Knaves over queens, p.9
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       Knaves Over Queens, p.9

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

  ‘I looked down the back of his shirt.’

  Churchill glanced up. ‘That would work too.’

  ‘Gentlemen,’ said a woman’s voice, ‘if you have quite finished carping, we have business to discuss.’

  ‘Your Majesty,’ Sir Winston said quickly, turning and bowing.

  ‘Let us dispense with the ceremony, Sir Winston,’ said Queen Margaret, the doors shutting behind her. ‘Please.’ She walked forward briskly. Rather than robes of state, she wore a lilac brocade gown. In lieu of a crown, her sole jewellery was a multi-strand pearl choker. ‘I’ve had all the ceremony I could stand over the holidays.’ She looked up. ‘Captain Flint. Or may I call you Sir Kenneth?’

  She was not the sixteen-year-old princess Foxworthy remembered, but even so, she looked terribly small and young as a queen of twenty-two. ‘Whichever you like, Your Majesty.’

  ‘Well then, Sir Kenneth,’ said Queen Margaret, ‘I feel as if I should have a ceremony, since my late father was kind enough to knight you when you weren’t around to enjoy it, and God knows I have enough honours I could heap on you now, but the fact is I’m tired and I need your aid, so I shall do away with the frippery and get down to brass tacks. Britain is a laughing stock. America has had two official groups of agents with wild card powers – first the Four Aces and now SCARE – while Britain suffers her worse disaster since the Blitz and the only one who comes to her aid is a joker pensioner in a Father Christmas cap.’

  ‘The cap was a brilliant touch,’ Turing told him. ‘I loved the cartoons in Punch.’

  The Queen ignored him. ‘The nation has had good reason to be distracted,’ the Prime Minister pointed out.

  ‘No, Sir Winston,’ the Queen differed, ‘I have had good reason to be distracted. I lost my sister and then my father and by all rights I should be tearing my hair out with grief, but somehow I have kept it together. Whereas Parliament has been endlessly bickering, and when it has decided to do something, it’s done something stupid, like pensioning off every joker in the military then pretending they don’t exist. After the Great War, when we had disfigured soldiers, we painted tin noses to give them their self-respect back. That we’ve not done the same now is an utter disgrace!’

  ‘I’m not disputing that, ma’am,’ said Churchill, ‘but this is Parliament.’

  ‘Scotland Yard’s done no better,’ the Queen pointed out. ‘It’s been a year, and Spring-heeled Jack has robbed so many silversmiths in London he had to go stealing silver in Belfast before coming back for his spree during the week of the Smog.’

  ‘What do you suggest?’

  ‘What would I suggest?’ mused the Queen. ‘Well, it’s in my power to create orders of chivalry as I see fit, and moreover I could use my knights for purposes other than pointless ceremony. So I could invent an order for wild cards, but since wild cards sounds too American, I’ll make it British. Spring-heeled Jack keeps stealing silver? Fine, silver is a good heraldic metal. Make it the Order of the Silver …’

  ‘Helix,’ Turing suggested. ‘The Order of the Silver Helix.’

  ‘Why “Helix”?’ asked Churchill.

  ‘The DNA spiral’s a double helix,’ Turing explained. ‘Xenovirus Takis-A is a complicated strand that inserts itself, rewriting it and transforming the individual.’

  ‘Excellent,’ pronounced Queen Margaret. ‘The Order of the Silver Helix it is.’ She turned to the Prime Minister. ‘Give me a reason I shouldn’t take my sword and knight these two chaps right here, right now then march down to Westminster Bridge and wave it around until Father Thames appears and then knight him too.’

  ‘Please don’t do that, ma’am,’ begged Churchill.

  ‘Why ever not?’ asked Queen Margaret. ‘I understand Father Thames is actually Lieutenant Edward Waters of the Royal Navy – my Royal Navy – or at least would be if they hadn’t discharged him. What did they do, throw the papers into the Thames? And in any case, he hasn’t accepted them. He’s spent the past seven years righting capsized boats, preventing shipping disasters, and catching attempted suicides and putting them back on bridges. Volunteer work by pensioners is fine for old men and invalids, but this is an ace we’re talking about, even if not one we can hide by just painting his face. I want to see Waters reinstated in the Navy and given back pay. I don’t know what he’ll do with it, but I dare say he has relatives. When can I expect Parliament to make this happen?’

