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Those About to Die …
by David Anthony Durham
MARCUS FLUNG ASIDE THE manhole cover. He pulled himself partway through and leaned back to check his cell phone. There. Finally. He had bars again! It wasn't the only problem with living in the tunnels and sewers below Jokertown, but the fact that cell phone service was spotty was one of the most annoying.
One voice mail. One text.
The message was from a girl who had been sweating him. He didn't know why he'd ever given her his phone number. She was a nat. Kind of average looking, with flat blond hair and too much smile for her face. She had approached him at Drakes in the Bowery last week. Grabbing his arm, she admitted out of nowhere that she had a snake fetish. "I just love serpents. Venomous ones the most." She had made him horny, but not exactly in a good way.
He pressed delete.
The text was from Father Squid. Marcus smiled. It always amused him to imagine the good father texting. It couldn't have been easy for him to hit the little buttons, considering that his fingers had suckers all over them. The text read: RMBR PRCNT. 5PM.
"I'll be there," Marcus said. "Not that it's going to do any good."
Marcus liked the priest well enough, but the old guy tended to get worked up about things. He'd roped Marcus into helping him look for so-called missing jokers. A few days into the search, Marcus was beginning to feel like there wasn't anything to it. Sure, some guys had gone awol, but they weren't the sort of guys anyone was too upset to see vanish. Why the priest cared so much Marcus couldn't fathom.
Flipping the phone shut and slipping it into his chest pocket, Marcus rose out of the sewer hole. He was normal enough from the waist up. A young African-American man, well built, with muscles that cut distinct lines beneath his fitted T-shirt. Hair trimmed nice, like someone who cared about their look, thick gold loops in his ears. Below the waist, however, he was one long stretch of scaled serpentine muscle, ringed down the twenty feet of tapering length to his tail. His garish yellow and red and black rings flexed in a hypnotic fashion as he carved a weaving course forward.
He didn't stay earthbound long. He surged up into a narrow gap at the alley mouth, curving from one brick wall to the other, creating a weave of tension between the two. Once out of the shadows of Jokertown's urban canyon lands, the spring sun shone down. The heat of it poured power into Marcus's tail. He pulled his shades out and slipped them on. He knew he looked fly. A couple years ago he thought his life was over. Now, things looked and felt a whole lot different.
As he skimmed along the edge of a roof, a voice called up from the street below. "IBT! Hey, IBT!"
Marcus peered down at a plump woman in a black T-shirt.
"I'm your number one fan, baby. Check it." She directed two stubby fingers at her chest. The bright pink letters IBT stretched taut across her T-shirt. She clearly had more than two breasts pressing against the fabric.
The guy beside her jabbed toward him with a finger. "You da man, T!" he said, stomping the ground with an oversized foot.
Marcus waved. He peeled back from the edge and carried on. "You da man, T," he mimicked. "What's the deal with shortening everything?" he grumbled aloud. "‘T' means he's calling me Tongue but being too lazy to even say the whole word. The name is Infamous Black Tongue," he announced to the sky, then thought, And IBT's all right, I guess, if you're in a rush.
He found it a little strange that it wasn't his tail that gave him his moniker, but he had gotten a lot of early press for the concussive power of his tongue to deliver venom. Made an impression, apparently.
That reminded him of something.
He cut away from his intended route long enough to perch looking down on the graffiti-scarred wall of a building facing an abandoned lot-cum-urban garden. The wall had been repainted in one massive mural, a tribute to Oddity, whose cloaked and masked shape dominated the scene. IBT featured in it, too. Down by the far end, he rose up on powerful coils, half engulfed by licks of flame. One hand stretched out toward Oddity to accept the keys the vigilante legends were offering him. The other hand was smashing the dirty cop Lu Long across his dragon snout.
Marcus cocked his head. Squinted. They'd done some good work since last he saw it. They had his tail down pretty well. The color pattern of his stripes was mixed up, but he doubted anybody but himself would notice. The only thing he didn't really like was his face. He looked too angry, too full of teeth-gritting rage. Father Squid had warned him that when he became a public figure his image wouldn't be his own anymore. Here was proof, sprayed large.
He hit the street just down from the precinct. In the half block he nodded in response to several greetings, received an overly enthusiastic high five from a lobster-like claw, and autographed a furry little boy's Yankees baseball cap. He tried to protest that he was an Orioles fan, and not a baseball player in any event. The boy was insistent, though.
Father Squid waited for him on the precinct steps. Though it was warm, the tall, broad-shouldered priest wore his thick robes, as usual. He stood with his hands tented together on his chest, as if in prayer. He almost looked tranquil, except for the way his fingers tapped out his impatience. "Have you any news, son?"
Marcus shook his head.
The priest leaned close, the scent of him salty and fishy. The tentacles that dangled from his face seemed to stretch toward Marcus, as if each of them was keen to touch good news. "What about that abandoned apartment?"
"I checked it out. No sign of Wartcake."
"Don't call him that. Simon Clarke is the name his parents gave him."
