Wild Cards Excerpt
May 10, 2016
A Taste of MISSISSIPPI ROLL
By John Jos. Miller
By the time Billy Ray had arrived on site the M. S. Gustav Schroder had been anchored down river from the New Orleans’ passenger ship terminals for almost two days. He and his SCARE team – part of it, anyway; the rest hadn’t yet arrived – stood on the north bank of the Mississippi River. The Schroder was anchored downstream, with the Triton, a Coast Guard cutter,anchored nearby to make sure none of the refugees slipped away. There was no doubt that the Van Rennsaeler administration was determined to keep the Kazakh refugees off American soil, though possible sanctuary in the French Quarter was only a moderate swim away.
Ray eyed the Schroder dubiously from his vantage point on the river bank, which was adjacent to a small dock near the cruise ship terminal where a Port Police launch was moored. The freighter was too distant to discern details, but Ray was pretty sure that she was no titan of the seas.
“How many refugees did A.G. Cruz say were crammed on that tub?” he asked, frowning.
“Nine hundred and thirty seven,” the Midnight Angel said quietly at his side. Her voice was empty of inflection. She could have been talking about sacks of potatoes, not people.
“She doesn’t look big enough to lug nine hundred and thirty seven toasters across the Atlantic, let alone that many people,” Ray mused.
He glanced at her as she stood next to him, SCARE agent Moon by her side. In human form Moon was a small, deformed joker who could barely crawl, but the wild card had given her the power to transform into any canid species she could envision, living or extinct, from the chihuahua to the dire wolf. She was currently a big, fluffy sable collie whose resemblance to tv’s beloved Lassie was uncanny. Ray knew she’d chosen her most friendly form intentionally for the Angel’s benefit as it was the most comforting avatar in her repertoire. Ray caught Moon’s eye and nodded. Her tail thumped the ground sympathetically.
Angel was staring into the distance, at nothing, really. She was gaunt, her eyes sunken and blank. That was better, Ray reflected, than the haunted look they usually had, an expression she’d rarely been able to shake since their return from Kazakhstan. A month ago, deep in a fit of despondency even greater than usual, she’d shaved off the mane of thick, dark hair that had hung down to her waist. The new growth was streaked with white. She no longer wore her leathers even on a mission, for they reminded her too much of the nightmare of Talas. Instead she had on khaki slacks and a thick, long-sleeved, shapeless pull-over. Despite the heat and humidity of the New Orleans summer day, her face was pale and sweatless.
Moon pressed against her side and whined softly, but Angel didn’t respond. She only stared unseeingly as a tall black woman, a bit beyond statuesque, approached the three SCARE agents. The newcomer was middle-aged, with straightened hair worn in a stiff up-do with descending ringlets. Her mannish tailored suit was much too heavy for the New Orleans climate and was paying for her dubious fashion choice with droplets of perspiration running down her face. Ray’s own suit was faultlessly tailored linen, superbly suited for the local climate. Ray recognized her from the Attorney General’s description.
She reached into a pocket of her suit and produced a badge, holding it up for all to see. “Ms. Evangelique Jones,” she said, with the emphasis on the Ms. “Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”
“Right, ICE.” Ray said in an unimpressed tone. “Attorney General Cruz informed me that you were in charge of this….” Ray’s voice ran down and he gestured vaguely out to the Schroder
“That’s right,” she said. “My job is to ensure that these so-called refugees set foot on American soil without proper authorization. That those without papers take their dirty genes back to wherever they came from or to whatever hell-hole will accept them. But not here.”
“Hell-hole?” For the first time Angel seemed engaged. She turned and looked at Jones. “What do you know about hell?”
She caught Jones’ gaze with her own bleak stare and the ICE agent paused in whatever she’d intended to say. “Well – I – “
Ray cleared his throat and Jones’ attention shifted back to him. “All right. And exactly where are we in this…situation?”
Her lips tightened in a grimace. “Apparently this little scheme to subvert American immigration law is being perpetrated by a known prostitute, a Ukranian national with connections to the Russian Mafia named Olena Davydenko, and –“
”Olena?” Ray said.
“Are you deaf, Mr. Ray?” Jones asked. “Or am I speaking in some foreign – “
Ray and Angel stared at each other, ignoring the ICE agent as Moon looked on with her narrow gaze fixed on the newcomer.
