Black Trump

Black Trump

Black Trump 15

  "Daddy!" Sprout knelt beside him and cradled his head on her lap. His first reaction was pleasure that she was near. Guilt at his own selfishness followed at once, then despair that hit like a sledgehammer and numbed like a shot of Novocain.

  Because wherever he was, he was in trouble, and his daughter was in it with him.

  "Oh, Daddy," Sprout said, shaking her head so that tears fell on his face like hot monsoon rain, "what's happening? Where are they taking us?"

  "I don't know, honey," he said. "But it's okay; everything's going to be all right."

  Then he got to hate himself for lying to her.

  The boat carried them north along what Mark was sure was the Mekong. That meant that within a day or two - Mark had no way of knowing how long he'd been under; from the way he felt he suspected they'd given him a needle to keep him down after knocking him out with chloroform - they crossed the border into Cambodia.

  That wasn't something a sane person would be eager to do. Cambodia was undergoing a civil war in which history's champion genocides, the Khmer Rouge, blithely ignored UN efforts to make them play nice and accept a civilian government and promise not to try to finish off the two-thirds of the country's population they hadn't gotten to murder in the seventies.

  It was especially uncomfortable for Mark. The Red Khmers had tried to use Vietnam for an operating base. Though they had been J. Bob's playmates once upon a time, his advice mirrored Mistah Kurtz: "Exterminate them - exterminate all the brutes!"

  After Free Viet patrols found a couple of villages depopulated by KR "People's Tribunals," with the usual atrocities, Mark had swallowed his Summer-of-Love scruples and ordered it done. If the Chancellor of Free Vietnam, not to mention his beautiful blond daughter, fell into their hands, they could expect to be treated ... well, the way the Khmer Rouge treated everybody, which was basically as if a race of giant alien insects had come to earth and decided to take vengeance for the way generations of small boys had treated their tiny cousins.

  In fact, after their first night on the river Mark feared their captors were Khmer Rouge. He couldn't tell. Little brown men in black pajamas were pretty much the population of mainland Southeast Asia, along with similariy-clad little brown women. All he knew was that they weren't speaking Vietnamese. That told him nothing; lots of people in Vietnam didn't speak Vietnamese, either.

  The kidnappers never spoke English. They communicated their requirements with grunts and jabs of their gun barrels. That truly was the universal language; it worked on Takis, too.

  Whoever they were, the kidnappers wanted no more to do with the Khmer Rouge than Mark did. After Mark's second day back among the living they moved exclusively by night, lying-up in the weeds by day. Mark and Sprout stayed tied up in the boat, hanging over the edge of suffocation in the dry-season heat.

  At least underway they untied Mark's hands. Sprout stayed handcuffed to a stanchion by one ankle, except when the captives were prodded ashore at gunpoint to answer the call of nature. The small brown men understood too clearly that if Mark couldn't take his daughter he'd never run.

  They seemed curiously untroubled by the prospect that Mark might pull a Rambo, overpower them all, and escape with the girl. To his great shame, they were right - dead right, the way those defensive-driving TV commercials put it when Mark was a kid. He had his friends, of course, next to whom Rambo was a quadriplegic Girl Scout. But those friends - Aquarius, the were-dolpnin, JJ Flash, the flamboyant fire-shooter, Cosmic Traveler, and, if she even still existed, Moonchild - came in vials of brightly-colored powder. The kidnappers had thoughtlessly neglected to bring any of them along.

  Without them Mark was helpless. He towered a foot and a half above his tallest captor, outweighed them by God knew what. But without his drug-and-wild card-induced friends he was a tall, weak, skinny middle-aged man who had no more idea of how to fight than he did of how to fly flapping his arms, as his futile Palace-hallway efforts showed with painful clarity. It was chemical dependency of a kind the drug warriors never even thought of.

  Helplessness tormented him. His alter egos were superhuman. He was useless. Am I anything without them?

  And if he were something ... shouldn't he be able to protect Sprout? In all his life, she was what mattered the most.

  He felt his impotence most keenly the first time muzzle blasts flared from the darkened riverbank with headbusting racket. One of his captors shoved him down to the bottom of the boat and sat on him. Someone else pushed Sprout, wild-eyed and clutching her pink Gund bear, down beside him. The engine roared flat-out while the four men in black pajamas shot back in deafening hiccups of fire. Mark could do nothing but murmur encouragements to Sprout - protestations even her perpetually four-year-old mind must know were false.

