Black Trump

Black Trump

Black Trump 29

  The lorry driver nodded, looking dazed. Young man? He was forty, at least.

  Ms. Odessa fastened the waistband of her skirt and climbed into the Bronco. It backed away.

  Mr. Odessa's voice came from the open window. "They'll never believe this in Omaha," he said.

  "That fellow isn't a very careful driver," Ms. Odessa said.

  The Bronco paused at the edge of the deserted road, signaled a right turn, and drove into the night.

  "Bloody hell," the lorry driver said. "Oh, bloody hell." He pulled his soggy Andy Capp hat off, wrung it out, and settled it firmly over his bald spot. "There's no way to get my rig out of the water. There's a roadblock about twenty miles down the road. Some bloke told the Syrians you're carrying a bloody load of heroin in this bloody bus of yours. Now those ruddy do-gooder Yanks will tell them where you are. Oh, bloody hell!"

  The man began to trot uphill toward the bus, his boots squishing with every step. "I had a proper winch in the rig. Could have lifted your little item out and stowed it in no time. 'A simple little job,' those bastards said. 'Just go load this hot pump these blokes are carrying and bring it to Jerusalem,' that's what they said."

  Zoe followed him, Jan behind her with her rifle. On the ground, beneath broken palm fronds, Zoe saw an array of white bones, a skeletal hand still clutching the stock of a rifle. Its barrel was polished away. So was the arm that had held it. Zoe shuddered and kept going, watching the silent countryside, the empty road.

  "Bloody pakis shooting up the countryside, bloody Yank tourists out where they shouldn't be," the lorry driver muttered.

  Balthazar stood on the bus steps, holding a bulky gun. The lorry driver strode toward the nose of the old Bluebird. Croyd intercepted him, suddenly in position between the man and the bumper. Croyd wove a net in the air with his arms, dancing barefoot like an NBA guard. "Who the hell are you?" Croyd asked.

  "John Bruckner. The Highwayman. Put your pants on, whoever the hell you are, and open the bonnet so I can see what I'm stuck with driving!" Bruckner shoved Croyd aside.

  "I have a gun," Croyd said.

  "Yes, but do you have a torch? In case you haven't figured it out, mate, this bloke called the Hound of Hell sent me to get you into Jerusalem. Now, we're not moving until I look at this effing rig of yours, and if we don't move in about five minutes flat, your little teaparty is over."

  "Torch?" Croyd asked.

  "He needs a light," Jan said.

  "Do it, Jan!" Balthazar called from the steps of the bus.

  Jan flashed her eyes over the "bonnet." Croyd lifted it. The Highwayman examined the engine, his thick hands intimate with hoses and seals. He grunted something, climbed down off the bumper, and slid underneath the bus on his back. Jan followed him. Zoe, dazed, watched the glow from Jan's eyes move toward the rear end of the bus until Bruckner and Jan climbed out from under.

  "Well, close her up!" Bruckner barked in Croyd's direction. The stocky man climbed up on the fender, reached for the high end of the exhaust pipe, and passed his fingers across it. He sniffed his fingers and licked them and then climbed down, shaking his head and muttering.

  "It will have to do," Bruckner said. "I suppose I can't leave you. Not quite the decent thing, the nobs would say. But I won't have anyone in front with me, d'ye hear? Get your asses aboard. We're rolling."

  "Balthazar?" Croyd asked. "Can we trust this guy?"

  "He'll get us there if anyone can." Balthazar climbed over the driver's seat and pulled Jan close to his side. "Get in, Croyd. Zoe. Just don't look out the window, or if you do, ignore what you see."

  The engine caught at the first touch of the starter. It had never sounded quite like it did now. It purred. Zoe pushed Croyd into one of the too-small bench seats and climbed in beside him. She pulled her kilim out of his way and stuffed it behind the seat.

  "Headquarters said they couldn't get you here. They said there was some sort of trouble in Ireland," Balthazar said.

  "There's always trouble in Ireland." Bruckner babied the bus out to the road. The gleaming silver of the Euphrates rippled past. The Highwayman nursed the diesel toward speeds that seemed impossible. "It's time for a little 'short cut' now," Bruckner said.

  "Croyd?" Balthazar asked. "Why don't you put the gun down and put your pants on? Okay?"

