Knaves over queens, p.35
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       Knaves Over Queens, p.35
 

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

  A series of moods passed over Esmeralda’s face. Her mouth opened as though intending to plead for mercy, but she was still touching the goddess’s skin and must have guessed the outcome. When Badb removed a shard of glass from her own back and shoved it into the telepath’s neck, ‘fear’ and ‘panic’ showed on her features. But not ‘surprise’. Not even a bit. Fascinating.

  There was another ace in the room, or part of one, anyway. The brutish Redcoat must have had unnatural speed to go with his strength, because he’d almost outrun the explosion. His head and arms poked from the rubble. His eyes were closed and he hissed like a leaky balloon until the goddess blocked the airways with her hands. He was definitely dead now.

  All that remained was for Badb to remove herself from suspicion in the murders. She lay down as far from the two corpses as she could get. Then, she pulled a piece of rubble onto her legs. Bones snapped, followed by a stab of pain so intense it sent her flying above the city for a whole minute. Good. Most satisfactory.

  Captain Flint still lived too. She could feel his heroism through the wreckage.

  He had come to Northern Ireland in search of an enemy ace – Badb herself, of course, although he couldn’t know that yet. Still, this new information implied that somebody somewhere had talked, probably to the RUC confidential line. She had contacts there.

  Billy O’Donnell was about to leave the board.

  Two days later, crutches dug into Badb’s armpits, opening wounds that soaked the bandages under her clothing. It was still early in her cycle, but broken legs, and the extra bleeding that happened whenever she encountered a hero like Captain Flint, had weakened her. There were other kinds of power, however. When she swung into the laundrette on Mieville Street, the women working there paled and left at once.

  She rested against a machine. Then, closing her eyes, she flew around the building, looking for anybody watching her.

  Mieville Street lay at the intersection of three communities – Protestant, Catholic, and joker. Graffiti splattered every building in sight: crowns, fists, harps. Slogans of every kind: No Surrender! Tiocfaidh Ár Lá! Five for one! There were painted flags and provocations and threats. If Badb knew how to love, she would love this place. It was the very landscape where heroes were born and fattened and killed.

  A furtive movement in an alleyway sent her flitting to a crow with a better view. Yes, it was the man she expected and he approached alone. The joker came into the shop. His neck was a foot long and wound like a spring, so obviously, people called him ‘Bobby’. They’d be more careful if they knew what she knew about him.

  ‘How’s about ye?’ he asked. And of course, he nodded. Bobby couldn’t help it.

  Badb didn’t look up. She had covered her face with a veil and, as was traditional in all the stories, the Goddess of War appeared to her worshippers as a woman washing blood from clothing. A great deal of blood. Bobby’s nodding grew more nervous the longer he watched.

  Eventually, he asked, ‘What ya got for me?’

  ‘Two members of the DUP,’ she said. ‘You want them?’

  His face twisted into hatred. ‘They’re tryin’ to send us all back to Rathlin where they won’t have to look at us. Well, we’re not goin’! Bastards!’

  ‘You want them or not?’

  ‘Aye, I want them. But … but what’re you lookin’ for in return? Yer always after somethin’.’

  ‘Nipples,’ she said.

  ‘Wh-what? What?’

  She handed him a piece of blood-sticky paper with a name and address. ‘Kill him,’ she said. ‘Your men must bring me his nipples.’

  He was used to her strange requests. ‘He’s the one you had us lookin’ for before? I’ll do this wee job myself.’

  ‘You will not. Nobody who knows me can be involved. Do it tonight.’

  Bobby nodded. Of course he did. And then, he was gone.

  The CCTV cameras caught them: a trio of men, wearing masks of that American preacher fellow – what was his name? Captain Flint had no idea. But they were certainly jokers. One of them had three legs, and another tore down the door of the house in Lurgan Park by charging it with his head. Then, all three drew guns and ducked inside.

  ‘Why?’ Captain Flint asked a pair of terrified police officers. ‘Why am I only seeing this footage now?’

