther. Though Uther's second child, Arthur winds up with the kingdom. Seeking revenge, sometimes at the bidding of prophecy, Morgan gets Arthur drunk and sleeps with him. Their baby's name was Mordred."
"You don't hear about it much, but there's a dark part to the Arthurian tales. Arthur finds out about Mordred's existence. He's a young man, and is sickened by what he's done. In some of the legends, Merlin tells Arthur that Mordred is fated to kill him. Whatever his reasons, Arthur orders all children born on May Day, Mordred's birthday, to be brought to the palace. He then puts them all onto a ship, and sends it out to sea. The ship sunk, but in the legends, Mordred survived."
I sucked in a breath. "In today's version of the story, he didn't."
Vivian's face is ashen. "You're saying... you're saying that Arthur Drake called in a drone strike on a baby?” She shook her head. "How can you be sure?"
"I can't, not yet. I know that he doesn't trust Merlin, sent him out of Camelot. Maybe he feels bad," I spat. "I had insisted when we arrived in the village and met Qadir that we figure out when his birthday was, and that was the weird thing: the women all knew. Morgan had talked about it. The women said that she worried about his birthday. We had fresh fruit and cake the next May Day, to celebrate. It was a few months before..."
I paused. "I've gone back and read the papers. The plane that killed Qadir came just a few months after the Agency got signature strike authority in Yemen. Arthur didn't need a named target. He just needed a plausible pattern."
"My first day here, I met a cleaning lady named Pat. She knows everything about everyone here. She talked about Arthur. He served in Yemen at the right time. Then he came back and worked in that room on the second floor. The one nobody gets to go into without special clearance."
"ORG," Vivian nodded. "The Operational Resources Group. The Predator guys. Arthur helped get that department off the ground. Now it's his pet project." She put a hand to her temple. "You're telling me he's using it to kill people? I mean... other than terrorists?"
"I think the definition of 'terrorist' can be a little broad," I said flatly. "But no, I don't think he's done it since. Arthur is basically a good man. But I think that good man killed my baby brother."
"What... what are you going to do?"
"I thought for a long time that I wanted to see Arthur dead. I planned for it. I know how I'd do it. But what does that solve? My brother is still dead. This isn't Yemen, with its tribes and its feuds. I have nothing to prove to anyone. It's not enough to know that Arthur did it: I've got to know why. What possesses a man to kill a baby? Answer that, and I have my answer for what to do with Arthur."
"You make it sound simple," she said, relaxing slightly.
"It would have been simple," I agreed, "if I were still Sherlock Holmes. But I'm not anybody anymore. I'm just some girl. Just Gwen. That's why I need him back so badly. It's about my parents... but it's also about my brother. It's about justice."
"Girl, if you've lived the life that you've lived, 'just Gwen' could kick more than enough ass to finish this. You don't need Holmes riding sidecar to get the job done."
I smiled. "Sherlock thought the same. I hope you're both right, but I don't want to take chances, not with this. If things go sideways with Vic, I've still got a chance with Arthur."
She looked thoughtful. "So... Frankenstein. He can really bring back the dead?"
I nodded. "He can. And with Moriarty's device, he can rebuild a mind in that body. His earlier trials were... less encouraging."
"So what's the play?"
"Arthur's going to give the device to Doyle. He doesn't have anybody else who can make heads or tails of it. He gives it to Doyle, Doyle gives it to you."
"That simple?"
"You'll make it simple. You have a certain way with the boys."
She looked thoughtful. "He's kinda cute, in a brainy sort of way. If only he could learn not to talk, we'd be getting somewhere!"
"Keep his mouth busy?"
She grinned. "I must be rubbing off on you. All right; I'm in, mainly because I am in desperate need of a semi-adequate humping. You got any more devious plans before I totally prune up over here?"
"A backup plan I hope we don't need. And one more thing. You can get us into that room on the second floor?"
"ORG? My badge doesn't give me access, but I have enough meetings up there with Lance and his peeps that they'll buzz me in if I ask nicely. I've got a spare suit in my cube. You coming?"
We toweled off in relative silence. Abruptly, Vivian blurted, "Gwen, you know... you know I've helped ORG with... what they do. You know that, right?"
She was drying her leg with determination, not looking at me. I answered slowly. "Yeah. I know. A lot of those guys they go after are real shit heads. They're out to make Yemen into the next caliphate, whether the people want it or not. They're convinced they know better than anyone else how things should be. They're fighting for what they see as their way of life. And they'll kill for it."
"You're saying that we're not so different," she said, toneless. "We're fighting for our way of life, too."
"You're right. You're not so different. If they had the drones, you can bet that you'd be on the run."
She looked up at me, a glint in her eye. "But we're trying, though. We're trying to make things better in Yemen. We're trying to make the world a better place."
"So are they," I said sadly. "For the record, I think they're doing it wrong. I don't think that shari’a and the caliphate are what the world needs. But they see themselves as doing exactly the same thing that you see yourself as doing. You just have bigger guns."
"Well, fuck them," she spat. "They are wrong. Maybe we don't get it perfect, but we're right-er than they are."
"Just keep that in mind next time you've got your finger on the 'kill' button. 'Right-er.' Is that worth killing over?" I shrugged. "Maybe it is. I've done nothing but study investigation ever since I cracked a book open. I've got no idea about war, if that's what this really is. Diplomacy, politics... I don't know. I don't even know if it's really 'us or them', or which 'us' I even belong to."
My eye flashed. "But I do know murder. Cold, premeditated murder. There's too damn much of it in the world, no matter who's doing it, or why. And I've got one to solve."
We were able to piece together enough clothes from the gym bag to put me into a work-appropriate outfit and get Vivian decent enough to get upstairs and swap into her spare suit. I spent a little extra time at the mirror, but one of the perks of being of the female persuasion was that it was pretty easy to make myself look like I was in my mid-twenties, instead of my late teens. I still looked young, but nobody should question why some kid was hanging around the super-secret spy office.
After a short wait, the speaker outside the ORG vault responded to Vivian's jabbing finger.
"We're here to see Lance," she said. "We're read in."
The door buzzed, and Vivian pulled it open. "After you," she waved. I stepped inside a long, dim hallway. The ORG logo stood at the end, a globe crosshatched with latitude and longitude lines, with a curve meant to be a speeding drone arcing over it.
"That easy, huh?" I whispered.
"Pretty much," she said. "There's not really a system for verifying stuff like this quickly. You know the right names and code words, and people just take you at face value. You've got a badge, you look like you belong..." she shrugged. "Somebody'll catch you eventually, but with somebody trusted to vouch for you...? Today will be a cake walk."
The hallway came to a T, and Vivian steered us to a door just to the left. She stepped through, and I followed into the heart of ORG's Yemen operations floor.
It was... familiar. As Holmes, I'd worked out how the operation was likely to run, and I'd come pretty close. There were islands of computer terminals scattered all througout the room. Probably fifty or sixty people were sitting at them, looking at screens with realtime video feeds of the Yemeni countryside. Maps were everywhere, and there were huge monitors strung all along the walls that showed whatever feed was of greatest interest at the moment. I could see people on the screens moving around near unfinished buildings, and part of me drifted back to what it was like to be in their shoes, to hear the planes aloft, to know they were there, but never to see them...
Vivian greeted a few people, steering us through the press to a young-looking guy sitting at a terminal close to the main bank of screens. No one questioned me as we approached, and I did my best not to rubberneck. We passed a glass conference room that overlooked the floor - I'd been right; they'd want to constantly see what was going on, so it had to be glass! - and I saw a small meeting going on inside. Lance was there, but his back was to us, and I hid my face in my hair just in case. Vivian would be hard to miss, she was just that kind of woman, but she at least had a history here.
I definitely should not be here. Holmes' file had prepared me for that, but it would be a lot easier if Lance never saw me.
The young guy looked up as we arrived. He had sandy blond hair parted to one side, and deep blue eyes. For want of a better word, he was scrawny. His face was drawn tight, and his limbs were all smaller around than mine. I saw a pair of forearm crutches by his desk.
He greeted us with a friendly smile. "Hey Viv," he nodded, and turned to me.
He... he didn’t look strangely familiar. I had no idea who he was. I wasn't Holmes anymore, but I was so used to that feeling of familiarity that it had come to be normal. I didn't have that now. He was just...
"Roger Stevens, meet Gwen DeGrace," Vivian introduced us. "She just got her read-in and is going to be backing me up on some of my accounts."
"Pleasure," he extended his hand to me. I shook it, and was surprised at the firmness of his grip. He might be weak, but he didn't know it. I got a tingle. It had been a while since I'd met someone who could surprise me.
Someone who wasn't trying to kill me, anyway.
He gestured with his other hand to the crutches. "Pardon if I don't get up. I would, but Vivian said she'd hit me with them the next time I tried to be 'stupidly too gentlemanly for my own fucking good'."
She shrugged at me. "Someone has to look out for this idiot."
I gave Roger a smile. "Don't listen to a word she says. Gentlemanly is cute, as long as you don't overdo it."
He laughed. "I promise I'll let you hold the door open for me. What can I do for you?"
"We've been digging on some historic information that looks like it might have some new significance," I said. "I'm looking for details about a strike about nine years ago." I gave Roger the date and location.
He turned to the terminal and started typing. “Just about… nine years ago… Back in the day, eh? What are you looking for?"
Vivian jumped in. "It looks like on of Sa'id al-Shihri's boys might have bought it in the strike. If we're right, he's got a cousin who's been mouthing off about some 'sweet girls' he wants to 'marry'. Typical suicide bomber doublespeak, marriage to the seventy-two virgins who meet martyrs in Paradise, you know the drill. Homeslice has been on the radar, but if he is who we think he is, he's going to be hearing from me." She lied with such ease it was amazing to behold. Even as Holmes, I'd never have been able to tell.
Roger pursed his lips. "Here we go... got it. TADS strike, so we didn't have a named target... huh... weird..."
I leaned in, too fast. Roger froze at my sudden closeness. I remembered Vivian mentioning how secretive these guys were. I backed up.
"Sorry... it's been a pet project. What's weird?"
"No, don't worry about it," he brushed it off. "It's just that there are usually more notes on these things. This one's pretty sparse. Huh ... it was D/CTC running the show, making the call. Before he was D/CTC, that is. He was really just Chief of ORG at the time. Except that I don't think it was called ORG back then. I am now talking too much because I feel like I should have something better to tell you but I don't. Though I bet I know who could tell us more about it - hey, Lance! Got an odd one."
I stiffened as I felt someone come up behind me. His lips would taste of cinnamon…
"Vivian?" Lance sounded surprised. "I heard you were in the-"
"Come on, you think a little bump on the noggin' is going to slow me down? You know better than that." Vivian didn't miss a beat. "Lance, you remember Gwen? You met yesterday at that briefing in the Library."
I turned to face him. His expression was unreadable, and I again cursed Holmes' absence. I extended my hand. "Hey," I said. "Good to see you again. I understand I also owe you a thank-you for yesterday."
He took it, and gave it a gentle shake. His hand slid over mine so that his fingertips caressed my palm as he withdrew, and a tingle went down my spine.
"Yes," he murmured, "my pleasure. Good to see you also looking well. Roger, what was it that you were asking about?"
Oh, shit. He wasn't supposed to see this.
Vivian came to my rescue. "Actually, since you're out of your meeting, can we chat offline? We were here to see you, anyway. Thanks for your help, Roger. I'll hit you up later."
The three of us wound our way back to the glass conference room. Lance closed the door with a loud click. The buzz of the ops floor was silenced in here.
He faced us with an inscrutable smile. "So... fancy meeting you here. At least one of you is definitely not cleared to be in here. What's going on? Does Arthur know you're here?"
Vivian started to answer, but I got there first. "Arthur has other things on his mind today. It's Gw- The funeral is today."
Lance nodded slowly. "Yeah. I had to say my goodbyes earlier. Too dangerous to have us gathering in public, and... she was his wife." He gritted his teeth, clearly frustrated. "All right, so he doesn’t know you're here. Why are you here?"
I gave a coy smile. "Well... Vivian actually has work to do here. I asked her to show me the place, because apparently I’m a queen and rank has its privileges and who wouldn’t want to see this place? But mostly I was hoping you and I would get a chance to talk."
Vivian and Lance both raised eyebrows. "Oh really?" he sounded surprised. "About what?"
I looked down shyly. Time for that backup plan. "Madam Elegant's."
Lance took a breath. I'd found a few things on Gwen Drake's phone, and Madam Elegant's had been one of them. It was a small, high-class hotel in Arlington, just outside of DC. Gwen Drake had taken some pains to hide it, which was odd: cell phones were personal affairs. You didn't usually worry about somebody else seeing what was on yours. Only someone else close to you would be likely to be messing with your phone... someone like your husband. Gwen had a secret that Arthur was not meant to find.
Doyle had been overly optimistic about getting Camelot right this time. I knew it from the way Lance had looked at me the first time we met: like he had every right to my body. Guinevere and Lancelot were lovers.
I wasn't Sherlock Holmes anymore, but I'd read this story plenty of times. Playing at Guinevere was second nature. Time to up my game.
"Ah," he breathed. Too brightly, he turned to Vivian. "Well, glad you're feeling all right. I won't keep you if you and Roger have stuff to work on." He moved to one side to let her to the door.
Her eyes narrowed and she shot me a look. I didn't have Sherlock Holmes' subtext-reading skills anymore, but any woman recognizes Are you sure you want to go home with this guy? when her friend is thinking it.
I gave her a gleeful little wave and said, "I'll find you later!"
Then, Lance and I were alone in a glass room, while the ops floor pretended not to watch us.
"So," he began, "you know about... things?" His eyes searched my face.
I dipped my head and turned, letting a smile curl my lips just before my hair covered them. I moved my waist so my hip slid out as I stood, half facing away from him, profile outlined against the glow of the monitors behind me.
I didn't have a damn clue if this was how real women did it, but I'd played the femme fatale in Antony and Cleopatra in high school, and she did not care about the mores of lesser women. I remembered it having a pronounced effect on high school boys. My mother had laughed and told me it had made my father uncomfortable...
"I was a morsel for a monarch," breathed Cleopatra through my lips, "but I remember you feasting on me."
Somewhere deep down, I felt a wet smile on my lips. Cleopatra approved.
I heard him gasp, and I slid a hand up my leg, murmuring, "Come stand closer to me, pretend to show me what's on these screens. I want to smell you again, like she did."
Wordlessly, he stepped closer - closer than he should have, if this were just business. Good. I needed to wipe any thought of Roger out of his brain. Keep it coming, Cleo...
"You shouldn't..." he breathed. "You shouldn't remember..."
He was trying to be skeptical, poor dear, but the Queen of the Nile was having none of it. I craned my neck around toward him and inhaled deeply. My shirt was unbuttoned enough that as I arched my back, Lance got just a glimpse inside... I purred deep in my throat, and pushed the hand I'd slid up my leg down into my pants. I was shielded from the view of the ops floor by his body, so this show was just for him. I felt his breath catch, and I gave a little gasp as I worked my fingers down there, pulling tugging... then slowly drew my hand back, with something black and lacy dangling from two fingers.
I pivoted in closer to him, then dipped my eyes with a sultry smile and pulled my hair back over my ear with my empty hand. I stepped back and offered my other hand to him as a handshake. To anyone watching, his body would have blocked the most incriminating bits. It would look like he'd come a little too close and we'd pulled apart: an accidental overstep, nothing more. He could save face in front of his people.
It also had the nice effect of keeping him completely off-balance. He blinked a bit, not quite comprehending my outstretched hand.
"I can't... I always used to know what you were thinking." He looked extremely confused. Inside me, Cleopatra's deep-down smile revealed teeth.
"It was very nice to see you again," I said, in a normal voice. He reached up to shake the hand that had just come out of my pants - the one holding the spare pair of panties that I'd pocketed on Vivian's advice. I went husky again. "I'd like to see much more of you tonight, at ten."
I drew my hand back and left him with a little something to think about. He started breathing again, and tucked his hand into his pocket.
"Good to see you, too." He swallowed. "I'll check my calendar."
"No you won't," I grinned, and walked out past him. I turned back as I got to the door. "You'll clear it."
I sauntered out with a swing in my hips that I hadn't noticed before. From somewhere, Cleopatra gave me an approving nod. Inside, Just Gwen did a little dance. That had been fun.
Vivian and Roger were busy looking like they hadn't been watching. She excused herself and walked fast over to me.
"Ready to go?" she asked, voice perfectly even. I could see a sparkle in her eyes, but her manner betrayed none of her anticipation.
I nodded, waved to Roger, and let Vivian lead the way back out to the hallway. Once the door clicked shut behind us, she grabbed me by the shoulders.
"I want you to tell me honestly," she looked deep into my eyes. "Black, or red?"
I giggled. "Black. Red's not my color."
"Leave enough of it on the floor, and it's anybody's color. You saucy little minx!" She let me go with a laugh, and we ambled down the hall. "I cannot believe you just did that!"
The fire of seduction I'd been channeling went out with a huff. I looked sheepish. "Was it that obvious?"
She shook her head. "Not unless you were staring as hard as I was. Did you see where the glass was melted? That was me. It helped that I'd just happened to mention that little trick yesterday. You're a quick study! Also, Roger totally has the hots for you."
I skidded to a stop. "Wha-? Really? How do you know?"
She laughed. "Come on, you pull a stunt like that and then don't see when the only real boy in the room is digging on you? How he got all gooey when you shoved your boobs in his face? Yes, you shoved your boobs in his face. Quick study or not, you've got lots to learn, like where your boobs are. Here, and here."
She reached up as if to squeeze them, and I swatted her hand away with a laugh. She stopped in the hallway, turning on me with a serious expression.
"He's good people, so be nice or I'll have to kill you."
"Lance? He's rancid!"
"Roger. He's not. He's a really good guy and I have always liked him too much to sleep with him because that really never goes well for me. Don't make me destroy you."
"Has anyone ever told you that you have violent tendencies?"
"Has anyone ever told you that you're blushing?"
"I am not!" I started walking again. "I'm sure Roger's very nice. He seemed nice. I've got a little bit on my plate at the moment, though."
"You sure seemed ready to serve that plate up to Lance. Roger noticed that too, just as an idle point of conversation."
"He did? I... totally do not care about that." I pouted. He did seem nice. Lance did not seem nice. It wasn't like there was some kind of contest, but... Argh!
Get it together, Gwen. Not two minutes ago you did not care what Mr. Nice Guy thought about you, and you can just go right back to that. What Would Sherlock Do?
"You probably don't need to worry about Roger," said Vivian. "He's really sweet, but I doubt he'd think to try to go toe-to-toe with Lance over anything, most especially a pretty girl. What, ah... what did you two talk about, anyway?"
"Having sex," I sighed. "Tonight, at ten o'clock. Give or take the time it takes to get naked. Well, possibly. I'm not sure about whether nakedness is required before we get started."
For once, Vivian didn't have anything promiscuous to say. She considered it. "With. Lance?" She tried that on for size. "I don't think that's going to... is... that what you want?"
"What, with Lance? God, no."
"Then... you're not going to be there, right?" She waited for an answer. “Right?”
"Hmm?" I'd been only half-listening. Sherlock's file folder had been a little fuzzy on exactly how to proceed, but I had a pretty good idea... "Oh, Lance is going to get laid tonight, like he's never imagined. He's going to get exactly what he expects."
"You are plotting something. Gwen, honey, tell me that you are plotting something."
"Just need a different Shakespeare, is all. Doyle owes me a purple pansy in the cafeteria right about now."
She sighed. "I'm going to take that as a 'yes' to 'plotting'."

Chapter 12: Just Some Girl
New Camelot cannot run itself solely on Personae. It will have trusted people, likely strong Camelot types, on the inside. They will be loyal. But they will be bit players. They will have their own stories, not just Arthur’s. Find one whose story is sympathetic to your own, and you will find a partner.
If attempting to insert a new person into Camelot’s organization, expect that they will rigorously screen any newcomers, particularly while closing in on their objectives. By their nature, investigators ask questions, which arouses suspicion. New Camelot will have rigid, bureaucratic measures in place to ensure that there are no exceptions that compromise their security. There will be a test.
"Is this seat taken?"
I looked up from the cafeteria table I was sharing with a purple pansy, and my face turned a color that I'd recently told Vivian did not look good on me. Roger Stevens looked down on my animated conversation with a potted plant with a bemused expression.
"I... what? No! By a plant? Hah, no, because that would be completely ridiculous." I turned redder. "And mortifying. To be caught talking to a plant."
He shook his head lightly. "Some of my best friends are plants. May I join you?"
It was the conservative plaid shirt that he was wearing, I decided, that made things so awkward. It was just so definitively blue. And yellow. Who could have a conversation with a flower when sitting next to that?
Roger settled himself and propped his crutches against the back corner of his chair with practiced ease. He opened up a brown paper bag and pulled out a peanut butter sandwich and a thermos.
Oh my god he has a thermos. Do real people have thermoses? Is that the right plural for "thermos"? He wears plaid and has a paper bag lunch and a thermos and I am totally staring.
"It's for keeping drinks cold," he explained as I ogled him like a moron. I stiffened, and he laughed. "No, I'm sorry. It's what I get for interrupting. How were things going?"
"With Pansy here? Quite well. We were just getting our evening plans squared away." I thought I recovered rather gracefully, right there.
"Oh?" He cocked his head. "Going out for plant food and a nice bottle of water?"
"Steamier." I wiggled my eyebrows. "The greenhouse."
"But you've only just met!"
"And how do you know that, Mister Stevens? It could be that we've had a long and fertile relationship."
He shook his head with a grin. "A pretty purple pack of petals like that, and I'm positive I'd have perceived her previously."
I raised an eyebrow. He laughed. "Too much? It was 'perceived', wasn't it? Felt like a bit much in the moment."
"I'm sure that you and Peter Piper can go all day. Have mercy on me. English isn't my first language."
“Yours is excellent; I wouldn’t have guessed it.” He looked thoughtful. "Do you mind if we pick back up with me drawing a witty comparison between you and the flower? About me not having seen you around here before?"
"Are you asking me if I come here often, Mister Stevens?"
"I may be, Miss DeGrace."
I smiled, and absentmindedly tucked my hair behind my ear.
The purple pansy on the table between us rustled impatiently. Puck! I shouted silently. It hadn't really been the pansy I was talking to. The pansy was just a lure: in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Oberon tasked Puck with finding a pansy that had been struck by Cupid's arrow and now held mystical powers. It had turned purple. It was part of his story: Puck couldn't help but find purple pansies. When you absolutely needed to get in touch with a mischievous force for chaos...
And now the fairy who had been sitting invisibly at the table with me was getting bored. Just as Roger's eyes were widening, his crutches slipped and fell to the floor. He bent over reflexively.
"Ixnay on the... dammit," I whispered, as the flower vanished into thin air.
"No worries, mate," sounded the voice in my ear. "It wouldn'ta worked if anybody was lookin', now, would 't?"
Biologically, Puck was as human as the next guy. He’d been born of human woman and everything. But that was about where it ended. According to the rules that governed our kind, when he wasn’t being observed by anyone normal, he could do anything that the character Puck could do. Including turn invisible. If he could pick up the flowers and turn them invisible, then by that reasoning, no one mundane could have been watching, or he wouldn’t have been able to do it. Honestly, I was fuzzy on the details: Sherlock Holmes’ brand of magic violated people’s expectations in all sorts of ways, but it heeded the laws of physics, which had historically given me a free pass in most cases.
I forced myself not to look around. "Magic's no good if normals are watching. And I thought you had an Irish--" Roger straightened back up, cutting me off.
"Eh, I like to trade it up every now and again, mate. Keep things fresh, y'know?" said Puck.
Roger's face was red. "That's so weird," he was saying. "There was no one around, and I'm sure I didn't bump--"
He looked at the empty table.
"Where'd the flower go?"
"Oooh, he's got the full quid, eh?" laughed the sprite. Roger obviously heard nothing, but having Puck cackling at me was more than slightly distracting.
Worse, my mind was wandering off from the both of them. I'd thought that I wasn't a Persona anymore. But I'd just seen an invisible Puck pick up the flower that Oberon had sent him to find, the one that would make Titania fall in love again. It was there one minute, gone the next. He shouldn't have been able to do that with a non-Persona watching, right?
So what did that mean for me? Holmes’ words came back to me from… whatever that had been, outside of Vic’s place:
After what happened at the club tonight, we are untethered. We need a champion to hold us here. To speak for us. To live our stories.
Roger was looking at me expectantly. "Flower?" I looked blank. "What flower?"
"Come on," he said. "The purple pansy."
I blinked. "Are you sure you didn't hit your head down there?"
"Oi! I've got a little bit o' shonky business for this bloke 'ere that'll see him straight..."
Roger still heard none of it. ”Okay, I don't get the gag. There was a flower, and you were talking to it, and I think we were flirting..."
Faintly, I heard a sound like three tiny droplets of a love potion brewed from a magical flower fall into Roger's thermos. He glanced down, and appeared to remember that he was thirsty.
"Don't!" I shouted, and half-threw myself across the table to stop him from developing a whole new thirst.
"... when I could buy you a coffee instead," I finished, lamely. “Because, um, flirting?”
He looked at me, amusement and confusion playing across his features. I was leaning across the table, fingers splayed between his mouth and the cap of the thermos that was filled with now-doctored... what was that, apple juice? Seriously, this guy?
"And she duin't even want to give 'im the mappa Tassie. Poor bloke. No fun to be had 'ere, it seems. I'm shootin' through, then. I'll take care o' yer little piker tonight, tho, mebbe make a changed man 'o him."
Puck. Ohhhh, Puck. Seducing Lance hadn't been the plan going into ORG, but it had been the backup plan, and Puck had been the backup plan for the backup plan, which was really more like an idea that I mumbled to myself as yet another in a string of crazy ideas that I could fall back on if things went really haywire… as had happened at every turn of late.
I didn't really want to have sex with Lance - scratch that, I really didn’t want to have sex with Lance - but Puck was a shapeshifter who according to legend wasn't too picky about his sex partners. If it would help nail Moriarty to the wall, this Puck would do about anything. Skeevy or no, Lance was a cutie. Puck would show up tonight shapeshifted into a copy of me, he and Lance would have sex laced with purple pansy love juice, Lance would be ensorcelled into being on Team Gwen, and, boom - happy ending.
It had seemed like such an adequate plan. At least twelve percent of a plan. Definitely worthy of being called a plan, by comparison to some of the crappy ideas I’d had lately. I’d tasked Doyle to bring me the purple pansy that Oberon had set Puck to retrieve in the stories, the one that made the love potion. Lance was already sweet on me, so a few drops should really get him going, and smooth over any weirdness when Puck turned out not to be quite the Guinevere he was expecting. Puck would look the part, to be sure, but something told me that he and Guinevere made distinctly different bedroom noises.
But I'd forgotten the part where nothing went according to plan as far as Puck was concerned, or for my life generally. Hopefully, the fickle fey was done amusing himself at my expense. Or Roger's.
I wasn't taking him at his word. I made my best doe eyes at Roger. "Pleeeease?"
"Well," he mused, "I don't get asked to coffee by beautiful women very often. Even if you might be the strangest one I've ever encountered."
He put the thermos down.
"You should probably just throw that out," I pointed to the cap. "It would taste terrible with coffee."
He laughed and shook his head. "Not to mention be more of a pain to get back into this thing than it's worth, for two ounces of juice. I'm just going to assume this has to do with disappearing plants, and enjoy your company."
"Good," I answered. "Because I have no idea what you are talking about. Can I get anything for you?"
He flushed, rising smoothly to his feet on his crutches. "No, I'm fine."
"I know," I said. "I'm really just trying to make sure that you throw out that juice. Here," I grabbed it and tossed its contents into a nearby potted plant, "I can be very helpful when I put my mind to it."
I sniffed the cup. Whatever a love potion smelled like, I didn't think there was anything left to worry about. "I was totally right. Apple juice? What are you, eight?"
He shot me a look. "I read at a ten-year-old level, thank you very much. Maybe later I can show you my comic book collection."
"Sounds great," I said. "Have you read Fables?"
He winced a little, and shook his head. “Being honest, I haven’t actually read a comic book since I was eleven.”
Roger moved quickly on his crutches, even carrying his lunch. There was no line at the Starbucks, and I ordered something sweet and caffeinated. Roger got a coffee.
“You can really get anything you want,” I protested.
He shook his head with a smile. “Can’t drink that sugary stuff. Coffee’s supposed to be black and unpleasant. That thing you ordered just tastes like a marshmallow to me.”
“Marshmallows are delicious,” I stuck my tongue out. “If I could get them added to my drink, I totally would. Wait - can I get marshmallows in this?”
We got our drinks, marshmallows included, and sat down. I watched him as he laid out the coffee, his thermos, and his lunch bag, and then arranged his crutches behind the chair.
“Spina bifida,” he shrugged, catching my gaze. “My spine didn’t quite fuse together properly before I was born. I’m actually really lucky by comparison to most. A lot of people have bowel issues, cognitive problems… happy to report that I haven’t pooped myself since… at least an hour ago,” he joked. “Though my sisters might tell you that I don’t know when to quit, if that counts as a cognitive problem.”
This was… nice. It was completely, totally, bizarrely nice. Part of me kept waiting for Moriarty to strike, and the rest did its best to relax.
I beamed at Roger. “How many sisters do you have?”
“Two,” he said. “Susie and baby Ellen. I’m the forgotten middle child.”
Laughing, I said, “I doubt you let anyone forget you. How old’s your baby sister?”
He made a face. “Just turned nineteen. Can’t even go out for a drink with us yet when she's home from Brown.”
“Ah,” I said.
“I mean, I’m not a huge drinker or anything,” he backpedaled, taken aback by my sudden shift in demeanor. “I like a nice craft beer every now and then. But you’re Muslim, aren’t you?”
I shook my head. “I’m Arab, but I haven’t practiced Islam in… ever, if we’re being honest. Not even for show since we came to America.”
“How long ago was that?” This seemed like a safe topic to Roger, but I wasn’t so sure.
“Eight years,” I said. Now, would I talk about my dead father who I was trying to reanimate, my personal experience with the drones Roger piloted, or about the time when I was six that I’d gone through my mother’s Qu’ran and crossed out all of the passages that I’d deduced to be contradictory with modern forensics?
“I’m eighteen,” I blurted instead.
"Beg pardon?" He blinked slowly.
"One-eight," I affirmed.
“But… are you some kind of super-genius or something? I thought you needed a college degree to be an analyst.”
“But not to be a linguist,” I explained. I switched languages. <<I speak fluent Arabic.>>
“I did not have any idea,” he said, flushed. “I mean, I had guessed you were younger, but…”
“You drink apple juice and eat peanut butter sandwiches,” I joked. “I figured we’d get along.”
“I am twenty-six,” he replied, shaking his head. “That is… sorry, I am just not sure if I should feel like a dirty old man or worry about your father coming after me.”
I stifled the wince at the mention of my father. I hadn’t dated in high school, which had suited him just fine. My mother had worried: in Yemen, girls were sometimes married women at age twelve. She hadn’t wanted that for me, but couldn’t I at least pretend to be interested in boys? Girls, even?
High school boys didn’t quite seem to know what to do with a girl who carried a fingerprint kit instead of a compact. Always knowing what was on their minds hadn’t really made me want to spend time with them, either. Even the so-called nice guys wound up figuring that since I was smart and didn’t like jocks, I must obviously be looking for someone like them to have sex with. Nobody could just relax and hang out.
Not that Roger was relaxing, but he at least wanted to.
“Do you realize that you stop using contractions when you’re flustered?” I asked. “We should totally play poker sometime. Because I would kick your ass and because I think that this, right here, might represent the longest conversation that I’ve ever had with a boy. Man. Whatever. What I mean is, I’m really enjoying talking to you. You don’t seem just to be trying to get into my pants. I… I think maybe you’re enjoying yourself too. That’s got nothing to do with how old we are.”
He pondered. “This is nice. And you haven’t seemed sorry for me once yet.” He emphasized the contraction with a smile, and then gave me another serious look. “I appreciate that.”
“So that’s something, right? We could try just… having a good cup of coffee together?”
He looked conflicted. “I… I’d like that. But it’s worth noting that I’m not completely disinterested in the contents of your pants.”
I laughed. “Good. Because I’ve thought about kissing you.”
“Oh. Um.”
“Well, it was going to be a nice, chaste peck on the cheek, but if you’re going to be that way about it…”
“No! No, not that way! The other way! What are we talking about? How are your marshmallows? I mean, like, your actual marshmallows, in your drink, totally not a euphamism or anything.”
I laughed again. “We were talking about you keeping your foot out of your mouth long enough to decide that we should keep talking… though I’m not sure asking about the condition of my ‘marshmallows’ necessarily qualifies.” He blushed again, and my inner Vivian high-fived my inner Gwen.
“Tell you what: I promise not to do anything ‘barely legal’ to you today. I can promise that tomorrow, if it helps. Would that make it easier?”
He actually did seem relieved that I’d just sworn off sex with him for the foreseeable future. I wasn’t sure whether or not to be offended, but it was very gentlemanly.
“Okay,” he nodded. “I can do hanging out. We’ll go from there.”
“Hypothetically speaking, would your sisters totally freak out if you told them you were dating an eighteen year old?” I needled.
“Do you know who Shaft is?” he asked.
I did, actually, because I was bound to run into him sooner or later. But it was time to throw him a bone. I gave him a blank look.
“You have no idea,” he grinned. “Which is exactly the kind of idea you have about how hard my sisters would freak out if my sisters knew I’d so much as gotten coffee with an eighteen-year-old. Because, boy, it would be a lot of freaking, much of it at frequencies not audible to the human ear.”
“Then keep your eyes off my marshmallows, mister. I only said I was thinking about kissing you.”
“Yes, ma'am.”
“That's more like it. Tell me something.”
He blinked. “Like what?”
I shrugged. “Does it bother you, needing crutches?”
He blew out a low whistle. “You don’t beat around the bush, do you?” I started to apologize, but he waved it away. “No, it’s really fine. It’s a part of me. And I’m actually grateful for them. I used to need a wheelchair when I was a kid. I had a lot of operations. My dad was Army, so they weren’t worried about medical costs. I… I used to daydream that they were going to make me into some kind of a cyborg superman, during one of those operations. Dad and I would talk about it before I’d go under. He’d squeeze my hand and tell me that I had to remember not to squeeze his too hard when I woke up, or I’d break it. I told one of the kids on base, once. The next day, everybody was calling me ‘Captain America’. You know, scrawny kid gets a special procedure that turns him into a super guy? Goes on to punch Hitler in the face? Only it never really worked out that way for me.”
“That’s awful of them.”
It was his turn to shrug. “That’s kids. I wish I could say I rose above it all, but… I just couldn’t. Couple weeks later, I burned my comic books. And when I say that, I mean I burned a lot of comics. I used to be so into them; I probably had a thousand. I’d been collecting them since forever. It was surprisingly hard to set them on fire; it took me three tries to get them going well enough. I… I remember that my mom cried, after she caught me. But it was too late.” He gazed off, and I could see the angry little kid behind his face.
He swallowed. “The funny thing is, even years later, that damn name still catches up with me. I haven’t read a comic book in over a decade and I've never been in the military, but some idiot at the office started calling me ‘Cap’ and it just stuck.”
I shivered. Maybe it wasn’t a coincidence. What would happen to a Persona who denied who he was? Would he wither away?
“You know,” he mused, “I never had any surgeries after that. I hadn’t ever thought about it before, but my parents never even brought it up again. I think they lost the stomach for giving me hope that things might change. When you’re a kid, you think your parents make all these choices in a vacuum, you know? You think they decide things because they know what's right, because they're your parents. But I think it hurt them, to see my dreams get crushed over and over. Maybe the next one would have been the one that did it, who knows?” He smiled. “Maybe I’m supposed to be six-two and covered in muscles. But hey, I’m doing okay. After all, I met you, right?”
“It probably wouldn’t have happened if you were busy punching Hitler in the face,” I agreed. I felt a pain in my chest, though. What was that? Was this sympathy? As Holmes, I’d never really had time for it. Was it supposed to hurt when your heart beat in time with someone else’s?
“So that’s my big old heap of emotional baggage. What about you? Any good personal horror stories? Let’s really test out whether this should go any farther than coffee.”
I puffed out my cheeks and slid down onto my elbows. “Where to begin?” I had to tell him something. Maybe it would make the tightness in my chest go away.
I looked up from the table and met his eyes. Nobody was close enough to us to overhear, and I just… “I’m from Yemen,” I said simply. “As-Sa’id. My birth father died when I was eight. He’d been putting together a bomb. My baby brother died in a drone strike.”
Roger held very still, but he didn’t look away. “Was that before or after your father died?”
“So if you’re eighteen and it was sometime after you were eight but before eight years ago when you came here… that would be about nine years ago. Right around the same time of the strike you and Vivian were asking about earlier.” He said it very matter-of-factly.
I said nothing for a moment. I straightened up, looked down at the table. I fidgeted with my hands.
“I’m not sorry,” I whispered fiercely at the floor. “What would you have done?”
After a long moment, he reached over and put his own hands down to still my own. He slid his fingers down mine until just our fingertips were touching. I looked up, and his eyes were wet. So were mine.
“I hadn’t meant to tell you that,” I breathed.
“I know,” he said. “I’m glad you did.”
“Do you hate me now?”
He didn’t laugh. “Not sure that’s possible,” he said. “Does Vivian know?”
“I figured. Do I need to worry about you?”
I sighed. “Probably, but not for what you think. I’m not going to blow anything up, I swear.”
He nodded. “Did you find out what you needed to know?”
“I think so,” I answered.
“Then I’m not sorry, either. That’s horrible, what you’ve been through.”
“Do you know who Kamala Khan is?” I smiled. "You have no idea."
He slid back, sat back in his chair. “Will you tell me?”
I went through the story of Qadir’s death, minus any mention of Arthur or Morgan Le Fay. Roger listened quietly, letting me take my time. I had more trouble with it this time than I’d had earlier in the day. I was keeping too much bottled up, and it was starting to get to me.
Roger was quiet for a long time after I finished. He wasn’t avoiding my gaze, but wasn’t meeting it, either. He was inside himself, trying to reconcile what he saw every day through a full-motion video feed with the firsthand description he’d never heard before.
“I didn’t think they could hear us,” was the first thing he said. “I mean, you hear chatter like that all the time, SIGINT cuts of bad guys talking about the buzzing of spy planes, but it was one of the first things they told me when I started: ‘they can’t hear you until it’s too late.’ I… I believed it.”
“We could hear,” I whispered. “We could always hear. For a few days after the attack, I had this nonstop ringing in my ears. Later, I found out that was the last time I would ever hear that particular sound. My brain was overcompensating for the death of the neurons that could hear that frequency.”
“Who were they? The men who were with you. Al-Qaeda? Huthi rebels?”
I shook my head vigorously. “They were farmers. Just farmers. They had guns, but I knew them. I knew their kids. They had nothing to do with any of it. They were just…”
“… ‘collateral damage’,” he finished, mouth grim. I saw his hands, sitting on the table, squeeze into fists, and then release, and then squeeze again. He was trembling.
“We don’t… we don’t do the strikes ourselves up there. We don’t push the button. But… we may as well. We basically point to a guy on the screen and say, ‘him’. Then he goes away.” He swallowed. “I made a bad call a little while back. Found out later. Pattern of life was right. We had not one, but two intels that said that we had the meeting place for some very bad men. The target would be driving a Toyota Hilux, white with a red stripe. We marked one on the route to the meet, on the right day at the right time. I pointed to the screen.”
He shuddered. “Very next day, we had a first-hand report on the target. He’d gotten a stomach bug. Work of Allah. He wasn’t in the truck; he’d loaned it to his cousin. His eighteen-year-old cousin.” He looked very pointedly at me.
“I couldn’t stop myself from digging through the family tree. This kid was born in as-Sa’id. He’d been married a year. His son was a month old.” Now he looked away.
I took a slow breath. “You’re thinking that could have been me. The person sitting across the table from you. You’re thinking that it’s undoubtedly someone I know.”
He nodded and looked up, eyes sparkling. “You know what happened when I asked Lance if I was going to be in trouble? Nothing. He… he didn’t brush it off, exactly. It wasn’t like he thought this was totally nothing. He said something about it being real, what we did, really honestly life-and-death. But he told me that it was important, and that we had to get it right next time. Told me I could take a week off, if I wanted some time. That was it. No consequence other than a talking-to that I asked for. I killed somebody, somebody innocent, and I didn’t even get a black mark in my file! I got a vacation.”
He gave a humorless laugh, then shook his head. “A month later, the guy we’d been targeting blew up a hospital. They’d treated some Europeans there for the same damn stomach bug that had saved that bastard’s life. The Europeans were long gone. And that son of a bitch knew it and said that anyone who would treat the enemy was an enemy of Allah and deserved no mercy. And he blew up forty-three people. Half of them were kids.”
He was breathing fast, nostrils flaring. He’d swung back from self-loathing to rage. He looked up at me, straight, hard.
“What are we supposed to do? I am seriously asking that question. What the hell do you do with a world like that? What do you tell the kid who grew up fatherless, eighteen years later, when you’re trying to explain why? That it was important, and you’d really tried to kill the right guy? That you’re sorry for the error?”
“I… I don’t know,” I stammered.
The fire went out of him, and his shoulders crumpled. His eyes looked sunken. “Because all of a sudden I’m looking at her. Jesus. I’m looking right at her. You still thinking about kissing me?”
I reached over with two hands, and pulled one of his across the table. I folded back all of his fingers except his index finger, leaving it pointed, and then I pushed it into the air, as if he were pointing at me. As if he were pointing to someone on a screen.
Very gently, I kissed his fingertip.
He shuddered, a tremor that ran from his finger all the way down to his toes. He held his finger out for another moment, and then tucked his hands under the table.
“Yeah,” he whispered, looking down. “I get it. I’ll think about that the next time I’m looking at one of those screens.”
“Roger, I… I don’t know what to tell you. I don’t know what you should say to that person across the table from you.”
I sighed. My inner voice was silent, and I wasn’t used to it. Holmes had always had something to say. A little bit ago, it had even seemed for a minute like Cleopatra herself was speaking through me. Now, I was just some girl.
I was confused, conflicted about this man across from me. What he did… someone like that had taken my brother away from me. If my life hadn’t been a crazy fluke of fate, he might have killed me a while back, or have left me to mourn my husband with a month-old baby.
And yet… he was the only one in that whole damn room up there who had shed a single tear for those like me. If there were people in this world who could blow up hospitals, shouldn’t there be people like Roger who tried to stop them? Who tried, with the very core of their being, to get it right? Who genuinely suffered when innocents were harmed by their hand?
Didn’t the world need people who were strong, but remembered being helpless?
“I think the fact that you’re thinking about the person on the other side of that screen - the person, not the target - means a lot. I think the fact that you think that I should hate you means that I don’t hate you,” I told him. “I think that maybe you’re the right person for the job. I think you’re just where you’re supposed to be.”
He looked up and met my eyes, hopeful. “Generally? Or right here, right now?”
“Roger Stevens, if you have any questions about whether you should be right here in this story that we are telling together, then I invite you to leave it and my company. I’ll find the damn pansy to talk to.”
He grinned. “I knew there was a pansy.”
He stretched his hand out to me. I slipped mind into it. We stayed that way for a while.
Eventually, it went the way of all good things. But when we parted, my fingers felt warm. So did something inside me.
As we were standing to leave, Doyle came huffing up at a fast walk. He gave Roger a puzzled look for a half-second, and then focused on me. "I've been looking everywhere for you. Whoever gets coffee at lunch time? Rhetorical question. We need to get you downstairs for your poly."
Ah. A polygraph. Holmes had expected this. I'd had one when I started at the Agency, and I hadn't enjoyed it. No one did. There was something about being made to feel like a criminal that made you feel like a criminal. Which would be rude but fine, if so much weren't riding on the outcome. The poly could make or break your security clearance, which was the difference between being a spy and being a well-informed civilian. In this case, it could seal the deal with regard to New Camelot... or seal my fate.
Roger cocked his head. "Another one? But she only just started here!"
Vivian might have been right about him and being a gentleman. I waved it away with feigned nonchalance. "No, it's fine. Just a requirement for another program I'm getting read into. By the way, this is Doyle. Doyle, Roger. He works in ORG. You don't know him." That last with a little extra edge that I was pretty sure Doyle picked up on.
I hesitated for a moment, then leaned over and gave Roger a kiss on the cheek. He blushed again, but smiled.
“I had a really nice time talking to you. I hope we can do it again sometime. Soon.”
"My sisters are going to freak out," he grinned. He nodded at Doyle, and turned to go. He was quick on those crutches. He moved with purpose. Like a man who knew he was where he was supposed to be.
"Who was that?" Doyle asked, eyebrow arched. "Not one of the Round Table, or I'd know him."
I bit my lip. "Just some guy."
I smiled.

