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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Wild Cards V: Down and Dirty

Wild Cards (Volume 5)

George R.R. Martin

Tor Books

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

Only the Dead Know Jokertown

by John J. Miller



I

BRENNAN MOVED THROUGH THE autumnal night as if he were part of it, or it were part of him.

The fall had brought a coolness to the air that reminded Brennan, however palely, of the Catskills. He missed the mountains more than almost anything, but as long as Kien was free they were as unattainable as the ghosts of dead friends and lovers that had lately come to haunt his dreams. He loved the mountains as surely as he loved all the people he'd failed down through the years, but who could love the dirty sprawl of the city? Who could even know the city, could even know Jokertown? Not him, certainly, but Kien's presence bound him to Jokertown as solidly as chains of adamantine steel.

He crossed the street, entering the half block of urban debris that bordered the Crystal Palace. With the sixth sense of the hunter he could feel eyes follow him as he passed through the wreckage. He shifted the canvas bag that carried his broken-down bow to a more comfortable position, wondering, not for the first time, what sort of creatures chose to make the mounds of junk their home. Once or twice he heard twittering rustles that weren't the wind and glimpsed flashes of movement that weren't shifting moonshadow, but no one interfered as he swung up onto the rusted fire escape hanging down the Palace's rear wall. He climbed silently to the roof, went through the security system that would have given him pause if Chrysalis hadn't keyed him to it, and entered through the trapdoor that opened on the Palace's third floor, Chrysalis's private domain. The corridor was totally dark, but he avoided by memory the delicate stands cluttered with antique bric-a-brac and let himself into her bedroom.

Chrysalis was awake. Sitting naked on her plush wine-colored fainting couch, she was playing solitaire with a deck of antique playing cards.

Brennan watched her for a moment. Her skeleton, her ghostly musculature, her internal organs, and the network of blood vessels that laced through it all were delicately lit by rosy light from the Tiffany lamp hanging above the couch upon which she'd spread her cards. He watched the articulated skeleton of her hand flip through the deck and turn over the ace of spades.

She looked up at him and smiled.

Her smile, like Chrysalis herself, was an enigma. Difficult to read because her face was only lips and smudges of ghostly muscle on her cheeks and jaw, it could have meant any of the thousand things a smile could mean. Brennan chose to interpret it as a welcome.

"It's been some time." She looked at him critically. "Long enough for you to start a beard."

Brennan closed the door and set his bow case against the wall. "I've had business," he said, his voice soft and deep.

"Yes." Her smile continued until Brennan could no longer ignore the edge in it. "Some of which interfered with mine."

There was no doubt as to what she referred. Several weeks ago, on Wild Card Day, Brennan had broken up a meeting at the Palace at which Chrysalis was brokering a very valuable set of books that included Kien's personal diary. Brennan, hoping that volume had enough evidence in it to nail Kien's damnable hide to the wall, had eventually gotten it for himself, but it had proven to be worthless. All the writing in it had been destroyed.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I needed that diary."

"Yes," she repeated. Ghostly muscles bunched, indicating a frown. "And you've read it?"

Brennan hesitated a beat. "Yes."

"And you'll not be adverse to sharing the information in it?"

It was more of a demand than a request. It would do no good, Brennan thought, to tell her the truth. She probably would think he was trying to keep it all to himself.

"Possibly."

"In that case I suppose I could forgive you," she said in a not-very-forgiving voice. She gathered her cards together slowly, careful of their age and value, and set them aside on a spider-legged table that stood next to the couch. She leaned back languorously, her nipples bobbing on invisible pads of flesh whose warmth and firm texture Brennan knew well.

"I've brought you something," Brennan said conciliatorily. "It's not information but something you might like almost as well."

He sat down on the edge of the couch, reached into the pocket of his denim jacket, and handed Chrysalis a small, clear envelope. When she reached out to take it, her warm, invisible thigh touched, then rested on, Brennan's own.

"It's a Penny Black," he said, as she held the glassine envelope up to the light. "The world's first postage stamp. Mint, in perfect condition. Rather rare in that state, rather valuable. The portrait is an engraving of Queen Victoria."

"Very nice." She smiled her enigmatic smile. "I won't ask you where you got it."

Brennan smiled in response, said nothing. He knew that she knew perfectly well where he'd gotten it. He'd asked Wraith for it when they were inspecting the stockbooks full of rare stamps she'd heisted from Kien's safe, the same safe from which she'd removed his diary during the early hours of Wild Card Day. Wraith had felt bad that Brennan hadn't gotten what he'd wanted from the worthless diary and had gladly given him the stamp when he'd asked for it.

"Well, I hope you like it." Brennan stood and stretched as Chrysalis set the envelope aside on her stack of cards. It had been a long day and he was tired. He went to the sidetable by Chrysalis's canopied four-poster bed and lifted the decanter of Irish whiskey that she kept there for him. He looked at it, frowned, and put it down. He rejoined Chrysalis on the couch.

She edged forward lithely and covered his body with hers. He drank in the musky, sexual scent of her perfume and watched the blood rush through the carotid artery in her neck. "Change your mind about the drink?" she asked softly.

"The decanter was empty."

Chrysalis drew back a little, stared into his questioning eyes.

"You only drink amaretto." It was a statement, not a question. She nodded.

Brennan sighed. "When I first came to you, I only wanted information. I didn't want anything personal between us. You started that. If it's to continue and become meaningful, I have to be the only one in your bed. It's the way I am. It's the only way I can give myself to anyone."

Chrysalis stared at him for several seconds before replying. "Whomever else I sleep with is no concern of yours," she finally drawled in the British accent that Brennan, with his ear for languages, knew was faked.

He nodded. "Then I'd better be going." He stood and turned.

"Wait." She stood too. They looked at each other for a long moment, and when she spoke, it was in a conciliatory voice. "At least have your drink. I'll go downstairs and fill the decanter. You can have your drink and we ... we can talk."

Brennan was tired and had no other place in Jokertown he wanted to be. "All right," he said softly. Chrysalis wrapped herself in a silk kimono spattered with wisps of smoke shaped like galloping horses and left him with a smile that was more shy than enigmatic.

Brennan paced the room, watching his image shift across the myriad antique mirrors that decorated the walls of Chrysalis's bedchamber. He should get out, he told himself, and leave well enough alone, but Chrysalis was as fascinating out of bed as in it. His best intentions to the contrary, he knew that he needed her companionship and, he admitted to himself, her love.

It had been more than ten years since he'd allowed himself to love a woman, but as he'd been discovering since his arrival in Jokertown, the emotions that he allowed himself weren't the only ones he felt. He couldn't live on hate alone. He didn't know if he could love Chrysalis as he'd loved the French-Vietnamese wife whom he'd lost to Kien's assassins. He didn't even want to love a woman while he was on Kien's trail, but despite all his fixity of purpose, despite his Zen training, what he wanted and what actually happened were often two entirely different things.

He stood in the silence of Chrysalis's bedroom, studiously not thinking about his past. Long minutes passed and he suddenly realized that Chrysalis should have returned.

He frowned. It was almost inconceivable that something could happen to Chrysalis in the Crystal Palace, but the habitual caution that had saved Brennan's life more times than he cared to remember made him assemble his bow before going after her. He would feel foolish if he bumped into her in the dark, but he had felt foolish before. It was preferable to feeling dead, a sensation he was more intimately acquainted with than he liked.

Chrysalis wasn't in the corridors of the third floor, nor on the stairway leading down to the taproom, but he heard murmuring voices as he crept down the stairs.

He drew an arrow, placed it on the string of his bow, and peered around the edge of the stairwell where it opened up into the back of the taproom. He gritted his teeth. He had been right to be cautious.

Chrysalis was standing before the long, polished-wood bar that ran almost the entire length of the taproom. The whiskey decanter, still empty, was forgotten on the bar next to her. Her arms were crossed and her jaw was clenched. Her lips were compressed in a thin, angry line.

Two men bracketed her and a third sat facing her at a table in front of the bar. Brennan could discern few details in the dimness of the night-light that burned above the bar, but the men all had hard, tough faces. The one facing her drummed his fingers on the tabletop next to a chrome-plated pistol.

"Come on," he said in a soft but dangerous-sounding voice. "We just want some information. That's all. We won't even say where we got it." He leaned back in his chair. "Soon there's going to be war, but we don't know who to hit."

