Wild Cards on Tor.com

The City That Never Sleeps

For over 25 years, the George R. R. Martin’s Wild Cards universe has been entertaining readers with stories of superpowered people in an alternate history.

“There’s never a shortage of people other people want dead.” Spector felt on familiar footing now that he saw the entire game.

All a hit man wants can be as simple as a bottle of bourbon and a time to dream, but when you’re Spector, the work never ends.

 

 

New York, New York
December, 1986

Spector knew he was being followed. The tail was a young man who clearly wasn’t up to the job. His dumbass shadow was well groomed, had a nice blue suit, and was keeping in back of him by about thirty feet. Spector paused at the corner of Second Avenue and Tenth, the cold wind whipping his lank hair. New York City at Christmastime wasn’t as bad as it was in January, but it was still no picnic. A trio of Salvation Army folks sang “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” but not very well. There was an A&P a couple of blocks away. If the person following him came inside looking for Spector that would be his mistake; if not, Spector would do some grocery shopping.

He’d been back in the city for less than two weeks. After Wild Card Day he’d decided Manhattan was just too dangerous for him. Lots of people wound up dead that day, including big-name aces like the Howler and the Astronomer and some lesser known ones like the dino kid. Spector had done the Astronomer himself, feeding his former boss’s his death memory hard and fast, and leaving the old bastard’s corpse fused inside a brick wall. That helped him sleep a little easier, but there were still plenty of people who wanted him dead again, not to mention the politicians and cops who were howling for the blood of the aces who’d brought terror to their fair city.

So Demise had gone back to Teaneck and laid low for a couple of months. Still, he needed a roof over his head and food on the table, so he’d done a few random jobs for the local mob. He’d told them he was a chemist with a drug that could simulate a heart attack. His employers weren’t particularly curious about his methods and paid on time. The rubouts weren’t enough for Spector to live well, but he kept them on a scale small enough that he didn’t draw much attention, either.

He ducked into the A&P and moved quickly to his left and down an aisle. The place wasn’t crowded, which suited Spector to a T. He heard the door squeak open and knew the man had been dumb enough to follow him inside. Spector headed for a corner of the produce section where the lighting was poor. He heard slow, uncertain footfalls the next aisle over. Spector couldn’t figure why anyone who knew who he was would follow him, much less confront him. Unless the guy was an ace; that could be big trouble.

The man turned the corner.

“Can I get a light?” Spector asked.

“Uh.” The young man seemed surprised to see Spector pop up in front of him.

“Following me is a bad idea.” Spector pushed his horrific pain inside the man’s mind. The agony of Spector’s own death from the black queen took hold. The man’s eyes rolled up in his head and there was a fresh corpse on the floor seconds later.

Spector glanced around and saw no one. He heard the squeak of a grocery cart closing in and bolted around the corner. No one noticed as he exited the store. Still, someone knew he was back in town. Maybe they wanted to hire him; maybe they wanted to kill him. He’d know for sure soon enough.

 

Spector bought a mask at the first vendor he saw. In Jokertown, masks were easy to come by. He was tempted by a really ugly Santa mask, but instead picked out an angry-looking bird head. Spector didn’t particularly like birds, but the eye holes were large and gave him a decent field of vision. He’d downed a pint of Jack Daniel’s Black Label the night before to help with the pain. It took the edge off, but that was it. Pills would be better if he could find some.

He felt reasonably safe looking for drugs in Jokertown, where they were as common as misery and deformity. Spector ducked into an alleyway and shoved a couple of wadded-up tissues under his mask, giving the appearance of a misshapen face underneath. He heard a wet, unhappy noise behind him and moved back out onto the sidewalk before it could close in.

The sky was clear and blue, and there was only a hint of a chilling breeze. He decided to stretch his legs and take a long walk through Jokertown. Most people, other than jokers, would be scared to take a stroll here; too much ugliness and potential danger. Spector wasn’t nervous though. He might well be the scariest person in Jokertown at the moment. He didn’t like it here, but Jokertown was comfortable in a smelly-old-shirt kind of way.

He hit Jube the Walrus’s newsstand first, not for any particular reason. The Walrus was one of Jokertown’s oldest citizens. There was a large joker under a pair of stitched-together coats picking up a newspaper with a pink, furry hand. It tossed a coin at Jube and wobbled away as Spector approached.

“Want a Cry, friend?” the Walrus asked.

Spector picked it up and scanned the headlines. “What? No ‘Hideous Joker Baby Eats Own Head’ story? Must be a slow day.”

The Walrus shrugged, his skin rumpling around his neck. “That’s yesterday’s news. Got to keep current. Everything you want to know is inside.”

Spector set a quarter down and picked up a paper. “If you say so.” He tucked the Cry under his arm and turned away.

“Do I know you? Something about you seems kind of familiar.”

“Probably not,” Spector replied. “Better if you keep it that way.”

He headed for the Crystal Palace, in spite of the fact that it was a long walk. The Victorian décor wasn’t to his taste, but a man could get a drink or two there and generally be left alone. He’d keep his distance from Sascha the bartender, though. Sascha was an eyeless freak who could get into your head and pick up some thoughts.

A joker crossed the street in front of him. It looked like someone had thrown a greenish-purple tarp over a group of giant scrubbing bubbles. The thing had more legs on either side than Spector could count in the short time he saw it, like a centipede. Other than the noise of legs on the sidewalk it didn’t make a sound. Yep, he definitely needed a drink or three.

The Palace was done up for Christmas. There were matching human-sized nutcrackers flanking each side of the door into the main room, with holly strung across the arch. Sascha was behind the bar when he entered, wearing an off-kilter Santa hat. Spector avoided him and headed to the saloon area. The air inside was warm and he inhaled deeply. After breathing the December chill for so long his lungs needed it. He found an unoccupied booth and slid onto the comfortably padded bench. There was a birdcage filled with ornaments in the center of the table.

A waitress walked to his booth, but before she could open her mouth, he said, “Get me a double shot of Jack Black and don’t be a stranger.” He handed her a ten and paged through the Cry.

“Yes, sir. And a happy Yule to you.”

The headlines were the fun part of reading the Walrus’s rag. “Joker Trapped in Freezer Eats Three of Her Own Legs to Survive,” “Mike Tyson, Ace or Joker?” and Spector’s personal front-page favorite, “Bat Boy and Family Found Living Under Jokertown Precinct Building.”

The waitress arrived with his order, setting the glass carefully in front of him. She attempted to hand him his change, but Spector waved her off.

“Keep it. Like I said, don’t be a stranger.” He liked the way she smelled. At least, he thought it was her.

He heard heavy footfalls approaching his booth. A broad shadow fell across the tabletop. Spector sighed. Would they just once leave him the fuck alone?

“She wants to see you.”

Spector looked up from his newspaper. It was Elmo the dwarf, the bouncer at the Crystal Palace. Elmo was crazy strong and very good at his job. He was wearing mirrored sunglasses.

