Authors: John J. Miller,George R.R. Martin
Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Contemporary, #Fiction - Fantasy, #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Science Fiction - General, #Fantasy, #Heroes, #General, #Fantasy - Contemporary
Dogen nodded as his assistant led Fortunato to the open doorway of his small, austere office.
“Leave us,” he said as Fortunato stared at the man sitting uncomfortably cross-legged on the mat before Dogen’s low desk. The man smiled up at him like they were long-lost friends.
“Hey, Fortunato,” Digger Downs said. “Long time, no see.”
Fortunato looked from the star reporter of Aces! magazine back to Dogen, mystified.
“Indeed,” he said, and entered the room, bowing to the abbot. He looked back at Downs. Downs was a small, lean, brown-haired, brown-eyed man pushing a well-preserved fifty. Fortunato hadn’t seen him since he’d entered the monastery. “What are you doing here?” he asked.
“I was just in the neighborhood and thought I’d stop by,” Digger said with a smile much too bright for so early in the morning.
“You were in the neighborhood at two o’clock in the morning?” Fortunato asked in disbelief.
“Well,” Digger allowed. “It did take me awhile to get here from Tokyo. I left as soon as the news broke. I wanted to be the first to get your reaction, and,” he added with some satisfaction, “it looks as if I am.”
Fortunato sighed and closed his eyes. He had no reason to like Digger Downs. The man was, at best, an obnoxious pest. But over the years he’d tried to learn how to put such feelings away. He opened his eyes to see Dogen observing him with silent reproof. His master knew that he was letting himself get caught up in a swirl of unpleasant emotion. Yet again.
“Digger,” Fortunato said patiently, “pretend that this is an isolated monastery on a secluded mountain top in far north Japan.”
“Man, I don’t have to pretend,” Digger said. “It was Hell getting here.”
“We don’t get much news about the outside world.”
“Excellent!” Digger beamed. “Then I can get your exclusive reaction to the news regarding your son.”
“My son?” Fortunato asked. Suddenly, his stomach felt as if it had dropped out of his abdomen. He had never seen his son. The last time he’d seen Peregrine, weeks before entering the monastery, she’d been heavy with their child. Up until then he hadn’t even known that she was pregnant. He’d told her that he’d be there for her and the child. And then he’d gone into the monastery. Not even Tachyon, who’d come in person begging for his help, not even the telegram announcing the death of his mother, had induced him to leave his sanctuary.
He looked at Digger. The man was smiling, but that didn’t mean he was the bearer of good news. He cared for the story, not the implications the story might have for those caught up in it. It seemed unlikely that he’d travel all this way to impart good news... whatever that could possibly be.
Fortunato had a sudden premonition that had nothing to do with the powers he’d left behind so long ago, but had everything to do with being a wild carder. And the parent of one.
“Has,” his voice suddenly went raspy and he swallowed hard, “has his card turned?”
Downs nodded. “Yes—and,” he added quickly as he saw the expression on Fortunato’s face, “don’t worry. The boy lucked out. He turned over an ace.”
“An ace!” Fortunato felt a sudden rush of relief underlain with pride he quickly realized was unjustified. The boy had come unscathed through the most dangerous moment in a wild carder’s life. The expression of the virus was the ultimate crapshoot against horribly-stacked odds. Everything after that was just living. But the boy had had to experience it without Fortunato’s help. Not, he realized, that he could have done anything but watch the boy die if he’d pulled a Black Queen. But still...
“Yeah,” Downs continued, “and he immediately used a healing power of some sort to save the life of a Las Vegas performer who’d been mauled by a tiger.”
“Tiger?” Fortunato asked, having trouble focusing on what the reporter was saying.
“It’s big news,” Downs said. “Flashed all over the world. I’d like to get our interview in the can, because half the media in Japan is hot on my trail. Not to mention the plane-loads of reporters from other countries heading here to get your reaction to the story. But, “ he added triumphantly, “as usual, I’ve scooped them all. Lucky for me I just happened to be on Tokyo to interview the new ace, Iron Chef—”
“Plane loads?” Fortunato interrupted.
