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Black Trump

Black Trump

Black Trump 24


  Peregrine stepped closer to Eric Fleming and smiled dazzingly for the camera. Her long dark hair streamed in the wind as the Circe raced across the sea. "I'm here on the yacht Circe with Australian press mogul Eric Fleming," she said.

  "Please, Peri," Fleming said, with an easy laugh, "I'm no mogul, just a fair dinkum Queensland rancher who happens to own a few newspapers."

  Sascha's skinny arms were already trembling from the strain of trying to hold the boom over Fleming's head. "Boss, I'm getting a lot of background noise," he said.

  Peregrine looked around sharply, her wings fluttering with sudden anxiety, and Jay felt a cold finger trace a path up his spine. That was the little code they had worked out to make use of Sascha's telepathy. So long as Fleming was telling the truth, the sound would be good. If he tried lying, Sascha would report trouble with tape hiss. And background noise meant danger.

  Jay slid his hands back into his coat pockets and made the right one into a gun. He looked around nonchalantly. The Circe's crew were all around them, watching. "You know, Peri," Jay said, "maybe this boat isn't the best place to do the interview. Too much background noise. The wind and the sails and all."

  "You may be right," Peregrine said. She spread her wings wide, as if to take off, but of course the real Peregrine flew by a kind of telekinesis and that was something Jerry Strauss could not mimic.

  "I'm heartbroken," Eric Fleming said lightly. "I was really looking forward to our interview. Don't you want to ask me about the Card Sharks?"

  Sascha dropped the boom mike to the deck. "Background noise," he said, ripping off his earphones. "It's all around us."

  Jay had to admire the way his junior partner rose to the occasion. "What about the Card Sharks?" he-she asked with Peregrine's bedroom voice as Jay inconspicuously began to slide his hand out of his pocket. "Do they really exist? Are you one of them? Where is Brandon van Renssaeler?"

  "Yes, yes, and right here," said a voice behind Jay. Something hard poked him between the shoulderblades. "And I'd keep that hand right where it is, Mr. Ackroyd."

  ♥ ♦ ♣ ♠

  Gregg was driven across jokertown in the rear of a rusted panel van, crowded with plumbing supplies and two other jokers: Cara and Stand-in. Brian and Trio sat in front, the latter driving. Hannah was left behind, under guard by others of the cadre. "If they don't hear from me by sunset, they kill your Hannah. You understand, caterpillar?"

  Gregg had looked hopelessly at Hannah's bleak face.

  Gregg almost hoped they would be stopped by police and searched, but the short trip was uneventful. The van bumped to a stop and Brian opened the doors. "We're here," he said. "C'mon." Gregg noticed that the jokers were carrying duffel bags that sagged heavily. A burning knot settled deep in Gregg's body.

  They moved quickly from the van to an alleyway. Gregg had a bare glimpse of the street: dirty, cobblestoned, with oil-filmed water pooled in the holes where the stones were gone. The houses nearest them seemed to lean toward each other as if needing support in their old age. Jokers moved in the street, most of them studiously ignoring the odd quintet who had appeared in their midst.

  The alley ran between buildings for two blocks. A door suddenly opened and something resembling a small toilet brush waved at them. Gregg was escorted into a tiny, dark hall between the door and a screened door leading into a restaurant kitchen. The toilet brush turned out to be the arm of a joker, who was covered everywhere with bristly combs: head, face, chest, legs, and arms - the arms were covered with a fine lather of soapsuds, and from the screen came the clatter of dishes.

  "Any other customers?" Brian asked the toilet brush.

  "Just the one party you asked about," the brush said "The police."

  Brian nodded. "And old Lang?"

  "He's out, down at the pub. Won't be back until dinner rush."

  Brian grinned. "Perfect. I think it's time you took a break, lad. Take the others with you. G'wan now."

  The brush disappeared into the kitchen. A few moments later, he and three other jokers filed out of the kitchen. None of them looked at Brian, Gregg or the others. The door closed behind them, and Brian gestured toward the kitchen. "In with you, caterpillar. It's time."