Marcus shrugged. "I know, but everybody calls him Wartcake. When I ask about Simon Clarke nobody knows who I'm talking about. So I always have to say Wartcake, and then they go, ‘Oh, Wartcake, why didn't you say that in the first place?'" He met the priest's large, dark eyes. "I'm just saying."
Motion inside the precinct didn't exactly freeze when Marcus and Father Squid entered, but a hush fell across the room. One after another, pairs of eyes found Marcus and followed his progress toward the captain's office. Officer Napperson glared at him from behind his desk, looking like he was wishing him dead with just the force of his eyes. Another guy in uniform put his hand on his pistol, fingering the grip.
Father Squid strode with lumbering determination. Marcus kept his eyes on the priest's back. He tried to keep his slither cool, but the scrutiny made him nervous. He couldn't figure the cops out. Most of them treated him like a criminal they were itching to bust for something. That didn't stop them from using him, though. Officer Tang once gave him a tip about a guy the cops couldn't touch, some politician's brother who liked getting rough with joker hookers. Marcus had caught up with him one night and given him the scare of his life, enough to keep him out of Jokertown for good. He'd caught, venom tagged, and gift wrapped three perps who had been sparkling with Tinkerbill's pink aura. Ironic, considering that he'd spent a long evening tinkling like a fairy himself.
He'd even played dominoes in the park with Beastie a few Sundays.
None of that changed the chilly reception at the moment.
Deputy Inspector Thomas Jan Maseryk sat at his desk, head tilted down as he studied a stack of reports. He lined through something with a red pen, wrote a note.
Father Squid knocked on the doorjamb.
Without looking up, Maseryk said, "Hello, Father. The way you waft the scent of the seashore makes me hungry for cotton candy and foot-long hot dogs."
"There are two more missing," Father Squid said. "Two more, Captain. Do the disappearances merit your attention yet? If not, how many must vanish before you take notice?"
"We take all complaints serious—"
"You've yet to grasp that something is truly amiss here. Shall I name the vanished for you?"
The deputy inspector plucked up the page and deposited it in the tray at the corner of his desk. Exhaling, he leaned back and stretched. His deeply lined face was stern, his graying hair trimmed with military precision. "If you have anything to add to what you offered last time, see Detective Mc—"
"Khaled Mohamed," Father Squid cut in. He counted them on his suckered fingers. "Timepiece. Simon Clarke. Gregor. John the Pharaoh. These are not prominent people. They're loners, ruffians, users, abusers. All of them male. They may not be the pillars of our community, but they're still God's children. Maseryk, I won't allow you to ignore them."
The captain's face could've been carved in stone. "Unless someone made you mayor while I wasn't looking, I'll ask you to refrain from threatening me. As I said, Detective McTate will be—"
"I want a commitment from you personally."
"My work is my word." Peering around the priest, the deputy inspector nudged his chin at Marcus. "What's he got to do with all of this?"
"Marcus has been doing the work that the department hasn't. He's been combing the streets, day and night, looking for the missing, asking questions, trying to piece together some explanation."
"And?" Maseryk asked.
"I haven't found anything yet."
"Wonder why that is?" Maseryk ran his eyes over the reports again, as if bored of the conversation. "Maybe it's because a few drifters and grifters and petty criminals going missing is as everyday as apple pie. The fact these guys are gone isn't exactly a hardship for the community." He shot a hand up to stop Father Squid's response. "I'm not saying we're ignoring it. Just that there may be nothing to this. You want our full attention? Bring us something real. Some solid proof that anything at all is going on here. Without that, you're on a back burner. Good day, gentlemen."
Marcus wasn't exactly an adventurous eater, but the scent wafting from the Elephant Royale got his long stomach grumbling. The sprawling restaurant featured outdoor seating, which relieved Marcus. More space for the tail.
The owner, a Thai man named Chakri, greeted Father Squid with a wide grin and flurry of back patting. A slim man dressed smartly, the only sign of the virus in him were his eyes. They were two or three times larger than normal. Round and expressive, they sparkled a deep green, with flecks of gold that reflected the sunlight.
"You've had success with your search?" Chakri asked, as he seated the two jokers at one of the curbside tables.
"I'm afraid not," Father Squid said. "We've been on our own. Very little help from the police. We will continue our efforts, though."
Marcus curled his tail under him, trying to keep the tip of it out of the way of passersby.
"You a good man, Father," Chakri said. "I do this: I tell my people to keep a lookout. Deliverymen. Grocers. Shippers. They're out early, up late. They see something they tell me. I tell you."
"Thank you, Chakri," Father Squid said. "That could be very helpful."
"No bother. Now…" He blinked his large eyes, changing their color from green to vibrant crimson. "What would these good men like to eat?"
Having no idea, Marcus let the priest order for him. Soon, the two of them sipped large glasses of amazingly sweet tea. Marcus tentatively tried one of the fish cake appetizers. They didn't look like much, but man they were good!
Father Squid said, "For a long time I couldn't eat Thai food. Reminded me too much of…" He paused and cleared his throat. "Of things I didn't want to remember. That's before I met Chakri. His kind, generous nature is a balm. As is his cooking."