“Let me finish my drink,” Spector said.

“Bring it with you. She won’t mind.” Elmo turned toward the bar. “Sascha, you too.”

“Not him.” Spector didn’t want that mind-reading asshole around. He could lose the ability to take the initiative if things were going to get ugly. “Or I’m out of here.”

Elmo shrugged. “You’re fine where you are, Sascha.”

Spector, drink in hand, followed the dwarf into a large back room. The interior looked the way Spector would imagine Buckingham Palace looked if he’d ever bothered to imagine Buckingham Palace. Chrysalis sat behind a large desk, hands folded. Her transparent skin revealed muscle, sinew, and an occasional glimpse of bone. She had on mirrorshades, too. He wondered how she slept with transparent eyelids. Some people said she looked creepy or ugly. Spector had seen plenty of both and to him Chrysalis was neither. She was a powerful person in Jokertown, though, and could make his life harder if she wanted to.

“Mr. Spector, or should I call you Demise?” Her accent was phony British. It sounded funny coming out of her mouth. She motioned him to sit in the chair opposite her desk.

He took a seat. “Call me what you want. I’m more interested in why you want to see me in the first place.” Spector got the sense she was into formal niceties, which was not how he operated. He killed his drink with a final swallow of Jack Black.

“Since seeing you can be the last thing some people do—” She paused. “—you can assume I want something else.”

Spector nodded. “Who do you want killed?”

“No, you don’t understand. I was informed by an anonymous person that you were back in Manhattan. This person would like to meet with you to discuss a business matter. They asked that if I encountered you to put you in contact.”

So someone Chrysalis knew wanted someone killed. There was no other reason to contact him. It was all he did. “Fine, you can give me their phone number and I’ll call them or I won’t.” He set his empty glass on her desk. “What’s the payoff for you?”

She smiled, or appeared to. It was hard to tell without being able to see her skin. “I deal in information and favors. One often leads to the other. By arranging a meeting with you, I now have a degree of credit with this person. If the meeting is beneficial to you, perhaps you’ll be inclined to help me at some point in the future.”

“There’s never a shortage of people other people want dead.” Spector felt on familiar footing now that he saw the entire game.

“That’s not exactly what I was inferring. As I said, I deal in information. A person who travels in the circles you frequent might come across some interesting tidbits now and then.” She handed him a card with a local phone number written on it. “Elmo will show you out.”

Spector took the card and stood. “Maybe so. You could give me a bottle of Jack Black to keep me sweet if I do happen across something.”

“Sascha will take care of you when you leave.”

 

Spector had made his way halfway through the bottle and still couldn’t make up his mind. After surviving Wild Card Day, he’d decided to work for himself. That wasn’t a practical idea, though. He had exactly one marketable skill—killing people—and he couldn’t exactly set up a storefront to do that kind of business. No matter what way he turned it around in his mind, he’d be taking risks for other people. Doing their dirty work. Maybe if he strung together a bunch of high-profile jobs he’d have enough money to retire. He’d been an accountant, although not a very good one, before the Wild Card took him, and knew a little about investing money and making it grow. With a nice nest egg he could kick back, relax, and stick to killing the people who pissed him off. There was no shortage of those.

Spector knew the law wouldn’t be a problem. He didn’t leave any evidence behind when he took someone out, so there was nothing the cops or the DA could make stick in courtroom. He also knew this was a world of aces, with people like Fortunato and the Astronomer, people who also didn’t care about the legal system and could kill him easily enough. Low risk–low reward versus high risk–maybe dead. What the hell, he was an ace. He could handle pretty much anything.

He grabbed the phone and set it on his lap, then punched in the number on the card. It rang for a while before someone picked up.

“Hello. How may I help you?”

Spector recognized the voice. It was the smooth-voiced, nameless asshole who’d sent him after some notebooks and mob bosses on Wild Card Day. He thought about hanging up, didn’t. “I think I’m the one who’s going to be doing the helping, if my information is correct.”

“Ah, I’m so glad you decided to contact me. We have unfinished business.”

While he was in Jersey, Spector had asked around with his mob employers and they had given him a possible name, St. John Latham. Latham was a big-time attorney with suspected underworld connections. “No shit, Sherlock. You owe me.”

The man cleared his throat. “I can hardly be blamed for not making payment in light of your disappearance.”

“So you tracked me down to pay me?” Spector didn’t think for a minute this was the case, but he didn’t see a need to be an open book when dealing with someone this slippery.

“No. Not entirely. I have a something of significant mutual benefit to propose.”

“Maybe I should come to your office. I’m guessing you have one, right?”

“That won’t work. Let me think.” There was a long pause. “It’s problematic for me to be seen with a person of your reputation. Perhaps I could send an intermediary.”

“Bad idea,” Spector said. “Remember what happened to the last punk you put on my trail. He was a total amateur.” The last part was a guess, but obviously an accurate one.

“He was a temp, whose only job was to determine if you were, in fact, you. In that regard he was a success.”

“Whatever.” Spector didn’t mind dealing with cold-blooded assholes. He wouldn’t mind putting them down if it came to it. “No more go-betweens. I’m dealing with you, or I’m not dealing at all.”

“Well, that would require a location with sufficient privacy.”

“Jokertown. You can wear a mask. I’ve already got one.”

Another pause. “That’s not exactly ideal for me.”

“How about the Crystal Palace? They know you there.”

“No. The bartender is a problem. Our discussions wouldn’t remain private for long.”

So he knew about Sascha. That made sense. “Okay, the Dime Museum then.” Spector expected a pause. Got one. “It’s only two bucks, and you can wear a mask.” Jokers were welcome at the Dime Museum. Some rich-guy joker supposedly owned it.

“I suppose that could be workable.”

“Okay, a couple of things. First, meet me at four in the afternoon. I’ll be wearing a bird-head mask, hanging out by the Turtle’s shell. Second, bring my fucking money.”

“Four o’clock.”

Spector hung up the phone and took another swig of bourbon. That had gone about as well as he could have hoped.

 

The doorway to the Famous Bowery Wild Card Dime Museum had fake holly draped above the doorway, strung from plastic ace and joker heads. He paid the two-dollar admission fee and entered. There were only a few people wandering around when Spector arrived. He’d made a point of being ten minutes late, just to emphasize that he could take this job or leave it. A couple of kids, a boy and a girl, were slowly making their way around the Turtle’s Volkswagen shell, pointing and smiling.

“He’s dead, you know,” Spector said.

“Nuh-uh,” said the taller of the two kids, a scrawny, sandy-haired boy. “People have seen him.”

“You’re a liar, Mr. Bird-Face,” the girl chimed in.

“Swamp gas, kid. That’s what people saw.” He leaned in close, his mask almost touching the boy’s face.

The girl took the boy’s hand and hauled him in the direction of the Four Aces display. She gave Spector a hard look he figured she usually saved for teachers or her parents.

“If looks could kill, sir,” came a cultured voice from behind him, “you’d be on your way to the grave.”

