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       Wild Cards V: Down and Dirty, p.1

         Part #5 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin
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Wild Cards V: Down and Dirty


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  Table of Contents

  About the Editor

  Copyright Page

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  For Laura Mixon. We all miss you.

  Acknowledgment

  The editor wishes to extend his thanks and appreciation to Melinda M. Snodgrass, his tireless, selfless, endlessly energetic right-hand man, who has put in long thankless hours as trademark attorney, mother confessor, negotiator, dinner coordinator, editor’s assistant, babysitter, diplomat, and voice of reason amidst the slings and arrows, and without whose diligence, imagination, and sanity the Wild Card world would be a much duller place, if it existed at all.…

  Note to Readers

  In the real world there are always thousands of stories in progress, all of them happening at once. We try to make the world of the wild cards as real as we possibly can.

  The previous volume in the Wild Cards series, Aces Abroad, chronicled the events of the World Health Organization global junket, which left New York on December 1, 1986, and returned on April 29, 1987.

  The first part of the volume in hand tells what happened in Manhattan from the beginning of October through the end of April, before the tour made its departure and while it was wending its somewhat troubled way around the world.

  The concluding portions of our present mosaic relate the events of May and June, after the travelers came home.

  The Editor

  OCTOBER 1986 – APRIL 1987

  Only the Dead Know Jokertown

  by John J. Miller

  I

  BRENNAN MOVED THROUGH THE autumnal night as if he were part of it, or it were part of him.

  The fall had brought a coolness to the air that reminded Brennan, however palely, of the Catskills. He missed the mountains more than almost anything, but as long as Kien was free they were as unattainable as the ghosts of dead friends and lovers that had lately come to haunt his dreams. He loved the mountains as surely as he loved all the people he’d failed down through the years, but who could love the dirty sprawl of the city? Who could even know the city, could even know Jokertown? Not him, certainly, but Kien’s presence bound him to Jokertown as solidly as chains of adamantine steel.

  He crossed the street, entering the half block of urban debris that bordered the Crystal Palace. With the sixth sense of the hunter he could feel eyes follow him as he passed through the wreckage. He shifted the canvas bag that carried his broken-down bow to a more comfortable position, wondering, not for the first time, what sort of creatures chose to make the mounds of junk their home. Once or twice he heard twittering rustles that weren’t the wind and glimpsed flashes of movement that weren’t shifting moonshadow, but no one interfered as he swung up onto the rusted fire escape hanging down the Palace’s rear wall. He climbed silently to the roof, went through the security system that would have given him pause if Chrysalis hadn’t keyed him to it, and entered through the trapdoor that opened on the Palace’s third floor, Chrysalis’s private domain. The corridor was totally dark, but he avoided by memory the delicate stands cluttered with antique bric-a-brac and let himself into her bedroom.

  Chrysalis was awake. Sitting naked on her plush wine-colored fainting couch, she was playing solitaire with a deck of antique playing cards.

  Brennan watched her for a moment. Her skeleton, her ghostly musculature, her internal organs, and the network of blood vessels that laced through it all were delicately lit by rosy light from the Tiffany lamp hanging above the couch upon which she’d spread her cards. He watched the articulated skeleton of her hand flip through the deck and turn over the ace of spades.

  She looked up at him and smiled.

  Her smile, like Chrysalis herself, was an enigma. Difficult to read because her face was only lips and smudges of ghostly muscle on her cheeks and jaw, it could have meant any of the thousand things a smile could mean. Brennan chose to interpret it as a welcome.

  “It’s been some time.” She looked at him critically. “Long enough for you to start a beard.”

  Brennan closed the door and set his bow case against the wall. “I’ve had business,” he said, his voice soft and deep.

  “Yes.” Her smile continued until Brennan could no longer ignore the edge in it. “Some of which interfered with mine.”

  There was no doubt as to what she referred. Several weeks ago, on Wild Card Day, Brennan had broken up a meeting at the Palace at which Chrysalis was brokering a very valuable set of books that included Kien’s personal diary. Brennan, hoping that volume had enough evidence in it to nail Kien’s damnable hide to the wall, had eventually gotten it for himself, but it had proven to be worthless. All the writing in it had been destroyed.

  “I’m sorry,” he said. “I needed that diary.”

  “Yes,” she repeated. Ghostly muscles bunched, indicating a frown. “And you’ve read it?”

  Brennan hesitated a beat. “Yes.”

  “And you’ll not be adverse to sharing the information in it?”

  It was more of a demand than a request. It would do no good, Brennan thought, to tell her the truth. She probably would think he was trying to keep it all to himself.

  “Possibly.”

  “In that case I suppose I could forgive you,” she said in a not-very-forgiving voice. She gathered her cards together slowly, careful of their age and value, and set them aside on a spider-legged table that stood next to the couch. She leaned back languorously, her nipples bobbing on invisible pads of flesh whose warmth and firm texture Brennan knew well.

  “I’ve brought you something,” Brennan said conciliatorily. “It’s not information but something you might like almost as well.”