Marcus plucked up another fish cake. "You fought in Vietnam, didn't you? What was it like?"
Father Squid blew a long breath through the tentacles around his mouth. "It's not something I discuss. War is madness, Marcus. It takes men and makes them animals. Pray you never see it yourself."
Typical old guy thing to say, Marcus thought. Why did people who had experienced all sorts of wild stuff—war, drugs, crazy sex—always end up saying others shouldn't experience the same things themselves?
Marcus's cell phone vibrated like a rattlesnake's tail in his chest pocket. He glanced at it. "I should probably take this."
Father Squid motioned for him to do so.
"IBT, my man!"
Slate Carter. Talent agent. Marcus had never seen him, but he had to be white. No black guy would butcher street slang with such gusto.
"Waz up, G? You got that demo for me?"
Looking slightly embarrassed, Marcus twisted away from the table. "Hi, Slate. Um … no, it's not ready yet. I'm not sure it's such a good idea any—"
"Don't blaze out, bro! I explained it all to you already. You got the look, the initials, the street cred, the vigilante backstory. You even beat down a crooked cop! That's our first video, right there."
"You know what I've done for NCMF, right?"
"Yeah," Marcus admitted. Of course he knew. Slate never failed to mention his most famous client.
NCMF was a rapping joker who happened to be the spitting image of an extinct early humanoid known as Paranthropus boisei. Nutcracker Man. Dude could drop some serious rhymes. His latest video was a concert reel, him stomping around the stage before a frenzied crowd, long arms pumping and swiping. The crowd would ask, "What's your name?" He would answer, "Nutcracker, Motherfucker!" His rapping style was all natural flow. It never sounded like he was rapping. He was just talking, cursing, shouting. Somehow it all came out fast and funky. "NCMF but I don't crack nuts! I crack butts. That's right, I crack butts. I tear them open like I'm going extinct!" He proceeded to simulate his butt-cracking prowess with the backsides of a number of dancers. "I crack butts!"
"You and I are gonna blow that away," Slate promised. "You gonna explode like Jiffy Pop! Shoot me that demo and we'll make it happen. You feel me?"
Marcus did. He was a twenty-year-old virgin, after all. Visions of bottles of Krug spurting fizz over bikini-clad dancers, SUVs bouncing and chants of "Gz Up, Hoes Down" … well, such things did have a certain appeal. He had conceded only one problem. A big one. He'd just never managed to actually say it to Slate.
Snapping his phone closed, Marcus muttered a curse.
Father Squid asked, with a raised eyebrow, "Something amiss?"
"That was an agent."
"What sort of agent?"
"Talent. He represents musicians. Rappers mostly. He reps Nutcracker M—" Marcus caught himself. "Well, that … guy, with that song. You might've heard it."
Father Squid frowned. "That one…"
"Anyway, Slate is legit. He thinks I could be a rap star. Blow up like … Jiffy Pop."
"I didn't know you were a musician."
"Neither did I." Marcus cut his eyes up at the priest's face, and then took a sip of his iced tea. "I mean, I'm not. Slate keeps asking for a demo, but … I can't rap. I tried. I got videos on my cell phone, but, man … I suck."
"I can't say that I'm disappointed to hear that."
"He's just after me 'cause I got a tight image, you know?"
"You have a measure of fame. With it comes responsibility. You understand that, right?"
"Yeah, you talk about it all the time."
The father dropped one of his heavy hands on Marcus's shoulder, the suckers on his palm squeezing. "I remind you because I care. Because I see a life of great promise ahead of you. I doubt very much that rapping would be fulfilling your potential. Marcus, if your card hadn't turned, where would you be now?"
"In college, I guess."
"Then you should be there now. The fact that you're a joker need not change that."
Marcus shifted uncomfortably. He couldn't imagine slithering across the quad of some campus, all the nat students staring at his tail. It might have been his future once, but college didn't seem possible anymore.
"Perhaps we can use your celebrity status for something other than making vulgar music," Father Squid said. "And you can do something other than dispensing vigilante justice. You do much good. I won't deny that. But where is the line? What happens when you err? When you hurt an innocent by mistake? What happens if you lose the bits of yourself that are kinder than your fists and muscles?"
The main dishes arrived.
The priest stuffed a napkin under his tentacled chin. After thanking the waitress, he continued, "Your life need not be defined only by the physical abilities the wild card has given you. That's why I'm going to set up a college fund in your honor. I think quite a few people would be willing to contribute to that."
Marcus hid the wave of emotion that rolled over him by digging in to his curry dish. Part of it was fear. Fear of wanting to strive for something that nats strove for. Fear of failing, of all the eyes that would watch him, critical and cold. Part of it was surprise that anyone would want to invest in his future that way. His parents didn't. Nobody in his old life did.
Father Squid chuckled. "I should have warned you it was spicy."
"Yeah," Marcus said, wiping at the moisture in his eyes, "spicy. It's almost got me crying."
Copyright © 2014 by George R.R. Martin and the Wild Cards Trust