Read Wild Cards: Death Draws Five Online

Authors: John J. Miller,George R.R. Martin

Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Contemporary, #Fiction - Fantasy, #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Science Fiction - General, #Fantasy, #Heroes, #General, #Fantasy - Contemporary

Wild Cards: Death Draws Five (2 page)

BOOK: Wild Cards: Death Draws Five
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Ralph was kissing a seven-hundred pound tiger on his nose pad when the tiger casually reached out, put his paw behind Ralph’s head, and drew him in closer. His massive jaws crunched together where Ralph’s neck met his shoulder. Then the tiger calmly walked back up the runway, dragging Ralph’s twitching body and leaving behind a smeared trail of blood. Jerry and John Fortune were so close to the action that a spatter of Ralph’s blood showered down at their feet.

John Fortune made a strange sound in his throat. Jerry tore his eyes away from the chaos on the stage and looked at the stricken expression on the kid’s face. At first Jerry assumed Fortune had been frightened by the horrific tiger attack, but then he realized that it was something more. Something terribly more.

“John—” He reached for the boy, cursing, as a man rushed by, bumped him, and knocked him to the floor. Jerry’s ankle twisted, the man stepped on it, and Jerry felt something give.

Shit, Jerry said to himself. He didn’t think it was broken, but it hurt like sudden Hell. The last thing he needed was a bad ankle as the crowd around them dissolved into crazed panic. He stood and swore again as he tried to put his weight on it. No go. He tried to ignore the awful pain. Something was wrong with John Fortune, and Jerry was afraid that he knew what that something was.

“John—” he repeated. When he took the kid in his arms, he knew for sure.

John Fortune’s eyes were glassy. His breath was rapid and harsh. His skin was flushed. Jerry put a hand on the kid’s forehead. He didn’t have to be a doctor to know that Fortune was running a temperature.

And was radiating a pleasant, orangish-yellow glow.

His skin hadn’t changed color. It was still the normal pinkish hue called “white,” if actually darker than usual, as if he were blushing all over. But the kid was projecting a dim aura, almost like glowing halos around his face and hands, that was clearly visible in the dark auditorium.

“Shit,” Jerry swore again.

The boy’s card had turned, and he was doomed.

The Wild Card virus, let loose on Earth almost sixty years previously by cold-hearted Takisian scientists to test its ability to turn ordinary people into super beings, worked after a fashion. It killed ninety percent of those it infected. Usually in horrific ways. In many cases, however, the dead were the lucky ones. Another nine percent of the virus’s living victims were twisted in body or mind, typically in terrible ways. A final one percent did receive some kind of ability, ranging from the ridiculously useless to the cosmically sublime. Jerry himself had turned over an ace. But he knew that the kid, who had inherited virus-tainted genes from his parents, was most likely a dead man. But only if he was lucky.

“W-w-what’s happening to me?” John Fortune stuttered through clenched teeth. He was sweating visibly now. His hair was plastered to his forehead and his shirt was already soaked as water ran out of his body in rivulets. “I feel so weak.”

Jerry couldn’t crouch over him anymore. His ankle was killing him and his thighs were beginning to ache. He kneeled on the floor, trying to ignore the tumult around them as the audience fled, Siegfried stood frozen in horror, and the company of performers stuttered around him in their bright costumes like a flock of frightened birds. Jerry put his arms around the kid, holding him close.

No one could help John Fortune now. It was all in the hands of God, or the cosmic crapshoot, whichever was in charge of human affairs. But whatever was happening to him, Jerry wouldn’t let him face it alone. He’d failed to protect the kid from this most awful danger, the danger that Peregrine had foreseen and tried so fruitlessly to prevent, but he’d stay with him and hold him and comfort him as best as he could. It was all he could do.

“Your card’s turned, John,” he said quietly. He felt the kid’s arms tighten around him, holding him hard. He heard him gasp. The kid knew the odds of living through this as well as Jerry did. The fact that he wasn’t sobbing aloud spoke volumes about his courage.

