Lowball (Excerpt)

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Decades after an alien virus changed the course of history, the surviving population of Manhattan still struggles to understand the new world left in its wake. Natural humans share the rough city with those given extraordinary—and sometimes terrifying—traits.

While most manage to coexist in an uneasy peace, not everyone is willing to adapt. Down in the seedy underbelly of Jokertown, residents are going missing.

The authorities are unwilling to investigate, except for a fresh lieutenant looking to prove himself and a collection of unlikely jokers forced to take matters into their own hands—or tentacles. The deeper into the kidnapping case these misfits and miscreants get, the higher the stakes are raised.

Edited by #1 New York Times bestselling author George R. R. Martin and acclaimed author Melinda M. Snodgrass, Lowball is the latest mosaic novel in the acclaimed Wild Cards universe—available November 4th from Tor Books! Perfect for old fans and new readers alike, Lowball delves deeper into the world of aces, jokers, and the hard-boiled men and women of the Fort Freak police precinct in a pulpy, page-turning novel of superheroics and mystery. Below, read an excerpt featuring Michael Cassutt’s “The Big Bleed” and David Anthony Durham’s “Those About to Die…”

 

 

The Big Bleed
by Michael Cassutt

Part One
Prologue

 

Since he was eleven, when the terrible thing happened, he had been called Chahina instead of Hasan. Chahina was a most unusual name for a Berber boy, but fitting, translating loosely as “Wheels” or “Transport.” At the age of eleven, Hasan had been brutally transformed into a joker who resembled a small motor truck.

His body had doubled in size and mass—during the feverish transformation he had eaten enough food for ten Hasans—becoming cube-like, with a swale on his back and a hunched, neckless formation where his head and shoulders used to be.

His hands and feet had become horny pistons with flat, circular “hands” that cracked off every few months—or, he learned, with wear— yet remained a part of him, like bracelets around a girl’s wrist. Chahina learned that if he locked his four piston-like appendages just so, the freerolling circular “hands” could act like… well, like wheels.

Wheels that allowed him to move down a city street or a dusty Moroccan highway much like a truck, with one obvious difference.

Chahina used his back legs to propel himself forward, giving him the appearance of a truck with a broken suspension as he swayed from side to side—

“Ah,” said one of his customers, a burly Dutch weapons smuggler named Kuipers, seeing Chahina in action for the first time, “you are like Hans Brinker!”

Chahina’s lack of comprehension must have been clear, even on his grille-like face.

“A skater,” Kuipers had said. And, looking like a demented clown, had mimed the side-to-side motion of a boy on blades on ice.

Hans Brinker? Chahina wasn’t sure… but from that day on he referred to his movements as “slip skating.”

And, over the past eleven years, he had slip-skated his way to a decent career as a transporter of illegal substances, contraband, and, yes, weapons, from one point to another, usually at odd hours in great secrecy, frequently on less-traveled routes. His ability to combine stealthy movement with common sense won him many fans in the criminal underworld of northern Africa and southern Europe, so much so that when one of his primary customers expanded his operations to the United States, Chahina was “invited” to come along, traveling as—what else?—Deck ballast on a freighter.

Once he had adjusted to the rigors of life in New York and environs as an illegal joker immigrant, Chahina had grown to appreciate the relative ease of his new smuggler’s life. Roads were better. Law enforcement was usually more predictable and honest (Chahina did not break speed limits, and so never got stopped).

And there were no hijackers! Chahina’s time in America had been lucrative; the future was promising.

But on the evening of Monday, May 7, 2012, he made a mistake.

Chahina frequently looked down on human drivers and their vehicles, finding them an inferior breed, each half useless without the other. He, after all, was both brains and automotive brawn.

But there were times he wished he had a bit of navigation help, so he would have avoided that wrong turn coming north out of Tewksbury, where 519 and Old Turnpike overlapped: he had wasted ten minutes going west on OT when he should have continued north.

Normally this slight detour wouldn’t have been a problem, but Chahina had a deadline: by eight P.M. he was to deliver his cargo to the customer on the edge of Stephens State Park.… The address did not appear to be either a commercial property or a residential one, but rather an open field.

In order to make up lost time, Chahina broke his self-imposed rule about speed limits, a risky move because in order to go faster, he had to make more exaggerated slip skates.

He noted the startled reactions of a pair of oncoming drivers, but knew from experience they would simply assume he was some foreignmodel truck with unusually sleek, rounded lines. And possibly an intoxicated operator.

