Knaves over queens, p.54
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       Knaves Over Queens, p.54
 

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

  ‘You too have leaks,’ she replied, deliberately raising her voice, ‘how else did I find out about your charade?’

  Behind Glanville, a door sprang open and a man wearing a red jacket and a tricorn hat looked out. The latest Redcoat, of course. The men who adopted that ridiculous name kept getting killed, but fresh men always appeared to take their places.

  Badb perceived no more heroism in this one than the last she had met. That didn’t mean he could never achieve glory. Let him suffer a few horrors. Then, he might be willing to die for something larger than his own ego. Especially if a goddess nudged him in the right direction, engineering ‘coincidences’ and ‘chance encounters’ with strangers. It could be done. Even working with the most base materials. She was fattening a hero right now.

  But it wasn’t Redcoat. This new one showed even less intelligence than his predecessors: he had just revealed the meeting room. ‘Very well,’ Badb said, using a voice that indicated outrage, ‘I’m leaving. But my superiors will hear of this.’

  Glanville sneered. ‘What age are you anyway? Seventy? You look more like ninety. Why haven’t you retired? And you smell like shit.’ He turned to a colleague. ‘She really does! Literally. Shit.’

  Badb waved her stick and opened her mouth as if to shout at him. It was a mistake. Rather, it looked like a mistake, because she fell against one of the light fittings on the wall, holding on to it for dear life, before tumbling onto the floor.

  ‘Don’t help her up,’ said Glanville. ‘Seriously, she should be in a home.’

  Badb fought back to her feet. She returned to the elevator, muttering all the while.

  Once out of sight, she closed her eyes. Yes, the crow that had been strapped to her armpit now nestled safely in the bowl-shaped light fitting she had fallen against.

  Very satisfactory.

  The following morning, Billy stepped outside to find crows lining rooftops all along the road. For all that he claimed to be a businessman, the funeral parlour did very little work indeed. Yet, money appeared regularly in his account, more than he needed and none of it ever audited or questioned.

  The birds cawed and pecked.

  When he’d been a boy, people called informers ‘touts’, but now locals used the word ‘crows’. And instead of warning a bigmouth that ‘walls have ears’, they’d mutter, ‘black feathers’ and the talker would quickly shut his yap.

  Who knew why the language had changed? Not Billy, that was for sure, but the sight of the creatures in such abundance made his guts twist for some reason, and many a time he’d come across dead birds of other species just lying in piles on the street.

  In the distance, wailing sirens twisted his stomach again. They were another constant presence; so common that these days locals just got on with their business. But not today. Right now, the city held itself still. Curtains were closed. Cars remained parked all along the kerb, as though today were Sunday and not the middle of the week.

  Billy fondled the phone in his pocket. He never checked the news, but maybe … maybe this one time … He performed a quick search, and there it was, like acid at the back of his throat: the Europa Hotel.

  Twenty-two people had been poisoned. Twenty-two! Capsules of ricin powder had been opened in the room’s air conditioning unit and everybody had breathed it in.

  And among the victims were members of the IRA who’d been sitting in the same room as their sworn enemies in the Ulster Unionist Party. There’d been government ministers present from both Britain and Ireland. There’d been a personal envoy of the US president. And all were found face down on the table where they were planning to negotiate peace. Whoever the murderers were, they’d even gone to the trouble of killing a crow with the same substance and leaving it behind as a gruesome calling card.

  The phone clattered to the ground, its screen fractured beyond repair.

  What have I done? And not just this time. But the other times too. It was he, after all, who had supplied the coffin that blew the leader of the Progressive Unionist Party to smithereens. Grandmother had told him to do it and he hadn’t questioned her. Not that there had been explosives in the casket when Billy had handed it over! But he’d always been surprised the police had never asked him about it.

  Then, there was Omagh. And Lisburn after that. How strange that tragedy dogged his every footstep!

  He looked at the phone on the ground. Cracks webbed the screen, but not enough of them that he couldn’t still see the words. He sobbed. This! This is why he shouldn’t read the news! He ground the device with the heel of his shoe until the accusations flickered and died.

  Billy didn’t see Grandmother again for a fortnight.

