Knaves over queens, p.20
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       Knaves Over Queens, p.20
 

         Part #26 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin

  Charlie sits there, more pent up than he has ever been in his life, an iron filing that is fighting against the current acting upon it from all directions. The great face he is looking at finally loses its frown and becomes … relieved. There is, incredibly, a lifting of the chin, direct eye contact, a pleased new appraisal of Charlie. Of someone who kept something safe after the one doing the looking had misplaced it one night.

  There is just a slight nod. Then Churchill turns back to the window. After a moment, a secretary knocks and enters, and Charlie realizes he’s been dismissed. He’s not sure what that means or how he feels. He looks back and sees that Churchill is swaying slightly on his feet, and thinks suddenly how he’ll never get to tell people about this moment.

  A few months later, Charlie is in the pub after work, celebrating a promotion that he’s been assured came about because of the recommendation of his immediate superiors, and not because of word from on high. Anyway, word is that the DG’s on the way out.

  The crowd around him goes silent as they realize what the television newscaster’s just said, that the Prime Minister has announced his retirement.

  Charlie carefully and giddily takes to his feet, and joins in the raising of glasses. He means it too. Mostly.

  Police On My Back

  by Charles Stross

  London, 1981

  A hot June evening in the East End, and Allen Crippen was ready to crash.

  His first week in London – the week just past – felt like half his life, and it was turning out to be a complete shit-show. Forget the bright lights and big city hustle. The London he’d found stank of overcooked cabbage, consisted of squalid rows of terraced houses and cheap sixties prefab estates adjacent to rubble-strewn wasteground and chain-link fences. Vacancy/For Sale signs on every street, some of them so old they’d bleached in the harsh summer sunlight. Graffiti on crumbling walls: NEVER MIND THE BOMB WHO’S GOT THE BIGGER COCK. It felt just like the other half of his life, back home in Birmingham. Why had he even bothered coming here?

  Sweating profusely under his balaclava and biker jacket, Allen rubbed his right arm and winced. His ribs and arm still ached from the shoeing he’d taken from Brum’s finest last week, when they’d thrown him out of the cells at Steelhouse Lane with the admonition, ‘fuck off to Jokertown or hang yersel’, we don’t need your kind here’. Not that he’d done anything to deserve it besides assaulting their knuckles with his face, or maybe waking up in the isolation ward at Birmingham General. On top of the bruises – it had been a friendly police interview, they hadn’t broken anything or fitted him up for a robbery charge, at least not yet – he was badly sunburned, his skin peeling and itching furiously from the half an hour of overcast daylight he’d copped before the penny dropped.

  Still, he was a tenner richer for nine hours of hauling boxes between lock-ups under a railway viaduct. Mal at the shelter had pointed him at the opportunity. A row of viaduct arches fronting a pile of rubble that dated to the Blitz had been boarded up and turned into garages or storage spaces. When he got there he’d found a hard-faced guy called Gary who needed a lorry emptying into one of the dank spaces. No questions asked or answered. If he went back tomorrow – if he was up to it – there might be another one. The pay was shit, but it wasn’t like he could sign on the dole. Not with the police probably looking for him …

  ‘Not fucking worth it,’ he muttered to himself as he turned the corner onto East Ferry Road, towards the chimneys of the power station. Another few days of this and he’d have the dosh to rent a bedsit of his own. Maybe. But he couldn’t get his head around the idea of living here. Except—

  As he passed the edge of the park and turned towards Millwall, the pavements became busier. The shops were closed and shuttered but here and there a haze of smoke and noise overflowed from a pub doorway. The sunset warmth had winkled the locals out of their brick-and-mortar shells, skinny kids with scabbed kneecaps kicking a ball around, a gaggle of pensioners chilling on a street corner. A bus farted slowly past, its bored conductor catching the breeze on the open rear platform. And here and there, the obvious signs of a jokertown. A beggar with one too many eyes sitting cross-legged behind an up-turned hat. A West Indian woman of about Allen’s age making her way along the other side of the street, outwardly normal but for a giveaway bulge below the left sleeve of her cardigan. And, of course, the fucking tourists.

  ‘Get it out for the lads!’ shouted the middle one of the three guys blocking the pavement in front of her. His mate paused for a swig from his can of Special Brew, belched cacophonously, and sidestepped into her path as Tourist Number Three darted past and stopped behind her. ‘Whatcher got under yer arm? Been out shoplifting?’

