Settings
Black Trump

Black Trump

Black Trump 10


  "Was I drugged? Are you so afraid of aces that you had that monkey-man put drugs in my tea?"

  "Monkey? No. No drugs."

  He sounded so puzzled that she believed him. Her sense of taste was still okay. She was just crazy. Great.

  Side doors led to offices. The corridor ended in another armored door.

  "Needles, come in with us," the Black Dog said.

  Balthazar clenched his fist in salute and stayed in the corridor. The Black Dog led Zoe and Needles through a doorway screened with a beaded curtain, into a carpeted room scattered with pillows.

  Croyd sat cross-legged on the floor next to a stocky woman in full chador. The woman rose as the Black Dog entered.

  "Welcome, Hound of Hell," the woman said.

  "Good morning, Azma." The Black Dog bent and took the woman's hands in his. He brushed the muzzle of his mask across her fingers. She bowed to Zoe and the newcomers and left the room. Croyd got his legs under him with less grace, but he got up without using his hands, which were wrapped around a tiny coffee cup.

  "I think you have to grow up sitting on the floor," Croyd said, "or your knees just don't bend the right way."

  "Miss Harris, this is Croyd Crenson."

  "We've met," Zoe said. She tried to put enough ice into her voice to freeze his nose off.

  "Hello, Zoe," Croyd said. He toasted her with his cup and sipped more coffee. "They got me, too."

  "So I see."

  The Black Dog seated himself on the floor and pulled a floor cushion up to use as an elbow rest. He poured himself a cup of coffee from an ornate silver urn. The coffee smelled of cinnamon. Don't sit down, Zoe told herself. Keep the tiny advantage you have by standing while he sits, make your speech, and go.

  "I wanted to plead with you the first time I came here," Zoe said. "I still do. I don't want my kids trained as killers. I'll do anything I can do, pay any price that I'm able to pay, to prevent that. I don't mind that they're associated with the Fists. We can't live here otherwise, I know, but surely they can be trained as non-combatants. I beg you, don't do this to them. They are tough kids, but they're good kids. Please. That's all I have to say. I'll go now.

  "Thanks for the coffee," Croyd said. "I'll just be running along myself."

  A guard, not Balthazar, appeared in the doorway, his rifle at the ready.

  "Please," the Black Dog said. "Sit down, both of you. Needles, pour the lady a cup of coffee." He motioned to the floor in front of him. Zoe sat. So did Croyd.

  "You're here for a reason. You too, Croyd. You're here because I need you, and because you both look like nats. I don't like nats. I don't like aces. I don't trust them. But trust can be contracted, if the terms are right. I need your help."

  Needles handed Zoe a cup of thick black coffee.

  She stared at it. Was it drugged, too?

  "I need you to go to the Ukraine and buy a nuclear warhead," the Black Dog said.

  His words were clear enough. He had just said, "I need you to go to the Ukraine and buy a nuclear warhead." Right. Zoe had a lot of experience in international arms trade, sure. That's why he had kidnapped her, of course. The man was totally psychotic, she had no business here to begin with, and a rifle was pointed at her back.

  "The Card Sharks have a biologic weapon that can kill all of us, jokers, aces, carriers, anyone infected with the wild card. The Sharks have developed a killer virus they call the Black Trump. If it gets loose, we'll die. All of us."

  "That's crazy," Zoe said. No one could develop such a weapon and be sure it would work. "The Card Sharks were a delusion of Gregg Hartmann's. He said so." But then Hartmann had always had a tendency to bend the truth, Zoe remembered.

  "Needles? The case report, if you would."

  Needles handed Zoe a manifa folder. She opened it, seeing scattered words: Hemorrhagic shock. Lysis of internal organs including the brain ... the victims exhibit lethargy and cerebral dysfunction so that they appear to be dead while still alive....

  Zoe slapped the folder shut. An eight by ten glossy slid out, full-color reds and blues of something collapsed and limp that might have once been a joker.

  The Black Dog retrieved the photo, slipped it back inside the folder, and handed it to Croyd.

  "The virus has been tested. It works. The Card Sharks aren't a delusion. The Sharks are real, and they have the Black Trump. I don't want it turned loose in Jerusalem. I don't want it turned loose anywhere."

  "Go to the police. Go to Interpol. Go to the UN."

