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 (3 page)

BOOK: Wild Cards: Death Draws Five
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“I made sure we kept far away from the tigers when we went backstage,” Jerry said quietly, but his words did little to mollify the angry ace.

“Tigers!” Peregrine spat, as if he’d said mosquitoes or something equally insignificant. “I would expect you to handle tigers.” Jerry’s chest expanded at the unanticipated praise. Suddenly, her eyes narrowed. “Maybe,” she added. She paced some more around the room, then stopped and looked at her son. He was still glum. Still handsome. Still normal looking, except for that orangish-yellowish glow that hovered around his head and the exposed skin of his hands and arms like halos. “But how do you know that simply using his power isn’t dangerous? He’s just a boy. I would expect him to be excited when he turned his card. But you should have known better.”

“Aw, Mom,” John Fortune said, “I had to go help Ralph. You should have seen him. The tiger had grabbed him by the neck and there was blood everywhere! He would’ve bled to death if I didn’t do anything. But I healed him. Ask Jerry. He was right there all the while, making sure nobody crowded us or anything. I just held Ralph and concentrated and he healed right up. It was easy.”

“No,” Jerry said, shaking his head, “your mother’s right. There’s no telling how dangerous using your power might be—”

“Listen to him,” Peregrine said.

“It’s not dangerous,” John Fortune said, his impatience showing in his tone. “I’m fine.”

Peregrine put the back of her hand against his forehead. “You feel warm to me.”

“Aw, Mom.”

“Could just be the effects of a speeded-up metabolism,” Jerry offered.

“Could be,” Peregrine said. Suddenly, she enwrapped her son in her arms and wings and held him to her tightly. She closed her eyes, fighting back tears. “If you only knew how worried I’ve been for you, all these years.”

“Aw, Mom,” John Fortune said, his head muffled against her chest. Jerry was envious. “I’m all right. I knew I would be. My card turned and now I’m an ace, just like you and my father. I mean, Fortunato.”

Peregrine nodded, unable to speak for a moment, as years of desperate worry seemed to squeeze out of her body. But some still remained.

“Promise me one thing,” she said as she still held him tightly. “Don’t use your power again until we get home and have you checked out at the Jokertown Clinic.”

“But what if I have to save someone—”

She pulled away, held him at arm’s length.

“John,” she said sternly, “you have your whole life ahead of you. You have years and years to save people. And listen to me. There’s a big lesson you have to learn right now.”

“What’s that?” the kid asked.

“No matter how powerful you are, no matter how much time and effort and sweat and blood you expend,” Peregrine said slowly, coming down hard on each and every word, “you can’t save everyone.”

The boy was silent for a long moment, as if digesting her words.

“All right,” John Fortune said quietly.

“Believe me,” Peregrine said.

Jerry nodded. “Believe her.”

He knew. Sometimes that was the hardest thing about being an ace of all.

♥ ♦ ♣ ♠

Branson, Missouri: The Peaceable Kingdom

Billy Ray was in Loaves and Fishes, lingering over lunch and wishing he was anywhere in the world except here, when the kid tracked him down. Ray didn’t particularly look like an ace, let alone a dangerous one. He was an average-sized five ten, one hundred and seventy pounds. His suit was expensive and neat, without wrinkle, spot, or blemish. Though a couple of years on the wrong side of forty, he looked younger. His green eyes were sleepy-looking. His features were bland, if a little ill fitting. His broken-angled, rather prominent nose stood out from the rest of his face. He moved slowly, almost languidly. He was even more bored than he looked.

As the kid approached, Ray looked up from his plate piled high with beef ribs and chicken fried steak with gravy and biscuits, green beans, corn on the cob, and real scratch-made mashed potatoes, not from a box. He liked Loaves and Fishes because it was all you could eat, but lately he’d been losing interest in food as well as everything else. He knew what was wrong, but he knew also he couldn’t do a damn thing about it.

“Hi, Mr. Ray,” the kid said.

Ray sighed for about the billionth time and said, for about the billionth time, “I told you not to call me mister.”