  Inside, Brian peered through a screen into the dining room, from which Gregg could hear laughter and the music of a guitar, fiddle, and bodhran. "Good. The captain's in there - it's the wedding party for his deputy's daughter." He looked at Gregg, who felt the knot in his stomach squeeze tighter. "Lang's is next street over from the Town," Brian told him. "A fashionable place for parties, where the nats can be waited on by jokers, who stay nicely in back except when needed, and who don't dare walk the street in front." Brian nodded to the woman. "Cara, Stand-in, you ready?"

  They opened the duffel bags. Cara placed a hooded mask over her face. Stand-in - the mismatched joker - groaned as his body began to alter, morphing quickly into the image of a strawberry-headed young nat. Cara and Stand-in both slammed clips into their automatic rifles; Brian and Tripod also armed themselves. "Okay," Brian said. "Trio and I will cover the back. G'wan!" Cara and Stand-in moved quickly through the curtain into the dining room.

  Gregg heard screams, china shattering on the floor, and Stand-in's brusque voice. The music came to an abrupt, discordant halt. "Don't move! Now, get out of your seats, move over against the wall! That's it; keep the hands where we can see em! The door, lassie - lock it." A few seconds later, Cara's voice sounded in Gregg's head; «Caterpillar, come on in.»

  "Go on," Brian told him. "Cara will tell you what to do."

  "I can't go in there. They'll see me - that's why you're staying back here, isn't it? Because you can't disguise yourself?"

  "Aye." Brian grinned at him. "No sense in making it easy for Horvath when he comes looking for revenge. But you won't be here after you've gone to the Dog, will you? So let them spend their time looking for you."

  Gregg went in. Cara and Stana-in had lined the patrons against the back wall of the dining room. The window shutters were pulled, the front door locked. Wedges of sunlight speared through the blinds and across the wall, limning them in harsh illumination: men and women, old and young, child to teen to adult to ancient, the bride in wedding white and lace, the groom in his dress uniform, and all of them nats. They stared at his entrance with frightened eyes. Gregg could smell the fear, like the scent of panicked cattle entering a slaughterhouse. Some of the children were crying, terrified, as they clung to parents. The faces of the adults ran the gamut from fright to a revulsion that he could almost touch.

  Stand-in had his weapon against the captain, a bald-headed, portly man whose pants displayed a spreading stain of urine. Stand-in touched the trigger once; the gun coughed and the officer jerked backward as blood and brains splattered the wall behind him. He slumped to the floor as his wife screamed.

  Gregg staggered himself. In the instant of the man's death, he felt ... something. For a moment, his vision clouded with a brilliant yellow-white, and with the hue came a feeling of ... pleasure?

  "One," Stand-in said. "Four to go."

  «Five for one,» Cara echoed in his head. «You choose the rest, caterpillar.»

  "I can't," Gregg wailed, looking at the faces of the nats, their eyes. But you can, can't you? Didn't you feel it, when Stand-in pulled the trigger, didn't you taste it? Remember how good Scarlet Will tasted. Remember? This would have been a feast for Puppetman, a banquet of misery. The death, the fear, should have been orgasmic, but it couldn't be, shouldn't be. Puppetman was dead, all these many years. And the Gift he'd had for so brief a time had never let him feed, had never allowed him to partake of the emotions. He remembered how it had once felt, but that was only memory. Gregg looked, and he knew he should flee. A sense of temptation flooded him. This is a test, Greggie. This is your trial. "You can't make me do this. This is obscene."

  Cara's head tilted under her mask. Then her quiet voice rang in his mind once more. «Now, I'm thinking that Brian would remind you that your nat woman is stif
f with us. Choose now, or you've chosen her rather than any of these people. Brian actually fancies Hannah, but that won't stop him, not after what he's said. He's never been someone to confuse sentiment with business. If you force him, she will be one of the five.»

  "No."

  «Hartmann, you have thirty seconds. We can't stay here. Choose, or Brian will have us shoot three now and kill Hannah when we get back.» Then, gently: «I'm sorry, I know this is cruel, but it's no more cruel than what's been done to us.»

  "I can't," Gregg said again, but it was only a whisper this time. He looked at the nats, their faces in soft focus because of his myopia. The captain's wife continued to sob over the body of her husband. How can I choose? These are children, mothers and fathers, grandparents. They're lovers and friends. They're innocent. How can I choose?

