Extract from FORT FREAK edited by George R. R. Martin

Sorry about the delay, but sometimes shit happens. . . Better late than never, or say they say! =)

So here's an excerpt from the latest Wild Cards mosaic novel, Fort Freak, edited by George R. R. Martin. The extract is from "The Rate Race" by Cherie Priest. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.

Here's the blurb:

In 1946, an alien virus that rewrites human DNA was accidentally unleashed in the skies over New York City. It killed ninety percent of those it infected. Nine percent survived, mutated into tragically deformed creatures. And one percent gained superpowers. The Wild Cards shared-universe series, created and edited by New York Times #1 bestseller George R. R. Martin (called “the American Tolkien” by Time), is the tale of the history of the world since then—and of the heroes among the one percent.

Now, in the latest Wild Cards mosaic novel, we get to know the hardbitten world of Manhattan’s Fifth Precinct—or “Fort Freak,” as cops and malefactors alike call the cop-shop where every other desk sergeant, detective, and patrol officer is more than human.

Featuring original work by writers such as Cherie Priest, author of the bestselling Boneshaker; Paul Cornell, Hugo–nominated comic book and Doctor Who writer; David Anthony Durham, winner of 2009’s John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer; and many others, Fort Freak is one of the strongest offerings yet in the ongoing Wild Cards project.


Part 1

Leo braced the phone against his ear with his shoulder while he rubbed at his eyes and groaned. He muttered, “Jesus Christ, not another one.”

“Another what?” asked the woman on the other end of the line. When he didn’t reply fast enough, she demanded again, “Another what, Dad?”

“Another streaker. Tinkerbill’s bringing her in.”

The unclothed party in question was pretty, blond, and in her twenties. She was also glowing with a fizzy pink aura, but the aura couldn’t be construed as clothing, and anyway, the sparkles had been Bill Chen’s contribution. They’d wear off by morning. Probably.

Leo dropped the receiver away from his mouth and hollered past it, “Somebody get that kid a shirt or something!”

Bill blindly grabbed a squad jacket off a coatrack as he ushered the protesting prisoner toward booking. He threw it over her shoulders but she almost shook it off when she turned around to tell him, “You’re making a mistake! I...I didn’t just grab my keys and leave the house like this, you have to believe me!”

“I believe you.” Bill said it deadpan, with his peculiarly childish voice. Speech like that shouldn’t issue from a man of his size and shape— six and a half feet from toes to cap, and wide as a fire house door. He shuffled his beefy shoulders and shook his head, prodding the still mostly naked woman barefoot along the dirty floor of Manhattan’s 5th precinct.

They don’t call it “Fort Freak” for nothing.


Leo returned his attention to the phone and said, “Melanie, I’m sorry, honey. You’ve caught me at work, here. You know how it is.”

“Oh, I understand. How can my pitch possibly compete with a room full of naked people?”

“Just one. One naked person.”

“Look, Dad. Quit putting this off.”

“But what if I don’t want to move to ...” He fished around on his desk, looking for the brochure she’d sent him a week before. He found it buried beneath three or four unofficial “in” stacks of reports, court documents, file notes, and case reminders. The paperwork drifts smothered everything, including the nameplate: DETECTIVE-INVESTIGATOR, 1ST GRADE: LEONARD STORGMAN.

His daughter impatiently supplied, “West Palm Beach.”

“Yeah. Florida.” With the vibrant sales brochure finally in hand, he skimmed the tagline: First planned adult community exclusively for jokers! And he sighed. “I know you’ve worked real hard, pulling this together, but I don’t think I’m ready for an old folks’ subdivision.”

Leo stuck a finger in his shirt collar. He pulled the sweat-dampened cloth loose and let it fall back against his neck. August’s dank mugginess pressed inside the old building, and the precinct’s vintage air conditioners valiantly wheezed and rattled, but did little else to address it. He nearly shuddered at the thought of such excessive warmth all year round.

“You don’t think you’re ready to retire either.” Melanie’s voice shifted, slipping from hard-nosed community planner to wheedling daughter in a snap. “Dad, I wish you’d just think about it. Come down south! It’s nice here, and I live here— and it would make me feel better to know you’re nearby, in case something were to happen.”

“I’m turning sixty-two, not ninety-two. I’m not going to slip in the tub and break a hip.”