Spector recognized Latham’s voice and turned around. The man was wearing a perfectly tailored dark gray suit and a gold human-faced mask. He inclined his head slightly to one side, giving Spector a slow once-over.

“Maybe the Turtle really is dead,” Spector said. “People get that way all the time.”

“Indeed.” He passed Spector a heavy envelope. “For your previous efforts on our behalf. I assume you prefer cash.”

“That works best.”

“Before you decide whether or not to continue your relationship with us, I’d like to explain some of the potential benefits we can offer.”

“I’m all about the benefits,” Spector said. He wondered if those included a regular supply of drugs.

“Yes. Since you’re officially dead, you’re required to work on a cash basis. We could provide you with a new identity; including ID, bank accounts, a passport if you chose to leave the country, investment opportunities, and so on. You would be free to move around and your funds would be much more secure than stuffed under your mattress.”

Spector hadn’t really thought about all this long-term. He was mostly focused on staying alive and taking care of the pain. Still, there was something to be said for it. “Lots of people do fake IDs. And I know something about accounting myself.”

“There’s a difference between accounting and finance. Stay with us and you’ll see just how much of a difference that can be.” The man’s tone oozed confidence and conviction.

“Let’s say for the sake of argument I’m interested. Are you planning on sending me to Paris for the job?”

The man shook his head. “Hardly. Our current concerns remain here in the city. As before, your efforts would be directed against the fading criminal power structure.”

Spector nodded. They wanted him to keep going after the mob. Potentially dangerous work, even for him. “I might be interested.”

“Excellent. I’ll send one of our people to your apartment to get the ball rolling.” He turned away, then paused. “Please try not to kill this one.”

“No promises.”

 

He was annoyed. The line at the bank wasn’t particularly long, but it was moving slowly. His pain was acting up more than usual and Spector was having a hard time concentrating. All he wanted was to be back at his place with a bottle of JD.

The flunky had come by just like the smooth-talking slimeball had said. Carl was young and well-dressed, like the corpse Spector had made a few days back, but had the good sense to wear mirrorshades. Spector had grimaced at that and knocked the sunglasses clattering to the floor with a quick sweep of his right arm.

“You’d better staple those to the side of your head if you want them to do you any good,” Spector had said. “I may have a stapler around here if you need the help.”

Carl had scrambled to get the glasses back in hand and looked like he was going to piss himself. “No, no. I’m just here to help.”

He’d given Spector a fake Social Security card under the name Thomas B. Stone.  Whoever came up with that must have thought they were being clever. Carl had also set up a couple of different-colored background screens and had taken some photos of Spector for a New York driver’s license and a passport. He had taken off as soon as the work was done, but had come back a couple of days later with the driver’s license and some instructions about the upcoming job Spector was supposed to do. As always, someone was in need of getting dead.

“May I help you, sir?” The teller’s tone was friendly in a tired, rote kind of way.

“I need to open an account.” He handed over his fake driver’s license and a creased envelope heavy with bills.

“I’m sure we can help you with that.”

Spector looked the teller over while she was walking him through the paperwork. She was youngish, but clearly old enough to have been around the block a few times. Her eyes were bright and intelligent; she was too smart for her job and there was no way she’d last.

He stopped at the Strand on his way back to the apartment and found his way to the travel section. Spector had never really imagined himself leaving the NYC area, but it was an interesting notion. Why couldn’t he travel some, see the world? He picked out some dog-eared travel guides for Australia, England, a few other European countries, and Tahiti. He tried to imagine anyone needing to be killed in Tahiti and couldn’t, so he put that travel guide back on the shelf. Spector headed to the counter to check out.

Later, on the sofa at his apartment, he paged slowly through the guides while emptying a pint of bourbon. There really was a great big world out there, and if it took a few random bodies to see it that was a price he was willing to pay.

 

Spector’s mark, a Mr. DiCiccio, was a Gambione lieutenant. Back on Wild Card Day, Spector had had a run-in with some Gambiones, and he didn’t much care for them. His target was in a high-rise apartment, holed up with several other people. Mostly bodyguards, from the info he had. They sent one guy out every day or so to buy groceries. He always wore the same dark blue suit. Spector’s associates had made an identical garment for him to wear, which would make getting inside easier. Working with an organization of professionals had its upside. He stalked the man from the grocery store and caught up with him outside the high-rise.

“Down the alley, friend.” Spector put a gun in the man’s back, although he had no intention of using it. Guns left evidence; his power didn’t.

“You’re making a mistake, mister.” The man walked with a grudging slowness into the mouth of the alley. “A big mistake.”

“That’s my lookout, paisan.” Spector herded him behind a pile of garbage twenty yards in. “Set the bags down, put your hands up, and turn around.”

The man did as he was told, then looked Spector directly in the eye and said, “Whatever you’ve got in mind, you’re a dead man, you know.”

He flooded the gangster’s mind with the memory of his death, pushing it in so fast the man’s body hit the ground before his face had the chance to register pain, surprise, or anything else. “Yep. Been that way for a while, tough guy.”

Spector picked up the two sacks of groceries and moved to the building entrance. He entered the code he’d been given and elbowed his way inside. There were fresh fruits and vegetables in one of the sacks. For a moment, he remembered being a kid at the supermarket. It was just a corner grocery, but it had seemed so big to his young eyes. He pushed the memory away. It was time to focus. There was a room of people several stories up where he was headed now. Those eyes were the last thing they’d ever see. Tough break for them, maybe. He imagined what it was like in Paris about right now.

The elevator was slow and creaky and his arms were getting tired by the time the doors opened. He moved quickly down the hallway and pressed the doorbell on room 817. Spector held the groceries up higher and turned away from the door so they couldn’t see much of his face.

“Come in, Antonio.” The voice belonged to an older woman. She turned her back to him and headed into the kitchen. “Just put the groceries on the counter. We’ll eat in an hour or so if you’ll all just leave me alone.”

Spector deposited the bags on the Formica countertop and padded into the living area, where there was a TV playing a basketball game. There were two men on the couch, one old and heavy, the other young and heavier. The older man was watching TV and turned, expecting to see Antonio.

“What the . . .” he managed to say before Spector put him down.

The young man peered up from behind a magazine. His reflexes were fast and he almost made it to his gun before Spector locked eyes. Almost. Spector smiled in a thin, crooked way. This was going better than he could have hoped. The fact that they’d been on a couch meant no sound of bodies hitting the floor to warn anyone else. He would prefer not to kill the old woman, although he’d do it in an instant if he had to. One thing he couldn’t do was leave a witness. The way he offed his victims didn’t create any actual leads for the cops to use against him, but a witness could be trouble.

He glanced over at a mostly empty bookshelf on the far side of the room. A porcelain clock noisily ticked away the seconds. His target was almost certainly in the bedroom beyond, and had no idea how few seconds he had left to breathe.

Spector advanced to the doorway of the bedroom and stuck his head inside. An old man in silk pajamas sat propped up on the bed. He turned to the doorway.

