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Actions & Adventure
History & Fiction
Thrillers & Crime
Romance & Love
Mystery & Detective
Time News Roman
George R. R. Martin
Black Trump 25
"Easy, Brandon," Eric Fleming said. He stood up and put his hand on van Renssaeler's arm, pulling him back.
They were all shark bait unless they got the conversation off Finn's sex life real quick, Jay realized. He was groping for something to say when Jerry Strauss spoke up for the first time since they'd been taken below. "I'm a joker too, Eric," she said softly, "and you seemed eager enough to make love to me."
Fleming smiled sadly at her. "That's quite different," he said. Jerry was still Peri, and she looked delicious even in bondage. Fleming touched her lightly under the chin, lifting her face toward him. "You are very beautiful, you know. I'm sure I'll go to my grave regretting that your masquerade didn't go a little bit longer. We did seem to have a certain chemistry, don't you think?" He leaned over and kissed her very lightly on the lips.
They still think she's Peregrine! Jay realized with a start. And why not? It made perfect sense. Peri had been part of the campaign against the Card Shark conspiracy almost since the start. Gregg Hartmann had first broken the silence on Peregrine's Perch. And if they thought they had Peregrine ...
"She is beautiful," Jay blurted, vamping wildly. "Too beautiful to die. We're all too beautiful to die, even Sascha. A lot of people like flesh-colored eyes."
"You've given us no choice," Brandon said.
"There's always a choice," Finn said. "Help us stop Rudo. Help us find them before they release the Trump. You can save the world or you can stand by and watch a million people die, washing your hands like Pontius Pilate and pretending you had nothing to do with it. Clara said - "
Brandon hit him. A hard backhand across the face that snapped Finn's head around. "Don't mention her name!" he said. Then he turned and walked out.
Finn had struck home with the Pontius Pilate crack, Jay realized. Too damn close to home. Daddy Brandon had run rather than face up to it.
A long silence filled the cabin. There was only the sound of the ocean outside, the wind sidling in the high canvas.
"Peri, I am deeply sorry," Fleming said at last, with something that sounded like genuine regret. "I wish I could just cut those ropes and watch you fly off into the sunset, but ..." he sighed. "It realty makes very little difference what we do. When Rudo releases the Black Trump, all of you are doomed anyway."
"Hey, if it makes no difference, why bother?" Jay said. "You're no killers, you said so yourself. Let us go. The Black Trump will take care of us anyway, and you won't have nightmares about Peri getting chewed up like some extra in a Spielberg outtake. Look at those legs on her. Do you really want a school of Great Whites fighting over them like drumsticks?"
"Hammerheads, more likely," Fleming said with a shrug. Clearly he was less prone to qualms than his friend Brandon. He got up and moved toward the cabin door.
If Fleming left too, they were doomed. They'd sit here trussed and helpless until Circe was out past all hope, and then it would be time to play pattycake with the hammerheads. Jay was searching for something to say, some new appeal, anything that might give them a chance, when Sascha lifted his head and said wearily, "Don't bother, boss. The background noise is real bad in here."
Eric Fleming opened the door.
"Eric," Peregrine said. Fleming looked back. "Please," Peri said. Jay was startled to see that there were tears on her face, rolling slowly down her cheek. "Please, Eric, I know you don't dare let us go, but ... please ... as a favor ..."
"If there's anything I can do to make these last hours easier, you have only to ask," Fleming said gallantly. "What was it? Would you like a drink?"
"I ... please ..." Like a shy schoolgirl, she averted her eyes. Her voice was so soft it was practically a whisper. "I want you to make love to me, Eric. Please ... just once, before ..."
Fleming blinked at her, stunned. Then, slowly, a broad smile crept across his face. "No problems," he said.
The owner's cabin had the biggest bed. Fleming ordered Jay, Sascha, and Bradley Finn lugged back up on deck. As two of his sailors hoisted Jay up on their broad, manly shoulders, Eric-me-hearty Was gently untying Peri's ropes and undressing her with his eyes. Jay didn't need Sascha's power to read his mind.
Halfway up the steps, one of the salty dogs grinned and said, "Wouldn't I love to have me a peek in that porthole."