Moments passed. John Fortune’s fevered body pressed tightly against him; his breath was ragged in Jerry’s ear. After what seemed an eternity, John Fortune said, “You’ve hurt your ankle.”

“How do you know that?” Jerry asked, astounded.

“I’m not sure,” John Fortune said. “I can feel it. Somehow. I think... I think that I can fix it.”

“Hold on—” Jerry began, but, almost immediately, a wave of relief washed down Jerry’s throbbing leg. It settled around his ankle like a soothing puff of cool air and the pain began to fade. After a few moments Jerry sat back and then slowly stood. He put his foot down gingerly. There was no pain. No pain at all. He and John Fortune looked at each other.

“How do you feel?” he asked the boy.

John Fortune considered. “Warm. Still scared. But—” he looked at Jerry, a smile dawning on his face. “—I’m still alive. I made it.”

Jerry looked at him, even more astonished than Fortune himself.

“More than that,” he said. “It looks like you’re an ace.”

“An ace!” the boy said jubilantly. His smile was beatific. “Yeah, man, an ace!”

He and Jerry grinned like idiots.

“Take me backstage,” John Fortune said. “I think I can help Ralph.”

They looked up. The troupe of Living Gods hovered on the edge of the stage, watching them.

Thoth raised his arms to the Heavens.

“All praise to Ra,” he intoned, and the others took up his chant.

PROLOGUE

CHAPTER ONE

Turin, Italy: Cattedrale di San Giovanni

J
ohn Nighthawk had always been fascinated by churches. He’d been inside hundreds during his long life, from humble whitewashed clapboards in the Deep South to magnificent cathedrals in both the United States and Europe. As far as he was concerned, the humble and the grand both had their pluses and minuses. It was hard to experience a personal, intimate relationship with God in a cathedral. They were also usually extremely drafty. On the other hand, a cheap wooden shack didn’t quite capture the glory of God on high and they were also prone to falling down after a very few years. Surprisingly, though, decades of experience had taught Nighthawk that both kinds of houses of worship were relatively easy to break into.

“Cattedrale di San Giovanni,” the big man standing at Nighthawk’s right read from the Turin guidebook he’d taken from his hip pocket. He gestured at the structure across the plaza and then looked innocently at Nighthawk. “Isn’t Giovanni Italian for John?”

“That’s right,” said the other big man, who was standing at Nighthawk’s left.

The big man on Nighthawk’s right smiled. “Is this cathedral named after you, John? You’re probably old enough.”

There was quiet laughter from the other big man. The woman standing between them remained stone-faced, as always.

“Don’t blaspheme,” she said.

Nighthawk smiled and shook his head. “This church was erected in 1491. You don’t think I’m that old, do you?”

Speculation about Nighthawk’s age was something of an on-going joke with his team. It was impossible to pin down precisely, although he was certainly older than Usher and the others. A small black man with very dark skin, Nighthawk was about five foot five and maybe a hundred and forty pounds. At first glance his face appeared unlined. Close observation in good light, however, revealed a fine network of wrinkles around his eyes and mouth. The lines on his forehead also deepened to legibility when his face crinkled in laughter or a frown. He could have been a hard fifty or an easy-going sixty-five. His hair was still dark but his hands had the rough, gnarled look of someone who’d done physical labor for a good portion of their life. At least, his right hand did. His left was hidden by a black kidskin glove, despite the warmth of the early summer evening.

“Anyway,” Nighthawk added, “you’ve got the wrong John. This cathedral was dedicated to John the Baptist. And if you’re done playing tourist, Usher, you can put the guidebook away so we can get down to the job.”

