Wild Cards Excerpt
May 10, 2016
“A Taste of HIGH STAKES”
by Ian Tregillis.
by George R.R. Martin and the Wild Cards Trust.
Five minutes with Ffodor’s webcam roulette software and the wireless connection from a coffee shop in Taos gave Mollie a new doorway site. She chose a garden terrace behind a hedge on the campus of an engineering college in Chandigarh, India. It was sixteen hundred miles from Talas—just barely enough from her point of view. But it was random, a place she’d never visited before, and somewhere she’d probably never revisit. She wasn’t about to scout the casino from within one of her own bolt-holes. After all, others had probably entertained similar thoughts about the place by now. And, on the off chance the chaos surrounding her last visit hadn’t culminated in a permanent change of ownership, she wasn’t giving anyone a chance to track her. Baba Yaga was bad fucking news. So was her pal, the drooling vegetable in the wheelchair—the guy looked harmless, but something about him gave Mollie the screaming clownies.
She paused, chewing the last bite of a cloying lemon bar. Do I really want to rob that witch a second time?
All it took was a little bit of bad luck to turn something simple into something rotten. The residual taser ache in her chest served a useful reminder. Good. It would keep her alert.
Hell yes I do. She turned my life into shit. If not for Baba Yaga, I never would have come near that sick fight club shit in a million years. And Ffodor . . .
Mollie cleared her thoughts with an angry shake of her head. It rattled her table; other patrons glanced at her. She glared back at them until they became uncomfortable. Then she locked the real-time image on her tablet. A text banner flashed across the screen:
Be smart. Be safe. Be quick.
Ffodor, taking care of her even now. He had written the webcam software for her. It was yet another thing she never would have considered on her own, a simple idea that somehow made her ace that much better. She’d forgotten that he added a reminder . . . Her face turned hot, warmed by the blush of embarrassment when she remembered the misadventure in São Paulo that had prompted him to add the gentle reminder. The embarrassment turned to shame.
And then she couldn’t see the screen anymore. She blew her nose on a paper napkin. It smelled like overly strong coffee and the chocolate syrup from her mocha, but for a moment she could almost smell the scent of weird Hungarian cigarettes, as though somebody had snuffed one just before she entered the room.
God damn it.
Mollie wiped her eyes, glad she hadn’t bothered with makeup before getting a start on the day. She studied the image on the laptop until she could easily picture the secluded spot on the Indian campus with eyes closed. Then she scooted her chair back, stood, and went to the ladies’ room. It was empty. She went into a stall. Somebody had used a black Magic Marker to draw an arrow pointing to the dispenser of tissue-paper toilet seat covers; above this they had scrawled in block letters, FREE! AUTHENTIC TAOS COWBOY HATS! Alongside this somebody had printed, in a different hand and ink, FUCK YOU, CHOLO.
Mollie opened a doorway in the back of the bathroom stall door. Its twin opened half a world away. A warm breeze and the scent of hibiscus wafted into the bathroom. She stepped from New Mexico to Punjab.
The hedge kept her in shadows. That was good, too—it meant her doorway into the casino wouldn’t shine like a beacon if the place was dark. Footsteps, and a pair of voices laughing in a language she didn’t understand, approached from the other side of the hedge. They passed. She waited for a moment to convince herself her arrival had gone unnoticed. Then, very carefully, she created a new doorway in the terrace. This was much smaller than the one in the bathroom, though, more porthole than portal. Its twin opened in the ceiling of a casino in Talas, Kazakhstan.
It showed her rows of overturned slot machines and stools, illuminated by the erratic flickering of damaged fluorescents. Some of the machines had been smashed until they spewed out coins. A rhythmic metallic crunching and jingling told her somebody was nearby. Mollie leaned left and right, peeking around the edges of the portal, until she glimpsed one of Baba Yaga’s thugs and two of her “hostesses” scooping the loose money into pillowcases. The hookers had to keep pausing to pull up their tops lest they’d spill right out of their clothes when they bent over to scoop up more change.
Petty cash. Not worth it if Mollie could find a better score. Ffodor had taught her to appreciate the trade-off between time spent and reward gained.