  ‘Ma’am,’ the Prime Minister began, ‘I will do my best. There has been talk of creating MI7 as a special branch for wild cards, and we can certainly call it the Order of the Silver Helix.’

  ‘Far better than the Americans’ SCARE acronym,’ Turing said. ‘Not that they set a high bar.’

  ‘Yes,’ Churchill agreed quickly. ‘But as I said, these things take—’

  ‘You have until my coronation,’ Queen Margaret stated bluntly. ‘If Parliament can’t get matters attended to by then, my sword comes out.’ She turned to Turing and Foxworthy. ‘Gentlemen, I will also need someone to run this organization. You’re both excellent candidates. I propose a contest: whichever of you can unmask Spring-heeled Jack by my coronation will head the Order of the Silver Helix. Does that sound fair?’

  ‘Quite,’ said Turing. ‘I do enjoy a puzzle.’

  Churchill appeared ready to say something, but Foxworthy watched the old politician glance at Queen Margaret and bite his tongue.

  ‘Captain Flint?’ the young queen prompted.

  Churchill gave him a quick glance, half hope and half warning, but Foxworthy did not respond. He hoped his own flaming eyes were unreadable. He nodded to Queen Margaret. He was not enjoying this puzzle at all.

  Alan Turing had been a genius even before he contracted the wild card. Now he was a computer with a man’s body. But even a computer was only as good as the data it had access to. Foxworthy, on the other hand, despite the coal-fired stone juggernaut his soul now inhabited, was an ordinary man, if with a more-than-average share of ambition, luck, and a soldier’s duty to protect his men. And one girl.

  But it was seven years since the Queen Mary tragedy, and Jillian Fisher was now a woman, one who deserved to know what had become of her brother. Jillian was also Foxworthy’s best chance to reach Francis, try to talk sense into him before anyone died.

  Not that even deaths were insurmountable. This was an arms race and aces were assets, even knaves mixed with jokers. A taste for silver, while expensive, was well within the government’s budget, and metallic skin could be camouflaged with make-up.

  Foxworthy wondered what Turing’s diet consisted of, briefly entertaining the idea the Enigma ace might be Spring-heeled Jack himself. He had the metallic skin, and while his eyes hadn’t glowed, nor had he flown; it was not as if Crispin Barbour flew all the time either.

  Foxworthy then considered whether Barbour might be the silver thief. The gargoyle shared Spring-heeled Jack’s steel talons and rumoured strength, but his eyes, while red, didn’t glow. In addition, Barbour used his wings, even if what made him fly was actually telekinesis.

  Of course, given the wild card, one could suspect anyone of being an ace, even Churchill.

  All that being said, when enquiring at the New Theatre, Foxworthy found that Jillian Fisher had left abruptly during rehearsals for Blithe Spirit, to everyone’s great inconvenience. Not only did they need to find someone to do wire-work for the ghost, but Jillian had been understudy for both Elvira and the medium, and was doing effects for the séance too. But this was the least of the production’s troubles, since not three days after Jillian left the lighting board had finally shorted out beyond repair, followed by half a dozen minor mishaps, ranging from prop failures to missing costume pieces, leading to the company declaring the play cursed if not outright haunted.

  Foxworthy listened to this litany of theatrical woes until he heard what he expected: that Jillian Fisher had left the New Theatre less than a week after her brother’s statue had flown out of the skylight of the Hunterian Museum, and no one knew w
here she’d gone either.

  Foxworthy left without leads, but he was not without resources.

  James Gully spread out the map. ‘Here,’ said Jim, ‘this is the latest.’ He pointed to a spot in Fitzrovia. ‘Dr Van Moritz’s flat.’

  ‘And here’s where you saw Spring-heeled Jack in Hatton Garden during the Smog,’ said Jamie, pointing to a CF written amid a cluster of red dots.

  Foxworthy wasn’t certain how the three Jameses managed their two hands, but he was certain that the wild card had produced an excellent intelligence analyst. James had collated all the reports of Spring-heeled Jack since his appearance, documenting both thefts and sightings.

  ‘Pity he sticks to night and fog,’ John remarked. ‘If it were a clear day, I could just stilt up and look for him.’

  ‘You still might,’ said Jimmy. ‘Look here. On clear nights, the earliest and latest sightings have all clustered around Holborn.’

  ‘And we’re on the Isle of Dogs,’ said Crispin Barbour, pointing a steel talon, ‘so he nests to the west of us …’

  ‘Where the sun sets.’ John’s neck extended six inches. ‘He’ll be backlit perfectly.’