(One thing that night trips forced on Chahina was the addition of “headlights,” in his case, literally: he had to strap lamps to the outside rim of each eye for basic illumination, and to ensure that he looked like a truck to other vehicles. There was no quicker way to draw attention from highway patrol than to be racing down a rural road with no lights.… )

What Chahina hated most was what he’d been driving through almost every day for the past two months… and that was rain.

First of all, it was simply uncomfortable. Chahina’s transformation to joker had left him looking like a vehicle—and naked, which was a shocking situation for a boy who had never worn any garment more revealing than a T-shirt and long pants in public. His older brother Tariq had helped him sew canvas “trousers” that covered his nether regions and looked, to other eyes, like the fabric enclosing the cargo beds of real trucks. Chahina had improved on this early solution, however, fabricating better-fitting and vari-colored “trousers” to suit any environment. Tonight’s, for example, were plain gray.

But they weren’t waterproof, and Chahina slip-skated along with the uncomfortable feeling that he had just sat in a puddle while rain spattered his neck and back.

Worse yet, the rain made it more difficult to see. And it almost destroyed traction. (His “hands” and “feet” had none of the radial grooving found in tires.)

The rain had started fifteen minutes after he’d left Staten Island, before he even crossed the Goethals Bridge from Staten Island into New Jersey.

It never got heavy—but it didn’t take much to make things uncomfortable for Chahina.

Fortunately, his load was just two dozen plastic containers. A little moisture wouldn’t hurt them.

Safely out of Hackettstown now, just passing Bilby, the developments gave way to old farms and woods.

What little traffic willing to brave the rain vanished with the loss of daylight. Wheels took a breath and skated harder. He knew he was pushing both speed limit and energy reserves—why hadn’t he eaten more? His roommates were always teasing him about what he consumed, and how much.…

Suddenly there was a man lying in the road—!

Wheels rode right over him. It was much like the impact on a suburban speed bump… if the bump squished like a human body.

And it hurt. Calloused as they were, his wheels were essentially bare hands and feet. Hitting that body was like stubbing your toe on a curb.

He lost traction, lost control, skidding and sliding like a drunk on an icy sidewalk until he hit a left turn a hundred yards farther up the highway—

And slammed into a ditch backed by trees.

The impact flattened his nose. He had not felt such pain since the time—pre–wild card—that Tariq had punched him for stealing a candy bar.

He was so stunned he wasn’t sure how long he sat there, head down, rear high, leaning to his right. With darkness, it was impossible for him to measure time. Had it been a few seconds? Minutes?

He sure hoped it wasn’t an hour.

Extricating himself from the ditch took patience. He was like a football player with a cracked rib: every attempted movement was painful.

Eventually, however, he had himself upright… and had used his good left front “hand” to push himself out of the ditch far enough to let his back “feet” find traction.

It was only when he was finally upright, on the highway surface, that he realized he had lost one of the containers he carried. He couldn’t see it anywhere; even if he could, he was not capable of picking it up and replacing it.

It was like losing a tooth—but likely to be far more painful, once he met his customers.

Well, Wheels had lost items before… had been beaten and otherwise mistreated. But he knew it was better to show up with nineteen of twenty items than to try to avoid the confrontation completely.

There was another matter, however.

Slowly, painfully, Wheels skated a dozen yards back down the highway, to where he had run over the body… there was little he could do to help the victim, assuming he lived. And now time was truly critical.

But Wheels had been maltreated so many times in his short life. He couldn’t bear to just… skate away—

Suddenly there were lights far to the south… another vehicle!

Wheels did not want to answer questions, nor did he want to be seen anywhere near a body in the middle of a road.

He turned and slip-skated into the rainy night.

 

 

Those About to Die…
by David Anthony Durham

Part One

 

Marcus flung aside manhole cover. He pulled himself partway through and leaned back to check his cell phone. There. Finally. He had bars again! It wasn’t the only problem with living in the tunnels and sewers below Jokertown, but the fact that cell phone service was spotty was one of the most annoying.

One voice mail. One text.

The message was from a girl who had been sweating him. He didn’t know why he’d ever given her his phone number. She was a nat. Kind of average looking, with flat blond hair and too much smile for her face. She had approached him at Drakes in the Bowery last week. Grabbing his arm, she admitted out of nowhere that she had a snake fetish. “I just love serpents. Venomous ones the most.” She had made him horny, but not exactly in a good way.

