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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Wild Cards VI: Ace in the Hole

Wild Cards (Volume 6)

Edited by George R.R. Martin

Tor Books

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK


Chapter One


Monday July 18, 1988


 


6:00 A.M.


SPECTOR PULLED DOWN ON the padlock with a gloved hand. The lock snapped open. He unlatched the corrugated tin door and put his weight against it, pushing it up and sideways, trying to make as little noise as possible. He slid his thin body through and shut the door behind him. So far it was going just like they said.


The place smelled of dust and fresh paint. The light was dim, coming from a single overhead lamp in the center of the warehouse. He paused to let his eyes adjust. There were boxes of masks all around. Clowns, politicians, animals, some just normal human faces. He picked up a bear mask and put it on; might as well be safe if someone flipped on the lights. The plastic pinched his nose and the eyeholes were smaller than he would have liked. His peripheral vision was shot. Spector moved slowly toward the light, turning his head back and forth to make sure no one was closing in on him.


He was a few minutes early. He figured it was the smart thing to do. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble tracking him down and arranging this meeting. They were either desperate, or they were setting him up. It could mean trouble either way. Dust irritated his eyes, but he couldn’t do anything about it with the mask on. He stopped a dozen or so feet from the light and waited. The only sound was the moths pinging against the metal light fixture.


“Are you there?” The voice was muffled, but definitely male, and came from the other side of the lighted area.


Spector cleared his throat. “Yeah, it’s me. Why don’t you move into the light so I can see you?”


“I don’t know who you are, and you don’t know who I am. Let’s keep it that way.” There was a pause. Paper crinkled in the darkness.


“So. Let’s hear it.” Spector took a long, easy breath. This didn’t feel like a setup, and he had the upper hand.


An arm reached forward into the light. The person was short enough to be a kid, but the arm was thick with heavy muscle. The fingers on the hand were short. The edge of a plastic glove peeked out from under the leather one. This guy was obviously being very careful. The hand held a manilla envelope. “Everything you need to know is in here.”


“Toss it over.” The arm threw it toward him. The envelope landed heavily and skidded to the edge of the lighted area, stirring up dust and paint flecks. “Like the sound of that.” Spector walked over to the envelope. Hell, let the guy see him in the bear mask. It wouldn’t matter. He picked the envelope up and popped it open with a thumb. There were several carefully batched stacks of hundred-dollar bills, a round-trip ticket to Atlanta in the name of George Kerby, and a piece of paper that had been folded over twice. Spector figured there was over fifty thousand.


“Half now. The rest when the job’s finished.” The voice had moved, and was now between Spector and the door.


Spector opened the slip of paper and held it up to the light to read. He took a sharp breath. “Shit. Never ask for anything small. And Atlanta, too. What a mess that’ll be. Why not wait until he’s back in town and get a refund on George Kerby’s plane ticket?”


“I want it taken care of in the next week. Tomorrow wouldn’t be too soon. We got a deal?”


“Yeah, okay,” Spector said, bending the envelope over and tucking it into his shirt. “You must hate this guy something fierce.”


The door opened. Spector got a glimpse of the man before he pulled it closed again. Four feet tall and built like a linebacker—a dwarf. Not many of those around. And only one who had it in for the guy he’d been hired to nail.


“I heard you were dead, Gimli.” No answer. But he couldn’t expect any from someone who was supposedly stuffed and mounted in the Famous Bowery Wild Card Dime Museum. Still, Spector knew better than anyone that just because a person was supposed to be a stiff didn’t necessarily make it so.


It was Rat’s Alley, where the dead men lost their bones. Where Jokers Wild was, was Rat’s Alley.


It was probably a good alley for rats.


The last of the customers stumbled out through the door, set like a scream into a blank brick imbecile face of wall. The doorway was normal height, but most of them kept heads ducked low into collars wilted with the sweat of fear, anticipation, and sweet release, kept them that way as they picked their way through mother-of-pearl puddles, the faded glory of plastic food wrappers, stale city smell of tired proteins and complex hydrocarbons aging without grace.


An insignificant figure loitered next to the doorway, James Dean with a hunchback, his black Ked propped against the wall behind him, his white one down in the muck, nodding and humming low in his throat to make sure the night’s clientele kept heading in the right direction. It was no sweat. The ones still inside were leaving to put the rubbery, giggling menace of Moon Goon behind them, and once outside the right direction was away from him.


On the other side of the door a bulky figure, bagged in black cloak and pantaloons, nodded and murmured floorwalker endearments through a seamless clown’s mask: “Thank you. Please come again. Thank you. Always a pleasure.” At most they nodded back.


Last out were a handful of Beautiful Youths, late teens who still managed to look fresh and scrubbed beneath their flattops and floppy nouveaux dos, the Jokers Wild waitstaff. James Dean manqué watched them walk. His pupils dilated when his eyes fixed on the boys, jocks as clean limbed and muscled as fledgling Howard heroes. He wasn’t aware. They were probably queers anyway. There were queers everywhere; you never could tell. Mackie’s scrotum and fingertips itched at the thought; there were things he liked to do to queers. Not that he got much chance. The Gatekeeper and the Man were always on him to be careful where he used his powers. And whom on.


When the last were gone from Rat’s Alley, the man with the clown face shut the door. Its outside was enameled a chipped green. He took hold of the frame with white-gloved fingers, pulled it away from the wall. What lay behind was brick. He folded door and frame into a bundle, like a collapsed artist’s easel, and tucked it into the billow of one armpit.


“Be good, Mackie,” he said, reaching up to pet the thin cheek, just showing a scum of downy whiskers. Mackie didn’t pull away. Gatekeeper wasn’t queer, he knew that. He liked it when the masked man touched him. He liked approval. A skinny teenage expatriate hunchback didn’t get much of that. Especially when Interpol wanted to talk to him.


“I will, Gatekeeper,” he said, grinning lopsidedly and bobbing his head. “You know I’m always good.” His words had a broad, loopy north German lilt to them.


Gatekeeper regarded him a moment longer. His eyes were only visible sometimes. Right now they were just hooded blacknesses in his mask.


His gloved fingertips slid down Mackie’s face, rasping softly. He turned and walked away, down the alley with a slight waddle, carrying his bundle beneath his arm.


Mackie went the other direction, picking his way carefully around the puddles. He hated to get his feet wet. Tonight, Rat’s Alley would be somewhere else. He’d find it, no worry. He’d feel the call, the siren’s song of Jokers Wild, like the rest of those who belonged, the victims and the audience, whose thrills sprang in part from the knowledge that their roles were interchangeable.


Not Mackie, though. In Jokers Wild, Mackie was untouchable. Nobody fucked with him in the nightclub of the damned.


He emerged on Ninth into a breeze full of Hudson River and diesel fumes. Motile features contorted in a brief twitch of nostalgia and loathing: it was just like the Hamburg docks where he’d grown up.


He stuck his hands in his pockets and turned his higher—right—shoulder to the wind. He had to check a message drop in a Bowery flop. The Man was doing something big down in Atlanta. He might need Mackie at any time. Mackie Messer couldn’t bear to miss a moment of being needed.


He started to hum his song, his ballad. Ignoring a tortured rabbit squeal of bus air brakes, he walked.


7:00 A.M.


The crazies were out early. Once he walked past the police perimeter at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Jack Braun saw hundreds of convention delegates, dressed mostly in casual clothes, silly hats, and vests covered with campaign buttons; several stretch limos carrying Party Elders; a 1971 primer-gray Chevrolet Impala with a swastika flag fluttering from the aerial and three uniformed Nazi storm troopers sitting stone-faced in the front seat—for some reason no one was in back—and two gangs of jokers hanging their disfigured heads out of battered VW microbuses, waving at the crowd, and laughing at the reactions of the pedestrians. The microbuses were covered with Hartmann stickers and other political slogans. FREE SNOTMAN, said one. BLACK DOG RULES, said the other.


Gregg Hartmann, Jack Braun thought, would not approve. Associating the next president in the public mind with a joker terrorist was not approved political strategy.


Jack could feel sweat beading on his scalp. Even at seven-thirty in the morning, Atlanta was humid and sweltering.


Reconciliation breakfast. In an hour he and Hiram Worchester were supposed to become good friends. He wondered why he’d let Gregg Hartmann talk him into it.


The hell with the stroll, he thought savagely. He’d clear his head some other way. He turned around and headed back to the Marriott.


Jack had spent the previous night in his suite at the Marriott, getting sloshed with four uncommitted superdelegates from the parched Midwest. Gregg Hartmann’s campaign manager, Charles Devaughn, had called with the suggestion that a little Hollywood charm might swing the uncommitted over to Gregg’s camp. Jack, resigned by now, knew perfectly well what that meant. He made a few calls to some agents he knew. By the time the superdelegates arrived, the room had been stocked with bourbon, scotch, and genuine Georgia starlets, veterans of locally produced films with names like Chain Gang Women and Stock Car Carnage. When the party finally broke up about three in the morning and the last congressman from Missouri stumbled out with his arm around Miss Peachtree 1984, Jack figured he had put at least a couple more votes in Hartmann’s pocket.


Sometimes it was easy. For some reason politicians often crumbled around celebrities—even, Jack thought, famous traitor aces and washed-up TV Tarzans like himself. Faded Hollywood charisma, combined with cheap sex, could sap the will of even the most hardened politico.


That, of course, combined with the unvoiced threat of blackmail. Devaughn, Jack knew, would be delighted.


A kettledrum boomed in Jack’s hollow skull. He massaged his temples as he waited at a red light. The wild card’s gift of enormous strength and eternal youth hadn’t saved him from a hangover.


At least it hadn’t been a Hollywood party. He would have had to provide a party bowl of cocaine.


He reached into his Marks & Spencer bush jacket and got the first Camel Unfiltered of the day. As he bent over to shield the match in his big hands, he saw the Impala heading down the street toward him again, swastika flag fluttering. The flat caps of the storm troopers were silhouetted in the front window. The car increased speed as the light went yellow.


WHITE POWER. Bumper-sticker slogans. AUSLANDER RAUS!


Jack remembered, years ago, picking up a Mercedes staff car full of Peronistas and flipping it onto its top.


He remembered screaming in anger as German machine guns turned the Rapido River to white froth, the way his arms ached as he drove the sinking rubber raft across to the north bank where the brush was already full of the black helmets and cammo ponchos of SS Division Das Reich, the shells called by the spotters at Monte Cassino splashing down everywhere, half his squad dead or wounded, bodies sprawled on the bottom of his boat in a mixture of river spray and their own blood.…


The hell, Jack thought, with politics.


All he had to do was step out in front of the Impala. He could make sure the impact pushed him under the car, and while he was underneath he could rip out the engine supports and leave the Brownshirts stranded in downtown Atlanta, surrounded by militant jokers, a large urban black population, and all the crazed and potentially violent lunatics attracted by the madness and confusion of the 1988 Democratic Convention.


Jack tossed away his match and swung one foot off the curb. The Impala sped closer, trying to beat the yellow light.


Jack stepped back and watched as the Nazis raced by in their car. The black swastika burned itself into his eyeballs.


The Four Aces had been dead for almost forty years. Jack just didn’t do that sort of thing anymore.


Too bad.


8:00 A.M.


U2 blared from the radio, and the teenager beat out the rhythm line with a fork as he sucked down a glass of orange juice. His bloodred hair had been cut into a brush over the round skull, with a long, skinny braid hanging down the black leather jacket. High-top black tennis shoes, fatigue pants completed his ensemble. The image was aggressively punk, but the face beneath the shock of red hair was too soft, too young for real badass punk.


The contrast to his grandsire, who stood in front of the television, was startling. Dr. Tachyon, eyes slitted with interest as he listened to Jane Pauley of Today interview a panel of political pundits, had his violin tucked beneath his sharp chin and was busily sawing through a Paganini violin sonata. He was hearing perhaps one word in three, but it didn’t matter. He had heard it all. So many many times before. As the months of campaigning ground down to this place—Atlanta. This time—July 1988. One man—Gregg Hartmann. One prize—the presidency of the United States of America.


Tachyon turned to Blaise, gestured toward the television with his bow. “It is going to be a desperate battle.”


And as if in preparation for that upcoming battle, the alien had dressed in boots and breeches, with a black stock wrapped about the high lace collar of his shirt. An officer in Napoleon’s Army could not have been more of a peacock than the slim, diminutive figure in his shimmering green outfit. On his breast in lieu of a Garter order hung a plastic ID card indicating that the bearer was one of the press contingent from the Jokertown Cry.


Blaise pulled a face and took a big bite out of a croissant. “Boring.”


“Blaise, you are thirteen. Old enough to leave behind childish matters and take an interest in the larger world. On Takis you would be leaving the women’s quarters. Preparing for your intensive education. Taking responsibility within the family.”


“Yeah, but we’re not on Takis, and I’m not a joker, so I don’t care a fuck.”


What did you say?” asked his grandsire in freezing accents.


“Fuck, you know, fuck. Anglo-Saxon word—”


“Crudity is never the mark of a gentleman.”


“You say it.”


“Rarely. And please do as I say, not as I do.” But Tachyon had the grace to grin sheepishly. “But child, jokers or not, we must care. We too are unique individuals, and if Barnett and his philosophy of oppression were to reach the White House it would devour us as well as the most miserable inhabitant of Jokertown. He wishes to place us in sanatoriums.” Tachyon gave a snort of derision. “Why doesn’t he just say the ugly word—concentration camps.


“We are aliens, Blaise. You may have been born on Earth, but my blood runs in your veins. You bear my power, and it will set you forever apart from the groundlings. For a time that natural tendency of all species to cling to the us and shun the them has lain quiet in the human spirit, but that could change—”


Blaise was yawning. Tachyon closed his teeth on the endless flow of words. He was becoming a bore. Blaise was young. The young were always callous and optimistic. But Tach had little room for optimism in his life. Ever since that desperate night in June 1987, Tachyon had carried in his DNA the twisting, mutating pattern of the wild card virus. For the moment it lay dormant, but Tachyon knew that an instant of stress, extreme pain, terror, even joy could trigger the virus, and if he were not fortunate enough to draw the black queen and die, he too might become a joker. It was too much to hope that he would fall into that lucky minority who became aces.


There was a tap on the door of the suite. Brows arching in surprise, the alien sent Blaise to answer while he recased the violin.


“George!”


Tachyon stood tensely in the door to the sitting room, gripping the jamb so he didn’t release the furious anger and fear that held him. “What are you doing here?” he asked in a low, controlled tone.


George Steele, aka Victor Demyenov, aka Georgy Vladimirovich Polyakov, met the alien’s thinly veiled hostility with a bland raise of the eyebrows. “Where else would I be?” The boy released his tight embrace on the portly older man, and George kissed him loudly on each cheek. “I work for the Brighton Beach Observer. I have a story to cover.”


“Oh, Ideal, you’re a goddamn Russian spy in a hotel that’s crawling with Secret Service agents. And you’re in my suite!” Tachyon suddenly pressed a hand to his heart, quieted his breathing, became aware of Blaise listening interestedly. “Go downstairs, and … and…” He dug out his wallet. “And buy a magazine.”


“I don’t want to.”


“For once in your life don’t argue with me!”


“Why can’t I stay?” The whine was in place.


“You’re only a boy. You shouldn’t be involved in this.”


“A minute ago I was old enough to take an adult interest in adult matters.”


“Ancestors!” Tachyon dropped onto the sofa, held his head in his hands.


Polyakov allowed himself a small smile. “Perhaps your grandpapa is right … and this will be boring, Blaise, my child.” He dropped a companionable arm over the boy’s shoulders and urged him to the door. “Go and amuse yourself while your grandpapa and I discuss darker matters.”


“And stay out of trouble!” Tach yelled as the door closed on Blaise’s heels.


The alien smeared jam on a croissant. Stared at it. Dropped it back onto the plate. “Why can you handle him better than I can?”


“You try to love him. I don’t think Blaise responds well to love.”


“I don’t want to believe that. But what are these dark matters we must discuss?”


Polyakov dropped into a chair, worried his lower lip between thumb and forefinger. “This convention is critical—”


“No joke? No pun intended.”


“Shut up and listen!” And suddenly the voice held all the old steel and command it had possessed those long years ago when Victor Demyenov had picked a drunken and shattered Takisian out of the gutters of Hamburg and trained him in the delicate tradecraft of the modern spy. “I need you to do a job for me.”


Tachyon backed away, palms out. “No. No more jobs. I’ve already given you more than I should. Let you back into my life, close to my grandson. What more do you want?”


“Plenty, and I deserve it. You owe me, Dancer. Your omission in London cost me my life, my country. You made me an exile—”


“Just another something we have in common,” said Tachyon bitterly.


“Yes. And that boy.” Polyakov gestured toward the door. “And a past that cannot be erased.”


There was again that nervous worrying of lips between fingers. Tachyon cocked his head curiously, and firmly suppressed a desire to slip beneath the layers of that secretive mind. Takisian protocol dictated that one did not invade the privacy of a friend’s mind. And there was enough friendship left from those years in East and West Berlin to dictate that courtesy. But Tach had never in all the years seen Polyakov so rattled, so jumpy. The alien found himself remembering incidents from the past year: late nights of drinking after Blaise had gone to bed; Polyakov providing an exuberant and uncritical audience as Tach and Blaise had charged through a Brahms Hungarian dance for piano and violin; the times that the Russian had kept Blaise from exercising his terrible power on the helpless humans who surrounded him.


