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Actions & Adventure
History & Fiction
Thrillers & Crime
Romance & Love
Mystery & Detective
Time News Roman
George R. R. Martin
Black Trump 32
Ray looked all around, turning in a circle and shaking his head.
"It's big," he finally said. "It'll be a bitch to keep an eye on everyone when it's crowded."
"I've never heard Westminster Abbey described quite like that," Flint whispered, his words echoing weirdly in the cathedral's cavernous interior. Only Flint, Ray, and Harvest were present, though probably a platoon of spies could have been hidden among the statues, monuments, and screens scattered around the ancient cathedral.
Harvest smiled. "He has the soul of a poet."
Ray grinned himself. "You don't need poets for this business, you need guys like me."
Flint looked down on them gravely. "It took some serious campaigning on my part before I could get Her Majesty's Government to accept your presence in the security contingent."
"Well," Ray said, "I could see why you wouldn't want us screwing up Churchill's funeral. You guys did such a swell job guarding him when he was alive."
Flint frowned. "Enough of that. I got the Secretary to agree to your presence by insisting that it was Sir Winston's wish that you be included in anything which might deal with Card Sharks. I did it to have someone on the job I knew I could trust. Don't make me regret my decision."
"What do you mean, someone to trust?" Harvest asked.
"Sir Winston believed that our security net had been punctured by Card Sharks. He was going to name names at the meeting, but ... well, you know what happened. He trusted Ray, because he's an outsider and a wild carder. He was going to accept Ray's judgment of you. By the way - I suppose I should make this official. Do you think Agent Harvest is trustworthy?"
Ray looked at her. "Trustworthy?" he asked. He hesitated only a moment. Ray was beginning to suspect that he loved her. He supposed that he trusted her. "Hell, yes!"
She smiled at him.
"Very well. The problem is that I don't know whom to trust among our own people. With representatives from nearly every nation in the world arriving tomorrow for the funeral, we can't allow a successful Card Shark attack."
"It would be a hell of a time to release the Trump," Ray said. "The diplomats would bring it back to their own countries, spreading it around the world in a heartbeat."
Flint nodded creakingly. "My thoughts exactly. I don't think they'd be daring enough to disrupt the ceremony - but we can't afford to take any chances. You two will be my aces in the hole, my trump for the Trump, so to speak. If Johnson and the Sharks do assay an attack they must be stopped. The fate of the entire world is in our hands."
"No shit, Sherlock," Ray said.
♥ ♦ ♣ ♠
The Fists flew her to London. Heathrow was a couple of hours of crowded boredom, questions from oh-so-polite customs officials, and another ramp into a plane, this one to Damascus. Zoe slept through most of the night, wrapped in her kilim, its folds bunched behind her neck to make a pillow. The plane reeked of tobacco, rosewater, and musky sweat.
Zoe Hazziz, an American-born Egyptian whose father had died in the '67 war, took a room in a hotel that had quarters for unattended women. The hotel provided a guide for her, Khaled a taciturn man, not young, who walked with a limp, so that she could walk the streets with some semblance of dignity. Her scarf had come to seem comforting, its folds at her neck a screen against appraising eyes, but she wasn't in full chador. It wouldn't have fitted her profile, western-trained, a modern woman.
Khaled led her to the address she had given him, but he stopped at the entrance to the alleyway, narrow and fetid. This was the Street of Doves? A dog's bloated carcass lay belly-up in the sun. The drone of flies feeding on it was louder than the noise of the streets behind them.
"This is not a good place," Khaled said.
"Still, I must go. I am expected." Expected for an interview, a response to a plea for employment, by Allah's mercy, for an orphaned daughter of one of the faithful - the letter drafted by Snailfoot, mailed from London to a merchant in Damascus, a man who was faithful to the Nur.
"This is not the dwelling of a merchant," Khaled said.
The blue door. She was to enter the blue door at mid-morning, in the Street of Doves. Zoe settled the straps of her pack on her shoulder, the kilim tied like a bedroll. Wrapped in it were a few toilet articles, a little jewel case that contained - something Snailfoot had given her, something she wasn't supposed to think about. She picked up her skirts and ran. Khaled did not follow her, or if he did, the bedouin standing in the suddenly opened doorway discouraged him from entering.