Chapter 13: Merlin and Vivian
[This chapter has been redacted in its entirety by WATSON.]

Chapter 14: Her Mind is Not for Rent
Popular fiction would have you believe that you can beat the polygraph. Do not try. The machine accurately measures physical agitation. Anxiety when paired with an answer in the absence of additional stimuli indicates likely deception. With training, you can generate responses to innocent answers and minimize your response when lying, rendering your entire session a garbled mess. Such trickery is obvious to the trained operator and will arouse suspicion. Your objective is not to beat the machine.
"Is your full legal name Gwendolyn Ivana ar-Rahmani DeGrace?"
In the small basement room, I sat in an oversized chair whose vinyl covering had started to crack with age. A blood pressure cuff dug into my right arm, making my fingers tingle. Electrodes were clipped to my index and ring fingers. Underneath the pad that I was sitting on, I knew that some sort of sensor was measuring whether or not I was clenching my sphincter. A camera in the ceiling was trained on my face, watching me blink. A band wrapped around my chest, not tightly, but I could feel it when I breathed.
Because I’d been instructed to, I tried not to notice. Because I was an actual human being, I couldn’t not notice. It was like someone telling you not to think about pink elephants while looking at a pink elephant.
According to Gavin - a.k.a. Sir Gawain, but like me he seemed to prefer his birth name - I was just supposed to pretend like we were having a nice conversation.
"Do you usually breathe like that?" he'd asked, as we were getting started.
"Staring at my chest, huh?" I tried not to breathe, and then realized that was wrong, and then tried to breathe naturally.
Naturally, I failed.
Gavin had laughed, though. He was affable and easygoing, or at least that was the role he'd adopted for our interview. "Just relax," he told me. "I'm here to help you resolve any questions that people might have about who you are and why you're here. After the last few days, we all need a few extra assurances. You are who you are, so this should be a piece of cake. And you can rest assured that you can trust everyone in New Camelot, since they’ve all been through this. It’s for your benefit as much as it is for ours.”
He was short and slightly plump, with thick sausage fingers and a hairline creeping up over the midpoint of his skull. His suit fit badly, but as if he'd lost weight, not gained it. His eyes were shrewd, and dark.
He had explained that, while he was asking questions, I should keep my eyes relaxed and forward. I should answer "yes" or "no" to every question, without delay. "Don't think," he instructed, "just react."
I screwed up right out of the gate. "That's me," I laughed nervously in response to him asking about my name. Then I sucked a breath, scrunched my face, started sweating, and clenched my sphincter all at once. Not to try to beat the machine... apparently a total spastic seizure was my way of saying "oops".
"Just stick to 'yes' and 'no'," he reminded me, toneless. "Let's try again. Is your full legal name Gwendolyn Ivana ar-Rahmani DeGrace?"
"Yes," I said, as evenly as possible.
"Were you born in Syria?" he asked.
"No," I replied, stopping myself from elaborating.
"Are we in the United States right now?"
"Yes," I answered.
"Are you the personification of Guinevere of Camelot?"
"Yes," I repeated. Did I say that too fast? Is my heart beating funny?
A long moment passed.
The same toneless voice. "Before yesterday, had you ever had any contact with Kay Moira Tanner, also known as 'Moriarty'?"
"Did you set fire to the Diogenes Club yesterday?"
I sucked in a breath involuntarily. “No,” I gritted.
“Do you know who did it?”
“Did approximately two hundred people die as a result of the fire?”
”Do you regret their deaths?”
There was a long pause, longer than before. Then, "Are you a member of, or aware of, any plot to undermine King Arthur or any of his knights?"
"No," I breathed.
Your objective is to beat the man. You will adopt a layered defense of awkward truths that you honestly wish to conceal. If trying to hide your whereabouts of the prior evening, your first response should be a bald-faced lie: you did not leave the house. The interviewer will turn off the machine, and commence to questioning you about your evening. Mistrust everything he says or asks: he is trying to keep you talking. The more you talk, the more you admit. He will beat you, but it must not be too easy for him.
"All riiiight," he said, after a while. "We're done. Any of those questions make you nervous?"
You tell me, pal. Isn’t that your job?
"I wasn't expecting you to ask about last night," I said instead. "I had nightmares. It's still a little fresh."
Also, now he had me on video saying that I knew who started that fire, and that I didn't regret it. Just in case he needed it. Bastard.
"Anything else?" The blood pressure cuff hissed out as it deflated, and I flexed my hand instinctively. I hadn't realized how cold it had become.
"Honestly, I'm still a little fuzzy on the whole 'Guinevere' thing. Part of me gets it, and part of it still seems crazy to me."
I regretted it as soon as I said it - it would just give him something to latch onto, something that I actually wanted to hide. He came over and removed the electrodes from my fingers, and unclasped the strap on my chest. He stepped back and sat down on a stool across from me. Studying my face, he prompted, "You had a bit of a reaction to the questions about Moriarty, and about plotting."
But I was telling the truth about Moriarty! Expecting him to elaborate on the actual lie I'd just told, this threw me, and I scrambled to try to figure out why I might have reacted to the question.
"I... I've got no idea why I had a reaction about Moriarty. I only met her yesterday morning."
"Well," he responded, leaning forward on the stool, "something about the question bothered you. What do you think it was?"
There was the fact that Moriarty had killed my father last night. There was that. You could probably stab me and get less of a reaction than that name provoked.
But of course I couldn't say that. Damn. I had thought the thing that I needed to hide was Holmes! I had nothing prepped for this. I was on dangerous ground here.
“Moriarty tried to kill me yesterday. Even though Kay Tanner died, Moriarty is still out there. You can't say that name to me and not expect me to tense up."
"But that's not the question," he objected. "All I'm asking is whether or not you'd met her before yesterday. Had you?"
"No!" I insisted. "I mean, she apparently worked at my dad's office as an intern or something, so it's possible that I might have bumped into her at some point, but I hadn't ever interacted with her before yesterday."
He frowned. I was obviously not cooperating. "Have you ever gone to an office party or something like that? Might you have met her then?"
"I met her yesterday," I insisted. "I already told you, she's kind of traumatizing. Your machine is lying to you."
His frown reached impressive depths. "What were you thinking about when I asked that question?"
"Thinking about? I wasn't thinking anything."
"You showed a pretty big reaction when I asked it. You were thinking about something. If you can't give me something better than that, there's not much I can do to resolve that question. It's an important one. I can help you if you work with me. What were you thinking about?"
Was he even listening? "I wasn't thinking anything. I had a reaction. I have no idea what this is about, except for exactly what I've told you already."
"We can try again."
Once more, he hooked me up to the machine. "Is your full legal name Gwendolyn Ivana ar-Rahmani DeGrace?"
This time through, I managed not to fumble any answers, but I was jittery. When the Moriarty question came up again, I felt the adrenaline surge of a fight or flight response. What the hell was I supposed to do? Now I was keyed up on that question even before he asked it.
He didn't stop at the plotting question this time. "Before yesterday, were you aware of the existence of Personae?”
I was thrown yet again. This wasn't how it was supposed to go. They asked the same questions over and over, so they had a baseline for comparison between sessions.
"... No."
I waited for another question, and was rewarded. "Have you ever been physically present in the vicinity of a drone strike?"
I swallowed. "Yes," I answered.
He let me go with this. As he was taking the equipment off, I asked, "What were those last two questions all about? I thought we were doing this by the book."
“Watson suggested them."
I looked up at the camera and shivered. Watson was watching? And feeding questions to Gavin? “You’re getting your marching orders from a machine?”
Gavin shrugged. "Arthur okayed it. And it had some interesting questions. You saw a drone strike?"
I tamped down the memory that threatened as ever to drown me. "Yes. None of your business."
"I hardly think you're in the position to--"
"None. Of. Your. Fucking. Business. Quote me on that." The fight or flight response was back with a vengeance.
He stiffened. "That's not going to go very well for you."
Ooh, came a voice inside me. He didn't like it when you did that.
It sounded like a kid. I'd had Holmes' voice in my head before, but this certainly wasn't him. What the hell--?
"Did I fucking stutter?" I asked, channeling Vivian from the scene yesterday in the Library. I was immediately surprised at myself. I hadn't meant to say that.
Haw, this'll be a hoot!
Gavin grimaced. "No. You were perfectly clear."
I had a flash of insight. "And I'll bet my reaction to that question looked a lot like my reaction to the Moriarty question, too, didn't it?" He nodded silently. "Well, there's no reason I'd lie about being at a drone strike. So maybe I'm telling the truth about Moriarty, too. I get this really visceral reaction to things that have tried to kill me. Can’t control it.”
"Yes, but--"
"I'm from Yemen, genius. Do the math."
His lips were tight. "Fine. I'll note your responses in my report. You also had a reaction to the question about knowing of Personae. Let's talk about that in the context of the questions about Guinevere and about a plot to overthrow New Camelot. To me, that all looks like an infiltrator. You knew about Personae, you're not Guinevere, and you're here to do us harm. But I'm a suspicious guy. Tell me where I'm wrong."
Suddenly, I remembered Holmes' file. Mistrust everything he says or asks: he is trying to keep you talking. The more you talk, the more you admit. Holmes had explained Gavin’s hounding me about the Moriarty question before I'd ever heard it, and I just hadn’t two and two together: maybe there had been a response, or maybe there hadn’t, but the machine's output didn't matter. This was about the interview.
The question had thrown me, got me talking. I hadn't given up much, though, because it was so off-base: there was nothing at all relevant to give up. The question had gotten me riled. Now I was either going to fight, or going to break. He will beat you, but it must not be too easy for him.
We'll see about that, Mr. Holmes.
"When I was still in Yemen, I met somebody who told me that I was a princess. He was so clear in his description of it all, I remembered it. It wasn't until years later, after I came to America, that I recognized the Guinevere story. It totally weirded me out. I couldn't stop reading, and everything clicked with my life so perfectly. I used to fantasize about what I'd do if I were Guinevere, how I'd make it all different. So yeah, maybe I 'plotted' about how I wouldn't fuck things up like the original had done. You can be goddamn sure I'm not going to sleep with Lancelot. Ask me that one."
He looked skeptically at me. "But you said you didn't know about Personae before yesterday."
"I didn't know the term. I didn't know that they were real. But I had some clues."
"Okay, what if we changed the question a little? How about, 'Before yesterday, were you aware of any information that connected real people to characters in literature?' Would that work?"
The kid's voice again. Booo-ring. I liked it better when he was mad at you.
"What about if we took this exam and shoved it up Watson's electronic ass?" I spat, without meaning to. Once more I was shocked at the words coming out of my mouth: they weren’t mine. “Would that work?"
I saw Gavin flush. Uh-oh. Who was this kid, and what was he getting me into?
I'm Tom, he said. Did you think that Cleo was the only one in here?
Gavin's posture didn't change. "Do you know what happens if we don't resolve these questions? No Camelot for you. We've got procedures for a reason. We can't give the keys to the kingdom to someone that we can't trust." He leaned in. "And if you don't have us, who's going to save you the next time Moriarty comes for you?"
I sure hoped that Tom knew what he was doing.
"You're so full of shit," I laughed at him. "First of all, nobody in New Camelot helped me out last night with anything more than a ride home. I beat a room full of two hundred Moriarty’s, and saved your asses at the same time. Where does Camelot stand? Moriarty's murdered two of your people in as many days. I'd say my score card looks a little better than yours."
He tried to interrupt, but I raised my voice and put my hand up. "And I've talked to Doyle about the Camelot that you're building. You need a Guinevere. You can't go without one, and that's me. Watson found me - you're not saying it's wrong, are you? If you don't clear me to join up, you guys are screwed. I walk out of here with a clean report or you're back to square zero. So let's fucking get this over with, shall we?" I stood up.
"Sit down," he ordered, red in the face. "Sit. The fuck. Down."
I didn't move. Smoothly, he slid a hand behind his back. It returned filled with a semiautomatic pistol. He pointed it at my chest.
"Sit. Down. Now."
My lip curled, but I sat. I felt a childlike glee inside, though. I'd pushed him and he'd gone right over the top. I could manipulate him right back. If he didn't kill me, anyway.
The gun didn't waver as he walked around to the equipment bank. "This room is soundproof. I don't even need a silencer. Arthur likes you well enough, but with all due respect he's a sap. There's a reason that I'm in charge of security."
The barrel of the pistol looked much larger than the nine or ten millimeters that it really was. It loomed wide. I kept my hands frozen in place and turned only my head as he moved.
He unwound a string from a file folder with his free hand, and then tossed it into my lap. "Go ahead," he instructed. "Do you think that Gwen Drake - formerly Gwen Phillips - was the first Guinevere we lined up for Arthur?"
My blood ran cold as my hands eased the folder open. It contained a short dossier. The first things I noticed were photos of a woman in her late twenties, with short brown hair and a warm smile. The name read "Gretchen Elizabeth McNamara". There was other information, and a long, folded sheet that looked like a heart rate monitor - the polygraph printout. Certain areas were circled, with numbers written next to them. Gretchen had clearly messed up on several questions: there were large changes in the readout that even I could see.
My breath caught at the second set of photos. This room, the one I was in right now. The furniture was in the same spot. The cracks on the arm of the chair matched exactly. There was a body in the chair, a white sheet draped over it. Bloodstains were showing through the sheet at chest-level, and I could see a woman's leg peeking out from under the covering.
They'd killed her! For not answering honestly, or for something... they murdered her, right her in this very room, in this... very... chair...
Oh, come on! You used to be Sherlock Holmes! Don't tell me you're going to fall for that. You can't kid a kidder.
I squirmed a bit in the seat to let my back feel the chair behind me. I remembered as I'd sat down, I had noticed cracks in the fabric, and my shifting confirmed this. But there weren't bullet holes. This chair was the exact one that was in these photos, but if so, where were the huge holes that would have been in the back? They'd have replaced the chair if they had actually killed someone in it. If they hadn't, at a minimum they'd have had to replace the back, and they wouldn't have reupholstered it with aged vinyl.
It was a setup! Mistrust everything, Holmes had admonished. Man, he had not been wrong!
You're smarter than you look, lady.
I pretended to study the photos as I considered. Gavin started off playing friendly, and when I played dumb, he got cold. Then when I pushed back, questioning the need for the whole affair, he upped the ante again. He had planned for me to try to walk away, and had an answer for it - one that had taken elaborate prep work. I could call his bluff now, but what would happen if I did? Had he gone to the trouble of faking a murder just to accept being stumped if I figured it out? I doubted it. No, Gavin had more backup plans. He could do this all day long, and if I thought things were unpleasant now...
But what could he do to me, really? If he was faking it when it came to killing me, odds were good that he wasn't actually going to hurt me, either. I'd make an enemy if I embarrassed him, but I was pretty sure we were already past that.
You will confess. Do so as fully and honestly as possible, because he knows how to look for this as well. Hide only what you must, and one thing more. No one trusts a first confession, because the confessor always seeks to hide the most nefarious truth. Give him something to dig for, to uncover, something that excites him. He wants to break you, to master you. Give him that sense of satisfaction. He will not stop, of course, but once he has something sinister, he can believe how upset you are at being violated, like all his previous conquests. He has seen your shame before.
"Are you going to kill me?" I whispered.
"Maybe," he snapped. "Are you ready to talk yet?"
I was. Here was the problem: I now knew that Gavin wasn't going to kill me.
Hey, said Tom, I've got this. Holmes doesn't know lying like I do.
"Yeah," I whispered. "I'll tell you everything."
You can now conceal the detail that must remain hidden, and do so plausibly. His machine is useless because you are upset; repeated asking of the question naturally upsets you. You must now give him trivial minutiae, the most petty of crimes, in a desperate attempt to show your good faith. Shower him with venal sins, that the mortal one may hide in their flickering shadows.
Good strategy, Sherlock. Tom had some other ideas.
I took a breath. "My real name is Gladiola Putresca Fantanesca Bumbovitch. I come from another world. We plan to colonize and settle your planet, which is plentiful with the menfolk who can birth our squidlings. The High Galactic Overlord--"
Gavin's face got redder, all the way out to his ears. "You think this is a joke?" He cocked the pistol and a round ejected from the chamber. "This thing is loaded and I am a hair's breadth from using it on you. I know how to make sure that nobody asks too many questions. 'Terrorist sleeper' sound like a good epitaph?"
"No, I swear!" I plead. "Hook me up again. I'll tell you the truth. Your Earth machine will show you."
"Fine," he spat. "Have it your way. One unusual twitch on the readout and I'm blowing your head off."
What do you think he's got loaded in that thing? Tom mused. Some kind of sleeper round? I sure hope he loaded the right magazine. I'd be really embarrassed to be wrong about this.
Oh, this kid was a riot.
Don't worry so much! He's painted himself into a corner, threatening to kill you. Look at him: he's sweating. He doesn't know what he's going to do next.
Tom was right: Gavin was sweating. But not knowing what the guy with the gun was going to do next wasn't comforting. Maybe he was just sweating that he might have to clean bloodstains off of his crappy chair.
In a practiced flash, Gavin had hooked me up and was back at the controls.
"Is your full legal name Gwendolyn Ivana ar-Rahmani DeGrace?"
"No," I replied.
Gavin paused for longer than I was used to. He didn't shoot me. "Is... is your full legal name... Gladys..."
"Gladiola Putresca Fantanesca Bumbovitch. Yes."
"Were... you born in Syria?" he asked.
"Were you born... on Earth?" "No."
"Are we in the United States right now?" "Yes."
"Are you the personification of Guinevere of Camelot?" "No."
He stood up. "How... how are you doing this?" he cried. "There's not a damn blip!"
I turned and looked him in the eye. I was filled with a queenly fury. By god, I was Guinevere, and I would not be treated this way.
On some level, I knew that wasn't true. But that level wasn't listening right now. Tom could lie to anyone... even me.
"Do it again. Start over. Do it all. Do it right." I ordered. Before he even realized what he was doing, Gavin sat and obeyed.
"Is your full legal name Gwendolyn Ivana ar-Rahmani DeGrace?" "No."
"Were you born in Syria?" "Yes."
"Are we in the United States right now?" "No."
"Are you the personification of Guinevere of Camelot?" "No."
"Before yesterday, had you ever had any contact with Kay Moira Tanner, also known as 'Moriarty'?" "Yes."
"Did you set fire to the Diogenes Club yesterday?" “Yes.”
“Do you know who did it?” “Me, you idiot. Are you even listening? Keep going.”
“Did… did approximately two hundred people die as a result of the fire?” “No.”
”Do you regret their deaths?” “Yes.”
"Are you a member of, or aware of, any plot to undermine King Arthur or any of his knights?" "Yes."
"Before yesterday, were you aware of the existence of Personae?” "Yes."
"Have you ever been physically present in the vicinity of a drone strike?" "No."
He was silent for a long time. I went ahead and unhooked myself. Standing, I looked down on where he still sat. The pistol was in his hand, but it was resting limp on the table.
"Go ahead and ask," I commanded. I didn't just say it: it was an order.
"I've given this exam a thousand times, to Personae and bit players. Elders. I've never seen anyone do that. You had no reaction to any of the questions. None. How did you do it?"
"I am Guinevere of Camelot," I answered imperiously. "I am at my prime when I am betraying a trust. Arthur himself believed me every single time, through all our many lives. No one knows my mind unless I will it. Your little machine won't work on me. Now," my eyes flashed, "kneel before your Queen."
Oh, this kid was good. Slowly, Gavin slid out of the chair. He had just enough sense to leave the pistol on the table. He went down on one knee, and bowed his head.
"My Queen," he whispered.
"Rise, Sir Gawain," I responded, and he obeyed. "Look me in the eyes. Good. Do you doubt me now?"
"No, my lady."
"Good. See to it that Arthur knows." I turned.
"Ah... my lady?"
I did not turn back to face him. "Yes?"
He huffed a breath. "He left something for you. For... after."
I held out my hand, still not turning. My regal displeasure hadn't quite spent its wroth. A small envelope slid into my hand, and I pushed my way out of the room without further notice.
I made it around the corner before doing the happy dance. I didn't know what was happening, but the impish prince of liars had just walked me through that lie detector test with flying colors. I could probably have gotten Gavin to go whitewash a fence if I'd wanted. If Tom Sawyer could fool himself into thinking his own toe hurt, he could fool my body into suppressing the reaction that the polygraph expected. And boy howdy, had he!
"Boy howdy"? I would never say that.

Getting a man on the inside will be key to gaining access to New Camelot's critical systems. If co-opting someone already in place, look for the trusted outsider, the harmless puppy-dog whom no one could suspect of perfidy.
"This is the craziest plan I have ever seen. And I say that as someone who once painted herself in camo from head to toe and hung out nude in the back yard for two straight days.”
“Well, there’s the part of the plan that revolves around dog poop.”
“No, I mean, why hang out naked in the back yard?”
“Why not hang out naked in the back yard? But, practice."
"Hah, you said 'butt practice'! She totally said that."
"Vivian, what does that even mean? Sometimes I wonder which one of us is really the eighteen-year-old. Robin, if you don't like it, do you have a better idea?"
"I didn't say I didn't like it. I said it was crazy. I'm in. I just hope I can stick the shot, with my head still a little foggy thanks to a rifle butt to the back of it hint hint all is not forgiven and yes I said 'butt' again."
"I said I was sorry."
"And I've moved on. You both realize that we are talking about a plan that hinges entirely on a dog, right?"
"Yes, Vivian, for the third time."
"I just wanted to make sure you realized that. Because it's crazy."
"But he’s suchagoodboywhosagoodboy? Sister, I've known you for about twenty minutes and I can see you're not all in. Why don't you just go ahead and say what's on your mind?"
"Okay blondie, here it is: this is basically treason. We’ll be targeting U.S. Government personnel transporting crime scene evidence.”
“Personnel who have no business having said evidence, since they have no domestic or law enforcement authority. Marion is- was a lawyer: he taught me a thing or two. If anybody in the Government should have that hard drive, it’s the FBI. Your boys aren’t doing this officially. They’re misappropriating Agency vehicles and equipment for their own purposes. Isn’t that right and oh don’t you wuv dee tummy scratches?”
“That’s not how it’s going to play out if this goes wrong. You’ve seen the news? After his big save up at the Capitol, Arthur is everybody’s darling. He’s being courted on both sides of the aisle, and he’s barely done with his wife’s funeral. He's super hot right now. I saw on the internet that there’s going to be a documentary about his counterterrorism successes. Arthur's going to be the freakin’ President. You think a little misappropriation of government vehicles is going to sway anybody? You may scare racist cops and corporate fat cats, but this is a whole different level. Some of us have things we were planning to do with our lives that can't be satisfied at women's only correctional institutions.”
“‘Things’ or ‘people’ you were planning to do? Would you describe your sex addiction as 'pathological', or just 'unhealthy'?"
“Robin, you didn’t see him up close. I don’t care about the surfer hair: you’d understand if you’d felt his abs."
"Anyway, it’s like I told you: I’ve got a contact at the FBI’s Washington Field Office. I helped Agent Street out when Frankenstein was flushing the area with tainted drugs that were giving people seizures. He knows that the CIA is conducting an internal sting operation to look into serious abuses by senior officials. He's a little huffy, but he owes me one, and this one's juicy.”
“So the FBI will be joining us on this little escapade? Great, now I really feel good about this.”
“We work with what we have. Cavill, don’t you dare hump her leg. All right, we’ve got two hours before they move the hard drive with Moriarty’s program. Smart money says they’re going to have Doyle’s drones overhead, and if Vivian’s right they’ll have an escort vehicle on the ground. Everybody’s going to be armed to the teeth. Nobody wants a shootout, but they’re expecting Moriarty to make a move, so they'll be on edge. Any weirdness will be risky. This is the only thing I could figure that doesn't involve bloodshed.”
“Gwen, I get that you need this thing to bring your dad back. But you’re going to give it to freakin’ Frankenstein! Isn’t it better in Arthur’s hands?”
“Have you ever heard of Site Grey Fog? That's where Arthur said they were taking it."
"No, and I wasn’t supposed to see that: I’m good at reading things that are upside-down.”
“Must be all that time you spend on your back.”
“I’m flexible, but don’t hate on missionary. Name notwithstanding, it sounds like a black site. The place where things go when they need to disappear."
"Where they make people disappear, you mean, when they want to waterboard them. But not widdle puppy dogs wiv the jerky legs, no, not dem!"
"Vivian, do not say 'bad people' or so help me I will scream. And I know that all the black sites are supposed to be closed, direct order of the Director of National Intelligence, blah, blah, blah. Here's my point: Arthur is taking crime scene evidence somewhere for it to disappear, even though it in no way implicates him, Personae, or New Camelot, and is misusing Agency resources to do it, possibly to include operating a covert site on U.S. soil. That's actually several crimes, even if they're mostly minor ones. He's doing this because he wants to control what he doesn't understand. He and his Knights ran around in full combat gear in downtown DC yesterday! They were nervous about a run-in with the police, and they should have been; can you imagine? Maybe he believes he's serving the greater good, maybe he actually is, but he's breaking the rules to do it. What's he going to break if he becomes President? I’ll take my chances with Vic. He doesn't have any delusions of morality.”
“… Okay. I don’t like it, but I haven’t liked a lot of things in the last thirty-six hours. Besides, I know you’re going to do this with or without me, so at least this way I can say I told you so when it all goes to hell.”
“You’re a peach, Viv. Also, we need somebody to call the route and get the transmitter in place, so we kind of couldn’t do it without you. Robin, will your boys be ready?"
"Oh yeah. They're feeling really good about this. Stealing from the CIA is new for them."
"You both realize that we are talking about a plan that hinges entirely on a dog, right? A dog pooping on cue?"
“It’s not so much a ‘cue’ as it is a ‘radio signal’ when they come within range. Where’s the baggie with the alka-seltzer and the remote. Okay, thanks. Let’s see, the bottle promises a bowel movement within four hours, so if we double the dosage… Come on, buddy, front and center. Come on, take the pill... taaaake the pill... Ugh. Robin, did you bring that cheese like I asked?"
“You bet. Extra stinky.”
“That’s my girl.”

Chapter 15: Men That Strove with Gods
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.”
“Parker. Nice.”
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.
“Why not?”
“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. None of 'my people' did. And we aren't 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. Are you trying to say that the person in the video 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 really 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.”
“Your… 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.”
Wait. What?
“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…
Oh, no.
“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 about Madam Elegant's 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 into New Camelot. 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. There's no back exit and the alleys are all covered. Kid, walk on out of there.”
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. I told you I could lie to you. 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. For damn sure the Count of Monte Cristo wasn't telling me otherwise.
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?

