Knaves over queens, p.8
Knaves Over Queens,
Part #26 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin
Foxworthy took out the snot rag Harry had made him, woven from asbestos fibres and infused with fire retardant. ‘Stop it, Kenneth Foxworthy,’ he told himself. ‘You won’t look like less of a monster blubbering napalm on everything.’
He forced himself to do ordinary things, or as ordinary as his life was now. Checking the paper for the latest antics of Spring-heeled Jack. Drinking paraffin from a teacup then reaching into the coal scuttle that now served as biscuit tin, the cheaper coal tasting like ginger nuts, because to him, sulphur tasted like ginger. Then he proceeded to empty the scuttle because it was cold – bitterly cold – and he needed to stoke his fire if he didn’t want to freeze back into a statue.
Everyone else was keeping warm as well, James Gully with three different scarves around his necks, then Harry came in, wearing a fashionable new coat and carrying a large brown paper parcel. ‘Happy Christmas, Captain Flint,’ the handsome joker said. ‘Thought you might be needing this early.’
‘Thank you.’ Foxworthy cut the string with his finger and opened the parcel carefully, setting the paper aside to eat later. It was a greatcoat, a particularly great greatcoat, considering that it fitted him, in black to hide singes and leather-lined to resist cutting. And it was very warm.
‘I’ll admit I’ve never put leather patches on the inside of elbows, but yours are rather sharp, sir, and you live and learn.’
‘That you do,’ Foxworthy said with good humour, but soon settled back into his brown study, staring into the electric fire while feeding the real one inside him, one day like the next. And so passed the second, the third, and the fourth, different only in that it was turning even more bitterly cold.
He awoke the morning of the fifth to hear James Gully coughing from all three throats, hacking cruelly with a noise Foxworthy hadn’t heard since before his father died. But Morris Foxworthy’s lungs had been a ruin from mustard gas, and James was a healthy young man, or men, relatively speaking. ‘Are you all right?’ Foxworthy asked.
‘No,’ gasped Jamie, overlapping with Jimmy who wheezed, ‘It’s the beastly fog,’ while Jim hacked and said, ‘So thick I couldn’t even see our feet,’ then all of them coughed in concert.
Foxworthy smelled something in the air then, a delicious Christmas scent, as when his mother was baking gingerbread, filling the whole house with the promise of its goodness.
But Foxworthy’s senses were skewed, and he knew what he now smelled as ginger was in fact the reek of brimstone. ‘Stay here,’ he told James, ‘and take care of yourselves.’
He went up, but even towards the doors he could see the tendrils of fog creeping in. Foxworthy stepped outside, into the bank of whiteness, and it was like stepping into the Christmas Country from Seidel’s Wintermärchen, a tale he’d heard only last Christmas – his last Christmas – in ’45, in Lübeck, a story German widows read their starving children about a poor widow’s children who once visited Father Christmas in his castle made of gingerbread, and how the closer they came, the stronger the scent of the wonderful sweetmeat grew …
Foxworthy took a faint sniff, then breathed deep, filling his lungs, and it was all the wonderful things in the world to him: gingerbread and ginger beer, spice drops and Christmas cakes, air he could live on. But he was a monster, with a chimney flue for a throat, and for everyone else what he smelled was the reek of death …
He heard gasping in the fog, the sound from his father’s final hours, and the rage in his heart made its fire burn brighter, shining through the windows that were his eyes and cutting through the fog like twin bullseye lanterns. Then he heard the gasp again, its almost perfect musicality, and he knew to whom it belonged. ‘Harry.’
Foxworthy thundered down the gangplank, the metal gonging under his tremendous weight, the boards of the dock as well. He found Harry clinging to a lamppost like a dying moth. ‘Captain Flint …’ he gasped. ‘I got turned around and—’
‘Steady on, soldier. I’ve got you.’ It was like picking up a child. The greatest worry was not breaking the gangplank as they thundered back up.
