Tue
Jun 7 2011 3:37pm
The Rook
Melinda Snodgrass

Please enjoy this new original story by Melinda M. Snodgrass from Fort Freak, the newest anthology in George R.R. Martin’s long-running Wild Cards series, out June 21 from Tor Books.

***

I FIND THE FIRST day of anything tough—first day of school, first day of camp, first day of the year. My tendency is to view the unknown future more with trepidation than joy. And now I could add to that list the first day of work.

As I walked toward New York’s 5th precinct, a hot, muggy wind off the East River sent trash scurrying down the gutters and wafted to me the scent of garbage rotting in black plastic sacks awaiting pickup. Abandoning me, the wind raced on to seize the American flag on the front of the station house, gripped it, and set it twisting and snapping like a maddened whip.

The four-story building that housed law enforcement for the part of New York City known as Jokertown was pale stone and it came right up to the edge of the sidewalk. There were a handful of parking spaces out front, but they were filled, and it made me glad I hadn’t bothered to bring down my car from Saratoga. To either side of the precinct rose two redbrick buildings that were both taller and wider; it left the cop shop looking like a short guy squeezed between burly longshoremen.

I held my hat against a particularly strong gust of wind and picked up the pace. Not just because I wanted out of the heat, but because I wanted to be early. I opened the door, then paused for one brief moment to savor the moment. My dad had worked here. Been captain of this precinct. Died at his desk on a particularly chaotic Wild Card Day that is now in the history books. I had never known John Francis Xavier Black. He died four months before I was born, but his picture is everywhere in my mother’s house upstate, and I’d heard the stories from one of his detectives, Sam Altobelli. And now I was about to walk in his footsteps.

Are you proud of me, Dad? I hope you’re wa—

I lost the rest of the thought and my hat when I was shoved violently from behind.

“Jesus fucking Christ, get out of the way.”

My hands and knees, rather than my face, met the stained linoleum floor, and I flinched as a pair of size thirteen, thick-soled, metal-toed shoes stepped over me. I tried to regain my feet, but was knocked down again by the long scaled tail that dragged behind my assailant.

Regaining my feet, I tapped the broad shoulder. The back of his head was weirdly misshapen and scaled like the tail. “Excuse me,” I said.

“This time,” a deep baritone grunted back.

This time I closed my hand on one beefy bicep. “No, you owe me the apology.”

The man turned. I braced myself for what I would see, but I didn’t brace enough. I ended up taking a step back. What faced me was a dragon.

He was also a cop. The tail and the head had sort of distracted me from noticing the blue uniform. Great, I was about to start my first day on the job in a fight (hopefully verbal) with a fellow offi cer.

It was shift change, so the room was bustling. The desk sergeant stood up, and was patting the air in a soothing gesture. Moving his arms caused his drooping and faded brown batwings to jerk too, but he wasn’t exactly leaping or flying to my aid. The night-shift cops, now in civvies, paused in their rush for the door. It might be the end to their “day,” but a fight was always worth a delay.

Day-shift cops were pushing in behind me. One of them—a man with a shock of orange-red hair, the red-veined nose of a drinker, and a missing ear—slapped the dragon man on the shoulder and said, “Kick the rook’s ass, Puff.”

So much for the verbal thing. Maybe I could take him if I fought dirty. I glanced from the grinning razorlike teeth to the clawed hands that were clenching and flexing in preparation, and I had the feeling that he knew more about dirty fighting than I could ever hope to learn.

“Guys, guys, what’s going on?” came a basso rumble from behind me.

I risked a glance and found myself staring at a horror. He had to be pushing seven feet tall, with a wolf’s snout, bear claws at the end of arms so long they dragged the ground, and bull horns thrusting out of the forehead. And fur.

I was starting to feel like a minnow in a shark pool.

“Dumb-ass was standing in the door blockin’ the way,” my nemesis growled. “I thought he needed a lesson in manners, and now he thinks I oughta apologize.”

I found myself gripped in a one-armed man-hug by the furry, horned, giant muppet-thing. “Hey, give the kid a break. He was probably just get-tin’ his bearings.” He gave me a little shake. “Right?”

I looked up and realized the brown eyes on either side of the snout and fangs were warm and very kind. I nodded; it was as good an explanation as any, and it might keep a bad situation from turning into complete shit.

“Aw, Beastie, ever the peacemaker,” said a redheaded woman. Her shoes were polished mirror bright, and her pants crease could have provided a shave. She patted the dragon on the shoulder. “Lu, it’s not the kid’s fault you’re hungover. Come on, we’re going to be late.”

Everyone started to move again. Dragon guy fell into step with the one-eared guy and the redhead and threw back over his shoulder, “Next time you see me, Rook, step aside.”

“Come on, kid, let’s get you to the briefing. Don’t wanna be late on your first day.”

“Thank you, Officer . . .” I let my voice trail away suggestively.

“Bester. Benjamin Bester, but everyone calls me Beastie. You can too. It’s great not to be the rookie anymore.”

“Glad I could oblige.” I followed after him, past the winged desk sergeant and up the stairs. “Who’s my other rescuer?” I asked, with a nod toward the redhead.

“Angel Grady, Puff’s . . . sorry, Lu Long’s partner. She’ll be captain before she’s forty. She’s awesome. The other guy is Thomas Driscoll . . . Tabby. He works undercover.”

“That can’t last long. He’s pretty distinctive-looking.”

“No, no, he doesn’t go undercover like that. He turns into a cat.”

“Oh,” I said, faintly, as we topped the stairs and entered the squad room.

More chaos there. Phones were ringing, people were talking. Depressed- looking suspects in handcuffs were seated at a few desks while uniformed cops and plainclothes detectives pecked at the dirty keyboards of ancient computers. One old guy had ram’s horns growing out of his skull. At the back of the room were two glassed-in offices for the precinct brass. I wondered if things had been remodeled since 1986. They must have been. Somebody would have noticed if my dad had died at his desk in a glass office.