  The UN didn't do such a great job in Jerusalem as it was. So many UN "peacekeepers" had died in Jerusalem that their presence was now a carefully calculated sop for tourists. They left the real violence in the city alone. Maybe not the UN. Maybe CNN.

  "Your friend Charles Dutton is under arrest. Father Squid is missing. No one can find that horsy little doctor from the Jokertown clinic."

  "Dr. Finn? Missing?"

  "Everyone in New York who knows about this virus is missing. Jokertown's most colorful freaks vanish and there's not a whisper, not an arrest, no inquiry."

  "That much coverup couldn't happen."

  "It has."

  Bjorn had believed Hartmann's stories about a conspiracy. If this were one, it had to go all the way up. All the way.

  Impossible.

  But there had been all that trouble about getting Anne's records out of the clinic, strange voices on the phone, delays, no way to talk to Finn, and he had liked Anne.

  "That's why we need a bomb. If we can blackmail the Sharks with it, we will. If we can't, and there's an outbreak - "

  "You'd have to pray that the virus was loosed only in one confined place. You're crazy. Can't you just tell the Sharks you've got a bomb?" Zoe asked.

  Well, no. The Sharks couldn't be that stupid, the Black Dog couldn't be sure that some of his people didn't report to the other side.

  "What do you plan to do with this ... device ... when you get it?" Zoe asked.

  "Threaten to expose the plot. Bargain for the virus. Turn the warhead over to the UN when we can."

  Uh-huh.

  "If you're looking for a smuggler, you're looking in the wrong place," Zoe said. "I've never even shoplifted anything."

  Croyd shut the folder, laid it on the floor beside him, and sipped at his coffee.

  "Mr. Crenson has skills in this area," the Black Dog said.

  "Your pictures don't scare me and I don't understand some of the big words in that report. Pictures can be faked. Forget it. I don't do nukes," Croyd said.

  The Black Dog leaned back against his cushion and rested an elbow on his knee in a storyteller's pose from a bad movie of the Arabian nights. His masked face seemed to stare at something above Croyd's head.

  "Croyd Crenson has always been afraid to sleep. His fear is not of sleeping but of waking." The Brooklyn street slang in the Black Dog's voice vanished, replaced by the sonorous cadence of a storyteller in the souk. "Because he believes that one day he will wake as a madman, as demented as the mother that he scarcely remembers."

  "How could you know that? Nobody knows that." Croyd's face went pale and his eyes locked on the dog mask.

  "We spoke of contracted loyalty." The Black Dog sighed as if he were contemplating human treachery with great sorrow. "There was a man once who wanted to help you. Do you remember?"

  Croyd's lean body had looked almost gaunt. It wasn't, Zoe realized. He was thin in the way bodybuilders called "ripped." Every muscle in his forearms, in his neck, stood out in tense definition. She pulled her shoulders in, trying to look smaller and nonthreatening.

  The Fist's leader settled back on his cushion again. "Pan Rudo. Here's the deal, Croyd. Bring me the bomb. We'll bring Pan Rudo to you. I promise it."

  "Bullshit" Croyd said "One, the Card Sharks are cranks. And two, I finally managed to kill that sonofabitch Rudo. He's dead! I killed him. Count me out of this, okay? I gave at the office."

  "Pan Rudo's alive. He was jumped into a strong, young body. We're looking for
him now.

  "No!" Croyd moved with the speed of a trained athlete, on his feet in an instant with his hand stretched toward the Black Dog's throat. The guard at the door snapped his rifle into position, and Croyd stopped in what seemed to be mid-leap. He had managed to put down his coffeecup before he moved, Zoe noticed. He hadn't spilled a drop.

  "Sit down, Croyd. The Twisted Fists are after Rudo now. We'll find him. When we find him, he's all yours."

  "He's dead, damn it!"

  "He's young. Younger than you, by the calendar. He's a handsome man, so I near. Not many men get to taste their dearest enemy's death twice, Croyd. Think about it."

  "I don't believe you," Croyd said.

  "I think you do," the Black Dog said.

  Croyd settled back on his cushion. His eyes never left the Black Dog's face. He motioned with his empty coffee cup and Needles filled it for him.