"And you think I do?" Brennan recognized the edge anger put in Chrysalis's drawl, but he also recognized the fear under the anger.

The seated man smiled. "We know you do, babe. You know everything about this Jokertown shithole. All weknow is that someone has put together these nickel-and-dime gangs into something called the Shadow Fists. They're moving into our territory, taking our customers, and cutting into our profits. It's got to stop."

"If I knew a name," Chrysalis said, coming down hard on the if, "it would cost you more than you can pay to learn it."

The man sitting at his table shook his head. "You don't understand," he said. "This is war, babe. And it's going to cost you more than you can pay to keep your mouth shut." He let his words sink in while he drummed his fingers on the tabletop. "Sal," he said after a moment, nodding at the man who stood to Chrysalis's right. "I wonder if her famous invisible skin would scar?"

Sal considered the question. "Let's see," he finally said.

There was a loud snick and Brennan saw light glint off a shiny blade. Sal waved it in Chrysalis's face, and she shrank back against the bar. She opened her mouth to scream, but the man standing on her left clamped his gloved hand over it.

Sal laughed and Brennan stood and loosed the arrow he'd been holding. It struck Sal in the back and catapulted him over the bar. No one had any idea what had happened, except possibly Chrysalis. The man seated at the table snatched his pistol and leaped to his feet. Brennan calmly shot him through the throat. The thug holding Chrysalis let out a startled stream of obscenities and fumbled under his jacket for a pistol that he carried in a shoulder rig. Brennan shot him through the right forearm. He dropped his gun and spun away from Chrysalis, staring at the aluminum-shafted hunting arrow skewering his arm and mumbling, "Jesus, oh, Jesus." He stooped to pick up his pistol.

"Touch it," Brennan called from the darkness, "and I'll put the next arrow through your right eye."

The thug wisely stood up and backed against the bar. He clutched his bleeding arm and moaned.

Brennan stepped forward into the diffuse light cast by the nightlamp burning over the bar. The man stared at the razor-tipped arrow nocked to his bowstring.

"Who are they?" Brennan asked Chrysalis in a harsh, clipped voice.

"Mafia," she replied, her voice cracking with tension and fear.

Brennan nodded, never taking his eyes off the thug who stared at the arrow that was pointed at his throat.

"Do you know who I am?"

The mafioso nodded violently. "Ya. You're that Yeoman guy-the bow 'n' arrow killer. I read about you alla time in the Post." The words tripped out of his mouth in a fear-filled torrent.

"That's right," Brennan said. He spared the man who'd been sitting at the table a quick glance and saw that he was curled on the floor in a widening pool of blood, a foot of arrow sticking out from the nape of his neck. He didn't bother checking Sal. He'd had a clean heart shot on him.

"You're a lucky man," Brennan continued in his same dead voice. "Know why?"

The mafioso bobbed his head vigorously side to side, sighing in relief when Brennan relaxed the tension on the taut bowstring and set the bow aside.

"Someone has to deliver a message for me. Someone has to tell your boss that Chrysalis is off bounds. Someone has to tell him that I have an arrow with his name on it, an arrow I would not be slow in delivering if I heard that something had happened to Chrysalis. Do you think you could tell him that?"

"Sure. Sure I could."

"Good." Brennan reached into his back pocket and showed the thug a playing card, a black ace of spades. "This is so he knows you're telling the truth."

He grabbed the man's wounded arm by the elbow and yanked it straight. The thug groaned as Brennan stuck the card on the arrowtip.

"And this," Brennan said through gritted teeth, "is to make sure you don't lose it."

With a sudden, forceful jerk he impaled the man's other arm on the arrowpoint. The mafioso screamed at the sharp, unexpected pain. He sagged to his knees as Brennan bent the aluminum shaft of the arrow under and around both of his arms, pinning them together as tightly as handcuffs would.

Brennan yanked him to his feet. The man was sobbing in fear and pain and couldn't look Brennan in the eye.

"If I ever see you again," Brennan said, "you'll die."

The thug staggered away, sobbing and gibbering incomprehensible protestations. Brennan watched him until he tottered through the front door, then turned to Chrysalis.

She was looking at him with fear in her eyes, more than some of which, he was sure, was directed toward him.

"Are you all right?" he asked softly.

"Yes ... yes, I think so...."

"You'll have to answer a lot of questions," Brennan said, "unless we get rid of the bodies."

"Yes." She nodded sharply, suddenly decisive, suddenly in control again. "I'll call Elmo. He'll handle it." She looked him straight in the eye. "I owe you."

Brennan sighed. "Does your entire life have to consist of rigidly tabulated credits and debits?"

She looked at little startled, but nodded. "Yes," she said firmly. "Yes, it does. It's the only way to keep track, to make sure..." Her voice trailed away, and she turned and went around the bar. She looked down at Sal's body, and when she spoke again, she voiced a totally different thought. "You know, Tachyon invited me to go on that world tour of his. I think I'll take him up on it. No telling what information I'll pick up rubbing elbows with all those politicians. And if there's going to be street warfare between the Mafia and Kien's Shadow Fists"-she looked into Brennan's eyes for the first time-"I would be safer elsewhere."

They looked at each other for a long moment, and then Brennan nodded.

"I'd better be going, then."

"Your whiskey?"

Brennan let out a long sigh. "No." He looked at the body at his feet. "Drink brings memories, and I don't need any tonight." He looked back at her. "I'm going to be ... indisposed ... for the next few weeks. I probably won't see you before you leave. Good-bye, Chrysalis."

She watched him go, a crystalline tear glistening on her invisible cheek, but he never looked back, he never saw.

II

The Twisted Dragon was located somewhere within the nebulous boundary of an interlocking Jokertown and Chinatown. One of Brennan's street sources had told him that the bar was the hangout of Danny Mao, a man who had a moderately high position in the Shadow Fist Society and was said to be in charge of recruitment.

Brennan watched the entrance for a while. The swirling snowflakes that missed the brim of his black cowboy hat caught on his thick, drooping mustache and in his long sideburns. A fair number of Werewolves-they were wearing Richard Nixon masks this month-were going into and out of the place. He'd also seen a few Egrets, though for the most part the Chinatown gang was too picky to hang out in a joint frequented by jokers.

He smiled, smoothing the tips of his mustache in a gesture that had already become habitual. Time to see if his plan was a stroke of genius, as he sometimes thought, or a quick way to a hard death, as he more frequently thought.

It was warm inside the Dragon, more, Brennan guessed, from the press of bodies than the bar's heating system, and it took a moment for him to spot Mao, who was, as Brennan's source had told him he'd be, sitting in a booth in the back of the room. Brennan threaded his way between crowded tables and the shuffling barmaids, staggering drunks, and swaggering punks who crossed his path as he headed toward the booth.

A girl, young and blond and looking vaguely stoned, sat next to Mao. Three men crowded the bench across the table from him. One was a Werewolf in a Nixon mask, one was a young Oriental, and the one in the middle was a thin, pale, nervous-looking man. Before Brennan could say anything a street punk stepped in Brennan's path, blocking his way.

He was a lean six four or five, so he towered over Brennan despite the cowboy boots that added an inch or two to Brennan's height. He wore stained leather pants and an oversize leather jacket that was draped with lengths of chain. His spiked hair added several inches to his apparent height, and the scarlet and black scars crawling on his face added apparent fierceness to his appearance, as did the bone-a human finger-bone, Brennan realized-that pierced his nose.

The scars that patterned his cheeks, forehead, and chin were the insignia of the Cannibal Headhunters, a once-feared street gang that had disintegrated when Brennan had killed its leader, an ace named Scar. Gang members not slain in the bloody power struggle after Scar's demise had for the most part gravitated to other criminal associations, such as the Shadow Fist Society.

"What do you want?" The Headhunter's voice was too reedy to sound menacing, but he tried.

"To see Danny Mao." Brennan spoke softly, his voice pitched in the slow drawl that he remembered so well from his childhood. The Headhunter bent lower to hear Brennan over the cacophony of music, manic laughter, and half a hundred conversations that washed over them.

"'Bout what?"

"'Bout what's not your business, boy."

Brennan saw out of the corner of his eye that conversation in the booth had stopped and that everyone was watching them.

"I say it is." The Headhunter smiled a grin he fondly thought savage, showing filed front teeth. Brennan laughed aloud. The Headhunter frowned. "What's so funny, asshole?"