Clashing odors swirled through the room. In addition to gun oil, sweat, and vomit there was the distinctive burnt-nuts smell of very old coffee and very fresh donuts in the air. My stomach gave a growl. I had been too nervous to eat breakfast. Maybe this is how cops become a cliché, I thought. I longed to go in search of the donuts, but instead followed Beastie into the briefing room.

Beat cops were settling into chairs. Behind the podium was a middle- aged Asian woman with an oval face and worried dark eyes. Her name tag said CHOY. Behind her was a large and detailed map of Jokertown and a bit of Chinatown where the two intersected. There were wanted posters and updates from the FBI, SCARE, and other law enforcement agencies.

I took a chair in the back. I’d drawn enough attention for one day. The sergeant began the briefing. I took out my iPhone and began taking notes.

“Mr. Lee reports that somebody’s been entering his fish market and eating just the mussels and the clams. He comes in every morning to fi nd empty shells. Tabby, maybe you could offer some insight?” The Asian woman looked over at him.

“Love to,” Driscoll drawled.

“Just don’t get distracted banging the alley cats, Tabby,” a short, skinny Asian man called. Laughter sputtered through the crowd.

A middle fi nger flipped up, and Tabby shot back, “Unlike you, Dildo, I can do more than two things at once.”

More laughter, quickly extinguished when Choy said, “Okay, okay, moving on. The turf war between the Werewolves and the Demon Princes is heating up. Some of those guys are better armed than us, so be careful. And we’ve got a purse snatcher operating between Elizabeth and Orchard. Keep an eye out, and for God’s sake kick your lazy asses into gear and run him down. The store owners are complaining that it’s hurting the tourist trade.”

“Are we ever gonna get those Segways?” asked a cop who was busy brushing powdered sugar off the shelf of his belly. I could see why he wanted one of the two-wheeled personal transports.

“In a word . . . no,” said the sergeant.

“Ah, damn. Then can I get a car?”

“No.”

The new mayor had taken many of New York’s Finest out of patrol cars and put them back on foot or on bicycles. He thought it improved community outreach when the police had to walk among the citizens they were supposed to be protecting. I thought he had a point, which is why I had decided to take an apartment in Jokertown. My mother hadn’t liked it, and I admit some of my neighbors left me queasy, but all the research indicated that when cops lived where they worked conditions in a neighborhood improved. And when I had been in law school there’d been a lot of discussion about breaking the cycle of gang membership leading to jail, returning to the gang—

“. . . Black? Is Black here?”

I have this tendency to become fascinated with some thought, and miss what was going on around me. Hence I missed my name being called. I scrambled awkwardly to my feet while thrusting my hand into the air. “Here. Here. I’m here.”

“Okay, Bill, he’s all yours,” said Choy, addressing an absolutely enormous Asian man in the front row.

He stood and peered back at me. I gaped. He looked like an Easter Island statue. He shook his head with its thick mop of jet-black hair and said, “How did I get so lucky?”

I choked on a laugh. The voice that emerged from that massive body was a ridiculous high-pitched squeak.

“You think his voice is funny, wait till you get a load of his power,” the woman next to me whispered. Her name tag read QUATTORE. Curling black hair brushed her shoulders, and I couldn’t help but notice her impressive rack.

At the same time Tabby grunted, “ ’Cause you’re such a fucking sterling example to us all.” My new partner glared at Tabby.

There appeared to be a story there. I just didn’t want to become part of it.

“Okay,” Choy broke in again. “Go out there and catch bad guys.”

There was much scraping of chairs, coughs, and conversations as the cops headed for the door. Bill walked to me. I craned my neck to look up at him, and I’m five feet ten.

“Bill Chen,” he said, and thrust out his hand.

I watched mine disappear into his paw. “Francis Black.”

“Okay, Franny, stick by me. Keep your mouth shut. Learn something.” “I go by Frank,” I said. “And I thought that’s what I did at the Academy?” “Oh, no, no, no, no, no. That was bullshit. This is Jokertown.”

 

It was indeed Jokertown. Bill’s beat encompassed most of the famous tourist attractions— the Famous Jokertown Dime Museum, the strip club Freakers, the line of mask and cloak shops on Hester. Interspersed among them were Starbucks stores and—most incongruous of all—a new Hyatt Hotel.

The sidewalks were crowded, worse than even normal Manhattan. Joker body shapes aren’t exactly human normal, and many jokers require additional help to get around. So the sidewalks were also clogged with wheelchairs, four-wheeled carts, and other unique forms of conveyance. At one point Bill stepped casually through the scrabbling eight legs of a giant spider topped with the head and torso of an old woman scrabbling down the sidewalk. Bill acknowledged her with his baton. “Morning, Arachne.”

“Hi, Bill,” the spider-woman responded.

I didn’t trust myself not to tread on one of Arachne’s legs so I stepped off into the gutter to walk past her.

“First day on the job?” the old woman asked.

I stopped. “Uh, does it show that bad?” I tried to look at the human face, look the woman in the eyes, but my eyes kept flicking back to the spiky hairs protruding from the spider body, the eight legs culminating in pincers.

She chuckled. “Yes, you look poleaxed.”

“Franny, come on,” Bill bellowed. I ducked my head at Arachne and hurried to catch up.

Bill strode along, nightstick swinging in the rhythm of his walk.

“Isn’t it a little threatening to be carrying your stick? All you’d have to do is slap your palm with it, and you’d be a perfect cliché,” I said.

“It’s how I access my power, kid. When I want a critique of my policing style I won’t be asking you.”

“Sorry.”

A big hand closed on my shoulder. “That’s okay. At least you have the sense when to climb down. So many of us are macho assholes. Even the girls.”

