JENNIFER DIDN’T KNOW WHERE Tricia was taking her until her friend dragged her out of the subway car onto the 2nd Avenue-Lower East Side platform. She’d spent the last four stops getting more and more worried—past Midtown, past Washington Square Park, past any place that they had any business being, and Tricia kept saying, “No, that’s where we always go, I want to try someplace new, it’ll be fun!”
“Trish, are you crazy? What are we doing here?” Jennifer clung to her friend with both hands and tried to slow her progress to the tiled hallway and stairs up to Houston Street. She looked around, drawing even closer to Tricia. She’d never seen so many jokers in one place. Half the people standing on the platform were jokers. She’d seen jokers before; you didn’t live in New York—even if you never got all that far from Columbia’s campus—without seeing jokers. Most of the time you only saw one or two, and their jokers were mild—they had feathers for hair or maybe rabbit ears. But here whole bodies had been wracked, transformed, made monstrous. A man passed by her and left a trail of slime on the concrete. Jennifer tried not to stare.
Tricia pulled her up the stairs and onto the street, where the chaos increased. “Come on, the Fads are playing CBGB and I really really want to go, and if I’d told you beforehand you never would have come. Right? You’d have gotten all huffy and snobby like you’re doing right now.”
“I’m not snobby,” Jennifer said, trying not to pout. She’d never even heard of the Fads.
“Come on, live a little. Nothing’s going to happen.”
Meekly now, Jennifer walked with her friend—still keeping close enough that their arms touched. “My parents would flip out if they knew I was anywhere near Jokertown.”
Tricia said, “So don’t tell them. You don’t tell them everything, do you?”
“No.” In fact, Jennifer didn’t. She had the one big secret she was keeping from absolutely everybody. Even Tricia. She couldn’t tell Tricia that a lot of the reason she didn’t want to go out was because she was sure that one of these days, someone would find out. Someone would look at her and know.
Especially someone in Jokertown. Some of them didn’t just have deformities, the physical scars of the wild card virus. Some of them had powers. Some of them would be able to read her mind and they’d know. After that, Jennifer didn’t know what would happen. She’d never really gotten that far thinking about it. Best just to pretend nothing was wrong at all.
If it weren’t for Tricia, Jennifer would never get out to explore the city at all. And they usually had a good time, in the end.
At Tricia’s urging, and trusting her friend not to lead her too far astray, Jennifer had dressed for a night out: a black off-the-shoulder minidress, high-heeled sandals, her blond hair feathered and sprayed into place. Tricia was wearing leopard-print hot pants and an oversized shirt with a gold belt, and her heels were even higher.
“Here it is, here it is!” Tricia said, tugging Jennifer’s arm to make her hurry.
Maybe she expected something glitzy, the way Tricia was carrying on. Like Studio 54. But on any other day Jennifer would have walked right by this place without noticing it. It was hardly anything at all, just a tiny graffitied storefront with a white awning next to a restaurant supply warehouse. It didn’t even have a marquee. But it did have a crowd standing out front, sharing the sidewalk with a couple of homeless jokers propped against the brick wall.
With Tricia in the lead, they plowed through people on the way to the front door. Both nats and jokers made up the crowd. Maybe even an ace or two, but who could tell? Jennifer wasn’t going to tell anyone.
A guy at the door was charging cover, and Jennifer was digging in her bag for a five when Tricia tugged on her arm. “Do you have an extra five? I can’t find mine.” She wore a pleading look.
Jennifer sighed and handed her an extra five. So much for cab fare home. But they’d come up with something; they always did.
Inside, the lights were stark; the walls were black and covered with stickers and spray paint. A bar ran along one wall, a door opened to the back, and a stage was tucked in a corner. A band was playing. A handwritten poster taped to the wall above them read SONIC YOUTH. They were really young—one of the guitarists was a woman with wild blond hair. They were wearing masks and might have been punks or jokers or both. Unless she got closer, Jennifer probably wouldn’t be able to tell.
The music was loud, not really danceable, and no one was really dancing. But people were moving. A crowd of them, up close to the stage, jumping, crashing into each other, reaching toward the stage. The woman guitarist was singing, sort of, shouting lyrics that were barely audible over the instruments: roaring guitars and crashing drums. Sweat was flying off her hair. The place was roasting under all the lights.
Tricia squealed and bounced in place. “Isn’t this—” —and inaudible.
“What?” Jennifer shouted back.
“Hey!” said a tall guy—skinny, dark hair, black T-shirt that said THE RAMONES on it in faded letters—shifting to stand in front of them. “Can I get you two drinks?”
Tricia squealed again and twined her arm around his. Jennifer rolled her eyes.
After seeing a couple of guys in mohawks out front, Jennifer had expected scary punks with spiked hair and army jackets, combat boots and spray-painted T-shirts. She’d expected chains and fights breaking out. This wasn’t like that. While some actual real live punks were part of the crowd, a lot of the guys looked somewhere between punk and normal, with torn jeans and black T-shirts and surly expressions, but they didn’t have the weird hair and all the metal and slogans. A lot of the women didn’t dress much different than the guys, but others were decked out, like Jennifer and Tricia. Hair full of color and teased and sprayed in halos around their heads, short skirts and colored tights, high heels and big earrings, pink lip gloss and glaring eye shadow. An absolutely gorgeous couple stood in the corner near the stage. They had impeccable hair, cut and styled like models in a magazine. He wore an expensive-looking white suit and she wore a clinging black cocktail dress silver jewelry, and smoked from a cigarette holder. Totally affected, but intriguing all the same. Then there were a bunch of regular partiers—young, normal college kids, maybe a little glassy-eyed, looking for the next high. Jennifer had been worried she’d stand out, that people would know she didn’t belong and give her a hard time. But she didn’t stand out, and no one gave her a hard time.
About a third of the crowd were jokers, and Jennifer hardly noticed at first. Because they didn’t stand out, either. Some of them wore masks. Or they might have been nats wearing masks. She simply couldn’t tell. And it didn’t seem to matter.
Jennifer caught a glimpse of another couple at the other end of the bar. They looked like the rest of the crowd on the surface, jeans and T-shirts, unpretentious, except they were maybe ten years older than most of the people here.
Then Jennifer gasped. She shook Tricia. “Is that Mick Jagger and Jeri Hall?”
Tricia had been in the middle of a drink and spilled part of what smelled like a gin and tonic down her chin, but she managed to look anyway. Her eyes went big. “Oh my God, and he’s talking to David Byrne!”
Jennifer didn’t know who David Byrne was.
Another band played right before the Fads came on stage. By then, Tricia was completely drunk, and Jennifer was propping her up because she kept falling into other people. No one seemed to mind, and Jennifer tried not to be embarrassed, but she hadn’t come along to be Tricia’s babysitter.
No, on second thought, she probably had. Tricia had probably only asked her because Jennifer was the responsible one and would get them both home in one piece. Jennifer had been nursing the same rum and Coke for an hour. She was sure Tricia had been popping pills. Everyone seemed to be popping pills.
The place was hot like a greenhouse, full of sweat, cigarette smoke, and alcoholic breath.
