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       Black Trump, p.1

         Part #15 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin
Black Trump





  Book III of a New Cycle



  The smell of blood twisted around the muezzin's ululating pre-dawn call to the faithful. A red, slick, looping skein snaked through the night and intertwined with the yodeled vowels; a dream - not a dream. In the silence that followed, Zoe opened her eyes and lay still as Needles walked by her. Inches from her cot, his clawed hand swung past her face. His hand carried the musky stink of fresh blood.

  Needles opened the door to the tiny bathroom and slipped inside. Metered water gurgled in the sink. Moonlight marked out the narrow rectangle of the archer's window near the door and outlined the low mounds of sleepers in the high-ceilinged room.

  Angelfish, Owl, and Jellyhead lay on their benches on the far wall. They looked so peaceful, her "Escorts," New York street kids who could at least sleep under a roof now, under Zoe's fragile protection. Anne, Zoe's mother, was quiet on her cot. Jan, the littlest of the kids, slept with her feet sticking out from beneath the sheet that she had, as usual, pulled over her head like a tent.

  Croyd slept in the alcove, screened off from the rest of the room by a curtain. Croyd had been asleep for weeks. He'd signed on as a boarder, vanished, and then staggered through the door three weeks ago, red-eyed and angry. Needles had listened to Croyd rant for hours until the Sleeper just stopped in mid-sentence and went limp. Zoe had helped carry him to the alcove and shove him into the narrow bed. He didn't seem to be changing much, not yet, anyway.

  In the bathroom, the water kept on running.

  Needles patrolled with the Twisted Fists. He was a child. The Fists had sent him home with blood on his hands. Anger made Zoe want to shout out obscenities to the rooftops; the need for silence made her tremble. She jerked the thin cotton sheet from her cot, wrapped it around her, and tiptoed across the room, her bare feet welcoming the feel or smooth, cool concrete. She leaned close to the bathroom door and hissed.

  The light inside clicked off and Needles opened the door. Zoe slipped inside with him. Shower stall, commode, sink, the little closet was small enough that you could brush your teeth while sitting on the pot.

  Needles turned off the tap and dried his hands, working a thin terry rag over each claw, polishing them in the yellow glow of the night-light plugged into the single outlet over the sink.

  "What happened?" Zoe whispered.

  "It's nothing," Needles said. He had been in a major growth spurt since they had reached Jerusalem. He was as tall as Zoe, and he shaved, every single day.

  Zoe reached out and touched his cheek. "You missed a spot."

  Needles jerked his face away and looked in the mirror. He scrubbed at the sticky black mark with the damp cloth in his hand. "Shit," he whispered "Oh, shit. Zoe, it's ..."

  "Did you kill someone?" Zoe asked.

  Needles sucked a deep breath between his baleen teeth and turned his head away.

  "Come outside. We'll talk about it." Zoe held out her hands for the towel. Needles passed it over and slipped out of the room. Zoe washed her hands, rinsed out the cloth, and watched the rusty water drain away, more blood to enrich the fertile sewers of the City of Peace.

  Whose blood? Had Needles killed a nat? Had the Fists put the boy through some impossible initiation ceremony? Or had he just helped with the cleanup?

  Whose blood? Nat, joker, one of Needles' new friends?

  In the Divided City, so many died. The Divided City, Jerusalem, partitioned in those strange days of Britain's withdrawal tram Palestine, a war zone for more than fifty years, a walled town swelled to bursting with refugees and warriors. The boundaries of its ghettos were forever in flux. The Muslims gained a few streets from the Christians, who crowded against the Jewish Quarter, and then someone would cut off a water supply or a tourist route in retaliation and the boundaries would shift back again.

  The Joker Quarter stayed peaceful. Women and children walked unescorted, shopkeepers hawked their wares under awnings that shaded the narrow streets, and a joker could profess any religion at all, or none.

  Weird but true, this was a safer place than New York, jokers and joker children went to school without getting mugged.

  The Escorts liked school. They came home babbling about how way cool it all was. Arabic and Hebrew and the Koran and the Talmud. But they learned other things, too, crowd management, that was def. First aid was really to hurl, but it feels good to know what to do, right? Jellyhead could break down an Uzi at FTL speeds, they said, and nobody could touch Needles on banking transactions. A school for literate terrorists could only be a Fists setup. Zoe had tried not to think about it.