“So, what is your power?”

“The day is young. I’m sure you’ll see before it’s over.”

“I noticed that every pairing seems to be a joker and a nat, or an ace and a nat,” I said.

“Precinct policy. Pair a nat and a wild card whenever possible.”

We made a stop at a newsstand at the corner of Hester and the Bowery. An incredibly wide man with blue-black skin and tusks protruding from his mouth was selling a Times, a Newsweek, and an Economist to a multiarmed, multieyed joker. After the joker skittered away on what seemed to be a million centipedelike legs, the proprietor leaned on the weather-worn counter. He and Bill slapped palms and bumped fi sts. Then Bill asked, “What’s the word, Jube?”

“Pretty quiet.”

“Well that won’t last,” Bill said.

“Hey,” said Jube, “I got a new one. A joker, a priest, and a rabbi are in a lifeboat . . .”

But I was thinking about Bill’s last comment and didn’t hear the joke. It was August. In a month, on the fifteenth of September, Jokertown was going to bust out in a celebration that was half Mardi Gras, half St. Patrick’s Day, and half riot: Wild Card Day. For me it was the anniversary of my dad’s death.

Bill groaned. “That was terrible. You need a new writer.” Then added in his absurd voice, “Let me introduce my new partner. Franny, meet Jubal. He’s been watching the world go by from this newsstand, for what? Forty years?”

“Close enough. I don’t want to actually count them up.” A broad hand thrust toward me. We shook, and Jube looked closely at my nameplate that read F. X. BLACK. “There was an F. X. Black at the 5th twenty-five years ago. Any relation?”

The words emerged from between my teeth like pulled taffy. “Yeah, my dad.”

Bill was staring at me and I felt heat rising up the back of my neck. Mercifully we were interrupted by yelling.

“You ugly son of a bitch! I gave you a goddamn fifty, and you gave me back change for a twenty. I don’t fucking think so.”

Across the street and on the corner, people swirled like water circling a drain, attracted by the altercation at the pretzel cart. Bill and I plunged between parked cars and into the street. Bill held up his stick like Moses exhorting the waves, and lo and behold, all the traffic stopped.

A red-faced nat dressed in shorts, tennis shoes with calf-high socks, and a green polo shirt that strained across his belly screamed into the masked face of a joker. “You’re a goddamn crook, you fuckin’ freak.”

The small joker seemed to be shriveling beneath the barrage of words and profanity. His face might be hidden, but folds of skin sagged down his neck like wattles on a turkey, and the same dangling folds festooned his arms, visible because of his short-sleeved shirt.

“Okay, let’s all just calm down. Now what seems to be the problem?” Bill said. It’s the standard cop line, and usually presented in an all-knowing tone. Bill’s high-pitched voice rather undercut the effect. His bulk made up for it.

“I gave this guy a fifty, and he only gave me change for a twenty,” the tourist repeated, at a much lower volume.

“I didn’t,” the joker whined.

“Open your cash box,” Bill said.

I gulped. If the joker refused we’d be forced to get a warrant. But he didn’t. And I checked off lesson number one. It never hurts to ask. Cops are intimidating, people usually agree and you avoid the warrant. I could just imagine how Dr. Pretorius, my constitutional law professor at Columbia, would react to my conclusion.

There was no fifty in the cash box. I decided I needed to start acting like a cop and investigate. “How much for a pretzel?” I asked.

“Buck twenty-nine with tax. Buck sixty-seven if you want cheese. He wanted cheese.”

I looked up at Bill who was glaring at me. I took a breath to help quiet the quivering that had hit my gut and said, “Nobody pays for a dollar sixty-seven pretzel with a fi fty-dollar bill.” I peered into the cash box. “And he . . .” I indicated the joker. “Would have cleaned out his cash if he’d tried.”

“Which is why he just pocketed my money,” the tourist blustered.

Bill looked from one to the other. Suddenly he unlimbered the cuffs and spun the joker around.

Back at the station Mr. Kuzlovsky had recovered his fi fty-dollar bill, the pushcart vendor was in a cell, and I was feeling really, really stupid. After the arrest Bill had patted down the joker, and found the fifty tucked away in the drooping folds of skin around his belly. Bill was laboriously typing up a report using a one-fingered hunt and peck method, and he sensed my embarrassment. He looked up, and his expression was kind.

“Don’t worry about it, Rook. Just don’t let pity cloud your judgment. And don’t overcompensate by assuming innocence just because they’ve been afflicted and you find them disgusting.”

My new partner was turning out to be frighteningly astute. I decided not to insult us both by denying it. “I’d quibble with the word choice, but I am finding this harder than I expected,” I said. “I took an apartment down here so I could try to see the neighborhood as just a neighborhood.”

“That’s good. And now you gotta see jokers as people. Which means like most people they’re shits.”

I dropped into a chair, and shifted my nightstick and handcuffs so they weren’t digging me in the kidneys. “That’s a damn depressing attitude.”

Bill shrugged. “Just being realistic. We’re cops, which means we see the bad, not the good.” He flashed me a grin. “Cheer up. In a week you’ll assume everybody’s lying.”

“Great.” I sighed and looked away.

“What else is bothering you?” I was beginning to wonder if Bill’s power was telepathy.

“I’m worried that searching a physical deformity qualifies as a strip search. If it does we should have gotten a warrant.”

Bill stopped typing and leaned back in his chair. It creaked ominously. “You one of those annoying armchair shysters?”

I stared into that broad face and for one cowardly moment considered lying. “No, I’m an actual shyster.”

“Oh, fuck. That’s just great.” He shoved back from the desk, the wheels on his chair chattering across the floor. “Well, that probably means you can type. Be my guest.” And he stomped away toward the break room. It looked like the bonding moment was definitely over. As I settled down behind the computer I figured the word would be all over the precinct by shift change.