"You and me both, mate," said Jay.
♥ ♦ ♣ ♠
The pub smelled of death. Ray was used to that, but this was the wrong place for it. This was usually a warm, cozy place, smelling of food and comfortable companionship. The bodies on the floor, lying in congealed pools of blood and brains and shit, were obscene.
Harvest was tight-lipped as she looked at them. Flint marched around the room like a haunted statue.
"Fist vengeance," he said in a sibilant, angry whisper.
"Old men and women," Ray said. He stopped in front of one body. "The groom?" he asked.
This was beyond obscenity. Ray had no word for it. He was a fighter, a fighter and a killer in fact, but these acts done in cold blood were utterly beyond his understanding and beneath his contempt.
"Fucking cowards," he muttered.
Harvest's blue eyes were as cold as the corpses laying at their feet. "I'll get them for this."
"We both will," Ray promised her.
She looked up at him briefly and then turned away.
"You should hear this, Ray, Harvest," Flint said.
Most of the witnesses had already gone. A few were still waiting in one of the small side rooms to give their statements. One stood in the doorway to the death room, talking to the constables, looking much like death himself.
"I'm tellin' you," he said as Ray come within earshot of his shuddering voice, "it was the bug that chose 'em."
"Bug?" Ray asked.
The man looked at him. He was an older man, much like the ones who had been gunned down, and Ray could see both relief and guilt in his eyes that he'd escaped their fate.
"Aye, sir," he repeated "All yellow and bug-like, with many pairs of feet and a hideous red bulb of a nose."
Ray looked at Harvest and Flint. "Hartmann! Hartmann picked out the victims!"
"No doubt, then," Flint said. "He's mixed up with the Twisted Fists."
Ray couldn't believe it. He'd been Hartmann's bodyguard for years. He'd seen him through personal and public tragedies, he'd almost died for the bastard when he stepped between him and that little fuck Mackie Messer! Now Hartmann was acting as the finger-man for a bunch of twisted shits who made war on old people. Hartmann didn't even have the guts to pull the trigger himself. Ray shook his head for the first time feeling really enthused about the idea of going after Hartmann and bringing him back to justice.
He looked at Harvest. It seemed as she looked at him, that she could almost read his mind.
"You're doomed, you bastard," Ray said aloud. "Your ass is mine."
♥ ♦ ♣ ♠
Jay was propped against a mast and rolling with the motion of the Circe when Eric Fleming came back up on deck, barechested and whistling "Waltzing Matilda."
The helmsman called down, "So how was she?"
Fleming grinned like a cat who'd just had a big slice of canary pie a la mode. "I'll throw my shrimp on her barbie any day, mate," he said. Not the most fortuitous choice of metaphor. The helmsman looked a shade puzzled.
Fleming swaggered over to Jay. "How you doing, mate?"
"I've been better, all things considered," Jay replied. "I think I saw some fins circling around out there."
Fleming's head turned sharply, his eyes crinkling as they scanned the horizon. "Where? what kind of fins?"
"Tailfins from a '59 Caddy. Pink. It's probably Elvis."
"You're such a wiseacre," Fleming complained. He called over one of his crew. "Get that bloody rope off his legs."
"Sir?" The sailor looked confused.
"You heard me," Fleming snapped.
"No problems," the sailor said, kneeling. He pulled out a knife and deftly cut the rope off
Fleming yanked Jay to his feet. "You give me any trouble and you'll be hopping over the side quick as a wallaby. You got that, mate?" He shoved him roughly. Jay stumbled ahead of him, down the steps, as pins and needles pricked his feet with the sudden return of circulation.
"Enough with the goddamn Aussie talk," Jay hissed when they were safely out of sight. "Christ, Jerry, for a moment there I thought you were going to break into 'Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport.'"
"Sorry," Fleming said. He looked behind him anxiously as he opened the door to the owner's cabin, but no one was following. Quickly and quietly, he ushered Jay inside, then bolted the door.
The real Eric Fleming was sprawled across the bed, naked and unmoving, with Peregrine's white silk panties shoved in his mouth and secured by a couple of lengths of tape.
"He's not dead," the other Eric assured him as he untied the ropes around Jay's wrists.