“I’m not trying to imply—”

He cut her off. “Sweetheart, I know you’re trying to help. But I don’t need help yet. I need some time to think, and—” His end of the conversation derailed abruptly, distracted by a pair of swinging hips in a pencil skirt, spotted across the precinct floor. He mumbled, “Hang on a second.”

The hips disappeared behind a column. It wasn’t just the shape of the hips that had his attention; it was something about the gait of the walk, and the curve of the body. He knew that walk. He knew that body.

The woman emerged from the far side of the column, her backside facing him for a moment while she paused to speak to someone. Then she said, “So long, David,” and turned around, and paused. She scanned the room.

Leo watched. He cataloged her like a piece of evidence.

Her hair was shorter now, and smoother, and a little darker— almost a true brunette. The full curve of her cleavage and the dip of her waist were a little more pronounced. One hand on her hip. One hand hanging at her side. Posture off-kilter, just enough to look casual.

Her big black sunglasses were identical to the ones he’d seen her wearing last, but that was twenty-five years ago. Funny, how styles come back around. Funny, how he would’ve known her anywhere, even after all this time.

The lens-covered eyes settled on him. The corner of her mouth crept up, pulled by a string of nostalgia until it’d drawn her lips into half a smile.

From the phone Leo heard: “Dad?”

He said, “Honey, I have to go.” He hung up. Slowly he stood, matching his rise to her approach— so by the time she was in front of his desk, he was on his feet. He said, “Wanda?”

And she said, “Leo.” Wanda Moretti pushed the sunglasses up onto her head, then changed her mind and folded them into her purse. “Been a while, hasn’t it?”

“Yeah. You, uh...you look great.”

“Thanks. You don’t look so bad yourself.”

Leo Storgman did not often feel self-conscious. He’d had plenty of time to get used to his appearance— two decades since his card had turned. But he fidgeted now, scratching at the back of his sticky, wet neck, jostling the houndstooth newsboy cap he often wore. It sat comfortably between the thick horns that curled out from either side of his head.

“Aw, now. You don’t...you don’t have to say that. You haven’t changed a bit— not a goddamn day. We both know I can’t say the same.”

“I didn’t say you hadn’t changed. I just said you didn’t look bad.” She didn’t bother to hide her appraising gaze. “I’d heard, and I’d wondered. But you still look like you.”

“Eh. Wasn’t born looking like this.” He made a little gesture with his hands, displaying the way they’d become bone-white, almost translucent except for the scum-green liver spots that speckled his knuckles. Similar patches blotched across his mostly bald head, right down into the ring of graying hair that held his hat like a nest. “But it could be worse.”

He was careful to pin his eyes to hers, if only to keep from looking over her shoulder, or over his own shoulder at the crowded, chaotic room. Many of his fellow civil servants had drawn much stranger and worse transformations.

By the soda machine stood beat cop Rikki Michaelson, a small, greyhound-shaped woman using her slender, pawlike hand to press for a Dr Pepper. Leaning against the wall beside her was Lu Long, with the bulky, elaborate head and upper torso of a Chinese dragon. He was wrestling with the tab of a Pepsi can, his heavily clawed fingers ill-suited to the delicate task. And beside the captain’s office door Leo spied public defender Charles Herriman, his prosthetic hands wrestling with his latest case files. It almost looked like he had the situation under control, until his cell phone rang and the juggling act fell apart.

Wanda reached for the back of the chair that faced Leo’s desk and asked, “You mind if I sit down?” Without waiting for him to respond, she took the chair and settled into it, putting her purse and an expensive looking leather satchel on the floor by her feet.

“For old times’ sake?” he asked.

“For old times’ sake, sure. And official business too— something weird, that’s for damn sure. But to tell you the truth, I didn’t know if I’d find you here. Couldn’t remember exactly how old you are.”

“Still have five months on the clock.”

“I hope they’re an easy five months. I’d hate to see you go out with a bang.”

“Easy. Sure.” He glowered mournfully at the drifts of paperwork and loose filing, and told her, “This week alone we’ve got streakers, inconveniently coincidental burglaries, and an uptick in the usual gang bullshit. The Werewolves and the Demon Princes never did get along, but it’s getting nasty out there.”

Wanda shook her head and sighed. “You remember that case back in, oh, I don’t know. Must’ve been ’89 or ’90. That gangbanging joker who got real high and then ate somebody’s poodle?”

Leo let out a short bark of a laugh. “Yeah, I remember it. Haven’t thought of it in years. Did you do the court-reporting on that case?”

