Black Trump

Black Trump

Black Trump 18

  Near dawn the helicopter set down among barren red hills. Men in Royal Thai Army cammies refueled the craft. The black pajamas ushered Mark and Sprout outside and into the brush to tend to this and that while the pilot went out of earshot to confer with the soldiers. Then the little ship rose into a sky so hot its blue was nearly white, and flew on.

  They crossed a mountain range, stopped for the night in another armed camp. This one was occupied by more little brown men, wearing military castoffs from half a dozen nations, carrying an equally eclectic assortment of weapons. Some wore skirts of striped dark-green cloth to augment their uniform bits and pieces. They were obviously bandits or guerrillas, and their appearance and language struck Mark as similar to that of his current escorts. But the four in black kept themselves and their captives apart from the others. The pilot went away with some locals and did not put in an appearance until daylight, by which point he smelled alarmingly of gin.

  They flew over more mountains, and then a deep river gorge, a stroke of beauty to clog the throat, if you weren't too preoccupied worrying whether the pilot was sober enough to drive this thing. Sprout, who adapted more readily than her father, looked out the open side doors and clapped her hands in delight. Despite their predicament, the spectacle moved Mark as well - though he kept an eye on her, to make sure she stayed securely strapped in, and kept a firm grip on her bear.

  Beyond the gorge rose dense, forested hills. As the sun began to roll down a cloudless sky, a broad clearing came into view, filled with huts clustered around an open square. The helicopter settled down in the midst of the open area. Mark and Sprout were prodded forth, blinking and wobbling to meet a trim brown man on a big white horse.

  A tall Westerner stood by the horse, studiously clear of the hooves it flashed as it pranced and snorted at the helicopter's red dust whirlwind. He wore a white linen suit with an open collar. One hand clamped a white straw hat to an immense round head against the rotor downblast.

  The black pajamas prodded Mark in the kidneys with their AKMs. He dropped to his knees. The man on horseback gazed down on him impassively. He had that handsome, ageless, Southeast Asian look. He wore tiger-stripe camouflage fatigues with the creases pressed to razor edges and an American .45 holstered on a webbing belt. He smoothed his mustache with a thumb and nodded.

  "Is this the man you wanted, Mr. Casaday?" he asked in clear English.

  The tall man's face split into a jack-o'-lantern grin. "The very one. Marshal Hti. My main man from here on in. And his lovely daughter, too, I see."

  He laughed. "Your people have done me proud, Hti. You'll be well rewarded."

  "Anything that hurts Yangon rewards us," the Marshal said, "but money is always appreciated." He wheeled the horse and rode off at a crisp trot toward a beaten-earth practice field where ranks of sweating men charged each other head-down like boars.

  Kalashnikov barrels gouged Mark to his feet. "Bring them both," Casaday said, turning away.

  ♥ ♦ ♣ ♠

  "... and so he hollers "Jesus! A leprechaun!" in a little scratchy voice that could cut glass, like he's as normal as the bloody Prince of Wales. I thought he was going to ask me to give him the pot of gold, I did"

  Gregg winced as the laughter rolled around the back room of Joseph Coan's. Around Hannah and him were a quintet of jokers: the "leprechaun" who so eerily reminded him of Gimli; a woman who looked normal until she lowered the scarf around her lower head revealing unbroken skin below the nose; a man with arms and legs that looked like they'd come from four radically different people; a joker who huffed asthmaticaily as far away from the fire as possible, his skin as impossibly bright a red as his hair, dry and papery; he looked like a match could reduce him to quick ashes; and the three-legged joker who had first spotted Gregg and Hannah. All of them were well armed. The others had arrived not long after the leprechaun had gestured with his weapon, herding Hannah and Greg into the room.

  ("I don't want no trouble here," Joseph had called to the small joker as Gregg and Hannah moved reluctantly ahead of him into the back room.

  "There may be trouble, but it won't be here, Joseph," the joker said. "I promise you that.")

  "You can call me King Brian, since you think I'm one of the Little People," the leprechaun said now. "That's Cara, Stand-in, Scarlet Will, and Trio." Brian pointed at each of the jokers in turn. "You've given us a bit of problem, you have."

  "What do you mean?" Hannah asked. She glared down at Brian, hands on hips, defiant. "We haven't done anything to you."