It seemed to take forever for one band to leave the stage and the other to take it, and when Tricia realized the Fads were up, she squealed and ran to the front, shoving to get past people, laughing when they shoved back. Jennifer shouted after her, but couldn’t even hear herself.
The Fads were three guys. Two of them were jokers—the intriguing kind. The lead singer had glowing hair, thin white strands, neck length, that lit up at the end like one of those fiber-optic lamps in kitsch shops. The guitarist had too many fingers on each hand. Too many to count, because they moved too quickly over the strings of his instrument, creating a bizarre pattern of sounds. The drummer seemed to be normal, a shirtless punk with spiky bleached hair and a safety pin in his left ear.
The so-called music consisted of manic drumming and not much of a melody. The singer shouted. Jennifer couldn’t make out too many of the lyrics. Stuff about hating your parents, setting things on fire, and wondering when the bombs were going to fall.
Finally, the band finished. There was a lot of screaming.
“I have to pee,” Tricia announced, grabbing Jennifer’s hand and pulling her to the back of the club. Jennifer caught her as she was falling over.
“Are there even bathrooms here?” Jennifer asked, dubious. She wasn’t sure she wanted to see them, based on what the rest of the place looked like. Tricia just rolled her eyes—the “could you be any less cool?” expression.
The place was a cave, black walls closing in, graffiti adding to the sensory overload. A staircase off to the side did indeed lead down to the bathrooms. Jennifer smelled them before they reached them. The sweaty, musty smell of the rest of the club gave way to an undertone of sewer. She wrinkled her nose.
Tricia kept her balance by holding onto Jennifer as she shoved through the door and into the women’s restroom. Here, the sewer smell poured out, unadulterated. The floor was sticky, and Jennifer was afraid to look in the stalls at the toilets and what was no doubt overflowing out of them.
The mess—at the level of serious health hazard—didn’t keep a mob of women from crowding in front of a graffiti-trimmed mirror, spraying their hair and touching up their eyeliner.
Tricia seemed to have forgotten her need to actually use the facilities. She fell against a wall, plastered with stickers and posters, and beamed up at some heavenly vision. “That was amazing, that was so amazing!”
Next to them, a woman in fishnets, a plaid skirt, and leather bustier was holding a mirror flat, a couple lines of white powder neatly laid out on top of it. A similarly dressed friend bent close and inhaled the cocaine.
The first caught Jennifer staring. “Want some?” she said. “I’ve got plenty.”
Jennifer quickly shook her head and thought about how uncool she really was.
“Sure, yeah, thanks!” Tricia said, leaning forward while the woman held the mirror steady.
“Tricia—” Jennifer said, but the second line of coke was already gone up Trish’s nose. And could this night get any worse?
Tricia straightened, her face flush, rubbing her nose and giggling. “Oh my God, I have a great idea.”
“No, not another one,” Jennifer muttered. She was breathing through her mouth because the smell seemed to be getting worse. Water gurgled from the one of the stalls, and some of the other girls shouted, “Geez, you didn’t actually flush that, did you? God!”
Tricia grabbed Jennifer’s hand again and headed back for the door. “I want to follow them.”
“The Fads! Tony! I want to try to meet them!”
“The lead singer! Isn’t he so cool?”
“Trish, do you know how late it is? It’s time to go!”
“Just a minute, it’ll only take a minute.”
Somehow, Tricia steered them back up the stairs and down a hallway to an unguarded doorway. The walls were covered with old posters and flyers advertising shows here, some of them going back years. She even recognized some of the bands. Wow, the Police played here? And Blondie? Really? But Tricia was on a mission, unhesitating. She’d broken away, and Jennifer hurried to catch up.
They had seemed to emerge from the crowd, but people closed around them again at the end of the hallway, which opened into back rooms, dressing rooms, and storage. Jennifer recognized the lead singer—he was signing autographs on the backs of flyers and tickets while what seemed like a dozen or so women pressed around him. His glowing hair made a halo, reflecting light onto his face. The other two band members stood in the corner, entertaining those who couldn’t get close to Tony. Shouldn’t there be bouncers here?
Tricia turned to see a guy standing behind her, grinning. He seemed a little old for the crowd, thirties instead of twenties, his face rugged and weatherworn, clean-shaven, with crew-cut black hair. He wore a tight white T-shirt and jeans that managed to look expensive despite being faded.
She blinked at him, uncertain that he’d even been speaking to her.
“You must be new around here,” he said.
“Who, me?” she said, then immediately felt stupid. “No, I’m here with a friend.” She pointed over her shoulder. Tricia had pulled down her top to expose half a breast, which the lead singer was now signing with a marker.
The guy smiled wider. “Want one?” He showed her a round metallic case cupped in his hands, full of little white pills.
Not again. She tried her best to smile while gesturing his hand away. “No, no thanks, I’m fine.”
“I love these parties, these bands get the best drugs.”
“Oh,” she said.
“That’s my terrible secret. I don’t care much for the music. Don’t tell anyone.” He leaned close and winked.
Was he hitting on her? Was he trying to pick her up? She wasn’t sure she even knew how to respond. She was simultaneously appalled and flattered. She blushed hot enough that she might have felt steam coming off her head.
“Oh, I won’t, trust me. I really ought to get back to my friend—” But when she looked, the band was gone. So was Tricia. “Tricia?” Jennifer called. She ran out the back door into the alley behind the club. A beat-up, rusted Cadillac was parked there. The band was climbing inside, making a quick getaway.
The lead singer with the glowing hair had his arms around Tricia’s middle, had nearly lifted her off her feet while she squirmed and pushed at his arms. She was saying something, screaming maybe, though Jennifer couldn’t hear her over the shouting crowd and the noise still thundering in the club behind her.
“Tricia!” Jennifer held her hands to her mouth and called.
She’d already been pulled into the car, despite her struggles.
Jennifer shouted again, “Tricia!” and clattered down the stage-door steps, nearly stumbling in her high heels, intending to chase after the ratty Cadillac. Instead, she ran into a crowd that wouldn’t let her pass. Jennifer was tall; she could see over most of their heads. But she couldn’t seem to push her way through.
A hulking man—a joker, fangs jutting up from his lower jaw and glittering black scales standing in for hair—purposefully blocked her way after she ran up against him. Jennifer tried to dodge around him but he side-stepped to block her.
“Hey, baby, what’s your hurry?”
“My friend,” she insisted, desperate. “They’ve taken my friend. Did you see her? She didn’t want to go, they just took her!”
He smiled. His fangs made him look like a bulldog. “Darlin’, that chick is having the time of her life.”
Jennifer stared, horrified. “Did you see her?” She pointed at the car, now rolling away with her friend inside. “She was fighting them! She’s almost passed out drunk—”
The joker laughed. “Jealous they didn’t pick you? Maybe you can have some fun with me.”
“She needs help!”
The guy grabbed for her, but she slipped away, batting at his hands. He only laughed. The car turned a corner.
Tricia had been kidnapped. Right under her nose. Right under everyone’s nose.
Jennifer remembered seeing a pay phone by the bathrooms. She ran back inside and down the stairs. It would have been just her luck to reach the phone and find that it was broken, but it wasn’t. She did put her hand in something sticky smeared on the receiver, though. Grimacing, she wiped it and her hand on the wall to clean it off as well as she could. Hunching over to give herself a bubble of private space, blocking the noise by covering her ear, she dialed the operator.
