The cherry-blossoms were in full bloom as a pair of black limousines snaked around the Jefferson Memorial, intentionally taking the scenic route on their way from Manassas to Alexandria.
“They’re so beautiful!” Gretchen remarked to Professor Todd, who nodded in both agreement with the sentiment and in appreciation of the spectacle. Across from them, Paul played tour guide, pointing out many of the sights to Henry Starling who had been to Washington a handful of times during his life, but who’s limited mobility and dedication to his work prevented him from ever taking the opportunity to really see the city.
In contrast, the lead Limo was all business. West checked his email, to see if his contacts had any new information he needed to be aware of, while Edward, Epiphany and John scoured the headlines for any information that might help their analysis of the situation. Despite the strong, positive public reaction to the current proposal, and the many times Edward had proven him wrong so far, John remained pessimistic.
“Eddie, I love what this can potentially accomplish, but I don’t think you’re going to get the Congress to play ball this time. This is just too radical a proposal.”
For his part Edward was unnerved only by the relative silence on the part of the politicians. Public support was strong, and the only opposition in the media came from lobbyists who were now forced to disclose their ties to Right-Wing think-tanks and Industry Groups, entities that were increasingly being seen as corporatist puppets and thus not credible in the general public’s eye. But there were few, if any, position statements coming from elected officials, either for or against, even from those who’s future campaigns were currently being bankrolled by Edward.
“Well, these things always come down to the wire, John. We shouldn’t expect this one to be any different, especially in light of its radical nature. And with the early part of the election season getting underway in a few months, everyone’s being extremely careful about what they say, and how they vote. Why are you so on edge anyway? Today isn’t really a do-or-die vote.”
John sighed. “I know. It’s just… well, for starters every time in my life that I’ve thought the Government might FINALLY do something right, they’ve either shelved it, or watered it down with so many amendments and compromises that it ended up making whatever the situation was even worse.”
“Not used to seeing actual PROGRESS then, huh?”
“No. But also… Well, in the past you’ve known who was leading the opposition. Whether it was Huggins, or Jarvin or Roberts, or someone else, you had a target. You knew who it was you had to…” He trailed off.
“What?” Edward asked with an inquisitive grin.
“Well… Apply leverage to, I guess.” John laughed. “Hey, none of us know how you keep working your magic, and quite frankly I’m not entirely sure we WANT to know. But this… radio silence? It’s eerie. I’m not sure who’s rallying the troops against us, and we don’t know who’s really on our side. And it’s not like you can just hand out more money.”
“Well, we CAN, just not like before. I get your point though: The new rules do make it a lot harder to buy influence. That was kind of the point though, if you recall.”
“And the people you’ve supported, well… They already HAVE their money now, right? So what’s keeping them honest moving forward?”
“Well, you’ve got a…”
But Epiphany interrupted. “The same as always: Fear, greed and ambition. They’re not going to trust the new rules to protect them fully. Especially not before this act passes, and the limits can be changed at any time with a simple vote. It is simply in their interest to pass this, and they know it.”
“Unfortunately, the opposition also knows that they’re dead in the water if they can’t stop it,” Edward jumped back in. “Maybe after today’s debate and preliminary cloture vote, we’ll have a better idea who we’ll have to *a-hem* lean on a little.”
A short while later the two limo’s pulled up in front of the High and Low, the lone building on the street sporting a fresh coat of paint on the doors and a refurbished façade. While the building itself looked to be the epitome of trendiness and gentrification, the rest of the street remained relatively run down. There were only enough cars parked along it that the black SUV across the street drew little attention.
From inside it, the driver could see both of his conspirators approaching the disembarking crowd from either direction. Professor Todd was the first one out of the rear car. He held the door for Gretchen, who went to unlock the Club as Paul and Henry Starling got out. John was the first out of the lead car and went over to help Gretchen. West was out next, and stepped to the front of the Limousine, as much out of habit as from any fear that there would be trouble. Edward and Epiphany were the last ones out. Edward was just getting his bearings when he heard the commotion behind him.
The assassin approaching from the north had just reached Agent West. “Can I help... HEY!”
And before Edward could turn to see the melee West was no engaged in, the assassin approaching from the south had already made his way past the second car, and was standing just a few feet away, with his gun leveled at Edward.
To Edward, the world appeared to slow down and go silent. His eyes narrowed as he fixed his gaze on the gun. Side-stepping in front of Epiphany, he instinctively pushed her behind him with one arm and braced himself for what he was certain would happen next. But what transpired instead could not have surprised anyone more. His field of vision, entirely focused on gun to the exclusion of everything else in the world was now dominated by the back of someone’s head.
It was Gretchen’s. She had jumped in front of him, arms outstretched. He was vaguely aware that she was screaming.
The hail of gunfire was stopped by a left hook from the most inauspicious of sources: The “academic,” Doctor Henry Starling. The man who only a few months ago was completely paralyzed and wasting away in his wheelchair, now threw a punch that struck both fast and true, breaking the assailant’s jaw and dropping him the ground.
As Starling reached down to collect the man’s weapon, a few feet away West finally gained the upper hand against the man he was grappling with. Combining his hand-to-hand training with his now nearly peak human strength, he placed one foot behind the other man’s and hip-threw him into the brick wall behind them, hard enough to knock him out cold.
Edward knelt down and, cradling her head, looked into Gretchen’s face, now grotesquely contorted with pain and fear. Her small hands gripped at his forearms like iron. The SUV’s engine roared to life
“WEST!” Edward called out. No further instruction was needed.
West step out into the street, guns akimbo. As the driver revved the engine, attempting to put it in gear, West leveled both pistols at the driver and unloaded.