  "No? Then why'd you send the hunchback to us? How'd you know how to tell him to find us?"

  "Quasi?" Hannah asked. "He came here?" Hannah laughed, looking at Gregg. "What did he say?"

  «We didn't understand most of it.» A feminine "voice" - Cara's, since she was looking directly at them - seemed to emanate from within Gregg's head, muffled as if he were listening to a conversation behind a wall. The others were hearing it too, nodding with Cara's statement. «He said something about a virus, that you would need to go to the Black Dog, that we were to help you ...»

  "You're Twisted Fists," Gregg burst out suddenly.

  "Ahh, now he gets it," Brian said. "A better guess than leprechauns, after all." The others laughed, grimly. "So you see, we've been waiting for you. 'They'll come to the place where the wood speaks,' the hunchback said. That's as good a description of Coan's as any I've heard."

  "The hunchback mentioned Father Squid, too, and a few of us here remember the man," Scarlet Will said. His voice was as papery as his body. "But Squidface is no longer one of us. He follows his own way now. But I'll at least listen to someone who knows the Father. If you have information about this Black Trump, tell us your tale."

  "Not here," Gregg said. "Not yet." The glimmering of a new plan began to form. He looked at Hannah. She may be a problem. She was against dealing with the Fists. But maybe, maybe ...

  Forget her, came an answer from somewhere. Worry about yourself. "How do we know you're who you say you are? If you're Fists, prove it. Put us in contact with the Black Dog. I'll speak to the Hound of Hell," he said. "No one else."

  They laughed. "By the blood of Christ, man, you're in the wrong country for that," Brian said, and guffawed. "Now, maybe we can send you to the Dog, and maybe we can't. You're just going to have to trust us, aren't you?" Brian slapped his thigh, then the amusement left him suddenly. His eyes went expressionless. "So you will tell us, will you not?"

  "We didn't come here to find the Fists," Hannah said suddenly. She was looking at Gregg. "I'm sorry, but I won't deal with terrorists."

  Brian glared at her with a lopsided grin on his face. "It doesn't appear you have a choice."

  Hannah shook her head. "Damned if I don't," she said. "I'm outta here. Gregg? You coming?" Hannah started to walk toward the door. Greg didn't follow, but Brian moved quickly to block her path, his weapon snapping up, a semiautomatic that looked huge in his tiny hands.

  Hannah looked down at the joker. "Damn it, get out of my fucking way or I'll shove that goddamn penis substitute up your little green ass."

  Brian clucked. "Oooh, such language from a lady. You're an ace, then, since guns don't scare you."

  "No," Hannah said angrily.

  "A nat?" Brian cooed. "I hate nats. I'm thinking that you owe us all an apology." Deliberately, he brought the notched muzzle of the weapon up, so that it prodded Hannah in the breast. A delicious fright rippled along Gregg's spine, frightening and yet at the same time tantalizing. Gregg, you can't let this happen ... someone was saying, but another, darker voice answered. Why not? Isn't it what she deserves?

  Shut up! he told the voice. Leave me alone!

  Hannan faced Brian without flinching. "Then you're a fucking stupid man along with being a small one," she told Brian. "I've spent the last year of my life and lost everything I once had dealing with the wild card virus and Sharks, and if it still matters more to you that I'm a nat and not a joker, than you deserve the fate you're going to get w
hen the Sharks release the Trump."

  Someone - Gregg thought it was Stand-in - chuckled in the background, but Brian became apoplectic, his face flushed and tight. Gregg saw muscles bunching along the man's arm, and he was certain that Brian was going to pull the trigger.

  Gregg, you can't let this happen ...

  And Gregg did something that utterly surprised even himself.

  Puppetman would have eagerly licked at Brian's rage. He (with Gregg riding him) would have enjoyed the terror, would have escalated it for the sheer pleasure. If Hannah happened to die, then, well, too bad. There were always other puppets to be had - what was the loss of one compared to the pleasure of her death?

  Gregg - after the death of Puppetman, his ace gone - would have cowered in terror, too frightened to do anything. He would have been pleading for his own life. He would have regretted Hannah's death, but his own survival would have been far more important.

  Since he'd become a joker, Gregg had never responded to a crisis with any reaction but flight. But Gregg - the joker - the coward - leaped in front of Hannah. He could feel the adrenaline pumping, just on the edge of kicking him into overdrive yet again. "Out o' the way," Brian snarled. "I don't wish to harm jokers, but if I must..."