He pressed delete.

The text was from Father Squid. Marcus smiled. It always amused him to imagine the good father texting. It couldn’t have been easy for him to hit the little buttons, considering that his fingers had suckers all over them. The text read: RMBR PRCNT. 5PM.

“I’ll be there,” Marcus said. “Not that it’s going to do any good.”

Marcus liked the priest well enough, but the old guy tended to get worked up about things. He’d roped Marcus into helping him look for socalled missing jokers. A few days into the search, Marcus was beginning to feel like there wasn’t anything to it. Sure, some guys had gone awol, but they weren’t the sort of guys anyone was too upset to see vanish. Why the priest cared so much Marcus couldn’t fathom.

Flipping the phone shut and slipping it into his chest pocket, Marcus rose out of the sewer hole. He was normal enough from the waist up. A young African-American man, well built, with muscles that cut distinct lines beneath his fitted T-shirt. Hair trimmed nice, like someone who cared about their look, thick gold loops in his ears. Below the waist, however, he was one long stretch of scaled serpentine muscle, ringed down the twenty feet of tapering length to his tail. His garish yellow and red and black rings flexed in a hypnotic fashion as he carved a weaving course forward.

He didn’t stay earthbound long. He surged up into a narrow gap at the alley mouth, curving from one brick wall to the other, creating a weave of tension between the two. Once out of the shadows of Jokertown’s urban canyon lands, the spring sun shone down. The heat of it poured power into Marcus’s tail. He pulled his shades out and slipped them on. He knew he looked fly. A couple years ago he thought his life was over. Now, things looked and felt a whole lot different.

As he skimmed along the edge of a roof, a voice called up from the street below. “IBT! Hey, IBT!”

Marcus peered down at a plump woman in a black T-shirt.

“I’m your number one fan, baby. Check it.” She directed two stubby fingers at her chest. The bright pink letters IBT stretched taut across her T-shirt. She clearly had more than two breasts pressing against the fabric.

The guy beside her jabbed toward him with a finger. “You da man, T!” he said, stomping the ground with an oversized foot.

Marcus waved. He peeled back from the edge and carried on. “You da man, T,” he mimicked. “What’s the deal with shortening everything?” he grumbled aloud. “‘T’ means he’s calling me Tongue but being too lazy to even say the whole word. The name is Infamous Black Tongue,” he announced to the sky, then thought, And IBT’s all right, I guess, if you’re in a rush.

He found it a little strange that it wasn’t his tail that gave him his moniker, but he had gotten a lot of early press for the concussive power of his tongue to deliver venom. Made an impression, apparently.

That reminded him of something.

He cut away from his intended route long enough to perch looking down on the graffiti-scarred wall of a building facing an abandoned lotcum-urban garden. The wall had been repainted in one massive mural, a tribute to Oddity, whose cloaked and masked shape dominated the scene. IBT featured in it, too. Down by the far end, he rose up on powerful coils, half engulfed by licks of flame. One hand stretched out toward Oddity to accept the keys the vigilante legends were offering him. The other hand was smashing the dirty cop Lu Long across his dragon snout.

Marcus cocked his head. Squinted. They’d done some good work since last he saw it. They had his tail down pretty well. The color pattern of his stripes was mixed up, but he doubted anybody but himself would notice. The only thing he didn’t really like was his face. He looked too angry, too full of teeth-gritting rage. Father Squid had warned him that when he became a public figure his image wouldn’t be his own anymore. Here was proof, sprayed large.

 

He hit the street just down from the precinct. In the half block he nodded in response to several greetings, received an overly enthusiastic high five from a lobster-like claw, and autographed a furry little boy’s Yankees baseball cap. He tried to protest that he was an Orioles fan, and not a baseball player in any event. The boy was insistent, though.

Father Squid waited for him on the precinct steps. Though it was warm, the tall, broad-shouldered priest wore his thick robes, as usual. He stood with his hands tented together on his chest, as if in prayer. He almost looked tranquil, except for the way his fingers tapped out his impatience. “Have you any news, son?”

Marcus shook his head.

“No sightings?”

“Nope.”

The priest leaned close, the scent of him salty and fishy. The tentacles that dangled from his face seemed to stretch toward Marcus, as if each of them was keen to touch good news. “What about that abandoned apartment?”

“I checked it out. No sign of Wartcake.”

“Don’t call him that. Simon Clarke is the name his parents gave him.”