“Antonio?”

Spector tried to lock eyes, but for some reason it wasn’t working. He felt fear; his power was the only thing he could count on. The old man put on his glasses and craned his head forward. Spector connected immediately. The old man’s final breath took a long time to leave his body, a leisurely rattling cough.

The bathroom door opened. A wiry man with graying hair stared momentarily at the bed, then went for his gun. He got the weapon out fast and fired the first shot without looking. The bullet missed Spector and thudded into the wall behind him, spraying bits of Sheetrock. The man squeezed off another round before Spector was able to catch his eye. Then it was over.

“Fuck,” Spector muttered. Now he’d have to kill the old lady in the kitchen. Her bad luck, but there was nothing he could do about it now. He walked quickly back into the living room and was almost to the kitchen when she shouted something in Italian.

For an instant he saw her. She was holding something and her arms moved, then it hit him. Water, scalding hot. He screamed and clutched his face. As much as he hated his death pain, he was used to it after all this time. This was worse for being so unexpected. She’d nailed him right in his eyes and he couldn’t see anything. He reflexively kicked out his right leg and caught nothing but air, setting himself off-balance. She grabbed him under his armpits and pushed him backward. He heard glass break, and then there was nothing under his feet. In spite of the pain, Spector knew he was falling. If he landed on his head from eight stories up, that was it. He twisted his body, trying to get his legs underneath him.

Spector felt a blow to his midsection and all the air went out of his lungs.

“Just in time. Good thing I was climbing up the building or we’d both be out of luck.” The voice was strange, not quite human.

He didn’t spend much time trying to figure out why he wasn’t a smashed heap on the pavement. In addition to everything else, one of Spector’s left ribs was broken.

“Get me out of here,” he said through his blistering lips.

“I can take you back where you came from.” The voice definitely wasn’t human, probably a joker.

“Someone just tried to kill me up there. Get me someplace safe. I’ll pay.”

“You’re already paying, or I wouldn’t be here.”

Spector couldn’t tell how long it took for his rescuer to get him where he was going. His face was a mass of scalded nerve endings. The important thing was that he’d survived. He’d heal up soon enough. In the meantime he’d just have to endure. That was his life in a nutshell, getting from moment to moment and day to day. He could do that.

He heard a door open and the whatever-it-was set him down on a couch. Spector felt a broken spring underneath his ribs and rolled over on his other side. The radio was on, playing the Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn!” His eyes were still a mess. He couldn’t see squat out of them. “Do you have any liquor?”

“Sure.”

He heard some rummaging around and felt a bottle pressed into his right palm. Spector unscrewed the cap and pressed the rim to his lips, taking as many quick swallows as he could manage. It was vodka, not bourbon, but he didn’t care. Enough of it would do the job.

“You need anything else? I’ve got places to be. Busy, busy, busy.” The voice wasn’t just inhuman, it was quick and staccato, like the words were racing to get out of its mouth.

“I’ll survive.” If Spector had a motto, that was it.

“Later.”

Spector heard a door close and continued knocking back enough vodka to take the edge off the pain. He’d been badly burned once before and had figured out that dead skin can’t heal, it just sits there. He’d had to peel it off to jump-start the regeneration process.

There were bits of pasta stuck to his face. Pulling them free was uncomfortable, but not excruciating. Then he put his hands to his eyelids. They were rippled, bloated, and stuck to his eyeballs. “Fuck me,” he said, draining as much of the bottle as he could. Spector pulled off his coat and put it over his head. That, at least, would cut down on the light. He worked a fingernail into the corner of one of his eyelids and began pulling it away from his eye. At first it came off in little bits, then the entire piece of ruined flesh peeled away. He screamed and forced the bottle back between his lips. It was empty by the time he finished the job.

 

Spector staggered through the doorway of his joker-rescuer’s hideout and made it about ten feet before vomiting the first time. There were still some dead patches of skin on his face he’d have to pick away, but his eyelids were working again and that was what mattered most. He threw up twice more before making it to the corner. The cold wind drained the warmth from his body, adding to his misery level. Spector took note of where he was; it might be useful in the future, having a place he could duck into if the heat was on. Of course that was contingent on how hospitable the joker was at that point.

He managed to flag down a cab and huddled silently in the back for the entire trip to his apartment. The cabbie wasn’t talkative or annoying, so Spector not only let him live, he gave the man a healthy tip.

The springs on his beat-up sofa groaned as he flopped down onto it. He looked around his living room and realized that he finally had enough money to make some improvements. The place was a wreck, much like its occupant, and it would be hard to know where to even start. Spector closed his eyes; he’d think about it later. Right now sleep was the first order of business, and for once he didn’t expect any trouble drifting off.

 

The door buzzer went off three times, spaced at intervals of several seconds. The signal meant Carl, the kid he wasn’t supposed to kill, was downstairs. Spector hobbled to the door, glancing at the kitchen clock; he’d been out for four hours.

“Damn,” he muttered to himself, then opened the door after hearing footsteps up the stairs.

Carl poked his head in tentatively, not bothering with mirrorshades this time, and tried to smile. “May I come in, sir?”

“You woke me up.”

Carl’s face lost a shade of color. “I’m very sorry. I won’t take more than a moment of your time.” He handed Spector an envelope. “There’s a check inside for the agreed amount payable to you from one of our holding companies.”

Spector took the envelope and opened it. He pulled out the check to make sure it was payment in full. It was. “Are you afraid of me, Carl?”

Carl paused for a moment. Spector could feel the kid’s mind searching for the answer least likely to get him killed.

“Tell your boss I almost got killed again. My enthusiasm for this partnership is waning. Now get the fuck out of here.”

Carl hit the doorway like a thoroughbred racehorse.

 

Spector didn’t know what he was doing, or why he was doing it. He’d gone to the bank to deposit the check, but instead he’d taken half out in cash. He planned on giving it to the joker who’d helped him out. He wasn’t the kind of person who was big on gratitude, but maybe that was because nobody ever did anything for him. People did shitty things to him pretty regularly. Not that they got a chance to do much else after that. Nobody actually helped him out, though. He’d felt strange, having some kind of obligation to another person, even if it was accidental. He didn’t much like the feeling and was happy to buy his way out of it.

He was wearing his bird mask when he knocked on the door to the joker’s place. If there was no answer that was fine, he’d have tried to do something and that was good enough. “Anybody home?”

“Just a minute, minute, minute.”

The joker opened the door; Spector saw his rescuer for the first time. It was big, half again the size of a normal person, and its skin was dark and moist. The face was a cross between a human and a newt, with slitted yellow eyes. Its arms and legs were long and muscular, with knobby tips at the end of the fingers.

“You got my pizza?” it asked, then looked with disappointment at his empty hands. “Who are you?”

“It’s me, from yesterday. You saved my life when I fell out of the building.”