  Gregg almost obeyed. He wanted to run, and the welter of emotions confused him. Get out of his way! the voice screamed inside, but Gregg shook his head. I'm not listening to you. Not again! Suddenly it didn't matter. The churning in his stomach could not be denied Gregg opened his mouth and heaved.

  A viscous jet of vomit slathered Brian's hands and chest and dripped from the gun muzzle as Brian looked down at himself in horrified disgust. Gray-green effluvium sizzled on metal. The vented barrel of the automatic weapon suddenly sagged and drooped, and Brian let the thing drop with a scream and then - abruptly - upchucked himself, on top of the whole mess.

  The smell was overpowering, horrendous and - to Gregg - utterly delicious. It made him want to lap at the sweet, puckered metal.

  Behind him, Gregg heard Hannah struggling to control her own stomach. "Sorry," he said to the company in general. "But I couldn't let you do that. If you hurt Hannah, you hurt yourselves far more. You don't know how much she's done for - " ... me, he was going to say, but the bitter voice, the one in the shadows of his mind, laughed. She's done nothing for you, Gregge. You were a convenient fuck when you were a nat, and now that you're a joker, you're nothing at all. Gregg swallowed. "Us," he finished shakily. He forced that voice down.

  «I believe she mentioned that somewhere in the tirade,» Cara said amused and speaking in their heads.

  "Hannah uncovered the entire Card Sharks conspiracy," Gregg continued, looking at Brian, who appeared to be a little greener than usual. "Goddamn it, kill her and you might as well blow your own fucking brains out. Kill her, and the Black Trump might just get released - and if that happens, you've signed the death warrant for every damn joker in the world. The Sharks and the nats will have gotten exactly what they've always wanted."

  I couldn't let you do it because I care for her. That, somehow, he didn't - couldn't - say. He was confused. Voices warred inside him, and he didn't know who to listen to. He wasn't certain where the sudden bravery had come from or why he'd put himself between Hannah and Brian's threat, especially since he was no longer sure what Hannah felt for him. All he knew was that thinking she was going to die had forced him out of inaction.

  The realization, after all the doubt of the last several days, startled him. Maybe for the first time in his life, Gregg had done something because he cared more about someone else's life than his own.

  He marveled.

  Gregg stopped breathing heavily. Behind him, he could feel the warmth of Hannah's body and hear her own quick breath. Brian was glaring at them, his hands still dripping with Gregg's vomit. The other jokers waited.

  Finally Brian nodded, and he smiled, but there was nothing friendly or sympathetic in his smile. It was merely a random movement of the dark green lips. "All right. But you will tell us all about the Trump, if you expect any help at all." Brian nudged the misshapen mass of his half-melted weapon on the floor with a careful boot. "That be a useful trick you have there, but it's not enough. Tell me what you plan to do here, and then we'll see about letting you talk to the Black Dog, eh?"

  "You're wasting time," Gregg said. "Time that we don't have. God knows where the Trump is now, or how long before they'll release it. The longer we delay, the harder the three vials are going to be to find."

  Brian shook clinging goo from his hands. "You act like you could go to fucking Churchill and ask him for help."

  That brought bristles erect on the folds of Gregg's skin. "Churchill? He's here? In Belfast?" Gregg asked. Brian guffawed.

  "Aye, he is - on another one of his useless quests to pacify the poor, wayward colonials, meeting with Sinn Fein, the DUP and the UUP, even though it's all a useless bother. Why don't we send him a calling card? Who should I say requests the presence of his Lordship's company?"

  "Somebody he's met before," Gregg said, ignoring Brian's sarcasm. "Somebody he'll listen to."

  ♥ ♦ ♣ ♠

  When the door opened a frigid blast of conditioned air almost blew them back up the stairs. Mark blinked eyes from which the moisture had abruptly been sucked into the Arctic wind.

  It was a laboratory, crammed with modern equipment, chrome and plastic and Formica, all agleam in the nervous light of fluorescents hanging from a dropped white acoustic-tile ceiling. The scene contrasted so violently with the grubby, hot guerrilla camp hacked out of oak forest aboveground that it seemed to lie in an alternate dimension, that Mark Meadows had been thrust down the White Rabbit's hole instead of down the steps of a bunker blasted into the thin, red dirt and limestone of Burma's Shan Plateau.

