s if he’d said mosquitoes or something equally insignificant. “I would expect you to handle tigers.” Jerry’s chest expanded at the unanticipated praise. Suddenly, her eyes narrowed. “Maybe,” she added. She paced some more around the room, then stopped and looked at her son. He was still glum. Still handsome. Still normal looking, except for that orangish-yellowish glow that hovered around his head and the exposed skin of his hands and arms like halos. “But how do you know that simply using his power isn’t dangerous? He’s just a boy. I would expect him to be excited when he turned his card. But you should have known better.”
“How do you feel?” he asked the boy.
John Fortune considered. “Warm. Still scared. But—” he looked at Jerry, a smile dawning on his face. “—I’m still alive. I made it.”
Jerry looked at him, even more astonished than Fortune himself.
“More than that,” he said. “It looks like you’re an ace.”
“An ace!” the boy said jubilantly. His smile was beatific. “Yeah, man, an ace!”
He and Jerry grinned like idiots.
“Take me backstage,” John Fortune said. “I think I can help Ralph.”
They looked up. The troupe of Living Gods hovered on the edge of the stage, watching them.
Thoth raised his arms to the Heavens.
“All praise to Ra,” he intoned, and the others took up his chant.
Turin, Italy: Cattedrale di San Giovanni
J ohn Nighthawk had always been fascinated by churches. He’d been inside hundreds during his long life, from humble whitewashed clapboards in the Deep South to magnificent cathedrals in both the United States and Europe. As far as he was concerned, the humble and the grand both had their pluses and minuses. It was hard to experience a personal, intimate relationship with God in a cathedral. They were also usually extremely drafty. On the other hand, a cheap wooden shack didn’t quite capture the glory of God on high and they were also prone to falling down after a very few years. Surprisingly, though, decades of experience had taught Nighthawk that both kinds of houses of worship were relatively easy to break into.
“Cattedrale di San Giovanni,” the big man standing at Nighthawk’s right read from the Turin guidebook he’d taken from his hip pocket. He gestured at the structure across the plaza and then looked innocently at Nighthawk. “Isn’t Giovanni Italian for John?”
“That’s right,” said the other big man, who was standing at Nighthawk’s left.
The big man on Nighthawk’s right smiled. “Is this cathedral named after you, John? You’re probably old enough.”
There was quiet laughter from the other big man. The woman standing between them remained stone-faced, as always.
“Don’t blaspheme,” she said.
Nighthawk smiled and shook his head. “This church was erected in 1491. You don’t think I’m that old, do you?”
Speculation about Nighthawk’s age was something of an on-going joke with his team. It was impossible to pin down precisely, although he was certainly older than Usher and the others. A small black man with very dark skin, Nighthawk was about five foot five and maybe a hundred and forty pounds. At first glance his face appeared unlined. Close observation in good light, however, revealed a fine network of wrinkles around his eyes and mouth. The lines on his forehead also deepened to legibility when his face crinkled in laughter or a frown. He could have been a hard fifty or an easy-going sixty-five. His hair was still dark but his hands had the rough, gnarled look of someone who’d done physical labor for a good portion of their life. At least, his right hand did. His left was hidden by a black kidskin glove, despite the warmth of the early summer evening.
“Anyway,” Nighthawk added, “you’ve got the wrong John. This cathedral was dedicated to John the Baptist. And if you’re done playing tourist, Usher, you can put the guidebook away so we can get down to the job.”
Usher took Nighthawk’s rebuke good-naturedly and stuffed the guide back into his pocket. He was a big man, six four or so, and strong as an ox. Nighthawk knew that Usher was also the smartest member of the team. He was black, but light-skinned enough that there was a time when he could have passed for white, if he’d wanted to. If he could have gotten the kink out of his hair. Curtis Grubbs was the other big man. He was white, from somewhere in rural Alabama, but somewhat to Nighthawk’s amusement, was Usher’s sidekick and yes-man. He wasn’t quite as big as Usher, but he had a touch of the wild card and was as strong as two oxen. He followed orders if you gave them slowly and in great detail. The woman, Magda, was dark of hair, dark of eye, and dark of mind. She was from some European country that hadn’t been a country for very long. She spoke with a slight accent that made her voice husky and sexy. She was ruthless, quick, and dedicated. Sometimes too dedicated. She was a fanatic. She followed Nighthawk’s orders because he was in charge and also because she feared him, but he never knew when she’d get a wild notion to disobey a directive she reckoned blasphemous. He had to watch her constantly. Sometimes she was more trouble than she was worth, but, again, he had to remind himself who he was working for.
