Knaves over queens, p.43
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       Knaves Over Queens, p.43

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

  ‘He’s advised us on several operations, and helped out on one.’

  ‘Why would he do that? He’s rich. He’s world-famous—’

  ‘Come, come, Noel, surely you can answer that yourself.’

  Turing entered Flint’s office. His brow was furrowed which caused his make-up to crease, revealing faint silver lines. ‘Are we setting up a honeypot I don’t know about? I was going over the accounts and spotted payments to Juliana and Travis. Both? At the same time?’

  Flint shifted in his chair with the rasp of stone on rock and felt a spark against his buttocks. He gave a mental sigh. Clearly the material of his trousers was wearing through again. ‘I hired them to tutor Noel. The allure of those avatars shouldn’t be wasted, but it would help if he knew his way around the sex act.’ Flint felt his jaw crack as he smiled. ‘Actually I’d like to have him be as much of a savant when it comes to rogering as he is at almost everything else.’

  ‘Are you planning on having him versed in every type of sex act?’ Turing asked.

  ‘Well, it doesn’t do us much good if it’s only hetero in the missionary position, Alan.’ It came out sharper than he intended.

  ‘Kenneth, he’s a child.’

  ‘Nonsense, he’s sixteen. Old enough to give consent.’

  ‘So old enough for us to pimp him out?’

  That brought Flint out of his chair. His hands cracked against the top of the desk and struck flames that quickly ignited the papers. There was a frenzied few seconds in which both he and Turing worked to save the reports. It allowed Flint time to master his anger. It became a cold lump like grease in the pit of his stomach.

  ‘Alan, we haven’t had a talent like this in decades. Teleportation and transformation? It’s a dangerous world, becoming more dangerous by the moment. Two years ago I failed. Churchill killed, that debacle at the funeral. Never again. My duty – our duty is to protect this nation. I’ll use any tool available to accomplish that goal.’

  ‘How much of this is you trying to expiate your sins and failures through Noel?’ He paused, then asked, ‘Does Lord Dalton know about this?’

  ‘I’m sure he has more important matters to attend to. Like tea at the Palace or another ribbon cutting.’

  ‘So, no.’ Turing sighed. ‘All right, Kenneth. I’ll go along with this. I just worry that we’re taking steps that compromise not only Noel but … ourselves.’

  Cambridge

  The murmurs of appreciation from the group of young men all avidly studying the photo filled Noel with bitter satisfaction. Juliana had been patient with the fumbling of an inexperienced lover, and even more so when he’d shyly asked her if he could take a photo. She had agreed without asking him why, which made him decide to explain his predicament with the drinking society and his initiation. Amused, she had entered into the spirit of the thing. She had washed away her make-up, recombed her long red hair into a more youthful style, and pulled on a pair of striped thigh-high stockings that were popular with younger women … and nothing else.

  When she assumed a bashful expression she no longer looked like a nearly thirty-year-old woman. She could easily have passed for twenty. ‘Tell them I’m a student at the London Hair Academy,’ she had instructed.

  ‘Lucky dog,’ Geoffrey said, bringing Noel back to his surroundings.

  ‘I’m heading down to London at the weekend. Care to give me her number?’ Timothy asked.

  ‘Not a chance,’ Noel said. ‘So what’s the verdict? Is she worthy to be added to your book o’ babes, and am I worthy of membership?’

  The young men exchanged glances. There were nods all round. ‘Get the man a drink,’ James ordered.

  Siraj had remained silent during the discussion. He clapped a hand on Noel’s shoulder as he walked past. ‘Well, we seem to have managed to corrupt you completely. Well done. And these forays of yours to London are becoming more and more interesting. You must take me along sometime.’

  London

  A cold wind off the Thames rustled the pages of the Sun in its stand. The headline screamed ROYAL ENGAGEMENT! above a picture of Princess Gloriana looking appropriately demure in her hat and gloves. Next to her was a picture of a dark-haired young man looking dashing as he sat on a polo pony.

  Noel bought a copy and quickly scanned the article. It seemed that Gloriana was to wed the heir to the Norwegian throne upon completing her undergraduate studies at Cambridge. He wondered if she would remember her interrupted tryst with a certain golden-eyed ace … and if that tryst were the reason for the sudden engagement. Laughing, he shoved the paper into a nearby rubbish bin and continued on his way.

