When the devil drives, p.1
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       When the Devil Drives, p.1

         Part #22.30 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin
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When the Devil Drives


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  “There was a guy in the building we brought down, boss.”

  It was my demolition foreman Sam Karol bringing me this particular bit of unwelcome news. I sat with it for a moment then asked the obvious next question. “Do we know who it is?”

  “Not yet, Mister Matthews. I wanted to let you know right away. Auntie Gravity did her teke thing, lifted a block of concrete and there was all this blood and bones and stuff. I pulled everybody off the site.”

  “Well done. Have you done anything else?”

  “No, sir, I haven’t even called the cops yet.”

  That was a relief. “Good man.” I stood, grabbed my black leather jacket off the coat racket and shrugged into it. New York was having an unusually cold autumn.

  “Auntie’s real upset, sir. I wanted to send her home, but figured you should talk to her first.”

  “You would be correct. Have you told Rusty?” I was concerned that big, slow, stupid and very kindly ace, the actual agent who brought down buildings, had been informed. Rusty would have immediately told the police. Which was not something I wanted.

  “No, sir. Figured it would upset the big doofus.”

  “And you would be right.” I clapped Sam on the shoulder. “Let’s go take a look at this body.”

  “It’s bound to be ugly, boss. All that blood. It’s all crushed and smashed. Eeoch.“ He gave a shudder, then looked embarrassed.

  “I expect I’ll survive,” I drawled.

  Sam gave me an “it’s-your-funeral” look. At first and even second glance I’m your typical Englishman. A bit too skinny, rather horse faced, and I’ve got that prissy BBC accent thanks to the fact my mother is a Cambridge don. Sam also knew that in addition to running Aces in Hand I’m a rather famous stage magician. It was no wonder he’d concluded I was a delicate snowflake.

  What none of my employees knew is that the magic show had merely been a cover. My real career was as an ace assassin for MI-7, the British equivalent to the American CIA. To be more exact, I killed for the ace division of MI-7 known as the Order of the Silver Helix. Dead bodies bothered me not in the least. Most of the ones I’d seen I’d ushered into that state.

  But those days were in the past. I’d parted company with my former employers, and it hadn’t been particularly amicable. They tried to hurt people I cared about so I stole a number of their dirty little secrets. They know I’ll release them if they fuck with me or mine. Hence we have each other nicely by the short hairs.

  After the birth of my son I curtailed my performance schedule, but worries about money—I wanted Jasper to have the best of everything—and my basic restless nature had begun to set in and I walked out on my wife and child. At times I wished I still had access to the shrink who counseled MI-7 agents. I love Niobe and adore my son, but I had left them, and was filling the void I’d left in their lives with money instead of the husband and father. Why? In my more reflective moments I suspected it was because I didn’t want Jasper to learn about the less savory parts of his dad’s resume. If he knew my true nature would the adoration in those big eyes turn to disgust?

  In an effort to keep the money flowing I’d founded Aces In Hand, a company that is designed to deal with real world problems using the extraordinary ace powers bestowed by the wild card virus.

  We specialize in building demolition, toxic waste disposal, and nearly instantaneous travel for busy executives. I also design security systems for banks, corporations, and wealthy individuals. Since I had spent years learning how to defeat such measures it was fun to try to counter my own skills. Of course I always left a small imperfection that I could exploit should the need arise.

  We had been steadily building, profits were up—well up—so I bloody well didn’t need a dead body in one of my job sites affecting our prospects. All of these considerations made me decide that I didn’t want to sit in a cab while it fought Manhattan traffic, or take the numerous trains that would be required to ride the subway out to Queens. “Come along, Sam, Ilya’s going to pop us over there.”

  “Uh… I’d really rather not, sir. I’ll grab a cab.”

  “We don’t have time for that.”

  “I hate that Between thing.”

  “It’s only for an instant. Don’t be such a pussy.”

  I wasn’t going to admit to Sam that I felt the same way. Teleporting may seem instantaneous, but there is a moment in the transition when you are someplace not of this world, or perhaps even this universe. I call it the Between and my employees have picked up the phrase. It had always been a disturbing place. Even more so since the recent unfortunate events in Talas, when eldritch horrors from an alien dimension had invaded the Earth. Now a raging, brooding, inhuman presence washed against any traveler through the Between. Sometimes I thought it reached for me. I didn’t want to contemplate what would happen if it ever caught me.

  We left the office. My assistant, Dogsbody, a particularly ill favored joker, looked up. Dogsbody doesn’t actually look like a dog. He looks like a vaguely human shaped turd. His body is covered with black and brown lumps. His eyes are mere slits peering out from between the knobs of flesh. He manages to type and answer the phone because his fingers narrow down to twig-like appendages. “Trouble, sir?”

  “I’m afraid so. Can’t say when I’ll be back. Sam, wait here.”

  I went to the next door office. The name plate read Ilya Kuusikoski. I stepped inside, closed the door, stripped, and changed into the clothes stashed in a filing cabinet. They hung on me, but not for long. I accessed my ace and let the bones and flesh start to shift and change. Within seconds I had become a much taller and broader man with red gold hair and gleaming golden eyes.

