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Actions & Adventure
History & Fiction
Thrillers & Crime
Romance & Love
Mystery & Detective
Time News Roman
George R. R. Martin
Black Trump 31
It was a desperate game, a three cornered bet: his daughter, the wild cards, his own humanity. A slip could lose all three.
And he wasn't even sure the game could be won. Creating the Overtrump was nothing: Jarnavon could have done it. It was much easier than the stable Trump Casaday demanded.
But even if Mark made an Overtrump, he had no idea of what good it might be. In the unlikely event Casaday failed to kill him as soon as his usefulness was done, the Card Sharks would certainly keep him under wraps until his gene-crafted horror had run its course. How he might release the Overtrump in time he had no clue.
Of course, if Quasiman suddenly gets his act together... Savagely he quelled the thought. Futile hope just distracted a mind in need of total focus. Thinking acid-edged thoughts about the only game in town, he began once more to leaf through his stack of images.
♥ ♦ ♣ ♠
The bus was a mouse and the sphinx that loomed before them was a giant cat, a cat the size of a mountain. It watched the bus with blind eyes of crumbling sandstone. Bruckner rammed the old Bluebird straight between its paws. The creature opened its mouth and took them inside. The diesel roared into the wide desert that was the beast's belly, where red stars streaked across a limitless dome of black sky. The twisted starlight sleeted into the back of Zoe's neck in silent pulses or quantum outrage.
"Where are we?" Jan asked.
"On a shortcut," Bruckner said. "We're going from point A, where my truck landed in the sodding river, to point B. Point B is the last stretch of open road from Jordan into Jerusalem."
Croyd seemed calmer than he had been. His muscular tension had changed in subtle ways. The twitchy restlessness of sleep deprivation had been replaced by a purposeful alertness, a sort of myofibrillar hum. "It feels like that was good speed I took," he said. "High octane speed." He stared out the window, where a row of solemn, massive bulls lumbered past, burdened with garlands of blood-red blossoms. "Good speed doesn't do this. Can these guys get in here, Bruckner?"
"Haven't yet," Bruckner said.
The blossoms opened to show hearts of glass needles. They exploded from the flowers like darts and chattered against the sides of the bus, but that was behind them now.
A blizzard of white salt drifted against the windows. The sweep of the windscreen wipers ticked against the beating of Zoe's heart. Out on the endless plain, pyramids of quartz the size of pearls or mountains vanished and appeared, synchronized with her pulse. Not quartz, the pyramids were shiny handfuls of pills that Croyd held counting out the varieties in a bemused and distant voice. "Black mollies, hexagons, sexamyls, spansules," chuckling as he counted them, but when Zoe looked at his hand it was empty.
"Did you see that statue?" Bruckner asked.
Zoe didn't see a statue. She saw kaleidoscope patterns of silver teeth, biting at the night. "That statue was a giant copy of my award that was. The Order of the Silver Helix," Bruckner said. "Di pinned the medal on me herself, she did after I trucked those chaps to the Falklands. Proudest day of me life, but it didn't cut the alimony payments by one whit, nor the ruddy child support. Child support. Never got it from my dad. Never knew who he was.
A black tornado of a djinn bowed at the waist to let Bruckner pass. Zoe felt something cold at her waist. A tendril of black smoke snaked through a bullet hole in the side of the bus. She yanked her headscarf off and stuffed it in the hole, forcing the djinn back into the void.
Terrible white heat filled the bus, brighter than the sun, hotter than ice, a nanosecond's light where motes of dust circled and one of them cried with Anne's voice. It was a whirlwind, and it sucked them all into its vortex, the dead man from Odessa, Jellyhead, whose soft skull made a tiny, sucking pop as it imploded, a lamb with milk-white fleece that turned its huge goat-eyes to Zoe with sad reproach and burst into flames.
Bruckner sent the bus into a screeching turn. Its tires wailed protest. "Behind us! Cover us, Goatboy!" he yelled.
Balthazar twisted toward the rear of the bus, the barrel of his rifle swinging over Jan's head to aim at something back there. "Nothing," Balthazar said. "I see nothing!"
"It was after us. Ohmigod. Spooks and devils and roads made of broken bones, I've never seen the like. Sit tight. I think we can dodge it."