“We knew that these refugees were Kazakhs,” Ray said thoughtfully, “but no one told us that Davydenko was involved in this.”
“And if she is, he must be, too,” Angel said harshly.
Jones, her eyes shifting between them frowned. “If by he, you mean her partner in miscegenation – “
”Infamous Black Tongue,” Angel said as Ray said simultaneously, “Miscegenation?”
“You two are the rudest people I have ever met,” Jones said, “always interrupting – “
”Sorry,” Ray interrupted. “It’s just that the Angel and I have a history with those two – we were all at Talas, though I got there at the end. The Angel did a lot of the heavy lifting. That included a mano-a-mano battle with the Black Tongue himself.” His gaze narrowed. “I wish I’d been there for that.”
“Yes.” Jones looked at them as if their actions were part of some kind of dubious activity. “I read all about it.”
“I just mention it so you know that we’re not unaware of the refugees’ background.”
“That’s all yesterday’s news,” Jones said. “We have more important matters to deal with now. “ She looked at them thoughtfully. “I suppose you’d better come along. I have some news to deliver to the miscreants on the Schroder.” Jones walked past them toward the police launch moored at the nearby dock meant for small river craft.
“Good news, I hope,” Ray said.
Jones strode over the gangway and an officer from the New Orleans Port Police helped her down into the bow of the launch that would ferry them to the Schroder. Ray and Angel followed, with Moon bringing up the rear. The officer looked at Moon skeptically as she jumped down into the bow next to Angel. It seemed as if he wanted to say something, but bit back his words as the Angel just looked at him. They cast off and started towards the freighter moored in the middle of the river.
As they glided along with the current, they passed the demonstrators who had gathered on the river bank in two distinct groups separated by a police barrier and a squadron of New Orleans city cops. The larger bunch were maybe a hundred strong. Most carried signs that were either anti-wild carder or pro-Liberty Party, which had unexpectedly swept Pauline van Renssalaer to the presidency the previous November. Others waved random historical battle or political flags which had no connection to the current refugee crisis.
The smaller group numbered no more than twenty. Their banners showed sympathy for the trapped refugees, some proclaiming their allegiance to the JADL, the Joker Anti-Defamation League.
“What a freak show,” Ray muttered.
“I hope you’re not referring to these fine Americans exercising their constitutional right to free speech,” Jones said.
Ray was saved from answering her question as they reached the Schroder. She looked even more dubious from up close. The freighter was a battered, rusty, near-dilapidated wreck that probably spent its maiden voyage dodging German submarines during World War II. Of course she flew the Liberian flag, which meant that she operated under the laxest licensing and inspection regime in the entire nautical world.
The only way to board it was a rickety ladder extending down from the main deck. The police launch sidled close and Jones led the way up the ladder. Ray followed, with the Angel carrying Moon in one arm as her paws couldn’t handle the narrow steps. Jones was puffing as she reached the end of the climb, and accepted an extended hand to help her over the top and onto the Schroder’s deck.
“Thank you – “ she began to say as she looked up, then fell silent.
The man standing before her smiled and released her hand. He was old, but distinguished looking, in a grey charcoal colored suit that Ray’s practiced eye told him cost more than twice his own. His long and still abundant silver hair was pulled back in a pony tail and he leaned on a heavy wooden cane. His shoes, like his suit, were hand made and expensive. The right one encased an obvious prosthesis which extended upward into an artificial leg, the extent of which was hidden by an expertly tailored pants leg. He smiled at Jones as she gained the deck.
Three companions stood grouped behind him. One was a man of similar age, smaller, with a lined, pale face that showed no expression at all as he looked over the newcomers. The second was a striking woman in a form-fitting blue silk shirt, tucked into tight blue jeans that showcased her splendid figure. It was, Ray realized, a theme of a sort. Her skin was a deep rich blue, her thick, long hair a shade darker, and her eyes the clear cerulean of a cloudless summer sky. The third person was a young man in a black suit with a priest’s collar. He was serious-looking in an intense way, with regular features, dark eyes, and short dark hair.
“Agents Ray and Angel,” the silver-haired man said. “Pleased to see you. Splendid work, saving the world and all that. Splendid.” He looked at Moon, whom Angel had set down on the deck.. “And this is?”