Tachyon crossed the room, squatted before the old man, rested his arm on Polyakov’s knee for balance. “For once in your life don’t play the enigmatic Russian. Tell me plainly what you want. What you fear.”


Polyakov suddenly gripped Tachyon’s right hand. PAIN! The bite of fire from within, rushing up his arm, through his body, boiling the blood. Sweat burst from his pores, tears from his eyes. Tach sprawled on his elbows on the floor.


“BURNING SKY!”


“An appropriate exclamation,” said Polyakov with a humorless smile. “You Takisians, always so apt.”


Tachyon scrubbed a handkerchief across his streaming face, but the tears continued to flow. He gulped down a sob.


The Russian frowned down at him. “What the devil is wrong with you?”


“You couldn’t just tell me you are an ace?” cried Tach bitterly.


Polyakov shrugged. Rose and pulled a handkerchief from his breast pocket. Tachyon’s fingers were closed frenziedly about the sodden mass of his own.


“What the hell is the matter? I gave you only the merest lick of my fire.”


“And I am carrying the wild card so your little lick could have triggered the virus.”


Tachyon found himself crushed into a burly embrace. He fought free, gave his nose a hard blow. “So today is a day for secrets, is it not?”


“How long?”


“A year.”


“If I had known—”


“I know. I know, you would never have scared me out of a thousand years of life with that little demonstration.” His clothes smelled rankly of sweat and fear. Tachyon began to strip. “So now I know why you are so interested in this convention.”


“It goes beyond the fact that I am a wild card,” grunted Polyakov. “I am a Russian.”


“Yes,” Tach threw over his shoulder as he walked into the bathroom. “I know.” The thunder of the water drowned out Polyakov’s words. “WHAT?”


Grumbling, Polyakov followed him into the bathroom, lowered the toilet cover, and sat. From behind the shrouding curtain Tach heard the clink of metal on glass.


“What are you drinking?”


“What do you think?”


“I’ll take one, too.”


“It’s eight in the morning.”


“So we’ll go to hell drunk and together.” Tach accepted the glass, allowed the water to beat on his shoulders while he sipped at the vodka. “You drink too much.”


“We both drink too much.”


“True.”


“There’s an ace at this convention.”


“There are a shitload of aces at this convention.”


“A secret ace.”


“Yes, he’s sitting on my toilet.” Tachyon stuck his head around the curtain. “How long is this going to take? Can’t you be a little less cautious and trust me just a little?”


Polyakov sighed heavily, stared down at his hands as if counting the hairs on the back of fingers. “Hartmann is an ace.”


Tach stuck his head back through the shower curtain. “Nonsense.”


“I tell you it is true.”


“Proof?”


“Suspicions.”


“Not good enough.” Tach shut off the water, and thrust a hand through the curtain. “Towel.” Polyakov dropped one over his arm.


Stepping from the shower, the alien studied his image in the mirror as he towel dried his shoulder-length red hair. Noted the scars on his left arm and hand where the doctors had repaired the bones crushed in an eleventh-hour rescue of Angelface. The puckered scar on his thigh—legacy of a terrorist’s bullet in Paris. The long scar on the right bicep—memory of a duel with his cousin. “Living takes a hell of a toll, doesn’t it?”


“Just how old are you?” the Russian asked curiously.


“Adjusting for Earth’s rotational period; eighty-nine, ninety. Somewhere in there.”


“I was young when I met you.”


“Yes.”


“Now I am old and fat and in the grip of a terrible fear. You can so easily establish if my fears are real or mere delusions. Probe Hartmann, read him, then act.”


“Gregg Hartmann is my friend. I don’t probe my friends. I don’t even probe you.”


“I give you permission to do so. If it will help to convince you.”


“Ideal, you must be in terror.”


“I am. Hartmann is … evil.”


“Odd word from an old material dialectician like yourself.”


“Nevertheless, it applies.”


Tachyon shook his head, walked into the bedroom, rummaged in a drawer for fresh underwear. He could sense George behind him, a portly irritating presence. “I don’t believe you.”


“No, you don’t want to believe me. A fundamental difference. How much do you know of Hartmann’s early life? His passage through this world has left a trail of mysterious deaths and shattered lives. His high school football coach, his college roommate—”


“So he’s had the misfortune to be on the periphery of violent events. That does not make him an ace. Or would you have him damned by association?”


“And what of a politician who is kidnapped twice, and escapes both times under mysterious circumstances?”


“What’s so mysterious? In Syria, Kahina turned upon her brother and stabbed him. In the resulting chaos we escaped. In Germany—”


“I was working with Kahina.”


“What!”


“When I first came to America. Gimli too, that poor fool. Now Gimli is dead, and Kahina has vanished, and I fear she too is dead. She came to America to expose Gregg Hartmann.”


“So you say.”


“Tachyon, I don’t lie to you.”


“No, you merely tell me only as much as suits you.”


“Gimli suspected, and now he’s dead.”


“Oh, so now Gregg is responsible for Typhoid Croyd? Gimli died from that virus, not from Gregg Hartmann.”


“And Kahina?”


“Show me a body. Show me the proof.”


“What about Germany?”


“What about it?”


“One of the GRU’s top operatives was in charge of that operation, and he ran like a raw recruit. He was manipulated, I tell you!”


“You tell me! You tell me? You tell me nothing! Just slurs and innuendos. Nothing to back up this fantastic allegation.”


“What does it cost you to probe him? Read him and prove me wrong.”


Tachyon’s mouth tightened mulishly.


“You’re afraid. You’re afraid that what I’m telling you is true. This is not Takisian honor and reticence. This is cowardice.”


“There are very few men who would be permitted to say that to me, and live.” Tachyon shrugged on his shirt, and resumed in a dry, almost lecturing, tone, “Being an ace you must have considered the political climate. Supposing for the moment that you are correct and Gregg Hartmann is a secret ace—so what? There is nothing very suspicious in a man with political aspirations hiding his wild card. This is not France, where it is the height of chic to be an ace. You damn him for keeping a secret that you have kept all your life?”


“He’s a killer, Tachyon, I know it. That’s why he is hiding.”


“The hounds are gathering, George. They’re snapping at our heels. Soon they will want to taste blood. Gregg Hartmann is our only hope to keep the hate at bay. If we smear Hartmann, we open the way for Barnett and the crazies. You’ll be all right. You can hide behind that bland, ordinary face. But what of the others? What of my bastard stepchildren waiting in the park, their deformities obvious for all the world to see? What do I tell them? That the man who has protected and defended them for twenty years is evil and must be destroyed because he might be an ace, and because he kept it secret?”


Tachyon’s eyes widened as he considered a new possibility. “My god, this might be why you were sent here. To bring down the candidate that the Kremlin fears. A Hartmann presidency—”


“What is this nonsense? Have you taken to reading sensational spy fiction? I fled for my life. Even the Kremlin thinks I’m dead.”


“How can I believe you? Why should I trust you?”


“Only you can answer those questions. Nothing I say or do will convince you. I’ll say only one thing—I would hope that this past year would have at least demonstrated that I am not your enemy.”


Polyakov walked to the door.


“That’s it?”


“It seems pointless to continue a circular argument.”


“You waltz in here, and calmly announce that Gregg Hartmann is a killer ace, and then waltz back out again?”


“I’ve given you all that I have. Now it’s up to you, Dancer.” He seemed to struggle with himself for a moment, then added, “But if you don’t act, be warned—I shall.”


After Jack crossed the street, he realized he didn’t have to deal with the July heat any longer: he could get back to the Marriott by way of Peachtree Mall. The conditioned air was a relief. He rode the escalator to the top level and came face-to-face with a group of Charismatic Catholics for Barnett, all walking circles, counting their rosaries, and chanting the Hail Mary while wearing posterboards with their candidate’s picture. STOP WILD CARD VIOLENCE, some signs said. This week’s cover slogan for Put wild cards in concentration camps.


Weird, Jack thought. Barnett professed the Roman Church a tool of Satan, and here they were praying for him.


He passed by. Sweat cooled on his forehead. Two black kids loaded with Jesse Jackson buttons were throwing large foam-plastic gliders back and forth. Delegates in silly hats mobbed the restaurants, looking for breakfast.


One of the gliders fluttered toward Jack, heading for the pavement. Jack grinned and snatched it from the air before it hit the floor. He cocked his arm to throw it back to its owner, and then stopped and stared at the glider in surprise.


The foam glider had been created in the image of Peregrine, her wings outspread to almost two feet. The famous bosom, which Jack had gazed at on many memorable occasions aboard the Stacked Deck, was rendered in loving detail. Only the tail structure, presumably required for proper aerodynamics, was nonanatomical. Small letters were printed on the tail: Flying Ace Gliders (R), they said, collect them all.


Jack wondered if Peregrine was getting any royalties.


The two kids stood about fifteen yards away, waiting for their glider. Jack cocked his hand back and threw, the same motion he’d used playing football years ago, and added just a touch of his power. A mild golden aura flickered from his body. The glider fired in a fast, straight line, the length of the mall, buzzing like an insect in flight.


The kids stared, first at the glider, then at Jack, then at the glider again. Then they took off, running after their Peregrine.


People were staring. Jack felt a delirious rise of optimism. Maybe returning to public life wasn’t going to be so bad. He laughed and loped up the mall again.


On the way he met the glider-seller, his samples assembled on a folding table in front of him. Jack recognized J.J. Flash and Jetboy’s JB-1. There was one Frisbee-like object obviously intended as the Turtle.


Jack showed his ID and room key to the police cordoning off the Marriott and walked into the cavernous venturi shape of the atrium. The Marriott was Hartmann headquarters, and almost all the people in sight were wearing Hartmann regalia. Flying Ace gliders, thrown from the balconies above, swooped in daring loops above their heads. Off out of sight, someone was playing charge on a portable organ.


Jack stepped to the desk to see if anyone had left any messages. Charles Devaughn wanted him to call; so did one of the Georgia starlets. Which one, Jack tried to recall, was Bobbie? The stacked redhead? Or was it the blond chain-gang woman who spent half the party talking about her expensive dental implants and demonstrating her anticellulite exercises?


There wasn’t likely to be any time at this convention for a personal life anyway.


Jack put the messages in his pocket and turned away from the desk. A Flying Ace glider spun into the ground before his feet. He automatically reached down to pick it up, saw the molded white scarf, flyer’s helmet, leather jacket.


Jack stared for a long moment, the glider hanging from his hand. Hello, Earl, he thought.


For a while he’d thought it would really be okay. He’d reached a truce with Tachyon; maybe Gregg Hartmann could talk old diehards like Hiram Worchester around. Maybe everyone else had forgotten the Four Aces, and HUAC, and Jack’s betrayal; maybe he could step out in public and do something worthwhile without messing up, without being haunted by reminders of the past.


Better straighten up, farm boy. Funny how after all these years he still knew exactly what Earl Sanderson would say.


Jack rose to his full height and looked over the heads of the crowd, wondering if someone out there had meant the glider to fall where it did, wanted to remind him that everything hadn’t been forgotten. Jack must have looked ridiculous enough, heaven knows, hunched over the glider with his guilty conscience welling out of his face, and the effigy of his friend and victim dangling from his paw.


Bye, Earl, he thought. Take care, now.


He cocked his arm back and fired. The glider whirred as it rose into the atrium, rising forever until it was lost to sight.


Gregg could feel the hunger.


It had nothing to do with politics or the expectation that by the end of this week he could well be the Democratic nominee.


Coming down in the Marriott elevator for his breakfast meeting with Jack Braun and Hiram Worchester, the hunger burned in his gut like glowing phosphorus—a pulsing violence that a few croissants and coffee would never touch.


The hunger was Puppetman’s, and it demanded pain.


His face must have reflected some of the inner struggle. His aide, Amy Sorenson, leaned toward him and touched his shoulder hesitantly. “Sir…?”


Billy Ray, assigned to Hartmann’s personal security for the convention, glanced over the shoulder of his spotless white Carnifex uniform from the front of the elevator. Gregg forced a yawn and a professional smile. “Just tired, Amy. That’s all. It’s been a long campaign and, by god, it’ll be a longer week. Give me a few cups of coffee and I’ll be fine. Ready to face the hordes.” Amy grinned; Billy Ray returned his solemn attention to the door, ignoring the view of the Marriott Marquis’s immense and surreal lobby.


“Ellen wasn’t having trouble, was she?”


“No, no.” Gregg watched the lobby floor rise toward them. A large foam glider spiraled lazily past them toward the crowded restaurant below. As the elevator passed it in mid-flight, Gregg could see that the body was that of a woman with bird-shaped wings. The features looked suspiciously like Peregrine’s. Now that he’d noticed the first one, Gregg saw that there were several more of the gliders performing acrobatics above the lobby. “She hasn’t had morning sickness since the first trimester. We’re both fine. Just tired.”


“You’ve never told me—do you want a boy or a girl?”


“It doesn’t matter. As long as it’s healthy.”


The floor indicators flickered down. Gregg’s ears popped with the pressure change. Inside, Puppetman snarled. You’re not fine. Give me a few cups of coffee … The presence radiated disgust. Do you know how long I’ve been waiting? Do you know how long it’s been?


Be quiet. We can’t do anything about it now.


Then it had better be soon. Soon, do you hear me, Greggie?


Gregg forced the power back into its mental cage. The effort cost him. Puppetman struggled, its anger a rasping, continual presence. Shaking the bars.


Lately, it was always shaking the bars.


The problem had only begun in the last few months. At first it was rare, something he thought of as some strange fluke, a quirk attributed to the weariness of a long campaign. But it had happened more and more often.


A mental wall would slam up between Puppetman and his victims. Just as he was about to feed on those dark and violent emotions, he would be cut off, pushed back by some outside force. Puppetman would howl as the link to the puppet was severed.


He’d prayed that problem would disappear; instead, it worsened. For the past two weeks the block had reared up every time Puppetman had tried to feed. Lately, he’d begun to sense a mocking laughter riding with the interference, a faint, whispering voice just on the edge of recognition.


The power inside Gregg was becoming desperate and uncontrollable. And Gregg was afraid the internal struggle was beginning to show.


Make me wait much longer and I’ll show you the real puppet. I’ll give you a goddamn graphic demonstration of which one of us is in control.


The power slipped loose of Gregg’s hold for a moment, defiant. Gregg willed it to be silent, but still it screamed at him as he set the mental bars around it once more. Puppetman gibbered and spat. You’re the fucking puppet, do you hear! I’ll make you crawl! Understand? You need it as much as I do. If I die, you die. You have nothing without me.


Gregg was sweating with the effort, but he won. He closed his eyes and leaned back as the elevator lurched to a halt at the ground floor. Puppetman lapsed into brooding silence inside; Amy watched him with concern.


The doors opened, and the coolness and noise of the lobby hit them. Some of the crowd in the lobby, most of them sporting Hartmann buttons and hats, had spotted him—there were screams and a rush toward him. Waiting Secret Service men stepped smoothly between them, cutting off the supporters; Gregg waved and smiled. They began to chant: “Hartmann! Hartmann!” The lobby echoed with it.


Amy shook her head. “What a circus, huh?”


Ray ushered Gregg toward the private room where he was to meet Hiram and Braun, and then took his station just outside. Gregg went in. The air-conditioning here was more oppressive than the lobby’s. He shivered and rubbed his arms.


Only Jack—Golden Boy—was present, a handsome, tall man who looked as if he hadn’t aged a day in the four decades since the heyday of the Four Aces, still the image of the movie star he’d once been. He rose to greet Gregg. Braun seemed subdued, which didn’t surprise Gregg. He hadn’t figured Jack would much care for the attempt at reconciliation. Frankly, he didn’t give a shit whether Jack was happy with it or not—Gregg was going to make the two of them bury this particular hatchet; publicly, at least.


“Senator, Amy,” Braun said. His eyes lingered a bit too long on Amy. Which also hardly surprised Gregg; he knew they were having an affair. Puppetman knew lots of hidden things. “Good morning. How’s Ellen?”


“Getting bigger each day,” Gregg replied. “And tired a lot. Like all of us.”


“I know what you mean. Ready to begin the good fight?”


“I thought we’d already begun, Jack,” Gregg commented. His voice sounded glum and irritable against Braun’s heartiness. He made himself smile.


Braun glanced at Gregg strangely, but he laughed. “I suppose so. You know Californians: it’s bad enough everyone was a little jet-lagged. I was up most of the night with your uncommitted superdelegates. I think we have things worked out. Listen, I thought you said Worchester was going to be here.”


“You haven’t seen him this morning?” Gregg frowned, irritated.


“Not yet. And it isn’t exactly like him to pass up a meal—though he’ll probably bring his own in since I hear even the Bello Mondo isn’t up to his standards.” A grimace and shrug. “Hey, I know the reason you wanted this breakfast meeting was to get the two of us to patch up our differences, and I appreciate the sentiment—I’d like it, too. But maybe Hiram isn’t quite as forgiving as you think.”


“I don’t believe that, Jack.”


Jack gave Gregg a lopsided, bitter smile. “He’s never served you a plate of thirty silver dimes, either.”


“Amy…” Gregg began.


“Already gone, sir,” his aide said. “I’ll find him or starve trying. Save me a roll, okay?”