The joker blinked its eyes rapidly, then cocked its head. “Oh right. The paper said you were dead, Mr. DiCiccio, so I was confused. I hadn’t made clear how big I am, so I was going to do my bodyguarding from outside the building.” He stared off into space for a moment. “Kind of muddled right now anyway.”

The dime dropped for Spector. DiCiccio, his mark, must have gotten word there was a contract on him. So he hired Mr. Big-and-Ugly, who showed up just in time to save Spector’s hash. What fucking luck. Spector would have felt warm and fuzzy if he were able to. “Yeah, I’m supposed to be dead, safer that way. That’s why I’m wearing the mask. Can I come in?”

“Sure, sure.”

He was uncomfortable and wanted to get this over with as quickly as possible. Didn’t want to know the joker’s name or anything else about him. He fished in his pocket for a wad of hundreds. “What you did yesterday was kind of above the call, so I figured a bonus was in order.” He peeled off several bills and placed them in the palm of the joker’s hand. Spector didn’t really want to know his benefactor’s name, on the remote chance he had to kill him at some point.

“Hey, great. Much appreciated.” The joker tucked the money into the pocket of a coat hanging on a rack in the corner. “After I have some pizza we should go out for a few drinks.”

“That’s okay, thanks.”

“No, no, no, really. It’ll be fun. I don’t have anything on for tonight. I know a place where you can wear your mask, no problem. They serve drinks with straws if you want. I’ve seen people do it plenty of times.” The words streamed out of its mouth like a sibilant auctioneer.

Spector sighed and pressed his thin lips together. He could always use a drink or three. “What the hell,” he said. The pizza came soon enough, and Spector waited, fighting off second thoughts, as the joker quickly consumed a sizable portion before wiping his face with a napkin and both went outside.

“I can’t exactly use a car, and people on the subway just freak out, so climb aboard,” the joker said, pointing to his neck and shoulders.

Spector clambered up the joker’s broad back. The skin was actually pleasant to the touch, soft and not slimy. He’d expected it to feel weird. He grabbed its shoulders on either side of the neck. “Ready whenever you are.”

The joker took off with a jolt. His bounding stride took Spector awhile to adjust to, but soon he was bobbing his body up and down in sync with his amphibian carrier. Spector had never done any horseback riding, so he didn’t have anything else to compare it to, but imagined it to be similar. He felt strange, though, and couldn’t place the sensation. Then he realized he was having fun. It had been a long time since he’d felt this good without killing someone. He might even be smiling. More likely it was just the icy December night numbing his lips under his mask.

The blocks sped by as they moved deeper into Jokertown. His ride was nimble, but didn’t put too much effort into avoiding obstacles. Trash cans were trodden or kicked and left emptied of their contents. He’d even jumped on an old ’68 Dodge Dart and crushed the hood.

They were halfway down a particularly narrow alley when a police growler stopped in front of them and flipped on its rotating red-and-blues. Spector was surprised for an instant. Normally cops from the Jokertown Precinct didn’t make waves. Must be a couple of go-getters.

A moment later the joker was effortlessly scaling the wall. Spector hung on for dear life until they reached the top and sped away over the tops of the buildings.

“Don’t like cops?” he asked.

“They can be a pain slow us down who needs that?” The words butted together like cars on a gridlocked freeway.

After Mr. Newt’s wild ride finally came to an end, Spector smelled Chinese food. “Are we eating?” he asked.

The joker shook his head as Spector dismounted. “Need a drink. Squisher’s.” He headed down the stairs, opened the door, and squeezed himself through the doorway.

Spector guessed pizza was off the agenda, at least for now. Spector had heard about Squisher’s Basement, but had never been particularly interested in going there. Still, he walked down the stairs, making sure his mask was securely on his face. Being recognized as a non-joker would probably lead to trouble.

The interior of Squisher’s smelled like week-old fish sticks soaked in urine, but the atmosphere was still homey in a battered kind of way. Behind the bar was a massive fish tank inhabited by a manatee/octopus joker. Squisher himself, no doubt. The place was decently crowded, a few jokers at the bar and a couple opposite each other in a booth. There was a crowded table where a group of albino-looking jokers crowded around another joker with a giant head. Looking closer, he saw their faces were smeared with greasepaint. The pasty-faced bunch was uniformly muscular and dressed in similar clothing; a gang, maybe.

Spector hated gangs. On first glance he thought they were octuplets, but on looking a bit closer he saw that they weren’t actually identical, just similar.

“We should get one of the big-boy booths in the back,” said Spector’s amphibian companion.

The big-boy booths were clearly for jokers in the extra-large range. Spector stood over six feet, but had to hoist himself up onto the bench seat. His legs swung like a kid’s beneath him. The joker eased in comfortably opposite him.

“A pitcher of beer and a shot of whiskey,” he said. “My friend will have . . .” He turned to Spector.

“A double shot of bourbon, with a straw. And keep it coming.”

The waitperson was a short joker with multiple arms and a semitransparent, ghostlike appearance. It placed the drinks down in a practiced manner. Spector handed it a twenty. The joker nodded and bobbled away.

Spector slid the straw through the mouth-hole of his mask and took a long, satisfying draw of bourbon. It wasn’t Jack Black, but it would get the job done.

“So, what do you do for fun down here?”

The joker shrugged. “Same as anyplace else, just a little dirtier here. And cheaper,” he said, raising his glass.

“I’ll drink to that.” Spector clinked his shot glass against the joker’s beer mug and took another swallow.

Spector’s friend pulled out an amber bottle and poured a half-dozen pills into his oversized palm. He then downed them with a massive gulp of beer.

“What exactly are those for?”

“Energy, plus keeps the sandman away.”

Speed, Spector thought. “Do you know where I could get something for pain? Still pretty beat up and I can’t go to the doctor. Someone might spot me.”

The joker cocked his head and belched. “No, just these. I did know somebody who had pain pills: who that was can’t remember.”

Spector sighed and took another slug of bourbon. If he could find a pain-med supplier it would make his life easier. Hell, he’d even let them live if they weren’t too much of an asshole. Drug dealers usually were, though.

“Let me know if it comes back to you.”

An eyeball floated past Spector’s left shoulder and pivoted so that the business end was facing him. He wondered if he could kill the orb’s owner. Probably.

Newt-man snatched the eyeball out of the air, tossed it into his mostly full beer glass, and gave the glass a shake.

There was a scream from table with the gang and several members stood angrily, each assuming a fighting posture.

Spector’s friend fished the eyeball out of his beer and blew the foam off it, then let it go. The eye floated quickly back toward the joker with the massive head. Each of the muscle-punks was standing and pointing in a way that might be threatening to the average Joe.

“Keep your eyes to yourself, Sue,” he said matter-of-factly.

Squisher poked his head out of the top of his tank with what Spector figured was a really unhappy look on his manatee-like face.

“Hey, how about those Knicks?” Spector said, turning his back to the oversized aquatic joker. A stream of water caught him in the back of the head.

“Let’s get out of here.” Newt-thing pushed himself up from the table and finished his mug of beer in a couple of swallows.

