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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Wild Cards VIII: One-Eyed Jacks

(Book One of the Rox Triad)

Wild Cards (Volume 8)

George R. R. Martin

Tor Books

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

Nobody’s Girl

by Walton Simons


THE LATE-AFTERNOON SUNSHINE WARMED them. She lay naked on the bed, hands folded on her stomach, eyes closed. He looked down the outline of her body, trying to hold on to the ecstasy and contentment he’d felt with her only moments before. But it was already slipping away. Women kept it a bit longer. Afterglow. But they lost it, too.

“You could stay awhile,” Jerry said. He tried to make the four words sound like it would be more fun than two people could stand. Not that they’d been pushing the limit in that area lately.

“Nope.” Veronica opened her eyes and sat up, her long, sweat-soaked brown hair plastered to her face and neck. Jerry hoped it was his technique and not the August heat seeping in. She waited a few seconds, then stood and walked into the bathroom, closing the door after her. “Call me a cab.”

“Okay, you’re a cab.” Jerry hadn’t expected a laugh and wasn’t disappointed. He heard her turn on the shower.

He pulled on his shorts and walked across the carpeted floor into the next room. A five-hundred-dollar bill was in the top drawer of the mahogany bedroom dresser. Along with a new pair of black silk panties and matching underwire bra with cutout front. It was their ritual. Maybe she’d wear the lingerie next time, maybe not.

He picked up the phone and paused for a second, stopping his finger from making a rotary motion. He hadn’t adjusted to push buttons yet. Twenty-plus years as a giant ape could do that to you. A cold, sick feeling spread through him. Even Veronica couldn’t help when it hit him. He tried hard to push the thoughts away, but that only made it worse when they finally broke through. The world had changed during those years, drastically and unalterably. His parents had moved to Pass Christian, Mississippi, and been killed in Hurricane Camille. Some idiot psychic had told them he’d been kidnapped and taken there. The bodies wound up in a tree three miles inland. All the time he was in Central Park Zoo, fifty feet tall and covered with hair. He bit his lip and punched in the numbers.

“Starline Cab,” said a bored voice on the other end of the line.

“Thirteen East Seventy-seventh Street. A lady will be waiting.”

A pause. “That’s Thirteen East Seventy-seventh. Five minutes. Thank you.” Click.

Jerry walked back into the bedroom and stretched out on the bed. The sunshine drove the cold from his skin, but not his insides.

Veronica stepped out of the bathroom. She picked up her clothes and pulled them on in a quick, awkward manner.

“It’s not against the law for you to stay sometime,” he said. “We could go out to dinner every now and then. Or a movie.”

“If it’s not illegal, I don’t bother with it.” She turned her back on him to button her blouse.

“Yeah.” He rolled over on his stomach, not wanting her to see the pain on his face. She could be a real bitch at times. Most times, nowadays.

“Sorry.” She ran a finger down his calf. “I’ll see what I can work out, but no promises. I’m a busy girl.”

The intercom buzzed.

Jerry sat up straight. Almost nobody ever visited him here, except Veronica. He ran across the apartment to the intercom and pushed the button. “Hello.”

“Jerry, this is Beth. I’ll bet you forgot about the fund-raiser tonight. You can’t abandon me to all those lawyers and politicians.”

“Oh, Jesus. I did forget. Hold on. I’ll be right down.” Jerry walked quickly over to the closet and snatched out a shirt and pants. “My sister-in-law. You should meet her. You’d like her.”

“A lawyer’s wife?” Veronica shook her head. “You must be kidding.”

“You might be surprised. She’s really terrific.”

“I’m out of here,” said Veronica, heading for the door.

Jerry struggled into his alligator shoes and hopped across the carpet after her. “Okay, I love you.”

Veronica waved without turning around and closed the door behind her.

Jerry sighed and went into the bathroom. He combed his too-red hair and dabbed on a few drops of cologne. He heard the elevator stop. He waited a few seconds until it headed back down. It wouldn’t do for Beth to see him with Veronica, who’d probably just say something snotty.

He checked to make sure he had his wallet and keys, then hustled out into the hall and punched the elevator button.

Beth was waiting for him downstairs. She was wearing a floral print shirt and light blue pants. Her blond hair hung just past her shoulders.

