San Antonio, home of the Alamo, is also host to the nation’s top high school jazz competition, and the musicians at Xavier Desmond High are excited to outplay their rivals. They are also jokers, kids with strange abilities and even stranger looks. On top of that, well, they are teenagers, apt for mischief, mishaps, and romantic misunderstandings.
Michelle Pond, aka The Amazing Bubbles, thinks that her superhero (and supermom) know-how has prepared her to chaperone the event. But when her students start going wayward, she’ll soon discover the true meaning of “Don’t mess with Texas.”
Part of George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards universe, Texas Hold’em features the writing talents of David Anthony Durham, Max Gladstone, Victor Milan, Diana Rowland, Walton Simons, Caroline Spector and William F. Wu. Available October 23d from Tor Books.
Bubbles and the Band Trip
The brakes gave a farty hiss as the bus pulled up in front of the Gunter Hotel. Michelle sighed with relief. Being cooped up with her daughter and the rest of the Xavier Desmond High School Jazz Band for eighteen hours straight was about as much fun as she could stand. The kids sometimes called themselves the Jokertown Mob, but mostly just the Mob to keep it short.
“Ms. Pond!” Peter called from the back of the bus. Peter was the band’s trumpet player. He called himself Segway because his legs were fused together and he moved by rolling around on keratin wheels. “Can we get out now?” Michelle guessed she wasn’t the only one ready for a break from the enforced confinement.
“In a second, Peter,” she said. “Let me see where we’re supposed to check in first, so we don’t have to lug the instruments and suitcases all over the place.”
The driver opened the bifold door and Michelle stepped out into the beautiful, cool San Antonio spring morning.
And discovered she was in a little slice of hell.
Coming at her was a group of about twenty people carrying an array of placards that read: SPAWN OF SATAN! FREAKS! JOKERS ARE SUBHUMANS! JOKERS ARE WICKED ABOMINOTIONS: PROV. 15:9!
Michelle strode toward them. They kept coming at her. At her and the bus full of her kids.
“That’s far enough,” she said in her very best I’m-from-the-Committee-do-not-fuck-with-me voice. They actually stopped.
Okay, so far so good. They’re not complete morons.
“Where exactly do you think you’re going?” Michelle asked. She aimed at the protesters generally. She couldn’t tell if there was a leader or not, but right now she didn’t care. They were going to stay the hell away from her kids. Especially when she saw that a couple of the protesters were carrying sidearms.
Texas, sheesh. Also, compensating much? She wasn’t sure which bugged her more, the open-carry douches or the concealed-carry jerks. There was so much badness waiting to happen. At least if one of those guns went off and hit her, it wouldn’t do a damn thing except give her more fat. And she could totally deal with that.
“You and those freaks are abominations unto the Lord,” said one of the protesters, pointing at the bus. “He will smite them. They are wicked, for the Mark of Satan is on them.” She wore oversize cat’s-eye sunglasses and an electric-blue polyester pantsuit. Her hair looked like pink cotton candy. It rose at least seven inches into the air.
The bigger the hair the closer to God? Michelle thought. Yeesh. Michelle narrowed her green eyes and cocked her head to one side. Wow, toots, big mistake. And not just the ensemble. You just bought yourself a world of hurt.
“The only abomination is your spelling and grammar. ‘ABOMINOTION’? Seriously? Also, your manners are appalling. Yelling at children? Total dick move.”
“You don’t frighten us, Miss Pond,” the woman continued. “For the Lord shall protect me. He will protect all of us.”
A round of “That’s right” and “Praise Jesus” rumbled through the protesters. “You tell her, Betty Virginia. You tell that filthy freak.”
A bubble began forming in Michelle’s hand. After Kazakhstan, her temper was shorter and her desire to bubble was sharper. It wasn’t a good combination. “Yeah, you wanna test that theory,” Michelle replied.
The protesters were an odd bunch. There was a pair of twins in their thirties who wore identical clothing and bore a striking resemblance to Tweedledee and Tweedledum minus the beanies. A woman with greasy hair wearing a muumuu carried a sign with a picture of a dead and horribly deformed joker on it. Off to one side, a pimply-faced teenage girl stood slumped-shouldered, looking as if she were about to cry. The men in the group wore jeans, T-shirts with God Loves Humans written across the chest, and gimme caps. The women seemed to take their sartorial lead from Betty Virginia. There were a lot of big, back-combed bouffants in a variety of shades. These gals loved the blackest of blacks and the reddest of reds. And they had embraced neon-colored pantsuits in the most sincere of ways. The protesters all had the same angry, hateful, self-righteous expressions on their faces.
