Knaves over queens, p.6
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       Knaves Over Queens, p.6
 

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

  Some time later a voice said, ‘Take the children back to the house.’

  ‘But … those bandages. What’s wrong with her?’

  ‘Wear your gloves if you’re worried, lads. Get going.’

  They returned her to the back room for some reason, laying her next to a weeping Eoin. Her head spun. Her heart was pounding. The smile she’d felt earlier came back and laughter bubbled up into her throat, followed immediately by tears; by a warmth in her groin; by shivers in her muscles.

  ‘What’s wrong wit hurr? She one o’ dem jokers? You been hidin’ hurr?’

  She had no idea who was speaking, but Daddy was there to answer.

  ‘She’s … uh, she just had a fright. I mean, her uncle …’

  He picked her up. His arms were warm around her and Anya wanted to sink into them. Her own arms, as if they knew exactly what to do, wrapped around him too, squeezing so tightly that she must have opened all of her wounds at once. But she didn’t care! She laughed again, then sobbed.

  A more cultured voice: ‘The men say you’ve been hiding a joker, McNulty.’

  ‘I told you … I’m telling you, it’s a skin thing. Just leave us be. Haven’t you done enough?’

  ‘I need to see. I’m sorry. Under the bandages. I need to see it now. If you haven’t reported it …’

  Rough hands pulled Anya away from her father, although she struggled and whined to hold on to him. She watched them peel the bandages away, one by one, from the cleanest, softest skin she had ever seen in her life. Not a single wound remained. Even the gunshot to her left arm had left no trace. Beside her, on the floor, the book of Irish mythology still lay open on the page of the goddess Badb, surrounded by her crows. And Anya burst out laughing again. ‘Daddy,’ she said. ‘I feel … I feel …’

  ‘What, love?’

  ‘I feel everything!’

  The soldiers left after a few days of fruitless search for a cache of guns, said to be buried in the bog.

  In the weeks that followed, Daddy still had moods, but they were mostly good ones and he left the bottle under the stairs alone. He smiled a lot and spoke of Anya’s return to school in September. And she laughed, glorying in the way her face flushed with that feeling known as ‘happiness’. She even lost once at chess – not on purpose, but through fear of sacrificing the foot soldiers that in English were called ‘pawns’.

  But less than a fortnight later she woke to find herself rational once more. A lesion on her arm dribbled blood onto the sheets. Fascinating.

  She wandered into the back room to collect some bandages. She touched the chess set, wondering if she would ever meet a worthy opponent. Then, she turned to the stacks of books. The volume of Irish mythology had been tidied away, but she remembered the picture with the crows in it and knew now who she was. What she was, even if Daddy did not.

  She found him at the kitchen table, planning lessons for the following week. ‘Daddy …’ She used her lost, little girl’s voice. ‘Where are the guns?’

  He froze.

  ‘We can dig them up,’ she said, because Daddy liked it when they did things together. ‘We can give them to the warriors.’

  He displayed all the signs of ‘shock’ and ‘disbelief’. But she would work on him. The land needed heroes, after all. It needed to drink.

  But a Flint Holds Fire

  by Kevin Andrew Murphy

  March 1952

  A flint wheel turned.

  It was not a wheel precisely, but served the same function, steel striking flint, spark catching fuel, a tiny pool of alcohol freeze-distilled to sufficient proof. The fire then shone light through two small isinglass windows to illuminate a swatch of stained satin.

  Foxworthy awoke, trying to make sense of what he was looking at in the dim illumination: the inside of a coffin blooming with mould.

  ‘I’m alive!’ he yelled. ‘Alive!’

  His whisper echoed inside the coffin, but it was a whisper, and he realized his mouth was open, his jaw unfrozen. ‘ALIVE!’ he cried, his voice the whoosh of an open chimney flue. He felt air rush into the chambers in the stone that served as his lungs, fanning the flames, catching other fuel, and bringing him fully to life.

  No one answered, the cliché of the silence of the grave true except for him. But Foxworthy realized it would soon be completely true. There was a limited volume of air in the coffin, and when it was gone, it would snuff out the hellish flame that had enlivened him.

  His stone heart pounded, pumping liquefied bitumen to his extremities, and he dragged his arms up, slicing through a soggy shroud to tear at the coffin roof. The rotted satin shredded instantly but his nails curled shavings from wood that was sound save for one sodden patch around a horizontal gash where the water dripped through, directly above his face, like the splinters left by an axe-blade. Or shovel. He jammed his fingers into the crack, prising. A bit of swollen wood broke off, followed by damp earth falling into his mouth.

