Black Trump

Black Trump

Black Trump 17

  "Sorry," he told the bar. "I guess I don't drink anymore."

  "Then I'll drink it for him, Joseph," a voice spoke behind Gregg, and the deep timbre of it made Gregg spin around in his seat, almost losing his balance, as his mind sensed a darkness, a blackness shot through with red like fire. The feeling was familiar. No, it can't be ... "Gimli?" Gregg cried, squinting.

  A short, green man was peering up at him, his head cocked expectantly at Gregg, his eyes as bright an emerald as his skin. He held a gun, pointed at Gregg's red clown nose.

  "Jesus! A leprechaun!" Gregg cried.

  ♥ ♦ ♣ ♠

  The doors to the warehouse stood open to Odessa's docks. Zoe watched the numbers blink on the cheap watch she wore. Eight minutes since Croyd had gone in to set up the buy, four more and she would walk in, find the office door somewhere in there in the murk, and hand over the sack of Israeli multivitamins that were part of the deal. The Russians were entranced with vitamins, Snailfoot had said. They thought they protected them against the fallout from Chernobyl, maybe.

  The ship that was to take Croyd and Zoe across the Black Sea waited at the pier. Zoe stood as close to the gangplank as she could, as far away from the warehouse doors as she dared. The ship was the most beautiful ship Zoe had ever seen, a stubby freighter with rust stains oozing down its sides from every porthole, beautiful because she promised shelter and escape, if only for a while.

  Nine minutes. Zoe stood on the docks because that's where the plan told her to stand. The plan was all she had.

  She felt numb all over, a forced numbness that had begun in the catacombs of Jerusalem. Follow the plan. Do what you're told. Go here, do this, wait for that. Her head was reeling with things she had never wanted to know and desperately needed to know, Snailfoot's dry discussions on the potential radiation hazards of something she could now think of only as The Device, Azma's quick, sharp lessons on proper decorum for a Muslim wife. Behave this way in Turkey, but this way in the desert. Keep your eyes down; don't stare at anyone, don't, for the love of Allah, stare at a man's face. Snailfoot's dry British voice saying, Croyd you will go to this cafe, you will discuss this year's crops with a man fitting this description, you will remark on this amount of rainfall. Zoe, you don't need to know this part, try not to listen, and that was when she'd gone numb, had begun to concentrate only on her role in this charade.

  No cloak-and-dagger stuff, no. This was simply a business deal. Meet the seller. Hand over the cash and pick up the merchandise. Don't even think about the complicated politics and the feuds over a collapsed empire that left holes in the Russian system big enough for a nuclear warhead to slip through. It's not cloak and dagger anymore. It's just business. Smile.

  Odessa went about its bustling business on a hazy day, a port city testing the rituals of capitalism, and smiling.

  There were so many smiles here, smiles that flashed on acres of cheap dentures and dull metal fillings. The clerk at the hotel had smiled last night, and carried their luggage with a smile, and held out his hand for a tip with a smile.

  Zoe's face ached from a forced smile that she had plastered on her face, for anyone who didn't smile must not have anything to sell, and therefore was a potential customer for any newly fledged entrepreneur who had a string of sausages to sell, or lettuces to spread on a cloth on the sidewalk.

  Smiling last night while she and Croyd climbed the Potemkin steps up from the water to the promenade and found seats in the little cafe at its edge. She had sipped sweet hot tea from a glass and toyed with some sort of salt fish canape that she couldn't force herself to swallow. In the dark cafe, she'd kept smiling while Croyd made his speech in what he'd said later was Ukrainian peppered with Russian peppered with Arabic. Smiling while the short, bouncy boy with swarthy skin and curly chestnut hair had talked about rain. Crops and rain. No cloak-and-dagger stuff.

  Smiling when Croyd tensed beside her, those scary knots of his muscles rising in his jaw, for the boy had gone on to offer Croyd a sheaf of stock in some bedamned company or other, all printed on thin cheap paper in Cyrillic with huge red and black capitals, and that wasn't in the script. But Croyd had said something that made the boy laugh, and nothing bad had happened.