  Miraculously, or so it seemed to be by the sheer quantity of noise and muzzle flash, they escaped the ambush unscathed. Two nights later a single burst of gunfire erupted out of blackness. One of their captors grunted softly and went over the gunwale with a splash. His comrades never even glanced aside. They just fired back and kept the prop churning thick water until they were beyond the reach of their unseen enemy's bullets.

  ♥ ♦ ♣ ♠

  "Everyone ready?"

  Hannah glanced at Gregg with Bushorn's question. Despite - or maybe because of - the situation, she chuckled at the sight. Her amusement made Gregg scowl, but he forced the irritation down.

  "Go ahead and laugh," Gregg told her. "I think I can imagine ..." Gregg wriggled in the odd assortment of straps and buckles that Bushorn had rigged around his body. If the glimpses of himself he'd caught in the windows were any indication, he looked like a dominatrix in a porn film for caterpillars. Gregg regarded Hannah in the jumpsuit, helmet and goggles Busnorn had provided. "You're rather attractive, actually, in a military sort of way," he told her.

  "Thanks. You look ... uh ..."

  "Never mind. I can guess." He wondered if she could guess how scared he was. If anyone bumped him, he was liable to go skittering around the plane like a banshee on speed.

  Hannah smiled at him. Bushorn tugged at Gregg's parachute harness, then tightened a strap on Hannah's. "Either of you done this before?" the man asked.

  Hannah just chuckled again, nervously. Gregg gave Bushorn what he hoped was a sarcastic tilt of the head - it was hard to tell what his body language communicated anymore. "No, huh?" Bushorn answered "Well, we're a bit south of Belfast in Northern Ireland. We're on a heading that will take us into Glasgow; I imagine the reception committee will be waiting for me there. My story is that you hijacked me, and that you jumped out over the Wickiow Hills hear Dublin; that should buy you some extra time while they look for you in the south."

  "Are you going to be all right?" Hannah asked Bushorn.

  The man shrugged. "I hope so. If not, I'm sure Gregg can recommend a good lawyer."

  "Bushorn, thanks," Gregg told him. "You didn't have to do this."

  "Yes, I did. I followed all that stuff about the Card Sharks in the papers; I saw you two on Peregrine's Perch. I know what you re running from, and I figure it's my little contribution. Looks to me like you two got the hard job."

  Hannah hugged Bushorn tightly at that, causing another stab of jealousy to prick Gregg's soul. He thought she held the embrace just a little too long. "I hope we'll see you soon," she told Bushorn.

  Yeah. I'll bet you do. He looks normal. He's not a damn worm. Then: You're not being fair, Greggie. She's acting the way Hannah has always acted - friendly, open, trusting. It's your vision that's screwed up.

  Fuck you, Gregg told the voice.

  Bushorn was scanning the instruments. "All right. This is as good a place as any. Let's get you two on your way." Bushorn led the way to the back of the plane. Gregg followed Hannah, the bulky pack of the parachute dragging behind him like a soft anchor. His body kept threatening to go into overdrive just from fear, he tried to calm himself People jump out of airplanes all the time. Really. Most of them even live through it....

  "This is going to be a lot worse than a normal jump," Bushorn was saying.

  "Great. That's a real comfort," Gregg said.

  Bushorn almost grinned. "You want me to lie to you?"


  "I won't. We aren't in some poky Cessna trainer. When I pop this door, the wind's going to try to tear you right out of here. It's going to be cold and very dark. I'll give you two a push, Gregg first, then you, Hannah. Let yourself fall for a count of ten, then pull the cord. If your main chute doesn't open, don't wait - go for your backup chute. If you can, try to stay together as much as possible. The landing's going to be the real problem, though. There's a moon tonight, at least, so you'll be able to see somewhat, but we're over rural and hilly country - use the lines to control your flight down. See if you can find a flat meadow somewhere. There should be farms around here - plowed fields should be pretty soft. As soon as you're down, cut loose and head for cover. If we're lucky, you'll be able to see each other and make a connection. If not ... well ..."