"It?" Zoe asked.
"There are things out here that don't bear thinking about," Bruckner said. He floored the accelerator and locked his hands on the wheel, steering the lumbering bus through an unseen maze with small, measured motions of his hands and shoulders.
Don't think, he'd said. Zoe tried not to.
Between her and Croyd, a man's solid weight shifted the springs of the seat. Hunchbacked, he smelled of Old Spice and sweat. His sad face seemed so kind.
"You're not Hannah."
"No," Zoe said. She couldn't hear herself speak, and wondered if she spoke at all, or if she had entered a dream space where speech was impossible. Her muteness gave her a sudden rush of hope that she might someday, somehow, wake.
"No," she said again. This time her voice was her own, harsh, loud. But the man was still there.
"You'd like Hannah. Everyone likes her." He patted Zoe's hand, his fingers warm and solid.
The man got up and leaned over Bruckner. "Do you have any drugs?"
"Hey, guv'nor!" Bruckner growled. "No hitchhikers, now!"
"Sorry," the hunchback said. In moments, he had faded away.
There was nothing outside the bus but sand, endless dunes, and starlight. Zoe wrapped herself in her kilim. Croyd patted the seat of the bus with his palms, drumming out a complex rhythm. After a time, Zoe's heart slowed to something like a normal rhythm.
"I'm so tired." Jan sounded like a fretful toddler. "Needles, I'm hungry too, but I've been on the street all day and I'm so tired. Let me stay. Please?"
"Hush," Balthazar said. "That's over, Jan. I'm here. Hold on, honey." He held her close as the bus swayed as if rocked in a giant hand.
Alabaster minarets grew before them, thick as nettles in a field, an impenetrable maze. They crawled through it forever, missing the delicate spires by millimeters, Bruckner cursing as he drove. Days? Months? The sun never rose.
The bus moved slower than the camel plodding along past the window. A square tent decorated with fringes made of shredded bank drafts sat atop the camel. A hand wearing no rings lifted the curtain of the tent. The warehouse manager from Odessa stared at Zoe, his eyes polished spheres of granite.
"Why did you come to Baghdad?" Balthazar asked in wondering tones. He stared at something out the windows on his side of the bus. "I was to meet you in Damascus."
Jan covered his eyes with her palms and crooned to him. Croyd had curled up into a ball, his head sheltered beneath his crossed arms. He chuckled to himself at times.
"Well, we're past Damascus," Bruckner said. "Damascus was those minarets and such like. We're outside Amman now."
They were braking to an intersection, a road cut into the scoured earth of Jordan, a dark night.
"Forty miles to go," Bruckner said. "You'd think the Holy Lands would be a bit larger, now wouldn't you?" He jerked the bus around a donkey carrying a cloth-wrapped bundle twice its size. "Ruddy beast should have headlights," Bruckner said.
"Did we make it?" Zoe asked.
"We aren't through the gates yet," Bruckner said.
"Is there another border?" Croyd uncurled and sat up. "I hate borders."
"Not a border. Just the Allenby Bridge," Balthazar said.
A sheik in silks trotted by on a magnificent chestnut mare. Lean hounds loped beside him, sniffing at the road. A jeep cruised past carrying four soldiers in camo, guns at the ready. The soldiers waved and smiled. Wherever we were, Zoe thought, we're still there. Humans and beasts streamed up toward Jerusalem, coalescing into a thick stew of bodies and vehicles that crowded toward the Allenby Bridge, ready for morning and a day's business.
Bruckner eased the bus toward the checkpoint, a busy place where the UN flag hung limply over the crowds. He cra
nked open the window on the driver's side and leaned his head out. "We are residents," he said. "These people are, anyway. Me, mate, I'm a British subject loyal to the Queen, and I'm taking this besotted vehicle in to a garage for them. Breakdown, don't you know?"
Brisk, bored soldiers climbed aboard. The guns of the night had vanished somewhere. There was a rustle of papers, frowns, a thorough examination of baggage. One of the soldiers cooed at the dovecage. Jan smiled at her. The sun struck the yellow stones of the city walls and turned them to gold. Going home.
The guards waved them through. Zoe had even forgotten to be frightened, or her level of terror was now peaked at a maximum dull roar and nothing as minor as a bunch of soldiers peering at the pump could bother her any more. She didn't know which. Her eyelids felt sanded and the bright morning hurt her skin.