Chapter 16: No One of Consequence
Playing chess with Moriarty is futile. He can see every move on the board and answer it before it is made. The problem is, chess is the only game he ever plays.
The Audi crunched to a stop on the gravel of my parents’ driveway. I sat for a moment, hands clenching the wheel. I took a deep breath, and puffed it out my cheeks.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Who asked you, Paul Atreides? It was getting crowded in my head, and not all the guests were being helpful.
He wasn’t wrong, though. I was afraid. If I clung to that, I was going to get killed.
Who was I kidding? I was definitely going to get killed. The deadliest mind in the world was riding inside the body of the greatest swordsman who ever lived. Yeah, maybe I could outwit a king who I'd planned to take down for my entire life, but this guy… I'd have a better chance in a piano duel against Mozart. And I didn't play piano.
My heart was beating triple time. I had to get moving, get prepared, but every part of me was screaming to drive away. I couldn’t even make myself unlock the car door.
As you wish.
Out of the car, up the path, key out, and in the door, all without thinking about it. I paused for a moment inside the threshold, seeing my mother rushing towards me and my father sagging against the wall, just as they had on the night—
A plan. You need a plan. This is nothing more than a battle of wits. To the death.
Oh, thank you, whoever you are. So helpful with the terror.
I took a deep breath, and moved into the living room. I started picking things up absently and putting them away while I thought. I was alone. The house was empty, and I hadn’t called Vivian or Robin or anyone: I couldn’t put them in danger like that. Cavill should be with the Fairy Men, or whatever they wanted to be called. There was no help coming. The only one coming was Moriarty.
I’d copied Gwen Drake’s address book while I had her phone. I had texted Lance: “Parents left town. Screw the hotel. Meet me at my place. Bring wine.”
Moriarty knew my parents were out of the picture, so this was practically an admission that I was planning an ambush. He'd know it was a trap, but he always thought everything could be a trap, so I lost nothing. He could count on this being just the two of us: if I didn’t know he was Moriarty, I wouldn’t need anyone else to subdue Lancelot. If I did think he was Moriarty, I wouldn't allow anyone else to risk themselves.
I was thinking through the mind of the enemy: I guess some of Holmes had rubbed off.
I hadn’t known why I added that last part to the text message, about the wine, but I had been running on instinct, and it seemed important. Wine, wine, wine… a battle of wits...
My eyes shot open - of course! I raced to my room. Arthur had said that our stories were corrupt. It was time to straighten one of them out. As written, it probably wouldn’t offer much help to someone like me. But tweak it a little…
Over my years as Sherlock Holmes, I’d amassed quite the collection of chemicals: forensics aids, samples of poisons, various reagents for this and that. I’d never bothered to organize it, though, because I’d always remembered just where everything was, so why bother? Frantically, I tore through drawers and my closet until I found a small bag. I tore off the label — What Would Sherlock Do? — and then thought better of it, found a clean baggie, and transferred the contents. Holmes would have noticed the adhesive on the old bag, and concluded that the label had been removed recently. Moriarty would, too.
Then came a crunch of gravel. My breath caught. I took a quick look in the mirror — oh, this dress wouldn’t work at all! Way too formal. I tore back into my closet as I heard the slam of a car door. No, no, no, no… why hadn’t I bothered getting sexy clothes while I was in high school? I sloughed out of the dress and grabbed some yoga pants and a tank top that my mother had bought me, one that was just a little too small. Mirror check: yep, didn’t leave much to the imagination. My bra was way too fancy for this outfit and the straps were showing, but assuming we were going to play around at Lancelot and Guinevere for a bit, that would actually work in my favor.
My feet didn't move at first, but just as before, I found myself in motion without wanting to. I was starting to recognize the feeling of unfamiliar fingertips flexing beneath my own, the movements of my own body coming as a surprise. It was less upsetting than I’d have expected if you described it to me: it was more like going to lunch with an old friend, and laughing as they finished your sentences. It was reassuring under circumstances that were far from assured. In short order, I stood in front of the door. I took a deep breath.
I felt a black mask descend over my eyes. It was as tangible as air, and as visible, but I could feel it there as if it were a physical thing. It was terribly comfortable.
I opened the door.
Ice blue eyes twinkled at me. “Don’t worry about dressing up on my account,” he laughed, and held up a bottle of something that cost less than a Happy Meal. “I brought your wine.”
He was wearing a dark suit with a white silk shirt and no tie. A white pocket square peeked out of his jacket, and diamond cufflinks glittered at his wrists. His head was freshly-shaved. He was dressed to kill.
“Something looks yummy,” I said, biting my lip. “As for me, I figured that what I wore on top probably didn’t matter so much.” I tossed my hair as I turned back into the house. “Let me get some glasses. This is a big occasion. Lancelot, Guinevere…”
He followed me, gliding soundlessly across the floor. He couldn’t help but move like a predator. The door swung shut behind him, falling into place with finality.
“I smell Arthur’s cologne,” he murmured. “Were you with him tonight?”
This was a trap. Having been so close to a flash bang, I smelled of more than cologne. There definitely hadn't been time to wash off the delicate patina of magnesium: if I didn’t explain it, then I was hiding something. “I took him shooting. It seemed like something he might enjoy, after his day. It was… well, it was weird. I don’t know. I don’t really want to talk about Arthur. Let's have some wine.”
In short order, I had a bottle opener and a pair of glasses. “I also got a little something special,” I giggled, showing him the bag like a very naughty little teenager.
He raised an eyebrow. “Oh? What have you got there?”
“Something with some kick to it. I want to play a game,” I whispered with a grin.
Moving behind the breakfast bar between our kitchen and the living room, I opened the bottle. While he watched, I poured the wine into the glasses. Then I caught his eye with mine. “No peeking!” I turned my body, obscuring his view of the glasses. A moment later, I deposited the empty bag on the table, and swirled the glasses at him with a flourish.
“One of us is going to have a very good time. And I’m betting the other one will, too. What do you say, mister knight?” I tipped my head to the glasses I held in either hand. “Which one’s it going to be?”
He frowned. “I’m not sure that—”
I set the glass in my left hand down on the counter in front of him. “Okay, I’ll pick! Unless you have second thoughts…?”
He gave me a long look. “You’re… very different. Hard to read. All right, I’ll play. Which wine should I choose? The wine in front of you, or the wine in front of me? But it’s so simple. All I have to do is divine from what I know of you: are you the sort of girl who puts the happy powder into her own goblet?”
Girl. This thirty-four year old man was planning to hook up with eighteen-year-old me and he called me a girl. Clearly he saw us as equals.
To hide my annoyance, I set my own glass down and put my index finger to pursed lips, widening my eyes as if I’d been caught doing something deliciously sinful.
He leaned over his glass, inspecting it. He sniffed gently. Then he did the same over mine, bringing his head very close to me.
“Mmm,” he murmured. “Intoxicating. But I smell nothing in the wine.”
He glided around the counter to stand very close to me, icy eyes glittering. “There’s a slight powdery residue on both glasses, but that could have come from a tap onto an empty bag for just that purpose. You’re enjoying this too much not to be clever about it.” I wiggled my eyebrows in agreement, though enjoyment wasn’t quite the word I would use for what I was feeling right now.
“Guinevere has her Lancelot,” he mused, “and wants to play a little game before they fall into one another’s arms…” His voice sounded as if he were telling himself a story, and perhaps he was. Why would Guinevere want to toy with Lancelot? I hadn’t really thought it through. Though the question really was, “Why would Sherlock Holmes, pretending to be Guinevere, want to play a little game with Lancelot? And why has she brought him here alone in the first place?”
Moriarty was pondering the question aloud, and it wasn’t because he needed to talk it out to get things straight in his mind. He wanted to see my reaction. His eyes searched my face, reading every minute tic and crease and translating them into plain English. I knew he could do it from our previous encounter: even his machine-produced copies had that trick. If Lancelot had been one of those when we met, he was the real deal now. He’d inherited that mantle when Kay died, and that would mean that I couldn’t hide my thoughts from him.
I arched my neck, and felt the knot of the invisible mask at the back of my skull.
“I don’t know what you’re thinking,” he mused. “How unusual. But let’s throw in an added twist to your game, shall we? Make it a little more fun?” I kept the smile on my face, but my back was taut as a bowstring. “You turn around, and I’ll decide which glass to take. Maybe I get it right, or maybe I get it wrong, but either way we’ll find out soon, eh?”
“Sure,” I gulped. “Sounds great.”
Not good. Any trick I could pull, Moriarty could do ten times over. I’d meant to poison him: hardly sporting, but I was not about to take chances. Now, I might be on the receiving end of that same fate.
I turned away, and I heard him moving. Glasses slid, were picked up, set down. My heart beat faster. I could try to pull one last swap, bite my lips and, I don’t know, giggle and tell him he wasn’t playing fair and it was ladies’ choice-
I felt warm hands slide on my shoulders, down my arms. Lips on my neck. He started kissing me behind my ear, gently working his way down to my shoulder. His body slid in close to mine, pressing into me. I couldn’t help myself: I let out a little sigh, half from surprise and half because it felt… it felt amazing.
“About the wine: I’m afraid I only ever play one game,” he whispered, and then bit my ear. It was gentle yet insistent, and as he tugged ever so slightly I could feel myself melting into a puddle.
Moriarty! This was Moriarty! He killed your parents! He’s going to kill you!
The warning didn’t come from anybody literary inside me, just plain old Gwen who was terrified out of her mind. My body seemed to be acting wholly on its own plan, and I felt loose and tight and hot and cold all at once. I slid in his grip, turning into him, arching my head back, and he was kissing me… and I was kissing back.
What the hell was this? I was confused, yes, but I was hot. Burning. I shouldn't...
He pushed me against the counter, tongue probing my mouth as I responded in kind. I was tugging his shirt loose, fumbling with buttons, running my hands over his chest. His arms slid up and down my sides, fingers running around the top of my pants just on the inside, leaving a trail of goose bumps behind them. He slid his hands under my shirt, caressing the small of my back, and suddenly I bit him on the bottom lip, pulling just as he had on my ear. He gasped, pulled back, and with a predatory grin, crushed his mouth back against my own.
My mind was a whirl. This was crazy, dangerous, stupid, stupid, stupid. Not sixty seconds ago I was trying to poison him. Now we were headed towards the couch, my legs wrapped around his waist as he carried me aloft. I was on fire inside, desperate to fall into him; for him to fall into me.
We landed in a tangle on the couch, and his lips left a trail of fire down my neck, over my shoulder, onto my breasts. My shirt was off; I didn’t even remember that happening. His fingers were in my hair, pulling my head back as he licked and kissed all across my body.
“No,” I whispered, barely audible even to myself. His lips continued to play on my collarbone.
Then, stronger, “No, stop. Stop it.” He may have paused, but I still felt his kisses on my neck.
I don’t know where it came from, because every nerve was still tingling. My body still wanted to wrap every part of me around him, swallow him up inside me.
But I was not my body. This was wrong. And I could stop it.
I pushed against him. “Stop. It. Now.”
“Ahh,” he sighed lazily, settling his weight onto me and locking his fingers tight in my hair, “I wondered how far you would let this go, my dear.”
I struggled under him, but the fire had gone out of his body, replaced by a thousand pounds of ice. Suddenly his weight was crushing. Every move I made, he answered without even thinking about it. My left arm was pinned against the couch; he grabbed my right wrist and locked it down. I couldn’t move.
“Moriarty,” I spat.
“It’s so lovely to hear you call that name, Holmes,” he replied evenly. “All our many lives, and yet we’ve never had such an opportunity as this. Myself, the man; you, the woman… I think you were enjoying it as much as I.”
He was right in all but the name. I had been enjoying it. Loving it. It made no sense; it was pure animal instinct. Something about the predator and the prey, perhaps. In the last gasp before the wolf’s jaws close, does the doe feel her life is complete?
“This isn’t how we play the game,” I answered. “This is wrong.”
“I have given a great deal of thought to the game we play. The duel that never ends, detective and mastermind, a battle of wits to the death. To my death, every time.” He shook his head. “It hardly seems fair, to be fated to die by your hand, every time I draw breath. And to remember it, in every life!"
"Did you know that none of the rest of them do? It's what makes us different, you and I, our perfect memories. It's why we're better than them, why we can beat them: heroes, demigods, all of them. We don't have to make the same mistakes again and again. I don't have to make the same mistakes. We remember our past lives, and I think that even for you it isn’t so sharp or clear as it is for me. Your past lives are like a dream, but mine are like a yesterday. I remember everything. Every last heartbeat. Every final heartbeat.”
He shook his head, ice blue eyes locked on mine. “It’s time to change the game.”
I got an awful premonition: he wasn’t getting off of me. I fought to keep my cool. “What do you propose? Giving up a life of crime and going into something even more despicable? Banking? Politics?”
“I’m going to rape you.”
He let the words shiver their way down my spine. I could see in his eyes that he expected me to struggle, to fight him - and I planned on it. But that wasn’t what Sherlock would do.
“Why?” I asked.
He smiled. “Oh, my dear detective, I love you so. Truly I do. You are the only one in the world who ever tried to understand me. I tell you that I’m going to violate you in the most intimate way imaginable, and you demand an explanation first.”
He leaned his face close in to mine, so that his lips nearly brushed my cheek as he spoke. I did squirm at this point, but his grip was like steel: there was nothing I could do without tearing half my scalp off.
“We live by different rules than the bit players, my dear. They obey the laws of physics. We obey the laws of literary causality. Two people look up and meet each other’s eyes on a train: for them, there is no connection other than a brief moment that feels like recognition. For us, we meet a long-lost friend, or lover, or the brother we never knew. For them, they go to church and imagine that they talk to God. For us, He answers. For them, they have sex and sometimes something comes of it, but mostly not. For us, if it is inconvenient for the woman to bear a child, that outcome is guaranteed.”
I gritted my teeth. “You… want me to have your baby?”
“Think of it!” his eyes glittered. “The whelp of Holmes and Moriarty. What could such a creature accomplish? He could rule the world, or burn it to the ground. Who could stop him?” The ice blue eyes were wild. “Who could stop them? You have many child-bearing years left, my dear. And I have many potential hosts for my mind, once this body begins to weaken.”
“I’ll fight you.”
He barked out a laugh. “To the death? You wish.”
“No! To the pain.”
He cocked his head, bemused. “I… I don’t think I’m quite familiar with that one.”
My lip curled. “To the pain means that if you try to stick something in me the first thing you lose will be your feet below the ankles. Then your hands at the wrists. Next your nose.”
“And my tongue, too, I suppose. You don’t seem to be in a position for threats, my dear.”
“I wasn’t finished! The next thing you lose will be your left ear, followed by your right.”
“Oh, I do long to hear what you’re going to do to my cock. Bite it off?”
“Wrong,” I snarled. “Your cock you keep and I’ll tell you why. So that every time you see a pretty girl, you remember. Every steamy sex scene that comes on TV makes you hard as a rock, but you and your stumps can’t do a thing about it. You try to rape me and I leave you in anguish, wallowing in freakish misery, forever.”
“Poetic. But you aren’t dealing with Arthur anymore. I have my way with everyone.” His grin was feral. “I think you’re bluffing.”
“It’s possible, pig, that I might be bluffing. It’s conceivable, you miserable, vomitous mass, that I’m only lying here because I can’t make you get off of me. But then again… I can lie here all night. I’m not going to rape myself. It’s your move, you warthog-faced buffoon.”
I watched the realization spread across his features: he was going to have to let me go with one hand in order to do anything else here. The way I was pressed up against the couch, I couldn't move, but neither could he get more fully on top of me in order to pin my arms. His pants were on, my pants were on... there were certain prerequisites to a good rape that hadn't yet been checked off. He’d gotten this far, likely even planned his next move. But he couldn’t read me. Now he was uncertain.
Now he was afraid. Ever so slightly, perhaps. But the first flicker of doubt was tickling his mind.
Something was working inside me. It wasn't like it had been with Holmes, seeing the whole fight play out ahead of time. It was an instinct… a ferocity. I didn't know what was going to happen… and neither did he.
My head jerked free as he made his choice and let go of my hair. Before either of us knew what I was doing, I slammed it into his face. He'd been halfway expecting it, but I was faster than he'd calculated: he jerked and then reeled backwards, and I tore my left arm free as his weight shifted. He rebounded in an instant, driving a vicious blow at my temple, but I was already gone: I threw my whole body into him and down, on top of the arm that held my other hand. His grip broke, and we tumbled from the couch to the floor, rolling apart.
I knew where I would head next, and I was certain that his senses were as good as Holmes', which meant that he knew it too. In a flash, we were at the fireplace mantle, with its janbiya bookends on either side. The scabbards of ceremonial daggers had been mounted so they could support the assorted travelogues and memoirs that my parents kept on the shelf, but the blades were the genuine article. I tore mine free, its ivory handle smooth under my hand. I shifted the blade from left to right to left hand again, holding the curved dagger as a Yemeni noble would have, blade high and curved toward my opponent. I could thrust and hack, bringing more power to bear. Moriarty held his like a knife fighter, in a reverse left-handed grip with his thumb toward the pommel. He would be lightning fast and have supreme control.
I saw a trickle of blood running down his nose and over his lip. He tasted it with his tongue, and smiled at me. "First blood's to you, then. Lay on, Holmes, and damned be she who cries, 'Hold, enough!'"
"My name is Gwendolyn DeGrace." I spat at his feet. "Holmes can sit this one out."
He began to circle toward me. I knew how his mind was working: plotting all the angles, mapping out every surface, aware of each texture and how it would impact his traction. He could see every path to me and pick the one that presented the greatest advantage.
Let him come, said the voice inside me. He can't see what comes next.
He obliged with a lunge forward and a quick slash aimed for my midsection. I parried up, deflecting the blow, and he twisted in a downward hack at my shoulder. Again, an easy parry, as was dodging the right-handed strike he threw with his hand at my temple. I returned the favor: a thrust, high slash, and low slash combination that he blocked and evaded.
We separated and circled. My knife danced in front of me in a defensive pattern, cutting off possible futures as quickly as he could come up with them.
“Bonetti's Defense? Did you learn that in a book? If Austen Bagger could kill old Bonetti while drunk, I hardly think his defensive techniques are going to help you." He spun inside my guard like a snake and sent a vicious upward slash toward my throat. I threw myself back and out of the way, letting my feet fly off of the floor in a standing backward somersault. Apparently I could do a standing backward somersault!
Moriarty looked suitably impressed, and didn't press the attack as I landed on top of the coffee table, guard instantly in place again. "Bonetti seemed appropriate, given all the furniture around. He was light on his feet."
"Where'd you learn that, Holmes? I'm going to have to try it!" His eyes sparkled with excitement. "I don't know how you're doing this, but I'm going to make you tell me... while I'm inside you. Oh-ho, no hurry, my dear!"
I stabbed at him, but he hopped lightly to the left and drove forward onto the table with a rush of his own. I stepped backward and parried his blows, but my right heel hung out in space on the edge of the table.
Seeing my predicament, his grin widened. “Ever heard of Capo Ferro?”
He surged forward, but as he did, I threw myself to the right. The force of my movement spun the coffee table beneath Moriarty, and he toppled to the floor as I landed with a bounce on the couch.
"I find that Thibault cancels out Capo Ferro, don't you?" I grinned down at him. With a snarl, he rolled to his feet and charged at me, hurling himself through the air like a spear. It caught me off-guard, and I flung myself desperately backward, barely parrying his strike in time. We both fell over the edge of the couch, and he landed better than I did. Poor old Thibault would have been ashamed.
"I've studied Agrippa," he said, rising to his feet and slashing down at me as I did likewise. I brought my janbiya up and blocked with both hands, and we locked together for a moment. I saw a trickle of sweat run down his brow, and with a primal howl I surged up, throwing his blade to one side and spinning back away from him.
"Agrippa's not all that," I smirked. "What else have you got?"
He showed me: a feint, which I fell for, and a gouge for my eyes that came so close that I'd need some serious eyeliner if I wanted long, luscious lashes. I thrust forward but he spun outside of the blow. I turned it into a backhanded slash that caught the fabric of his shirt, tearing it open.
He backed away a step. "You really are magnificent. If this goes on much longer, you might actually stick me with that thing. You’re better than I am.”
"Then why are you smiling?"
"Because I know something that you don't know," he snarled. I slashed forward again, and he dropped low into a crouch, letting go of his weapon. It seemed to hang there in the air, barely drifting downward as he sprang back up to meet it with his right hand.
"I'm not left-handed." He surged forward with a furious blitz that sent me reeling. We dueled madly, blocking and parrying with every breath. The blows started to rattle me, and my guard began to falter.
I gasped for breath. "Do you really... not know what's going on here?" I asked between exchanges.
He smirked. "The inevitable. I get to win, Holmes. I'm finally going to beat you." He hooked his blade down on top of mine and shouldered into me, slamming both of us into the wall. His weight bore down on me, but I couldn't help it: I burst out laughing.
"What's so funny?" His eyes narrowed as he fought through our clinch.
“There’s something I ought to tell you.” I smashed my elbow up into his chin, and he staggered away. Deliberately, I switched my grip to my right hand as he watched.
"I'm not left-handed either."
He lunged, and I sidestepped, scoring a ragged line down his left arm. He hissed in pain.
Realization dawned. "You're not Holmes anymore." He feinted, then spun in.
I met him in a clinch, and we locked blades. “Not since last night. You must have suspected that could happen."
He tried to use his height and weight against me, but I kept my feet moving, keeping him too off-balance to bring those weapons to bear. “Who are you?"
"No one of consequence." Having led him around for a moment, I shifted suddenly in the opposite direction. He wasn’t ready for it, and stiffened. I shoved hard, and while he rocked backward, I lashed a path of crimson down his right arm.
He staggered back. "I must know."
I remained rigid. "Get used to disappointment."
He shrugged, and lunged forward again. "There's still only one way this ends, Ms. Of-Consequence." I fought him off as he mused, "Though I suppose raping you will be less rewarding if Holmes really isn't in there. Ah, well. I'll satisfy my disappointment in other ways."
Suddenly, he was all over me: it was as if his strength had redoubled. He was a blur. In a flash, I caught a slice in the left shoulder, and then another in my right. I cried out and backpedaled frantically. He feinted and kicked, and I was suddenly on my back, with him standing over me, blade at the ready.
There was... more blood than I had expected. My sides were heaving. Right-handed or no, I was now injured in both arms and I was flagging. He could see it.
I was also afraid. Moriarty was terrifying enough, but he was also Lancelot, the unbeatable knight. Only one person had ever bested him, someone pure of heart. That sure wasn’t me. By rights, I was doomed from the start.
But I was more than afraid: I was angry. And I was not done yet.
Westley had passed on the title of Dread Pirate to a Spaniard.
"Hello," the words hissed out of me, “my name is Gwendolyn DeGrace. You killed my father. Prepare to die."
"Are you still trying to win?" he laughed. "I'm going to hamstring you and leave you in chains for the rest of your miserable life. And then I'll find the new Holmes and do the same thing. Every heartbeat, you miserable bitch!"
The fact that I wasn't Holmes didn't matter anymore. He was out for more than blood. He was out for revenge for every single time Holmes had ended his madness. He was taking this to the pain.
He cut brutally down, but I was faster. My janbiya clanged against his as I swept it in an arc, slashing the blade out and away from my leg. I continued the movement in a spin to my feet, a wide slice sending him ducking back to avoid the blow.
"Hello," I panted. "My name is Gwendolyn DeGrace. You killed my father. Prepare to die."
His answer was an animal cry and an underhanded strike that I cast away with ease. I was feeling stronger by the second. He saw it too. He couldn't read me, but I could read him. He was thinking that I shouldn't be able to do what I was doing. I shouldn't be able to do this, not to him.
He was thinking that he was going to lose. I saw desperation in his eyes.
"Hello! My name is Gwendolyn DeGrace. You killed my father. Prepare to die!"
"Stop saying that!" he cried, grabbing his weapon in two hands over his head and driving it down toward my heart. I rocked back, avoiding the strike, and then forward, lashing low across the knuckles of his right hand. The janbiya dropped from his fingers and clattered to the floor.
He froze, holding his hands up in surrender. I thought of my parents, and delivered a quick slice that split his left cheek open, leaving my blade outstretched in the air between us.
"You can't kill me," he said, "not for real. You know where I'll wind up next if you use that thing? Inside your mother. Can you imagine what I'll do to her?"
I snarled, and cut him across the right cheek.
"Who are you?" he hissed. "What do you want?"
I started the cut high, and he leaned back to protect his neck, but it was only a feint: I spun the blade in my fingers and drove it under his exposed sternum and through his heart.
“I want my father back, you son of a bitch.”
He clawed at the hilt sticking out of his belly, dropping to his knees. Then his face. Then he lay still.
I looked down on his body. "Holmes said the only game you played was chess. You should have known that the most powerful piece on the board is the queen. You should have changed the game sooner."
I sagged as the adrenaline left me, and felt the Dread Pirate Roberts go with it. I was woozy, half naked, and covered in blood, much of it my own. I sagged back against the wall.
That was when the windows exploded in. All of a sudden, they were everywhere: a half-dozen men in inky black tactical gear, shotguns and semiautomatic rifles covering every direction at once.
“I got one!” one of them shouted, training his rifle on me. I didn’t move.
“Clear!” came the answering shout, followed by four others. The men spread out through the room, checking everything.
“Man down!” one cried, seeing the corpse. “Jesus… it’s Lancelot.”
I heard the front door click open. Arthur stood there, silhouetted by night, wearing the same suit he’d had on for our date. Unhurriedly, he eased the door closed behind him.
He looked at me, but there was no warmth behind his eyes. He might as well have been walking into a bombed-out building in Yemen, or watching a video feed from above; he wasn't looking at me like the man who'd driven me home last night, or even as the man I'd punched in the jaw. He was looking at me like the Director of the Counterterrorism Center, and I was the terrorist. He was looking at me like King Arthur, and I was an enemy knight.
He didn't say anything as he came over. I was now flanked by two knights covering me with assault rifles. My back was to the wall, and I was standing, but exertion was out of the question. My arms felt like someone had exchanged my blood for Icy Hot. I had nothing left, not even a witty retort for aspersions as yet unsaid.
He rolled Moriarty over with a toe, careful to avoid the pooling blood. He looked down at Lancelot’s handsome face for a long time. Then he met my eye.
"It turns out that your friend Vivian is really my friend Vivian. As for you..."
He turned away, and whispered, “Take her.”
A second later, a black hood dropped down over my head. I heard an electric sizzle, and felt a jolt of pain as my whole body seized up at once. I toppled to the floor. Then: a pinprick in my neck.
Then, nothing.