"I didn't think he was. Dead guys don't usually need panties in their mouths to keep them quiet."
"Knickers," Jerry-Eric said nervously. "Down here I think they call them knickers."
"I thought that was England," Jay said. "Hey, what do I know from lingerie? It's all just silky bits you've got rip off to get to the good stuff underneath." The ropes fell away. Jay massaged his wrist with his numb fingers. His hands hurt. His face hurt too, a dull throb from the broken nose. He looked over at the Fleming on the bed. "How did you - "
"We had a nude pillow fight. Once I got the pillow over his face, I turned into Arnold. What are we going to do with him?"
"This," Jay said. He pointed a finger at Fleming, dropped the hammer of his thumb. Pop. "Now you're the only Eric Fleming aboard Circe. Congratulations."
"Won't they notice that Peregrine is missing?"
"They'll just figure the boss is keeping her around for sloppy seconds." Jay grabbed Jerry-Eric by his ears and kissed him on both cheeks, "Remind me to get you an Oscar. Oooh, Mister Fleming, please fuck me just once before we die ..."
Jerry beamed visibly. "I was convincing, wasn't I? I remembered what you said in the van, about always betting on the dick, and I figured it was worth taking a shot."
"You should listen to me more often," Jay told him.
"So what now?" Jerry asked, with an eagerness that sounded a shade too young for Fleming. "Can you pop away the crew?"
"There's got to be forty of them," Jay said. "I don't like those odds. Besides, if I got rid of the crew, who the hell is going to drive the fucking boat? This thing is like the Titanic with sails. No, we have to keep up the charade that you're really Eric Fleming. Where's van Renssaeler?"
"In his cabin."
"I'll take care of him," Jay said. "You go up and have Sascha brought down. Say as little as possible. You're the boss, you don't have to explain yourself."
"What about Finn?"
"Let's leave Romeo the Love Pony up on deck," Jay told him as he headed for the cabin door. "The salt air will do him good, and we're fresh out of knickers."
As Jerry-Eric headed bade up the steps, Jay checked out the other cabins. Brandon van Renssaeler was behind door number three, which Jay figured was a real good sign that the time had come to play Let's Make A Deal. Brandon was stretched out on a narrow bed with a damp washcloth across his eyes. There was a nice little blue-steel automatic on the bedside table.
Jay slipped silently through the door and picked up the gun. Then he gave the bed a little kick. "Up and at 'em."
Brandon rolled over and grabbed for the pistol that was no longer there. "Pretty fast, for a lawyer," Jay said. "This what you looking for?" He dangled the automatic to give Brandon a good look, then opened the porthole and tossed it out. There was a faint, reassuring splash.
Brandon stood up. "Quite dramatic, Mr. Ackroyd but now we're both unarmed."
"I wouldn't say that." Jay made his hand a gun, pointed his finger at the center of van Renssaeler's chest.
Brandon came along quietly to the owner's cabin. A moment later, Eric the Impostor Joined them with Sascha. Jay bolted the door while Eric was cutting Sascha loose from his ropes. Brandon van Renssaeler watched the proceedings curiously. "What's wrong with this picture?" he said at last "Eric, what are you doing?" When he got no answer, he frowned. "You're not Eric. Who are you?"
"Nobody," Jay told him. He pulled over a chair, sat down in it backward, inches from van Renssaeler. "I could threaten you, I suppose, but you don't look like the kind of man who'd respond well to threats. We came down here looking for you, yes, but only because we need your help. Your daughter thinks you have a conscience. I hope to hell she's right, because we don't have a prayer of stopping the Black Trump without you. So what do you say?"
There was long silence as Brandon van Renssaeler looked deep into Jay Aclaoyd's eyes. "He's thinking about it," Sascha put in. "Part of him wants to help, he - "
"I'll speak for myself, thank you," van Renssaeler interrupted sharply, "what did you do with the real Eric Fleming?"
"I popped him off to Freakers, a joker strip bar in Manhattan. He was buck naked with a pair of knickers in his mouth, so I figured he'd fit right in."
Van Renssaeler nodded. "I suppose that was ... kinder than what he had planned for you."
The faux Fleming shuddered "Sharks ..."