Downs nodded. “Of course. Like I said, big story. Beautiful ace mother, mysterious ace father. Kid beats the odds, becoming a hero overnight—”
Fortunato looked at Dogen, who looked back calmly.
“This is a monastery,” Fortunato said to Downs. “They can’t swarm all over it with their camera crews, mobbing the place. Think of the disruption it would cause.”
Downs shrugged. “Think you can stop them?”
“I—” Fortunato knew the answer as well as the reporter did. He looked again at Dogen. “I can’t allow the entire monastery to be disrupted because of my presence. What should we do?”
“What we must,” the ageless abbot said calmly.
Fortunato nodded. There was only one solution to the problem. “Then I must take the cause of disruption elsewhere. I must leave the monastery.”
“Leave?” Downs asked, suddenly frowning. “You’re not going to leave before I can interview you?”
Fortunato looked at him. “I don’t care about your interview,” he said. He paused, frowning. “But I have nowhere to go.”
It was true. He’d turned his back on his own country, his own society, his own identity as the most powerful ace of his time, to make this monastery his home. But the rest of Japan was as foreign as the far side of the moon.
“Go?” Downs asked. He suddenly snapped his fingers. “I’ve got it! Come back to America! On me. Well, on Aces! anyway. It’ll be great.” His eyes focused outward as if reading an imaginary headline. “PRODIGAL SON RETURNS. Or something like that. It’ll play great with the kid becoming an ace and all!”
Fortunato frowned. It didn’t exactly sound appealing. Besides, there was as little for him in America as there was in Japan. His mother was dead. His girls were all gone. There was nothing but Peregrine, married to another man these fifteen years or more. And his son...
He looked at Dogen, who smiled his gentle smile.
“Perhaps Mr. Downs is right. You can’t deny that lately you’ve been restless. Perhaps it is time that you walk in the world again, to get a fresh perspective on what you’ve given up and what you have now.”
Fortunato smiled wryly. There was no way to hide anything from Dogen. The old man knew Fortunato’s mind perhaps better than the ace did himself.
“Perhaps you’re right.” Fortunato said.
“Right? Of course he’s right,” Downs said, looking from one to the other and smiling broadly. “Cripes, what a story! I can see it on the cover of Aces!: “Fortunato’s Return to America.”
“Do you think anyone will care?” Fortunato asked thoughtfully.
“They will when I get done with it,” Downs promised.
Fortunato, though, wasn’t so sure.
ohn Nighthawk waited patiently at the baggage carousel for his luggage to arrive. If there was one thing he’d learned over the years, it was patience. Usher stood to his right, a silent monolith. Magda, dressed in a traditional black and white nun’s habit, a uniform which she habitually wore when they weren’t on a mission, stood to his left as baggage was disgorged onto the meandering belt. They all watched for the black satchel with the faded Vatican coat of arms decal on its side.
“I miss Grubbs already,” Usher complained as the bag they’d been waiting for finally appeared. He reached down and picked it up as it glided by. Toting and carrying had always been Grubbs’ job.
Nighthawk said nothing. Their stop at customs was expedited by their Vatican diplomatic passports. If the customs agent was dubious about the old black man, the bruiser who looked like a heavyweight champion, and the hard-eyed nun traveling under the auspices of the Holy See, it didn’t show on his bored expression. They carried no other luggage besides the diplomatic pouch, which of course went unexamined as they breezed through arrival formalities and exited Tomlin International.
A limo with Vatican diplomatic plates and two occupants was waiting for them at ground transport. The silent driver had the proper degree of unassuming servitude. The man with him was the handsome blonde man Nighthawk knew only as the Witness. He was one of two Witnesses who worked for the Cardinal. They were brothers. Nighthawk differentiated them in his mind as the Asshole and the Bigger Asshole. This one was the Bigger Asshole.
“Any problems?” the Bigger Asshole asked.
“We lost Grubbs,” Nighthawk said.
The Witness shrugged. “I’m sure he’s gone on to his proper reward. But, you got the Mandylion all right? No problems with that?”
Nighthawk shook his head. “No. No problems with that.” He gestured at the bag emblazoned with the Vatican crest.