  Gregg looked at Hannah. His stomach was already doing somersaults, and he struggled to keep whatever was in there down. Hannah crouched down alongside him. "I'll see you on the ground, love."

  Gregg grimaced at the word. I don't believe you. You say it, but you don't mean it. "Sure. What's left of me, anyway."

  Hannah's smile was wan and a little unsteady. Oddly, that gave Gregg a spasm of pleasure. Back in the cockpit, an alarm shrilled. "Okay, now!" Bushorn said "Here you go - "

  Gregg wasn't prepared for the noise and the violence as the hatch blew open and went pinwheeling away. He didn't have much time to contemplate the situation as Bushorn - "Remember! Count to ten!" - pushed him out of the plane. The wind hit him like a steel wall; the blurred bulk of the plane streaked past him as he tumbled. The frigid wind rushing over him thrummed the strap around his body and took his breath away; the goggles Bushorn had tried to wrap around his head went flying away. His eyes teared up uncontrollably, not that it mattered.

  Gregg's joker body went into its instinctive overdrive, the legs kicking and pin wheeling uselessly. The world roared around him in a giant's bass voice, and Gregg fought to exert his will over the body's flailing.

  He found that he was still grasping the iron ring of the cord, but it seemed like he'd been falling for ages already and he'd forgotten to count. To hell with it - Gregg pulled the cord and the chute blossomed above him in the darkness; he grunted as the nylon grabbed air and halted his headlong rush to the ground. He couldn't see: between his myopia and the darkness he might as well have been falling from the top shelf of the world's largest refrigerator.

  "Hannah!" he called into the night. He thought he heard a feint answer, but when he called again, he didn't hear anything.

  At least his panic seemed to be subsiding. Gregg experimented with tugging on the lines, as Bushorn had told them - he could tell that he was turning as he swayed in the straps, but without being able to see the ground or have some stable reference point, it was a pointless exercise. Gregg hung there for long minutes, waiting for the world to come up and swat him back to reality.

  He wondered how fast his legs would be able to go after that.

  He wondered if he'd survive the experience.

  Gregg squinted into the night, wriggling his long body in the straps to peer down. Suddenly something - trees? a hillside? - was rushing by him, and a blur of green came up like a fist and slammed into him. His body kicked into a useless overdrive that the straps contained, and his legs were pummeling only air. He realized that he was swaying back and forth a good thirty feet above the ground, the parachute draped over the branches of a huge oak on the border of a wide field. A strong, chill, wet wind blew in his face; the moon was obscured by clouds. From where he dangled, through the branches of the trees shielding him, he could see the spectral blue-and-white blur of Hannah's chute coming in across the field. She missed the woods lining the far side of the field, hitting the tall grass and falling to be dragged several yards by the chute. "Hannah!" Gregg called into the wind. She didn't turn, didn't look. She stood, dropping the straps from her and stepping out of the harness, her back to him.

  A voice chattered softly, a whisper he could just barely hear.

  She isn't going to help you. She's going to leave you because you're an ugly joker and she really doesn't care about you. You could have betrayed her, could have given her to Brandon van Renssaeler and the Sharks, but you chose not to. You helped her; you gave them the information they needed about the Black Trump. So here's your pay-back - left to the Irish authorities to arrest; a joker caught in a tree, helpless....

  "Hannah!" he called again. She had pulled the chute in, crumpling the nylon. She looked around her once - how could she miss seeing you, even in this darkness? - and ran toward the trees, chute and all. In a moment she'd disappeared into the dense shadows underneath the branches. Gregg fumed in his straps, the wind tossing him, the cold beginning to seep into his bones. He could smell the fragrance of moss, of humus, of the cow droppings in the field. The tree limbs creaked and groaned in the wind; the clouds played hide-and-seek with the moon.

  "You planning to stay up there all night?"

  Gregg looked down. Hannah was below, her head back as she stared up at him.

  "Hannah! You went into the woods ..."

  "I thought that'd be better than going across the field in case someone was watching."

  "I thought ..."

  Hannah smiled up at him, "You think I'd leave you? No chance. You're the one with the contacts, remember?" As Hannah started to climb the tree, the voices warred inside Gregg.

  Don't flatter yourself Greggie. She isn't doing this for you. She doesn't want to be alone here. Not yet. She'll wait until she's found a better time. And then ...