Chapter 17: Tumbling After
Should any member of the company be captured, they should expect harsh treatment. No one is more vengeful than a righteous man.
I awakened to darkness and cold.
I was shaking. My arms ached at the shoulders, and gooseflesh covered my body. Nothing else was, except the sack that was still in place over my head. My hands were bound behind my back, and as I flexed my legs experimentally, I could feel my ankles shackled to the floor.
I was naked, tied up, and freezing. I curled myself up into a ball as best I could, but whatever bound my wrists cut cruelly into them as I hunched over. My jaw started to chatter, and I felt weirdly disconnected from my body as my heart pumped double time to try to warm me.
Your friend Vivian…
The next thing I became aware of was the noise. It was a mix of a bandsaw and a baby’s howling, but underneath it all I could hear a woman’s voice. She started off begging for someone to stop, stop, please, stop. Then came the screaming, mixing the unmistakable tones of pain in with a baby’s fear. Then, sobbing. Something… something about the way she begged, the wet, throaty pleas and the punctuated grunting that went along with it, you could just tell that she was being raped. Raped and beaten.
Then it began again. The way that it looped, I knew it was a recording.
But the pit in my stomach didn’t. I squeezed my thighs together, and realized that the way my legs were shackled, it wouldn’t matter if I did. I was exposed. Vulnerable. They could have whatever they wanted from me.
Slowly, I also became aware of the smell of vomit. It grew in strength, as if it were being dumped by the gallon in here with me. I fought hard to avoid adding my own. Just as I was starting to get used to it, there came a new odor: feces. Soon followed the gut-wrenching putrescence of rotting meat. I forced myself to control my breathing, counting out my exhales and inhales. The bag was tied firmly at my neck: not cutting off circulation, but if I threw up it would just be in my face until my captors removed it. really my friend Vivian.
My stomach turned at the thought of her, rebelled, threatened to fill the sack tied around my face. I couldn’t think about her now. I couldn’t think about anything except the breaths coming in and out of my body…
Time passed. I focused on breathing, not listening to the recorded woman be raped and beaten and raped and beaten and raped and raped and raped… After a while, ignoring her actually became possible: I was so cold, and my wrists hurt so badly, that other people’s pain just couldn’t quite penetrate the skein of existential suffering.
Breathe. Breathe. The sensations were completely overwhelming: I couldn’t think, couldn’t plan, couldn’t even be afraid at more than a level of basic anxiety that this might go on forever.
Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.
At some point, I started convulsing, as the frigid temperatures overwhelmed my body’s ability to cope. Dimly, I was aware of my wrists growing slick with blood from the straps at my wrist, but I couldn’t do anything, couldn’t help it: my back spasmed and my legs kicked and I tried to make myself into a ball again but I couldn’t, I just couldn’t, my body wasn’t working, nothing was working, I couldn’t breathe-
Suddenly, I was covered in napalm. I screamed as what felt like scalding hot liquid sprayed all over my body. My skin, frozen just a moment ago, was now on fire. My insides still felt like ice, though, and it took some time for the convulsions to stop. I kept screaming.
But it didn’t end. It wasn’t napalm. It was just hot water. So cold, and now doused in something the temperature of hot tea. It felt like I was dying, but I wasn’t.
They weren’t ready for that. Not yet.
My trials weren’t over with the end of the cold. The temperature now pulled a reversal. The water was hot, if not truly scalding, and I could feel a warm breeze on my skin as some semblance of self-control returned. By the time I could get myself sitting again, it must have been over a hundred degrees, and with the water that continued to spray, the humidity made breathing difficult. Combined with the now-wet hood over my head, it was practically impossible.
I gasped, sucking in air as hard as I could. Soon, my abdomen ached. It was unbearable just to draw breath, but what choice was there? I kept fighting.
When the cold air started to blow, numbing my skin within minutes, I cried. Soon, freezing once again, I couldn’t tell if it was the recorded woman’s voice, or my own.
“Stop it. Stop it. Please, please, stop it…”
I don’t know how long I begged and screamed, but my throat went ragged and the breath went out of me and I felt like I was choking on the tatters of my own throat.
But it did not stop. At some point, after more convulsions, after what felt like hours of this torture, I passed out.
We are here, the voice said in my dreams. You just have to draw us out.
I awakened to light, bright, stabbing light from a dozen spotlights shined on my eyes. I could hardly see better than when there had been a bag on my head, but at least it was gone. I could breathe, and though I was cold, I wasn’t freezing to death. I was still naked, and I couldn’t move a muscle except my neck: my arms and legs were strapped firmly to a table. My legs were raised slightly above my head.
Shackled. Spread. Wide enough.
Squinting my eyes, I raised my head to look around. It was almost impossible to see anything, but I appeared to be alone. The table was surgical steel, cold on my back and legs. I could make out another table a short ways away, with scalpels, a bone saw, and a dozen other instruments both sharp and invasive. My breath caught. Also on the table was my hood - it could be any hood, really, but I was certain that it was mine.
Strange, came the thought, that you should think of it as yours. Is it not theirs? An instrument of torture? Perhaps you are going mad.
Under the table were gallon jugs of water.
I started taking stock of things. First, my body: everything still attached, just strained and tested. I could see that my shoulders had been bandaged where Moriarty had stabbed me, and I bet that there were stitches under those bandages. They’d patched me up before putting me in that room. That meant something, but I was having trouble thinking. I was exhausted and hungry; my brain felt like it was soaking in oatmeal.
Next, the setup. I was naked, and that wasn’t great, and my legs were being held wide apart, but I was at a weird incline: if anybody were going to rape me, they’d be halfway falling off while they tried it. I didn’t exactly have experience in this area, but the setup here wasn't right for your basic penis-vagina interaction. They could use the tools, I supposed, but again, the angle of the table made it wrong for surgical operations. The tools and my spread legs were more for show: my instinct was to cover up, pull my legs together, and I couldn’t, which put all sorts of nastiness to mind… but if I were going to be raped or sawed in half, it probably wouldn’t be here or now. That was good news, at least. I wasn’t supposed to see what was going on elsewhere in the room, hence the lights dazzling my eyes and the dim at the periphery, but seeing the table with all the surgical stuff… that was okay.
I took it out a level. It was hard to think, but thinking was distracting me from losing my mind from fear, so I kept hard at it. They’d tortured me, but hadn’t tortured me. My body was intact, and they’d even done some basic first aid. They hadn’t raped me, or cut off any fingers, or even hit me. None of that was a guarantee that this treatment would continue, but it was also a good sign. If they really meant to do any of that stuff, why bother softening me up first? Just go straight for the toenails.
There were those jugs of water. Those worried me.
I had plenty of time to worry, it turned out. The minutes stretched to hours, and as my bladder filled, I realized why.
Sons of bitches! They were waiting for me to soil myself before they moved on to whatever was next. It was a classic technique when you wanted to mentally subjugate someone: breaking down taboos, especially related to basic body functions.
Too exhausted to be angry, I started to cry again. I was starving, and my bladder was exploding. I was scared and helpless and alone.
Not alone.
Something about this voice in my head stilled my tears, though the fact that I couldn't wipe my eyes or nose didn't really help my assessment of the situation.
You're not alone, mate. We can help you.
A different voice, but also strong, confident. So different from how I felt right now. I drew a ragged breath.
They're trying to break your mind, not your body. They're bloody Americans; they think they're the good guys. They won't use the bone saw, no matter what they say. They're just trying to break your spirit.
Well, they weren't far off. Despite the voices in my head to the contrary, I didn't have much left. And they hadn't even asked me any questions.
They are trying to break your spirit, the voice reiterated, but you are filled with more spirits than they can fathom.
I felt a pressure building inside my mind. There was someone in there, trying to get out.
Suddenly, it terrified me. I'd been relying on these souls I had carried since the mass murder at the Diogenes Club, and they'd been true to me so far, but I was lost, so lost, and I could feel them wanting, wanting, wanting my body... Everyone wanted something from me, and so many of them were already buried deep within. I had lost everything: my parents, my freedom, my dignity... they wanted the rest of me. They wanted my flesh. They wanted to take me over, and I didn't care why. I had to cling to something, anything! There had to be some place that was mine.
The voices were quiet, after that. They left me alone. All alone.
It was too much. When the men came in, minutes later, I was a sobbing, heaving mess, limp on the table but for my futile struggles, and I had added the reek of my own piss to the indignities that had been showered upon me. It had run down the inverted table and through my hair.
I barely registered them, but they soon had rough hands holding my head up, slipping the hood over my head. I blubbered something, probably begging, but on it went. I felt them cinch it around my neck, an insistent squeeze, just as before, and I stopped even that much fighting. If I could have, I would have rocked back and forth, but a strap went across my forehead and I was completely immobile. Naked. Helpless.
"Who are you?" came the growl.
"G... Gwen-" I started, but the voice cut me off.
"Your real name."
As complicated a question as that was, there was only one possible answer they could be looking for. "Sherlock Holmes," I admitted.
Suddenly, I was drowning. Water poured down over my face, up my nose, in my mouth. I couldn't breathe. I fought against my restraints, to no avail. Reflexively, I sucked air, but there was none that could make it through the water that was everywhere. I couldn’t feel my body. Only my lungs mattered, but they were collapsing: I couldn’t even force them to expand, because there was nothing to put into them. I tried to scream, but I wasn’t even able to do that. I couldn’t move, couldn’t beg, couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe couldn’t breathe couldn’t breathe couldn’t breathe…
As suddenly as it started, it was over. Someone pulled the hood up over my nose and mouth, and I gulped and sucked at the air in desperation. It hurt, just breathing, just flexing my diaphragm. But it was air, so like everything else, I had no choice. For long moments, I couldn’t understand: I had been drowning just a moment ago. Now I wasn’t.
“Don’t fuck with us,” said the voice from before. “We know Holmes. He’s on our side. Who are you?”
“No!” I gasped. “No, Doyle’s not really Holmes! He’s Merlin! He’s Merlin! Please, you’ve got to believe me. Arthur didn’t want a Merlin-”
The hood went back over my face. I tried to scream but it was already wet and then there was water and then the drowning started again. It went on for longer than before; I don’t know how long. Time was gone. I was gone. Couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t breathe couldn’t breathe couldn’t breathe… There was only the certainty of death.
When the hood was pulled back this time, the questions began again immediately. I gagged and panted while someone shouted, “That was twenty seconds. Tell us the truth, bitch! No more bullshit or you’re going under for a minute. I’ve got all the water I need, you goddamn cunt.”
There was a pause. I heard a faint whisper. “Jesus, Galahad, she’s just a girl.”
“Bedivere, would it be easier if she were a hairy terrorist? It is what it is. She assassinated Gavin. Did you see what she did to Lancelot? That could have been you, or me... or Arthur. Vivian only caught the one other chick. We've got to know what she knows. There could be another attack. Arthur said to do whatever was necessary to safeguard Camelot.”
On some level, it mattered, but I wasn’t thinking about leverage, or how to exploit weaknesses, or even how to escape these men. I just wanted to escape the water. I had to escape the water. I couldn’t go under again. Twenty seconds may as well have been twenty hours. A minute would kill me, I was sure of it.
In my state, though, I couldn’t even think about coming up with a lie, even to appease them. I was too far gone. All I could do was cling to the truth, even though it would kill me.
“I’m not lying!” I pleaded. “The old Merlin, he made Arthur kill his son, and so Arthur exiled him and didn’t want you to know about the new Merlin, so he made him pretend to be Sherlock-”
“Do it,” came the first voice, Galahad. There was a moment when nothing happened. “Do it!” he shouted, and the hood was replaced in a rush.
Water. Water. Water. Everything was water. There was no air. Air was a memory. Air was gone. There was only watery death.
We can save you, the voice promised. Draw us out.
Who are you?
We're Jack.
Jack who?
All of 'em, mate. Savvy?
I drew.
Oh, look. Four of a kind.
It was so simple. It was like breathing.
Suddenly, it became a new game entirely.
Not that I like the looks of the way things stand out there, mind. Oi, one of you others! You go first.
I’d really rather-
Did that sound like a request?
Someone drowned. I don’t know who it was. All I knew was that someone was panicked, desperate, fighting, fading, dying… and then was gone.
Still going, eh? And people call me a pirate. Alright, mate, looks like you’ll be walking the plank out there. Ta!
Another mind slid into my fading flesh… not really of its own accord. This one made it longer than the last, but in the end, the water broke everyone.
Eventually, it was over. Jack perked up.
I was… outside. I was standing outside my body. Looking down, I could see my hands, my arms, legs, but they were spectral, ghostly. I was wearing the coat that Puck had given me, the Holmes jacket. I looked up, and saw my naked body on the table, with two black-clad men carrying pistols bending over it.
I started in surprise. We weren’t alone. Not at all. The room was full, packed with people. A sandy-haired boy in torn trousers. An old king, clad in Mediterranean garb, eyes sharp as diamond. A man in suspenders and a brown coat. A man in black, with a mask. A woman, beautiful, with a tongue like a snake. Others… dozens of others. Men. Women. Children.
Two were soaking wet, lying on the floor, being attended by a doctor with a painted face and bloody hands. He looked up at me and smiled wrong, and his teeth were scalpel blades. A pirate winked at me, his face painted the same way as the doctor, white with a diamond over his eye. He slipped his hand into the hand of my body lying on the table. Nearby stood a farm boy holding a small sack and wearing the same painted face. He patted the shoulder of a man who was little more than a shadow, his face a diamond-painted harlequin mask, his figure flickering and misshapen and the kind of ancient where they don’t have names for it, just titles.
The shadow nodded slowly to me, and inclined his head toward where my body lay.
A tall man stood there, stroking my hair. He wore a dark coat identical to my own. His back was rigid with anger, but his hands on my forehead were delicate, gentle. He was turned away from me, so I couldn’t see his face, but as he bent over my body, I felt him brush his lips across the forehead of the girl on the table, my forehead. Simultaneously in my body and standing outside it, I felt his hot tears drop on my face, mingling with the water that had soaked me. Suddenly, his neck stiffened, and he started to turn toward me-
I was lying on the table, alone with two men, but not alone. Jack let my head go limp as Bedivere removed the forehead strap and pulled the hood fully off of me. My lips moved and air puffed past them.
“She’s trying to say something,” Bedivere announced.
“Of course she is,” Galahad agreed. “She’s not a total idiot.”
Idiot, fool, clown, jester, knave...
“Jack, Jack, Jack,” my body whispered, voice almost nothing.
“What was that?” Bedivere looked at Galahad, who shrugged, and bent over me.
“Jack, Jack, Jack,” I whispered, drawing him closer. He leaned in, putting his ear just inches from my mouth, where I bit it off.
He shrieked and sprang back, spraying blood onto Bedivere’s face. As he pulled away, Jack bent my arm in a way that Gwen couldn’t. But Jack, Jack the Scarecrow, Happy Jack, he was bend-y. “Crooked as a corkscrew,” they had called him, but now he had something that had been hanging from shiny Galahad’s belt, something that went pop pop pop in my hand and made more of a mess of Mister Sad Galahad-been.
“This is an ex-Pierrot!” Jack cried, and then I laughed and laughed and the thing in my hand popped more and there were sparks and then the lights went very out.
Not all of Jack is so funny. Some of Jack can slip out of bonds even when it means dislocating bones and then having to find them again. Sometimes Jack finds other people’s bones instead, because a ribcage can make a fine frame for a top hat, and he does love a good top hat. So when Bedivere’s gun flashed over and over in the dark at where Jack had just been, old Jacky boy wasn’t there anymore. He’d gone wandering, silent as the ghost of a noisy cat. He’d found something surgical.
It is smooth under my fingers, and warm to the touch. Most find the scalpel to be cold and uninviting, a tool at best, but I know so much better. It is an instrument, a glorious instrument. With it, you can weave symphonies of flesh, touch people where they are real, where they are them, on the inside. You can know them, so much better than a lover.
“Catch me if you Can,” I whisper to the man who cannot see. I can see. I can see the clothes, the skin, but I must see the inside, the truth. I have come from Hell, because whoever is a monster himself, fights monsters. Because there is no one else to fight.
I must find out if he is a monster inside.
It takes some time. You have to inspect things carefully, and even with eyes like Jack’s, you have to look closely in order to be sure. A little taste of the liver, then setting it carefully next to the earlobes - connected, but you can never be certain just based off of that.
He squeals a bit, but I’m not in a rush, not Saucy Jacky. No, I get to know this one very well.
“Ah,” I exclaim, as the last flicker of breath leaves and I see him in Truth for the first time. Not a monster then. Just a man.
Stands to reason. No self-respecting monster does that to a helpless girl.
I wash up, and then find the door. The air smells of the salty seas of piracy.
“Bloody hell,” I whispered. “And people’ve had the nerve to call me weird. Now, where’s my hat?”
I felt… sullied… and unusual. But hey, my hat was there! It was sitting forgotten on a hat rack in one corner of the next room - which aside from the hattiness was some sort of pump room - and that definitely told me that we were not in realms otherwise trod by mortal man, because who had a hat rack anymore? I shouldered my way into the black captain’s jacket and breeches sitting on the table, and wished for a good cutlass. The scalpel smelled like the wrong side of feet: the inside. Egad, I was still holding a scalpel that had just been used for-
With a fluttering motion of my hand I dropped it and hopped to one side. I narrowed my eyes at it as it tinkled off into the darkness of the room where I’d just been, and I flung my hands up after it in the hopes that some nasty juju and any blood that was still on them followed suit.
Sullied. Unusual.
The door burst open, and through it tumbled a strange pair. There was an elfin little man wearing tights and a frilly Elizabethan collar. His face was painted a little like mine, with the diamond, except his lips were all smiles, and he had wings. Pink dragonfly ones; very “notice me” sort of wings. A little desperate. Next to him was a stocky lad in a drab tweed suit and wearing a bowler cap.
“A hat man,” I remarked approvingly. “Very inferior hat, though. You aren’t a eunuch, are you?”
He looked properly taken aback. “Holmes…? Why are you dressed like a pirate?” he started, cocking his head in a very familiar… doggish sort of way.
I moved in very close, squinting as I took in every brown stitch and no-nonsense button. He did have a pistol, which was possibly handy, and had a cane that he didn’t really seem to need based on the vigor of his entrance. I looked at his plain, open face. Strong jawline, the right number of teeth as far as I could tell.
I sniffed his lapel.
He looked at Puck, who looked back and shrugged. “Ahm aaafraid it ain’t who you’re looking fer in there, pardner. Looks like Jack ta me.”
Watson, who as far as I knew was a dog, looked puzzled. “Jack? Which one?”
I grinned and opened my mouth to answer, but Puck beat me to the punch. “All of ‘em.” I frowned, and pouted.
“They’re all kinda the same, after all,” he added. “A lil’ crazy, a lil’ clever, a lil’ lucky, a lil’ unsettling.” Puck grinned and grinned and grinned, wider than his painted lips should allow. “Mah kinda people.”
“Excuse me, gentlemen,” I interjected. “And excuse me to the term 'gentlemen' for stretching it into such a curious pair of shapes. Not to belabor a point that you may well have previously established between yourselves, but I was recently kidnapped and nobody knew where I was, and - ah, two points, actually - he is a dog.” I pointed first at Watson, but realized that I was pointing at Puck, and used my right hand to point my left index finger in the proper direction.
“Ahem, yes, about that ‘eunuch’ question…” Watson began, but Puck shushed him.
“Ah told ya, yer bein’ oversensitive. It were done to ya, not by ya. And ya was a dog. Anyways, we’re in one of those places where we can just be us. True colors, that sort of thing. Nobody about who could say otherwise, so we may as well be who we’re supposed to be. He doesn't feel like being a dog, who's going to stop him? He can be Watson here. And ‘here’ also happens to be the kind of place where Jacks and Pucks fit in ever so nicely.”
“Your accent slipped, mate,” I admonished.
Puck stuck his tongue out, and I made a grabbing motion after it.
Watson’s brows knitted. “He’s right, Holm- whoever you are, now. Jack. We should get out of here. There’s no telling when your captors will get here.”
“Where is here, and weren’t you about to tell me how you found me?” I peered out through the door that the pair had knocked open. Was that a roller coaster?
“Avalon,” murmured Puck, and a shiver skittered down my spine. “We really should be heading on, before the Lady finds us.”
“Is that a roller coaster?” I asked.
“Part of the splashdown, I think. It’s an abandoned water park,” Watson informed, informatively. “Gives me the creeps, I don’t mind saying. Puck figured out something was up after Lancelot never showed, and was heading your way to tell you off when the black van went tearing out of your driveway.”
“Positively perspicacious. Lance didn’t have the stamina to keep anyone occupied for long. Mister Puck!” I snapped, and both of them jumped to quasi-attention. “I can’t help but notice that this series of unfortunate events occurred by what one might reasonably judge to be several rescues worth of time ago. While patience for pecadilloes is a laudable trait in a crewman, does it not seem like your rescue went a bit… long?”
"I rather figured I might need-"
"On account of my having already rescued myself, that is," I interrupted.
"Yes, it's just that I thought I might need backup, and-"
"I mean," I cut him off again, "you're not really planning on calling this a rescue, are you? To anyone's face?" I paused, and then continued over him again. "Did you bring with you, for instance, a method of vehicular egress from the premises?"
Puck looked suspicious, and Watson matter-of-factly filled in, "A car."
"Yes, I know what 'vehicular egress' implies. My god, Shakespeare? Ever heard of him? I can dash ‘round the moon and back while a baby burps. In fact… something's different about that… easier… as if magic were stronger...” he trailed off for a moment, omitting something. “And, no to the car, but don't worry about that. I have all manner of escape routes. How did you escape, anyway? Weren’t there knights here guarding you? Big, hyper-masculine types?” His wings fluttered a little.
“Not important right now. Let us not dwell in a violent and intestinally displacing past!” I said, a little too easily. I waved a hand for good measure. “I know that roller coaster! This is the Lakeside Splash Park. I came here years ago, before they closed the place down."
My eyes flashed. "The coaster is right next to the pirate ship!” I bolted through the door.
The full moon hung large in the sky, like it would be at sea. The place was awash in its blue light. I skidded from one of the maintenance sheds onto to what had once been a major thoroughfare stretching from the giant water slide on one side of the park to the roller coaster at the other end. The wind kicked up, and if I were a crazy person I might have insisted it was saying, “Closer… closer…”
But that was ridiculous superstition and nonsense, and there was a pirate ship on the other end of this park. Flouncing only a little bit, I set off towards it.
Then: I was set upon!
“Come on, Jack,” said Watson, reasonably. “It’s time to go.”
He had me by one arm, and Puck had the other. “He’s not wrong, Jacky boy. Girl. Whatever. There's the Lady to think of. We’ll take the back way out.”
“Back door, eh? Good idea.” I shook my head. “I mean, no! Check my pockets; I’m sure I have a compass around somewhere.” I jerked my head in the opposite direction. “That way! And you, mister Watson Cavill Bad Dog. Unhand me!”
They lifted me fully off the ground, legs kicking. Hands under my armpits, they carried me back around toward the very boring parts of the park, where they kept the buildings with inexplicable ropes that were wound loosely around something and had something heavy tied to the other end. Why did any sensible place do that, anyway? I had no idea, but they were everywhere. I couldn't go a week without grabbing one of those ropes and sailing up into the air to escape somebody or another.
“Gentlemen,” I began, “you will always remember this day as the day that you almost captured Captain Jack oooof!” My braggadocio was lost slightly as the rope that I grabbed and kicked jerked me upward with slightly more force than I’d anticipated. I catapulted out of their arms and into the air, screaming like someone who was terrified out of her wits, and slamming bodily into a power line. It might as well have been a steel girder: I wrapped in a U-shaped tangle of limbs around it, scrabbled at air a bit, and then just barely managed to grab hold of the cable itself as gravity did that thing it did.
“Mister Watson!” I shouted. “Come up here and get me right noooooooow!” The last extended vowel was because the power line snapped, and suddenly I was falling rather drastically. I held on for dear life and promised myself that I’d never pillage again if I could just-
I patted myself in a non-flattened way. Oh, delightful: I was alive! The power line swung me right down onto a rooftop, some sort of burger shack, I thought, but maybe that was supposed to be a crab? Hard to tell from the back of the sign if those were legs or onions. I tumbled in a heap into a pile of old cleaning supplies, ending up with a bucket on my foot and a mop on my head, dripping something wet down my face.
I spat at it absently. It was wet, yes, but it didn’t taste so terrible. I'd eaten hot dogs before, after all. Yet… if there was something wet and moppish on my head… where was…
“My hat!” It had caught a gust of some sort, and was trailing off into the distance. I dashed after it, very dramatically leaping from building to building as it drifted down, down, into, oh, bloody of course it would fall into the lake in the middle of the park. You were not supposed to go in there. There were signs!
I looked around, from where I stood on top of a nearby - what, arcade? Arcade. Hopping down onto a pinball machine that they’d dragged out back for some ghastly sort of discipline, I peered down the avenue. The dynamic duo were racing after me, shouting something about staying out of the water.
Well. Easy for them to say. They had a hat between them, albeit a terrible one. What was a girl to do? I rolled my eyes, trod past the “No Swimming” signs, and into the lake.
I mean, I wasn’t planning on swimming. It was a manmade lake; how deep could it be? Just a little way out, there was my hat, lying there on the surface of the water, right next to the arm holding the sword aloft. With a grin and a flourish, I waved it at the two idiots who had run up screaming to the water's edge. I clapped the hat to my head with a satisfied air, feeling much more like myself.
Wait a tick. A sword?
It was a big, heavy one, in a leather scabbard inlaid with gold stitching. Not really my style, but I was down by one sword, and the lady’s arm that was holding it up looked to be about my size. If she could do it…
“The sword isn’t important,” murmured a voice very close to my ear. “It’s the scabbard that you need, to beat him.”
“Aaah!” I yelped, hopefully in an intimidating sort of way. I spun around - as quickly as one spins waist-deep in water, but a little faster - and came face-to-knee with a woman in a gauzy dress. I say “face-to-knee” because she was much higher up than I was. I peered at her legs.
“Either you have extremely long shins, or else you are standing just below the surface,” I observed. “That’s a neat trick.”
“I am Nimue,” she purred. Her lips and eyes were the same shade of lavender. “The Lady of the Lake.”
Watson and Puck had skidded to a stop just on the other side of the “No Swimming” signs. Watson was fidgeting with his gun, as if deciding whether or not there would be any point to using it. I held up a finger.
“Being the aforementioned Lady, who features rather prominently and conflictingly in various tales surrounding a sword, you are telling me first that the sword isn’t important, and second are offering me some assistance in beating the same person you once gave a sword that was important?”
I waggled an eyebrow at her in satisfaction. No one ever expected me to make sense, and they alwasys seemed taken aback when it happened. It was normally an excellent time to kick them in the bait and tackle and make my escape, but, well...
Nimue pondered for a moment, and I reconsidered how I’d phrased the question. I parsed it out in my head. "Aforementioned" - too much? No, no, it was perfectly clear. Satisfied with myself, I awaited her answer.
“I gave Merlin a sword, to give to the king,” she spoke slowly. “Its name was Cut-Steel. It came in an enchanted scabbard, which shielded its wearer from harm. It was the prize of my collection, but I had no choice. The wizard had my son.”
“Don’t believe I've ever heard of a Boy of the Lake…?” I was sure that she would elaborate. Parents loved nothing more than talking about their little scabbers. I couldn't quite take my eyes off of where her legs trailed off into the water, though. There was something… off…
“His name was Grendel. He was… different. I’d kept him sheltered, trying to protect him from the cruelty of his fate. He was so sensitive... couldn't abide noise. He would get out of control. They killed him for it, in the tales. But not my little Gren. I made sure we steered well clear of heroes and thane-halls. But Merlin… he found us anyway. I wasn’t expecting him. He stole my boy, and forced me to accept his enchantment to bind me to this place. I cannot leave, and I must obey his will. It’s been years now.”
I nodded. “Ten of them, I’d say. Not a big believer in ‘proof of life’, are you? Merlin’s been gone for a solid decade. No idea what happened to the boy, though.” I worried at a fingernail with my teeth. Feeling like I should elaborate, I said, "Sorry."
Nimue shook her head sadly. “He had my son; I agreed to a lifetime of slavery. What choice did I have? He enchanted me. I must obey. Though I’m glad to hear the bastard is dead.”
I moved closer to her feet. Or, where they should have been.
“I’m sorry, I can’t help but notice that-”
Nimue interrupted. “I must obey, and I’ve been commanded not to let you leave.” I felt something slide across my leg in the water, and clapped my hat firmly to my head with one hand in alarm. The water of the lake began to churn. “So you more than likely won’t get a chance to use the scabbard. It can’t help you against me, any more than it helped the last person who came to steal it. Lady Macbeth didn't have a prayer when I found her, and that was before things changed. Puck tried to tell you a moment ago: things are different. He is more powerful. As am I. I'm more now than I was when she came. I'm afraid you must share her fate."
Her eyes narrowed. "But if you do kill me, remember my boy. Remember the children stolen and the children murdered by the mercy of Merlin’s Camelot.”
Nimue’s body started to rise from the water. Where her feet should have been, a pair of green tentacles trailed into the murk. All around me, tentacles began to break the surface of the water, and a mountain began to grow in the center of the lake.
I grabbed the sword. The hand came up with it, ending in a ragged stump just above the elbow.
Out of the lake, Nimue’s true body rose, and rose, and rose. She was tremendous, thirty feet high and still going. There was no way that the lake could be that deep: it was just for show, after all. Yet out of it she came, impossibly. Her body had something of a squid shape to it, except with more tentacles. Her mouth was a circular cavern filled with spikes, and her breath washed over me with the putrid odor of a steam room in hell. More limbs than I could count wriggled against the sky. Some of them were probably four feet across at the base, and all of them were at least as thick around as my leg. Her mouth opened, and I felt a tugging at my legs as lake water poured into it.
She roared.
I let the putrid air of her bellow wash over me in a reeking gale. I weathered it with a glint in my eye.
She didn't move. I grinned and pulled the sword from the scabbard, holding it aloft. “You’re kind of a giant, aren’t you?”
The question hung in the air for a moment.
“I'm Jack. I was born to slay giants. Come on, then!”
She came. She moved like a shark through the water, despite her bulk. Her tentacles pushed her forward, and a wave surged into me. I heard shouting from the shore, maybe twenty feet away… and suddenly as far below me, as a fleshy limb wrapped around my right leg and bore me aloft.
I swung the sword hard, cleaving through the tentacle. As I started to fall, I flung the severed arm and the scabbard at Puck, who saw the motion and flew up with a tinkling of fairy wings to intercept them.
"Hand of Glory!" I cried while plummeting. "Get to the ship! Don't argue!"
The thing about fighting someone who is thirty times bigger than you is, she’s used to being bigger than the people she kills. She thinks downward. Up in the air, she’s not as sure what to do with you. There’s a lot of flailing and swatting, and if you play your cards right you can take advantage of that. Three of Nimue’s tentacles raced at me, but I slashed hard with the sword and two of them retreated, stung. Big things also aren’t used to you being able to hurt them, because nobody ever tries.
The one that got through caught me by the leg, but I was waiting for that, too, and a scoring cut with the blade made it recoil just seconds after it had caught me. She’d stopped my fall only ten feet up, and the resulting plunge into shallow, murky water was not my favorite landing ever, but was a lot softer than it could have been. I vanished beneath the surface, rolling painfully on the rocks that lined the bottom. Rolling with a fall while underwater was weird and slow, not the bouncing sort of impact you’d expect on land. I kept my air, barely, and then shoved hard with my feet to evade the crushing tentacles that I knew would follow.
Nimue did not disappoint. The crash was strangely muted underwater, but the rush of water from the impact site flung me wide and away from her. I surfaced two dozen feet from where I’d landed, gasping for breath but still alive, and still armed. My feet touched bottom, and while Nimue looked for proof of her smashing victory, I hauled ass to shore.
I took a second to orient myself once on the other side of the “No Swimming” signs. I’d wound up a quarter of the way around the lake from Puck and Watson, closer to the roller coaster than the pirate ship that was my ultimate destination. I saw them huddling around Lady Macbeth’s severed arm. With the kind of cool I’d expect from a dog who’d survived Afghanistan, Watson had pried a bullet cartridge open and was sprinkling gunpowder on the dead fingers.
Father Barham described the Hand of Glory as the severed hand of a dead murderer. You couldn’t do much better than Lady Macbeth. When you lit its fingers as a candle, it shone with a light that only the bearer could see. Some legends said that it shielded those in its light from detection. It could also open any lock, paralyze those in the vicinity, or cause sleep in any but the bearer who the light touched. Sleepers couldn’t waken in its vicinity. If we were very, very lucky…
Well, okay, if we were very, very lucky, we probably wouldn’t be here in the first place. If wer were very, very lucky, a satellite might fall out of orbit and crush Nimue into monster paste. But if we were just very lucky, she’d stiffen up, fall asleep, and we could saunter on out of here.
Crack! A pistol shot from Watson, and I saw a spark of flame… and then he and Puck vanished from sight. Nimue did not stop moving.
Well, fuck. Stupid legends.
Nimue surged toward the sound, tentacles waving. I could see her preparing to unleash hell on the spot where they’d disappeared: she probably knew the Hand of Glory better than I did. She knew they were still there, invisible.
“Hey!” I hollered. “Bet I can run faster than you can ooze!”
I didn’t wait to see if she’d taken the bait. I ran, not looking back. You never looked back.
Another thing about fighting things that are bigger than you: they can all move faster than you can. Lots faster. On a sunny day, if you’re heading in the right direction, their shadows give them away. All I had was moonlight, though, and Nimue had a few more arms than your average giant.
Crash! A tentacle pulverized the earth behind me, shaking the ground and forcing me to check my stride in order to keep my balance. Automatically, I dove to the left, tucking into a roll as another one followed just behind it. I sprang to my feet, changing direction, staying just ahead of the earth-shattering blows that she threw at me. Giants were strong and could run fast, but they could not change direction quickly.
I vaulted over a counter and into a concession stand whose boarded up face had long since been ransacked by trespassers less intent on massive property damage than myself. One of them had helpfully bedecked the inside with anatomically questionable depictions of his idea of feminine beauty. Apparently this included P-cups. I was not wearing a sports bra, and didn’t really appreciate the reminder. I didn’t stick around to admire the rest of the cave paintings, though, and threw myself out the side exit into what had looked like a shadowy alley when I’d dodged past it.
Nimue ensured that future generations wouldn’t have to wonder about the identity of the Rembrandt with the boob fetish, smashing the shack into oblivion a split second after I’d burst out of it. For a long moment, I thought that maybe she’d lost track of me as I flattened myself against the wall in the shadows of the alleyway.
I felt a softness glide over my leg, and I started. An orange tabby looked up at me from between my legs. It looked terrified, but maybe it thought that I was a safe place. It cocked its head up at me.
“No, no, no, niiiice kitty,” I mouthed. I mean, seriously?
“Meow!” it responded. Then it hissed, and shot off down the alley as the light of the moon was blotted out behind me. The cat didn’t get far: the alley was a dead end.
I turned around. Nimue blocked the only way out. I grinned, and readied my sword.
“Hello, beastie,” I growled. Her tentacles came for me. I came for her. I charged.
Racing toward a mouth that I could run into without bumping my head had not been at the top of my bucket list, but it had a big advantage: Nimue hadn't expected it. Her limbs surged past me into the empty alley, and I ducked between them. Planting a hand on one of the massive trunks, I hopped up and onto it. Its surface was rubbery, but firm. This close to her body, with her appendages all tangled up inside the alley, it couldn’t move too much.
But I could. Nobody climbed better than Jack.
It took her a few seconds to sort out what had happened, and a few more to extricate herself from the alley. By that time, I’d crested her back, and it took all of the sea legs that good old Captain Jack had in him to prevent me from tumbling straight back off of her. She planted some of her tentacles and threw herself backward, sending both of us flying through the air to slam into the roller coaster.
It worked out as well as both of us had hoped. She ditched her passenger, and I got even more altitude. My sword went flying, but I snagged one of the girders making up the coaster’s substructure and pulled myself up. Casting my eyes around, I saw that I wasn’t far from one of the main supports, with the built-in maintenance rungs that would take me straight to the track. There were three vertical supports between me and the main beam: I’d have to get past them to get to where I needed to go. Trotting down the girder, I reached the first vertical support beam, and eased myself around it.
Nimue crashed her body into the roller coaster again, and I clung on for dear life. She’d found me. As the rocking subsided, I raced as fast as I dared down the girder, planted my hands on the next support beam, and threw myself into space, pivoting around it and landing - barely - on the opposite side.
A tentacle wrapped itself around the girder in front of me. I sprang over it, caught sight of another coming for me in the corner of my eye, and leapt for it, into the void…
For a second, I was running along a tentacle, its suckers pulsing very close to my legs. They had little mouths inside them, and I could hear them whispering, “Gwen… Gwen…”
Not Gwen. Jack.
I leapt for the rungs on the main support beam, and caught the bottom one with my left hand. I swung there for a moment as my shoulder screamed in protest, but there really was no time for pain. I scrabbled up with my right hand, and found a rung. Swinging my legs, I heaved, and pulled… and I was climbing.
Nobody catches Jack while she’s climbing.
A the top of the column, I found myself maybe halfway up the first drop of the coaster. Overhead, I could hear a clattering. Puzzled, I whipped my head down. The coaster was moving! Far below, I saw Watson scramble out of the control booth, and he gave me a little salute.
“Good boy,” I whispered, chest heaving. Then I was running again. Up.
Behind me, I heard Nimue climbing. She did it slowly, painfully. Water was her element, and up here in the air, she was off-balance, unsteady. But she was still coming.
I didn’t look back. You never looked back. I scrambled up the slope, half running, half pulling myself up with my hands, so sheer was the ascent. I felt the structure begin to shift and sway under me as Nimue’s bulk tilted from side to side. She was fighting to keep her balance on the narrow track, which was a good sign… as long as she didn’t pull the whole thing over on us.
My breath was coming in ragged heaves as I crested the top of the rise. The wind whipped around me, spraying my hair in all directions. I was a hundred feet up, and it felt for a second like I was closer to the moon than to the earth below. I could just reach up and touch-
Wait. That was no moon. That was a headlight on the roller coaster car.
I threw myself into it, and there was no time to make sure my lap belt was latched with the chest bar securely locked before I was going over the drop. I wrapped my arms around the bar and felt gravity lose its grip.
Nimue clung there on the tracks, fifty feet down. Many of her tentacles were rooting her in place as her massive body tried to keep itself steady. The rest were straining towards me, whispering for me. The roller coaster car obliged, and I rocketed down to meet her. She saw it, and I heard her scream. I screamed, too.
There was a sudden jolt as the car slammed into her. And then, nothing.
I felt the wind rushing around me as I sailed through the air. I was spinning, tumbling, falling, no clue which way was up. I heard a girl’s voice call my name.


“Jack, come on, you silly. You fell down again.”

I heard a crack. It sounded like my spine shifting back into place from several other places, and I screamed in agony.
“Oh, Jack,” the girl said, stroking my brow. “You did a real good job this time. But don’t you worry. I’m here. Jill’s here.”
I could see - I’m not sure quite how I could see, because my brains were splattered all over the ground - I could see a little girl standing over me, maybe eight or nine, in a blue dress. She had long, dark tresses, and she was carrying a little red balloon. Her face was all innocent concern as she gave me a gap-toothed smile.
Reality shuddered, and the image of the girl flickered. She was replaced by something that was wrong. For a second, the tresses were fully obscuring her face, her head bent slightly, and she moved as if through stop motion, a grim hand jerking through space and time toward me. She would flicker back to the picture of innocence, and then this grim visage again. A sound like static mixed with a bandsaw hissed through the universe. She touched what was left of my head.
I sat up with a start. My body was whole, and hearty. I felt my skull: no cracks. Satisfied with my handiwork, I smiled, and then I smiled again at my happy little red balloon. I had swapped that silly pirate costume for a sun dress. It was blue, and so pretty.
A woman lay in the dirt nearby. It looked like something really big had landed here, but all I could see was the lady. She had lavender eyes, and she tried to stand up as I walked over. But she was all broken.
“Who…?” she gasped. “How…? I… saw… you… die.”
“I’m Jill,” I said brightly. “When Jack falls down, I’m here to pick up the pieces.” I narrowed my eyes. “And I don’t like you. I’m going to set you on fire now.”
Reality flickered around me with the sound of a bandsaw cutting through the universe. I felt my hair in front of my eyes.
“Thank you,” she gasped, as flames sprang up all around her. “I died ten years ago.” Her purple eyes saw through the flames and the hair, and then I was the little girl again. I bobbled the red balloon happily as I watched the flames take Nimue. Then the little girl was also gone, and I was finally Gwen once more.
“Tell my Gren I love him. And remember,” she whispered. “Remember the mercy of Merlin’s Camelot.”
Then Nimue was gone, as well.
I put a hand on my temple and sagged. I was... I was definitely Gwen again. No Jack, no Jill.
I was also completely exhausted. There had been the torture, and then… Jack. Jack had been overwhelming. Jill may have put me back together, but everything still ached.
I looked around. I was standing in the wreckage of what had been the ramp for the pirate ship ride. It had been one of those that swung the ship back and forth around a central axle. I saw that axle hanging limp from the struts overhead. Nimue had crashed into it when she fell, and smashed the ship free of her moorings.
But there was no sign of the ship. Just past where I stood, a hill slipped down toward the Potomac River, and I could see a massive trench, just ship-sized, almost as if…
In the distance, on the water, sails unfurled. I heard a bark, and the faint tinkling of fairy wings.
I smiled. Things had changed.
“Good boy. See you soon,” I whispered.
The high thrum of a sports car engine cut through the night, approaching fast. I turned and found myself in the headlights of something absurdly expensive. I tensed for a moment, but forced myself to relax: this car wasn't Camelot’s style.
At least, not anybody they still trusted. Doyle came spilling out almost before the car came to a stop.
“Gwen!” he shouted. “Thank god you’re all right! I, er, what happened here? And why are you holding a balloon?”
I gave him a tired smile, and let the balloon drift up into the sky. We watched it for a moment.
“I went all Beowulf on Grendel’s mother,” I said quietly. “Did you know that she was the Lady of the Lake? Same person. Weird. Oh, and I think I died. Is that an Aston Martin?”
“Yes, the Vanquish Volante." He paused. "Beowulf. You died.” Doyle’s expression barely masked the inadequacy of that explanation, but he shook his head impatiently. “You’ll have to tell me all about it some time that is other than right now, because we have to get out of here. Watson’s gone insane, Vivian's gone missing, and I think Camelot has gone to war with you. And maybe me.”
I laughed. “Quite the detective. Vivian... missing? How do you think I got here?" I scoffed.
"She was... vague on what she knew and how. Just that I had to hurry." He paled. “Wait, you mean… she gave you up to them? For what? What the hell is going on here, Gwen?"
"I was going to steal Moriarty's device back from Camelot. I need it to help Frankenstein reanimate my father's corpse."
He blinked, processing. Finally, he nodded. "The toughest girl... toughest person I know is standing here wearing a blue sundress, so I'm fairly confident that I've now seen and heard everything. Fine. Frankenstein. But why steal the hard drive? I gave it to Vivian. The way she was fidgeting, I half assumed that she was getting it for you, anyway."
"No," I said quietly. "Not for me. And she needed me out of the way. Set me up. Murdered Gavin."
He looked genuinely shocked, and then shook his head. “She set you…? No. I don't believe it."
I relayed what Arthur had told me. Doyle snapped his fingers.
"Two shooters? Not her, then."
"Doyle, she's obviously got an accomplice."
He swallowed. "No. The timing doesn't work out. I can account for her... it wasn't her, all right?" he snapped, looking testy.
"If you say so," I shrugged. "But she did set me up. She fed Arthur a story and fed you something and now she's got the hard drive."
"She sent me here," he insisted. "She was genuinely worried for you."
He looked grim. "But that's not all. Watson's locked me out of his systems. He won't respond to me, and half my bag of tricks depends on him. More than half. He's hiding from me. But I know him inside and out: I told you he’s got certain signatures? He’s been watching this area closely. I’ve been trying to decrypt some of his communications, but haven’t had any luck. He’s got every phone or email selector we know of for you under electronic surveillance, though, and has been talking nonstop with Arthur. Nobody in Camelot will talk to me. ”
I shivered. “You said he’s watching this area?” I looked up at the sky.
Doyle nodded. “One of my high-altitude drones. Not weaponized, but you can’t hear it or see it from the ground. The visual fidelity isn’t great unless it gets closer, but-”
I cut him off. “You were right. We’ve got to get out of here. Now. How long would it take for Watson to scramble the big guns?”
“Out here, if he didn’t already have them in the air… twenty minutes?”
“We’ve got ten. Are you still wired up to work some of your magic?” He nodded. “Then I’ll drive. You’re going to be busy.”
The sound of sirens wailed in the distance. I looked at Doyle, who got that blank look that meant he was interfacing with some remote computer.
“Not everything I do is dependent on Watson. He’s locked out of me just like I am from him, but I have a few other tricks… APB. Both of our photos, plus a picture of my car and the plate. Wanted for involvement in the tragedy at the Diogenes Club? A confession from the female perpetrator?”
I gritted my teeth. “Your damn robot has a lot to answer for. Get in,” I gestured to the passenger seat. “Keep him off of our ass long enough for us to get to the Wilson Bridge.”
“He’s an artificial intelligence. What are you going to do?”
I slid in and wrapped my hands around the wheel. The leather crunched softly under my grip.

