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Actions & Adventure
History & Fiction
Thrillers & Crime
Romance & Love
Mystery & Detective
Time News Roman
George R. R. Martin
Black Trump 44
Sayyid's head turned sharply in surprise, but the Nur only folded his glowing arms over his chest. An ephemeral smile tugged at his lips and vanished. "It is the task of the faithful to aid the work of Allah," the Nur said. "I don't deny that we would cleanse the world of the defiled."
The strings ... The voice nudged Gregg, insistent, and he opened his mind, let the power drift outward until it found the old channels into the Nur. The link pulsed with the Nur's energy, and Gregg hardly dared to touch them, but the power, hungry, urged him forward. Gregg touched, and though the strings burned in his mind, the Nur did not seem to notice. Yes ... the voice sighed Yes ...
Hannah had stirred, shaking her head as if to clear the mists of a waking dream. "You don't understand," she told the Nur, her voice like that of a whining child. "The Black Trump will kill you and Sayyid as well as the jokers. It will kill those who haven't even manifested the virus."
"The Black Trump will only kill jokers," the Nur told them soothingly, and Gregg could now feel the hard emerald certainty in the man's mind. "All others are protected by Allah."
"No. That's not true," Hannah insisted, her voice shrill, and the Nur smiled down on her like an indulgent parent.
"I speak the truth, daughter. You still don't understand. Those Allah has gifted even those whose eyes are blind to Allah's pleasure in them, are protected. I have seen this. I myself have been exposed to this virus to demonstrate this to my people, and I lived while the jokers who were given the same virus died. It is true."
"No," Hannah said again, weaker this time. "Nur al-Allah, Pan Rudo doesn't share your beliefs - none of the Card Sharks do. He hates all wild carders, jokers and aces alike. Rudo could easily fake a demonstration like that. A placebo ..."
"Your faith is weak," the Nur told her. "That is all." Gregg listened, nibbling at the Nur's bright faith. But look ... the voice told him, and Gregg saw it too. Inside the crystalline fortress of the Nur's belief, Hannah's words sparked against a flaw, a crack in an emerald facet. He says the words, and he makes you believe him, but the same thought has occurred to him. He wonders. Far down below, even the Nur wonders. Widen the crack ...
No! Gregg cried. We don't dare ...
Hannah had bowed her head again, acknowledging the Nur's scolding. When she spoke again, it was to the floor. "The Nur may be right," she said. "I pray that he is. But that's not the message we've been told to deliver. There's more. The Black Dog has a nuclear weapon," Hannah told him, and her words seemed empty and silly. "We have been asked to say that unless you destroy the Black Trump, the Twisted Fists will use their weapon to destroy the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem."
The declaration brought Sayyid half out of his chair. "You would dare threaten Kubbat as-Sakrah? You would defile the rock of Mohamet?" Sayyid's hands trembled on the grips of the chair, the cords in his neck standing out with the effort. He fell back with a cry. "Aiiee! Our people said that the Fists had brought something into Jerusalem from the north. Now we know their full deception."
"This is true?" the Nur asked, turning to Gregg, and the colors of his soul deepened shattered by an eruption of brilliant orange and seething black-red.
"Yes," Gregg answered. "It's true. He says he would do it, and I believe him."
"Then I will send back an answer to the Black Dog," the Nur said, nodding grimly. "And I think that to give the Dog the answer he deserves, your heads will be a sufficient reply."
♥ ♦ ♣ ♠
"Nobody's coming," Owl said in a voice that revealed his relief.
"Of course not," Ray said. He'd bandaged his bullet wound and cleaned the Shark's blood from his face as best be could. His shirt was a total loss, but he'd found one to replace it before leaving the Shark bivouac. He looked nearly normal, for a joker, but a dangerous light still danced in his eyes. He was still jazzed. He still wanted Johnson's ass.
They waited by a bend in the tunnel for half an hour to make sure, but the Sharks weren't about to follow the Fists into their subterranean domain. They'd been burned badly enough already.
But the day wasn't over yet.
"Where's the Seventh Station, Owl?" Ray asked.
"Where Via Dolorosa meets Souk Kahn er-Zeit."
"The Shark said it was called the Judgment Gate."