She moved the Talas end of her transdimensional doorway to another corner of the casino. This time its opening favored her with the stench of rotting food. Mollie glimpsed an overturned buffet table, dented steam trays (one looked like it had stopped a bullet), and snowdrifts of slimy black caviar on the floor. She also saw plenty of smashed and battered furniture including a leather couch stippled with bullet holes.
There were bodies, too. Including—
Mollie gasped. Something sour crept up her throat. She coughed twice, trying to force it down.
—Jamal Norwood lay strewn among the wreckage, half his head caved in from a monstrous punch. One of his eyes was . . . She’d bolted the second she saw him go down. Put a continent and more between herself and Jamal’s killer. Fuck. He’d been pretty nice to her for a Fed, especially given the attitude she’d shown him. He sure as hell deserved better than to rot abandoned and forgotten in this shithole at the ass-end of the world.
Mollie swallowed down sour gorge. This was a dangerous train of thought. None of this was her fault. None of it.
Her third field of view looked over the gaming floor. This had attracted most of the looters, and these guys actually knew what they were doing. Organized bands of mobsters armed with automatics and crowbars worked down the aisles between the tables. She recognized some of them as Baba Yaga’s thugs. They moved in teams from one table to the next. When Franny and Jamal had started evacuating the jokers and the place erupted into pandemonium, the gamblers had abandoned everything as the bullets flew. Unfinished drinks, canapés, even their chips. Those gamblers who had run out of chips had tossed watches, rings, earrings, and other collateral into the mix. The looters took everything they could find. Some of the tables had cash boxes fastened underneath. But it seemed to be slim pickings, though, since most of the money circulating on the gambling floor did so in the form of chips. But that didn’t stop the goons from emptying the pockets, purses, and billfolds of every dead gambler they found. Or making a badly wounded gambler a dead gambler. They even—Jesus—they even checked the mouths of the dead for gold fillings. Mollie only had to watch one example of postmortem dentistry (this using a claw hammer) to know she wanted to stay way the hell away from those sick fuckers. She closed her viewing portal before somebody saw her.
Her fourth peephole opened on a dark corridor closer to the hostesses’ “lounge.” It was quieter here. She sighed; the tension went out of her shoulders. But then something squeaked and she slammed the portal shut. Several long moments passed while she knelt alongside the terrace, panting like an asthmatic, before she realized it had probably been a mouse. A mouse, and not the squeak of a wheelchair. Of course not.
A fifth angle, chosen to show her the teller cages, greeted her with the deafening screech of a saw blade on metal and an incandescent fountain of orange sparks. It scared the shit out of her. Mollie flinched, eliminating the portals. She waited again in case the sound of power tools in Kazakhstan drew attention to her hiding spot behind the hedge in India. When nobody came running across the campus to investigate, she reopened the twinned doorways, but this time even smaller.
Four goons, more of Baba Yaga’s hired muscle turned entrepreneurial spirits in the burgeoning field of abandoned casino wealth redistribution, were trying to cut their way into the abandoned teller cages. The tellers turned cash into chips and vice versa; the casino’s daily gambling take hadn’t been rotated into the vault when everything went to hell. So the money was just sitting there, unclaimed. Apparently the thugs couldn’t get the keys, or didn’t know where they were stored. Or, more likely, they didn’t want to risk breaking into Baba Yaga’s private rooms to look for the key in the first place. Mollie didn’t blame them.
She might have waltzed through a portal inside the cage. But the thugs would see her, and they’d get royally pissed off when they saw her emptying the money drawers. Money they’d already decided was rightfully theirs. For one thing, these guys were armed up to the eyebrows. For another, and judging from the way the steel mesh rattled when they kicked it, it wouldn’t be long before they made it inside. And she did not want to be inside the teller cages when those hormone cases broke through, not for a second. She needed to get rid of those assholes.
Actually, she could solve two problems at once. And it was a fucking awesome way to clear the obstacle, if she did say so herself.
Be smart. Be safe. Be quick.
Well, two out of three.
New portals. She stepped from Chandigarh to New York City. The cops at Fort Freak were too busy, and her entrance too quiet, for anybody to notice right away when she stepped into a corner of the precinct house. The casino evacuation had sent everything into chaos that hadn’t subsided a day later. She gathered they were also trying to figure out where the hell their colleague Franny Black had gone. He wasn’t among the casino dead, though, so he’d get in touch with them soon enough. It wasn’t her problem. But she figured the cops would have Jamal’s family notified and his remains treated properly. So she envisioned the spot in Talas where poor Jamal lay, and opened a doorway under his body. She gently deposited the deceased agent just outside the door to the captain’s office.
