Nihil Aliud Esse
I'll never let you down, even if I could.
I'll give up everything, if only for your good...
3 Doors Down, "When I'm Gone"
The Sizzling Beach Rock appetizer, a platter for two that featured garlic-seared shrimp, glazed spare ribs, and skewers of chicken wrapped in lemon-grass, was a fading memory. Alex's plank-baked salmon was gone. Louise's duck breast was history. All that was left was the bread-basket and the remains of their soup, a bisque of Portobello Mushrooms with cappuccino foam.
Alex tore a piece from her bread stick and dipped it in the remains of her soup. Popping the bread into her mouth, she chewed, swallowed, and said, "You know, this soup has a hundred and one uses. I mean, look at me." She waved her hand, still holding the remains of the bread stick, over her plate. "I've eaten it as soup, ladled it over my potatoes, and now I'm dipping my bread stick in it." She put the bread down, wiped her fingers on her napkin, then reached across the table to grasp her partner's hand. "What do you think about dessert?"
"Dessert? Are you kidding?" Louise leaned back in her chair and patted her tummy. "You can't possibly still be hungry, Alex! It's just not humanly possible." Louise shook her head. "I mean, I've got no room at all. If I eat anything else, I'll explode."
"Not even a wafer-thin mint?" Alex giggled. At Louise's expression, she continued. "Oh come on, that's a Python reference! Don't tell me you've never seen The Meaning of Life!"
"Python? Oh, like Monty Python? I think I saw the one where they were knights."
"Holy Grail, right. But you've seen the TV show, right?" Alex loved Monty Python, which made sense in an odd way, given that both Xander and Kara had been fans. "Tell me you've at least seen the TV show."
"Monty Python was a TV show?" Louise's expression was one of innocent naivete.
Alex started to protest Louise's blasphemy when she caught the sparkle in her partner's eye. "You're pulling my leg, right?"
"Oh yes. Seriously, I've only ever seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but I do know they had a TV show in the 70s."
"We'll have to remedy that. I'm sure the show and all the movies are on DVD. Even the movies that are only technically Monty Python movies." Alex took a sip of her tea. She played around with the remains of the bread stick some more before deciding to take another bite of it.
"There are Monty Python movies that aren't actually Monty Python movies?" The confused look on her partner's face told Alex all she needed to know. Louise had led a sheltered life, before she got tossed out onto the streets by her parents, and after she had been tossed out hadn't had a lot of chances to expand her horizons. It was up to Alex to bring Louise into the sunshine.
"Yeah. Most of them were done with either only a partial Monty Python cast, or else were done as separate projects and are counted by fans even though they aren't technically Python movies."
"Well, there's Jabberwocky, Erik the Viking, The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen, uh, some people count A Fish Called Wanda, but I don't." Alex thought for a moment, then expounded. "Excellent movie, but not really a Python film. Oh, uh, Brazil, sometimes."
"I think I've seen Brazil. Confused the hell out of me." Louise said.
"That's the one. I think it's because it's –" Alex stopped talking. A small contingent of the Napa Rose's servers were approaching. One was carrying a tray and another had an iced champagne bucket with a bottle in it. The rest were empty handed. The waitress carrying the tray put large slices of white cake, heavily decorated with fondant, in front of them. The waiter with the bottle put the bucket on a side-table and began worrying at the cork. "What's this? We didn't order –"
"Yes ma'am, it's a gift from the management, in celebration of your nuptials!" Like all Disney cast members, the waiter, whose name tag red 'Amir,' was far too cheerful. He was also quite obviously very gay, using both definitions of the word. "Don't worry about the cost, darling. Your dinner and the celebratory dessert has been paid for by your friend over there." He pointed toward the entrance. Alex and Louise both looked over to see a man in a well-tailored gray suit give them a quick off-hand salute.
"Wedding cake and some sparkling white grape juice." The waiter popped the cork on the bottle and poured the juice into two flutes as if it were Moet & Chandon Brut Imperial 1895. "A little birdy told us that neither of you is 21 yet, so enjoy the juice. And the cake! And congratulations to the happy couple!" The assembled servers all applauded.
Alex kept glancing over at the man. He looked vaguely familiar, and thinking about it she remembered seeing him several times around Disneyland. He always was close by, no matter where they went in the park. Alex just hadn't put two and two together about him. She turned back to Louise, who was herself alternating between staring at the man and then looking back at the cake. "What should we do, Alex?"