Marcus shrugged. “I know, but everybody calls him Wartcake. When I ask about Simon Clarke nobody knows who I’m talking about. So I always have to say Wartcake, and then they go, ‘Oh, Wartcake, why didn’t you say that in the first place?’” He met the priest’s large, dark eyes. “I’m just saying.”

Motion inside the precinct didn’t exactly freeze when Marcus and Father Squid entered, but a hush fell across the room. One after another, pairs of eyes found Marcus and followed his progress toward the captain’s office. Officer Napperson glared at him from behind his desk, looking like he was wishing him dead with just the force of his eyes. Another guy in uniform put his hand on his pistol, fingering the grip.

Father Squid strode with lumbering determination. Marcus kept his eyes on the priest’s back. He tried to keep his slither cool, but the scrutiny made him nervous. He couldn’t figure the cops out. Most of them treated him like a criminal they were itching to bust for something. That didn’t stop them from using him, though. Officer Tang once gave him a tip about a guy the cops couldn’t touch, some politician’s brother who liked getting rough with joker hookers. Marcus had caught up with him one night and given him the scare of his life, enough to keep him out of Jokertown for good. He’d caught, venom tagged, and gift wrapped three perps who had been sparkling with Tinkerbill’s pink aura. Ironic, considering that he’d spent a long evening tinkling like a fairy himself.

He’d even played dominoes in the park with Beastie a few Sundays.

None of that changed the chilly reception at the moment.

Deputy Inspector Thomas Jan Maseryk sat at his desk, head tilted down as he studied a stack of reports. He lined through something with a red pen, wrote a note.

Father Squid knocked on the doorjamb.

Without looking up, Maseryk said, “Hello, Father. The way you waft the scent of the seashore makes me hungry for cotton candy and footlong hot dogs.”

“There are two more missing,” Father Squid said. “Two more, Captain. Do the disappearances merit your attention yet? If not, how many must vanish before you take notice?”

“We take all complaints serious—”

“You’ve yet to grasp that something is truly amiss here. Shall I name the vanished for you?”

The deputy inspector plucked up the page and deposited it in the tray at the corner of his desk. Exhaling, he leaned back and stretched. His deeply lined face was stern, his graying hair trimmed with military precision. “If you have anything to add to what you offered last time, see Detective Mc—”

“Khaled Mohamed,” Father Squid cut in. He counted them on his suckered fingers. “Timepiece. Simon Clarke. Gregor. John the Pharaoh. These are not prominent people. They’re loners, ruffians, users, abusers. All of them male. They may not be the pillars of our community, but they’re still God’s children. Maseryk, I won’t allow you to ignore them.”

The captain’s face could’ve been carved in stone. “Unless someone made you mayor while I wasn’t looking, I’ll ask you to refrain from threatening me. As I said, Detective McTate will be—”

“I want a commitment from you personally.”

“My work is my word.” Peering around the priest, the deputy inspector nudged his chin at Marcus. “What’s he got to do with all of this?”

“Marcus has been doing the work that the department hasn’t. He’s been combing the streets, day and night, looking for the missing, asking questions, trying to piece together some explanation.”

“And?” Maseryk asked.

“I haven’t found anything yet.”

“Wonder why that is?” Maseryk ran his eyes over the reports again, as if bored of the conversation. “Maybe it’s because a few drifters and grifters and petty criminals going missing is as everyday as apple pie. The fact these guys are gone isn’t exactly a hardship for the community.” He shot a hand up to stop Father Squid’s response. “I’m not saying we’re ignoring it. Just that there may be nothing to this. You want our full attention? Bring us something real. Some solid proof that anything at all is going on here. Without that, you’re on a back burner. Good day, gentlemen.”

 

Marcus wasn’t exactly an adventurous eater, but the scent wafting from the Elephant Royale got his long stomach grumbling. The sprawling restaurant featured outdoor seating, which relieved Marcus. More space for the tail.

The owner, a Thai man named Chakri, greeted Father Squid with a wide grin and flurry of back patting. A slim man dressed smartly, the only sign of the virus in him were his eyes. They were two or three times larger than normal. Round and expressive, they sparkled a deep green, with flecks of gold that reflected the sunlight.

“You’ve had success with your search?” Chakri asked, as he seated the two jokers at one of the curbside tables.

“I’m afraid not,” Father Squid said. “We’ve been on our own. Very little help from the police. We will continue our efforts, though.”

