Black Trump

Black Trump

Black Trump 45

  Gregg shrugged. Their conversation seemed to take place somewhere far off. Much louder, much more insistent, was the conversation in his head.

  You OWE me, Greggie. I got you out from the Nur with your precious, ugly little skin still attached, and you owe me. I'm hungry. Give her to me. Let's take her - we'll BOTH like it.

  No, Gregg answered angrily. You don't understand. You never understood. She loves me WITHOUT you. You'll just destroy that, make her affection into something sick and perverted. It won't be real.

  The voice only snorted in derision. Listen to yourself. You're pitiful. C'mon, Greggie, you've already used me with her, remember? Back in Ireland; you'd have had her beating you off if that snot-ass of a leprechaun hadn't interrupted.

  You don't know that. I knew it was wrong. I wanted to stop; I might have. And I never tried again, did I? I tell you now - she's mine and we're leaving her alone.

  Be a fool, then. We both know how she feels about you, don't we? You're no man, not anymore, Greggie, and she's not ever going to love you the way she did before, not without me. But have it your way. I'm still hungry, and you still owe me. Give me the other one, the voice purred. Can't you feel the dark one, the Syrian? You don't mind something happening to him, do you?

  Gregg could sense the pulsing emotions as soon as the voice mentioned them. He'd opened the Syrian almost as a reflex, the first day out from Damascus. The man was like a rotten pomegranate. His hatred of the three of them boiled just below the surface tangle of his thoughts. He said very little, but Gregg could tell that he hated jokers with all the intensity of the Nur himself. The only reason their guide hadn't left them stranded in the desert was his sense of duty. The dark shapes of his thoughts swirled around the campfire like smoke.

  He'd be so easy, and you don't need him, not anymore. You know how to get back to Damascus from here.

  "... don't you think so, Gregg? Gregg?"

  Gregg realized that he'd missed what Hannah was saying. He nodded "Yes," he said and didn't know who he was answering. "Of course you're right."

  Hannah leaned back in her seat with a sigh. She stared up at the stars, lost in her own thoughts while Gregg rode the power toward the campfire beyond the windshield. This is almost too easy, the voice laugned. Feel it. Feel the way he looks at Needles. He's the only one of you the Syrian's afraid of. Gregg could sense the hue of the man's thoughts. The man was brooding, hunched with knees to chest as he watched the flames. The hatred in him was pus-yellow, and it filled his soul, underlying everything else. This was a man who would have come to the Nur because of the bitterness and gall that was already in him. The Nur's revulsion toward jokers was a twisted perversion of his faith; this man's loathing was more personal and rooted deep in his memories. Only two things held it back: his obedience to the Nur, and a small node of fear for the claws of Needles' hands. There was nothing in him that feared Gregg, and as for Hannah ...

  Easy. Tasty.

  Gregg released his ace. The power sped from him like a beast suddenly uncaged, leaping with a roar toward the Syrian man's mind. Dampening the man's caution toward Needles was but the work of a moment. More difficult were the bonds of the man's obedience toward the Nur. Carefully, Gregg pushed down the bars of iron-red faith, while at the same time easing that hatred forward, caressing the sour folds, tugging at the links.

  Through the windshield, Gregg saw the man suddenly get to his feet. He stared up at the stars, then down at Needles, who glanced at the man in surprise. The Syrian spat on the ground, then said something to Needles that Gregg couldn't hear. He didn't need to - he could taste the venom: sweet and fulfilling, an appetizer for the hunger inside. Gregg felt the hatred swell like lava, felt the swell of responsive anger spark in Needles.

  Now ... Needles said something in return. There was another exchange of unheard words, while Gregg felt the Syrian's bile change slowly from pale yellow to burning orange-red, while Gregg used the power to send adrenaline surging through Needles. Alongside him, Hannah suddenly noticed the burgeoning confrontation, sitting up in her seat with a gasp. "Gregg - " she began.

  Too late. Razor-edged steel glinted in firelight, sand kicked from under the man's feet. Needles hurtled to his feet at the same time as the man attacked. The youth's hands, fingers spread wide, slashed quicker than the Syrian's knife - a rake across the abdomen, another across the throat. In Gregg's mind, the hatred dissolved in the shock of delicious white agony from the man. Gregg could feel the triumph inside Needles, and he pumped it, jacked it high. Needles grimaced, his hand came back. Even as the Syrian toppled, Needles plunged his hand deep into the man's stomach, curling his fingers so that the blades of his hand ripped and gouged and tore. The man fell backward, a hand scattering glowing coals.