  She didn't question peace for her kids, and good schooling, even though each of the Escorts had some job to do in the quarter, every building had its designated guards -

  The Twisted Fists killed five for one. Always. If a joker died, five nats died. If the Fists knew who had killed, they killed the killer and four compatriots. If they didn't know, they took their best guess.

  It was horrid justice. It was no justice. It had to be done - maybe. But not by the Escorts, damn it. The Fists by God shouldn't be sending children to do their killings. She'd hidden from the truth too long, blocked away the ugly reality of what was going on with the kids because she needed a semblance of normality, a salaried job, help for Anne, a little time to forget those last horrid days in New York, a dose of reality.

  Right. Reality was the Sleeper in his alcove, locked in a process of transformation that might mean he'd wake up as a walking nightmare. Reality was five adolescents searching for role models, and finding them in trained killers. Reality sucked.

  The air in the tiny bathroom was stifling. Zoe turned the tap back on and filled her cupped hand with tepid water. She splashed it on the back of her sweaty neck, slipped out into the room, and eased the bathroom door closed behind her. Needles was awake, his eyes wide and watchful. He looked dazed and numb. He looked hollow, as if something had been drained from him, and she wondered how she had looked in those first hours after she had willed a mannequin to kill for her. But she hadn't had to come home and wash blood from her hands. Poor Needles.

  Zoe sat on the edge of her cot and pulled jeans and a maroon silk crop-top from the stack of clothes in the corner. In this crowded space, she had learned the art of dressing under a sheet. Underwired bra, scoop necked blouse that would show cleavage, one button left undone under the length of blue silk cord that held up her hip-hugger jeans. She shrugged out of the sheet to pull on her sneakers. The clothes would offend the sensibilities of most of the religious groups that crowded Jerusalem's narrow streets, but she was so tired of long sleeves and skirts.

  Needles stood with his hands in his pockets, rocking back and forth. Fifteen-year-old boys never stopped moving, Zoe had noticed, unless they were deeply asleep.

  Zoe grabbed a Little Red Riding cloak of thin cotton gauze, the color of copper, its hood trimmed in thin dangling gold coins. She rolled it into a bundle and tucked it under her arm. Deadbolt, chainlock, and lock, she opened them as quietly as she could. Needles followed her to the tiny landing that led downstairs to the street.

  "Zoe?" he whispered.

  She felt his fingers, tentative, brush her elbow.

  "What happened?"

  "I can't talk about it. Orders, Zoe."

  "From the Fists?"

  "From the Fists, yes. We had a job to do, a retaliation. We did it."

  Gods. He was horrified by what he'd done, but he was proud, too.

  "You killed someone for revenge? You?"

  "I had help."

  "My God, Needles! Why have they done this to you?"

  "This is Jerusalem, Zoe." He lifted
his hand as if to grab something from the air. His razor-sharp claws caught the faint light and he stared at them as if they belonged to someone else.

  "This is hell," Zoe said. Enough of this. Refuge or no refuge, this use of "her" kids had to stop.

  "It's hell. I'm okay, Zoe. Don't worry about me. I gotta get some sleep, okay?" Needles leaned against the wall and gave a theatrical yawn.

  Like hell he would sleep. But Zoe could understand that he didn't want to talk out the night's horrors.

  "Go to bed, then. Rest, Needles. You did what you had to do. I'm going somewhere for a while. Lock up after me, would you?"

  She could see Needles clench his jaw, could see him gather his defenses to protest. "Let me go with you," Needles said.

  "No." She stared down the stairs.

  "You're going to the Fists."

  Zoe didn't answer.

  "You won't find them. Don't get me in trouble, Zoe."

  "That's not my plan." So what was her plan? Set up an interview with the Black Dog? Great plan. She ran down the narrow stairs, leaving Needles to fasten the three locks on the door. The task wouldn't keep him from following her, but it might slow him down a little.