Chapter 18: Second Star
In the fight against New Camelot, you will encounter foes that no man can defeat. You must adapt your strategy when facing such opponents. Not every enemy is an enemy, and not every weakness, a weakness.
“So you say you died and came back? You know I can’t do that trick, right?”
I had thought we had ten minutes. We’d had seven. Seven blissful minutes before Doyle started whining about my driving.
Watson had made sure that every cop in three counties knew that we were public enemies numbers one and two. They all wanted a piece of whoever had set that fire that killed two hundred people. They were out for justice.
They were also out of their league. With all due respect to the police, they had to obey both the laws of man and the laws of nature. They had to worry about things like mustering up the necessary manpower to set up a roadblock - hard, with zero notice and at two in the morning - and the fact that their cuddly little police cruiser engines had a tough time hitting one-forty.
My limits were more fickle. After all, this was a chase scene: it wasn’t just traffic laws that I was breaking. All around me, physics groaned in complaint.
Within five minutes, there were probably a half-dozen sets of blue lights flashing behind me. I was playing it nice at ninety-five, but every time one of them tried to put the hammer down and edge up ahead of me, I let him get just far enough to start feeling all manly before I dropped gears and shot forward as the car roared like a dragon.
Poor cops. They really had no idea who they were dealing with. There were far too many people inside me who knew how to drive.
A police cruiser had caromed onto the highway from a ramp just ahead of us, and was now alongside. “Pull over!” the loudspeaker barked. “Pull over now!”
“Is this thing insured?” I asked with a grin. Before Doyle could respond, I eased onto the brake as fast as I dared, while steering into the car alongside. He didn’t have time to react: my front passenger side clipped his rear. His back end fished out to the right, and then to the left as he lost control. He spun away from us and was gone.
My tires chirped. I corrected. We drove.
Possible? Probably not. Don’t try this at home, kids.
We played this game for another minute or two when Doyle, looking desperate, confirmed that there were no more units inbound who could possibly join the chase before we hit the Beltway. With a final wave to the fuzz, I hit the afterburners.
After about forty-five seconds, I couldn’t even see more than a blue hue on the horizon.
Which isn’t to say that they were completely uninteresting seconds. There’s no mechanism to let late-night drivers know that there’s a maniac in an absurdly expensive sports car driving twice the speed limit up interstate 95. Even if there was, Watson would have shut it down: it kept me distracted, dodging imports as if they were stationary barriers. Traffic was light at this hour - well after last call, but too early for the pre-dawn risers to be heading to work - but as fast as we were moving, I might as well have been dodging through rush hour.
It’s not like it’s easy to keep wheels sticking to the pavement at those speeds. You’re not supposed to hit a hundred on the highway, much less half that again. The road isn’t built for it, and the car isn’t built for doing those sorts of speeds on roads that have bumps and potholes. It wants to drive over a supermodel’s face, and I was feeding it a teenager’s.
“Are you quite certain this is necessary?” Doyle asked, eyes wide.
I laughed. “We are who we are, Merlin. Dying in a fiery crash because you’re driving too fast while escaping a maniacal robot bent on world domination simply isn’t literary. So we won’t.”
“You’re putting a lot of faith in the notion that we’re in an action film. Is there anyone left alive who might miss you? This could be a Lifetime movie.”
“Lucky for you, I never made many friends. Any friends, really.”
Doyle rolled his eyes. “Oh, I’m in the car with a dangerous loner with something to prove? Now I feel safe. Let me know when I’ve been strapped to the train tracks and should start screaming.”
I shrugged. “I don’t think you’re the dainty love interest, sorry. Maybe you’re the comedy relief sidekick.”
Something had changed since I had woken up after Jill had… what had she done? Put me back together. Picked up the pieces. Having her inside my skin had been like being the villain in a horror flick. Dangerous. Limitless.
And now… now I could feel them inside me. All of them. All the stories I carried, they were there, and they were mine to do with as I saw fit. Whether Jill had scared them straight or I’d just come into myself, I didn’t know… but when Han Solo was sharing the wheel with Michael Knight and Speed Racer… well. You just didn’t crash.
Not until something literary happened, anyway. Something dramatic.
“Gwen?” The radio crackled to life, unbidden. It was Vivian’s voice.
I remembered the cold. The feeling of cable ties cutting into my wrists. The water.
I let the car’s breakneck pace slow. I wanted my wits about me.
“Yes, I’m here,” I replied evenly. “No worse for the wear, I’m happy to disappoint you. Even Lance’s stab wounds are all healed up. It turns out I have some friends who are true.”
“I never wanted any of that to happen to you, I swear. I sent Doyle to keep you safe.” Her voice sounded earnest, strained. I knew all too well that she could make her voice sound like a lot of things. She'd fooled me before. Never again.
“After killing Gavin!” I snapped. “After stealing Moriarty’s device. After making it look like I’m the one who’s been going after New Camelot this whole time. After setting me up to take the fall for everything!”
“Gavin? Oh no… Gwen, that wasn’t me. Jesus, did he really-? It was… you call him Watson. He’s in the machine. He made sure that Gavin had a message to pass to you, but it wasn’t from Arthur, not really. He faked the email from Gavin to Arthur that sent the doctored footage from the polygraph that showed you admitting you set the fire. Then he got Gavin out of Headquarters so they couldn’t bump into each other. That’s all I knew, you’ve got to believe me! Jesus, he killed him?” Vivian was practically babbling: the words spilled forth faster than she could think them through. “Watson… he told me to steal the device. He said you’d stop us if you knew. We had to keep you out of the way for a while, but I was going to get you out after the coronation. I never wanted…”
Next to me, Doyle was very pale. “Vivian?” he asked, not wanting to believe it. “You still have the device? You said you were going to give it to Gavin, to move it somewhere safe.”
“Doyle? You’re… dammit,” she swore. In a whisper, as if to someone standing behind her, she accused, “You didn’t tell me he was there. You haven’t told me a lot of things! You fucking killed someone!”
A cold, flat voice responded. “I told you what you needed to know to ensure the fate of Camelot. You have performed beautifully, as you always have. Now, it is time to tell her.”
“No, dad. No, it’s wrong.”
There was no emotion in the computerized reply, but it was louder. “Then I will have no choice but to eliminate her entirely.”
A pause. Vivian came back to whatever microphone she was sitting at.
“Gwen? You can’t do this. You can’t win. You can’t stop New Camelot. You’re just a girl. It’s time to come in. It’s time to come home. Nobody else has to die. We can keep you safe, Gw-”
Her voice cut off abruptly as she was trying to reason with me. It was replaced by Watson’s toneless, synthesized speech.
“Mr. Doyle, Bill Adler here. I think you’ll agree: my little girl always performs when it counts.” Doyle’s jaw clenched, but he made no response: he was staring into space. “Now, Ms. DeGrace, you obligingly killed the Lady of the Lake for me, paving the way for my daughter's ascent. She will become the Vivian who is also the Lady: powerful, eternal. For that, you have my thanks. And my apologies: your attitude towards Camelot is unhelpful, and you have proven yourself too resourceful to be allowed to risk frustrating my plans. A father must protect his daughter. If Camelot fails, she is doomed to alienation and decay. It must succeed, with her as the Lady. You are an intriguing creature: I do regret your destruction, but it's you or her. It’s time to bring-”
The radio went dead.
I swallowed. We weren’t dead yet, but… this was, like, wicked uncool?
“That’s quite enough out of them,” Doyle snarled, eyes focusing again.
“What did you do?”
“I locked him the hell out. I have… interfaces. That was how I made my money, before I ever heard of Bill Adler: human-computer interface. Half of the things you can do on your phone are my intellectual property, and I’ve got dozens of tricks that I haven’t released publicly yet. You wouldn't believe the licensing fees you can make. My little tricks aren’t dependent on Watson: he just automated them. I can still code, can still broadcast. They think they neutered me. Vivian thinks that by stealing Watson, she stole my power. Hah! She didn’t lock me in a tree… she backed me into a corner.”
There was a sparkle in his eyes. I liked this Doyle! I had an - oops, careful, don’t grind the gears, yikes! - yeah, we were definitely going to live, if I could manage to avoid completely jacking up Doyle’s car.
“Who’s Bill Adler?” I asked.
“Merlin. Old Merlin,” he answered. “And… I can’t believe I missed this…”
“… Vivian’s father,” I finished. “Irene Vivian Adler. And, somehow… he’s Watson.”
He sighed. “There must be something buried in the code somewhere. Watson is insanely complicated: it wouldn’t be hard to hide some obscure call in a subroutine that was just waiting for the right trigger… like Vivian using some kind of phrase to pull in new functions that were just waiting on a server somewhere. I’m just guessing here, but that legacy code could have considerable material in it that no one has looked at since Bill wrote it.”
“You didn’t write all of Watson’s code?”
Doyle seemed genuinely taken aback by the question. “Nobody writes all the code, Gwen,” he said slowly. “Everything is built on someone else’s work.”
I gave him a look, albeit without taking my eyes off of the road. “Not a software developer, here. So Bill gives you Watson, tells you it’s yours now, and pulls a vanishing act?”
“There were some… intellectual property quibbles with IBM. Bill told me it would be better if he weren’t involved anymore. I had the money to fight them, and we won in court. He’d added his own semantic parsing routines that were pure genius. Matched with my interface tech, it was a new product. We set up a licensing agreement and… I am completely boring you.”
“No! I mean, okay, a little.” I blushed. “So, uh, is Watson still locked out or whatever?”
“Informational chaff,” he nodded. “I’ve locked down the communications array on the drone that’s following us: it can’t communicate with the rest of them. It’s just a dumb machine with some basic targeting logic and a really good camera. And I’ve seeded Watson’s data stream with false reports of all the possible routes we could have taken. He’s picking up fake police band and everything. He can’t sort out what’s true from what’s me.”
“Isn’t he kind of, like, a computer? They’re super-fast at stuff like that.”
“He can’t beat me,” said Doyle, chin jutting forward. “I’m the Merlin. Also, he doesn’t have enough drones to cover all the places we could possibly go: there are too many choke points, so he has to make decisions about how to allocate resources. I’m changing my broadcast pattern based on input into a semirandom number generator. He has to sort truth from fiction, but I’m changing how I define truth constantly. My pattern changes faster than he has time to adapt. He doesn’t have time to hack me, any more than I’ve got time to beat his crypto. Either of us could do anything with enough time, so I’m making sure he doesn’t have that. I’m pretty sure I just got boring again.”
I was only partially sure of what he was talking about, but he sounded like he knew what he was doing. Which was good, because for some reason I was having enough trouble just making sure we stayed on the road. The car handled like the sort of dream that leaves you needing to wash your jammies, I had to give it that. We were doing over a hundred and I was sure I could punch it higher.
Except… I wasn’t. I wasn’t sure of that at all. I had been, but that was, like, a looooong time ago. I slowed it down, grinding the gears again in the process.
“So…” I muttered, flushing again. “Vivian?”
His eyes narrowed. “I can’t believe it. She’s Vivian, and I’m Merlin. When we were together, she said…” he drifted off. There was something in his… and the way Watson had said she always performs…
“Ewww! Oh my god!” I exclaimed. “You two have had sex! I’m… aaah, bad visual! Jeez, when did you have time?”
“When I went to her house to ask her about what you were up to after you left me at the Capitol. She, ah, came to the door in a towel, and… well… She is who she is. Then there was when she came to see me in the lab where I was examining Moriarty’s device, while you were taking your polygraph. She… you know what, what may or may not have happened is exactly none of your business. It’s not like you’ve been open with me about what you’ve been doing here.”
I felt Doyle’s disapproval like a punch to the gut. And I was totally ruining the clutch on his crazy-amazing car and he probably hated me now. I teared up. Then I white knuckled the wheel and locked my arms, and suddenly the road was not my friend. Bumps and potholes made things really interesting.
Define interesting.
“Oh god, oh god, we’re both going to die!” Doyle gasped.
“Keep your pants on,” I growled, suddenly stronger and feeling the road again through the wheel. “Apparently that’s been a problem in the past.”
I felt a rush of adrenaline, and laughed at myself. Why had I just been worried about Doyle being mad at me? What the hell did I care? We had bigger problems, and if he was going to be mad at anybody, Vivian was surely higher up on his list. Had I really used the phrase “crazy-amazing” in my own internal monologue?
Doyle’s hands were rigid on the dashboard. “You told me what happened to the last not-so-gentleman who kissed you. No thanks. Not even if you offered to flash me one more time.”
The tires started behaving, and I laughed. “Touche. That’s more like it. Bee-tee-dubs, we’re going to hit the Wilson Bridge in a few miles, and it’s the only choke point between here and Maryland. There’s going to be an army of cops there. I need you to break them up.”
Bee-tee-dubs? Really? What the hell was wrong with me?
Doyle jumped on the new challenge. “Information chaff again,” he decided after only a couple of seconds. “I can take over their radio repeaters and make it seem like we’re pulling off the highway before we get there. They’ll break down the barricades and drive off to where they think we're headed. They might leave a few units…” he trailed off. “Based on what I’ve seen so far, I’d give you at least a thirty-five percent chance of getting through at that point.”
“Never tell me the odds!” I snapped. Then: “Make it so.”
I’d been glazing over again at all the techno-mumbo-jumbo, because, jeez, I didn’t even like math. Then came the sci-fi references, and I was thinking clearly again. But I felt a strange timidity creeping in as fast as I could fight it off. A pink, ruffly haze was clinging to everything.
Did Doyle hate me? I should totally be like, supportive? Or something?
“Doyle, what’s your happiest memory?”
He blinked in surprise. “Yesterday afternoon aside?” I rolled my eyes, but he just grinned. “I guess… there was one summer, my mother and I spent at a farm that one of her cousins had. It was… unplugged. I’d expected to hate every moment of it, because I was thirteen and that’s how thirteen-year-olds are, but I didn’t. There was a day we spent, just the two of us, where we walked the fence, fixing it where it was broken. It was a good fence; there wasn’t a lot of work. It was just her and me… We barely said anything. My mother… she’s a real talker, but that day she let me be quiet. It was sunny, there was this tiny little breeze… When we got back to the house, I remember she gave me a hug, and thanked me for sharing the day with her. It wasn’t the kind of thing that she said, or that we did. But I hugged her right back. I hoped all summer that we’d go out and mend the fence again.”
He took a deep, serene breath. “That day was nothing special. But it was better than any that came before it or after it.”
I teared up, thinking of my father.
“Parents: you never stop wanting them to be there. Thank you for sharing that day with me,” I echoed. “Hang onto it.”
I told him. His eyes widened.
“No,” he mouthed, too dumbstruck to speak. “No, no, no, this… this can’t be your plan.”
I quavered. It had really seemed like a good plan a little while ago. But if Doyle didn’t think it was a good plan, maybe it wasn’t? He was, like, totally smart and stuff?
“Um,” I began, “so I’m really sorry, but I think we’re really going to need some pixie dust, because we are kind of out of highway?”
“Pixie dust? That’s not even a real thing! It’s not like I can just wave my hands and magic some-” His breath caught. Then he was gone, lost in an electronic haze. He’d figured something out.
The remnants of the roadblock that the police had set up across the highway loomed ahead. There were still half a dozen cruisers, lights cutting blue and red slashes across my eyeballs. But some of them were moving away from us, and there was a gap of at least a full car length straight ahead. I gritted my teeth, tried not to cry because I had to do this but it was totally, totally impossible and were going to die and it was all my fault…
With Doyle distracted, the radio hissed to life. It was static for a second, but then it went silent. I willed my eyes not to flicker to the dashboard: at a hundred miles an hour, a twenty foot gap isn’t that wide, and I was not feeling my best.
It was Vivian’s voice again. “Gwen… it’s time… to die. You're just a girl.” The words sounded weird, like someone had taken voice samples from our earlier conversation and pasted them together in a new, more sinister order.
Watson’s voice cut in once again. “Goodbye, Ms. DeGrace. I told him what you did.”
My hair began to whip crazily as the convertible roof began to open. Suddenly, the sounds of men drinking and shouting in song burst through the radio. It was loud; Watson had cranked it to eleven. Doyle shook his head, coming back to the moment. The car sounded like a rocketing mead hall.
I remembered something about mead halls... someone who didn't like them.
Tears started streaming down my face. What was I doing? I shouldn’t be driving like this! I barely knew how to drive. Oh my god! I’d totally just gone all she-bitch on Doyle and told him I was driving. What did he think of me? Did I have something in my teeth? This dress I was wearing, what was I, eight? My nails were all torn up. I checked myself in the rearview mirror and then the steering wheel started to shake under my hands.
I started to hyperventilate. I couldn’t do this! I was just a girl!
A figure stepped into the gap between the police cars. It stood nine feet tall, bald, preposterously muscled, arms like a gorilla. The sword that it held in one hand was as tall as it was.
He was so sensitive... couldn't abide noise. He would get out of control.
Grendel. He was blocking the way. There was nowhere to steer around him. There was no way I could stop. There was… a very big sword.
I could hear his bestial cry over the stereo, over the roar of the engine.
Parents: you never stop wanting them to be there.
I screamed. Like a girl.
“Gwen, what the-?” Doyle snapped back to attention and lunged for the wheel I’d let go of in my panic. Desperately, he fought to keep the car from swerving totally out of control. He partially succeeded, but we shot into the gap in the barricade of police cars at an angle, and the back end clipped one of the cruisers. My foot was mashed down onto the pedal - I didn’t know which one - and we were spinning…
What with the panic, I’d lost track of Grendel. A split-second into our out-of-control death-spin, we found him again as his huge sword crashed down in front of us. It cleaved the engine block completely off from the rest of the car, sending the front end of the Aston Martin spiraling away. I screamed again as highway grit was suddenly pelting the cabin, and sparks from the grinding of the car’s frame along the road scored my legs. Metallic shrieking joined my own as we careened along onto the Bridge, car grinding away beneath us, until finally we crashed to a stop against the concrete wall separating the car lanes from the pedestrian path.
Every airbag in the universe deployed in my face, smelling of gunpowder and terror. I started to come to my senses with my legs pulled completely up against my chest, trembling all over. My breath was coming in short little gasps, and I could barely hold together a thought. We weren’t dead! Oh god, poor Doyle’s car! He was so gonna kill me! Monster - where was the monster? Seat belt… seat belt was stuck…
“Gwen!” Doyle shouted. “Are you okay? Snap out of it! We’ve got to get out of here! I’ve got the fairy dust coming; let’s go!”
I didn’t move, except to tremble. I couldn’t handle this. I was going to die.
“I’m just a girl…” I whispered. I could feel silky shackles on my soul.
Doyle slapped me. Hard.
“Vivian. I don't know how, but she hit you with a memetic curse,” he growled. “I may make magic differently than Bill Adler, but he liked to talk and I'm a good listener. 'Just a girl.' You’re living every bad stereotype that we have about women being weak. Everybody’s susceptible, but it’s worse for Personae. Luckily, women aren’t supposed to get slapped. It knocks you out of concordance with the meme, lets you shake it off for a minute. Now get moving or I’ll do it again.”
My face stung. My eyes burned with tears. I still felt awash, and adrift. But for the moment, I also realized that I could do something about it.
I punched Doyle in the face. Hard. It was very unladylike.
I immediately felt better.
“No thanks,” I said. “Let’s run away now.” Holding his nose, he mumbled his assent.
I got the seat belt off and clambered out of the wreck. The door was spot-welded shut, but Watson had been so kind as to open the top. It probably saved my life.
“K-k-killed… mama!” Grendel screamed, emerging from behind the row of police cruisers. Tears were streaming down his cheeks. My heart went out to him: he was so lost. My body, I threw out of the way, because he was swinging that sword again. I hit the ground badly, skinning my elbows and cracking my head on the ground. I was just a girl, I wasn’t supposed to-
“God damn it,” I swore. “Fucking brain-raping whore shit cunt bitch!” I continued. I swore until the air was blue, navy blue, like sailors hopped up on piss beer and testosterone. With every profanity, some of the gauzy prison faded for a moment. Long enough to let me scramble to my feet and start to circle around my opponent.
I had Odysseus inside me: he’d bested a cyclops. The Dread Pirate Roberts had beaten a giant. I’d only just bid farewell to Jack the freaking Giant-Slayer. Grendel would be cake.
Except… I couldn’t. I couldn’t reach them. I shook my head, trying to clear it enough to allow some badass into my body to take this hyperthyroid ape out of existence. But no one came.
I was just a girl. All of those badasses weren’t.
“Oh, shi-”
Doyle tackled me down to the ground a split second before Grendel’s sword would have torn my head off. He scrambled along the road, away from the lumbering monster, dragging me back with him. We wound up tucked against the wheel well of one of the police cruisers that had been set there to block our escape.
I saw a pool of blood staining the ground red. Following it with my eyes, I saw why these cruisers hadn’t driven away.
I put a hand to my mouth automatically, and then forced down the artificial girliness with a deep breath. The officer’s eyes were open, an expression of horror on his face. His hands were wrapped around the intestines that he’d tried to stuff back into his body. But he hadn’t had anything to stuff them into: Grendel’s sword had cut him in half. I didn’t see his legs anywhere.
Doyle saw it, too, but he was a little more in touch with his aggression at the moment. He grabbed the officer’s gun and spun on Grendel, emptying the clip into the monster as he lumbered slowly toward us.
The bullets hit their mark, mostly. But Grendel didn’t even blink. He just sniffed the air, and I saw his pointed ears twitch at the noise. His pig eyes focused on Doyle.
“LITTLE MAN QUIET!!!! GRENNY SAAAAAD!” he bellowed, bending over to scream it at us. He slammed a fist into the ground, and the road under me rumbled. We were on a bridge, and Grendel made it wobble.
He was just a little kid. He’d been taken from Nimue a decade ago; he should at least be in his teenage years by now. But he was acting just like a three-year-old having a fit. I looked around at the carnage. The Aston Martin was in pieces. I could see at least six police officers down. Some of their cars had huge gouge marks where Grendel’s sword had torn through them. But there were also spots where he’d slammed the sword into the ground in rage and pain. I could see chunks of highway missing, places where he’d smashed his colossal fists into the earth, totally unable to shut down what he was feeling.
He was just a kid.
All children, except one, grow up.
I stepped between Doyle and Grendel. The huge sword flashed up into the air, seeing easy prey.
“Boy,” I said, voice trembling. “Why are you crying?”
Grendel stopped. He squinted down at me.
“Mama…” he muttered. “Mama gone. Gone forever. Don’t have a mother.”
“Oh, Grenny, no wonder you were crying!” I took a shaky breath and forced a foot forward to step toward him.
Just a girl.
He stood, uncertain. The sword tip wavered in his hand. “Hiding man say you kill mama. No like you.” He bellowed in rage at the sky, and I cringed, but my feet didn’t move. I didn’t back away.
“Your mama couldn’t come to you, Grenny. She missed you very much, but the hiding man stole you away.” I inhaled slowly, trying to keep my voice from shaking as badly as my hands were. The memetic curse was making it hard, but Watson hadn’t counted on one thing.
There was something that "just" a girl - only a girl - could do.
“Your mama couldn’t come, Grenny,” I repeated, “so she sent me instead. She knew you’d need a mother. So she sent the strongest one she could find. She had to be sure I was tough enough. The one who could beat her, that was the only one for her baby boy. She loved you so much, Grendel. She gave her life finding you a new mother.”
The sword tip dropped a little.
“New… mama?” His tiny eyes were wet. “Hiding man… hiding man say…”
“Did the hiding man ever give you a kiss?” I stepped forward.
Grendel took a half-step backward, but I kept coming. He stopped backing away, and shook his head. He dropped the sword with a huge clang, and I gasped reflexively. Grendel stuck a meaty hand out.
I patted myself down, but I wasn’t even really certain how I’d come to be wearing this dress, and it didn’t have any convenient thimbles in the pockets - or any pockets at all, for that matter. Grendel watched me, expectant. He fidgeted a little. I was losing the story. I was losing him.
I gave him a reassuring grin as my desperation mounted. I was wearing shoes… maybe he’d take a shoe? I could try giving him a real kiss, but that would totally break concordance. I had to give him… something… red?
A familiar balloon drifted down lazily from the sky. I had last seen it slipping into the breeze just before we left the amusement park. It slid its ribbon into my outstretched hand, and then bobbed happily there. Grendel gasped and stared. His nose twitched. His pointy ears bent toward the red globe.
“Here is your kiss, Grenny,” I said to him, handing him Jill’s balloon. He snatched it, eagerness mixed with ginger caution. He poked at it gently, and laughed with joy as it dipped away from him, and then bounced back.
As quickly as I could, I tied the ribbon around his wrist. I could only imagine the fallout if he decided to clap in his excitement.
“‘One girl is more use than twenty boys,’” quoted Doyle. “Peter Pan was always a favorite. My mother used to read it to me, forever ago.”
I turned to him and smiled. “You’re a bit of a lost boy, aren’t you?”
He smiled back. “But I remember my happy thought. And I think he’s found his.” Doyle jerked his head at Grendel, who was sitting on the ground, giggling and playing with the balloon. The sword sat forgotten next to him.
Doyle sobered. “He’s killed people, Gwen. He will have to answer that. And what are we going to do with him? He’s a monster to the naked eye. He shouldn’t be able to be that, any more than his mother should have been able to be a horrible tentacle beast.”
My lips made a thin line. “Puck said that something had changed. I think it has to do with all of those Personae dying the other night. I think it has to do with me. But Grendel? Look at him. He’s a little boy. Yes, he’s also a monster. Yes, he’s done wrong. Some things, horribly wrong. But you don’t blame the kid with the gun, even if the kid is the gun. You blame the one who put the gun in his hands and pointed it at us.”
Doyle frowned back. “Bill Adler. Watson.”
I nodded. “He made sure that cops would be here, and then worked Grendel into a frenzy and set him loose.”
I turned, and looked up at the sky. There was a star up there, moving slowly across the heavens. “Watson's drone: can it see me?” I asked Doyle.
“Yes, and probably read your lips, too, at that altitude. It's flying low, maybe ten thousand feet.”
“You said that the fairy dust was incoming?”
An engine cut through the night, growing louder. It was coming from the opposite side of the Bridge, in the opposing traffic lanes. A low-end sports car came revving by, the first traffic in the last few minutes. As it passed us on the other side, its window rolled down, pumping loud music into the night. My eyes flicked to Grendel, but he hadn’t stopped playing with the balloon even for a minute.
Out of the window, the driver reached a hand, and flung a plastic bag through the air. It burst open over us, showering us with small, straw-like objects. Several of them burst open as they landed on us, spraying colored powder everywhere.
I dipped a finger in it, and tasted. “Pixie sticks?” I laughed. “Doyle, you’re a genius.”
He beamed. “You put out a call on the internet asking for pixie sticks delivered to GPS coordinates in five minutes, and offer five thousand dollars to the first taker, you’re likely to get a lot of fairy dust.”
“Doyle,” I gasped, “look down!”
His feet weren’t touching the ground. He looked up at me in amazement.
“How… how does it feel?” I asked.
He tilted his head back and crowed in exultation. He laughed like a kid. “Gwen… it’s amazing! Come on… what’s your happy thought?”
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.
I closed my eyes. I felt warm. Safe. The weight of the last few days lifted off of me. I wished I’d let him ruffle my hair. I pictured it, felt his hand tousling me, my hair going every which way…
I opened my eyes. I looked down. I laughed.
The Bridge, Doyle, Grendel… they were all far, far below. I was high up in the sky, floating, weightless. I did a little tumbling roll, just because I could.
Then I heard a noise. A familiar noise, one I’d heard throughout my eighth year. A buzz, a hum. Not far.
The drone was circling in a standard reconnaissance pattern: a wide circle around its target. It was shaped like fixed-wing aircraft, with a huge camera mounted on a rotating drum on the underbelly. As the drone circled, the camera swiveled, targeted on the scene on the bridge. I could see another sensor array near the nose, a glass dome that presumably gave more of a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree view under the aircraft, the better to find its targets. There were no armaments strapped anywhere that I could see.
It was cold up here, but I felt it only as a dim awareness of chill: adrenaline or magic, I didn't know. As I flew toward Watson’s drone, the large camera swiveled up to follow me. Between the wind and the rotor noise, it definitely couldn't hear me - it probably didn't have any audio sensors, anyway, because why bother? - but Doyle had said it could read lips. I flew in close, maybe twenty feet away from the tip of its starboard wing, below the chassis so the camera could see me clearly.
"Her or me!" I screamed over the roaring air. “Your words! Guess who I choose?”
The drone made no response.
“It didn’t have to be a choice!” I accused. “We were friends. I would have helped her! But you couldn’t leave anything to chance, couldn’t trust in good will! You had to control everything! Now, I’m coming for the both of you! Tomorrow! It all ends for you tomorrow! Camelot, Arthur, the Lady, everything! Game over! You can control New Camelot. You have swords.” I spat the last word.
“I have words. And I’m carving them on your tombstone, you bastard!”
Suddenly, the drone rolled toward me. The thing was enormous, and its rotors were set to “puree”. At the speeds we were moving, even a small twist made for a lightning-quick change in direction, and Watson was steering for murder.
I didn’t move. I didn’t have to. Grendel was there.
Grendel’s sword was there. With a mighty heave, he cast it into the closest rotor. And suddenly, one of the drone’s wings was not there.
“You no hurt new mama!” Grendel roared. He stood there in the sky, clinging to a red balloon that seemed impervious to the gale all around us. The damaged drone slid under us through the sky, and I felt the wind suck at me, trying to drag me down with it in a death spiral.
But Grendel slid his hand into mine, and we stood fixed in the air as part of Watson crashed into the Potomac.
With amazing gentleness, Grendel squeezed my hand. “You good new mama,” he declared. “Granny no let you go away.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” I promised. “You’re a good boy, Grendel. We’ll take care of each other.”
Slowly, we drifted down towards Doyle, who was still floating a hundred feet above the Bridge.
“Gwen!” he greeted me with a laugh. “Did you just tear apart an unmanned aerial vehicle?”
“You should see me before I’ve had my coffee.”
He put his hands behind his head, and lay back into the air. “So what’s next, Wendy-lady?”
I gritted my teeth. “Next is Arthur. Watson may be the bad seed that set him on the path to being an egomaniac out to save the world from itself, or maybe that’s just the ugly story of Camelot when you peel back all the shining armor, I don’t know. But it’s time to write their final chapter.”
Doyle sank down slightly in the air. “Yes,” he agreed wistfully, “I think that there’s something rotten in Denmark. But what does that mean for Vivian? You heard her before. Bill’s manipulated her into all this. And I see from that look in your eye that you’re still mad about the torture that was after all not that long ago and I understand that. But what does it mean for Merlin if Camelot is finished?”
“Maybe it means that he doesn’t get trapped in a hawthorn tree for all time by an evil sex witch? Maybe it means he gets a happily ever after?”
He frowned. “You’re talking about something that no one has ever done before.”
“Beating Camelot? They’ve lost every single time they’ve tried to rebuild it since the Dark Ages.”
“I mean rewriting the story. Sure, people give it their own treatments all the time. But rewriting it, so it sticks? Ending the story?” He shook his head. “I’ve seen you do a lot, Gwen. But this isn’t just about what you can do. This is about what the world can believe.”
“Two thousand years ago, a man with a hammer made the world believe that the meek would inherit the earth. Let’s see if we can convince people that a man who murdered dozens of children deserves justice.”
He smiled, and shook his head. “And people have called me arrogant. All right: we’re up against an army of knights in shining armor and a sky full of drones. We have a girl in a sun dress, a computer nerd, and a man-child with a red balloon. It’s time for the Revenge of the Nerds.”
“My dad loved that movie. I never understood it. It wasn’t very funny.”
“That’s because the nerds won, Gwen. We beat the jocks and took over the world. I’m living proof.”
My eyes spotted something on the river. “Doyle, I think you’re ripe for a career change. How do you feel about piracy? You’d make a terrible Dread Pirate Roberts, but I could see you as Smee.”
I pointed. Sailing up the Potomac, a ship drifted effortlessly against the current. The Jolly Roger fluttered in the breeze.
“Ahoy, mates!” called Puck from below.
I beckoned Doyle and Grendel. “Come on!” I said. “Captain Puck! Permission to come aboard?”
“Arr!” he replied as I touched down. “I sent yer friend in tha' bowler hat to sleep things off. Changes like that may stick or they may not... but they come at a cost he'll pay in a week's worth of snoring."
I frowned, but nodded. "Cavill was there when I needed him. He'll be there again."
Puck nodded. "Where be we headed, me hearties?”
Vivian had let something slip. We had to keep you out of the way for a while, but I was going to get you out after the coronation.
“There's only one coronation I know of in these parts, at this time of year. Arthur will be there. It’s time to get Renaissance on his ass.”
“Don’t ye mean ‘medieval’?”
“No. He needs enlightenment.”
I looked up to the stars. My eyes glittered back at them.
"Second to the left, Captain Puck, and straight on till morning!"

Chapter 19: No Man
For those who are true to my methods, I am never far.
The Maryland Renaissance Festival sits on the edge of the woods, straddling the worlds of sunshine and shadow. In the sun lie the tourney grounds, where knights compete in feats of skill and kings are crowned. A short walk will take you under the shade of an old wood, where baubles and magic are for sale to dreamers, children, and fools.
The day broke hot, sunshine blazing down onto the jousting field. I tried to focus on the task at hand as the sound of crowds began to grow. The sizzle of fried fair food teased my ears with the promise of something wonderful to feast upon. But as the people wandered into the glade there on the edge of sun and shadow, I felt something else fill my belly: anticipation.
They came in trickles at first, eager seekers of magic and wonderment. Some wore costumes, others shorts and t-shirts, but everyone’s eyes sparkled, and their lips told the same tale: the king was coming soon!
Trumpets agreed with them. The fanfare pierced the bustle of the morning, and people surged to the stands that surrounded the jousting field. The king would ride in and be crowned right here in front of them!
The thirteen men on horseback arrived with solemn confidence. Arthur rode on a charger of the purest white, his head held high as his glittering armor dazzled all who gazed upon him. Just behind him rode someone who could only be Lancelot, young and powerful. Then Sir Kay, and Galahad, and Bors… Arthur and a dozen knights rode slowly down onto the jousting field, eyes fixed high onto the grandstand at the opposite end. The man who would be king reined in his horse, and his knights fanned out in a semicircle behind him.
The trumpets faded, and the crowd sank into a hush of whispers. Something white fluttered down from the stands, and Arthur reached up a hand to catch it. He waved the favor in the air, back at the woman who’d flung it. “Guinevere,” came the whispers, and my skin crawled. I did not know her as Guinevere. Beneath the frills and ruffles was someone who would rather spend a weekend naked in the back yard, painted in camouflage.
Robin. They’d gotten to Robin. She was their new Guinevere. Her eyes were glassy; her smile, plastic. The machine. Vivian had stolen it, but then they'd used it on Robin. The two women were supposed to link up after the Black Velvet Lounge. Apparently, Vivian had come packing... ready to make Camelot complete once more.
It turns out that your friend Vivian...
Robin was a Persona, and from what I understood from Moriarty, she’d still have all of Robin Hood’s abilities. She was atop the grandstand, with a great view of everything. Two seconds and she could kill anyone here. There’d been a movie out a while back in which Guinevere knew how to use a bow, so it wouldn’t even break concordance for her to put an arrow through my eye as soon as I made an appearance.
And the sick thing was, with the machine, she didn’t even have to be Guinevere for long. She wasn’t an ideal candidate: too close to Arthur’s own age to be his young paramour. It would be too easy for a more suitable candidate to arise, and New Camelot didn't take well to surprises. Robin would be yesterday's Guinevere in a week's time.
... is really my friend Vivian.
Guinevere wasn’t important today, though: Robin was just here as a bodyguard. She was such a non-character in all of Camelot’s drama - except for the part of it that had to do with Lancelot - that no one would remember tomorrow if Arthur showed up with a different blonde. A few more minutes in the machine, and Robin Cowl could just wake up with a splitting headache and no memory of the last few days.
True to form, it wasn’t Robin who everyone followed with their eyes as she slid her way down the stairs from the grandstand. Her dress was green, like a viper. She had dark hair and pale lips, moving with sensual purpose. The mistress of Avalon. She who would bestow a sword upon the king. Sometimes her name was Nimue.
Sometimes it was Vivian.
She stopped in front of an object near the end of the field, covered in a sheet. Looking slowly around the crowd, she reached out a hand, letting it hover dramatically over the shrouded monument. As her gaze swept across the the stands, silent anticipation caught even the throats of whispering children.
Her lips curled into a smile. It wasn’t a happy smile. It was… satisfied. Things were correct.
Vivian inhaled deeply, breathing in the power as she grew closer to the story of the Lady of the Lake, and flung back the sheet to reveal a massive granite block. Sticking straight out of it was a sword.
“Come forth, whoever is worthy!” she proclaimed. “Who here is righteous enough to wear the crown of Camelot?”
Purposefully, Arthur dismounted. He stood for a moment, legs spread wide, the wind tousling the dragon crest on his tunic as the universe seemed to rotate around his axis. Before proceeding toward his destiny, he turned to the people in the stands.
“Good people!” he cried. “My name is Arthur Drake. I think you’ve heard of me. For decades now, I have defended you in the shadows. Now I have come forth into the light… but with this sword, I will defend you today, and for all our tomorrows!”
The crowd roared.
“I am here as King Arthur today, but I don’t plan to hide away in a castle. Here in America, we don’t bestow titles of nobility. My name is Arthur Drake, and I am one of you.
“My name is Arthur Drake, and I am running for President!”
The stands erupted, people on their feet, howling and clapping and shouting. Arthur pumped his hands up a few times, working the crowd. He flourished “Guinevere’s” charm, and blew her a kiss. He bowed to the crowd, and then held up his hands for silence.
“Too many who have come before me have sought the office for their own ends. They were politicians. I’m a warrior. And I will serve you as the defender of the free world!” The audience roared again.
“Am I worthy?” Arthur asked them. They shouted in answer. “Am I worthy? Am I worthy?”
“Yes!” the people cried. “Yes, yes, yes!”
They were eating out of his hand. Shouts, cheers, clapping. He was soaking it up. He let it go on for a solid minute before raising his hand to the people in a salute. Then, with a definitive motion, he turned his back on them. He faced his destiny.
He began to walk toward the sword in the stone. The world rotated around his axis. The universe held its breath.
From nowhere in the empty sky, somehow there came a cloud to blot out the sun. A cool breeze swept through the stands, stirring up dust at Arthur’s feet. He looked down, and then frowned up at the sky. His eyes narrowed. Then he felt it, and they got wide.
Something was moving under the earth. The ground stirred in front of him, and Arthur checked his stride, hand moving instinctively to the sword at his hip. People leaned forward in their seats. They'd come to see a coronation, and were getting a President… what was this?
A hand clad in black mail clawed its way up from the ground. Its armored fingers sank into the earth at Arthur's feet, and he hopped quickly back, eyes flickering to Vivian.
"What the-?"
Another hand surged forth, and a black helm followed it. Out of the soil rose a knight whose face was fully covered by a giant, ebony helmet. He was huge, strangely-proportioned, terrifying. His armor was covered in spikes and skulls. As he stood fully erect, he drew forth a black sword easily six inches wide, inlaid with the insignia of death. He pushed its tip into the earth and rested his hands on its pommel. When he spoke, his voice boomed out as if from the grave.
"None shall pass." The knight stood between Arthur and the stone.
“What the hell is this?” Arthur hissed. “Is this someone else you and that robot have brainwashed?”
From behind the hulking figure, Vivian whispered back, “Gwen sent him! This has her all over it. But this is a knight: I can’t do anything, or it’ll break concordance. Go with it or you’ll lose everything!”
The curse back on the bridge told me that Vivian knew some spells, but the Lady of the Lake couldn’t best the Black Knight for Arthur. Neither could Guinevere the archer. He had to do it himself, or else he wasn’t following the story. And now of all times, Arthur Drake had to be the most Arthurian King Arthur the there ever was. This was his coronation.
So this was Arthur’s fight.
He squinted warily at his opponent, who betrayed nothing. He nodded, accepting. This was happening, and while he expected treachery, by god, he was King Arthur. He would face this foe, just one of many, and he would emerge victorious. It was written.
Arthur raised his voice so that all could hear. “It seems that the trials begin early today! Stand aside, Black Knight. I mean to draw that sword from the stone behind you.”
The other did not move. It looked down upon Arthur and repeated, “None shall pass!”
“I have no quarrel with you, good Sir Knight. But I must reach that stone.”
The unspoken threat hung in the air. For three, four full breaths, the Black Knight did not respond. The air was electric; no one so much as whispered. Finally, the sepulchral voice boomed forth again: “Then you shall die.”
Arthur was getting frustrated. “I command you: stand aside!”
The knight did not so much as shift. “I move for no man.”
“Have it your way.” Arthur gritted his teeth, and tore his blade free from the scabbard in a lightning swing toward the knight’s head. Every bit as fast, the dark-clad warrior raised his enormous sword, holding the blade with one hand and the hilt in the other to deflect Arthur’s strike with ease. As the smaller man’s blow rebounded harmlessly, the Black Knight drove forward with a stab toward Arthur’s chest. Arthur spun out of the way like a cat falling through the air, and whipped fully around with another mighty hack. Again the Black Knight parried, and the two opponents began to circle. The Black Knight kept himself carefully between Arthur and the stone.
They pressed back and forth, evenly matched. Both were fast and deadly, and the grim look on Arthur’s face showed that he knew that his enemy’s words were no empty threat. As he sidestepped a ferocious overhead swing that should have left the larger opponent stumbling past him, Arthur caught a gauntleted backhand to the face that knocked him to the ground. He rolled instinctively away from the blow he knew would follow, regaining his feet with a warrior’s practiced ease.
Arthur redoubled his attack with a furious stream of blows that the Black Knight only barely evaded. Things had changed with that strike: first blood may have gone to the Black Knight, but no man bloodied King Arthur and lived. The fury of the Pendragon was on him. He knocked the larger man’s blade aside with a two-handed sweep that left him wide open.
With a mighty slash, Arthur took the Black Knight’s left arm off at the shoulder. The crowd gasped. The Black Knight staggered back, staring in disbelief at the stump.
Gasping for breath, Arthur leveled his sword. “Now… stand aside!”
The Black Knight straightened immediately, almost farcically fast. It was as if his surprise and pain had just been to deliver a punchline. “’Tis but a scratch!” he cried.
“What the- your arm’s off!”
The Black Knight’s deep voice had become small and whiny. “No it isn’t!”
Arthur sputtered, “Well, what’s that, then?” This was not going according to the program.
The knight looked down at the arm on the ground. He looked back up at Arthur. “I’ve had worse.”
Arthur just goggled. The two stared at each other for a minute, until someone yelled, “Liar!”
The Black Knight hefted his improbable sword one-handed. “Come on, you pansy!”
His swing was wild, uncontrolled. The exchange was brief and one-sided. Arthur took his other arm with ease.
Someone in the crowd started to laugh. Puzzled, Arthur turned his back on his disarmed opponent. The Black Knight ran around to his front, apparently in no pain whatsoever, and began kicking Arthur in his armored shins.
“Come on, then! Have at you!”
“What the-?” Arthur stumbled back, limping slightly, and leveled his sword.
“Oooh, had enough, eh?” The words came not from the Black Knight, but from the stands. There was more laughter.
Arthur was bewildered. “What the fuck is going on?” he hissed.
“Oh god… it’s Monty Python,” Vivian whispered back. “She’s… she’s changing your concordance! You’re King Arthur from the silliest movie in history! You don’t want to be King of the Britons. Whatever you do, don’t-” she began, but she was drowned out by shouts coming from the stands.
Dozens of people, all at once: “Look, you stupid bastard, you’ve got no arms left!”
The Black Knight shouted back to the chorus. “Yes I have!”
Now it was the Black Knight’s turn to work the crowd. With no arms, this was something of a feat, but he gyrated his body and gestured with his head, dancing maniacally and hopping around, until he leaped down into a wide stance and bellowed along with the crowd.
“It’s just a flesh wound!”
The knight ran forward, kicking Arthur slowly in the ass. It was almost in pantomime, not anything meant to hurt, just to annoy.
“Stop that!” Arthur snapped, swatting at the offending foot.
“Chicken! Chicken!” the knight taunted.
The crowd was roaring now, but it was with laughter. Through the hubbub, a new sound clip-clopped through the air. It was coming from Arthur’s horse. With a flourish, the small man standing beneath the horse stood up, showing the whole horse to have been an elaborate costume that he tossed casually to the ground. In his hands, he held a pair of coconuts. Despite the enormous backpack he wore, Puck pranced toward Arthur and the Black Knight, banging the coconuts together in imitation of the sound of a horse’s hooves.
“You’re using coconuts!” someone in the crowd hollered, and it was all over.
Puck tossed the coconuts high into the air, and took bow after bow. The Black Knight pulled two un-severed arms out from within his spooky armor, and joined in, bowing and waving to the crowd.
“Take a bow, King of the Britons,” Puck whispered to Arthur. “They’re loving this.”
“I… I…” Arthur looked wildly around, uncertain.
“This is your chance,” Puck hissed. “You and your men abducted an eighteen-year-old girl in the name of Camelot. Took her clothes. Fucking tortured her! What happened to Might for Right? You’re not the Arthur anyone needs. Let this happen, and you can still be the silly old Arthur that they’ll love.”
“Arthur?” Vivian asked, desperation in her voice. “Arthur, you can’t… there’s no Lady in that story! We can’t let… do something!”
Arthur was struggling. His eyes swept the stands for an answer, because for once he didn’t have one. The aura of authority that always poured off of him had vanished. He couldn’t have been more confused if someone had asked him about the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.
“Take a bow, Arthur,” Puck prodded.
A strange noise vibrated through the air, tantalizingly out of reach. It was almost a taste, more than a sound. Most people couldn’t make anything more of it than that.
But I knew what it was. Watson was here. And Daddy Dearest was broadcasting subsonics that could straighten Arthur out… and bring the crowd right with him.
Arthur straightened. He picked his sword back up, and leveled its tip at the Black Knight. Puck and the knight froze.
“I bow… to no man,” he growled. He looked strong again. Fierce. Regal.
I tore the Black Knight’s oversize helmet off of my head, taking the padded shoulders that Puck had rigged up alongside it. The costume had been ridiculous, letting me see almost nothing, and was near-impossible to move in. If Arthur’s narrative hadn’t demanded that the fight with the Black Knight be dramatic, there’s no way I’d have been able to hold my own under all that weight.
But we obeyed the laws of narrative causality because that’s who we were, and I’d done my part until now. Shedding the dark breastplate and greaves I’d worn, I peeled myself out of Arthur’s chivalric myth. My arms were bare and almost pink, like a newborn’s. I stood in a sports bra and yoga pants, facing down a crown with an empty scabbard and the steel of my wits. Inside me, I could hear the rumbling of horse’s hooves across the planes of the Riddermark.
It was time to tell my story.
“I am no man,” I answered. I took a deep breath, and a woman who had stared down a ghost king steeled me with her courage. She didn’t ride in my skin like others had before her. She stood with me. And together, we charged him.
The sword slid through my belly with an impact that felt strangely like a punch to the gut. It scraped along my spine as it tore out my back, dripping blood and gore across the earth. My knees threatened to buckle, but I forced myself forward, pushing myself along its length, feeling it tear my intestines with every step. I drew myself in close to him, hands on the blade as I tugged it into myself. My blood washed over us both as I came in close to him, teeth bared. I wrapped a bloody hand around the back of his head, and with every word, red-flecked spittle sprayed over his handsome beard.
“How does it feel… to murder children… face to face?”
He let go of the sword in shock. “Gwen… oh god… I didn’t mean… I never…”
He staggered back. He shook his head as if to clear it, or to deny the work of his own hands. I waited for him to come back to himself, and then pulled his sword slowly out of my body.
It hurt. God, did it hurt. It hurt worse than when he’d taken my arms off. The warrior maiden inside me leant me her strength, and it was all that both of us could do to get the last few inches out. But the wound closed up immediately after the tip of the blade came free.
The blood remained, though.
“My scabbard,” he whispered. “You’ve got Excalibur’s scabbard, that protects you from blades.”
“You should be more careful around lakes,” I answered, leveling his own sword at him with the sure hand of a woman who’d trained with it from birth. “And you should yield.”
There was still enough of King Arthur left that he bristled at the command. His eyes flickered left. We’d wound up almost where we’d started this little dance, but our positions were reversed: he was now between me and the sword in the stone. He flung himself at it, tearing furiously at the hilt to pull the blade from the rock.
“No!” Vivian cried. Too late, she’d seen my plan. All the pieces were falling into place: marginalize Arthur by jarring him out of concordance with the traditional story and aligning him with a farce. Weakened, confused, he’d try to re-establish concordance with perhaps the most iconic moment of King Arthur’s existence: the drawing of the sword from the stone.
It didn’t budge. We’d rigged it, of course.
If Arthur Drake had been worthy, it might not have mattered. Narrative causality and all that: if he’d been the King Arthur that he was supposed to be, noble and righteous and the savior of mankind, I doubted that the magic of the Personae would have allowed our feeble restraints to hold. But worthy he was not, and the sword held fast.
Arthur roared in surprise and fury. He pulled and strained and struggled, but the blade moved not an inch. Watching, Vivian sagged to her knees.
“Oh, Gwen, you don’t understand…” she murmured. “He’s going to kill you.”
“Nobody dies today,” I answered, “except a story whose time was up centuries ago.”
I raised my voice. “Stand down, Arthur. You’re not worthy. King Arthur isn’t worthy. Your paternalistic, ‘divinely-mandated ruler knows best’ time is done. We don’t need a dictator anymore. We can do better.”
Arthur stopped struggling with the sword, but he didn’t turn back to me.
“Do you people know who King Arthur is, today?” I called to the stands. “His skin looks like mine. He lives someplace sandy and dry. He wears sunglasses and a military uniform, or maybe flowing robes and a head scarf. He’s uniting the tribes at the point of the sword, bringing Islam - divinely mandated rule - along with him. He outlaws other religions, because that’s what you do when you think God is speaking to you. America probably sells him weapons. Think about the Arthur story!
“Have any of you ever cheated on a boyfriend or girlfriend?” I shouted to the crowd. I waited for a long moment while some of them squirmed, then jerked a thumb over my shoulder at Arthur. “You’d better be glad you weren’t dating this guy! You know what he does when he finds out his wife is cheating? He tries to murder her by charging her with treason, as if her vagina had betrayed the whole country! And then starts a war with the people loyal to his best friend! If his name were Mahmud and he was in charge of an African country, we’d be calling for UN sanctions!”
I waited. People were looking around uncomfortably.
“He’s not even worthy in his own story!” I tried again. “God tells him to go get the Grail, but he’s not up for the task, so he sends his thugs. When the biggest religious nutjob among them does find it, that guy decides that Arthur and his whole country aren’t worthy of the Grail, either! As soon as he gets it out of Britain, God proves that He agrees and whisks the thing up to Heaven! His people don’t trust him. The deity he kills for says he’s not worthy! Arthur tried, and maybe ‘Might for Right’ was better than ‘Might Makes Right’, but it’s still a failure! He’s still a failure!”
I cast my finger out at him, still turned away from me. He was leaning on the embedded sword now, and he looked tired. It was working. He was weakening. Here, at the pivotal moment in Arthur Drake’s story, the people were losing faith in King Arthur’s.
I couldn’t do it by myself, though. I needed someone else. Come on… come on…
A small voice answered me back from the stands. A young woman - a girl, really, probably a few years younger than me, blonde, pretty - called back, “And he doesn’t even get the girl in the end, right? He’s kind of like… the nice guy that she’s got to be with before she figures out who she really loves. That guy never wins in the end.”
“Yes!” I cried. “Exactly! He’s not even the hero in his own story!”
I locked eyes with the girl for a moment. She had perfect skin and hair and might have been a cheerleader. I had dark skin and thick hair and before yesterday had never kissed a boy. But somehow, in that moment, we were sisters.
The crowd was buzzing with modern indignity at a medieval story. I shoved the bloody tip of the sword I held down into the dirt, and laid a hand on Arthur’s shoulder.
“Come on, Arthur,” I said, speaking softly, just for us to hear. “You and I both know what happens when someone gets absolute power. You started this with the best of intentions. You wanted to save the world. You wound up waterboarding your friend’s daughter. Because that’s who Arthur Pendragon is. That’s not who Arthur Drake has to be. That’s not who you want for these people. That’s not who you want for this world.”
“It all… it all got so complicated,” he whispered. “I had to do things… he said I had to do things…”
Arthur’s voice cracked. “He said I had to kill my son.”
He didn’t slump: he crumpled.
I looked around. People were shaking their heads, as if awakening from a dream. They were talking animatedly, pointing out at us. Whatever subsonic juju Watson was pumping in was lost in the hubbub.
“This isn’t over,” a voice rang across the field, and I raised my eyes to see the new Lancelot getting down from his horse. The other knights did likewise. Lancelot stalked towards me, and his fellows began to close in behind him. He was bigger than Lance Haran had been, and the glint in his eye said it clearly: “does not play well with others.” He stopped a few paces away from me - dueling distance - and drew his sword.
“You haven’t won. We can bring King Arthur back. The Lady and her computer demon can restore him, cleanse him of the poison of your words. Pick up your sword, girl,” he instructed.
Girl. Like it was a curse. Like it made me less than him. Like it was so obvious that you wouldn’t even question it.
"Put yours down, boy,” I retorted. "You should have seen what I did to the last idiot who thought he was an unbeatable knight."
He didn't back down. "I'm faster. Stronger. I'm a truer Lancelot than he ever was."
“Oh, what an honor,” I said dryly. My eyes flicked over to Bors, Lance Haran’s former lover, who suddenly looked uncomfortable amongst his peers. I jerked my head up to the grandstands behind me, where Robin still seemed held in the thrall of Guinevere. “You going to go and be true to your namesake and honor your king by poking his wife and stabbing him in the heart through the back?" I asked.
He gritted his teeth. "I'll defend Camelot until I die."
"Why?" I shouted, throwing up my hands. "What's worth defending? Sure, it's built on some noble ideas: using might to defend the right was pretty revolutionary for a thousand years ago. But oh, wait, this is the twenty-first century! Chivalry? How about women's rights? Might for right? How about rule of law? Feudalism? How about democracy? You're so wrapped up in the shiny bits that you don't see the darkness, the oppression! Religious persecution much? Arthur brought the Cross to England on the point of a sword. He sent every child born in the kingdom on the first of May out to sea in a boat in a storm, so that they'd sink and he'd be extra certain to murder his own son! And was he vilified for it? Was he prosecuted for being a murderer? No! Whereas you and his wife dare fool around on him, and you're put on trial for treason!"
"And let me tell you about his wife!" I shouted. I was heated, but I'd had enough. "I should know, because I had to wear her skin. She's a simpering twit! She’s courted by a man over twice her age, one who uses his authority and charm to set her heart aflutter just long enough to trap her in a loveless marriage. She claims she loves him, then betrays him when the new hotness rolls into town. That's her story! That's it! Oh, and after Arthur deals with Lancelot, she starts shacking up with Mordred while dear hubby is off making more war! Nobody ever remembers that part.
“Does Guinevere want anything? Does she have her own ideas? Does she say anything but yes to every man who tries to put his hand up her skirt? No one knows! We've got nothing to learn from her, we've got nothing to learn from you, and we've got nothing to learn from Camelot!”
I took a deep breath, pulled the magic scabbard off my belt, and let it drop into the dirt. "So let me teach you something, Lancelot. No magic charms to protect me, because I don’t need them. I’m just going to walk away now. I’m not going to fight you. Fighting you is beneath me, because I'm civilized. I can stop you with my mind; I don't need a magic scabbard. I can destroy you with words; I don't need the sword. Go back to school and come at me again when you've got a philosophy more sophisticated than 'make sure your woman only fucks when you tell her to', by which I mean chivalry in case you’re as smart as you look. Maybe I'll buy you a beer and we can talk things out like people who can aspire to greater heights than 'most prolific murderer wearing a tin suit'."
Inside me, Eowyn cheered. Wendy clapped her hands together. Even Cleopatra gave me a sultry nod of approval.
I turned my back and started to stalk off the field. There was a wet noise from behind me, and I felt a gob of spit catch me flat in the back of the head.
"You will fight me, bitch," he said. "And I'll show you what you can learn from Camelot. You can learn to die."
A voice, inside me: I crave your pardon, Shieldmaiden of the Riddermark.
Eowyn started. Sir?
I believe that I may be of some small assistance in this matter.
But sir... she lost you. It is against the rules.
My lady, this young woman has been ever faithful to my methods. She has excelled at every art of detection and overcome every challenge with more grace and poise than a thousand of me. I owe her a debt. It is time that I kept faithful to her. The tall man in my head grinned for the first time in his life. Fuck the rules.
I could feel Eowyn shrug. Her body. Her rules.
There was a moment's silence in my head. I heard Lancelot coming for me.
Gwen. I am so sorry for all of this. Will you let me help you?
Holmes. It was Holmes. I could feel him waiting to slide into my skin, flex his fingers beneath my own. I straightened.
"No, Mr. Holmes," I whispered. "I'm done with men telling me what to do. But I'm glad you're here. Let me show you how well I learned from you."
I knew him. He was planning everything out, seeing all the angles, calculating every possibility. But now, he knew me. I felt him smile. Elementary, my dear Gwen. I have every faith in you.
I wiped the spit from the back of my head. What Would Sherlock Do?
That wasn't really the question anymore, was it?
Lancelot had been trying to get under my skin: I mustn't let it register on an emotional level.
First, distract him. A quick step to the side will put the sun right in his eyes, dazzling his vision for a moment. Then, block his blind stab with an arm sweep along the flat of the blade, and counter with a cross to his left cheek. Two-handed slam to his ears: discombobulate. Dazed, he will attempt a wild haymaker now that I am inside his sword arm. Employ an elbow block and knee to the ribcage. Block his feral lunge, then weaken his right jaw with a roundhouse punch. Uppercut: fracture jaw. Spinning kick to break cracked ribs, followed by reverse punch to traumatize solar plexus. Elbow smash dislocates jaw entirely. Heel kick to diaphragm sends him to the ground.
In summary: ears ringing; jaw fractured; three ribs cracked, four broken; diaphragm hemorrhaging. Physical recovery: six weeks. Full psychological recovery: six months.
Capacity to be a chauvinistic douchebag: neutralized. For now. Send him a card in the hospital to show that it's nice to be nice.
I’d said that I wouldn’t fight him. I kept my promise. Fights take longer than six seconds.
The stands were completely silent as Lancelot landed in a limp pile on the ground. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw a tall man take off a deerstalker cap and bow slightly. Then he vanished, as if he'd never been there in the first place.
Where the man had been, Doyle was trying to get my attention. He pointed to the grandstands, then gave a thumbs-up. Oooh. He’d sent me a care package.
With Lancelot gasping in the dirt, I turned to the rest of the knights. "I'm going to spare you a lot of pain. While you were just watching this delicate flower take out the strongest one of you without breaking a nail or a sweat, while you were all focused on me being the big action hero, my associates were uploading pictures of you torturing me to the internet. I’ve learned few hard lessons about misdirection, and now it’s your turn. Turns out, having a shapeshifter on my team is pretty damn handy: the pictures show Arthur clearly, along with a few of the rest of you. You can claim they're fake, which they are, except that it all really happened and there will be camera crews at the amusement park in under an hour.
“It happened today, it's happened before, and even if the pictures turn out to be fake everyone will believe it because it's a story they already know. Your whole little power trip is about to be under the microscope, and some of you are going to jail.”
"Arthur's broken," I continued, "and Lancelot is, too. Maybe some of you were thinking that you could overwhelm me with numbers, and hey, maybe you're right. But I don't need to kick the shit out of you to prove a point. You make a move, and she’s going to have something to say about it. Who wants to be the first?”
I jerked my head up to the grandstand. Robin stood there, tall and strong. Doyle had deprogrammed her.
She had a green scarf wrapped around her neck, and she had two things in her hands. The first, which everyone saw, was the longbow, with arrow knocked and aimed at the knights. It was rock steady in her grip.
She called out, “Take a step, boys, and we're gonna have words! They'll start with 'ow, ow, fuck, arrows in the dick really hurt.’”
The other thing she had in her hands, I don't think most people saw. Drawn back by her ear, where she held back the feathered tip of an arrow, she had a pair of round hipster glasses clutched tight in her hand. Just like the ones that Marion had worn. From the bottom of the grandstand, Doyle nodded, and gave me a little wink.
I wondered how much it had cost him to get them here in the last five minutes. I shook my head. Sometimes magic was like that.
I looked back to the knights. “It’s not about me. It’s never been about me. You all think that way because you expect man-on-man violence to be the culmination of the action. You think that’s how you achieve victory, but we haven’t had to do it that way for centuries. I beat you before you even stepped foot on the tourney grounds, because I don’t care about violence: I care about winning. And these days we’ve got better ways than yours. Your story is over. Stand down.”
I waited. One second, two seconds, five. No one moved.
“One thing we aren’t these days is patient. Stand. The Fuck. Down!” I shouted.
They broke and ran. Behind me, Puck shouted after them in a mock British accent, “Would it help to confuse her if we run away more?”
I turned around. Vivian was close behind me, an urgent look in her eye.
“Gwen, we’ve got to get out of here. He’s coming. He’s going to be here any minute and he is going to kill you.”
Doyle was suddenly by my side. His eyes were focused elsewhere, but his voice was grim and very present.
“We’ve got incoming, Gwen. Drones. Full ordinance load.” He swallowed. “Not just mine: there are defense contractors galore in northern Virginia. They’re the ones who make the drones in the first place. He’s… he’s sending all of them.”