  He spat it out, then tasted what was on his tongue: cheese. Cave-aged Stilton to be precise, soaked in port. But cold as an icebox. He swallowed the clot of grave-dirt and knew the gnawing hunger inside him had finally found the sustenance it craved. But he also realized, with growing horror, that he would still suffocate, a mountain of food on top of him.

  Hades might have devised the torments of Tantalus and Sisyphus, but the wild card had given Foxworthy flint knives as cheese spades. He only had to break through a coffin lid and dig his way through six feet of food to reach air.

  The lid was first. He went with what he’d started, working it lower, his stone hands cracking the wood like a walnut shell, then shovelling the freezing, damp earth that rained down to either side in the coffin. He struggled to sit upright upon the growing pile.

  The earth collapsed around him, the oxygen grew thin, the fire within him guttered then went out, along with the light from his eyes. He calmed himself as he had as a boy, reciting Rossetti’s charm as he continued to worm his way upwards: ‘An emerald is as green as grass; a ruby red as blood; a sapphire shines as blue as heaven; a flint lies in the mud …’ Not the most cheerful rhyme, given the circumstances. He dug in darkness, feeling the languor of the grave begin to enfold him in its cold embrace. It would be so easy …

  Morris Foxworthy had dug himself out of the trenches of Verdun, dragging himself back to his sweetheart and then wife, to gasp his last in her arms in Aldworth two decades later. Kenneth Foxworthy would not abandon his mother, nor shame his father with cowardice, or lose his chance to see Alice again to sheer stupidity, for if the grave-diggers had buried him the usual six feet under, he now stood far taller. All he would need to do was stand up.

  He strained to straighten his legs, pushing against the weight of wet earth on his head and shoulders, and gritted his diamond teeth with the effort till sparks flashed. But if they were sparking, they were not pure diamond … The words came in a rush: ‘A diamond is a brilliant stone to catch the world’s desire. An opal holds a fiery spark – but a flint holds fire!’

  He roared the last as his head broke through the cold earth, air rushing into his lungs, fire catching in his stony heart, only to have his blazing eyes illuminate the iron bars of a prison.

  Not a prison: a mortsafe, an iron cage like the Victorians once installed to prevent resurrectionists from plundering bodies to be used as medical cadavers, the bars slick and shining with the drizzling rain melting the snow inside the cage. But once he’d got his arms free, with a spark and a clank, Foxworthy snapped the bars.

  He considered the wrought iron in his hand. It felt and smelled like a stick of rock from Blackpool, so he bit a piece off. The cold iron melted in his mouth, tasting sweet and herbal, and he gave a dark chuckle. It was as if the witch from Hansel and Gretel had had the bars of her child cage confiscated as scrap for Hitler’s war effort and had then crafted replacements from stalks of candied angelica: they were about as effective. But the darkest joke was that he’d starved aboard the Queen Mary when she might a
s well have been the Good Ship Lollipop.

  Foxworthy took another bite of iron then reached under the snow for a handful of delicious half-frozen earth, tasting even more improbably like a cheese puff from a Christmas party, then levered himself out of the grave by the uneaten mortsafe bars and rolled over into a snow-free patch, laughing with relief and shock, alternating bites of candied iron with handfuls of soft muddy ground which now tasted like fresh brie. He wondered where and what the water biscuits were. The world was mad but the most insane part was that what he’d thought was Hell was actually the Land of Cockaigne.

  Finally the hunger, the panic and the shock lessened to the point at which he fully noticed the ground he was lying on was very soft. As soft as newly turned earth.

  He sat up and looked around. It was dark and drizzling, the moon hidden behind England’s ever-present clouds, but the firelight from his eyes illuminated the stone:

  ANNE VIOLET FOXWORTHY

  BELOVED WIFE AND MOTHER

  JULY 12TH, 1899 – JANUARY 8TH, 1952

  Foxworthy bawled like a child, crying tears of fire as he staggered out of the churchyard towards the Old Bell Inn, the village pub.