Marcus curled his tail under him, trying to keep the tip of it out of the way of passersby.

“You a good man, Father,” Chakri said. “I do this: I tell my people to keep a lookout. Deliverymen. Grocers. Shippers. They’re out early, up late. They see something they tell me. I tell you.”

“Thank you, Chakri,” Father Squid said. “That could be very helpful.”

“No bother. Now…” He blinked his large eyes, changing their color from green to vibrant crimson. “What would these good men like to eat?”

Having no idea, Marcus let the priest order for him. Soon, the two of them sipped large glasses of amazingly sweet tea. Marcus tentatively tried one of the fish cake appetizers. They didn’t look like much, but man they were good!

Father Squid said, “For a long time I couldn’t eat Thai food. Reminded me too much of…” He paused and cleared his throat. “Of things I didn’t want to remember. That’s before I met Chakri. His kind, generous nature is a balm. As is his cooking.”

Marcus plucked up another fish cake. “You fought in Vietnam, didn’t you? What was it like?”

Father Squid blew a long breath through the tentacles around his mouth. “It’s not something I discuss. War is madness, Marcus. It takes men and makes them animals. Pray you never see it yourself.”

Typical old guy thing to say, Marcus thought. Why did people who had experienced all sorts of wild stuff—war, drugs, crazy sex—always end up saying others shouldn’t experience the same things themselves?

Marcus’s cell phone vibrated like a rattlesnake’s tail in his chest pocket. He glanced at it. “I should probably take this.”

Father Squid motioned for him to do so.

“IBT, my man!”

Slate Carter. Talent agent. Marcus had never seen him, but he had to be white. No black guy would butcher street slang with such gusto.

“Waz up, G? You got that demo for me?”

Looking slightly embarrassed, Marcus twisted away from the table. “Hi, Slate. Um… no, it’s not ready yet. I’m not sure it’s such a good idea any—”

“Don’t blaze out, bro! I explained it all to you already. You got the look, the initials, the street cred, the vigilante backstory. You even beat down a crooked cop! That’s our first video, right there.”

“But—”

“You know what I’ve done for NCMF, right?”

“Yeah,” Marcus admitted. Of course he knew. Slate never failed to mention his most famous client.

NCMF was a rapping joker who happened to be the spitting image of an extinct early humanoid known as Paranthropus boisei. Nutcracker Man. Dude could drop some serious rhymes. His latest video was a concert reel, him stomping around the stage before a frenzied crowd, long arms pumping and swiping. The crowd would ask, “What’s your name?” He would answer, “Nutcracker, Motherfucker!” His rapping style was all natural flow. It never sounded like he was rapping. He was just talking, cursing, shouting. Somehow it all came out fast and funky. “NCMF but I don’t crack nuts! I crack butts. That’s right, I crack butts. I tear them open like I’m going extinct!” He proceeded to simulate his buttcracking prowess with the backsides of a number of dancers. “I crack butts!”

“You and I are gonna blow that away,” Slate promised. “You gonna explode like Jiffy Pop! Shoot me that demo and we’ll make it happen. You feel me?”

Marcus did. He was a twenty-year-old virgin, after all. Visions of bottles of Krug spurting fizz over bikini-clad dancers, SUVs bouncing and chants of “Gz Up, Hoes Down”… well, such things did have a certain appeal. He had conceded only one problem. A big one. He’d just never managed to actually say it to Slate.

Snapping his phone closed, Marcus muttered a curse.

Father Squid asked, with a raised eyebrow, “Something amiss?”

“That was an agent.”

“What sort of agent?”

“Talent. He represents musicians. Rappers mostly. He reps Nutcracker M—” Marcus caught himself. “Well, that… guy, with that song. You might’ve heard it.”

Father Squid frowned. “That one…”

“Anyway, Slate is legit. He thinks I could be a rap star. Blow up like… Jiffy Pop.”

“I didn’t know you were a musician.”

“Neither did I.” Marcus cut his eyes up at the priest’s face, and then took a sip of his iced tea. “I mean, I’m not. Slate keeps asking for a demo, but… I can’t rap. I tried. I got videos on my cell phone, but, man… I suck.”

“I can’t say that I’m disappointed to hear that.”

“He’s just after me ’cause I got a tight image, you know?”

“You have a measure of fame. With it comes responsibility. You understand that, right?”

“Yeah, you talk about it all the time.”