  This other me has had a lot of names over the years—Bahir, Etienne, Christian. Right now he was Ilya Kuusikoski, the teleporting ace who could travel to any part of the globe. I created this bogus employee because we made a lot of money ferrying very busy and very important business leaders and government officials around the world in the time it takes to inhale. I had another persona to handle trips that took my clients in the dark of night. A lot of people know that I’m an ace, that these avatars are just me. Billions more don’t know, nor do they particularly care. Wealthy executives certainly didn’t care who ferried them around the world, any more than they care to know the name of the pilot on their private jet.

  It was a damn shame I’d never managed to access my teleport power without assuming one of these alternate forms. My old handler at MI-7 had raged, cajoled, mocked, and pleaded, but I was unable to overcome the psychological block. I could only teleport as my male and female avatars. Lilith was the queen of the night. Ilya the sun god. Fuc
king wild card. I sometimes wondered if it was due to the fact I’m a hermaphrodite … or to use the more PC term, intersex.

  I gathered up my Noel Matthews-sized clothes, stuffed them in a backpack, opened the door, and called to Sam. He joined me. I slipped on the backpack, wrapped my arms around the man, held him close. His stubble scrapped against my cheek and he smelled of sweat and concrete dust. He held himself rigidly within my embrace. I pictured an alley near the demolition site and went there.

  On this particular morning the alley was empty apart from a skinny cat exploring the interior of a dumpster. It arched its back and hissed as we appeared with a faint pop of displaced air. Sam staggered a bit, but as Ilya I was strong enough to keep him upright.

  “Go along. I need to change back to me. I’ll be right there.”

  He nodded and tottered off toward the mouth of the ally. I changed, crammed Ilya’s clothes into the backpack. I then walked over to the site where a twelve story building had stood yesterday.

  Catherine Powell—better known as Auntie Gravity, to fans of American Hero—stood beside a partially loaded flat bed. Her round face with its peaches and cream complexion was screwed into a mask of woe. Tears washed down her cheeks. “Oh, Mister Matthews.” She flung herself into my arms, and the smell of the hairspray that kept her bouffant blonde hair fixed in place assailed my nostrils. Her extremely large breasts pressed against my chest.

  I patted her on the shoulder. “There, there,” I tut-tutted.

  “I lifted away some concrete and there were these feet. It was horrible!“

  “I know, Catherine, it’s terribly upsetting, but it’s not your fault. Why don’t you go on home? We’ll finish clearing the sight tomorrow.”

  “Okay, Mister Matthews,” she sniffed “Thank you.”

  At that moment the large and lumbering figure of Wally Gunderson hove into view. The big iron-skinned Minnesota ace and I had worked together on a mission in Africa. From that association Rustbelt had concluded that I’m a hero and a real stand-up-guy. A belief I find to be breathtaking in its naiveté, but one which I’m careful to cultivate. It keeps Rusty loyal and working for me,

  I gave Catherine a look. “Sam said Rusty hadn’t been informed.”

  She held out placating hands. “I called Wally,” Catherine said. “I thought he deserved to know.”

  “Oh, well done. Now he gets to feel responsible for killing someone,” I snapped. Catherine looked hurt and walked away, boobs bouncing in indignation.

  The earth actually trembles when Rusty approaches; his body is sheathed iron and he weighs over seven hundred pounds. He was wearing another of his absurd hats, this time a British driving cap. For some reason the big ace had decided that hats looked good on his overly large head with its steam shovel jaw.

  Despite the metal it was easy to read Wally’s distress. “Ah geez, Mister Matthews. I’m just sick about this. Do we know who the fella was? We gotta find out so I can apologize to his family.”

  “You have nothing to apologize for, Rusty. This was clearly marked as a demolition site. If he was fool enough to go inside, well.…” I shrugged.

  Rusty’s ace power enabled him to serve as a one man demolition crew, without requiring the use of explosives or wrecking balls. Instead the crew would expose an interior girder or rebar and Rusty would unleash his ace, rusting the metal into powder. Since the rust had to eat its way through the entire interior structure, there was plenty of time for Rusty to retreat before the building quietly slumped and collapsed.

  “That’s not fair, Mister Matthews. Maybe he was a homeless feller just lookin’ for a warm place to sleep. It’s sure been cold the past few nights.”

  I turned to the two men who were tasked with doing the final check of the building. “You did a final sweep of building, correct?”

  “Yes, sir. While some of boys were exposing rebar for Rusty to rust me and Dominic went through every floor.”

  “Interesting. Well, let’s get on with it. Show me this body.”

  “I’d like to come with,” Rusty said.

  “Fine.”

  The building had collapsed into the basement. The leather soles of my loafers slipped a bit on the concrete, drywall, and tile as I climbed down the incline. Red rust puffed up and swirled around me like a devil’s whirlwind. The upper half of the body was still hidden beneath a chunk of concrete. Only the legs were visible, thrust out from beneath the slab. Concrete dust and blood caked the badly mangled limbs.