As she left the room, Gregg turned to Braun. “Okay, we’ll go ahead and eat. If Hiram shows, he shows.” The words snapped out more sharply than Gregg intended. He was in no mood for games, not with Puppetman slamming against his restraints. Braun was looking at him strangely again, but before the ace could say anything, Gregg shook his head and waved the anger away. “God, that sounded horrible, Jack. I’m sorry. I’m just not myself this morning. Point me in the direction of the coffeepot, would you?”


Strange, Jack thought. He’d never felt uncomfortable in the presence of Gregg Hartmann before. Yet here he was, face-to-face with the man he hoped would be the next president, the man who had talked him into coming out of his public isolation and joining his crusade for office, and something was missing.


I’m tired, thought Jack. So is Gregg. No one can be charismatic every minute.


He poured himself coffee. The cup rattled in the saucer—hangover, maybe, or nerves. If it hadn’t been Gregg asking for this meeting, he wouldn’t have come. “I saw a car full of Nazis outside,” he said. “Nazis in uniforms.”


“The Klan are here, too.” Hartmann shook his head. “There’s potential for a serious confrontation. The crackpot right likes that kind of thing—it gives them publicity.”


“Lucky thing the Turtle is here.”


“Yes.” Hartmann gave him a look. “You’ve never met the Turtle, have you?”


Jack held up a hand. “Please.” He smiled to cover his nervousness. “Let’s keep it down to one reconciliation a day, okay?”


Hartmann knit his brows. “Is there a problem between you?”


Jack shrugged. “Not that I know of. I just … sort of assume there would be.”


Hartmann stepped toward Jack, put a hand on his shoulder. There was concern in his eyes.


“You assume too much, Jack. You think everyone’s got a chip on his shoulder about your past, and it’s just not true. You’ve got to let down the defenses, let people get to know you.”


Jack stared at the coffee swirling in his cup and thought about Earl Sanderson spiraling to a crash landing at his feet. “Okay, Gregg,” he said, “I’ll try.”


“You’re important to this campaign, Jack. You’re head of the California delegation. I wouldn’t have chosen you if you weren’t suited for the job.”


“You could get some heat on account of me. I’ve told you that.”


“You’re important, Jack. You’re a symbol of something bad that happened a long time ago, something we’re trying to prevent from happening again. The other Four Aces were victims, but so were you. They paid with prison or exile or their lives, but you…” Hartmann gave his boyish, half-apologetic smile. “Maybe you paid with your self-respect. Who’s to say that isn’t worth more in the long run? Their agony ended, but yours hasn’t. I think it all balanced long ago, that everyone’s paid too much.” He squeezed Jack’s shoulder. “We need you. You’re important to us. I’m glad you’re aboard.”


Jack stared at Hartmann, cynicism ringing in his mind like funeral bells. Was Gregg serious—lives and sanity and prison terms balanced against his own worthless loss of dignity? Hartmann had to be laughing behind that sincere expression, making fun of him.


Jack shook his head. From the time he’d met him aboard the Stacked Deck, Hartmann had been a man who could make Jack feel good about himself. What he was saying now wasn’t substantially different from what he’d said to Jack before. But now the message seemed the reflex posturing of a politician, not the message of a concerned friend.


“Is something wrong, Gregg?” Jack blurted.


Hartmann dropped his hand, turned partly away. “Sorry,” he said. “Things have been a little strained.”


“You need some rest.”


“Guess we all do.” Hartmann cleared his throat. “Charles said you did some good work for us last night.”


“I got some congressmen drunk and laid, is all.”


Hartmann gave a laugh. “Charles has given me their names and room numbers. I’ll be phoning them as soon as we’ve finished breakfast. Perhaps—”


The door opened. Jack jumped, spilling coffee. He turned and saw, not Hiram Worchester, but Amy. Embarrassed at his nervousness, Jack reached for a napkin.


“Sorry to interrupt, gentlemen. I just got a phone call from Furs in Jokertown. It’s a potential problem. Chrysalis has just been found dead in New York. Ace abilities were involved.”


Surprise stumbled into Jack’s mind. He’d spent months with Chrysalis aboard the Stacked Deck, and although he’d never been comfortable around her—the organs and muscle visible through the transparent flesh reminded Jack of too many things he’d seen in World War II and Korea—he’d developed an abstract admiration for the way Chrysalis handled her deformity, the cultured accent, cigarette holder, antique playing cards, and dry style.


Hartmann’s face went rigid. When the candidate spoke, his voice was strained. “Any more details?”


“Beaten to death, looks like.” Amy pursed her lips. “Barnett can make some propaganda out of this—it’s more ‘wild card violence’ that will have to be restrained.”


“I knew her well,” Hartmann said tightly. The masklike face seemed unusual in a man who was so open around his friends. Jack wondered if there were aspects to this death he hadn’t known about.


“Tony Calderone checked in late last night,” Amy said. “Maybe you should get him preparing a statement in case Barnett tries to use this.”


Hartmann gave a sigh. “Yes. I’ll have to do that.” He turned to Jack. “Jack, I’m afraid I’m going to have to abandon you.”


“Should I leave?”


Concern entered Hartmann’s eyes again as he looked at Jack. “I would appreciate it very much if you’d stay. You and Hiram Worchester are two of my most visible supporters—if you could settle your differences, it would mean a lot to me.”


Jack thought for a moment, wondering if Judas and St. Paul ever settled their differences.


He sighed. It had to happen sooner or later. “I don’t have a problem with Worchester, Gregg. He’s just got one with me.”


Hartmann smiled. “Good,” he said. He raised a hand and squeezed Jack’s shoulder again.


The room seemed very empty after Hartmann and Amy left. Jack watched breakfast turn cold on the buffet.


Earl’s glider crashed again and again in his mind.


9:00 A.M.


“Sara,” Ricky Barnes said, “you’ve got to get off this Hartmann thing. It’s making you crazy. You’re acting obsessive/compulsive.”


They sat at a round table covered in green-checked oilcloth near Le Peep’s front window. Outside, a clot of farm-state delegates in loud ties floated down the tiled rectilinear intestine of Peachtree Center, headed for the Hyatt lobby. More delegates vied with ferns for elbow room around them, trying to fortify themselves on lightweight New Egg Cuisine. It was that, fast food, or hotel restaurants, which had waiting lists past the turn of the century.


Rolling Stone says that’s the disease of the eighties,” Sara Morgenstern said, dissecting her omelet with her fork. Her winter-pale hair was swept from the left side of her head to the right today. She wore a simple pink dress that came to the tops of her crossed knees. Her stockings were sheer black, her shoes wedge-soled and white.


Barnes took a bite of his own tofu and spinach omelet. The coat of his severe black two-piece was draped over his hooped chairback. With his suspenders and white shirt he might have passed for an Inherit the Wind epoch Southern Methodist minister, except for his gold-wire yuppie granny glasses.


“It’s getting a lot of competition from AIDS,” he said. “But seriously, you’re a long way off your usual Jokertown beat; your Washington desk is handling everything that comes out of Atlanta this week, and they won’t be as indulgent of your little foibles as the New York bureau is. Senator Gregg’s the Post’s special pet. It’s as if Katie Graham invented him. They’re not going to be happy with you throwing rocks at him.”


“We’re journalists, Ricky,” she said, leaning forward, reaching as if to touch the hand resting beside his plate. The white fingers stopped millimeters short of the milk-chocolate ones. Ricky didn’t react. He was an old friend, who’d taken a journalism seminar from her at Columbia a few years back, and knew her reticence had nothing to do with his race. “We have to report the truth.”


Ricky shook his long and neatly groomed head. “Sara, Sara. You’re not that naive. We report what the owners want or what our peers want. If the truth happens to fall inconveniently in between, it doesn’t have much constituency. Besides, what is truth, as the man who washed his hands asked?”


“The truth is that Gregg Hartmann is a murderer and a monster. And I’m going to expose him.”


When Hiram Worchester shambled into the room, Jack gave a start and reflexively began to rise from his chair before deciding not to. He settled back into the chair with his coffee and cigarette. He and Hiram had been on the Stacked Deck together; even if they hadn’t been friends, there was no need for formality.


Hiram looked as if he hadn’t slept. He headed wordlessly for the buffet, took a plate, began to fill it.


Jack felt perspiration speckling his scalp. His heart seemed to change rhythms every few seconds. Why the hell, he demanded of himself, was he so nervous? He took a long drag on his Camel.


Hiram kept filling his plate. Jack began to wonder if his wild card had suddenly run to invisibility.


Hiram turned, chewing a cruller as if he wasn’t really tasting it, and took a seat opposite Jack. On the Stacked Deck he had used his control of gravity to remove a lot of his weight, something that made him oddly agile. He didn’t seem to be doing that now. He looked at Jack out of dull, marble eyes. “Braun,” he said. “This meeting wasn’t my idea.”


“Mine either.”


“You were a hero of mine, you know. When I was young.”


We all have to grow up sometime, Jack thought, but decided against saying it. Let the man have his moment.


“I’ve never made any claims to heroism myself,” Hiram spoke on. Jack had the feeling it was a speech he’d been working on for some time. “I’m a fat man who runs a restaurant. I’ve never been on the cover of Life or starred in a feature film. But whatever else, I’m loyal to my friends.”


Good for you, chum. This time Jack almost said it. But he thought of Earl Sanderson fluttering to the floor of the Marriott and instead said nothing.


He blinked sweat out of his eyes. Why am I doing this to myself? he thought.


Hiram spoke on, robot-like. “Gregg tells me you did good work in California. He says we might have lost without all the celebrity support and money that you organized. I’m grateful for that, but gratitude is one thing and trust is another.”


“I wouldn’t trust anybody in politics, Worchester,” Jack said. And then wondered if that piece of fashionable cynicism was true, because he did trust Gregg Hartmann, knew him for a genuinely good man, and he wanted the man to win more than he had wanted anything in thirty years.


“It’s important that Gregg Hartmann win this election, Braun. Leo Barnett is the Nur al-Allah in American dress. Remember Syria? Remember jokers stoned to death in the streets?” There was a weird gleam in Hiram’s eyes. He raised a fist and clenched it, forgetting it contained half a cruller. “That’s what’s at stake here, Braun. They’ll do anything to stop us. They’ll bribe, smear, seduce us, resort to violence. And where will you be, Braun?” Loudly. “Where will you be when they really start turning the screws?”


Suddenly Jack’s nervousness was gone. A cold anger hummed through him. He’d had quite enough.


“You … weren’t … there,” Jack said.


Hiram paused, then became aware of pastry dough ballooning out between the fingers of his upraised hand.


“You … weren’t … fucking … there.” The words grated slowly from a place inside Jack that seemed like a twilight graveyard, a place without warmth, an endless plain of autumn grass marked with gray stones that noted the passing of Earl, of Blythe, of Archibald Holmes, of all the young men he knew in the 5th Division, all those who died at the Rapido crossing, little stick figures scattered like so many handfuls of dust beneath the pounding guns of Cassino …


Jack stood up and threw the cigarette away. “For someone who doesn’t claim to be a hero, Worchester, you sure make a great speech. Maybe you should consider a career in politics.”


With quick, vicious movements of the napkin, Hiram swabbed dough from his hand. “I told Gregg you can’t be trusted. He told me you’ve changed.”


“Could be he’s right,” Jack said. “Could be he’s wrong. The question is, what can you do about it?”


Hiram threw the napkin away and rose massively to his feet, a pale mountain lumbering to battle. “I can do what I have to do!” he said sharply. “It’s that important!”


Jack’s lips skinned back from his teeth in a wolverine smile. “You don’t know that. You haven’t been tested. You haven’t been there.” He gave a stage laugh, Basil Rathbone standing on the parapet and mocking the peasants. “Everyone knows about me, Worchester, but nobody’s put the screws to you yet. Nobody’s asked you to betray your friends. You haven’t been there, and you don’t know what you’re going to do till it happens.” He smiled again. “Take my word for it.”


Hiram seemed to wilt before Jack’s smile. Then his color drained away, and to Jack’s surprise the big man seemed to stagger back and fall. Springs burst in the chair as Hiram collapsed into it. He tugged at his collar as if he were choking, revealing a painful sore on his neck.


Jack stared in amazement. The granite mountain had melted into a marshmallow.


And suddenly Jack was very weary. A faint hangover residue throbbed in his temples. He didn’t want to watch Hiram anymore.


He headed for the exit.


He paused by the door. “I’m here for Gregg’s sake,” he said. “I guess it’s the same for you. So let’s tell Gregg we’re the best of friends and do what we have to do. Okay?”


Hiram, still dragging at his collar, nodded.


Jack stepped into the corridor and closed the door of the suite behind him. He felt like the school bully picking on the class fat kid.


From down the corridor came the raucous cry of conventioneers on their first day in town. Jack headed toward it.


10:00 A.M.


Gregg was tired of talking to the delegates Jack had gotten laid the night before. He was tired of sounding enthusiastic.


Alex James had been a puppet since the beginning of the campaign. Most of the extra Secret Service people assigned to Gregg had been uninteresting to Puppetman, too dutiful and without the hidden flaws on which he fed. But Alex … he had slipped through the battery of psychological examinations and background checks. Like that of Billy Ray, Alex’s soul was marbled with a delicious streak of sadism, tinted with the jade-green urge to flaunt and abuse his power. Left alone, he might have been only a little overzealous in his duties, a touch harsh when he moved people away, preferring to confront a situation rather than defusing it. No one would have noticed.


But Puppetman knew. Puppetman saw all the cracks in the veneer of a soul and he knew best how to make them gape wide open.


Gregg sat in the living room of his suite. The Zenith bolted to the wall cabinet was on, set to CBS and Dan Rather’s coverage of the convention’s opening. Cautiously, Gregg let down the bars that held Puppetman. The power surged out, searching for Alex’s presence. Gregg had just seen the man in the hall outside, knew that Ray had just sent him to check the stairwells. There were often people on the stairs: lobbyists looking for a way to the candidate’s floors, reporters, groupies, or just the curious. The chances were good that Alex would find someone. Puppetman reached out and curled into the familiar recesses of the guard’s mind. This time, the power sighed. This time.


Be careful, Gregg warned him. Remember what’s been happening lately. Go slowly.


Puppetman snarled in reply. Shut up! It’s all right now. Everything’s turning our way again. Chrysalis is finally taken care of. Oddity is going to find the jacket and we’ve sent Mackie after Downs. The convention’s started well. I need this one. Can’t you feel the hunger? Remember, if I go, you go down with me. I’ll make damn sure of it.


With the threat, the power turned away, suddenly rapacious. Through Puppetman, Gregg could feel a surge of anticipation in Alex. He knew what that must mean—the guard had found someone. Gregg could imagine the scene: some nat kid, probably, dressed in stonewashed jeans, a T-shirt studded with oversized “Hartmann in ’88” buttons, and a cheap J-town mask over his all-too-normal face. Alex would be staring, his hands a shade too close to the bulge under his sports jacket, barking orders.


Puppetman lanced into Alex’s emotional matrix, thrusting aside the heavy blue layers of duty and the leather-brown binding of morality until he uncovered that orange-red core of psychotic brutality. Puppetman nurtured it, fanned it into flame. It flared easily into heat. Now …


(Alex would be shouting by this time, his neck corded, and his cheeks red with blood. He’d reach out, grab a fistful of the T-shirt, as campaign buttons rattled like tin pie plates, and shake the kid like a disobedient puppy. The mask would fall to the floor and crumple under Alex’s Florsheims.)


 … yes. Puppetman could taste it, and Gregg tasted with him. There was raw fury there, a waiting feast. Puppetman leaned toward it hungrily, tweaking the emotions again, turning the settings just a little higher …


(Alex’s hand would come back, and the open palm would slash across the kid’s cheek, snapping the head to one side. Blood would be drooling from a cut on the lip and the kid would be crying in fear and pain, suddenly terrified.)


 … and it happened again. In Gregg’s mind, the interference seemed like a cold, obsidian wall, cutting between himself and Alex and sending Puppetman reeling backward. The power inside Gregg wailed in frustration and rage, hurling itself at the wall again and again and always being slammed back down. Gregg could hear the laughter behind the wall, and that faint voice.


Only this time, this time, he could hear the words.


You’re a fucking son of a bitch, Hartmann, but I finally got the way to take you down, don’t I? I found your goddamn weakness, Greggie old friend. I found the fucking playmate inside you, the ace you used on me and Misha and Morgenstern and everyone else. Only now I can play with your ace the way you played with us. I can keep him away from the puppets; I can make him fucking starve, and then what happens to you, Senator? What happens to you when the power turns against you? The words faded, leaving behind a mocking chuckle.


And Gregg, with a rising horror, knew that he recognized that voice. He knew who was behind the wall, and the realization left him cold and shaking.


Gimli. It was Gimli.


You’re dead, he shouted after the voice. You’re dead—your stuffed skin is sitting in the Dime Museum; I saw it. Typhoid Croyd killed you.


Dead? The laughter came again. Do I sound dead to you, Hartmann? Ask the friend you keep locked up inside you if I’m real or not. No, not dead. Just changed. It took me a long time to get back …


The voice faded and was gone. The wall vanished. Puppetman screamed wordlessly at the place where it had been.