The air in the Queen’s Salon was nowhere near as thick with the gingerbread scent. Foxworthy laid Harry out on Barbour’s favourite bench and waited until he could speak. ‘It was the smog,’ Harry gasped. ‘I was going to the Tube, but the fog was a peasouper, then the chimney smoke kept getting stronger. I couldn’t breathe. I tried to come back …’
‘You’re safe now.’ Foxworthy ordered the Gully triplets, ‘Put a kettle on. The steam from the hot tea will help him breathe. You three too.’ They all nodded.
‘What about you, Captain Flint?’ Harry asked.
‘Me?’ he replied. ‘I was made for this.’
He did a sweep of Millwall first, then the Isle of Dogs, rounding up all the strays, both jokers and nats, taking them back to the safety of the Queen Mary. It had been a hospital before and could be again, most of the lady jokers trained in emergency nursing from their time with the outbreak, and all of them clamoured to be useful again.
Foxworthy knew that feeling well.
But the Isle of Dogs was a shipping district, and the population of London was greater elsewhere, so he went north and west, to Limehouse and Stepney, the fog growing thinner but only for a time, flowing out from the Thames as the day wore on and growing darker as the air grew colder and more coal was thrown into furnaces.
Then he stepped into horror.
Foxworthy knew the devastation the East End had suffered during the Blitz, but knowing was nothing like seeing the ruins up close. He also knew about the almost two hundred killed at the Bethnal Green air-raid shelter, most of them women and children, not due to a German bomb, but the crush of humanity when a woman carrying a child slipped on a badly lit rain-slicked stair.
The woman had survived, but her child had not. Churchill ordered the tragedy covered up, the grieving mother forced to blame her child’s death on a bomb that never fell. The same with the other survivors. Foxworthy wondered if the truth had come out or ever would.
‘Help me,’ begged a voice in the smog.
‘Where are you!’ he roared, but his voice was still a hellish whisper.
He found her, an old woman sitting on the fog-drenched ground, her knees skinned, a scarf clutched over her mouth in a vain attempt to protect against the smog. ‘I’m here for you.’
She struck at him as he reached for her. ‘No!’ she wailed. ‘I’ve lived a good life! Don’t take me to Hell!’
‘I’m taking you home,’ he told her as he picked her up and she beat against him. ‘I’m not the Devil, I’m Captain Flint.’
Either she hadn’t heard him or she feared jokers more than the Devil. But fighting was life and his eyes were like searchlights, letting him pierce through the smog that choked her even as it nurtured him.
He pounded on the door of the nearest house. An old couple stared up at him as he ducked inside and set the other old woman on her feet where she stumbled over to the man. ‘What—’
His wife was faster in crisis. ‘It’s Mrs Briggs, Mordecai! Help her!’ She then turned to Foxworthy, patting him on the arm. ‘Yasher koach, Captain Flint.’
He didn’t know Yiddish, but it felt as if the Queen had pinned a medal on him. ‘Thank you, madam.’ She nodded and he went out to do a soldier’s duty.
He worked through the night and into the next day, and when he grew exhausted he found a petrol station, discovering that to him motor oil was treacle while petrol was strong black coffee.
Soldiers had survived on less.
And still the gingerbread smog continued, nourishing his transmuted lungs even while it choked London. Adding irony to cruelty, the day was December 6th, St Nicholas Day, when Father Christmas was supposed to sit good children on his knee and listen to their wishes, not carry them through the fog screaming and coughing, thinking him Knecht Ruprecht or Krampus or the giant Hans Trapp or some other Yuletide bogey who’d wandered out of Germanic legend the night before
In Foxworthy’s defence, the coal was to keep his strength up.
But one parent had a Father Christmas cap with a sprig of good English holly, so he requisitioned it. It didn’t fool a single child, but made some pause long enough to realize he was a joker, and moreover, one who was trying to take them somewhere where they could breathe.
Through the day he went and through the night, wandering a hellscape not wrought by Hitler or the Takisians but Mother Nature and John Bull’s industry. Foxworthy had seen the bodies of children before, but blasted by bombs or twisted by the wild card, not perfect little angels who looked as if they should wake any moment, but never would, smothered by smog.
