Black Trump

Black Trump

Black Trump 28

  Croyd stuck his arm out the window and waved goodbye. One of the guards waved back and then stopped. His attention seemed to be diverted by the sight of the barrier, which lifted and sank, lifted and sank again and again, faster and faster, while the old, blue bus chugged into Syria.

  "What the hell did you do that for?" Croyd asked.

  "The tourists," Zoe said. Her teeth were chattering. "From Odessa. Didn't you see them?"

  "The Odessa Ovoids? No. I didn't see them."

  "They pulled up behind us," Balthazar said. "Now y'all hold on, hear? I think we're going to do a little evasive maneuvering about now."

  ♥ ♦ ♣ ♠

  "Read it back to me," Jay Ackroyd said. "I want to make sure you got it right."

  "I got it, I got it, I just don't understand it," Peter Pann complained. The overseas connection made his voice sound even smaller and thinner than it did in person. "KNAVES OF HEARTS," he read. "That part is all in caps. Sharks schooling in Asian waters. Fishing should be OK, and you want just the letters O and K, not o-k-a-y. Meet Peninsula Hotel, Hong Kong, asap, or we're all Librarians. Signed Your Stud Buddy Finger."

  "That's it," Jay said. "Have them box off the ad so it stands out more. If they can, I want it bordered with suit symbols, you know, hearts, spades, clubs. Heavy on the hearts."

  "I always knew you were a romantic. How long do you want this to run?" Peter's voice was faint and far-away. It was still night back in New York, and he sounded sleepy.

  "Three weeks," Jay said. "After that, it won't make any difference. I want it running in the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Jokertown Cry, the International Herald-Tribune, the Times and the Guardian in England, USA Today, the Los Angeles Tribune, and any other papers you can think of. Oh, and some magazines. Soldier of Fortune, Rolling Stone, and Variety."

  "I'll be on it first thing in the morning."

  "Be on it right now. It's already morning in some of the places we need to reach. How's Topper doing?"

  "They're still holding her out at Governor's. I've been keeping an eye on her with a tink. Her old friend Straight Arrow paid her a visit. They yelled at each other some, but when he left he didn't know anything he didn't already know when he arrived."

  "Remind me to give Melissa a raise," Jay said.

  "Screw Melissa, give me a raise," Peter came back. "I never understood why Topper needs a salary anyway. She can reach into that hat and pull out doubloons, silver certificates, bearer bonds, the Hope diamond, anything her little heart desires. Why work?"

  "Damned if I know," Jay admitted. He said his goodbyes, hung up, and checked the coin return for loose money. No such luck. It wasn't his day.

  He had stashed the rest of his crack investigative team at a Pizza Hut down the street. He walked back with his hands in his pockets, stopping just long enough to buy Sascha a new pair of shades from a street vendor.

  An elderly aborigine was standing outside the door to the Pizza Hut, rocking on his feet and wearing Eric Fleming's clothes. He was tall and very black, with white hair and wrinkled skin and sad eyes that saw deep into the vanished dreamtime. "How's Peter?" he asked as Jay opened the door.

  "He said to tell you that he's really enjoying your wine cellar," Jay replied. He went inside. Abo Jerry hurried after. Sascha was in a booth, scarfing down what remained of a large anchovy and green pepper pizza while Finn grazed at the salad bar; the booths were not designed to accommodate centaurs. Every eye in the restaurant was on the two jokers.

  Jay slid in across from Sascha and flipped him the sunglasses.

  "What's the plan?" Sascha asked, as he put on the glasses over the blank space where his eyes should have been.

  Finn clomped up to listen, his rear blocking the aisle between the booths. Abo Jerry was looking at Jay intently. Jay had a headache. His nose was throbbing, the world was about to end, and he was trapped in a Pizza Hut with Larry, Moe, and Mister Ed.

  "We know that the Sharks started with three flasks of Clara van Renssaeler's original cultures," Jay said carefully. "Brandon claims that Rudo divided them up. One for him, one for General MacArthur Johnson, one for that spook bastard Casaday."

  Jerry heard the venom in his voice when he said that last name. "You sound like you know Casaday."

  "Our paths have crossed," Jay admitted. "I only saw him twice, but I remember him real good. He set me up to die. Things like that stick in your memory. Question is, is Casaday a rogue or is the whole fucking CIA compromised? Call me paranoid, but I think the best policy right now is we trust nobody except other wild cards, and I'm not so thrilled about them." Jay scratched his bandage. "This is where we split up."