Let me out again, the power demanded. It’s not too late, Alex …


No! Gregg looked at his hands; they were trembling on his lap. He could feel sweat running down the back of his shirt. Adrenaline pounded in his chest. He wanted to run, to scream himself. The ordinariness of the hotel room and the droning voice of Rather seemed to mock him.


He was very, very scared.


You have to let me out. There’s no choice.


No!


No choice, do you understand? The power leaped at him, spearing deep into Gregg’s own will. Gregg gasped in surprise, and felt his own presence falling away. His hands clenched; he started to push himself off the couch. Like an automaton, Puppetman walked him stiff legged across the room. The muscles of Gregg’s face were locked in a painful grimace, spasms rippled down his legs as he struggled to regain control. He watched, helpless, as his hand reached for the doorknob to the bedroom, twisted, and pushed.


God, no …


“Gregg?” Ellen was reading on the bed, the book propped up against her swelling stomach. “Put your hand here; the baby’s been giving me flutterings all morning.” She turned to look at him, and her aristocratic, fine New England features went quizzical. “Gregg? Are you all right?”


He could feel his whole body quivering, balanced between Puppetman’s will and his own. Each tugged on the strings of the body, trying to yank them from the grasp of the other. Even as Gregg made that visualization, Puppetman scoffed. We’re both the same person, you know. I’m just your ace, your power. I’m doing what we need to do to survive. Ellen’s here. Use her.


No! Not that way.


She’s just another damn puppet. More pliable than most, in fact. Her pain is as good as anyone else’s.


It’s too risky. Not here, not now.


If not here and now, you stand to lose everything anyway. Do it!


Gregg felt his body take another stumbling step forward. His fist clenched and raised. There was definite fear in Ellen’s eyes now. She closed the book, tried to struggle up from the bed. “Gregg, please, you’re frightening me…”


Gregg let go all his holds on the body, as if he were exhausted by the battle. Puppetman shouted in victory. Then, as his arm lifted for the first blow and Puppetman relaxed in anticipation, Gregg grappled with the power again. Surprised by the renewed onslaught, Puppetman was stripped of control. Ignoring its struggling and cursing, Gregg wrestled it deep, deeper than it had been in years, slamming and locking the mental cage, and then burying it far back in his mind. When he could no longer hear it, he stopped and came back to himself.


He was gasping alongside the bed. The hand was still upraised; Ellen cowering beneath. Gregg unclenched the fist, and brought it slowly down to her face as he sat next to her. He felt her draw back, then slowly relax as he began to stroke her hair.


“You don’t have anything to be afraid of, darling,” he said. He tried to laugh and heard pain instead. “Hey, I wouldn’t hurt you, you know that. Not the mother of my child. I’d never hurt you.”


“You looked so angry, so violent. For a second—”


“I’m not feeling well. It’s nothing; stomach cramps. Nerves—I’ve been thinking about the convention. I took some Maalox. It’ll pass.”


“You scared me.”


“I’m sorry, Ellen,” he said, soothingly. “Please…”


With Puppetman, it would have been easy; he could have made her believe him without effort. But that power wasn’t safe, not now. Ellen stared at him, and he thought she was going to say more, then she slowly nodded. “Okay,” she said. “Okay, Gregg.”


She snuggled against him. Gregg leaned back against the headboard. Through the faint tendrils of his ace ability, he could feel her relaxing, forgetting. Since she’d become pregnant, she’d become more inward focused; things outside were not as important. It was less threatening to accept his excuse, so she did. The realization eased his mind very little.


My god, what am I going to do?


He could hear Gimli’s laughter. It pounded in his head.


The phone by the bed rang. Gregg picked it up, thinking it might drive the dwarf away. “Hartmann.”


“Senator?” The voice on the other end was breathless, agitated. “Amy. Bad news. The word is that we’re in for a big fight tonight over the California delegation’s credentials…”


He barely heard her over Gimli’s roaring amusement.


Jack’s hangover finally muted itself after two shots of vodka. He had spent the last hour in his suite, talking on his bank of telephones with Emil Rodriguez, his second-in-command, and trying to round up all his delegates and have them briefed for the platform fight that would come tomorrow.


There was a knock. Jack told Rodriguez he’d call him back and opened the door. Amy Sorenson stood outside, carrying a pile of briefing papers in an envelope. Her chestnut hair was pinned up atop her head.


“Hi, Amy.” Jack kissed her warmly, then drew her inside and tried to kiss her again. She turned her head away.


“Not this time, Jack. This isn’t like Buenos Aires. My husband’s here.”


Jack sighed. “You’re on business, then.”


Amy stepped out of his arms and straightened her fetching blue suit. “Brace yourself,” she said. “I’ve got bad news.”


“I’m braced. I’ve been braced for months.”


Amy’s nose wrinkled at the appalling stench of tobacco, liquor, and the residue of perfume. She perched on the edge of a chair, then carefully pushed a cigar-filled ashtray as far away as she could. Jack pulled up a chair and sat on it backward, gazing at Amy over the chairback.


“What’s up?”


“You’re not going to like this at all. There’s going to be a big credentials fight tonight over the California delegation.”


Jack stared at her.


“The Jackson people are gonna spring it on us. They’re claiming that a winner-take-all primary is inherently discriminatory against minorities.”


“Crap.” Jack’s reply was immediate. “The California primary’s been a winner-take-all for as long as I can remember.”


“The challenge gives everyone a chance to dismember our largest bloc of delegates, and do it in a righteous cause.”


“We followed all the rules. We won the primary fair and square.”


Amy looked exasperated. “The rules, Jack, are what the convention says they are. If they strip our delegates, they open the convention to a series of parliamentary and procedural battles that could unhinge everything. That’s what Jackson, Gore, and Barnett want—if things get chaotic, it improves their chances of getting the nomination. If they can fuck us over and hand us a procedural defeat before the first ballot, they can hope to acquire defectors from our camp during the second ballot.”


“Great. Just great.” Funny how he just couldn’t get used to women who used words like fuck. Hell, Jack couldn’t get used to the way men used the word these days.


Some days more than others he felt like a relic.


“The showdown’s all going to be about the rule books and who can manipulate them best. Who’s the parliamentarian for your delegation?”


Jack shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “I guess I am.”


“Do you know anything about parliamentary procedure?”


Jack thought about it. “I’ve sat on a lot of corporate boards. You’d be surprised at some of the tricks they pull.”


Amy sighed. “Do you know Danny Logan? He’s our campaign parliamentarian. I want you to take your instructions from him.”


“When I last saw Logan, he was lying under a bar stool at LAX.”


Amy’s eyes flashed. She tossed her chestnut hair out of her eyes. “He’ll be sober tonight, I promise you.”


Jack thought for a moment. “Do we have the votes?”


“Can’t tell. Dukakis is hedging, like always. The people who can save us are the superdelegates. Most of them are congressmen and senators who would do anything to prevent a bloodbath. They may vote for us just to keep things sane. And of course they know Gregg a lot better than they know the Duke and Jackson, let alone Barnett.”


“This is all crazy.”


“The Democrats haven’t had a convention that’s gone past the first ballot since 1932. Everybody’s making it up as we go along.”


Jack rested his chin on his big hands. “I remember that convention. My family listened to it on our radio. We were Roosevelt all the way. I remember my dad breaking out the bootleg hootch when Texas Jack Garner defected from Smith and gave Roosevelt the nomination.”


Amy smiled at him. “I keep thinking of you as my younger … indiscretion. I just can’t picture you as old enough to live through those times.”


“Till Gregg came along, the only presidential candidate I voted for was Roosevelt in ’44, when I was overseas. Before that I was too young to vote. In ’48 I couldn’t make up my mind between Truman and Wallace, so I never cast a ballot at all.”


“You almost voted for George Wallace?” Amy seemed a little shocked. “That seems unlike you.”


Jack felt terribly old. “Henry Wallace, Amy. Henry Wallace.”


“Oh. Sorry.”


“Just to make it absolutely clear, the Roosevelt I mentioned was Franklin, not Teddy.”


That I knew.” Grinning. “How’d your meeting with Hiram go? Or should I ask?”


Jack shook his head. “It was weird. I really don’t know what to make of it.” He looked at her. “Is Worchester okay? I wondered if he was ill. He didn’t look healthy.”


“Mmm.”


“He’s got this big sore on his neck. I read somewhere that sores like that could be a symptom of AIDS.”


Amy blinked in astonishment. “Hiram?”


Jack shrugged. “I don’t know the man, Amy. The only impression I had was that he really wasn’t interested in me.”


“Well.” She ventured a brief smile. “I guess that means you got along all right.”


“He didn’t hand me any more dimes, anyway.”


“That’s encouraging.” She cocked her head and looked at him. “I met a celebrity this morning. Josh Davidson. You ever met him?”


“The actor? What’s he doing here?”


“His daughter’s one of our delegates. He’s here as an observer. I thought you might know each other, being actors and all.”


“There are a few actors I haven’t met. Honest.”


“He’s charming as anything. Real smooth.”


Jack grinned at her. “Sounds like you’re considering an older, uh, indiscretion.”


Amy laughed. “Well. Maybe if he’d shave off the beard.”


“I doubt it. That beard’s one of his trademarks.”


One of Jack’s phones rang. He looked at the row of telephones on his desk and tried to decide which one wanted him. Amy stood.


“Gotta go, Jack. That’s probably Danny Logan anyway.”


“Yeah.” Parliamentary tactics, Jack thought. Oh, great.


Another phone began to ring. Jack crossed the suite and picked up a receiver. He heard only a dial tone.


It was setting out to be that kind of day.


11:00 A.M.


With a nasal squeal of fury Mackie ripped the calendar off the petechiate wallpaper. It displayed an open-lipped pussy presented for his approval—which wasn’t coming—framed in dark hair and olive-thigh flesh, the tentative smile of a Puerto Rican girl hovering off above it in the middle distance.


Mackie put a buzz on his fingers and ran them across the photo. Bits of woman went everywhere, a flurry of colored-paper snow. That made him feel better.


It was almost as good as the real thing.


But while it could be assuaged, nothing was changing the thing that was pissing him off in the first place: the man he had come to kill wasn’t here. Mackie didn’t take disappointment well.


Maybe if he hung out a while Digger Downs would return home. He kicked over a low table of blond, wood-like veneer, purchased from some rental store, and went to the kitchen, while tabloids, racing forms, and issues of Photo District News fluttered around the floor like wounded birds. The SounDesign stereo on the cinder-block-and-board bookcase spritzed robopop at the fading seams on the back of his leather jacket.


The icebox was like a fifties Detroit car, big and bulging, and banded with chrome from which even phony luster was long since gone. All it lacked was fins. He yanked the door open. Inside were a bunch of white cardboard fast-food containers; half a deli sandwich, entombed in Saran Wrap, the meat gone the color of a morning-after bruise; a carton of eggs with the top ripped off, and two eggshells punctured, as if by a drunken thumb while some of their comrades were on their way to a morning-after omelet; two six-packs of Little King and one of no-name creme soda; and plastic margarine tubs filled with this and that, mostly mold. There were a few little gray plastic cylinders that obviously held film. These Mackie opened and unspooled, gleefully bathing them in the dubious radiance of the one bare bulb protruding like a hemorrhoid from the ceiling.


He closed the door, buzzed a hand, and slashed across. The thick-gauge metal parted with a shower of sparks and a satisfactory vibration up his arm and down his dick. Only skin was more fun to cut than good metal. He grabbed the refrigerator, pulled, got it rocking with a strength that was surprising in his skinny, twisted little body, and pulled the thing over with a satisfying bang on the cracked linoleum. Then he turned his attention to the cupboards that crowded around a sink filled with caked and crusty dishes, which gave off a fruity fecal wino smell, something you could dip a spoon into.


The cupboards were layered, like a televangelist’s wife, with enamel. Though they hadn’t been refinished in living memory they gave off an odor of paint, overlaid with eons of cigarette smoke that had permeated the cabinets to their presumed bedrock of wood, that actually competed with the organic decay in the sink. Inside he found sixteen bags of Doritos, two cans of beans, one of them opened, replaced, and forgotten during binge munchies, and a box of Frosted Flakes. Tony the Tiger looked ill. The beans smelled like a dead cat.


“This is Randy St. Clair, and I’ll be coming back at you with more sounds of your city from WBLS-FM, 107.5 at the end of your dial,” the radio was saying when he came back in the living room. “But first, on Newsbreak, Sandy will tell us how the delegates are preparing for a long, hot summer week in Atlanta, and update us on continuing reports of genocide in Guatemala, and she’ll have the latest on a grisly celebrity murder in Jokertown. Sandy?”


He frowned. It was too bad about Chrysalis. The Man had promised he could do her himself one day. Now he’d never find out what it would be like to put his hand in that glass-clear meat.


That was a brand-new bitch, and it made him mad all over again. He went from room to room of the cramped apartment breaking what he found, alternating between exhilarated and clinical: Will this make me feel better? It was vandalism as designer drugs.


The bed was propped up with textbooks under one corner: French, darkroom technique, a police text on interrogation. There was no spread. The sheet was tie-dyed with bodily fluids of the kind you were supposed to encase yourself in Latex rather than come in contact with. He shredded things.


When he emerged he was starting to feel cranked at Downs again. Der Mann wasn’t going to like this, not for one little minute.


Well, Downs just wasn’t here. The Man could hardly blame him for that; it wasn’t his fault. Fuck it. He phased through the outer wall, into the corridor.


As he did, a door across and down one opened.


“I tell you it’s those Chinese people,” a woman was saying in that nosy whine that made these New York people sound to Mackie like big, fleshy insects. “They’re all drug dealers, you know. I saw all about them on the 60 Minutes. This Mr. Downs, he’s, like, a crusading investigative reporter. I figure he got too close to them, the tong sent somebody over to mess his place up. There must be a dozen of them, the noise they were making. With sledgehammers and chain saws.”


She pushed out into the hallway like an East River tug in housecoat and fluorescent-pink, fuzzy slippers, with a hankie tied over curlers, and a super in tow. The super was a black man not much taller than Mackie, with a mustache and gray-stippled hair bushing out in back from beneath a Montreal Expos baseball cap. He had on paint-smeared, gray coveralls. He nodded distractedly at the woman while grumbling to himself, and tossing his big steel ring of keys for the master to Digger’s apartment. He didn’t notice Mackie.


The woman did notice Mackie. She screamed.


He smiled. It was the nicest thing anyone had said to him all day.


The super looked up at him, his mouth a shout of pink in his dark face. Mackie felt his hands begin to vibrate as of their own accord. This wasn’t going to be a total loss after all.


Jack saw the weird red pyramids, looking like some strange form of acoustic tile, that crowned the Omni Center, and headed in their direction. He’d got lost in Peachtree Center looking for cigarettes, and taken the wrong route to the convention.


Ted Turner’s Omni Center was built of a new type of steel that was designed to rust. The theory was that the rust would protect the steel underneath, and from what Jack had seen—and Jack had built a lot of buildings over the last thirty years—the theory was perfectly correct.


Still, the damn thing was so ugly.


He was approaching one of the convention’s back entrances. A uniformed guard stood outside the closed door. Jack nodded into the man’s shades, then tried to step past him to the door.


“Wait a minute.” The guard’s voice was sharp. “Where do you think you’re going?”


“Into the convention.”


“Like hell you are.”


Jack looked at him. Connally, the man’s name badge said. He had a broken nose and a little silver Christian cross pinned to his collar.


Great, Jack thought. Probably a Barnett supporter. He unclipped his ID and floor pass from his pocket and waved them in the guard’s face.


“I’m a delegate. It’s okay.”


“No one gets through this door. Ever. Those are my instructions.”


“I’m a delegate.”


Connally appeared to reconsider. “Okay. Let’s see that ID.”


Jack handed it over. Connally squinted as he looked at it. When he looked up, there was an evil grin on his face. “You don’t look sixty-four to me,” he said.


“I’m well-preserved.”


The guard reached for his walkie-talkie. “This is Connally. Situation Three.”


Jack waved his arms. “What the hell is that?”


“You’re under arrest, asshole. Impersonating a delegate.”


“I am a delegate.”


“The Secret Service are on their way. You can talk to them.”


Jack stared at the guard in rising despair.


This, he realized, was only Monday.


12:00 NOON


“Devils and ancestors. What are you doing here?”


Jack Braun eyed Tachyon sourly. “I’m headed for that bar.” His long arm speared the underside of the raised piano bar. “For a drink … or two … or three, and if anybody tries to get in my way—”


“You should be on the convention floor.”


“I was trying to get to the goddamn convention floor when this lard-assed security guard accused me of impersonating a delegate, and had me arrested. It took Charles Devaughn to cut me loose. So I’ve had a rather trying morning, Tachyon, and I’m going to get a drink.”


“The Barnett forces are desperately politicking for delegates. You need to be there to keep California solid.”


“Tachyon, in case you’ve forgotten; I’m the head of the California delegation. I think I can handle it!” Braun roared, and several ever vigilant reporters craned to see the fight. “Jesus, you’ve been an American citizen what, five, six months, and already you’re an authority on American politics?”


“Anything I do, I do well,” replied Tachyon primly, but he was working to subdue a smile. Braun spotted it and suddenly grinned.


“Relax, Tachyon. Gregg’s not going to lose California.”


“Jesse Jackson wants to talk to me,” said Tach with one of his bewilderingly abrupt changes of topic.


