Knaves over queens, p.21
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       Knaves Over Queens, p.21

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

  ‘But what? What’s to get?’

  ‘What do you want with me?’ He persisted. ‘I’m nobody!’

  ‘No, you’re not. I can tell.’ She gave him a lazy smile. ‘You’ve just had a bad time lately.’ She patted the sofa beside her. ‘C’mon and sit down. You can crash here tonight, on the sofa, s’better than the hostel. Tomorrow I’ll introduce you round the community centre. Get you set up. ’S what friends are for, innit?’

  ‘Whose friends?’ he asked, abruptly certain that she wanted him for something.

  ‘I don’t know, Allen. Are we friends?’ She looked up at him, a flicker of apparent anxiety crossing her face. ‘Come on, sit down. You want to make new friends, don’t you?’

  Over the next few weeks, Allen kept resisting the urge to pinch himself to see if he was dreaming. This kind of thing never happens, he kept telling himself. Except that it had, and not even the aches and blisters of moving stacks of boxes between white vans and lock-ups for cash in hand could make it feel real to him.

  He went back to the hostel just once, the evening after he met Jenny, to grab his bag from the locker and return the key. He’d paid for another three nights but didn’t argue when the guy on the desk told him he was keeping the money. For a horrible moment as he waited on Jenny’s front doorstep he worried that he’d dreamed the night before, but then the door opened and her face lit up when she saw him. He’d followed her inside, still balanced on a knife-edge of disbelief.

  She’d invited him to move in with her. They hadn’t had sex, but had stayed up into the early hours, listening to music, talking, smoking – his throat felt as if it had been sanded – and she had a spare bedroom and if he could pay a share of the rent and help out about the house he was welcome to it. And if they hadn’t had sex she’d barely looked away from him, her eyes huge and expressive and liquidly brown, and if she had three arms (one of them withered) who was he to throw stones, his skin was as dead-fish-belly white as hers was dark brown, and … he pinched himself again.

  There’d been more work hauling boxes for Gary, although he’d grumbled when Allen turned up late – Jenny had insisted on dragging him round to the community centre first. The centre wasn’t much to look at, a former church hall with chipped Formica tables and folding chairs, staffed by volunteers who seemed to have nowhere else to go. There were posters taped to the walls. Propaganda from the plod pompously declared that the Twisted Fists were mad, bad and dangerous to even think about, and please phone the local community constable at the number scribbled in biro below if you know anything about them. (Fat chance.) Another poster earnestly explained the evils of cannabis in terms of how it corrupted youth and funded street gangs in the Jamaican immigrant community: Allen tuned it out once he realized it was talking about his new roommate. ‘The decor’s a bit shit but they mean well,’ Jenny had apologized, with a nod at the front desk. ‘They run socials every Tuesday and Thursday night and they help people like us when we’re down on our luck.’ No pointed hints there. He offered to volunteer for a few hours, once he found his feet, and that seemed to satisfy her.

  On the fourth night they smoked too much, got giggly, and she finally invited him into her bed, where they grappled clumsily until he discovered a broken mattress spring the hard way. But the next morning she sang quietly to herself over breakfast, and he walked on air all the way to work.

  Everything seemed to be going fine until, a couple of weeks in, Gary pulled him aside one morning and said, ‘The boss wants ta see ya.’

  Allen did a double-take. Right up until this moment he’d had no inkling that Gary even had a boss. ‘What about?’ he asked.

  ‘Dunno: ’e’s the boss.’

  The boss in question was visiting that morning. Gary’s office was a garden hut wedged incongruously at the back of one of the dank lock-up arches under the railway viaduct. It was dark enough inside the tunnel for Allen to remove his hood safely as he followed Gary through a maze of second-hand furniture, orphaned bicycles, and the spoils of a thousand house clearance sales. ‘Who is he?’ he asked nervously. Gary ignored him.

  ‘Boss? Gotcher new fish ’ere. Allen, this is Mr McAndrews, the boss.’

  McAndrews loomed out of the office chair in the hut, towering over a desk piled high with scribbled invoices and ancient-looking ledgers. ‘Eh. Leave us,’ he grunted, a Scottish burr underlying his raspy voice. Gary scarpered. ‘So.’ He stared at Allen, who shivered slightly.