  And the voice inside answered him: Because it will taste good, Greggie. That's how you coped with the cruelly and the horror. Deal with it the way you've always dealt with it - because it will give you pleasure.

  «Ten seconds,» Cara said.

  The children were wailing. One young man, one of the groom's men, had gone to his knees, sobbing. A woman held her infant against her shoulder, glaring at them defiantly as if her hand could shield the infant from the bullets. Gregg looked from face to face; he found he could hate none of them enough.

  I never killed total innocents with Puppetman. This is slaughter. This is pure terrorism.

  "Mummy, oh Mummy, I'm scared!" A young, pretty woman pressed her child against her body while she glanced at them from the side of her eyes. Her fear was bright green, and it pushed against Gregg like a tidal swell. He knew that if he could touch her, he could find the strings to that emotion. He could orchestrate her emotions; he could play her fright like a violin. "Hush, love," the woman whispered, "They're not going to hurt us ..."

  «Choose now, Hartmann!»

  Gregg looked at Cara, "I hate you," he told her. "This will just prolong the violence."

  «Maybe so, but this will happen, regardless. Choose, or Hannah dies as well.»

  You see, Gregg told the contending voices. I have no choice. This way I save Hannah. This way, I can save more lives than I take.

  Then enjoy it, came the reply. Touch them as you choose. Take them.

  Gregg glanced back at the nats. "Him," he said, pointing at an old man near the door. He scuttled up to the man, who pressed back against the wall, shaking his head. Gregg reached out with his stubby hand. The shock of the touch was like instant heat. He felt himself responding. The old man's terror was thin - Greg tugged at the strings and was pleased to see it swell and deepen. The old man moaned and the sound was like golden syrup.

  "Him. Her." One by one, he pointed them out, touching each of them in turn, his cartoon voice and his toy fingers a mockery of Death. They were all older, the ones Gregg chose. As far as he could tell, none of them had family here to witness their executions.

  Gregg told himself it was the least he could do. He hoped that mattered. He hoped that would ease the pain.

  He knew it wouldn't.

  «That's three, Hartmann. One more.»

  Gregg looked at the groom. The man was trembling, whether from rage or fright or some mixture of both, Gregg couldn't tell. Him, the voice whispered. It would be so tasty, so lovely ...

  No, Gregg told it. We've had enough pain here. Enough. He thought the words, but he found that he could not move. He stood in front of the groom, in front of the weeping bride, and he wasn't able to move.

  «Hartmann ...»

  You know you want him ...

  "Him," Gregg said, the word a half-sob as he touched the man. The bride screamed, and the pain in her voice was exquisite. "A lovely choice," Stand-in told him, and he started forward, raising his gun. Gregg turned and scuttled from the room, not wanting to see, not needing to see. The strings, the mental connections, came with him. Behind him, he heard the first shots and the screams.

  He sighed in the mingled pleasure and self-hatred the sounds gave him.

  ♥ ♦ ♣ ♠

  "That detective school of yours wasn't exactly Harvard, was it?" Dr. Bradley Finn snapped at Jay as a couple of salty nautical types trussed up his forelegs with a length of rope. His hind legs had already been tied up tighter than a Christmas goose.

  Jay ignored him. "What are you going to do with us?" he asked Eric Fleming. They'd tied his hands together behind his back so tightly that he couldn't feel them.

  Fleming squinted off at the horizon, then turned back to Jay. "In a few hours Circe will be out in the deep waters well beyond the reef. That's where we toss you in. You've shown a great interest in sharks, Mr. Ackroyd. Well, I understand there are quite a few in those waters. You'll be able to investigate to your heart's content."

  Peregrine moaned, sounding almost like Jerry Strauss for a moment. "Not sharks," she said. "Please, anything but sharks. I must have seen Jaws a hundred times. Can't you just shoot us?"

  "We're not killers," Brandon van Renssaeler snapped.

  "Great moral distinction you got there," Jay observed.

  Van Renssaeler looked distinctly uncomfortable. He turned away sharply and went below.

  Fleming seemed much less perturbed. "Brand is a rare thing in this day and age," he observed. "A lawyer with a conscience. It does get in the way sometimes. Fortunately, I'm the next best thing to a journalist, and we all know that journalists have no qualms at all." He looked at his crew. "Let's get them below."

