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Black Trump

Black Trump

Black Trump 40


  "Well, chum," he said from behind his mask with an incongruous, cultured British accent, "you certainly saved our bums. Now just who the bloody hell are you?"

  "They call me Mumbles," Ray said.

  "What?"

  "Mumbles. I said 'Mumbles.'"

  "How apropos," the joker said.

  The joker looked long and hard at Ray, but Ray bad no doubt that he could pass inspection. His nose was smashed almost flat. He had slashed his face with the razor, then held his lips pressed together until they'd fused, except for one small spot in the right corner of his mouth where he could shove in tiny bits of food and drink liquid through a straw. He'd sliced his hands the same way, cutting deep into the sides of his fingers and holding them pressed together so that the flesh grew into living mittens. It made his hands clumsy as hell, but that was something he could live with, though he didn't look forward to eventually correcting the problem.

  "They call me Snailfoot, though my name is Reginald."

  Ray didn't take the hint.

  "Well," Snailfoot said after a minute, "been long in our fair city?"

  Ray shook his head. "No. Not long. I've come to join."

  "Join?" Snailfoot asked.

  "The Black Dog. The Twisted Fists. I've come to fight."

  There was a long moment's silence, then Snailfoot said, "Well, my friend Mumbles, you've certainly come to the right place. Come along - and mind the slime. It's damn slippery."

  The other Fists had long since recovered their casualties and disappeared. No one in the crowd was inclined to stop Ray and Snailfoot, nor could Ray blame them. As they were heading toward an alley, a flash of color suddenly caught Ray's eye and he stopped and stared.

  "What is it?" Snailfoot asked.

  Ray shook his head. "Nothing," he said. "Just a caterpillar. A three-foot-long, yellow caterpillar."

  "Stay here long enough, mate, and you get used to sights like that."

  Ray nodded. He watched Hartmann and the bimbo mill around with the rest of the crowd. The Old City was a small place. They'd run into each other again. Ray knew they would.

  ♥ ♦ ♣ ♠

  Mark came awake in blackness, bolt upright, his body slimed with sweat quickly chilled by the overactive AC. His nostrils were dilated to the staleness of recycled air, and he felt the soft, incessant machines which kept the underground complex alive buzzing in his bones, like fluorescent-light shimmer made tangible.

  He sensed a presence. Human nearness seemed to press against his damp, chilled skin.

  "Who?" he demanded groggily. "Who's there?"

  "Me," a voice said. A great hunched shadow sidled forward to let the soft, yellow glow of a night-light illuminate one trouser leg.

  "Quasiman?"

  The off-center head nodded.

  "How'd you find me?"

  "This was where you were," the joker said. "All places are ..." His voice drifted. Mark sensed powerful hands making vague circles in the air.

  "Don't go drifty on me, man!" he said sharply, then, plaintive: "Please."

  "All places are pretty much the same to me, Doctor. I'm sorry; my mind was wandering there. Sometimes it goes a place, and then it's a little while before my body follows."

  "I've noticed that. Did you, like, bring the drugs?" He could barely bring himself to ask the question.

  "Drugs?"

  The uncomprehending reply hit Mark as if the superhumanly powerful joker had palm-smacked him on the forehead "Nooo!" he moaned. "You're not tracking me continuously, are you?"

  "No, Doctor Meadows. That's not ... not the way ... my mind works."

  Mark jumped off the lumpy bed threw on a light, grabbed a pad and felt-tip pen from the night stand Takis-ingrained reflex made him tear off the top sheet and put it on the bare tabletop before he started to write: no point leaving neat little impressions of everything he wrote on the sheets beneath. He had searched his little apartment, in his inexpert way, and had turned up no bugs. From what little he knew of them, the Communist Chinese were pretty low-tech, and less totally obsessive about security than the Soviets, so he thought there was a good chance they hadn't built AV surveillance into the room.

  And if they have, he thought grimly as he scribbled, I'm screwed right this second anyway.

  "Here!" he said, practically throwing the sheet of paper at Quasiman.

  The joker frowned at the sheet. A general slackening of posture, the way the hand that held the paper floated downward toward the lumpy waist, told Mark he was losing his audience again.