The father dropped one of his heavy hands on Marcus’s shoulder, the suckers on his palm squeezing. “I remind you because I care. Because I see a life of great promise ahead of you. I doubt very much that rapping would be fulfilling your potential. Marcus, if your card hadn’t turned, where would you be now?”

“In college, I guess.”

“Then you should be there now. The fact that you’re a joker need not change that.”

Marcus shifted uncomfortably. He couldn’t imagine slithering across the quad of some campus, all the nat students staring at his tail. It might have been his future once, but college didn’t seem possible anymore.

“Perhaps we can use your celebrity status for something other than making vulgar music,” Father Squid said. “And you can do something other than dispensing vigilante justice. You do much good. I won’t deny that. But where is the line? What happens when you err? When you hurt an innocent by mistake? What happens if you lose the bits of yourself that are kinder than your fists and muscles?”

The main dishes arrived.

The priest stuffed a napkin under his tentacled chin. After thanking the waitress, he continued, “Your life need not be defined only by the physical abilities the wild card has given you. That’s why I’m going to set up a college fund in your honor. I think quite a few people would be willing to contribute to that.”

Marcus hid the wave of emotion that rolled over him by digging in to his curry dish. Part of it was fear. Fear of wanting to strive for something that nats strove for. Fear of failing, of all the eyes that would watch him, critical and cold. Part of it was surprise that anyone would want to invest in his future that way. His parents didn’t. Nobody in his old life did.

Father Squid chuckled. “I should have warned you it was spicy.”

“Yeah,” Marcus said, wiping at the moisture in his eyes, “spicy. It’s almost got me crying.”

 

 

The Big Bleed

Part Two

 

“Did that hurt?”

Jamal Norwood stared in pain and horror at the wound on his left forearm. Pain because, yes, it hurt to have the extra-large needle jabbed into his arm, to feel the blood being sucked into the giant, toy-like syringe. Even the withdrawal was slow and jagged. What, this guy couldn’t have used a new needle? Or a small one?

“Yes!” Jamal couldn’t help sounding surprised at his frank answer, and a bit ashamed of himself. The grunting, high-pitched squeal hardly matched the image of a buff former movie stuntman turned SCARE agent.

The doctor, a centaur in a lab coat, frowned. “Sorry,” he said. His name was Finn and he came highly recommended, not that Jamal had done much in the way of due diligence. He had needed a quick, quiet consult… and the Jokertown Clinic seemed to be the best place.

Now, of course, with the crude, industrial-sized instruments, Jamal was revising his opinion. “It’s not your fault, Doctor,” he said, rubbing his arm. No, it was entirely Jamal’s problem. Hence the terror: he was Stuntman! His whole ace power was bouncing back from damage that would have severely injured, or killed, another human being, nat, ace, or joker.

And quickly! Being dropped from a forty-story building and flattened? Stuntman would bounce back within hours.

In past experience, a pinprick would have closed as soon as the needle point touched his skin. In fact, Jamal couldn’t remember the last time he’d had blood taken.

Or needed to.

“Hold on to this while I get something better,” Dr. Finn said, placing a cotton ball on the wound and closing Jamal’s arm on it.

Jamal wanted to tell the man no, no need.

But there was need: it felt as though his blood was gushing… it felt as though the cotton ball had already been soaked through.

What the hell was happening?

 

The spring of 2012 had been one of the warmest in New York history. When Jamal and the rest of the SCARE team arrived in late March for the presidential primary, they had expected a typical spring: cold, raw days interspersed with warm ones, rain, trees beginning to bloom.

Well, they found the rain, that was certain.

But the weather had been tropical… high temperatures, equally high humidity, and rain every day. New York streets, never in great shape in good years, were transformed into a collection of terrifying potholes and cracked pavement.

Jamal’s immediate boss, Bathsheeba Fox, also known as the Midnight Angel, was a good Christian belle whose default setting was to accept “God’s will” when it came to fouled-up situations. Jamal suspected that Sheeba felt glorified by the opportunity to protect the Holy Roller, the Reverend Thaddeus Wintergreen—the first ace to run for the presidency—from the increasing numbers of people who (in Jamal’s opinion) quite understandably wanted this Mississippi shithead dead. Sheeba would gladly have called down her personal Sword of the Lord on any member of the SCARE task force who dared to offer a discouraging word.…

Yet even She Who Must Be Obeyed had stood in the rain yesterday, her signature leather outfit showing cracks from wear, her jet-black mane a sodden, tied-up mess, her minimal makeup smeared, as she looked up at the sky and said, “You know, this kind of sucks.” Which summed up the whole New York tour… bad weather leading to ill temper all around. SCARE had assigned Jamal and Sheeba to provide coverage for Wintergreen. It didn’t matter that the Roller had zero chance of winning—Senators Obama and Lieberman and Attorney General Rodham were divvying up the delegates there. Known to millions from American Hero (that goddamn show again!), the Roller was drawing huge crowds wherever he went, and a goodly percentage of his fans resided on Homeland Security, Secret Service, and SCARE watch lists.