Spector followed him outside, turning up his collar to the biting cold.   “So, who is this Sue?”

“Sue Maroo. Joker with lots of detachable eyes. She snoops for certain parties, yes parties. Other things, too. Nasty things. Her boys help her. Mostly rejects from other gangs. Little shits. Sue and I have had a couple of run-ins. She wound up with the short end of the stick. Yes, yes.” He blinked his eyes rapidly. “Hey, speaking of the Knicks, I’ve got some tickets to tomorrow night’s game with the Celtics.” He inserted a pair of knobby fingers into a pouch on his waist and produced a ticket. “You should come. We’ll have a great time.”

Spector took the ticket out of what might have been politeness. The joker’s enthusiasm was a tough headwind to buck. “The Celts are great again this year.”

“Yeah, but the Knicks have Patrick Ewing.”

Spector shrugged. “I’ll think about it.”

“Sure. We still need to eat, right. Let’s get a pizza.”

His companion was crazed as far as Spector was concerned, but he was still hungry. “Why the hell not.”

 

The movie wasn’t what he’d hoped it would be. One of the art-house theaters was showing An American in Paris and Spector had figured watching it might be a good way to put himself in an international state of mind. It wasn’t working. Gene Kelly could sing and dance. Hell, seemed like everyone could sing and dance. Nothing was real, though. It was set in Paris, but it was pure Hollywood.

Spector fished the few remaining bits out of his popcorn and chewed them silently, then left his seat and walked across the sticky floor to the exit.

Outside, the frigid wind whipped his clothes and chilled his exposed skin. At least the sun was out for now. Spector looked around slowly. New York felt the way a big city should: cold, filthy, oppressive, and uncaring.

He had plenty of cash, so Spector flagged a cab for a ride back to his apartment. The cabbie didn’t have anything to say, which was good because Spector was in the mood to kill someone and he didn’t feel like grabbing another ride just to get home.

Spector had the cab drop him a block away from his apartment. He was feeling uneasy and didn’t know why, so he let his paranoia get the better of him. He spotted a black Olds parked outside his apartment building, engine running. As he walked by he saw a young woman in the back seat looking at a notepad. Probably a grad student from NYU or Columbia doing her thesis on how the other half lives. He moved carefully up the stairs, which were coated in half ice, half slush, and entered the building with a backward glance at the car. The young girl was watching him, but looked away when he returned her gaze.

His apartment was cold, so he turned up the heat and poured a tumbler with a few inches of Jack Black. A couple of swallows helped warm and numb him. He dropped himself onto the couch and turned on the TV. He didn’t bother to change the channel from the soap opera that was playing.

Someone rapped on his door.

Spector hauled himself up off the couch and cracked the door open. It looked like the woman from the car, but he wasn’t sure. She had shoulder-length brown hair, thick-lensed glasses, and more attitude than a person her age was entitled to.

“Who are you?”

“I’m Ms. Davis. I’m Carl’s replacement. He’s afraid of you. For the record, I know who you are and I’m not afraid of you.” She lifted her chin and narrowed her eyes.

Spector shook his head. “Then you’re too stupid to be a lawyer. Or much of anything else, Miss Davis.”

“Ms.”

He partly wanted to punch her and partly wanted to kill her. Spector didn’t want a corpse in his apartment, though. And he didn’t much like killing women. Not that women didn’t deserve it just as much as men, but tombstoning one made him think of his time with the Astronomer. Those were bad times he wanted to put in the rearview mirror.

“We have a very lucrative opportunity for you. The benefits would include not only cash reimbursement, but also many of the items I understand have been previously discussed with you.” She looked directly into his eyes. “Are you interested?”

“Depends,” Spector replied, moving over to the table to pick up his bottle of Jack Black. He took a swallow. This kid was trying too hard. People with too much to prove were almost always more trouble than they were worth.

“All the information you need is in this folder.” She presented it to Spector, who ignored it. “The subject is a high-priority item as he’s an ace. Just freelance, but we want to remove any enhanced individuals from the opposition side of the board. He may already be working for them.”

Spector snarled at her, “Fuck no. No aces.” He pushed her toward the door and opened it, then shoved her hard through the doorway. “Aces can get me killed.”

“I hope you’ll reconsider. His name is Cro—” Spector slammed the door shut before she could finish another syllable. They didn’t care if he got killed again. What the hell did he need financial experts for anyway?

He refilled his tumbler with bourbon. Maybe he’d go to the Knicks game and take his mind off things for a while.

 

The crowd outside the Garden was cold and surly, holidays be damned. Spector didn’t like crowds. If a situation got out of hand it was hard to decide who to kill first. Plus, he just didn’t like people much. Inside the arena smelled of dirty slush, and, once the people removed their coats, the dank sweat of partisan hatred peculiar to sports fans. The talk from the people around Spector wasn’t optimistic. The hated Celtics were the best team in the Eastern Division, with a frontline of Bird, McHale, and Parrish. Plus Ainge and D.J. at the guards. The Knicks had Pat Ewing, who was great but still somewhat new to the league. The Knicks had other good players, but it was still likely to be a slaughter. Spector had never been a big Knicks fan. He’d seen Dr. J play for the Nets back in the old ABA. The ABA was long gone, and Julius had decided to hang it up at the end of last season.

Spector got in line for something to drink. Beer didn’t do much for him, but he had some Jack Black to sweeten it up once he took his seat.

He spiked his beer with bourbon and finished it before warmups were done. There was no way a giant crazed joker was going to make it into the Garden, so he’d have room to spread out if he wanted.

A young, bearded guy with thick glasses was sitting a few seats down. His orange and blue cap marked him as part of the home crowd, and he chanted, “Let’s go Knicks! Let’s go Knicks! Let’s go Knicks!” for upward of a solid minute. Spector was getting irritated—not homicidal irritated but please-shut-the-fuck-up irritated. The Knicks fan finally quit yelling.

He was comfortably numb by the time tip-off arrived. The crowd noise, which had been little more than a buzz, grew to a roar as the game got underway.

On their first possession the Celtics worked the ball around until it wound up in Bird’s hands in the left corner. He lowered his shoulder into the defender to make space and shot. The ball swished through the net to a groan from the hometown fans.

The rest of the first quarter saw the lead change hands several times. Neither team led by more than five points, but the Celts were up three at the end of the first twelve minutes.

Spector heard a commotion from the upper deck. There were a few screams mingled in with the general hubbub. He craned his neck to see what was going on. A large, dark form clambered over the upper deck railing and jumped, landing with a massive thud in the aisle between his section and the adjacent one.

It was the joker, of course. Spector had really thought there was no way for him to get inside, but he’d underestimated the creature’s determination.

Newt-thing had purchased three seats and Spector was in the center one, which was clearly a mistake.

“Mind moving over, buddy buddy,” he said, gesturing with his oversized hands.

“Not at all,” Spector replied, “just keeping it warm for you.” He took the next seat over.