God’s Weenies, Michelle thought. She knew they were here to protest the Mob playing in the Charlie Parker High School Jazz Competition, as they were the only band playing that had any jokers. Okay, so they had all the jokers.
One of the men in the back had dropped his hand to his holstered piece. Michelle gave him a cold smile. “I’ll be happy to show you my open carry. And you know bullets don’t scare me.”
Betty Virginia turned to see who Michelle was speaking to. He was a plain-looking fellow with cat-shit brown eyes and a comb-over. His sidearm was holstered, but he had the snap lock undone. His denim cowboy shirt was rolled up at the sleeves.
“Now, Earl Walker,” Betty Virginia said with a honeyed tone as she gave her cotton-candy hair a pat. “You just keep that snub nose where it belongs. We don’t advocate violence. You know that.”
“Oh, that’s hi-larious,” Michelle said. “You just rile things up to make sure someone else gets their hands dirty. Stay away from my kids.”
She released her bubbles then. The protesters shrieked. But these bubbles weren’t designed to kill or maim, they just boxed the protesters in, keeping them from moving. A box of iridescent, translucent, and very strong bubbles.
Pretty, Michelle thought with a smile.
And as she was admiring her handiwork, she saw the other chaperones—Wally and Robin—the band, and the music director, Sharon, hustling past the protesters into the Gunter Hotel.
* * *
The lobby was packed with teenagers carrying instrument cases and talking excitedly. The adults—chaperones, parents, and music teachers— looked like they were about to lose their minds.
“Gosh, where are the cowboys?” Wally asked, looking around the lobby. He was good-natured and sweet, but his large size, iron skin, and yellow eyes made him look intimidating. His skin would rust, but he’d done a good job at keeping it well-scrubbed on the trip down. It helped that his daughter liked to help him scrub it.
Wally had insisted that he come along as a chaperone on the trip. His daughter, Ghost, was the sax and clarinet player for the band. She was ten years old and had only recently started playing with them. Though she was an ace—and still in elementary school—the band members had embraced her. And not just for her smoking sax solos. Her indifference to them being jokers had won them over. And, after all, her father was a joker, as was her best friend, Michelle’s daughter, Adesina.
“Wally!” Ghost said, tugging on his sleeve and pointing across the lobby. “There’s the clarinet player from the Modesto Melody Makers. She’s awesome!”
Michelle smiled at Ghost’s enthusiasm. Ghost and Adesina had hung out at Michelle’s apartment watching YouTube videos of all the other bands in the competition. By now, the girls knew the band members from the other bands by sight. Michelle surveyed the room, wondering how the girls could keep this many players straight.
A young girl, tiny compared to Michelle’s six-foot height, came up to her. “I’m sorry to bother you,” the girl said. She had long chestnut. colored hair, and was wearing a floaty floral print dress with black Converse sneakers. “But aren’t you Michelle Pond?”
Michelle gave the girl a wan smile. She wasn’t feeling up to a fan encounter, but she felt a strong obligation to not be a jerk when someone just wanted a moment of her time. She’d had her own fangirl moments in the past and knew how much it meant to have contact with someone you admired.
At least Michelle assumed she was being admired. Sometimes it was difficult to be sure. “Yep, that’s me,” she replied.
The girl beamed at her. “So, that’s the Mob?” she said with a nod to the joker kids grouped by the door. The door to the hotel opened and the bleating of “Jokers are abominations!” and “Spawns of Hell!” floated in. Michelle thought about going outside and introducing them to less gentle bubbles.
The girl followed Michelle’s gaze. “They’re from the Purity Baptist Church. They’re awful.”
“Yep,” Michelle replied tersely. “I’ve already had a super-special moment with them.”
“I’m Kimmie,” the girl said, reaching out her hand. Michelle took it and gave it a quick shake. “Would you mind if I met the band? I don’t know any jokers. But from their YouTube videos, they sure can wail. I play flute in the Plano Originals.” She blurted this all out while tucking a stray hair behind her ear nervously. “This is our third year in a row being invited. But we haven’t won yet.”
