Knaves over queens, p.42
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       Knaves Over Queens, p.42
 

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

  In this she was aided by Petula Spraggs. While Mash lacked any formal martial arts training, she made up for it in sheer brute strength and general truculence. Her spouse was just as surly and just as violent. They mocked Noel’s accent, his education, his sexual dysmorphia. Their sessions often slipped from ‘training’ into thuggery as they delivered their beatings.

  Noel began to hate and dread the hand-to-hand sessions, in which he was continuously being told how he needed to learn to take the punch as his tutors delivered said punch. After one particularly brutal session with all three aces taking turns to punch him, Noel touched his bleeding lip, the cut beneath his eye, and held up his bloodstained fingers. ‘Stop! Are you all just sadists?’

  ‘Oh boohoo, is Little Lord Fauntleroy going to cry now?’ Petula said. Then she slapped him.

  Noel’s head snapped to the side and he tasted blood as his teeth cut the inside of his cheek. With a yell of fury he turned on his tormentor and delivered a spinning kick to her stomach.

  The door to the training room crashed open, and Redcoat strode in. ‘Enough!’ he bellowed as Banger and Mash jumped Noel and bore him to the floor. They backed off reluctantly. ‘Enough,’ Redcoat repeated. ‘Alfred, Petula, I think we can dispense with your services for the moment.’ They left grumbling, shooting Noel looks that promised revenge.

  Carruthers handed him a towel. Wincing, Noel wiped away the blood. ‘Better?’ Carruthers asked.

  Noel knew he ought to be polite to the chief of the Silver Helix, but he wasn’t feeling particularly tactful at the moment. ‘No! It’s bloody well not better! Is there a fucking point to all this?’

  The lights in the basement gym flickered and dimmed as Jiniri accessed her power and grew until she stood fifteen feet tall. She had to hunch so as to not bump her head. She twisted a massive fist in the material at the front of Noel’s sweat-soaked T-shirt and yanked him into the air until he dangled at face level. ‘At some point your luck will run out. You will fall into enemy hands. They will hurt you. We are teaching you how to push down pain—’

  ‘And fear,’ Carruthers added. ‘I’ll take him now, Maryam.’

  Jiniri released him, but before Noel hit the floor he was seized by an invisible force that began to tighten inexorably around his chest.

  Carruthers’ hand was raised and he was slowly making a fist. ‘You need to keep thinking, so maybe you can plan, escape and live!’ he said.

  Jiniri nodded. ‘The world is filled with monsters who would hurt our families, our friends, our country. We are the invisible line.’

  Carruthers picked up the theme. ‘The unsung heroes working in the shadows. You’ll never get a medal, or the grateful thanks of the Queen, but your comrades will know … and if you fall they will honour you.’

  Hanging ten feet up in the air, Noel gasped for breath against Redcoat’s teke power. ‘Oh bravo, do you two rehearse this rubbish to use on recruits?’

  Anger flitted across Lord Dalton’s face and he closed his fist tight. Black spots danced before Noel’s eyes and he felt his ribs creak under the pressure. Noel reached for his power and transformed. He pictured a spot on Tower Bridge and went there. He wasn’t sure what would happen. He had thought it would break Carruthers’ grip, but instead he felt a dragging weight that interfered with his aim and he found himself materializing a few feet off the bridge and falling fast toward the water, Carruthers trailing him like the tail on a kite. The sudden plummet broke the ace’s concentration and he released his telekinetic grip. Arms windmilling, he fell towards the water some twenty feet below. Noel fought back panic, pictured the gym, and with a snap returned to find Jiniri looking shocked.

  ‘Um, can Lord Dalton swim?’ Noel asked.

  ‘What have you done? Where is the chief?’

  ‘In the Thames, just off Tower Bridge.’

  ‘Allah preserve us.’ She hurried from the room.

  Newmarket

  ‘These new tutors have really got it in for you … and your face,’ Prince Siraj said as they strolled towards the paddock area at Newmarket. ‘Which makes me wonder what the hell you are studying?’

  It was a blustery October day. Noel dug his chin into his scarf and wished he’d ordered a hot buttered rum rather than a pint of bitter. They had made the short drive over in Siraj’s Ferrari to cheer on a horse owned by one of the prince’s uncles. It was that family connection that allowed them behind the scenes where the horses were being readied for their race.

  Noel reckoned he’d place a bet on the nag in solidarity with his friend. But right now he had to craft his response. There was a part of him that loved having this big secret and another part that longed to brag about it and share it with Siraj, but he could almost hear Flint’s whispered words of caution and see the disapproval and disappointment in Turing’s eyes if he broke protocol.

  ‘I told you, I joined a rugby team down in London, something to do when I’m not in class, and yeah, the profs are working me hard but it’s all right. It’s a good opportunity.’

  ‘You study too hard.’

  ‘I’m not the decaying scion of what passes for royalty among camel herders,’ Noel said. He threw his hip into Siraj’s side, causing the older boy to stumble and spill some of his champagne. ‘I’m going to have to work for a living.’

  Siraj licked the champagne off his knuckles and then laughed. ‘Point taken. You are just a little prole. I wonder why I waste my time on you?’

  ‘Because when you’re with me, people actually think you’re handsome?’

  They reached the saddling paddock and found the horse, a silver-grey among a lot of bays, chestnuts, and black horses. A young man with shaggy red hair was cinching the girth while a bandy-legged jockey listened intently to an older man in a cloth cap giving him instructions. ‘We’ve drawn a slot in the middle of the pack so break fast to get out of the jumble then hold just behind the leaders. Make your move in the final quarter of a mile.’

  ‘You got it, mate.’ The jockey touched the brim of his helmet. His jaunty silks were silver and metallic blue.

  Noel studied the deep brown eyes of the horse, watched the mobile ears twitch backwards and forwards to every sound. The big body seemed to quiver with excitement. Noel found the scent of crushed grass beneath the hooves, hay, and horse oddly pleasant. He laid a hand on the horse’s neck. Its coat was like silk and warmth radiated against his palm.

  The trainer turned to Siraj. ‘Prince, I think your uncle’s going to be pleased today.’

  ‘I hope so. This is my friend, Noel Matthews. Noel, Davy Reynolds, one of the best trainers in Europe.’

  They shook hands. ‘Nice to meet you. Going to place a bet? You won’t regret it.’

  A bell sounded and Noel and Siraj were forgotten. Reynolds made a final check of the equipment and tossed the jockey into the saddle. Siraj beckoned and they left the area, heading towards the betting windows.

  ‘Do you know how to ride?’ Noel asked.

  ‘Of course. I’m an Arab.’

  ‘Could you teach me?’

  Siraj gave him an odd look. ‘I wouldn’t have thought it’d be your thing.’

  Noel gave a casual shrug. ‘Never hurts to learn new skills. Never know when they might come in handy.’

  ‘All right. We’ll find a stable. Now let’s get our bets on.’

  London

  Noel had been a bit nervous to return to the Silver Helix after his dust-up with Redcoat. He had taken the early train to London and tried to slip in but found Enigma waiting for him.

  ‘I’ve something to show you.’

  Turing walked away without looking to see if Noel was following. He hurried to catch up. Turing took him to a room he had never visited before. There were benches, a stone table where two candles burned on either side of nine red crystal poppies. It had a very church-like feel.

  ‘The CIA have their memorial wall to honour fallen agents. This is our version.’ He jerked his chin towards the table. ‘Three of those belong to form
er Redcoats. The first was lost forty years ago during the Suez Crisis. The second died during the Aden Emergency in 1965, the third in the Troubles in the seventies. Carruthers is the fourth man to hold the name. That’s the reason we work you so hard. We don’t want to see your poppy up there, Noel. Now come along. You’ll be late for your session with Ranjit.’

  While Noel might not love the hand-to-hand training, he adored shooting, and he proved to have a good eye and sure hands, whether he was using a pistol or a sniper rifle. He revelled in the power of a gun and the fact it could solve a problem without ever having to get close to an opponent. There was no taking a punch when you had a gun in your hand.

  Maryam had looked disappointed when Noel had said that, but his firearms instructor Ranjit Singh, an enormous Sikh whose turban made him seem even taller, had said, ‘Sensible attitude.’ Singh, whose code name was the Lion, drilled Noel in his alternate forms as well, and took to setting up targets outside the firing range, requiring that Noel as either Lilith or Simon teleport to the location and take the shot the second he arrived.

  At first he was hopeless, but eventually he honed the skill. After one such session out on the bleak expanse of Dartmoor Noel remarked, ‘Doesn’t seem very sporting to just pop in and shoot someone.’

  ‘This isn’t the playing fields of Eton, Noel. One day your life may depend upon this.’

  ‘I get it. I get it. Turing showed me the poppies.’

  ‘Then perhaps you should take heed. Now let’s return to headquarters.’ So Noel had wrapped his arms around Singh and they had made the jump before the setting sun had trapped them on the moor.

  In addition to the physical and firearms training Noel studied coding and computer hacking with Turing. He practised French, Italian, German, and Russian, and added Persian and Arabic, with Maryam as his teacher. Eleanor Breslin, whose code name was Primrose, walked him through deportment lessons. He learned his way around the bewildering array of cutlery that would be present at a formal dinner, and she taught him how to dance. Captain Flint took Noel to his London tailor to be fitted for his first bespoke suit; but instead of the fussy man he had expected he was instead taken to a couture house, all modern chandeliers made of steel and crystal and steel-grey curtains. Beaded and embroidered evening gowns and suits of shimmering silk were draped on abstract and faceless human forms. These were just three-dimensional hangers, nothing that would detract from the beauty of the clothing.

  A graceful, softly spoken young woman offered Noel a glass of champagne. Then an elegant older woman with long, straight brown hair with a dramatic streak of grey hair on the left side emerged from the inner office. She exchanged air kisses with Flint and sent away her staff. Only when they were alone did Flint explain what he needed. ‘Constance, I’ll need a suit, and leave room for alteration. The boy will no doubt grow. He also has two friends who will need fitting. A large chap, and a young woman.’

  ‘You know it takes a while, Kenneth. Which do you want first?’ Constance asked.

  ‘The suit for the boy.’

  And with that she removed the tape measure from around her neck and took Noel’s measurements. Afterwards she helped him to select the colour and fabric for his new suit, pick shirts, and showed him how to use a pocket handkerchief to complement rather than merely match the colours of the tie and shirt.

  It was a very heady experience. A glimpse into a new world of wealth and privilege.

  Flint and Turing were men of another time. Occasionally Noel was privy to their conversations as they reminisced about the war. Turing talked of his work at Bletchley Park and the breaking of the Enigma code. Flint spoke of the Battle of Britain, the fire watch at St Paul’s, and the advance across Europe in ’45. It was a different lens through which to view his country; as a nation that had stood against the tide of barbarism. Like many people of his generation, Noel had a cool kid’s cynical attitude towards patriotism and the corny idea embodied in the lyrics of ‘There’ll Always Be an England’. Noel began to suspect that the two childless old men had made him into a surrogate son. With his usual calculation for how to maximize a situation he let them have their fantasy, while knowing they could never match or replace his own father.

  He liked most of his fellow aces in the Silver Helix well enough, though his relationship with Carruthers had soured after the director’s dunk in the river. It seemed his lordship wasn’t happy about being humiliated or taken off guard by a boy ace. But the worst part of his training was his sessions with the agency’s psychiatrist, Dr Lee Teitelbaum.

  The psychiatrist was in his late thirties, dark-haired, a little stoop-shouldered. He had kind but knowing blue eyes that saw too much. At their first meeting Teitelbaum had waved his pipe vaguely in the air and asked, ‘So the two alternate personalities—’

  Noel’s lip twisted with contempt as he interrupted. ‘Let’s see, born a hermaphrodite with a domineering mother and a fragile invalid father, subject creates male and female ideals to make up for his/her/its emotional and psychological deficiencies.’

  Lee nodded agreeably. ‘Nicely done … but I was just wondering what might have triggered this particular manifestation? What happened the day you were infected?’

  It took him off guard. Noel hadn’t really thought much about that day three and a half years ago. ‘Not much. We were staying in Selçuk … that’s in Turkey. We’d spent the day at Ephesus touring the ruins. On the way back we stopped at a beach so Mum could snap some pics. There was a wrecked old freighter. I went exploring. Docs thought I’d probably disturbed a spore. Apparently the wreck dated from the forties.’

  A memory surfaced. Sitting on the hard stone bench of the Ephesus amphitheatre the night before watching a performance of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute. Suddenly he understood why Lilith was the Queen of the Night and Simon the high priest of the sun.

  Teitelbaum reached out and touched him lightly between the eyebrows. ‘That right there. What did you see?’

  ‘It was stupid. If it is actually the reason.’

  ‘You’re not going to tell me.’

  ‘I’d rather not.’

  ‘All right. Let’s turn to the practical problem that concerns the Captain – your inability to teleport in your own form. Do you think of the avatars as people separate from yourself? Is that why they can teleport and you can’t?’

  ‘No. I know they’re me. My attitude, the way I view the world and the people in it, remains the same. It’s as if I get into a different car. The body may change, but I’m still me.’

  ‘And you’re certain you can’t transform into Lilith during the day or Simon at night?’

  ‘Very sure.’

  The psychiatrist sighed and shut his notebook. ‘Well, we’ll keep trying to overcome this psychological block that keeps you from teleporting when you’re you. And it would be nice not to have the avatars tied to this daylight and night quirk.’

  ‘Why is this such a big thing?’

  ‘It might save your life one day.’

  ‘Once again with that—’

  Noel was interrupted when the door almost bulged under what passed for a light knock. Neither of them had to guess who was outside. ‘Come in, sir,’ Teitelbaum called.

  The door opened, and Captain Flint ducked to pass beneath the lintel. ‘I’ve come to borrow Noel.’

  ‘We were just finishing anyway.’

  Noel stood up and left with the big joker. ‘So how are you finding this so far?’ Flint asked as they walked.

  Noel shrugged. ‘Good. Interesting. I’m looking forward to the defensive driving class. It’s brilliant that I can learn a year early.’

  Flint looked down at him. ‘You still won’t have your licence until you’re seventeen.’ The stone face shifted into what passed for a smile. ‘So don’t go swanning about joy riding.’ He paused and added, ‘Though you’ll certainly have no trouble with the driving test once we’ve finished with you.’

  ‘So what did you want to talk to me about?’


  ‘I want to introduce you to a new tutor.’ He correctly interpreted Noel’s expression and the smile became a rictus grin. ‘I think you’ll like this one.’

  They had reached the door to Flint’s office. The director waved him in. A man seated in one of the high-backed chairs rose and turned to face them. Noel’s breath caught at the sight of Sebastian Crewe, Britain’s foremost magician. He had made the Queen Mary disappear on live television, had been dropped in the middle of the Channel locked in a safe and managed to appear on the press boat standing behind the reporters with their cameras all trained on the choppy waters. Crewe was equally good at close-up magic.

  ‘Sebastian, here’s the young man I told you about. I think he has quite a knack.’

  Crewe walked over, hand outstretched. Noel felt dizzy for a moment, then clasped his hand. ‘It’s … it’s an honour, sir.’ He looked up at Flint. ‘Why? I mean, not that I mind, but—’

  ‘You’ll need a cover. I thought “touring magician” would work out quite nicely. If that suits?’

  ‘Oh yes. Very much. Beats going to work for Barclays.’

  Crewe laughed. ‘It does that.’ They chatted for a few minutes, and set a schedule for Noel to meet Crewe at his home near Ipswich.

  After the magician left Noel sought out Flint in his office and found him seated in his throne-like chair lighting his pipe. ‘Thank you, sir. But how did you know?’

  ‘That little trick you pulled with the handcuffs was a clue. And of course we researched you once we had your identity. Your purchases at the Magic Box were easy to discover.’

  ‘Do you work with Crewe often?’

 
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