“Hello! I need the police!” The line clicked and crackled static. She gnawed her lip, sure she’d lost the connection, until a voice came on.
“Hello, yes? It’s my friend! My friend’s been kidnapped!”
Jennifer could barely hear. She was shouting. “My friend! She’s been kidnapped!”
“Ma’am, can you tell me what happened?”
“We were at a club. Some men, some guys from the band, they pulled her into their car. She was struggling, she’s not in her right mind, and they took advantage—”
“Wait a minute.” Now the guy on the line sounded amused. “So you’re out partying and she ditched you to run off with the band—”
“No, I’m telling you, they dragged her off! She was almost passed out and they took her!”
“Ma’am, where are you?”
She hesitated. This wasn’t going well, and it was about to get worse. “I’m at this club on the Bowery—”
The dispatcher hung up.
Jennifer growled and slammed the receiver on its hook. Why hadn’t Tricia waited for her? Why didn’t she fight back? What if she never saw Tricia again? Her friend would end up raped and dead in a gutter and it would be all Jennifer’s fault.
She tried again; maybe going through a main desk instead of the operator would help. Trouble was, she didn’t have any extra change in her little bag. Just a few bills for drinks. She sighed. Then she looked around, to make sure nobody was watching.
Quickly, she rested her hand against the metal front of the pay phone—then slipped it inside. Her hand went insubstantial, passing through the casing as if it were air. She felt around a moment and found the change bin, grabbed some coins, and pulled her hand back out. The coins ghosted along with her. Now, she had change.
No matter what, her ace meant she could always use a pay phone.
Five years ago, when she was fourteen, it had happened for the first time. She had poured herself a glass of orange juice, picked it up—and it fell. The glass slipped out of her hand. Except she’d been watching it—it had slipped through her hand. She’d stood for a long time, the broken glass and puddle of spilled orange juice at her feet, staring at the translucent outline of her hand and the kitchen floor, visible through her no-longer-solid flesh. Her mother came in then, saw the mess, and asked if she was all right, assuming it was just a normal accident. Jennifer had quickly put her hand behind her back. When she looked at it again, it was solid. Normal.
Months of fear and experimentation followed. Her first thought was that she was fading, that she would eventually vanish. She developed insomnia, afraid of disappearing in her sleep. But eventually, she learned she could control the power. She could reach through solid objects. She practiced reaching into drawers, lockers at school, her father’s strongbox. It was a heck of an ace. She didn’t dare tell anyone about it.
She shoved a couple of dimes into the coin slot, dialed information, and asked for the main desk at the nearest police precinct. She talked to someone who must have been a desk sergeant, telling the story all over again, trying to sound calm and desperate at the same time so the officer would take her seriously.
This guy hung up on her, too.
Wiping tears from her eyes, Jennifer stomped up the stairs.
Yet another band was playing. Back in the main part of the club, she elbowed down a mobbed hallway and fell into the wall of rough, screeching music rocking from the stage, not stopping when anyone called, brushing away groping hands. It might have been her imagination, it might have been that the world had turned suddenly dark and ominous, but the crowd seemed to have grown rowdier. The slamming in front of the stage had grown more violent. Jennifer kept to the fringes and focused on the front of the club and the open door, ignoring the mass of people around her and the acid gnawing at her gut.
What was the good of being an ace if you couldn’t actually do anything useful? If you couldn’t actually help anyone? Why couldn’t she be psychic so she could know where they were taking her? Or fly, so she could follow the car?
She made it out the front door and into the—relatively—fresh air. A crowd still gathered there, people coming and going, lingering. Not knowing what to do, she leaned against the brick storefront and rested, rubbing sweat and hair from her face. Maybe if she went to a police station in person. Maybe if she could find someone who knew the band. They had to have a manager or someone who knew where they might have gone.
“Hey kid. What’s wrong?”
It was the guy in the white T-shirt with the pills. He might have been outside the whole time, or he might have just come from the front door. Maybe he was following her.
He slouched against the wall, far enough away that he couldn’t reach out and grab her. It made her slightly less suspicious of him. “Why do you care?” She glared, then looked away, not wanting him to think she was flirting with him. Not that he really looked like he was flirting. In spite of herself, she sniffed a deep breath and tears fell down her cheeks. She said, “My friend, Tricia? She’s gone, and no one cares, no one will do anything.”
“Ditched you, did she?” he said, wearing a wry smile.
“No, that’s just it, she’s been kidnapped! The band, they took her, she was drunk and they pulled her into the car, I saw the whole thing!”
“You’re sure she didn’t just decide to go party with the band?”
“Without me? She wouldn’t do that.” Jennifer shook her head to emphasize. Though to be fair, she wouldn’t put anything past Tricia, who had been really drunk. She sniffed back another round of tears.
“Hey,” the guy said. “I know where the after-party is. I can take you, if you want.”
“Really?” she said, wary. She imagined herself being pulled into a ratty car. . . .
“Yeah, it’s just a couple of blocks from here. I know the guy who runs it, and if you show him a little leg you’ll get in just fine.”
She looked away, blushing.
“It’s like I said, these guys have the best parties with the best drugs. Let’s go check it out, all right?”
“You’re sure Tricia will be there?”
“If she went with the band, yeah, I am.” He stepped out on the sidewalk and offered her the crook of his arm, an oddly sweet, archaic gesture. She followed him, but didn’t take the arm; he seemed amused rather than offended by this.
They walked for a block or so. The noise of CBGB faded, replaced by the noise of other bars, slightly different, the shades of music and flavor of the crowd shifting from the punk atmosphere. Her gaze was drawn by the jokers she saw lingering in doorways and walking on the street. They stared at her, and she made a point to not stare back. She hunkered in on herself, trying to be inconspicuous.
The man from the club didn’t seem bothered by any of it. He walked with an easy stride, comfortable, like walking through Central Park on a sunny day.
“What’s your name?” he asked after a stretch of silence.
“Jennifer,” she said. Then wondered if she should have told him something else. Then decided it was a common enough name, it didn’t matter, it wasn’t like he could look her up. Then realized she was walking down Bowery with a total stranger.
“Jennifer. Nice to meet you. I’m Croyd.”
“Hi,” she said, smiling nervously.
“I take it you don’t spend much time in this part of town.”
“Not really. I go to Columbia.” She winced. Why had she told him that?
“Yeah? That’s great. School, you know. It’s great. And here we are. It should be just up these stairs.”
Sure enough, the noise of a party drifted down from a rooftop patio. Jennifer felt hopeful. The band would be here, Tricia would be here, and Jennifer would yell at her for running off like that. Then maybe they could finally go home, and the ringing in her ears would stop.
Croyd politely stepped aside to let her go first, and she ran up the stairs and into a warehouselike room. Not much had been done with the low-rent loft: the floors were concrete, the bar was set up on folding tables, and the walls needed a coat of paint. But there was a stereo, a turntable, and immense speakers pouring forth more of the same kind of rough music from the club. Nobody was dancing—there wasn’t enough room. Groups of people seemed to be talking—shouting—but Jennifer didn’t know how anybody heard each other. French doors along one wall opened onto a patio, and the party continued there.