Michelle looked at Kimmie suspiciously. Most nats would be freaking out about seeing a pack of jokers, but the only thing she saw on the girl’s face was clear and honest curiosity.
“Sure,” Michelle said. She led Kimmie over to the Mob. “Guys, this young lady would like to meet you. She’s in the Plano Originals band.”
Adesina came forward immediately. “Hey there,” she said. Her wings spread out, then snapped shut. She’d been having trouble controlling them of late. “OMG, your band is awesome! I loved that video you guys posted playing ‘The “In” Crowd’ in last year’s competition. Your flute solo was hella kewl.”
Kimmie looked down and her cheeks got red. “Thanks. I’m pretty proud of it. I like your wings. And your dreads. And your bass is awesome! I’ve never seen a bass tricked out like that. I mean, someone using one in a jazz band.”
“Thanks,” Adesina said, a smile blooming across her face. “I figured, I already look like this”—she gestured to her body—“so I might as well go big or go home. And who doesn’t like purple sparkles, ya know?”
Kimmie laughed. She leaned forward conspiratorially. “I never would have had the guts to do something like that.”
Michelle decided she liked Kimmie a lot. Her daughter may have been a joker, but Michelle had always thought she was beautiful. Adesina’s skin was leathery and the color of obsidian; her eyes and dreads were coppery. She did have four vestigial insect legs, but they were small. Antennae sprouted from her forehead. Adesina and Michelle agreed the physical part of her latest transformation was filled with awesome sauce.
“Who’s that?” Kimmie asked, gesturing toward Peter. Instead of pants, he wore a kilt. Michelle was pretty sure he wore it in the traditional way, and that brought up a lot of other questions she decided weren’t really her business. But then she saw him grin at Kimmie and Kimmie smile back, and Michelle realized that Peter was also a cute boy and Kimmie was intrigued by him—joker or not.
Peter rolled over to Kimmie and bowed at the waist in front of her. That he could easily keep his balance always amazed Michelle. “O beautiful maiden,” he said with a slight British accent that was totally put on. “How may I serve you?”
Michelle rolled her eyes. Peter was a gamer and especially into role-playing.
Kimmie laughed and held out her hand. He took it and made much of kissing it.
“Oh, for the love of Mike,” Michelle said with a groan, “I cannot believe… hand kissing!”
“Mom’s a monster when she’s annoyed,” Adesina said, laughing. She posed then, standing with her hands raised palms up, her feet firmly planted, and her face set in a stern expression. It was a perfect imitation of Michelle’s usual “fight mode.” Michelle glared at her.
Adesina smiled. “Yeah, that is so not working, Mom.” She turned back to Kimmie. “Antonia is our drummer.” She gestured at the girl with tentacles for hands. Antonia nodded at Kimmie. “And Marissa plays keyboards.
“This is Sean, our other sax player.” Kimmie smiled and gave him a small wave. Colors began rippling across his skin until they ended in bright neon shades.
Adesina leaned in close. “He likes you and he’s also totes embarrassed,” she whispered.
“Am not,” Sean cried.
“Are too,” Adesina retorted.
“Oh, here’s Asti—” She pointed at the boy holding a guitar case. “He plays guitar, obvs. And he’s totes cute with that peach fuzz all over. Now don’t be embarrassed, dude. And those bubbles coming off his head? They smell like peaches. So yummy.” Her voice dropped and she leaned in to whisper in Kimmie’s ear, “And OMG, you should see his abs.”
The kids shook Kimmie’s hand, chatting about the songs each band was going to play.
“Michelle, what are we going to do about those protesters?” Robin asked. “They’re going to hassle the kids for the entire time we’re here.”
“They’re obviously reptoid people.” That was Jan, Robin’s landlady. Jan was a conspiracy nut. Pure tinfoil hat stuff. Michelle wasn’t entirely sure why Jan had come along on the trip. But she was getting on Michelle’s very last nerve.
“They’re not lizard people, Jan,” Michelle said with exasperation. She’d had about enough of the whole lizard people, gray aliens, Denver Airport, and MKUltra conspiracies to last a lifetime. Well, in all fairness, the MKUltra stuff was true.
“Jan,” Michelle continued. She glanced over at the kids. They seemed to be enjoying meeting Kimmie and talking about music. It was a relief. She’d been afraid that everyone would treat her kids the way God’s Weenies did. “You do know that all this conspiracy stuff is just, well, bullshit?”