  While the scene that ensued would go down in village legend, to be completely fair, the Old Bell had seen worse rows. After slaking his thirst with half a case of Scotch, Foxworthy allowed the vicar to coax him back to the church where, over tea and biscuits – actually paraffin and several boxes of charcoal tabs intended for the censers – he confessed everything, every horror, all his fear and pain.

  A good man of Christ, the vicar simply listened, finally reassuring Kenneth that Aldworth had always taken care of its sons and this time would be no exception, but he needed to talk to the bishop. So after bidding Kenneth to get some rest, he excused himself, leaving Foxworthy to spend a sleepless night with the broken statues of Philip de la Beche and his family, now looking less like funerary sculptures and more like murder victims.

  In the morning, the vicar explained the sad facts: Anne Foxworthy had left her worldly goods to the church, and while something probably could be done given the circumstances, the house had already been sold. So, after pressing him to take a small bundle of personal effects, the vicar urged Foxworthy into the back of Seth Marlowe’s horse trailer where, with a hay bale as a pillow, he finally got some rest.

  He awoke to find Seth poking him with a pitchfork, then stepping back in alarm. ‘You’re awake. Good.’

  Foxworthy emerged, clad in a toga made from horse blankets, and heard the leaf springs creak as he left the trailer. ‘This isn’t the Isle of Dogs.’ He looked up and down the street, seeing high-end shops mixed with bombed-out buildings. ‘This looks like Mayfair.’

  ‘Which is where you’re wanted,’ Seth explained. ‘Vicar was on the phone all night.’

  ‘Captain Flint!’ cried a voice. ‘Or should I say “Brigadier Foxworthy”?’

  Foxworthy turned to see an absurdly handsome man modelling the finest suit possible standing in a shop door. ‘Or “Sir Kenneth”?’

  ‘Any will do, I suppose.’

  ‘Good. Come in the back.’ Handsome Harry pulled the tape measure from his neck. ‘Let’s get you fitted.’

  Harry stood on a ladder, taking measurements. ‘Perhaps you should hire Gully,’ Foxworthy jested. ‘I expect he’s residing on the Queen Mary with his brother?’

  ‘Oh no,’ said Harry, the edges of his Cockney sanded off with his new address, ‘Lookout’s not a joker like us, he’s an ace. But a decent one, not like Spring-heeled Jack.’

  ‘Spring-heeled Jack?’

  ‘Another wild card,’ Harry explained. ‘Fell out of the deck last autumn. Has red eyes that glow like yours, sir, but nowhere near so tall. He flaps around in an opera cape like a great bat, waves steel claws, and scares the wits out of natural folk, but unlike the original, he hasn’t murdered anyone. Yet. Largely he just robs jewellers and silversmiths.’ He scribbled measurements. ‘Whereas Lookout works in Brighton, is a great favourite with the press, but isn’t stuck up. He still drops in to visit Jamie, Jim, and Jimmy.’

  ‘Seaman Gully named his heads?’

  ‘Well, they are different men, sir. They just share a body. Then again, the Jameses are almost as tall as you now so they might be a help. I’ve fitted them for a number of suits.’

  ‘The wild card made them grow?’

  ‘Well, more as a complication,’ Harry explained, measuring Foxworthy’s arm. ‘Three heads means three pituitary glands, so the Jameses suffer from gigantism.’

  Foxworthy sighed, then asked, ‘So what’s this business with aces and jokers and wild cards?’

  ‘Bit of Polari from the Americans, sir. The aliens who made the virus, these blighters called the Takisians, they named it the Enhancer, because it’s meant to enhance your psychic abilities. But the Takisians made a botch of it, got a virus that’s too random, so chose to test it on us.’

  ‘Lovely of them,’ Foxworthy sniffed.

  ‘Well, yes,’ agreed Harry, ‘but if it’s any consolation, they’re all dead – the bad ones at least – all except this poncy little bugger named Dr Tachyon who, if you believe it, dresses like an extra from a Restoration comedy, can read people’s minds, and says he was trying to stop the other Takisians when everything went pear-shaped. Which is something you’re decidedly not,’ Harry remarked, taking in Foxworthy’s shoulder-to-hip ratio and adding notes to his pad. ‘But anyway, rather than the Enhancer, the Americans decided to call a spade a spade and dubbed the virus what it is: the Wild Card. It can do anything. But it’s all random and luck of the draw. Anyone infected with the virus is called a wild card too. And having the virus manifest itself is “turning your card”.’

