Black Trump

Black Trump

Black Trump 12

  They slammed against the pier, hard. Peter Pann jumped across, rope in hand, and tied them up. Jay looked back behind them. The Coast Guard had finally gotten its patrol boat back under control, but it was too far off to pop the new guy at the wheel. "Move it!" he shouted to Melissa.

  She was right behind him as he clambered onto the dock. Peter offered a hand to help her up, but she ignored him and jumped for it. Her hat was in hand. She popped it out and planted it on her head. "What now?" she asked.

  "Phase two," Jay told her. He started to clap. Melissa joined in. All around Peter Pann, tinks winked into existence. Two, six, a dozen, tiny lights dancing like fireflies on speed. One by one they scattered, zipping off in all directions, a ring of scouts.

  "The prison's this way," Peter said. He led them up the hill at a dead run. They were halfway there when the door opened and more guards came pouring out. Jay started popping them away before they knew what was happening.

  One of them lost his rifle as he vanished. Peter Pann bent and scooped it up. "Put that down!" Jay yelled. "We win or we lose, but we aren't going to shoot anyone." Peter dropped the gun.

  The heavy iron door, a relic of the old Civil War fort, had slammed shut behind the guards. Jay pulled at it ineffectually. "Locked damn it."

  A tink came zipping back over the walls, buzzing. "More guards on the way," Peter warned them.

  "We have to get inside," Jay said.

  "Let me," Topper said. She took off her hat, reached in, pulled out a key, unlocked the door. "After you."

  Jay and Peter went in together, left and right, rolling. Gunfire stuttered around them. Jay heard Peter cry out in pain. He got the shooter in his sights and popped him away.

  An alarm began to hoot, making a annoying whoop whoop sound. Jay did a quick look-see and spotted a guard in a glass security booth over their heads. He pointed a finger, dropped a thumb. The guard vanished. The glass was probably bulletproof, but that meant fuck all to Jay's finger. If he could see it, he could pop it. The alarm went on and on.

  So much for stealth. The cell block was in front of them, behind a wall of titanium bars embedded in bulletproof glass. Jay didn't see any keyholes. Topper's hat was going to be no use here, they were sealed out.

  Melissa knelt over Peter, pulling off his T-shirt. His arm was bleeding. "I get triple time for wounds," he said through gritted teeth when Jay came over to look at the gunshot.

  "You know, sometimes I think of you as the son I never had," Jay told him. He had to shout to be heard over the whoop whoop whoop. "How bad is it?" he asked Topper.

  "The bullet went clean through. He'll live."

  "Only if you kiss it and make it better, honey," Peter Pann said to her. The alarm whooped.

  "I'll kiss it all right," Melissa said grimly. She pulled a bottle of iodine out of her hat and splashed some on his arm. Peter let out a remarkably authentic eleven-year-old shriek. Melissa produced a length of sterile gauze and began to dress the wound.

  A tink came racing back from somewhere and buzzed in Peter's ear. He made a face. "Trouble," he shouted to Jay. "They've sealed off the whole complex. Electronic locks."

  "That's your department," Jay told Melissa. "I'll finish him."

  "Don't I get a vote?" Peter Pann asked.

  Jay ignored him. Topper pulled her powerdeck out of her hat and nodded at him. Jay studied the empty security booth overhead. There was a bank of monitors, a huge console, a swivel chair. Whoop whoop whoop went the alarm. "First thing you do," Jay shouted, "you turn off that fucking alarm." He made a gun of his fingers.

  Melissa Blackwood vanished with an inaudible pop and reappeared above them, behind the wall of bulletproof glass. Jay saw her looking around carefully. Then she hit a button, and the alarm died in mid-whoop. The sudden silence was a blessed relief.

  "Hey, remember me?" Peter nagged. "I'm bleeding over here, boss man. The health plan damn well better cover this."

  Through the glass, Jay could see Melissa jacking in with her powerdeck. He turned his attention back to Peter Pann and finished up the dressing. No sooner was that done than he heard a low humming noise behind him. Jay turned just in time to see the cellblock door sliding back smoothly into a wall. Melissa was smiling down from above, giving him a thumbs-up.

  Jay ran through the door with Peter right behind him. The cellblock was a three-story affair, metal catwalks fronting the upper levels on both sides. The cell doors were still locked, sealed with heavy titanium bars. Jay went to the closest cell.

  Inside was a pony-sized palomino centaur, his blond tail flicking nervously from side to side. "Ackroyd? Is that you?"

  "Nah, it's my evil twin," Jay told him.

  "What's going on? The alarm - "

  "We're getting you out of here. Hold still."

  "Never mind me, get Clara! The women are on the second level, listen, Clara knows - " Before Finn could protest further, Jay pointed and popped. The centaur vanished.

  As he started to the next cell, lay heard a series of loud metallic clicks. All up and down the corridor, the cell doors began to open. Peter Pann whooped with triumph. Prisoners began to wander out into the central corridor. Father Squid naked from the waist up, tentacles twitching beneath his nose, his wet gray flesh obscene in the fluorescent lights. Charles Dutton, looking like the grim reaper's ugly brother. The Oddity, huge and twisted, their mottled flesh moving and shifting with each step they took. There were others too, jokers that Jay did not recognize.

  A woman's voice called down from the catwalk above him, "It's about time you guys got here!" Jay glanced up and saw Hannah Davis in prison grays.

  "You know how hard it is to rent a sailboat in Manhattan on short notice?" Jay said, defensively.

  On the catwalk beside Hannah, a brown-haired woman in oversized glasses stepped from her cell. "Bradley," she called out anxiously. "Where's Finn?"

  "Safe," Jay said, "I popped him out already."

  Further down the second tier, a gigantic iridescent snake with a woman's face was slithering out of a distant cell. The brown-haired woman cried out, "Maman," and ran to embrace her.

  Father Squid was looking at Peter Pann, aghast. "My son," he said to Jay, "thank you for your gallant efforts on our behalf, but you ought not have brought a child to this dreadful place."

  "Who's a child?" Peter said angrily. "Watch the mouth, jellybelly, or we'll leave you here."

  Everyone was shouting. Jay heard Black Trump and Card Sharks and Pan Rudo from a half-dozen different throats. No one was listening to a word anyone else was saying. He put two fingers in his mouth and whistled. They all shut up.

  "Better," he said. "Look, there'll be time to fill me in later. First we need to get you all out. If everybody will just stay calm and do as they're told - "

  But then suddenly Peter Pann was screaming at him. Jay turned and saw a swarm of tinks buzzing around Peters head. "Gas!" Peter was yelling over and over.

  All around him, Jay heard a hissing sound, and sleep gas began pouring out from the air ducts.

  He told himself to hold his breath, but it was already too late. His head swam dizzily. Jay took a step, thinking, I've got to get my people out first. He found Peter Pann, pointed. The boy vanished, leaving behind a cloud of tinks in the place he had been. Reeling, Jay clutched the bars of a cell for support and looked up. Hannah Davis had begun to slump. He popped her away, let go of the bars, searching for Topper. The cellblock was dark with gas. Forget Topper, he told himself, pop Dutton or Father Squid, anyone you can find. But they were all down by now, and Jay's chest hurt, and the world was whirling around him.

  He felt his legs go out from beneath him, but he was gone before he hit the floor.

  ♥ ♦ ♣ ♠

  From a second story window Mark glanced out. The late-night grounds were dark and still, though when he looked hard he could see the glow of an ember where a sentry squatted in the rosebushes smoking a cigarette. Like everything else in the ostensible Moonchild regime, security was pretty i
nformal - but it was fanatical, and, at need, ruthless.

  J. Bob had seen to that. But while that ruthlessness sometimes appalled Mark, he never tried to change it. Because it was needful when there were people out there who would come to kill you, who would not be dissuaded if you stuck a fucking daisy down the barrel of their Kalashnikov.

  It wasn't for himself that he ringed the Palace with guns, and jokers and Vietnamese who were only too eager to use them. Not rationalization, but plain fact: he wasn't fanatical about clinging to his own life. Nor did he believe that only he, in his complicated Traveler-as-Moonchild guise, could lead Free Vietnam.

  He was fanatical about Sprout.

  He looked into her bedroom. She lay on her side atop the coverlet, curled up asleep with her teddy bear clutched to her chest and her thumb in her mouth. He went into his own less-than-sumptuous room across the hall, sat down on the brass bed, and kicked off his sneakers.

  One advantage of the stress the chemically-induced masquerade laid on him was that he was exhausted clear down to the marrow each and every day. He was gone as soon as he was horizontal.

  ♥ ♦ ♣ ♠

  Gregg and Hannah stood on a pier in the midnight fog, looking down at the greasy, black water of the East River lapping at the pilings. Getting here - especially after the fiasco of yesterday - had been a slow, long process, moving through the sewers and subterranean serviceways of the city until they surfaced - still in Jokertown - near the East River.

  "What now?" Hannah asked Gregg. Their trip had lent Hannah and Gregg a certain miasma. Hannah's hair and Gregg's spiky tufts were wet, and Hannah's clothing was hopelessly soiled. What Gregg could see of his own body told him that he hadn't fared any better.

  "I'm not sure," Gregg said. "But this is where Charon used to come. We wait, that's all."

  They waited occasionally ducking back into shadows when security guards came by on their rounds. The hours went by slowly, but the waters of the East River remained unbroken and dark. Charon, the joker who had once ferried others to the Rox, and who - it was whispered in Jokertown - still came here to the edge of Jokertown to pick up passengers, never arrived. A false dawn began to touch the building on the far shore, Gregg sighed. "I guess this was a mistake," he said.

  "Let's stay a few minutes more," Hannah said. "Quasi said Charon would come."

  The mention of Quasiman sent a shiver through Gregg, and the memory of Hannah hugging the joker. Gregg huffed, irritated. "Seems to me that Quasi could have just zapped us over to Tomlin himself, if he really wanted to help," he said.

  Hannah looked at him, and he knew she'd been cut by the edge in his voice. "Quasi can't control what he is or what happens to him, Gregg," she said. "You can't blame him for that. I get the feeling that something else is bothering you."

  For several seconds, her gaze held him. He was glad, for once, of his expressionless joker face. I want you to love me the way you did before, he thought. You loved me without my making you love me, and I want you to feel that way again. I want you to act as if I were normal, and if I had Him back, I'd make you do it. I'd twist your emotions and wring them out; I'd bind you to me so tightly you couldn't goddamn breathe without me.

  "Nothing's bothering me," he said blandly. "Nothing at all."

  "Gregg - " She crouched down alongside him. Her fingertips brushed his side, tingling like a live circuit, and left quickly. Too quickly. "Have I done something to hurt you? I ... I never meant - "

  "You didn't do anything. I'm fine."

  Her eyes searched his face. He wondered what she saw. "Good," she said at last. "Because I do lo - "

  "I know," he said. He wouldn't let her say the words because he didn't want to hear the falseness in them. You're a joker. She can't love you, can't even touch you. Not any more. It's over. "I don't want to lose you, that all."

  She smiled at the words. "That's not going to happen," she said.

  "Good" he answered. "All right. We'll wait a few more minutes, I suppose. Until the sun's up."

  Not long after, Gregg heard a soft wave wash over the pilings. He looked down as the waters of the river rippled and parted below them, and a huge, bizarre creature surfaced. As the first light of dawn touched the towers of Manhattan, Charon's bulk broke the dark waters, phosphorescent dots puckering the transparent flesh like cheap Christmas lights. The vestigial head on top peered at them. "To the Rox again, is it, Senator?" he said to Gregg.

  "You recognize me?" Gregg said, incredulously.

  "I see your mind," Charon said "And everyone in it." Gregg had no time to wonder what Charon meant by that. "You nostalgic for the Rox, Senator?" it asked again.

  "The Rox is gone," Gregg told him.

  "Yep, that's what they say. The question's still there, though. Are you going where I'm going or aren't you?" Charon paused. "I heard you calling. I came."

  "We need to get across the river," Hannah said, and Charon's head turned slowly atop the massive body bobbing in the water. A streamer of raveled magnetic audio tape was wrapped around the cilia near the waterline.

  "That's all you want?" it rasped. "Take a cab."

  "We tried that," Hannah said drily.

  "Charon," Gregg told the joker. He cursed his weak, ineffective voice. "We - I - need your help. I don't know what you've heard, but They've" - his voice added the capitalization - "arrested Father Squid, Troll, Oddity, Dutton, and God knows who else. Things have broken loose." Gregg gave Charon a brief explanation of the Black Trump virus. Afterward, Charon seemed to shiver, as if the dawn air was cold around its slimy body. "Bloat's war isn't over," Gregg said. "It's just changed tactics and battleground."

  "That's news I'll have to relay. I thought something new and nasty was happening. I could feel the pain, every night that I come here, a tide of sadness washing out from Jokertown," Charon said. "I've been feeling it more and more recently. Business lately has been ..." He paused again. "... brisk," he finished.

  "Where do you take them?" Hannah asked.

  "To where all outcasts go."

  "Then take us where we want to go. We're outcasts too."

  Charon seemed to harrumph. Bubbles fluttered to the surface of the water with the sound. "It's that important?" it asked.

  "Yes," Gregg answered for both, his high voice piping.

  A froth of bubbles erupted around Charon as it rose higher in the water and moved toward the pilings where they stood.

  "Then get in," it said. "Your meter's running."

  ♥ ♦ ♣ ♠

  Mark tried his damnedest to be just, but tonight he wasn't sleeping that way. He dreamed a crooked dream.

  In that dream a crooked man appeared. He was big and powerfully built, with his shoulders cast at an odd angle and his head held low and to one side. He stood at the foot of Mark's big, colonial four-poster bed swept his glance over him, then looked at the chintz-covered windows with a distracted air.

  "Father Squid and Dutton got taken," he said in a soft musing voice. "Or did they? Maybe that's going to happen." He shook his head. A vacant look closed like shutters behind his eyes, and a string of drool ran down his chin. "You're somebody," he said, seeming to come back to himself. "Somebody who's important. Or ... going to be important. It's all jumbled up in my mind."

  In his dream Mark sat up in bed. Sweat made his T-shirt cling to his ribs in a clammy intimacy. "You're Quasiman," he said. "I've heard about you."

  "I've heard about you, too. If I could only remember when, or what. Or why...."

  He wandered out from behind his eyes again. Mark sat watching him, propped on his arms, aware that this was a very realistic and immediate dream - so much so that the muscles in his arms began to tremble from unaccustomed exercise.

  A furtive sound from the hallway. A dream? Quasiman blinked and raised his head. "That's it, Mark," he said. "It's why I came."

  He shrugged uneven shoulders. "It's about your daughter - "

  He vanished.

  Mark's senses stretched out like a long-parted l
over's arms. No mistake: scuffling sounds from somewhere.

  At the base of his door, shadows occulted the thin strip of yellow hallway light.

  Mark was out of bed in a stork-legged leap for the door before he was aware that this wasn't a dream, any part of it. With a shattering sound the door slammed open, the lock's receiver ripping right out of the jamb with a squeal of tearing wood.

  A dark figure in the door, features hidden by a black ski mask, machine pistol held ready. Without thinking Mark lashed out with his foot. It caught the dark figure smack in the crotch.

  With a soft grunt the intruder let his weapon drop to its sling's extent, clutched himself, and went to his knees. Mark rushed past him into the corridor.

  Two more dark figures stood by Sprout's door. One turned as Mark lunged at him.

  Befuddlement was transmuting to frightened anger in Mark. Somehow he remembered that on those few occasions when he'd punched people in the face in the past he had hurt his hand. Or maybe he recalled some of the unarmed self-defense Belew had tried to drill into him; or perhaps even part of Moonchild that was still in him - or part of that in him which had been Moonchild - kicked in. He swung his clenched right hand in a wide arc at a ski-masked temple, but struck not with the knuckles but the fist's bottom.

  Impact jarred his arm. The man in the mask fell against the door and slid downward, looking limp.

  His companion was trying to swing his own MP5 around. To Mark's inexpert eye its barrel was unusually stubby.

  He jumped on the gunman's back, wrapping his arms with his own long limbs, trying to pin elbows to ribs. The man turned with Mark riding his back like a hundred-dollar-a-day habit, threw himself backward against the wall.

  "Oof!" Mark said.

  "What the fuck's going on here?" It was Mason, a joker whose skin had the appearance of brick, down to the mortar seams. He stood at the end of the corridor by the stairs, raising a Kalashnikov.