Knaves over queens, p.53
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       Knaves Over Queens, p.53

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

  Hello, dear.

  ‘Betty! You’re sick. You didn’t tell me you were going to hospital. You said a holiday!’ She tried to keep the anger from her voice.

  Well … I didn’t want you to worry, darling. And it is a holiday I’m going on. They can’t mend me, and I’m very tired, and it hurts so m— … actually it doesn’t hurt at all now. Did they give me more morphine?

  ‘I think so.’ Angela didn’t say she was looking after the pain or Betty might ask her to leave. It did hurt, but Angela had dealt with worse. ‘Can’t you come home now? I don’t like it here.’

  I can’t, dear. I should have told you before. I know. But I didn’t want to see you cry. I wasn’t brave enough for that.

  ‘You’re very brave. You’re the bravest—’

  I won’t be coming home, dear. The doctors said so when they thought I was too drugged up to hear. They don’t think I’ll last until morning. It’s a shame. I don’t even remember when I last saw the sun come up. I would have liked to watch one more dawn. I would have liked a room with a view. You know what you can see from that window? A brick wall, that’s what. A sigh. It’s very good to have you here, Angela. I had no idea how lonely this all would be.

  The door banged open and a doctor filled the doorway, the nurse from before standing on tiptoes to see over his shoulder.

  ‘Good God!’ He took a step forward. ‘Mrs Parkins? How are you even …’

  ‘We’re going to find a view.’ Angela swung Betty’s bare legs over the edge of the bed.

  ‘Absolutely not! You’re … you should be heavily sedated! There’s internal bleeding—’

  Angela bit through the tubes in her arm and pulled loose some of the others. She slipped from the bed and put her weight on both bare feet. The pain made her bite her lip but it wasn’t so much. She had had as bad before.

  ‘I simply can’t let—’

  Angela pushed the doctor aside. He went staggering across the room and fell over a drip stand. She hadn’t meant to be so rough but the pain made it difficult to judge.

  Angela! Be nice. Are you okay, dear?

  ‘I’m fine.’ Spoken through gritted teeth.

  Angela walked Betty out past the astonished nurse and into the corridor beyond. At several points on the way to the lifts nurses asked her if she was all right or whether she was supposed to be out of bed. Their tone implied that she was neither of these things. Angela ignored them. In her head she could hear Betty making good natured comments and trying to set the nurses’ minds at ease. I do feel much better.

  Angela reached the lifts with three nurses in tow and a handful of others off looking for help. Two of the nurses followed her into a lift.

  ‘You’ve clearly had a major operation, my dear …’ the older of the two said, a lady with a kind face and curly grey hair.

  ‘Mrs Parkins …’ the other read from the band on Betty’s wrist. She straightened up. ‘Mrs Betty Parkins.’

  ‘And she’s the nicest lady in the whole world. So you two leave her alone,’ Angela said. She had tears making her eyes blurry so she couldn’t see the floor numbers properly. Both nurses exchanged glances.

  After a number of stops and starts they reached the top floor and Angela began to look for access to the roof. It took a while with the nurses fluttering about her trying to convince her to go with them. The older one pointed to the bright crimson blossoming through the layers of bandage around Betty’s waist.

  ‘You are putting yourself in serious danger, Betty!’

  Down the corridor more nurses waited and with them two hefty orderlies. Angela ignored them all and went to the steps leading up to a blue door marked ‘Roof’. Before she got to it the two big men came and took her arms. Neither of them were as big as Dave the paramedic but they were much bigger than any other men Angela knew. She took a handful of each man’s shirt and lifted them up so their toes were off the ground then carried them back to the nurses, one in each hand to balance her.

  ‘Stay here,’ she told them and went back up to the blue door. It might have been locked, she couldn’t tell. The roof was dark and windy. Angela took some of the metal rail that went around the edge and used it to tie the door shut. She didn’t want to talk to any more nurses. She went back to sit where the rail had been, dangling Betty’s feet over the edge and looking out to where the sky at the horizon was just turning grey.

