Lowball a wild cards nov.., p.1
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       Lowball: A Wild Cards Novel, p.1

         Part #22 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin
 
Lowball: A Wild Cards Novel


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  For Fred Ragsdale

  Contents

  Title Page

  Copyright Notice

  Dedication

  The Big Bleed: Part One

  Those About to Die…: Part One

  The Big Bleed: Part Two

  Galahad in Blue: Part One

  Ties That Bind: Part One

  The Big Bleed: Part Three

  Cry Wolf

  Galahad in Blue: Part Two

  Road Kill

  The Big Bleed: Part Four

  Galahad in Blue: Part Three

  The Big Bleed: Part Five

  Those About to Die…: Part Two

  Ties That Bind: Part Two

  The Big Bleed: Part Six

  Galahad in Blue: Part Four

  Those About to Die…: Part Three

  Once More, for Old Times’ Sake

  Galahad in Blue: Part Five

  Those About to Die…: Part Four

  Ties That Bind: Part Three

  Galahad in Blue: Part Six

  Those About to Die…: Part Five

  The Big Bleed: Part Seven

  Galahad in Blue: Part Seven

  Ties That Bind: Part Four

  The Big Bleed: Part Eight

  No Parking…

  Galahad in Blue: Part Eight

  The Big Bleed: Part Nine

  Ties That Bind: Part Five

  Those About to Die…: Part Six

  Galahad in Blue: Part Nine

  Those About to Die…: Part Seven

  The Big Bleed: Part Ten

  Galahad in Blue: Part Ten

  Galahad in Blue: Part Eleven

  The Wild Cards Series

  About the Author

  Copyright Acknowledgments

  Copyright

  The Big Bleed

  by Michael Cassutt

  Part One

  Prologue

  SINCE HE WAS ELEVEN, when the terrible thing happened, he had been called Chahina instead of Hasan. Chahina was a most unusual name for a Berber boy, but fitting, translating loosely as “Wheels” or “Transport.” At the age of eleven, Hasan had been brutally transformed into a joker who resembled a small motor truck.

  His body had doubled in size and mass—during the feverish transformation he had eaten enough food for ten Hasans—becoming cube-like, with a swale on his back and a hunched, neckless formation where his head and shoulders used to be.

  His hands and feet had become horny pistons with flat, circular “hands” that cracked off every few months—or, he learned, with wear—yet remained a part of him, like bracelets around a girl’s wrist. Chahina learned that if he locked his four piston-like appendages just so, the free-rolling circular “hands” could act like … well, like wheels.

  Wheels that allowed him to move down a city street or a dusty Moroccan highway much like a truck, with one obvious difference.

  Chahina used his back legs to propel himself forward, giving him the appearance of a truck with a broken suspension as he swayed from side to side—

  “Ah,” said one of his customers, a burly Dutch weapons smuggler named Kuipers, seeing Chahina in action for the first time, “you are like Hans Brinker!”

  Chahina’s lack of comprehension must have been clear, even on his grille-like face.

  “A skater,” Kuipers had said. And, looking like a demented clown, had mimed the side-to-side motion of a boy on blades on ice.

  Hans Brinker? Chahina wasn’t sure … but from that day on he referred to his movements as “slip skating.”

  And, over the past eleven years, he had slip-skated his way to a decent career as a transporter of illegal substances, contraband, and, yes, weapons, from one point to another, usually at odd hours in great secrecy, frequently on less-traveled routes. His ability to combine stealthy movement with common sense won him many fans in the criminal underworld of northern Africa and southern Europe, so much so that when one of his primary customers expanded his operations to the United States, Chahina was “invited” to come along, traveling as—what else?—Deck ballast on a freighter.

  Once he had adjusted to the rigors of life in New York and environs as an illegal joker immigrant, Chahina had grown to appreciate the relative ease of his new smuggler’s life. Roads were better. Law enforcement was usually more predictable and honest (Chahina did not break speed limits, and so never got stopped).

  And there were no hijackers! Chahina’s time in America had been lucrative; the future was promising.

  But on the evening of Monday, May 7, 2012, he made a mistake.

  Chahina frequently looked down on human drivers and their vehicles, finding them an inferior breed, each half useless without the other. He, after all, was both brains and automotive brawn.

  But there were times he wished he had a bit of navigation help, so he would have avoided that wrong turn coming north out of Tewksbury, where 519 and Old Turnpike overlapped: he had wasted ten minutes going west on OT when he should have continued north.

  Normally this slight detour wouldn’t have been a problem, but Chahina had a deadline: by eight P.M. he was to deliver his cargo to the customer on the edge of Stephens State Park.… The address did not appear to be either a commercial property or a residential one, but rather an open field.

  In order to make up lost time, Chahina broke his self-imposed rule about speed limits, a risky move because in order to go faster, he had to make more exaggerated slip skates.

  He noted the startled reactions of a pair of oncoming drivers, but knew from experience they would simply assume he was some foreign-model truck with unusually sleek, rounded lines. And possibly an intoxicated operator.