  Zoe smiled in no one's direction, and watched a pair of pale, bulky, smiling tourists in flowered short-sleeved shirts, maybe recovering from black-mud baths at one of the spas. They walked away, their buttocks fighting rhythmic battles beneath their baggy khaki shorts. It was two in the afternoon on a hazy day, and all was calm, busy and calm. The port city rumbled with commerce and smelled of coal smoke.

  From the opened sliding doors of the warehouse, longshoremen trundled out with crates of powdered milk and sacks of grain stacked on clumsy-looking handtrucks. They roped their loads to the hook of a winch and yelled at each other in a bored sort of way as the cargo lifted over the side of the ship and vanished, swaying, into the hold.

  Zoe lifted her head to look up at the ship again and the silk scarf slipped backward on her hair. Anne hated her black hair.

  "Why that color?" she had asked.

  "Just a whim, momma." They had kept Croyd away from the apartment once his hair was dyed black. Two "whims" at once might have clued Anne that this "business trip" wasn't quite what it seemed.

  Zoe tightened the knot under her chin, settled the strap of her canvas tote on her shoulder, and walked into the warehouse.

  Follow the plan. The office won't be at the front, go to the back right corner. Follow the plan. The aisles changed every day as goods got loaded in and loaded out, no one knew which path led back there, just go. Keep your eyes down.

  Beside her, lined up in a row, one of these machines contained The Device. Green enamel, thick cast iron, the pumps were the size of a Maytag washer and dryer bolted together. A dozen, twenty, all alike, they looked efficient and innocent. But not this one, Zoe stopped, unable to take the next step, sensing the heavy package behind the bland metal, a casing of thin lead and thick steel that hid a heart of darkness, a limitless black universe where tiny particles flashed blue-white like falling meteors in a dark night, a chattering of brutal entropic decay never meant to be confined.

  "Bos?" the man asked. "Bos?"

  The voice startled her into motion. She looked up at the man, stubbled, gray hair and a grin that gapped over some missing teeth. "Ya nyeh gavaryu pa Russkie," Zoe said. Croyd had taught her that much.

  "Von!" The man gestured toward the rear of the warehouse.

  "Spasebo," Zoe whispered. She went where he pointed.

  A square of frosted, ornately-leaded glass, thick and dusty with age, filtered gray light through the carved mahogany door. The door was a relic of a gas-lit past, incongruous in this dank, musty warehouse. It looked like Sam Spade's door strained through a samovar. Zoe could see the warehouse manager in his place behind a desk and the back of Croyd's head, black hair, a black pilot's cap, leaning back in the visitor's chair.

  Zoe opened the door. The man in the cap wasn't Croyd. Croyd slipped in beside her, quick and silent, and before she could take a breath they stood in the office with the door closed and Zoe had moved sideways to get her back against the wall. Beneath her palms, its texture was slick, greasy, gritty.

  The manager had a pair of heavy chins and a belly that he rested against the front of the desk. The man in the visitor's chair turned toward them, black eyebrows raised over wary Mideastern eyes, narrow eyes, the pupils dilated with fear. The smile faded from the face of the man behind the desk. His thick fingers splayed out across a bearer draft, covering some of the printed zeroes marching across its face. A lot of zeroes.

  Croyd moved in what seemed like slow motion. He reached a hand toward the swivel chair and tipped its back toward him. The knife against the Mideasterner's throat hadn't been there before but now it was, the man's head tilted back and cradled against Croyd's belly. A single drop of blood formed in the dimple the point of the knife made in the Mideastener's skin, right over the Adam's apple.

sp; Croyd asked something in Russian. The manager replied in a spate of rapid words. His silver front teeth were separated by a large gap. He gestured with the hand that wasn't holding down the bearer draft, indicating Croyd, the man in the chair. Then he rubbed his fingers against his thumb as if they held cash. Croyd spoke again.

  "Oh-kay" the manager said.

  "Zoe. Give him the package," Croyd said.

  She pulled the white, crackling paper sack, filled with vials of multivitamins, out of her canvas tote and reached forward to lay it down on the scarred wood.

  The manager grabbed it and tipped the contents onto his desk. Bottles rolled in all directions. Bright candy-colored pills scattered from an opened container and fell to the concrete floor with a sound like popping corn. The manager's thick fingers teased at the fold in the bottom of the sack. He tugged at a paper folded in the bottom and eased out a bearer draft. He laid it next to the other one.