"I don't know." She stared at the cake and the drinks. "I don't think Disney would poison us, so it's probably okay to eat the cake, and we saw him open the bottle, so it's probably safe."
"Yeah, but its creepy as fuck that some stranger knew we got married." Louise was still staring at the man, who waved them toward the cake and mouthed the word 'enjoy.' "And even if he did find out we just got married, why would he give a shit? I mean, we're using our new – " She turned to Alex with wide, wide eyes. "Oh shit, Alex! What if he knows who we are?"
Alex had already gone down that line of reasoning. "If so, then he should know not to fuck with us." Unsmiling, she pointed to the man, then pointed to a spot on the carpet right next to their table. The gesture left no question as to what she meant, nor did her expression. If the guy really knew who she was, he also knew not to make her angry. She wanted to talk to him, right fucking now!
In response, the guy held his hands up. He was nodding as he approached. The guy grabbed a chair from an empty table and sat. He sighed, then smiled at them both. "I really do mean the congratulations. It's not often you get in on the ground floor with a couple who is so obviously in love with one another." The two young women couldn't tell if he was being sarcastic.
"I want to know who you are, Mister, and I want to know why I shouldn't break your arms and legs on our way out of here." Alex was fuming mad. The fingers of her left hand were tapping against the cherry wood of the tabletop and were beginning to leave indentations.
"My name's Harold Hogan. Call me 'Happy,' everybody does. I work for Tony Stark."
"You work for Iron Man. Get your purse, Louise. We're leaving!" Alex's voice was flat and emotionless. She raised a hand to call the waiter for their check. "So, is he waiting outside with the rest of his army? Sooner or later you people are going to piss me off beyond caring if I kill someone. Why can't you just leave us alone?"
"It's taken care of. Your meal tonight. I already paid for it." The man, Hogan, said. He appeared unruffled. "So's your hotel bill. Courtesy of Mister Stark. A wedding gift if you will. And I'm here alone. I was asked to keep an eye on the two of you, so that's all I've been doing. I should say, you two were very cute today. Looked like you were having fun. I'm not here to spoil it, believe it or not. I'm here to help."
"How? By interrupting our honeymoon?" Louise was glaring. If looks could kill...
"Well, no. I just wanted you to know that as far as Tony can tell, no one is on you right now, but –"
"But?" Alex could feel her teeth grind together.
"But, despite the public statements made by the president, the government – or at least certain people in the government – hasn't really given up on you. There's this guy, named Gyrich -"
"The mutant guy? With, uh, what was it called, Project Wide-Awake or something? He was the one who ordered the Sentinel robots built, right?" Alex scoured Xander's memory. "Wasn't he the one who authorized the Brotherhood of Mutants to rename themselves Freedom Force or some bullshit and work for him as enforcers."
"Yeah, that's the one. I've met him. He's an asshole." Hogan stood and returned the chair to the other table. "Anyway, I just wanted to give you guys the heads-up. Tony's decided that his people are going to sit this one out from now on. SHIELD and the Avengers, I mean. But they aren't the only game in town, so be careful. I really meant it when I said how cute you guys are." He gave them his winning smile. "I'm rootin' for you." He gave them a little wave, and left.
"So what do we do now?" Louise stared after the retreating man. "I mean, do we just, uh, sit here and eat our cake?"
Amir returned to the table in response to Alex's summons. "Yes, ma'am? What can I bring you?"
"A couple of to-go boxes for the cake and a cork for the bottle." Alex downed her flute of juice in one pull. "We have to go unfortunately. But we want to enjoy the cake later." Louise nodded and downed her own juice."
"Certainly." Amir hustled off.
Within minutes they were back in their car, and shortly thereafter pulling into the letway of the Disneyland Resort. "Okay, Hogan said we weren't in any immediate danger, and if there's anyone who'd know, it'd be Stark. We can take a deep breath before we panic, okay?" Surprisingly, it was Louise who was reassuring Alex.
"We should pack and get out of here. If they know we're here – do you think they know about the suite at the Beverly?"
"Probably. I don't know." Louise shrugged. "At least Stark does, that's almost guaranteed. Hogan said Stark wasn't coming after us. Whoever is coming after us is someone else. Like the FBI maybe?"