“SCARE Agent Moon,” Angel said.
“A were-canid,” Ray explained as Moon thumped her tail against the deck.
“Of course,” the man said. He turned toward Jones. “I am Dr. Pretorius. You must be Ms. Jones, the ICE agent in charge. I’ve been retained to represent the Schroder refugees in their attempt to secure political asylum.”
“By whom?” Jones asked in a somewhat less pleasant tone.
Pretorius smiled. “The Joker Anti-Defamation League.” He gestured toward the three who stood by him. “This is Mr. Robicheaux and Ms. Blue, their representatives.” He indicated the young man. “And Father Joachim Aguilera of the Church of Jesus Christ, Joker.”
If Robicheaux was a joker, Ray thought, his deformities were hidden. Unlike Pretorius, his clothing was that of a working man. He wore a short-sleeved shirt tucked into worn jeans and work boots that had seen hard use. His eyes were dark, and like his expression, opaque as his gaze swept them all. He nodded. Ray nodded back.
“We have much to discuss. The others are waiting. If you will follow me.” Pretorius leaned heavily on his cane as he limped away.
They fell in line behind the lawyer. As he led them across the main deck, Ray’s nostrils flared. The Schroder’s interior matched its exterior in terms of grime, rust, and general decrepitude. The deck needed a new paint job, not to mention a thorough washing. Usually, Ray thought – though his experience with boats of any kind was rather limited – you see crewmen bustling about on errands and chores, taking care of vital up-keep and minor repairs. But they saw no one, crew or passengers, as they made their way to a hatch leading down into the ship’s hold. It was so quiet that it was more than a little eerie. The Schroder might as well have been manned by a crew of ghosts.
Ray and the Angel exchanged glances. She can feel it too, he thought. He glanced at Moon, and saw her sniff the air. An expression of disgust washed over her lean-jawed face. Ray lacked the acute senses that Moon had, but he could smell the stench, too. Had smelled it since they’d reached the deck. It was getting worse, and it hit them like a slap on the face when Pretorius led them down the ladder into the ship’s hold.
The vessel’s only cargo was inside. People. They were everywhere in the gloom of the poorly-lit, practically un-vented hold. Men, women, and children looked at them wearily as they descended the ladder, hunger, hope, and fear in their eyes. Ray guessed that this trip had been as hellish as the demon-haunted last days of their home city of Talas. Most were gaunt. Many just lay on the dirty bedding that was their only protection against the harshness of the hold’s metal floor. Ray had been in better-smelling swamps. He didn’t want to even try to imagine the privations these people had undergone during their voyage.
Ray and Angel kept stoic expressions on their faces, but Jones recoiled and audibly gagged.
“My God,’ she said, “don’t you people bathe?”
“In what?” asked the woman approaching them. Her voice was bitter and bore an east European accent. Ray recognized her as Olena Davydenko, the daughter of a deceased Ukranian mobster. She’d used her dead father’s fortune to finance this desperate quest for safety and freedom. Olena looked at them cooly. She was blonde and pretty, Ray thought, in a brittle, high-fashion sort of way. She was accompanied by a young woman who was a bare inch or two over five feet. She had clear pale skin that had a pale golden sheen to it. And she was staring at Angel, who seemed uncomfortably aware of her gaze. At least the Black Tongue was nowhere in sight. If IBT and the Angel came face to face again – Ray pushed the thought away and forced himself to concentrate on the here and now.
“We have barely enough water to drink,” Olena continued bitterly. “We have no food, no fuel, no medical supplies – “
”Not my concern!” Jones snapped. “You people should have been better prepared for your little cruise.”
Pretorius held up his hands. “This is all beside the point.”
“The point being,” Jones said implacably, “that of all the people who decided to take this trip, very few have the proper documentation or even family members already living in the United States willing to sponsor them. No one lacking a sponsor or the proper documents will be allowed off this ship.”
Dr. Pretorius gestured to an angry Olena, who handed him an expensive-looking briefcase. Ray figured that while most of the on-looking refugees probably couldn’t follow the conversation in English, they had no problems understanding the gist of it. Pretorius extracted an impressively thick document from the briefcase and handed it to Jones.