  Gary was a yard rat, but McAndrews’ vertically slit pupils and cleft lip lent him the unnerving appearance of a thuggish tomcat in human skin. And his suit fitted too well to have come off the peg at Burton’s.

  Allen tried to fill the silence. ‘You asked for me?’

  ‘Aye, that I did.’ The inspection continued. Eventually McAndrews nodded minutely, then spoke again: ‘What brung ya to the Big Smoke, my man?’

  ‘I—’ Allen shivered in spite of the heat. ‘I came down with the virus. When I recovered, the police told me to get out of town. Why—’ he caught himself before he said too much. Asking McAndrews questions felt like a bad idea. There was something predatory about him, sharp suit or no.

  ‘A’s good. So whit can ye dae fer me?’

  Allen blinked. ‘Excuse—’

  ‘I said, what is it that you can do?’ McAndrews abruptly shifted to cut-glass BBC English, polished with just the faintest sheen of menace. ‘The other night, on East Ferry. What did you do?’

  ‘There were these three lads hassling Jenny Three-Arms, and I, I …’ Casting around, Allen noticed for the first time that even though they were surrounded by crumbling Victorian brickwork he was standing inside a wooden hut, beneath a plywood roof. ‘There’s this thing I can do to brick and stone. Tarmac, too. I can show you?’

  McAndrews nodded. ‘Not in here. Outside.’ Mask back in place, heart beating too fast, Allen followed the boss out into the yard that fronted the viaduct. ‘There,’ McAndrews said, pointing at the brickwork with a claw-tipped finger.

  ‘Are you sure—’


  Allen reached out and touched the viaduct abutment. Mortar crumbled to powder first, then the red clay bricks, baked in an oven some time when the railways were young, began to disintegrate. He dug his fingers into the crumbling wall, gouged out a fistful of dust, then shoved his hand in as far as his wrist and twisted it around. ‘Probably a bad idea to go any deeper.’ He glanced up nervously as a commuter train rumbled slowly overhead, shaking the ground.

  ‘Aye.’ Not a man of many words, McAndrews shoved his hands in his coat pockets and looked unimpressed. Then he glanced aside at the yard. ‘Stand over there. How deep can ye dig? How much can ye move?’

  ‘What? You want me to …?’

  McAndrews smiled, baring needle-sharp canines. ‘Yer a mole-man: I want ta see yer tunnel. Give it all you’ve got, aye?’

  Allen narrowed his eyes. A challenge, is it? He reached out with the odd new sense he’d acquired, like touch only so much more. There was a buried cable not far away, loaded with malignant power, and if he went down too far a pipe, probably a sewer. So avoid. Flexing imaginary muscles he established a six-foot circle and told the tarmac to liquefy. Then he began to dig as he’d never dug before, not even in the cells below the police station. (What he’d told Jenny had been a lie by omission – the West Midlands Joker Squad hadn’t exactly let him go.) The tarmac began to bubble, then climb up in a crater rim around the growing pit. Fire spewed out, tumbling over the edge. ‘I could go faster if I had something to shift it out of the way,’ he told McAndrews. ‘I mean, I can move it around after I tell it to disintegrate, but it’s very slow. A fan, maybe a leaf blower, something like that.’

  ‘Huh.’ McAndrews walked around the crater, peering over the rim. After only a minute it was already waist-deep. ‘How long can ye keep it up?’

  ‘I—’ Allen blinked. ‘I’ve never tried.’

  ‘Keep going, then.’

  After five minutes he was sweating h
ard and took a break. McAndrews stopped him after his third session. He’d dug a trench nine feet deep right across the yard and filled it in again, fusing the earth solid – twice over. ‘Stop, lad.’ McAndrews stepped onto the newly re-formed tarmac and stamped on it experimentally. ‘Huh.’ He glanced sidelong at Allen, who was breathing hard and shaking slightly, then reached into an inside pocket for a wallet so plump it disturbed the hang of his jacket. Opening it, he extracted a wad of banknotes. ‘Take the rest of the day off, lad.’ Allen wasn’t sure that graduating from my man to lad was a good thing, but ‘Summun’ll pick you up here tomorrow at ten. If Gary gives you any lip tell ’im Pussyface wants you special.’