“Let’s get moving, bro. I’m double-parked.” She grabbed him by the elbow and guided him toward the door. “I just saw a cute little brunette number leave.” She arched an eyebrow. “Anybody I should know?”

He did his best to look shocked. “Nope. Anybody I should know?”

Beth smiled. “You could do a lot worse. You probably have, too.”

“A safe bet. Let’s go and get this over with.”

The ballroom was filled with smoke and noisy, rich Democrats, most of them trying not to appear drunk. Yet. Koch and Jesse Jackson had appeared together earlier in the day to show Democratic solidarity, such as it was. There was a rumor that Jackson might show up to speak, but it wasn’t in the itinerary. Jerry hated going anywhere he was required to wear a tux, but Beth had promised him three movie dates in return.

The three of them were the only ones at their table. Kenneth had his arm around Beth, whose shoulders were bare except for the thin straps of her blue silk dress. Jerry was jealous. He and Veronica were never to appear in public together. Veronica had made that much clear.

“I can’t believe the party nominated Dukakis,” Kenneth said. “Even Richard Nixon could beat him into the ground.”

“Bad luck at the convention,” Beth said. “Hartmann might have had a chance.”

“Then again he might not. Public opinion on wild cards being what it is. That issue would probably have sunk him. You should be glad you’re not a well-known ace.” Kenneth stood. “There’s a few people I need to talk to. Back in a minute.” He kissed Beth on the forehead and made his way into the crowd.

“I’m not an ace at all, anymore.” Jerry took a large swallow of wine. “Which is for the best, I guess.”

“Hello, Mrs. Strauss.” A young man stood behind Kenneth’s empty chair. He was tall, blond, and could probably have passed for a Greek god even in good light. Jerry hated him instantly.

“David.” Beth smiled and motioned to the chair. “I didn’t know you were going to be here. How nice to see you. Do you know Kenneth’s brother, Jerry?”

“No.” David extended his hand.

“Jerry, this is David Butler. He’s the intern working with Mr. Latham. Even St. John is impressed with him. Has David working all hours.”

Jerry shook his hand. There was an almost palpable energy in David’s touch. Jerry withdrew and managed a smile. “You do what, David?”

“Whatever Mr. Latham requires.” David smiled at Beth. “You look lovely tonight. I can’t imagine your husband being foolish enough to abandon you.”

“Oh, I’m well taken care of, David.” Beth put her hand on Jerry’s sleeve.

David gave Jerry half a glance and drummed his fingers on the table. “I’d better be going. Mr. Latham expects me to mingle with the heavy hitters. Says it should be good for me.” He got up, rolling his eyes. “Nice to see you, Mrs. Strauss.” David left.

“He must be gay,” Jerry said.

Beth chuckled. “I don’t think so.”

“Is he rich, then?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“There is no God.” Jerry emptied his wineglass and looked for a waiter.

“You don’t need to be jealous, Jerry.” Beth adjusted the straps on her gown. “Just because he’s young, rich, and gorgeously handsome.”

“I’m rich and young, sort of.” Jerry hadn’t aged physically in the twenty years he’d been an ape. Legally, though, he was in his forties.

“Feeling sorry for yourself again?” Kenneth said, reappearing and sitting back down.

“Constantly,” Jerry said.

“Right. Did you ever contact any of those film people I mentioned your name to? You have talent. Beth and I are both impressed with your abilities.”

“I’ll get around to it. I have a lazy muse,” Jerry said. “I know you went to a lot of trouble.”

“Not as much trouble as proving that you weren’t legally dead when you showed up last year.” Kenneth smiled. “Nobody wanted to believe you’d been a giant ape for over a decade. Too many precedents.”

Jerry sighed. “Sorry I was so much trouble.”

“It’s not that and you know it. When you’re born into wealth like we were, there’s a larger obligation to society that comes with it.”

Jerry shrugged. “I like to think I’m keeping my bank from going under. It’s the romantic in me.”

Beth smiled, but Kenneth shook his head. “The romantic in you is going to get you into trouble someday. You can pay people to not call you Mr. Strauss, but you can’t make them give a shit when it’s crunch time. People don’t love you for money, they love you in spite of it.”

Jerry didn’t need to hear this right now. He turned to Beth. “Why did you marry this guy?”

Beth smiled and held up her hands, palms about a foot apart.