The Holy Roller detail had been a death march of long hours spent in grim factory gates, high school gymnasia, and an amazing number of cracker churches—more in the state of New York than Jamal would have believed. Each event required the SCARE team to engage in tedious “interfaces” with local police and sheriffs, plus the endless interviews, follow-ups, crowd scans.

It could have been worse, Jamal thought: he could have been assigned to cover one of the Republican candidates, but with Romney running away with the contest, SCARE’s very own Mormon, Nephi Callendar, had come out of retirement to provide “interface” with that campaign—sparing Jamal Norwood and the others.

Even though they’d avoided involvement with the Republicans, a greater challenge loomed: the Liberty Party and its national standardbearer, Duncan Towers, a blow-dried blowhard who made the Roller seem rational. So far Towers had been protected by the Secret Service and his own personal security force, but with the Dems moving on to California and what might yet prove to be a brokered convention, Sheeba’s team had been ordered to stay in New York to provide “advance” work for Towers and Liberty.

Jamal devoutly hoped that the assignment would be a short one. He had joined SCARE because he was bored with Hollywood and determined to rehabilitate himself after the debacle of the first season of American Hero. What better way than to fight terrorists in the Middle East?

And that had been satisfying. But it was now five years in the past.…

Until the morning of May 8, 2012, he had a firm plan to resign from SCARE the day after the November election. He wanted to make more money; he wanted to enjoy his work again. (A friend had sent him a script titled I Witness that might work for television.) Jamal didn’t particularly want to become the sole male lead of an action-adventure network series; that was a good way to make a lot of money and ruin your life. Nevertheless, going back to Hollywood and being thrown off tall buildings was a step up from a Sunday-night town meeting in Albany. And I Witness might wind up on cable… less money, but fewer episodes. The biggest lure was that going back to Hollywood meant he could rebuild his relationship with Julia—

“Any ideas on what this might be?”

Finn shrugged. “Joker medicine is still the Wild West.” Jamal let the joker reference go uncorrected. “There’s no reason to believe it’s anything… dire at the moment.”

“Wow, Doc, way to reassure a brother.”

The words obviously stung. “Sorry,” he said. “It’s just…”

“We don’t get a lot of aces in a place like this,” Jamal said, sliding off the table. “And at these prices, no wonder.” The doc had obviously never heard the old wheeze. Or maybe he was just freaked out by the unique nature of Jamal’s problem.

Either way, it was time to get out of here.

 

As a special agent for SCARE, Jamal could have taken his problem to a facility higher up the scale than the Jokertown Clinic. Two things argued against that move, however: a visit to, say, Columbia Medical or Johns Hopkins or especially the New Mexico Institute would have surely come to the attention of Sheeba and the higher-ups at SCARE. And Jamal Norwood wasn’t eager for that.

Besides, Doc Finn and the Jokertown Clinic had more experience dealing with wild card–related matters than anyone on the planet. They were likely Jamal’s best bet to find out what was wrong with him.

He had just received a promise from Finn for a follow-up report within forty-eight hours when his phone beeped. Sheeba the Midnight Angel herself. “Jamal,” she said, her Southern accent and perpetual air of exasperation stretching two syllables to three, “where are you?”

“A personal errand,” he snapped. “Does it make any difference why I’m off duty for an hour? If you need me somewhere, now, I’m on my way.”

“Yeah, well… we have a DHS incident in New Jersey. Some kind of toxic spill.”

“Why is that our mission?”

“They don’t tell me why, Jamal, they just tell me. DHS is shorthanded today. Tell me where you are and we’ll pick you up on the way.”

He improvised. He was still largely unable to visualize lower Manhattan— had they been uptown, say, Seventy-second Street, it would have been easier. But here? “Uh, corner of Essex and Delancey,” he said, naming the only two major streets he knew.

“See you in ten minutes,” Sheeba said.