  "Zoe Harris, you think you can't be part of this. Nice girls don't play games with horrors. Your moral code would never let you touch a situation like this, even if your refusal meant your death and the death of every joker and ace in the world. Yeah. I might just feel that way myself, if I had the choice.

  "I don't. Here's my offer. You get this bomb back to Jerusalem. Once that's done, you'll never hear from us again. We'll send your kids to Vietnam. All of the kids go and they go to school. The Fists pay the bills. Jellyhead wants to be a doc, I hear. She's got real talent in that direction."

  She did. The Black Dog was talking security for all of them, more security than a wage earner under threat of extradition could hope for. Vietnam would mean another move, another displacement, another culture for the kids to fit themselves into. The situation might change there, but there were enclaves that might be free of the sound of gunfire for a few more years. A few quiet years to grow and hope.

  She couldn't do this. Could not. Would not. In the photo, the half-dissolved sagging body of a joker, blood oozing from eyelids, nostrils, fingernails ...

  "That's my offer, but that won't be enough to convince you. Needles, speak to her," Black Dog said.

  "You have to help," Needles said. "I mean, you don't have to. But Jan is in this bomb thing. She's the only one of us who looks nat. Zoe, it has to be nats. There's borders to cross, and jokers don't get past them alive. You haven't seen what they do to jokers in the desert, what they do to the kids if their card turns and we can't get to them in time.

  "Jan's already headed for the Black Sea, Zoe. She's with Balthazar."

  Jan? Pick the one that's closest to my heart, except all of them are close to my heart. This was vile blackmail. But Jan? What if she panicked and let her joker eyes show at a border crossing?

  "I don't know how to buy a bomb," Zoe said.

  "Most of the arrangements are made. The package is ready. Payment has been discussed. You and Croyd are buying some farm equipment. That's all there is to it. You pick up the package; someone you'll never see hands over a draft on a Swiss bank. You're just mules. It isn't all that cloak-and-dagger stuff. Forget that.

  "You, Jan, your husband Croyd, and his brother Balthazar. An innocent, hardworking family transporting an irrigation pump. You'll manage this, Zoe Harris. You will do whatever you can to keep your 'daughter' alive. And in the process, the rest of us may buy time to destroy the fucking Trump. We have to try, anyway."

  "I don't get it. Why Croyd? Why me? Why Jan?"

  "You mignt get stopped. You might be asked questions. You don't know much about the Fists. If you're caught, you can't say much, any of you, that would hurt us. We deny that we ever heard of you. That's how it has to be."

  "You bastard," Zoe said.

  "Yes," the Black Dog said. "Oh, yes."

  "I don't speak anything but English," Zoe said.

  "Croyd does. Needles, take them to Snailfoot. He can brief them." The Black Dog's robes swirled around him as he rose and vanished through the beaded curtain.

  "Come on, Zoe," Needles said. "You'll like Azma. She'll do a good job with your hair."

  Hair? Nuclear warheads? A trip to Russia? But Needles was smiling at her, as calm as if he'd just mentioned a trip to the souk for cucumbers. Croyd Crenson didn't look like a Turk. What if he fell asleep? Irrigation pumps? A disease that dissolved jokers in their own blood?

  The room itself seemed a stage set. Zoe felt that if she pushed one of the stone wails, it would break like cardboard. She would see the barren brick wall behind it, and stagehands running back and forth to set the next scene.

  She stood, walked to one of the wails, and laid her hand on the solid stone, cool and unyielding. She punched at it.

  "Zoe?" Needles asked.

  Her knuckles bled from tiny scrapes. She held her fist in her hand feeling the bones. She hadn't broken anything.

  "My hair. Black?"

  "Yeah, sure. You, too, Croyd. Come on."

  ♥ ♦ ♣ ♠

  Gregg had learned the layout of the sewer lines in the month or so he'd spent hiding there after he'd been jumped. He came up into the subbasement of Squisher's establishment, through a loose grate in the storeroom floor. He pushed open the unlocked door and eased himself out into a dimly-lit corridor. Worn concrete stairs led to the bar just below street level. As Gregg remembered, there was a phone booth here, in an alcove between the restrooms.

  So far, so good. Squisher's seemed safer than up on the streets where he was being hunted, and this was a call that Gregg had to make, not Hannah. In the early afternoon, Squisher's was mostly empty. Gregg could hear the sounds of someone's heavy tread on the floor above, and the insistent bubbling of Squisher's tank behind the bar. The low drone of a TV masked the fragments of conversation that drifted down the stairs. The basement smelled equally of uncleaned urinals and spilled alcohol.

