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Actions & Adventure
History & Fiction
Thrillers & Crime
Romance & Love
Mystery & Detective
Time News Roman
George R. R. Martin
Black Trump 46
"It was Zoe," Needles was saying. His emotions leaked out from his head like a sieve, confused and bewildered. "I noticed her as soon as we entered the Nur's encampment. She had the bandage around her arm. She saw me, and nodded."
Puppetman yammered for the boy. Gregg ignored the insistent voice. Okay, Greggie. Play it your way. I'm not hungry now. But I will be. Very soon. Gregg forced the creature down into the mind cage he'd constructed so long ago, the bars battered and bent from years of the power's hammering and scorched from Tachyon's probing so many years ago. Gregg wondered if the bars would hold. They have to. They're all I have.
Puppetman giggled to itself.
In contrast to Needles, the mind-hues of the Black Dog were sharp-edged and bright. "Hartmann and Davis have given us the Nur's answer - which is basically 'fuck you.' Well, I have an answer to that."
"What are you going to do?" Hannah asked. "This isn't about the Nur and the Fists, not any more. Everyone's in danger. Every last wild carder - "
The Black Dog chuckled under his mask. "Your concern is very touching, but out of place, I'm afraid."
"What are you planning to do?"
"Whatever I need to do," the Black Dog replied. He laughed harshly at his own retort and left the room with Snailfoot in tow, cutting off Hannah's protest.
"Damn it!" Hannah said. The catacombs echoed with the sound of her anger. She looked at Gregg, helpless, her fists knotted at her side. Needles' fingers twitched, the talons clashing. "What do we do now?" Hannah asked.
"I don't know," Gregg answered.
♥ ♦ ♣ ♠
Harvest was uncommunicative and subdued. Ray could understand why. He didn't ask her what Johnson had done to her. He figured it would come out someday, and if not, that was fine, too. Ray watched her as they slept in the same bed, eager to awake her with his kisses, but understanding also why she'd be reluctant to make love to him in his present condition. That, too, would change when he'd get his face fixed.
Early the next morning there was a knock on their door. It was Owl. The Black Dog wanted to see them. Ray himself was eager to meet the almost-legendary joker. Now that he had Harvest back it was time to start thinking about that nuke.
Owl took Ray and Harvest underground again. They twisted and turned as usual, then Owl stopped. He turned and looked at Ray, holding out a couple of blindfolds. "You have to put these on," Owl said.
Ray rolled his eyes. "Oh, please."
"No, really," Owl said. "It's orders."
He could see the pleading in the kid's eyes. He looked at Harvest and shrugged. "Well, if it's orders ..."
He and Harvest stood quietly while Owl blindfolded them. "Put your hands on my shoulder," Owl told the two. "I'll guide you."
They complied. Ray could have counted the steps and the turns, but didn't think it worth it.
They finally stopped and Owl removed their masks. Ray blinked and looked around. They were in a small, squarish room that was furnished largely by carpets and throw-pillows on the floor. A man was sitting on one of the pillows. He wore a mask that was the face of a black dog.
"Come in," he said. "Sit down." He dismissed Owl with an imperious gesture.
Ray sat on one of the pillows, feeling a little silly. "What do you want?" he asked.
The Black Dog regarded them steadily from underneath his mask. "I should ask the same of you two." He turned so that he was looking directly at Harvest. "You're the missing American special agent, April Harvest."
"You have a good intelligence department."
The Dog waved a depreciating hand. "We try. You'd be surprised how deeply some of our sources are placed." He turned his attention to Ray. "You, I don't recognize. But, from the presence of Miss Harvest and the glowing reports I've received of your fighting ability - and the not-so-glowing reports about your attitude - you must be Carnifex."
Ray grinned, half-pleased at the recognition. "So who are you under the mask, Sherlock Holmes?"
The Dog shook his head. "We won't discuss that. You're after the Black Trump, of course."
"No shit, Sherlock," Ray said.
"Pan Rudo is working with the Nur, trying to culture enough of the Trump to spread it around the world," the Dog said. "We know where their laboratory is."
Ray said, "Well, let's go after them!" He jumped to his feet, eager to get going, to destroy the last vestige of the Black Trump as soon as possible. "What are we waiting for? Let's get going."
"We?" the Dog asked. "How did this become 'we' all of a sudden?"
Ray squatted down so that his scarred face was inches from the Dog's. "It became 'we' five weeks ago, when I saw what the Black Trump does, Dog Man. You going to keep me from going after it?"
"Ray's right, Harvest said pulling him backward to thump butt-first on the floor next to her. "There's no sense fighting over this. I suggest we call a truce until the Trump is destroyed, and work together toward that end."
The Black Dog nodded slowly. "I'd like to keep my people away from the Trump, but I could care less about you aces and nats. I'll give you a day. Destroy the Trump and rescue our agent in the Nur's camp, an ace named Zoe Harris. If you fail, we have another way to deal with it."
"What do mean?" Harvest asked.
The Black Dog seemed to smile again. "I'm sure you heard about a certain commodity we've recently acquired."
"You mean the bomb?" Ray asked.
The Dog shrugged. "To come to the point, yes. We'll give you a day to get the Trump, and Zoe Harris, out of the Nur's camp. If you fail, we'll nuke it."
"Well, that's better than blowing up Jerusalem," Ray said, "but do you really know what you're doing? How're you going to deliver it - "
"I suggest," the Doc said, "that you leave the details to us. You worry about the Trump and Ms. Harris."
Harvest looked at him narrowly. "Then we have a truce until the Trump is destroyed?"
The Dog inclined his head. "A truce."
"Great!" Ray said. He jumped up again.
The Dog said. "Don't worry about transportation. I think you'll find our travel accommodations most satisfactory."
♥ ♦ ♣ ♠
The Chinese medical tech took the thermometer from Sascha's mouth and held it to the light with rubber-gloved fingers. Sascha let his head drop to the side and moaned. His skin was ashen, his face flecked with sweat. Standing slumped against one wall with Layton right beside him like a Siamese twin, Mark stared at him in nauseated fascination.
"Thirty-ni' point fo' degree," the tech announced with a cheery smile.
"Thirty-nine degrees?" Casaday exclaimed. "Fuck me. What does this virus shit do, freeze the motherfucks to death?"
"That's in Celsius, Mr. Casaday," Jarnavon said.
"What is that in white man measure, God damn it?"
"One hundred and three."
Casadav sucked in a deep breath, let it out through distended nostrils. "I thought the puke would go into convulsions, fall over, maybe his head would turn purple and explode. Instead he's getting a temperature and a runny nose."
"This isn't the wild card itself, Mr. Casaday," Jarnavon said. "It's not going to have such a rapid effect. The symptoms the subject is displaying are entirely appropriate."
"'The subject,'" Mark echoed dully. "You got a way with words, Jarnavon. He's not a subject, he's a human being. It's guys like you who make all scientists look like soulless robots."
Casaday laughed harshly. "Listen to the Last Hippie, here. He's about to be the biggest name in genocide since Martin Bormann, and he gets all hot and bothered over the fate of one crummy monster."
Mark covered his face with his hands. "If nothing else," Jarnavon said, as chipper as a Mormon cheerleader, "we have our proof that the Trump is still virulent. Dr. Meadows hasn't played us false."
He rubbed his hands together. Mark stared at him with peeled-onion eyes. He thinks he's giving me a compliment.
Casaday scowled, then bobbed his huge head toward the door.
"All right then. Get him the fuck out of my sight."
"I want to be with Sprout," Mark said.
"When I say so," Casaday said. He looked at Layton. "Take him back to the lab and lock him in. Let him stew in his juices surrounded by reminders of the real good turn he's done all his little ace and joker buddies around the world."
♥ ♦ ♣ ♠
"Wait a minute," Ray said. "This fucking camel has eight legs!"
The camel turned calmly and looked at Ray. "You don't look so great yourself, pal."
Owl suppressed a giggle as he saddled the beast. "I want you to meet a friend of mine," he said. "This is Croyd Crenson."
"The Sleeper!" Ray and Harvest said in unison.
"What are you doing here?" Ray added.