Halfway across the bridge, Croyd leapt for the door of the bus. "That's him! Let me out! It's Rudo!" He slammed his elbow against the swivel doors on the bus and jumped out into the crowd.
"What's with that chap?" Bruckner asked.
Croyd dodged through the crowds, heading into the Jewish quarter, his turbaned head bobbing up and down.
"Pharmaceutical psychosis," Zoe said. Just what we needed. "Let me out, Bruckner! I'll go hit him or something."
"Bring him back, Zoe," Balthazar said. "We have to stay with the bus."
"I know," she yelled, out the doors and trying to keep her eyes on the entrance to the alley where Croyd had disappeared.
Zoe fought her way around a flock of wooly lambs. She felt exposed suddenly, and realized her headscarf was still stuffed in the wall ot the bus. No matter.
She jumped into a space in the center of a display of brass teapots, leaped again and came down poised on one foot, got to the corner in two fast jogs, remembering games of hopscotch in front of the stoop and Bjorn laughing while she played.
Croyd sprinted toward a group of businessmen in dark suits, unremarkable except that all their calfskin attaches seemed to match. Croyd was half a block ahead of Zoe, and the alleyway was filled with awnings, vendors, and morning crowds. Zoe pushed her way toward him. Someone yelled. On tiptoe, she could see an eddy in the crowd, a wave of humanity moving out of the way. An orange peel sailed through the sky and landed on the green-and-white stripes of the awning beside her. Zoe pushed forward shoving people out of the way. Yes, Bjorn, she told her dead father. I'm being rude.
Croyd lay stretched on his back, his eyes closed, his breathing deep and slow. A woman knelt beside him, dark hair, power suit in a gorgeous shade of spring green, calfskin attache with a discreet UN insignia. She was feeling for Croyd's carotid pulse.
"What happened?" Zoe asked. "I'm his friend. What did you see?"
"He slipped on an orange peel. I didn't see him hit his head or anything like that; he fell on his - butt, to be clear about it. Then he just stretched out like this. He's breathing okay, but he doesn't respond to anything. I even slapped him. Gently."
How soon did Croyd start to change after he went into one of his sleeps? Zoe didn't know. She had to get him off the street before he began to metamorphose or whatever it was that he did.
"It's a - seizure disorder. He needs his medicine. Fast. I have to take him to it. Help me with him, would you?" Zoe knelt beside him, trying to figure if she could carry him by herself.
"You can't move him!" the woman protested.
But I have to, Zoe thought. She ran her hands down the back of Croyd's neck as if she knew what she was doing. "His neck's okay," Zoe said. "Really. It's safe, and I have to - cool him down. He gets hyperthermic when he's like this."
Sneakers, black cotton skirts, Jan's feet. Next to her, Balthazar stood with Zoe's kilim folded over his arm. Bruckner had inched the bus to the mouth of the alley and a blare of horns and curses announced that he'd stopped it there, traffic or no.
"With four of us, it should be easy to carry him," Balthazar said. He flipped the corners of the rug open and spread it on the street. Jan helped him roll Croyd over on it. "If you'll just take that corner, Miss - ?"
"Davidson," the woman said. "Sheila Davidson."
"Miss Davidson. When I count three. One. Two." Sheila Davidson hooked the strap of her attache over her shoulder and grabbed her corner of the rug. "Three," Balthazar said.
They hauled Croyd to the bus and laid him on one of the bench seats. He put his thumb in his mouth and curled into a fetal ball, smiling.
"He'll be fine," Balthazar said. "There's no need to stay. We'll take care of him."
"Well. I'm late for work as it is," Sheila Davidson said.
"Thank you," Balthazar said.
Bruckner did at least wait until she had both feet on the ground before he rolled the bus forward. In three turns, they were through the gate and in the packed, busy turmoil of the Joker Quarter.
No hurrahs. The guards, impassive, watched them drive in. Balthazar spoke briefly with one of the Fists, and they carried Croyd away somewhere - asleep, to awake changed. Zoe wondered if she would ever see him again. And if she did, who would he be? Bruckner and Balthazar talked briefly and then Bruckner was gone. The bus vanished into a side street and might never have existed. Balthazar and Jan and Zoe stood in the souk and business swirled around them. Business as usual.