The joker gingerly tore the armrest from between his two seats and dropped it on the floor. He leaned over. “Would you mind buying us a couple of beers, and maybe some pizza? If I try to move, people will make trouble.”

“It’s on me, big guy,” Spector said. He figured this situation was going to be trouble no matter what. Being in the concourses right now was probably his best play.

The line at the concessions wasn’t bad. Spector had a pizza and a couple of beers in less than five minutes. He hadn’t heard any crowd noises that were out of the ordinary. Nothing that resembled the death screams of people being torn to pieces by a giant newt.

As he headed back down his aisle, Spector spotted a couple of security guys talking to each other, but they didn’t look like they were inclined to do anything. Yet.

Spector made it back to their seats and realized there was no way he was getting by the joker. He handed him the beers and said, “I’ll get by behind and come over.”

“Okay. Pizza, goooood. So hungry.”

As he was sliding by two men to reach a place where he could step over a vacant seat, one of them said, “You know, your friend is making it really hard to see the game.”

“Feel free to tell him about it,” Spector replied, dropping into his seat. He didn’t give them another thought. The joker daintily handed him a beer between a massive thumb and first finger.

The Celtics started to pull away in the second quarter, mostly by feeding the ball to McHale and Parrish down low. At one point Ewing sent a Parrish shot into the second row. That drew a thunderous cheer from the Knicks fans. Spector chugged his beer.

“Might want to take it easy with that.” The joker pointed to Spector’s cup. “I put a little pick-me-up in there. Great for staying alert.”

Spector felt a tingle under his tongue. “Speed?”

The joker nodded. “Helps keep me awake. I’m going to crash before too much longer if I don’t keep a bunch in my system.”

Spector stared into the cup. What remained of the foam was dissipating into small clumps of bubbles. He’d never taken speed before. His whole deal was deadening his senses, not pushing them to the max. He felt the pain surging inside him. It hurt more than usual, but felt different. Normally the sensation of sharing his death was like pushing goo into another person’s mind. Now he felt like lightning in a bottle. The sensation of power almost made up for additional pain.

“You can’t stay here, big guy.” Spector looked over and saw a couple of security personnel talking to his newt companion.

The joker let out a rumbling laugh. “Feel free to drag me out if you can. It’s not even halftime yet and I’m here to see the game.”

The uniformed men looked at each other, hopelessness and anger on their faces.

“We’ll help you get this ugly fuck out of here.” One of the men sitting behind big newt stood and thumped his sizable chest. The man next to him got up, too. “We haven’t been able to see shit since he sat down.”

The joker stood quickly, a slice of pizza disappearing into his mouth. “You just need a different seat, friend.” He took the man under the armpits with his blotched hands and tossed him screaming into the upper deck of the Garden. He grabbed the man’s buddy by his jacket. “What about you?”

“Don’t throw me up there!”

Newt-man looked around several times, then smiled. “Fair enough.” He turned and launched the man into the Celtics bench, knocking players and staff onto the court like bowling pins.

Spector laughed out loud. This was better than any game. The entire Celtics bench charged the stands. The Celts on the floor looked at each other for a second then followed their teammates in the melee. Danny Ainge was screaming.

Spector felt something wet and cold hit the back of his head. Beer. He turned and saw a man pointing at him and smiling.

“Fuck you, buddy.” He killed the asshole in an instant. It felt good. The dead man dropped onto the seat in front of him like a sack of potatoes.

People in the stands around Spector were going apeshit. A knot of Celtics fans had poured down the aisle and were whaling away on the joker, but it wasn’t going well for them. The joker picked up one man in each oversized mitt and smacked them together, then head-butted another. Uniformed security officers were trying to intervene at courtside, but several of the Celtics players were fighting their way up the aisle. Danny Ainge’s green uniform was spattered in blood. It looked very festive. Spector was thinking it might be a good time to kill his way out of this mess when he caught a sucker punch to the right side of his head and a couple more to his ribs. He fell breathless to the concrete and looked for his assailant.

An instant later a middle-aged man with a beer gut and a Celtics shirt bounded gracelessly down from the row behind Spector and glared down at him.

Spector blew the life out of him and put a leg up, making sure the man didn’t fall onto him, then pushed his body over backward. The corpse made a heavy noise as it hit, punctuated by a nasty thwack when his skull impacted the concrete.

In addition to the security forces near the floor, a large group of uniformed men were shoulder-cutting down the aisle toward the brawl in the stands. They were making headway at a slow but steady pace. Before long they’d be in Spector and his friend’s lap. Might be time to think of an exit strategy. It could mean a lot of corpses.

Spector turned back toward the court to see if that was a reasonable way of retreat. Nope. The angry Celtic contingent was smashing through the Knick partisans, fists flailing. Spector saw Larry Bird; if only the Celtic star would look his way, he could deal the Boston Greenies a fatal blow. Bird looked his way, just for an instant. Spector locked in and pushed, but lost contact as he was gathered up by a massive newt hand.

“Time to go, go, go. Yes indeed.”

The joker leaped to the upper deck. Spector hadn’t really seen the extent of his jumping power. It was impressive, and almost made him heave the contents of his stomach onto the fans underneath them. The joker vaulted upward again into the girders and catwalks that formed the upper skeleton of the Garden. Spector eyed a large hole in the roof, figuring that was where the joker had made a forced entrance. It was now their way out from the melee far below. Spector hissed as they exited the building into the biting Manhattan air. It was quite a view.

 

The sound of sirens had receded into the distance behind them. The joker carried Spector like before as they sped across the rooftops and across walls.

Spector’s massive companion was beginning to move in stops and starts. The speed must be wearing off. Not the case for Spector, who was brimming with pain and sharp as a tack. It was beyond uncomfortable, but in a powerful way. Not something he’d want to do again, most likely.

He wasn’t familiar with the rooftop views, but Spector could tell they’d been in Jokertown for a while by the smell.

“Almost there,” the joker said, shaking his head. “Time to head to the, uh, street. Don’t want to fall.”

“Good idea,” Spector said. It would be ironic if the joker saved him from a bone-shattering fall a couple of days ago only to drop him several stories now. Spector wasn’t into irony, unless there was a nice payday attached. He dropped off the joker’s back when they hit street level. His arms and shoulders were sore and aching from hanging on much of the way.

“Gotta get home,” the joker said.

Spector looked around. Jokertown in the dark wasn’t easy for him to navigate, but he had a fair sense of where he was. “I think it’s a few blocks that way, then hook a left and you’re there.”

“Right,” the joker said slowly. He turned and started walking down the cracked, litter-strewn sidewalk.

Spector shrugged. He figured the joker would make it back one way or another. For now, he was cold and hungry and needed a few more shots of liquor. Not much chance of catching a cab here, so he turned in the direction of the nearest subway stop. He hadn’t gone more than fifty feet when a van screamed out of a nearby alley. Before he could jump out of the way, Spector felt the side of the vehicle slam into him. The impact knocked him several yards back into the wall of a nearby tenement. He howled, all too familiar with how broken bones felt. This was just a couple of ribs, and they’d mend in a hurry, but he was going to make these fuckers pay if he could catch them.