  ‘Um …’ said the first, a skinny man with an enthusiastic Adam’s apple, ‘s-security? We don’t want it falling into the hands of … of the enemy.’

  ‘By George, the only enemy you lot seem to care about are your colleagues in Army Intelligence.’

  ‘They got themselves bombed the other day, didn’t they? Had to be an inside job. They can’t be trusted.’

  ‘Oh, I know all about the bombing and you are the ones who can’t be trusted.’ He glared at them, well aware of the effect his burning eyes were having. ‘That boy died because you lot leak like a sieve. The jokers were even going to mutilate him before they were surprised. Now,’ another glare, ‘is there anything else you’re not telling me?’

  They resented him, he could see that much. But the chief constable had ordered full cooperation with the Silver Helix in this particular matter and the elder of the two sighed and nodded. ‘Aye,’ he said. ‘We now know the Screeching Ace is a beautiful young woman with black hair. She was seen on the edges of the Island the day of the ambush. We’ll get you a tape of the call the boy made to us, but that’s all he was willin’ to say until we got approval to award him the money.’

  ‘Better,’ said Captain Flint, ‘much better.’ He felt a sudden itch between his shoulder blades, as though somebody were staring straight at him through the sight of a sniper rifle. But when he spun around, there was nothing on the windowsill but a ragged-looking crow. He sighed.

  ‘Yes. Be so good as to get me that tape.’

  He left them at once, taking an armoured car to a house on Lurgan Street to meet with the boy’s distraught mother. As the public face of the Silver Helix, he was often the one to talk to the families of the fallen. He hated it. But it was part of his duty to Queen and country, and while both were much diminished these days – one through a lifetime of smoking, the other because of pernicious foreigners and a cowardly leadership – he, at least, would always be faithful. Even in the face of a mother’s tears. ‘I’m sorry for your loss, Mrs—’

  ‘Call me May, sir,’ she told him. ‘I know why you’re here. But I don’t know nothin’ else. ’Cept they had knives and they were gonna cut into my wee boy’s chest. Them twisty monsters! They should all be sent back to Rathlin Island, so they should. The real island, not them streets they took for themselves in the city.’ She glared at him, as if she only now realized he was a bit of a joker too. ‘My boy was never involved in nothin’. Certainly not with the Twisties. Unlike some people I might name.’

  ‘Name them.’

  She gulped. People here on all sides killed what they called ‘touts’ – informers. But this was different, wasn’t it? ‘Billy Little,’ she said, at last. ‘So-called best friend, but a bad, bad influence. He’s been seen sneakin’ into the Island to get drunk and the Lord knows what else …’

  The Island kept coming up. That was where the SAS men had been incapacitated by the screaming that had followed their ambush. ‘Madam,’ he said, ‘if the boys were best friends, is it possible your son might have shared information with this other … Billy?’

  ‘Oh, aye. Thick as thieves, those two. Though the Little boy hasn’t even shown his face over here since … since …’

  The brigadier noted that a crow at the window suddenly shook itself and flew off, as though freed from a stupor. ‘Madam,’ he said, ‘I need to hurry. It might be rather urgent.’

  What surprised Badb as she listened to Captain Flint’s conversation were the photos on the mantelpiece of the sitting room. The wrong boy had died, she realized. She had seen Billy Little in this very house – an obvious check to make before ordering his death. But he was a frequent visitor here, after all. And
now, he was about to fall into the clutches of a dangerous enemy.

  Unless she could get to him first.

  She did not like to use her crows to kill, because sooner or later it would get her caught. But this was an emergency. Police records indicated a Billy Little of the appropriate age, living no more than three streets away. She concentrated, hopping from crow to crow, leaving each with a simple instruction to follow one of their fellows. Soon, an entire flock of them descended on what looked like a funeral parlour, one bird landing on each windowsill, with more on the chimney pots. Then, she flicked from one body to the next, staying no more time than it took to glance inside the building, until, at last, she found him, curled up on a bed, with all the signs of ‘sadness’ on his handsome features. Weeping for his friend, no doubt.