We were back on the street by 10:30 A.M. We broke up a fight outside Squishers Basement at 11:15. The combatants were about sixteen sheets to the wind. As I stepped back, panting and rubbing my upper arm where one of the drunks had landed an ill-aimed punch, I found myself yelling at the bartender who had come outside to observe the fight.

“What the hell time do you open? Or did you ever close? Unless you’ve got a special license you better have closed at 4:00 A.M.”

Bill slapped me on the back. “They serve ‘food.’ ” He put air quotes around the word. “Which means they can open at ten, and he makes a great hangover remedy.”

After the drunks were sent back to lockup I realized I was famished. Bill was hungry too, so we hit a local diner for burgers. I made the mistake of ordering mine with guacamole and blue cheese. For the next hour I got to listen to Bill talk about my “yuppie burger,” and I was revising my opinion of his empathy. I checked my watch. It was 1:20 and I had a headache blossoming behind my eyes.

A stir on the sidewalk again drew my attention. I was starting to distrust anything that disrupted the smooth flow of bodies through the canyons of Manhattan. There were youthful male hoots and catcalls.

An old man’s voice with a decidedly Yiddish accent quavered out, “You’re a bunch of pigs. Just pigs.”

This time I led the way toward the altercation, pushed through the crowd, and found a naked woman. She was young, and trying to cover herself with a forearm across her breasts and a hand in front of her crotch. Her arms sported some interesting Oriental ideograph tattoos along with the usual punk girl hearts and skulls. The only other thing on her body, aside from a mop of untidy jet-black hair, was a nose stud flashing in the autumn sunlight. Her cheeks were bright red with embarrassment.

A wolf whistle cut the air followed by, “Hey, baby, great ass!”

“Oh, bugger off!” she shouted back. The accent was British.

I held up a hand and said authoritatively (I hoped), “Okay, nothing to see here, move along.” The minute the words emerged I winced because right on cue some wags in the crowd delivered a one- two punch.

What? Are you gay?”

“Like hell there isn’t.”

There was a clerk from a mask and cloak shop gawking. I shouted at him, “Bring her a cloak.” He hustled off. I turned to the girl. “Okay. What are you protesting? Fur? World hunger? The mayor?”

“Listen, Mr. Policeman—if you are a policeman, and not a park-keeper or something—I didn’t do a thing. I was just walking along, minding my own business when suddenly—” She gestured down the length of her body. “I’d like to report a robbery.”

The clerk returned with a cloak that the young woman flung around her shoulders and pulled tightly closed to a chorus of disappointed “Oooh’s” from the onlookers.

“Well, that’s a new one,” I said. I unlimbered my handcuffs.

“You’re arresting me!?” Hazel eyes flashed fury.

“Indecent exposure.”

Bill arrived, his bulk scattering the crowd like a polar bear through a seal colony. “Hold on there, Rook.”

“My clothes just—”

“Vanished. Yeah, I know,” Bill interrupted. He said to me, “Women have been losing their clothes almost daily. We figure it’s some ace perv, but we haven’t got a line on him yet. So question some of these pervs.” He raked the crowd with a jaundiced eye. Men started drifting away.

“Hey, hold it,” I yelled, but a lot of them vanished into the bustling crowds. I questioned the few I’d corralled while listening to Bill and the girl’s conversation. Now that I realized she wasn’t a criminal it had begun to penetrate that she was really cute.

“What’s your name, miss?” Bill asked.

“Abigail Baker.”

“What do you do?”

I am an actress.”

“Look, we need you to come down to the precinct and make a statement.”

“I have no clothes.”

“We’ll give you a jumpsuit.”

“Wonderful. I’ll look like a criminal. And what do I do in the meantime?”

Bill called out to the shop owner. “Hey, Jeannie, we’re gonna borrow the cloak for a few hours, okay?”

“Clean it before you bring it back,” Jeannie called.

Abigail’s mouth formed an “O” of outrage, and she emitted a sound like a furious kitten. “I would prefer to return home.”

“And I would prefer you come to the precinct.”

 

“. . . it was involuntary public nudity.” We were in an interrogation room. Abigail was making an orange prison jumpsuit look almost attractive. She wore a pair of flip-flops that Sergeant Penniman had pulled out of her locker, and was sipping a Diet Coke. Bill was asking questions and I was taking notes.

She peered down her nose at me and said, “Involuntary. That’s I . . . N . . . V . . .”

Bill choked on a laugh. I felt the top of my ears getting warm. “I know how to spell ‘involuntary.’ I went to law school.”

“Oh, how interesting? As what?”

“As a student!”

Bill restored the peace by asking, “Okay, where do you live?” She gave an address on the southern edge of Jokertown. Bill leaned back and studied her. “They pretty much cater to students. I thought you said you were an actress?”

Abigail blushed, and took a quick sip of soda. “Well, I am . . . almost. I’m just finishing up a few classes at the New York School of Performing Arts. But I’m understudying a major role at the Bowery Repertory.”

“Oh, so you’re a wannabe actress,” I said.

“And you’re a failed barrister.”

“I chose to be a police officer,” I began.

“Franny, go get me a soda.” He handed me a dollar bill. “An orange. And while you’re at it ask Apsara for the victim report form.”

I left, grumbling. That girl had really gotten under my skin. I had to ask the old ram’s horn detective how to find the file room. He gave me a very tedious set of exact directions, and I headed there.

Watching too many cop dramas had given me a sense of what a file clerk should look like. An old, male, potbellied, maybe retired cop. What met me was a vision out of an Asian film. The girl looked very young, and she was flat-out gorgeous. Jet-black hair that hung past her ass, skin like honey, an amazing figure. I tried to moisten my lips, but my mouth had gone Sahara dry. “I need . . . I need . . .”

“Yes, officer?” Her voice was like bells. “What do you need?” Long lashes briefly veiled the laughter in her eyes.