  "Listen," he said, hissing because he was afraid to shout, longing to grab the man by his thick biceps but uncertain what might happen if he were in contact with Quasiman when he phased out. "I gave you a list of the stuff I need. They're psychoactives, illegal as hell. Is that a problem?"

  "Problem?" A drop of drool slid over the jokers lower lip and started rappelling from his chin. He held the paper up to his face, a handsbreadth before his eyes, like a child pretending to read.

  "Psil-o-cybin," he read, picking over the syllables laboriously, as if he were trying to sort them in the palm of one hand "Di-hy-droxy-ace-tone. Complete sentences. Laws aren't a problem for somebody who ... can come. And go."

  He went. Mark collapsed to his knees on the floor and beat his palms on thin orange carpet that smelled of strange Asian disinfectants.

  I don't talk to you much, God, he thought, and I don't really even believe in you. But if you're there, man - please get him back here with the drugs before I have to choose between killing my daughter and playing Martin Bormann.

  ♥ ♦ ♣ ♠

  A satellite scanning this part of the desert would see black goat-hair tents, a nomadic camp whose appearance would not have seemed unusual to the eyes of Suleyman the Magnificent. There was nothing remarkable here, only a smallish herd of goats, the jumbled stonework of an ancient well. The goats were tended by walking tents that were women in chadors, timeless, even to the water jugs on their shoulders.

  The tents sheltered bubble domes made of translucent polymer. The groans of the camels tethered outside mingled with the sighs of compressors, the chug of buried generators, the clink of lab glassware.

  Zoe worked, not in chador, but in a clean suit, double gloves, and a full-face hood with a transparent mask. A chador would have been cooler, even in the refrigerated domes, where work went on at all hours and odd hours. The dome was empty at the moment, her bosses napping in the midday heat. No one got enough sleep; their schedules were ruled by the time needed for viral generations, not for human sleep cycles.

  Zoe yawned. Washing flasks. Setting racks in the autoclave. Taking them out again. Her tasks were simple and boring.

  She worked under Zahid's orders, and tried to stay away from Paolo, the blond Brazilian medic, who seemed horny beyond even Latin cultural expectations. She was getting to be an expert at shifting her hips out of his way. Her work was boring, but the clock kept ticking and every hour, every cell replication, made the possibility of the Trump's release closer. These bastards were going to get the Trump ready before she figured out how to stop them, and damn it, how was she ever going to find out anything from Rudo if she couldn't get him to talk to her!

  Rudo was here, yes, an uncanny presence, his controlled gestures and formal, almost military posture not quite in synchrony with his youthful face, his fine-textured creamy skin with its faint dusting of freckles. He was The Card Shark, Snailfoot had told her. He was an old man in a young man's body. He had been a powerful figure in the UN, a scholar in the service of world health with a twisted sense of eugenics.

  Rudo worked with grim determination and spoke only with Zahid. Dr. Pan Rudo seemed impatient, hurried, but he kept his impatience in check and kept the motley crew hard at work with the skills of a trained diplomat - which he was.

  Or had been.

  "Don't kill Rudo," the Black Dog had told Zoe. "Rudo has the Trump with him but we don't know how much he has, or if he's split his stash. Stay with him until
you learn what he knows. Then get out. We'll take it from there."

  She had the pocket locator the Twisted Fists had oven her, a little marvel that gave geographic coordinates at the touch of a button. All she had to do was memorize the location of the camp and learn the location of every drop of the virus.

  "Then what?" Zoe had asked, back in the echoing stone warrens of Jerusalem's catacombs.

  "Find some way to make it seem as though you have sprained your left wrist. Wrap it in a bandage - a visible bandage. We will have someone in the camp who will know this signal and get you out."

  She had tried to argue. But Jan had watched with pleading eyes, and Needles waited for her to fail, to betray his trust in her. And Anne? Anne knew only that she'd been asked to do something important.

  "I still don't like the black hair bit," Anne had said.

  "It's just a phase I'm going through," Zoe had told her. Right, ma. This little interlude of murder and terrorism is just one of those things. I'll come back and pull my shifts at Subtle Scents and we'll go shopping. Sure.