  A thin shriek followed sparks into the black sky.

  The thing inside Gregg ate the Syrian's death like candy. Even Gregg could feel the orgasmic pleasure of the man's pain, the slow spiral into oblivion. Then it was over. The power inside him sighed and dropped the strings.

  "Needlest" Hannah screamed, running from the Land Rover. Her voice echoed in the darkness, rebounding from the stones. "Oh, God ..."

  The boy turned to them. The tight grimace on his face dissolved into a frown, a sob.

  "He just came at me," Needles said. Blood dripped from the curved talons of his fingers, a slow, thick rain on the arid earth. "I had to defend myself." Needles' eyes begged their understanding, their forgiveness. "I had to," he said again.

  "I understand," Gregg told him. "You're right. You had to."

  Inside, Puppetman - sated - laughed.

  And so did you, Greggie, it told him. So did you.

  ♥ ♦ ♣ ♠

  Mark stood in the lab watching the technicians pump the suspended virus into the fourth and final canister. Three had already been trundled out on dollies to be loaded into a panel van acquired by the Guangdong Party brass the same way they got their Rolls Royces and Mercedes: they bought it off a street gang that swiped it off a Hong Kong street. Hot cars were Guangdong's nunber-one import.

  The canisters were almost sinister in their nondescriptness, aside from the fact that they were enameled this weird, unearthly shade of vibro-electric blue with a touch of green that struck the eyeballs and made them ring like a bell. The enamel was well-dinged and flaking, as if they'd enjoyed long and useful lives already. Mark hoped they were sound.

  He was wandering a drunkard's-walk path through the lab, taking last-minute note of this and that on a clipboard. The Chinese technicians and the Occidental guard sitting in a corner with an MP5 on his lap paid him no attention. He was a crazy American scientific genius, so nobody bothered trying to figure out what he was up to at any given moment. And if he went nuts and tried to sabotage the tanks at this late date the guard would shoot him, and Casaday would give his beautiful, feebleminded daughter to the German who looked like a smoothed-off and Vaselined toad. His good behavior, in short, was pretty much taken for granted at this point.

  No one, therefore, noticed when he wandered near the humming compressor pumping megadeath mist into the electric blue tank. The mechanical pencil he was tapping on the metal clip of his clipboard took a bad rebound and jumped out of his stork-leg fingers and rolled under the cylinder.

  Mark was instantly on his knees with his slat-lean butt in the air, making a long arm beneath the rack that held the blue canister. The guard said, "She-it," and stood up.

  "No, man, it's cool," Mark said, transferring his weight to the elbow so he could wave the hand that wasn't under the rack reassuringly. "Just retrieving my pen. Give me a sec and I'm out of here."

  The guard stood frowning at him. For whatever reason, Mark was still valuable to the Sharks, or he'd be dead. Casaday being Casaday, the guard was doubtless well-primed with knowledge of the obscene and ghastly penalties that would be his if he shot Mark without a damned good reason. Similar horrors awaited him, on the other hand, if he allowed Mark to monkeywrench anything. He did what most people
did when caught in dilemma's visegrips: dithered and hoped for the best.

  The process seemed to take a while even for a geek science wonk who was by definition all thumbs. The guard was beginning to shift his weight and play with the safety and the techs were complaining in bluejay Cantonese when Mark reeled his arm back to and stood up. He brandished his pencil high.

  "See? Everything's cool." The guard nodded and sat down. The technicians went back to monitoring their gauges.

  Mark went back to packing and tapping. Pacing and tapping.

  The lab door opened. Layton came stomping in, looking pissed off. That was rest-state for him, but Mark's heart tried to jump out his mouth like a frightened squirrel anyway.

  He saw Mark, stopped and fired his finger at him like a nine-millimeter round. "You! Bring your ass with me."

  Mark just stared at the kickboxer. Layton smiled. "Or do I gotta encourage you?" he asked.

  He didn't. Mark stumbled forward like a beef steer with a hot date with a hammer.

