Ace in the hole, p.1
Ace in the Hole, p.1Part #6 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin
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to Barb, with fond memories of a dozen years of friendship, and fond hopes of at least two dozen more
Monday July 18, 1988
SPECTOR PULLED DOWN ON the padlock with a gloved hand. The lock snapped open. He unlatched the corrugated tin door and put his weight against it, pushing it up and sideways, trying to make as little noise as possible. He slid his thin body through and shut the door behind him. So far it was going just like they said.
The place smelled of dust and fresh paint. The light was dim, coming from a single overhead lamp in the center of the warehouse. He paused to let his eyes adjust. There were boxes of masks all around. Clowns, politicians, animals, some just normal human faces. He picked up a bear mask and put it on; might as well be safe if someone flipped on the lights. The plastic pinched his nose and the eyeholes were smaller than he would have liked. His peripheral vision was shot. Spector moved slowly toward the light, turning his head back and forth to make sure no one was closing in on him.
He was a few minutes early. He figured it was the smart thing to do. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble tracking him down and arranging this meeting. They were either desperate, or they were setting him up. It could mean trouble either way. Dust irritated his eyes, but he couldn’t do anything about it with the mask on. He stopped a dozen or so feet from the light and waited. The only sound was the moths pinging against the metal light fixture.
“Are you there?” The voice was muffled, but definitely male, and came from the other side of the lighted area.
Spector cleared his throat. “Yeah, it’s me. Why don’t you move into the light so I can see you?”
“I don’t know who you are, and you don’t know who I am. Let’s keep it that way.” There was a pause. Paper crinkled in the darkness.
“So. Let’s hear it.” Spector took a long, easy breath. This didn’t feel like a setup, and he had the upper hand.
An arm reached forward into the light. The person was short enough to be a kid, but the arm was thick with heavy muscle. The fingers on the hand were short. The edge of a plastic glove peeked out from under the leather one. This guy was obviously being very careful. The hand held a manilla envelope. “Everything you need to know is in here.”
“Toss it over.” The arm threw it toward him. The envelope landed heavily and skidded to the edge of the lighted area, stirring up dust and paint flecks. “Like the sound of that.” Spector walked over to the envelope. Hell, let the guy see him in the bear mask. It wouldn’t matter. He picked the envelope up and popped it open with a thumb. There were several carefully batched stacks of hundred-dollar bills, a round-trip ticket to Atlanta in the name of George Kerby, and a piece of paper that had been folded over twice. Spector figured there was over fifty thousand.
“Half now. The rest when the job’s finished.” The voice had moved, and was now between Spector and the door.
Spector opened the slip of paper and held it up to the light to read. He took a sharp breath. “Shit. Never ask for anything small. And Atlanta, too. What a mess that’ll be. Why not wait until he’s back in town and get a refund on George Kerby’s plane ticket?”
“I want it taken care of in the next week. Tomorrow wouldn’t be too soon. We got a deal?”
“Yeah, okay,” Spector said, bending the envelope over and tucking it into his shirt. “You must hate this guy something fierce.”
The door opened. Spector got a glimpse of the man before he pulled it closed again. Four feet tall and built like a linebacker—a dwarf. Not many of those around. And only one who had it in for the guy he’d been hired to nail.
“I heard you were dead, Gimli.” No answer. But he couldn’t expect any from someone who was supposedly stuffed and mounted in the Famous Bowery Wild Card Dime Museum. Still, Spector knew better than anyone that just because a person was supposed to be a stiff didn’t necessarily make it so.
It was Rat’s Alley, where the dead men lost their bones. Where Jokers Wild was, was Rat’s Alley.
It was probably a good alley for rats.
The last of the customers stumbled out through the door, set like a scream into a blank brick imbecile face of wall. The doorway was normal height, but most of them kept heads ducked low into collars wilted with the sweat of fear, anticipation, and sweet release, kept them that way as they picked their way through mother-of-pearl puddles, the faded glory of plastic food wrappers, stale city smell of tired proteins and complex hydrocarbons aging without grace.
An insignificant figure loitered next to the doorway, James Dean with a hunchback, his black Ked propped against the wall behind him, his white one down in the muck, nodding and humming low in his throat to make sure the night’s clientele kept heading in the right direction. It was no sweat. The ones still inside were leaving to put the rubbery, giggling menace of Moon Goon behind them, and once outside the right direction was away from him.
On the other side of the door a bulky figure, bagged in black cloak and pantaloons, nodded and murmured floorwalker endearments through a seamless clown’s mask: “Thank you. Please come again. Thank you. Always a pleasure.” At most they nodded back.
Last out were a handful of Beautiful Youths, late teens who still managed to look fresh and scrubbed beneath their flattops and floppy nouveaux dos, the Jokers Wild waitstaff. James Dean manqué watched them walk. His pupils dilated when his eyes fixed on the boys, jocks as clean limbed and muscled as fledgling Howard heroes. He wasn’t aware. They were probably queers anyway. There were queers everywhere; you never could tell. Mackie’s scrotum and fingertips itched at the thought; there were things he liked to do to queers. Not that he got much chance. The Gatekeeper and the Man were always on him to be careful where he used his powers. And whom on.
When the last were gone from Rat’s Alley, the man with the clown face shut the door. Its outside was enameled a chipped green. He took hold of the frame with white-gloved fingers, pulled it away from the wall. What lay behind was brick. He folded door and frame into a bundle, like a collapsed artist’s easel, and tucked it into the billow of one armpit.
“Be good, Mackie,” he said, reaching up to pet the thin cheek, just showing a scum of downy whiskers. Mackie didn’t pull away. Gatekeeper wasn’t queer, he knew that. He liked it when the masked man touched him. He liked approval. A skinny teenage expatriate hunchback didn’t get much of that. Especially when Interpol wanted to talk to him.
“I will, Gatekeeper,” he said, grinning lopsidedly and bobbing his head. “You know I’m always good.” His words had a broad, loopy north German lilt to them.
Gatekeeper regarded him a moment longer. His eyes were only vis
His gloved fingertips slid down Mackie’s face, rasping softly. He turned and walked away, down the alley with a slight waddle, carrying his bundle beneath his arm.
Mackie went the other direction, picking his way carefully around the puddles. He hated to get his feet wet. Tonight, Rat’s Alley would be somewhere else. He’d find it, no worry. He’d feel the call, the siren’s song of Jokers Wild, like the rest of those who belonged, the victims and the audience, whose thrills sprang in part from the knowledge that their roles were interchangeable.
Not Mackie, though. In Jokers Wild, Mackie was untouchable. Nobody fucked with him in the nightclub of the damned.
He emerged on Ninth into a breeze full of Hudson River and diesel fumes. Motile features contorted in a brief twitch of nostalgia and loathing: it was just like the Hamburg docks where he’d grown up.
He stuck his hands in his pockets and turned his higher—right—shoulder to the wind. He had to check a message drop in a Bowery flop. The Man was doing something big down in Atlanta. He might need Mackie at any time. Mackie Messer couldn’t bear to miss a moment of being needed.
He started to hum his song, his ballad. Ignoring a tortured rabbit squeal of bus air brakes, he walked.
The crazies were out early. Once he walked past the police perimeter at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Jack Braun saw hundreds of convention delegates, dressed mostly in casual clothes, silly hats, and vests covered with campaign buttons; several stretch limos carrying Party Elders; a 1971 primer-gray Chevrolet Impala with a swastika flag fluttering from the aerial and three uniformed Nazi storm troopers sitting stone-faced in the front seat—for some reason no one was in back—and two gangs of jokers hanging their disfigured heads out of battered VW microbuses, waving at the crowd, and laughing at the reactions of the pedestrians. The microbuses were covered with Hartmann stickers and other political slogans. FREE SNOTMAN, said one. BLACK DOG RULES, said the other.
Gregg Hartmann, Jack Braun thought, would not approve. Associating the next president in the public mind with a joker terrorist was not approved political strategy.
Jack could feel sweat beading on his scalp. Even at seven-thirty in the morning, Atlanta was humid and sweltering.
Reconciliation breakfast. In an hour he and Hiram Worchester were supposed to become good friends. He wondered why he’d let Gregg Hartmann talk him into it.
The hell with the stroll, he thought savagely. He’d clear his head some other way. He turned around and headed back to the Marriott.
Jack had spent the previous night in his suite at the Marriott, getting sloshed with four uncommitted superdelegates from the parched Midwest. Gregg Hartmann’s campaign manager, Charles Devaughn, had called with the suggestion that a little Hollywood charm might swing the uncommitted over to Gregg’s camp. Jack, resigned by now, knew perfectly well what that meant. He made a few calls to some agents he knew. By the time the superdelegates arrived, the room had been stocked with bourbon, scotch, and genuine Georgia starlets, veterans of locally produced films with names like Chain Gang Women and Stock Car Carnage. When the party finally broke up about three in the morning and the last congressman from Missouri stumbled out with his arm around Miss Peachtree 1984, Jack figured he had put at least a couple more votes in Hartmann’s pocket.
Sometimes it was easy. For some reason politicians often crumbled around celebrities—even, Jack thought, famous traitor aces and washed-up TV Tarzans like himself. Faded Hollywood charisma, combined with cheap sex, could sap the will of even the most hardened politico.
That, of course, combined with the unvoiced threat of blackmail. Devaughn, Jack knew, would be delighted.
A kettledrum boomed in Jack’s hollow skull. He massaged his temples as he waited at a red light. The wild card’s gift of enormous strength and eternal youth hadn’t saved him from a hangover.
At least it hadn’t been a Hollywood party. He would have had to provide a party bowl of cocaine.
He reached into his Marks & Spencer bush jacket and got the first Camel Unfiltered of the day. As he bent over to shield the match in his big hands, he saw the Impala heading down the street toward him again, swastika flag fluttering. The flat caps of the storm troopers were silhouetted in the front window. The car increased speed as the light went yellow.
WHITE POWER. Bumper-sticker slogans. AUSLANDER RAUS!
Jack remembered, years ago, picking up a Mercedes staff car full of Peronistas and flipping it onto its top.
He remembered screaming in anger as German machine guns turned the Rapido River to white froth, the way his arms ached as he drove the sinking rubber raft across to the north bank where the brush was already full of the black helmets and cammo ponchos of SS Division Das Reich, the shells called by the spotters at Monte Cassino splashing down everywhere, half his squad dead or wounded, bodies sprawled on the bottom of his boat in a mixture of river spray and their own blood.…
The hell, Jack thought, with politics.
All he had to do was step out in front of the Impala. He could make sure the impact pushed him under the car, and while he was underneath he could rip out the engine supports and leave the Brownshirts stranded in downtown Atlanta, surrounded by militant jokers, a large urban black population, and all the crazed and potentially violent lunatics attracted by the madness and confusion of the 1988 Democratic Convention.
Jack tossed away his match and swung one foot off the curb. The Impala sped closer, trying to beat the yellow light.
Jack stepped back and watched as the Nazis raced by in their car. The black swastika burned itself into his eyeballs.
The Four Aces had been dead for almost forty years. Jack just didn’t do that sort of thing anymore.
U2 blared from the radio, and the teenager beat out the rhythm line with a fork as he sucked down a glass of orange juice. His bloodred hair had been cut into a brush over the round skull, with a long, skinny braid hanging down the black leather jacket. High-top black tennis shoes, fatigue pants completed his ensemble. The image was aggressively punk, but the face beneath the shock of red hair was too soft, too young for real badass punk.
The contrast to his grandsire, who stood in front of the television, was startling. Dr. Tachyon, eyes slitted with interest as he listened to Jane Pauley of Today interview a panel of political pundits, had his violin tucked beneath his sharp chin and was busily sawing through a Paganini violin sonata. He was hearing perhaps one word in three, but it didn’t matter. He had heard it all. So many many times before. As the months of campaigning ground down to this place—Atlanta. This time—July 1988. One man—Gregg Hartmann. One prize—the presidency of the United States of America.
Tachyon turned to Blaise, gestured toward the television with his bow. “It is going to be a desperate battle.”
And as if in preparation for that upcoming battle, the alien had dressed in boots and breeches, with a black stock wrapped about the high lace collar of his shirt. An officer in Napoleon’s Army could not have been more of a peacock than the slim, diminutive figure in his shimmering green outfit. On his breast in lieu of a Garter order hung a plastic ID card indicating that the bearer was one of the press contingent from the Jokertown Cry.
Blaise pulled a face and took a big bite out of a croissant. “Boring.”
“Blaise, you are thirteen. Old enough to leave behind childish matters and take an interest in the larger world. On Takis you would be leaving the women’s quarters. Preparing for your intensive education. Taking responsibility within the family.”
“Yeah, but we’re not on Takis, and I’m not a joker, so I don’t care a fuck.”
“What did you say?” asked his grandsire in freezing accents.
“Fuck, you know, fuck. Anglo-Saxon word—”
“Crudity is never the mark of a gentleman.”
“You say it.”
“We are aliens, Blaise. You may have been born on Earth, but my blood runs in your veins. You bear my power, and it will set you forever apart from the groundlings. For a time that natural tendency of all species to cling to the us and shun the them has lain quiet in the human spirit, but that could change—”
Blaise was yawning. Tachyon closed his teeth on the endless flow of words. He was becoming a bore. Blaise was young. The young were always callous and optimistic. But Tach had little room for optimism in his life. Ever since that desperate night in June 1987, Tachyon had carried in his DNA the twisting, mutating pattern of the wild card virus. For the moment it lay dormant, but Tachyon knew that an instant of stress, extreme pain, terror, even joy could trigger the virus, and if he were not fortunate enough to draw the black queen and die, he too might become a joker. It was too much to hope that he would fall into that lucky minority who became aces.
There was a tap on the door of the suite. Brows arching in surprise, the alien sent Blaise to answer while he recased the violin.
Tachyon stood tensely in the door to the sitting room, gripping the jamb so he didn’t release the furious anger and fear that held him. “What are you doing here?” he asked in a low, controlled tone.
George Steele, aka Victor Demyenov, aka Georgy Vladimirovich Polyakov, met the alien’s thinly veiled hostility with a bland raise of the eyebrows. “Where else would I be?” The boy released his tight embrace on the portly older man, and George kissed him loudly on each cheek. “I work for the Brighton Beach Observer. I have a story to cover.”
Ace in the Hole by George R. R. Martin / Science Fiction / Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes