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Black Trump

Black Trump

Black Trump 14


  Gregg wondered what it would feel like when they crashed. He wondered if he'd feel the pain. Hannah hugged him; he folded his tiny arms around hers, glad for her closeness at the end.

  Bushorn yanked back on the controls. With agonizing slowness, the nose of the plane lifted and the rumble of the wheels stopped. Gregg felt a distinct bump as the tires grazed the top of the van, and he was certain they'd pin-wheel back onto the runway. Bushorn cursed and fought the controls. The wings waggled, the nose dropped and the engines wailed, but the plane steadied a few seconds later, and Bushorn took them in a long, climbing turn.

  Tomlin, New York, and Billy Ray receded behind them.

  ♥ ♦ ♣ ♠

  "That feel any better?" Dr. Bradley Finn asked.

  Jay Ackroyd felt his nose. It was numb from the anaesthetic, his nostrils packed solid with dressing, the whole thing covered with a bandage the size of Jetboy's Tomb. "I can't wait to do some undercover work, I ought to blend right in," he said gloomily. "I must look like Jack Nicholson in Jokertown."

  "Oh, no," Jerry Strauss put in, never the one to let a movie reference go unchallenged. "Jack Nicholson didn't have two black eyes, and his bandage was much smaller."

  Jerry was wearing a smoking jacket today, to go with Errol Flynn's face. He was incognito. Finn knew Jerry Strauss by sight, as a patron of the Jokertown Clinic, and Jerry didn't want the Strauss identity compromised so he was being Creighton. "Fred" he'd whispered to Jay as he'd escorted him through the huge old house, past walls covered with rare mint-condition movie posters. "It's Fred Creighton, short for Frederick."

  "Personally, I think he looks more like the star of Bandit, the Wacky Raccoon," Peter Pann said. He was perched up on top of a huge wooden cask of amontillado, his arm in a sling and a pair of tinks orbiting his head.

  "Enough, Jay said. He was in no mood for extended discussions of his nose, not with global genocide staring them in the face. "We've got more serious problems."

  Bradley Finn sat on his haunches. "You have a plan?" he said. Finn was smallish as centaurs go, but he still filled up most of the Strauss wine cellar. His back half was a palomino pony, complete with blond tail and mane. His front half looked like a surfer, especially in the oversized Hawaiian shirt he'd borrowed from Jerry.

  "Face it, Ackroyd," Peter said, swatting lazily at a tink, "this is too big for us, way too big. We've got no choice but to go to the authorities."

  "The authorities know," Finn said sharply. "Clara and I went straight to the police after we escaped from the Sharks. The police called in the FBI. We were questioned for days. Then they classified the whole thing and rounded up all of us who knew the score and shipped us off to Governor's Island." His voice turned bitter and sarcastic. "Temporarily, of course. Strictly for our own protection."

  "Who questioned you?" Jay wanted to know.

  Finn shook his head. "Who didn't? The FBI, the CIA, lawyers from the Justice Department, some guy from Treasury, a couple of doctors from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta ..."

  "Anyone from the Special Executive Task Force?" Jay asked.

  Finn looked surprised. "As a matter of fact, yes. A pair of them. Straight Arrow, you know, that Mormon ace, and a woman named April Harvest. You don't forget a name like that. She asked most of the questions. Why?"

  "The Task Force was a Card Shark front when it was headed by Herzenhagen," Jay told him, frowning. "It could be legit now, I don't know.... Hannah Davis exposed Herzenhagen and Battle and a few other Sharks, but who knows how many more are still hidden?"

  "Leo Barnett," Jerry said in a glum voice.

  "You guys are all paranoid*" Peter Pann insisted. "The whole federal government can't be made up of Card Sharks."

  "Paranoids have enemies, too," Jerry warned, sounding ominously like Richard Nixon.

  "I delivered that sonofabitch Faneuil to the police personally. They ought to be way ahead. They ought to have arrested Rudo and Johnson by now. Instead they're arresting us."

  Jay thought about that for a moment. "It's not hard to figure why they don't want news of the Black Trump getting out. You tell a couple hundred thousand jokers that they're under a death sentence, and you'll have a riot that'll make that Rodney King thing look like a block party. And I don't even want to think about what some of our more unstable aces might do."