Brennan, still laughing, grabbed the bone in the Headhunter's nose and yanked. The Headhunter screamed and reached for his torn nose and Brennan kicked him in the crotch. He fell with a choking moan, and Brennan dropped the bloody bone he'd ripped from his nose onto his curled-up body.

"You," Brennan told him, then slid into the booth next to the blond girl, who was staring at him in stoned astonishment. Two of the three men sitting across the table started to rise, but Danny Mao waved a negligent hand and they sat back down, muttering at each other and staring at Brennan.

Brennan took his hat off, set it on the table in front of him, and looked at Danny Mao, who returned his gaze with apparent interest.

"What's your name?" Mao asked.

"Cowboy," Brennan said softly.

Mao picked up the glass in front of him and took a short sip. He looked at Brennan as if he were some kind of odd bug and frowned. "You for real? I ain't never seen a Chinese cowboy before."

Brennan smiled. The epicanthic folds given his eyes by Dr. Tachyon's deft surgical skills had combined, as he had known they would, with his coarse, dark hair and tanned complexion to give him an Oriental appearance. This slight alteration of his features, his newly grown facial hair, and his western manner of speaking and dressing all added up to a simple but effective disguise. It wouldn't fool anyone who knew him, but he wasn't likely to run into anyone who did.

And the irony of his disguise, Brennan thought, was that every aspect of his new identity, except for the eyes given him by Tachyon, was true. His father had been fond of saying that the Brennans were Irish, Chinese, Spanish, several kinds of Indian, and all-American.

"My Asian ancestors helped build the railroads. I was born in New Mexico, but found it too limiting." That, too, was true.

"So you came to the big city looking for excitement?"

Brennan nodded. "Some time ago."

"And found enough so that you have to use an alias?"

He shrugged, said nothing.

Mao took another sip of his drink. "What do you want?"

"Word on the street," Brennan said, his intense excitement buried under his southwestern drawl, "is that your people are going to war with the Mafia. You've already hit them once-Don Picchietti was assassinated two weeks ago by an invisible ace who shoved an ice pick in his ear while he was eating dinner at his own restaurant. That was certainly a Shadow Fist job. The Mafia will undoubtedly retaliate, and the Shadow Fists will need more soldiers."

Mao nodded. "Why should we hire you?"

"Why not? I can handle myself."

Mao glanced at his erstwhile bodybuard, who had managed to drag himself to a hunched position on his knees, his forehead resting on the floor. "Fair enough," he said thoughtfully. "But do you have the stomach for it, I wonder?" He looked at the three men crowded together on the bench across the table, and Brennan, too, looked at them closely.

The Werewolf sat on the outside and the Oriental, probably an Immaculate Egret, was on the inside. The man they sandwiched, though, didn't look like a street tough.

He was small, thin, and pallid. His hands looked soft and weak, his eyes were dark and bright. Many street toughs had a streak of madness in them, but even on first sight Brennan could see that this man was more than touched by insanity.

"These men," Danny Mao said, "are going on a mission. Care to join them?"

"What kind of mission?" Brennan asked.

"If you have to ask, maybe you're not the type of man we're looking for."

"Maybe," Brennan said, smiling, "I'm just cautious."

"Caution is an admirable trait," Mao said blandly, "but so is faith in and obedience to your superiors."

Brennan put his hat on. "All right. Where're we headed?"

The pale man in the middle laughed. It was not a pleasant sound. "The morgue," he said gleefully.

Brennan looked at Mao with a lifted eyebrow.

Mao nodded. "The morgue, as Deadhead says."

"Do you have a car?" the Werewolf asked Brennan. His voice was a mushy growl behind the Nixon mask.

Brennan shook his head.

"I'll have to steal one," the Werewolf said.

"Then we can go to the drive-up window!" the man called Deadhead enthused. The Asian sitting next to him looked vaguely disgusted but said nothing. "Let's go!" Deadhead pushed at the Werewolf, urging him out of the booth.

Brennan lingered to glance at Mao, who was watching him carefully.

"Whiskers," Mao said, nodding at the Werewolf, "is in charge. He'll tell you what you need to know. You're on probation, Cowboy. Be careful."

Brennan nodded and followed the unlikely trio onto the street. The Werewolf turned and looked at Brennan.

"I'm Whiskers," he said in his indistinct growl. "This is Deadhead, like Danny said, and this is Lazy Dragon."

Brennan nodded at the Oriental, realizing his initial assessment of the man had been wrong. He wasn't an Egret. He wasn't wearing Egret colors, and he didn't have the demeanor of a gang member. He was young, maybe in his early twenties, small, about five six or seven, and slender enough so that his baggy pants hung loosely on his lean hips. His face was oval, his nose slightly broad, his hair longish and indifferently combed. He didn't have the aggressive attitude of the street punk. There was a reserve about him, an air of almost melancholy thoughtfulness.

Whiskers left them waiting on the corner. Lazy Dragon was silent, but Deadhead kept up a constant stream of chatter, most of which was nonsensical. Lazy Dragon paid him no attention, and neither did Brennan after a while, but that seemed to make no difference to Deadhead. He burbled on and Brennan ignored him as best he could. Once Deadhead reached into the pocket of his dirty jacket and pulled out a bottle of pills of different sizes and colors, shook out a handful, and tossed them into his mouth. He chewed and swallowed noisily and beamed at Brennan.

"Take vitamins?"

Brennan wasn't sure if Deadhead was offering him some or asking if he took vitamins himself. He nodded noncommittally and turned away.

Whiskers finally showed up with a car. It was a dark, late-model Buick. Brennan hopped into the front seat, leaving the back for Deadhead and Lazy Dragon.

"Good suspension. Smooth drive," Whiskers commented as they pulled away from the curb. Brennan looked into the rearview mirror and saw Lazy Dragon nod and reach into his pocket for a small clasp knife and a block of soft, white material that looked like soap. He opened the knife and began to whittle.

Deadhead kept up a stream of running chatter that no one listened to. Whiskers drove smoothly, cursing potholes, spotlights, and other drivers in his muffled voice, continually glancing in the mirror to follow Lazy Dragon's progress as he carefully carved the small block of soap with delicate, skillful hands.

Brennan didn't know where the morgue was or what it looked like, but the dark, forbidding structure that they finally stopped before met all of his expectations.

"Here it is," Whiskers announced unnecessarily. They watched the building for a few moments. "Still looks busy." Occasional lights illuminated scattered rooms throughout the multistoried structure, and as they watched, people occasionally entered or left by the main entrance.

"Ready yet?" Whiskers growled, glancing into the mirror.

"Just about," Lazy Dragon said without looking up.

"Ready for what?" Brennan asked, and Whiskers turned to him.

"You gotta take Deadhead to the room they use for long-term body storage. It's in the basement. Deadhead will take it from there. Dragon will go first and scout. You're muscle in case anything goes wrong."

"And you?"

Whiskers may have grinned under his mask, but Brennan couldn't be sure. "Now that you're here, I just wait in the car."

Brennan didn't like it. This wasn't the way he liked to do things, but he was obviously being tested. Equally obviously, he had no choice. He made one more try for information.

"What are we looking for?"

"Deadhead knows," Whiskers said, and Brennan heard a disquieting titter from the backseat. "And Dragon knows the general layout. You just deal with anyone who tries to interfere." He glanced back into the mirror. "Ready?"

Lazy Dragon looked up. "Ready," he said calmly. He folded his knife, put it away, and stared critically at what he had carved. Brennan, mystified and curious, turned around for a better look and saw that it was a small but credible mouse. Lazy Dragon studied it carefully, nodded as if satisfied, set it on his lap, settled back comfortably in his seat, and closed his eyes. For a moment nothing happened, then Dragon slumped as if asleep or unconscious, and the carving began to twitch.

The tail lashed, the ears perked up, and then, creakily at first but with increasing fluidity, the thing stretched. It stopped for a moment to preen its fur, then it leaped from Dragon's lap to the shoulder of the driver's seat. Brennan stared at it and it stared back. It was a goddamn living mouse. Brennan glanced back at Lazy Dragon, who seemed to be sleeping, then looked at Whiskers, who was watching impassively beneath his Nixon mask.

"Nice trick," Brennan drawled.

"It's okay," Whiskers said. "You carry him."