"Now I can go hug Anne," Zoe said. "And I can shower! And I can get out of these clothes! Jan? I'll race you home."
"I don't think so," Jan said.
Zoe felt the guard's presence before she saw him next to her, grim, determined a man with orders and a gun.
"Miss Harris? This way, please."
"Tell her, Balthazar," the guard said.
Balthazar sighed. "It's not over, Zoe. The Black Dog wants to see you. Now."
But I don't want to see the Black Dog, Zoe thought. Never, ever again.
Run? But Balthazar's hand held her right arm just above the elbow and Jan flanked her other side, urging her toward the door in the shadow of the gate, and two of the Fists guards up on the walls turned on some unheard signal, their attention suddenly on Zoe Harris.
What could the bastard want this time? Wasn't one nuke enough for him?
"I'll tell Anne you're back safe," Jan whispered. She darted away with Balthazar, their night-black robes fluttering through the passageways in quick flickers of motion. Images of carrion birds came up from somewhere and faded again. Strobe effect. That was fatigue. Zoe felt as though she'd been taking some of Croyd's speed.
"You did well," the Black Dog said. He sat at a conference table and motioned for her to sit down. There was a chair by the door. Zoe took it, sitting at his insistence but not where he pointed.
"Am I supposed to say 'Thank you?' Fuck that. I want to go home."
"Soon. Soon. We've just moved into a worst-case scenario. The Nur al-Allah has the Black Trump."
"A desert fanatic. A damaged ace who thinks he speaks with the voice of Allah himself."
Snailfoot slithered into the room, a sheaf of printout clutched in his hand. The Black Dog seemed to expect him and offered no greeting. Snailfoot sat down and began to sort papers.
"The Nur hasn't made the news much lately, but he's got followers, he's got funding," the Black Dog said. "Anyone who keeps hatreds alive in the Mideast gets money, and the Nur al-Allah hates the wild card. He will use any weapon he can find to destroy it, even plague. Jihad, he's thinking. The holiest of wars."
"He's an ace? Then how does he figure he won't die of the Trump once it's loosed?"
"If it's loosed," Snailfoot said. "Please."
"He thinks aces are blessed of Allah and jokers are cursed. He thinks no plague would touch him," the Black Dog said.
"However, er, skewered, his grasp of bioscience may be, he knows he needs some western devil science to multiply enough agent to be useful." Snailfoot's words were for the Black Dog, he ignored Zoe. "Rudo's a psychiatrist, so he can't do the work himself. They've picked up an Afghani virologist, a bent medic from
Grenada - they're looking for others."
"Rudo?" Zoe asked. "Does Croyd know about this yet?"
"No," the Black Dog said. "I can't let him know, not until we've found out how to get the Trump away from him. Croyd wouldn't let reason keep him from killing Rudo if he got the chance."
"Go the UN! Tell them! Surely it's time to do that now!"
"Don't be a fool, Zoe Harris. Tell die UN that a dead ex-official of theirs is working on a genocidal plague? By the time the bureaucracy digested that news, we'd all be dead. We've got a few people in the Nur's camp. I figure he's got a few in ours. In fact, I plan to make sure he does. He needs to find out we've got the bomb, but not until we know we can destroy his stash of Trump."
Snailfoot squared a stack of papers on the desk. "We've prepared a dossier for your new identity, Zoe, plausible reasons for your Western education and your hatred of the wild card. You're the only chemist we have available at the moment." He slipped a paperclip over the stack and slid it across the table in Zoe's direction.
"Oh, no. I'm a chemist, not a virologist! I don't know anything about this stuff."
"The Nur won't know that you don't. And Rudo needs help fast. He won't argue. The man's in a hurry," the Black Dog said.
"I can't!" Zoe said. "Please. I want a shower. I want to go home."
Azma slipped through the door, soothing plump Azma, concern on her face when she saw Zoe. "You're getting roots," the woman said, her soft touch gentle on Zoe's hair. "We'll have to do a touch-up."
"I want to see Anne," Zoe said.
"Before you leave," Azma crooned. "Of course you will."
♥ ♦ ♣ ♠