“Put it in the trunk,” the Witness said.
Usher did, after the driver popped it open from where he sat behind the wheel. Usher slammed the lid and came around to the limo’s back door, but the Bigger Asshole shook his head.
“The help takes taxis,” he said.
Usher looked at Nighthawk, who nodded briefly. The big man sauntered over to the line of taxis at the nearby cab stand, followed by a stoic Magda. The Witness looked at Nighthawk, who looked back. The Bigger Asshole pursed his lips, but said nothing as Nighthawk opened the limo’s door and slid into the seat. The Witness got in, sat next to Nighthawk, and the limo pulled away from the curb.
“Is everyone else in town?” Nighthawk asked, more to pester the Bigger Asshole than because he was really interested.
“Everyone was,” the Witness said briefly. “Dagon and my brother left yesterday on a mission.”
“Gomorrah,” the Witness smiled, “to fetch the Anti-Christ to cower in chains before the throne of Our Lord.” His smile turned to a frown. “Although there’s talk that others will join them soon via Blood’s tunnel. It seems that the Anti-Christ has his own cadre of aces.”
Nighthawk was startled. Despite the fact that he and his team had been sent to fetch the Mandylion, he hadn’t really believed that after all these years the Cardinal’s plan had finally been set into motion.
“It’s starting then,” Nighthawk said.
“Oh yes,” the Bigger Asshole said with a broad and glittery smile that looked more malevolent than cheerful. “And nothing or no one can stop us now.”
♥ ♦ ♣ ♠
Las Vegas, Nevada: The Mirage
Ray stepped out of the heat of the early June afternoon into the sweet coolness of the Mirage’s air conditioned lobby and stopped for a moment to watch the tourists mill around while he considered his next move. All of a sudden he wasn’t so sure that this trip was such a good idea.
Sure, he had traded the utter boredom of the Peaceable Kingdom for the relative excitement of Las Vegas, but now that he was here, his pulses weren’t exactly pounding. Not yet, anyway. It all seemed... well... tawdry wasn’t a word he often used, but somehow it seemed appropriate. All around him middle-aged, middle class, Mid western tourists were avidly chasing excitement. Had he really joined their ranks?
What’s wrong with me? Ray thought. Am I actually developing some sense of values?
He’d started to notice some unsettling things lately. He’d been getting more tired than he’d ever been before. Pain lingered. It took longer to come back from injuries. Something that would have taken only a couple of hours to heal twenty years ago now took a day, sometimes longer. Everything seemed to hurt worse.
Not that I’m old, he told himself, but I do have a lot of mileage. Maybe the odometer is getting ready to turn over. Maybe it’s even running out. Nothing ever said that I could go on forever, my powers undiminished...
Ray’s uncharacteristic mood of introspection suddenly screeched to a halt as he noticed the woman approaching him from across the Mirage’s lobby. For the first time in a long time, he felt his pulse start to race. At least a little.
He wasn’t sure if she was beautiful, exactly. Her expression was far too gloomy, for one thing. Her features were bold rather than delicate, with a generous mouth, aquiline nose, and large eyes that looked haunted. By guilt, by melancholy, Ray couldn’t tell. Her skin was milk white, almost luminous in its pale perfection, contrasting vividly with her night black hair, which was thick and wavy and though bound in a heavy braid hanging down to the middle of her back seemed to be struggling to escape its bonds. Ray was not overly imaginative, but he could picture it blowing about her face in a gentle wind, or spilling in luxuriant waves over her pale-skinned shoulders.
She was wearing a black leather jumpsuit and black boots that came to her knees. She was built. Really built, with wide hips and large breasts confined as uneasily as her hair and long legs. Her leather jumpsuit clung tightly to her curves, as snug as a second skin.
She held an ice cream cone in one hand and a sheet of paper in the other, as well as the strap of a large duffel bag which she carried easily, without a sign of strain. She moved rapidly through the knots of tourists standing around the lobby. From time to time she looked up from the paper she was studying, but she was paying more attention to the ice cream cone than she was to her surroundings. She licked it rapidly, almost rapturously. She walked quickly.