Lazy Dragon, who seemed to be vitalizing and possessing the little figurine he'd carved, climbed up on Brennan's shoulder, scurried down his chest, and popped into his vest pocket. He peeked out, holding the pocket-top with his little clawed paws. This was, Brennan thought, more than passing strange, but he had the feeling that things would get stranger before the night was over.

"Okay," he said. "Let's do it." Whatever it was.

They entered the morgue through an unlocked service entrance in a side alley and took the stairway to the basement. Lazy Dragon popped out of his pocket, ran down his vest and pant-leg, and scurried down the poorly lit corridor in which they found themselves. Deadhead started after him, but Brennan held him back.

"Let's wait until the mou-until Lazy Dragon gets back."

Deadhead's eyes were shiny and he was even more jittery than usual. His hands shook as he took out his pill bottle, and he dropped a dozen capsules on the floor as he gulped down a mouthful. The pills scattered on the concrete floor, making loud skittering noises. He grinned maniacally and the corner of his mouth kept twitching in a torturous grimace.

What the hell, Brennan thought, am I doing in a morgue corridor with a madman and a living mouse carved out of soap?

Lazy Dragon came scampering back before Brennan could think of a satisfactory answer to this disturbing question, his tiny feet moving as if he were being chased by the hungriest cat in the world. He stopped at Brennan's feet, dancing with excitement. Brennan sighed, bent over, and held out his hand. Lazy Dragon jumped up on his palm, and Brennan, still hunkered down, lifted the mouse close to his face.

Lazy Dragon sat up on his haunches, his beady eyes bright with intelligence. He drew his tiny right front paw over his throat repeatedly. Brennan sighed again. He hated charades.

"What is it?" he asked. "Danger? Someone in the corridor?"

The mouse nodded excitedly and held up his paw.

"One man?" Again the mouse nodded. "Armed?" The mouse shrugged a very human-looking shrug, looked doubtful. "Okay." Brennan let the mouse down, then stood up. "Follow me." He turned to Deadhead. "You wait here."

Deadhead nodded a jittery nod, and Brennan went off down the corridor, Lazy Dragon scurrying at his heels. He had no confidence in Deadhead and wondered what part in the mission he could possibly play. It's hard, he thought to himself, when your most dependable man is a mouse.

Around the bend of the corridor a man was sitting in a metal folding chair, eating a sandwich and reading a paperback. He looked up as Brennan approached.

"Can I help you, buddy?" He was middle-aged, fat, and balding. The book he was reading was Ace Avenger #49, Mission to Iran.

"Got a delivery."

The man frowned. "I don't know nothing about that. I'm the night janitor. We usually get deliveries during the day."

Brennan nodded understandingly. "This is a special delivery," he said. When he was close enough, he reached behind his back and drew the stiletto he carried in a belt sheath under his vest, touching the tip of its blade lightly against the janitor's throat. The janitor's lips made a round O of astonishment and he dropped his book.

"Jesus, mister, what are you doing?" he asked in a strangled whisper, trying to move his throat as little as possible.

"Where's the long-term storage room?"

"Over there, over that way." The janitor made little jerking motions with his eyeballs, afraid to move even a muscle.

"Go get Deadhead."

"I don't know no one with that name," the fat man pleaded, sweat beading his forehead.

"I wasn't talking to you. I was talking to the mouse."

"O Lord." The janitor started to mumble an incoherent prayer, sure that Brennan was a crazed maniac who was going to murder him.

Brennan waited patiently until Lazy Dragon returned with Deadhead.

"Anyone else on this floor?" he asked, urging the janitor up with a slight flick of his knife wrist. The janitor, catching on quickly, stood immediately.

"No one. Not now."

"No guards?"

The janitor looked as if he wanted to shake his head, but the proximity of the knife to his throat stopped him. "Don't really need them. No one's broke into the morgue for, jeez, months now."

"Okay." Brennan eased the knife away from the janitor's throat and the man visibly relaxed. "Take us to the storeroom. Be quiet and no funny business." By way of emphasis Brennan touched the tip of the janitor's nose with the tip of his knife, and the janitor nodded carefully.

Brennan squatted and held out his palm, and Lazy Dragon climbed onto it. He put the mouse in his vest pocket, holding back a smile at the janitor's bug-eyed stare. He looked as if he wanted to ask Brennan a question, then thought better of it.

"It's this way," the janitor said, and Deadhead and Brennan, with Lazy Dragon peering from his pocket, followed him.

The janitor let them into the room with his key. It was a dark, cold, depressing room with floor-to-ceiling body lockers in the walls. It was where the city kept all the corpses that no one wanted or that no one could identify, before their pauper burials.

Deadhead's jittery smile widened when they entered the room, and he hopped from foot to foot with ill-suppressed excitement.

"Help me find it!" he commanded. "Help me find it!"

"What?" Brennan asked, truly mystified.

"The body. Gruber's fat, cold body." He looked frantically at the lockers, capering in a macabre dance as he went along the wall.

Brennan frowned, herded the janitor in front of him, and started searching the opposite wall. Most of the name tags set into the little metal holders on the locker doors simply had anonymous ID numbers. A few had names.

"Say, this what you looking for?"

The docile janitor, who was preceeding Brennan, looked back helpfully. Brennan stepped to his side. The locker he was pointing at was third up from the floor, about waist high. The tag on it said Leon Gruber, September 16.

"Here it is," Brennan called softly, and Deadhead scuttled across the room. There had to be, Brennan thought, some sort of message on the corpse, something that only Deadhead could decipher. Perhaps this Gruber had smuggled something into the country in a body cavity ... but surely, he thought, anything like that would've been found by the morgue technicians.

"The body's been here a long time," Brennan commented as Deadhead opened the locker door and pulled out the retractable table on which the corpse lay.

"Yes, it has, yes, indeed," Deadhead said, staring at the dingy sheet that covered the body. "They pulled strings. Pulled strings to keep it here until I ... until I could get out."

"Get out?"

Deadhead pulled the sheet down, exposing Gruber's face and chest. He had been a fat young man, soft and pasty-looking. The expression of fear and horror pasted on his face was the worst that Brennan had ever seen on a corpse. His chest was puckered with bullet holes, small caliber from the look of them.

"Yes," Deadhead said, but he never looked up from Gruber's dead, staring eyes. "I was in prison ... hospital, really." From somewhere on his person he had produced a small, shiny hacksaw. His lips twitched in incessant, spasmodic jerks, and a line of spittle ran from the corner of his mouth to drip off his chin. "For corpse abuse."

"Are we taking the body with us?" Brennan asked through tightly clenched lips.

"No thanks," Deadhead said brightly. "I'll eat it here."

He began to saw Gruber's skull. The blade cut through the bone easily. Brennan and the janitor watched, horrified, as the top of the skull came off and Deadhead, with maniacal, somehow furtive glee, scooped chunks off Gruber's brain and stuffed them in his mouth. He chewed noisily.

Brennan felt Lazy Dragon dive into his vest pocket. The janitor vomited and Brennan fought off the rising tide of nausea that threatened to overwhelm him, holding on with grim, tight-lipped self-control.

III

Brennan gagged the janitor with his handkerchief and bound him at wrist and ankle with packing tape Lazy Dragon found in a corner of the storage room. He had to do all the work himself because Deadhead, mumbling incoherently, had sagged against the wall after wolfing down Gruber's brain. After Brennan took care of the janitor he guided the mumbling maniac out of the storeroom. Brennan wished that Lazy Dragon could tell him what the hell was going on.

"How'd it go?" Whiskers asked when Brennan threw open the Buick's rear passenger door and pushed Deadhead in. Brennan slammed the door and slid onto the front seat before answering.

"Fine, I think. Deadhead had a snack."

Whiskers nodded, started the car, and pulled away from the curb. Lazy Dragon climbed from Brennan's pocket, balanced precariously on the shoulder of the car seat, then leaped onto the lap of his human body, which, after a moment, awoke, yawned, and stretched. The mouse, undergoing a transformation somewhat analagous to that of Lot's overcurious wife, turned back into a block of soap.

"How'd it go?" Whiskers mumbled again, glancing up into the rearview mirror as he dove.

"Lazy Dragon dropped his mouse-sculpture in his jacket pocket and nodded. "As planned. We found the body and Deadhead ... dined. Cowboy did fine."

"Great. We'd better get Deadhead to the boss while he's still digesting."

"Now that we're all buddies," Brennan drawled, "maybe you can tell me what's going on."