  Noel came bouncing into headquarters but his steps slowed to a stop at the sight of the guard’s face at the front desk. ‘The guv wants to see you right away.’

  ‘Lord Dalton?’

  ‘No, the Captain.’

  ‘Has something happened?’

  ‘Yeah. You should get upstairs, mate.’

  He didn’t wait for the ancient lift but took the stairs two at a time. On the top floor the pall he’d sensed below was even more evident. Maryam walked past. Before he could say anything he saw the tears on her cheeks and the words died. He charged into Flint’s office only to find it empty, the stone chair and the knick-knacks gone.

  Confused, he went back into the hall and ran into Petula. ‘I was supposed to report to Flint—’

  ‘He’s moved upstairs. Into the chief’s office.’

  ‘Why? What’s happened to Lord Dalton?’

  The answer arrived and shock drove the air from his lungs. ‘Dead. Flint’s back in charge. Best get along upstairs.’

  Noel ran up to the top floor and burst into the office without knocking. ‘What the hell has happened?’ he demanded.

  The fires in Flint’s eyes seemed dampened. He removed his pipe slowly. ‘Lord Dalton has been killed.’

  ‘Petula told me.’

  ‘I‘ll never get her to follow protocol.’ Flint tapped the pipe against an ashtray, removing the spent tobacco. ‘I believe it is time for you to put your training to good use. There was an incident in Belfast. Joker girl beaten, raped, and killed by a group of footballers from an English college. There’s an active cell of the joker terrorist organization the Twisted Fists in Belfast. The director insisted on going himself to try and keep a lid on things. You know the Fists manifesto – five for one. Unfortunately Lord Dalton was one of the five.’ Flint skimmed a photo across the surface of his desk. ‘We need to send a message.’

  Noel picked up the photograph. A dwarf with bright-green skin and emerald eyes stared defiantly out at him. ‘Who is he?’

  ‘The leader of the Twisted Fists in Belfast. He calls himself King Brian.’

  Noel looked back at the photo. ‘I could think of other things to call him. Bastard, fucker—’

  ‘I would prefer a more lethal response.’

  It was as if Death’s cold finger had traced Noel’s spine. ‘You want him …’ He hesitated. ‘Killed.’

  ‘Yes. He’s known to have a taste for the ladies. Lilith is technically a joker because of her eyes. You can make contact. He frequents a pub – Joseph Coan’s in the Belfast jokertown. Make it clean, make it quick, and get out. You understand?’

  ‘Yes, sir.’

  ‘Have you ever been to Belfast?’

  ‘No, sir.’

  ‘Then we’ll fly you over. Who do you want for back-up?’

  ‘Ranjit Singh.’

  ‘Very well. And, Noel, memorize a location in Belfast. Make a point of learning locations everywhere you go so you can teleport there quickly.’

  ‘Okay.’

  Flint was silent for several long moments. The flickering red eyes were fixed on him.

  ‘Is there anything else?’

  ‘No.’

  The whisper stopped him just as he touched the door handle.

  ‘Are you frightened?’

  Noel weighed his response. To say no would make him look like an arrogant prat, but fri
ghtened wasn’t the right word. ‘I’m nervous, but it’s more anticipation than fear. Can I do it? I suppose we’ll find out.’

  ‘I can’t believe this. The Queen gives you back the Helix and this is the first action you take?’

  Turing’s voice was like a whip across his already-frayed nerves. ‘My, my, Alan. I’m not entirely certain these robes of sainthood quite suit you.’

  Turing’s jaw tightened causing make-up to flake, leaving silver lines across his face. ‘His nature is not yet set. It’s hard enough to ask an adult to take such an action. What effect will it have on a boy?’

  Flint paced to the window and gazed out at a grey winter’s day. ‘I’m worried for him too, but we use the tools at hand …’ His voice trailed away.

  Turing came up behind him, laid a hand briefly on his shoulder. ‘Kenneth, you can stop this. They haven’t landed yet. Bring them home. Let someone else take care of Brian. Noel’s only sixteen.’ Flint didn’t answer. Turing turned away. ‘Is this what we’ve come to? Two terrible old men corrupting a boy?’

  ‘Yes.’ Flint moved to the sideboard where he kept a bottle of brandy and poured them each a glass. ‘For Queen and country.’

  Belfast

  For such a small man King Brian was heavy. The faint gargling had died away and now Lilith was supporting the body on just the garrotte. She feared the thin wire might saw through his throat and decapitate the joker. The smell of blood was in her nostrils but not a trace of nausea. She experienced a moment of wonder that her stomach was rock solid. The only nervous tell was that her palms were sweaty.

  The handles on the garrotte were threatening to slip, so she lowered the body to the floor and pulled it free. Blood leaked from the cut on Brian’s throat, pooling on the battered wooden floor.

  It had been easy to get the dwarf alone. All it had taken was a torn blouse, a bruised shoulder, a cut lip, and a black eye, all courtesy of the Lion bashing Noel in the car before he had transformed into Lilith. Once at the pub she had spun her tale of nat boys attacking her while Lilith’s smoky charms worked their magic on the man. Brian had taken her to a private room to get her story. The barman had provided them with a bucket of ice and a napkin and when Brian had busied himself preparing a makeshift ice pack Lilith had slipped the garrotte out of the waistband of her skirt and snapped it around the joker’s neck. As she had been taught by Jiniri and Banger and Mash, she twisted just so and had stayed to the side to avoid any kicks from the dying man. The thought of Redcoat had made her add even more pressure.

  And now it was done.

  She tottered and wondered if it was delayed reaction to the murder she had just committed. But no, it was the floor itself that was heaving and bumping beneath her feet. ‘You bitch! You murderous Sassenach bitch!’

  The voice seemed to be emanating from the walls, floor, and ceiling. Lilith realized with horror that the wooden floor was oozing up over her feet, threatening to trap her. She heard shouts and running feet from the common room of the pub. If they entered she was dead – assuming the grotesque living pub didn’t kill her first.

  She drew the pistol that was strapped to her inner thigh, and fired four times, quick double taps into the floor around her feet. There was a roar of pain from the building, and the wood’s grip on her feet relaxed. It was only an instant but an instant was all she needed.

  She thought of her bedroom back home and teleported.

  Cambridge

  The soft pop of displaced air as she arrived did not disturb her parents sleeping down the hall. Lilith realized she had left a shoe behind. ‘Bloody hell, Cinderella goes to the ball and murders the prince … no, the king.’ Giggling uncontrollably, she sank down on the edge of her bed. After a moment, she regained control, stripped out of her clothes, closed her eyes and let her body shift.

  Noel opened his eyes and realized that the adrenalin rush was gone. Exhaustion arrived in the form of a pounding headache. He stared down at his bed, longing to crawl beneath the covers. You need to report. You need to report. You were supposed to return to Singh, then back to London.

  Reluctantly, he turned away from the lure of the warm covers on his childhood bed. Instead he slipped down the hall to the bathroom and ran a hot bath, where he washed away Lilith’s rich, heavy perfume, wincing as the water hit his split lip. The water turned faintly pink. He allowed the blood-tinged water to run through his fingers.

  ‘Tonight I killed a man,’ he whispered, and waited for a reaction. None came. He sank down, allowing the water to close over his head.

  When he emerged from the bathroom wrapped in a heavy robe his father was waiting. ‘Dad, what are you doing up?’

  ‘Couldn’t sleep. Heard the water running.’ He reached out a gnarled forefinger and gently touched Noel’s black eye. ‘Rugby?’

  ‘Yeah.’

  ‘How about some tea and toast?’

  Hunger reared up to announce itself with a loud stomach rumble. ‘Brilliant.’

  They headed to the kitchen. Noel filled the kettle while his father dropped bread into the toaster.

  ‘Dad, you believe in government service, right?’

  ‘Yes. Very much so.’

  ‘So why didn’t you encourage me to enlist?’

  Jasper paused, gazing into the open refrigerator. He pulled out the butter dish, sighed and finally said, ‘I wasn’t sure they would take you given …’ He gestured vaguely at Noel. ‘And that would have been humiliating for you. And if they did take you … well, I didn’t want you bullied and harassed.’

  ‘Okay.’ Noel dropped teabags into their mugs. ‘But if I found … had found a way to serve you wouldn’t have objected?’

  ‘Of course not. Your grandfather fought in World War Two. His father in the Great War. I’m the first Matthews to let down the side.’

  ‘Not your fault. You didn’t ask to get sick.’ The kettle’s shrill whistle cut the air. Noel jumped to turn it off. He didn’t want his mother to wake up and interrupt them.

  ‘Why these questions now, Noel? Something happen?’

  ‘I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the wars of the twentieth century. It seems as if today we don’t use armies, in the same way. I mean now we sometimes don’t even know who we’re fighting or exactly why.’

  ‘I’ll take the small wars, Noel. Anything we can do to prevent another global conflagration should be done. Because the next one might not be survivable.’

  The toaster dinged and the toast popped up like soldiers to attention. Noel hugged his father tightly. ‘Thanks, Dad.’

  London

  ‘Where in the holy hell is he!’

  ‘I don’t know, sir.’ Singh’s voice over the phone sounded distant even though only some five hundred miles separated London and Belfast. ‘There were shots fired. The authorities arrived, arrests were made, they carried out a body.’

  ‘So he did it.’

  ‘It would seem so.’

  ‘So where the hell is he?’

  The Lion remained silent. Flint could almost see his shrug. ‘You want me to stay, sir?’ Singh said at last.

  ‘Yes, until we can ascertain his location.’

  ‘This might have been too much, too soon, sir.’

  Flint’s answer was to hang up. He drummed his fingers on the desktop. Where could Noel have gone? He thought about calling the porter who manned the door at Clare College to see if the boy had gone back to his digs at the university. He could claim to be Noel’s father. He dismissed the idea. The porter might actually have met the senior Mr Matthews. Perhaps Noel had returned home? If he were traumatized he might have sought comfort with his family. A new fear seized the old man. What if the boy talked? Revealed what he had been doing for the past few months? He stood, paced, and the hours crawled by.

  It was a bit past nine when he heard the boy’s voice in the hallway. ‘Where’s Singh?’ Maryam’s answer was inaudible but Noel’s response made it clear. ‘Well, why the hell is he still there?’

  Flint threw
open his office door. ‘Because he was waiting for you to follow protocol and turn up as planned. Instead you abandoned your partner. Not well done, Noel. Please.’ He gestured into the office.

  Noel’s smile had vanished, replaced by a teen’s sulky pout. ‘I nearly got nabbed by that creepy pub. It’s alive. I think it’s a joker—’

  ‘I’m not interested in excuses. The fact remains you were to return to Singh and teleport both of you back to London to be debriefed.’ Noel glared at him, then dropped his head and stared at the floor. The silence stretched between them. ‘I trust this won’t happen again?’

  ‘No … sir.’

  ‘Excellent. Where did you go?’

  ‘I needed to … clean up. I went home.’

  ‘Why?’

  ‘I needed to … think.’

  ‘Because you were disturbed by what you had done?’

  The golden eyes were raised to meet Flint’s gaze. Flint couldn’t fully read the expression. ‘You think I freaked out. I did, but not for the reason you think.’

  ‘Please enlighten me.’

  Noel moved over to Flint’s desk and picked up and set down a few of the items resting there. At last he said, ‘I rather enjoyed it.’ He turned to face Flint. ‘Do you want me to run immediately to Dr Teitelbaum?’ His tone was defiant.

  A complex number of conflicting emotions washed through Flint. Relief and satisfaction, guilt and regret. ‘No, that won’t be necessary. But do keep working with him on your inability to teleport in your real form. It’s quite inconvenient given your role here. Now go. I have work to do and you have a debriefing session with Turing.’

  ‘Yes, sir.’

  ‘Oh, one last thing.’

  Noel paused at the door and looked back.

  ‘You have a code name now. You are Double Helix.’

  ‘Thank you, sir. And, sir, let me know when you want me to do it again.’ The door closed.

  Flint stared at it for a long time. ‘For Queen and country,’ he whispered. He wasn’t sure if it were an affirmation or a justification. And it didn’t make him feel any better.

 
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