How was she ever going to find Tricia in this mess?
The guy who seemed to be in charge of the bar was a joker. He was of average height and build, but was covered with thick blue fur; she couldn’t see his features. His mouth and eyes were only shadows. He seemed to glance at her.
“You can have anything you want, but put something in the jar, right?” He pointed to a large pickle jar, stuffed with cash, on the corner of the table.
“I’m looking for my friend. She’s with the band, I think. The Fads? Are they here? Have you seen her?”
“The Fads?” he said, shouting, leaning close. The fur around his mouth rippled.
“Yeah! My friend, she’s shorter than me, with brown hair, have you seen her?”
“Haven’t seen ’em. They haven’t been by.”
She stared. Now what? “Are you sure? They just played a club up the street, CBGB—”
“Babe, I know the band, I know where they play, they haven’t been here, I haven’t seen your friend. Now, do you want something or not?”
Without answering, she let the crowd push her away from the table. Glancing around, she realized she’d lost track of Croyd as well, and didn’t know if that made her nervous or relieved. Fine, then. This left her no worse off than she was before. She just had to find someone who knew the band and knew where they’d gone. This wasn’t totally hopeless. Resolved, she turned around and elbowed her way back to the makeshift bar. If the bartender knew the band, maybe he’d tell her where they were.
She was thrown off course when a woman ran into her. Jennifer stumbled on her heels, but stayed upright by splaying her legs. She even managed to catch the woman, preventing them both from crashing to the floor.
The woman was in her twenties, with beautiful, delicate features, but a tired, haunted expression. She’d chewed all the lipstick off her lips. She wore a wide-necked knit dress.
Jennifer tried to catch the woman’s gaze, but she kept glancing over her shoulder. “Are you okay?” Jennifer asked.
When Jennifer spoke, the woman’s attention focused on her. Her lips pursed, determined. “Will you hold this for me?” she said, and pressed a key on a ring with a plastic tag into Jennifer’s hand.
Her fingers instinctively closed around it. The woman shoved away from Jennifer and disappeared. “Hey!” Jennifer followed her progress for a little while, watching her straight black hair bobbing in a sea of people, then she was gone, another anonymous partyer. Jennifer tried to follow but couldn’t seem to elbow her way through.
When the gunshot blasted through the space, Jennifer thought it was a bottle from the bar smashing. Only when everyone started screaming and ducking did she realize the noise wasn’t so harmless. But with everyone else scrambling and panicking before she even realized what was happening, she was left standing, looking around like an idiot.
A group of men had paused at the top of the stairs and fanned out. Four of them, obviously part of some gang, bulky and tough. They wore masks, the cheap Halloween kind that they might have bought in any Jokertown dime store. They all carried handguns; one had fired into the ceiling, and still held the gun up. He might have been a joker, he was so big—dense, almost, thick arms and legs, muscles like cables, barely any neck to speak of it. One of the others was obviously a joker, with furred arms and claws for hands. The other two may have been normal, or may have been jokers—the masks hid any deformities they might have had. Once again, it didn’t seem to matter. Joker or nat, they were big, mean, and angry.
Jennifer just knew something like this was going to happen in this part of town. She’d kill Tricia for dragging her here. If she wasn’t already dead.
“We know you’re up here!” said the big one with the gun. He stalked forward, scanning faces. “Hand it over and no one gets hurt!”
Panic had carried most of the crowd onto the patio. The woman who’d crashed into Jennifer was gone. Hand it over . . . Jennifer unconsciously looked at the key in her hand. And that was a mistake.
The thug caught sight of her, standing there cupping a small object in her hand, no doubt looking vapid and confused. His expression turned determined, satisfied, and he marched toward her.
Her heart raced, her skin turned clammy, she took a step back—and she fell.
She thought for a moment she was blacking out, fainting, her mind scattering to pieces. Her vision turned to shadows and her body turned to helium, weightless and scattered, dizzy. Every pore was dizzy, turned upside down. She couldn’t breathe.
Then the world came back, she gasped a breath, and walls sped past—she really was falling, but only for a second, then she hit the floor. Everything had changed—the rooftop bar was gone, the room was dark and empty of people. The man with the gun marching forward had vanished, which was a huge relief.
But no, none of that had disappeared. She looked up at a bare ceiling, girders and vents showing. She’d fallen from there. And she was naked. Goose bumps covered her arms, back, legs. She hugged her knees close, curling up to hide herself. Her entire body had ghosted through the floor. Through her clothing. She was sitting naked on the linoleum floor of what looked like the back room of a liquor store. Stacked cardboard boxes labeled Coors and Pabst and Hamm’s surrounded her. By luck she had fallen in the walkway leading from a back door to the front of the store. What would have happened if she had fallen in the middle of a stack of boxes? If her body had turned solid there? She couldn’t even imagine. She shivered.
She kept staring at the ceiling, unsure of what had really happened, even though she knew, she just knew. Like the glass of orange juice through her hand. Her whole body through the floor.
I can walk through walls, she thought. And she wanted to try it, then and there. Except she was naked. What good was walking through walls if you had to be naked?
But she was still holding the key in her tightly closed fist; its teeth dug into her skin. She’d been so focused on holding on it, she’d brought it with her through the floor.
When the back door slammed open, she scrambled behind a tower of boxes. She listened for heavy boot steps, for the sound of growling, even. The gang had busted open the door, they’d found her, and now they were going to do unspeakable things to her. She hoped she could fall through the floor again, though she wasn’t sure how she’d done it the first time.
“Hey kid. Jennifer. You in here? Don’t tell me you went all the way through to the sewers.”
It was Croyd.
“I’m here. I’m kind of . . . I mean, my clothes didn’t exactly come with me.”
“I know, I have them. Why didn’t you say you were an ace?”
“Because I haven’t told anybody. Nobody knows. At least, nobody used to know.”
“Probably smart,” he said, matter-of-fact and not at all shocked. “But do you have any idea how useful a power like that is? I remember this time back in ’53, the feds tried to lock me up but I got lucky and walked right out again.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Never mind. Here.” He held out her dress in her general direction. When she crept out to reach for it, he was politely looking the other way.
She hurried to pull the dress on. He’d managed to grab her bra and panties as well, for which she was grateful. Even the shoes. Her jewelry was missing, though. She was really going to have to figure out how she did that, and how she could do it again without losing everything. While slipping on her dress she asked, “What’s going on? Who were those guys?”
“I was going to ask you that—why were they so interested in you? What did you do?”
“Nothing! I just had this run-in, and, well, this woman gave me this.” She showed him the key. The tag on it showed a number: 51337.
“You have a knack for being the wrong place at the wrong time, don’t you?”
“I just want to find Tricia and go home.” She hopped while slipping the strap of her sandal over her heel.
“Come on,” Croyd said. “We’d better get out of here.”
She followed his nervous gaze out the door and into the alley and got her answer—the gang had followed them. The leader’s massive body blocked their way out, and he seemed all too ready to just shoot her and Croyd.
Jennifer didn’t know if she could sink through the floor again. And if she did it here, where would she end up? Maybe if she ran through the wall . . .