There were dead adults as well, mostly the elderly, the infirm, and the asthmatic. Foxworthy watched his father die again as he stood helplessly by in the hospital as a veteran of the Great War, his lungs seared decades ago by mustard gas, coughed up phlegm, then blood, then breathed his last.
Not all the victims of a war died all at once.
He later came upon a woman lying in the street, hacking and coughing, but when he reached for her, she began to dissolve, twists of hellish vapour curling from her clothes as she evaporated. Her tormented face drifted apart and away. Foxworthy wondered if she’d been a passenger on the Queen Mary, one like Paddy or Jillian who’d survived until now with her card unturned. He wondered if she still survived, like Lieutenant Waters or himself, transmuted not into water or stone and fire, but a being of smoke and fog.
But the wild card was seldom that cruel or that kind, nor the Takisians that competent. In all likelihood, the black queen had spared the woman a different but equally agonizing death.
Foxworthy kept calm and carried on, for if he rested, there would be a flood of fire down his face that would never stop. He’d wanted a purpose for his useless transmuted life? Well, here it was. But it would have been better for the world to have one more self-pitying joker pensioner than to have Pandora shake this latest evil out of her bottomless box.
But with each person he saved, he felt as if he were dragging a bead of Death’s black abacus back to the tally of Life, at least for today.
Foxworthy wandered wherever the next cough or cry led him, and when he heard nothing more, he went west, towards the city centre. Now he found himself in Hatton Garden, London’s jewellery district since medieval times. He saw a man emerging from the smog, his face covered by a mask such as chemists sold, and a black scarf worn over that. His eyes, hidden behind a black motorist’s mask and vintage goggles, glowed red. His fingers gleamed silver, as did the candlestick sticking out of the sack he had slung over the back of his hooded opera cloak.
Spring-heeled Jack looked up at him. ‘I have no quarrel with you, Captain Flint,’ the knave said, his voice muffled by the mask and scarf. ‘Leave me to my work.’
Foxworthy was no Professor Higgins, but he could still recognize a Cheapside accent. He noted that Jack was not overly tall or short, just middling and slim. ‘Francis Fisher,’ he told him, ‘you need to give this up. You’re going to get caught.’
‘Francis Fisher is dead!’ Spring-heeled Jack cried. Then he leapt or flew, Foxworthy wasn’t sure which, five storeys up, disappearing over the top of the roof and into the smog, and it was only on account of Foxworthy’s hellish vision he could see even that far.
He shook his head. Francis Fisher would not be the first joker to be driven mad by his transformation, denying who and what he had been, but it was still sad. And it was sadder yet for his sister Jillian who had been so distraught at the death of her whole family. Jillian would be overjoyed to know one of her brothers still lived, even as a silver statue.
Or would she? Foxworthy wondered. The woman he loved and his best friend had gone on with their lives together. And what would happen when he proved to not be dead? It was obviously much easier to continue as if he were.
Was Kenneth Foxworthy dead? Was all that remained Captain Flint?
It didn’t matter. The smog still killed, and people wouldn’t give a damn who saved them.
The smog persisted three more days. So did Foxworthy.
Thousands died, but he lost count of those he saved.
They hadn’t, and they were still telling the papers.
At Christmas, Foxworthy received many lovely gifts from friends and grateful strangers, but the most precious of all was a simple Christmas card inscribed in Alice’s hand, ending with: … yet most of all, we are glad to have named our son Kenneth after such a good and brave man. We wish we had been half so good and brave ourselves. Please forgive us and let us make it up to you in the new year. All our love, Lord & Lady Henshaw.
He held it close, forcing himself to keep back the tears which would burn it, when an arm telescoped across the room, shoving his shoulder, John Gully crying, ‘Captain Flint! She’s talking about you!’ Lookout’s other arm extended a mere ten feet, adjusting the volume of the radio on the mantelpiece of the Queen’s Salon.
Queen Margaret’s voice came across the radio. ‘… again, Captain Flint, if you can hear us, we would like to thank you personally on behalf of London and the Commonwealth for your actions during the Great Smog. While we still do not fully know its cause, we do know its hero, and for that we are grateful. Happy Christmas to you and yours and we look forward to thanking you in person.’