Usher took Nighthawk’s rebuke good-naturedly and stuffed the guide back into his pocket. He was a big man, six four or so, and strong as an ox. Nighthawk knew that Usher was also the smartest member of the team. He was black, but light-skinned enough that there was a time when he could have passed for white, if he’d wanted to. If he could have gotten the kink out of his hair. Curtis Grubbs was the other big man. He was white, from somewhere in rural Alabama, but somewhat to Nighthawk’s amusement, was Usher’s sidekick and yes-man. He wasn’t quite as big as Usher, but he had a touch of the wild card and was as strong as two oxen. He followed orders if you gave them slowly and in great detail. The woman, Magda, was dark of hair, dark of eye, and dark of mind. She was from some European country that hadn’t been a country for very long. She spoke with a slight accent that made her voice husky and sexy. She was ruthless, quick, and dedicated. Sometimes too dedicated. She was a fanatic. She followed Nighthawk’s orders because he was in charge and also because she feared him, but he never knew when she’d get a wild notion to disobey a directive she reckoned blasphemous. He had to watch her constantly. Sometimes she was more trouble than she was worth, but, again, he had to remind himself who he was working for.

They’re a good team, Nighthawk thought. Maybe a little short on brains, but that was to be expected. He had also been offered the services of the Witnesses, but turned them down despite their potent ace powers. Their tendency to grandstand often turned them into liabilities. He’d also passed on Blood. He didn’t think a joker-ace who had to be led around on a leash so he wouldn’t molest stray pedestrians or passing cars would fit in on a mission where stealth was necessary.

It was past midnight, but there were still people on the street. Damn tourists, Nighthawk thought. It was unlikely to get much quieter, so he signaled Usher to move. The big man nodded and slipped quietly into the night. He crossed the Piazza Giovanni, keeping to the dark side of the street, blending naturally into the shadows like a big cat or a seasoned mercenary, which he’d been before signing with the Allumbrados as an obsequentus. Nighthawk figured that the big man had joined the Enlightened Ones for the pay. He had neither Grubbs’ naive credulousness, nor Magda’s vicious fanaticism.

Usher crossed the plaza in shadow, unobserved, and after ten or twelve seconds Grubbs followed him across the square. He was not as quiet or as inconspicuous as Usher, but he tried hard to emulate him. After both men had vanished in the night Magda followed at Nighthawk’s nod.

She was halfway across the plaza when a burst of sudden revelation struck Nighthawk like a thunderbolt. As always, it exploded across his brain almost too fast to grasp. The figures in it were dark and grainy like in an old time movie, and the poorly lit scene they played was open to several interpretations. But one thing was certain.

One of the team would die that night. Nighthawk couldn’t be sure it wouldn’t be him. Caught in the grip of awful fear, the old man looked across the plaza at the ancient cathedral, wondering if that night he would find the answer to the question that had haunted him for the last sixty years. The gloved fingers of his left hand closed around the old harmonica that he always carried, currently in his inside jacket pocket. It was his lucky piece as well as a reminder of past friends. He smiled to himself, but without humor.

“Maybe we find out tonight, Lightning,” he said quietly. “Maybe finally tonight.”

♥ ♦ ♣ ♠

Las Vegas, Nevada: The Mirage

Peregrine tried to slam the newspaper down on the hotel suite desk, but since it was open it only fluttered limply. Still, Jerry got the message that she wasn’t happy.

“You could have been hurt!” she said angrily to John Fortune, who watched her glumly as she paced about the room. “Even killed!”

“There was no danger of that,” Jerry interjected.

Peregrine paused in her pacing and turned her eyes upon him. Suddenly he was glad that she hadn’t packed her titanium talons for the trip.

“You know that how?” she asked in a voice gone quietly silky. Through long experience in body-guarding John Fortune, Jerry knew that when she used that tone she was at her most dangerous. She looked at him with the eyes of a lioness sizing up an antelope for the kill. Even though she was in her late forties, Peregrine was still one of the most beautiful women Jerry had ever seen. Tall, lean, and athletic, her stunning wings matched a still stunning figure that had made only the slightest concession to age and gravity over the years.

BOOK: Wild Cards: Death Draws Five
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