  ♥ ♦ ♣ ♠

  "Guangzhou," J. Bob Belew announced.

  "Gesundheit," Jay said. He had to shout to be heard over the whap-whap-whap sound of the chopper's huge rotors.

  Belew shook his head. "Canton to you, Mr. Ackroyd." He spread the map out on his knees, and Jay and Finn leaned in closer to look. Belew's Cambodian friends were strapped in behind them, giving the fisheye to Belew's Hong Kong Chinese friends while the jungles of Thailand flashed by below and everybody fingered automatic weapons.

  "The complex was originally constructed as an underground bomb shelter for Guangdong Communist Party officials in the event of a nuclear war," Belew was saying. "Given the age of most high-level Red Chinese, they wisely included a hospital wing and medical research facility, specializing in geriatric medicine. State of the art, at least as the art is practiced in China."

  "Oh, real good," Jay said. "It wasn't enough we had to deal with the Sharks and the CIA, now we've got a few billion Red Chinese to fuck with us too."

  Finn was studying Belew's map. "The Sharks have got to be targeting Hong Kong." He pointed. "Look how close it is."

  "Agreed," Belew said. "Hong Kong and Saigon have the only two significant joker populations in this part of Asia. The facility in Guangzhou is a bare hundred kilometers from the New Territories, where most of Hong Kong's jokers live. You couldn't ask for a better staging area."

  "And Hong Kong is a center of world trade," Finn said. "The airport ... God if the Black Trump gets loose there, it will spread all over the world in a matter of hours ..."

  "Is there any way we can convince the authorities to shut down the Hong Kong airport?" Jay asked Belew.

  "It would take more convincing than we have time for," J. Bob replied. "Aristophanes said you cannot teach a crab to walk straight, but I'd sooner try that than attempt to convince the Crown Colony to cut off trade for as much as ten minutes."

  "So we need to make sure the stuff never gets to Hong Kong," Jay yelled. His stomach did a lurch as the huge helicopter hit a patch of turbulence. It was an Old CH-46 Chinook, shaped like a big green banana with rotors at both ends, designed to belch platoons of paratroopers out on top of bad guys, although Jay figured Lord Tung had used it for other purposes. He kept wondering what kind of repair a war surplus chopper owned by a big monkey was likely to be in, until he decided that even if the rotors all fell off it was no big deal. The Black Trump would probably kill them all anyway.

  "Dr. Finn," Belew asked the centaur, "assuming the virus was ready to go, what would be your optimal method of delivery?"

  "Aerial," Finn replied, without a moment's hesitation. "Provided you had a large enough supply in droplet form. Spray it from cropdusters, cover the whole city, infect as large a population as possible. The one thing we've got going for us is that the virus is only fatal for the first three or four generations. So the Sharks have no choice but to try and maximize the initial dispersal, to create as many vectors as they can."

  "So all we have to do is cut off all air traffic between Canton and Hong Kong," Jay said. "It would help if we had somebody who could fly. Where the hell is Jetboy when you really need him?"

  "I've sent some men to cover Guangzhou's airports. Dr. Finn, I'd like you to go with them."

  "Why?" Finn said, suspiciously.

  Belew was patient. "My men know Mark by sight, and they have descriptions of Casaday, but we'll need you to watch for Ackroyd's two operatives. Besides, a joker would be rather conspicuous where Jay and I are going. We need to get into the complex and destroy the virus before they can move it."

  Jay's brain was running in circles, like a hamster on a wheel. "I hope you know the secret password, Belew, 'cause I sure as hell don't. A place like this is going to have security out the wazoo."

  Belew gave him a cool, ironic smile. "Didn't that famous detective school of yours teach you how to penetrate top-secret enemy installations, Mr. Ackroyd?"

  "You know, they covered it, but I slept late that day. Maybe we could dress up in Domino's uniforms and go in with a pizza. Other than that I'm fresh out of plans."

  "You're not far off the mark," J. Bob said, stroking his mustache. "That's more or less precisely what we are going to do."

  Jay blinked and Finn looked up in sudden alarm. "Excuse me?" they said in unison.

  ♥ ♦ ♣ ♠

  It was a medical examination room. Sitting in an old-fashioned wooden chair, nude but for boxer shorts, his arms and legs secured to the chair's arms and legs with wire, was Sascha Starfin. A goon, local or at least ethnic Chinese, stood behind him with folded arms and shuttered face. A technician in a white smock stood by a counter on which sat a rack of tiny stoppered vials, each labeled with a lot number scrawled on a piece of tape. Beside it a hypodermic syringe rested on a scratched but gleaming stainless-steel tray.

  The joker turned his eyeless face to Mark. "Don't do it," he said.

  Mark stared around like a cat caught in a blind alley by a pair of pit bulls. Casaday was there, smiling his cool Halloween-pumpkin smile. Dr. Carter Jarnavon was on hand too, looking truculent and dubious by turns.

  "What the hell is this?" Mark demanded. His voice cracked like a Ming vase dropped on cement steps. He already knew what it had to be.

  "Your good friend and mine, Doctor Jarnavon here, reminded me that you're a resourceful son of a bitch, not necessarily the stumbling geek you act like most of the time," the spook said. "It occurred to my nasty, suspicious mind that you might get the notion of playing cute tricks."

  Mark swayed. Busted! His head felt like a helium balloon. His knees felt like well-boiled samples of the pasta which Marco Polo had not, as a matter of fact, introduced to Italy from China.

  Tumult in his head: Traveler, I told you so! JJ Flash, They can't know anything, if they did they'd already be pruning Sprout like a shrub to punish you ...

  Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb. He tried to fill his forebrain with noise. Sascha was utterly panicked. He'd babble anything he could to save himself. Oh, God. Sprout, Baby.

  "You know my respect for you is all but limitless, Doctor," Jarnavon said. "But, sadly, I'm all too aware that your heart hasn't really been in the work you've been doing for us, great and necessary though it was."

  He took off his glasses and polished them on the tail of his smock. "You demonstrated the extended virulence of the new BT strain by using it to kill xenovirus-positive human tissue cultures. But then it struck me: might you have secretly introduced some foreign agent, a toxin or even an unknown pathogen, in order to kill the cultures and mask the fact that the tenth-generation Trump strain wasn't realty virulent?"

  "No, man. I didn't do anything like that." You slimy little shit. "Think about what you're saying. You have my little girl."

  "Your problem is, Meadows, you think too much," Casaday said. "First off, you think too much about what a terrible thing it is you're helping to do to all the twisted wild card freaks and monsters in the world. And you think
you're smarter than the rest of us. You might even think it was worthwhile sacrificing your little honey to save the jokers. Or you might think you could get away clean."

  "You've got to believe me," Mark wailed.

  "I'll tell you what I believe," Casaday said. "I believe that you're gonna stick that needle in this ugly fucker's arm and drive it home. And if he doesn't bubble up and die pretty fucking pronto, I believe I'm gonna give your golden-haired little girl to Herr Oberstleutnant Ditmar. Are we getting to be on the same page, here, Doctor?"

  "Hey!" Layton yelped. "You said I could have her."

  "Don't get your underwear in a bunch, dipstick," Casaday said. "He's gonna give in. We got him by the teeny-tiny balls, and he knows it."

  Mark held up beseeching hands. "Just don't make me do it, man. I can't."

  Jarnavon shook his head, tut-tutting to himself. "I can administer the injection, Mr. Casaday."

  A grin was making its slow evil way across Casaday's face. "No," he said. "He does it himself. Or Ditmar starts carving his initials in the girl's ass."

  Mark turned as if he were immersed to the waist in half-set concrete, picked up the syringe and a vial from the rack. He kept his mind filled with Jimi Hendrix playing "The Star-Spangled Banner."

  "Sascha," he said, poking the needle through the rubber cap and pulling back the plunger, "please forgive me, man. I don't have any choice."

  The eyeless joker began to scream.

  ♥ ♦ ♣ ♠

  It seemed that Needles, not Gregg or Hannah, had been the key player in the visit to the Nur.

  "You saw her?" the Black Dog asked. "You're certain."

  Needles nodded. They were in the Black Dog's quarters deep in the catacombs. Snailfoot stood like robed and cowled Death near the door; everyone else was sitting on ornately-brocaded pillows, Gregg curled on one like a house cat. And, like a cat, he found that he was sensitive to motion around him. He kept expecting Billy Ray to appear from hiding at any moment. He didn't like the feeling. The paranoia made it difficult to concentrate on what was being said around him.