“Are you going to?”


“I don’t know. I might learn something.”


“I doubt it. Jesse’s one smart operator. And besides, you’re not working for the Hartmann campaign. Objectivity of the press and all that.”


Tachyon frowned. “What do you think he could want?”


“At a guess I’d say your support.”


“I have no delegates, no influence.”


“Balony. Tachyon, these conventions are like a big shambling dinosaur. A prod in the ass can sometimes start the whole beast off in a new direction. If you were to switch your support, many of the jokers would follow. People might decide that you knew something. It could tilt things toward Jackson, and that’s what he’s after.”


“Then I won’t see him. This convention is too close already.”


“Drink?”


“No, thank you. I think I’ll head over to the convention center.”


Jack started up the stairs. Tachyon stared at that broad back and powerful shoulders and wondered if he could shift some of his burdens onto those shoulders.


“Jack.”


Something of his confusion and fear must have penetrated, for Braun paused partway up the stairs, and walked slowly back down. Laying his hands on Tachyon’s shoulders, he frowned down at the smaller man. “What? What’s wrong?”


“Do you think … do you think it’s possible for one of the candidates to be an ace?”


“What, here?”


“Yes, of course here! No, the candidate for dog catcher in Shawnee, Oklahoma. Don’t be an imbecile!”


“I’m not, you just took me off guard, that’s all. Why? You got something?”


“No,” he said airily, and suspicion flared in the big ace’s blue eyes.


“It’s hooey … bunk. Nobody could keep a thing like that hidden from the press. Remember Hart.”


“He was careless.”


“Look, if you’re worried check it out. You could do it easily enough.”


“Yes, but information received telepathically is not admissible evidence. Also, given the current climate in this country, what would they do if they discovered I had been using alien mind powers on potential presidential candidates?”


“Hang your skinny alien ass out to dry.”


“Precisely.” Tach shrugged. “Well, never mind. I just thought I’d mention it … get your opinion…” His voice trailed away into silence.


“Forget it, Tachy.” Jack gave him a shake. “Okay?”


“Okay.”


“Now I’m going to get that drink.”


“Don’t be too long,” Tach yelled after him.


“Oh, go to hell.”


“American whiskey. Straight up. A double. Two doubles.”


“Hard day, sir?”


“Hard liquor for a hard day,” Jack said. He lowered his briefcase to the ground and noticed for the first time—what was wrong with him anyway?—that the petite blond waitress here in the atrium lounge was really quite attractive. He gave her the Hollywood smile that he’d practiced in countless mirrors throughout the late forties. “They’ve probably got you working overtime, too,” he said. “Call me Jack, by the way.”


“Overtime sucks, Jack,” she said, and waggled away with a swing to her hips that hadn’t been in evidence for any of her other customers. Jack began to feel slightly better.


After the Secret Service had testified to his bona fides and let him go, Jack spent most of the morning telling his delegates they were about to have their votes taken away if they didn’t look out. Then Tachyon had harassed him for not doing his job, handed him the jive about a secret ace; and the campaign parliamentarian Logan, who was supposed to meet him here in the Marriott lounge, was already late.


The cheerful waggle of a waitress’s butt, he thought, is enough to give a man heart for the struggle. Flying Ace Gliders swooped overhead in dancing accompaniment to his thoughts.


The waitress brought his drinks. He chatted with her—her name was Jolynn—and tossed down the first drink. Logan still hadn’t showed. Jolynn had to leave to see to another customer, and Jack tipped her ten dollars, reflecting that all in all he enjoyed being rich, even at the cost of having to pretend intelligent conversation with a chimpanzee on TV for four years. He watched as a young man in a white dinner jacket crossed the atrium lounge to the white piano, then sat down and banged out the opening chords to “Piano Man.” Jack felt his head try to retreat, like that of a turtle, between his shoulders.


Moss Hart, Jack thought desperately. Kurt Weill. George and Ira Gershwin. Richard Rodgers—Jack could still remember the opening night of South Pacific.


Maybe he could just tip the guy a hundred bucks and tell him not to play anything.


“Honky Tonk Women” was next, followed by “New York, New York.” Where, Jack thought, was Morrie Ryskind when you needed him?


Logan still hadn’t showed up. Jack sipped his second drink and stared fixedly at Jolynn’s heart-shaped ass as it perambulated about the other end of the lounge.


Then another female form drew his attention. Sluts on the right, he thought, an expression he’d acquired decades ago in Camp Shenango.


The woman was walking right for him.


Then he saw she was wearing a Barnett button. A slut for the Lord, he concluded.


Then he recognized her. She was Leo Barnett’s campaign manager—that was bad enough—but there was an old score between them that made everything far worse.


Oh, god.


The piano struck up the opening bars of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.” Another whole set of memories invaded him, including being spat on the year before in Buenos Aires by a female Peronista.


Jack rose, his heart sinking like a lead plummet, and prepared his face for more spittle.


“Jack Braun? You have no idea how long I’ve looked forward to meeting you again.”


I’ll just bet, Jack thought.


The voice, he realized, was different. Blythe had had a New York patroon accent of the kind that didn’t exist anymore, that had died with Franklin and Eleanor. And Blythe would have worn red lipstick like all the women did in the forties, a bright crimson contrast to her pale face and dark hair.


“Fleur van Renssaeler, I presume,” Jack said. “I’m surprised you remember me.”


Which was the civil thing to say, but perfectly ridiculous. According to some, Jack had murdered her mother, and Fleur must have found that impossible to forget even if she wanted to.


The heart-shaped face tilted far back to look him in the face. “I was—how little? Three or four?”


“Something like that.”


“I remember you playing with me on the floor of my father’s house.”


Jack gazed at her with a face of stone. She was dragging this out incredibly. Why didn’t she spit on him or claw his face or otherwise get it over with?


“I’ve always wanted to say how much I admire you,” Fleur said. “You’ve always been one of my heroes.”


Shock ran like cold fire through Jack’s veins. It wasn’t that he believed in the sincerity of the words … the shock came from the fact that Blythe’s daughter would prove this adept at sadism.


“I hardly deserve it.” Truthfully.


She smiled. It was a very warm smile. He realized she was standing very close, and his groin tingled at the thought she might try to bring her knee up between his legs. His wild card would keep him from harm, but old reflexes died hard.


“Aside from the Reverend Barnett,” Fleur said, “you’re the bravest man I know. You risked everything to bring down the aces and … that alien. I think you’ve been treated shamefully ever since. After all, your whole career was wrecked by those Hollywood liberals.”


Jack’s thoughts dragged with glacial slowness. She was, he realized dumbly, absolutely sincere. Something cold crept like a stalking insect up his back.


“I’m … surprised,” he said.


“Because of my mother?” She was still smiling, still standing close. Jack wanted to run as fast as his legs would carry him.


“My mother was willful and obstinate. She deserted my father to whore with … that alien creature. The one who brought us the plague.” She couldn’t say Tachyon’s name, he realized. “I was well-rid of her,” she went on, “and so were you.”


Jack remembered he was holding his drink in his hand. He took a long swallow, needing the bite of the whiskey to return his staggered senses to reality.


“Surprised at my language?” Fleur said. “The Bible is explicit about whoredom and its consequences. The adulterer and the adultress shall surely be put to death. Leviticus 20.”


“The Bible was also clear about who got to throw the first stone.” Jack’s tongue was thick. He was surprised he could talk at all.


Fleur nodded. “I’m glad you can quote scripture.”


“I learned a lot of Bible verses when I was a kid. Most of them in German.” He took another drink. “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” rang in his skull.


“What surprises me,” Fleur said, “is who you’re keeping company with these days.” She took a step closer and touched his wrist. Jack managed barely to keep from jumping out of his skin. “Senator Hartmann is surely the moral heir of the Roosevelt-Holmes clique that almost destroyed our country in the forties. You saved us from those people then, and now you’ve fallen for the liberal humanist line again.”


“That’s me.” He managed to grin. “Fallen.”


“I thought I might raise you again.” Her fingers ran up and down his strong wrist.


Slut for the Lord indeed, thought Jack.


“I wanted to talk to you in person. That’s why I’m here in the—” She gave a bell-like laugh. “These unhallowed halls.”


“Everyone needs to go slumming now and again.” He stared at her, sickness rising in his belly. Fleur van Renssaeler, he realized, was the most twisted bitch he’d ever met in his life. His third wife included.


“I thought perhaps we could get together. Talk about … politics. Talk about Senator Hartmann, Reverend Barnett.”


“Barnett wants to put me in a concentration camp.”


“Not you. You’re a proven patriot. The Lord has turned your curse into a blessing.”


Jack could taste bile. “Glad to know I’m immune to the Lord’s roundup. How about every other poor sucker who’s got a wild card?”


“If I could just explain it to you. Talk you back onto the right path. The path of Reverend Barnett and my father.”


Finally Jack’s anger rumbled to the surface. He saw Logan’s head above the crowd of delegates, and knew it was time to go.


“Barnett’s path I can’t say anything about,” Jack said as he picked up his briefcase. “But your father’s I knew fairly well. He ate like a hog at the public trough, and for fun he fucked black boys in Harlem.”


The first time he’d ever used the F word to a woman, he thought as he headed for Logan.


Though he had to give Fleur credit. She was a real professional. The smile hadn’t gone, though it had, he thought, stiffened a bit.


He felt slightly cheered. Cheap and lukewarm triumph was better than none.


2:00 P.M.


“Listen, Sara,” Charles Devaughn said. “Whatever happened between you and Gregg on that world tour is history. It’s over. Accept that.” Hartmann’s campaign manager had the sort of brusque preppie good looks people felt the senator had; nobody envisioned Hartmann as the round-shouldered ordinary he was.


Sara felt her cheeks begin to glow like a spoon in a microwave. “Damn it, Charles, that’s not the point. I need to talk to you about the way the senator’s been acting—”


He turned a shoulder to her, immaculately tailored and midnight blue. “I have no further comments for you, Ms. Morgenstern. I would like to ask that you refrain from harassing the senator’s campaign staffers any further. The press has certain responsibilities you’d be wise not to overlook.”


He walked. “Charles, wait! This is important—” Her words bounced off his wedge of back and chased each other like arboreal animals up the Marriott’s soaring organiform atrium, which she’d overheard a reporter from some fringe journal describe as Antoni Gaudí’s trachea. Delegates bumping elbows in the lobby outside the function rooms turned to stare, their faces pale blank moons hanging over gardens of gaudy ribbons and campaign buttons, and in the middle of each a little square shine of plaque, like an exhibit at a botanical garden, identifying which subspecies of small-time political hustler or wannabe this specimen belonged to.


She struck herself twice on the thighs with the heels of her hands in frustration. You’re losing it, Sara.


On cue, the projector inside her mind brought up an image of Andrea, her elder sister, fine and beautiful as an ice sculpture. A laughing, taunting crystal voice, eyes like snowmelt: perfection tiny, mousy Sara could never hope to attain. Andrea, who had been dead for thirty years.


Andrea, murdered by the man who would be president. Who had the power to twist others to his will. As he had twisted her.


There was no proof, of course. Lord knew it had taken her years to acknowledge first the suspicion and then the awful certainty that there had been more to her sister’s brutal death than the random urges of a retarded adolescent. It had taken her long enough to realize that that was why she went into journalism in the first place, why she was drawn to Jokertown: deep down, she knew there was more. And over the years, as she was establishing a rep as the reporter on joker affairs, she had come to be aware of a presence in the joker slum, covert, manipulative … evil.


She’d tried to track it down. Even a star investigative reporter—even an obsessed investigator—didn’t find it easy to trace the invisible strings of a demented puppet master. She persevered.


She was convinced it was Hartmann even before she boarded the Stacked Deck. She was certain she would discover the final evidence to convict him on the W.H.O. tour.


She had. She felt cool sweat start at the roots of her hair as she remembered how her suspicions had begun to erode, then whirl away beyond her reach, like driftwood from a drowning woman’s fingers. She had actually come to think she loved him—and all the time a minute internal voice cried, no, no, what’s happening to me?


She recalled sweaty skin friction, and him thrusting inside her, and she wanted to douche and never stop.


He had controlled her, as he had controlled poor Roger Pellman that Cincinnati afternoon when her sister died. Had used her because he perceived her as she perceived herself: as a poor imitation of her beautiful lost sister. At least they shared that obsession with what was lost.


She had her proof, all right; she could still feel the points in her psyche where the puppeteer’s strings had been attached. And sometimes when they coupled she heard the word Andrea grunted among the endearments, and something within her chilled even as her body and mind responded with eager need.


But it was no proof at all to anyone who could not read her thoughts.


 … She found herself drifting, realized she was being drawn by some journalist tropism toward Cluster 3, the function rooms clumped beyond the circular escalator well. In her growing frenzy to nail down some evidence that might convince an outsider, make him look beyond the sober statesman’s mask, the air of compassion for all those touched by the wild card, that hid the puppet master from view, she had paid little attention to the phenomenon of the convention itself. The guilt stung her: You’re supposed to be dealing with wild card affairs.


Self-anger flared: What could be more important to jokers—to anybody—than that a psychopathic ace may become the next president of the United States? She thought of the puppet master’s finger poised above the famed red button and wanted to vomit.


Delegates and reporters were streaming from the big corner Sidney Room, flushed and noisy as schoolkids. “What’s going on?” she asked one, mainly because he was little taller than she was.


“It’s Barnett’s crazies,” he told her. “They came up with something juicy on Hartmann.” He was vibrating with gratified malice. He wore glasses and a big Dukakis button.


Could this be it? she wondered, starting to feel cheated that it wasn’t her hand that had driven the stake through the monster’s heart.


“They got to someone who was on the W.H.O. tour last year. Turns out Hartmann spent the whole time having himself a fling with some bimbo reporter from The Washington Post.


The parade of delegates and politicians through Gregg’s suite seemed endless—Gregg had to admit that Amy had done a tremendous job contacting people on extremely short notice. But then most delegates were anxious to meet with the front-runner among the candidates, and none of the elected officials wanted to offend the man who might possibly be the next president.


As for Gregg, the afternoon was interminable and taking its toll. He thought he’d locked Puppetman away tightly. He’d even begun to hope that maybe, just maybe, the voice inside his head would stay silent for the rest of the week. But the bars holding Puppetman were beginning to weaken again. He could hear the power, alternately pleading and threatening.


Let me out! You have to let me out!


He ignored it as well as he could, but his temper was shorter than usual, and his smile was sometimes more a grimace. It was worst with the politicians, most of whom he could have gotten to agree, with a touch of Puppetman’s influence, and who now could say no with impunity. That was when Puppetman howled the most.


Ohio Senators Glenn and Metzenbaum showed up on schedule. Ellen greeted them at the door; Gregg was changing his shirt in the bedroom. Gregg could hear Metzenbaum being his usual ingratiating self. “So it is true. Expectant mothers do glow.”


Ellen laughed as Gregg walked in. “John, Howard,” he said, nodding to them. “Please grab something from the bar if you want, and thanks for coming on such short notice. I’m trying to meet as many influential people as I can on this—you were both at the top of that list.”


Get out. That’s what he really wanted to say. I’m tired and ragged and my mind’s splitting in half. Leave me alone.


Metzenbaum smiled politely; Glenn, with the old astronaut’s exaggerated calm, simply nodded, if anything more stone-faced than usual. The two were looking at Ellen pointedly. Gregg didn’t need to say anything; Ellen was well-experienced at picking up such cues.


“Well, I’ll leave you folks to your politics,” she said. “I’ve a meeting of my own with the NOW delegates. You are backing the ERA, aren’t you?” She smiled again and took her leave. Gregg walked her to the door. On impulse, he gathered her into his arms and kissed her deeply. “Listen, Ellen, I just want you to know how much I appreciate all your help today, without you … well, that incident this morning. Please don’t think any more of it. I’m just tired, that’s all. The stress…”


He couldn’t seem to stop talking. The words just kept tumbling out and he felt closer to her than he had in months. “I wouldn’t do anything to hurt you…”


Glenn and Metzenbaum were staring. Ellen stopped his words with a quick kiss. “You have guests, dear,” she said, looking at him strangely.


Gregg smiled apologetically; it felt more like a death’s-head grin. “Yes, I suppose … I’ll see you in a bit for dinner: Bello Mondo, right?”


“Six-thirty. Amy said she’d call to remind you.” Ellen hugged Gregg wordlessly. “I love you.” She gave him another long look, and stepped out.


Down below, Puppetman howled for attention. Gregg felt sweat beading on his brow. He wiped it away with the back of his hand and turned back into the room.


“Ohio’s been very good to me, gentlemen,” he said. “You two are largely responsible. I suppose you’re both aware that we’re looking for support on 9(c) and the California—” They weren’t listening. Gregg stopped in mid-sentence. “What?” he asked.


“We have a bigger problem, Gregg,” Glenn said. “Bad news, I’m afraid. There’s a nasty story going around about you and Morgenstern on the aces junket…”


Gregg was no longer listening. Sara Morgenstern. His career seemed to be inexorably linked to hers. Puppetman’s first victim had been thirteen-year-old Andrea Whitman, Sara’s sister. Gregg had only been eleven at the time. It was only bizarre coincidence that had caused Sara to suspect, many years later, that Gregg had been involved in Andrea’s death. To nullify Sara, and to satisfy Puppetman’s own needs, he had taken Sara as a puppet the year before. On the wild cards junket, as discreetly as possible, they’d become lovers.