Spider web fractures cascaded over the windshield as the driver’s body was torn through by West’s fusillade. When his attention returned to Edward, he could see him on his knees cradling Gretchen’s nearly lifeless body as her blood pooled rapidly beneath them. His face vacillated by rage and agony as he looked down at his charge, gasping for breath, her face frozen in shock.
“Gretchen. I have to leave you for a moment,” he whispered in her ear, holding her close as she shook her head. “You’re going to be OK, I promise. I won’t leave you long, but there are some things that I have to do now.”
When he looked up, Edward was met by the gazes of his entire council, who had gathered in a circle around him, eagerly awaiting his instructions. He took a deep breath and did his best to compose himself against the impending madness that was threatening to overtake him as Gretchen’s nearly weightless body twitched and quivered like a leaf in his arms.
“Henry, take her for me. Be careful. John, get that bullet-ridden, blood-covered car out of sight. Put it in the garage around the corner and then lock it up. We’ll take care of it later, just get it off the street. Bob, I want you and Epiphany to get down to the Senate. Do whatever is necessary to get in and inform them that their assassination attempt has failed. Report that ALL of us are OK, and that the gunmen are in custody. Paul, get these two bound up and into the trunk of the other car. All of you: Move. West? A word.”
West and Edward walked a few paces away, as everyone quickly got to their tasks, leaving Doctor Starling alone to comfort Gretchen.
“You’re sure it came from the Senate?” West asked him in a low tone.
“Who else? With the first of a series of votes on the most controversial part of our agenda so far starting today? No doubt there are some who would want us – me – out of the way. I’m almost surprised it’s taken this long. Have you heard anything? Any kind of rumors, or warnings?”
“Sure of that?”
“Positive. This is out of the blue as far as I know.”
“Fair enough. Here’s what I need. First of all, we need to find Gretchen a place she can convalesce where she won’t attract too much attention. She won’t need medical help to survive, I’m pretty sure of that, and unfortunately I’m not sure that there’s much can be done to ease her pain in the meantime, but I want to do what we can.”
“OK. I can think of a few possibilities.”
“Great. I also want a place we can stash these two scumbags here until we can find out who they are and who they’re working for.” Edward picked up on an odd grin on West’s face. “What?”
“Actually… I’m thinking of pretty much the same place.”
“You’re thinking of a place that has both medical facilities AND holding cells? What kind of… You know what? Forget it. I don’t want to know. Just get with Hank here, take him and Gretchen and our two friends over to whatever Ministry-of-love-inspired, Patriot Act-authorized monstrosity you’re thinking about, and call me once you’re settled in.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I want to give that vehicle a good once over, make sure it’s not being traced, and see if I can’t find any clues myself.”
“OK: I’ll call you.”
Once West and company were on the road, Edward met John outside the underground garage around the corner from the High and Low. He was just about to lock it up.
“Hang on a sec, John.”
“What’s up?” he asked, letting the door go back up.
“I want to take a look at that car.”
“What about? What’s going on?”
“Bob and Epiphany are on the way to the Capitol, West is taking care of everyone else.” Edward stepped inside. “Come on in and lock it up.”
They went to back the car. The inside was awash in blood and sprinkled with shattered windshield glass. Going over every square inch of the vehicle, neither could find any evidence of a tracking device or active GPS equipment on the vehicle. The driver had no identification on him, his pockets containing only a handgun that, if they’d looked, they would have noticed was missing any identifying marks or serial numbers. Edward opened the glove box.
“What did you find?”
“Nope. Probably aliases, but it’s a start. OK. Why don’t you go on up to the club, make yourself a drink, make me one too, if you would, and wait for West’s call. I’m going to see if one of my contacts can make anything of these passports, and maybe help us out with this vehicle.”
“Why the secrecy? This isn’t a murder. We were acting in self-defense. They shot at us.”
“HE didn’t.” Edward answered, gesturing towards what was left of the driver. “And if these are Government men, the details will hardly matter. Someone wants to elevate things. That’s fine, I just need to know who it is that we’re dealing with. And this guy ain’t talking, so right now he’s just a loose end that needs to be tidied up. And don’t worry, I don’t plan on getting any of you any more involved than you already are. Go on upstairs, get those drinks ready, and I’ll make the necessary arrangements.”
“All right, whatever you say.”
Edward fired off a quick email to one former Major Jason Northville to arrange some kind of “cleanup” service, but he did not mention of the (what he assumed were) fake passports. Producing the tablet, he opened up the FATE application and typed in the first name, careful to use one of the “alias” fields, and concentrating on the photograph as he did so.
A stupid choice for an alias, Edward thought as he punched it in.
Nothing came up.
He wasn’t sure if this due to his misunderstanding of how the Tablet functioned, or because he couldn’t quite rid his mind of the image of the Golden Age Green Lantern – in which case, he realized that the alias was actually brilliant, even if unintentionally so. Then he realized a third possibility: This could be the driver. As torn up as he was, including having taken several shots in the face, Edward was hard pressed to say for sure which of the passports belonged to him. But as he was clearly deceased, he would no longer be in a database of the living. Edward entered the next name:
Despite having to suppress mental images of both another Green Lantern, and the famous late night comedian, a page did come up this time, for a Victor Martin Blonski. Edward left the page open, but didn’t enter a fate, preferring to wait for confirmation that he had the right guy, as opposed to someone else who happened to use that alias. He entered in the last name:
A page opened for one Jacob Walker Bilke. Edward took a moment and studied their faces closely. It was a distinct possibility that this small photograph would be all he’d have to gone on to positively identify these men and he wanted to be absolutely sure he would get it right. Once he was satisfied, he minimized the widows and headed upstairs to have a drink with John and wait for West’s call.