Knaves over queens, p.34
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       Knaves Over Queens, p.34

         Part #26 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin
‘You’re promoting me? But I failed the test.’

  ‘This is the test. What you’re suggesting sounds interesting, but I’m too cynical to believe it will work. Prove me wrong and you pass. Fail, and I’ll come back and kill you myself.’

  ‘What about Blister, isn’t he in charge here?’

  Something changed in Black Dog’s eyes: perhaps he was smiling beneath the mask. ‘No, he’s gone, as are all the others here. I’m moving them to other cells. As you don’t approve of my recruitment methods, you can find and vet your own people. Now, put on the mask.’

  Roger did so without thinking.

  ‘Good luck, Green Man. I look forward to seeing what you can do.’

  ‘Thank you.’

  Black Dog strode out, pausing at the door to add, ‘You’ve got two years.’

  The Cracks in the City

  by Peadar Ó Guilín

  Belfast, Northern Ireland, 1987

  For three days, Badb, Goddess of War, sat in her own excrement. Bent double in a rusted cement mixer, with nothing to eat or drink but the blood and bodies of summoned crows, she hid and bided her time.

  Everything hurt. She was near the end of her cycle, so her joints felt like molten rock and her skin consisted entirely of scabs. Flies and vermin swarmed over her and not even passing beggars could bear to look inside the old machine.

  And still, divinely patient, she waited.

  But the goddess was not idle. When she closed her eyes, the city of Belfast stretched out below her. From the ground it appeared chaotic. Taigs hated Prods. Prods murdered jokers. Brits fought the IRA and the INLA and the Twisted Fists. But from the air, it was a chess set like any other, except that this game would never end. She would see to that.

  As a crow, Badb flew over a column of Saracen armoured cars, thundering down the street to quell a riot on the Falls Road. She watched masked men bundle a weeping mother into a van, never to be seen again. In Lincoln Place a boy with too many arms was being beaten by three others wielding baseball bats. Nobody played baseball in Northern Ireland, but sales of the equipment were booming.

  Night fell. At last, she saw the first signs that her weeks of planning had not been in vain.

  First came the SAS, all in black, their steps soft as butterflies on the roofs of the derelict two-storey buildings on either side of the road leading into Belfast’s jokertown, the Island. Badb herself had supplied the intelligence that brought them here.

  Seventeen years earlier, twenty-one thousand soldiers had poured onto the streets of Northern Ireland. Some of the squaddies going home in coffins today were buried next to fathers who’d met the same fate before them. Badb had done her work well. The blood of heroes – and there had been hundreds by now – fed the land so that it grew lush and green for as far as the eyes of a crow could see.

  Finally, at ground level this time, three more men and one woman, all wearing balaclavas and armed with AK-47s, set themselves up on either side of the street. She had lured them here. They too thought they were about to spring an ambush, but their lives could now be measured in minutes.

  Badb’s heart began to beat faster. She could see, as no mortal could, that a glow surrounded one of these figures. A true believer. A hero …

  And then, before all the escape routes could be closed off by the arrival of more soldiers creeping in from both ends of the street, one of the so-called elite up on the roofs knocked against a stone and sent it tumbling down two storeys.

  The hero reacted before anybody else. ‘Run!’ he cried. ‘Through the factory!’ He was no giant as her uncle had been long ago. But he sprang to his feet. He picked up his closest comrade, shoving her in the direction of the nearby buildings before the first bullets from above kicked up the spot where he’d just been crouching.

  He was going to get away! Or be hunted down and killed too far off for Badb to benefit from it. She had to get out of here and follow him, although every muscle in her body had shut itself down from days of immobility.

  Bullets struck the cement mixer, rattling it like the loudest drum in the world. A man cried out for mercy. It was a value all sides in the conflict claimed to honour, but nobody was watching tonight and his pleas ended in a gurgle.

  Badb felt the hero pause and then … Glory! Glory! A bullet took him through the brain. She sensed his blood jetting onto the parched earth, the legions of those who had passed before him stretching out bony fingers to welcome him.

  Oh, the pain of his death! The murdered future, where this noble soul might have loved a wife; ploughed fields; made peace. Gone now, all gone, and Badb, the goddess, screamed for its loss. Her voice shattered windows; streetlights guttered; Saracens rolled to a stop, every battery flat, while up on the surrounding roofs, soldiers voided themselves and covered their ears as a vortex made entirely of crows spun in the pitch darkness overheard.

