Washington D.C. The Mall. The Annual July 4th Superparade.
The air smells like burnt rubber, cordite, and rotten mushrooms after the ungodly amount of fireworks they've lit off for the show.Vendors sell horrendously overpriced hot dogs, lukewarm popcorn, crap beer, and off-brand sodas in red, white, and blue wrappers.
Not that I'm getting to try any, of course. I've just barely made it by the skin of my teeth after leaving Jakarta, last night. I told the boys to give the Flier all she had and then some, and they did, so she did. And now I'm staring at a horrendous repair bill.
But it can wait until tomorrow. Tomorrow's the time for bills and headaches and hangovers. Tomorrow can deal with the damage done.
Tonight? It's for the pageant the masses have come to expect. Slack jawed kids of all ages are clamoring against the erect-a-fences to get a good look at what their tax dollars have been paying for, all these years.
They've come to gawk at America's proud corps of Strategic talents, smiling and waving as they walk (or are wheelchaired) around the mall. The great men and women who kicked Japanazi ass in the War, and every war thereafter, marching alongside their sidekicks, legacies, and the occasional animal companion.
Right behind them are the Super Soldiers the Heptagon made to try and replicate them. Crazy vehicles that don't really work in battlefield conditions follow close behind, along with captured enemy hardware we've declassified and let loose, and a few other things no one really should be looking at, just yet, but what the !@#$.
In short, a seemingly endless parade of supercrap.
Now, I can't be too critical, as I have my own stake in this dog and pony show. SPYGOD Scouts from all over America are here, tonight, marching in formation in their smart, black leather dress uniforms.
And yes, they do actually look like dresses, but that's just because most of these !@#$ wouldn't know a kilt from a poodle skirt. If anyone ever asks, you say "if it was a skirt, I'd be wearing your wife's panties under it, instead of just your mom's lipstick." Never fails to separate the men from the boys.
(Hint: boys try to punch you. Men laugh and might offer you a beer.)
I'm here, too, but not to lead the band. I'm sitting this one out, this time, waving from the pressbox as the President his high-powered minders smile and wave. It's got a weird Soviet feel about it that I am not comfortable with, but I guess that's what happens when you fight the enemy for too long. You become them through the weird and tragic alchemy of good intentions and bad results.
Case in point, the speaker for all of us super types, year after year. Mr. USA, up there at the podium after the first walk around. Clears his throat, gives that aw-shucks grin, and starts talking up the year we've had.
Call it the Kingmaker's speech. The things we've done. The fights we've shared. The people we've saved.
The ones we've lost.
I manage to not want to vomit until they get to the subject of poor, broken Rockethand. "Fatally shot by persons unknown" is the official story he gives up there, bravely suppressing a tear.
"Shot in the skull before he went crazier than he already was and killed a room full of kids from his fan club" is the truth. But no one's going to cop to that. Not him, not Dr. Yesterday, and not me.
Not since I was the one who pulled the trigger.
This is the part I really hate about this junket. The lists of those gone and dead and missing in action. I can easily account for the fates, reasons, and true whereabouts (respectively) of more than half of that list. The others are mysteries on one of the many plates I have spinning in the air at any given moment.
But the way Mr. USA says it, he always makes it sound like some kind of accusation. And at some point he always looks over at the parade (the press box, this time) and looks right at me with those big, sad, blue eyes of his.
His way of saying "!@#$ you, SPYGOD," I think, some years. On others I realize it's just his way of saying he's sorry. But this year, when he talks about the late, broken Rodney Carmichael, I'm not sure what he wants to say.
I know what I want to say. I want to pull out a gun and fire it at that !@#$ podium until it's nothing except splinters and flinders, leap onto it, and tell every braindead asshole here in their strategic talent shirt the facts.
The fact that the Supers call me The Reaper, both behind my back and to my face, because they know the moment the crazy chemicals and freak accidents that turned them super take them past the edge of sanity, reason, and reasonable behavior, I'm the one who gets to deal with it.
The fact that, when I have to deal with it, chances are good it's going to be a !@#$ permanent solution.
The fact that I have a very long list of sad days, stretching back to the War, when I had to look an ally, friend, or lover in the eyes (sometimes) and pull the trigger before things got too far out of hand.
But I can't. It would destroy things. It would make the situation we're in even worse than it already is.
So I keep my big damn mouth shut, applaud at the correct moments, and smile when bidden.
And I remind myself that this, here, at this moment, is not America. This is a circus. This is bread.
We are hungry lions in search of condemned Christians.
America can be found in a lot of places, here in the Square Mile. When I'm done with this sick parade of empty, and my Scouts are hand-shook and winked at enough, I'm going to go to the best one I know, especially now that the Brickskeller is gone.
Saloth Thom came here from Vietnam in 1975. His home in Hanoi was ruined, most of his family dead or missing. He had no one and nothing left, but somehow got the wherewithal to get a plane ticket out of Bangkok and an American visa.
(I think he stole the ID and ticket off a dead man near the airport, but I'm not judging. What would you do, son?)
He came to D.C. knowing no English and with very little money left. He got a job working in a restaurant and proved his worth. In five years he was the manager.
Ten years he was the owner.
Got remarried in the meantime. Had kids. Sent those kids to college so they wouldn't have to bottom out in his restaurant unless they wanted to. (Some did.)
Now he makes the best bowl of Pho in the world, and is !@#$ proud of that fact. When Vietnamese folks come to D.C. to sightsee, they go to his place to eat. And they say it's better than anything they ever had at home.
Maybe they're right. Maybe they're just saying that. Maybe it's all the free, good cognac Saloth showers his guests with if they stay late into the night and chat.
(If they knew his secret ingredient they might not be so happy. But SPYGOD tells no tales.)
That's America to me. The ability to walk out of a bad scene and make something new for yourself, here. And being able to do it without having to worry about the darkness coming to find you.
Not without a fight, anyway.
I'll fight for that any day of the week. I'll even sit on my hands and not shoot at Mr. USA when he makes me want to vomit my eye out of my skull.
But I swear, after this one, I am going to drink Saloth out of cognac.
(SPYGOD is listening to Divine Wind (Blue Oyster Cult) and pounding the Salignac like there's no tomorrow)