  ♥ ♦ ♣ ♠

  Gregg had often replayed deaths in his mind before, mostly for the pleasure the memories would bring him. But never before had death stalked him, never had it sunk iron talons in his soul and torn him open inside.

  Gregg would have cried, but his joker body had no tears. One of the voices inside would have cried with him, but the other ... The other would have laughed.

  For three days after the murders in Belfast, the Fists had holed up in an abandoned mine in the Wicklow Hills, far to the south, near Dublin. The property belonged to a nat whose son, a joker, had died in the riots of '78. The land was gorgeous, hills painted with emerald and jade and perfect cottages of pristine white, like a picture postcard.

  And the landscape was haunted. Gregg stood under the eaves of a stand of oak trees, on a hill overlooking a sheep-gnawed pasture and the owner's cottage, but he saw none of it. Another, more visceral, scene filled his vision.

  "Oh, God" Gregg breathed "God."

  "Mummy, I'm scared," the child was crying, but then Gregg was no longer standing there before the row of frightened nats. Instead, Gregg was the child huddled against the breast of his mother, and Cara aimed her weapon at him. He tried to reach her with Puppetman, tried to use the power, the Gift, to make her turn away, but Puppetman was locked away somewhere hidden and the Gift was silent, though Puppetman's faint evil voice laughed and mocked Gregg. He pulled away from his mother and tried to run, but his joker body refused to cooperate. He screamed as the cold steel muzzle pressed against his head, a scream that was echoed from elsewhere in the dining room as Stand-in fired and Gregg waited for his own death to come. He looked up at Cara, ready to plead for his life, but other features rode the blank mirror of Cora's face, appearing one after another after another: Ellen, Sara Morgenstern, Peanut, Misha, Mackie Messer, Succubus, Andrea ...

  And he LOVED it. He felt their pain. He reveled in it, ate it like candy.

  "Gregg? Gregg, I'm here ..."

  "Hush, love. They're not going to hurt us," his mother said, but the hands of all his old victims tore him away from her, and she screamed in terror. They were chuckling as they crowded around him, as they pressed the cold steel muzzle to his head, as he closed his eyes and wondered whether he would hear the sound of the shot, whether he would feel any of the pain, and whether the pain would taste good ...

  "Gregg ..."

  Hannah held him, and there was no shot. Slowly, the waking dream began to fade, and Gregg shuddered in her arms as she clutched him. "It's okay," she said. "You're remembering again?"

  "Yes," he said. The warmth of her hands was almost painful. He could feel her fingers on his skin, could feel beyond them, into Hannah's body. As with the murders in Belfast, he could feel her, could sense her sympathy like a wave of cobalt blue, shot through with a pale white that was her revulsion and the primal scarlet of her caring, that allowed her to overcome that distaste. He could see the emotions, he could taste them, as he once had. You have a connection ... Gregg continued to talk, but his mind was on the sudden merging.

  "I killed them, Hannah," Gregg said desperately. Touch the scarlet.... See how it builds under your hands, Greggie? See? Tell her what she wants to hear and watch the reaction. "I pointed at them and they killed them. I keep hearing the screams whenever I fall asleep, Hannah. I can't dream of anything else, and it even hits me when I'm awake. I keep trying to figure out what I could have done to stop it from happening, but I can't think of anything. I keep thinking I should have at least tried."

  The scarlet surging. The pale white nearly gone. The blue so bright, so sweet ...

  "There was nothing you could do."

  "Then why do the dreams keep
coming?" Tell her what she wants to hear ... "Hannah, I'm useless. Rudo destroyed me when he jumped me; he just didn't have the decency to actually kill me. I don't know what I can do, I don't know how to help, I feel totally useless and I'm just ... just scared." The red pulses with the word, awakening echoes in her. She knows fear, and the sharing of it makes her one with you. The white is gone, hidden. Yes ...

  Hannah's arms went tight around him and Gregg relaxed into her embrace. Her skin was warm, deliciously fragrant. She didn't pull away, not this time. Inside her, Gregg would not let her. "I didn't want to do it, Hannah. I didn't have a choice." Pulsing, rising. Oh God, I can taste her ...