They’re a good team, Nighthawk thought. Maybe a little short on brains, but that was to be expected. He had also been offered the services of the Witnesses, but turned them down despite their potent ace powers. Their tendency to grandstand often turned them into liabilities. He’d also passed on Blood. He didn’t think a joker-ace who had to be led around on a leash so he wouldn’t molest stray pedestrians or passing cars would fit in on a mission where stealth was necessary.
It was past midnight, but there were still people on the street. Damn tourists, Nighthawk thought. It was unlikely to get much quieter, so he signaled Usher to move. The big man nodded and slipped quietly into the night. He crossed the Piazza Giovanni, keeping to the dark side of the street, blending naturally into the shadows like a big cat or a seasoned mercenary, which he’d been before signing with the Allumbrados as an obsequentus. Nighthawk figured that the big man had joined the Enlightened Ones for the pay. He had neither Grubbs’ naive credulousness, nor Magda’s vicious fanaticism.
Usher crossed the plaza in shadow, unobserved, and after ten or twelve seconds Grubbs followed him across the square. He was not as quiet or as inconspicuous as Usher, but he tried hard to emulate him. After both men had vanished in the night Magda followed at Nighthawk’s nod.
She was halfway across the plaza when a burst of sudden revelation struck Nighthawk like a thunderbolt. As always, it exploded across his brain almost too fast to grasp. The figures in it were dark and grainy like in an old time movie, and the poorly lit scene they played was open to several interpretations. But one thing was certain.
One of the team would die that night. Nighthawk couldn’t be sure it wouldn’t be him. Caught in the grip of awful fear, the old man looked across the plaza at the ancient cathedral, wondering if that night he would find the answer to the question that had haunted him for the last sixty years. The gloved fingers of his left hand closed around the old harmonica that he always carried, currently in his inside jacket pocket. It was his lucky piece as well as a reminder of past friends. He smiled to himself, but without humor.
“Maybe we find out tonight, Lightning,” he said quietly. “Maybe finally tonight.”
♥ ♦ ♣ ♠
Las Vegas, Nevada: The Mirage
Peregrine tried to slam the newspaper down on the hotel suite desk, but since it was open it only fluttered limply. Still, Jerry got the message that she wasn’t happy.
“You could have been hurt!” she said angrily to John Fortune, who watched her glumly as she paced about the room. “Even killed!”
“There was no danger of that,” Jerry interjected.
Peregrine paused in her pacing and turned her eyes upon him. Suddenly he was glad that she hadn’t packed her titanium talons for the trip.
“You know that how?” she asked in a voice gone quietly silky. Through long experience in body-guarding John Fortune, Jerry knew that when she used that tone she was at her most dangerous. She looked at him with the eyes of a lioness sizing up an antelope for the kill. Even though she was in her late forties, Peregrine was still one of the most beautiful women Jerry had ever seen. Tall, lean, and athletic, her stunning wings matched a still stunning figure that had made only the slightest concession to age and gravity over the years.
“I made sure we kept far away from the tigers when we went backstage,” Jerry said quietly, but his words did little to mollify the angry ace.
“Tigers!” Peregrine spat, a
“Aw, Mom,” John Fortune said, “I had to go help Ralph. You should have seen him. The tiger had grabbed him by the neck and there was blood everywhere! He would’ve bled to death if I didn’t do anything. But I healed him. Ask Jerry. He was right there all the while, making sure nobody crowded us or anything. I just held Ralph and concentrated and he healed right up. It was easy.”
“No,” Jerry said, shaking his head, “your mother’s right. There’s no telling how dangerous using your power might be—”
“Listen to him,” Peregrine said.