  McAndrews turned and stalked away towards the Daimler Double-Six parked in one corner of the yard, leaving Allen clutching a bundle of cash. Startled, he turned and hunched towards the wall before he counted it. Two hundred quid? He boggled and pocketed it hastily, lest it vanish like fairy gold in the glare of sunlight. A good week’s pay, cash in hand, for thirty minutes’ work? I could get used to that, Allen decided, watching as Pussyface held a telephone handset to his face with one hand, backed the big Jaguar limousine out of the gate and roared away. I wonder what he wants.

  Thursday morning was Jenny’s regular trip into town. If anybody asked, it was her appointed time to sign on down the dole office (not than anybody ever did). She caught the bus as usual, changed twice, doubling back on herself and checking for a tail. Then, once she was certain nobody was shadowing her through the busy streets, she headed for Victoria Embankment and an office building with cramped interview rooms, wired glass in the door windows, and an omnipresent smell of stale tobacco and instant coffee.

  New Scotland Yard.

  Sergeant Rutherford was away from the desk when she sat down at the keyboard, so she spooled paper into the typewriter and began pecking out her report on the week so far without interruption. She’d run into Allen the day after her last session and he didn’t make the criteria for an emergency that would justify breaking her routine – although he came close – so she wrote it up as she saw it. Homeless knave fresh off the bus from Brum, vital figures such-and-so, doing casual labour for one of the Fish’s fences, hospitality offered and taken. In other words, a promising contact, likely to get the target’s attention and spill everything he learned in her ear. Exactly the sort of informant Rutherford had demanded from her last week. So why did she feel so ambivalent?

  Tarmac, melting. Feel of beetle-legs skittering down her spine. His eyes, wide in adoration. Maybe it was because he was an open book? She was sure he was holding back some secrets, but they were the secrets of a twenty-year-old civil engineering student. Ex-girlfriends, trouble with the police back home, guilt-tripping himself because he hadn’t phoned Mum and Dad since he’d run away to town. That sort of thing. Maybe he was hiding an angle on his ace talent, but she’d already seen it in action, knew there was more to it than just squishy roadstone. Meanwhile he was just so truthful with her. She could feel his honesty, just as she could sniff out lies whenever she heard them, and trying to turn him to the dark side just felt wrong. She stared at the paper and sighed.

  ‘Penny for your thoughts, Constable?’

  Rutherford loomed over her from behind, one beefy hand leaning on the desk in front. ‘Developed a new contact the day after my last report, sir. New boy in town, landed a job with one of the Fish’s back doors – nothing obviously illegal yet – and he’s crashing in my spare room.’

  ‘Well now.’ Rutherford smirked. ‘A likely lad? You pumping him yet?’

  Jenny kept her face still. ‘Purely in a professional capacity, sir.’ Rutherford was old school but canny: he’d made detective sergeant, after all. But he had entrenched views, to put it mildly, when it came to women, immigrants, and virus survivors. Which made three strikes against Jenny, and she’d have been right out of the door before she got her feet under the desk if he hadn’t read her reports before he first clapped eyes on her face. As it was, what she got from him was patronizing tolerance alternating with irritable demands, rather than the professional respect an undercover officer ought to expect. ‘He’s working for Gary’s Scrap and Salvage right now. Had some kind of run-in with West Midlands. I want to check if he’s a nominal.’ A subject with a record on the Police National Computer system.

  Rutherford grunted. ‘Do the paperwork, I’ll sign off on it. Anything else?’

  ‘You should know he’s a knave, sir. Power over concrete, brick, stone. And he manifested in public last Friday. So I’m guessing the Fish will get wind of him soon enough.’

  ‘Right.’ The sergeant grunted, mollified for the moment. ‘When you’re done with that you can run off a couple of photostats before you piss off: the inspector will want to know. Oh, and fetch me a coffee while you’re about it?’

  On Thursday evening Allen took Jenny out for dinner at a local Italian restaurant whose proprietor had six fingers on each hand. She didn’t ask where he’d got the money for the meal, or the new sports jacket he wore. Afterwards, when the summer rain started, he wrapped it over her shoulders and they walked home together, laughing, with their fingers entwined.

  Early the next week one of Pussyface’s blokes turned up, driving a battered white Ford Transit pick-up. ‘You Crippen?’ he said, and jabbed a thumb at the truck. ‘You’re riding with me today.’