Jamal grinned. It wouldn’t be ten minutes. The Midnight Angel’s metabolism ran hot, requiring at least half a dozen meals every day. (What would it be like when she hit menopause? he wondered. Would she slow down? Or would she blow up like a fat tick?) The moment she hit the street, she would see some food cart, and that would add ten minutes to the trip. And beat hell out of Sheeba’s per diem.

Which would allow Jamal Norwood to find the corner of Delancey and Essex.

 

Jamal liked to run, as long as he was in gym gear, wearing sneakers and on grass or at the very least a track. Running down a hard and broken Manhattan sidewalk in suit and dress shoes was not only far from his idea of decent exercise, it was too damned slow, especially with the afternoon crowds.

It was also too damned public. He caught a startled double take of recognition on at least two faces, and heard one construction worker hollering, “Yo, Stuntman!”

He pretended not to notice. He kept hoping that his exposure on American Hero would fade. No luck, alas.

It took him thirteen minutes to reach the corner of Essex and Delancey from the Jokertown Clinic. And when he did—

He was on the northeast corner, about to cross with the light, when something flashed in his peripheral vision. A battered white van made a hard left headed south, so close to the corner that Jamal and the other pedestrians could feel the slipstream. “Shit goddammit!” a young man shouted.

Jamal glanced at him—a mistake. What he saw was an AfricanAmerican joker, his upper half human-shaped, his nether regions more appropriate to a giant snake… if a giant snake adorned itself with rings of yellow, red, and black.

The social protocols required Jamal to say something. “Hey.”

He hoped to disengage at that point, but it was too late. “Hey, you’re Stuntman!”

Busted for the second time in a few minutes. American Hero had fattened Jamal’s bank account, undeniably a good sign, and had led to his meeting Julia, a jury-is-still-out sign, but in most other ways had proved to be a disaster.

Especially when it came to anonymity. Working in Hollywood had exposed Jamal Norwood to the perks and the price of fame, and it had quickly become obvious that the price far outweighed the perks. “Guilty.”

“Marcus!” the kid said, indicating himself. “What are you doing here, man?”

“Just… going from point A to point B.” This joker wasn’t likely to be satisfied with that, but it was all Jamal was offering. Maybe an autograph, if really pressed.

“Oh, wait,” the kid said. “Yo, Father!”

Christ, now what? Jamal had barely formulated the thought when Father Squid appeared out of the crowd. Jamal realized that, in addition to cooking food and auto exhaust, he had been smelling the sea. Father Squid was the source: big, tentacle-faced, wearing a black cassock, he also reeked of brine. The good father turned to Jamal. “Stuntman himself! What are you doing here? Thought you were working as a secret agent or something.”

“Something like that,” Jamal said. “Protection for candidates.”

The priest laughed long and loud. “Shielding the Holy Roller! What a task that must be!”

“Maybe that’s why they don’t know shit about anything going on in the streets,” Marcus said.

“Charity, Marcus,” the priest said.

Jamal was annoyed. “What’s he talking about?”

One of Squid’s tentacles uncurled in the direction of the nearest telephone pole. In addition to the usual long-past concert and job postings, the pole held three different homemade posters, the most prominent showing a joker named John the Pharaoh under the heading, Have you seen him? Missing since May 1!

“What’s going on?” Jamal said.

“A bunch of jokers have disappeared,” Marcus said. “I can’t believe SCARE doesn’t know about this.”

“SCARE might,” Jamal said. “My team doesn’t.”

“That sucks,” Marcus said.

Squid placed a calming tentacle on Marcus’s shoulder. “The local police aren’t stepping up. We can hardly expect the Feds to do what Fort Freak won’t.”

“How many have there been?” Jamal said. After five years with SCARE, he was finding it easy to slip into an investigative role.

“At least half a dozen,” Father Squid said.

“That’s a big number,” Jamal said, feeling alarmed. SCARE should know about this—

Suddenly Marcus started. “Who’s that?”

A black Ford Explorer pulled up across the street. Jamal’s phone buzzed.

“My team.” He turned to the priest. “I’ll make sure someone looks into this.”

“You can reach me at Our Lady of Perpetual Misery.”

“I know the place.” As he turned to cross the street, he hoped he had gotten away without making too many promises. Squid and Marcus made him nervous.

He would not have believed that the sight of a black Ford Explorer with the Midnight Angel in the front seat would ever have made him happy.

 

Excerpted from Lowball © 2014

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