  ‘Indeed,’ said Crispin, ‘and while Spring-heeled Jack is by all accounts a poor flyer – he just hops up to rooftops and glides between buildings – I fly rather well.’

  ‘How’s your night vision?’ asked Foxworthy, puffing his pipe.

  ‘Not as good as yours, sir, and nothing in fog, but if it’s a clear night, London’s never truly dark. And if there’s a full moon, it’s even better.’

  ‘I can only get Mondays off,’ John mentioned, ‘and I’d like to spend some time with Elsie.’

  His brother’s three heads and Crispin’s one beaked one all stared at him.

  ‘It’s fine,’ Foxworthy said decisively. ‘Every man deserves time to spend with his sweetheart. Just check the weather and come up to London when it’s fair.’

  Neither the English weather nor Spring-heeled Jack cooperated with Foxworthy’s plan. January and February were a mixture of fog and snowfall and the papers reported only one sighting and three thefts. March was mostly dry but quite foggy, and the few fair days worked with neither John nor Spring-heeled Jack’s schedule.

  Of course, neither Turing nor Churchill was having much luck with their respective tasks either, Churchill having a particularly bad time with Parliament.

  Then came April. The clouds stayed until the 19th when it became beautifully clear – on a Wednesday. But the weather held until the next Monday when John finally came up from Brighton – bringing Elsie with him, minutes before sunset, the moon almost full.

  ‘Nice of you to lend us our brother,’ Jamie leaned down and said to her after they had come up the gangplank.

  ‘Oh, you are a pet,’ responded Elsie, spontaneously kissing him on the cheek. ‘Thank you for letting me have John all those foggy days.’

  Jamie paused, his hand going to his cheek, while Jim and Jimmy gave him looks of mixed shock and jealousy and even John looked a bit the same.

  ‘All right then, Mr Lookout,’ Elsie told her boyfriend, winking. ‘To your work. I’ll be good.’ She stepped a bit closer to Jamie, and Foxworthy was reminded of when Alice had left him and Wally to fight it out for her.

  ‘Dusk is falling,’ observed Crispin. ‘Join me.’ With that, the gargoyle leapt up, his great grey gryphon wings unfurling, winging in an arc until he came to rest on the Queen Mary’s forward smokestack.

  With a glance back at Elsie, John stepped forward, doubling in height each step until he stood leaning against the smokestack as a man of ordinary stature might lean on a low wall, his neck stretching up like a giraffe’s as he brought up his equally elongated arm to shade his eyes with one hand, watching, peering, searching for a long while until Barbour grew impatient. The gryphon gargoyle unfurled his wings and flew up to hover beside Lookout’s head.

  Foxworthy couldn’t hear what they were saying, but it became immaterial, John’s left arm pointing like a weathervane as it extended towards the sunset. Crispin used it as his guide, flying faster and faster until he outdistanced Lookout’s arm extended across the Thames.

  Then came a long silence, Lookout still watching, Foxworthy exchanging equally baffled glances with James’s three heads and Elsie.

  Then Lookout stood up straight, almost doubling in height, then just as quickly collapsed down, stopping at a more normal but still ludicrous ten feet as he sprinted up. ‘Crispin got in a fight with Spring-heeled Jack!’

  ‘Who won?’ asked Elsie.

  ‘Jack!’ John exclaimed. ‘Crispin’s a better flyer, but Jack knew the terrain and confused him with his cloak. He flew head-first into a chimneypot!’

  ‘Barbour chisels stone with his beak,’ Foxworthy said. ‘He should be fine.’

  ‘You don’t understand,’ said John. ‘His head went through the brickwork. And Jack’s still there!’

  With a bravery and foolhardiness that Foxworthy knew well, John Gully ran down the gangplank, tripling in stature with each stride as he ran in the direction of Holborn.

  Elsie looked up at Foxworthy and John’s brothers, alarmed. ‘Do you—’

  ‘No,’ said Jamie, ‘most of us just take the Tube.’

  The only good thing was Crispin was not dead.

  They sat in Churchill’s office, Foxworthy on the floor so he did not smash the expensive antique furniture, Turing in a regular chair, looking smug.

  ‘So you are saying,’ Churchill said, sitting at his desk, ‘that the gargoyle is not in fact Spring-heeled Jack but one of your agents.’

  ‘Crispin Barbour,’ Foxworthy stated. ‘Former RAF. Also a talented stonemason.’