  Like a cannonball, Badb shot out of the cement mixer.

  Then she ran.

  She failed to mark the passing of time, but deep in the night, laughing and crying, she stepped into an empty courtyard in the ruined shipyards. Here, as it started to rain, she completed her transformation. Always strong at the start of her cycle, she ripped away clothing and rotted bandages with her own hands. Old skin sloughed off in the downpour, giving way to youth and beauty. Her back straightened and she laughed, mouth open to taste the rain – the most delicious thing in the universe! She wept. She shivered. She danced, swirling, swirling, and then—

  ‘You!’ she cried, spinning to a halt. ‘Who are you?’

  A handsome little man, somewhere in his early twenties, goggled at her naked body. Four empty beer cans lay at his feet, while another dangled from his fingers.

  ‘I …’ he said. ‘Um … Billy, uh … O’Donnell. Billy O’Donnell. Are you … are you one o’ them aces?’

  Billy O’Donnell. He had the sweetest lips imaginable. The largest eyes.

  ‘How much did you see, Billy O’Donnell?’ She moved next to him, her heart beating. She loved him, she LOVED him and kissed his lips, delighting in the taste of beer, breathing deep of his scent, rubbing the stubble on his cheeks.

  He wanted her too, of course. His breath matched hers as she pressed against him, but when she took two handfuls of his Stiff Little Fingers T-shirt, he jerked away from her with a cry.

  ‘No! No! I need to keep that on.’

  That was not how one spoke to a goddess. She would lose her great strength in a day or two, but now she tore away his clothing like tissue paper. A sweet little chest waited underneath, except that bandages covered each nipple.

  ‘What have we here?’ she asked

  ‘Please … please … I have to go … I have to—’

  Under the bandages, instead of a right nipple, he had a mouth. It began babbling the moment she uncovered it: ‘Dirty Papist whore! Left-footed Fenian Catholic cow! Lie down, Croppy! Lie—’ She laughed and laughed while Billy wept. There was a mouth on the other side too.

  ‘Proddy bitch!’ it hissed. ‘You Orange snout Jaffa black Protestant, dirty—’

  Both voices stilled the moment she covered the lips. ‘Are you from a mixed marriage, Billy O’Donnell?’

  He nodded with a sob. ‘Please,’ he said. ‘I … Please …’

  ‘I love it!’ she cried, startling him. ‘I love you!’ She ripped off the bandages completely. She kissed the mouth on the left of his chest, licking the lips with her tongue, while feeding her fingers to the one on the right. ‘And what about this?’ she asked, grabbing him between the legs. What religion does this belong to?’

  ‘Any …’ he groaned. ‘Any … one you want.’

  Later, back in her hidden, booby-trapped home, Badb read poetry. Nobody wrote about sex like Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. The joy. The sliding of limbs. The perfume of a man’s body that she called ‘cumhracht’.

  Poor Billy O’Donnell. He had seen too much and would have to die. Not yet! Badb still loved him too much. But in a day or two, when rationality returned, she would
track him down. A joker like that wouldn’t be hard to find. A joker like that, however sweet, would die and never be missed.

  Two weeks after it happened, Billy Little, as he usually called himself, was still grinning. His stepfather would box his ears for making calls at work, but he picked up the phone anyway, dialling Armi’s number. He waited … and waited … nothing. He was desperate to talk about her again. The nameless woman. But nobody less than a best friend could be trusted with such a secret.

  When Billy thought about it – and he thought of nothing else! – his cheeks grew hot and his hands itched as though they remembered the feel of curves; of smooth skin.

  These were hardly fitting thoughts for a funeral parlour, of course.

  He sat beneath a portrait of Her Majesty, Queen Margaret. What would her highness have thought if she could read his mind? Or Granda, uniformed, staring out of a framed photograph on the desk in front of him?

  Billy had only kissed two girls before and the second time, when Rosie McMichael had slipped her hand under his jumper at the school social, he had run terrified from the hall and had spent the last two weeks of term pretending to be sick.

  He could never risk a kiss again. Or so he’d thought.

  But then, she had happened. The ace. The gorgeous woman who didn’t care who he was, what he was. Who seemed – by God! – to enjoy it. To enjoy him. She knew all his secrets: that his card had turned; that his real da had been a Catholic named O’Donnell. It wasn’t the sort of thing Ma had wanted to boast about when they’d moved home from England and she’d remarried. But Billy still remembered and when the black-haired woman had asked him his name, that ancient truth had come spilling out.

  He trembled. If only he could find her again.

  The clock ticked. Armi still wasn’t answering the phone. Billy tried to fill in paperwork, but couldn’t concentrate. Finally – and his stepfather would kill him for this! – he pulled the newspaper out from under the desk. It was two days old and the worst kind of tabloid, the kind with a topless model on page three.

  He’d peered at her already, couldn’t help himself. But the blonde’s passionless smile and unnatural pose did nothing for him now. What he wanted was jet-black hair. He longed for laughter and fury and breathlessness. So he turned the page, flicking past gossip about that American Wild Cards tour. Stuff about Peregrine’s pregnancy. About Fantasy – oh, God, Fantasy! – at the Royal Ballet. He turned the page one more time … And there, right in front of him, was an article about how the army were offering a reward for the capture of what they called the Screeching Ace.

  Billy’s heart beat faster. £100,000. A huge, huge sum of money.

  Not that he would betray her for something like that! Life-changing though it was. He loved her, whatever her name was. He loved her. And yet, he lingered on the page.

  For £100,000, he could go to New York and visit Dr Tachyon’s clinic there. Jokers had been cured before, hadn’t they? What if he were cured? What would his life be like then?

  The phone rang and he jumped, as though guilty.

  ‘Billy Boy!’ came the drunken voice at the other end.

  ‘Billy Boy, yerself.’ Armi had the same first name, which had led to endless confusion in school.

  ‘Come out for a drink. Bring yer snooker cue. Nobody’s gonna die in the ten minutes you have left to work.’

  Billy threw the paper with its poisonous temptation in the bin and ran to fetch his cue.

  The day after the emotions wore off, Badb sat in her office in Thiepval Barracks. She had long since learned that cutting into parts of her body that were covered by clothing meant that lesions were far less likely to break out on her face and hands. But over the next few months, she would appear to age rapidly and she’d be forced to hide it with make-up and feigned illness.

  For now, she closed her eyes and flitted to the crow that sat just outside.

  She watched the back of her own head. She heard the clock on the desk muffled by the glass. Then, she took off, sailing around the building to another windowsill.

  ‘Bloody RUC Special Branch!’ Tom, her boss, railed against the police. ‘Bloody amateurs! They’ll get us all killed—’

  It was nothing Badb hadn’t heard before. Besides, it wasn’t Special Branch that had got his agents killed, but her. For every piece of intelligence she fed her British employers about the IRA, she passed another back in the opposite direction. She couldn’t allow anybody to win the war after all, or who would feed the land?

  She chose another crow, one she’d ordered earlier to circle high over the city. The wind whistled past, rippled her feathers, held her aloft.

  This is how it was to be a goddess – to feel nothing. To see everything. She soared for a while, watching for patterns, cracks in the city she might exploit to make each community feel threatened so that heroes must arise to defend it. Foreigners always thought the Ulster conflict a simple struggle between British Protestants and Irish Catholics, but it was so much richer than that! Layer upon layer: communists; agitators; aces; jokers. There were British regiments that hated each other more than they hated the IRA, and every year terrorist organizations killed more of ‘their own’ than they ever did of the opposition.

  The bird she occupied was tired and would fall from the sky soon. She moved on. She listened to a conversation in an IRA safe house. She scratched a warning to one of her agents on a gate. She checked a drop in the Island, but no, not one of her joker contacts knew anything of a boy with mouths for nipples. She would keep looking. She flitted from crow to crow and—

  Badb tumbled back into her own body as a hand grabbed her by the wrist.

  ‘Anya! McNulty! By Christ, woman, get it together!’

  She opened her eyes to find Tom Grayson’s face less than an inch from her own, displaying all the attributes of the mood known as ‘panic’. She smelled perspiration from him along with the usual Old Holborn rollies and the rotting tooth he had at the back of his mouth. She saw that he had locked the door behind him for some reason.