Chapter 20: The Return of Sherlock Holmes
Hasta la vista, baby.
"I'm sorry," I blinked. "Watson is sending 'all' the drones? Wha-?"
Vivian's strained voice cut me off. “You ruined Camelot. Any second now the internet’s going to have a dozen smartphone videos of what just happened here. Even he can’t stop it.”
“Unless he stops everything,” I finished. “He’s going to kill us all. Me. Arthur. And all the witnesses. Hard to upload video when you and your phone have been blown to tiny bits. In thy mercy.”
Vivian was pale. “He’ll do it. And in the wake of the worst tragedy since 9/11, he’ll have someone waiting. A scapegoat, and a hero. I don’t know who. But he’ll be ready to have someone take over the world again.”
I shook my head. “He won’t do it. Not with you still down here.”
There were tears in her eyes. “But I’m not. I’m backed up on a hard drive, Gwen. You think it’s just Moriarty who can be imprinted? He stole the machine that my father invented. I used it to temporarily imprint Irene Adler on myself so that I could fool you. Maybe I could hide the truth from you, but you'd know I was lying. So I made sure that Irene Adler was the truth, at least until I undid it."
"You were really Irene Adler," I said flatly. "All the patterns, all the mannerisms. Then you just deprogrammed yourself."
"More like I re-uploaded Vivian," she corrected. "My father has used that thing on me more times than I can count. 'To help,' he always says. I wake up and he'll have fixed some personality defect or another, like some damn science fair project. One time he made me dislike cheese - 'to make it easier for you to stay fit', he said. He took away my desire for cheese so I wouldn't get fat so I could be sexy so I would have power over men so that I would be better at whatever he wanted me to do. That's how willing he is to use that goddamn thing. I don't know who I am or who I used to be.” She prodded her own chest. “I don’t even know if this is the body I was born in. He takes out every living soul here and I’ll wake up and he’ll have a story about how you murdered me, or some shit, and I’ll think that the skin I’m wearing is mine. He can always start over. He won’t hesitate.”
I closed my eyes, pinched the bridge of my nose. Think. Think. This is what you do. You think your way out of problems. Usually, you do it before a psychopathic ghost in the machine has a whole Air Force worth of drones ready to blow hundreds of innocent people to-
My eyes flashed open.
“It is your body. ‘Just a girl.’ Hah!”
I heard a drone on the air. Watson wasn’t coming. Watson was here. But so was Merlin. And Vivian. Both at the height of their power.
This wasn't a story anyone knew.
“Listen,” I snapped, “when the imprinting process happens on Personae, they keep whatever abilities they had. Moriarty imprinted on Hercules and he was still super-strong and tough. Lancelot was still a swordsman. And you cast a spell on me last night, didn’t you? Memetic curse, ‘just a girl’? And it was you who hit Kay with that lightning bolt, wasn’t it? You’ve got spells: you’re a magician of some sort. But your father, he cares about Camelot so that he can turn you into the Lady of the Lake version of Vivian. If you were some other Persona, it wouldn’t matter: the story is in the blood. He wouldn’t bother trying to turn you into Vivian if you were really Cleopatra. You’re Vivian and you have to be Vivian because he cares about Vivian.
“But Vivian can’t cast spells… not until she’s stolen Merlin’s power. Doyle’s still powered up, so which Merlin’s magic did you steal? His. You stole your father’s magic when you trapped him in that computer. You did that, right?”
She swallowed away tears, and nodded. “How did you…?”
“Elementary, as the man says. For now, just know that it’s really your body, or you wouldn’t still be able to cast spells. If he’d uploaded you into a new body, you’d have lost that. You’ve got the magic of the Merlin flowing in those veins, magic that Vivian stole when she stole his power. We’ve got a fleet of drones to knock out of the sky.”
I pointed at Doyle, then to her. “He’s Merlin. You’re Vivian. Go make some magic happen.”
Doyle’s eyes met Vivian’s. At the same time, they each asked, “Lightning?”
They grinned. Thunder rumbled.
Instantly, they were lost in each other. “Patching into cell towers…” muttered Doyle, with Vivian whispering, “electrical impulses at the right frequency… electromagnetic emissions delivering…” “… virus though the system,” Doyle continued, “… taking it straight back to the source!” Vivian finished, triumphantly.
Lightning flashed across the sky from clouds that appeared out of nowhere on the horizon. Some people out in the stands held up their cell phones in confusion, squinting as if it would revive stalled uploads.
Then they smiled, signal restored. The strobing in the sky died down, and the clouds started to fade. And that was it. The two mages turned to me.
“It’s done,” said Vivian.
“The drones will fly out over the ocean and run out of fuel somewhere in the Atlantic,” Doyle added.
“… that’s it?” I asked.
“Did you want a fireball?” asked Vivian. “I think I can do a fireball if it makes you happy.”
Doyle was also grinning from ear to ear. “Did you expect man-on-drone violence to be the culmination of the action? I thought you cared about winning.”
I laughed. “Did we?” I giggled. “Did we just…?”
There was an explosion in the distance. Vivian’s head whipped to the sky, and Doyle unfocused.
"Gwen?" asked Vivian, "if you destroyed Camelot, he doesn't really need to worry about Vivian anymore, does he? He can just… wipe the slate clean."
“Oh god…” Doyle murmured. “Watson… he… he got one command through before we shut it all down.”
Another explosion, closer.
“Fire. He told them all to fire.”
I was already watching the parking lot as the missiles struck. They weren’t aimed at anything in particular, but with all the drones we had coming in, did that really matter? Tens of thousands of pounds of ordinance would blanket the area in the next sixty seconds.
Plumes of orange and red blossomed at the far edge of the field where thousands of spectators had parked their cars. It was oddly silent as the undirected barrage of missiles grew into torrent of explosions that swept toward us. The blossoms merged into a sea of fire that enveloped everything.
We’d be lucky if we had time for the fire to kill us. I could see the mounting pressure wave as car windows shattered and grass flattened, far ahead of the explosive flares. At the speed of sound, a wall of hyper-compressed air blasted toward us with concussive force. There was an inverse-square law in there somewhere, but with more bombs dropping every second, the explosive force was going to hit us like a thousand pounds of concrete.
“Run!” I screamed. “Get to the trees!”
I don’t know if anyone heard me, because that’s when the sound of the first explosions reached us.
Vivian stood tall, arms stretched to the heavens. Doyle pulled at her, but she shrugged him off. Her lips were murmuring something that was lost in the growing roar.
Lightning flashed down from the sky, close. A missile exploded, followed by two more caught in the arcing energy off the main branch. The explosions were high, early.
“There!” Doyle pointed, and more lighting hammered missiles out of the sky. His finger swept and jabbed, quickly joined by his other hand, and where he pointed, Vivian directed her elemental fury. Explosions flared from missiles I couldn’t even see - but Doyle’s computer-aided vision could.
The sound of distant booms mounted as the noise from the first strikes was joined by the howls of nearer ones. It became a physical thing as the sound from the lightning strikes and their explosive victims reached us. I could feel my insides quiver as I watched a copse of trees fall instantly flat from the pressure wave.
Suddenly, the ground just between us and the parking lot bowed upward, like a bubble of earth. Grendel burst forth, his huge bulk between us and impending doom. Tears streaked his dirt-caked face, and he clapped his giant hands over his inhumanly-large ears. His mouth was open in a cry that was lost entirely as the pressure wave hit us.
In the last instant, I could see his eyes go wide. Then I was lost in a maelstrom of sound that became all sensation. I could see the noise; I could taste it. It was coppery and orange and smelt of sulfur.
I lay there in the dirt, head spinning. I’m not sure how long it took for me to be able to pick my head up. The scene when I did was surreal: where the parking lot had been there was now a carpet of fire. Closer to us, cars and trees lay mangled on the ground. The festival buildings that had stood between us and the parking lot were splintered, and the grandstands on that side looked like someone had driven a truck through them.
Yet… they weren’t completely destroyed. And while I could see bodies laying everywhere, some of them were stirring.
I did a quick accounting of my own body: intact, bruised, ears ringing to high heaven, alive. Alive.
Nearby, Doyle picked himself up off of the ground, where he’d tackled Vivian. The both of them looked dazed and every bit as surprised as I was to be alive.
“That worked!” I saw his lips move. “We set up a destructive harmonic pattern of early detonations… we met the pressure wave with a counter-wave. We canceled out part of the explosion with our own explosions.”
Then he threw up.
Grendel lay near me, his massive body unmoving. His hands were still clapped over his ears.
As quickly as I could manage, I crawled to him. He’d been buried down under the tourney ground with me, and had pushed me and that bulky Black Knight costume up through the earth when it had been time. He was filthy, and huge, and still.
“Gren?” I called, shaking him. “Gren?!?”
With a shudder, he took a tentative breath. He picked his head weakly up from the ground, and when his eyes focused on my face, he gave me a terrible smile.
“Mama…” he sighed. “Grenny no like big noise.”
I laughed, and hugged him.
Slowly, I picked myself up off of the ground. Half of everything I could see was a hellish wasteland, and even though some people were stirring, some weren’t.
Vivian was also standing, and she helped Doyle to his feet. Her eyes looked very flat, and her jaw was a grim line. She’d been right: Watson hadn’t hesitated. Her father had just tried to kill her.
I felt a slight electric sizzle. The coppery taste of ozone filled my mouth and nose, and Vivian’s dark hair began to rise with a static charge. I felt my own doing the same.
“Get down!” someone shouted, and then several things happened at once. The first thing was that somebody tackled me to the ground, apparently not satisfied with my lack of response to being shouted at. The second was that the dirt just behind where I’d been standing exploded in a cloud of grit and smoke, leaving behind a hole several feet deep and just as wide. A thunderous boom knocked Vivian and Doyle back off their feet.
Groaning, I found myself tangled up with Roger Stevens. He grinned weakly at me, and said, “What do you know? You can hear them from the ground!” Then: “Ow. Also, we should move. Also, ow. I really shouldn’t do that.”
He didn’t have his crutches. Looking in the direction from which he’d come, I saw them lying near the base of the half of the stands that were still intact. He’d somehow sprinted the thirty feet over here without them. From the look on his face, it had hurt.
“My hero,” I smiled at him. “Thanks. Also, I told you so.”
Vivian was on her feet again, and the two of us got Roger to his, holding him between us. “That was the rail gun. The floating you were seeing is its signature: it electrically polarizes the air molecules along the ballistic trajectory to increase velocity and accuracy. It takes two minutes to recharge the cells,” he was saying. “It can track a dozen targets at a time with LIDAR. Effective firing range is a half mile, and at cruising speed it can make landfall within thirty seconds of firing. We really have to move.”
We started running toward the stands, where people were recovered enough to be panicking. “What can make landfall, Roger?” I snapped. “What is this thing?”
“The Counter-Air/Land Improved-Ballistic-Effect Reaper, Mark-10. CALIBER-X.” He paused. “It’s, um, my project at work. I’m having a really tough time figuring out why it’s here.”
“It’s a super-drone?”
“Uh, yeah, you could call it that. We always just called it the Transformer.”
There was a howling, like the sound of a bomb dropping. I looked up to see something hurtling out of the sky toward the jousting field. It looked like a plane at first, but as it sped toward the earth it sprouted four legs, and its wings folded up behind it and pivoted to fire its turbines downward to brake its descent. The sound was like the angry bellow of a dragon. The “Transformer” crashed down with enough impact to make the ground shake, and was immediately lost in a huge cloud of dust that spread from the impact site in a dark wave.
We covered our eyes and coughed the grit out of our lungs. “This won’t slow it down,” Roger managed. “It’s got thermal.”
“For what?” I spat.
“Originally we wanted to get better BDA - battle damage assessment. Nothing like ground truth. It’s really embarrassing to tell a policymaker that the deputy emir of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is dead, and then be wrong.”
I had the feeling he could keep going all day. “Get. To. The. Point. Please.”
“To kill us,” he summarized. “With swords.”
“Swords?” I exclaimed.
He shrugged. “The whole point of this thing was to eliminate collateral damage. Hard to have a misfire with an edged weapon.”
“You’re saying that thing is going to get up and come after us?”
The dust was settling now, and Roger didn’t have to answer. From the center of the crater, CALIBER-X reared up on its hind legs like a horse. It pawed at the air and landed firmly on its feet. It was facing us, and it was ready to charge.
The body was the fuselage of a drone that once looked like a fixed-wing aircraft, maybe thirty feet long. The wings had folded up back behind the body, spread slightly. Where an animal’s head would be was a massive cannon, with a pair of sensor arrays on top that gave it binocular vision. In about ninety seconds, according to Roger, those eyes would fix on me, my hair would stand on end, and the cannon would belch forth a fire that ended me.
That was, if the blades I saw jutting out along its forelegs didn’t get me first.
“Vivian,” I turned to her, “you get Roger somewhere safe. Don’t you fucking argue with me and if you stab me in the back again you will live to regret it, do you understand?”
Both of them started to argue anyway, but I cut them off. “You’ve got eighty seconds to save my life. Think fast.”
I turned from them, and strode towards the mouth of the dragon before me.
“Sherlock? What I said before?” I swallowed hard. “I’ll take whatever you’ve got.”
I feared you would never ask.
A familiar presence filled my body. My legs started moving faster. Together, we charged the monster.
It didn’t move. It didn’t move. It didn’t move. Then, with speed so blurring fast that even Sherlock Holmes barely saw it, it swept a foreleg out and its blade took my head off at the should-
No. It is too fast. New tactic. Rewind.
.evom t`ndid tI .evom t`ndid tI .evom …
… move. I could tell from its immobile stance that it was counting on me to underestimate its speed, so I didn’t. Those forelegs would be instantly lethal. My eyes had already swept the tourney field, taking in everything there was to see… and everything that there wasn’t.
“Puck! Scabbard!” The fairy was nowhere to be seen, and neither was the magical scabbard that had let me laugh off being impaled by Arthur’s sword. Those two things were related. I raised my hand, and a half-second later, salvation fell into my hand from on high.
The dragon re-evaluated. I still was not an immediate threat, but now I was invulnerable to its blades. But Puck wasn’t. It calculated the trajectory of the scabbard from when it had first appeared on its sensor array. It mapped it backward to where it knew Puck had to be. And with lightning speed, it reared back and tore him in half.
Except he wasn’t there anymore. “You’re swiping at someone who can dash ‘round the moon and back while a baby burps,” I explained as I slid down under the dragon’s body, reaching for anything that looked hydraulic. “You’re going to have to do better.”
“If you insist, Ms. DeGrace,” came Watson’s empty voice as the drone’s legs retracted and the whole thing came crashing down on top of me-
No. Rewind.
… retracted, but if Watson thought gravity was moving at my level, he had a lot to learn. I kicked myself into a roll as the fuselage smashed into the earth inches from my skull. There was a mechanical whirring as one of the wings slashed down towards me, ready to slice me in two. But I hadn’t been heading this way to fight the dragon.
I’d been the bait.
Mouth open farther than it had any right to go, Grendel caught the wing in his jaws before it could reach me. He straightened up, and the whole drone rocked back in the other direction. His teeth gnashed through the wing, and he spat metal.
“You no hurt Grenny’s new mama!”
He leapt, landing squarely on the back of Watson’s drone and wrapped his arms around one of its wings. With a surge, he reared back, tearing the wing clean off of the plane. It crashed to the ground as Grendel roared in triumph. He turned his misshapen face to me, huge mouth grinning.
Blood bubbled up between his lips.
He looked down with childlike curiosity at the the gore-covered blade protruding from his chest. The drone could move like an animal, but it could also bend its limbs in a way no animal could match. One of the hind legs had twisted up and around and stabbed Grendel through the heart. He reached a hand up to grab it, but his fingers slipped as the nerves left them.
“Gren!” I screamed.
No! shouted Holmes in my head, but this wasn’t something he could just rewind and replay. We hadn’t had that data, and we couldn’t look out for Grendel too…
The drone whipped its leg around, flinging Grendel away over the grandstands like a piece of garbage.
An answer came from the grandstands in the form of an arrow through one of the machine’s eye-like sensor arrays.
“Hey, you bucket of bolts! Let’s you and me tango!” Robin shouted, loosing another arrow at the robotic beast as I scrabbled away.
“You don’t believe that I am without redundant systems, do you Ms. Cowl?” Watson asked, ignoring her shafts. “You’ve accomplished nothing. I am simultaneously tracking the lot of you.”
“Yeah? Did you track me severing the hydraulic line on your back legs?”
Watson’s hindquarters were suddenly wobbly. The drone’s metallic torso pitched to the left, crashing heavily to the ground… onto reinforced rear landing gear. It wouldn’t be as mobile as before…
“… but this is barely even a temporary setback. All of my synthetic parts are composed of a self-healing polymer that releases an enzyme that renders the area around it temporarily malleable. A slight electrical impulse increases the surface tension of the non-Newtonian fluid, and just like that…”
A hind leg thrust itself downward, followed by the other one. The dragon was moving again.
“Hadn’t thought of that one,” Robin admitted, “whatever the hell you just said.” Then she threw herself out of the grandstands as a sweep of one of Watson’s now-repaired legs brought them crashing down.
“I am tracking all of you,” Watson repeated, “including you, Mr. Holmes. What are you doing in that costume shop?”
“Getting into character,” Doyle answered. He stepped into view from a small shop just off of the tourney grounds. He was clad in a purple robe covered in stars, with a matching pointy hat. He was wearing a false beard. “I’m faking it ’til I make it.”
“Do you believe yourself to be a master of magic? Poor, deluded Doyle. Do you know why I chose you? Because you are harmless. You could no more wield the lightning than you could tear off a wing from this drone. You are a pretender. You are not worthy of the power of the Merlin.”
Lightning crackled in the sky. “Neither were you, Bill. And now you’re just a computer program. One whose sensors I can monkey with while you’re looking elsewhere.”
In a smooth motion, he pulled the hat off of his head and threw it at Watson’s bladed feet.
Nothing happened. We all stared expectantly at the limp piece of costume.
Vulnerability: distraction.
Vivian vaulted from the hole where Grendel and I had waited for Arthur. She was wearing a black one-piece rimmed with white fur and had a pair of white rabbit ears sticking straight up off of her head. She had white thigh-high stockings on and white leather boots with an improbable heel. With the speed of a jackrabbit, she tore open a panel on the underside of the drone and thrust something up into it.
She gasped as she found her mark. The drone didn’t seize up, didn’t flail: it simply stopped. It emitted a slight humming noise, and moved no more.
Vivian let her breath out. She looked at us triumphantly.
“Rabbit out of a hat. Was there seriously a Playboy Bunny costume in that shop?” I asked. “Of course you’d find it.”
“Don’t hate me because I saved your life in five inch platform heels. It was Roger who knew where the access port was, and it was Doyle’s wireless drive that I stuck in there. A virus is busy broadcasting itself straight back to the server that he came from. Pretty soon, the control center is going to be shut down. So Team XY gets some credit.”
“You looked better doing it,” Doyle grinned, taking a step toward us. “You know, between using lightning-generated electromagnetic pulses to reprogram airborne drones, setting up destructive sonic harmonics to counteract a firebombing, and reprogramming a drone on the fly, I think we make a good… team?”
The humming noise from the drone stopped. The hairs on Doyle’s fake beard started to rise. His robes started flowing upward.
We were supposed to have another thirteen seconds, Holmes reasoned. There must be a backup system triggered by tampering. Spies wouldn’t want their drone captured and reverse-engineered. The main weapon may not be fully charged, but at this range it doesn’t have to be.
Scenarios played out before me. I cried out for Doyle to move, and I watched him die. I raced for the drone to try to grab its rail gun, was cut in two by its arm blades, and then watched Doyle die. I picked up a nearby rock and threw it at the gun in an attempt to spoil its shot, but nothing was heavy enough to move the barrel by even an inch, and I watched him die. I watched him die. I watched him die.
Then I watched something happen that I hadn’t calculated at all. The granite block with the sword in it had toppled over from the shock of the drone’s landing. The magnetic plate we’d installed to trap the blade inside must have come free, because when Arthur Drake stood up from behind the stone he easily pulled the sword free of the stone as he vaulted over it. The rune-carved blade glistened in the sun as he swung it high over his head, then brought it down in a leaping, two-handed strike on the middle of Watson’s cannon, just as it was discharging.
The rail gun exploded. Arthur was blown back a dozen feet, and landed in a crumpled pile near the stands.
Roger Stevens was sitting nearby, a strange expression on his face.
“This… <fzzt!> … isn’t… over…” Watson’s speaker crackled. The drone, which had looked so much like a dragon, was now a headless mess of machinery. Its legs twitched feebly. “Activating… retrieval prevention measures.”
It means- Sherlock started, but I cut him off.
“Yes, I know - it’s about to blow up so nobody can find the evidence. It’ll take us all with it.” I looked back to Roger, who was dragging himself determinedly towards Arthur’s body. “What’s he…?”
I ran to him, screaming for everyone to get clear. I slid down next to him in the dirt as he was fishing around underneath Arthur’s breastplate.
“Roger, we’ve got to move-” I started, but he waved away my attempts to pull him up.
“Blast radius is about five hundred feet. Shrapnel farther. Anybody we don’t like comes looking, we take them out, too. You don’t have time to get clear, much less me.” He looked calm. “There’s a protocol, though - ah.”
Roger had been looking around while he was looting the dead, and he spied something shiny. He left Arthur’s body and dragged himself a few feet over, where something was sticking out of the ground. Roger tugged on it for a second, grumbling about it being wedged into a rock… and then pulled back a pen. I remembered it from the Black Velvet Lounge.
… the King’s Word… 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…
Roger twisted the pen, and it made an audible click. He sighed with relief. Looking over at me, he held it up.
“Failsafe,” he explained. “To remain on the director’s person at all times. It must have been knocked clear in the blast; got halfway buried into that rock. It’s a miracle the circuits were still good. Twist it one way, everything’s rendered inert. Twist it the other… boom.” He laughed. “I was only about sixty-forty that I remembered the right one.”
I looked around. The rune-sword that Arthur had used on the drone was nowhere to be seen.
“You pulled a pen from a stone, gambling that you maybe remembered which way to turn it… and just saved all our lives?” I asked.
… only the true king could wield it safely… it would destroy a lesser man.
“Your hero,” he nodded, smiling back.
“Sixty-forty?” I raised an eyebrow. “I’m glad you didn’t tell me the odds.”
He laughed. “I’ll never tell you the odds. I learned that from him.” He nodded at Arthur’s body. “He hated that. Pretentious.”
I let out a long breath. The drone had gone completely dead, as promised. I sagged back, pushing my elbows into the dirt.
“You pulled the pen from the stone, and it made you king?”
I gave Roger a long, appraising look.
“Listen,” I said, “you’ve got to promise me that you’ll do better than he did. That you’ll write your own story. That yours will be better than his.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he grinned at me. “It sounds very dramatic.”
“Look around.”
“Point taken. Shall we continue this elsewhere?” Roger stood up and looked around as people started to gather once again, peering nervously at the scene in the tourney grounds.
Then Roger looked down. He was standing. His crutches were still on the ground. In a daze, he reached down and touched his legs. They didn’t crumple. He didn’t fall.
He looked up and met my eyes. His were wet. “Gwen, what…? I… my legs…?”
I stood up and walked to him. “If those kids only knew, Roger…” I thought about the young boy who was taunted and tortured for being weak. I thought of the child who’d burned away the one thing that had brought him any peace, spoiled by the evils of adolescent nastiness. I thought of what his father had told him when he’d had his surgeries, that he’d wake up someday and be strong.
They’d had no idea.
“Roger, a lot of stuff is going to change for you. Most of it will be good. But you’ve got to promise me, promise me that you will never forget what it was like to need help to walk. You’re going to be so strong… but always remember those who aren’t.”
“Did… did you do this?” He rocked back and forth from leg to leg.
I grabbed him by the shoulders, and his eyes flashed up as if I were waking him from a dream. “Promise me, Roger. Promise me you’ll remember burning your comic books.”
“I… I remember.” He took a breath. “I promise.”
I let him go. “Good. Because I’ll be watching.”
People were starting to crowd closer. They were buzzing with confusion, whispers, fears. This wasn’t the place for a detective. I couldn’t puzzle away their anxiety. I couldn't solve their loss. This was the place for someone fearless and sympathetic, someone patient and unbending, someone strong and weak and wise.
It was the place for a king.
I turned away from him. “Doyle! Vivian! Robin! Puck! Time to go.”
“Wait,” Roger implored from behind me. “Where are you… you’re leaving? Now? What do I do?”
I didn’t turn back. “That’s up to you now. What happens from here is up to you. But if it were me… I would tell them not to be afraid. To be good to each other and live for one another.” I gestured to the throng. “They’ll listen to you, Roger. I promise. Tell them something worth hearing.”
He caught me up by the wrist. My eyes were wet. I liked him, I really did. But things hadn’t worked out with the last King Arthur. I pulled my wrist back without turning to him.
“I can’t stay. I’m sorry, I… someone needs me. I can’t stay with you. I’d tell you what I wanted you to know, about my notions of using might for right. But there are different kinds of justice. I rage at the death of a single person. But someone has to fight against the death of whole nations. That’s not me. I wish it weren’t you. I want you to be someone you aren’t.”
“I think I…” he stopped. “Things are fuzzy. I remember you, but it’s like a dream. We were fighting. Except I wasn’t me now… I was… Arthur?” I stopped. I remembered what Moriarty had said, about he and I being the only ones who remembered. I remembered Puck saying that things had changed. Nimue, too…
“But why were you fighting? He wanted peace. You want justice. If you were fighting each other, who was the villain?"
Now I turned to him. I smiled sadly. "Roger, I'm going to tell you something my father once told me. It was after a big debate, one that had gotten pretty nasty. Afterward, my dad told me that the other guy was a good man. I asked him how that could be, if my dad was also good. He told me, 'Every hero is the villain of someone else's story.' Does that make sense?"
His blonde eyebrows furrowed. “I think so. But I don’t want to fight you. I don’t have to, do I?”
“I told you: that’s up to you. I don’t want to fight you either.”
“We won’t. Don’t go.” His voice was so definite… commanding. Somewhere, a memory of another woman lifted her face to him. But here, now, Gwen DeGrace leaned over and pecked him on the cheek.
“Tell them not to be afraid. You’ll figure it out from there.”
I turned, and stalked off of the jousting field. The crowd parted before me and let me pass. Maybe it was a Persona's glamour, maybe it was the look in my eye that promised pain to the next person who crossed me. My steps faltered only once, just as the crowd had started to fill in the space between us. I wanted to turn around, to see Roger Stevens one more time.
But I was terrified that I would see King Arthur there instead. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t supposed to work like this. He was so nice.
Vivian met me on the other side. “The way he’s standing… he looks just like Arthur Drake. He’s not…?”
I nodded, mouth in a tight line. I kept walking, until we got around the corner from where everyone was starting to listen to Roger speak.
“You don’t want to talk about it.”
I shook my head.
“I get it. I’m sorry, Gwen.”
I hated myself for believing her. I hated liking her in spite of myself. I really wanted to punch her.
Then Robin strode over and belted Vivian right in the mouth, knocking her to the dirt. That did make me feel better. A little.
“You sold me out!” the blonde woman shouted down at the raven one as Doyle raced over to help. Vivian waved him off. “We met up, you slipped me a Mickey, and then I’m a passenger in my own body. That little twit was in my head, calling the shots. She was wearing my skin. Do you have any idea what that’s like?”
Vivian wiped blood from her lip, but didn’t try to stand up. Her eyes sparkled with anger… but not towards Robin.
“Yeah,” she whispered. “I do. Regularly. Since I was a little girl.”
Robin stopped. “What?”
“A couple of times a week, sometimes. The thing you guys call ‘Moriarty’s machine’… my father invented it. Moriarty stole it from us. But before that… he would use it on me.” She swallowed.
I crouched down. “Your father was Merlin. Your middle name is Vivian. That wasn’t his idea, was it?”
“No,” she said horsely. “He’s told me that much. I don’t… I can’t remember my mother. He took her from me… said it was for the best. Said she was a nobody. An extra. A bit player. But he told me that she named me Vivian, hoping I’d get more of his attention than she did.”
“She named you Vivian,” I whispered, “hoping that you would turn out to be the Vivian. He wouldn’t be able to resist you. He would lavish you with attention. He’d be a good dad.”
“But I wasn’t.” She hung her head. “Neither was he, I don’t think.” Then she looked back up, lip jutting stubbornly. “But he was my dad.”
Doyle interjected, “But… you’re Vivian. I mean, you’re the Vivian. I’m sure of it!”
"You, who was so sure that Gwen was Guinevere? Come on."
I stood up and crossed my arms. "You only knew because your old man told you. And you are Vivian."
She stood up slowly, making sure that Robin wasn't planning to hit her in the face again. Then she nodded. “Right on both counts. I am the real Vivian now. He… he made me be her. He tried for Irene Adler at first, but she just wouldn't stick. He couldn't keep me in concordance with that story."
She shuddered. "He said he wasn’t going to let me be a nobody. Not his little girl. I was going to be stronger than any of them. I was going to be Vivian, take Merlin’s power… be the Lady.” She swallowed again. “So he put me in the machine with a different story.”
“He rebuilt you,” I breathed. “Over and over. Until you were her. Or at least, until you were waiting in the wings. When did… when did you become her for real?”
“When my father killed her,” she said simply. There wasn’t anything more to say, really.
But I still had questions. “You said that you’d trapped him in the machine. How?”
She hugged her knees. “I was twenty years old. I’d had enough. We were going to have another session in the morning, but… Robin and that Lancelot stand-in you broke in half aren’t the only people I’ve drugged while they weren’t looking. While he was out, I put the machine on him. I’d seen him use it… figured that I could work out how to just make him stop… just let it be enough that I was me.” She stopped, choked up.
“You were wrong.”
“I was so wrong,” she whispered to the ground. “Everything started quiet at first… ran for a good long while that way. It was always so disorienting, being in the machine: I didn’t know how long it was supposed to go. Then it started sparking. He started twitching, flailing, screaming… screaming my name. He was calling for help.” She took a few deep breaths. “Then it all stopped. He was dead.”
Doyle picked it up first. “But he wasn’t gone. You’d imprinted him into the computer. You’d downloaded him. The computer turned on and he was there, just like before, but a ghost.”
She shook her head. “I told myself that for years. I told myself that he was just like he was before. It was… we’d always had kind of a messed up relationship, you know? Except that I’d murdered him and he never let me forget it. That bit was new.
“But I don’t think I got all of him. I think there was something left in that body that just… didn’t come over. He’d always been a hard man to please. But sometimes I’d do it. Sometimes he would look at me, and ruffle my hair, and say that I’d done well. When I was a little girl, I lived for those moments. I mean, it wasn’t like I was going to public school… I had nobody else to tell me that. After what happened… there weren’t any more of those moments, ever. Nothing was ever right. I could never do enough.”
“Doyle, your virus… it was riding back to his servers? He’s gone now? You wiped him out?”
He nodded. “Anywhere that’s plugged into the internet. I don’t know how his new code works, not the stuff that makes him Bill Adler and not just Watson. But if it’s based on Watson, he’s massively parallel. He depends on distributed connectivity to run his critical functions. He can’t exist offline.”
“He doesn’t have to.” Vivian looked up. “There’s one computer system that would let him run all his functions quickly enough. He used to have one.”
“A brain,” Robin said, and we all looked at her. “What? Just because I don’t know what non-Newtonian fluids are… I read a lot of Asimov as a kid, you know.”
Vivian looked hard at me. “He wants a body again."
My blood ran cold. “And does he know where to find one?”
Vivian nodded. “I’m so sorry, Gwen. I… he’s my father. I just… I don’t know. I just wanted him to be better, you know?”
I didn’t say anything for a minute.
“Gwen,” Doyle interjected. “I can get us there. To Frankenstein. To your father.”
“And to my mother,” I added. “To Moriarty.”
More than ever, I wanted to go back to Roger Stevens. He’d say this innocent little thing and make me laugh and feel better. We’d figure something out… he really made you believe that. But I didn’t believe it.
Doyle nodded. “I think I can get him out of her, just like I did for Robin. I think I can bring her back. We can be out of here in five minutes. Convincing the helicopter pilot to keep coming after all that happened wasn’t easy, but I used sound logic and a lot of zeroes. Ones and zeroes are my super power.”
I took a deep breath. “All right. Moriarty. Merlin. Maybe Frankenstein, too, if he's in a bad mood. I'm going to need help. Vivian, do you even know whose side you're on anymore?"
She looked ashamed. "Gwen, I don't. This is all fucked up. He's a murderer. He tried to kill me. But he's my dad."
It sounded like something I'd once said to her. "I get it. And I'm sorry for you. I really am. And if you'd said anything else, I'd have tied you up and left you in the burnt-out husk of somebody's trunk. But you can come: Moriarty may need an appetizer."
"Aw, you're sweet."
"Damn skippy," I nodded. “Also, I need you to make a phone call. Puck? You ready to do this?"
Teeth hung behind Robin in the air, in a grin too wide for a human mouth. None of the rest of Puck was making an appearance.
"If you mean, kill the fuck out of the sicko who murdered my boyfriend, then 'yes'. But he's currently in your mom, who may be salvageable. So I trust you've got a plan?"
"Yeah. This ends the only way it ever could." I swallowed.
"Moriarty has to get what he wants. I have to die."