"Right now, eating hay. Then I'm going to drink a lot of water, because that desert is going to be a bitch to cross. Then, when we get to the Nur's camp, I'm going to kill Pan Rudo, though right now I'm not too sure how. Maybe I'll stomp him to death. Maybe I'll bite him to death," He grinned, exposing big, ugly camel teeth. "What do you think?"
"I think this is insane," Harvest said.
"Look," Croyd said, "I'm not too happy looking like a walking cigarette commercial myself. I just woke up yesterday, after a blessedly short sleep, looking like this. Worse, smelling like this. And the only thing I can eat is hay!"
Ray pulled at his lip thoughtfully. "Could be worse, I suppose."
"Damn right," Croyd said. "I could have woken up as a giant penguin or something. At least this body will be useful. All right. So much for the hay." He turned to a big tub of water and started to slurp it up. He stopped, looked at Owl. "I don't suppose you have anything fresher. This water is kind of green."
Owl shook his head. "Sorry."
"Oh well." Croyd went back to drinking. He drank a long time and a lot of water. He finally looked up, water drooling from his pendulous lips. "All right. Mount up."
Ray looked at Harvest. "This is never going to work."
"Oh, just shut up and get on my back. Have some faith for a change."
Ray and Harvest exchanged looks. "Well," Harvest said. "All right."
Ray got on first. Harvest followed gingerly, sitting behind Ray and wrapping her arms around his waist. Croyd lurched to his feet. Ray grabbed the saddle pommel and clutched Croyd's side tightly with his knees.
"Don't forget these," Owl said. He handed Ray and Harvest a pair of burnooses complete with scarves to shield their faces. He tied a pack of equipment to the saddle rack. "Good luck."
"Thanks," Ray said.
"Hold on," Croyd said, and started to trot.
They were already on the outskirts of the city, having been driven there by Owl to meet Croyd. Croyd simply headed out into the desert.
"I hope you know where you're going," Ray called out.
"Don't worry," Croyd said. "I have a perfect sense of direction."
He put on some speed. Then more. And more. Soon his feet were a blur on the desert sand and they were going as fast as Ray had ever gone in a car. Faster.
Ray was thankful for the burnoose and scarf. He was even more thankful for the woman clasping him from behind. But as they raced into the desert, fear was pulling at the corners of his consciousness with icy fingers. He was going to have to face the Black Trump again.
And that frightened him more than he cared to admit.
♥ ♦ ♣ ♠
A scrape of shoe leather on linoleum. Mark's heart jumped around in his chest like a coked-up frog. He spun away from the computer monitor, which was blossoming with silent screen-saver fireworks. What's happening to Sascha spooked them, they decided to listen to me, they came back -
Quasiman stood behind his swivel chair, gazing down on him in near-darkness with the flicker from the monitor illuminating a gaze of benign intelligence. He held something in a large, misshapen hand.
"Thank God, man!" Mark whispered hoarsely. He unfolded himself from the chair like a drunken sandhill crane from its nest. "We're running out of time. The Black Trump has mutated, it's become lethal to anybody human, not just wild card-positives. And they're going to release it anyway. They think it's a trick."
Quasiman nodded. "I remember." He dropped a packet into Mark's outstretched palm.
Mark glanced at it, feeling as if his head had become a helium-filled balloon. It was a wastebasket liner, jammed with glassine packets of powders, mostly white. Relief was intense as orgasm, intense as when the dentist's drill finds the nerve ...
Catch a grip, here, JJ Flash warned him. In his own persona he thought, I'll have to test these. Can't risk turning into Monster with Sprout around -
"There's something you have to do, man," he said in an urgent whisper. "They have four canisters they're going to release over Hong Kong. One of them - "
"Hey! What the fuck!"
The huge joker put his hand to Mark's breastbone and pushed. It was a gentle gesture, but Mark went sprawling into his chair as if he'd taken a shotgun blast to the chest and slid back across the linoleum to bang into his desk and begin to topple over.
The head-squashing stuttering report of a machine pistol in an enclosed space followed the shout from the lab door. Quasiman phased out as bullets cracked through the space he and Mark had occupied seconds before. Mark yelped and dove the rest of the way to the floor. The computer monitor gave up the ghost with a flicker and imploding pop, and test tubes in ranks shattered into crystal snow. Mark flattened himself and held his hands over his head.