  He jotted more measurements down. ‘Aces like Lookout got dealt something good from the wild card deck: they look completely normal, except when they use their powers. Jokers like the Jameses got something bad, so have to hide it, if they can.’ He paused, clenching one end of the tape measure in his perfect teeth and tensing it, considering, a Pre-Raphaelite pose, making him look like Proud Maisie’s brother crossed with a shirt collar advertisement until he released it. ‘And the ones who perished are said to have drawn the black queen, like poor Princess Elizabeth – though of course the Palace denies it. But everybody knows.’

  ‘Oh,’ said Foxworthy, taking the news in. He’d rather liked Elizabeth. ‘So Margaret’s heir?’

  ‘No, sir,’ said Harry. ‘She’s Queen. But the coronation won’t be until next year since we’re still in mourning for King George, who died only last month. Lung cancer. Terrible illness.’ He ran the tape measure around Foxworthy’s waist. ‘What, did no one tell you?’

  ‘It … didn’t come up. There were … other distractions.’ Foxworthy paused. ‘I suppose I don’t need to thank him for knighting me now …’

  ‘No, I suppose not.’

  ‘So, with the wild cards, are there knaves?’

  ‘I don’t know,’ admitted Harry. ‘It might be a good term for those like us who got dealt a mixed hand. Everyone thought your joker turned into a black queen, sir. Very glad it didn’t.’

  ‘Even more so I,’ Foxworthy confessed. ‘So, this Spring-heeled Jack, what is he?’

  ‘He wears a mask, sir, and even with it off, it would be hard to tell. Few’d guess I’m not a nat unless I dropped trou, and I’m not in the habit of that, now more than ever.’

  ‘Nat?’

  ‘Natural person, sir. More American Polari.’ Harry paused, rechecking a measurement, then remarked, ‘With you back, sir, it gives me hope. Should cheer Jillian even more.’

  ‘Jillian Fisher?’ Foxworthy asked, glad to hear she was still alive but then asked the other half of the question he’d been dreading, ‘Is she a joker?’

  ‘No,’ Harry said brightly, ‘so far her card has stayed in the deck. But her brother Francis’s silver statue disappeared from the Hunterian last autumn, about the same time Spring-heeled Jack showed up. There was talk Francis
was Jack’s first theft, but Lord Webb-Johnson claimed not only had Francis come back to life, but he’d flown out of the skylight.’

  ‘On what? The stuffed camel? The dinosaur?’

  ‘No, just by himself – the Flying Tommy if you’ll believe it. But it’s not as silly as it sounds. The Americans have a coloured pilot with a jacket, goggles, and scarf who flies around just like that, with no plane. They call him Black Eagle.’

  ‘So Francis is alive?’

  ‘Well, that’s just it, sir, we don’t know. It was a foggy night when it happened and no one else saw him flying, so most thought it was a load of bollocks and someone stole him. But now you’ve come back, doesn’t seem quite so impossible now, does it?’

  ‘No, I suppose not.’

  ‘Jillian should be happy to see you in any case. Glad to say she’s doing well. Show people are much like jokers in that they look after their own. She ended up in Covent Garden, at the New Theatre. Jillian turned out pretty like her mum and still acts, of course, but you remember how clever she was with mechanical things? She works as a wire rigger now too, making the good fairy fly, and builds props and such. And she’s got me costume contracts. Now arms up, sir, let me get your chest,’ he said, whipping the tape measure around and pulling it tight only to have it sliced in two by Foxworthy’s chest hair.

  Harry didn’t complain, only walked under Foxworthy’s arm, glanced up at him, remarking, ‘I’d suggest a gambeson as an undershirt.’

  ‘Gambeson?’

  ‘A padded coat meant to be worn under armour, sir. Or perhaps motorcycle leathers …’

  ‘And what will I owe you for all this?’ Foxworthy sighed, dropping his arms wearily. ‘I’m afraid my funds are in a knot what with being thought dead.’

  ‘Nothing,’ said Harry, his handsome face smiling up at him. ‘You owe me absolutely nothing, Sir Kenneth. ’Tis I who owe you.’ He pulled both halves of his tape measure around the back of his neck and held them like a man proudly tugging a pair of braces. ‘I’m the face man, but I’ve a lot of jokers back at the Queen Mary doing piecework. Even cobblers. They’d be honoured to help. We should have this pulled together within a day or two.’

 
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