“Freeze!” Croyd shouted at them. And they did. The lead thug’s mouth was open to speak, but he remained silent. Croyd let out a sigh.
Jennifer looked at him. Wonderingly, she said, “You’re an ace, too.”
He winced. “Yeah, well, the thing is, I’m really not. It’s more of a deuce.”
“It only lasts five minutes. We gotta run now.”
He shoved her past the frozen thugs. They ran.
They took a twisting path, turning every corner they came to in an effort to make following them more difficult. Jennifer didn’t know if it would help. Then again, she was becoming thoroughly lost. Maybe now if she called the police, they’d help.
Not that she could call anyone for help. Not that she was alone on a dark street with a strange man she didn’t know at all. How could she be so stupid. . . .
Croyd took an extra turn into an alley next to a condemned brownstone, a tucked-away entrance that she would have missed on her own. It gave them an opportunity to catch their breaths.
“Let me see that,” Croyd said, indicating the key she still held in her hand.
Reluctant to hand it over, she held it up where he could see it. After a moment, he said, “It looks like it’s for a post-office box.”
“So?” Jennifer said, still trying to catch her breath. She rubbed her foot where a blister was developing.
“I’m guessing this is part of a drop gone wrong. Probably drugs or stolen goods or something. That woman was supposed to hand over the key. Those guys are supposed to either pick up the goods or the cash. We’re in the middle of a doublecross.”
“That doesn’t make me feel any better,” she said.
“I know someone who might be able to tell us where this goes to.” He reached for it; she pulled it out of his way.
“What about Tricia?”
“My friend, the one who was kidnapped.”
“I’m sure she’s fine.”
“I need to find her!”
“I’ll tell you what: You let me find out what that key goes to, and I’ll help you find your friend.”
“Because you’ve already been such a big help with that.”
“Hey, gimme a break,” he said, arms spread in a weak apology. “This girl I know, she isn’t far. Let’s just check it out, then I’ll help you find Tricia. I know a couple more places we could go look for her. Okay?”
She pouted, and because she didn’t know what else to do, she said, “Okay.”
Croyd popped a pill from his case and said, “Good. Let’s go.”
They walked on. The neighborhood didn’t get any better. She hadn’t seen a cab in blocks. She hugged herself and wondered what kind of mess she’d gotten herself into. Tried to reassure herself that she could get out of anything. If anyone tried to tie her up, she’d just ghost through the ropes. She could walk through walls, dammit.
Croyd had been trying to make conversation, and Jennifer was trying to ignore him. He finally said, “Look, I’m only trying to help. I ought to just freeze you and take that key.”
“Except you won’t, because I’m sure you’re cooking up some scheme to talk me into helping you rob a bank or something.” When he didn’t say anything, she huffed. “You really were, weren’t you?” She started walking faster.
“Yeah, fine, maybe I was,” he said, hurrying to keep up. If she could have walked any faster on her heels, she would have. “But you really ought to think about it. A power like yours doesn’t come along every day.”
“Don’t you get it? I don’t want this power, I wish I didn’t have it!”
“Come on, I thought every kid wanted to be an ace. Get your picture in the papers, go to fancy dinners at Aces High—”
“And do what? Be a freak? I’m a nice girl from a nice Long Island family and I just want to be left alone.”
“You could call yourself Ghost Girl,” he suggested.
“You know, an ace name. Something for the papers to call you. I can see it: ‘Ghost Girl, Famous Ace Jewel Thief, Strikes Again.’ ” He spread his arms in imitation of the headline.
“I am not calling myself Ghost Girl.” Surely she could come up with something more interesting than that. Something more mysterious, more alluring. . . . “Do you have an ace name?”
“The Sleeper.” His smile slipped, like he wasn’t happy about it.
“That’s kind of weird. I thought it would be something like The Freezer.”
He shrugged. “That’s just the way it goes.”
She stopped at a corner, uncertain which way to turn. The streetlights in this neighborhood all seemed to be broken. All the storefronts had heavy steel grills over them. That didn’t make her feel any better. If she got into trouble—more trouble, anyway—she hoped she could just sink out of sight again.
They were in Jokertown proper, now, not just the boundaries. People stared at them. Jennifer was dressed, but she might as well have been naked, the way she shivered when they looked at her.
“This isn’t exactly safe, is it?” she said, hugging herself.
“Seriously? Look, if we keep moving, we’ll be fine.”
The skeleton of a burned building, blackened steel frame sprouting from a bed of debris, stood on the next corner. A casualty of the Jokertown riots that hadn’t been rebuilt. This was a whole other world, one she hadn’t really paid attention to before. And there but for the grace of God . . . She didn’t know how she’d gotten the wild card virus. She didn’t know how she’d gotten an ace and not a joker. She didn’t want to think about it.
They made their way back to Bowery, but further south. Here, the street was almost crowded, and Jennifer hadn’t expected that, not in the middle of the night. All-night bars and diners were open, groups loitered at a couple of corners, there even seemed to be a group of women on one blockthen Jennifer figured out who they were and what they were doing there. Music from a boom box rattled down one alley. No cops in sight, of course.
A neon glow shone up ahead, and Croyd said, “There it is. My friend is one of the bartenders.”
A block away, Jennifer stopped and stared.
The giant neon sign in front of the building showed a six-breasted woman in lurid reds and golds. The lights flashed in sequence; it almost looked like the breasts were jiggling, with cut-rate fireworks igniting around her. Another length of flashing red neon declared, FREAKERS. Tame print signs announced JOKER GIRLS! and XXX HOT XXX! The doorway was through the neon stripper’s spread legs.
“Oh my God,” Jennifer said.
“Just about everyone has that reaction,” Croyd said, grinning.
“I don’t think I can go in there.”
“Sure you can.” He took hold of her elbow and pulled her into the street.
They had to dodge traffic—there was actually traffic, even at this hour. Croyd walked with confidence to the front door, right between the neon dancer’s legs, which cast a weird pink glow over the sidewalk. Everyone looked sunburned.
A joker with what looked like Texas longhorn horns swooping from his temples and polished black hooves instead of hands crossed his arms and stepped in front of the door to block their way. “Hey, Bruce, let us in, will ya?” Croyd said.
The bouncer narrowed his gaze. “And you are . . . ?”
“Remember that time last year with the blue twins and the bottle of tequila?”
The bouncer’s eyes went wide and he gave a soft smile of reminiscence. “Oh, yeah. You’re looking good this time.” He stepped aside, and Croyd steered Jennifer through the door.
“You know him? Why didn’t he recognize you?” Jennifer said.
“Long story. Let’s take care of this key business.”
Jennifer needed a moment to let her eyes adjust to the cavelike darkness, until they emerged into the main room, which was scattered with flashing lights and a glittering mirror ball. The Hall and Oates blasting way too loudly on the sound system was almost a comfort. At least it was more familiar than what she’d heard at the club earlier. She could at least dance to this. And so could the stripper on the revolving stage in the center of the room. The woman was unreal—tall, slinky, with an absolute mane of brick-red hair teased away from her face and flowing down her back. And that was before you got to the slender green lizard tail curling behind her, swaying back and forth, then seductively wrapping around a brass pole while she leaned forward and removed the scrap of black fabric standing in for a bra.