“Victim’s report form.”

“All right.” I watched her go swaying away to a filing cabinet.

Her path led her past a strange little ornately carved wooden house with a gold leaf roof. I realized I’d seen similar styles in Thai restaurants. She returned with a couple of sheets of paper. “I’m Apsara Nai Chiangmai. You’re new. What’s your name?”

“Fran—” My voice squeaked. I coughed and tried again. “Francis Black.”

“Francis,” she said slowly, making my name into a song. “That’s a nice name. I like the feel of that on my tongue.” She did that thing with her lashes again, and I thought about cold showers.

“Thank you,” I muttered, and grabbed the papers and headed for the door.

“Come by anytime,” she called.

“Okay,” I gasped.

As I left I thought I heard a cranky old man’s voice saying her name in that parent tone that tells you you’ve really fucked up.

I found the soda machine, bought Bill’s orange beverage, and got myself a Coke. I didn’t open it right away. Instead I rolled the cold can across my forehead. Having regained control over my anatomy I went back into the interrogation room.

 

It wasn’t deliberate, I hadn’t planned it, but I happened to be at the front door when Abigail headed out. She was still in the jumpsuit.

“Do you need a taxi?” I had to clear my throat to get out the last word.

“You might notice that I no longer have a purse, which means I have no money, so no.”

“Uh . . . right . . . I could loan you . . .”

She walked past me, heading for the door. I hurried to open it for her.

“Uh . . . look . . . I’m new in town, and you’re . . . foreign, maybe we could have dinner . . . tonight . . .” At her expression I modified the statement. “Sometime?”

“Are you on crack? No!” The door closed behind her and I heard Sergeant Taylor (whose nickname was Wingman, I had learned) give a snort of laughter. “You gotta work on your timing, Franny,” he said.

 

2:10. Back on the street. Bill gave a warning to a panhandling joker whose gig was to offer to wash the windshields of cars waiting at stoplights. He looked like a big octopus from the waist down, and he had an interesting pitch. If the driver was polite and gave him a dollar, the joker would heave his bulk onto the roof of the car, and with a shammy in each of his nine tentacles (I don’t know why he had nine tentacles, but he did), he would proceed to wash all the windows on the car. If the driver was rude he still heaved himself onto the roof of the car, but this time he inked all the windows.

As we walked away I asked, “So, why does he just get a warning?”

“Because Arms washes the captain’s car.”

“Maseryk?” I had heard about Maseryk from Altobelli. He described him as a military fl at- topped, hard-ass straight arrow. I couldn’t mesh that image with him getting free car washes from a joker.

“No, Mendelberg.”

“Ah.” The other captain of the 5th was a joker. It was beginning to look like jokers stuck together. Bill again appeared to read my mind.

“Arms is bipolar. He can’t really hold a job. Washing police cars is the only steady pay he gets.”

“Ah,” I said again. “How long does it take, acquiring this”— I gestured around—“I guess you’d call it area knowledge?”

“I’ve been in this precinct for five years, three years before that at the 13th. But I grew up in Chinatown near the 5th. I’ve got a pretty good handle on J-Town, and in Chinatown I know practically everybody.”

“That isn’t very encouraging. I’m going to be ready to retire before I get to know people.”

“Assuming you stick. You strike me as the type to end up down at One Police Plaza at headquarters.”

I watched his broad back, and resolved that wouldn’t happen. Then I realized that was probably exactly what my rabbi, Sam Altobelli, was planning. And if I really did want to follow in my dad’s footsteps and make captain I was going to have to play the political game. I followed morosely in Bill’s wake because I was back to questioning the motivations that had led to this career.

I was a Columbia law school graduate. I had passed the New York State bar. I hadn’t been law review material, I was never going to end up in a white-shoe law firm, but I had been in the top third of my class, I could have found a good job. But I wanted to make a difference. Help people.

So, become a public defender, or work for an environmental nonprofit, said that inner voice that sounded suspiciously like a cross between my mother and my college advisor.

I will, I promised them. If this doesn’t work out.

I was deep in thoughtful contemplation of my navel, watching the cracks in the sidewalk, when Bill’s radio crackled to life. “Bill, one of my pooches spotted our purse snatcher. He’s running west on Broome over near the Dumpling House.”

“Thanks, K-10, we’re on it.”

Bill took off running. I grabbed at my stick and cuffs to keep them from battering my kidney and took off after him. We came around a corner onto Broome and I heard a woman screaming. I had a fleeting glimpse of a young man clutching a large red leather handbag and running as if all the hounds of hell were on his heels.

We gave chase. Bill might be big, but I ran track in college, and the perp was motivated. We had soon pulled well ahead of Bill. The purse snatcher grabbed the corner of a brownstone and spun himself into an alley. I made the turn, and a garbage can came crashing and banging toward me, depositing its odiferous load at my feet. I slipped on a combination of rotting potato peels and plastic wrap. I managed not to face plant, but one hand and one knee dropped into the oozing garbage.

“Yuck.” I bounded up and ran on, trying to shake the garbage off my hand.

The alley ended at a chain-link fence. The purse snatcher had slung the purse over his shoulder and was swarming up the wire. I heard Bill behind me. He was roaring something, but the blood was pounding in my ears, and I couldn’t quite hear him between the slap of my feet on pavement and the shaking and chattering of the fence.

I leaped up, gripped the metal, and started to climb. The perp looked back and kicked at me. I yanked my head away just in time, and his foot just hit my shoulder. I was starting to get royally pissed. I lunged and managed to grasp the purse where it bounced on his skinny ass.

I heard Bill whistling as I yanked at the strap. The purse snatcher gave a wail of despair as he tumbled off the fence. I lost my grip and fell too . . . and realized we were both surrounded by a bright pink aura fi lled with sparks and floating stars.