  Sascha and Jerry nodded gravely in unison. Finn said, "Is this another one of your fabulous plans, Ackroyd?" He was in a terrible mood for a guy who had just avoided being eaten by sharks.

  "Afraid so," Jay admitted. "So long as we stay together like a giant charm bracelet, we're a little fucking conspicuous." He gestured. "Look around you. These people are all trying so hard not to stare at us that their eyes are crossed."

  Abo Jerry turned his head and looked around, nodding.

  Sascha's shades stared right at Jay. "I'm seeing Vietnam in your thoughts. Some bar in Saigon."

  "Rick's Cafe Americaine," Jay told the telepath. "An old hangout of the Joker Brigade. I spent some time in Saigon after the war, looking for a Joker MIA. Never found mm, but I got to know Rick's pretty good. That's where you and Jerry Fred should start. Brandon said Casaday is the CIA sector chief for Nam, if we have half a prayer of picking up his trail, it's going to be there."

  Jerry's head whipped back around. "There's a war going on in Free Vietnam, don't you read the papers? They starting having coups and countercoups and purges five minutes after Mark Meadows died."

  "You bet they did," Jay said. "And that smells of Casaday all the way. Saigon is full of jokers, you two will blend right in. Just keep asking questions. They won't talk, but Sascha can pull the answers out of their minds. Ask about Meadows too."

  "Meadows?" Jerry said. "Why? Do you think Casaday had something to do with his death?"

  "Just ask, okay? And if you find out anything about anybody, phone Peter and wait until you hear from me."

  His junior partner nodded. "I used to do a great Charlie Chan. What do you think, Warner Oland or Sidney Toler?" He snapped his fingers. "No, Peter Lorre as Mr. Moto, he was great!"

  Jay said, "Here's an idea. Try a real Asian."

  "I need a mirror," Jerry said. He sprang up out of the booth and dashed off to the men's room.

  Jay sighed. In the silence that followed, Finn asked quietly, "Where am I going?"

  Jay almost said Takis, but thought better of it. They'd all agreed not to lay that on him just yet. "Home," he said instead. "At least Sascha can slip into a pair of sunglasses. No offense, doctor, but you stand out like a horse's ass."

  "I know what I look like," Finn said stiffly. "I don't care. I'm in this thing to the end."

  "This is the end, so far as you're concerned."

  "Do I have to remind you that it's my dad's plane at the airport?" Finn said, like a kid saying It's my football, I get to play quarterback if I say so. "Nobody's going anywhere without me."

  Jay just shook his head. "We don't dare go back to the Learjet. Fleming's people know about it by now. Doc, you've done everything you can, but right now you're more of a liability than an asset."

  "You think you're going to find the Black Trump without me?" Finn challenged. "You could be in the same room with it and you wouldn't know what to look for. The three of you don't know a retrovirus from a retrorocket. You think Rudo is going to have the stuff in a big drum with BLACK TRUMP stenciled on the side? Maybe a foaming beaker with a skull-and-crossbones on it?" the centaur's blond tail was lashing back and forth in anger. "And what do you plan to do with it when you find it? Flush it down the toilet?"

  Jay had started to shape his hand into a gun to pop Finn back to the safety of Jerry's wine cellar,
but now he hesitated.

  "There's nothing for me in New York," Finn went on. "If I show my face at the Clinic they'll just pick me up again. I can't work or walk the streets or go home. What do you expect me to do, sit around Creighton's watching CNN until I hear that the Black Trump's been released? Fuck that, Ackroyd. You pop me back to New York and I go straight to the authorities. I have a lovely singing voice."

  Jay lowered his finger and sighed. "You win. I'm going to Hong Kong. You'll go with me. We'll disguise you somehow. Glasses, maybe. I don't know."

  The door to the men's room opened. An old thin, stooped Vietnamese man came out wearing Eric Fleming's clothes, walked over to the booth, and sat down. "How's this?" he asked.

  Jay Ackroyd looked him over. "Ho Chi Minh visits Ho Chi Minh City, Swell. That ought to make all the newspapers. Of course, they may wonder why you can't speak Vietnamese ..."