Gregg could see it all unraveling—the nomination, the presidency, his career. What had happened to Gary Hart could, after all, just as easily happen to him.


Inside, hardly muffled at all, Puppetman screamed.


For a while she simply wandered.


When she got back to her room in the Hilton the message light on the phone was glowing like a telltale on the console of a reactor on overload. When she called the desk, there were about twelve thousand messages from Braden Dulles in D.C. waiting for her. Another call came in as she was getting the word, and the harried-sounding hotel operator patched it through.


“Is this true?” he asked.


She felt her breath congeal in her throat. It had been like this the one time she tried cocaine, back when she was still married to upwardly mobile lawyer David Morgenstern: the muscles of her chest just refused to work.


“Yes.”


At the door, the first knock came.


5:00 P.M.


Amy Sorenson met Gregg and Ellen behind the podium screen. On the other side of heavy velvet curtains, Gregg could hear the loud conversations of the reporters; the glare of video lights washed under the red folds. “They’re all primed,” Amy said. “I have your guests next door; I’ll get them after you go in.” She touched the wireless receiver in her ear and listened for a second. “Okay, Billy Ray says everything’s fine. Are you ready?”


Gregg nodded. It had been a long, hard afternoon—trying to get news from New York, working with Jack and a mostly soused Danny Logan (Logan was definitely one puppet he’d driven too far) on the strategy for the California fight later tonight, putting out brushfire rumors about his affair, arranging things with the Justice Department, setting up this press conference. He’d worried that the stress would bring Puppetman back to consciousness, but the power was still silent and buried. He could sense only the barest rustle of its struggling.


But Gimli—if it was Gimli … That presence was still very much with him. Gregg could hear the dwarf’s evil chuckling, and he wondered, as he’d wondered much of the afternoon, if he weren’t approaching some kind of breakdown. With the thought, the Gimli-voice surged forward.


You are, Greggie, he said. I’m going to fucking make sure of it.


Gregg took a deep breath and pretended he’d not heard the voice. He took Ellen’s hand, squeezed it, then patted the swell of her belly. “We’re ready. Let’s get on with the circus, Amy.”


Gregg fixed a smile on his face as Amy held the curtains aside. He took the three steps up to the stage at a bound, Ellen following slowly. Cameras clicked like a plague of mechanical insects; electronic flashes stuttered their brief lightning. At the podium, Gregg waited until the reporters had quieted in their seats, looking down at the outline of Tony Calderone’s speech in his hand. Then he raised his head.


“As usual, I don’t have much in the way of a formal statement,” he said, waving the single page of handwriting. That received the small laugh he’d expected—Gregg had a reputation as an off-the-cuff speaker who regularly strayed from Tony’s prepared text, and most of the reporters in the audience had been with him on the campaign trail for months. “There’s a good reason for that, too. I really don’t have much to say at this press conference. I feel that the less one responds to vicious and unfounded rumors, the better. And I know what you’ll all say to that: ‘Don’t blame us. The press has its responsibility.’ I hope you all feel better for having that out of the way.”


There was more chuckling at that, mostly from those he knew were in his camp. The rest waited, solemn.


He paused, glancing again at the notes Tony, Braun, Tachyon, and he had made. At the same time, like a person constantly probing at a broken tooth, he felt for Puppetman and sensed nothing. He relaxed slightly. “We all know why you’re here. I’m going to say my piece, answer a few questions if you want, and go on to other things. I’ve already seen a fellow candidate ruined by what was essentially innuendo and circumstance. Whether Gary Hart actually did anything is immaterial. He was injured by rumors and might have lost credibility even if he’d actually done nothing at all.


“Well, I’m not Gary Hart; he’s better looking. Even Ellen says so.”


They grinned at that, almost universally, and Gregg let himself smile with them. He placed his notes carefully and visibly to one side, and leaned on his elbows toward them. “I think I can point out a few other differences. The Stacked Deck wasn’t the Monkey Business. We went to Berlin, not Bimini. And Ellen was along on the entire trip.”


Gregg glanced over to Ellen and nodded. On cue, she returned his smile.


“Senator?” Gregg squinted into the glare of lights and saw Bill Johnson of The Los Angeles Times waving his notebook. Gregg gestured for him to go ahead. “Then you’re denying that you and Sara Morgenstern have had an affair?” Johnson asked.


“I certainly know Ms. Morgenstern, as does Ellen, and she’s been a family friend. She has her own problems, and I have no knowledge of precisely what she’s said or hasn’t said recently. But I don’t go sneaking around behind my wife’s back.”


Ellen leaned in close to Gregg with a mischievous look. “Bill, I did catch Gregg eyeing Peregrine from time to time, but he was hardly the only one doing that.”


Laughter. The cameras began flashing again, and the tension in the room visibly dissolved. Gregg grinned, but the expression went cold and dead on his face. Gimli’s voice seemed to whisper just behind his ear.


You screwed her, Hartmann. You spread her legs on five different continents, and your little ace made her smile and think she enjoyed it. But she didn’t, did she? Not really. She doesn’t think much of you now, not at all. Not without Puppetman.


Ellen sensed Gregg’s distress. He knew his hand was clammy in hers. She was still smiling, but behind the eyes was worry. He shook his head slightly, pressing her fingers.


Such a fucking professional wife you have, too. She knows exactly what to do, doesn’t she? Smiles at just the right time, says just the right thing, even lets you knock her up so she’ll be nice and matronly for the convention. You’re so proud, such a good daddy. You’re a bastard, Hartmann. I am too, and this little bastard’s going to wreck your life. I’m going to make your pet ace rip you open so everyone can see.


Listening to the voice, he’d waited a beat too long. He could hear the laughter dying, the moment passing. He hurried to catch them again, refusing to listen to Gimli’s continuing stream of invective.


“Okay, as Ellen has pointed out, I’m guilty of some of Jimmy Carter’s lust of the heart. I doubt there’s very many of us who aren’t—Peregrine would be disappointed if it were any other way. Beyond that, I’m afraid that you’ve been duped. There’s a rumor, and nothing else. From today on, I’m going to consider this whole question answered, and we’ll try to concentrate on real issues. If you want more of a story about this, look at your sources. Ask yourself what ulterior motives were responsible for spreading this kind of trash.”


“Are you accusing Leo Barnett or his staff?” A voice from the back: Connie Chung of NBC.


“I’m not naming names, Ms. Chung; I don’t have them. I’d like to believe that a God-fearing man such as Reverend Barnett would refuse to use such tactics, and I’m certainly not going to cast the first stone.” Another wave of laughter. “But the lie started somewhere—track it down. I notice Ms. Morgenstern hasn’t been quoted directly by any of you. I haven’t seen any tangible proof at all. That should tell you something immediately, I’d think.”


He had them. He’d turned it around. He could see it, feel it. Yet there was very little sense of triumph in Gregg. Beneath everything, he could sense a familiar stirring. Puppetman was rising, still deep down, but heading for the surface. Just another day, he thought. Give me that much time.


You can’t keep it down even that long, Hartmann. You’re addicted. That’s all Puppetman is: your goddamn drug. And you both need a fix, don’t you? Gimli chuckled. To get it, you’ve got to get around me. Ain’t it a fucking pity.


Both Ellen and Amy were staring at him. He was standing stock-still, frozen. Gregg gave them an apologetic shrug and continued.


“A few minutes ago, Bill Johnson called me ‘Senator.’ Now, it’s been over a year since I gave up my seat to run for this candidacy, but I understand the mistake. Bill’s been calling me Senator—when he hasn’t been calling me other things—for years now.”


A slow amusement moved through the ranks in front of him. “That’s habit,” Gregg told them, sliding easily back into Tony’s speech. “It’s easy to let habits rule us. It’s easy for us to cling to ancient prejudices, clouded outlooks, and outright fables. But we can’t do that, not now. We hear too many rumors and believe them without foundation. We’ve had the habits and listened to the lies for years: that jokers are somehow accursed; that it’s right to hate people—jokers or otherwise—because they look or act differently; that people can’t change, and the way it is is the way it must be. If you believe opinions and feelings are set in concrete, you’re right—you can’t change, you can’t grow. But when we can do something that defies such beliefs, well, to me that’s worth more coverage than sensational rumors about infidelity.”


Gregg glanced over to Ellen; she nodded back. Gimli was still there and Gregg’s head ached with the sound of his voice, but he blinked and went on. He wanted to get off the podium, to be alone in his room. He was rushing, speaking too fast; he forced himself to slow down.


“I’m pleased to say that some things we think eternal pass. I’ve based my entire campaign on the idea that now is the time to heal the wounds. Opinions change. We can embrace those we once hated. That’s important. That’s newsworthy. And it’s also not my story. I can understand a person who takes his or her fervor too far. I can understand passionate convictions even when I don’t agree with them. We all have things we believe in strongly and that’s good. It becomes a problem when such passion crosses the line beyond fervor to violence. There have been joker organizations that have sometimes stepped over that line.”


Gregg gestured to the back of the stage. “Amy, please bring them out.”


The curtains at the back of the stage parted, and two jokers stepped into the light. One had skin marked with fine serrated ridges; the other was shadowy and the ghost of the curtains could be seen through him. The press began to murmur.


“I’m sure I don’t need to introduce File and Shroud to you. Their faces were prominent in your papers and on your broadcasts last year when the JJS was finally broken up.” Gimli laughed inside at that; Gregg swallowed hard. “Some of the JJS, those who seemed peripheral members or harmless, were simply fined and released. Others, the ones deemed truly dangerous, were incarcerated. File and Shroud have been in a federal prison since that time. Perhaps deservedly so—both have admitted to extremely violent acts. Yet … I was the direct victim of some of that violence, and I’ve spoken to File and Shroud extensively in the last year. I feel that they’ve both learned a hard and painful lesson and are genuinely remorseful.


“I will stand by my own words and convictions. I believe in reconciliation. We need to forgive, we need to strive to understand those less fortunate than ourselves. Today, in agreement with Governor Cuomo of New York, the Justice Department, and the New York Senate, I’ve arranged to grant parole to File and Shroud.”


Gregg placed his arms around the jokers: the rough skin of File, the misty shoulders of Shroud. “This is far more important than rumors. This is genuine, and it’s also not my story—it’s theirs. I’ll let them convince you as they convinced me. Talk to them. Ask them your questions. Amy, if you’d moderate—”


As the first questions were shouted from the crowd and File stepped to the microphone, Gregg took a deep breath and retreated.


Don’t you understand? Gimli taunted as Gregg left the room and headed for the elevators. You haven’t gotten rid of me. You can’t run away from my particular obsession. I’m here. And I’m staying. I don’t forgive. Not at all.


With fingers without feeling Sara replaced the receiver in its cradle.


She’d fled her room in tears, trusting in her small size and a certain knack of invisibility that had served her well at various points in her career to hide her in the mob. At first it worked. When they paged her in the lobby, it set a fresh pack of reporters baying after her, hungry to worry bones from which Hartmann’s bland denial hadn’t filleted the last scraps of meat.


Is Hartmann telling the truth? Why did Barnett’s announcement specify you? What’s your connection to the Barnett campaign? The questions split half and half between trying to get her to admit she’d hit the rack with Hartmann and trying to get her to admit she’d conspired with the fundamentalists to wreck the senator’s good name.


Part of her ached to use the proffered forum, to announce, Yes, I slept with Gregg Hartmann, and I learned that he’s a monster, a covert ace who makes people into puppets. Cowardice intervened. Or was it sanity? Her revelations—allegations, was the only way they would be viewed—were extravagant enough without turning them into Midnight Sun headline fodder.


She turned her face away and said, “No comment.”


And swallowed whole the steaming chunks of abuse: “Where do you get off trying to pull that shit? The public has a right to know. You’re a journalist, for Christ’s sake.”


Finally a cocktailer in leotards and one of those short black skirts took her by the arm and steered her here, into the office of the manager of the Marriott’s lounge.


The receiver clicked home with the finality of a breech closing on a cartridge. Somebody took what she had to say seriously.


The caller was Owen Rayford of the Post’s New York bureau. Chrysalis was dead. Murdered. Ace powers were involved.


Was it a puppet? She doubted that. Hartmann’s strings quickly attenuated and broke with distance; she knew that from experience. There were bent aces—Bludgeon, Carnifex, maybe the Sleeper if he were far gone in amphetamine psychosis—who were capable of such a deed. That was an irony about Hartmann; in his position you hardly needed ace powers to get into serious evil doing. Money, power, and influence weren’t exactly any weaker forces in human affairs than they’d been up until the fifteenth of September, 1946.


The fear lived within her; it coiled like a serpent, burned like a star. It brought with it terrible knowledge: the only hope of safety lay in risking all.


The manager and the waitress who’d rescued her stood by, watching with polite curiosity. She arranged her face in a smile and stood.


“Is there a back way out of here?” she asked.


6:00 P.M.


She had to take a Valium before she could get the damned acoustic coupler to work right. Her laptop had an inboard modem, but hotels were leery of modular jacks, preferring to keep their phones tethered firmly to the wall by old-fashioned cords. So she had to fiddle with the antique external modem, which was unforgiving if you didn’t get the phone’s handset into its twin-cup cradle just so.


Eventually she got it going. Then she sat in gloom, lit only by afternoon light straggling through the room’s heavy curtains, smoking and squinting at the screen as the records-transferred count spun on and her story spun down the wires that connected her NEC laptop to the Post’s computers.


It had all come out of her in one orgasmic gush: Andi’s death, her suspicion, the sinister hidden presence in Jokertown who had flashed tantalizing clues as to his existence—and identity—during the riots attending another Democratic convention twelve years ago; her own personal quest, leading to her entrapment in the very web she’d been struggling to delineate. And finally murder.


There were two people, she’d written, who had their fingers on the Jokertown pulse. Actually there were three; Tachyon was the third, literally as well as figuratively. But he was blinded by personal regard for Hartmann, and the political plums the senator had thrown his way, the grants that kept him living in a style fit for a prince, which he was. Sara would not invoke his name.


The others were herself and Chrysalis. The Crystal Palace had never been more than a front for Chrysalis’s real avocation, which was brokering information on everything that went down in J-town. Close observers of the scene took it for granted that sooner or later she’d reel in a thread and find it had a cobra tied to it.


The cobra was named Hartmann. And Chrysalis pulled his string just at the moment when he was swollen with venom and quickest to strike.


Why didn’t I confide in her? she asked herself as liquid crystal numbers flickered in the dim. There had been plenty of time, when they gained a guarded sort of friendship aboard the Stacked Deck, during the year that intervened. But Chrysalis had remained in some sense a rival. And Sara was not a woman who found sharing confidences an easy thing.


UPLOAD COMPLETED, her screen said, with a beep for emphasis. She quickly broke the connection and began to disconnect the modem. Calm had come upon her, strange and a little frightening. The calm of an accident victim.


I’m a target, she thought without emotion. If Chrysalis learned his secret, he has to assume that I know. She regretted pushing so hard at Hartmann’s staffers earlier in the day. He had to have heard about that, and the inference would be unavoidable.


You’re such an innocent, she chided herself. Naive, just as Ricky said you were.


But she wasn’t a total fool. She was wading in the shark tank now. She’d learned a lot of moves during a long and successful journalistic career. None of them would suffice to get her to dry land intact. That was maybe the most important thing she knew right now.


She turned off the NEC’s power and clicked its cover closed. She tucked the miniature computer into her shoulder bag. Stood.


It has to be Tachyon, she knew. He had to have his suspicions about what had been happening in Jokertown over the years—about what had happened in Syria and Berlin. He could read her mind, if he doubted her words.


Besides, he thinks I’m … attractive. Even if he refused to believe her, there was a way to attach herself to him. She had been prepared to offer herself to him before, when she was convinced the Doughboy case would lead to Hartmann. He had a certain magnetism. It might not even be so bad.


Don’t kid yourself. She had not been with a man since—since the tour. She hadn’t felt the lack. Even before the famous affair, sex hadn’t been her biggest priority.


But survival was. At least until Andrea was avenged.


At least Tachyon seemed the type to take his pleasure in a hurry and be done with it—no protracted grunting and groaning and Was It Good for You Too? She stabbed her cigarette to death on the Hilton logo embossed in the plastic ashtray. Pausing to dab some perfume on the insides of her wrists, where blue veins met white skin, she walked out the door.


7:00 P.M.


The convention had broken up for dinner and would reconvene at nine. Jack shared the glass elevator with a man who carried a tall stack of Domino’s pizzas, and stood with his face turned firmly to the door—he hated heights, a phobia that developed after Tachyon pointed out, forty years before, that a long fall was one of the few things that could kill him. The elevator doors opened, and Jack thankfully followed the pizzas down the hall to Hartmann’s headquarters. Floating up from the atrium lobby were the chords of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.” Bar pianists, he thought, seemed a bit overspecialized.


Billy Ray, chest puffed out as he stood guard in the hallway in his white Carnifex suit, passed the deliveryman, but with a martial artist’s quickness, stepped in front of Jack as he tried to follow.


“Did the senator send for you, Braun?”


Jack looked at him. “Don’t push. It’s been a hard day.”