  Oh, for fuck’s sake. It was the third incident Allen had seen in as many days. Essex lads tanked up on cheap lager, West End girls on a hen night, drunken posh kid students from the colleges in town – they liked to come and get some joker action, collect the mutants like a pack of Top Trumps, and maybe throw in a bit of casual street harassment if they wouldn’t strip off to order.

  The joker lass wasn’t interested. ‘I’d rather not,’ she said, her icy cut-glass intonation like someone off the news. ‘Why don’t you go pick on someone your own size?’ She didn’t say please, Allen noted. No victim here, just blunt assertiveness. But the tourists didn’t seem to get the message, and the one with the can was taller and wider than Allen. His mate reached out to grab the back of her top—’

  There was a long gap in the traffic. Later, that was all Allen could think of to explain what happened next. The woman recoiled as Tourist Number Three grabbed the woman’s cardigan and yanked it off her left shoulder, buttons tearing to reveal her extra arm. The beginning of a triumphant shout from Tourist Number Two as she stumbled sideways, face crumpling in humiliation. ‘Hey!’ Allen shouted. ‘Leave her alone!’

  Everyone stared at him. ‘Izzat another geek?’ Tourist Number One hissed, eyes narrowing. Oh fuck, I’m done for now. ‘C’mon, get yer kit off for the team!’ Number Two was already in the street, heading for Allen’s side of the road. ‘Get ’im, lads!’

  Allen closed his eyes and did it again. The thing the police had hauled him in for, the thing there wasn’t an actual law against as such but if I ever set eyes on you again, my son, the thing with the bricks baking in the summer sun and the hot pavement stinking of dog shit and the sense that if he willed it all that was solid could turn into air. And he could feel their boots on the ground like they were pounding his tender skin. Only it wasn’t his skin he was sensing them with, it was the dirty grey tarmac of the road that quivered and softened like quicksand. Tourist Number Two shouted, dismayed, ‘Hey, whatthefuck—’ as he stumbled. Then Tourist Number Three was in it up to his left ankle, flailing at the air.

  Allen opened his eyes and glared at them. ‘Give her back her cardigan!’ he shouted.

  The tourists weren’t paying any attention to the geek in the balaclava. The woman was another matter, staring wide-eyed, feet frozen in situ as if she feared the ground would liquefy beneath her as well. ‘Come on!’ he waved as Tourist Number One finally went down, belly-flopping on the watery black slurry that had replaced the road. ‘Over here – while they’re distracted.’

  ‘Give that. To me.’ She bent down and grabbed her top as she crossed the road delicately as a gazelle, staring at the surface as she came to Allen’s side. Stepping onto the pavement, she asked, ‘Did you do that?’ One eyebrow arched in near disbelief.

  ‘S’pose so.’ Turning to face the road had brought his face into direct sunlight and Allen hunched over, unconsciously avoiding the prickly heat. ‘You going to be okay?’

  ‘Oh, I was always—’ Tourist Number Three tore his foot loose from the liquid road and bellowed rage, then took a plunging step towards Allen. A van skidded to a stop just short of the quagmire with a blare of horns. ‘You’d better come with me,’ said the woman, sparing the traffic an assessing glance. ‘Unless you want to hang around and explai
n yourself to the Old Bill?’

  Allen did a double-take. Come with me? The three-armed woman was right: he didn’t want to stick around. And besides, she wasn’t afraid. It wasn’t like he had anywhere else to be, or knew anyone. ‘Lead on,’ he said, and as he turned his back the road solidified behind him.

  Jenny led the guy hastily away from the scene of the crime, thinking hard. ‘You’re new around here, ain’tcha?’ she prompted, taking stock of him with rushed sidelong glances. (Height/weight: five ten, about ten stone; hair colour: unknown; eye colour: ditto – that damned balaclava. Also black jeans, black biker jacket, black leather gloves.) ‘To Jokertown, I mean? Where are you from?’ (Age: indeterminate but probably young. He had the kind of inarticulacy that age eroded. Accent: Midlands.)