She said, “No, wasn’t me. I was gone by then.”

“I heard you got married again.” He’d heard she’d married up.

“Yeah, back in ’88, but it didn’t stick. And I left court-reporting, too. Went into real estate instead.”

“Like you always said you would. I remember you talking about it, but I didn’t know you’d gone off and done it.”

She grinned. “Got my license and started moving houses, condos, what have you. It worked out better than sitting around a courtroom, tapping till my fingers were raw. Kept the kids fed better, too.”

“How’re they doing, anyway?”

“Grown, mostly. Moved out, thank God, all four of them. What about your daughter?”

“Melanie.” He cocked his head at the phone. “That was her, just now. She’s gotten into community development planning.” He picked up the flyer again and handed it to her.

Wanda said, “Hmm. Jokers only. That might have its perks. Or drawbacks.”

“I don’t know what to make of it yet. Mellie wants me to move down there, closer to her. Once my time’s up here, you know.”

Wanda hadn’t lowered the flyer yet. She looked at him over the top of it and asked in a very pointed fashion, “Just you?”

Leo cleared his throat and reclaimed the flyer. “Just me. Vicki ...” It was strange, saying his wife’s name. “Vicki died of breast cancer back in ’98.”

Wanda said, “Oh, God, Leo. I’m sorry to hear that,” like she meant it.

Wanda had never been the jealous type, as far as Leo knew. And that one ill-advised night they’d shared back in the old days...it’d never gone anywhere. Vicki had never found out about it either, a fact that Leo considered one of the sole earthly evidences that there might be a God.

Leo said, “Sometimes it feels like she died a million years ago, and sometimes I forget, and start pouring her a cup of coffee in the morning.” His wife had been good to him— better than he’d deserved. Even when his card turned, all she had to say was, “I didn’t marry you for your looks. I won’t leave you for them either.” He changed the subject. “What really brings you out here, Wanda? It’s been a long time.”

“Like I said— partly for old times’ sake. And partly”— she reached down to that leather satchel and pulled it into her lap—“this.” She lifted the flap and drew out an envelope. From it, she extracted thirty or forty singed sheets and spread them out on the desk in a loose, brittle stack. “Pardon the smell.”

“What am I looking at? Besides burned paper?”

“Transcripts, or pieces of them. From an old case, somewhere between ’75 and ’79. Most of these are waterlogged or burned beyond usefulness, but the clerk at the court house saw this and they called me.” She pointed at a corner, where a blue pencil had scrawled “WM.”

“Your initials.”

“My initials. Other than that, you can only read a little bit, here and there. They asked me if I could tell what case they’re from.”

Leo looked up from her initials to ask, “They don’t know?” But before she could answer, he had another one lined up. “Were these damaged last week, in that court house fire?”

“You got it. The fire didn’t do much damage, but it made a real mess. And look.” She pulled another sheet forward, and pointed at a string of letters that stood out among the other lines of smudged, smeared, waterdestroyed print. “Right here. I’m pretty sure that says ‘Detective Storgman.’ So I was hoping you could help me answer their question— maybe recognize something I’m missing.”

“Huh,” he said, peering down at the document. “I think you’re right. Then this is probably a case from ’79. I didn’t make detective until December of ’78.”
“Okay, that’s helpful. Narrows the window quite a bit.”

Leo touched the fragile pages gently, scooting them around with the tip of his finger and hunting for places where the words were not burned or washed away. “It’s hard to tell. Except.” He used his pinky to point at a spot that wasn’t very clear. “You see this part?”

Wanda came forward and craned her neck around, leaning in a way that set her breasts right at Leo’s eye level. He struggled not to notice.

“Right here. It says ‘Augustus.’ ” Then he wondered aloud, “What the hell was that kid’s first name? I remember it was fucking ridiculous.” He snapped his fingers. “Bernard. Bernard Augustus.”

“It’s not ringing a bell,” Wanda said dubiously.

“Because nobody ever called him that. Everyone called him Deedle.” Leo leaned back in his chair and folded his hands behind his head. Wanda sat back in her seat too, which was a goddamn shame.

She said, “Deedle. Now that I remember.”

He bounced slowly, thoughtfully, in the chair. “These must be the trial transcripts from the Rathole murders.”

Wanda shook her head. “No, they wouldn’t be trial docs. It’s coming back to me now. That kid never made it to trial. These are more likely from an arraignment hearing.”