“Ha!” Jan said with maniacal glee. Blue sparks glittered between her teeth and the veins in her temples pulsed. Despite Jan’s all black attire and dark sunglasses, she couldn’t hide that she was a joker. And it was clear she wasn’t really trying to hide it much anyway.
“An alien virus created all the wild cards,” Jan continued. “And MKUltra is a real thing. It just follows that there are other secret shenanigans going on. And they’re reptoid, not lizard people.”
“Sweet baby Jesus,” Michelle groaned. “That doesn’t follow at all.”
“Well, you’re a part of the Committee and we all know they’re nothing more than lackeys for the New World Order. And they’re butt monkeys for the Gnomes of Zurich. Also, you’re a product of aliens messing with human DNA.”
Arghhhhhh, Michelle thought. Just enough truth balled up with the crazy to make things sound real.
“Give it up, Michelle,” Robin said. “You’ve lost that fight. Those suitcases should have been here already.”
Michelle took a real look around the lobby of the Gunter.
The Gunter was sponsoring the competition and had also discounted the rooms, which made them affordable for the students. Most of the kids in the Mob came from families without a lot of disposable income, and instruments and music lessons weren’t cheap. Michelle had paid out of her pocket for the band’s transportation to San Antonio with the promise from the band’s director, Sharon Oberhoffer, that no one was to know it was from her.
Sharon was a joker, too. When her card had turned, she’d been a professional trumpet player, but now her lips were freakishly small and puckered tight like a rosebud. It had prevented her from playing trumpet professionally anymore. Because she couldn’t speak, she whistled or used ASL to communicate. But mostly she whistled. It was like trying to carry on a conversation with Harpo Marx.
“Snazzy place,” Michelle said as she looked around the lobby. Sharon gave a low whistle in agreement.
Adorning the lobby ceiling were intricate, bright white crisscrossing moldings. Enormous chandeliers hung from medallions centered in the squares created by the crisscrosses. The walls were painted Texas sky blue. The second floor had a balcony overlooking the lobby.
“I’ll check us in,” Michelle said to Jan and Robin.
She walked to the front desk and gave the clerk her best professional model smile. “Hello, there are five rooms under the name Pond.”
“Yes, Mrs. Pond,” the clerk replied, returning Michelle’s smile. “Your rooms are ready.”
“It’s Ms. Pond. Are the rooms together?”
“Oh yes, we planned for that.” A few moments later the clerk slid the keycards across the desk. “You’re on the sixth floor. Elevators are just over there.” The clerk leaned forward and said, “But you should know, that floor is haunted.”
The Secret Life of Rubberband
by Max Gladstone
The bags were late, protesters howled outside, and Robin Ruttiger, guidance counselor of Xavier Desmond High, had lost a student.
“You have so many,” observed his unhelpful friend Jan Chang, who nobody called Sparkplug where she could hear them, before she turned the page of her highlighted and ballpoint-pen-annotated National Enquirer. She wore black jeans and a black leather jacket and would have looked completely foreign to San Antonio, Texas, even without the pulsing blue veins that webbed her skin. “Surely you can miss just one.”
Robin scanned the posh chaos of the Gunter lobby, which boiled with teachers, parents, and kids who wore the T-shirts of eight different high school jazz bands. He covered the mic of his phone, even though the hold music probably didn’t care about the noise. “Antonia was over by the ferns a second ago. You’re sure she didn’t come out this door?”
Jan did glance up this time, over the rim of the thick black sunglasses she wore to protect other people’s eyes from hers. Robin raised a hand to block the electric glare. “That would require my having any clue what she looks like.”
“Why did you even come, if not to help?”
She rolled her eyes, then pressed her sunglasses back into place. “I’m here because my niece is competing against your students in a band meet or match or whatever they call these things; said niece, charmingly devout, is convinced that residing in a historically haunted hotel puts her soul at risk; my breeder kid sister indicated that if I showed up to protect her against the ghost, she’d stop bugging me about having forgotten the birthdays of her various spawn for the last six years; and you owe me half a month’s rent and don’t get to throw shade.” She turned the page. “If one of your kids has been kidnapped by our reptoid overlords, that’s your problem.”
“I’m more worried about those asshole protesters, who do exist, than about the reptoids, who don’t.”
“Spoken like a reptoid stooge. And I don’t think they’re protesting assholes.”