  It's not true, he answered. I know it's not.

  Think about it. "You're the one with the contacts." She's using you, and when you're more a liability than an asset ...

  Hannah had scrambled up the tree and was sitting on the limb above him, hugging it with a wan grin. "Haven't done this since I was a kid," she said. "What do you think, Gregg? Should we take up skydiving for a hobby?"

  Gregg forced his tiny mouth to smile back at her.

  Let her laugh at you. One day you'll be doing the laughing, if you're smart. If you listen to me. Just listen to me ...

  ♥ ♦ ♣ ♠

  "... has been no word from President Moonchild since the devastating explosion that leveled Saigon's Presidential Palace," Bernard Shaw was saying. Behind him was the smoking ruin of a French colonial villa, "Among the half-dozen bodies pulled from the rubble this morning were those of her Chancellor, Marcus Aurelius Meadows, and his daughter, ah, Sprout."

  The director cut to the image of a stuffed toy, a plush pink fish burned almost beyond recognition.

  Jay stood by the bar, staring up at the television, the beer in his hand forgotten. The lounge at Kapalui Airport was crowded with tourists coming and going, grabbing a quick one between planes; sleek tanned women and smiling men with suitcases, lugging their swimsuits and leftover sunblock and jars of macadamia nuts back home from Maui. Mark Meadows was never going home now, but none of them cared, or paid the slightest attention.

  CNN filled the screen with old footage of Mark in his purple Uncle Sam suit as Shaw droned on. "Meadows, the notorious ace known as Captain Trips, was wanted in the United States for kidnapping and drug trafficking when he led a joker revolution that established the outlaw nation he called Free Vietnam. In the wake of his death, three members of the cabinet have proclaimed themselves his successor, and there are reports of joker rioting all over Saigon."

  "That's a fucking shitty epitaph," Jay said sourly. The Mark Meadows he had known deserved better. He remembered how thrilled Mark had been when their starship lifted off Earth. Space travel had been one of the most relentlessly boring experiences of Jay Ackroyd's life, but Mark had been beside himself at the wonder of it all. What a goddamned dreamer he'd been,
still full of romantic notions despite everything he'd gone through. Not Jay. Jay considered himself hardheaded and practical. Takis had been just another job to him; for Meadows, it had been a childhood fantasy come true. Yet it had been Jay who found love on Takis and brought home a wife. Mark found only death. Starshine, one of his "friends," had perished in a space battle, and Meadows had come back to Earth having lost part of himself.

  And now it seemed he'd lost the rest as well. Jay wondered if Meadows and his other friends had found Starshine again. He hoped so. If ever a man deserved his peace ...

  He left his beer on the bar, untouched, and strode out into the terminal. Dr. Finn was off with the pilot, getting their plane refueled, but Jay found Jerry Strauss at a pay phone, taking notes on a yellow legal pad as he talked to Peter back in New York. "Okay," he kept saying. "Right, right, got it. Okay, right." Sascha Starfin stood beside him, wearing a black Hawaiian shirt and a wide-brimmed hat that shadowed his face where his eyes weren't. The skin over his empty sockets was as tan as the rest of him.

  Jerry hung up. "Peter's trying to hack into some of Fleming's corporate records, but he hasn't been able to get access. He got us some basic biographical stuff." He noticed Jay's face. "Is something wrong? You look terrible."

  "The commies blew up Mark Meadows," Sascha told him, plucking the thought off the top of Jay's mind. Jerry's mouth fell open and he gaped like a fish, his eyes blinking.

  "Stay the fuck out of my head, Sascha," Jay snapped at the joker telepath. "Give me what you've got," he said to Jerry.

  Jerry shut his mouth and read from the legal pad. "Eric Fleming, born 1948 in Queensland, second son of a millionaire rancher named Thomas Fleming. His older brother was killed in the Vietnam War and Eric inherited the entire estate when his father died of a heart attack in 1974. He's multiplied the fortune many times over, buying and selling ranches, luxury resorts, cruise ships, television stations, and especially newspapers. His first paper was the Townsville Drover, a weekly he acquired in 1975. Today he owns nine papers in Australia, four in England, and two in the United States, plus six magazines and a paperback book company."