  "Are you saying that's why they brought in Finn and the others?" Jerry asked.

  "Sure," Peter said. "A public safety thing, misguided, even illegal, but you can understand why they did it."

  "Or maybe they're all Sharks and they wanted to silence us," Finn said. He stood up, his tail lashing angrily, flicking thick clouds of dust off rare vintages in the racks behind him, "We have to go back out there and get Clara!"

  "No way, Flicka," Peter said, "Once is enough for Mrs. Pann's little boy."

  "He's right," Jay said. "I'm sorry, Finn. Last time was a disaster. Peter got shot, and we had to leave Topper behind. I was lucky to get out of there."

  "Clara's the one you should have gotten out of there!" Finn said angrilv. "I told you, damn it! Clara designed the Black Trump, she was part of the Shark inner circles, she can give you chapter and verse on who they are and where they are ... facts and figures, names and numbers ... she's the one you need!"

  "Yeah, well, you're the one we've got," Jay said.

  "How much time do we have?" Jerry asked worriedly. "You know, before ... well, before the end ..."

  Finn sighed heavily. "A month. If we're lucky. They'll need at least that long to culture the amounts they need."

  "Explain," Jay said. "In small words. I flunked high school chemistry. Angela LaBruno was my lab partner, and I couldn't take my eyes off her chest long enough to follow the experiments."

  "All right," Finn said. "The Card Sharks have the Black Trump, but right now they don't have enough of it. Clara managed to destroy most of the cultures. The strain they have is only lethal through three or four generations, so - "

  "Wait a minute," Jay interrupted. "What does that mean? That generation business?"

  "I get the virus," Finn said. "First generation. Before I die, I pass it to you. Second generation. You die too, but first you give a dose to Peter Pan here."

  "Pahn," Peter said sharply. "It's Dutch."

  "Third generation," said Jay.

  "Right, and Peter Pan dies too, after he infects Mr. Creighton, and Creighton maybe gets real sick, but he doesn't die. It's fourth generation, and the Black Trump isn't lethal any more. What's more Creighton continues to spread the virus, only now it's just a bad flu, and anyone who comes down with it is immunized against the fatal, first-generation strain of the disease."

  Jay was starting to see the big picture. "So the Sharks can't just release this bug and wait for it to spread ..."

  "Not in the small quantities they have, no," Finn said, "not unless their goal is to kill a few hundred jokers and give the rest of the wild cards around the world a nasty flu. To get the kind of pandemic they want, first they need to culture a larger supply of the deadly first-generation strain. For maximum spread, they'd want a simultaneous release in several major cities, preferably ones with large wild card populations and major international airports."

  "Airports?" Jerry said, puzzled. "Why airports?"

  "Airplanes spread epidemics faster than anything I know," Finn said. "One guy coughs at O'Hare, and in twenty-four hours strangers in nineteen time zones and five continents have got his cold."

  "Hoo boy," Jerry said. It sounded strange, coming out of Errol Flynn's mouth. Errol didn't look like the kind of guy who said "Hoo boy" a whole lot.

  "Jesus," Peter Pann swore, "you're talking global here! This is a job for Interpol or the World Health Organization or somebody."

  "Pan Rudo was practically the head of the World Health Organization," Finn pointed out. "Etienne Faneuil was working for WHO when he was giving AIDS to jokers in Africa."

  "I'd like to pass this buck too," Jay said to Peter, "but I don't thin
k we dare. Maybe the feds and Interpol and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir are all hot on the trail of Pan Rudo at this very moment, but if they're not ... if they're not ..."

  "Ring around a rosy, pockets full of posey, ashes, ashes, all fall down," Bradley Finn said slowly, his voice grim.

  Jay threw him a sharp look. "What is this, national nursery rhyme week? I got the same thing from Quasiman. I thought he wanted to skip rope."

  Finn said, "No, Jay. That little song dates from the Middle Ages. It's about the bubonic plague. The Black Death." His voice softened. "They used to burn the bodies."

  "Ashes, ashes," Jerry Strauss whispered. "All fall down. It killed half the population of Europe."

  "Well, fuck it," Jay said, angrily. "Not this time."

  His junior partner nodded. "Not if we can help it."

  Jay looked around the wine cellar. A faux swashbuckler, a centaur, an eleven-year-old kid, and a guy who looked like a raccoon with a broken nose. What a team. The Card Sharks were probably shaking in their boots right now. He took a deep, deep breath.