The jokers at the Queen Mary’s Christmas celebration were jubilant, as was the one ace, all congratulating their Captain Flint then continuing to make merry. The sole nat, a pretty lass in a pink coat, stood by John Gully, meekly waiting till the end of the queue when Lookout put his arm around her and drew her close, his upper arm now a few inches longer that it should be, saying proudly, ‘Captain Flint, this is my Elsie!’
‘Pleased to meet you, sir,’ she said shyly, then quickly, ‘I know we haven’t met, but I wanted to say “thank you” on behalf of my friend Carol. She said you helped her nan in Limehouse, and she’s all the family Carol’s got left.’
‘Family is important,’ Foxworthy agreed. ‘I’m glad you got a chance to meet John’s. Happy Christmas.’ Elsie smiled and he smiled back. It seemed every time Pandora freed another evil from her box, she let Hope fly again.
Foxworthy arrived at Buckingham Palace on January 5th of the new year, one month to the day from the Great Smog.
He was escorted to a stateroom. Another man was there, in his mid-thirties, of middling height, wholly unremarkable except for the fact that, when Foxworthy entered, he gave him the barest glance, then went back to studying a painting.
Foxworthy was perplexed. Given his stony skin, flaming eyes, and gigantic looming stature, he generally provoked some reaction. As he approached him, the man asked, ‘Which do you say the last brushstroke was, not counting the glaze?’
Foxworthy looked. The painting depicted an unusually lanky man in armour with expressive, heavily lidded eyes and an ermine-lined cloak embroidered with a double-headed eagle. ‘He’s rather tall,’ Foxworthy remarked, ‘or I would once have thought so.’
‘Peter the Great stood six feet eight inches tall,’ the man related, ‘according to the history books, while you stand precisely seven foot nine.’ The man’s eyes flicked back to the painting, darting with preternatural speed. ‘Unless Kneller was being flattering or his perspective was off, because, calculating by the height of the impost of the niche seen over his right shoulder, Peter here stood six foot nine.’
Foxworthy looked down, and because he stood two feet taller, he could see down the back of the man’s shirt. Just as the pink flesh of Peter’s neck transitioned to the shining steel of his armour, this man’s neck transitioned from pink to silver. But there was no rolled and beaten edge as there would be with armour, no glimpse of an undershirt. ‘Peter the Great is not the only one here with a painted face.’
The man looked up, his make-up flawless in its imitation of natural flesh, his eyes wide in surprise. Then they narrowed, his expression calculating. ‘Either the wild card
‘You’re living metal just as I’m living stone.’
‘My skin, at least,’ the man admitted. ‘The rest I’ve not yet finished calculating.’
‘You’re studying the paintings to find the best techniques to pass as a nat.’
The man turned his head back to Peter the Great with a motion as cold, fluid, and mechanical as the Silver Swan automaton turning her head to view the silver fish in her glass pool. ‘Of course,’ the man said blandly, ‘and it must be sheer coincidence I picked the tallest, most handsome emperor in the room.’ He grinned.
‘Ah, I see you’ve made the acquaintance of our Mr Turing,’ said a familiar voice. Foxworthy turned to see Sir Winston Churchill, again Prime Minister, enter the stateroom.
Foxworthy glanced back to the man, who’d seemed unremarkable at first, now wholly remarkable even apart from his wild card. ‘Alan Turing, the man who cracked the Enigma code …’
Turing did not respond, but Churchill did. ‘We call him our Enigma ace, one of Britain’s secret weapons.’ Churchill walked up to join them. ‘That’s a state secret, Brigadier Foxworthy, one you don’t have clearance for, but that is a situation we shall remedy. In retrospect, we should not have been so hasty pensioning off all the jokers in the military.’
‘You made a miscalculation,’ Turing observed.
‘And you still might be one, Mr Turing,’ Churchill threatened wryly.
Turing responded, ‘Captain Flint saw through my disguise.’
‘Oh?’ said the Prime Minister. ‘Your error or some wild card power of his?’
Knaves Over Queens by George R. R. Martin / Fantasy / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes