Wild Cards V: Down and Dirty Read online
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For Laura Mixon. We all miss you.
The editor wishes to extend his thanks and appreciation to Melinda M. Snodgrass, his tireless, selfless, endlessly energetic right-hand man, who has put in long thankless hours as trademark attorney, mother confessor, negotiator, dinner coordinator, editor’s assistant, babysitter, diplomat, and voice of reason amidst the slings and arrows, and without whose diligence, imagination, and sanity the Wild Card world would be a much duller place, if it existed at all.…
Note to Readers
In the real world there are always thousands of stories in progress, all of them happening at once. We try to make the world of the wild cards as real as we possibly can.
The previous volume in the Wild Cards series, Aces Abroad, chronicled the events of the World Health Organization global junket, which left New York on December 1, 1986, and returned on April 29, 1987.
The first part of the volume in hand tells what happened in Manhattan from the beginning of October through the end of April, before the tour made its departure and while it was wending its somewhat troubled way around the world.
The concluding portions of our present mosaic relate the events of May and June, after the travelers came home.
OCTOBER 1986 – APRIL 1987
Only the Dead Know Jokertown
by John J. Miller
BRENNAN MOVED THROUGH THE autumnal night as if he were part of it, or it were part of him.
The fall had brought a coolness to the air that reminded Brennan, however palely, of the Catskills. He missed the mountains more than almost anything, but as long as Kien was free they were as unattainable as the ghosts of dead friends and lovers that had lately come to haunt his dreams. He loved the mountains as surely as he loved all the people he’d failed down through the years, but who could love the dirty sprawl of the city? Who could even know the city, could even know Jokertown? Not him, certainly, but Kien’s presence bound him to Jokertown as solidly as chains of adamantine steel.
He crossed the street, entering the half block of urban debris that bordered the Crystal Palace. With the sixth sense of the hunter he could feel eyes follow him as he passed through the wreckage. He shifted the canvas bag that carried his broken-down bow to a more comfortable position, wondering, not for the first time, what sort of creatures chose to make the mounds of junk their home. Once or twice he heard twittering rustles that weren’t the wind and glimpsed flashes of movement that weren’t shifting moonshadow, but no one interfered as he swung up onto the rusted fire escape hanging down the Palace’s rear wall. He climbed silently to the roof, went through the security system that would have given him pause if Chrysalis hadn’t keyed him to it, and entered through the trapdoor that opened on the Palace’s third floor, Chrysalis’s private domain. The corridor was totally dark, but he avoided by memory the delicate stands cluttered with antique bric-a-brac and let himself into her bedroom.
Chrysalis was awake. Sitting naked on her plush wine-colored fainting couch, she was playing solitaire with a deck of antique playing cards.
Brennan watched her for a moment. Her skeleton, her ghostly musculature, her internal organs, and the network of blood vessels that laced through it all were delicately lit by rosy light from the Tiffany lamp hanging above the couch upon which she’d spread her cards. He watched the articulated skeleton of her hand flip through the deck and turn over the ace of spades.
She looked up at him and smiled.
Her smile, like Chrysalis herself, was an enigma. Difficult to read because her face was only lips and smudges of ghostly muscle on her cheeks and jaw, it could have meant any of the thousand things a smile could mean. Brennan chose to interpret it as a welcome.
“It’s been some time.” She looked at him critically. “Long enough for you to start a beard.”
Brennan closed the door and set his bow case against the wall. “I’ve had business,” he said, his voice soft and deep.
“Yes.” Her smile continued until Brennan could no longer ignore the edge in it. “Some of which interfered with mine.”
There was no doubt as to what she referred. Several weeks ago, on Wild Card Day, Brennan had broken up a meeting at the Palace at which Chrysalis was brokering a very valuable set of books that included Kien’s personal diary. Brennan, hoping that volume had enough evidence in it to nail Kien’s damnable hide to the wall, had eventually gotten it for himself, but it had proven to be worthless. All the writing in it had been destroyed.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I needed that diary.”
“Yes,” she repeated. Ghostly muscles bunched, indicating a frown. “And you’ve read it?”
Brennan hesitated a beat. “Yes.”
“And you’ll not be adverse to sharing the information in it?”
It was more of a demand than a request. It would do no good, Brennan thought, to tell her the truth. She probably would think he was trying to keep it all to himself.
“In that case I suppose I could forgive you,” she said in a not-very-forgiving voice. She gathered her cards together slowly, careful of their age and value, and set them aside on a spider-legged table that stood next to the couch. She leaned back languorously, her nipples bobbing on invisible pads of flesh whose warmth and firm texture Brennan knew well.
“I’ve brought you something,” Brennan said conciliatorily. “It’s not information but something you might like almost as well.”
He sat down on the edge of the couch, reached into the pocket of his denim jacket, and handed Chrysalis a small, clear envelope. When she reached out to take it, her warm, invisible thigh touched, then rested on, Brennan’s own.
“It’s a Penny Black,” he said, as she held the glassine envelope up to the light. “The world’s first postage stamp. Mint, in perfect condition. Rather rare in that state, rather valuable. The portrait is an engraving of Queen Victoria.”
“Very nice.” She smiled her enigmatic smile. “I won’t ask you where you got it.”
Brennan smiled in response, said nothing. He knew that she knew perfectly well where he’d gotten it. He’d asked Wraith for it when they were inspecting the stockbooks full of rare stamps she’d heisted from Kien’s safe, the same safe from which she’d removed his diary during the early hours of Wild Card Day. Wraith had felt bad that Brennan hadn’t gotten what he’d wanted from the worthless diary and had gladly given him the stamp when he’d asked for it.
“Well, I hope you like it.” Brennan stood and stretched as Chrysalis set the envelope aside on her stack of cards. It had