  ‘We’ll have our view soon, Betty.’ The wind whistled through the cables holding an antenna nearby. ‘Betty?’

  Yes, dear. She sounded distant now. Faint. I was just looking at the view. I think that new medicine has really helped. I feel marvellous. You can’t imagine how much it hurt …


  They sat in silence for a while. Somewhere behind them there was a muffled banging on the blue door but it didn’t matter.

  Look. A new dawn. All those houses. And the sun glinting on the river.

  ‘It’s very pretty.’ Angela could feel the sunlight on her legs now. Even with all the pain filling her like broken glass she could feel the sunlight. ‘Betty?’

  Yes, dear? So far back in her mind that she could hardly hear her.

  ‘Don’t go.’

  I have to, darling. All of us are just visiting after all. We come when we’re invited and after a while it’s time to go. You know that, Angela.

  ‘I know it.’ Angela found that she was crying again.

  Too faint to hear, but somehow there was happiness in it and kindness. And then nothing.

  With a sharp inhalation of breath Angela was back in her body and for once the pain she found there was less than what she had left behind. She searched for Betty but Betty had gone and all she found were memories of the old lady’s smile.

  All of us are just visiting. That’s what Betty had said and Angela supposed that it was true. Maybe Betty had gone somewhere better. The world, after all, was random and cruel, just as the virus that had given Angela the chance to visit and taken so much in turn from people like Shirley and Renée was random and cruel.

  Angela’s last thought as the sunlight found her curtains and she slipped into a long-delayed sleep was that what the world needed rather than a virus that handed out superpowers was a virus that handed out kindness. One that made sure there were more Bettys and fewer Booksies.

  She slipped into her dreams surrounded by scores of those who had touched her and whose lives she could touch in turn. Windows on a world long denied to her. Windows on a world she wanted to change.

  Feeding on the Entrails

  by Peadar Ó Guilín

  Belfast, 2017

  Ah, the Europa! The most bombed hotel on the continent since the Second World War. Only the government could afford to run it now, terrified of the bad press if ever it closed its doors for good. And so here it was, opening to the public after its third rebuilding. Stronger than ever. Indestructible.

  Cameras watched the streets outside for suspicious activities, with Artificial Intelligences analysing, cross-referencing and parsing each image. No suitcase made it into the lobby until electronic sniffers had checked it for Semtex or the tiniest traces of fertilizer. Nothing could go wrong – this was Belfast, after all, where the Titanic was built.

  But now, with the security trade show starting, arriving guests were to be treated to even higher levels of protection. Random checks and thumb-prints; a pair of aces on standby from the Silver Helix and much, much more. And so it was that when Billy Little, a paunchy, balding, bespectacled gentleman in his early fifties, rolled a coffin right into the lobby, a uniformed woman stopped him at once. ‘We’ll have to check that, sir.’

  He sighed, his breathing asthmatic. ‘You have no idea how many checks I’ve already been through with this thing.’

  ‘Are you resisting?’ she asked hopefully while a cluster of bored and jealous colleagues shuffled closer.

  ‘No,’ he raised his hands in surrender, causing a dozen Tasers to leap from tooled-leather holsters.

  The guard m
ade him lift the lid off the coffin. Red satin lined the interior, with a walking stick lying on top of it. ‘My company can sell you one with a sword inside,’ she said, having confirmed that this one was exactly what it looked like.

  ‘No, thanks.’ Billy dabbed at his forehead. Seven checks so far, but not one person had asked him why he needed to bring an empty coffin into the hotel. He’d hardly slept all night worrying about it, inventing stories about sudden deaths and trade show delegates with strange sexual fetishes. And throughout it all, he wondered if it might not be such a bad thing to get caught.

  But nobody cared. Honest to God, it was almost as bad as getting on a plane.

  Finally, after checking under the trolley with mirrors, they brought forward a pair of German Shepherds, while an excited man boasted for all to hear, ‘They can be trained to find any drug you can think of! Chemicals! Very sensitive animals!’ He made a great show of walking them up to the coffin while a crowd of early delegates stood around watching. But no sooner had the dogs taken one sniff than they each let loose a jet of urine before jerking free of their handlers. They ran off into the ballroom while delegates jeered and laughed.