“I told you to get out of the way,” Bill said.

I slammed the door of my locker and batted irritably at the stars floating in front of my face. I was now, intimately, familiar with Bill’s “power.” There were snorts of laughter from Beastie Bester and Van Tranh, aka Dr. Dildo. “How long is this going to last? And you better not say forever.”

“ ’Bout six hours.”

“Great. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

The route to the front door from the locker room took me past the file room. The incredibly sexy Asian girl giggled, and peered at me from behind the curtain of her ass-length black hair. Apsara, that was her name. I had picked up some forms from her while we were booking Abigail, and had thought I’d ask her out. Now she thought I was a dork, and that was never going to happen. Feeling incredibly sorry for myself, I proceeded to the front door and emerged onto the darkening street. Ten hours ago I had stepped through this door feeling like anything could happen.

Unfortunately that had turned out to be true.

Halfway home a heavy hand descended on my shoulder, and suddenly I was kissing the soot-stained brick wall of a building. “Okay, you’re under arrest.”

“I’m a cop,” I mumbled against the rough surface.

“What’s that, scum?”

“I’m a cop!” I shouted.

“Yeah, and I’m the pope.”

“My badge is in my left breast pocket.”

Rough hands jerked me around and dove into my pocket and emerged with my badge and ID. I was facing a hideous joker. He had bulging eyes, a unibrow that made his forehead seem even more shelflike, a bullet-shaped head that looked like one side had been smacked with an iron skillet, and all of this crowned with spiky gray hair that looked more akin to a warthog’s bristles than human hair.

Standing next to him was a strange-looking girl with shaggy brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. She had the biggest barrel chest I’d ever seen on a human, and a tiny waist that would have made Scarlett O’Hara green with envy. She wasn’t ugly just . . . odd. Her name tag read MICHAELSON.

“Then why you got the glow?” the bug-eyed guy asked. His name tag identified him as BRONKOWSKI. The human whippet next to him smiled, revealing small fangs.

“Bill’s my partner. We were apprehending a purse snatcher and . . . well, he sort of . . . missed.” The ugly guy guffawed and a small dimple appeared next to the girl’s mouth. “And what the hell were you arresting me for?” I added, aggrieved.

“Walking while pink,” Michaelson said, in a tolerable female imitation of Officer Friday’s flat, unemotional tone.

“You mean you just arrest people for glowing?” I gestured at the stars and the sparks.

“Tinkerbill wouldn’t have whacked ’em unless they were guilty of something.”

“Tinkerbill?” Delight over my partner’s nickname gave way to lawyerly shock. “You’re arresting people without probable cause.”

“Kid, how long have you been on the job?” asked Michaelson. Which I thought was sort of rich. She didn’t look much older than me.

“Today was my first day.”

She and Bronkowski exchanged a glance. “You’ll learn,” she said, and they let me go.

I got arrested four more times before I got home. Each time my badge, and the explanation that I was Bill’s partner, got me released. But I sensed I had left a trail of hilarity for the swing shift.

In my effort to be P.C. I had picked an apartment smack in the middle of Jokertown. It was a relatively new building erected during a liberal mayor’s efforts to gentrify the area. It was white stone, relatively modern, which meant the living room, dining nook, and kitchen were all one big room. I had a decent- sized bedroom and a full bath with a tub in addition to a shower. I set my hat on the bookcase as I came in, and straightened the photo of my father in his dress blues. “Well, Dad, I hope you weren’t watching today,” I said to that stern, chiseled face.

I was supposed to have dinner with Altobelli that night, and I knew my mother would be waiting by the phone in the house in Saratoga, wanting to hear about my first day on the job. Not wanting to be seen in public, I canceled with Altobelli, but mothers couldn’t be postponed.

I put in an order for some Thai food to be delivered, and settled into the recliner with the phone tucked under my chin. “Hi, Mom.”

“Oh, honey, I’ve been thinking about you all day. How was it?”

The five-year-old who had run to Mommy with skinned knees and bumped elbows wanted to wail out every slight. Instead I feigned cheerfulness and said, “Great. It was great.”

“Your father would be so proud.” I heard the sigh in her voice. “So, who did you arrest?”

I told her about Abigail.

“Never get involved with perps or witnesses, dear. I’m sure Sam would tell you the same.”

“Yeah.” There was a knock at my door. “Hey, Mom, my food is here. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

“Okay, honey, take care. Be careful.”

I slammed down the footrest of the recliner with a satisfying kick, grabbed my wallet, and headed to the door. I opened it to a joker delivery boy. This one wasn’t too weird. He just had faceted eyes like a bee, and the usual fan of angry acne across his cheeks and chin that was the hallmark of every teenage boy. The hallway smelled of cabbage rolls and coffee, but they lost out to the sharp scent of green curry and garlic beef wafting up from the bag the kid carried.

“What do I owe you?”

The kid looked at the bill. “Twenty-one fifty-three.” I dug out twenty- five, and realized I couldn’t make a habit of this.

“Thanks.” I started to shut the door, but the kid held up a hand. “Yes?”

“Uh . . . if you want anything like for . . . dessert, I can set you up. I’ve got a friend.” He was staring at the pink and sparking nimbus that surrounded me.

“It’s a good thing you kept that vague, kid, because otherwise I would have to arrest you. But it’s your lucky night. I’m tired and I’m hungry so I’ll pretend I don’t actually understand what you’re saying. But just for that . . .” I took my cash back out of his limp hand, pulled out the five, and gave him a one instead. “No tip.”

“Hey! What about the fifty-three cents?” he howled in outrage as I started to shut the door.

“Get it from your friend.” I slammed the door.

 

“Everyone’s a winner. Come on, mister, five’ll get you ten. Ten’ll get you twenty. Easy peasy, just pick the card.”