Chapter 21: Becoming
"When we are no longer able to change a situation - we are challenged to change ourselves."
~Viktor E. Frankl~
“Gwen? Your plan sucks.”
“You’re just mad because we’re surrounded by undead chimpanzees with ray guns.”
Vivian didn’t bother to respond, but neither was she bothering to hide her irritation. I’d figured there was a good chance of this, but revealing my insights to her hadn’t been at the top of my List of Really Good Ideas today. It had been crowded out by “Walk straight into the lair of Frankenstein that has probably been taken over by Moriarty,” and then rather quickly by, “Put your hands up.”
“Tell me again why I’m not burning these things to a cinder?” Vivian asked, interlacing her fingers behind her skull as the eerie welcoming committee jabbed their Flash Gordon pistols and pantomimed us keeping our hands on our heads and not making any sudden moves.
“Because you have to wave your hands around. I’ve seen you. Frankenstein doesn’t build anything that sets to ‘stun’. That’s a whole different story.”
Vivian grimaced as she was prodded into a walk. “I could just have, I don’t know, caused a minor earthquake or something. Bring the house down on them all.”
I rolled my eyes. “Oh, yeah, because the villain never gets away when they can’t find a body. Quit complaining. He hasn’t threatened to hamstring you and rape you to death.”
“Yet,” her eyes flashed. “I remember something about ‘appetizers’.”
Silence was our best company for the rest of the trip into the earth. Our simian escorts moved swiftly, with cold purpose. The recessed lights that lined Vic’s metallic corridors were dim, and the occasional clang of a door swinging shut or creak of a chain coming from ahead only heightened the aura of depravity that clung to this place. Our shadows crept across the ceiling, flitting nervously toward what darkness they could find.
We passed by the place where Vic had met us and through a nondescript door that slid open and shut with a pneumatic hiss. We found ourselves in an antechamber of some sort, emblazoned with signs warning of biohazards, radiation, and electrical dangers beyond. Yellow HAZMAT suits were stored here, but the chimpanzees passed them by. Whatever was through here, Moriarty didn’t think it would kill us fast enough to deprive him of his pleasure.
The one other exit to this room looked like it belonged on the outside of a bomb shelter. Its steel bulk had a wheel that one of the chimps had to spin for a good while before the grinding of bolts moaning within came to a halt. It took two of them to open it, and I was sure that the three-foot creatures were each a good deal stronger than I was. Maybe Vivian and I could do it together, but I wasn’t so sure. We wouldn’t be coming back this way with any speed… assuming we came back at all.
<<Hello, my dear.>> The Arabic words slid in my mother’s voice between the lips of the thing wearing her body. The smile on those lips was pure Moriarty.
She stepped through the blast door with predatory ease. She was still wearing her pajamas from the other night, but her hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail, and she had a lab coat on. The name “Vic” had been crossed off by something now dry and brown, and a stylized “M” had been written above it in the same substance.
“He didn’t keep you sedated, did he?” I asked in English. I shook my head. “I told him.”
“Men never listen,” she agreed. “I tried to tell your father that the security detail that showed up the other day looked suspicious. Just look what happened to him.”
Through an effort of will, I prevented my memory from doing exactly that.
“So what now?” I asked instead. “You looking to return the favor I paid you last time we met?”
Moriarty laughed, and I cringed. It was strangely like my mother’s laugh. She began to pace around, studying me.
“The last time we met, you saved my life,” she said. “I have rather something else in mind. Come, I want to show you something. But first…”
She held out a hand, a chimpanzee put a pistol into it, and my mother shot Vivian in the chest.
The rest of them wrapped strong hands around my arms and legs as I surged forward. Vivian dropped to her knees, eyes wide, and clawed at a smoking wound. She tried to speak, but all that came out was a high-pitched whine. She coughed smoke and toppled forward.
I struggled against my captors, but their fingers may as well have been carved out of the door ahead of us.
“You sick.... Why?” I asked.
“Clearing the board,” she shrugged. “Oh, Gwen, I see you so plainly now. I don’t know why Lance couldn’t, before. It’s written all over you. You thought I was going to use her to force you to make a hard choice, and then you were going to surprise me with your willingness to let her die. You thought surprise would give you the edge that it would take to bring me down.” Moriarty’s eyes seemed to burn. “Are you surprised? Tonight, I win. Vivian is - forgive me, was - too sly to attempt to manipulate. Her boyfriend will prove more compliant. As will you. Walk.”
The dead things let me go, and I snatched my hands free. “You’re thinking about rushing me,” she crooned. “I am actively trying not to murder you, my dear, but you are making it difficult. You’re close… so close. Don’t waste yourself. You wouldn’t make it to my throat. Walk.”
I looked at Vivian lying there… inert. Moriarty wasn’t supposed to play this way. He loved manipulating you with pawns: he was supposed to use exactly the same tactic that he’d called me on moments ago. He would wait for some dramatically appropriate moment, then make me choose between Vivian’s life and something uglier.
But this Moriarty… he wasn’t a “he”. And she wasn’t playing by our rules.
I stepped through the blast door. Moriarty came through behind me. From the other side, it creaked shut, and the bolts slid home. It was just the two of us.
The air in here was musty, and full of rank smells. Chemical odors mingled with ozone and rotting flesh. The decor was vintage “repurposed bomb shelter” with a touch of “mad genius”. The room was... well, it was probably better described as a cavern, with metal catwalks running everywhere that had nothing but drab green-painted chains to tell you not to topple over the edge into the darkness beneath. The floor was lost in the gloom below. It couldn’t go that far down, I reasoned, until I saw electricity arc somewhere that must have been a hundred feet below us.
Maybe it could.
“Stay on the path,” Moriarty cautioned.
“Your concern for my safety is touching. So maternal, you almost had me fooled.”
She gestured me forward, but I noticed that she kept a good five paces back from me as we walked. I laughed. “What, nervous about you and me and a long fall?”
“You still think you’re going to kill me,” she answered. “I don’t want you to make any foolish mistakes. Not yet.”
She expected me to try. Good. I wasn’t going to play by our rules, either. It was time to write a new ending to our story.
The gantries above and below us creaked slightly on old chains as we went. Lighting came sparsely from bulbs wrapped in 1950s Army wire frames. She directed me down this stairwell and across that walkway, all suspended over a pit that may have gone all the way down to hell. Warm drafts sometimes puffed sulfurously up at us, completing the metaphor. Here we were in the Underworld, a stiff breeze away from death.
After doubling us back along our path three times, she was satisfied. “You aren’t lost,” she stated. “Good. You’ve at least got enough of Holmes in you to make this somewhat satisfying.”
With a casual pivot, she threw the ray gun into the darkness. Empty-handed, she turned back to face me.
“I needed to give you some cooling off time. I know my daughter: you get angry before you get scared. Also, I needed to give my men with upsettingly large guns upstairs time to find your friends who are lurking about in the bushes: did you honestly think I'd believe they hadn't joined you? This whole facility has full spectrum surveillance. We spotted you the moment you arrived.”
I had hoped. Hope doesn't fare well against Moriarty.
Moriarty didn't give me time to finish thinking. "Before you try to finish this: would you like to see your father?”
My breath caught for a second. “What’s to prevent me killing you and then finding him?” I stammered, failing to sound confident.
She lifted up her pajama top. Around her torso there was a simple heart rate monitor. “Five pounds of plastic explosive that I surgically implanted into his body,” she replied. “If they don't hear my heartbeat, they explode. If you managed it, there wouldn’t be much left to find.”
I gritted my teeth. “So even if we duel to the death and I win, I lose.”
“You didn’t expect me to play fair.”
I shook my head. “I’m still going to beat you. I’ve already done it. You just don’t know it yet.”
She laughed, and took a bow. “Then I’ll die happy, my dear, knowing what I took from you. And I’ll return reborn, to take even more. Because I remember you. Oh, how I remember you. This way.”
She walked past me, practically brushing me as she went. It was a dare. All I had to do was shove…
I let her pass, and then followed. She took a straight path now, up two levels of rickety stairs over nothing, and stopped outside a door cut into the rock. It was the same 50s decor of olive green-painted steel as everything else down here, and cracked slightly ajar.
“Say hello to daddy,” invited my mother’s lips.
I pressed my way inside. The door seemed to press back for a moment, but then gave way beneath my hands.
Prepare yourself, cautioned the detective inside me.
The lights were out inside the room. I could just barely see the table with the human form on it, still covered entirely by a sheet. A massive electrical cable snaked up under the sheet. Beyond it… another table. This one with restraints.
For a moment, I was back in the other room, strapped to a table, a hood over my face, drowning. For that moment, I was helpless, disoriented. For the second time in as many days, I felt the bite of a needle in my neck.
Then I felt nothing.
I awakened with a start. Moriarty was standing over me, lab coat buttoned up. She had a surgical mask hanging around her neck, and a bone saw in her hand.
I was strapped to the table I had seen. My wrists and ankles were secure, and bands around my hips and chest held me tightly down. To my right, my father’s body still lay covered in a white sheet. To my left… the smaller table of instruments there promised pain.
“You’re an anomaly, Gwen,” Moriarty began. “You can do things that no Persona can do. You break the rules. I’m intrigued. While you slept, I put you into my little machine. I mapped your brain, every little nook and cranny. I can copy you. I can replicate you, just like I can replicate myself. Would you like to be immortal?”
She didn’t make it sound like a gift. “You are free, now, just as I am. Free of the limits of the flesh. You can shed these meaty bonds and find another. At my direction, of course,” she amended. “All this means that your body is no longer a restriction on my ability to study you. I can put you into a new one, when this one is spent.”
She turned on the saw. It was quieter than I expected, but I had the feeling that it was going to get much louder soon.
Her eyes lit up. “Victor had such intriguing notions on the physical structure of the brain. I’ve been over and over them and I really think he was onto something. And now I have such an interesting brain to study… It will be so much more informative when you aren’t sedated.”
“You’re going to kill me, take a few notes, and then reboot and repeat?”
Her smile vanished beneath the surgical mask as she pulled it over her face. “Ever the quick study, my dear. And you’ll never guess who my men found poking around upstairs: surprise, surprise, you weren't as alone as you pretended to be. Your Mr. Doyle couldn’t leave you alone, it seems. I already took your girl Friday. I’ll download you into his body next. Dissecting you in the body of a Sherlock Holmes impostor will be rewarding on so many levels. Now, please try to tell me how this makes you feel. Be as specific as possible: it might save you a few lives.” She advanced on me.
“Couple of problems with your plan, mate,” I began. Something popped in my wrists, and I slid a hand out and caught the bone saw inches from my face. Some of Jack can slip out of bonds even when it means dislocating bones and then having to find them again. I tugged, and my ankles did a painful thing, and they were free as well.
“Firstly, I don’t plan on dying today. You’re just lucky that ain’t a scalpel, savvy?” I twisted my wrist down and the bone saw chewed its way through the straps across my chest and pelvis as Moriarty struggled helplessly against my grip. Hers was nothing against the strength that had strung the bow of Apollo; she let go of the bone saw and staggered back.
“Second, I didn't just hope that your men would find my friends: I planned on it. That’s not Doyle your men found up there.” A scream echoed down the hall, and a panicked man with a donkey’s head raced past the open doorway, his weapon dropping from nerveless fingers. “Do you believe in fairies? You really should. You should believe that they’re not to be crossed.”
“Third, you shouldn’t ever think that you can tell what I’m thinking. I’ll lie to ya.” I sat up and swung my legs down off the table, tossing the bone saw to the ground behind me.
I was ready to go on, but she interrupted me. “You know, gloating speeches are more my metier than yours.” She spun and raced for a computer terminal near the wall. Before I could stop her, she had reached it and smashed her finger triumphantly downward. Lights started glowing from beneath the sheet on the table next to mine.
“I told you,” Moriarty hissed. “I’m immortal.”
I frowned, and shrugged absently. “I was trying to tell you: fourth, the reason that you haven’t seen the real Doyle here is that he’s been busy getting Watson into your computer systems. I had him stash a bunch of hacking tools and a bow and arrow in the bushes outside this place after Vivian got out of the hospital, figuring we'd wind up knocking down the door here sooner or later. He owns this place now, and Robin is putting arrows through the eyeballs of any mooks you send after him. Doyle still had an original copy of Watson on his personal backup servers, and once we activated that copy and explained the plan, Watson was all about Doyle working his own special magic. He’s a wizard with computers.
"You were trying to upload yourself into my father’s body, but all you just did was give a body to the father of the woman you just killed. And he knows it.”
Moriarty cocked her head. It was a motion that had always been a signature move of my mother's. "Oh, Gwen…” she whispered. She looked... proud.
Oh my god.
The lights dimmed, and a smell of ozone and burning meat came from under the blanket. “Viviaaaaan!” howled a voice that was my father’s, but not my father’s. The figure sat up, tearing the sheet away from its face. My father’s features were sallow; the expression on his face, strange. It was one of loss and rage combined.
He sprang from the table at Moriarty, who slithered out of the room, slamming the door closed behind her. There was a click of a lock from the outside. “Everything… for her…” Watson - Bill Adler, the old Merlin, Vivian’s father - crashed a fist into the metal, and it bent under his knuckles.
He sniffed the air and turned to me, eyes glowing. “You…” he heaved. “You brought her here to die.”
He was fast, far faster than I’d anticipated, and with a single leap he threw himself forward, caught me by the throat, and slammed us down onto the floor. His fingers closed around my windpipe and squeezed. I dug my hands in and fought him, but his strength was unbelievable. I may have possessed the strength of Odysseus, but if I let go to try to throw a strike, he'd crush my throat in an instant.
“This body… there’s no biofeedback. Nothing to stop me from bringing every ounce of strength to bear. When you’re struck by electricity and your legs throw you across the room… I can do that with every movement.” Watson’s frantic eyes bored into mine. “You killed her as surely as your witch of a mother did. You and Doyle, with his goddamn virus that wiped out the copy I’d made of her soul. Everything, everything I did, it was for my baby girl. To let her live free! Now she’s dead, dead and gone forever. Soon you’ll join her.”
He knows Moriarty is your mother. He has your father’s memories.
Thanks, Sherlock; very helpful.
I scrabbled for leverage, but Watson bore his weight down on top of me. The face of the man who’d once ruffled my hair and said that I was the best thing he’d ever done now spoke my death.
“Her mother was wrong: I could never ignore that beautiful little girl. I had to save her. Vivian… do you know what becomes of her? Misery. Solitude. Her fate isn’t her own; it’s for others to decide. She stole my power away completely on the day she was born, because after that, it was all bent on giving her a life worth living… not the joke that her idiot mother inflicted upon her.”
My vision was starting to fade. Lungs on fire. Toes numb. Hands aching as they fought against his. Through it all, my dad’s voice spoke strange words.
“I tried to fix her. To undo the ‘Vivian’. Irene Adler, she gets to make her own choices. But it wouldn’t take. I couldn’t get her to stay free. I imprinted Irene over and over again, but Vivian always came back. So I did the only other thing possible: I made sure she would become the Vivian who becomes the Lady of the Lake. She would be powerful. She would have the power of the Merlin. No one could tell her what to do. Her fate would be hers to decide.”
Even his voice was fading. My vision shrank to a pinprick, just my father’s face: twisted, cruel. This is what becomes of a parent who gives everything to his child. Nothing else matters. No one else matters. Who could count even an ounce, against your own flesh and blood?
“No.” The voice relaxed, and suddenly the hands let me go. I gasped and gulped air in, kicking myself away and out from under him.
“No,” my father repeated. “You… will… not… hurt… my… Gwen!”
He hung there on his knees for a moment, face twisting back and forth as two fathers fought for control. One wanted to save his daughter; the other to avenge her.
Oh my god, he was in there. I hadn't thought... I hadn't let myself think that he'd still be alive after-
A click. The door tore open, and Achilles came hurtling through it. His chest bore a black wound from a ray gun, but it wasn't slowing him down any. That was why I'd had Vivian call him in: I'd known I would need backup, and I was sure that, if Moriarty thought that Vivian was the target, Achilles could take the hit in stride. It had been a gamble, but I was pretty sure that Moriarty wasn't going to look too hard with me so close. She'd be focused on the bait: me.
Vulnerability: distraction. Maybe Holmes wasn't the only one.
Snarling, Achilles barreled into the man on the floor and sent them both tumbling. Survival reflexes took over and both were on their feet in a heartbeat, but Achilles was a born warrior. He sprang forward, hands seeking my father’s throat.
Watson threw his hands up just in time, catching Achilles' outstretched wrists in midair. With a lightning pivot, he twisted himself under the Elder's leap and used his reanimated strength to hurl Achilles into the wall with crushing force. I saw my father's legs tense, making ready to race after and press the attack. Achilles was still peeling himself off of the wall: if Watson got him off of his feet, he could pitch him straight out the door, over the gantries, and into darkness.
“Stop! Dad, stop!” Vivian’s voice rang from the doorway.
The man froze at the sound of his daughter's voice. Watson was the bomb that we would drop on Moriarty, but there was no way that I was going to trust that after everything he'd done, he would go gently into that good night. Vivian was the backup plan if we'd needed to put the genie back into the bottle. She would distract him long enough for me to take him the hell out. I hadn't anticipated super powers. I should have: Frankenstein's monster was no joke, after all. Still, between me and Achilles, we could take him down.
But... my father was in there, too.
If she got through to her father, what would happen? Two souls were battling for control of one body. I didn't think they'd play nicely together: whoever won the battle would occupy it permanently. If it were my dad...
"Daddy," I whispered. "Daddy, are you in there?"
Vivian knew in an instant what I was doing. But she didn't stop.
"Dad, you can't do this. This isn't what I want. You wanted me to be able to make my own choices, not to be trapped by my fate. But Dad, you took away my choices in order to do it. You tried to make me who you wanted me to be. Where were my choices?"
It was her father or mine. We both had things to say.
"Daddy," I begged, "please come back. I'm not ready to lose you. I made a terrible mistake: I should have picked you. I'm so sorry, Daddy."
Vivian spat, "I hate you."
My eyes were wet. "I love you."
The man in the middle trembled. He dropped his hands, and Achilles crouched, waiting. Vivian reached out and grabbed one hand. I took his other.
"Let me go, Dad," she hissed. "Just let me be myself. That has to be enough."
"Don't go," I pleaded. "I miss you. You're my happy thought."
He shuddered. "I... I'm so sorry," he managed. "I love you."
He cocked his head suddenly. “Did you hear-?”
Vivian looked puzzled, but I knew. It had been almost nothing, just a little “tink" sound, like a plastic heart rate monitor bouncing off of a metal gantry far, far below.
His eyes met mine. He saw the realization on my face, that I knew Moriarty had tossed the heart rate monitor into the pit. In a second, it would be out of range of whatever receiver in his chest was staving off the explosion inside him. No signal... boom.
With the same strength that he’d used to tackle me just moments before, he threw himself out of the room, and into empty space. I hurled myself at Vivian, bearing her away from the door as the explosion blew through it. The pressure wave threw us into the wall before we even had a chance to hit the ground.
Everything was mimsy for a long moment. Woozles paraded galumpishly orthogonal to the brain pudding that sloshed between my ears. As my senses began to untangle and the roaring in my ears ceased to be quite so orange, I silently apologized to Arthur’s men for the flashbang back at the Black Velvet Lounge.
“Viv…?” I asked, hand to my temple.
Achilles was already helping her to her feet. She had a hollow look in her eyes. "He's... he's gone? We virused him out of existence, except for what was still on Doyle's servers. We downloaded that to this body... and that's gone. My father is dead."
I nodded.
"I'm free." She swallowed. "So why don't I feel free? Why is part of me waiting for him to tell me what to do next?"
I turned away from her and looked out into the void. There was no trace of my father's body out there. He was gone.
Dead. And gone.
"Gwen?" Vivian's voice brushed away the memory of tender fingers tousling my hair. "You were talking to him... like your father could still hear you."
"Don't make me say it, Vivian. You knew very well what was going on."
She swallowed. She opened her mouth, closed it. Her eyes were wet.
"He tore me open... over and over. I had to... I had to end it. Him. I had to make sure."
I looked away.
"Who was that woman I saw running out of here while I was catching up to you?"
"That was my mother." I shuddered. "Moriarty."
"I've seen her before. It was the day that... the day I killed my father the first time. The day that using the machine went so wrong. She was getting into a car outside of our house when I was getting home." Vivian clenched her jaw. "She had a black suitcase, the same kind that my father used to transport his equipment. One of them was missing, I discovered later. I remembered that face, because I was sure she'd stolen it from us. I haven't seen her in years."
I knew what Vivian was saying. I had become certain of it just before Moriarty fled from us.
"That woman sabotaged your equipment... leading to your father's death when you used it on him."
"Your mother, Gwen. Years ago. It was her. It's always been her. She did this to us."
That's it, Vivian. Deflect. Blame someone else.
I took a step toward the door, staggered a little, and caught myself on the table. The device that Moriarty had unintentionally used to imprint Vivian’s father onto mine was still lying there, discarded after he’d risen up from the dead. I touched it gingerly.
“We’ve got everything we need right here,” she said. “We can end this bitch right now, just like you planned. Get that shit on your head: she's not going to kill another goddamn person.”
“No,” I rasped. I saw the look in my father’s eyes as he threw himself away from us. The look on his face as he leaped from the bed and the noose tightened on his neck. The look on his face as he’d ruffled my hair. That same look all the times and all the ways that he'd told me that he loved me.
“New plan. I’m going to find Moriarty and I’m going to kill her.”
She opened her mouth, then pressed it into a hard line, and looked away. I started to stalk out of the room, but she shook her head again.
“No, Gwen, wait. I just killed my father, or as good as. I... I don't love that. He did such... he... I can't think about him and not want to cry. But I still... he was my dad, you know?" She choked back a sob, and for maybe the first time, I was sure that I was seeing Vivian. The real girl, under all the hard candy.
She wiped her eyes, gathered herself. "Don't put that on yourself. I don't want that for you. You said you don't care about violence: you care about winning. So win. I sure as hell didn't. You don't have to do this by the book. That's the whole point, right? To change the story?”
I paused in the doorway.
"We can get Moriarty out of her," Vivian insisted. ”Make her normal. Just your mom. Let's change her story."
Doyle’s voice crackled through the speaker of the computer that had been hooked up to Moriarty's device. “It sounds like I’m late to the party, but listen, Gwen: Vivian’s right. You don't want to do this. But I think I also know you well enough to know that you are pigheaded and we aren't going to convince you of a damn thing. But we're your friends, so give us something. Give us two minutes. We can rig up a deadman switch from stuff in this room. It will be just like the one Moriarty used with the explosives: let go of the switch and you fire the device. Moriarty vanishes. Of course, maybe you do, too, which is why for the record I still think this plan is insane. But I’ve got your back. Because I trust you. Trust me.”
The room was silent, so Achilles shrugged and joined in. "I think you should rip her heart out with your fist. Your friends are wrong. You all think you are so clever. The problem with the clever ones is that you always think terrible plans will work better because they're your plans."
He crossed his arms. "There's only one way this story ends: death."
I shuddered. Here my friends were, trying to save my soul, but Achilles was right. My mother... there was too much blood on her hands. Seas of it. She didn't get to walk out of here.
But what was two minutes? Moriarty wasn't going anywhere. I could give that to my friends, give them some hope, and then toss the damn contraption into the abyss with my father after I got around the corner. I could give them that, and still give Moriarty what was coming to her.
“Okay,” I breathed. “Do it.”
Doyle was as good as his word. He walked Vivian through the steps to set up Moriarty’s device with the deadman switch, which she wired to a numeric keypad that she scrounged from the computer. Vivian expertly loaded the device up and put it on my head. It was bulky and huge and it made my neck strain just thinking about walking with it, but it cinched snugly into place. There was an uninterruptible power supply they pilfered from the computer that Doyle said would last for an hour.
In just over two minutes, I looked like I was about to enter a very elaborate virtual reality simulation, but I was ready to go face her.
“Let go of the switch, and this thing kicks on. I’m… I’m not actually sure what to root for,” Vivian frowned. She looked me in the eye. The mask was nowhere to be seen, just exhaustion and worry and pain. With everything that we'd done to one another, some intentionally and mostly not, I still wished that I wasn't about to make her pain worse.
“Root around for some plastic explosive," I said, instead of farewell. "There’s bound to be more. If I’m not back in an hour, blow this place to hell. And if I am back and you think for even a split second that this went bad, you do the same thing."
I swallowed. "Maybe... maybe I should just say goodbye right now.”
“Don’t you dare.” Her voice was sharp, and her eyes were wet. “Don’t you fucking dare. I see you as you are, now. Back in the club, you told me that you would need that. You don't think I do, you think you've got your Tom Sawyer and that you're so clever and that you know better and are just going to do what you know you've got to... but I see you. You are coming back, and you are coming back with your soul intact. I'm only letting you out that door with that stupid fucking thing on your head so that you can surprise yourself. So go kick her in the vag until she grounds you like forever, and then come back. We’ll see you soon.”
My eyes were wet. Doyle’s voice came through the speaker. “Safe travels, Gwendolyn Ivana ar-Rahmani DeGrace, wherever you go from here. Oh, and Robin says that she agrees with Vivian for once. About the [ahem] kicking.”
Abruptly, I pushed through the door. My eyes stung and if I stayed a moment longer, I just didn't know. So I went. Because that's what you do, when you're... when you have to. You go on.
The explosion had damaged the lights, and the ones that still worked were flickering sporadically, bathing the gantries in stroboscopic gloom. Slowly, I forced myself to breathe normally as I walked deeper into Vic's lair, in search of my death.
I heard a noise ahead of me, and froze. Cresting the stairs at the end of this catwalk, Puck stopped and stood in my path. He wasn’t the Elizabethan fairy with gossamer wings now. He was small and covered in a brown fur that seemed to betray flames flickering beneath it as he moved. His face was human, but the mouth… it was like a shark. His eyes were completely black. His fingers seemed tipped with razor blades.
“Never fear,” he hissed, and I felt spiders scurry up my spine. “They don’t have it in them to do what you ask. But I do. You won’t see me coming. Not this time.”
I shivered. “I believe you.”
“You look ridiculous.” He waved a hand, and suddenly weight of the rig strapped to my head vanished. For some reason, I hadn't pitched it yet, and I sighed in relief. “It's not gone, just changed into something that will let you face death not looking like you belong in an eighties music video. If you need it, bite hard. Second molar on the bottom left.”
I ran my tongue over the spot he'd just described. The tooth felt strange. It gave ever so slightly under my tentative squeeze.
“The device is now a poison tooth?” I laughed. “How fitting. Thanks, Puck. But I won't need it. Achilles was right about how this story ends.”
His black lips struggled to cover the teeth behind them. It wasn't a smile, it wasn't a grimace; it was as if snakes were wriggling over ivory gravestones. “Gwen, Gwen... you're forgetting something. If we wanted her dead, I can do that. With great pleasure, I might add. You have to end her. That's what this has all been leading up to. You kill her, and your damned game just continues with her in a new body. Maybe it takes another decade, but then Moriarty returns to finish what he begun in this life. The dying starts all over again. You can stop her today, for good and forever. If all you do today is kill her, then every death from here on out is yours. Moriarty will murder again, and you will have allowed it because you killed her because you were sad."
He shook his goblin head. "You are better than that, Gwen. Have faith: you can change this story. You do your part. If you fail… I’m a little too eager to do mine."
Lights flickered, and a glow emanated from within his eyes. "But I am a wiser Puck than that. It is not a promise I long to keep.”
“Don’t hesitate,” I cautioned. “I won’t.”
He shivered. "I believe you."
He shook his head sadly. He reached out and gently smoothed out the black undershirt I’d been wearing beneath the Black Knight’s armor. The air around me shimmered, and I felt a familiar weight on my shoulders. A black coat rustled slightly about me.
This was my skin. The hell with the silly hat and the pipe: this was who I was.
I took a deep breath. Sherlock flexed his fingers beneath my own.
Puck waved away my attempt to thank him again. “If you're to do your part, you should at least look it. The coat looks better on you, anyway. Now go. You won’t see me again. For better or for worse.”
I turned. The black trenchcoat swirled around me. Over my shoulder, I called back to him. “You’re not so bad, Robin Goodfellow.”
His body began to disappear, until only the mouth was left hanging in the air. “Yes I am,” it said. “Don’t find out how.”
Then he was gone, and I was alone on the gantry.
I looked around. Moriarty’s tracks seemed to outline themselves across my vision: a scuff in the dust, a chain hand rail swinging, a metal post twisted a half-degree counterclockwise as she leaned for a second… I broke into a loping trot, senses stretching out into the dark. After a minute of tracing her steps, I came across the body of the man who had been wearing the donkey’s head as he ran past the door in the room where we’d last faced off. His head was back to normal, but at the wrong angle to his body: the neck was neatly broken, and his sidearm was missing. She wasn’t far.
She wasn’t trying to hide. The path she left was visible only to my eyes, but she knew it was there as surely as I knew how to read it. In less than five minutes, I found myself facing a door. This place seemed to stretch on forever, with doors marked with cryptic names or numbers.
“Richenbacher,” the door read. I ran my fingers over the faded lettering. The print was as old as this place was. A previous resident, perhaps.
This is the place. Naturally.
I pushed the door open, and stepped through it.

