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 (8 page)

BOOK: Wild Cards: Death Draws Five
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Up close, she looked impossibly young in the uncertain light. Her brown eyes were as large and innocent as a doe’s. Her long, wavy hair cascaded down to the middle of her back like a golden waterfall. Nighthawk knew her real name, her background, and her ace abilities. But he called her the name she preferred, the name she’d taken from the bit of antique jewelry she wore on a black silk ribbon choker around her slender, elegant neck.

“Miss Cameo?” he asked.

“Cameo will do,” she replied.

Nighthawk nodded. “Mr. Contarini sent me to escort you to his tower suite,” he said. Contarini hadn’t resorted to a fictitious name for this business, but he wanted Cameo kept in the dark about his relationship with the Church. Nighthawk paused, glancing around their corner of the lobby. “I thought that you were going to bring a bodyguard with you?” he asked.

“That’s right,” the young ace said. “I did.”

“Where is he?”

Cameo held out her handbag. Nighthawk took it from her and looked inside. Among the usual trove of feminine paraphernalia was a battered old fedora.

“A hat?” Nighthawk said.

Cameo nodded. “How perceptive of you.”

He handed the purse back to her. He knew all about Cameo and her hat. He had researched her thoroughly before entering in negotiations with her on the behalf of the Cardinal. However, he didn’t think it prudent to let her know that he knew.

“Don’t sass your elders, missy,” he said briefly. “If you’ll come this way.”

Cameo accepted his rebuke in silence. They went to the elevator bank and took one nearly to the top of the Waldorf’s Tower block, the suite on the forty-first floor where Contarini always stayed when he was in New York City. Nighthawk led her to the apartment, opened the door with his key, and took her through the anteroom, a couple of sitting rooms and living rooms, to arrive at last in a spacious library.

Glassed-in ceiling-to-floor bookcases covered two adjacent walls. Most of the glossy black bookshelves now housed vintage bric-a-brac of various sorts, though some books and folios were still on the shelves. A comfortable-looking sofa and matching love seat ranged against the two other walls. The rest of the furniture consisted of a black wood desk which matched the bookshelves, and scattered leather chairs and floor lamps. The ancient reliquary that Grubbs had given his life to obtain was on a low coffee table in front of the sofa. The Cardinal waited on the sofa with an aura of impatience clinging to him like a wet swimsuit. He was incognito, wearing a six thousand dollar Armani suite with suave elegance. Usher stood silently at one end of the sofa. Magda, looking as disapproving as always, at the other.

Contarini didn’t bother to rise as Nighthawk and Cameo entered the room.

“I am Romulus Contarini,” he announced in his deep actor’s voice. His English was colored by a slight Italian accent that only made it sound more lyrical than English usually does. His handsome lips were pursed as he gazed at Cameo, as if he didn’t approve of her obvious youth, or perhaps of her, herself, in general. Nighthawk knew that the Cardinal didn’t like wild carders, though he was not averse to using them to further his schemes.

Cameo nodded. “Mr. Contarini. Nice to finally see you face to face after so many chats on the telephone.”

She glanced at Usher and Magda, but Contarini didn’t bother to introduce them.

“Nice to see you,” he said, coming down slightly on the last word. “I’m glad that you weren’t foolish enough to take the down payment we had deposited in your account, and...” He paused, as if groping for a word.

Cameo’s eyebrows rose. “And abscond with it?”

Contarini inclined his silver-haired head.

“Are we not both business people, Mr. Contarini?” Cameo asked. “We both have reputations to maintain. I trusted you enough to come to this—” Cameo paused for a moment as she glanced around the sumptuously furnished room “—elegant but rather private meeting place to channel an unknown object for a fee of two hundred thousand dollars. If I trusted you enough to accept your offer, surely you trusted me enough to fulfill my part of the bargain.”

Contarini grunted inelegantly as Nighthawk suppressed a smile. He thought he was going to like Cameo just fine. After she finished her business with Contarini, he had something else for her to do, something that was as important to him as this rigmarole was to the Cardinal.