  In just a few weeks she had aged years. She was a hundred if she was a day, her skin a coat of blisters, her body little more than a layer of bandages and warped bone. Even the corners of her eyes dripped ruby tears that lost themselves quickly among the scabs on her cheeks.

  ‘You will put me under the coffin,’ she whispered. She couldn’t climb up on the table herself. Even her lips and tongue were bleeding. ‘You will leave the coffin in the sacristy of St Malachy’s church and drive home.’

  ‘I’ve told you,’ he said. ‘I’ve had … I’ve had enough. I can’t.’

  ‘Do this, and two days from now, she will visit.’

  He didn’t need to ask who.

  So diminished was the crone, he could have lifted her with one hand, but his skin recoiled from the touch of her clothing. His gorge rose and his eyes watered. She must have noticed, yet she didn’t care. When he laid the coffin on top of her, he heard the distinct snap of a breaking bone. She made no sound of protest. She never did.

  Billy was the one who was shaking. Now, he really did need to retch and he ran to the downstairs bathroom to do so, heaving and weeping, opening a window with trembling hands to let the smell out. Finally, he crawled back to the trolley.

  ‘I’ll be back,’ he said. ‘In a second.’

  The hearse waited outside, unlocked as always. Nobody had ever tried to steal it. He jumped in, fumbling for the keys, still tasting the puke at the back of his throat, as rain pattered on the windscreen. He’d go somewhere. Away. Down south even! Or catch a ferry over to Scotland. It didn’t matter, none of it mattered.

  It was a Sunday night in late summer and the whole city felt dead. Flags were still up from the recent parades. Fresh red, white, and blue paint had been lovingly applied to the footpaths, with every gable end bearing the face of a masked man or a murdered hero.

  ‘What am I doing?’ he muttered. Had he really left an old woman under a coffin to die of thirst? A joker like himself? He put his foot down on the accelerator. He was never going back to Grandmother, that’s all there was to it. He couldn’t hide from it any more: from who she was. What she was. A monster, and he her accomplice in slaughter. Maybe he’d go all the way to Spain to visit Francesca. She’d make him laugh and he had a story to tell her, the likes of which she’d never heard.

  Faster and faster he drove. He was doing it! He was finally doing it!

  BANG!

  Billy jumped, losing control of the wheel. The entire windscreen turned white with cracks. Then he jerked violently forward against the seatbelt, rocking back again as the hearse came to halt. What …?

  He staggered out. His neck felt like it had been wrung by a giant. A single pebble lay jammed in the windscreen. He stared at it under the rain, wondering where it could possibly have come from with no other cars on the road to kick it up. The sky? Or had some child thrown it?

  Nobody came to help him. It just wasn’t healthy in these parts to examine strange goings-on in the night. So Billy stood in the rain, lost, bewildered. ‘A taxi,’ he thought, finally. ‘That’s what I need.’

  He had yet to replace the phone, but there’d be an office around here somewhere. But just as he turned to look, there came a flap of wings and a sudden blow to his shoulder. He screamed with the shock of it, staggering against the wall behind him. I’ve be
en shot! It was the only thing that made sense, except that right then, a rain of pebbles scythed down from the sky, smacking into the metal of the hearse, bouncing from the footpath, striking his arms and calves, killing streetlights and setting off car alarms.

  The darkness above his head seemed to writhe.

  Billy ran. Stones and pebbles clattered along the street behind him. Something flew at his head, leaving a burning line of agony behind it.

  He stumbled up to a door, banging on it for all he was worth. ‘Let me in! Let me in!’

  ‘Wait!’ came a quavering voice behind it. ‘I’m trying!’ But even as his saviour fumbled at the locks, a bird slammed into Billy’s head and savaged his ear. He screamed and screamed.

  He found himself in the street again. There were birds everywhere, black as night, utterly silent but for the slap of their wings. They came after him when he tried hiding under a truck. They ignored their losses when he picked up an old brush in the street and swung at them until his strength failed.

  ‘All right,’ he said, weeping, because it was obvious now that they were herding him. ‘All right. I’m away home.’