Jennifer looked everywhere but the stage and saw a lot of male nats nursing drinks, leaning forward, studying the dancer with what seemed to be obsessive intensity. Croyd had sidled up to the bar where he was talking to . . . it took Jennifer a second look to see that it was a woman. She didn’t have a head. Or rather, her head seemed to grow from the middle of her chest, so that her chin rested between her breasts, nestled in the cleavage created by a black push-up bra. Long black hair fell over the straight line between her shoulders. She was wiping down the bar with a cloth and smiling at Croyd, who leaned on an elbow and put on a flirting smile. “How you doing, Sheila?”
“Just fine, hon. Haven’t seen you in a while.”
“You know how it is. Been out of it.”
“Well, you’re looking good this time around. I hope you’re planning on enjoying it.” She cocked a hip and winked, a move that would have been seductive if she didn’t look so . . . weird. Jennifer crossed her arms and tried not to fidget. Sheila the bartender looked her up and down. “Who’s your new friend?”
“Just someone I’m helping out,” Croyd said. “Jennifer, can you show her the key? It’s okay, I promise.”
Reluctantly, Jennifer held out the key.
“May I?” Sheila said and took it from her hand when Jennifer nodded.
The joker closed her eyes—and you couldn’t actually look at her eyes without staring at her breasts—and pressed the key to her forehead. The Hall and Oates ended and the lizard-tailed joker sashayed offstage, replaced by one who had the scaled and clawed feet of a bird. The next song: “Superfreak.”
After a moment, Sheila said, “It’s from the post office over on Doyers. I can’t tell any more than that, I’m afraid.” She shrugged—her shoulders lifted above her hair—and started to hand the key to Croyd. Jennifer intercepted and took custody of it. The joker grinned.
“Thanks, babe,” Croyd said. “I owe you one.”
“What was that all about?” Jennifer asked as they moved away from the bar.
“Sheila’s a psychometric. She can sense things about an object—where it came from, who it belongs to, that sort of thing.”
“That’s useful,” she said.
“About as useful as walking through walls. If you’d actually use it.”
In her effort to keep from looking at the stage, Jennifer caught a glimpse through a doorway into a private side room. And she swore she saw the Fad’s spike-haired drummer sitting there. She broke away from Croyd and ran.
The room was a small lounge with a smaller, private stage, decorated in black shag carpet and red plush chairs. Flickering black light brought out glowing decorations on the walls and the sparkling white bikinis worn by a pair of girls dancing for the drummer’s sole benefit. Neither girl was Tricia, which was something of a relief.
As she approached, the guy reached up to stuff a bill in the waistband of one of the girl’s panties. The girl had glowing, mood ring-like skin that swirled colors, blue to red to orange. And the guy really was the drummer.
Jennifer shoved him away from the stage so she could face him down. He dropped the bill.
“What have you done with Tricia?”
“Hey!” the dancer said, crossing her arms in protest.
“Who are you?” said the drummer.
“Where’s the rest of the band? Where’s Tricia?”
“Um . . .” the drummer said.
Jennifer wasn’t finished. “And what are you doing here? You had groupies hanging all over you back at the club, and now you’re here paying for it?”
“It feels dirtier when you pay for it,” Croyd said. He stood to the side, watching like this was a show. The drummer shrugged and winced in agreement.
Jennifer was about ready to scream. “Where’s Tricia?”
“Look, babe, I don’t know who you’re talking about.”
“The band,” Croyd said. “Where did the rest of the band go to party? They took her friend along.”
“Oh, yeah. The real wild chick? Totally high?”
Yeah, that was Tricia. Jennifer sighed.
“Oh. Um. They probably went to Tony’s place.”
“I’m not going to tell you, you’re probably some crazy stalker.”
“No, my friend Tricia’s the crazy one. I just need to find her—”
“Uh, Jennifer?” Croyd touched her shoulder and turned her to face the doorway.
The beefy thug from the gang filled the doorway. She could see the murder in his eyes through the mask.
“There’s a back door,” Croyd whispered. “We’ll make a break—”
Enough. Jennifer held the key up where the big guy could see it, then reached over and dropped it down the drummer’s shirt.
“Now we make a break for it,” she said, and ran ahead of Croyd for the back door.
The noise of chaos—overturning furniture, screeching women, the works—erupted behind her, and as entertaining as the scene probably was, Jennifer didn’t dare turn to look.
They went through a hallway with dressing rooms and out a back door into yet another dank alley.
“What did you do that for?” Croyd said.
“Because the key’s not important, now that we know what it opens,” Jennifer said. “But we have to get the post office before they do.”
“What? Oh. Here we go, then.”
They jogged in silence. Jennifer kept waiting for the sound of shouting and pounding footsteps behind her. She kept glancing over her shoulder, but they seemed to have delayed the gang, at least for the moment.
“Stop looking so nervous,” Croyd said at one point. “You look suspicious.”
Easy for him to say. She tried not to pay attention to what was waiting to pounce on her.
She had to distract herself. “So how do you rob a bank?”
He looked at her sidelong. “Seriously?”
“Yeah.” Her tone made the request a dare.
“You don’t. I mean, not anymore. With all the security and surveillance they’ve got now it’s not worth it. Instead you go after private safes. Cat burglary. Or you go after armored cars when they’re moving the money. You case the area, look for the weaknesses. Don’t ever try to take too much. Be picky, you know? Take the good bits of a stash rather than all of it. And once you have it, don’t hang on to it, thinking you can get a better price. Turns out that’s the tricky part—fencing stolen goods, or laundering the money. But there’s people around. It helps to have the contacts.”
She nodded thoughtfully. It all made sense.
“It also helps to have a really powerful ace,” Croyd added, winking. “Super strength, walking through walls.”
Ahead of them along the narrow street, voices shouted, and Jennifer stalled. Whoever it was sounded angry, and they were running closer. The gang and found them somehow, got ahead of them, cut them off—
Croyd grabbed her arm, pulled her toward the wall, pressed his body to hers, and kissed her. Full-on make-out, arms wrapped around her, trapping her against the brick. In the meantime, a gang of teenagers ran by, shouting taunts at each other and at the pair of them. Not the gang at all. Just a bunch of kids.
Croyd was still kissing her. Distracting her. She finally pushed him away. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“I figured we’d look less suspicious that way,” he said, his grin cockier than ever.
Huffing in frustration, she shoved him again, slapped him for good measure, and marched away. He only chuckled.
Turned out they didn’t have far to go to reach the post office in question. Just a couple of blocks. The place was a modern concrete block tucked in between brick tenements at the edge of Chinatown. A small lobby giving access to the mailboxes was still open, lit by a weak, yellowish light on the far wall. If they were going to get jumped by an angry gang, this was the place it would happen, Jennifer thought.
They found the box with the number from the tag. Croyd stood aside. “Care to do the honors?”
Jennifer stared at the brass-colored door a moment, not sure she wanted to know what was inside. Not sure she wanted to reach in, sight unseen. Like maybe it could be filled with poisonous snakes or mousetraps. Most likely it was just filled with someone’s junk mail.