“When there are real aliens in the world, I don’t know why you feel the need to invent—” He stopped himself. “Antonia’s a dark-haired girl, about five four, black gloves.”
Jan raised the tabloid between them.
“Fine.” He turned from her, covered the mic again—the hold line had started playing what he really hoped was not a Muzak cover of James Brown’s “I’ll Go Crazy.” “Wally, have you seen Antonia?”
The enormous pile of iron whose birth certificate read Wally Gunderson, and whose ace name was Rustbelt, though most people shortened it to Rusty, shrugged. Joints creaked and red flakes drifted down to the lacquered wood floor Rusty was trying not to scuff with his enormous boots—or were those feet? Rusty didn’t need to wear clothes, but Robin was glad he made the effort, even if his sharp metal edges pressed disconcertingly against his lime-green polo shirt and dad jeans. “Oh, she’s here for sure, yeah. We brought them all in from the van, right through the door, and then Bubbles told off those jerks outside. The kids are fine. Have you got through to that delivery company there about our bags yet?”
Robin didn’t know what he expected an enormous metal man to sound like, but the strong North Range accent always caught him by surprise. “I’m listening to the hardest working hold music in show business.” Outside, the protesters’ roars gained a rhythm: Hell no, jokers gotta go. Christ Jesus. “I just—I really need to know where everyone is. Okay?” How could he have lost a kid already?
“Well, that’s Yerodin right there.” Rusty pointed through the crowd, past mounds of instrument cases, to his adopted daughter, Yerodin, who he hadn’t let out of his sight all day. Yerodin, who the other kids called Ghost, hovered over the arm of a couch, hugging one leg as she talked with Adesina Pond, who looked like an animate obsidian statue with cobalt wings.
“That’s two out of seven, at least.” The speaker on Robin’s Nokia hadn’t worked right since he dropped the phone in a vat of acid six years back, but even with the pops and fuzz he could hear the bad synths had marched on to “Try Me.” “Hold this.” Wally took the phone with the care of a man trying not to break a butterfly wing, and raised it to the geared pit where his ear should have been.
Robin craned his neck over the crowd. He was six feet two, and would have had a decent angle on the lobby even without playing his card—especially since most of the crowd were teenagers. But he was here to chaperone the students of Xavier Desmond High, and he’d just shouldered through a horde of angry nat protesters after an armed standoff. No use pretending to be normal.
So he stretched.
Body mass pressed up into his neck. Skin expanded. The bones he was very good at pretending to possess stopped mattering. His chest caved in, his arms grew frail, his watch clattered to the floor, and it all felt so relaxing. He smiled, and made himself stop when his neck was only twelve feet long.
From up here he could see most of his students, though the Xavier Desmond High School Jazz Band—the Jokertown Mob—was certainly living up to the “Mob” part of its name. Lanky Peter Jacobson, aka Segway, zipped through the crowd on his wheels. Morpho Girl, there, was still talking with Ghost—a ten-year-old girl raised, if you call it that, by people who hoped she’d one day be a weapon. Ghost, intangible, glanced over her shoulder at the crowd beyond the hotel doors. Marissa, aka something—she changed her handle every few weeks— had struck up a conversation with a Chinese girl wearing a bright silver cross and a Detroit Detonators T-shirt. He spotted Asti and Sean showing something he really hoped was not a fake ID to the lobby bartender, and—
“How’s it going, Mister R?” Jacobson hopped over a luggage cart, spun midair, and landed with a squeal. A bellhop glared.
“Fine,” Robin called down. “Segway, have you seen Antonia?”
Jacobson beamed at being called by his card name. Robin often wondered what it was about drawing the card that triggered an obsession with pseudonyms. Not that Robin Ruttiger himself, aka (no matter how he tried to forget it these days) Rubberband, had a leg to stand on in that regard. “She looked tired. Maybe she, like, went upstairs for a nap?”
“Thank you.” He snapped back down to size. Segway swept past, bent down, and tossed Robin his watch. He stretched his wrist thin to slide it on. “Wally, can you watch the door? And stay on the phone?”
“You bet.” Rusty stuck up his thumb, ground his jaw, and listened to James. less Brown.