He got up and staggered after the van. His hip hurt, too. Spector had all the pain in the world to share with the asshole driver. When it came to killing people, joker or nat, it didn’t make any difference to him. The van came to an abrupt halt, tires squealing. The doors slammed open and several people piled out. Spector’s suspicion that they were armed was confirmed seconds later when he heard rounds popping off. A bullet to his head could. . . well, he wasn’t sure exactly what it could do, but he didn’t want to find out.

He heard a scream and a body flew over his head and bounced hard off the sidewalk. Spector moved toward the person to get a closer look. A young man got shakily to his feet and pointed a gun in Spector’s direction. The man holding it was one of the pasty boys from Squisher’s. Nearby Spector saw broken glass and smoking cement.

Spector grabbed the man’s gun arm and pointed it away from him, then pulled him close. There was just enough illumination from a dirty streetlight for Spector to see his face clearly. He locked eyes and killed him in an instant. When the man’s head hit the sidewalk something popped off. Spector picked it up—headphones connected to a battery pack in the dead guy’s pocket. He put one headphone to his ear, letting the battery dangle. He heard a woman speaking.

“Get his eyes. Who had the acid? Get it in his eyes.”

“I think it was Jesse. He’s gone,” a voice replied.

Spector dropped the headphones. He’d heard enough. These bozos and Sue Maroo were looking for payback. He limped forward as fast as he could, gritting his teeth. They hadn’t counted on him when they decided to kill his joker friend, or whatever he was. That was their mistake.

There was no one behind the wheel of the van, so Spector walked around front. The punks must have run out of ammo, as they were attacking the joker with knives and clubs. Newt-joker was holding his own for the moment, but the numbers were against him. The massive joker staggered into a badly lit area. Spector shook his head. It would be nearly impossible to lock eyes unless the battle moved back into the light.

Something small glided noiselessly by his shoulder. One of the joker’s attackers wheeled and charged Spector, knife in hand. Spector dodged, but the knife caught him on the elbow. More pain. He was about to give it back in spades. He caught the punk’s eyes and put him down in a heap.

Another eye floated by, just out of his reach. Sue was pretty smart. Spector jumped as high as his meth-pumped body would go, extending his arms. His fingers closed on empty air a few inches short of the orb. It was like the damned thing was taunting him. More likely it was keeping him busy so the other creeps could take down the joker, who was now down on one knee.

Spector dodged around the back of the van, scrambled up on top of it, spotted the eye, and pushed off as hard as he could in its direction.

He felt something soft struggling in his palm as he hit the pavement. Spector opened his fingers up a bit, and was surprised and annoyed at what he found. The eye had a lid, and it was closed tightly. He stuck a dirty thumbnail under the lid and slid it upward, prying it slowly open.

Another one of the thugs turned from the joker and headed his way. The eye was fully open and Spector gazed into it, hoping this would work. He forced his death into the eye and it went still in his hand. There was a soft wheeze from somewhere nearby. The punk who’d been headed his way paused and turned his head with uncertainty. He tapped his ear.

“You are so fucked, buddy,” Spector said, catching the man’s eye. A moment later, one more corpse was now getting cold in the winter air. The other punks scattered.

The joker got back to his feet. His wounds looked superficial from what Spector could tell. “Saw what you did. Thanks.”

“The Knicks didn’t win tonight, but we did.” Spector motioned to the open van. “Climb in. I’ll drive you home.”

Unfortunately, his giant newt body didn’t fit inside, so the joker climbed on top, crumpling the roof over the back part of the van.

Spector jumped in behind the wheel and started the engine. The trip was only a few blocks, he’d been right about that, but the van groaned under the weight of the joker every foot of the way. One of the rear tires blew out and they had to make the final hundred yards riding the rim.

“Home again, home again,” Spector said, as the joker tumbled from the top of the damaged van.

“Get me inside.”

Spector guided and talked the joker into his place. Big Newt collapsed heavily on the floor, his eyes already closed.

“Turn on the radio.”

Spector located the radio and flipped it on. A light behind the dial flickered to life. The music wasn’t anything Spector recognized. He set the door lock and headed out into the freezing New York night.

 

Spector was sitting in a booth at the Crystal Palace with a cup of coffee and a bottle of whiskey. The light from outside was soft. It was early still. The meth had kept him up all night. He had hoofed it to the nearest subway stop, making it there without further incident. Later, he’d picked up a large pepperoni pizza. That and half a bottle of Jack Black had gotten him through the night. When he left his place to come to the Crystal Palace Spector had had a good reason for doing it. Now he couldn’t remember what that was. He had the sports section of the Times open in front of him.

“Bird Considers Retirement After Near-Death Experience,” the headline read in bold type. Too bad he hadn’t killed the fucker, but at least Bird would think long and hard before putting on Celtic Green again.

Elmo, wearing mirrorshades again, walked up to his booth and coughed. “She wants to see you again.”

Spector couldn’t imagine why. He didn’t think he knew anything that Chrysalis didn’t. Still, the last time he visited with her he’d gotten some free whiskey, so why the hell not?

Chrysalis was seated in her chair when Spector entered her private room. As expected, she also wore mirrored glasses.  “Mr. Spector,” she said, “how decent of you to join me.”

“Sure.”

“Quite a lot of excitement last night.” The muscles in her chest moved slightly as she took a deep breath.

Spector held up his sports section. “Yeah, I was just reading about it.”

“I wasn’t referring to the incident at the sports arena, Mr. Spector.  Have you ever heard of Sue Maroo?”

He decided to play dumb. “Nope.”

“I see.”

Chrysalis was impossible to read. Spector had denied being involved and he was going to stick with that. “You mind if I get back to my newspaper and pick-me-up?”

She gestured toward the door with a bony finger.

“One thing,” Spector said, turning back. “My gut feeling is there’s a war coming. A big one. Blood in the streets kind of a deal. You might keep an ear to the ground.”

Chrysalis cocked her head slightly. “My ear is always to the ground, and a war sounds like a situation you might be able to—exploit.”

“A man’s gotta eat,” he said, heading back to his booth. “Happy Holidays,” he added in parting.

“Enjoy the Yuletide, Mr. Spector.”

Spector lingered in the Crystal Palace for an hour or so, nursing his coffee and drink, mulling over his brief adventure. He’d had fun, and it wasn’t just killing fun.

His mind drifted to wondering what it would have been like to be an international assassin. Probably a pain, having to learn languages and deal with customs. Jet lag, too. He was better off right here. There were millions of people in New York City, and plenty of them needed killing.

He got up from his booth and left the Crystal Palace. The bitter New York cold embraced him like a long-lost child who’d finally found his way home.

 

“The City That Never Sleeps” copyright © 2019 by Walton Simons.
Art copyright © 2019 by John Picacio.

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