  ♥ ♦ ♣ ♠

  "I can't believe you told the goddamn Black Dog about the Trump, Dutton." Fury rouged the skin of Hannah's high cheekbones and penciled fine lines around her eyes. Gregg could nearly see the anger sparking electric blue in her eyes.

  Spotlights illuminated a trio of Turtle shells suspended from the gallery ceiling, painting cavernous hollows in Dutton's death's-head face. Back in the darkness, there was the moist gleam of eyes. Gregg sniffed: Dutton smelled like the museum itself - dusty, ancient, a perfume of mold and rust. In the shadows to Gregg's left there was a rustling of cloth and a soft, polite moan: Oddity, writhing in the pain of their endless transformations.

  "We need help," Dutton answered, aggravation riding in his sepulchral tones. "It seems to me that the Twisted Fists are one of the few allies we have."

  "They're thugs and murderers. Their idea of a solution is to kill something, five for fucking one. That's asinine and stupid, Charles. I won't have it."

  "You won't have it?" Dutton snapped. "When were you elected the head of our little cabal, Hannah?"

  "I'm not the only one who feels that way. Father Squid - "

  "Father Squid was one of them for a time."

  "And he left them, didn't he? Damn it, we all want Rudo caught and the virus destroyed, but ..."

  "But what, Hannah? You don't think that end justifies any means? You don't think that associating with thugs and murderers is worth saving countless joker lives? I'd rather see jokers live than worry about whether I'm associating with the right kind of people."

  "Charles," Gregg interrupted, seeing the color deepen in Hannah's face. He tried to speak as soothingly as his high-pitched, whining joker's voice could manage, regretting once more the loss of his old voice and body. How can you be imposing when you're a four-foot-long yellow caterpillar who sounds like a 33 1/3 rpm record played at 45? "I agree with Hannah. I've had dealings with the Fists; I'm not convinced that bringing them into this is going to help." Gregg glanced at Hannah, who was standing with her hands fisted, glaring at Dutton. "And we have another problem. This press conference you've scheduled for tomorrow afternoon - "

  "My people" - Dutton accented the possessive heavily, with a significant empty-eyed stare at Hannah. His voice woke sluggish echoes in the dead recesses and far galleries of the Dime Museum - "have a right to know the danger they're in. It's irresponsible of us not to warn them."

  "It's going to cause panic and riots," Hannah insisted, cutting off Gregg's response. He wondered whether she'd even noticed he'd been about to speak. "If you tell them about the Black Trump, if you tell them that the Sharks are going to loose a plague that will only kill those infected by the wild card, then you'll have half the population of Jokertown looking to take some nats down with them. That's a great solution, Charles. That way, the jokers just manage to convince the few nats who can help that jokers don't deserve help. If getting the Fists involved isn't enough, that should just about finish it."

  Dutton exhaled: a serpent's hiss. "I take it that you feel we should keep them in the dark so they die quietly."

  "That's not what I'm saying....Damn!" Exasperation made Hannah's last word throaty and ragged. "I just know how important it is to find the vials quickly."

  "You're a nat. It won't matter to you either way."

  "Damn it, Dutton, that's not fair - "

  "Listen, all of you. The first priority - the only priority - is finding the vials. Hannah's right about that." That was the Oddity - John. "Fuck anything else. We heard what Clara van Renssaeler and Dr. Finn have told us: the Sharks will try to cultivate enough of the Trump virus to guarantee a worldwide release. If that happens, we're dead. All of us. Hannah, Gregg, you two have been our spokespersons since we went public with this. What Charles is asking is for you to go into those roles again. As for the Fists, we're going to need all the help we can get to find the vials, and if the Black Dog can help ..." Oddity shrugged. "Seems like a plan to me."

  "A plan, yes," Hannah said. "A smart one, no."

  Dutton sniffed. "We can do without the sarcasm."

  Hannah turned on the man, hands fisted on hips. "Look, Charles, I got involved in this involuntarily, but I am involved. Totally. Don't tell me that I have to behave nicely because I'm a nat. Don't you dare tell me that I don't care enough."

  "Hannah - " Gregg began, but Dutton interrupted him, riding over Gregg's weak, thin voice.