  ‘I didn’t know about this,’ he blurted. ‘I swear to you. They didn’t even tell the boss they were coming. But I hope by Christ you weren’t lying when you said you weren’t a joker because—’

  A fist punched right through the pine of the door, then fiddled unsuccessfully with the key, before ripping the whole thing off its hinges.

  The brute responsible wore an eighteenth-century army uniform, complete with a red jacket and shiny buttons. Was this the famous Redcoat? Wasn’t he supposed to be dead? He flung the crumpled wood aside before puffing out his chest and standing to quivering attention.

  ‘Sah!’ he shouted. ‘Door opened, sah!’

  What came next was even stranger.

  A man made entirely of stone ducked under the lintel and stepped into the small room. ‘My apologies, Miss McNulty.’ When it – he looked up, Badb saw two eyes of flame looking into her own. And there was another light too, one that only she could sense. Glory. Belief. She was in the presence of a hero. Every part of her skin turned hot at once, while new lesions opened on her back and chest.

  ‘You have no right!’ babbled Tom. ‘She’s our best handler. She’s worked with the Force Research Unit for—’

  ‘You know who I am?’ asked Captain Flint. He wasn’t talking to Tom.

  Lying would have aroused his suspicions, so Badb nodded once and received a nod in return.

  ‘We’re in the province on other business, Miss McNulty. We finally have a lead on the Screeching Ace. But since we are here, well, if you’re a joker …’ he paused to gauge her reaction. ‘Your considerable talents should be employed with us instead.’

  ‘She’s not a joker,’ said Tom. ‘I have assurances from the regimental doctor that—’

  The arrival of another woman interrupted him. She was middle-aged and black with a strong Birmingham accent. She squeezed her ample frame through the broken door, out of breath and sweating slightly. ‘You trying to kill me, Flinty?’
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  ‘Madam,’ said Tom.

  ‘Esmerelda,’ she told him. ‘Charmed.’

  ‘Madam. Esmerelda … your services are not needed. Like all FRU handlers, Anya McNulty is evaluated by a telepath once a year.’

  The woman smiled, still wheezing a little from climbing the stairs. ‘Oh, I don’t mind doing it again. I’ve come all this way. And what harm could it do, anyway?’

  What harm indeed? With a perfect memory and an ability to spy on anyone anywhere, Badb had gathered great power to herself. She controlled the local FRU telepath as surely as any of her agents in the IRA or the Twisted Fists. The doctor, too, turned a blind eye when she wrote her own fitness reports. But these strangers from Britain were beyond her influence.

  ‘It’s insulting,’ Tom said. ‘Anya couldn’t be more loyal. Her father was killed by the IRA.’

  Badb had arranged that murder herself. But now she was only two moves from checkmate.

  She put on her professional voice. ‘I’ve heard of this ace,’ she said. ‘The Screamer. Or the Screecher. How can you expect to find him when we cannot?’

  ‘They have a new source,’ said Tom. ‘We should be handling him, not the Silver Helix!’

  ‘Enough. And no, Mr Grayson, we won’t be sharing the identity of our source with the FRU. Too many of your agents have met an unhappy end. Now, my dear,’ Captain Flint turned to Esmerelda. ‘We’ll get this over with. Miss McNulty, will you sign a consent form? Miss McNulty? Are you all right? Is she asleep?’

  Badb opened her eyes. ‘Thank you, Captain Flint. I am fine. I give my full consent. There is no need for a form.’ She held her hand out towards Esmerelda. On the chessboard, her king tottered, but she had one move left.

  ‘Good for you, love,’ Esmeralda was saying. ‘Unlike some, you won’t even notice me goin’ in there. Won’t feel a thing. Now, let’s just see …’

  Down by the fence, a crow pulled at a particular wire that for some reason was always missed during routine sweeps.

  The entire base shook. Then came sound, like a great fist, as the gatehouse turned into a fireball and shards of glass flew through the room. Several embedded themselves in Badb’s back and neck just as Esmeralda caught her wrist. But the mind of the goddess was already in another crow, pulling yet another wire at the top of this very building. Now the ceiling came caving in. Tom and Captain Flint disappeared in a rain of rubble and Badb, bleeding all over her back, found herself alone and face to face with the telepath in a ‘fortunate’ pocket of air.

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