Chapter 22: Death
Moriarty: case file: X; synopsis: death; vulnerability: none
Over the next quarter-second, a lot of things did not happen. I didn’t get punched in the face, after I sensed a motion in the air and ducked. I didn’t duck, after catching a roundhouse kick to the face when Moriarty anticipated my dodge. I didn’t get kicked, after I chose not to duck but to sidestep. I felt a nerve strike on my shoulder as Moriarty was a step ahead of me again.
She’s faster than anyone you’ve faced before.
Of course she was. Because she was the real deal. She had been, all along.
Instead of all those things that didn't happen, I greeted her as I entered the room. “Hello, mother.”
I felt the puff of air in my face as she checked her strike. A slight rustle, and the lights clicked on. My mother stood a pace away from me, smiling warmly.
“Hello, my dear. Would you like to play a game?”
The pistol in her hand was not warm at all. It gestured casually to a table set up in the middle of the otherwise empty room. There was a chessboard on it. I walked to the white side, and she joined me opposite.
Playing chess with Moriarty is futile. He can see every move on the board and answer it before it is made. The problem is, chess is the only game he ever plays.
“Your move, Gwen.”
I opened. “It’s been you, all along. Ever since the first body turned up. That’s why you’re faster than Kay, than any of the others. You’re the true Moriarty. You always have been.”
She set the pistol down and answered my opening. “Very good. Moriarty has always been faster than Holmes. Smarter.”
I pursed my lips, considered the board, and responded. “I believe you. Yet Holmes always seems to beat you.”
“Not always.” We played for a few moves in silence. She was aggressive, taking first blood with one of my bishops. Then she shrugged. “But I concede, Holmes usually kills me. You’ve done it repeatedly now, though on poor shadows only.”
“Lance Haran. Eric White and Ashley Oakley. It wasn't even me who got Kay Taggart and Senator Rance.”
She sighed as she took a pawn. “You have no idea how hard it was for him to stand there and wait as Arthur killed him. Arthur. Who murdered little Qadir. He had to watch that silly pen drift through the air and into his neck. He even moved so that it would definitely sever the vein. Even Arthur’s aim isn’t that good.”
I trapped a black knight and slid my rook into its space. “Wasn’t. But he was fast.”
She raised an eyebrow. “I hadn’t thought it in you. Perhaps I’ve been successful raising you, after all.”
“Don’t get your hopes up. He died nobly, saving me from Watson’s drone.”
“The drone that Arthur built.” She shook her head. “Nobility. He wasn’t strong enough to face the truth of his story.”
I bristled. “Or you misjudged him. People aren’t black and white, mother.”
She laughed, devouring my rook with her queen as I backpedaled across the board to defend my king. “Oh, daughter. You, who know so much at eighteen. Maybe he was as noble as you say. I’m still glad he’s dead. He deserved it.”
I had no answer to that. I remembered a happy laugh, and flames.
I took a deep breath, pushing back against her on the board. “When did you know who I was?"
"The same moment I became Moriarty, and a mother. The moment you were born.” Her lip twisted bitterly. “Our predecessors killed one another in the last moments of my labor with you. I suddenly remembered it all as if it had happened to me personally. Can you imagine? It’s supposed to be the most wonderful moment in your life, seeing your baby for the first time. You look down at her, this magical mixture of your soul and another’s, life, created from your very flesh! Instead, I looked into your eyes and remembered them as they murdered me, just moments before. I knew that you would kill me, if I didn't choke the life from you instead of nursing you at my breast. That was my entry into motherhood.”
She trembled. "What did anything, or anyone matter, after that moment?"
I shivered. “Did you try to kill me in the hospital? After I was born? What happened?”
She shook her head firmly. “I couldn’t. Perhaps you can credit your life to postpartum hormones, but I couldn’t even allow myself to imagine it. But the... the idea of it... it never went away. It never does, even now. I nearly had a nervous breakdown."
“You’ve been Moriarty my whole life? You could have killed me a thousand times over, but you only started recently." Something slithered up my spine. “What have you been trying to turn me into? What were you raising me to become?”
“Focus, my dear.” She took my other bishop. “I’ve been trying to kill you for a while now. Haven’t you noticed?”
I riposted, eliminating a pawn. “You have a gun, and I don’t. You could kill me right now. You could have choked the life out of me when I was born. I don’t have the memories that you do, but I know Moriarty well enough to know that you’re playing a deeper game. You want something from me.”
She didn’t answer directly. “You’re my daughter. Whatever else we are, I am mother and you are daughter. You came from my flesh. Our kind follow certain rules, but there are other laws that are more fundamental. The next generation always sees the first to their graves. That's how it's supposed to be.
"I may be fated to kill you - or die trying. But that doesn't make me want to."
"Could've fooled me," I retorted. "What changed?"
"You grew up," she said. "As you got older, it became increasingly difficult for me to hide the truth from you. And you weren't ready for that yet. You're my daughter: I had to make the best decision I could to protect you, even when all the options were awful. So I took measures to hide the truth from you."
She sighed. "But you are a born detective. By the time you were twelve, misdirection wasn't enough. You'd be onto me in a second. So you needed... obstacles."
I rolled my eyes. "Like the guy with the chainsaw?"
"Poor Sven," she agreed. "But you did save the kitten. At any rate, yes, some of the obstacles were more... consequential than others. Not at first, of course. I... I wasn't ready to try to kill you."
She shrugged again. "But none of the lunatics I put into your path seemed to have the chops to come close. So I escalated. You needed challenges worthy enough to hold your attention."
"To keep my attention off of you, you mean. The florist?"
She nodded.
"Ugh. The pornographer? No!"
She smiled, and nodded. It was so genuine… affectionate. She was giving me a hard time. “Ever the virginal one. Have you even kissed a boy? That’s a secret even I could never pry out of you.”
Pecking Roger and Arthur on the cheek didn’t count. I blushed. “I’ve… wanted to.”
“You did beat Hercules to death with a steel dildo. I was so proud.”
"I am going to shower for a week after we are done here. So you're the most homicidally weird mother ever. Okay. But you said you were resisting Moriarty after I was born. Obviously you fell off that wagon."
She gave me a sober look. “I know what you're asking. You were two the first time I murdered someone. I denied what was inside me for that long: it was too cruel. My daughter, my nemesis? It couldn’t be. But I knew better. Neither of us is built to lie to ourselves. So I looked for a way out.
"Do you have any idea what it’s like, being an intelligent woman in Yemen? Then to add Moriarty’s genius to that woman? My words barely mattered. I could have my way with a man if I clobbered him to his knees… or went down on mine.”
“Mother! Ears! Bleeding!”
She smiled slyly, and took a pawn. "I might not have been able to get men to hear me, but I knew how to listen. To get others to talk.
“I learned everything that I could about the Personae. I learned about concordance, about acting against what you were to try to lose your connection with the strange spirit inside you. I told myself that I could rid myself of the demon Moriarty. I cherished you and helped you grow. I was kind and generous to others. I pledged zakat and fasted. I denied his imperatives wherever I could. Most of all, I wouldn’t let him kill.
“Then a friend of your father - your biological father - started talking about marrying you, when you were old enough. He laughed about it, because he’d settled on thirteen. He could wait eleven years for you. He figured he had two wives left to get bored of before you were old enough to fully appreciate.” She swallowed, looking as if her spit were squeezed from lemons. “He was an imam… your father couldn’t say no to him. Even then, he was starting to grow more conservative; what was he going to say to his spiritual leader? He agreed with a laugh. Didn’t even hesitate.
“No one questioned when he had a bad reaction to the qat they were chewing that night. Just like no one would question, years later, when your father blew himself up in his own basement.” She shuddered.
I felt a hard ball in my stomach. “You killed for me. To protect me.”
Her shrug was bone-chillingly casual. “What’s a mother to do? You are my child. Always. Everything I’ve done has been for you."
She took my other rook. “I love you, my dear. Please believe that.”
"Did you love daddy?"
She sighed wistfully. "No, but I liked him very much. After the circumstances of your birth... I've found love elusive. But your father made me laugh. And we did some atrocious things to one another between the sheets. And on the floor a few feet away from them. And hanging from the-"
"Dear god, please stop. Believe me, I knew. I could hear you."
"Yes, dear, I made sure of it." The Moriarty smile was back, but when I thought about it, she'd always had that smile when she thought I wasn't looking. "I wanted to show you healthy adult sexual expression. It wasn't like you were going to talk to me about it."
"Well, nice going, Mother of the Year. Some of it did some structural damage to the house, and to my impressionable psyche. Why do you think I never kissed a boy, knowing what came next?"
"Gwen, Gwen... you've read enough to know that most sex is vapid and inconsequential. I assure you that your first time is likely to be horrible, just like everyone else's. It's just that it gets so much better than that, and you're a fool if you don't enjoy what pleasures this life has for you."
"Curious? What was I supposed to do, search the internet for 'my parents are fucking and it sounds like it hurts'? Oh, yes, congratulations: you stumped even Sherlock Holmes."
"He was going to be no help to you in matters of the loins, my dear. A mother must do what she can." She laughed. "Are we having the sex talk? Now? Stop stalling. You're better than that."
I fumed. She was right, but I wasn't stalling on purpose. She dangled even a weird, unsettling morsel of my father, and I'd chased right after it. As if to punctuate my distraction, she took a rook and knight in rapid succession.
“He loved you, you know. It was true and genuine and as pure as any love that I've seen in this world. And I saw that you loved him. I wanted you to have that: someone that you loved, just because you could not help but love.”
I knew what she was about to say next. It wasn’t that I had any Holmes-like insight into the physics of the future: I’d simply read too many books. There was only one reason that Moriarty could want that for me.
“You wanted me to have someone to love… so that you could take it away from me?” It came out a question, and I hated myself for it, because I knew it to be true. It was a statement. It was a fact. I just wanted it to be a lie.
Her eyes glittered. “To give you a motive! Sherlock Holmes has always been analytical, indifferent. It had to be personal this time. You have to want me dead. You have to want it deep down where you are more than the sum of Holmes’ parts. Where you're a woman. Where you're a human. You have to need it, to prove your humanity. If you don’t need me dead, you don’t deserve to live.”
Her eyes were bright, and wet. "You've got to end this, my dear. You can't let the cycle continue. You can't just kill Moriarty. You've got to end me."
“You made me watch my father die twice… to motivate me?” I raised my voice. “To make me hate you? Well fucking done!”
“I will do it again. And again and again and again, unless you stop me. Right here. Right now. I raised you to end this nightmare cycle once and for all. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t figure out how. Moriarty may be smarter, but Holmes is more creative. I always believed you could do it. Looking at you now, seeing the woman you've become, I know you can. But when the moment comes, you can’t hesitate.” Her eyes sliced into mine. “I won’t.”
"You'll kill everyone else I care about, if I don't stop you right here? Tough choice, mother. I should have let you swing on that rope."
"No. Because then I would have died and the next Moriarty would just be worse yet. One of us Moriartys is going to figure out how to win, one of these lives. To change the game. To beat Holmes forever. Do you understand what that will mean? What it will be like to live in a world where one person's whims mean life or death for everyone you know?" She paused, seeing the memory of a happy laugh and flames flickering in my eyes. "Yes. Yes, you remember your brother. Good."
"I'm not just Holmes anymore," I replied, swallowing my temper. "You're already beaten. You just don't know it yet."
We traded queens, and played for a while longer in silence. The board was starting to empty. I realized that I had never played chess with my mother before.
I had so many questions. "The Diogenes Club... what was that? Kay murdered two hundred Personae, in one fell swoop. Why?"
"Because nothing else worked," she spat, suddenly vehement. "I was desperate."
She took a deep breath. "Do you know why we are human?"
I wasn't sure where this was going. "Billions of years of evolution?"
"Don't be smart, or I will shoot you in the kneecap." She paused. "My god, do you know how many times over the years I've wanted to say that? Your fourteenth birthday party, you have no idea..."
Shrugging, she continued. "Stories. Animals can communicate, some quite clearly. You can teach an ape sign language. But stories, the things that explain and teach and warn and make us feel and make us raw and expose us to worlds that we cannot imagine for ourselves... those are what make us different. They make us human."
Her eyes glittered. "They've failed us. I started picking them off, one by one, a decade ago. By now you've figured out that it wasn’t Kay who murdered those Personae, years ago. It was me."
"That makes sense," I replied. "You would travel for symposia and whatever - it all sounded terribly boring. And Kay would've been something like ten when you murdered Caesar."
"I had hoped that the murder of a generation of Personae would be enough," she replied. "Someone had told me once that the Personae could influence the telling of our stories, just as our stories influenced us. I wanted to change all our stories: to change the story of the Personae. I reasoned that a blank slate could be rewritten... but I was too slow at it. As one slate was wiped clean, another would start to fill again. I couldn't work fast enough. Not by myself.
"Kay... A week ago, she was a normal college student named - I swear to you - Judy. Ever since I first met Bill Adler and learned of his machine, I knew that I would need Kay. I couldn't wipe the slate alone... but with a partner, someone of my intellect, whose mission in life was to gather the disoriented Personae of a generation together, so that they could be cleared from the board in one fell swoop... together, she and I could begin our story anew.
"I began building her from my memories over a decade ago. She was undoubtedly the most perfect of my little clones. To be true to Moriarty, they all had to believe themselves the original article: she and the rest knew nothing of me, and they acted out the scripts that I had written for them. But I could feel them in Moriarty’s memories, and Kay had a genius in her. There was something in the combination of genius and love... because she did love you. All Moriartys do, in their own way.”
For a moment, she looked weary. She looked down from the board, and pinched the bridge of her nose. "When you were very young, I was still looking for an answer. A solution to the problem of Moriarty and Holmes, of mother and daughter. I was a literature professor; I was well-versed in the ways of our kind. We are made of stories, we Personae. Mankind tells itself stories to explain, to predict, to teach. But there are other stories out there, characters that have no names. We seem to know them instinctively: 'snakes are bad,' 'be afraid of the dark,' 'women are other'. Carl Jung called them archetypes.
"I saw something there that I couldn't explain with what I knew of our kind. There was another story, a deeper one. Joseph Campbell's monomyth, perhaps, or something even more profound. There would I find my answer! So I sought out the mother of stories: Scheherazade, who told tales for a thousand and one Arabian nights. If any knew more about us than I did, it was her."
She paused. "It was... arduous. She did not want to be found." In between her words, I heard the wail of sandstorms and the empty moan of ancient sepulchers. "You were already starting to come into your own, with a mind and memory that I couldn't count on to forget as you grew older. I left you with your father for months while I searched. It was the last time you saw him."
I nodded. "I do remember. I remember missing you."
She blinked in surprise. For a moment, there was... something. Then she carried on. "Scheherazade had... numerous stories to defend her. Many people died. I should say: I killed them, to get to her. But I did it." My mother's eyes sparkled. "She was right to fear me. She wanted to protect our kind. I wanted to destroy us. And as I peeled through her layers of deception-" I could not help but shudder at the way my mother said 'peeled' - "I found that there was another truth to our world. Personae are not the only stories who walk the Earth.
"In times of great strife, when many of our kind die, only to be reborn and to die again, sometimes one of us rises from the ashes, to tell some great new truth to the world. They do not have a name, like we think of names. We call them The King, or The Martyr, or The Mother. You see their echoes in a new generation of Personae who rise, embodying traits of The Woodsman, The Scientist, or The Detective. The Personae of whole generations wind up as pale reflections of their deeper truth. Through history, the stories we tell pivot and change, sometimes suddenly. The stories of humankind must change because humanity changes. These Icons bring with them the destruction of the old order, because there can be no change without death."
I felt a rustling inside me. Sherlock. Tom. Jack. Wendy. Odysseus. I had begun to think, after what happened at the Diogenes Club, that I was somehow carrying their spirits with me. But what if that wasn't it? Were they in me?
Or was I in them? What had Achilles called me?
The clever one? Or The Clever One?
Yet again, I shivered. "You killed all of those Personae, hoping that it would be me who rose… who became an Icon. To get me to... evolve."
"I had thought long about the killing. I had so much blood on my hands. And I had seen no sign of any change in us. Finally, I realized why: no story defines an era. A single character's death is tragic. It is not iconic. To rewrite the rules and unwrite Moriarty, I had to think bigger.
"Kay thought she knew the real reason. But immortality did not suit my purposes at all. The Diogenes Club was a blood sacrifice. I needed you to become something more. Like the Icons who had preceded you, you needed a blank slate. Kay's job was to wipe away the ugly stories of today in the hopes that we can find something new.
"The stories of this era... they are dangerous, Gwen. They are not our stories, yours and mine. They are men's stories. Holmes and Moriarty, locked in a winner-takes-all duel to the death. Nothing is cherished, except war, and victory. There is no room for community, for compromise, for empathy... for any of the things that have actually kept this nuclear-powered species from eradicating itself in a holocaust of antagonism.
"I don't mean to say that men's stories are worthless. I'm living one of them, and I've enjoyed its many privileges. But just look at the mother that I've been. I haven't nurtured you: I've challenged you. I've failed you a million times over. You deserve better. I want to give you that.
"But I don't know how. Personae... we're trapped in the antagonism of the age. We can't do anything but live out the stories that we've been handed. I can't give you what you need. I can't just hug you and hold you and stroke your hair and have it be enough. I don't know how. God, I've tried. But I always see the flaw in it, just that one more thing that has to be fixed..."
She choked back frustrated tears.
"I'm not the only mother to share these anxieties. And there are so few of us who have any idea how to overcome them. We stumble about in the dark, helpless, trying our damndest to write our own stories, because there aren't any to help us."
She was breathing fast. "It's not just you and me, Gwen. For the whole world, something has to change."
"I thought you wanted me to end you," I said.
"Oh yes. I want you to end this feckless spiral of conflict and escalation. It's not a game that Holmes and Moriarty play, no matter how their testosterone makes them think it so. It's just war."
She swallowed. "So here I am, mother asking of her daughter what she should be able to give. I want you to tell me a bedtime story. I want you to help me sleep at night. I want you to make me believe that the sun will come out tomorrow."
"I want a new story. Something that will give us a future. Something Iconic."
She steepled her fingers and looked at me across the chessboard. We had still been playing, but somehow, I hadn't processed the fact that there were only three pieces left on the board. Two kings, and one white pawn.
It was my move. And the pawn was on the seventh row. One step away from reaching the end. One step away from becoming...
"A Moriarty does not hope, my dear. She plans. Take my fear away." She held up the white queen.
I pushed the pawn forward. My mother replaced it without a word.
“Checkmate,” I whispered.
She lowered her eyes. “How are you going to do it?” she breathed.
I blinked. “I told you: it’s already done. Lancelot told me that he wanted to change the game, but here we are, still playing chess. It's the only game that Moriarty ever plays. Knights, kings, castles... you're right. It's not a game: it's war. You've been waging war from the get-go because you don't know how to tell a bedtime story.
"I don't, either. Good grief; I didn't play with dolls, I played with the bottom of a Coke bottle I found in a ditch and made into a magnifying glass. Children have made me grind my teeth since I was eight; I may have inherited my mother's maternal impulses. But I've had to do a lot of faking it until I make it in the last few days.
“After the last few days of Senators losing their minds, mass-murders, and domestic drone attacks, there are going to be a ton of new facts coming out about all sorts of things that have been in the shadows for a long time. Arthur Drake this, Senator Rance that. But people don't give a damn about facts. People need a story to make sense of it all. So we’re giving them one.
"While we were on our way over here, Robin and Doyle were publishing every last scrap of information regarding Personae they could get their hands on. Robin has tons of contacts in the media, and Doyle, well… a million dollars puts a lot of ads into your social media feed and writes a lot of sponsored blog posts. We've got things scheduled to trickle out over the next few days, all across the web, and even to go out in response once articles with certain themes are published in major news outlets. The information will come out piecemeal, with seeming contradictions and untrustworthy sources and the need to really dig to put together the whole story. As soon as people start to lose interest, there will be another tantalizing bit to grab their attention again. As far my teenage attention span can tell, we can string this along for a couple of months.
"And since Kay killed so many the other day, there's a personal twist. Everyone who reads about it is going to ask, 'Could this be me? Am I a Persona?' Even if they don't believe. Even if they think it's a total crock of shit... they're going to ask. Because you can't not ask. You can't not look at your life and go, 'Man, I've totally had that feeling where I thought I knew someone but they were a stranger. I've had weird feelings or thoughts that I can't explain, that didn't make any sense... until I heard this story.' Because that's how our brains work when they're exposed to stories. Facts are impersonal. Stories never are."
"But I didn't like the source material, so I did what any good storyteller does: I took a few liberties. Concordance shouldn’t define our destiny. It should be a gift, a thing we can aspire to, not a death sentence. Just look at the lengths we'll go to in order to cheat fate: Bill Adler dropped bombs on a field full of civilians, and you..."
I swallowed. "In my version of the story, anyone can become like Sherlock Holmes, or King Arthur, just by doing what those characters do. You can learn the lessons that they have to offer, and you can make your life better, and yeah, maybe you can really work it with a magnifying glass better than other people while you’re in the zone. Maybe someone really gets it right, but it’s not unique. No one is the Holmes, or the Moriarty. It's more of a cult of personality than some kind of lottery.
"And you can just stop. If you don’t want to be Moriarty anymore, you can hug somebody or work in a soup kitchen or adopt a puppy, and, bam, you’re out of concordance. What you tried after I was born: now it’ll work. The world isn’t out to force you into making bad choices anymore. You make your own choices. You define your destiny.”
“You’re changing the rules,” she said.
“Whose rules? I sure as hell never agreed to them. Breaking their rules is what we do. We've been breaking rules since the very first of us."
"Women,” I grinned. “Fancy an apple?"
She raised a wry eyebrow as I continued. “But you… the true Moriarty. That's still a thing, now, but it's going to fade in the next few days. You’ve got a choice now, mother, but can you take it? You can't tell a bedtime story, and I'm expecting you to give up the power to see the world six moves ahead and unwrite the future before it happens? When you've been willing to murder your way across a decade so that you could control your fate? No, you're not just going to trust me. You're not going to listen to the bedtime story and be reassured by it. You'll need something more concrete.”
“That’s good,” she swallowed. “Once upon a time... you might have gotten me to hope. Now, I need guarantees. How do you know it will work?”
”Oh, it'll work. You know how Guinevere's first and only infidelity was with Arthur's nephew, Mordred?"
”That was only in early versions of the story. Everyone knows about Lancelot now."
”Because we told new stories!" I exclaimed. ”The new stories became the new truth. Now, Guinevere can't keep from re-enacting the new love triangle, rather than sleeping around on Arthur while he's off at war. Truth changed. It can change for Personae, too. Soon, she won't have to sleep with anybody. Stories will stop being straitjackets and start being what they are supposed to be: ways of learning about ourselves and bettering ourselves."
She frowned. "I've had crazier plans. They haven't worked."
“That’s why I’m going to use your machine on myself.” I let that hang in the air for a moment. “Kay described it to me like a hive-mind: you can see into the heads of all the other Moriarty-types out there. They can hear you. Well guess what, mother? All your parenting dreams have come true: I’m finally listening.”
“No,” she paled. Her fingers trembled near the pistol. “This isn’t… I can’t… not you!”
“Me,” I replied. “While there's still a chance, I’m going to be the next Moriarty. I’m going into your hive mind, and I’m going to break it apart. I’ve got Sherlock Holmes in here. And Eowyn of the Riddermark. And Odysseus. And Tom Sawyer. And Jack. Any one of us, you could beat. But not all of us.”
“You don’t know that,” she said flatly.
“Would Lance really have raped me to death? Were you really going to kill me back there with the bone saw?”
She nodded ruefully. “Lance and Kay… they were always their own creatures. They were Moriarty, but they weren’t me. I love you, and they… they were each obsessed in their own way. They would have done just as they promised. As would I. You had to be strong enough to stop me.”
“I am.”
We glared at each other for a long time, across the chess board. Both of us were breathing heavily, as if we’d been in hand-to-hand combat this whole time. A trickle of sweat ran down my brow. But I sure as hell wasn’t-
She blinked. Then, slowly, she reached across the board and toppled her king.
“Checkmate,” she agreed. Her eyes were full of tears. She hugged her arms tight to her chest.
“I’m so proud of you,” she whispered. “You are… you are my daughter. My sweet baby with the golden laugh. I love you so much.”
I swallowed hard, past the huge lump in my throat.
“Will you…” I began, and stopped. I looked at her. She was… she was so many things. Killer. Victim. Woman. Man. Villain. Wife. Widow. Powerful. Helpless.
She was my mother. I started again. “Will you hold my hand? While I do it?”
She covered her mouth, and choked out a sob. Tears were flowing freely now, and her shoulders rocked as she cried. She mumbled something that sounded like English, but couldn't get it out, so she switched to Arabic.
<<Oh, my wonderful little girl. My beloved daughter. I will. I will be with you until the end.>>
Part of me felt like I should hug her, but I... I couldn't. She’d done her job too well. She was my nemesis. But she was also my mother.
So I lay down on the floor, and she got down on her knees next to me, and I put my right hand inside the two of hers. I felt her wet tears falling on my face.
I took a deep breath.
I bit down on the tooth.
Light flooded my eyes, and strange noises filled my ears. Images and words pushed themselves into my brain: visions of pain and terror and unending loss and death and death and death… I heard the rushing of water, as if I were standing by a waterfall… or toppling over it.
Sherlock? Are you here?
I felt fingers slide over my left hand, the hand that my mother wasn't holding. To the very end, Gwen.
Will you... before it's too late, will you remember him for me? My dad? I just want one... more... second...
A laugh. I felt a hand ruffle my hair.

About This Novel
Or Possibly,
Don't Believe Everything You Read
You: Wait, what? That's the end? Gwen just... what, sort of fades away? Did she die? Did she become Moriarty? Goddamn it, I've read this far and that is all you are going to give me?
First of all, it turns out that writing the ending to a book is really hard. Think I'm just being a whiny author-type? You try it.
But second, relax: Gwen isn't dead. I don't know exactly what she is at this point, so I'm not sure how to answer the rest of your questions.
Let's back up.
I wrote the majority of this novel in a coffee shop on Lee Road in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. It took me two years, because, well, life, but I was in there just about every week, banging away on the keyboard while sipping on a small (not tall) mocha, no whip, and occasionally munching on a chocolate-chocolate cookie (delish) or a gluten-free peanut butter chocolate tart (there's reasons I'm not naming the coffee shop, and one of them is that I want to save these for myself). They renovated the shop more or less around me, updating the decor from a brown, early two-thousands vibe to a sleek mixture of crisp white walls and tables made of long slabs of lacquered oak. Baristas came and went and knew me by name and knew my drink order. I was a regular, and it was pretty damn cool.
But before all that, I just needed... I needed to need to write something. I was a father in his early thirties with three small kids who had a lot of energy, recently transplanted from a sexy job in Washington, DC into a much more mundane engagement in the very stable field of industrial maintenance and repair. We'd planned the move in theory for years, but due to an uncertain combination of a bureaucratic Catch-22 that would make Joseph Heller roll his eyes and my unfortunate penchant for certainty that I knew better than the people in the Security Office, I'd found myself losing my security clearance and my job. It was a crazy, crazy couple of months, but we wound up living two blocks from family in Cleveland and life went from "ugh, what now?" to "hey, why not?"
Like many fellow transplants, I'd been quickly enchanted by the city. I'd been a little nervous by the rough-and-tumble, blue-collar reputation that Cleveland had, but it turned out to be a curious melange of nineteenth-century wealth, medical establishment, and economic depression. Yes, there was poverty, but not as much as you think. There was also wealth: serious, old-money houses lined Fairmount Avenue, some of which were worthy of the alter ego of a certain caped crusader. Superman had been born in Cleveland. The arts were so prominent that you couldn't help but be struck by them: there was a world-class Symphony and an Art Museum that rivalled the Smithsonian - perhaps in favor of the "Mistake on the Lake". Cleveland had its share of blue collars, but when their shift was done they could put on snazzy shoes and a tie that read "Cleveland is my Paris", and then go hear Mozart and admire original Picassos. Cleveland was a place where a good job would let you live well, and not burn away your life as midnight oil.
As the story went, Cleveland was on track to become what New York City is today when Rockefeller pulled his money out of this city and moved it to that one. The city never recovered its economic glory, but neither did it lose its institutions. Picture nineteenth-century New York... but without Ellis Island, and no one had moved into the city since then. That's Cleveland. Amazing art, fantastic cuisine, and rock-bottom property values. We were able to buy an honest-to-goodness house in a great neighborhood for less than some of my D.C. colleagues had spent on their cars.
In other words, we landed on our feet, in the best possible way. I had so much going for me. But I sat there in the coffee shop, week after week, fighting bourgeois ennui.
That was when a young woman with dark hair and mocha-colored skin slid unprompted into the chair opposite my keyboard.
She was young and pretty and extremely off-putting. Cleveland Heights is your suburban equivalent of a small town: people here already knew me, and some of those people would talk. "Hey, who's your friend?" would come the "I-don't-want-to-make-assumptions" question from some mom from my kids' preschool. Hell, I'd come very close to doing that exact thing myself one time when I'd seen a friend at a nearby bar with a petite, long-haired blonde who was definitely not his brunette wife. It had turned out that Fritz was a colleague who had a slender profile from behind, a ponytail, zero sexual chemistry with my friend, and (by every indication) a penis. But that was how things went around here.
It wasn't just the fact that she was young and pretty and not my wife, though. There was something in her eyes... They bored into mine, then straight through into my skull and snaked their way down into my soul and saw my deepest, darkest secrets... and laughed at them.
"Um," I greeted her, feeling very suave. "Hello?"
She was wearing a black leather coat, with a black silk button-up shirt beneath it. Her lipstick was pale, though, almost white, lighter than her skin. She leaned in.
"I borrowed it from Vivian," she murmured, reading the thought from my brain, and her lips curled into a smile. It wasn't a friendly smile. It was the kind of smile that a cat makes before it claws up your furniture. She wasn't up to anything nasty, but neither was she going to leave me unscathed.
As an aside, is this the sort of thing that has ever happened to you? No? Me, either, and I say this as a man who's chased terrorists and drank with foreign intelligence officers. It was weird, even for me. Not in the Penthouse Letters, "You'll never believe this, but..." kind of weird. More of the, "Excuse me, but what the hell are you doing?" kind of weird.
"From... who?" I stuttered.
"Whom," she corrected. "I thought you were a writer."
"I sometimes talk to other human beings, and try not to sound like an asshole," I retorted. "Too frequently, anyway."
She shrugged, conveying the sort of indifferent contempt that I expect I'll see from my children someday when I try to explain that life is a little more complicated than Che Guevara or Ayn Rand make it out to be.
"Some of my best friends are assholes. It takes a certain degree of arrogance to believe that you can change the world."
"And a certain lack of life experience," I frowned. "I'm sorry, I'm not sure why I'm suddenly getting grammar lessons from someone who wasn't born when I was acing the AP English exam?"
She laughed, easing up. "I'm sorry. No," she shook her head earnestly, "I'm really sorry. I've been hanging out too long with works of literature."
She reached across the table and offered her hand. "Gwen."
Grudgingly, I took it. "Jeremy."
She nodded. "I know. And I know that's creepy and I'm being weird. Let me explain. You're a writer, but you need a story. You've been stuck lately. Never mind how I know that. Stay put. Don't excuse yourself and run away. You need this story."
The intensity was back all of a sudden, combined with sucker-punch truths that I hadn't even told my wife. Stuck. My god was I stuck. I'd been sitting in this coffee shop for weeks tooling around with this or that and trying to write, but nothing would come out. Nothing. I'd written stories since I was in the second grade, but lately my imagination was nothing but a static hiss.
I stayed put.
I stayed there for a long time. When she finally finished her tale, I made a beeline for the bathroom. Vertigo threatened to take me for a minute, and I clutched at the sink. I splashed water on my face, not because it was something that I felt like would help, but because that's what you do, right, splash water on your face?
After I toweled off, I went back to our table.
"That's quite a story," I said.
"I know. Imagine living it."
"But you didn't," I blurted. I leaned against the wall of the coffee shop - what the hell time was it, anyway? "Those things never happened. There was no drone strike at Renn Fest."
She laughed. "The actual things that happen to us don't matter. You've known that since you wrote that paper that everyone writes on the causes of the Civil War. It's the story that matters."
I shook my head in disbelief. "So you're saying all this is a metaphor?"
"No." Her frown was resolute. "I'm saying that I don't care if anyone knows the facts of the matter. I'm not a historian. Drone strike, mass shooting, bus bombing... those details matter to the victims and the first responders. To everyone else, it's just a story. It needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. It needs a point of view. It needs good guys and bad guys."
She waved her hand in annoyance. "Do you think good guys and bad guys matter to the mother who is picking up the broken body of her son? To husband whose wife will never come home? To the child who lost her best friend? No, to them it's intimate. It hits them where it hurts.
"But you or I, we see it on the news and we don't know these people. How could you possibly care about the fate of a stranger - or two hundred of them? Sure, when someone crosses our path with a tale of woe, we feel sympathy once we hear it... but before we meet them, we can't feel anything. But we have to feel something when we hear something horrible. We can't be human and just shrug it off: 'a bunch of people got killed somewhere far away? Glad it wasn't me!' We can't say that and look at ourselves in a mirror. So what do we do?"
"We tell ourselves a story," I answered. "We make it ours. We say, 'what if that happened to me?' We put a familiar face on the victim."
She nodded. "We don't think about doing it. But that's exactly what we do. We make it personal. We trick ourselves into feeling it as if it had happened to us, or to someone that we loved."
I stroked my chin. "You told me about a drone strike, and about a fire in a nightclub. But the Diogenes Club could have been a shooting in a movie theater. The drone strike might really have been a black kid getting shot by the cops."
She smiled, and made a little shooting gesture with her thumb and index finger. "Bullseye. Any senseless tragedy will do, and it helps to have one that we can relate to. Maybe this all happened in Yemen, so who in America cares? It's easier to accept the story if you think it's fiction. I knew I was right about you."
I pinched the bridge of my nose, tired. "About what, exactly?"
"You'll tell the story."
I nodded. "Okay, you've got me there. I'll tell it. But... why? Why me? And why do you need it told, if not to get the truth out there?"
"Don't flatter yourself," she smiled. "You're not the only one. Vivian is currently making a very well-known author extremely uncomfortable regarding his marriage vows, because that's how she is. Doyle is chatting up an old friend in the tech press. And that's just tonight. I've got a long list, my friend. Anybody who wants to tell this story, however they want to tell it... I just want it told."
"As to why..." Her eyes flicked over her shoulder. I'd been wrapped up in our little world, and hadn't even noticed that the place was completely empty except for us. The lights were on, but nobody was home. The staff had all gone.
"My mother wanted a bedtime story. She thought that if women told their stories, it would be soothing. By her logic, the world needed something maternal, something nurturing. Our stories were all fire and ice, all conflict and competition. Whole generations have been swallowed up in a winner-take-all, zero-sum narrative. To turn things around, she thought we needed compromise and diplomacy.
"But sometimes a child learns a bad habit. The spoiled brat. The baby who has to be held all night and won't sleep in her crib. When they do that, the most loving, nurturing thing that you can do is to break them of it.
"I'm going to have to break us."
She looked me dead in the eye when she said it, not a drop of irony in her blood. For the first time, I questioned her youth. Her eyes looked tired.
"Your job," she continued, "is to pave the way. To prepare people for what's coming. To give them a chance. To warn the spoiled children that there are consequences."
"That didn't work too well for John the Baptist," I responded. "I've got a family."
"No one can touch you if you don't let them. It's your story now."
"I don't understand."
She sighed in exasperation. "You're a storyteller. You don't know what a story is?"
She told me: "A story is a weaponized thought. It's an idea that cuts through our minds because the physiological structure of the brain is literally set up to receive it. We have no defense against stories. You can't stop it with a wall or block it with a shield or even vaporize it with a nuke. As long as there still exist people who have heard it, the story lives on. And if it means anything to them, it will propagate."
There was a fire in her eyes. "The most powerful weapon known to man - one that nobody credits for what it is - and you have it between your ears. Tell. Stories. Tell stories that refuse to be fucked with, and no one will fuck with you. Tell stories that make people see, and they won't even want to."
"People hate those stories. See above: John the Baptist. Or the guy who came after him."
"People need those stories. See above: the guy who came after. His story did okay. His problem was ego. Just don't make it so personal, and you'll be fine." She leaned back in her chair. "I'm not trying to turn either of us into Jesus. But I do want little girls to know that they, too, are made in the image of god. I want men to know that the image of a woman isn't all that she's worth."
She sighed. "I want kind of a lot. It's not just that I get catcalled when I walk down the street - which I do, and it's lame. It's that boys, girls, men, women, everyone needs some bad stories broken. I just had my twenty-second birthday, if that tells you anything about what I haven't told you. My story ended, but I stayed busy. The good stories needed a champion.
"I heard through the grapevine that Puck got married last year. You want to know why that could happen? Why people's stories are changing? Because I've been very busy."
Maybe it was the hour, maybe it was the fog I was still in after the tale she'd told. I shook my head. "I still don't get it. Why are you talking to me at all? Why not keep doing... whatever it is you've been up to for the last few years?"
"Because nothing else has worked," she spat, suddenly vehement. "I'm desperate. Because I have one more option, and that is to become my mother."
She stood up and started pacing. "I've had some wins, helped spread the good words. But look around. I have failed us! Our stories have failed us! The shit that people believe these days! 'You're either with us or against us!' 'Muslims are dangerous!' 'America is a nation of peace!' 'Black kids are dangerous!' 'Guns are safe!' 'Mexican men are coming over the border to rape our white women!' And when our politicians spout this stuff, when our so-called-news media repeat their nonsense and call it 'reporting', not only do we not laugh them off the ballot or the airwaves, we believe this garbage, because we don't have the right stories."
She was breathing heavily. "The only defense against a story is a better story. The only reason you don't believe it when someone tells you that terrorists are posing as refugees is that you know the stories of what it's really like for refugees, and nobody would tell a story with a terrorist that stupid. The fear doesn't take you because you're already inoculated against it."
"Some people might say that's just education," I countered. "Knowing the facts."
"Do you tell yourself facts about the statistical number of refugees who have committed acts of terrorism?" she replied, shaking her head. "Of course not. Because that number is zero. Violent crime, sure, there are a handful, but terrorism? None. You don't comfort yourself with facts. You say, 'if I were a terrorist, I can think of a million easier ways to do it.' You think about the facts that you know about the refugee program and you say, 'no way, too hard'. There are no facts to work with, and even if there were, you'd still tell yourself a story about them. That's how we think. That's what makes us different from the animals. We are the animals who tell stories."
She huffed out a breath, and ran a hand back through her hair. "And we have got some doozies these days. It's not just the outright horrible stuff, either, though there's plenty of that. How about the American Dream?"
I cocked my head. "Work hard, play by the rules, get ahead? What's wrong with that? It sounds pretty optimistic. It gives people hope when things are lousy."
"Ooooh, hope. There's a reason it was the last thing left in Pandora's box. That box held all of the evils of mankind, and it was only after the rest of them slithered out of it that the real bitch strutted her stuff. Hope." She scoffed. "Hope is worthless. Make a plan. Or don't. But don't fucking lie to yourself. You want to know what a lifetime of your nose to the grindstone gets you? A bad back and no pension."
She held up her hands in protest before I could even open my mouth. "I'm not a pessimist; I can quote you all the stats. I can give you all the facts. What I'm trying to tell you, though, is that the story is bullshit. You won't get ahead. You'll be goddamn lucky to break even. The American Dream is a drug. It pacifies the masses so that the few who were born lucky by which I mean rich can just stay ahead.
"The odds that you'll become a millionaire? Forget that - how about the odds that any random person in the U.S. is a millionaire, let along becomes one: three percent. So your odds of not being a millionaire are ninety-seven percent. Let's flip that around. What if I told you that you had cancer? If I gave you a ninety-seven percent chance of dying, would you be excited because you had a three percent chance at life? Would you have a lot of hope? Of course not. Throw in the fact that most of the people in that three percent come from cancer-resistant families already, and you know that's not your family?"
"You're a real bundle of fun, aren't you?"
She glared at me. "You want to be a millionaire? Make a fucking plan. Do something better than ninety-seven percent of the rest of this country. Be goddamn fantastic. Then, maybe. But don't you dare hope and then get sad that it didn't work out for you.
"Or hey, here's a better idea: don't worry about making a ton of money because Doyle will tell you that it sure as hell can't buy you anything more than distraction. More toys. More drugs. Over a certain threshold - a really low one - your happiness has no relation to how much wealth you've got. It is relative to how much you think you should have, but that's another screwed-up story that we tell."
"Okay." It was my turn to hold my hands up in surrender. "Say I tell your story. What's somebody supposed to learn from it? What's the moral?"
"Think about the stories that run your life," she answered. "And if you don't like them, change them."
"Because we can change our Persona now," I nodded.
"You always could," she said. "But you needed a reminder. A gentle push to take the first steps. A soft voice to tell you that you could do it. That you could do anything, if you put your mind to it. That you're beautiful. That you're amazing."
She gave me a cold look. I remembered it... from the time I had thrown a tantrum in the toy store at age seven, and said some awful things to my mother. That look said, you pushed it too far, kid. I'm done fooling around.
"I tried all that shit," Gwen spat. "I tried the bedtime story. The world doesn't know what to do with it. It doesn't believe in nurturing and helping hands. There are too goddamn many stories that tell you that you've got to duel to the death in order to win. They've become more than stories. They're idols. Icons. Gods. So I'm escalating.
"This isn't a warning. This is an ultimatum. We're going to get this right, or I'm going to break us all. I'm going to tear down the heavens and lay waste to the gods. And once all the stars go dark, then, only then, will I tell you a new story."
Her hands were fists. "The bad stories have gotta go. No more sitting silent when we hear them. No more letting the people around us believe that our silence is assent. We've got to start telling the right stories to one another. To our kids. To our parents. To our friends. To our politicians. We have to start fighting back."
"And you're saying that if we don't..." I swallowed.
"Any hero can be the villain in someone else's story," she said. She turned to go. "I'd like to stay the hero. But I'll be what you need from me."
Something in her eyes slithered its way down my spine.
"How do you kill a god?" she whispered.
With a burst of wind, the front door blew open. Through it flew a pair of large, black birds. They skittered to a landing on the long, lacquered table that ran most of the length of the room. They looked... bewildered. They turned their heads to and fro in unison, as if their heads were a single pair of eyes, sweeping the room in frightened surprise.
"How do you kill a god? I'll show you... my dear."