  He sat down on the edge of the couch, reached into the pocket of his denim jacket, and handed Chrysalis a small, clear envelope. When she reached out to take it, her warm, invisible thigh touched, then rested on, Brennan’s own.

  “It’s a Penny Black,” he said, as she held the glassine envelope up to the light. “The world’s first postage stamp. Mint, in perfect condition. Rather rare in that state, rather valuable. The portrait is an engraving of Queen Victoria.”

  “Very nice.” She smiled her enigmatic smile. “I won’t ask you where you got it.”

  Brennan smiled in response, said nothing. He knew that she knew perfectly well where he’d gotten it. He’d asked Wraith for it when they were inspecting the stockbooks full of rare stamps she’d heisted from Kien’s safe, the same safe from which she’d removed his diary during the early hours of Wild Card Day. Wraith had felt bad that Brennan hadn’t gotten what he’d wanted from the worthless diary and had gladly given him the stamp when he’d asked for it.

  “Well, I hope you like it.” Brennan stood and stretched as Chrysalis set the envelope aside on her stack of cards. It had
been a long day and he was tired. He went to the sidetable by Chrysalis’s canopied four-poster bed and lifted the decanter of Irish whiskey that she kept there for him. He looked at it, frowned, and put it down. He rejoined Chrysalis on the couch.

  She edged forward lithely and covered his body with hers. He drank in the musky, sexual scent of her perfume and watched the blood rush through the carotid artery in her neck. “Change your mind about the drink?” she asked softly.

  “The decanter was empty.”

  Chrysalis drew back a little, stared into his questioning eyes.

  “You only drink amaretto.” It was a statement, not a question. She nodded.

  Brennan sighed. “When I first came to you, I only wanted information. I didn’t want anything personal between us. You started that. If it’s to continue and become meaningful, I have to be the only one in your bed. It’s the way I am. It’s the only way I can give myself to anyone.”

  Chrysalis stared at him for several seconds before replying. “Whomever else I sleep with is no concern of yours,” she finally drawled in the British accent that Brennan, with his ear for languages, knew was faked.

  He nodded. “Then I’d better be going.” He stood and turned.

  “Wait.” She stood too. They looked at each other for a long moment, and when she spoke, it was in a conciliatory voice. “At least have your drink. I’ll go downstairs and fill the decanter. You can have your drink and we … we can talk.”

  Brennan was tired and had no other place in Jokertown he wanted to be. “All right,” he said softly. Chrysalis wrapped herself in a silk kimono spattered with wisps of smoke shaped like galloping horses and left him with a smile that was more shy than enigmatic.

  Brennan paced the room, watching his image shift across the myriad antique mirrors that decorated the walls of Chrysalis’s bedchamber. He should get out, he told himself, and leave well enough alone, but Chrysalis was as fascinating out of bed as in it. His best intentions to the contrary, he knew that he needed her companionship and, he admitted to himself, her love.

  It had been more than ten years since he’d allowed himself to love a woman, but as he’d been discovering since his arrival in Jokertown, the emotions that he allowed himself weren’t the only ones he felt. He couldn’t live on hate alone. He didn’t know if he could love Chrysalis as he’d loved the French-Vietnamese wife whom he’d lost to Kien’s assassins. He didn’t even want to love a woman while he was on Kien’s trail, but despite all his fixity of purpose, despite his Zen training, what he wanted and what actually happened were often two entirely different things.

  He stood in the silence of Chrysalis’s bedroom, studiously not thinking about his past. Long minutes passed and he suddenly realized that Chrysalis should have returned.

  He frowned. It was almost inconceivable that something could happen to Chrysalis in the Crystal Palace, but the habitual caution that had saved Brennan’s life more times than he cared to remember made him assemble his bow before going after her. He would feel foolish if he bumped into her in the dark, but he had felt foolish before. It was preferable to feeling dead, a sensation he was more intimately acquainted with than he liked.

  Chrysalis wasn’t in the corridors of the third floor, nor on the stairway leading down to the taproom, but he heard murmuring voices as he crept down the stairs.

  He drew an arrow, placed it on the string of his bow, and peered around the edge of the stairwell where it opened up into the back of the taproom. He gritted his teeth. He had been right to be cautious.

  Chrysalis was standing before the long, polished-wood bar that ran almost the entire length of the taproom. The whiskey decanter, still empty, was forgotten on the bar next to her. Her arms were crossed and her jaw was clenched. Her lips were compressed in a thin, angry line.

  Two men bracketed her and a third sat facing her at a table in front of the bar. Brennan could discern few details in the dimness of the night-light that burned above the bar, but the men all had hard, tough faces. The one facing her drummed his fingers on the tabletop next to a chrome-plated pistol.

  “Come on,” he said in a soft but dangerous-sounding voice. “We just want some information. That’s all. We won’t even say where we got it.” He leaned back in his chair. “Soon there’s going to be war, but we don’t know who to hit.”

  “And you think I do?” Brennan recognized the edge anger put in Chrysalis’s drawl, but he also recognized the fear under the anger.

  The seated man smiled. “We know you do, babe. You know everything about this Jokertown shithole. All we know is that someone has put together these nickel-and-dime gangs into something called the Shadow Fists. They’re moving into our territory, taking our customers, and cutting into our profits. It’s got to stop.”