Whiskers flipped off a driver who'd cut in front of them. "Well ... I suppose it'd be all right. Deadhead there," he snickered, "is an ace, sort of. He can get people's memories by eating their brains."

Brennan made a face. "Jesus. So Gruber knew something that Mao wants to know."

Whiskers nodded and gunned the Buick, running a red light. "We think so. We hope so, anyway. You see, Danny Mao's boss is this guy named Fadeout who wants to find some ace who calls herself Wraith. Gruber was her fence before she bumped him off. Mao figures Gruber probably knew enough about her so we can use his memories to track her down."

Brennan pursed his lips, suppressing a smile. He knew more about this than these guys did. Fadeout was one of Kien's aces who had tried, and failed, to capture him and Wraith on Wild Card Day, and Wraith had told him that someone-not her-had killed her fence that very day.

"Why'd you wait so long to get to Gruber's corpse?" Brennan asked.

Whiskers shrugged. "Deadhead was in some kinda hospital. Cops caught him doing his thing with a body he'd found on the street back on Wild Card Day, and it took the lawyers a couple of months to spring him."

Brennan nodded, and to stay in his role as bewildered newcomer, he asked a question he already knew the answer to. "So why does Fadeout want to find this Wraith?"

Because she'd lifted Kien's private diary in the early morning hours of the wildest Wild Car Day ever, Brennan thought, but the Werewolf evidently didn't know that. He shrugged. "Hey, you think I'm Fadeout's confidant or something?"

Brennan nodded. He wasn't, at least he tried not to be, introspective. His memories of the past were frequently painful, but Wraith-Jennifer Maloy-had often been on his mind since their meeting in September. It was more than the adventure they'd shared on Wild Card Day, more than the easy comradeship and grudging confidence between them, more than her tall, athletic-looking body. Brennan couldn't, wouldn't, admit why, but he knew that he'd try to get himself on the Shadow Fist task force that'd been given the job of hunting her. In that way he'd be in position to help her if the Fists got too close.

Not, he thought, that they'd be able to use Gruber's memories to track her down. Although Wraith had never told Brennan his name, she'd mentioned that she hadn't trusted her fence and had, in fact, never even told him her real name.

They drove on in silence. Whiskers finally pulled over and killed the engine in front of a three-story brownstone in the heart of Jokertown.

"Cowboy, you and Lazy Dragon help Deadhead. He can't do much on his own while he's digesting."

Brennan took his left arm, Lazy Dragon took his right, and they dragged him across the sidewalk and up the flight of stairs to the brownstone's entrance, where Whiskers was already talking with one of the Egrets who'd been standing in the foyer. They passed them on into the interior of the building, where another Egret guard spoke briefly into a house telephone and then told them to go upstairs. Getting Deadhead up two flights of stairs was like dragging a sack of half-set cement, but Whiskers didn't offer to help. Another Egret nodded to them on the third-floor landing. They went down a corridor with a threadbare carpet, and Whiskers rapped smartly on the door at the end of the hall. A masculine voice called out, "Come in," and Whiskers opened the door and preceded Brennan, Lazy Dragon, and Deadhead into the room.

It was a comfortably appointed room, rather luxurious compared to what Brennan had seen of the rest of the house. A man in his thirties, handsome, well-dressed, and fit-looking, was standing in front of a well-stocked liquor cart, having just fixed himself a drink.

"How did it go?"

"Fine, Fadeout, just fine."

Brennan didn't recognize him. He'd last seen him on Wild Card Day, but Fadeout had been invisible until Wraith had bashed him on the head with a garbage can lid and he'd fallen unconscious to the street. Brennan had had his hands full of Egrets at the time and had only spared the fallen ace the briefest of glances. It was evident that Fadeout also didn't recognize Brennan, who'd been masked at the time.

"Who's this?" the ace asked, nodding in Brennan's direction.

"New guy named Cowboy. He's all right."

"He'd better be." Fadeout stepped away from the cart, settled himself in a comfortable chair nearby. "Help yourself," he said, gesturing at the liquor.

Whiskers stepped forward eagerly. Brennan and Lazy Dragon turned to dump the near-comatose Deadhead, who was now mumbling about excessive overhead and the price of cocaine, in a convenient chair, when a sudden, terrifyingly loud explosion boomed through the building, shaking it to its foundations. It seemed to come from the roof.

Fadeout's drink sloshed over his suit, Whiskers fell into the liquor cart, and Lazy Dragon and Brennan dropped Deadhead.

"Jesus Christ!" Fadeout swore, lurched to his feet, and staggered to the door as the ratcheting roar of automatic gunfire came from below.

Brennan followed Fadeout and found himself staring at three men armed with Uzis who'd come through a hole they'd blasted in the ceiling. Fadeout stood rooted in place by fear-induced paralysis. Brennan, acting instinctively, knocked the ace to the floor as a stream of slugs from their assailants' compact machine guns ripped into the wall above their heads. Brennan carried his Browning Hipower in a shoulder rig, and he knew that he couldn't draw it in time to return fire, he knew that he was going to be nailed to the floor by the next burst of slugs. Cursing the fate that had brought him to die among his enemies, he grabbed for his gun.

Something tossed from the room behind them fluttered in the hallway, a small sheet of paper that had been intricately folded. Before Brennan could draw his automatic, before their assailants could trigger another burst, there was a twisting shimmering in the air as the paper changed, transformed, grew, into a breathing, living, roaring tiger charging down the corridor, its eyes red and glaring, its mouth full of long, sharp teeth.

It caught a burst of slugs but didn't stop. It hurled itself at the three men at the end of the corridor, and Brennan heard bones splinter as it landed among them.

Brennan got to his knees, drew and aimed his Browning. Lazy Dragon was holding one man down with his front paws, and with a single, quick motion bit cleanly through his throat. Blood sprayed over the hallway as a panicked gunman put a long burst through Dragon from point-blank range. The red dot from the sighting mechanism of Brennan's pistol shone on the gunman's forehead, and Brennan shot him as the tiger collapsed, falling with all its weight on the third assailant.

Fadeout had faded. Brennan half-stood and ran in crouching, crablike fashion down the corridor. He put a bullet through the head of the man who was trying frantically to pull himself out from under Lazy Dragon, then dropped to his knees before the gigantic cat. It was covered in blood, whether its own or from the slain men around it Brennan couldn't tell, but it was perforated by scores of wounds and was panting heavily. Brennan had seen enough mortally wounded creatures to know that Dragon was dying. He had no idea what he should do, or what this meant to Lazy Dragon's human form. He paused to pat the tiger sympathetically, then quickly moved on.

Bursts of automatic gunfire still rattled below as Brennan cautiously made his way down to the second-floor landing and carefully peered over the rail to the ground floor.

The foyer's double doors were open. Half a dozen Egrets, shot to pieces by automatic gunfire, lay on the stained marble floor. As Brennan watched, the few living members of the assault team backed grudgingly through the wreckage of the front door, swapping gunfire with the Egret guards and their reinforcements. Within moments the firefight had moved into the street outside, where gunfire echoed loudly in the night.

Brennan stood up.

"Goddamn wops."

He looked over his right shoulder. A pair of blue eyes, nerve tendrils and connective tissue dangling eerily from them, were floating five and a half feet above the floor. Fadeout blinked into existence, looking slightly rumpled and very, very angry.

"The Mafia?" Brennan asked.

"That's right, Cowboy. Rico Covello's men. I recognized what was left of their ugly faces from our dossiers." He paused, his anger replaced by sudden gratefulness. "I owe you one. They would've had me if you hadn't knocked me down."

Brennan shrugged. "If not for Lazy Dragon, we'd both be chopped meat. We'd better see if he's okay. His tiger got shot to shit."

"Right."

They went back upstairs. Brennan was relieved to see-then immediately angry at himself for the feeling-that Dragon was sitting calmly in one of Fadeout's comfortable chairs. He looked up as they entered the room.

"Everything is all right?" he asked.

"I wouldn't say that," Fadeout replied, still angry. "Those guinea bastards just waltzed in here and almost offed me." He looked angrily at Whiskers, who was standing uncertainly in the middle of the room. "What were you doing about it, you joker shitbag?"

Whiskers shrugged. "I-I thought someone should stay with Deadhead-"

"Take off that goddamned mask when you talk to me!" Fadeout ordered angrily. "I'm sick and tired of looking at Nixon's mug. No matter how ugly you are, it can't be worse."