  Snailfoot hadn't told her she was the courier for the bank draft. The bastard.

  "Sure," Croyd said. "Cash 'em both. Why not?"

  The manager smiled.

  Croyd's forearm tensed, the cords of the tendons leaping under his dyed brown skin. The Mideasterner's torso jumped. Both his arms reached skyward with a jerk. The gun in his hand made a soft popping sound.

  The manager's eyes went vacant and his lower jaw sagged. A tiny amber fishing fly - a dart - quivered in his upper lip, just above the gap between his front teeth. The dart gun fell from the Mideasterner's hand. The manager's belly held him in his chair as he sagged forward against the desk, and Zoe thought, there's only one door in here. Only one fucking door. We've got to hide the bodies somewhere.

  "Shit," Croyd said.

  "Yessss." Zoe couldn't get her jaw open enough to stop hissing.

  "We just leave 'em, I guess," Croyd said.

  "The knife."

  "Yeah." He tossed it onto the desk. "They killed each other. That's cool. But we've got to keep anybody from coming in here until the pump is on board. Any ideas?"

  "No. This man. Whose is he?"

  "Shit, Zoe. I don't know. Ivan, over there, didn't know. Ivan thought he was me."

  Someone knew about the Fists, someone was trying to stop them, and it wasn't any legitimate power, not the UN, not the FBI. The Sharks? Or had the fucking Black Dog set this up for overkill? A failsafe in case Croyd or Zoe chickened out?

  Zoe wanted out of here. And if she left now with Croyd, ran for it, they wouldn't have a clue on where to go for safety. If they left without the bomb, the Black Dog would hurt Jan somehow. Zoe knew it.

  Three men, a woman, a deal being cut. A need for privacy. "Croyd, you're a pimp."


  "Just get your skinny ass outside and guard the door. I'm adding a little something to sweeten the deal, right? A little extra service. Deals get cut in here; we have to figure this isn't the only business that goes down on the docks, or at least we have to hope so. Just thump on the door twice if I need to do some heavy breathing okay? And for God's sake, let me out of here once that pump is on board!"

  "Right," Croyd said.

  He opened the door and closed it behind him. She could see his blurred outline, his back against the door.

  Neither of the corpses was bleeding much. The little wound in the center of the Mideasterner's throat looked so tiny. The Russian - no, the Ukrainian - the manager wasn't messy at all.

  The Mideastener's head lolled back against the chair. His cap hadn't fallen off. From the window, maybe he'd just look relaxed Zoe tiptoed around him and sat on the desk, her back to the window, her legs on either side of the manager's fat belly. She tore off her headscarf and tossed her hair loose. The manager was close enough that she could kiss him if she leaned forward.

  The tiny dart hung limp in his upper lip. He had cut himself shaving this morning; there was a little scrape on one of his chins. What had been on the dart? Shellfish toxin was the only thing she'd ever read about that could work that fast, and even then there should have been a breath, a gasp, a struggle of some sort. This man had gone as still as a stop-motion sequence in a bad movie.

  She had heard that dead men smelled of shit, but these two didn't. The air in the office smelled of dust, paper, and cheap ink. The Mideastener reeked of stale sweat. And that was all.

  A cart rumbled by outside. She heard it, but the office was dead silent.



  Don't think. Follow the plan, even if this was never the plan. Why didn't they load the fucking pump? How would the Ukrainians ever manage a free market if they couldn't learn to load freight? Didn't anybody ever work around here?

  The dead manager stared at her. He was just someone trying to get along. He looked like a family man, a guy with kids. She imagined him at home in one of those baby-blue apartment buildings with the rococo balconies, eating sausages stewed with cabbage. There were no rings on his fingers. Zoe had noticed that when he caressed the bank drafts.

  She reached out a tentative finger and closed the dead man's eyes, one, the other.

  A voice called out some sort of query in Russian.

  "Nyet! Minutku!" Croyd said.

  He said something else. Zoe turned her head just enough to see his shadow at the door. She couldn't see anyone beside him.

  Just get the pump loaded, okay? Come on, Ukrainians. Load that ship and we'll leave. We'll never come back here, honest.