“Yeah, you’re right, come to think of it. He escaped.”

“Not for long.” She put her hand up to her face as if to lean on it, but nibbled gently at her thumbnail.

“No, not for long.” He paused, still thinking. “That was one hell of a case. My first murder, and I was wrong— it wasn’t ’79. It was the tail end of ’78.”

Wanda considered this for a moment, and said thoughtfully, “You know, those files were all about to be moved out of hard copy storage and scanned onto CDs. They were going to be dredged up for the first time in decades, before they burned.”

Leo said, “So?”

“So, they were going to be read. Dr. Pretorius has a whole new class of happy young lawyer wannabes who were set to scan this old stuff for class credit. And some of the more interesting cases would come to the classroom for teaching materials. History of joker law, such as it’s been.”

“This is all that’s left?” he asked, indicating the soot-flaking papers.

“Might as well be. But I couldn’t help thinking, when the clerk was going on about the fire, how amazingly convenient it was— just these years, right where a group of eager young proto-lawyers were supposed to go digging.”

Leo stopped bouncing and gathered up the brittle papers. He handed the small stack back to her. “What are you getting at?” he asked, as if he couldn’t tell.

She began the task of stuffing them carefully back into the envelope. “All I’m saying is, maybe the Rathole’s worth another look. Another quick look,” she specified. “Don’t you have a cold case unit around here, or something?”

“The Rathole’s not a cold case. It’s closed. A credible suspect was arrested—”

She interrupted, “A convenient suspect. Who then conveniently died.”

“He was good for it.”

“Maybe he only looked good for it. And you still have five months left on the clock.” She looked so eager, there in her fitted suit with her legs crossed at the knees.

But Leo said, “Wanda, it’s been thirty years. Everybody who isn’t dead has forgotten everything important. I’m glad I could help, but don’t get worked up about the Rathole now. It’s a waste of time.”

Part 2

Charles Dutton’s mansion was a sprawling affair that was normal on the outside and strange as hell on the inside. Stuffed with oddities, antiques, and wild card paraphernalia, the house was almost a museum. In fact, Dutton occasionally referred to it as “the annex,” by which he implied that some of the Famous Jokertown Dime Museum’s displays might hypothetically rotate in and out of his private quarters.

Leo didn’t like doing poker night at Dutton’s place. He was often consumed by the irrational conviction that the house was bigger on the inside than the outside, but he wasn’t about to skip a Society game over such a minor quibble.

He was just deciding between lifting the big, ludicrous door knocker (some kind of animal head, maybe) and pushing the ornately offset doorbell that protruded like an ivory blister when another cab pulled up. This one deposited Father Squid, who paid the cabbie and gave Leo a nod that wiggled his tentacles.

Leo nodded back. He liked the priest— a joker a few years his senior with the cephalopod face and body like a boulder. As the cassock-clad minister climbed the front steps, Leo called out, “Don’t tell me I’m late.”

“Surely not. It’s barely even dark.” He reached past Leo and seized the door knocker. He lifted it and dropped it a couple of times— casting forth a low, clattering rumble.

And then the two men stood there, side by side, until the door was answered by Dutton himself.

Charles Dutton was a tall man, thin and perennially well dressed. His death mask was its usual shade of liver-disease yellow, and if he was showing more skin he would’ve been smiling broadly. He opened the door and spread his arms like a showman with a baton. “Gentlemen! Or, you two, as the case may be.”

Father Squid said, “I resemble that remark.”

“I know you do. Come on in. You’re not late, but you’re last. Everyone else is already upstairs in the sanctum sanctorum, making drinks and starting cigars.” He held the door ajar and kept his arms aloft, gesturing into the corridor with its long red carpet runner. “Come in, come in. And let the game begin.”

Leo and Father Squid followed Dutton up the stairs to the third floor, where the “sanctum sanctorum” was set up for entertaining. The detective suspected that the intimate, windowless room had once been a secondary dining area or maybe an inconvenient parlor. Regardless, it was now a place where Dutton brought his friends, shelved his liquor, and kept a felted table with seven seats and as many ashtrays.

Some years previously, someone (and no one seemed to remember who) had made a joke about the Tiffany-style lamps, the wood paneling, the smoke, and the hunkered shoulders...to the effect that their gathering looked like a black velvet painting of dogs playing poker. At the next gathering, Lucas Tate— that aficionado of all things masklike and maskrelated— arrived wearing a bulldog mask and toting half a dozen more dog masks to be shared with the group.