The bedouin motioned her toward a man in khaki who sat in a rattan chair in the shady room. Above his starched collar, his face was dead white, clean shaven. He needed a beard to disguise that weak chin, Zoe decided. A wooden ceiling fan stirred the air above his head, surprisingly cool. A latticework partition led to another room. It took Zoe a moment to realize that the statue next to the chair was not a statue, it was a giant man, motionless, in a motorized wheelchair. The back of the wheelchair was decorated with red and white satin tassels.
"Miss Hazziz," the man in the wicker chair said. "I am Samir Zahid."
Something was not right with his lower iaw. He didn't hiss, but the skin around his mouth seemed too generous, as if he were missing a lot of teeth. The Bedouin sank to the floor beside Zahid, so that the three of them stared up at Zoe in that intent way that still bothered her. She stayed on her feet. She could not sit down until she was invited to do so.
"Your brothers have not been dutiful. They are employed. Why are they not providing for you?"
"They are young men. Married, with children. I would not have their wives denied what my brothers can give them."
"Admirable," Zahid said.
Zoe kept her eyes down. A cockroach explored the gaudy carpet by her feet. New York had bigger roaches; this one looked half-starved.
"Why did you leave New York?" Zahid asked.
Now for the big lie. Remember Bjorn, say this as if you spoke of him. "My father. Abominations like those who killed my father, who now dwells in Paradise, walk the streets without fear. How could I live in such a place?"
"He died a fighter?"
"One of Allah's accursed killed him," Zoe said. That was true. But it wasn't a joker who had killed him, not a wild card victim.
The giant in the wheelchair spoke quickly in Arabic. Zahid nodded.
"It may be that Allah in his mercy has found a task that you might perform to earn your dowry, perhaps even to help avenge your father. It is risky, bringing westernized women into contact with the virtuous women we shelter in the desert, but - you are trained as a chemist? The work is highly secret. No one must ever know what it is that you will do if you work with us. Do you understand?"
Zoe nodded. The cockroach had wandered to the edge of the carpet.
"She might talk," the giant said.
"There are ways to gain silence, even from a woman. She might serve, Sayyid," Zahid said to the giant beside him.
This was Sayyid, the Nur's war leader? Snailfoot had said he was a giant, yes, but Snailfoot hadn't known if he'd survived that day in the desert when Hartmann had been shot. He'd been crushed by an ace power, Snailfoot had said. Every bone broken. His face was marked with deep lines of pain.
"Take her to Rudo, then," the giant said.
The bedouin rose to his feet.
"Wait! Search her," the giant said.
The bedouin took a step toward Zoe.
"Search me? I have no weapons," Zoe said. She backed toward the door, hoping Khaled hadn't left the alley, left her here.
"Weapons! Do you think we would fear a woman's weapons? No, but we must know that you carry no taint of abomination. We must know that you are not marked by the wild card." The giant clapped his hands.
A woman, veiled except for her eyes, came from behind the lattice.
"Strip," the giant said.
Zoe supposed it was meant to be humiliating. It wasn't. Let those fools see what a good body looked like, for once. She climbed out of her layers of black gauz
e, almost with a feeling of relief, and walked deliberately to stand in reach of the giant named Sayyid. The veiled woman reached for her as if to hold her back. Her eyes looked frightened.
"Don't fear for me," Zoe said. "These virtuous men will do me no harm." She raised her arms over her head, feeling their measuring eyes on her skin. Inches away from the giant, she turned full circle, slowly, and then arched her pubis forward. Nothing hidden. Zahid tapped his fingers against the arm of his wicker chair.
"I am no joker," Zoe said.
The bedouin hissed.
"Get dressed," Sayyid said. "We're leaving. Bring the truck into the alley, Izzat!"
The bedouin rushed for the door as if he were embarrassed.
The woman dropped her eyes and vanished behind the lattice. Zoe got her into her clothes and slipped her shoes on.
"Come," Sayyid said. "We're leaving now."
He motored his wheelchair to the door. Zoe squashed the roach under her heel and followed him.