Lazy Dragon watched Whiskers with calculated interest, and Brennan's hand crept closer to his holstered Browning. Werewolves had been known to fly into killing rages when unmasked, but Whiskers, as indicated by his earlier action-or lack of action-wasn't the fiercest of Werewolves. He took off his mask and stood in the center of the room uncomfortably shifting his weight from foot to foot.

Every bit of his face, except for his eyeballs, was covered with thick, coarse hair. Even his tongue, which was nervously licking his lips, was furred. No wonder, Brennan thought, his voice was so mushy.

Fadeout grunted, said something under his breath that Brennan didn't quite catch but had "joker bastard" in it, and turned away from the Werewolf.

"We've got to leave. The police will be here any minute. Dragon, you and Whiskers get that freak"-he nodded at Deadhead, who was still slumped muttering in his chair-"and bring him around back. Get the car and pick me up in front. Cowboy, come with me. I have to do a quick damage assessment."

Dragon stood. Brennan stopped in front of him and they looked at each other for a long moment. There was something strange about Lazy Dragon, Brennan suddenly thought, something hidden, something utterly unfathomable that went beyond his unusual ace power. But the man had saved his life.

"Lucky you had a tiger on you."

Dragon smiled. "I like to have a backup handy. Something more deadly than a mouse."

Brennan nodded. "I'm in your debt," he said.

"I'll remember that." Dragon turned to help Whiskers with Deadhead.

Downstairs there were five dead Egrets, and half a dozen deceased mafiosi. The surviving Egrets were buzzing like angry bees.

Fadeout shook his head. "Damn. It's escalating. Little Mother isn't going to like this."

Brennan squelched the expression of sudden interest before it reached his face. He said nothing, because he was afraid his voice would betray him. Little Mother, Siu Ma, was the head of the Immaculate Egrets. If Fadeout was a lieutenant in Kien's organization, she was at least a colonel. In all his months of investigation he'd discovered only that she was an ethnic Chinese from Vietnam who'd come to the states in the late 1960s to become the wife of Nathan Chow, the leader of a penny-ante street gang called the Immaculate Egrets. Her arrival corresponded with a quick rise in the fortune of the Egrets, little of which was enjoyed by Chow. He had died under unspecified but mysterious circumstances in 1971, and Siu Ma took over the gang, which continued to grow and prosper. Kien, then still an ARVN general, used it to funnel heroin into the States. There was no doubt that Siu Ma was very high in Kien's organization, very high indeed.

"We have to split before the cops arrive," Fadeout said. He turned to an Ingram-toting Egret. "Leave this place. Take all the files, all valuables."

The Egret nodded, sketched an informal salute, and started shouting orders in rapid Chinese.

"Let's go," Fadeout repeated, carefully picking his way among the bodies.

"Where to?" Brennan asked as casually as he could.

"Little Mother's place in Chinatown. I've got to tell her what happened."

A sleek limo pulled up to the curb. Whiskers was driving, Deadhead lolled in the backseat with Lazy Dragon. Fadeout got in and Brennan followed him, excitement thrumming through his body like tautly stretched wire.

He carefully noted the route that Whiskers took, but he had no idea at all where they were when the limo finally stopped in a small, ramshackle garage in a dirty, garbage-choked alley. His unfamiliarity with the area irritated him and upset his fine-tuned sense of control. He hated the helpless feeling that had been plaguing him lately, but there was nothing to do but swallow it and go on.

Whiskers, his mask back in place, and Lazy Dragon dragged Deadhead from the limo on Fadeout's order. The significance of that wasn't lost on Brennan. He knew that he'd gone up a notch or two in Fadeout's estimation, which was exactly what he wanted. The closer he got to the core of Kien's organization, the easier it would be for him to bring it tumbling down like a house of cards.

The door they approached wasn't as flimsy as it appeared. It was also locked and guarded, but the sentinel let them in after peering through a peephole when Fadeout knocked.

"Siu Ma is asleep," the guard said. He was a large Chinese dressed in traditional baggy trousers, broad leather belt, and matching tunic top. The machine pistol holstered on his broad leather belt was a jarring anachronism with his antique style of dress, but, Brennan reflected, was a sensible compromise with what was apparently Siu Ma's strongly developed sense of tradition.

"She'll want to see us," Fadeout said grimly. "We'll be in the audience chamber."

The guard nodded, turned to a very modern intercom system, and spoke Chinese too quickly for Brennan to follow.

The audience chamber was as luxurious as the outside of the building was dilapidated. The decorating motif was dynastic China. There were rich rugs, beautiful lacquered screens, delicate porcelain, a couple of massive green bronze temple demons, and undoubtedly valuable knickknacks of ivory, jade, and other precious and semiprecious stones set about on tables of teak and ebony and other rare woods. Wraith, Brennan thought, would love this place.

Although it could have been overwhelming, the room's overall effect was actually quite pleasing. It was like a living museum exhibit that had been assembled with a discerning eye and in the utmost good taste.

Siu Ma was already waiting for them. She was seated on a gilt chair that dominated the chamber's rear wall, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. She was short with a round, plump face, dark, long-lashed eyes, and black glossy hair. She looked to be in her early thirties. She stifled a yawn with a pudgy hand and frowned at Fadeout.

"This had better be important," she said, glancing distastefully at Deadhead and his attendants, curiously at Brennan. Her English was excellent, with just a lingering trace of a French accent.

"It is," Fadeout assured her. He told her of the Mafia hit on his brownstone. As he spoke, a young girl bearing a tray came into the room and poured her a small cup of tea. Siu Ma sipped the tea as she listened to Fadeout's story, and her frown deepened.

"This is intolerable," she said when he'd finished. "We must teach those comic-book criminals a lesson they won't forget."

"I agree," Fadeout said. "However, our spies have told us that Covello has withdrawn to his estate in the Hamptons. It's one of the Mafia's most heavily fortified strongholds. It has two walls around it-an armored outer wall that encircles the entire estate and an inner electrified fence that protects the main building. Covello's entrenched there with a company of heavily armed Mafia thugs."

Siu Ma looked at Fadeout coldly, and Brennan could see ruthless strength in her near-black eyes.

"The Shadow Fists have weapons too," she said.

Fadeout bobbed his head. "I agree, but we don't want to expend our men in a futile attempt at revenge. And think of the unwanted attention such an assault would draw from the authorities."

There was an uncomfortable silence as Siu Ma sipped her tea and stared coldly at Fadeout. Brennan saw his chance.

"Excuse my interruption," he said in his soft drawl, "but one man can often go where many would be unwelcome."

Fadeout turned to him, frowned. "What do you mean?"

Brennan shrugged depreciatingly. "A one-man sortie might accomplish what a full-scale raid could never hope to do."

Brennan felt Siu Ma's eyes boring into him. "Who is this man?" she asked.

"His name's Cowboy," Fadeout said, distraction in his voice. "He's new."

Siu Ma finished her tea and set the cup down on the tray. "He sounds as if he has a head on his shoulders. Tell me," she said, speaking directly to Brennan for the first time, "are you volunteering to be this man?"

He bobbed his head in a respectful bow. "Yes, Dama."

She smiled, pleased as he'd hoped she'd be by the respectful form of address.

"It will be dangerous, very, very dangerous," Fadeout said cautiously.

Siu Ma turned her gaze to him. "Never," she said, "stop to count danger in a matter of revenge."

Brennan suppressed a smile. Siu Ma, it seemed, was a woman after his own heart.

IV

It was bone-chillingly cold at the West Thirtieth Street Heliport. The wind was an icy whip that cut through the stained jumpsuit that Brennan wore. The smell of immanent snow was in the air, though Brennan could barely discern it through the grease and oil odors of the heliport where, disguised as a mechanic, he waited patiently.

Brennan was good at waiting. He'd spent two days and nights doing just that in a hidden observation post across the road from Covello's Southampton estate. It was apparent that Covello, choosing discretion over valor, had decided to go to ground for the duration of the Mafia-Shadow Fist war. He was surrounded by a company of heavily armed Mafia goons and protected by walls that were safe to anything but a full-scale assault. The only vehicles allowed inside the grounds brought supplies to feed the don and underlings to consult with him, and even these were stopped and thoroughly checked at the front gate.