  (One thing that night trips forced on Chahina was the addition of “headlights,” in his case, literally: he had to strap lamps to the outside rim of each eye for basic illumination, and to ensure that he looked like a truck to other vehicles. There was no quicker way to draw attention from highway patrol than to be racing down a rural road with no lights.…)

  What Chahina hated most was what he’d been driving through almost every day for the past two months … and that was rain.

  First of all, it was simply uncomfortable. Chahina’s transformation to joker had left him looking like a vehicle—and naked, which was a shocking situation for a boy who had never worn any garment more revealing than a T-shirt and long pants in public. His older brother Tariq had helped him sew canvas “trousers” that covered his nether regions and looked, to other eyes, like the fabric enclosing the cargo beds of real trucks. Chahina had improved on this early solution, however, fabricating better-fitting and vari-colored “trousers” to suit any environment. Tonight’s, for example, were plain gray.

  But they weren’t waterproof, and Chahina slip-skated along with the uncomfortable feeling that he had just sat in a puddle while rain spattered his neck and back.

  Worse yet, the rain made it more difficult to see. And it almost destroyed traction. (His “hands” and “feet” had none of the radial grooving found in tires.)

  The rain had started fifteen minutes after he’d left Staten Island, before he even crossed the Goethals Bridge from Staten Island i
nto New Jersey.

  It never got heavy—but it didn’t take much to make things uncomfortable for Chahina.

  Fortunately, his load was just two dozen plastic containers. A little moisture wouldn’t hurt them.

  Safely out of Hackettstown now, just passing Bilby, the developments gave way to old farms and woods.

  What little traffic willing to brave the rain vanished with the loss of daylight. Wheels took a breath and skated harder. He knew he was pushing both speed limit and energy reserves—why hadn’t he eaten more? His roommates were always teasing him about what he consumed, and how much.…

  Suddenly there was a man lying in the road—!

  Wheels rode right over him. It was much like the impact on a suburban speed bump … if the bump squished like a human body.

  And it hurt. Calloused as they were, his wheels were essentially bare hands and feet. Hitting that body was like stubbing your toe on a curb.

  He lost traction, lost control, skidding and sliding like a drunk on an icy sidewalk until he hit a left turn a hundred yards farther up the highway—

  And slammed into a ditch backed by trees.

  The impact flattened his nose. He had not felt such pain since the time—pre–wild card—that Tariq had punched him for stealing a candy bar.

  He was so stunned he wasn’t sure how long he sat there, head down, rear high, leaning to his right. With darkness, it was impossible for him to measure time. Had it been a few seconds? Minutes?

  He sure hoped it wasn’t an hour.

  Extricating himself from the ditch took patience. He was like a football player with a cracked rib: every attempted movement was painful.

  Eventually, however, he had himself upright … and had used his good left front “hand” to push himself out of the ditch far enough to let his back “feet” find traction.

  It was only when he was finally upright, on the highway surface, that he realized he had lost one of the containers he carried. He couldn’t see it anywhere; even if he could, he was not capable of picking it up and replacing it.

  It was like losing a tooth—but likely to be far more painful, once he met his customers.

  Well, Wheels had lost items before … had been beaten and otherwise mistreated. But he knew it was better to show up with nineteen of twenty items than to try to avoid the confrontation completely.

  There was another matter, however.

  Slowly, painfully, Wheels skated a dozen yards back down the highway, to where he had run over the body … there was little he could do to help the victim, assuming he lived. And now time was truly critical.

  But Wheels had been maltreated so many times in his short life. He couldn’t bear to just … skate away—

  Suddenly there were lights far to the south … another vehicle!

  Wheels did not want to answer questions, nor did he want to be seen anywhere near a body in the middle of a road.

  He turned and slip-skated into the rainy night.

  Those About to Die …

  by David Anthony Durham

  Part One

  MARCUS FLUNG ASIDE THE manhole cover. He pulled himself partway through and leaned back to check his cell phone. There. Finally. He had bars again! It wasn’t the only problem with living in the tunnels and sewers below Jokertown, but the fact that cell phone service was spotty was one of the most annoying.

  One voice mail. One text.

  The message was from a girl who had been sweating him. He didn’t know why he’d ever given her his phone number. She was a nat. Kind of average looking, with flat blond hair and too much smile for her face. She had approached him at Drakes in the Bowery last week. Grabbing his arm, she admitted out of nowhere that she had a snake fetish. “I just love serpents. Venomous ones the most.” She had made him horny, but not exactly in a good way.

  He pressed delete.

  The text was from Father Squid. Marcus smiled. It always amused him to imagine the good father texting. It couldn’t have been easy for him to hit the little buttons, considering that his fingers had suckers all over them. The text read: RMBR PRCNT. 5PM.

  “I’ll be there,” Marcus said. “Not that it’s going to do any good.”

  Marcus liked the priest well enough, but the old guy tended to get worked up about things. He’d roped Marcus into helping him look for so-called missing jokers. A few days into the search, Marcus was beginning to feel like there wasn’t anything to it. Sure, some guys had gone awol, but they weren’t the sort of guys anyone was too upset to see vanish. Why the priest cared so much Marcus couldn’t fathom.