The singsong patter of a three-card monte hustle reached us. Bill gave a gusting sigh. “Fuckin’ Joe Twitch. Just ’cause he’s a sometime snitch he thinks he can pull this shit. Let’s go protect the rubes.”

Joe had set up between the Jokertown Dime Museum and Freakers, a spot guaranteed to get a lot of traffic. The citizens of Jokertown ignored him, but there was a crowd of tourists gathered around. None of them had ever seen a man’s hands move that fast. They were almost a blur. The man guiding those hands was short, wiry, and ugly as sin. He had faintly mottled skin, curly brown hair, and catlike green eyes that technically made him a joker. Aces and deuces were people who were outwardly unchanged, but possessed superhuman (or totally lame) powers.

The current mark had his cowboy hat pushed well back on his head, and was watching the moving cards with frowning concentration. He made his pick. It was wrong—of course— and Joe took his money. That’s when I saw the tattoos across his knuckles—FAST and FSTR.

Before another sucker could step up Bill pushed through the crowd. “Clear out, folks, you’re blocking the sidewalk.”

The crowd moved away with alacrity. Joe had the cards and money in his pocket and the table folded before I had taken two steps. Bill extended his nightstick. That plus a single word, “DON’T,” rooted Joe where he stood.

“Aww, shit, Tinkerbill, I’m just an honest businessman, making an honest buck.”

“No, Twitch, you’re a crook and hustler. I don’t want to hear you’ve moved over one block and set up again.”

“This is like fucking harassment!” His body swayed and jerked spasmodically. “I’m get a lawyer, take way to the Supreme Court!” He was talking so fast that he was dropping words, and a tiny rivulet of drool had begun to run from the corner of his mouth.

“No, Twitch, this isn’t harassment. This is harassment.” Bill pointed his nightstick at Joe Twitch and whistled.

The pink glow, stars, and sparks appeared all around Joe’s skinny body. For an instant I thought the guy was going to cry, and pity briefl y twisted my gut. Now that I was close I could see dark circles under Joe’s eyes, and he looked like he’d been missing too many meals. He was also young, probably no older than me.

The moment of naked vulnerability passed, and he settled into bluster. “I’m somebody! I was on American Hero.” He was madly twitching now, popping his knuckles over and over. “You know Curveball? Babe, right? Well, her and me, we’re like this!” He crossed his fingers. “I can get her number for you.”

For one brief, wild moment I considered it, but then decided dating an ace would probably be more excitement than I needed. “No thanks.”

“And trying to bribe an officer can get you arrested,” Bill said.

“Yeah, like you’re not all on the take.”

Bill’s face tightened in anger at Twitch’s words. “Get out of here before I decide to find some reason to arrest you.”

Twitch and his table disappeared.

I spent the rest of the day occasionally thinking about the skinny joker and those desperate eyes. I was beginning to discover that sometimes certain people just get under your skin. Like the old lady whose apartment had been burgled, and she just kept crying because the perps had let her cat out. I had radioed K-10 and Tabby to be on the lookout. Quattore had been sympathetic, but Tabby had told me to shove it, he wasn’t the fuckin’ ASPCA. And now Joe Twitch.

We got back to the precinct at the end of our shift, I sat down in my chair, and the stench of cat urine rose up around me like an almost visible cloud. I felt the wet go right through the seat of my pants. Puff was laughing, his eyes glittering with malice. Tabby sauntered over. “Don’t you ever give me an order again, Franny,” he said in a low, ugly voice.

Like Joe, I didn’t know whether to fight or cry. I settled on, “It’s Frank, and I asked you for a favor.” It sounded lame even to me.

 

Wednesday afternoon I was typing up a report about a cat fight between two strippers at Freakers that had resulted in assault and property damage charges. Beastie and his partner Chey Moleka, a Cambodian immigrant who was known for sharp elbows and voracious ambition, came through with another naked girl. I assumed she was naked. Her feet and legs were bare, and she was wrapped in Beastie’s voluminous yellow raincoat. This was the sixth naked chick in three days. They all told the same story—they were just walking along, minding their own business, when suddenly their clothes disappeared. For my own satisfaction I had stayed late one night, and tried to establish some connection between the women when there had only been four of them. I hadn’t found a single point of contact.

“Where did you find her?” I asked.

“On Bowery,” Moleka replied shortly. Ever since she’d found out that my dad had been the captain of the 5th she’d gotten pretty short with me. Competition was a terrible thing—and I was planning on burying her.

And while I was daydreaming about my future victories something suddenly clicked. Frantically I rummaged through my desk and pulled out my notes on the other flashers. I tried to bring up MapQuest on the old desktop on Bill’s desk, but it hummed, clicked, and gave me the blue screen of death.

I went over to James McTate’s desk. He was new to the 5th, a detective and a joker/ace. If you just saw his face you would think he was normal, but his body was anorexic thin, and his bones seemed to be covered with skin and nothing else. He had immediately been dubbed Slim Jim. He was from Arizona, but for some inexplicable reason had decided to move to New York. When I thought about being a joker/ace in a place like Arizona, I started to understand why he’d moved.

McTate was a detective, but friendly, so I wasn’t too shy about approaching him. His partner, Tenry Fong, one of the older guys on the force, gave me a cold glance and went back to his report. Bill kept telling me that the detectives were no better than those of us in uniform, but I couldn’t shake the feeling they got the best cases, and I craved one of those shiny gold badges. Slim Jim looked up at my approach.

“Uh . . . could I use your computer? Just for a second,” I hastened to add. “Ours is . . .” I made a helpless gesture.

“Sure.” He pushed off with a foot and went wheeling out of the way. I brought up MapQuest, printed out the page, and highlighted the bus route. It ran along Park Row, then straight up the Bowery to Cooper Union and then continued up Third Avenue. Next I marked the location of the flashers in a different colored ink. Most were along the Bowery, but there had been a number of Cooper Union college girls among them.