The only other way into the estate was the helipad on the mansion's roof. Brennan had watched Covello's helicopter come and go several times each day, on different occasions ferrying in and out expensive-looking women and dark-suited men. The men, when identified by snaps Brennan took of them with a telephoto lens, were mostly high-ranking members of the other Families. The women were apparently call girls.

His reconnaissance over, Brennan waited patiently at the heliport that was the Manhattan base of Covello's chopper. Since, he decided, he couldn't go through Covello's walls, he'd go over them. In Covello's own chopper.

Night had fallen before the chopper pilot showed up with a trio of shivering women dressed in fur coats. There was no one else near the chopper. As Brennan approached them, the pilot let down the ladder to the cabin. The first hooker was trying to climb aboard, but was finding it difficult to mount the metal stairs in her high-heeled boots.

It was too almost too easy. Brennan slugged the pilot, and he staggered backward, hit hard against the body of the chopper, and slid to the ground. The call girl who'd been clutching his arm teetered precariously, her arms windmilling vigorously, then Brennan steadied her with a hand on her rump.

"Hey!" she complained, either at the placement of Brennan's hand or his treatment of the pilot.

"Change in plan," Brennan told them. "Go on home."

They regarded him suspiciously. The one on the stairs spoke. "We haven't been paid yet."

Brennan smiled his best smile. "You haven't been killed yet, either." He reached for his wallet, emptied it of cash. "Cab fare," he said, handing the bills over.

The three glanced at each other, at Brennan, then back at each other. The one climbed down the stairs, and hunched over against the cold, walked away muttering. The others followed.

Brennan hauled the pilot into the chopper cabin. He was out cold, but his pulse was steady and strong. Brennan stared at him for a moment. The man, after all, was nothing to him, not even an enemy. He was just someone who happened to be in the way. Brennan took a ball of strong twine from his jumpsuit pocket, bound him, gagged him, and left him on the floor of the cabin. He stripped off his dirty jumpsuit, wadded it up, and flung it in a corner. He moved through the cabin into the cockpit and slid into the pilot's seat.

"I'm off," he said to the empty air, but those listening on the chosen frequency heard him and started on their own way to Southampton.

Brennan hadn't piloted a chopper in more than ten years, and this was a commercial rather than a military model, but the old skills returned quickly to his hands. He asked for and received takeoff clearance, and scrupulously following the flight plan he'd found on a clipboard in the cabin, soon left behind the million twinkling jewels that were New York City.

Flying over Long Island in the cold, clear night gave him a fresh, clean feeling that he lost himself in. All too soon, however, Covello's brightly lit private helipad was below him. As he settled down as gently as a feather, a guard carrying an assault rifle waved at him. Brennan sighed. He shook the clean feeling of the night sky from his brain. It was time to get back to work.

The guard sauntered casually toward the chopper. Brennan waited until he was half a dozen steps away, then he leaned out the cockpit window and shot him in the head with his silenced Browning. No one saw him enter the mansion through the door in the roof, no one saw him flit from room to room, as quiet and purposeful as a haunting spirit.

He found Covello in a library that had rows and rows of unread books that had been bought by the mansion's interior decorator because of their matched bindings. The don, whom Brennan recognized from his photo in Fadeout's dossier, was shooting pool with his consuláre while a man who was obviously a bodyguard watched silently.

Covello missed an easy cushion shot, swore to himself, then looked up. He frowned at Brennan. "Who the hell are you?"

Brennan said nothing. He raised his gun and shot the astonished bodyguard. Covello started to scream in a curiously high-pitched, womanish voice, and the consuláre swung at Brennan with his poolstick. Brennan ducked out of the way and put three slugs in the consuláre's chest, blowing him over the pool table. He shot the don in the back as he was running for the door.

Covello was still breathing as Brennan stood over him. There was a pleading look in his eyes and he tried to speak. Brennan wanted to finish him with a shot to the head, but couldn't. He had orders.

He pulled a small black nylon sack from his back pocket, and a knife, much longer and heavier than the one he usually carried, from the belt sheath at the small of his back.

He was on the clock now. Covello's screams had certainly aroused the household, and he had little time before more goons would arrive. He bent down. The dying don closed his eyes in unutterable horror at the sight of the knife in Brennan's hands.

The man wasn't his enemy, but neither would his death be a great loss to society. Still, as he cut through Covello's throat, leaning hard on the blade to sever the spinal cord, Brennan couldn't help but feel that he deserved a cleaner death. That no one deserved a death like this.

He lifted Covello's head by his oiled hair and dropped it in the nylon bag. Moving quickly, he went back through the corridors that led to the roof and waiting chopper. He moved quickly and quietly, but he was seen.

A Mafia soldier let out a wild burst of gunfire and shouted to his companions. The burst didn't come close to hitting Brennan, but he knew now they were on his trail. He moved faster, running down corridors and up stairs. Once he blundered into a group of men. He had no idea who they were, and they looked surprised and not a little bewildered at the commotion. He emptied the Browning's clip at them as he charged, and they scattered without offering resistence as the sounds of pursuit drew closer and closer.

He spoke aloud to unseen listeners without breaking stride. "I've got the package and I'm coming home. I need backup." He reached into his vest pocket, dropped something to the carpet, and ran on.

A fluttering sheet of delicate paper, intricately folded into a small, complicated shape, fell from his hand. He didn't look back, but he heard the challenging roar of a big cat, terribly loud in the close confines of the corridor, reverberate and echo endlessly as it mixed with the sounds of gunfire and the screams of terrified men.

The route he flew to the small Suffolk County airport was on no authorized flight plan, and the flight itself was not as exhilarating with the stained and leaking black bag keeping him company on the copilot's seat.

Fadeout and Whiskers were waiting at the airport with a limo.

"How'd it go?"

"As planned." Brennan held out the bag and Whiskers took it.

Fadeout nodded. "Wrap it up in a blanket or something and put it in the trunk." He caught Brennan's look of disgust as Whiskers hustled off. He shrugged. "Yeah, it gets to me, too, sometimes. Deadhead is a useful tool, though. Think of all the inside info he'll pick up from Covello's brain."

"I thought Deadhead was working on another problem," Brennan said casually. "Some ace named Wraith?"

"Oh, that?" Fadeout waved a hand. "He solved it. Wraith apparently didn't like Gruber too much. Never even told him her real name. But she did let her birthday slip once. And Deadhead is a talented sketch artist-hard to think of him as having any real human qualities. We have deep connections in a lot of government agencies, the DMV, for example. Her birthday and Deadhead's sketch will be enough to nail that bitch to the wall."

A wave of fear washed through Brennan, sweeping away the fatigue that weighed heavily on his body and spirit. To hide it he rubbed his face and yawned hugely.

"Well," he said, desperately trying to sound casual, "it sounds pretty important. I'd like to be in on it."

Fadeout looked at him closely, but nodded. "Sure, Cowboy. You earned it. It won't come down for a day or two, but you look like you could sleep that long."

Brennan forced a grin. "I could at that."

They dropped Brennan at his Jokertown apartment, where he slept around the clock, then worried for another day before he got the call. It was Whiskers's mushy voice at the other end of the line.

"We got her name, Cowboy, and we got her address."

"Who's in on it?"

"You and me and two of my Werewolf pals. They're watching her place now."

Brennan nodded. He was glad that Lazy Dragon wouldn't be along. He had ample respect for the ace's power and adaptability.

"There's a problem, though." Whiskers hesitated. "She can turn into a ghost or something and walk right through walls and shit, so we can't even really threaten her."

Brennan smiled. Jennifer was extraordinarily difficult to deal with.

"Fadeout's got a plan though. We break into her place and see if we can find this book he's looking for. If not, we can try to deal with her. Buy it back or something. Then," Whiskers said, some satisfaction in his voice, "she can always catch a bullet in the back of her head sometime. She ain't always going to be a ghost."

"Good plan," Brennan made himself say. And it was. They knew her name. They knew where to find her. He had to do something or she wouldn't live out the month, even if they turned over the diary. His mind raced. "I'll meet you in an hour, at her place. Give me the address."

"Right, Cowboy. You know, it's too bad she can turn into a ghost. She's real good-looking. We could have a real party with her."

"Yeah, a real party." Brennan hung up after Whiskers gave him directions to the apartment. He stared at nothing for a moment, marshaling all his Zen training to calm his mind, to soothe his racing pulse. He needed calmness, not a brain drenched in hate, anger, and fear. Part of him wondered at his strong reaction to Whiskers's news. Part of him knew the reason, but the biggest part told him to forget it for now, to bury it and examine it later. There was a way out of this mess ... there had to be....