  Flipping the phone shut and slipping it into his chest pocket, Marcus rose out of the sewer hole. He was normal enough from the waist up. A young African-American man, well built, with muscles that cut distinct lines beneath his fitted T-shirt. Hair trimmed nice, like someone who cared about their look, thick gold loops in his ears. Below the waist, however, he was one long stretch of scaled serpentine muscle, ringed down the twenty feet of tapering length to his tail. His garish yellow and red and black rings flexed in a hypnotic fashion as he carved a weaving course forward.

  He didn’t stay earthbound long. He surged up into a narrow gap at the alley mouth, curving from one brick wall to the other, creating a weave of tension between the two. Once out of the shadows of Jokertown’s urban canyon lands, the spring sun shone down. The heat of it poured power into Marcus’s tail. He pulled his shades out and slipped them on. He knew he looked fly. A couple years ago he thought his life was over. Now, things looked and felt a whole lot different.

  As he skimmed along the edge of a roof, a voice called up from the street below. “IBT! Hey, IBT!”

  Marcus peered down at a plump woman in a black T-shirt.

  “I’m your number one fan, baby. Check it.” She directed two stubby fingers at her chest. The bright pink letters IBT stretched taut across her T-shirt. She clearly had more than two breasts pressing against the fabric.

  The guy beside her jabbed toward him with a finger. “You da man, T!” he said, stomping the ground with an oversized foot.

  Marcus waved. He peeled back from the edge and carried on. “You da man, T,” he mimicked. “What’s the deal with shortening everything?” he grumbled aloud. “‘T’ means he’s calling me Tongue but being too lazy to even say the whole word. The name is Infamous Black Tongue,” he announced to the sky, then thought, And IBT’s all right, I guess, if you’re in a rush.

  He found it a little strange that it wasn’t his tail that gave him his moniker, but he had gotten a lot of early press for the concussive power of his tongue to deliver venom. Made an impression, apparently.

  That reminded him of something.

  He cut away from his intended route long enough to perch looking down on the graffiti-scarred wall of a building facing an abandoned lot-cum-urban garden. The wall had been repainted in one massive mural, a tribute to Oddity, whose cloaked and masked shape dominated the scene. IBT featured in it, too. Down by the far end, he rose up on powerful coils, half engulfed by licks of flame. One hand stretched out toward Oddity to accept the keys the vigilante legends were offering him. The other hand was smashing the dirty cop Lu Long across his dragon snout.

  Marcus cocked his head. Squinted. They’d done some good work since last he saw it. They had his tail down pretty well. The color pattern of his stripes was mixed up, but he doubted anybody but himself would notice. The only thing he didn’t really like was his face. He looked too angry, too full of teeth-gritting rage. Father Squid had warned him that when he became a public figure his image wouldn’t be his own anymore. Here was proof, sprayed large.

  He hit the street just down from the precinct. In the half block he nodded in response to several greetings, received an overly enthusiastic high five from a lobster-like claw, and autographed a furry little boy’s Yankees baseball cap. He tried to protest that he was an Orioles fan, and not a baseball player in any event. The boy was insistent, though.

  Father Squid waited for him on the preci
nct steps. Though it was warm, the tall, broad-shouldered priest wore his thick robes, as usual. He stood with his hands tented together on his chest, as if in prayer. He almost looked tranquil, except for the way his fingers tapped out his impatience. “Have you any news, son?”

  Marcus shook his head.

  “No sightings?”

  “Nope.”

  The priest leaned close, the scent of him salty and fishy. The tentacles that dangled from his face seemed to stretch toward Marcus, as if each of them was keen to touch good news. “What about that abandoned apartment?”

  “I checked it out. No sign of Wartcake.”

  “Don’t call him that. Simon Clarke is the name his parents gave him.”

  Marcus shrugged. “I know, but everybody calls him Wartcake. When I ask about Simon Clarke nobody knows who I’m talking about. So I always have to say Wartcake, and then they go, ‘Oh, Wartcake, why didn’t you say that in the first place?’” He met the priest’s large, dark eyes. “I’m just saying.”

  Motion inside the precinct didn’t exactly freeze when Marcus and Father Squid entered, but a hush fell across the room. One after another, pairs of eyes found Marcus and followed his progress toward the captain’s office. Officer Napperson glared at him from behind his desk, looking like he was wishing him dead with just the force of his eyes. Another guy in uniform put his hand on his pistol, fingering the grip.

  Father Squid strode with lumbering determination. Marcus kept his eyes on the priest’s back. He tried to keep his slither cool, but the scrutiny made him nervous. He couldn’t figure the cops out. Most of them treated him like a criminal they were itching to bust for something. That didn’t stop them from using him, though. Officer Tang once gave him a tip about a guy the cops couldn’t touch, some politician’s brother who liked getting rough with joker hookers. Marcus had caught up with him one night and given him the scare of his life, enough to keep him out of Jokertown for good. He’d caught, venom tagged, and gift wrapped three perps who had been sparkling with Tinkerbill’s pink aura. Ironic, considering that he’d spent a long evening tinkling like a fairy himself.

 
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