"Yeah, okay. We still have the gym bag in the trunk." The bag in question was stacked full of bundles of hundred dollar bills. "As long as we got that, we can start over wherever we land. We were heading to Florida once we were done with the honeymoon, anyway." Alex looked over at Louise. "Sweetie, I know you wanted to go to California Adventure, but I think we might need to take a rain check."
They crossed the lobby of the resort to the elevators and rode up to their floor. "Yeah, okay. Hey, we're heading to Florida, right? They have theme parks there." Louise laughed. Alex couldn't tell if she was being serious or not.
"Yeah, sure." Alex rolled her eyes. "Let's get packed and get out. Hogan said Stark paid for the room. We'll grab our stuff, jump in the car. 91 will take us to I-10, and from there we're gone. We'll eat our wedding cake on the way to Phoenix." Alex had the route all plotted out and programmed into their car's GPS system.
"Hey," Alex dug around in her purse a moment. "Did I leave my room key in the room?"
Still digging around in her bag, Alex didn't see Louise's expression, but she did hear it when she sighed. "Here, I got mine." Louise opened the door to their suite.
Alex was stunned, it all happened so fast. One minute she and Louise were planning their getaway, the next they Louise was down and some unknown bitch in fishnets and red leather was coming at her with a sword. Alex didn't recognize the woman, but it didn't matter. She'd be just another hospital patient soon. That was the price for hurting Louise. Alex swung for the woman's head with enough force to put her out like a light, only to watch the woman swerve out of the way before the punch could land. Alex swung again, faster this time, too fast for any human to react quickly enough to dodge, and yet the woman dodged it.
"Fuck!" Alex couldn't help but cry out. The woman in red had brought her sword down on Alex's arm, cutting it open to the bone! Alex pulled her injured limb back toward her body. She took a quick glance at the injury and felt her gorge rise. It was true, she could see all the way to the bone. Everything below her elbow was useless meat. Alex desperately ran through all the possibilities as she ducked under the woman's second swing. She felt the blade pass through hair and winced as long golden threads of hair fell to the floor.
For a second time, Alex dodged to the side, barely missing the blade. She concentrated past the pain, activating her heat vision to burn the woman, but again the assailant seemed to move out of the way before Alex's attack landed. Instead, one of the windows sagged in its frame before breaking. Alex was beginning to sweat, now. Nothing was working. Nothing was working. She made a clumsy swing with her uninjured arm, and barely pulled back in time to save herself another nasty cut. Finally, Alex lunged, hoping to bear the woman in red to the floor.
The woman pirouetted in place and drove her sword straight through Alex's chest and out her back. Alex gasped at the pain. She couldn't breathe. She couldn't breathe. She couldn't breathe. There was no air. No air at all. The woman slowly pulled the sword out of Alex's body. Almost from outside herself, Alex watched her knees crumble. Reflexively, she curled in on herself and fell over on her side, the blood from the wound pooling beneath her. There was no air. There was no air. She couldn't breathe.
Alex closed her eyes.
Mary heard the door's lock click and tensed, preparing herself for action. It wasn't hard to guess where the two women were staying, and once she'd confirmed they were in the hotel, it was child's play to find the room. So she lay in wait. Mary concentrated on not being seen. Her mental abilities weren't as flexible as a regular telepath, but the one thing she could do was alter other people's perceptions. In this case, it could hide her.
The door opened and the taller one, Starr, walked past, dropping her purse on a short table. The other girl, Fulford, walked past Mary's hiding place and did the same thing. Mary watched as the two of them collected up every personal item in the suite's main room and shove it into one purse or the other, one suitcase or the other. When they were done, the Fulford girl did a quick spin, taking in the entire room, before saying, "Alex, I'll get everything out of the bathroom. You start shoving the dirty laundry in a bag. Don't worry about mixing it with clean, we'll just wash everything."
The other woman nodded. "Sounds like a plan."
It was time. Mary dropped the concealment and attacked. She punched the Fulford girl with a backhanded left while drawing her sword. Fulford was knocked back by the blow, lost her footing, and fell across the glass table. It shattered into thousands and thousands of shards. Mary spared Fulford one glance before putting her full attention on Starr; Fulford was down. She wasn't the target anyway. Mary turned and concentrated her effort on Starr.