Thus, the Black Velvet Society.

And thus the four seated men who raised amber-colored drinks or saluted with freshly lit cigars.

The greetings went around in a circle.

“Doctor” Hendrik Pretorius was not a real doctor, but he sat closest to the bar and doled out the medicine with a generous hand. Lean and permanently tan, the man’s silver beard shot to a tidy point, a shorter analog to his ponytail. Many cops couldn’t stand the sight of the old civil liberties lawyer. There were reasons. There were also reasons that Leo didn’t mind him. “Detective.” Dr. Pretorius waved with a decanter before leaning back in his chair and sliding the crystal bottle back into its slot on a shelf.

“Lawyer,” Leo replied. Another old joke. “Journalist,” he carried it a step farther, acknowledging Lucas Tate, editor of the Jokertown Cry with a halfhearted shot from a finger-gun.

Tate was seated, masked, and languid, as usual. The elongated skin tags that passed for his hair were drawn back away from his face. “Cop.” Tate nodded from within his St. Bernard mask, which he indicated with aplomb as he then said to Father Squid, “Picked this one for you, tonight. I was feeling...holy.”

The priest said, “Yes, I bet you were. Toss me a stogie, would you?”

“But of course.” Tate fished around in the box and made a selection.

Lieutenant Harvey Kant threw back a slug of what ever very expensive beverage he’d been handed, swallowed hard, and said, “Leo,” with a friendly address of his long, brown index finger. The rest of him was brown too, and decidedly reptilian. He looked rather uncannily like a burly lizard.

Lucas Tate said, “Catch,” and tossed the priest something that smelled Cuban.

Father Squid caught it with the snap of a tentacle and motioned for a light, which Dutton swooped in to provide. The priest said, “You boys sure know how to take care of a guy,” and he settled himself into one of the remaining seats, beside Chaos— who adjusted three of his six arms in order to be more accommodating.

“Oh, and uh...Sibyl,” Leo added quickly, spying the motionless blue woman standing unobtrusively naked in a corner. “Good to see you too,” he murmured.

Sibyl didn’t have a vocational descriptor like the rest of the players, but then again, she wasn’t playing— she only accompanied the lawyer, whose side she rarely left. “Ice Blue Sibyl,” everyone called her. She never called herself anything. She never spoke at all, and no one knew how much she understood except, perhaps, Dr. Pretorius. Leo wouldn’t have admitted she made him uncomfortable with her smooth, seamless skin and her perpetual silence. But he didn’t have to.

Leo shook the nearest hand Chaos offered him. “How’s it hanging?” he asked.

“Let me unfold it and I’ll check,” Chaos offered.

“I’ve heard that one. And for God’s sake, restrain yourself.” Leo used a cigar to distort one corner of his grin.

Chaos wiggled in order to better wedge himself into place, so that he could play without elbowing anyone on either side. “You’re the one who set me up, tossing off a line like that. Nobody’s fault but your own.”

“I was hoping for new material,” Leo told him.

Charles Dutton said, “You young lads— always daring to dream. Chaos hasn’t learned any new jokes since Nixon was in office.”

“In my defense,” said the six-armed man, “that man was a veritable oasis of humor.”

“If you say so.” Leo turned his attention to Dutton. “And who’re you calling ‘young’?”

“For a relative value of young,” their host clarified. “Look around you. What’s the median age here, you think? We ought to start calling ourselves the Social Security Society.”

More softly than he meant to, Leo said, “You know, they’re throwing me off the force in January, for being old. I guess it’s better this than the alternative.”

Chaos patted his shoulder and said, “All the same, it ain’t hardly fair.”

“Not remotely. Look at him— still a spring chick, I tell you,” insisted Dutton, doing his part to keep the mood light enough for cards. He approached the table and drew out his own seat, which was everyone’s signal to start. “So. Shall we?”

Chaos fidgeted, still trying to keep all his shoulders within his personal space. He asked, “Who’s dealing? Host?”

“Always,” declared Dutton, reaching for the pack of cards and tapping them out into his palm as neatly as a cigarette. “If you’d come around more often, you’d know that.”

“If you didn’t have Cosmos so often—”

Father Squid made a sound that cut him off. “None of that. This is a friendly game. You’re both welcome here. It’s not our fault you two can’t play nice.”