Robin flattened himself, everything except his feet. (He didn’t need shoes, but he liked wearing them.) He caught his watch in his hand this time—no sense testing the “full shock-absorbing power” any more than necessary—as he snaked through the crowd. “Excuse me. Pardon. Pardon me. Passing through.” The mothers and kids and hotel employees didn’t notice, or did and didn’t care, or did and recoiled in horror, for which he didn’t blame them. Flattened out, he looked like people did in cartoons after they’d been bulldozed by an enterprising coyote. He wriggled to the stairs, stretched his arms up fourteen feet—ten years of practice and it still felt weird reminding himself he didn’t have shoulder joints anymore—caught the overhead railing, pulled his skin like a, well, like a rubber band, and snapped up through the air to land on the second floor in a tangle of overextended limbs.
The mezzanine, at least, was quiet. He sorted himself out, adjusted his watch, and straightened his collar.
Antonia Abruzzi stood alone by the window, staring down in silhouette at the protesters’ flags and signs. Her long dark hair perched on her head, wound in intricate braids. She looked fifteen and fifty at once. She wore gloves, even if her hands didn’t fill them right. She had removed her left glove, and the long thin tentacles she had instead of a hand fanned over the window like brush bristles mashed flat.
He approached. The chant rhythm outside had changed; he couldn’t guess the words, now. Below, Sean led the kids in a chant of their own:
Jokertown, Jokertown, Jokertown Mob!
Stick that bullshit in your gob!
“Hey,” Robin said. “I know it’s a mess down there, but Ms. Oberhoffer and Ms. Pond and Mr. Gunderson and I really need to know where everyone is.”
“You know where I am,” Antonia said.
“I do now, yeah.”
She didn’t turn.
“Would you like to talk?”
“Antonia, I know walking through that crowd was hard. They’re small-minded, angry people. But we won’t let anyone hurt you.” It was hard to keep the anger from his voice. “Until Ms. Pond has us all checked in, we really need to know everyone’s in the same place, and safe. Could you please come join the others?”
Jokertown, Jokertown, Jokertown Mob!
There aren’t many words that rhyme with “ob”!
Antonia turned away from the street. Her face was another country. He thought she might be about to speak.
A slow wave passed through the protesters outside and below; placards and crude signs parted to reveal a black delivery van. Rusty shouted from the lobby: “Hey, Robin! I just got through! They say their fella’s arriving now.” His volume would have been perfect on a construction site, but was out of place in a four-star hotel.
Robin spread his hands, apologetic. “Those are the bags. I really have to go. Could you please come downstairs with me, and join the others?”
“Fine.” The edge in her voice meant he’d screwed up. He told himself he was okay with that, for now.
Robin had worked with teenagers long enough to wait for her to descend the stairs first. When she was back with the herd, he vaulted the railing, fell to the lobby, and slithered through the crowd to Rusty side. “Let’s go.”
* * *
Thank God the delivery guy was a nat, or looked like one. Robin didn’t think the protest would get violent—more violent, anyway, since words
had a violence all their own—but it helped that they wouldn’t think the delivery guy was bulletproof. Scared and angry people turned to violence when they thought they lacked other options—and to violence more vicious the less hope they thought they had. Fifty years of American public education had barely scratched the comic book myths: people still thought bullets bounced off aces and jokers. There was always a chance those myths would make it easier for some asshole to pull a trigger.
He wished Bubbles had thought up a better way to defuse the situation than reminding the protesters she was invulnerable, but, hey, spilt milk.
Robin signed three times on the delivery guy’s iPad—once they found a stylus, since neither his nor Rusty’s skin conducted normally, though for different reasons—and wheeled a cart piled with a suitcase Jenga tower down a ramp to the street. Someone tossed a tomato that splattered on the hot sidewalk and sizzled.
“Keep walking, Rusty.”
The cart’s left wheel wiggled. A hotel doorman rushed to open the side doors, and they pushed through air-conditioned steam into the lobby. Another tomato flew, and landed by Robin’s feet. People shouted nonsense Robin tried not to hear. The tower of bags teetered overhead.
Together, Robin and Rusty shoved the cart through the door. Jacobson applauded. Bubbles, still arguing with the front desk, glanced over her shoulder and grinned. Marissa, who’d left her new friend with the cross to nap in a chair, tried to high-five Yerodin, but passed through. Wheeling the cart over toward the packed instruments, Robin felt, briefly, like he had everything under control.
Then he heard a high-pitched giggle, glimpsed a grinning, bleeding spectral face, and felt the luggage cart lurch to one side.