  ‘Brum.’ He cleared his throat. ‘Birmingham.’ He paused. ‘Where are you from?’ A sudden double-take. ‘Wait, I didn’t mean it like that—’

  ‘I was born in Greenwich.’ (She smiled without showing her teeth. At least he didn’t mean anything by it, not like the arseholes she’d been stuck in classes with at college in Hendon.) ‘I’m Jenny. You are …?’

  ‘Allen. I, uh, I only got here this week—’

  She held up a hand, diverted them both around a street corner. Kept an ear open for sounds of shouting or pursuit. (That was the trouble with tourist incidents. You could never be certain how the cards would fall. Or whether the uniforms would bother to follow it up. And the last thing she needed was to be picked up with Allen.) ‘This way. So what’s your story?’ What’s under the mask?

  ‘I, uh, I woke up in an isolation ward last week. Dunno why, neither of my parents are carriers – the doctors said I was fine and kicked me out but I’m an albino now – I got sunburned on my way home even though it was raining – then, then—’ he was breathing too fast and hunching over.

  Panic attack? Jenny wondered. ‘Stop,’ she said. ‘Deep breaths.’ He’s only had a week to get used to it, she realized, feeling a twinge of sympathy. She’d got sick aged eleven, three-fifths of a lifetime ago. ‘So … you burn really easily and you can liquefy roads? Am I getting this right?’ She wished she could take notes: this never happened.

  ‘I, uh, two cops visited me at home. Took me down the nick then told me to fuck the hell off and not come back.’ Jenny suppressed a wince. ‘My parents … Mum hung up the phone.’ Some winces weren’t worth suppressing. ‘So I came here.’

  ‘Well …’ Fuck, Jenny thought, he’s telling the truth. ‘Is it just tarmac you can melt?’ she asked, leaning against the chain-link fence. Please tell me it’s just a little tarmac, nothing more.

  ‘Oh no.’ Was he smiling behind his balaclava? The sun was below the buildings but if he burned that easily – damn that mask. ‘I can do stuff like this.’ The fence rattled and she jumped slightly, turning just in time to see the overgrown heap of bricks in the wasteground rattle and slump. Her heart sank. No question he was a knave – ace talent, but damaged by the virus. So new they hadn’t cut the price tags off him, painfully honest, and it was totally just her luck that he’d run away to the Big Smoke and landed on her patch.

  ‘You made the bricks crumble,’ she said, trying to control the tremor in her voice.

  ‘Not just bricks. It’s stone, concrete, tarmac, you know?’ He made a funny sound, almost a hiccup. After a moment she realized he was close to tears. ‘I melted a coffee mug in the isolation ward, that’s how it started. I was studying to be a civil engineer.’ (Occupation: student, the recording angel in the back of her head ticked off.) ‘Now I’ll be lucky if anyone lets me on a building site—’

  ‘C’mon,’ she said, holding her hand out to him. Catch ’em while they’re still fresh, the script wrote itself. ‘When did you last eat?’

  ‘Yesterday I, uh, I had a KFC, but I’m saving to rent a bedsit—’

  ‘And tonight you’re crashing in a hostel, right? Which is it? The one round the back of the Samuda Estate, or the Sally Army hall—’ She tugged him into motion and he followed sluggishly, too hungry and tired to realize how painlessly she was hoovering up the contents of his head. ‘Listen, I’ll make supper for you, it’s the least I can do, we look after our own here—’ liar ‘—and you saved me from having to deal with those arseholes—’ true ‘—so why don’t you come with me and tell me all about yourself? I was going to cook a chicken curry, it’s always easier with more people—’ food always works.

  ‘Yes, thanks,’ he said, ‘But you don’t have to—’

  ‘Yes. I do,’ Jenny insisted. ‘It’s my job!’ And she made herself smile at him, even as she thought, just don’t ask what it is or who’s paying me to do it.

  Jenny Scott lived in a council maisonette on a drab concrete estate, one of the prefab blocks that had been rolled out in the fifties and sixties to fill the gaps left by a Luftwaffe bombing campaign that had reduced large chunks of the East End to rubble. Ageing gracelessly, the window frames had rusted and the concrete stairwells smelled of piss. Half the ground floor windows were boarded up. But Jenny’s flat was well-maintained. Allen sat gingerly on the edge of a brown corduroy sofa that smelled faintly of ancient cigarettes. Jenny bustled around the kitchen, keeping up a continuous stream of chatter about the neighbours, local news, anecdotes about a drop-in social centre she had something to do with, the weather … all the usual, all utterly mundane, and all utterly unexpected. She’s not afraid, he realized, wondering if he should be nervous about her apparent lack of concern over having invited a masked stranger into her living room. Why isn’t—’

  It was getting dark, he realized, the north-facing window not admitting enough light to hurt. He tugged his mask up, wincing as the wool scraped his cheeks and the bridge of his nose like a wire scouring pad.

