Black Trump

Black Trump

Black Trump 9

  She sat down on the floor beside the little light and waited.

  And waited.

  ♥ ♦ ♣ ♠

  Hannah went above ground daily to pick up newspapers and buy food. She and Gregg scanned the articles for news, but after a lone mention of a "disturbance" at the Dime Museum (buried on the third page of Metro), there was no follow-up. The Jokertown Cry carried an editorial questioning the fact that no one had seen Dutton, Father Squid, or Dr. Finn since the night of the "'suspicious raids on several Jokertown locales," and suggesting that "Hannah Davis' well-known Card Sharks conspiracy' may have been ultimately responsible. None of the major papers picked up on the accusation, nor did any of the other news media.

  Dutton and the others had simply vanished. Gone.

  "We're on our own," Hannah told Gregg. Since the raid she'd dyed her hair; it was now a nondescript medium brown, trimmed short. The hair was too dark for her complexion, but Gregg admitted that she looked very different from the Hannah he'd known. She set the paper down on the pile and looked around the wet, dank vault in which they sat, pierced by the thick veins and arteries of Jokertown's sewer lines. "We can't stay here. I won't stay here."

  "We're safe here. We can't exactly take a cab out of the city right now, can we?"

  "You aren't safe," she reminded him. "You're not going to hide from a - " Hannah stopped. Her eyes widened as she looked at something behind Gregg. "Quasi!" she shouted, a squeal of delight. Hannah was up and running, brushing past Gregg to hug the hunchback who had suddenly appeared in the darkness of their artificial cavern. Gregg felt a sudden stab of jealousy as he watched them, as Hannah kissed Quasiman on the cheek and the two embraced.

  Two days here and Hannah hasn't touched you, a voice said inside. The two of you were lovers when you were normal, but now that you're a lousy yellow worm, you're nasty and awful. She kissed you once, when you first came back, but she hasn't tried it since, has she? She keeps talking about how she still loves you, but you know it's not in that way, is it? Quasi is at least humanoid. She can hug him, she can kiss him. But not you, Gregg. Not ever you.

  Gregg could see Quasiman's face as he hugged Hannah. In Gregg's near-sighted view, his expression was clear enough to see that Quasi was involved with Hannah beyond simple friendship. Gregg knew. He could see the infatuation in Quasiman's eyes, in his lopsided smile, in the way he pulled Hannah to him. And when Quasi saw Gregg, Gregg saw reflected there the same strange, angry loathing that Gregg felt when he looked in a mirror.

  "Quasi," Hannah was saying. "Have you seen Father Squid or Dutton? Any of the others?"

  Quasi seemed to shudder. His attention drifted and he appeared to be looking at something not in the room. "Saw them," he said, stuttering. His gaze went back to Hannah. "An island. A you who wasn't you."

  "What's that mean, Quasi?" she asked. Her hand brushed the joker's cheek, and Gregg felt his stomach churn acidly at the same moment. "I don't understand."

  "You leave," Quasi said suddenly. "Water. Leprechauns. Fists." He looked at Gregg and scowled. "He knows how," Quasi said. "Do it."

  "Do what?" Gregg asked him. "If you'd talk in something approaching a complete sentence, we might be able to make some sense of what you're saying."

  "Gregg!" Hannah said, whirling around to look at him. "That's cruel. He can't help himself; you know that."

  Gregg wrinkled his clown nose, squashing his round face like a hand puppet. The unfocused anger within him burned, and he wasn't sure who he was angry with: Quasi for interrupting their solitude, Hannah for making her affection for the joker so obvious, or himself for allowing it to bother him. "All right, I'm sorry. It's just - "

  "You should leave," Quasiman said. Each word was an effort, separated by a breath.

  "Leave New York?" Gregg asked. "Go to some other city?"

  "Further than that," Quasiman answered. "Other countries. Sentences. You must leave. There's nothing you - " Quasiman's lower jaw disappeared. His tongue waggled helplessly like a gray slug for a moment before the jaw reappeared " - can do here," Quasiman finished. "Complete fucking sentences."

  Gregg had never beard Quasiman swear before. The word was so surprising that Gregg almost laughed. Quasiman glared at Gregg, defiant. His arms disappeared, first the left, then the right. The glare went slack and empty, and the joker stood there like a wax dummy, empty and cold.

  "Poor Quasi," Hannah sighed. She touched his shoulder above the bloodless wound of the missing arm. Quasiman didn't respond. He was gone to wherever he went in his fugues. "Gregg, you know he can glimpse the future. He's helped me so much before." She crouched down in front of Gregg, but she didn't touch him. Her eyes were full of something that might have been affection, but she didn't touch him. "I trust Quasi. He's seen something and he's trying to warn us."

  "I can get as much information reading Nostradamus," Gregg muttered, and at her look: "All right. Maybe he's right. We sure aren't getting anything accomplished sitting down here. But what do we do?" There was a soft pop that echoed ringingly in the underground quiet. When Gregg looked up, the hunchback was gone. "So much for asking Mr. Complete Sentences."

  "He wants us to leave the country," Hannah said. "I understood that much. It makes sense, especially if Rudo's fled the country, too."

  "Right. And where do we go?"

  Hannah looked at him. "Dutton said it back at the Museum: Rudo and Johnson will go to ground with the people they trust - the influential Sharks overseas. You're the one with the contacts. Let's use them."

  Hannah watched him, and he saw his alien face reflected in her eyes. He wondered what she was feeling. He felt that if she touched him then, that he might be able to know, that the contact might spark some connection. Hannah's hand was lifted, as if she might reach out to him, but she drew it back and smiled grimly instead. "I just want to find Rudo and the vials," she said. "Wherever they've gone. I want this done."

  So you can leave me then? Gregg wondered. So you can return to a normal life? He wondered, but the glimmerings of a plan had formed. "Let me make a call," he said.

  ♥ ♦ ♣ ♠

  April Harvest looked down the short staircase dubiously.

  "Are we going to hit every dive in town?" she asked.

  "If we have to," Ray said. "You want to find jokers, you go to places where jokers hang out: Freakers, Club Dead Nicholas, The Twisted Dragon. Now this place is something special. I read all about it in an article by Digger Downs in Aces magazine. You'd be surprised how much goes onin a place like Squisher's."

  "I think I'd rather not know." She wrinkled her nose in disgust. "I can smell it from here."

  Ray grinned, the fluttering neon light from the sign for Uncle Chowder's Clam Bar making his face look surprisingly sinister. Squisher's Basement was located below street level under the clam bar. The small metal sign with the bar's name on it was peeling and rusted. The hand that pointed down the stairs had six fingers.

  "Don't worry," Ray said. "I'll take care of you."

  "You don't have to take care of me, Ray. I do that all by myself. It'd be better if you'd remember that I'm in charge of this investigation. I'm only following your suggestion because all our previous attempts at finding Hartmann have turned up empty."

  Ray nodded. "Whatever you say."

  Squisher's Basement was a dive, a joint where the locals went for cheap but bad food and serious drinking. It smelled like Jokertown: old and dirty and sad. Inside it was dark and quiet. Most of the light came from the fluorescents hanging above the huge aquarium behind the bar, where Squisher resided. The few muted conversations among the patrons dropped off into silence as Ray and Harvest walked to the bar. Every eye in the place was on the two, even Squisher's as he floated silently in his aquarium.

  "I'm looking for someone," Ray announced.

  "You'll be looking for your own ass in a minute," someone rumbled from the bar.

  "Yeah, you tell him," a joker standing near Ray said.

  "Yeah, tell him," the other head
sprouting from the joker's torso said.

  Ray smiled. There was genuine amusement in it, as well as anticipation. "Who the hell are you?" he asked the two-headed joker.

  Actually, they had more than two heads. They shared a single massive set of legs and one pelvis, but were bifurcated from the waist up: two heads, two sets of shoulders and arms, two massive torsos. They were thickly built and looked strong hut unwieldy. Separately they would have outweighed Ray by sixty pounds each. Together, they dwarfed him.

  The two heads looked at each other. "My name is Hans," one said with a sudden, strange accent. "This is Franz. Who are you, girly-man?"

  Some of the bar patrons tittered. Ray smiled more widely and turned to face the jokers squarely.

  "You must be as stupid as you are ugly," he said, "if you think you can get away with that weak shit. You're really ... uh ..."