Starr rushed at her, faster than she expected, but the connection had already been made, and Mary avoided getting hit by a fist that could shatter steel simply by causing Starr to throw the punch somewhere else. Mary brought her sword down across Starr's extended arm as hard as she could. Her concentration almost wavered as she saw the blade of her weapon turn aside and bend, just slightly, because of the impact. As it was, she was finding it difficult to keep a hold on Starr's mind. It felt odd. And it moved very quickly. Much more quickly than normal for a non-telepath.
Mary gritted her teeth. It was time to end this before it got out of hand. Time to make the girl think she was dying. It wouldn't take but –
The Starr girl clipped Mary on the shoulder as the assassin closed. It wasn't a solid blow, more like a graze, but it was enough to break her collar bone and render her arm on that side utterly useless. Mary bit back a scream. She had to keep her concentration to end this. Mary ground her teeth together and lunged forward to slap a hand directly onto the forehead of the target. She unleashed her power on the Starr girl, pouring everything she had into convincing Starr's body that it was seriously injured and falling into unconsciousness.
The girl's eyes fluttered, showing nothing but whites, and she collapsed to the floor like a discarded marionette. It was only then that Typhoid Mary allowed herself the luxury of a closed-mouthed scream at the pain from her injured shoulder. She cradled her useless arm long enough to scream three more times before finally shaking it off. It still hurt, but she could work. With her working arm, Mary fished her cell phone out of a side-pocket and punched four numbers.
"Levinson's Deli, this is Joe speaking. How may I help you?"
"Priority code 840-0083. Red Alpha." Mary shook her head again, trying to keep it clear for the report. Everything in her vision was tinged pink from the pain. There was a series of loud clicks, then a tone, and then Henry Peter Gyrich's voice.
"Is she ready for pick-up?"
"Affirmative. Collection team needs to hurry. I need an on-site medic as well. She broke my God-damned shoulder."
"I'll let them know. Good work. They'll be there shortly, secure the scene and wait where you are. They've got a -" Mary's vision flashed white for a moment, unexpectedly. Gyrich was still speaking – Mary could hear words coming from the cell phone – but Mary could no longer hear what he was saying. The man's voice had gone all foggy, like he was speaking quietly down an echoing hallway. Mary felt more than saw the second flare of light that had accompanied Gyrich's further transformation from distant to sort of whispering.
Mary realized she'd been hit by something, but she couldn't see anything there. She was dizzy. Vertigo had come to claim her. The pink tinge in her vision had begun to go flat and gray. There was a strange feeling in her gut, like gravity had just been canceled. Slowly – it felt slow to her, anyhow – Mary turned her entire body to see behind her. Turning just her head hurt too much. Once around, she was surprised to see the other girl, Fulford, standing there. Fulford was yelling something at her, but again, it all sounded like whispering.
Fulford whispered another scream at Mary, and raised her arm. Mary tried to concentrate on the object that Fulford was holding. It was thick and heavy and green, and seemed to be wrapped in silver.
Louise watched the woman who had attacked them crumple to the floor. For good measure, she raised the bottle of sparkling white grape juice and hit the unknown attacker in the head with it a third time, opening a cut above the woman's brow and turning half her face into a swollen field of bruises. Somewhere in the back of her mind, a voice as telling her that a third time was enough. Louise stared down at the woman, idly noting that she was still breathing, even if her breathing pattern was labored. She didn't look familiar, this would-be assassin. Just another person who wanted to do harm.
"Hey, Lady? You dropped your phone." Louise bent over and picked the device up, wincing at the pain the movement caused. Her back was covered in small cuts, and some of those cuts still held slivers of glass. But she was tough. She had to be tough for Alex. "You look really weird, your face half-painted like that." She gave the fallen woman a quick kick to the ribs. Twice. Okay, three times but the last one wasn't as enthusiastic as the first two.
Okay, four times. Only until the woman groaned. It wasn't a very loud groan, either.
"Stop complaining, bitch. You earned it." Louise stared at the cell phone for a moment. The number on the screen was identified as 'Gyrich, Washington', whatever that meant. She brought it to her ear. "Hello?"
"Oh, was that her name? No, this isn't Mary. Is this Mr. Gyrich, in Washington?" Louise pulled the phone away from her ear and stared at it. Whoever it was had hung up abruptly. She shrugged and tossed the thing aside. Louise gave 'Mary' one last kick in the ribs before moving toward her wife.
"Come on, Alex. Wake up. You have to wake up." Louise crouched above Alex's head and slapped her on the cheeks. There was no response other than Louise shaking her hands. "Probably hurts me than is waking you up. What do I do?" Louise had overheard the woman say a collection team was on the way. That wasn't a good thing. What could she do?