Owl nodded. "According to tradition the gate that was there during the time of Jesus led to the city's execution ground."
Ray smiled again and Owl looked away.
"Sounds appropriate," Ray said. "Let's go."
"Go?" Owl asked. "Go where?"
"To this Seventh Station. I have to meet a guy there."
"Mumbles," Owl said as he followed Ray through the tunnel, "what're you talking about? What guy?"
"He took something. I want it back." Ray stopped and looked at Owl. "Look kid, the less you know the better. Here. You're the one who knows the territory. You lead the way."
Owl looked at him for a moment, then nodded. "Okay."
They took a tunnel that led into a different system of catacombs. At least they looked different to Ray. After a few minutes they came to a set of rusted metal rungs hammered into the tunnel wall, leading up to what looked like a manhole cover in the street above their head.
Owl pointed up. "Souk Kahn er-Zeit is right above. Can't miss where it comes together with the Via Dolorosa."
"Okay, Owl. Thanks. Now beat it."
"Hey," Owl said, "I'm going with you."
Ray, looking up at the rusty metal rungs, shook his head. "Not this time."
Owl pulled back, anger on his face. "What's the matter? You think I'm not good enough?"
Ray looked back at him. "You're plenty good. But this doesn't concern you. This is personal." He left it at that. There was no sense in telling the kid that he didn't want him splattered by violence any more than he had to be. The kid wasn't a killer by choice, like he was. He was a killer by circumstance, and there was no sense in piling up the body count in his psyche if circumstances didn't warrant it.
"Personal?" Owl asked.
Ray nodded again, turned, and started up the ladder.
Ray turned, looked down at Owl.
"I never seen anyone who could fight like you."
Ray looked at him a moment. "I was born with it, kid. That's all. Some people are, some aren't. I just was."
Owl nodded, and waved as Ray went up the ladder.
♥ ♦ ♣ ♠
The Nur-al Allah gestured, and the guards around them came forward.
Needles swung at them, his daggered hands flailing wildly and catching in the sleeve of one of them. The man cried out in pain, but Needless hand was trapped in the folds of cloth, and others grabbed his arms and bore him down to the ground. To Gregg's right, Hannah kicked at the first man to approach her, who went down howling and clutching his shin. Two more guards were on her before she could run.
Gregg felt hands clutching at his stubby top arms, and he pulled away. The men hung on heavily, and the pain sent a pulse of brilliant white through him. The world slowed down, and he was in overdrive, the adrenaline buzzing in his ears. Gregg twisted impossibly fast in the guard's grasp, tearing himself loose. Four legs skittered on tile; like a dog on a linoleum floor, he went busily nowhere for aching moments before he found some traction and shot wildly away across the mosque. He found himself scrambling pell-mell directly into a pillar. Gregg tried to turn, couldn't, and slammed into the unyielding stone. Groggily, he could hear someone shouting. Stone chipped from the pillar just above his head, followed instantly by the report of a weapon.
Gregg ducked and went blindly forward. He rammed Sayyid's wheelchair. The giant spun the wheels in slow motion, trying to move away from Gregg, and chrome glittered in Gregg's eyes. A sudden desperate idea took him. Gregg focused on the chrome, on the delightful metal.
Sayyid, wheeling away from the mad joker, suddenly tilted over as one wheel of his cha
ir turned to metallic goo. The giant toppled with a cry, sprawling on the dais. Gregg hopped on top of the stricken, moaning ace, his head above Sayyid's. "Let us go, or I do the same to Sayyid," Gregg shouted to the Nur. "I'll melt your general's head like a fucking snowball."
The bluff worked. Gregg knew that, if he followed through, nothing would happen to Sayyid beyond a nasty, smelly mess on his head, out the Nur's guards stopped, looking to their leader for direction, and the Nur glared at Gregg. "Back away, abomination!"
The command was stentorian and, to his ears, impossibly deep. Gregg stood stock still, quivering against the fury and compulsion in the Nur's voice. Under him, Sayyid whimpered like a child, helpless to move his own weight. "I command you with Allah's voice, Gregg Hartmann," the Nur continued. "You will back away from Sayyid now."
Gregg tried to force his body to remain still. He took a step, but it was slow and alone. He sobbed with the effort. "Back away!" The Nur's voice cracked with the word.
The strings, Greggie ...
Gregg felt it then. With the break in the Nur's voice, a nodule of brown rot showed itself in the gleaming emerald power of the Nur. You see, the Nur is not certain of his own power anymore. His voice has weakened, and he's not sure he can force you.
"I don't want to do this," Gregg told the Nur, and he pulled at the strings of the Nur's mind at the same time. "We have heard the Nur al-Allah's words, and we know how powerful they are, and how the truth shines in them. But the Nur must know that there is also truth in our words. The Black Trump is a thing of man: of Pan Rudo, not of Allah. Like a nuclear weapon, is it something that you can use safely? Are you really certain that it won't destroy you as well as your enemy?" Yes, that crack again, that flaw. Wedge it open, pull at it ... "I don't want to hurt Sayyid, any more than I want the Black Dog to use that damn nuke. The Black Dog doesn't want you to use the Black Trump; I don't want you to kill Hannah or Needles or me."
Gregg could feel the Nur's power fighting him now. The crack Began to close, despite all his efforts. Inside the voice wailed. Hurry! Now! "We have twin standoffs, Nur al-Allah: you and the Black Dog, and us right now. Let us go, and you win this one. We're just messengers, as you said. Less than nothing. We're not worth wasting Sayyid's life on. Give us the word of the Nur al-Allah to take back to the Black Dog, and we will leave, trembling. Don't all the books of the Qu'ran begin with the phrase: 'In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful?' Be merciful now."
The Nur's mind seethed under Gregg's manipulations, and the strings tore at Gregg's mind, burning. But the Nur grimaced, and gestured to his men. "Let them go," he said, then nodded to Gregg. "Back away," he said softly, and his voice pushed at him like a hand, the strings tearing away. Gregg stepped off Sayyid mutely. As Hannah and Needles came over to him, the Nur bent down and touched the cheek of his fallen brother-in-law gently. "I'm sorry I didn't listen to you," he told the ace. "You were right, as you always are." He gestured to his guards, who came forward and helped the groaning Sayyid to a sitting position. Then the Nur frowned at Gregg again.
"You will tell the Black Dog that the Nur al-Allah does not bow before any abomination. You will tell him that those of Allah will come down upon him, a mountain sent to crush an insect, if he dares scratch the smallest stone of Kubbat as-Sakrah. Tell him that the Nur al-Allah is guided only by the Lord, and that I fear nothing, not his threats or his Twisted Fists or his bomb, because Allah protects me. As for the Black Trump, I will ask Allah again for His guidance, but know that if I choose to use it, the Black Dog's threats will mean less than the whining of some cur slinking around my tent. Now go," the Nur roared, and his voice cracked with the words. "Go! I give you back your lives."
No one said anything until they were back in the Rover and away from the Nur's encampment, their Muslim guide driving once more. Hannah finally seemed to shake off the Nur's presence as they careened over the rock-strewn hillside and the village was hidden from sight. "I thought we were dead," she breathed. "I really thought this was it. Gregg, I don't know how you talked him out of it, but thanks." Her gratitude was like a bath of warm light. Gregg reveled in the nourishing glow, and the voice triumphed inside.
You see! I'm back, Greggie. I'm back, and you need me. You NEED me ...
♥ ♦ ♣ ♠
The manhole opened in the center of a dead-end street with no traffic and few pedestrians. No one paid much attention as Ray emerged from the labyrinth, replaced the cover, and joined the foot traffic heading up Souk Kahn er-Zeit. He whistled as he walked, as best he could through his nearly non-existent mouth. Things were coming together. The center would hold. Soon he would see April Harvest again. It would work out. It had to.
The Via Dolorosa was just ahead. He scanned the buildings closely and stopped to look at a plaque set in one. The sign was written in five languages in tnree alphabets. In English it said: The Judgment Gate. On this spot once stood the gate through which Jesus of Nazareth carried His cross on His way to Calvary.
He stopped, considered. This had to be the place.
Deciding upon a covert rather than a frontal assault, Ray went to the alley siding the building. There was a stout wooden gate set in the sandstone wall. Near the gate was a buzzer. Ray studied it for a moment, then pushed it, twice.
There was a short silence and then Ray heard approaching footsteps. A bolt was thrown, and the wooden gate creaked open. A man stood there in khakis and polished boots. He had an assault rifle, slung. Ray smiled.
"What is it?" the Shark asked, irritated.
"Delivery," Ray said.
"Delivery of what?" the Shark asked, even more irritated.
"This." Ray smashed him in the face. The Shark jerked back, fell. Ray stepped over him and shut and locked the door. This was definitely the right place.
He stood in a beautifully-kept garden. It was the greenest spot he had ever seen in Jerusalem. The grass was as green as an emerald. Flowers and fruit trees were in full bloom. There was even an ancient water fountain, the stone Cupid atop it softened by rain, greened by algae. And sitting in a lawn chair by the fountain, reading a book, was the end of his quest, the answer to his dreams.
She looked up, startled. It took a second but Ray realized that she probably didn't recognize him. "It's me, Ray."
She stood, her puzzled look giving way to astonishment. "Ray?"
He nodded, heading towards her.
"Ray!" she called, warning in her voice.
He jumped instinctively, rolling and diving. The fusillade missed but tore the potted palm next to him to shreds. The knife he'd liberated from the Shark earlier in the day wasn't exactly made for throwing, but Ray stood, threw, and dodged all in one continuous motion.
A second burst of gunfire was suddenly cut off and Ray picked himself off the ground. A Shark was slumped over a waist-high hedge, Ray's knife protruding from his throat.
"Jeez," Ray said aloud. "Almost missed."
He recovered the knife, cleaned it on the dead Shark's shirt, and stuck it back in his waistband. He liberated the Shark's rifle and turned to Harvest, who had come up behind him. He grinned at her.
"Jesus Christ, Ray. What happened?" She looked incredulous and horror-struck, all at once.
Ray put a hand up to his face. "Oh, this. Don't worry. It's not permanent. I'll fix things once we've wrapped up this little affair."
She shook her head in disbelief. "What are you doing here?"
"I came after you," he explained. "I knew Johnson still had you. At least I hoped he did. I hoped you were all right. You are okay?"
She nodded, still somewhat dazed.
"Well let's get the hell out of here. I'll fill you in later."
"Ray!" she said, pointing again, this time at the wall surrounding the garden. Peeking over it was a head. Ray waved.
"It's okay. He's a friend." Ray tossed Harvest the rifle. "Hang onto this while I open the door." Ray unbarred the gate. It swung open. Owl stood in the doorway. Behind him
was a pack of Fists. "What the hell are you doing here?" Ray asked, but he was grinning.
"Thought you might need some help."
Ray shook his head. "Not so far - "
Owl, looking past Ray, suddenly opened his eyes wide. "Look out!"
Ray whirled. Harvest had the rifle up and pointing. General MacArthur Johnson had entered the garden. He was looking around, bewildered.
"Got you now, you son of a bitch!" Ray said.
He started toward Johnson with a grin on his face, but before he could reach him Harvest swung the rifle in Johnson's direction and triggered a blast. It stitched across his chest and he danced jerkily with the multiple impacts, then sagged to the ground. He was dead by the time Ray reached him. There was still a bewildered look on his face.
Ray looked at Harvest. "You didn't have to do that," he said.
She nodded grimly. "Oh yes I did."
Ray looked down at Johnson's body. "Well," he said, "I suppose you were entitled."
♥ ♦ ♣ ♠
"We're out of our league with this."
Hannah's voice spoke softly in the darkness. They'd stopped for the night, the Rover pulled over to one side of the dusty track that served for a road. The sky was dusty with bright stars; a few dozen yards in front of their vehicle, their Syrian escort had started a small fire of twigs and brush. The flames crackled and hissed, sending their own brief stars twirling upward into darkness. Needles was outside, sitting to one side of the fire; Hannah and Gregg had stayed in the Rover, huddled in the back seat with a blanket wrapped around them.
"We did what the Dog wanted. We got the Nur's answer."
"Fanatics in front, fanatics in back - you know, if you closed your eyes and just listened to the Nur and the Black Dog, you'd have trouble telling them apart."