She took a deep breath and reached through the door. Her hand brushed against something rectangular, papery—an envelope, stuffed full, which seemed encouraging. She took hold of it, ghosted it with the rest of her hand, and she drew it through the door.
She and Croyd studied a business-sized envelope full of cash. Hundred dollar bills, dozens of them. “Christ, there’s gotta be thirty grand there,” Croyd said.
Jennifer had never seen so much cash in one place, except in the movies. On the other hand, Croyd could just eyeball it and know what it was worth. What was all this about? Who was the woman who’d given her the key in the first place? What kind of deal was going on? Was it drugs, smuggling, ransom money, something else entirely? Her imagination failed her. The money seemed to burn in her hand.
Frowning, she closed up the envelope, hugged it close, and left the post office. Croyd was right with her. “You’re not doing too badly on your first night as a criminal.”
“I’m not a criminal. I’m taking this to the police.”
“What? Oh, no you’re not.”
“I am.” The Jokertown precinct house had to be around here somewhere. If anyone tried to mug her on the way, she’d just ghost into the nearest building.
Croyd said, “These are the same police who listened to you all sympathetic-like when you told them about your friend, right?”
“It’s the right thing to do.”
“Hon, there’s right and then there’s right. The police around here—they ain’t right. You take it to them, they’re going to ask you all kinds of questions about where it came from and they’re not going to listen to any of your answers. You’ll end up in a cell—not that it’s problem for you. But they’ll get you in their records and that’s never good. They’ll drive on up to Columbia to haul your ass back to jail and you can kiss your shiny education good-bye. On the other hand, we’re keeping this cash out of the hands of some really bad people—Mr. Brick Wall and his friends. I say we take the money, buy ourselves a couple bottles of something nice, head back to my place, and have a nice little party of our own.”
She almost said yes. Tricia would have said yes. A tiny part of her thought about what a great adventure that would be. Even if she knew next to nothing about Croyd and wasn’t sure she liked what she did know.
The sensible Long Island girl won out. She quickened her stride, marched away from him, and said, with an indignant huff, “No.”
“Jennifer, I like you. I really don’t want to do this.”
“Do what?” she said, glancing over her shoulder at the same time Croyd said, “Freeze!”
And then he was gone. She shook her head, clearing a residue of dizziness. She was just looking over her shoulder and then—that bastard. That despicable rat bastard. He was gone, of course. He’d only had a five-minute head start, but that was enough to turn a corner and lose himself in the nighttime streets. Not that she planned on chasing after him. What could she do if she caught him?
He’d even left the envelope sticking out of the top of her dress. Tucked it right in after he’d taken out the money, like she was some kind of trash bin. Probably felt her up as well. Like it was a big joke.
But no—she pulled out the envelope, and it still had money in it. Croyd had only taken what looked like half the cash. She giggled. A rat bastard gentleman. What a strange man.
The now-familiar silhouette of Mr. Brick Wall and his henchmen turned the corner and set off toward her.
“We’re gonna mess you up!” the leader shouted.
She ran. She was getting good at running in the sandals. Not that she’d be able to keep the sandals. She couldn’t outrun these guys. She wouldn’t survive if they caught her. That didn’t leave much choice. She veered into the wall to her right and thought, hold on, hold on, hold on . . .
Her bra, her panties, the money. She could get by with that much. Bra, panties, money, bra, panties, money. She hit the wall and kept going.
Kicked in gear by the adrenaline, the power came almost easily. Her whole body ghosted. She could feel herself go insubstantial, feel the solid walls moving around her like a stiff breeze. She could even feel the money in her hand, like holding a shadow. And when she emerged—she was in a room full of people. Jennifer stopped cold on the red plush carpet and stared back at two dozen well-dressed men and women seated at various tables staring back at her. It looked like an after-hours party at a restaurant. Nearby, a waiter paused in the middle of lifting a plate of cheesecake from his tray. Several people had forks raised to open mouths. A cup clattered on a tabletop—someone dropped their coffee.
She’d left her dress and sandals behind, but still wore her bra and panties. Definitely didn’t meet the dress code. She wondered if they’d been expecting any entertainment. More important, though, she still carried the envelope of money. Squeezing it, she let it anchor her. Ignoring the flush burning through her skin, she smiled wide and gave the gathering a little wave. “Have a great night, folks!” Then she ran straight through the wall on the other side of the room.
“Well, that’s Manhattan for you,” someone muttered as she slipped away.
She discovered that the power wasn’t just a matter of passing through barriers, but of traveling through them. She didn’t have to fall through the sidewalk in order to end up at the Grand Street subway platform; she could sink through the sidewalk, the walls, and emerge where she wished. Not that it helped, because when she stepped out to the platform and rematerialized, two of the big thug’s henchmen were right there, masks and all. They’d broken through the closed subway gate somehow. As they raced toward her, she simply backed up and into the wall again, ghosting, hiding in solid matter.
Maybe she could stay there, part of the concrete wall, until they vanished. But no, she had to keep moving. If she stayed still, she could feel herself start to scatter, rootless. As if her cells were drifting apart. The feeling made her dizzy and ill, so she kept going. Out of the subway and back to the street, but instead of keeping to the sidewalk, where the gang was no doubt looking for her, she moved obliquely, as the crow flies, cutting through buildings and alleys. Her feet became cut and bruised, running barefoot through the worst the city’s streets had to offer. She shivered, every part of her exposed to the cold.
She wasn’t sure how far she’d gone. Mostly, she was concerned with putting as much distance between her and the gang as she could. Maybe half an hour had passed, the way her lungs burned. She felt like half the night had gone by.
Emerging from a condemned tenement, she came into view of the East River, which gave her an idea of just how far she’d gone. Maybe she was safe now.
Dizziness shook her eyesight and made her stomach turn over. She slumped against the wall, and instead of falling through it, just fell against it, scraping her shoulder. She’d done too much, she had to rest. Obviously. What would happen if she kept ghosting? Kept turning insubstantial, walking through walls until she forgot how to be solid anymore, until her molecules started fluttering away on vagrant breezes? She could see it happen, and that terrified her. That she could imagine it so clearly seemed to be a message. Her ace was trying to tell her something.
She ran, and instead of going through the walls this time, she took the long way around the corner, then followed the river north.
The pervasive darkness and shadows on the streets were broken up ahead by a doorway guarded by lions. Stone lions. Around the corner from this grand entryway was another, wider door with a bright white light shining within. The word emergency shone in red letters on a lit-up sign above it. Above the stone lions, another sign was lit by an overhead lamp: BLYTHE VAN RENSSAELER MEMORIAL CLINIC.
If she wasn’t safe in a hospital, she wasn’t safe anywhere.
She approached the emergency entrance, but hesitated when she spotted an incredibly tall green-skinned joker standing in front of it. He wore a uniform—and where did a nine-foot-tall man go to find security uniforms? Night guard, then.
She decided to avoid the entrance and instead went around the block to ghost in through a back wall. Dizziness followed her. She really didn’t want to have to do that again anytime soon. Fortunately, the lights were dim and the hallways empty. She found an unlocked supply closet where, as she hoped she would, she found medical scrubs. She even found a pair of spare shoes—surgical booties, really, but they’d do. The greenish shirt and pants weren’t high fashion, but they covered her up. She put a white lab coat over the scrubs for good measure.