The Cardinal turned to Usher, and nodded at the reliquary. “Open it.”

The big man bent over the old box. They had looked inside it just once before while they were on the road to Rome, just to make sure that they hadn’t been tricked into stealing a decoy. They hadn’t.

The Cardinal leaned over and removed a rectangular length of stained linen, folded upon itself several times. His fingers caressed it as he lifted it from the box; his lips murmured ancient Latin prayers. He held it to his chest for a moment, his eyes lifted to Heaven.

Nighthawk glanced at the others. Cameo was watching the Cardinal, uncertain, frowning. Usher stood as relaxed as always, instantly ready to run, to leap across the room, to dive to the floor, to do whatever the next second might call for. Magda’s eyes were riveted on the Mandylion, as if wishing she were the one caressing it. A sheen of sweat covered her forehead. Her lips were clenched in passionate desire that was almost lustful.

Contarini took a deep breath, as if he were wallowing in the scent of the cloth which had once covered the dead, bleeding body of Jesus Christ, and then suddenly held it out to Cameo.

“Take this. Sit there.”

Cameo looked from the Shroud to Contarini’s face, to Nighthawk.

“Is that the Shroud of Turin?” she asked, wide-eyed.

Nighthawk only nodded.

Cameo wet her lips. “Where...how...” Her voice ran down.

“Don’t ask, missy,” Nighthawk said softly. “Just take it. Or walk away.”

Contarini thrust it again toward her. “Take it,” he said commandingly, “and call Our Lord and Savior.”

Cameo hesitated for a moment. Any sane person would, Nighthawk thought, and then she took the Shroud from Contarini and sank into the luxurious old armchair he’d indicated. She took a deep breath and held it. For a moment her eyes were unfocused, and then her expression changed utterly and it was clear to Nighthawk that someone else was looking out of her eyes at them. Nighthawk felt his heart skip a beat, then hurry as if to catch up. He swayed on his feet, caught in the grip of powerful emotion, torn by fear and hope intermingled, as he had been on that day in 1946 when he lay dying in a hospital bed as the Takisian virus came raining down out of the sky and touched him with the glory of God on high, turning him into something more than human but perhaps somewhat less than angelic.

“I say,” Cameo said in an uncertain voice. “Wha—what’s happening?”

Contarini fell down on his knees, muttering wildly in Italian, his head bowed as if he were afraid to look upon his Lord revealed. Magda stared as if she’d been gaffed, her cheeks puffed out in astonished ecstasy. Only Usher, Nighthawk saw, observed unperturbed, still ready for anything.

“My Lord!” the Cardinal finally said, holding out his hands beseechingly.

The person looking out through Cameo’s eyes focused on him

“My Lord?” she repeated. “What’s this all about?” She looked around. “Why am I here in my apartment again? I died, didn’t I?”

Nighthawk had the sudden realization that something had gone terribly wrong.

Contarini frowned. “Died—yes, and risen as before. But—your apartment! I don’t understand. What do you mean? Who are you?”

“Who am I?” Cameo repeated, more in indignation than as an actual question. “Who are you, sir, and what are you doing in my apartment? I—what’s that voice in my head saying? I... I’m a woman!” she exclaimed, holding her hands out, examining them in what Nighthawk thought was half shock, half delight. Her hands went down to her thighs, gripping them, hard. “I’ve got both of my legs!”

Suddenly, Nighthawk knew. “Mr. Porter,” he said quietly.

Cameo looked at him. “You know me? What am I doing here? Am I alive, again? What—the voice in my head! It’s all so confusing!”

“What’s happened?” Contarini demanded in a shrill voice, just on the edge of losing control.

“Apparently,” Nighthawk said, immersed in memories of long ago when he’d worked in this hotel and known quite well the man who had lived for many years in this very suite, “Cameo has channeled the spirit of someone we hadn’t intended.”

“If not the spirit of Our Lord Jesus Christ,” Contarini demanded, “then whose is it? For God’s sake, whose?”

Nighthawk cleared his throat. “Apparently,” he said, “it’s Cole Porter.”