  "I know." Softly. "I know. Gregg, you can't torture yourself this way. We did the wrong thing, going to the Fists. Maybe we could have gone public and forced the government to find Rudo and the vials. Now we're relying on a band of joker guerrillas. We've had a taste of the Black Dog's philosophy. They worship death, not life."

  "Hannah, they're reacting as they see the world react to them. I think ... I think I can understand how they feel." Gregg pulled his head back. Hannah was looking down, her dyed hair curtained around her cheeks and a curious expression on her face. She looked very different from the Hannah who had come into his office a year ago: thinner, no makeup, wearing dirty, worn overalls and a dingy T-shirt, her hair stringy and in need of a shampoo. Somehow, she'd never looked more attractive. He caught a glimmer of the revulsion from her again, and pulled a blanket of scarlet over it.

  It worked. Gloriously, it worked.

  Gregg, is this what you want to become, once again? Are you sure ...

  "And you forgive them?" Hannah was asking.

  Gregg paused. "I understand them," he answered as softly as the breeze across the meadow. "I don't know about forgiveness." The things I could tell you about me, Gregg thought What would you think if I laid out all of my past for you? I wonder if you could understand them? Could you forgive me? I don't think so ...

  He'd forgotten the ghosts of the restaurant, reveling in the pleasure of being inside Hannah's emotions. The pleasure had its physical response as well. He could feel the erection growing low on his body. Hannah noticed it also. Her hand, trembling touched it, just for an instant. In that moment, the scarlet affection paled, and when Gregg tried to bring it back, tried to pull those strings, they snapped. He went tumbling back into himself.

  Hannah was looking at him. She still held him, but her caress had gone empty and slack.

  "Well, 'tis indeed a pleasant sight, this."

  "Goddamn!" Hannah let go of Gregg entirely. "Brian, you're a son of a bitch, you know that?"

  The joker gave Hannah a momentary, mocking smile, then his face fell into serious lines. "There's news you need to know. If you're not otherwise occupied."

  "What news?" Gregg asked. The odd erection had vanished like a broken rubber band.

  "Not here. I'll tell you back at the mine. Come on," Brian said.

  The mine was shallow, a mere hole in the side of the hill. Ancient oaken trusses held up the earth; toward the rear, rock glistened where the vain effort to find a vein of fabled Irish gold had ended. Cara and Stand-in busied themselves around the fire in the back, from which the odor of stew wafted.

  Brian was watching them when they entered. Hannah scowled at him. "So what's this news?" Gregg asked.

  "Don't worry, caterpillar. It's important enough to warrant the interruption." All the sardonic amusement left the tiny joker's face, leaving behind a face emptied of all emotion. "A bulletin just came over the radio a few minutes ago: Churchill's been assassinated. The old man's dead"

  "What happened?" Hannah asked. "How?"

  "During a meeting with some American ace. The assassins were Army officers; they're dead of course. Horvath is promising a complete investigation."

  Gregg stood there, shocked. Brian sniffed, as if in justification. "Churchill couldn't even protect himself," he said.

  «A hell of a coincidence, don't you think?» Cara mentally piped in from the rear of the cave. «You two go to see Churchill about Horvath and your Black Trump, and now the man himself is shot to death.»

  "Aye," Brian said, "I thought that, too."

  Hannah leaned against the wall of the cave. Gregg could sense wild emotions coming from her: shock, grief, sadness, unfocused rage. "Horvath and Johnson must have felt threatened," she said. "That's the only thing that makes sense. Churchill did something that made them feel they were in danger of being exposed." Her voice caught and Gregg felt the surging purple sorrow. "The poor man. He was so sure he couldn't be harmed ..."

  Churchill dead ... It seemed that even an immortal could fall prey to a terrorist. Churchill's funeral would draw thousands upon thousands of mourners, and dignitaries from every country in the world would be there to pay homage ...

  Gregg could not breathe. The realization hit him like a hammer blow. The funeral... Johnson ...

  "It makes too much sense," Gregg said. "My God, it makes all the sense in the world."

  "What?" Brian asked him.

  Gregg could barely hold his body still. The whole world seemed to vibrate in his myopic eyes. "Brian, there's just been a change of itinerary. We have to get to England."

  ♥ ♦ ♣ ♠

  The lab was dark except for light pools beneath a few hooded lamps, and pilot lights growing like tiny demon eyes. Mark was working late. Again.