“Nasty girl,” Jerry said. “I guess it runs in the family.”

Kenneth fingered a cuff link. “I don’t want to be a pain, but you can count on me keeping after you about this. You need to find something to do with your life.”

There was a burst of applause and people began standing. Jesse Jackson was making his way slowly from the back of the room, shaking hands as he went.

“I suppose we can expect a speech now,” Jerry said, rubbing the back of his neck. “I’d rather be home watching a movie.”

“Democracy is hell, bro,” Beth said.

“I’ll drink to that.” Jerry snagged a waiter’s arm and indicated he needed more wine. The only thing that numbed his butt quicker than politics was alcohol.

After rubbing elbows with the rich and powerful, he felt like staying up late. Jerry split time between his apartment and his room at the family house on Staten Island where Kenneth and Beth lived. He’d had to overhaul the place when he got back. His sixteen-millimeter projectors were shot and the neglected cans of film had gotten brittle with age. He’d replaced them with a large-screen TV and videotape. Nobody collected actual films anymore. But there was no romance in video. It was cheap and easy. He was hardly in a position to be judgmental about people who went that way, though, considering his relationship with Veronica. Although she wasn’t cheap and was getting less easy all the time.

He was watching Klute. It was a bad choice. At least Veronica didn’t wear a watch while they did it. She probably never came either, though.

There was a soft knock at the door and Beth stuck her head in. Jerry paused the tape and motioned her in. “Entrez. I’m watching Klute. Ever seen it?”

“Twice, at least.” She sat down on the sofa next to him. “I love the scene where she licks the spoon after eating the catfood.” Beth licked her lips.

“You’re sick.”

“Afraid so.” She picked up two other tapes off the table. “What have we got here? Irma La Douce and McCabe and Mrs. Miller.” She paused. He knew she expected him to say something.

“Yeah, well. I like to mix it up, you know. Murder mystery, period piece, comedy. I try to get a bit of everything.” He shrugged. “I’ve got lots to catch up on.”

She patted him on the shoulder. “You don’t want to talk about it. I can tell. I always feel better when I talk about things. If I hadn’t had some good friends and a decent analyst a few years back, Kenneth and I would have wound up divorced.”

“I didn’t know you two had any problems.”

She laughed. “It’s tough being married to a lawyer. You always have the feeling that anything you say can and will be used against you. And sometimes he did. I know he didn’t mean to, or at least I hope that, but at the time it was hard to tell. You can’t ever be another person and know how they really feel. That’s kind of scary. But eventually you just decide to believe in them or not. I decided to believe in Kenneth and I’m not sorry.”

“I’m glad.” The words sounded flatter than he’d intended. “Really. You’ve been a big help to me. I know I’m not adjusting very well, but I will.”

Beth kissed him on the cheek. “You can talk to me any time you feel like it.” She pointed to the TV screen. “Want to know who the killer is?”

“No, thanks. I don’t want to cheat myself out of guessing wrong and then feeling stupid.”

“Good night.” She closed the door.

Jerry shut off the TV and VCR. He didn’t much like the way this one was headed, anyway. He crossed the floor to his dressing room. It hadn’t changed much in thirty years. Back when he was the Projectionist, he’d practiced his Humphrey Bogart and Marlon Brando in front of the same mirror. Bogart died even before Jerry had drawn the wild card, and Brando was old and fat. He sat down, opened a drawer, and pulled out a picture of Veronica and a wig. The hair was as close a match as he could find for hers.

He stuck the picture in the corner of the mirror and looked at it for a second or two, then at his own reflection. His features began to change; his skin darkened. Hair was still a problem. He couldn’t quite get it to do what he wanted yet. In the old days he could actually have turned into a woman, but that had always made him feel weird. He pulled on the wig and closed his eyes, waited a moment, then reopened them.

“I love you.”

It was even less convincing than the few times Veronica had said it herself. He pulled off the wig and changed back. Beth was right, you couldn’t know what another person was thinking or feeling. Couldn’t ever actually be them. He tossed the wig and picture into the drawer and slammed it shut.

Who the hell would want to, anyway?


Copyright © 1991 by George R. R. Martin and the Wild Cards Trust

Expanded edition copyright © 2018 by George R. R. Martin and the Wild Cards Trust