  Ten minutes later, he stood once more in the basement of the funeral parlour, in front of the coffin. But he wasn’t alone this time. A hundred crows filled the room around him. He could smell their damp feathers. Their wings rustled. They lined the empty bookshelves and crowded the backs of chairs. She had to be controlling them.

  It took him several minutes more to gather his courage to speak.

  ‘I know you can hear me, Grandmother,’ he said. His voice cracked, his breath wheezed and rattled in his chest. ‘I’m guessing you had my family killed. Armi too, before that.’

  Nothing.

  ‘And ever since then, all I have left is you and her. You and her. You think I don’t know you’re the same? I mean, I remember when I saw her that first night. Dancing near the Island …’ And as he spoke the words, he pictured his lover again, the perfection of her, an explosion of joy. ‘She was ripping off bandages. Aye. Like the ones you need for your bleeding …’ He felt sick again and had to lean on the coffin for support. ‘It would take an idiot not to know you were the one person, but I … I made myself that idiot. Well, no more!’ His voice rose and rose until he was screaming the words. ‘No more! No … more!’ He battered at the wood of the casket, making bloody lumps of his fists. His face was all snot and tears. ‘I know it now, you see? I can’t pretend I don’t. A thousand people are dead ’cos I never stopped you.’ He swallowed, looking around at the crows, his ear stinging from where it had been slashed earlier by a beak. Then, he straightened his shoulders. ‘You’re stayin’ under that coffin, so y’are!’ His voice barely quavered. ‘You’ll never hurt anybody again.’

  A crow on the back of a chair opened its beak and he flinched. ‘Release …’ it said distinctly, and another immediately added, ‘… me.’ Then, two more birds at opposite ends of the room spoke a word each.

  ‘Release …’‘… me.’

  Then, a hundred other throats took up the command so that they echoed and re-echoed around the basement, now to his left, now his right. Above him, behind him, between his feet. ‘RELEASE ME!’ ‘RELEASE ME!’

  Billy’s bladder chose that moment to let go, but strangely, it didn’t matter. He felt as if he was outside his own body. He took a shuddering breath just as they all fell suddenly silent.

  ‘No amount of birds will ever shift that coffin,’ he said. ‘Release yourself, murderer. If you can.’

  Every beak pointed right at him, at his face. At his eyes. The implication was obvious. Obey, or die. He didn’t want that. To experience the pain. Or to leave nothing behind him but a wasted life as the collaborator of a monster. Nevertheless, he raised his chin, forcing himself, for once in his life, to look fate in the eye. ‘For … for Belfast,’ he said. ‘For Ulster. For Peace.’

  And they chorused back at him:

  ‘You …

  are …

  glorious …

  Billy …

  Little.’

  ‘What? What do you mean? I—’

  The crows attacked.

  The Screeching Ace returned that night. They say a hundred people were admitted to hospital with burst eardrums. But that the doctors had to work on them by candlelight, because all generators had ground to a halt and everywhere fuses had burned themselves out. From the beaches of Waterford to the bogs of Donegal, flocks of crows tore themselves bloody. Milk soured on the shelves. Crops withered under ravenous swarms.

  And then … then, the violence returned. The land is thirsty, after all, and it will drink.

  The Wild Cards Universe

  The Original Triad

  Wild Cards

  Aces High

  Jokers Wild

  The Puppetman Quartet

  Aces Abroad

  Down and Dirty

  Ace in the Hole

  Dead Man’s Hand

  The Rox Triad

  One-Eyed Jacks

  Jokertown Shuffle

  Dealer’s Choice

  The Novels

  Knaves over Queens

  Double Solitaire

  Turn of the Cards

  The Card Sharks Triad

  Card Sharks

  Marked Cards

  Black Trump

  Stand-Alones

  Deuces Down

  Death Draws Five

  The Committee Triad

  Inside Straight

  Busted Flush

  Suicide Kings

  The Fort Freak Triad

  Fort Freak

  Lowball

  High Stakes

  The American Triad

  Mississippi Roll

  Low Chicago

  Texas Hold ’Em

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  George R. R. Martin, Knaves Over Queens

  (Series: Wild Cards # 26)

 

 


 

 
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