"All right," van Renssaeler said "I'll tell you what I know, on these conditions. First, no harm will come to me or anyone else aboard Circe."
"If you'll help us bring off the masquerade and get this tub back to Townsville, that shouldn't be a problem."
"Agreed. Second, you and your friends will do nothing to harm my daughter. Whether you stop Rudo or not, Clara's name must be kept out of this. The world must never know about her role in the creation of the Black Trump."
"Part of the world knows already," Jay pointed out. "The rest isn't going to find out from us, I can promise you that much."
"I suppose that will have to do. There's one final condition. You must swear that Dr. Finn will never see my daughter again."
Jay had to think about that one for a moment. He gave a shrug. "I don't know how we do that," he admitted.
Sascha said, "He wants this bad, Jay. If you turn him down, he's thinking we can all just get fucked and die."
"You're a real prick, van Renssaeler."
"I've been quite a successful attorney for a long time, Mr. Ackroyd," Brandon replied crisply. "I'd like an answer, please."
"We don't have to play this game," Jay pointed out. "Sascha is a telepath. So maybe I'll just ask the questions and let him pluck the answers from your head."
"If Sascha was that good a telepath, we wouldn't be having this conversation," Brandon said, with a certain smugness.
Sascha looked gloomy. "He's thinking about ... law. Cases, precedents. All these whereases and wherefores."
"You can't keep that up for long," Jay said.
"You don't have long," van Renssaeler returned. "Rudo is out there right now with the Black Trump."
Jay kicked over his chair in frustration.
Jerry-Eric said, "This guy is starting to remind me of Loophole Latham."
"All lawyers are alike in the dark," Jay said, disgusted. "All right, counselor, you win. If we survive, I'll pop Dr. Finn off to Takis. A hundred light-years, give or take a few. I can't get him any further away from your precious, darling daughter than that."
"I want it in writing," van Renssaeler said. "I'll draft it myself. If you fail to perform, there will be stringent penalties. I'll take everything you own."
Jay threw up his hands. "Fine, whatever. Jesus. Jerry, find him some paper." He stuck a finger in Brandon's face. "If you think you're going to get it notarized, you're shit out of luck."
♥ ♦ ♣ ♠
At first he thought the lizards had awakened him.
The little pudgy lizards who clung to the outside of the trailer were known locally as taukte. It was what the locals thought they were saying. To Mark's ex-Joker Brigade bodyguards back in the 'Nam, they'd be
en fuck-you lizards, betraying a certain subtle difference between Western and Eastern ears.
And they were out there in the night, saying whatever the hell it was they said. But that wasn't what roused him.
He wasn't alone.
A silhouette against the star gleam diffusing through the cheap curtains of the bedroom window; a deformed shadow in darkness, but still identiflably human.
"Quasiman?" Mark asked, in a voice not unlike the lizards' taukte.
Quasiman looked at him. From the way he held his head he seemed ... lucid but distracted.
"How'd you find me, man?" Mark asked, struggling to sit up. He wore a T-shirt and briefs, both of which were soaked with sweat that turned to instant ice in the blast of the air conditioning.
"You're important. You were more important once." Quasiman looked at him and frowned. "No. No, that isn't right. You've been important, but you're going to be more important. I think that's it."
"You've got to help me, man!"
But Quasiman was frowning, and the alert set of his shoulders was melting away. "It's all jumbled up in my head. If only I could get ... things straight. But time is like - "
He turned toward Mark, held up both his hands. And faded.
Mark lunged at him, as though he might prevent him from teleporting by grabbing him. All he did was bang his chin and give himself a rug burn on the elbows.
Quasiman was gone.
♥ ♦ ♣ ♠
They stopped at a roadside camp on the banks of the Euphrates. There were other campers there, tents and fires against the chill night, smells of wood smoke and roasting lamb. Zoe heard the hum of the road in her ears. Somewhere in the distance, a child laughed. There was food to be cooked, a woman's job in this setting. Were she and Jan expected to pitch the tent, too? Balthazar was unloading stuff from the bus, and the motions his arms made brought back a kinetic memory of the twisting road, the high passes. Zoe closed her eyes and tried not to stagger when she climbed down to solid ground.