  “Ding Dong, the witch is dead,” I caroled. Sam tittered, then looked embarrassed, and Rusty’s head swung toward me questioningly. “Perhaps not in the best of taste, but certainly apt,” I said … for indeed the shoes thrust out from beneath the slab were a pair of high heels.

  “So I guess she was a homeless gal,” Wally said mournfully.

  “Not when she’s wearing Jimmy Choos. Those retail for around two thousand dollars.” Lilith owned a few pairs.

  That broke through Rusty’s distress. “Two thousand dollars for shoes? That seems… seems… well, kinda wrong.”

  “Rusty, if you’re done contemplating income inequality…” I made a lifting gesture at the slab.

  The big ace gripped the edge of the slab and flipped if off the body the way one might flip a poker chip. Sam immediately turned away and vomited. When several stories of a building come down on flesh and bone its crushed into hamburger. In this case, extremely inconvenient hamburger.

  Rusty’s jaw clenched, but he kept it together. “I saw worse in Africa. Do you know who she is… was, Mr. Matthews?”

  “A veritable witch indeed,” I said. I recognized the Yin/Yang necklace that was embedded in the shattered chest. It was Belinda Yamaguchi, owner of Elite Solutions, a competitor who had been increasingly persistent in her attempts to buy my company. All of which I had refused. She had taken to filing bogus and harassing lawsuits against me, keeping my lawyers busy.

  I could foresee an unpleasant session with New York’s finest. My experience was that cops were lazy and unimaginative. An obvious motive had been handed to them. Along with a convenient suspect.

  Me.

  * * *

  Not long after, I faced an absurdly tall and extraordinarily skinny young white man who lacked the nasal East coast twang. His partner was a small Asian man with a ferocious frown. They introduced themselves – McTate and Fong. Their relative sizes made them look like a bad comedy duo. The interrogation room was painted a bilious shade of pea green and a miasma of fear, despair, sweat, stale coffee, and old vomit clung to the walls and the concrete floor. The only furniture was a dented metal table and several equally battered chairs.

  “Coffee?” Detective McTate asked.

  “Yes please. I’ll take a Venti Iced Skinny Hazelnut Macchiato, Sugar-Free Syrup, Extra Shot, Light Ice, No Whip. And will you allow me to buy you a sandwich, detective?” That I directed to McTate.

  “Oh, great, a comedian,” Fong growled.

  “Anything will be fine,” I said.

  “Limey asshole.” The muttered remark floated back as Fong stalked out of the interrogation room.

  “So, pretty terrible what happened,” McTate said.

  “Yes. Tragic. I’d like to have my lawyer present.”

  “Really? Why?” McTate spread his hands in that universal and universally insincere cop “trust me” gesture. “We’re just having a friendly conversation.”

  I leaned back in the battered chair and gave him a thin smile. “I find that conversations with law enforcement are rarely friendly.“

  “Had a few of them, have you?” McTate asked.

  I gave him another smile, and he gave a put upon sigh but didn’t interfere. I wasn’t under arrest, so there wasn’t even any limit on how many calls I could make. The efficient assistant at Dr. Pretorius’s office said she would get someone down right away. Once the phone was stowed I dug my hands into my pockets and slouched even deeper into the hard wooden chair.

  “So you knew Ms. Yamaguc
hi?” I didn’t answer. “What kind of services does your company provide?” No response. Fong returned with coffee. I took a sip. It was terrible, but I’d drunk worse.

  McTate explained I’d requested a lawyer. Fong’s expression became, if possible, even more sour. It was a long forty minutes. Finally there was a tap on the door. What entered was not the venerable, brilliant joker attorney Dr. Pretorius. Instead it was a young man, slight, thin, and nervous, trying to juggle his briefcase and a cup of coffee with awkward looking appliances that were hooked onto the flippers that he had in place of arms.

  “Hey, Flipper,” McTate called jovially. The frown that was laid on the thin features looked forced.

  “Are you charging my client?”

  “We’re just discussing—” Fong said.

  “No? Then we’re leaving.”

  While it was the appropriate response for a lawyer, it didn’t suit my interests. I wanted to know what the cops knew—or the more likely and alarming scenario what they thought they knew. “No, no, Mister…” I paused suggestively.

  “Oh, sorry, Charles Santiago Herriman.”

  Why the young man felt it was necessary to give me his full name I wasn’t sure, but I nodded agreeably. “So pleased to meet you. I was going to say, I’m happy to answer questions about this tragedy now that you are present.”

  “Very prudent,” Herriman said. “But I would still advise against it.”

  “Please, one likes to be helpful to our boys in blue.”

  Herriman shrugged and struggled to drag a chair over. Fong went to help. The lawyer settled down between the cops and me like a jurisprudential referee.

  “So…” I raised my eyebrows inquiringly at McTate.

  He flipped open his notebook. “How did you know Ms. Yamaguchi?”

  “We’re in the same line of work.”

  “Which is?”

  “We’re… cleaners.”

  “That usually has a pretty unpleasant connotation,” Fong growled.

  “Only if you have an unpleasant mind, detective.”

 
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