“It’s not dangerous,” John Fortune said, his impatience showing in his tone. “I’m fine.”
Peregrine put the back of her hand against his forehead. “You feel warm to me.”
“Could just be the effects of a speeded-up metabolism,” Jerry offered.
“Could be,” Peregrine said. Suddenly, she enwrapped her son in her arms and wings and held him to her tightly. She closed her eyes, fighting back tears. “If you only knew how worried I’ve been for you, all these years.”
“Aw, Mom,” John Fortune said, his head muffled against her chest. Jerry was envious. “I’m all right. I knew I would be. My card turned and now I’m an ace, just like you and my father. I mean, Fortunato.”
Peregrine nodded, unable to speak for a moment, as years of desperate worry seemed to squeeze out of her body. But some still remained.
“Promise me one thing,” she said as she still held him tightly. “Don’t use your power again until we get home and have you checked out at the Jokertown Clinic.”
“But what if I have to save someone—”
She pulled away, held him at arm’s length.
“John,” she said sternly, “you have your whole life ahead of you. You have years and years to save people. And listen to me. There’s a big lesson you have to learn right now.”
“What’s that?” the kid asked.
“No matter how powerful you are, no matter how much time and effort and sweat and blood you expend,” Peregrine said slowly, coming down hard on each and every word, “you can’t save everyone.”
The boy was silent for a long moment, as if digesting her words.
“All right,” John Fortune said quietly.
“Believe me,” Peregrine said.
Jerry nodded. “Believe her.”
He knew. Sometimes that was the hardest thing about being an ace of all.
♥ ♦ ♣ ♠
Branson, Missouri: The Peaceable Kingdom
Billy Ray was in Loaves and Fishes, lingering over lunch and wishing he was anywhere in the world except here, when the kid tracked him down. Ray didn’t particularly look like an ace, let alone a dangerous one. He was an average-sized five ten, one hundred and seventy pounds. His suit was expensive and neat, without wrinkle, spot, or blemish. Though a couple of years on the wrong side of forty, he looked younger. His green eyes were sleepy-looking. His features were bland, if a little ill fitting. His broken-angled, rather prominent nose stood out from the rest of his face. He moved slowly, almost languidly. He was even more bored than he looked.
As the kid approached, Ray looked up from his plate piled high with beef ribs and chicken fried steak with gravy and biscuits, green beans, corn on the cob, and real scratch-made mashed potatoes, not from a box. He liked Loaves and Fishes because it was all you could eat, but lately he’d been losing interest in food as well as everything else. He knew what was wrong, but he knew also he couldn’t do a damn thing about it.
“Hi, Mr. Ray,” the kid said.
Ray sighed for about the billionth time and said, for about the billionth time, “I told you not to call me mister.”
“Okay, Billy.” Ray knew that wouldn’t last long. It never did. If the kid was anything, he was respectful. Alejandro Jesus y Maria C de Baca looked like he was about fourteen years old. Slight, slim, dark haired, dark eyed, always smiling, always cheerful, fresh out of spook school and so goddamned respectful that he sirred waiters. It was clear to Ray that Nephi Callendar, their boss at the Secret Service, had teamed them up specifically to annoy Ray.
“Say, mi—uh, Billy, President Barnett wants to see you, right away.”
Ray sighed. God, he hoped that it wasn’t for another prayer session. “Did he say why?”
The kid shook his head. “Nope. I was with him when he saw something in the paper that got him real excited, and he wanted to speak to you right away.”
Ray sighed again. He caught himself, realizing that he was doing entirely too much of that lately. He looked down at his lunch. He wasn’t hungry now, anyway.
“You want some lunch, kid?” Ray asked his colleague.
“I already ate, sir, uh, Billy. But it’d be a shame to waste all that food. I can box it up and drop it down at the homeless shelter after our shift.”
“You do that,” he said. He left Loaves and Fishes and strolled through Barnett’s vision of Heaven on Earth to his headquarters centrally located on the top floor of The Angels’ Bower hotel. He had to cut through the part of the park called New Jerusalem to reach it. As always, the Via Dolorosa was crowded with tourists, so Ray took the back way that looped around the rides, exhibits, and concessions. He went by the twenty-foot high statues of the Twelve, wondering, not for the first time, how they’d decided which apostle was bald, which one had a big honker, and where in the Hell Judas was. He could hear the faint screams of the faithful as the Rapture took them to Heaven and then dropped down to the Pit with a stomach-flipping hundred and eighty degree turn that piled on over three gees of acceleration as it fell forty stories straight down to Hell.
Roller coasters, Ray thought disgruntledly. Maybe he should take a ride. Put some excitement into his life.
It was, he had to admit, his own fault. He’d smart-assed his way here, calling his boss “Nehi” one time too many. Before the ink had dried on his orders he’d found himself, accompanied by the kid, exiled to the suburbs of Branson-fucking-Missouri to wet nurse an ex-President as he whiled away the years running his crazy-ass theme park in the middle of redneck Heaven. Of course, by law every ex-President was accorded Secret Service protection, but the odds of Barnett being stalked by an assassin in the Peaceable Kingdom were about as great as him running a Pagans Get-In-Free weekend special.
It was a Hell of a way to wrap up his career, but not entirely unexpected. Ray had ruffled too many feathers along the way, and not just by being a smart ass. He’d played a major role in breaking the Card Shark conspiracy and saving Jerusalem—the real one, not Barnett’s Disneyfied version—from getting a-bombed to Hell, but it had cost him not only April Harvest, the only woman he’d ever come close to loving, but also a meaningful career in the government. As it turned out, the government had been riddled with Card Sharks, and no one was exactly pleased that Ray helped expose that little fact. Sometimes Ray wondered if they’d rooted them all out. Probably not. Probably some unexposed Sharks were still pulling strings. And that had been the problem. Ray had embarrassed the string-pullers and decision-makers, the powers behind the throne and the voices in charge. Publicly he was a hero. Privately he was just another wild carder who knew too much. A wild carder with a reputation for flying off the handle and running his mouth when peeved.
That explained the next seven years spent in the shit holes of the world, but at least the tedium of those years had
been broken up by episodes of real excitement. Among other things, he’d helped the Muhajadeen against the Soviets, and when the Soviet Union went to pieces he helped the people of Afghanistan against the Muhajadeen. He served a tour in Peru, teaching the Shining Path the real meaning of fear. He was on the team of international aces who went into Baghdad and snatched the tin-plated dictator Saddam Hussein, catching him cowering in his gold-fixtured bathtub, after Saddam had kicked the U.N. weapon inspectors out of his crappy excuse for a country.
Ray hadn’t minded the lack of recognition or applause. He’d spent seven years doing what he did best, kicking ass if occasionally forgetting to take down names. But now, he was rotting in paradise.
He breezed into Barnett’s office. Sally Lou, Barnett’s blonde receptionist, looked up from her magazine. She was sleek and sexy looking, and Ray suspected that Barnett had hired her for something other than her typing skills. She could have put some of that long-sought excitement back into his life, but it seemed to Ray that as far as she was concerned, he was just another one of the hired help.
“Yeah, I know.” He waved as he strode by. He paused at Barnett’s door, nodding at the Secret Service guys standing to either side of it, nats in dark suits and sunglasses, for Christ’s sake, knocked once and went on in before its occupant could reply. What more could they do to him for being a smart ass? Send him to Antarctica? Even that would be an improvement over his current situation.
“You wanted to see me?” Ray asked, stopping before the big desk and the man behind it, who was reading a newspaper spread out on its teak surface.
Barnett smiled. “Yes, I did,” he said.
Leo Barnett was still a handsome man, even after serving eight years as President of the United States. He was tall and still slim even though he was pushing sixty, blonde-haired and blue-eyed, and dimpled as a baby’s butt. Ray couldn’t help but wonder how he did it. Ray had been with the Justice Department for almost twenty-five years. He’d spent a good portion of that time body-guarding presidents and presidential candidates, and he’d noticed early on that the presidency, even just running for the office, tended to wear a man down. It put bags under his eyes, creases in his face, and dye in his hair. Not Barnett, though. He looked as wrinkle-free today as he did the day he ascended to the office. Ray wondered what his secret was.