  "Rick and Mick Dockstedder," Harvest said crisply. "Cheap muscle. Used to work for the Shadowfists, now freelance."

  "Right," Ray said. It seemed she did know her shit.

  "Are you heat?" Hans - that is, Rick - asked.

  "That's right, moron. The hottest kind. Federal. This is Agent April Harvest. My name is Billy Ray and I can lick every man in this place."

  "Oh," Rick said.

  "Oh," Mick said.

  They sat down.

  Ray looked up and down the bar. "We can fight," he said, "or we can drink. Either is fine with me."

  There were some mutters, but no challenges.

  "Okay," Ray said. "We drink. A round for the house on me. And give me a receipt."

  The bartender drew the drinks and Squisher breathed easier in his aquarium as Ray explained his mission.

  "I'm looking for Hartmann, Senator Gregg Hartmann. You may remember him. He's been jumped into the body of a guy named George G. Battle. Battle used to be a government agent, but he went bad. He turned into a joker, men switched bodies with Hartmann. Battle got his ticket punched but Hartmann's still around. He's hiding somewhere in J-town as a yellow caterpillar. Now I know all about joker solidarity and all that shit, but we need to talk to Hartmann about this Card Shark mess. I want his ass, and one of you can probably give it to me. There's bucks in it. You can reach each of us at the Carlington Hotel." He looked around the room. "Got it?"

  Some of the jokers looked angry, some indifferent. A few looked thoughtful. "Okay," Ray said. "See you on the funny pages." He turned to Harvest, "Let's go."

  "Think it'll work?" she asked as they started toward the stairs.

  Ray shrugged. "Maybe. We just have to wait and see."

  There was a sudden, unexpected pop, and a wide-eyed hunchback was standing in front of them. Ray and Harvest stared. Some of the bar patrons looked up, then went back to their drinks. It was no big deal in Squisher's.

  "It's that joker!" Harvest said.

  "Quasiman," Ray confirmed.

  "Get him!"

  "All right, cool down. It doesn't look like he's going anywhere." Ray turned to Quasiman, who was staring sightlessly past the both of them. There was a look of real horror on his face. Ray put his hands on Quasiman's shoulders and looked into his eyes. "What is it? What's the matter?"

  Quasiman roused himself from his stupor. He focused slowly on Ray's face. "The mushroom flower," he said distinctly, "blooms where it's sunny."

  Ray glanced at Harvest and shrugged. "Sure. Why don't you come with me and we'll talk about it?"

  He tried to get Quasiman to fall into step, but the joker was going nowhere. He stood, rooted to the spot, a line of drool dribbling unnoticed on his chin. His eyes suddenly narrowed and his brow furrowed in concentration. It was as if he had to tell Ray something of great importance, but he couldn't force it out. "Duh - don't drink the wine," he finished in a rush.

  "Don't drink the wine?" Ray asked, puzzled.

  Quasiman nodded, his head bobbing up and down like a puppet's on a string. And then he vanished, popping away to wherever it was that he went to when he popped away. Ray staggered, finally catching his balance as Harvest looked on in disgust.

  "You had him," she said, "and you let him get away."

  "Well, how the hell was I supposed to stop him?"

  She shook her head in disgust. "Never mind. Let's go."

  Ray followed her up the stairs. "Don't drink the wine," he said, half to himself. "I never drink wine. I hate the stuff."

  ♥ ♦ ♣ ♠

  "Miss Harris?" The voice was diffident, and there was a shy tapping at the locked door.

  "Come in," Zoe said, which was the most ridiculous response she could imagine anyone making who was locked in a cell. The words just slipped out. Had it been three hours, four, since they locked her in here?

  The door opened. A girl beckoned to her, a joker girl with a pearly unicorn horn in the center of her forehead. The girl wore Fist black and carried an Uzi. "Would you come with me, please?"

  Please, and a gesture with the Uzi. Zoe blinked at the light in the corridor and went where the girl pointed.

  To a thick metal door, polished and gleaming amber in the reflected light of eye-saver fixtures. A joker with a snail's foot came through it. That guy, yeah, the one from the souk. Faintly, she heard vendors calling out their wares, the morning bustle of the waking city.

  Snailfoot looked up and smiled. Unmasked, he was handsome in a rather Peter O'Toolish fashion. "We meet again," he said.

  Beside Zoe, a black robe rustled. She could have sworn there was no one else in the corridor.

  "Zoe Harris," a tall joker said. His baritone voice was slightly muffled behind the black beast mask that covered his face. "You wanted to see the Black Dog. You're seeing him." He offered his arm and Zoe reached out for it, compelled by the man's presence, the aura of power that surrounded him. His forearm was muscular and very warm. "Come with me. Snailfoot, tell Balthazar to get his ass in here."

  Snailfoot nodded and slithered away. The Black Dog opened the metal door. Stone steps lighted in amber led down to a landing and continued down into gods-knew-what.

  "You've got to learn to control that ace of yours. All you did with that business at the gate was you let a lot of jokers know you've got powers," the Black Dog said. "You can't afford to panic."

  Brooklyn? There was some Brooklyn in his voice, under the European sounds that Israelis used when they spoke English.

  "Guns make me just a little tense," Zoe said.

  "You'll get over it."

  He started down the stairs, and Zoe found she was following him. She didn't want to go down those stairs. The guy was hypnotic, and scary as hell. She had expected to be brushed aside, dismissed, or challenged, and it seemed she was being welcomed. Something was a little skewed here.

  "Hurry" The Black Dog's cloak swirled out behind him. Darth Vader, Zoe thought, and this is the Death Star. This should be funny, and it isn't. Someone was behind her on the steps. Needles. He shook his head at her, pleading for her silence.

  "Go on, Zoe," Needles whispered.

  The bottom of the stairway led into a rough stone corridor. The air was fresh and cool. Zoe heard a faint whine of ventilator fans.

  "Why am I here? Why did your goons lock me up?"

  "I let them ventilate some of their anger. You hurt one of our people. Remember?"

  "I was only trying to communicate with you. They played rough."

  "Communicate? What important communication did you have for the Twisted Fists?"

  Her concern sounded so foolish, but she had to say it anyway. "I don't like what you're teaching my kids." He wouldn't listen to her. Why should he? "I'm royally pissed about the way you're using them."

  "Are you?" the Black Dog asked. "They're getting the best training in Jerusalem."

  "Training for murder?" Zoe asked "That's supposed to be good?"

  "Training for survival," he said. "It's hard to educate corpses."

  "They will become inhuman! Monsters!"

  She hurried to stay behind him in the narrow space.

bsp; "They aren't human now, and 'monster' isn't the worst thing I've heard them called." He sounded amused.

  "Please, Zoe, don't," Needles whispered behind her.

  "Is life as a murderer worth living?" Zoe asked.

  The procession traced its way down a slanted passage cut into rock.

  "Is it, Zoe?"

  No. No, her knowledge screamed at her. It's no life at all. Zoe remembered the spasms of the skinhead she had killed as he shuddered out his life, his arms clutching her father's corpse in an ugly embrace. Dreams, dreams and nightmares, when she dreamed it was her hand on the knife in her father's belly. In her dreams, she killed Bjorn, over and over. At night, she wanted to die, to rid herself of dreams. Every night, she forced herself to live one more day, to stay alive as long as Anne needed her. Anne's death had begun to seem a liberation, because then Zoe could stop living, stop sleeping, stop dreaming. A suicide. Was that the message she would leave the Escorts? Give up, die, your life is shameful?

  The tall man with the yellow eyes of a goat came from a side corridor and fell into step beside Needles.

  "Balthazar was impressed by your talents at the gate. That's why you're alive. Thank him, someday."

  The corridor made a sharp turn and widened enough for two people to walk side by side. The walls were honeycombed with rectangular crypts, some occupied by stone sarcophagi, some, high up in the shadows, filled with reclining, placid skeletons.

  "Where are we?" Zoe asked.

  The Black Dog walked beside her in the wider space. He was tall, his masked face immobile and inhuman save for the moist gleam of the whites of his eyes, stained amber by the scattered lights in this quiet maze of catacombs.

  "Under the City."

  They left the graves and entered another stairway that led down. The air temperature dropped. Zoe pulled her cloak tight around her shoulders. Pipes and conduits mazed along the ceiling. Doorways led into dark, vast rooms, full of canisters and angular crates that could have held anything - guns, portable buildings, tractors or tanks. The City hid a city beneath its streets.