She glanced at it. “What’s this?”
“A brief requesting political asylum for all my clients,” Pretorius said. “The government in Kazahstan has collapsed. The warlords are fighting over the scraps of their country, but they all agree on one thing. They fear, wrongly and unjustly, that somehow the plague that struck Talas was brought on by the wild card virus and that the madness that destroyed the city was somehow spread by the jokers living there. Nonsense, of course, but that’s not stopping them from waging genocide against all wild carders. These people couldn’t stay in Talas and be killed. They can’t go back. They’re claiming asylum on.”
“You know that this must be adjudicated at higher levels of government –“
”I ask for an expedited hearing. In the meantime, we need food, water, medical – “
”I’m sure they do.” Jones started back up the ladder, taking Pretorius’s brief with her.
The joker lawyer looked at Ray. “That was pleasant.”
“Yeah,” Ray said. He was starting to have a very bad feeling about this mission. It wasn’t as cut and dried as it had first seemed. He hadn’t signed up to bully helpless jokers, women and children among them.
The young woman standing with Olena looked at Angel and spoke in accented but clear English. “I know you. I saw you in Talas, fighting monsters. They called you the Angel of the Alleyways, the Madonna of the Blade –“
The Angel looked down. “I lost it.“
A look of sympathy crossed the girl’s face. “I see that your pain is great. But you helped us once. The people, the children, are starving – “
The Angel turned her face, stood silent for a moment, then followed Jones up the stairs.
Moon whined and went after her, taking the steps carefully. Ray looked at Pretorius, who was watching with pursed lips, and then the Kazakh girl. “She’s been hurt deeper than you know by what happened in Talas.”
“I could see it on her face,” she said.
Ray nodded and hurried after them. Jones had crossed the deck and was going down to the the waiting Port Police launch. Angel again, holding Moon with the agent’s front paws over her shoulder, was following.
Ray, feeling helpless, watched her. It had been a very difficult time, with Angel growing more withdrawn and despondent despite the counseling she’d had. Ray had thought that maybe getting her out into the field might start her back on the road to who she’d once been, but, if anything, it seemed she was getting worse. He didn’t know where to turn himself, or what to do, and that helplessness was churning deep inside and turning to an anger that he couldn’t focus on any one person or thing. It was just grinding at him.
He started down after Angel as sudden shouting from the riverbank caught his attention. A group of the anti-refugee protestors from the Liberty Party had surged against the flimsy barrier separating them from the pro-refugee JADL contingent and were breaking through the thin blue line that was all that kept the two groups apart.
“Crap,” Ray said.
He glanced down. Angel, too, had paused on her way down and was watching the drama unfold on the riverbank.
“Hurry up, ” Ray called. “We’ve got to stop this before someone gets hurt!”
Angel nodded, and dropped the remaining dozen feet or so to the launch’s deck, landed lightly, and set Moon down. Ray swarmed down the ladder like a monkey in a major hurry and in a moment was at Angel’s side.
“Cast off,” he shouted. “Head for the landing across the river!”
“I give the orders here, Ray,” Jones said coldly. “Just what are you intentions?”
“My intentions,” he said in a dangerously level voice, “are to keep people from getting hurt.” He locked eyes with the officer in charge of the launch.
“Yes sir,” she said crisply.
Jones sighed. “Very well. Though I don’t know what you can do.”
“You’d be surprised,” Angel said.
The launch cast away from the Schroder and swept out in an arc taking them to the northern bank, as everyone on board watched what was happening on shore with concern.
The small JADL contingent was holding their ground as the anti-refugee protesters broke through the police barrier. Ray and the others on the launch could hear their angry shouts as they ran screaming and waving their signs. The one in the lead was a heavy-set man whose sign read, “Go Home Genetic Waist!” The ones following him shoved aside the few cops who were bobbing helplessly in the mob’s wake like corks in an unleashed torrent.
“Oh, crap, “ Ray repeated.
And as the protestors approached the JADL demonstrators – slowly, because their signs weighed them down and most weren’t in the best shape and it was a very hot and humid day – the zombies began to appear.
by George R.R. Martin and the Wild Cards Trust.
READ THE REST IN MISSISSIPPI ROLL
a Wild Cards mosaic novel from Tor