  ‘And a hairdresser,’ added Turing. ‘One of my prime suspects.’

  ‘Enumerate why, please, Mr Turing,’ Churchill asked. ‘Succinctly.’

  Turing ticked the points off on his fingers. ‘One: metallic claws. Two: enhanced strength. Three: resistance to harm. Four: flying. Five: red eyes.’ He smiled, gesturing openly. ‘And six: found with an object stolen by Spring-heeled Jack.’

  ‘Yes,’ said Churchill, checking a paper on his desk, ‘a Georgian silver candelabrum, reported missing three weeks ago.’ Churchill fixed Turing with a tired look. ‘Does that compute, Mr Turing?’

  Turing went silent. ‘No,’ he concluded at last, ‘only as a very obvious attempt at a frame, and a sarcastic one at that.’

  ‘And Spring-heeled Jack flies with a cloak, whereas Barbour has sixteen-foot wings.’

  ‘They could be bound and hidden,’ Turing said. ‘Aces actually fly through telekinesis.’

  Churchill ignored him. ‘Brigadier, had you considered Mr Barbour as a suspect?’

  ‘Yes,’ admitted Foxworthy, ‘but I also considered Mr Turing.’ In answer to Churchill’s raised eyebrow, Foxworthy added, ‘He has armoured metallic skin and so does Spring-heeled Jack.’

  ‘I only know that it’s metallic,’ Turing stated. ‘I don’t yet know whether it’s armoured.’

  It was a childish thing to do, but battles had been won with less. Foxworthy snapped his fingers, chipping off a tiny dart of flaming elf shot which pinged off Turing’s shoulder, cutting his shirt, and ricocheted into the fireplace.

  ‘Ow!’ cried Turing. ‘That stung!’

  ‘He’s armoured,’ Foxworthy stated, then used his flaming thumb to light his pipe before extending it to Churchill.

  Churchill clipped a cigar and lit it, then Turing, not to be outdone, took out a cigarette. Foxworthy chose to not be petty and let him light it too before snuffing the flame.

  Turing took a long draw on his cigarette then observed, ‘I wasn’t aware that we were allowed to use other aces as agents.’

  ‘I wasn’t aware that we were allowed to put advertisements in the newspaper offering rewards for tips on Spring-heeled Jack either.’

  ‘Gentlemen,’ said Churchill, ‘we are all aware that you both have your own resources and peculiar methods which Queen Margaret
and I are evaluating. All’s fair, within reason, but to that end, I think we’ll be keeping Mr Barbour in custody, if just to let Spring-heeled Jack think his ruse worked and keep matters quiet until after the coronation.’

  ‘What about Mr Gully?’

  ‘He used his telescoping arm to punch a bobby. But I’m quite aware that he’s a local hero in Brighton and an ace we’d want. We’ll let him cool his heels overnight then drop the charges in the morning.’

  The press had a fine time reporting Spring-heeled Jack had been unmasked as the Grey Gryphon, though Crispin Barbour maintained his innocence and nothing had been recovered apart from the candelabrum. The actual Spring-heeled Jack lay low, allowing the press to concentrate on the coronation.

  As for the coronation, Foxworthy felt a bit like the gargoyle in the cathedral himself. He’d been given a seat at the back of the guest section, specially fashioned for his height and immense weight, but otherwise like the rest, covered with platinum velvet, trimmed with gold braid, and embroidered with a crowned MR as the new royal cipher. While it was an honour to be invited, and a strong statement on behalf of Her Majesty, Foxworthy saw the glances, the outright stares, and the long while the television cameras lingered on him. He was the only obvious joker invited, if not the only wild card.

  Beside the Prime Minister sat some handsome young Hooray Henry whom the press had dubbed just that as his ace name. His actual name was Henry Astor and he could yell loudly enough to burst beer kegs. Sir Winston had made him his bodyguard, issued him a scarlet military tunic, and was attempting to get the press to call him Redcoat.

  The new ace was the Prime Minister’s current favourite to head the Order of the Silver Helix, finally ratified by Parliament but awaiting the Queen’s announcement after the coronation. Alan Turing, painted to be indistinguishable from a nat, sat nearby, eyeing Redcoat.

  But wild cards were not the only ones there. Three rows up sat Lord and Lady Henshaw. Despite the Christmas card, Wally and Alice had not been in touch since, nor had Foxworthy, but they exchanged awkward glances throughout the ceremony until he looked away, knowing the disaster it would be if he became tearful.

 
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