  “If I knew a name,” Chrysalis said, coming down hard on the if, “it would cost you more than you can pay to learn it.”

  The man sitting at his table shook his head. “You don’t understand,” he said. “This is war, babe. And it’s going to cost you more than you can pay to keep your mouth shut.” He let his words sink in while he drummed his fingers on the tabletop. “Sal,” he said after a moment, nodding at the man who stood to Chrysalis’s right. “I wonder if her famous invisible skin would scar?”

  Sal considered the question. “Let’s see,” he finally said.

  There was a loud snick and Brennan saw light glint off a shiny blade. Sal waved it in Chrysalis’s face, and she shrank back against the bar. She opened her mouth to scream, but the man standing on her left clamped his gloved hand over it.

  Sal laughed and Brennan stood and loosed the arrow he’d been holding. It struck Sal in the back and catapulted him over the bar. No one had any idea what had happened, except possibly Chrysalis. The man seated at the table snatched his pistol and leaped to his feet. Brennan calmly shot him through the throat. The thug holding Chrysalis let out a startled stream of obscenities and fumbled under his jacket for a pistol that he carried in a shoulder rig. Brennan shot him through the right forearm. He dropped his gun and spun away from Chrysalis, staring at the aluminum-shafted hunting arrow skewering his arm and mumbling, “Jesus, oh, Jesus.” He stooped to pick up his pistol.

  “Touch it,” Brennan called from the darkness, “and I’ll put the next arrow through your right eye.”

  The thug wisely stood up and backed against the bar. He clutched his bleeding arm and moaned.

  Brennan stepped forward into the diffuse light cast by the nightlamp burning over the bar. The man stared at the razor-tipped arrow nocked to his bowstring.

  “Who are they?” Brennan asked Chrysalis in a harsh, clipped voice.

  “Mafia,” she replied, her voice cracking with tension and fear.

  Brennan nodded, never taking his eyes off the thug who stared at the arrow that was pointed at his throat.

  “Do you know who I am?”

  The mafioso nodded violently. “Ya. You’re that Yeoman guy—the bow ’n’ arrow killer. I read about you alla time in the Post.” The words tripped out of his mouth in a fear-filled torrent.

  “That’s right,” Brennan said. He spared the man who’d been sitting at the table a quick glance and saw that he was curled on the floor in a widening pool of blood, a foot of arrow sticking out from the nape of his neck. He didn’t bother checking Sal. He’d had a clean heart shot on him.

  “You’re a lucky man,” Brennan continued in his same dead voice. “Know why?”

  The mafioso bobbed his head vigorously side to side, sighing in relief when Brennan relaxed the tension on the taut bowstring and set the bow aside.

  “Someone has to deliver a message for me. Someone has to tell your boss that Chrysalis is off bounds. Someone has to tell him that I have an arrow with his name on it, an arrow I would not be slow in delivering if I heard that something had happened to Chrysalis. Do you think you could tell him that?”

  “Sure. Sure I could.”

  “Good.” Brennan reached into his back pocket and showed
the thug a playing card, a black ace of spades. “This is so he knows you’re telling the truth.”

  He grabbed the man’s wounded arm by the elbow and yanked it straight. The thug groaned as Brennan stuck the card on the arrowtip.

  “And this,” Brennan said through gritted teeth, “is to make sure you don’t lose it.”

  With a sudden, forceful jerk he impaled the man’s other arm on the arrowpoint. The mafioso screamed at the sharp, unexpected pain. He sagged to his knees as Brennan bent the aluminum shaft of the arrow under and around both of his arms, pinning them together as tightly as handcuffs would.

  Brennan yanked him to his feet. The man was sobbing in fear and pain and couldn’t look Brennan in the eye.

  “If I ever see you again,” Brennan said, “you’ll die.”

  The thug staggered away, sobbing and gibbering incomprehensible protestations. Brennan watched him until he tottered through the front door, then turned to Chrysalis.

  She was looking at him with fear in her eyes, more than some of which, he was sure, was directed toward him.

  “Are you all right?” he asked softly.

  “Yes … yes, I think so.…”

  “You’ll have to answer a lot of questions,” Brennan said, “unless we get rid of the bodies.”

  “Yes.” She nodded sharply, suddenly decisive, suddenly in control again. “I’ll call Elmo. He’ll handle it.” She looked him straight in the eye. “I owe you.”

  Brennan sighed. “Does your entire life have to consist of rigidly tabulated credits and debits?”

  She looked at little startled, but nodded. “Yes,” she said firmly. “Yes, it does. It’s the only way to keep track, to make sure…” Her voice trailed away, and she turned and went around the bar. She looked down at Sal’s body, and when she spoke again, she voiced a totally different thought. “You know, Tachyon invited me to go on that world tour of his. I think I’ll take him up on it. No telling what information I’ll pick up rubbing elbows with all those politicians. And if there’s going to be street warfare between the Mafia and Kien’s Shadow Fists”—she looked into Brennan’s eyes for the first time—“I would be safer elsewhere.”

 
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