  Everybody drifted away and finally Billy was free to move on.

  His room looked out over Glengall Street, with a flock of crows on the roof of the Opera House below him. But he wasted no time on the view. Instead, using every ounce of strength he possessed, he lifted up one end of the massive coffin. God, he was getting too old for this! And, as always, he couldn’t help the jolt of nausea that accompanied the sight of the old woman jammed underneath it these last two hours. The false bottom had protected her from most of the weight, but even the little she’d had to bear had squeezed blood out of her so that now she lay in a pool of it.

  ‘My muscles have locked,’ she rasped. ‘Lift me out.’

  He obeyed, his stomach rebelling yet again when his skin came into contact with her sticky clothing. ‘I don’t want to do this any more,’ he said, at last. ‘I can’t. I’m … I’m a respectable businessman.’

  ‘Granddaughter,’ she said.

  He dropped his head, defeated. It was the only word she needed. Billy Little had never married, never even wanted to. He had only ever loved one woman: a bizarre mirage of a creature that had appeared to him every few months for the last thirty years. Even now, with his body flabby from a lifetime of Ulster Frys, his voice hoarse from acid reflux, his hair gone and his nipples as foul-mouthed as ever, she still gave every appearance of being in love with him. He would do anything for her. But instead, he did it for ‘Grandmother’.

  Sometimes he carted her around as he was doing today. Sometimes his job was simply to drive his hearse down a particular street at a particular time of night, or to hand an envelope to somebody who blanched at the sight of it. Billy understood none of it. But he felt sure that if he did, he’d never be able to live with himself. She was up to something, something unspeakable.

  Whatever it was, he didn’t want to know. It would break him. ‘I’m away to the bar,’ he said.

  She wasted no breath on an answer and Billy breathed a sigh of relief.

  Downstairs again. More delegates were arriving, all rumpled suits and red faces from the indignity of a dozen searches. They queued to check in, watching the latest drones from competing companies swoop and glide, catching in the fancy new chandeliers until a ladder might be fetched to get them down.

  Unsure what to do, he pretended to look at his phone. He had games on it that would take him away from all this for a while.

  ‘Are you real?’

  Billy jumped. He looked down to see a pretty young woman in a wheelchair with the brightest lipstick he’d ever seen. She sounded Spanish to his ears. ‘Real?’

  ‘Look around you,’ she waved an arm. The bar heaved with men and women in suits, smiles plastered on their faces, phones in their hands, business cards flying about like confetti at a wedding. And Billy couldn’t help smiling. ‘Real,’ he said. ‘Aye, I am. Not like this lot.’

  ‘Buy you a drink?’

  ‘Um …’

  ‘Oh, you think I’m trying to seduce you? I could seduce you,’ she winked. ‘I’m very bad, but no. My editor wants me to do a piece on Northern Ireland and—’

  He froze. Most people knew better than to talk to foreign journos. Her dark, sparkling eyes turned serious at once. ‘No names,’ she said, ‘and nothing serious anyway. Just background stuff that everybody says, yes? Come,’ she wheeled around, then beckoned him to follow. Her nail varnish was the same bright shade as her lipstick.

  He obeyed, sheepishly, finding a chair beside her. ‘What, uh, what is your article about?’

  ‘The peace process. Why it always fails here. Wait!’ she whistled loud enough to halt every conversation in the lounge. Heads turned, but the only one she was interested in was the waiter’s. ‘Two whiskeys,’ she said. ‘At least twenty years old.’ Then, she turned back. ‘You ever hear of a paper called the Corriere della Sera?’

  He shook his head. He didn’t read them, couldn’t even look at them. Or the news on TV for that matter. Thirty years ago his entire family had been murdered, one after another over the course of a single month. If it weren’t for his ace lover, the grief would have killed him too. She was the only family he had left now. Her and Grandmother. They had become his entire life.