  "So where do we start?" Jerry asked.

  Everyone looked at Dr. Bradley Finn. The centaur gave a hopeless shrug. "Clara is the one to ask, she ..." He stopped in mid-sentence, running his fingers through his thick, blond hair. "Her father," he said. "Clara's father, Brandon van Renssaeler. He was a Card Shark for years and years, but he was opposed to the Black Trump project, he thought it went too far. Clara warned him before she went to the police, to give him time to run."

  "And did he?"

  Finn nodded. "She figured he'd go to Australia. He had a friend down there, another Shark, what was his name now?" He snapped his fingers impatiently, frowning with concentration. "Farmer or Fielding or ... no ... He had the same name as the guy who wrote the James Bond novels."

  "Ian Fleming," Jerry provided helpfully.

  "Eric Fleming," Finn said.

  Peter knew the name. "Eric Fleming owns half the newspapers in Australia, along with a couple in England and one or two over here."

  "Then he shouldn't be that hard to find," Jay said. "All we have to do is get to Australia." There was a problem with that, he realized. "I suppose it would help if I had a passport."

  "Usually," Peter Pann said.

  "I have a passport," Jerry Strauss said quickly. "I'll go." Errol Flynn had never sounded so puppy-dog eager. "Just give me time to pack a suitcase, I'll get the first flight out. I can be in Sydney tomorrow morning."

  "Australia requires an entry visa too," Peter said. "Six weeks, minimum."

  Jerry looked stricken, but he was fast on his feet, Jay had to give him that. "I'll change into Paul Hogan and say my passport was stolen by a fan," he said. "They wouldn't turn away Paul Hogan."

  Jay had actually been thinking about sending Jerry to find Fleming all by himself. His junior partner had been doing some good work lately, and there was no doubt that he'd drawn a versatile ace. That way Jay and Peter Pann would be free to follow up other leads. On the other hand they had no other leads, and he wasn't sure Australia was big enough for two Paul Hogans. "Maybe we should both go," Jay said "There are a dozen places in Jokertown where we can get fake papers that look better than the real thing."

  "I'm going with you," Dr. Finn announced.

  Jay looked at him, surprised. "That's not a real good idea."

  "I'm going," Finn repeated, in a voice full of resolve. "I have a personal stake in all this. Those Shark bastards made me an accomplice to murder in Kenya, and then they used me as a hostage to force Clara to recreate the Black Trump. I owe them."

  Peter Pann laughed. "Great speech, Flicka, but you just escaped from federal detention. How the fuck do you think you're going to get to Australia? Creighton can change into anyone he wants, and Jay's got this swell raccoon disguise, but you ... well, no offense, doctor, but you're a horse."

  "I wasn't planning on flying Quantas," Finn put in. "My father has a Learjet. I'm sure he'd let me borrow it."

  Peter made a face. "Who's your father, Secretariat?"

  "One more horse joke and I'll make sure you never grow up," Finn said, giving Peter a hard look. He turned to Jay. "Well?"

  "A private jet would be handy, but last time I looked, you were a doctor, not a detective. The only thing worse than an amateur is an amateur with something to prove."

  "I'll keep my head down and do what you tell me," Finn said. "And if you don't take me, I'll go anyway."

  "All right," Jay said, dubiously. He was remembering the last time he let someone go with him to play detective. He still had nightmares about that night. "I'll arrange for our passports. Finn, get on the horn and see about that plane. Jerry, make sure you pack lots of money. We may need to bribe people."

  Finn was confused. "Jerry? I thought his name was Fred."

  "It's, ah, Jeremiah Frederick," Jay said glibly.

  "What am I going to be doing while you guys are throwing a shrimp on the barbie?" Peter Pann wanted to know.

  "Holding down the fort," Jay said. "There's nothing to connect this house to anyone at the agency, so you should be fine so bng as you stay here. We can use the phone as a message drop, check in every few days in case anything breaks. I want you to smother this city with tinks. Maybe they'll pick up something. And get a hold of Sascha. We'll stop on Maui and pick him up."

  Peter grinned wickedly. "He'll be so happy."