The atmosphere in the precinct went from vigorous turmoil to undistilled mayhem. Which conveniently kept the cops distracted. She tried to be quick so they wouldn’t notice her when she stepped from the precinct house to the teller cages in the casino. But the screech of the power saw gave up the game. The cops noticed her departure at the same moment Baba Yaga’s goons saw her enter the cage.
People on two continents shouted at her simultaneously. Nobody looked happy to see her. Well, fuck ’em: she was accustomed to that. And about to get much more unhappy, all of them.
Mollie envisioned the ceiling of the police station halfway around the world, where she’d been an instant earlier. She put a portal roughly over the middle of the cops’ desks. Then, as fast as she could manage, she opened a succession of portals under the thugs’ feet.
Fwump, fwump, fwump, fwump.
They fell through the casino floor in rapid succession, plummeting through the ceiling in New York to crash into desks, cops, and each other. The tumbling power saw smashed a coffeemaker, sending up a black geyser. Peering down through the final hole, Mollie got an overhead view as one of the thugs tried to pull his gun only to get tackled by a big furry guy who looked like something from a children’s book. The remaining goons went down under a scrum of uniformed patrol officers, including one who looked like she was half racing hound, and some ass-ugly bug-eyed motherfucker. The shouting drew the captain (Mendelberg, according to the door) from her office.
Mollie closed the transdimensional doorways. It left her conveniently alone with the cash drawers, free to empty them at her leisure. She could hear people elsewhere in the casino, now that the power saw had been silenced. But the hookers were unlikely to bother her.
The drawers were locked. So she created an opening in the wall and reached through to her parents’ barn in Idaho, where she snagged a crowbar. Within moments tens of thousands of Kazakh tenge and a random assortment of other currencies fluttered onto her bed in North Dakota. It looked like mounds of Monopoly money. Less than five minutes was all she needed to empty the casino of its last day’s take. She didn’t know how much it was worth in real money. Maybe not as much as it looked. The exchange rate probably sucked diseased donkey balls.
What the hell, she thought. She went back to the slot machines. She left the thug and hookers to their pillowcases, but there were still dozens of machines that hadn’t yet been broken open. Mollie opened another opening to her family barn and dropped the slot machines through one by one. A whiff of manure entered the casino. Turned out a fully-laden slot machine made a racket to wake the dead when it crashed onto the hard-packed dirt floor of a barn. It frightened the cows, too. They started lowing. Dad and Brent came to investigate the noise while she was working on the fourth slot machine.
Her dad took all of two seconds to examine the mess in the barn. He shouted at the hole in space. “Mollie! What in the hell are you doing? You’re scaring the cows, for Christ’s sake.”
“Hi, Daddy. You wanna round up the boys and get to work? Those slot machines are hard to open, but they’re full of cash.”
Brent squinted at the Cyrillic script on the battered machines. “Uh, where did these things come from?”
Mollie said, “No place you’ve ever heard of, dumbass.”
“Oh, yeah? Who are you trying to rob this time? Who you gonna get killed this time? I don’t want to get stabbed again, you know.”
“Hey! Screw you—”
“SHUT UP! Both of you,” said their father. He licked his lips. “Brent, go fetch your brothers. Mollie, I see another row of machines behind you that ain’t been touched yet, so keep at it.”
It wasn’t We love you, it wasn’t We miss you, it wasn’t even Why don’t you come home and help out on the farm for a while. Not that she would ever go back to the farm. But it would be nice to know she was welcome. That she had a home to return to, if she wanted it. She didn’t. But still.
Gazing into the barn, she glimpsed a length of coiled hose. It gave her an idea. “Hey, Daddy? Do you still have those hydraulic tools you bought at auction?” A couple of years before her card had turned, Mollie’s father had scooped up a lot of machinery in an estate sale.
“Yeah, it’s around. Why?”
Because slot machines were petty cash. But real wealth could be found in safes and fireboxes. And she knew where she could find a few. “I think I’ll need them. I’m gonna try to snag a safe or two.”