“Okay, Billy.” Ray knew that wouldn’t last long. It never did. If the kid was anything, he was respectful. Alejandro Jesus y Maria C de Baca looked like he was about fourteen years old. Slight, slim, dark haired, dark eyed, always smiling, always cheerful, fresh out of spook school and so goddamned respectful that he sirred waiters. It was clear to Ray that Nephi Callendar, their boss at the Secret Service, had teamed them up specifically to annoy Ray.

“Say, mi—uh, Billy, President Barnett wants to see you, right away.”

Ray sighed. God, he hoped that it wasn’t for another prayer session. “Did he say why?”

The kid shook his head. “Nope. I was with him when he saw something in the paper that got him real excited, and he wanted to speak to you right away.”

Ray sighed again. He caught himself, realizing that he was doing entirely too much of that lately. He looked down at his lunch. He wasn’t hungry now, anyway.

“You want some lunch, kid?” Ray asked his colleague.

“I already ate, sir, uh, Billy. But it’d be a shame to waste all that food. I can box it up and drop it down at the homeless shelter after our shift.”

Ray nodded.

“You do that,” he said. He left Loaves and Fishes and strolled through Barnett’s vision of Heaven on Earth to his headquarters centrally located on the top floor of The Angels’ Bower hotel. He had to cut through the part of the park called New Jerusalem to reach it. As always, the Via Dolorosa was crowded with tourists, so Ray took the back way that looped around the rides, exhibits, and concessions. He went by the twenty-foot high statues of the Twelve, wondering, not for the first time, how they’d decided which apostle was bald, which one had a big honker, and where in the Hell Judas was. He could hear the faint screams of the faithful as the Rapture took them to Heaven and then dropped down to the Pit with a stomach-flipping hundred and eighty degree turn that piled on over three gees of acceleration as it fell forty stories straight down to Hell.

Roller coasters, Ray thought disgruntledly. Maybe he should take a ride. Put some excitement into his life.

It was, he had to admit, his own fault. He’d smart-assed his way here, calling his boss “Nehi” one time too many. Before the ink had dried on his orders he’d found himself, accompanied by the kid, exiled to the suburbs of Branson-fucking-Missouri to wet nurse an ex-President as he whiled away the years running his crazy-ass theme park in the middle of redneck Heaven. Of course, by law every ex-President was accorded Secret Service protection, but the odds of Barnett being stalked by an assassin in the Peaceable Kingdom were about as great as him running a Pagans Get-In-Free weekend special.

It was a Hell of a way to wrap up his career, but not entirely unexpected. Ray had ruffled too many feathers along the way, and not just by being a smart ass. He’d played a major role in breaking the Card Shark conspiracy and saving Jerusalem—the real one, not Barnett’s Disneyfied version—from getting a-bombed to Hell, but it had cost him not only April Harvest, the only woman he’d ever come close to loving, but also a meaningful career in the government. As it turned out, the government had been riddled with Card Sharks, and no one was exactly pleased that Ray helped expose that little fact. Sometimes Ray wondered if they’d rooted them all out. Probably not. Probably some unexposed Sharks were still pulling strings. And that had been the problem. Ray had embarrassed the string-pullers and decision-makers, the powers behind the throne and the voices in charge. Publicly he was a hero. Privately he was just another wild carder who knew too much. A wild carder with a reputation for flying off the handle and running his mouth when peeved.

That explained the next seven years spent in the shit holes of the world, but at least the tedium of those years had been broken up by episodes of real excitement. Among other things, he’d helped the Muhajadeen against the Soviets, and when the Soviet Union went to pieces he helped the people of Afghanistan against the Muhajadeen. He served a tour in Peru, teaching the Shining Path the real meaning of fear. He was on the team of international aces who went into Baghdad and snatched the tin-plated dictator Saddam Hussein, catching him cowering in his gold-fixtured bathtub, after Saddam had kicked the U.N. weapon inspectors out of his crappy excuse for a country.

Ray hadn’t minded the lack of recognition or applause. He’d spent seven years doing what he did best, kicking ass if occasionally forgetting to take down names. But now, he was rotting in paradise.