Ray’s face, which had quite literally been rearranged in a fight, gave Jack a leer. “Your plight touches my heart. Let’s see what’s in the case.”


Jack bit back his annoyance and opened his briefcase, revealing the cellular phone and computer-operated dialing system that kept him in touch with his delegates and Hartmann HQ.


“Let’s see your ID.”


Jack dug the laminated card out of his pocket. “You’re really a prat, Ray.”


“Prat? What the fuck kinda word is that?” Ray’s twisted face leered at Jack’s ID. “That’s not the word the strongest ace in the world would use. That’s the kinda word some insignificant shivering weenie might use.” He licked his lips as if savoring the idea. “Golden Weenie. Yeah. That’s you.”


Jack looked at Ray and folded his arms. Billy Ray had been riding him for over a year, ever since they’d met on the Stacked Deck. “Get out of my way, Billy.”


Ray stuck out his jaw. “What are you gonna do if I don’t, weenie?” He smiled. “Give me your best shot. Just try it.”


Jack comforted himself for a moment with the mental picture of squashing Ray’s head like a pumpkin. Ray’s wild card gave him strength and speed, and his kung fu or whatever gave him skill, but Jack figured he could still demolish him with one punch. On second thought Jack decided it wasn’t what he was here for.


“Right now, my job’s getting the senator elected, and fighting with his bodyguard isn’t going to do that. But after Gregg’s in the White House, I promise I’ll kick a field goal with you, okay?”


“I’m holding you to that, weenie.”


“Any time after November eighth.”


“See you at one minute after midnight on the ninth, weenie.”


Ray stepped aside and Jack entered the headquarters suite. Open pizza boxes were surrounded by gorging campaign workers. TV monitors babbled network analyses to media-deaf ears. Jack found out which room Danny Logan was using, took a pizza box, and set off.


The campaign parliamentarian was a white-haired, paunchy former congressman from Queens who had lost his seat when his Irish constituency was replaced by Puerto Ricans. Now he advised Democratic candidates on how to collect Irish-American votes.


Jack saw him spread-eagled alone on his bed, surrounded by empty bottles and crumpled yellow legal-sized sheets, covered with numbers. “Better eat something,” Jack said, and dropped the pizza box onto Logan’s wide stomach.


“It’s not going to make a bit of difference,” Logan said. His voice was thick. “We don’t have the numbers. We’re going to lose 9(c)—the test case.”


Jack rubbed his eyes. “Refresh my memory.”


“9(c) is a formula for apportioning delegates formerly committed to candidates who have dropped out of the race. According to 9(c), the ex-candidates’ delegates are divided among the remaining candidates in proportion to the number of votes the survivors won in those states. In other words, after Gephardt dropped out, his delegates from Illinois, say, were divided between Jackson, Dukakis, and us according to the percentage of the vote.”


“Right.”


“Barnett and a few of the party elders are challenging 9(c). They want to free the delegates to vote for whoever they want. Barnett figures he can pick up a few votes; the party elders want to start a movement for Cuomo or Bradley among the uncommitted.” Logan ran a hand through his thinning white hair. “We announced our support for the rule—thought we’d see who lined up for and against, to give us a hint how the California challenge will go.”


“And we’re losing on 9(c)?” Jack reached for a bottle and drank from the neck.


“Gregg’s making some phone calls. But since Dukakis came out against 9(c), we’re fighting a losing fight.” He slammed his fist into the bed. “Everyone keeps asking about those stories about the senator and that reporter lady. That we’re going to have another Hart fiasco. That’s where the resistance lies. Everybody’s smelling Gregg’s blood.”


“What can you do?” Jack said.


“Just try to delay.” Logan belched massively. “Lots of ways to delay in this game.”


“And then?”


“And then Gregg starts working on his concession speech.”


Anger crackled in Jack like a burst of lightning. He waved a big fist. “We won the big primaries! We’ve got more votes than anybody.


“That’s why we’re a target. Aw, shit.” Tears were rolling from the corners of Logan’s eyes. He swiped at them with the back of one red paw. “Gregg stuck by me when I lost my seat. There isn’t a more decent man alive. He deserves to be president.” His face crumpled. “But we don’t have the numbers!


Jack watched as Logan began to weep, the pizza box jogging up and down on his broad stomach. Jack left his drink on the bedside table and wandered out of the room. Hopelessness sang in him like a keening wind.


All that work, he thought. All the renewed hope that had got him into public life again. All for nothing.


In the main HQ, campaigners were still clustered around pizza boxes. Jack asked where Hartmann was and was told the senator was cloistered with Devaughn and Amy Sorenson, plotting strategy. Then they’d try a last-minute phone blitz to win over some of the uncommitted superdelegates. Without anything else to do, Jack took a piece of pizza and settled down in front of the television monitors.


“It’ll be a close vote.” Ted Koppel’s voice rang in Jack’s ear, speaking from the nearly empty floor of the convention to a cynical-looking David Brinkley in the sky booth. “The Hartmann forces are counting on this test to show their strength prior to the showdown over the California challenge.”


“Isn’t. That. A risky. Strategy?” Brinkley’s curt manner seemed to inflate each word into its own sentence.


“Hartmann’s strategy has always been risky, David. His articulation of liberal political principal in a race dominated by glib media personalities has always been thought risky by his own strategists. Even if he loses California tonight, Hartmann’s campaign manager told me that he’ll still stand by the Jokers’ Rights plank in the platform fight tomorrow.”


Brinkley affected curmudgeonly surprise. “Are you telling me, Ted. That in this day and age. A man can get. To be front-runner. By a consistent public articulation. Of principle?”


Koppel grinned. “Did I say that, David? I didn’t mean to suggest that Hartmann’s campaign wasn’t media-wise—just that it’s been consistent in the image it’s presented to the voter, just as the campaigns of Leo Barnett and Jesse Jackson, the other two candidates nearest the prize, have been equally consistent. But, like I said, any strategy has its risks. The campaign of Walter Mondale in ’84 stands as an example to any politician who dares to be too consistent and articulate.”


“But let us suppose. That Hartmann loses the fight. How can he possibly. Regain momentum?”


“He may not, David.” Koppel was obviously excited. “If Gregg Hartmann can’t win by at least a small margin in the fight over Rule 9(c), he may lose everything. The big challenge over California may just prove an anticlimax—he could lose the whole shooting match right here in the fight over 9(c).”


Drama, Jack thought. Everything had to be dramatized. Each vote had to be the vote, the significant vote, the critical vote, or else the voracious media gods were unhappy and had nothing to fill the air with but their own meanderings.


Jack tossed his half-eaten pizza slice back into the box. He crossed the room and met Amy Sorenson coming out of her meeting. There was despair in her dark eyes. Hartmann was on the phone, she said, trying to round up last-minute votes.


Hopeless, Jack thought. He picked up his briefcase, left HQ, and headed down the hall to Logan’s room. The parliamentarian was passed out on the bed, clutching a whiskey bottle as if it were a woman.


Alone in the corner, the television rattled on. Cronkite and Rather were analyzing Hartmann’s strategy and concluding that he may have overreached this time. They reminded Jack of a pair of television movie critics chewing up a new film.


What if there wasn’t any drama? Jack thought. What if the vote came and nothing happened, it was just some little procedural thing? Wouldn’t everyone be surprised if someone came along and took the drama away? What if someone, some media god or something, went and canceled Leo Barnett’s showdown?


Jack realized he was staring at his briefcase.


He opened the case, picked up the phone, told the little computer memory to get him Hiram Worchester.


“Worchester?” he said. “This is Jack Braun. I’m speaking for Danny Logan.”


“Has Logan come up with any numbers yet? From what I can see, we’re in real trouble.”


Jack reached to the bedside table and swallowed the remains of his drink. “I know,” he said. “That’s why, when the fight over 9(c) comes up, I want you to give half your votes to Barnett.”


“You better not be selling us out, Braun.”


“I’m not.”


“That would be your classic Judas ace style, wouldn’t it? A quick stab in the back, then a new job in the media courtesy of Leo Barnett.”


Jack closed his fist. The glass in his hand exploded in a flash of gold light.


“Are you going to do this or not?” Jack demanded. He watched as crushed glass drained like sand from his fist.


“I want to discuss this with Gregg.”


“Call him if you like, but he’s busy. Just get ready to cut your delegate count in half.”


“Would you mind explaining to me what’s going on?”


“We’re canceling the showdown. If Barnett wins by too large a margin, it’s not going to prove anything. All it’ll mean is that we didn’t fight. In the pictures, you can’t have a gunfight with just one man in the street. The audience’ll walk out.”


There was a long silence on the other end of the line. Then: “Let me talk to Logan.”


“He’s on another line.”


“Why do you expect me to trust you?” The fat man’s furious anger beat at Jack’s ear.


“I don’t have time to argue this. Do it or not, I don’t care. Just be ready to answer for your decision later.”


“If you cost Gregg the election…”


Jack gave a laugh. “Have you seen ABC? They’ve already got our man conceding.”


Jack cut the connection, then phoned his own assistant Emil Rodriguez. He told Rodriguez that he wouldn’t be on the floor tonight, that the delegation was his to command; but cut his vote in half on 9(c), and then stand like a rock against the California challenge.


He began to call every other delegation head, in order of number of votes. By the time he made his last call, to the man who controlled Hartmann’s two votes from the Virgin Islands, the convention had reconvened.


Danny Logan, unconscious on the bed, began to snore.


Jack turned on the television and sat in the corner with Logan’s whiskey bottle. The atmosphere on the convention floor was intense. Delegates were scurrying into place around their floor leaders. The orchestra was playing—good lord—“Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.”


A knot of fear began to tighten in Jack’s stomach.


Jim Wright, speaker of the House and the chairman the convention had elected that afternoon, gaveled the convention to order. A senator from Wyoming stood up to move the repeal of 9(c). All the troops were already in line and there was no debate.


Jack took a long, long drink, and the roll call began.


For the next ten minutes, Peter Jennings, seconded by his people on the floor, spoke in serious tones about Gregg Hartmann’s stunning defeat. Jack could hear people outside the room marching up and down. Twice someone knocked, and twice he ignored them.


Then David Brinkley, his sardonic grin firmly in place, began to wonder aloud if he smelled a rat. He and Koppel and Jennings tossed this notion around while the lopsided numbers added up, then unanimously concluded that the whole showdown had been a sucker play, and that Barnett, Gore, et al had fallen for it.


There was more pounding on the hotel door. “Logan?” Devaughn’s voice. “Are you in there?”


Jack said nothing.


After the reporters’ analysis leaked back to the convention, bedlam broke out on the floor. Mobs of delegates lurched back and forth like wood chips caught in a flood. Jack reached for his phone and called Emil Rodriguez. “Move the California question. Now.”


Hartmann’s opponents were in total disarray. Their entire strategy had come unhinged.


Hartmann won the California challenge in a walk. A roar of celebration began to come through the hotel room door.


Jack opened Logan’s door, put a DO NOT DISTURB sign on the outside, and stepped out into the hallway.


“Jack!” Amy Sorenson, her chestnut hair flying, ran toward him through a crowd dizzy with celebration. “Were you in there? Did you and Logan come up with this?”


Jack kissed her, not caring in the least if her husband was present. “Got any pizza left?” he asked. “I’m getting hungry.”


8:00 P.M.


A knot of people at the main entrance to the Marriott reared back in alarm as the Turtle settled onto the sidewalk. Blaise drummed on the side of the shell with his heels as he slid off. Tachyon gave the shell a fond pat before he climbed down. “Thank you, Turtle, for a lovely afternoon. It’s an elegant city when seen from above.”


“Any time, Tachy.” The shell floated away.


“Dr. Tachyon.”


The alien turned at that smooth, well-modulated voice with its strong Southern accent. “Reverend Barnett.”


They had never met, yet recognition was instantaneous. They stood on the steps of the Marriott, devouring one another’s faces, searching for the key to the character of the other man. Leo Barnett was a young man of medium height, blond hair, blue eyes, a dimpled chin. It was a nice face, and for an instant the Takisian struggled to reconcile the hated image of his dreams with this soft-spoken man. Then he recalled the exquisite faces of his kith and kin—all of them murdering thugs—and the moment of dislocation passed.


“Doctor, didn’t anyone ever tell you that there are some things we don’t do in the streets because it alarms the children and frightens the horses?”


Humor laced the words and Tachyon, who had tensed for an attack, relaxed. “Reverend, I’ve been on Earth longer than you’ve been alive, and I don’t believe I’ve ever heard that expression.”


A woman stepped out of the crowd surrounding Barnett. “It generally refers to sex, and you know all about that.”


Shoulder-length sable hair, cascading onto her breast, long sooty lashes fluttering on alabaster cheeks, lashes lifting to reveal eyes of a profound midnight blue …


No, brown!


Reality shifted like a cable car being wrenched off its track. Tach’s breath seemed to be clogged somewhere between diaphragm and throat. He tottered, groping for Blaise’s shoulder, and Leo Barnett leaped forward to support him on the other side.


“Doctor, are you all right?”


“I’ve seen a ghost,” Tach murmured thickly. The faintness was passing, and he lifted his eyes to hers.


“My campaign manager, Fleur van Renssaeler,” said Barnett with a nervous glance to the woman.


“I know,” said Tachyon.


“You’re very quick, Doctor.” Her opening words had been aggressive, now bitter sarcasm laced each syllable.


“You bear your mother’s face…” He quailed slightly under blazing anger in those brown eyes. “But her eyes were blue.”


“What an extraordinary memory you have.”


“There is not a detail of your mother’s face that I have forgotten.”


“Am I supposed to be pleased by that?”


“I hope so. I am inordinately pleased to see you. Every week for almost two years we played.” He laughed gently. “I recall you were dreadfully fond of that horrid sticky candy corn. My pockets would be gummy for days afterward.”


“You never came to our house. My father wouldn’t permit it.”


Tach felt his jaw sag. “But I mind-controlled the servants. Your mother wanted to see you so desperately—”


“My mother was a damn slut. She abandoned my father and her children for you.”


“No, that’s not true. Your father threw her out of the house.”


“Because she was whoring with you!” Fleur’s hand lashed out, snapping his head around with the force of the blow.


Tentatively he touched his burning cheek, started to advance on her. “No—”


Barnett laid a hand on Tachyon’s shoulder. “Doctor, this conversation is obviously upsetting both you and Miss van Renssaeler. I think we should move along.”


The minister held out his hand to Fleur. Her lips seemed slack, and somehow heavier. An aura of sex surrounded her. Barnett handed her into the taxi as if he were eager to release her.


“Perhaps sometime we can talk again, Doctor. I confess I’m very curious about the religious beliefs of your world.” Leo paused with a hand on the taxi door. “Are you a Christian, Doctor?”


“No.”


“We should talk.”


The entourage was whisked away, Tach staring blankly after the taxi containing Fleur.


“What, by the Ideal, was that all about?” The Takisian phrase spoken in Blaise’s heavily accented English added to Tachyon’s sense of disorientation.


Tach pressed steepled fingers to his lips. “Oh, ancestors.” He wrapped his arm tightly about Blaise’s shoulders. “1947.”


“No kidding? What the fuck are you talking about?”


“Watch your language.”


They started into the hotel and Blaise asked, “K’ijdad, who is the old femme?”


“She’s not old … a little older than her mother when I lost her. And you’ve got to stop using French and Takisian in the same sentence. It drives me mad.”


“Tell me this story,” the boy demanded.


Tachyon’s eyes flickered from the elevators to the bar. “I need a drink.”


The pianist was on duty tinkling out a jazzed-up version of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”


“Brandy,” the alien snapped to a waitress as he passed.


“Beer.” Blaise drooped under a gimlet stare from his grandsire. “Coke,” he amended in a subdued tone.


They sat in silence until the drinks were delivered, and Tachyon had a long swallow. “It was only a few months after the release of the virus. Blythe had contracted the wild card, and was brought to the hospital where I was working. She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen, and I think I loved her from the first moment I saw her.” Blaise rolled his eyes. “Well, I did,” said Tachyon defensively.


“So what happened?”


“Blythe’s power enabled her to absorb minds. Archibald Holmes recruited her for an antifascist organization called the Four Aces. Jack was a member, and Earl Sanderson, and David Harstein. Blythe became the repository for the minds of Einstein, Oppenheimer, and many many others, mine included. Meanwhile, Jack and Earl and David were flitting around the word overthrowing dictatorships, capturing Nazis and the like.


“Then in ’48 they tried to resolve the China problem. David was the key to the negotiations because he possessed a powerful pheromone power. When you were with him he could get you to agree to anything. He had Mao and the Kuomintang kissing and swearing eternal friendship. Then he and the others left China, and naturally the whole thing collapsed.”


Tach raised a finger for another brandy. “There was growing suspicion toward the wild cards during this period. A lot like today. China gave them the excuse they needed. They went after the Four Aces, accusing them of being communists. But it was just an excuse. Their real sin was that they were different—more than human. We were all called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. They wanted the names of all the aces I had treated. I refused, but then—” Tachyon took a long swallow of brandy. Somehow this story never got any easier.


“Go on,” pushed Blaise, his dark eyes bright with excitement.


In a voice drained of all emotion, Tachyon resumed. “Jack had become a so-called ‘friendly witness.’ He told the committee that Blythe had absorbed my mind, my memories. They put her on the stand and began to grill her. Because of the stress of juggling so many minds Blythe was … fragile. She was about to reveal the other aces. I could not allow that to happen. I controlled her, and so broke her mind. She became hopelessly insane, and her husband had her committed. She died in a sanatorium in 1954.”