  ♥ ♦ ♣ ♠

  "I guess they're going to let us live," Bushorn said. "If they were going to shoot us out of the sky, they'd've done it already. They'll be tracking us with radar, though."

  They'd been heading steadily eastward for the last several hours. Bushorn had throttled them back not long after their takeoff - "We aren't going to outrun an F-14, and if we try, we're just going to run out of fuel in the mid-Atlantic." - and set the plane on autopilot.

  "They want to know where we're going," Hannah said. "They can wait."

  "Which means we're going to have a reception waiting for us when we land, wherever we go. You got any other tricks you can do, Bushorn?" Even in the chilly cabin, Bushorn was still perspiring heavily.

  "I'll admit I'd hate to have your laundry bill," Hannah said to him. "You always sweat like that?"

  Bushorn chuckled softly in the pilot's seat, turning around to them. "It's the wild card's fault. Hit me late, while I was in the service in South Carolina, flying transports. Started out running a fever, and just got hotter and hotter. Literally burned off my robe, set the bed on fire, too, but it didn't do much to me. About like this. Remember what this looked like?"

  He held up his hand; his palm was now a mass of fluid-filled blisters, like a handful of gelatin capsules. Hannah reached out and cradled Bushorn's hand in her own. She'll touch him. You see; he's normal ... Gregg forced the voice down, but he watched. "You had third degree burns there before," Hannah said wonderingly. "Now.... Well, I've had worse burns myself."

  "Cooking?"

  She gave him a look. "Fire fighting. I'm - I mean, I was - an arson investigator."

  "Then you know about how flammable jet fuel is."

  "Yeah," Hannah said softly. "I know."

  "Guess Mr. White Suit does now, too." Bushorn smiled at Hannah.

  "Probably. Nothing like firsthand experience to teach you lessons you'll never forget."

  She was still holding his hand. Gregg could almost feel the touch, as searingly hot as the fire Bushorn had set. I could have made you leap into the fire yourself, Gregg heard himself growling inside. You were angry; I could have made you furious, enraged ...

  "You need some ointment on this? Some bandages?" Hannah was saying.

  "Nah. By tomorrow it'll be gone." Bushorn took his hand from Hannah. "Took a long time, but I finally managed to get all this under some control. Now I can light a cigarette without a lighter. Big deal - a damn parlor trick. The government was interested until they decided that it was a pretty useless talent, then they discharged me fast. I ain't no friggin' Jumping Jack Flash, throwing fireb
alls and flying through the air. And I pay for it with having to pay attention to how hot I'm running all the time. Nights, I sleep in asbestos sheets just in case, and I run my damn air conditioner in the middle of winter. You ask me, I ain't much better off than a joker."

  "So what happens to us now? Where we heading?"

  "I'm following Gregg's instructions." He gestured toward the array of instruments and nodded to Gregg. "You said Europe; I've got us headed for England."

  "And they'll be waiting for us when we land," Hannah interjected.

  "You can bet on it," Bushorn said. "Unless you've got a better idea."

  "I do," Gregg said.

  ♥ ♦ ♣ ♠

  SIX

  For a time Mark was in Limbo. Or maybe it was Hell.

  It was a lot like Hell, certainly. But he could never really believe it was. Because Sprout was there with him, and he couldn't believe that even the hating vengeful god of the fundamentalists - name your flavor, Jewish, Christian, Muslim: all one, all one, all one - could damn such innocence. Only men were that bad.

  Mark hoped.

  He came partway back to himself lying on his back in the bottom of a sampan stinking of spoiled fish and rubber tires, staring up at daylight that oozed like acid between slats of the bowed wood roof. From somewhere past his head an outboard engine sang its whiny, thumping song. Beneath nguc-mam and Ho Chi Minh slipper-soles, he could smell mud-rich river water, hear it slogging against the thin hull, heavy and slow.

  Discomfort had roused him. He lay on his arms. His wrists chafed his coccyx while the boards of the hull rubbed them raw in turn. He tried to pull them out from under. He couldn't. Something like a big plastic twist-tie secured his wrists, and bit in when he struggled.

  He raised his head. The slight rise in blood pressure made it throb counterpoint to the engine. A small brown man in black pajamas squatted by Mark's feet. He held a rifle across his knees - a new AK-74, he could tell by the bright-orange plastic banana magazine. It was amazing what bits of information you picked up in Southeast Asia.