Louise dumped the roses out of one of the vases and ran for the bathroom. She filled it with cold water from the tub, ran back, and dumped directly down Alex's throat. To Louise's surprise, it worked! Alex sat up, sputtering and blinking her eyes. Louise smiled at her partner, who coughed, then grabbed at her chest as if she was looking for something.
"I got stabbed! What happened? I got stabbed!"
"It was all in your head, Alex." Louise tilted her head toward the unconscious woman, this 'Mary' person. "She slapped her hand on your forehead and you went down."
Alex blinked at the unconscious woman in red. "What happened to her?"
With a smile, Louise reached, stretched, and put a finger on the discarded grape juice bottle. "I hit her with this a couple of times in the back of the head, and when she turned around to look at me, I hit her in the front of the head too. Look, we need to get out of here, like now. She was talking on the phone to some guy named Gyrich in Washington, and he's sending a collection team. Can you get up?"
Alex nodded. Louise stood and backed away, and Alex climbed to her own feet. "Okay, let's grab our stuff and go." Louise turned to resume the packing she began before the attack.
"Oh baby, your back!" Alex's eyes were wide. Both of her hands were to her mouth.
"Yeah, it stings like a bitch. I'll be okay." Louise shrugged. "You might need to pull some glass out later. But I figure all I need are those... whatcha call it. Those things the boxers use. I'll be okay. I can still move. I'm tougher than I look, sweetie."
Two minutes later, Alex and Louise crossed the lobby. They ducked into a gift-shop just in time to be missed by eight men in identical suits as they entered the hotel and immediately headed for the elevators.
Parkinson glanced around the suite. As expected, there wasn't any sign of the targets. They might be able to pull fingerprints, but he doubted there'd be anything else. Other than the bloodstains and the shattered table, of course. He sighed. Nothing ever went smoothly. Oh well. Continuing his sweep, Parkinson's eyes landed on the discarded cell phone, barely visible from where it lay under one of the overturned chairs. He picked it up absently and put it in his pocket. The thing was a prepaid burner, and now that it had been used, it would be cleaned, reprogrammed, and used again, but for now it was useless. Waste not want not, though, was ingrained. Speaking of cell phones, he took his own out and punched a quick combination of buttons.
Levinson's Deli, this is Joe speaking. How may I help you?"
"Priority code 833-0147. Blue Gamma."
He waited as the phone clicked in his ear.
"What's the situation?"
"Mary's down and down hard. According to the medic, she's got a busted shoulder. Plus, someone did a number on her head." One of the other agents held up what looked like a bloody champagne bottle. Parkinson waved the guy over and took the bottle from him. "Looks like the weapon of choice was a bottle of bubbly. No, wait... it says Welches. She got beat up with a bottle of grape juice. One of the fancy ones that looks like champagne."
"Had to have been the girlfriend. The target wouldn't have needed it."
"Huh. Yeah, makes sense. I mean, it's stupid to let an untrained teenager with no superhuman abilities beat you down like that, but hey, what do I know." Parkinson shrugged into the air. "Do you have any instructions, or do you want us to handle it in the usual way?"
"Extract Mary from the scene, then clean the room. I want there to be no sign anyone was there at all."
Parkinson stared at the pile of shattered glass and broken bamboo that was once a coffee table. "That might be a little difficult, sir. I'm not set up to replace furniture."
"Yes, sir. One of those glass tabletop coffee tables the hipsters are so hot for lately got busted up." Parkinson nodded as the other agents immobilized Typhoid Mary, inserted an oxygen tube, then wrapped her up and shoved her in what looked like an oversized garment bag. "Hold on, sir. Davies, go get a luggage cart. If you can bring one in that already has luggage on it, so much the better. You three..." he pointed to the three men maneuvering Mary's bag. "You be careful with her. She went above and beyond. Treat her like it." He turned his attention back to the cell phone. "Sorry about that, sir. You were saying?"
"Actually, you were saying. So... broken furniture. Okay. You're at the Disneyland Resort, correct?"
"Affirmative, sir." Parkinson turned to the four agents remaining. He waved his finger in a circle, taking in the entire room, then mouthed the word 'sanitize'. They nodded and got to work. In ten minutes, the only sign that anything had happened here would be the persistent lack of a coffee table.
"Okay, here's what you do. Go to whomever the duty manager is and have them call the California Vice President for Resorts at his home. Once you're connected, I want you to give the man the following phrase: Snakes are in the grass! Alas. Then just walk away. Disney has a very good record of assisting us. They do things for us, we look the other way when they want us to. It's a thing."
Parkinson couldn't keep the surprised look off his face, but at least he kept it out of his voice. "Yes sir. Snakes are in the grass! Alas. Got it. Anything you want us to do once we have Mary back to the base and in a hospital bed?"
"Do we know what they were driving?"
"Uh, that would be negative, sir. No idea."
"Too bad. All right. In that case, I'll let you know what I need once we reacquire the target. Assuming we reacquire the target. Have a good evening, Park. Give your little girl a kiss from her Uncle Hank, okay?"
"Will do, sir. Talk to you later." Parkinson put the cell phone in his pocket next to the one that had been issued to Mary. Like the first one, it was now useless.
Alex gave the CVS behind them a quick glance as she pulled the Mercedes into traffic. It was their fifth drug store. Hopefully, the girl behind the register wouldn't remember her face if someone came asking. Alex doubted anyone would, given that they picked this drug store at random, but she hoped for anonymity anyway. Their suitcases, holding enough clothing for a week at Disneyland, were in the trunk next to the duffel bag, their pillows, some folded blankets, their beach gear including a bag full of lotions and oils and a folded-up umbrella, their souvenirs, and their bag of shoes. The back seat held four beach towels, enough drug store junk food to feed the 8th Armored Division, and as many topical antibiotics and bandages as Alex thought she could buy at once without attracting attention.
In the passenger seat, Louise was slathering Neosporin on the cuts on her arms, then closing them with a steri-strip, then putting band-aids over them. And talking. To the unpracticed eye, it would look like Louise wasn't paying attention to what she was doing, but Alex got the feeling that Louise had been her own doctor on previous occasions.
"Do you think I did something wrong, talking on the woman's cell phone like that? I mean, he hung up on me. I didn't get any information other than she was named Mary. Oh, and she called that Gyrich dude. Why does that name sound familiar, Alex?"
"Because he's come after us before." Alex spared Louise a glance. State Road 99 was coming up, and from there it was only a couple of miles to I-10. They'd be in Las Cruces by morning. "He's a government guy. Hardnosed spy type. Like James Bond, but even more of an asshole. Absolutely hard-nosed. All about God and country and willing to fuck anybody over if it protects the country. He's actually one of the good guys, but he's the kind of good guy who'll murder an entire elementary school if it means that the bad guys lose."
"I don't think that counts as being a good guy." Louise turned to reach into the back seat. She pulled a bottle of water and the Tylenol up front with her.
"Well, he's usually on the side of the good guys. He's just a fanatic." Alex signaled the turn and took the right.
"Right. My dad always said fanatics were dangerous." Louise shook a few pills out onto her hand and popped them into her mouth, followed by a few swallows of water.
"They are, Louise. They really are." Alex reached over and gave her hand a squeeze.
"Okay." Louise tried to get comfortable. They'd put two towels under her in case her back bled while they were driving. "I'm going to try and take a nap. If you start getting sleepy, wake me up, okay?"
"Sure. No problem. Before you drop off, though, could you hand me one of the bags of beef jerky and one of the cokes?" At Louise's look, Alex just smiled. "Just in case I need something to do with my hands."
"Sure." Louise fished the items in question out of the back seat, then folded herself against the car door. Mere moments later, Louise's breathing flattened out as sleep claimed her. Alex made sure she was in a stable position, then played with the stereo until she came across something called "Tom Petty's Buried Treasure." The smoky tones of the singer, talking about the songs he personally chose to be played, and about his own memories as a performing musician, carried Alex out of Los Angeles and onto the interstate, headed east.
Happy Hogan turned around once the two girls hit Interstate 10.
He hadn't witnessed the event that cause Alexandra and Louise Harris to abandon their suite at the Disneyland Resort, but he had seen the aftermath. Shortly after eight of the most obvious government spooks Hogan had ever seen entered the resort from the front, the two girls had rushed out of a side exit to their car like bats out of hell. Alexandra Harris carrying way too many bags to be moving that quickly. When they hit the car, the other girl loaded while Alexandra stood watch, like a freaking mother wolf standing over a cub. As far as Hogan could tell, her eyes had never left the hotel.