Contarini’s eyes looked as if they were going to bug out of his head. Magda observed the proceedings with a baffled expression that was quickly sliding toward unimaginable fury while Usher tried unsuccessfully to smother a snort of uncontainable laughter.

♥ ♦ ♣ ♠

Las Vegas: The Mirage Auditorium

The overnight transformation of John Fortune from anonymous teenager to wild card ace who’d saved the life of a popular Vegas entertainer was big news. The fact that Peregrine hadn’t allowed any interviews had only heightened the frenzy. It got to the point where neither John Fortune nor Peregrine, nor even Jerry, could leave the hotel suite without being besieged by reporters and stalked by hordes of gawkers. Jerry had quickly realized that the only way to break the siege was to give the public at least something of what they wanted.

“Give ‘em an interview,” he’d told Peregrine. “Break the story and the pressure will go away, like the water through the dam in Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman.”

Peregrine had looked askance at his metaphor, but ultimately agreed with the substance of his argument.

“All right. Arrange something,” she’d said, holding up a hand as Jerry nodded. “But make sure it’s not exploitive. I don’t want my son treated like a media freak.”

“In this town?”

“Do the best you can,” was Peregrine’s final order.

He did, and as he stood in the wings looking out upon the Mirage’s stage, the very place where it had started, it looked as if things might work out after all.

He’d approached the Mirage publicity people with a complete concept. Have a local media personality interview John Fortune and his mother live on the very stage where his card had so recently and dramatically turned. Siegfried and a very grateful Ralph would take part in the program. Have a few tigers prowl about. Small, cute ones. Not the one that had attacked Ralph. The Living Gods would hover in the background as Siegfried and Ralph described the horrific events of that terrible night the show had gone all wrong, praise John Fortune for his fortitude and quick thinking, explain to everyone that the audience had been very safe indeed, present John with a lifetime pass to the Siegfried and Ralph revue as the kid said a few blushing words, and then smiles, hugs, and handshakes all around.

The Mirage publicity people liked the concept. Peregrine, when Jerry described it to her, liked the concept, especially the idea of using a local celeb—if she wasn’t going to exploit her son on national television, neither was Barbara Walters—who ultimately turned out to be Kitty O’Leary from Channel Seven KASH Eyewitness Evening News.

It all came together nicely, Jerry thought, observing from the wings. The auditorium was packed with an eager audience. Peregrine looked beautiful on the comfy sofa which was part of the temporary set arranged on the stage. They opened the program with Peregrine and the extremely photogenic Kitty O’Leary chatting about how difficult it was being a mother in modern times, especially when you had to worry about the wild card virus as well as drugs, alcohol, and unprotected teen sex.

Jerry suddenly felt a restless presence at his side and looked at a nervously smiling John Fortune who had joined him in his vantage spot in the wings.

“Hey, you look great in make-up,” Jerry cracked, trying to break the tension a little for the clearly agitated kid.

“Thanks a load,” John Fortune said with heavy teenage sarcasm. He took a deep breath. “I’m not so sure about this television stuff. What if I say something stupid?”

“Then you’ll join the ranks of everyone else who’s ever been on TV,” Jerry said. He punched the kid in the shoulder in a comradely manner. “Be cool. You wanted to be an ace.”

“Yeah,” John Fortune agreed. “It’s so much better than the alternative.”

“The point is,” Jerry said, “when you’re a star, you have to take the sour with the sweet.”

Of course, Jerry thought, I’m so utterly anonymous that I constantly change my face and I call myself Mr. Nobody. Who am I to preach to the kid? But then—nobody ever said that you have to live what you preach.

“But I’m not a star,” John Fortune muttered.

Jerry suddenly knew what to say. “You’re not a star now, kid, but after you go out on that stage, you’ll come back one!”

John Fortune suddenly smiled. “You think so?”

“I know so,” Jerry said, thinking, Thank God for “Forty-Second Street.”

Sudden applause welled up from the audience.

“Cue,” whispered one of the back-stage flunkies, making a shooing motion in John Fortune’s direction.

BOOK: Wild Cards: Death Draws Five
13.21Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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