  Croyd said something tersely. Zoe heard a clang, metal falling on concrete, Croyd didn't thump on the door, but what if he were afraid to? What if someone stood watching, some eagle-eyed employee who wondered what was going on?

  Zoe grasped the manager's neck in her hands and pulled. It didn't want to move. She tugged. His neck sagged forward. The dead weight of the corpse's head fell against her lap, his forehead pushed against her belly, the lethal dart dangling free and not in contact with her cringing skin. She held him there, aware of the rough, light-brown stubble on the back of his neck, the thick texture of his skin. His skin was warm, but it was doughy. She closed her eyes and felt hot, silent tears run down her cheeks.

  How much longer? How long?

  She whimpered.

  The whimper threatened to change into sobs. No. The plan. She had to remember the plan, and she heard someone coming toward the door, and Croyd's voice.

  Croyd's heel tapped the door, twice.

  Zoe panted. She arched her back and let her neck tilt and she twisted back and forth a little. She panted again. She moaned. She heard Croyd say something, a sharp comment, and then she heard a different voice, a chuckle.

  Boots scuffled on the concrete, someone walking away.

  And nothing happened. Zoe sat there, the manager's head in her lap, afraid to move. A muscle in her lower back began to ache.

  "Zoe!" Croyd hissed. He opened the door just wide enough to peer inside. "Come on!"

  She scooted backward across the desk, leaving the manager where he sat. Croyd held the door ajar.

  "What about the bank drafts?" she asked.

  "Leave them," Croyd said. "They're trouble for somebody. You look - well, never mind." He brushed a hand across her cheek, wiping away tears. "Keep calm."

  Her scarf. She picked up her headscarf from the desk and twisted it around her hand. The door closed on the hell behind them.

  Follow the plan. Croyd waited for her to come to his side, visibly at ease if you didn't look at how controlled his motions really were. They strolled between crates and boxes toward the hazy sunlight. The man who had yelled "Bos!" put down a crate and watched them. Croyd stared past him and maybe he didn't see the man's spit hit the floor behind his heel.

  Stroll, don't run. Zoe didn't see the pump. Maybe it wasn't on board. Maybe the warehouse had loaded the wrong one. It didn't matter. Follow the plan.

  Someone had backed the crane away from the side of the ship. She could hear the ship's diesels rumbling. A sailor leaned over the rail above her, looking down. He was smoking a thick ci
garette rolled in tea-colored paper.

  She walked up the gangplank beside Croyd. Cloak-and-dagger stuff was for the middle of the night, not for a spring afternoon.

  The sailor tossed his cigarette over the side. He ambled over to a set of chains and pulled the gangplank up into its slot on the ship's side.

  Croyd led her into a small passageway, metal and the smell of mechanic's grease. Outside the porthole, the warehouse doors stood open.

  Croyd paced back and forth, watching the open doors. Slowly, as if in a dream, the ship eased away from the pier, out into the Black Sea.

  ♥ ♦ ♣ ♠

  They entered a hilly region which Mark took to be northern Cambodia, where the land started to rise toward Laos' Bolovens Plateau. The river spread out to accommodate numerous tree-crowded islands. On one of these the boat put ashore.

  Mark and Sprout were allowed to spend the day hidden beneath the trees. After dark came the drumbeat of rotors from the west, and with its distinctive thud-thud-thud an ancient American Huey utility helicopter showing more rusty dented metal than olive-drab paint faded gray by the terrible Southeast Asian sun settled down on a sandbar. The kidnappers chivvied Mark and Sprout on board with their muzzle brakes and stood back to watch, expressionless to the last, as the chopper jumped into the air and flew west.

  The helicopter churned between low tree-furred mountains and out over drowned paddy land glittering like mercury pools in moonlight. Mark reckoned they were over eastern Thailand. The pilot was a heavyset, balding white guy in a polo shirt and khaki pants. He might have been American, but then he also might have been French, German, Russian, or God knew what. He said nothing in Mark's hearing, either to captives or to the quartet of black-pajamaed brown men who rode with him. This set showed subtle differences from the last to Mark, in details of dress and body language, and the singsong inflections of their language. He still couldn't identity them.