Out in the bright sunlight, a van as tall as a double-decker bus backed into the alley, past the crumpled body of the guide named Khaled, flies already buzzing around the drying pool of blood that seeped out from beneath his belly.
"Our work is secret," Sayyid said.
Izzat hustled to the side of the van and let down a wheelchair lift. Sayyid motioned Zoe into the van. The lift groaned under his weight. The door closed.
♥ ♦ ♣ ♠
Ray twitched as Harvest's blunt nails skittered down his back. He lay on her stomach, one of his legs thrown between hers, his thigh resting on their juncture. Her hair was tousled, her breath just returning to normal as she stared at the ceiling and idly ran her hand down Ray's muscular back, where the sweat was starting to dry.
"What're you thinking?" Ray asked.
"Hmmmm?" She looked at him. "I'm glad you had your face fixed. The photos in your file make you look like one ugly bastard."
Ray shrugged. "Never meant too much to me. It'll get battered again and I guess when it gets too bad I'll have it fixed again."
She put her hands on Ray's chest and pushed. He turned and flopped on his back and she straddled him, looking intently at his abdomen and chest.
"Remarkable," Harvest said.
She traced a line with one fingernail from his pubic hair, up his flat, hard stomach to his ridged chest. "This is where Mackie Messer opened you up that time in Atlanta, isn't it?"
"Yeah." Ray frowned. It hadn't been his proudest day. The twisted ace with the buzz saw hands had gutted him like a tuna on the floor of the Democratic National Convention. But Ray had bought enough time for another assassin known as Demise to do the job on the little bastard.
"And not even a scar," Harvest said drawing him back to the present as she kissed his chest, approximately where Mackie's hand had punctured his stomach.
"I heal good and fast."
Harvest looked up and smiled at him. "You do have remarkable recuperative powers."
"Let's hope you'll just need them tonight, not tomorrow."
Ray shrugged. "I'll be ready, no matter what."
"I know you will."
Her tongue licked the spot she'd just kissed and worked its way down.
Ray smiled. He would be ready. No matter what.
♥ ♦ ♣ ♠
The Temple of Ten Thousand Buddhas was in the New Territories, high on a hill at the top of a long crooked flight of steps that wound up from the Shatin Railway Station. The guidebook said there were 400 steps. It lied. There were 431 steps. Jay Ackroyd counted every one of them on the way up. It was a good thing he'd left Finn back at the hotel. He didn't think ponies did real well on steep, narrow steps.
The entrance to the temple was guarded by towering statues of huge, fierce, hideous Chinese gods. They didn't scare Jay. You saw a lot worse walking the streets of Jokertown every day. Inside the temple was dim and cool. The wall above the main altar loomed fifty feet high. It was painted a dark red and divided into a myriad of small niches, like a honeycomb. A miniature gold-and-black buddha sat in each niche, every one different from its brothers, all of them seemingly looking down on Jay.
"There are actually twelve thousand eight hundred of them," a familiar voice said quietly behind Jay, "but the Temple of Twelve Thousand Eight Hundred Buddhas' lacks a certain je ne sais auoi."
Jay turned toward the voice. "You mind telling me why I had to haul my ass out here and climb all those steps? What was wrong with the lobby of the Peninsula Hotel? You got something against comfortable chairs, Belew?"
J. Bob Belew smiled thinly. "Napoleon never let the enemy choose the battleground."
"Napoleon never had to hump all those goddamn steps."
"Prosperity is making you soft, Mr. Ackroyd," Belew observed. He was a compact man, shorter than Jay, but every inch of him was sinew and muscle. He was dressed in khaki-colored pants with a razor crease and a white safari jacket. His hair had started brown and gone gray; he cropped it close to his head, and compensated with an ostentatious walrus mustache.
Belew loved that mustache. He waxed its ends and played with it constantly, especially when dropping ban mots and quoting classical proverbs. Jay discovered that he found this just as irritating now as he had back in 1979, when he and J. Robert had almost died together on an abortive mission to rescue the hostages in Iran. Several other aces had died, including a man called the Librarian, who perished of a mortal wound that hadn't been mortal when Jay had popped him back to the medics at Desert One. "So where did you see the ad?" Jay asked.