  Zoe checked the temperature settings on the incubators, heated against the dome's air conditioning that protected the humans from the scorching heat outside. Inside the incubators, bathed in warm moist air, murky flasks of cell cultures waited to be infected. Dissolve the glass containers, diddle the incubator controls to flash-fry every nanogram of solution into sterile dust? Yes, certainly, she could do that.

  But she didn't know if the flasks held all of the Trump, or if they held any Trump at all. There might be other flasks stored somewhere in fuming liquid nitrogen, waiting to release Hell itself on the world.

  Zoe washed another Ehrlenmeyer flask and set it on the rack to drain.

  She looked up as a hunchbacked joker materialized above the sink, his feet almost touching a rack of clean glassware.

  "Watch out!" Zoe yelled.

  He jerked sideways in the air and missed the counter. Zoe thought she saw one his feet detach and find its way to the end of his leg when he moved, but surely not. She blinked, and he stood beside her, his large hands held out as if to beg alms.

  "How did you get here? Oh, never mind. Hello."

  "I need things. For Mark."

  "Mark? Who the hell is Mark?" He wasn't masked or gowned. All the cultures were stored, but she handed him a mask anyway.

  "I have a paper." He pulled a scrap of waxy paper out his pocket. "Mark needs these. To help him kill the Black Trump."

  Dihydroxyacetone, metal salts, phenol, a few organic acids - simple compounds, mostly. Why would anyone need this stuff? You could order it at any chemical supply house. Organic acids. Oh.

  "Mark wants to trip out and forget about the Black Trump, it looks to me," Zoe said.

  "He's locked up. They are hurting his little girl. Help him, Zoe."

  The joker pleaded with his eyes, and she didn't know why, but she believed him. Somebody was hurting his kid? She'd had her absolute fill of that. Whoever this Mark was, if all he needed was a few chemicals, what the heck? She didn't mind stealing from Rudo and his gang. As fast as things were going here, it was unlikely that the thefts would be noticed.

  "Can you - ?" read, she almost asked. There was no reason to believe this man was illiterate. "Can you carry a sack when you do your teleporation bit?"

  "Sure I can."

  "Good." She grabbed a wastebasket liner and some small ziplocs. "Help me, okay?" She handed him a bottle and grabbed a felt-tipped marker off the counter. "You fill, I'll mark. Hurry! Somebody could come in."

  The hunchback worked as fast as he could, his clumsy-looking fingers skillful with the flexible sacks, the closures. They worked their way down the alphabetical rows of dark glass bottles, filling and stashing while Zoe listened for the hiss of the airlock door. The guards didn't come in here, ever, but Rudo did, and the rest of the science crew.

  T is for tyrosine, V for vanadium powder - what the hell would this Mark person do with vanadium? He had some weird catalysis going, she figured. She portioned out some in a baggie. Air whooshed at the doorway.

  "You've got to leave," Zoe whispered. She threw the vanadium in the plastic sack and shoved it at his shoulder.

  "We don't have it all," he said in a perfectly normal tone of voice that seemed to come from a loudspeaker.

  "I don't have any xanthine anyway! Get!" Zoe hissed.

  "I have to help Mark! It's important!"

  How did you shove someone into dematerialization? The inner door was half-open. She saw a plastic hood, behind it a shock of blond hair - oh, please, not Rudo.

  "Please, go poof or die!" She turned to get between the hunchback and the doorway, trying to hide him. The cluttered counters stood between him and the intruder, but the joker was taller than Zoe was by a head.

  Paolo stumbled through the door and giggled as it closed. He staggered toward her with a canteen in his gloved hand. "Jus' checking the supplies," he said. "Who ees your visitor, Egypt?"

  He was heading for the five-liter jug of lab alcohol.

  "What visitor?" Zoe asked.

  The hunchback was gone.

  "I thought I saw - Egypt, help me fill thees little jug, hokay? I am no Muslim, and sleeping is so hard here."

  The Brazilian paramedic couldn't sleep? Maybe he had a shred or two of conscience left. Zoe helped Paolo fill his canteen and shooed him back out the door. Let Rudo find him drunk. She would like that.

  ♥ ♦ ♣ ♠

  "So how are you doing, honey?" Mark asked gently.

  His daughter sat beside him on the bed, her blue-jean clad hip not quite touching his. She wore a baggy GUESS? sweatshirt. Her hair hung loose down her back, brushed to golden radiance. Sitting there with her hands clasped between her knees, her head tipped forward so that her face was all but hidden by her hair, she looked heart-achingly beautiful. Another man would likely have found her incredibly attractive. But to Mark her appearance was nothing but the mirror for what she was inside, innocent, pure, and beautiful of spirit. When he looked at her he saw her as she really was: perpetually four.

  "Fine," she said in a subdued voice. She coughed into her hand.

  He glanced around. This was his reward, his thirty pieces of silver; Casaday was so pleased with him that he'd given him a few moments with Sprout. "You like the room?" Mark asked.

  "It's okay."

  He felt as if his soul were draining away through the soles of his athletic shoes. He cast around, picked up a stuffed bunny. It was white and turquoise, with an ear that went off in a random direction and a scuff on its nose; a replacement for the Gund bear she'd loved so much, left behind in Burma.

  "You like the bunny, sweetheart?" He dandled the animal on his lap. "I know you miss your pink bear. But this is a pretty cute bunny."

  She brushed hair from her face, turned, accepted the animal, gave him a wan smile. "Yes, Daddy," she said. "It's a cute bunny." She hugged it to her breasts.

  She sounds so grown up, Mark thought. Suddenly he was overcome. He gathered her into his great gangly arms, pressed her against his ribs, pressed his cheek to her hair.

  "Oh, baby, baby," he moaned, petting her, feeling her hair go damp and matted from his tears. "I'm so sorry I got you into this. I'd do anything to get you out."

  She squirmed in his arms. He ching the tighter. "I know I haven't been much of a daddy to you," he sobbed. "But I'll find a way to make it up to you. Somehow - "

  With surprising strength she eeled out of his grip. He sat, staring at her in shock, and then his long face crumpled. He began to cry with the great gasping, bawling cries of a baby, face a red fist, tears pouring down like water from a backed-up pipe.

  "Baby, baby, please don't turn away from me," he begged, reaching blind hands toward her.

  She caught his hands, clung to them until the first volcanic upwelling of grief was gone. Then she pushed his hands back onto his thighs, firmly yet gently.

  "There, Daddy," she said. "It's okay. Please don't cry. I ... I still love you, Daddy.
"

  He sniffled, looking at her through a gauze of tears. That catch in her voice had snagged his soul and torn it. "Do you really?" he asked, knowing he was whining.

  Blue eyes big and child-solemn, she nodded. "We'll be okay, daddy," she said. "Really. We'll be fine."

  He sniffed loudly. "You really think so?" he asked, knowing it couldn't be, hating himself for the weakness of seeking reassurance from a child.

  But she nodded again. "Oh, yes," she said, sounding too wise for her lisping child's voice. "Something is bound to turn up."

  ♥ ♦ ♣ ♠

  "Nefertiti had not a more beautiful profile."

  Zoe jumped. She hadn't heard Rudo over the clink of the glassware. The bastard moved like a ghost. Zoe grabbed a bottle brush and scrubbed at a gelatinous scrap of dried serum in the bottom of a beaker.

  "You do not respond to my compliment," Rudo said. "I am a pariah here, it seems. None of the women will even look at me."

  "In the Koran, the most abhorrent feature of the examiners - the angels who judge - is their blue eyes," Zoe said. Rudo's eyes were so pale they were almost colorless.

  "Ah. So that is it. I am ugly."

  "No," Zoe said. "You are not ugly." Thinking, you are anathema. You are a demon who plans to kill my people. You are my ticket to freedom, if you will tell me what you know. Talk to me. But Rudo was turning to leave.

  "Dr. Rudo? I - "

  "Yes? Haste, haste, we are busy here."

  "I am so lonely here. I don't speak the language the women use. Thank you for speaking to me." Zoe looked at the flask she held. It would make such a satisfying noise if she broke it over this monster's head.

  Rudo smiled. "Pack those flasks carefully once they are dry. We are moving the camp when darkness falls."

  Zoe nodded. She caught a glimpse of what Rudo had been; his authority, his sense of command, permeated this young body he wore.