He'd followed the pair as they made five stops at five different chain drug stores. He didn't follow them in, but if he had to guess it was snack food and first aid supplies. Which made sense, seeing as how the Fulford girl had been hobbling just a little. And then the girls had run for the Interstate, heading east. The entire country was east of here, and all of it was accessible via Interstate 10. Made it impossible to guess where their ultimate destination was, but given the Interstate system, that genius product of the Eisenhower administration, it literally could be anywhere in the country.
Happy reached up and pushed the button on the bottom of the car's rear-view mirror. A slightly electronic voice said, "Ready."
"Call Tony Stark." He enunciated every syllable. Even after years of tinkering, the stupid system had problems understanding him.
"Calling Tony Stark." The voice said in clipped, artificial tones. It rang four times before being picked up.
"Boss, it's me. You're never going to guess what happened to our girls tonight." Hogan hit his turn signal and headed into the drive through of an In-N-Out. The girls might have eaten, but he sure as hell hadn't.
"Oh God, what?"
"Looks like someone objected to their having a honeymoon. I didn't see it, but I saw what happened next. A bunch of Men in Black-types showed up and the girls snuck out through the side door." He leaned his head out the window. "Yeah, give me a double-double, fries, and a vanilla shake please."
"A double-double? Are you at the drive through?"
"Yeah, look, Tony, I haven't had anything to eat since this bucket of popcorn I had at about 2:30 this afternoon." He pulled up as close as possible to the car in front of him and waited his turn to pay. "Anyway, the girls stopped at a handful of drug stores then lit out for the territories on I-10."
"Drug stores?" There was quiet on the other end. "Uh, let me guess. First aid supplies, soda, and junk food for the trip?"
"And a couple of beach towels. They put them over the passenger seat. Not sure what it means, but it means something." Hogan handed the girl a $10, and smiled at her as she handed back his change. "Maybe one of them was caught in the shower and they didn't want to get the seat wet."
"Right. It's possible one of them is hurt, but not badly. Had to be the girlfriend. I can tell you from experience that Alexandra – she's calling herself Alex now, right? – Anyway, I can tell you she's like steel. Anything that could hurt her would have brought down the building."
"Makes sense. Anyway, I gave up on them once they hit the highway. I'm headed back to the apartment. Pepper'll be here in the morning and I miss her." He gave another smile to the boy handing out the food. He put the bag on the passenger seat carefully, then proceeded to snake the fries out two or three at a time. He blew quickly, trying to cool the obviously fresh French fries while they were busily burning the inside of his mouth."
"Were you able to plant the tracker on their car?"
"That I did. Hey wait, aren't you able to tell that?" Hogan grabbed a couple more fries.
"It's not that kind of tracker. I don't want just anyone with a radio tuned to the right frequency to be able to triangulate on them. It only responds to an active ping, and I'm not able to ping them where I am right now. I'll do it in the morning."
"Sounds good. Do we have any idea who sent the spooks?"
"Of course, we do. Not that we can prove it, but yeah, sure, we know who sent them. Give you two guesses, but you're only going to need one."
"Gyrich. You know, sooner or later he's going to try this shit and it's going to take a huge bite out of his ass." Hogan rubbed at his eyes. He was still a good twenty minutes away from the apartment and a shower.
"Of that I have no doubt."
"I'm going to put in some motoring. I've got a burger to eat, a shower, and a soft bed to crawl into." Hogan almost pushed the disconnect, then stopped. "Oh, hey, speaking of soft beds, what the hell did you think you were doing with Pepper this morning?"
"Ah. I take it she told you?"
"You'd better damned believe she told me." Hogan believed that it had been an accident. It hadn't been the first time an exhausted Tony Stark had accidentally crawled into bed with someone, after all. Hell, he'd done it to Hogan once. "You and I are going to have a long talk about my wife someday, Tony. I know we're all friends, and I know she's your ex, but for fuck's sake, there are rules."
"And you're totally justified in enforcing them. I'll talk to you later."
"Right. Talk to you in the morning." Hogan turned down Hollywood. What a night it had been.
Louise woke up as Alex pulled into the hotel's parking lot. She blinked owlishly at her partner. "Where are we? What time is it, Alex?"