  ♥ ♦ ♣ ♠

  A mud-walled town, narrow streets, a mosque, stands of fig trees in irrigated fields, a boy herding three goats and four younger siblings, all moving by so fast that they seemed frozen in stop-motion. Four fat geese and a sharp turn around a windowless shade. A steep traverse into a wadi, and a climb back up the other side, fat tires crunching over boulders the size of a child's head. They topped the wadi and came out on a flat plateau, no shelter, no stands of trees, hours of daylight left. The long silver snake of a pipeline led southeast. A road, or at least a well-tended track, ran beside it. Balthazar put the pedal down and they lumbered toward Damascus at a hearty fifty miles an hour, the bus swaying on its strange suspension and the doves cooing startled protests.

  "Eee-hah!" Croyd yelled. "I like this!"

  "Don't mind it myself," Balthazar said.

  Zoe unfolded her new kilim to tuck over her lap. They reached the Euphrates again and went south along its banks for half the night.

  The campsite was a stand of date palms, their fronds rustling in the night wind. The camp was below the roadway, near the level of the river, but the bus couldn't be seen from the road and a little ridge gave a good view to the east. Zoe helped Balthazar set up the tent while Jan and Croyd unloaded the sleeping bags from the bus.

  "I'll sleep outside," Zoe said. "You and Jan can have the tent."

  "Ma'am?" Balthazar asked.

  There wasn't going to be any graceful way to phrase this. Balthazar would understand or he wouldn't. "You're alive. Jan's alive. That could change any minute. Love her. Let her love you. Its okay, Balthazar."

  "Have you talked to Jan?" he asked.

  "I'll let you do that." Zoe smiled at Balthazar and turned away.

  She spotted Croyd pacing the ridge about a hundred yards from the camp and went to intercept him. They sat for a long while, watching the river, the trees, the broken little hills. The stars were very bright.

  Now and again, the walls of the tent glowed with a firefly light.

  Croyd talked. He got up at times and paced back and forth, and he never stopped talking.

  "Algebra," he said. "Zoe, do you know these people invented algebra?" He waved his hand at the empty landscape. "They even invented the zero. Can you imagine inventing a zero?"

  Zoe shook her head, realized Croyd couldn't see the motion because she was sitting by the brazier with her sleeping bag pulled up over her head. "No," she said, a garbled no that was mixed with a yawn.

  "Do you think they're lying about Rudo?"

  "I don't know. I think the Fists would lie if they thought they needed to."

  "That's no answer."

  "There's a bomb in the pump. They aren't lying about that."

  "How do you know?"

  "I can sense molecular structures, Croyd. There's a big heavy dose of fissionable stuff in there. Really."

  "Then maybe they'll get Rudo for me. I have to believe that, I guess. Or I could just go to sleep somewhere and try to get back to New York."

  "I wouldn't go back," Zoe said. "No way." She yawned again.

  "You're tired. Rest. Sleep. I'll be quiet." Croyd fiddled with the last of the coals in the brazier and didn't say anything for a while. Zoe drifted into half-sleep, dreaming of Spanish dancers with castanets. They whirled around and around, and under the black lace of their mantillas their faces were white bone -

  "Zoe?" Croyd whispered, his lips close to her ear.

  The castanets were palm fronds, clicking in the night's wind. She jumped, "Guess I was drowsing," Zoe said.

  Croyd kissed her. It was a hungry kiss, a speedy kiss. It roused her to total alertness. She got her sleeping bag unzipped with one hand and pulled Croyd in with her. It was a single bag. They were a tight fit. She wondered if Croyd had waked Balthazar to stand watch, but the thought wasn't a high priority at the moment. She tried rolling on top. That was fun. The knot on the waist of her trousers was proving difficult, and she giggled, trying to keep her voice quiet.

  A bright, orange blossom flared behind the date palms. The shot struck the bus, a sound so loud it was a white gap in her ears. She heard a zinging richochet.

  Croyd's foot kicked at her shoulder as he backed out of the sleeping bag at near-light speed. Zoe embraced the sand beneath her and found she was worming her way toward the tent, flat on her belly.

  Had they hit the bomb?

  It wouldn't blow up. The Permissive Action circuitry was coming to Jerusalem in a different package, or so Snailfoot had told them. Even if you shot through the metal casing around the damned thing, or cracked it open, all that would happen would be that a few pounds of fissionables would get scattered around.

  I'm glad Snailfoot told me that, Zoe thought. Another shot slammed into the bus, this one from the little ridge where she and Croyd had kept watch for a time.