  ‘My editor sent me to follow a very particular rumour. And good for you! Because it means he pays to get us drunk. I’m Francesca,’ she squeezed his hand. ‘I don’t need your family name, but I’d like to call you something.’

  ‘Billy,’ he said.

  ‘Billy. Good for you.’ She produced an expensive tablet from under the wheelchair. ‘Now, why does the peace process keep failing here?’

  ‘Uh, the Nationalists won’t recognize that the Province is British. They’ll never make us surrender what’s ours.’

  She rolled her dark eyes. ‘You are going to give me slogans, Billy? In exchange for good whiskey? Look, here it comes. Just smell it and then try to tell me the same old shit I can see written on the walls of the city. Taste!’

  He couldn’t help smiling at her. Francesca was so much fun. She said she wasn’t here to seduce him, but Billy had been born good-looking, and while he’d lost most of that, he still recognized flirting when he saw it, even if it was less than half-serious. Still, though. Still. A desperate part of him suddenly wanted her. Not for sex! But just … just to go with her back to Spain or wherever she’d come from. To be free. Oh, to be free!

  And the whiskey was good. Mostly, he bought cheap vodka and guzzled it before bed in front of the wild cards gossip channel.

  Francesca leaned forward, lowering her voice. ‘Every time somebody tries to make peace here, they are destroyed, yes? Like when John Hume was shot in ’93 in Omagh. Do you remember that?’

  Billy’s breath caught. He had only ever been to Omagh once in his life. In 1993, as it happens. And the very next day, his lover had come to him. ‘Aye, I remember.’

  ‘Or what about that Loyalist man, Hutchinson? Blown to bits carrying a coffin at a funeral?’

  Billy felt nauseous all of a sudden, because he remembered that too.

  ‘I have … I have to go.’

  ‘No, Billy! Stay! We’ll talk about something else. Even sport! I would lower myself to that!’

  But he was already stumbling away towards the exit.

  Eventually, and with much guidance, the bird slipped out of the air vent and onto the bathroom floor. It trembled, exhausted and filthy from its ordeal.

  The goddess ignored it. She had work to do. First, she voided her bowels onto the tiles, and then she fumbled through the mess with arthritic fingers until she found the plastic bag. She might have been able to carry it with her under the coffin, but if she’d been caught coming into the hotel with such a substance, the consequences would have been … awkward.

  When the time came to turn her attention to the crow, it was to make it swallow some capsules.
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  Finally, she taped the bird to her armpit, and taking the walking stick from the coffin, she hobbled out of the room.

  Badb could see herself through one of the windows at the end of the corridor. The lighting was subtle here. The designers of this latest build had placed energy-saving bulbs into elaborate metal frames along the walls so that it looked as if the light was coming from brass bowls of burning oil. It wasn’t flattering: her face became a jigsaw of random shadows.

  She forced the elevator to take her to the top floor with a special card. Nothing stopped her until she emerged into another corridor to find large men in bulky, bulging suits halfway down it.

  ‘Stop right there!’ one of them called.

  She walked on.

  None of the lights were working here, but there was no mistaking the white man in charge, with his goatee and his bespoke suit. Glanville, a lesser ace, but an ace all the same. He stared in shock at her as slowly, so slowly, she hobbled towards him along the corridor.

  ‘McNulty,’ he breathed. At the sound of his dismay, other guards behind him reached carefully into their jackets. Not one of them was local and Badb doubted that any of them on waking that morning had the slightest idea where they would be working. Fascinating.

  ‘You are not invited,’ Glanville growled. ‘There’s a conference on the ground floor that’s more your style.’

  ‘I’m here for the meeting,’ she said. ‘Although, you have gone to great lengths to keep all of us at the FRU out of it. You even tried to hide from us that it was taking place. Putting it on during the trade show.’

  He drew himself up, his chest broad as a drum. Glanville was the reason none of the lighting was working on this floor except down near the elevator. Frying electronics was about all he was good for, but his presence at a meeting signified the tightest levels of both security and paranoia.

  ‘The FRU is too compromised,’ he said. ‘You can’t be trusted. Four of your own bosses have been murdered in the last decade alone!’

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