She made her way to the emergency room waiting area and sat in the first chair she came to.
The place wasn’t quiet. A voice scratched over a loudspeaker down a tile corridor, a drunk man was complaining to a nurse at a desk, and across the room a woman—with skin like sandpaper and hair like wires—was soothing a crying baby. The baby was swathed in a blanket, and Jennifer couldn’t tell if it was a joker, too. Oddly enough, despite all this, the scene was peaceful. No music was blaring, no one was chasing her, no one harassing her. She sighed out a breath and with it some of her anxiety, sank back into the chair, and dozed.
She started awake when a siren outside blared—an ambulance pulling up. A moment later a pair of EMTs rushed through the main door pushing a stretcher. The person lying on it barely fit, his immense limbs hanging over the edges. His cabled muscles tensed as he clawed weakly at the people trying to help him. Jennifer recognized the patient’s shape—the big thug, Mr. Brick Wall. He was bleeding through his shirt as though from a stab wound. The stretcher disappeared behind a curtained-off section as a doctor and nurse rushed to attend him.
Jennifer cringed in her seat, hugging herself, trying to hide, fearful at who else would come through the door and what would happen if they found her. But no one did. She didn’t have to ghost through yet another wall. But she didn’t relax again. She kept staring at that curtain, waiting for the gang leader to climb off his bed and come after her.
“My dear, do you need help?”
The voice came from behind, and she flinched away from it.
He was a small man, slim, and rather startling: He had metallic red hair tied back in a ponytail, fine features, and under his white lab coat he had on a lemon yellow shirt with poetic flounces and tight green pants. She blinked at him.
“My apologies, I didn’t mean to frighten you,” he said, his hands making a comforting gesture. His accent was odd, exotic, and rather alluring.
“No, it’s okay, it’s just . . . I’m just tired.”
“I thought at first you were a nurse, but I don’t know you, do I?”
“No.” She looked away, chuckling.
“You seem to be in some distress. Can I do anything to help?”
He had a kind face and a gentle smile. She liked him, and resisted an urge to fall into his arms, sobbing, telling him absolutely everything. “No, I-I’m fine. I just need to rest, I think,” she said.
He studied her—he had the strangest violet eyes. For a moment he seemed about to say something, to argue with her. Then he pursed his lips and the moment passed. “All right, then. But don’t hesitate to ask if you need anything.”
He moved away, managing elegance even in a white lab coat, even though he seemed as exhausted as she.
The drunk man had come to rest about ten seats away. “He probably just read your mind, you know.”
“What?” Jennifer said.
“That’s what he does. He reads minds. That’s Dr. Tachyon.”
Of course he was. Then he knew. He’d looked at her, read her mind—and he knew she was an ace. He knew all about her. And he hadn’t said anything. Nothing had happened. She almost laughed.
When the sky outside the emergency room door started turning pale, Jennifer decided it was time to leave. She still hadn’t found Tricia.
But according to the drummer, Tricia was with Tony. Maybe he was in the phone book. Maybe she could just look him up, call him, ask to speak to Tricia . . . Surely someone at CBGB knew where he lived. Or his phone number. She could still find Tricia; she wasn’t at the end of the line yet.
She walked west, back toward the Bowery. The streetlights had dimmed without Jennifer noticing, and a news truck rumbled by. Morning, already. She’d been running around all night. What an adventure. She had to smile.
Morning traffic increased, pedestrians emerging onto the sidewalk, shopkeepers opening the grates in front of the windows. People glanced at her—wild-haired, in flimsy booties, medical scrubs, and a lab coat—but they didn’t stare. She didn’t look normal, but for this part of town, what was? She decided feeling self-conscious about it was pointless.
Ahead, she saw a sign for a diner that seemed to be popular, and her stomach growled at her. She was starving, and a big plate of eggs and pancakes sounded like the perfect remedy. And she even had ten grand or so tucked in the pocket of the lab coat to pay for a good breakfast. Maybe she’d treat everyone in the diner.
She walked past the window to the front door. Stopped. Backed up a couple of steps, and looked. There, in the center booth right next to the window, was Tricia. Sitting next to her were the other two guys from the band, the singer and guitarist and another groupie. The guitarist was tapping twenty fingers on the tabletop; the singer’s glowing hair seemed dull and limp in the daylight. They were drinking coffee and laughing about something like nothing was wrong. Empty plates and a coffeepot sat on the cluttered table. They might have been sitting there all night.
Jennifer tapped gently on the glass. The alternative was smashing in the window with her fist.
Tricia looked up, her mouth fell open, and she blinked her surprise. Jennifer marched to the front door and inside, and then to the table. Tricia was still staring, dumbfounded. Jennifer crossed her arms. The other three people in the booth cringed at her frown.
Finally, Tricia spat out words. “Omigod, Jennifer, where’ve you been? You totally missed the best party ever!”
Like it was all her fault she’d missed the party and not been ditched in the seediest neighborhood in town. So many things she could say right now.
Jennifer thought about it a minute. “Actually, I think my party was probably better than yours.” She flapped the edges of the white lab coat, showing off her new outfit. “Why didn’t you wait for me, Trish? Why didn’t you at least tell me where you were going? I’ve been running all over looking for you.”
Tricia squirmed in the booth, gave a lopsided shrug, and batted her eyes. “I thought you were right behind us. Honest.”
Jennifer had nothing to say to that. It was way past time to go home. She turned and walked out. She didn’t expect Tricia to run after her, and Tricia once again entirely met expectation. But she did call, “Jennifer, wait! God, you don’t have to be so square.”
Shoulder against the wall, Jennifer lingered outside the diner, too tired to be angry, too numb to think, not knowing what to do next. Running around all night, and what did she have to show for it? Blistered feet. A newfound appreciation for her ace. And an envelope full of cash.
She couldn’t hand the money over to the police. She didn’t feel right spending it. What else could she do but drop it down the sewer for some bum to find and spend on booze?
Or maybe . . .
She went back to the Jokertown Clinic. She remembered seeing a sign hanging on the wall inside the door, next to a lockbox with a slot cut into it. DONATIONS, the sign read, with smaller text underneath that said, EVERY PENNY HELPS!
Jennifer slipped in through the door and crept along the wall, hoping to avoid notice. The place was quiet; the nurse she’d seen last night was at the desk, head resting on her arms. Her shift had to be nearly up.
Quickly, Jennifer stuffed the envelope through the slot. It took some doing—the slot was made for coins and bills, not annual salaries. But she succeeded, and the envelope fell in with a satisfying thud.
For a moment, she stared at the box. She could change her mind. She could pull it right back out again. Then again, no she couldn’t. Like Croyd said, there was right and there was right, and this felt more right than anything had all night.
On the other hand, she needed subway fare to get home. She ghosted her hand into the donation box, pulled out a single wrinkled bill. Then she retrieved a second one, to replace the clothes and jewelry she’d lost. It was only fair, right? She had her fingers halfway through the box for a third bill when she stopped herself. This was already more than even.
She nearly skipped out of the emergency room. Hands in the pockets of the lab coat, she walked up the street, chin up, smiling.
Copyright 2011 © Carrie Vaughn, LLC