  The optical ghost of the first shot hung in front of her eyes, a bright, orange blur that wouldn't blink away. Through it, she saw a man behind a palm tree, a white blur of headdress bent toward the sights of a rifle, aiming across her toward the bus. Sand. Glass. Kill him. Zoe blew at the sand beside her face. It rose, a dustdevil made of tiny needles, and whirled toward the rifle barrel.

  She heard the diesel grind over. And stop.

  "Zoe!" Jan yelled. Zoe rolled and saw Jan in the door of the bus, crouched over a rifle. "This way! Run!"

  The diesel coughed again. Jan's gun staccatoed a cluster of shots toward the ridge. A rifleman fell, his cloak deflating around him like a struck tent.

  "Shit!" Croyd yelled. "I almost had him!" He was halfway up the ridge, naked, and he fell backward - hurt? No, rolling down the sand of the ridge faster than a man could run. He got his legs under him at the bottom of the slope and scuttled toward the bus.

  The starter ground and the diesel coughed and died.

  "Get it going, Balthazar!" Croyd yelled. "There's headlights coming! There's more of them!" Croyd leaped the steps and crashed into his seat. "Who were they? Who? Start this bus, man!"

  "Shut up! I'm trying!" Balthazar yelled over the whine of the starter.

  The engine turned over. Over. It chugged into life. The fat wheels ground sand and crested the ridge.

  The world began to move with desperate slowness. From the north, a pair of low headlights came inevitably forward. The biggest, shiniest lorry in the world was headed into the car's path, just there all of a sudden, and silent as death. Its sound track is missing, Zoe thought, but then engine noise blasted her ears, the roar of a huge motor and a wail of abused tires as the lorry twisted off the road, its headlights broadsiding the bus that Balthazar was frantically trying to aim toward some invisible space that would let him miss both the lorry and the car. The lorry fishtailed and skidded over the ridge toward the river, its horns bellowing. Date palms snapped like toothpicks. Balthazar braked the bus to a stop. He threw himself out the door on some mission Zoe couldn't understand following Croyd. A couple of white-robed men scrambled away from the lorry's path, robes aflutter and rifles blasting every which way. The big truck's cab tipped at the edge of the bank. It balanced and rocked back and forth.
The trailer slewed sideways and rolled into the river. In slow motion, it pulled the cab down with it. Jan, seeming utterly calm, sighted on one gunman, pulled the trigger, and swept her sights to the other. "Squeeze. Don't pull," she whispered to herself, and the second rifleman went down. Croyd still naked scrambled toward the riverbank, and a brown Ford Bronco pulled off the road and cautiously followed the lorry's path through the trees. The car stopped and two people got out.

  Zoe wasn't sure hew she got there, but she found she was standing on the bank, watching in total amazement as Ms. Odessa removed her floppy hat and her camera, pulled off her skirt, and made a perfect shallow dive into the river. Mr. Odessa pulled a spare tire out of the Ford and tied it to a length of rope. He whirled it over his head and sailed it into the water.

  "Mother will get him out," Mr. Odessa said, while a man's voice yelled. "Put me down." Splutter. "Let go! Bloody hell!"

  "Hush!" Ms. Odessa said. "Quit fighting me or I'll be forced to strike you. Silly fellow anyway, showing up in the middle of the road like that. I should let you drown!"

  "That's all of them," Croyd said, jogging past. He'd grabbed his pants en route, and he held them in one fist. He had a rifle in the other. Where had the guns been hidden? Zoe didn't really want to know.

  Mr. Odessa was reeling in the tire and the pair who clutched it. He grunted, and Zoe grabbed the rope and helped him pull.

  "Here you go. We're on solid ground now." Ms. Odessa crouched down and tucked her hands under the armpits of a stocky man in a streaming wet windbreaker and a soggy cap that streamed water over his face. She heaved. The man got to his feet. He coughed and climbed up to the pod of light made by the Bronco's headlights. He had a stogie in his mouth, utterly limp. The man blinked at his rescuers, at the guns that Croyd and Jan held. He turned, looked at the overturned lorry, and threw his soaked black cigar away.

  Ms. Odessa climbed into her clothes while Mr. Odessa stowed the tire and the carefully coiled rope in the Bronco. "Well, Mother," he said. "I think we should be on our way. I'm sorry about your truck, young man, but I'm sure these folks will give you a ride."