I jumped out of my (new) chair, and yelled, “He’s riding the 103 bus. It’s somebody on the bus!”

“What are you yapping about, Franny?” Bugeye growled.

“Frank,” I said wearily, knowing it would have no effect.

I found Bill in the bathroom, and poured out my theory. He listened while finishing up. He shook off, zipped up, washed up, and said, “Let’s go talk to the sarge.”

We found Sergeant Choy down in the basement constructing a tiny machine out of paper clips and tin foil. I had been around long enough to learn her ace power. She could control any machine she had built or heavily modified.

“The rook here has a theory about the naked chicks. I think he may be on to something.”

I went through it all again to an impassive Choy. “I don’t have a car here, ma’am. I ride the bus, a lot, ma’am, and I realized all these fl ashing events are happening along one particular bus line. And it’s all pretty girls in their late teens and twenties, ma’am. It’s some guy on the bus, ma’am. I’m sure of it.”

Choy ran a hand through her silver-flecked black hair. “One ma’am is sufficient. It’s a good theory. Let’s test it out. Bill, you and the rook wear civvies tomorrow. We’ll put you both on the bus. I’ll contact the other precincts where that bus runs, and tell them we’re running a sting that will cross their territory. Now we just need a tasty temptation.”

“Apsara would be perfect,” I heard myself saying.

Bill and Choy exchanged amused looks. “Yes, I expect a lot of men would like to see that.” She tapped thoughtfully on the table with a bent paper clip. “If this perv is on the bus she would be hard to resist.”

“And I hear she’s not too much in the resistance department,” Bill said, then hastened to add, “Though she is a civilian . . . technically.”

Choy pushed back her chair. “Let’s ask her.”

 

So, the next morning I found myself riding the bus pretending to read the New York Times while I watched my fellow commuters. Apsara was happy to help, so she was set up to parade down the Bowery as the bus passed. All around her were various other officers ready to act, and Choy overseeing the operation.

I was seated at the back of the bus while Bill grooved on his iPod at the front. I focused on men seated in the window seats on the sidewalk side of the bus. I glanced ahead and saw Apsara prancing down the street carrying a shopping bag. Her long hair swayed with each swing of her hips. I forced myself back to watching the commuters instead of the girl. Good move. I saw a skinny teenage boy of maybe sixteen come slightly out of his seat. As I watched, his tongue licked nervously at his lips, and he raised his hand, brought his fingers to his lips, and blew a kiss. Apsara’s clothes vanished, and the kid leaned forward watching avidly as the bus went farting past.

I was out of my seat, grabbing the cuffs out of my pocket. “Got you!” A look of almost comical alarm crossed the kid’s face. “You are under arrest.”

Bill pulled the cord and the bus rolled to a stop.

The kid started yelling. “Don’t you touch me! I can fuck you up bad! I can make anything disappear. I could disappear your dick . . . or . . . or your eyeballs.

Bill and I exchanged a glance. Clearly he was an ace. Clearly we didn’t know the limit of his powers. The heavyset African-American woman in the seat next to the kid handled the situation for us. She swung her incredibly large, and apparently incredibly heavy, purse into his belly. The air whoofed out of the kid, and he folded up like an origami figure. “You took the clothes off that girl? You’re a damn pervert,” she yelled. She slid out of her seat to make room for me. “You arrest his ass.”

I spun the still gasping kid around, pulled his arms behind his back, and slapped on the cuffs. Maybe he had to blow a kiss to use his power. I sure hoped so. In case he really could remove my dick. By now Bill had pushed through the rubbernecking commuters and was at my side.

Unfortunately, Apsara was already wrapped in a coat provided by Choy by the time we got off the bus with our prisoner. I felt a little guilty over my sexist and lascivious thoughts, so to make up for them I called to her as we headed toward a waiting squad car with the prisoner. “Thank you. I’m sure that can’t have been pleasant.”

“No problem, Franny.”

I winced. “Actually, it’s Frank.”

But she ignored me, swept the crowd with a dazzling smile, and added, “It was fun.”

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10 comments
Matthew B
1. MatthewB
Nicely done. I'm annoyed by the cliched colloquialisms that are intrinsic to this series, but you put a good spin on it with interesting characters and a relatable story.
Chuk Goodin
2. Chuk
Wild Cards fan here excited to see the new book -- I usually like to wait for the whole thing instead of reading excerpts, but I couldn't resist this one.

Great stuff. That's quite the legacy to live up (or maybe down) to. Is he called Frank Black after the musician?
Mr. Muchacho
3. Mr. Muchacho
I just really miss Croyd.
Mr. Muchacho
4. ogbebaba
that was the best Wild Cards story I have read in years, good job

P.S. I miss Croyd too...
Mr. Muchacho
5. Halo572
8 days to go and still not listed as available to preorder on Amazon, US or UK?

If you want some new Croyd get the Wild Cards 1 extended 2010 edition. He appears in one of the new stories.
Mr. Muchacho
6. Branimir Matoz
never knew about this. love it.
Mr. Muchacho
8. Geckomayhem
I liked it, but I know nothing about these "wild cards". Was a well-written story, if a little crude for my tastes. Not one for blasphemy and swearing. I don't think there is ever an excuse for it in any form of media, no matter how "realistic" one wishes to be. But hey, that's just personal opinion.
Mr. Muchacho
9. Ravenslair
Execellent story glad to see that the series is still alive and kicking i have been a fan from the begining but lost touch with the series around book 18 i have alot to catch up with it seems. Young franny seem like he wants to live up to the ideal of his father not the reality which he would not know. As both a lawer and a cop his will be a wiley road to tread. I look forward to seeing more of him and his story in future books.
Mr. Muchacho
10. AliTar
I love the wild card series, but it's short stories and snippets of the world like these I like better than full blown epics. Can't wait for more ^_^

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