  They drove to some rubble-strewn wasteground in the wilds of north London where he met a new gang boss. ‘Dig us a tunnel,’ he was told. ‘Make it about six feet in diameter. Go down so it’s ten feet under, and make it a hundred feet long. A dead end will do, ’s’long as it ends over on the far side of the fence and you don’t break any pipes or sewers.’

  ‘Okay,’ said Allen, and the ground began to soften under his boots.

  ‘’E’s a fucken’ joker JCB,’ he heard one of the goons say when he clambered out across the top of the debris heap for a break. ‘Eh, right?’

  ‘More like a fookin’ mole-man,’ said another. ‘I don’t wanna know what he’s got under that mask.’

  ‘Will the roof support its weight if he drives over it?’ asked the new boss, pointing at Transit Bloke’s wheels.

  Allen grimaced. ‘You should have asked for that when I was starting out.’

  Sorting this out took an extra hour: fusing clay and rubble and brick dust into something like breezeblock was wearying after the fact. By the time he had finished, the gang boss was on the phone and a couple of lorries were pulling into the site. But the tunnel was dug. ‘What’s it for?’ he asked.

  The gang boss turned a flat stare on him. ‘Never you mind, son,’ he said. Then he pulled out his wallet and began counting tenners. ‘Pussyface said you could do it and ’e was right.’ Two hundred pounds, like winning the virus-laden lottery every afternoon. As he headed for the Tube station, the men behind him began unloading wooden crates from the trucks and carrying them towards the mouth of the tunnel. Easy money, no complications.

  On Saturday, Allen and Jenny slept in. Later he helped her shop for food and she helped him buy new clothes. And on Sunday they didn’t get out of bed before noon.

  Monday dawned overcast and humid, pregnant with a threat of thunderstorms before nightfall. Allen found Transit Bloke, whom he now knew was called Ron, waiting for him at Gary’s yard again. Back up north they went, back to the wasteland with the pick-up heaped with debris. ‘Boss says you’re to fill this in and pack it as tight as you can,’ said Ron.

  ‘What—’ Allen stared.

  ‘Go on, get to work.’

  Allen closed his eyes and sent fingers of perception into the ground. ‘There’s something down there,’ he said after a moment. ‘Crates of stuff.’

  ‘Ignore them. Fill around them. Boss wants ’em buried deep.’

  ‘Around—’ He opened his eyes. Ron’s expression was closed, and he held his fists tightly by his side. ‘What is this?’

  ‘It’s what the Fish is payin’ yer to do, dig ’oles and fill ’em in agai

  Holes. There was something in one of the crates, the one nearest the end of the tunnel (beneath the lot on the other side of the fence). It felt stonelike-but-not, calciferous, once living but now reverting into the state of matter over which Allen held dominion. He shuddered, full of grim surmise. The other boxes were full of crap – broken crockery, rubbish, cans of used engine oil and detritus – but the one at the end was deathly. He opened his mouth to object, then stopped. Speaking out could cost him much more than just a day’s wages. I don’t even know what this street’s called, he realized dismally. Nor was he able to go and squeal to the police, or even write them an anonymous note.

  So he filled in the anonymous grave, and told himself never again.

  When he finished, instead of forking out his pay packet Ron ordered him up into the cab and drove clockwise around the North Circular for half an hour. ‘Boss said to bring you in for a chat at the end of the day.’ A sidelong glance. ‘Reckon you’d do well to listen to ’im.’ He turned off the main road and drove out east, heading into suburbs Allen barely knew the names of, where the houses held themselves aloof behind hedges as stiff as hairsprayed up-dos, garages the width of their frontage with doors proudly open to display gleaming Porsches and Rollers to the passengers on the upper decks of passing buses. At last they pulled up outside a wall, where another of Pussyface’s blokes eyeballed them from behind his mirrorshades and nattered briefly on a walkie-talkie before sliding the barred gate open. ‘Go on in. I’ll wait with the wheels.’

  Bone-tired, sweaty, and wondering what the hell he had got himself into – it was clearly too late to get out of it – Allen shuffled past a windowless garage to the portico fronting the McAndrews mansion. Before he could ring the doorbell the gleaming slab of oak swung inwards. ‘Come in, sir, you are expected.’ Allen blinked at the dimness. He’d never met a real butler before, assuming that’s what the tailcoat and black tie denoted. ‘Please follow me, sir.’

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