  When he did retreat to his trailer it wasn't so much to rest as to escape the lab, and especially the constant, hovering presence of Dr. Jarnavon. The youthful scientist had two modes: worshipful chatter and worshipful silence. After a few days, the second wore on him as much as the first.

  It wasn't as if Mark was sleeping much. Whenever he closed his eyes he saw faces of the dead. People he'd gotten killed - Osprey going down with a bullet through his great eagle's head - but worst than that, all the wildcards he'd ever known: Doughboy, Peregrine, Jay Ackroyd. The people I'm condemning to death.

  Nuances in the lab journal abraded him with the suspicion that the nameless researcher was a woman. He hoped that was just some kind of sexist stereotyping on his part, or stress-fueled imaginings: he preferred to think of women as gentle, nurturing. He knew better; he'd seen what Vietnamese village women did to secret-police agents of the former communist regime who had caused some of their menfolk to disappear. But still ... Mark chose to cherish some illusions.

  Like the one that I'm a hero. That he could recapture the purity and glory of the Radical, the golden revolutionary ace into whom he had turned the first time he tried LSD, in time to save the lizard King and the kids in People's Park from the National Guard and the Establishment ace, Hardhat. All his subsequent forays into chemically-opened reaches of his own mind had sprung from the quest to bring Radical back; the "friends" he had learned to summon had been to his mind pale substitutes, ultimately unsatisfying.

  If he really had been the Radical. He had long since begun to doubt it. He had a few vague tachistoscope flashes of recollection that might have belonged to the Radical - and might just as easily been cobbled together by his subconscious, out of the few flashes of the People's Park confrontation he'd caught before he reeled into an alley and passed out, and from after-the-fact accounts. Usually he had clear recollections of what his alter egos saw and experienced and thought, just as they were generally aware of what befell the baseline Mark persona.

  And although he was denied them, his friends were making their presence felt. At least, JJ Flash and Cosmic Traveler did. Starshine and Moonchild were gone, possibly beyond recall. Aquarius took little notice of anything any landling did. But the remaining two weren't backward about nagging him from the cheap seats of his head.

  As if his conscience needed the help. How can I feel superior to whoever it was who created the Trump? he wondered bitterly. I'm making it deadlier ... to my own kind.

  He had an excuse, of course: he was doing it to save his daughter. And what demons drove the first researcher? The printouts
gave few clues. Obviously, whoever he or she was, they had compelling reasons too.

  A scrape behind him, lost soul or shoe sole. He spun and saw it was both.

  "Dr. Meadows," Quasiman said.

  His eyes looked clear. "You've got to help me," Mark said in a rush, trying to pack what he could into whatever window of lucidity the joker ace had. "Do you know what they're doing here?"

  A pause that almost stopped Mark's heart, then a nod. "I've ... been a lot of places, seen ... a lot of things. I know."

  He's still tracking, Mark thought, trying not let the flood of relief distract him, as much as he ever does.

  "Will you help me?"

  A nod.

  "I need two things. First, you have to get Sprout out of here. Can you do that? Can you take her with you?"

  Quasiman frowned, considering that. Mark dug his fingers into his thighs to keep from grabbing Quasiman and trying to shake loose a reply.

  "Yes," Quasiman said. "It hurts. But ... I can do it."

  If he remembers, JJ Flash's voice said in Mark's mind. He's on a whole 'nother plane than the rest of us, and it spends a lot of time in tailspins.

  "Another thing," Mark said. "I need drugs."

  "Drugs?" Quasiman asked. His voice sounded dreamy.

  "Drugs. Illegal drugs. Cocaine, speed LSD, psilocybin - anything, stimulant, narcotic, hallucinogen, whatever. If it's psychoactive, I can use it. Can you get me some?"

  Quasiman nodded.

  "Please, man. Bring them as quick as you can. A whole lot's riding on this!" He was on his feet now, hands beseeching before his narrow chest.

  Quasiman had continued nodding. It was beginning to take on a metronomic quality. "Sure, I'll help you," Quasiman said. "Or did I already?"

  "Jesus! Listen to me. Focus, please focus! You have not rescued my daughter. You have not brought me drugs. You still have to do those things - "