  The sailors were all done practicing their knots. They hoisted them up one at a time and carried them below decks to the owner's cabin. It took eight men to manhandle Finn through the hatchway, and they were none too gentle about it. "Do all your plans work out this well?" the centaur asked Jay as they dropped him with a thump on the polished teak decking.

  Jay would have shrugged, but shrugging was tough when you can hardly move your shoulders. "Hey, it worked. We found your boy Brandon, didn't we?"

  "You shouldn't be too hard on him, Dr. Finn," van Renssaeler commented. "It was really your fault that we caught on to your little subterfuge."

  When he spoke to the centaur, his tone was as cold as the blue in his eyes. Barechested and barefoot, his skin dark from the sun, his beard growing out and his hair uncombed and unkempt, Brandon looked like the island he'd fled was more likely Gilligan's than Manhattan, but those eyes were a dead giveaway. Jay would have kicked himself for not having noticed them sooner, except that his legs were tied together too.

  "My fault?" Finn said with indignation. "What did I do?"

  "We knew who you were the moment you were described to us," van Renssaeler said. "There are very few palomino-pony centaurs in the world, and only one who recently escaped from protective custody on Governor's Island. You see, I've taken a strong interest in you these past few weeks, Dr. Finn. It might have something to do with the fact that you're fucking my daughter."

  "I love your daughter!" Finn said. "And Clara loves me. We want to get married."

  "I don't think this is the best time to ask daddy for her hand," Jay said, but Finn wasn't listening.

  Neither was Brandon. "I'm tempted to say, over my dead body, but in point of fact it's more likely to be over your body, if Eric has his way."

  "Let's not let Eric have his way," Jay suggested.

  Fleming tsked. "On Eric's boat, Eric always gets his way, Mr. Ackroyd. I'm surprised at you, suggesting mutiny like that."

  "Understand, we have nothing personal against you or any other wild card," Brandon said. "If anything, I feel sorry for you."

  "That's real comforting to know," Jay said.

  Brandon ignored him. "None of you asked to get this virus ... but you did. You and I may think that's tragic, but there it is. You're diseased, Dr. Finn." He looked around the cabin at the other captives, at Jay, at Sascha slumped in his chair with his hair falling across his eyeless face, at their faux Peregrine. "All of you are diseased. You want to wed Clara, you tell me. Imagine if you had a
daughter. Now imagine that a man with AIDS came to you and said that he loved her and wanted to many her. How would you feel? What would you say?"

  "The wild card isn't AIDS," Finn said "It's not contagious and it's not necessarily fatal." The centaur tried to stand struggling against the ropes that held him, but it was hopeless.

  "Not one hundred percent of the time, no," Eric Fleming added. "Would that it were. Then there'd be no need for the Card Sharks."

  "I hear you're working on that," Jay put in. "The Black Trump, isn't that what you call it? Catchy name."

  Fleming and van Renssaeler exchanged a look. "You know about that, then," Fleming put in.

  "You think we flew down here to see the wombats, or what?" Jay said sharply. "Yes, we know about it."

  Brandon van Renssaeler suddenly looked very unhappy. "I assumed you had come for me. To hunt me down, arrest me, or likely kill me. Isn't that what you people usually do to your enemies?"

  Fleming said, "We had nothing to do with the Black Trump project. In any organization with the size and scope of the Card Sharks, differences of opinion are inevitable. I never signed on for genocide."

  "Nor I. I opposed Rudo and Faneuil on this scheme since the beginning," Brandon said. His mouth was tight with anger. "They took my own daughter and used her as their tool. I will never forgive them for that."

  "Then help us stop them," Bradley Finn pleaded. "Clara says that you're a decent man ..."

  That was a mistake. "Don't you dare talk to me about decency. Pan was more than glad to tell me everything ... everything you did to her, to Clara, you filthy little ..."

  "I didn't do anything to Clara," Finn snapped back, furious. "We made love. Together. It was great."

  Brandon van Renssaeler strode forward as if he wanted to kick Finn to death right then and there. "Shut up!" he said. "Just shut up, do you hear me?"