  "What the hell is this?" he asked the man in the white linen suit. The a/c was raising goosebumps on his bare, sunburned forearms.

  O.K. Casaday smiled smugly. Mark was already learning to hate that expression. He knew a lot about the CIA man already - Casaday had been one of his major antagonists during the fight for Vietnam, and was by way of being J. Bob Belew's pet hate - but Mark had never laid eyes on the man before.

  "This is where you'll be working, Dr. Meadows. Like it? Most modern facility opium money can buy."

  "You kidnapped me from Saigon so I could make drugs for you?" The precariousness of his position did not inspire Mark to try to play things cool. It wasn't that he was too naive to realize how deep was the shit he was in; the events of the last five or six years had scoured a lot of the innocence from him, at least of the wide-eyed, "oh, wow" flower-child sort. He knew he was screwed; yet after all he had been through - fugitive from the law; flying saucer passenger, household warrior on Takis; corpse floating in orbit; fugitive again hunted across damned near the length of the Eurasian landmass; President, Chancellor, and (literally) Pretender of Free Vietnam - he found it hard to get all worked up any more. It was a pissoff, sure; but nothing cosmic.

  Besides, they weren't going to kill him. They needed him.

  "Get real," he said.

  Casaday nodded his big, round balding head. Lank blond hair bobbed above his collar. "So it's reality you want, Doctor?"

  He glanced at the man who stood by Mark's left shoulder. He was shorter than Mark by about two inches. That still left him fairly tall, six-two or so, and unlike the erstwhile Chancellor of Free Vietnam he was young and in excellent shape.

  "Layton," Casaday said. With a smile and his right hand the young jock grabbed Mark's arm above the left elbow and squeezed.

  Mark gasped. His blue eyes watered behind his Lennon glasses, and his knees got weak. But he didn't go down. Nor did he turn his head to took at his tormentor. He just kept glaring at Casaday.

  "This is really making me feel cooperative," he said, choking only slightly. "You CIA boys sure learned a lot about winning hearts and minds back when you were losing the Vietnam War."

  "Tough guy," a voice said in hi
s ear. Like Mark's, it was American, Southern California-accented. Its owner had narrow cover-boy features and a blond ponytail, and lots of big muscles he liked to show off. Right now he was wearing a muscle shirt with a skull in a green beret on the front, above the legend "Grab 'Em By the Balls, And Their Hearts & Minds Will Follow."

  The hard boy in the ponytail had never been in the US Army Special Forces. If he had been, he wouldn't have been caught dead in that shirt. Mark found himself wishing J. Robert "A Green Beret is just a hat" Belew was on hand to rip it off his back. Then he thought dismal thoughts of lying in the bed one has prepared oneself.

  "Want me to adjust his attitude a little, boss?" asked the muscle boy, keeping the pain grip on Mark's elbow.

  Casaday chuckled, a sound like pebbles shaken in a tin pail. "You really think you can beat him up until he helps us, Layton?"

  He reached out and grabbed a pinch of the prettyboy's cheek. "Sometimes I think you're as dumb as the Last Hippie here thinks I am." He let go of Layton's face, slapped it lightly, and walked into the lab.

  "I'm not dumb," Layton said in a petulant whine. He relaxed his grip. "I'm a warrior. I don't see any point in coddling this son of a bitch just because he's some kind of hot shit scientist."

  "Bring him." Acoustic tiles muffled Casaday's words. The muting of sound added to Mark's sense of dreamlike irreality, as if his brain was wrapped in cotton batting.

  Sprout sniffled. That snapped him back. He reached out to squeeze her hand.

  Layton pushed him hard between the shoulder blades. "Get going, you," he said. Then, to himself, "I'm not dumb."

  Casaday was talking. Mark tried to make himself attend. In the last few years he had discovered in himself far more physical fortitude than he had ever imagined. What had actually happened, he realized, was that he had achieved a state of apathy about himself that amounted to near-perfect insulation from threats years before. Many years ago, back in the middle seventies, when it was becoming painfully clear that his storybook romance with Sunflower was going to have an all-too-mundane and sordid ending, and that he was never going to recover his one moment of glory as the Radical, golden ace hero of the Movement who had battled the forces of repression, back-to-back with the Lizard King in People's Park.