  "I think I prefer the sewers," Gregg muttered to himself as he went to the phone booth and heaved his long body up on the seat. He pushed the receiver up with a tiny hand; it fell, dangling from the short cord. He'd been clutching a quarter in one hand resisting the temptation to pop it into his mouth like a piece of hard candy; now he slid it into the slot. Gregg punched numbers and pressed his ear against the swaying receiver, waiting. One ring. Two. Three. Gregg sighed, thinking the answering machine would kick in, when he heard someone pick up the phone. "Yeah?"

  Gregg lifted his body slightly so he could speak into the mouthpiece; his truncated arms couldn't bring the receiver to his head. "Bushorn? Bushorn, don't hang up please. You have to listen, have to hear me out."

  Gregg dropped down. " - listening," a faint bass voice answered.

  Up again. "Good. You remember your court case a year and a half ago? EastAirFreight fired you because you were a wild carder, said you were 'dangerous.' We agreed on half a million in an out of court settlement; you said you were going to buy that plane you always wanted. You also said that if I ever needed a favor, to just ask. We were standing in the street outside the offices. You shook my hand, my left hand and you said it didn't matter what, didn't matter when, just call Gary Bushorn. Well I need that favor."

  He dropped down again. " - artmann? Gregg Hartman?"

  Up. "Yes. I'm Gregg Hartmann. Much changed, I'm afraid. Gary, I need a flight for two out of the country, and I need it now."

  Down. " - rumors about you are true, then. With what I've been hearing, that explains a lot, I guess. Look, I ... I guess owe you one, maybe. But I have to file a flight plan, get the plane ready, make sure things are set here. That's gonna take a day or two. Just where you planning to go?"

  "How far can you take us?"

  " - outh America. Upper Canada. Europe, if we take it slow and easy."

  "Europe," Gregg said. As Hannah had said, the vials would be with the Sharks; if Rudo had indeed fled the country, then he'd have run to one of them - and they knew that the British general in Ulster, Horvath, was a Shark. If that didn't pan out, then England was close, and Gregg knew people there: Captain Flint, Churchill. Suddenly Gregg was feeling less useless. "That sounds good. H
ow soon, Gary?"

  " - days. That should do it."

  "When? How many days?"

  Gregg was suddenly aware of someone watching. He could feel the pressure of a gaze. His head jerked up to see the large body of the joker known as Mick and Rick staring at him from the stairwell leading to Squisher's. The two-headed joker didn't say anything, and Gregg wondered how long they'd been listening. Bushorn was talking. He thought he heard the word "Thursday." "We'll be there " he said quickly, and he pressed the hook, disconnecting Bushorn. Gregg slid down from the seat. Mick and Rick watched, the doubled heads swiveling as Gregg scooted across the hall and into the storeroom.

  "Where's he going now?" he heard Mick say.

  "How the hell should I know?" Rick answered. "I ain't getting near him. I heard his puke can melt metal."

  Gregg slithered down the narrow sewer inlet feet first. He pulled the lid over him. He hoped Bushorn understood, hoped he had the right day. That left only one small problem - how to get to Tomlin.

  ♥ ♦ ♣ ♠

  The waiting was boring. When Ray got bored he had too much time to think, and now he had something to think about. He came back from the bathroom where he'd just taken his temperature (normal: one hundred and three degrees) and spent a minute or two staring at his tongue (looked normal, but Ray wasn't sure; he'd never really looked closely at his tongue before). He seemed to be all right, but then Crypt Kicker seemed okay until he'd turned into a pile of shit right in front of Ray's eyes. This Black Trump stuff was maddening. And Ray had the feeling that he'd have to go face-to-face with it again. He didn't want to, that was for sure. He didn't know if he could. He'd never run away from anything in his life, but the Black Trump was like nothing he'd ever faced. Maybe he was better off chasing Hartmann than chasing death.

  To get his mind off the Black Trump he looked at Harvest, who was sitting at the hotel room's tiny writing desk, reading the dossier Barnett had given them. Her silk-clad legs were crossed at the knee, her blond hair was attractively tousled. She looked good enough to eat.