“Who was the husband?”


“A congressman from New York. There were also three children. Henry Jr., Brandon, and Fleur. I lost track of them during the years I was roaming Europe.”


“Which is when you met George.”


“Yes.”


“This is so confusing.”


“You should have tried living it.”


“So this is the ancient history you won’t discuss whenever I ask you why you and Jack fight so much.”


“Yes. For years I blamed Jack for Blythe’s destruction. Then I realized that I was the one who destroyed her. Jack was just one of a long line of contributing factors: my family for developing the virus in the first place, Archibald Holmes for recruiting her, her husband for rejecting her, Jack for being weak, and humans for being venal.”


Blaise sucked noisily through his straw, dragging up the last of the Coke. “Boy, this is really heavy, you know?”


“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”


“Fleur?” A shrug. “Yeah, I guess.”


“I have to see her, Blaise. Explain, set the past straight. Have her forgive me.”


“Why should you care?”


“Burning Sky, look at the time! I was supposed to meet the Texas delegation five minutes ago. Go buy some dinner, put it on the room, and stay out of trouble! I’ve got to change.”


The phone was ringing as he entered the room. Snatching it up, Tachyon heard the hiss of long distance. An operator’s cool, bored tone asked, “Will you accept a collect call from Mr. Thomas Downs?”


For an instant, disbelief at the journalist’s brass held him silent, and Tach could hear faint and far away Digger babbling frantically. “Tachy, you gotta listen—”


“Sir, this call has not yet been accepted.” Admonishment from the frigid operator.


“Tachy, listen! Something terr—”


“Sir!”


“… help me…”


“Sir, will you accept the charges?”


“… in big trouble!” Digger’s voice soared into the soprano range.


“No!” Tachyon slammed down the phone so hard that it gave a ring of protest. He was halfway out of his shirt when it rang again.


“Collect call—”


“NO!”


It rang seven more times. After the third time Tach stopped answering. The shrill ringing was a drill biting into his head. He dressed quickly in his usual elaborate finery. Pale rose and lavender with silver lace. The phone was still ringing as he stepped into the hall. For a moment he hesitated. Help me. Help him how? Tach gave his head an emphatic shake, and pulled the door shut. Too often Digger had embroiled him in the sleazy journalist’s sleazy little problems. Not this time.


I have enough problems of my own.


Spector hadn’t been to the store for a year and a half, not since the Wild Card Day when the Astronomer went out in a blaze of glory. With a little help from him, of course. The suit he’d bought then didn’t last out the day, but then a lot of things hadn’t made it through that day. The old guy who ran the place had seemed okay to him. What the hell, might as well throw him some more business. He couldn’t stay at a swank hotel and not have some decent clothes. He’d stand out like a joker at a fashion show.


He knew it was a mistake as soon as he stepped in. Before, the store had been old, dim, and dusty—like the old man who ran it. Now the place had been repainted and new, brighter lighting had been put in. The room even smelled new.


As Spector turned to leave, a voice called out to him, “Hey, come on in, sir. If you’re looking for fine clothing at great prices, you’ve come to the right place. Just tell me—I’m Bob—name’s on the sign outside—what you want and I’ll fix you up in no time.”


Spector looked Bob over. He was dressed well enough, although the clothes didn’t disguise the fact that he was creeping into middle age, but he had a hustler’s eyes and smile. Spector just wanted to buy some clothes and get out. “I’ll need two suits, one dark gray and one light gray. Thirty-eight long. Not too expensive.”


Bob stroked his chin and made a face. “I don’t think gray is really your color. Something in a tan maybe. Come on over here.” He grabbed Spector by the elbow and guided him over to one of the mirrors. “Wait just a second.”


Spector looked around the store. He didn’t see anyone else. It was just Bob and him.


Bob trotted back over, holding a tan coat. He turned Spector toward the mirror and held the coat up in front of him. “What do you think? Great, huh. And a steal at four hundred and fifty dollars. Plus alterations, of course.”


“I want two suits. Just like I said. One light gray. One dark gray.”


Bob sighed. “Look around outside. You know how many people are wearing gray suits? If you want to stand out, make an impression, you have to dress for it. Trust me.”


Spector wasn’t listening. He was breathing evenly and concentrating. Remembering the pain. The agony of his own death.


“You okay, mister?”


Spector turned to face Bob and stared into the man’s eyes. They linked. Bob couldn’t look away, and Spector didn’t want to. The memory of his death blotted out everything else. And he gave it to the man in front of him. His insides twisted and burned. Skin ruptured and sloughed off. Muscles tore and bones snapped. Spector’s death lived again in his mind. And Bob felt it, too. Spector shuddered as he recalled his heart bursting. Bob gasped. His legs went rubbery and he fell over. Dead. Just as Spector had been before Tachyon brought him back to life.


Spector glanced around. They were still alone. He grabbed Bob under the armpits and dragged him into one of the dressing booths, then walked back to the rack and picked out two gray suits. One dark and one light.


He wrapped them in plastic and headed for the street. “The customer’s always right, Bob. First rule of business.”


9:00 P.M.


“The problem with Jackson on the ticket is that it could cost us the election. Not to sound bigoted or nothin’—”


“But you do,” interrupted Tachyon. A frown of jovian proportions creased Bruce Jenkins’s forehead. Since the only hair remaining to the man was a tiny ruff over each big red ear it looked as if his entire head was buckling like earthquake-torn Earth. “Not to suggest that you are,” Tachyon hastened to add, realizing that Takisian tactlessness might not be in place at a political convention. “But why are we discussing third-place runners, no matter how interesting or charismatic? The real issue is Senator Hartmann and Leo Barnett.”


“Reverend.”


“Eh?”


“Reverend Barnett. You give Hartmann his title. Leo’s deserving of his, too.”


“Are we finally getting down to business, Mr. Jenkins?”


“Yeah. Texas went solidly for the reverend.”


“And you intend to keep it that way?”


“If I can. Now this ain’t to say that Gregg Hartmann isn’t a good man. He is, that’s why I think a Barnett/Hartmann ticket might have some real strengths.”


“Impossible!”


“Now, don’t be so hasty. Politics is a lot like horse trading, Doctor. You can’t be too rigid.”


“Mr. Jenkins, if the issue is the triumph of the Democratic ticket in November, then a ticket headed by Leo Barnett would be a disaster. There are still enough people who would oppose a religious figure running this country. Besides, Barnett is a one-note candidate.”


“No, sir, there you’re wrong. You see him as a one-note candidate because you’re obsessed with wild cards, but Leo speaks for a lot of simple Americans who are worried about the moral decay of this country.”


They stepped out of the Bello Mondo restaurant. To their left came the clatter of cutlery on china as the journalists, hangers-on, and less wealthy delegates dined in the Marriott’s coffee shop. Tachyon frowned up at the banners stretched across the dizzying expanse of the lobby atrium.


Heard the sharp tick of high heels. Jumped and whirled as he felt cold fingers nuzzle up beneath his hair, touching the nape of his neck. Sara winced at the pressure of his hand around her fingers. Bright color flamed in each cheek, but it looked angry against the unnatural white of her skin.


“I came for a statement, and to see if I could help.”


Tachyon shook his head. “What?”


She reared back slightly, nostrils flaring. “Chrysalis.”


“What about her?”


“She’s dead.” The flat tone snapped him around as surely as Fleur’s slap. He took two quick steps, groping for support. His hand closed on the sharp point of Sara’s shoulder.


“Dead!”


“You mean you didn’t know?”


“No … I … I’ve been busy. All day.”


“Yeah.” Her tone was bitter; then abruptly she dropped a gentle sympathetic mask over her pale features. “I’m sorry to be the one to tell you.”


Jenkins tiptoed over. “Doctor, it seems you’ve had bad news. We’ll talk another time.”


Sara gripped Tachyon’s arm with both hands and tugged him toward the elevators. “This has been a shock. You’re very pale. Maybe you should lie down.”


“I need a drink.”


Sara hung on grimly to his arm. “Don’t you have something in your room?”


He frowned at her. “Yes.”


“Let’s … let’s go there.” Pale tongue running briefly across those too-thin lips. “I … I need to talk to you.”


Physical vertigo added to his emotional vertigo as the elevator shot upward. “Chrysalis.” He shook his head. “Tell me.”


She did, in quick terse sentences, her pale eyes locked on his lilac ones. She seemed to be pressing for a mind contact, and he tightened his control. He didn’t really want to know what went on behind that intense face.


He led them into the suite. Stood staring into the mirror over the wet bar, a hand closed limply about a brandy bottle.


Mirrors. Chrysalis had loved mirrors, and had filled her boudoir with them.


He pictured the skull head with its trademark swirl of glitter on one transparent cheek. Pictured it battered to a bloody pulp. The tink of glass on glass was loud in the room. He turned, and held out the glass, but Sara was gone. Hearing the squeak of a mattress, he walked into the bedroom, and stared in bewilderment at her pose. Elbows resting on the coverlet. One leg cocked over the other. Skirt hiked to mid-thigh. She accepted the drink, and coyly patted the bed next to her. Feeling like a man sharing a bench with a spider, he sank warily down.


“Secrets.” He sighed and drank. “I suppose Chrysalis at last found the secret that killed her.”


“Yes.” Sara stared rigidly at the far wall. Gave a shake, and placed her hand on his arm. It lay there heavy and lifeless. “I know how much this must hurt you. You two were very close.”


He removed her hand, squeezed it, and sat it aside. “I don’t know if I would go that far.”


The hand crept back, fingers tightening suddenly on the big muscle in his thigh. She began to rub him. Tach rolled a nervous eye in her direction. Sweat had broken along her hairline, and her lips were compressed into a thin line. She sensed his scrutiny, and smiled at him, eyelids half lowered, pouted her lips. Tachyon drained his glass. His leg muscle was beginning to cramp under her furious assault.


“Another?” He waved the glass.


Throaty, husky. “Oh, yes. Please.”


They sat drinking in silence. Tachyon felt his guts cramping. “I wonder—JESUS!”


He hit the edge of the bed, slid off onto the floor, brandy sloshing across his crotch. Thrust his little finger into his ear, and wiped out the moisture left by the sudden thrust of Sara’s tongue. It had felt like someone driving a Q-tip dipped in icy Vaseline into his ear.


She hung over the bed staring down at him with fever-bright eyes. Gasped out, “I want you! I want you!”


It was like getting hit with a rake. Bony knees, elbows, pelvis digging into his chest, groin, thighs as she flung herself upon him. They thrashed for a few moments, Sara dropping inexpert kisses onto whatever part of his anatomy she could hit. Tachyon threw her off, and tottered to the far side of the bed.


“What in the hell are you doing?” Tears of shame and rage filled his eyes.


“I want to make love with you.”


“If this is some kind of joke, it is in pretty goddamn bad taste! Or actually, it’s in perfect taste if you go in for cruel Takisian humor.”


“What are you driveling about?” she screamed, raking back her hair.


“I’m impotent! Impotent! IMPOTENT!


“Still?” Honest amazement filled the word.


It shredded his last vestige of control. “Yes, fuck you! Now get out! Just get the hell out of here!”


Blotchy red patches flamed in her cheeks. Sara flung herself on his chest, hands clasped frenziedly behind his neck. “No, please, I can’t leave you. I’m next, don’t you see? Only you can keep me safe!”


“Are you out of your mind? Keep you safe from what?”


“Hartmann! HARTMANN! He killed Andi, he killed Chrysalis, and now he’s going to kill me!”


“I’m not going to listen to any more of this.”


“He’s a monster. Inhuman. Evil.”


“A year ago you were fucking your brains out with him.”


Her breath came in harsh pants. “He made me.”


“Now I’ve heard everything. You are crazy.” Tach threw himself through the sitting room, dragging Sara like a recalcitrant foal. Flung open the door. “Out, out, out, out.”


She ran from him, and threw herself onto the bed. Curled up with a pillow clutched to her chest. “No, no, you can’t make me. I won’t leave. You’ve got to help me,” she wailed as he bundled her into his arms, and staggered back to the door. “Read me! Go into my mind!” she hissed, clinging to his lapels.


“I wouldn’t touch that cesspool that you call a mind.”


Fire flared as her nails raked across his face. “WHEN I’M DEAD YOU’LL BE SORRY.”


“I’m already sorry.”


Tach slammed the door, brushed distastefully at his coat, and crossed to the bar. Seized the cognac and drank directly from the bottle. Spewed as the heat became too much for his throat. He drew a hand across his face, and yelped as the liquor entered the cuts left by her nails.


Help me.


You don’t want to believe.


When I’m dead you’ll be sorry!


The bottle exploded against the far wall.


“I’M TIRED OF FEELING SORRY!”


11:00 P.M.


Spector combed his hair up and went at the ends with the scissors. Lank brown strands fell into the dirty sink. The job was near barber standards. He’d cut hair on the side when working his way through school, and had gotten pretty good at it. He picked up the cracked hand mirror and checked the neckline in the back.


“Not bad, my man,” he said to himself. He scooped up a fingerful of skin lotion, and rubbed it onto his reddened upper lip. Without the mustache and long hair he looked years younger, not much different from his old college self. Only the pained eyes were forever changed. With his hair washed and blown dry he’d be unrecognizable to anyone who’d met him since he became Demise. Except Tachyon. He’d know regardless.


The thought of the little alien knocked him from his normal sullen mood into a gnawing rage. Making the hit, that would hurt Tachyon. He nodded to the mirror and walked into the living room. The decor was nicer than his apartment in Jokertown. The walls were gray-green; the furnishings were mahogany or other dark woods. He even picked up occasionally. He’d made the move back to Teaneck after the Sleeper had roughed him up. Considering the hell that had broken loose not long after, it had been a good idea.


He flopped into the black futon and reached for the TV remote control. His flight wasn’t until ten the next day. There would be plenty of time to pack in the morning. He punched up WABC. The set crackled to life and Ted Koppel came into view.


“… little was known about this woman with transparent skin who chose to create her own kingdom in the center of New York City’s Jokertown.” Koppel’s brows were knit together even more tightly than usual. “While police are saying little about the apparent murder, it was seemingly a very brutal affair. There is the possibility that an ace with abnormal strength was involved. Before giving you what limited background we have on this woman named Chrysalis, here’s what Angela Ellis, captain of the Jokertown precinct, had to say earlier today.”


The video cut to a drab press area. A short woman with dark hair and green eyes stood in front of a nest of microphones. She coughed, then paused, and placed her hands palms down on the podium. “The woman popularly known as Chrysalis was found dead at her place of business this morning. Should the medical examiner determine that a homicide has occurred, this office will of course conduct a thorough investigation. We have no further information to give at this time.” Voices of questioning reporters immediately rose into a roar. Ellis raised one hand. “That’s it. We’ll keep you informed as facts become available.”


Spector reached for the bottle of whiskey he always kept by the futon. He twisted off the cap and took several swallows.


“Shit.” He’d never cared one way or the other for the bitch, but something about her being dead made him uneasy. There was blood and death in the air already, and while that ordinarily made him feel right at home he had a gut feeling that he was really going to be putting it on the line to make this hit. That was too bad, though. The money from the Shadow Fists was almost gone, and he needed another big score. This had dropped into his lap and he wasn’t going to blow it.


Several more slugs of whiskey and Koppel’s familiar monotone relaxed him. He drifted off to sleep wondering what the weather was like in Atlanta.


Tachyon hunched at the bar, ankles wrapped about the rungs of the high chrome stool. The light reflecting off the hanging wineglasses hurt his aching head, but he couldn’t find the energy to look away.


Mirrors. The mirrors of the Funhouse shattering as the kidnappers had come for Angelface. A skull face reflected in a hundred different angles as he entered Chrysalis’s boudoir on the upper floor of the Crystal Palace. The invisible lips painted a pale pink, the swirl of glitter across one transparent cheek, the blue eyes floating eerily in their bony sockets.


He had drunk in both those bars for more years than he cared to remember. Now the Funhouse was closed following Des’s death a year ago.


What would become of the Palace?


Drunken self-pity brought tears to Tachyon’s eyes, and he considered his bereft state.


“Hey, buddy?” asked the cheerful young bartender. “Another one?”


“Sure, why not.” The bartender set up another brandy, and Tach raised it high. “To the lost and mournful dead.”


Tach drained the glass, scrawled his room number across the bottom of the bar bill, slipped off the stool. There was still a lot of activity in the lobby even at this hour, but he spotted no one he knew. Tachyon considered calling Jack, but he wanted to drink and talk about Chrysalis, and the big ace hadn’t known her.


His aimless wanderings led him to the floor housing Barnett’s party. Behind the doors he could hear the low murmur of voices. He stared hard at one door, willing Fleur to emerge. It didn’t work. His silent scrutiny of the suite drew the attention of a Secret Service guard. Tach saw him coming, and stumbled back to the elevators.


Back in his own room he stared down at Blaise’s tousled head. Sobs shook him as he knelt by the bed, and enfolded the sleeping boy in his arms.


Everyone always leaves me. Everyone I love leaves me. I love you so very much. Don’t ever leave me.


 


Copyright © 1989 by George R. R. Martin and the Wild Cards Trust