He breezed into Barnett’s office. Sally Lou, Barnett’s blonde receptionist, looked up from her magazine. She was sleek and sexy looking, and Ray suspected that Barnett had hired her for something other than her typing skills. She could have put some of that long-sought excitement back into his life, but it seemed to Ray that as far as she was concerned, he was just another one of the hired help.

“The President—”

“Yeah, I know.” He waved as he strode by. He paused at Barnett’s door, nodding at the Secret Service guys standing to either side of it, nats in dark suits and sunglasses, for Christ’s sake, knocked once and went on in before its occupant could reply. What more could they do to him for being a smart ass? Send him to Antarctica? Even that would be an improvement over his current situation.

“You wanted to see me?” Ray asked, stopping before the big desk and the man behind it, who was reading a newspaper spread out on its teak surface.

Barnett smiled. “Yes, I did,” he said.

Leo Barnett was still a handsome man, even after serving eight years as President of the United States. He was tall and still slim even though he was pushing sixty, blonde-haired and blue-eyed, and dimpled as a baby’s butt. Ray couldn’t help but wonder how he did it. Ray had been with the Justice Department for almost twenty-five years. He’d spent a good portion of that time body-guarding presidents and presidential candidates, and he’d noticed early on that the presidency, even just running for the office, tended to wear a man down. It put bags under his eyes, creases in his face, and dye in his hair. Not Barnett, though. He looked as wrinkle-free today as he did the day he ascended to the office. Ray wondered what his secret was.

“Have you seen the papers today, Billy?” Barnett asked, slapping the open newspaper with an immaculately manicured hand.

Ray shook his head. He didn’t bother reading the news. He was more used to making it.

“It seems as if a new ace has joined our constellation of heroes.”

“Is that so?” Ray asked with a modicum of interest.

“Indeed it is,” Barnett said, and looked down at the paper spread out in front of him and began to read. “...‘Ralph Holstedt, partner and star performer in the famous Siegfried and Ralph magic act featuring white tigers and other dangerous beasts was severely mauled during yesterday’s matinee performance when a half-grown male tiger playfully grabbed him by the throat and dragged him from the stage. Fortunately for the performer, John Fortune, son of the beauteous ace Peregrine and the mysterious Fortunato, who has spent the last sixteen years in seclusion in Japan, was in attendance and for the first time publicly revealed his own ace. Fortune, who to all accounts was glowing a mysterious but pleasing shade of orange-yellow, took the performer in his arms and almost instantly healed the wound threatening the magician’s life. The newly-revealed ace, a good-looking boy in his mid-teens, politely refused all requests for interviews and was seen leaving in the company of a man who witnesses said bore an uncanny resemblance to 1940’s actor Alan Ladd.’” Barnett looked up at Ray. “What do you think of that?”

Ray shrugged. “I think that Ralph was one lucky tiger-lover.”

Barnett sat back in his chair, nodding. “Yes. But doesn’t it strike you that someone else in that scenario was fairly blessed in the luck department?”

“John Fortune,” Ray said. He knew what the odds of drawing an ace were as well as anybody. “Of course.”

“Exactly,” Barnett said, as if Ray just answered the million-dollar question.

Ray shrugged again. He didn’t see the point.

“These are troubling days, Billy,” Barnett said. “Some say,” his voice dropped dramatically, “the End Days.”

Oh shit, Ray thought. It didn’t take Barnett long to drag religion into even the most mundane conversation. Ray himself wasn’t much of a believer in anything. But Barnett could make almost anything sound reasonable when he was orating. After all, he’d been elected President of the United States. Twice.

“But it’s 2003,” Ray said. “If you’re talking about the, uh, millennium, surely that passed—”

Barnett shook his head.

”Actually it’s just around the corner, my boy,” Barnett said. “Time-keeping was not an exact science when the Bible was written two thousand years ago. Records were not precise. The calendar as we know it is a relatively modern invention. Anyway, you’d expect an error of a year or two to crop up over a couple of millennia, wouldn’t you?”

“I suppose,” Ray said, noncommittally. He still had no clue as to what in the Hell this had to do with a kid saving some Vegas magician from his over-grown kitty cat.

BOOK: Wild Cards: Death Draws Five
8.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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