  "My sources tell me that Barnett's ordered another crackdown," Dutton said, "SCARE aces are involved, the FBI, the Justice Department, anyone who can be enlisted. I don't know what's going to happen, but I suspect that we need to make our moves soon, or we won't be able to move at all."

  "We can find Rudo without the Fists," Hannah said.

  "Considering that the authorities want everyone involved in the kidnapping of Dr. Van Renssaeler and Dr. Finn, I doubt that Rudo is even in the country anymore. That's another reason to bring in the Fists. We already know some of the Sharks overseas - " Dutton stopped. "Listen," he said.

  Gregg heard it then: muffled shouting from the front of the museum, a few rooms away. "Break 'em down! C'mon, c'mon, let's GO!" Then, more clearly, strident and treble through a bullhorn: "This is Special Agent April Harvest! We have a warrant!" At the same time, there was a splintering ka-CHUNK as something heavy slammed against locked doors.

  Quasiman was there in that moment, popping into existence in the middle of the gallery with his mouth open and panic in his eyes, words tumbling from his lips wrapped in a spray of spittle. "The clinic," he said breathlessly. "Dr. Finn, the other doctor woman - all under arrest. The parsonage: Father Squid, Troll.... Got to get - " Quasiman stopped. His right arm had vanished. He looked like a marionette whose strings had just been cut, frozen in mid-speech.

  The doors must have held under the battering ram. Faintly, Harvest's voice shouted through the bullhorn: "Get back. BACK! Let him do it ..." There was a sustained, crashing thunder of falling brick, punctuated by beams splintering like twigs. Someone shouted in glee in the midst of the clamor, and Gregg recognized the voice with a cold shudder.

  "Snotman ..." he breathed. "Oh, shit."

  Loud footsteps sounded in the museum. Flashlights wove mad patterns through the dark galleries. "Federal agents! Everybody down!" Harvest's voice shouted again, clearer this time. A dark form filled the door.

  "Don't call me Snotman, caterpillar," said someone from the darkness. "Well, look what we got here: the fucking jackpot." The ace sometimes known as Reflector was a handsome, dark-haired man bulging with muscles and fairly glowing with energy. He could take the energy of a blow directed against him, store it, and use it for himself - the people outside had obviously been beating on him to charge up his ace batteries. Gregg remembered the destruction Snotman had caused at the Rox, and shuddered. "
I never did like you, Battle, but it looks like you got pretty much what you deserve," Snotman said. "Now, who's surrendering quietly and who wants to fight?"

  ♥ ♦ ♣ ♠

  It was night, but the pure white sand still radiated heat from the warm Caribbean day. The breeze was cool and tinged with salt. The stars were a glorious spectacle strewn across a clear, pollution-free sky, but Billy Ray had no time for an astronomy lesson.

  The beach was empty but for a clump of gnarled, sun-bleached driftwood that sat perched on a hummock of sand like a bizarre terrestrial octopus guarding its territory. Ray came out of the water and crawled to the driftwood. He took off his wet suit and scuba gear and lay on the warm sand for a moment, catching his breath. It had been a long swim in from the government cutter now hidden behind another fly-speck of an island.

  Sufficiently rested, Ray dashed across the strip of beach, heading inland. Crossing the pristine beach offended his innate sense of neatness. Leaving footprints behind on sand smoothed clean by the wind and water seemed so messy. Messy - and if the Card Sharks had decent security - dangerous as well.

  Ray didn't mind danger, but he disliked sneaking. He was not a sneaking kind of guy. He was more of an in-your-face-right-down-the-gut kind of guy, but sometimes the situation called for sneaking and this was absolutely one of those situations.

  Ray was Shark hunting.

  The Card Shark conspiracy had been exposed and broken, though some of the conspirators were still at large. Others were in government custody. Some of them, like Peggy Durand, were singing like the fat lady at the opera. Among other things, Durand had squealed about an island between the Keys and Cuba. It was isolated and inconspicuous, but large enough for a romantic hideaway or a secret headquarters, depending on your exact need. Since it was owned by a dummy corporation that was itself ultimately owned by head Shark Pan Rudo, Ray was inclined to think that it was more of a secret HQ, a sort of Club Med for amoral old farts like Rudo and other Sharks still at large. At least that's what he was here to check on.

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