  ‘Huh. You are white,’ she said, coming back into the living room with a couple of plates. ‘Were you an albino before the virus? Let me see you. Ow, that’s got to hurt! Have you put anything on it?’

  ‘Just this?’ He held up the woollen balaclava.

  ‘You won’t want to be wearing that around London, man, they’ll think you’re a Provo.’ She smiled faintly. ‘You need sun-block, but I can’t help you there.’

  ‘Can I help? I mean, is there anything I can do to help?’ he asked.

  ‘Yes.’ She thought for a moment. ‘Glasses are in the sink – pour us both a beer?’

  They sat at either end of the sofa and watched the shadows lengthen as the sun set and the rice steamed. After finishing her Double Diamond Jenny dived back into the kitchen and began briskly throwing together a curry, adding fresh plantains to a casserole of goat she’d stewed the day before. Allen crossed to the music centre and knelt, rummaging through the shelf of LPs beneath the deck. Lots of stuff he hadn’t heard of, jazz by the look of it – but also more familiar stuff: Pistols, Banshees, Clash. ‘Mind if I put some music on as well?’

  ‘Sure!’

  They ate goat curry by the light of a sixty-watt bulb and the sound of Sandinista!: ‘The Crooked Beat’ fading into ‘Somebody Got Murdered’. Allen noticed Jenny watching him curiously. She ate normally, not using her second left arm. He was about to ask about that, but bit his lip and held his tongue in time. Not wanting to spoil this astonishingly unexpected moment. In Allen’s experience strange women, even strange women with three arms who he’d rescued from a bunch of tossers, didn’t invite him back to their home and feed him. Somehow he didn’t think it was because of the way he oozed sex appeal right through the weave of his woolly headgear. But on the other hand – the third hand, ha ha – he wasn’t ready to look the gift horse in the mouth just yet. There’d be plenty of time to swallow his boot all the way past his tonsils and slope off back to the hostel later.

  Jenny put her plate down on the cluttered coffee table and reached for a tobacco tin. ‘Smoke?’ she asked.

  ‘I—’ Allen shook his head. ‘I don’t.’

  ‘Oh, too bad.’ Unapologetic, she opened the tin and began to assemble a roll-up. The
tobacco went in first, then a thin crumbling of what looked like brown shoe polish on top. ‘There’s not much good stuff around right now but I’ve got a bit of slate.’

  ‘Slate?’

  She raised an eyebrow in his direction: ‘Small town, huh?’

  ‘I, uh, I’d like to try it? If you don’t mind, that is …’

  Jenny gave him a small smile. ‘I wouldn’t be offering if I minded, would I?’

  How Allen had got to be twenty and a student in Birmingham without smoking a joint was one of those imponderable questions that used to perplex him when he lay awake in the small hours of the night, much like worrying if he’d ever lose his virginity (scratch that, as of last year – Freshers’ Week had claimed a lot of scalps) before more urgent concerns took over. Like worrying about the police coming after him, or about having somewhere to sleep tomorrow night. As had happened with his virginity, he got his first toke on a sofa with a strange woman to whom he was very grateful, but gained absolutely no insight whatsoever into how he’d ended up in this position, or how to repeat it. However, it took the edge off his free-floating anxiety. ‘You’re single?’ he asked as she lit a second spliff. Clumsy but direct.

  ‘Welcome to Jokertown.’ She drew in a slow lungful. ‘I get by, like everyone else.’ The record side ended. ‘You want to change that?’

  Allen stood, slightly dizzy, and stared his feet into submission before stamping over to the turntable and very carefully swapping side two for side three, lowering the needle on ‘Lightning Strikes’. He turned to face the sofa. ‘Why—’ inarticulate, he waved a hand at himself. ‘Why me? I don’t get this. Not that I’m not grateful, but—’

 
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