Over the ringing in his ears - he'd always thought "a shot rang out" was a Sly cliche until he'd been fired at a few times in the Nam - he heard O.K. Casaday's outraged shout; "Knock that shit off, you dickless wonder! You don't know what's fucking in here!"
Mark slid the packet of drugs out of sight beneath the desk and risked a peek at the door. Nobody was paying him any attention. Casaday was just knocking up the arm of one of his CIA cowboys. The arm in question had a handgun-sized Micro-Uzi in it, which snarled the rest of its magazine into the dropped ceiling. Casaday dropped the man with an overhand right as shredded acoustic tile fell on his shoulders like snow.
"Fuck!" Casaday shouted, holding his wrist and shaking his fingers. "My Hand!"
The inevitable Layton stood blinking behind him. "Why didn't you let me hit him? It's my job."
"Because I was closer," Casaday snarled. "Besides, you were just standing there with your prick in your hand, you stupid son of a bitch."
Layton frowned. "Don't call me stupid," he said.
Reasonably confident no more large-particulate lead pollution was about to be emitted, Mark was picking himself up like a handful of broken crockery. Casaday gave up wringing his wrist and strode forward.
"Just what in the name of fuck do you think you're doing?" he slapped Mark stingingly across the face before Mark could reply. "You were talking to some kind of freak ace, weren't you?"
Casaday grabbed Mark by the front of his shirt. "You were trying some funny business, weren't you, Meadows?" he said, slapping him back and forth to emphasize his words. "You thought you were gonna be smart. Well, I warned you what would happen if you came smart with me. Didn't I?" Slap. "Didn't I?"
He shoved Mark away. Goons seized his arms and clamped him in place as Casaday turned. "Tell that Kraut fuck to haul his fat ass down here on the double," the renegade commanded. "Bring the little blond snatch too. And get that little weasel in the lab coat in here. Now!"
Minions went flying. Layton reached into a back pocket of his Bugle Boys, took out a pair of fingerless black punching gloves, flexed his fists, and looked expectantly at Casaday. "Can I thunder on him some, boss?"
"Shut the fuck up," Casaday said. He had his butt propped against a lab counter and was whistling a voiceless time.
"What are you going to do?" Mark asked.
"Nothing good," Casaday said.
In short order the cast Casaday had demanded was assembled. Sprout writhed and squealed when she sa
w her father, but a grinning Layton twisted her arm up behind her back. "People," Casaday said in his grating voice. "We have a problem. This fuck here's been in contact with some kind of teleporting freak." He backhanded Mark savagely across the face. His big knuckles hit Mark's cheekbones like pebbles.
Casaday winced, rubbed his hand again. "How's the eyeless puke doing?"
Dr. Carter Jarnavon blinked through his horn-rims and smiled. "Very well, Mr. Casaday. He's convulsing and vomiting. I don't think he can last much longer."
"Then we're good to go. Let's get the cylinders loaded. We can't take a chance that this shitheel hasn't blown the whistle on us."
"But the plane," Layton said. "It won't be ready until tomorrow - "
"Screw the plane." Casaday checked the Rolex strapped to his hairy, knobbed wrist. "At eight o'clock the airship Harmony leaves the Canton airport to take a load of limp-dick tourists back to HK. It's gonna have some unexpected cargo on board."
Jarnavon stood there with a little smile imprinted on his face. "I mean you, chisel-dick," Casaday snapped. "Move!"
Jarnavon turned to Mark, performed a comic-opera bow. "Doctor," he said. "It's been a tremendous pleasure." He left.
"And now," Casaday said, turning to Mark with a huge smile carving its way across his face, "the time has come wherein you learn the truth of the old saying, 'payback's a motherfucker.' Ditmar!"
The German actually clicked his heels. "Mein Herr!"
Casaday walked up to Sprout. The girl cringed away as he raised a hand to stroke her cheek.
"Take her," he told the German. "She's yours. All yours."
"No!" Mark yelled.
Layton had his lower lip stuck out in a pout. "You said I'd get her if he acted up, boss," he said plaintively. "You said that."