"Everywhere," J. Bob said. "I hope you don't think you were being clever. You might as well have taken out a notice in the Card Shark Quarterly."
"Yeah, well, I would have just phoned you up, but when I looked in the Yellow Pages under Spies, you weren't listed."
"A bit out of your depth here, aren't you?" Belew said. "Love the little trade which you have learned, and be content with it. Marcus Aurelius. Were you aware that you were being followed from the moment you left your hotel? A man and a woman."
Jay looked around slowly. There was no one in the temple but monks and tourists. "Where?"
Belew stroked the bottom of his mustache with the back of his hand. "Not here. While they were following you, two of my men were following them. We made sure they missed the ferry. Shall we stroll?" He took Jay by the elbow and drew him out a side door onto the temple grounds. Outside, another flight of steps led further up the hill. Jay groaned. "Hong Kong is an invigorating city," J. Bob said as they climbed. "So much energy, so much activity ..."
"So much money," Jay said.
"Precisely. It gives the city a certain ideological purity. Nothing matters here but wealth. Even jokers are welcome, if they have the gelt. At the moment, they are pouring in by the thousands, fleeing the chaos in Saigon." There was a hint of sadness in Belew's voice at that. He stopped and gazed out across the valley. "You can see Amah Rock from here. Over there. The stone that looks like a woman with a baby on her back."
Jay took a look. Amah looked like a big lumpy rock to him, but if J. Bob wanted to say it was a woman, fine. Jay had once been hired to scour Mexico in search of a tortilla that looked like Jesus Christ. He never argued these things.
"Local legend has it that the rock was once a living woman, the wife of a fisherman who put to sea and never returned. She waited for him patiently, faithfully, never tiring, until one day the gods pitied her and turned her to stone."
"That was swell of them," Jay said.
"In a way it was," Belew said, twirling the waxed end of his mustache. "Chinese women go to Amah Rock to pray for patience and faithfulness. In the last decade, a good many jokers have gone there to worship as well."
"Swell," Jay said. "Only I didn't come halfway around the world to admire the hair on your lip and talk about rocks. I need to find our old friend O. K. Casaday."
J. Bob Belew turned back to face Jay. "If Casaday could be found easily
, I would have found him years ago. Emerson said, Pay every debt; as if God wrote the bill."
"Imagine thinking up something like that in between making all those refrigerators," Jay said. "Look, I didn't figure Casaday was sharing your flat, but I thought you'd know how to track him down if anyone could."
"I have my resources," Belew admitted. "As does Casaday. At the moment, his are rather more extensive. He is still an operative in good standing with the Central Intelligence Agency, while I am a discredited former Minister-without-Portfolio of a country that will be a footnote to history in a matter of months. Poor Mark. Asia is hard on the innocents."
"The Card Sharks are a fuck of a lot harder," Jay said. "Mark Meadows is still alive."
For the first time, he saw a spark of interest in Belew's eyes. J. Bob stroked the underside of his moustache thoughtfully, and smiled. "You surprise me, Jay. How long have you known?"
"I didn't know until just now," Jay said. "I guessed. Talk to me, damn it. Was it Casaday?"
"Yes. One of his better efforts. Casaday has never been noted for the precision of his operations, but this time he outdid himself. He was even thoughtful enough to supply a brace of corpses to pass for Mark and Sprout. A gaunt occidental man of undetermined origins and a blond Danish teenager kidnapped from Singapore. I'm still not quite sure how he got them inside the Presidential Palace. They were both alive right up to the instant of the explosion. I blush to admit that had me fooled for a while, but Casaday made one small slip. The Danish girl was four weeks pregnant."
"How do you know that?" Jay asked.
"Let's just say I made certain arrangements and had my own autopsy performed," Belew told him.
"So what did they do with Meadows?"
"I've been trying to determine that," J. Bob said. "Thus far, without success, I'm afraid. Why kidnap him in the first place? The Chancellor had enemies, certainly, but it would have been much simpler to kill him than to stage this elaborate subterfuge. When I find that piece of the puzzle, the picture may come clearer."