Alex glanced over and grinned before turning the car off. "Las Cruces, New Mexico. And it's just about five in the morning. I'm going to get us a room. I figure we can hole up in a bed for a while. You know, change our clothes, shower. Find a decent restaurant that doesn't involve a drive-through window." She climbed out of the car and Louise followed her.
"You sure it's okay to stop?" Louis stretched like a cat as they walked to the hotel's entrance.
"Should be. Stark's man, whassisname, Hogan, said that they'd taken care of the bill, so whoever sent Stabby Woman won't know where to start looking." Alex pulled her partner to her and gave her a hug. "I think Stark's covering for us."
"Why would he do that?" Louise stretched again, yawning. Like most people, she could sleep in a car, but it was nowhere near as good as sleeping in a bed. She was still tired despite sleeping for almost six hours.
"No idea. But I think he is covering for us. It's just a feeling." She pulled open the door to the hotel and smiled at the man behind the desk. "Hey, we need a room. Preferably something on the ground floor? Non-smoking?"
Alex had waited until Louise was asleep again, snuggled under the thin blankets of the hotel bed. She left a note. Had to run out real quick to get something. Stay in the room and I'll be back soon. Love you, A. for Louise to find if she woke up. Alex had no idea how long this would take, but it might be a couple of hours. After leaving the note, and kissing Louise on the forehead, she'd quietly left the room and headed for a secluded spot behind the hotel's dumpster. Within seconds she was in orbit. Alex took a moment to appreciate how the curvature of the Earth looked from this vantage point, glanced appreciably at the moon, then dove toward the east coast of the United States. It took less than a minute. Before she registered on NORAD's systems, Alex was hanging in the air over Washington DC. And she listened.
She closed her eyes, concentrated, and listened. The cacophony of the assembled voices of Washington, waking to a partly-cloudy Sunday morning, hit her all at once. And one by one, she eliminated voices. Not this one. Not this one. Not this one. Not that one. She listened for certain words. For certain phrases. She listened.
It took close to ten minutes, but she had it.
"Good morning, Mr. Gyrich. Did you sleep well?"
"Good morning, Betty. I did, thanks. How was your evening?"
"Me and Ronny spent the evening watching an old movie. Mister Smith Goes to Washington. I love Jimmy Stewart. Did you want me to get the paper for you, Mr. Gyrich?"
"No, I'll get it. You go ahead and put your things away. I'll be right back."
Alex moved, leaving a sonic boom to mark her last location. She came to an abrupt stop some hundred feet above a well-maintained ranch house on the outskirts of Washington, just on the shore of the Potomac River. When Henry Gyrich stepped onto his front porch to collect his daily newspaper, she was there waiting for him.
He didn't even have time to scream.
"Alex? Where'd you go?" Louise rubbed at her eyes.
Alex held up a bag full of Dunkin' Donuts and a tray with Styrofoam cups. "Breakfast of champions. I needed a quick sugar fix, and nothing provides the needed confection like jelly-filled delight. Oh, and coffee."
"Coffee sounds good." Louise sat up and stretched, inadvertently flashing her breasts at Alex. Alex dutifully watched every second of it. By the time Louise caught on, both thought it was all quite funny.
"I wrote a note, but I suppose you don't need it now." Alex shrugged. She headed into the bathroom.
"Mmm. True." Louise bit into a donut with one hand as grabbed for the TV remote with the other. She flipped through several channels. "Lots of Spanish channels. Church. Church. Boring. News. Wonder if they have anything on us." Louise stopped it on CNN.
Alex stepped out and froze. "So, uh, what's going on?" She stared at the TV. A constant shot of the front of a house was being shown above a banner that read 'Homeland Security Head Kidnapped.'
"Nothing important. I was wondering if they had anything about us in the news, but it looks like we're clear." Louise changed the channel and found Spongebob. "There we go. Something light and entertaining."
Alex came over and hugged her partner, which caused Louise to raise an eyebrow. "You okay, Alex? You're shaking. What's wrong?"
"Nothing. Nothing really. Just, you know, lots of stress. I'm, well, I'm not quite fine, but I'm sure I will be."
"Sure, I get it. I was like that for a while." Louise grabbed another donut. "Hey, when we head out, I'll drive for a while. And I was thinking, we should, like, go by a bookstore. Drives are always shorter when you have something to read."
"Sure, sounds good." Alex turned to watch the cartoon, her mind still reeling from the emotional impact of what happened that morning.
The title is Latin, and means "Nothing more to be said."