He sunk his consciousness in the pool of being, seeking knowledge through perfect tranquility, and when he brought his mind back from zazen, he had his answer. It was Kien, and what he knew of the man, his fears, his strengths, his weaknesses.

Some of the details would be tricky, and painful, to work out. He picked up the phone, dialed a number. It rang, then he heard the sound of her voice on the other end of the line: "Hello?" He held the phone tightly, realizing that he had missed her voice, and despite the circumstances, he was glad to hear it again. "Hello?"

"Hello, Jennifer. We have, to talk..."

Snow was falling in blinding sheets and the wind was roaring like lost souls through the gray city canyons. Somehow winter seemed colder here than in the mountains, Brennan thought, colder and dirtier and lonelier. The maskless Werewolves, dressed as maintenance men, were waiting in the lobby of Jennifer's apartment building. One was tall and thin with acne-scarred cheeks. His joker deformities were hidden by the baggy coveralls he wore. The other was short and thin, his deformity evident in his sharply twisted spine that rotated his torso abnormally from his hips. Whiskers and Brennan, also wearing coveralls, stamped the snow from their boots.

"Cold as hell," Whiskers offered. "She's gone?" he asked in a low whisper.

The tall and thin one nodded. "She left no more'n ten minutes ago. Caught a cab."

"Okay, let's do it."

No one saw them go up to Jennifer's apartment. Her front door yielded easily to the Werewolves' burglary tools. Brennan told himself that he'd have to speak to her about that, if, he amended, they were both still around when this caper was finished.

"We'll toss the bedroom first," Whiskers said as they entered the apartment. He stopped and frowned at the bookshelf-lined walls. "Shit, finding a book in this will be like looking for a needle in a goddamned haystack."

He led the way into a small bedroom that contained a single bed, a nightstand with a lamp, an ancient wardrobe, and more bookshelves.

"We'll have to check all those damn books," Whiskers said. "One might be hollowed out or something."

"Jeez, Whiskers," the short and thin Werewolf said, "you've seen too many mov-"

He stopped, stared, as a tall, slim, good-looking blonde in a black string bikini stepped out of the wall. She wavered, solidified, and pointed a silenced pistol at them. She smiled. "Freeze," she said.

They froze, more in astonishment than fear.

Whiskers swallowed. "Hey, we, we just want to talk. We were sent by important people."

The woman nodded. "I know."

"You know?" Whiskers asked, bewildered.

"I told her."

Everyone turned to stare at Brennan. He had opened the drawer of the nightstand, and he, too, had a gun. It was a long-barreled, peculiar-looking pistol. He pointed it at Whiskers.

The joker's eyeballs bulged from his furry face.

"What the hell are you doing, Cowboy? What's going on?"

Brennan looked at him with no expression at all. He flicked his wrist, squeezed the trigger twice. There were two small, nearly soundless explosions of air, and the Werewolves stared in astonishment at the darts implanted in their chests. The tall, thin one opened his mouth to say something, sighed, closed his eyes, and slipped to the floor. The other didn't even try to speak.

"Cowboy!"

Brennan shook his head. "My name isn't Cowboy. It isn't Yeoman either, but that will do."

Whiskers's face took on an almost comical look of terror. "Look, let me go. Please. I won't tell anyone. Honest. Trust me-" He sagged to his knees, his hands clasped imploringly, tears soaking his furry cheeks.

Brennan's air pistol spat another dart, and Whiskers slipped facedown on the carpet. Brennan turned to Jennifer.

"Hello, Wraith."

She dropped the gun on the bed. "Can't you ... can't you let them go?"

Brennan shook his head. "You know I can't. They know who I am. It'd blow my cover. It'd also ruin our plan."

"They have to die?"

He approached within reach of her but made his arms stay at his side. "This is deadly business you're involved in." He gestured at the drugged Werewolves. "No one can walk away from this, except me, if you want to live." He stopped, looked troubled. "Even then, there's no guarantee..."

Jennifer sighed. "Their lives are on my head-"

"They made the decisions and led the lives that brought them here. They were prepared to rape, maim, and kill you. Still"-Brennan looked away from Jennifer, looked inward to himself-"still..."

His voice ran down to silence. Jennifer put her hand on his cheek, and he looked up, his dark eyes haunted by memories of death and destruction that despite his Zen training, despite his dogged concentration, were never far from the surface of his thoughts.

Jennifer smiled slightly. "I like your new eyes." Brennan smiled back and almost unwillingly covered her hand with his.

"I have to get going. It'll be dark soon and I have to take care of them"-he nodded at the unconscious Werewolves-"and ... other details."

Jennifer nodded. "Will I see you again? Soon, I mean."

Brennan took his hand away, half-turned, shrugged. "Don't you have enough problems?"

"Hey, the crime lord of New York City has marked me for death. How much worse could it get?"

Brennan shook his head. "You couldn't even begin to guess. Look, you'd better disappear. I have to take care of things."

Jennifer looked at him silently.

"I'll call you."

"Promise?" she asked.

Brennan nodded. She gave the Werewolves a final troubled glance, then faded through the wall again. Brennan had no intention of keeping the promise. None. Not at all. But by the time he'd hoisted the first unconscious joker to his shoulders, his resolve was already fading.

V

Fadeout, Siu Ma, and Deadhead were in conference when Brennan was admitted to the audience chamber. Deadhead was babbling lists of names, addresses, telephone numbers, bank accounts, and government connections. Everything that Covello had kept in the storehouse of his brain was Deadhead's. Everything the don had known....

A sudden insight struck Brennan. Only the dead, he thought, could know everything. They were finished and done with. Their lives were complete. Only the dead could know Jokertown, totally and completely, for they had no need of new knowledge. Like him, when he'd been in the mountains. His life had been peaceful, unchanging, and serene. And quite dead. Now he was living again. The sense of uncertainty and loss of control that had increasingly been plaguing him was the price he paid for living. It was a high price, but so far, he realized, he could afford it.

Fadeout and Siu Ma exchanged concerned glances when Brennan entered the chamber alone.

"What happened? Fadeout asked.

"Ambush. That crazy Yeoman bastard. Killed Whiskers and the other Werewolves. Pinned me to the wall by my damn hand." Brennan held out his right hand. It was wrapped in a bloody rag torn from his shirt. It had hurt like hell to drive the arrow through his palm. It'd been, Brennan reflected, penance of a sort for what he'd done since his arrival in the city.

"He let you live?" Siu Ma asked.

"He wanted me to deliver this. He said it was no good to him." He held up Kien's diary, which had been blanked when Jennifer had ghosted it from Kien's wall safe. He hated like hell to give it back and let Kien know that he was safe from the secrets he'd written therein, but he had to give Kien something concrete to get him off Jennifer's back.

Fadeout took the diary from him and, mystified, riffled through its blank pages. "Did ... did Yeoman do this?"

Brennan shook his head. "He said it happened when Wraith stole it."

Fadeout smiled. "Well, that's great. That's really great."

Even Siu Ma looked pleased.

"There was one more thing." Brennan forced himself to speak like a dispassionate messenger when he really wanted to brand the words on Fadeout's forehead so Kien would be sure to understand the iron behind them.

Fadeout and Siu Ma looked at him expectantly.

"He also had a message. He said to tell Kien-yeah, the name was Kien-that he knows where Kien lives, just as Kien knows where Wraith lives. He said to tell Kien that their feud goes beyond life and death, that it is one of honor and retribution, but that he will be satisfied with Kien's life if anything happens to Wraith. He says he has an arrow with Kien's name on it waiting ... just waiting."

He'd delivered a similar promise a few months ago in behalf of another. But perhaps justifiably she had refused to accept his protection and chose instead to go away. Jennifer, though, had simply nodded when he'd told her his plan, had accepted it as if she truly, totally trusted him.

"I see." Fadeout and Siu Ma exchanged worried glances. "Well, yes, I'll pass that on." Fadeout nodded decisively. "I will indeed." He pulled worriedly at his lower lip.

Siu Ma stood up. "You have proven yourself worthy," she said. "I hope that your association with the Shadow Fists will be long and prosperous."

Brennan looked at her. He permitted himself to smile. "I'm sure it will," he said. "I'm sure it will."



Copyright © 1988 by George R. R. Martin and the Wild Cards Trust