Knaves over queens, p.37
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       Knaves Over Queens, p.37
 

         Part #26 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin
Howls and gunshots filled the air, the pack taking heavy losses as it crossed the deck. While the bullet had lodged itself deep, the damage was only cosmetic, and when Roger stood up, the man who had shot him had the good grace to look shocked. Before Roger could take his revenge, however, the remains of the pack reached the soldiers.

  It was hard to see what was happening in the crush of bodies but he heard the unmistakable sound of bones crunching, of jaws snapping, of men’s screams, twisted, dying.

  Herne was amid them all on his stallion, thrusting down into the carnage with his spear. He caught a glimpse of Wayfarer. She had one of the men by the head and was banging it repeatedly on the deck. Her face was like an angry stranger’s.

  Roger closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He had to take control of the situation. He had to take control of himself. He was not some animal to be driven mad by the scent of blood or the blast of a horn. He was civilized and educated. It was time to act like it.

  A little calm returned. Roger wanted to believe this was because his own will was a match for the power of the hunt, but he could not deny that there was another possibility. For at that moment, he also knew that the hunt had ended. A hound had caught Tristan Dove by the ankle halfway to the lifeboat and dragged him back on deck. Mercifully, he died long before the pack finished with him.

  Herne’s stallion cantered sideways as the boat lurched. ‘It is done! He is dead! The hunt is over and won! Come, man of green, the joys of mother night are calling, sweet wine and sweeter flesh.’

  ‘No, thank you,’ said Roger. The thought of going carousing with Herne was about as appealing as stabbing himself in the eye.

  Herne turned his glowing stare to Wayfarer, pointed teeth showing as he smirked. ‘And you, dark maiden?’

  She was too busy wiping her hands on her skirt to answer. There was a franticness to the gesture, one that Roger knew well. This had been her first kill.

  ‘No, Wayfarer will stay with me.’

  There was a brief pout of disappointment and then Herne shrugged it off, spurring his stallion to leap off the deck. ‘Until next we meet, farewell!’

  The hounds and the other horses had faded away, and when Herne rode out, it seemed he took the mist with him, leaving Roger to face reality.

  Not for the first time that night, he sighed. Black Dog would be pleased but Churchill would be furious. Roger wasn’t that happy either. Tristan Dove had not deserved to die this way. It served neither the national interest nor that of the Fists. Not that the well-being of the Fists matters, he reminded himself. No. He was just trying to pass Black Dog’s test in order to gain his trust. That way he could lay a trap, cut off the head of the Fists once and for all, and get back his old life.

  He took Wayfarer by the arm and guided her to the lifeboat, well aware that the sea was fast taking the deck from under them. ‘Wayfarer?’ He raised his voice. ‘Wayfarer?’

  She looked up in his direction but her attention seemed elsewhere. ‘Hmm?’

  ‘I don’t suppose you know anything about sailing, do you?’

  She shook her head and Roger sighed again. It was going to be a long trip home.

  Twisted Logic

  Part 4

  Belfast, 1994

  Roger paused at the door. It struck him that it had been a long time since he had gone to someone else’s room for a meeting. It was stranger still to feel intimidated. He didn’t dare pause for long though, Sir Winston Churchill was not the sort of man to be kept waiting.

  As he raised his hand to knock, he saw his shirt had snagged on a shoot growing from his forearm. A careful tug of the sleeve dealt with the problem but not his irritation. He’d only had it trimmed two weeks ago. Honestly, his body was more effort to manage than his garden, and that was saying something.

  Getting to Churchill was harder than ever, and if he hadn’t had the old man’s assistance it would have been impossible. The Silver Helix were here in force and on high alert, though for what, Roger had no idea. It made him nervous. He had no wish to meet the lumbering Captain Flint, let alone the Lion, Enigma, Redcoat, or the other aces in residence.

  Normally this door would be manned, but at the prearranged time the hallway was empty. Nobody else knew he was coming, and there were to be no witnesses. Ironically, if he really were a terrorist leader of the Twisted Fists, this would be the ideal time for an assassination attempt.

  But he was not, and in a few hours he wouldn’t even be a spy any more. He would be free of Green Man, the Fists, the violence, all of it.

  He knocked on the door.

  ‘Come in,’ said an unmistakable voice.

  Churchill seemed much the same as when they’d first met. A little less hair perhaps, a little wider, but still commanding. He leaned heavily on his cane as he stood to shake Roger’s hand. ‘Barnes.’

  ‘Sir Winston.’

  ‘Drink?’

  ‘No, thank you.’

  ‘Cigar?’

  ‘No, thank you.’

  Churchill nodded and eased himself back into his chair. ‘Are you getting taller, Barnes, or is time playing tricks on my memory?’

  ‘I’ve gained a few inches over the years.’ He’d had to have new suits tailored because of it. His neck had grown thicker too, enough to force him to adjust his collars. Not to mention the growths on his right arm and the persistent shoot that kept sprouting from the old gunshot wound in his chest. But it was unlikely Churchill was interested in those details, so he kept them to himself.

  ‘If only it were a few inches in my case,’ said Churchill, patting his belly for emphasis. ‘Doubtless you have many questions, but given our lack of time, I will take the liberty of asking the most important one first. Do you have it?’

  Roger took a piece of paper from his inside jacket pocket and passed it over. ‘Black Dog is here in Belfast for a few days, alone. He’s come for something big but even I don’t know what it is. The top items on the list are the safe houses he’ll be using while he’s here, the bottom ones detail his options on his way out of Europe.’

  Roger had a lot more than that of course. Apart from the Black Dog, he knew more than anyone about the assets of the Twisted Fists: the identities of every member of the UK cell, their plans, their allies, enough to bury them. The list he’d given Churchill didn’t contain any of that, however. While he was sure the great statesman would keep his word, it seemed prudent to hold a few cards back in case he needed to bargain further down the line.

  Churchill slapped him on the arm. ‘Good man! This calls for a drink.’ He was halfway through pouring his own glass when he added: ‘Are you sure you won’t join me in a brandy?’

  ‘Yes, Sir Winston, but I appreciate the offer.’

  A glass was raised towards him. ‘Here’s to the end of the Twisted Fists and another triumph for civilized society!’

  Roger smiled politely and waited for Churchill to have a sip. ‘When can I go home, sir?’

  ‘Soon, Barnes. Soon.’

  ‘With all due respect, why not now? My mission was to give you Black Dog. I’ve done that. It’s taken nearly a decade but I’ve done it.’

  Churchill put down his drink. ‘Now hold on there, Barnes. What you’ve done is give me a piece of paper, nothing more. Should this paper enable us to capture the Black Dog, I will personally oversee arrangements to send you swiftly back to where you belong. However, it is not my way to uncork the champagne before the race is won. If the Black Dog manages to evade capture, as he has done many times in the past, we will need you in position, right where you are, more than ever.’

  It made sense. In Churchill’s position Roger would probably do the same but he didn’t like the feeling of being used. ‘How long?’

  ‘I would have thought that was clear, Barnes. As long as it takes, and not a minute longer.’

  ‘Can I ask how my family are?’

  ‘Safe and sound.’

  ‘I … how are they managing without me?’

  ‘They’re troupers, Barnes.
They’re fine and they want for nothing. As promised, I have seen to it that all of their financial needs are taken care of.’ He began to cough, eventually taking another long sip of his brandy when the fit subsided. ‘Excuse me. Now, tell me about the Black Dog.’

  ‘Where do you want me to start?’

  ‘What does he look like?’

  ‘I don’t know.’

  Churchill coughed again, more for effect this time. ‘My hearing must be going. I thought you said you didn’t know what he looked like, which would be ridiculous, given that you have been taken into his confidence.’

  ‘He’s always masked. I’ve never seen his face. To the best of my knowledge, Sir Winston, nobody has.’

  ‘How are we to apprehend a man when we don’t know what he looks like? Even if we do apprehend someone in a dog mask, how will we know we have the right person?’

  ‘Trust me, you’ll know if you get him. He’s not like other people.’

  ‘I need specifics, man. How is he different? How?’

  ‘I don’t know how to describe it other than to say he’s a leader. I’ve never met anyone like him.’ In truth, he had, but Roger was sure Churchill wouldn’t appreciate being compared to a terrorist. ‘In terms of specifics: he’s tall, over six foot, and well built. His accent is an odd blend. I’d say he’s spent considerable time in the Middle East and the United States. I’d guess him to be in his forties but given that he’s a joker, I’ve no idea how much the years show in his face.’

  ‘What about his mutation? Has he shown any abilities?’

  ‘None. I know he’s had military training of some kind and I’m certain he is capable under pressure.’ Roger could see the scowl on Churchill’s face growing. ‘But that doesn’t matter. You know where he’s going to be. All you have to do is watch the safe houses and you’ll soon have him. There won’t be many people of his stature going into those precise locations in the next few days.’

  Churchill knocked back the last of his brandy. ‘I suppose we will find out one way or another. Are you sure this information is reliable? I’m going to have to pull a lot of strings to be able to operate here on such short notice.’

  He had been certain until Churchill had asked the question and now he wasn’t sure at all. However, he was damned if he was going to lose another ten years, so he said: ‘I’d stake my reputation on it.’

  This got a nod from Churchill. ‘So be it. Now, you need to leave here before Captain Flint comes back, and I need to get myself to the Belfast Hilton.’

  The Roger of old would have left without another word, but as Green Man, he had grown unaccustomed to dismissals. ‘And when you get Black Dog, what then?’

  ‘Then you leave word in the usual manner and we will come and collect you.’

  ‘Yes, sir. Thank you.’

  They shook hands again and Roger made for the door. As he opened it, Churchill tapped his cane on the ground, making Roger turn. ‘Nail your patience to the wall, Barnes, and keep an ear to the ground. It won’t be long now, I assure you.’

  Over the next few hours Roger was glad for his mask, otherwise his face would surely have given him away. For nearly ten years, he’d lived in constant fear of being discovered as a spy by the Black Dog, but somehow he’d learned to deal with it, throwing himself deeply enough into running his cell of the Twisted Fists that he often forgot it was all pretence.

  The day when he could leave the Fists had seemed so distant that he’d half suspected it would never come, and somehow that had made it easier to be Green Man. Now that he was finally on the cusp of going home, he found himself thinking about his old life with painful clarity. It was as if Roger Barnes had been hibernating through the horror and now he was waking up again.

  He wondered about Wendy. He’d always pictured their reunion as a joyous thing but would it be? She was very conservative in her tastes and he was a giant tree. Quite apart from the fact he would be an embarrassment to her in public, there were various aspects of their relationship that, in biological terms, could not function as they had before. Given the choice, she’d probably rather remain a widow.

  He hoped Christine and Roy would be more open-minded but the truth was he had no idea. The last time he’d seen them, they’d been children. They’d be strangers now.

  They’d get through it though. No matter what they’d thought of him, he’d swoop back into their lives on the back of Churchill’s glowing endorsement. Wendy loved the man almost as much as Roger did. He’d be like a hero in an adventure story, one of the ridiculous ones that his children used to like so much. He very much hoped that was still the case.

  The knock at the door made him jump. He wasn’t expecting anyone, and that meant something bad had happened. ‘Come in.’

  Wayfarer stepped inside. He knew she had to wear the sunglasses but wished that she didn’t, as it made her much harder to read. ‘When did you get back?’

  ‘About half an hour ago,’ he replied, not liking her tone. ‘Is there a problem?’

  Her jaw dropped. ‘You haven’t heard?’

  ‘Clearly.’

  ‘Where have you been? The news is everywhere!’

  He placed his hands flat on the desk to keep them from shaking. This had to be it. Churchill must have used his information to bring down Black Dog. He tried to remain nonchalant. ‘What’s happened?’

  ‘It’s Black Dog! They’re saying he’s killed Churchill.’

  The world seemed to spin around Roger. His fingers bored down, making the surface of the desk crack. An image of Wendy appeared in his mind, then faded. He tried to bring it back again but couldn’t. When he reached for thoughts of his children, all he could conjure were pairs of shorts covered in ice cream. No smiles, no faces, nothing to hold on to.

  Without Churchill there was nobody to vouch for him. Without Churchill there was nobody to explain his actions over the past decade, to transform criminality into heroism, brutal murder into patriotic service. There would be no pardon. No redemption. No reunion.

  He was trapped.

  The desk groaned under the pressure of his hands, threatening to splinter.

  ‘Are you all right?’ asked Wayfarer.

  ‘Out,’ replied Roger, dismissing her while he could still control himself enough to do so. He needed space to think and the privacy in which to express panic. It all made sense now: the secrecy around Black Dog’s visit, the fact that he’d worked alone. Churchill had an odd status in the Fists. He was no joker but he was no nat either, and was still a hero in the minds of many. Black Dog wouldn’t have been sure if the others would back him, that’s why he hadn’t told anybody of his true purpose.

  Roger had thought it coincidence that both of his masters were in Belfast at the same time, but the truth had been far more sinister. He put aside thoughts of his own losses to consider what this meant. Had Churchill organized the strike against Black Dog before he was killed? Had anyone found the list Roger had given him? If one of Churchill’s people had they might still bring the Black Dog down. If Black Dog had found it, however, then Roger was in serious trouble.

  There was no way out. No way back to what he was. To survive, Roger would have to double down on everything he’d achieved for the Fists. He’d have to wear the mask of Green Man for real, forever.

  He took a long hard look at what that would mean and shivered.

  Another knock at the door made him jump just as much as the first. When he spoke, however, his mask was in place, his voice as calm as ever. ‘Come in.’

  Wayfarer did so and closed the door behind her. ‘King Brian wants to see you. He says it’s urgent.’ She hesitated, then added, ‘He doesn’t seem himself.’

  ‘What do you mean?’

  ‘He’s dressed differently and he’s nervous, he didn’t stop moving when I spoke to him. And …’

  Her hesitance was playing into his own nerves. ‘And?’ he snapped.

  ‘And it’s the first time he’s actually looked at my face when he talked to me.’<
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  ‘I’d have thought that a good thing.’

  ‘It is, but …’

  ‘Out with it, Wayfarer. I cannot abide an unfinished sentence.’

  The words poured out of her. ‘But he’s obviously scared. I think something awful is about to happen. Are you sure you want to go and see him?’

  ‘Given that we’re his guests, we can hardly say no.’

  ‘Yes, it’s just that I don’t trust him.’

  Nor do I, he thought, but to run would be to invite suspicion. I need to keep my head in the lion’s jaws a little longer. Perhaps King Brian suspects me, perhaps he doesn’t.

  This was out of his comfort zone. Planning, preparation, minimal risk, in these things he excelled. Chaos and chance taking did not suit him. It’s a good thing I don’t have to worry about blood pressure or heart attacks any more, or I wouldn’t last the day.

  A few minutes later, he stepped into King Brian’s room, leaving Wayfarer instructions that if he didn’t return within the hour she was to flee. The leader of the Belfast cell of the Twisted Fists had changed dramatically since they’d last met. He’d shaved off his beard and exchanged the usual fancy attire in favour of a worn tracksuit and hoodie. From a distance he’d pass as a child, so long as nobody looked at his face. A few of the Fists liked to joke about Brian, but Roger had always had respect for him. Anyone with his disadvantages who could hold on to a position of leadership had to be taken seriously.

  Brian was pacing as he arrived, making quick, impulsive turns.

  ‘Is something wrong?’ asked Roger.

  ‘Wrong? Fucked is what it is. Totally fucked.’

  This is good. He seems worried about things other than me. ‘Would you care to elaborate?’

  Brian shot a look in Roger’s direction, but over his shoulder rather than at his face. Someone was behind him. He felt it like a bolt of lightning to the spine, and knew who it was even before he turned: the Black Dog.

  He realized he’d been wrong. This was not good, not good at all. Trapped between Brian and the Black Dog, he had no choice but to turn and face the muzzled mask.

 
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