Robin and Rusty both grabbed the cart, but one particularly heavy suitcase on top of the stack had already tipped loose and arced through the air, tumbling toward the Jokertown Mob’s piled instruments.
Time did its slow-motion crisis thing.
Robin cursed. He and Rusty lunged for the suitcase at once. Robin’s arms stretched out, caught the case, pulled it clear of the instruments—leaving Rusty in midair, diving to intercept a case that did not exist. Which would have been fine, if his arc wasn’t set to bring several hundred pounds of iron down on top of the band’s brass.
Robin dropped the suitcase and reached for Rusty, thinking, Too late, too late—
He heard a whoop and saw a familiar flash of gold, and Rusty landed hard on the floor, three feet to the left of the instruments. His iron elbows dug deep gouges in the wood.
The milling musicians of the Gunter lobby had hushed in horror as they watched the suitcase fall. They held their breath as Wally dove through the air. The applause after the averted disaster, Jacobson hopping on his wheels, Yerodin cheering, even Ms. Oberhoffer whistling approval, deafened.
Years had passed since Robin had last seen the golden lasso that snared Rusty’s shoulders, but he recognized it at once, as he recognized the voice raised in a triumphant “Yee-haw!” and recognized the jangle of spurs. Because Jerry Jeff Longwood—or, God love him, Kozmic Kowboy—did nothing by half measures. Not even the hearty backslap that almost knocked Robin double.
“Howdy Robin! Buddy! Sorry ’bout the lasso, there, partner, but you looked like you were in a sore spot.”
Jerry Jeff knelt to help Wally free of the lasso, which had snagged on his shoulder gears. The Kozmic Kowboy wore his full regalia: chaps and vest and hat and boots and crossed belts, his big iron on his hip. (Robin hoped it wasn’t loaded.) His mustaches drooped beautifully, and if there were streaks of gray in that dark hair these days, the cowboy hat covered them. Riches and fame and family life seemed to have added nothing to Jerry Jeff but a few smile lines around the corners of the eyes.
“Thanks,” Rusty said, which Robin should have said first. But, in Robin’s defense, he hadn’t yet remembered how words worked.
“How” was a good start. “Jerry Jeff, what are you doing here?”
“You didn’t think you could come to Texas without your old friend Jerry Jeff dropping in, did you? This here competition’s been all over the news, and folk knew your school was coming, and I thought, maybe he’ll be in town. And good thing for you I did! Come on, put ’er there.” Before Robin could pull away, he found his hand enveloped in a calloused handshake that, in a pinch, could double as a hydraulic press.
Jerry Jeff wasn’t a big man, but they made men tough in whatever
comic book cowboy land he came from.
“Robin,” Rusty said, “you know this fella?”
“Yes.” Robin did his best to smile. “We were on American Hero together.” American Hero, the reality TV series spotlighting “tomorrow’s heroes today!,” was the opportunity of a lifetime for its contestants. Some applied for money, some for fame, some because they wanted to make a difference, and some because they didn’t see much difference between the three. When the second season casting call went out, Robin Ruttiger had been two years into his new life as an ace, using his gifts to rescue cats from the treetops of Akron, Ohio, and Jerry Jeff Longwood was already the darlingest, dandiest star-spangled rider, roper, and cowboy crooner on the rodeo circuit.
And years later, here they were.
After saving the instruments, Jerry Jeff accepted Ms. Oberhoffer’s half whistled, half signed thanks—he might not have been able to sign fast enough to follow <I’m your biggest fan> and the frantic list of his concerts she’d watched on YouTube, but he must have gotten the general notion, since he tipped his hat to her and bowed and said, “That’s right kind of you.” She blushed, and fanned herself.
Jerry Jeff tipped his hat to Ms. Pond, too—they seemed to have met somewhere, which he had to admit made sense, given Bubbles’ fame— and asked if he could borrow Robin to catch up for an hour or two. Robin tried to look utterly occupied, can’t leave the kids, first night in a new city, but Sharon was too busy swooning to object, and Bubbles wouldn’t hear of parting old friends reunited. “The kids have their rooms, and I think after this morning we’ve all earned a rest. Take a few hours off. Wally and I can handle the orientation.”
“Ah,” Robin said. “Great.” He wished he sounded more convinced. “I’ll be back in time for the mixer.”
<We’ll keep an eye on things while you’re gone,> Sharon whistled.
Excerpted from Texas Hold’em, copyright © 2018 by George R.R. Martin