  Another flick showed her that Captain Flint was already on his way.

  Badb was left with no choice but to take another risk. She tapped a beak against Billy’s window. He looked up, wondering what was going on. Tap, tap, tap.

  He stood up, wiping his eye – the same one she would attack as soon as he let her in. She could bring the entire flock to bear if necessary, but since his room faced the public street, it would be better to keep it to one bird. She might even be able to bring it out alive afterwards. She made preparations for other scenarios too. She set one crow to circling high over the whole area. Others were tasked with gathering a stack of thumb-sized pebbles on a nearby roof.

  Billy came forward, but slowly, slowly. Even in his room, she saw, he kept his chest well covered, which might mean his family were as ignorant of his secret as the rest of the world.

  Tap, tap, tap.

  He was right there now. Bewildered. Curious.

  Then, he looked past her and his eyes widened. Confusion and then horror came over his face. The Saracen – Captain Flint’s transport – was already here. In a Catholic neighbourhood, there might have been a warning: women banging the footpath with dustbin lids; young men whistling or shouting out. But the residents of Lurgan Gardens regarded the army as theirs.

  Billy turned his back and fled. Why, she wondered, was he running from the British army? Clearly, he hadn’t been the one to call the confidential line in search of the reward. Had he put his friend up to it?

  Through one set of eyes after another, Badb followed him down through the house. One room had a chessboard set up with a half-played game and she lost valuable seconds when she couldn’t help working her way through to the inevitable checkmate. But she spied him again as he fled in through a room where an old woman lay on a slab surrounded by bottles of what looked like make-up. A back door led out into an alleyway. Badb was ready for him. She flicked up to the roof, where she grabbed a pebble in one claw. Then she took off, swooping around twice to gather speed before hurtling down towards the alleyway.

  Billy was just coming out of the door. She never missed – it was simple mathematics. Once released, the pebble would strike him with exactly enough force to cave in the back of his skull.

  But then, a voice called out. ‘Halt! You’re wanted for questioning!’

  She veered away as Billy jumped onto the lid of a rubbish bin and scrambled over a fence into the next garden.

  The soldier spoke into a radio. Others were approaching from nearby streets. Neighbours looked out of windows, any of whom would report it if they saw a crow killing the boy.

  She flitted from one set of eyes to another, taking in the whole board. Soldiers were arriving from all sides. Captain Flint too had begun running – so slowly at first that a child could have overtaken him. But step by step his massively heavy frame gathered enough momentum to dent a tank. The squaddies caught the boy first. Three men knocked him over and kicked him as he lay on the ground.

  ‘What are you doing?’ said the captain when he arrived. ‘By God, we’re British! We don’t torture!’ They looked at him in astonishment. ‘Our own, I mean. We don’t hurt our own. You’re on our side, aren’t you, boy?’

  Even through the senses of a bird’s body Badb could feel the glory radiating from the stone man. The land longed for him; to drink down whatever passed for blood in that strange body of his. She fought against the distraction to keep her concentration.

  Billy was weeping, but he nodded and said ‘Aye’. He was about to talk. In mere moments, the British would have a description of her younger self and would know that she transformed after her mourning cry. Even now, it wasn’t too late to strike Billy with a pebble, but she’d never put an end to Captain Flint that way and it would have revealed to him her true power. So instead, she waited to gather as much information about the disastrous situation as she could.

  ‘I’m sorry,’ Billy said. ‘I’m … I’m so sorry. Armi’s dead ’cause of me.’

  ‘You told him about the woman?’

  ‘I … I made it up from somethin’ I saw in the paper. He was always talkin’ about the girls he was with, an’ I just got sick of it, so I … so I … I never thought he’d call the police! The story got bigger an’ bigger an’ it just ran away with me.’ Billy sobbed. Whatever about his story, the grief and the guilt were very real.

  ‘Then why was he murdered?’

  ‘Jokers like to kill nats,’ one of the soldiers said. ‘Especially Loyalists. Five for every one of their own that’s killed.’

  But Billy didn’t know. He had no idea at all. About anything. And that was when Badb understood. The only reason the boy had fled the soldiers was that he had intended to keep her secret all along. He wanted to protect her. Fascinating, truly fascinating.

  Captain Flint’s sigh had a rattly sound to it.

  They brought Billy back to the station for more questioning. Lots more. But not once did he tell them the truth.

  Some months later, out of curiosity, she walked past Billy in the street, and deliberately allowed him to see her face. He didn’t recognize her. He only remembered the younger version of herself.

  He should still die, of course. Like the boy in the story of King Lowry, he knew a secret that sooner or later would have to come out. But there might be value in having her own Renfield. And Billy Little had access to Captain Flint now. All he had to do was claim he wanted to tell the truth and the hero of the Silver Helix would return to Ireland at a time of her choosing.

  Imagine the glory then!

  She paused at the side of the road as though uncertain.

  ‘You need help, missus?’ he asked, as she knew he would. It was what good boys did.

  ‘Perhaps,’ she told him. ‘Perhaps I do.’

  Twisted Logic

  Part 3

  London, 1988

  The meetings took place in another dimly lit room, this time in the back of a pub called the Green Man. Roger had already seen two people: Clarissa, an old woman who’d been attacked outside her own home and wanted revenge, and a young joker called Susan who needed to hide after smashing up a supermarket.

  He’d promised help to both of them. He always did; the Green Man was known to be magnanimous. In return, Clarissa would allow them the use of her flat as a safe house, and Susan – he’d think of an appropriate name for her later – would owe the Fists a favour. If she could learn to manage her temper, he’d recruit her, if not, well, she could always be used as a distraction.

  At times the work was so absorbing that Roger forgot he was only pretending. His meeting with Churchill four years ago had taken on the quality of a dream, and all he could remember of Wendy was her teeth. Little Roy would be nearly ten and Christine would be taking her O-levels or whatever they were calling them now. Did they think of him at all? Had they learned of his connection to the Fists or was he just an absent figure in their lives?

  He wished he’d kept a family photo, something to anchor them in his mind. As it was, the demands of keeping two masters happy while keeping his own head was exhausting. Two years had passed in a flurry of work. In that time he’d established himself as the undisputed head of the UK Fists. There had been a few challe
ngers, but he’d sold them out to Churchill, along with any others who didn’t fit with his way of doing things. Only those with self-discipline and loyalty got to stay.

  His network of contacts was growing, but gaining traction anywhere above street level was proving frustrating, and Black Dog’s deadline loomed large on the horizon.

  There was a knock at the door but the person on the other side waited for permission before entering. Roger smiled. If there was one thing he liked about being respected, it was that people remembered their manners. ‘Come in,’ he said.

  A man entered, and Roger took a moment to match him with the information he’d been given in advance: Asif Manzoor, twenty-six, married with three children, had worked for British Telecom for three years before being made redundant, currently employed as a private electrician. Increasingly, the people coming to him were untouched by the wild card, but Roger didn’t care. Like the others, Asif would have his uses, whether it be phone tapping, cutting a building’s power at a particular time, or simply work that needed to be done off the record.

  ‘Come in, Mr Manzoor. Are you well?’

  Asif nodded nervously. ‘Yes, sir. Thanks for seeing me, sir.’

  ‘Not at all. Would you like a drink?’

  ‘No, thank you.’

  ‘To business then. What can I do for you?’

  He already knew of course. Only those he’d already approved actually made it to a meeting, but Roger found it useful to have them explain themselves. It reminded them exactly why they needed him. As was often the case, Asif was in debt. Cash flow was difficult, the landlord charged unfair rent, the banks refused to give him a loan, and so he had turned to private individuals who took what he owed and tripled it. ‘They’re coming to collect on Friday and I don’t have the money,’ he confessed, tears threatening to break out of his bloodshot eyes.

 
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