Chaos grumbled something under his breath, but he didn’t push his luck. Instead he asked, “What’re we playing? Hold ’em?”

Charles Dutton leaned forward and began to thumb a single card, facedown, around the circle. He said, “Christ, no. This is man-poker. Seven card, or nothing.”

“Got it.”

Another card made the rounds, this one faceup.

Leo picked up his offerings and shuffled them between his fingers until he liked the way they looked. Seven of clubs. Ace of diamonds. No matter which way he held them, he wasn’t thrilled, but he kept it to himself.

Dutton said, “All right,” and everyone threw in, starting small.

When Leo’s turn came up, he pulled out a George and tossed it on the pile. The next set of cards came around, and he added those to his hand, and added a few more bills to the pot. He still wasn’t liking the hand, and was paying too much attention to it when Dutton nudged him by saying, “Ante up, old man.”

“Sure. Sorry.”

But he escaped that round having lost less than ten bucks, and fared better on the third, wherein he picked up mint with a good old-fashioned dead man’s hand. He cackled at the money, and scooped his winnings closer to his chest.

“Time for a drink break. Or a refresher break,” Lucas Tate suggested, and they broke off briefly to address half-forgotten cigars and mostly empty glasses while Dutton shuffled, fiddled, and did a decent trick or two with the fresh, starchy cards.

Harvey Kant said, “You keep playing like that, and you won’t need that pension.”

And Leo replied, “I’ll keep that in mind.”

Dr. Pretorius left his seat to go stand near the inscrutable Sibyl, and fixed himself a new beverage. No one offered Sibyl anything, not out of rudeness— but so far as anyone knew, she neither ate nor drank. Anything. She had a mouth, but Leo had never seen it open.

During the course of this break, the talk turned to work in general— and Fort Freak’s line of work in particular. “I’ve heard,” Father Squid said with a nod that jiggled his tentacles, “that the gangs are really up in arms.”

Harvey Kant agreed, but added, “Same old thing. Big, stupid game of ‘Who took my drugs?’ You’d think they’d try something else once in a while.”

Leo said, “At least we got all the goddamned naked people sorted out, if you’ll pardon my French, Father. But the thefts— scads of ’em, none of it related as far as we can tell. Except they must be.”

Head-shaking went around the table, along with new puffs of smoke from Lucas Tate’s cigar. But as they buckled down for another hand, Leo cleared his throat and said in the direction of Dr. Pretorius, “And then there’s that thing about the court house.”

Chaos said, “What, the fire? I heard that wasn’t a big deal.”

“It was an inconvenient deal for me,” Dr. Pretorius griped.

Leo said, “Yeah— it messed up the doctor’s plans for his students. And it dredged up some strange old things in the process.”

“Like what?” Dutton asked, but he didn’t pause from his down-card dealing to wait for a response.

“Like ...” Leo reached forward when the faceup card came around. “You remember the Rathole, don’t you?” He didn’t get an immediate response, so he said, “All of us were old enough. It was a big deal.”

Dutton paused mid card delivery. “The restaurant? The murders? That was...twenty or thirty years ago.”

“Nineteen seventy-eight,” Leo said. “Right before Christmas. Some of the paperwork that survived the fire— it was from that case.” He did a little wave that meant yada yada yada and continued. “Anyway, it was something I hadn’t thought about. Not in years.”

“But you’re thinking about it now,” Father Squid delivered in his best, most detached-but-warm counseling voice.

Leo said, “It was my first bad one. Right after I made detective.” He gathered up Dutton’s next offerings.

Dutton delivered the rest of the cards, and the players delivered the rest of their bets in silence, until Father Squid said softly, “I remember the Rathole. My first church— the storefront— was right nearby. A girl named Lizzie worked there. She was one of the kindest people I ever knew.”

“The counter girl?” Leo asked.

“Yes. She died that night.”

“Her and a bunch of other people,” Lucas Tate said, and Leo could hear his frown through the St. Bernard mask. “The counter girl glowed, didn’t she?” he asked, but no one answered, so he kept talking. “Yeah, I remember the Rathole. It happened right after I came up from that assignment.”

“What assignment?” Leo asked.

Charles Dutton rolled his eyes; everyone could see it, even through the yellow death mask. “God, here we go.”

Lucas perked up significantly and said, “So you know I wrote this book, right?”

And everyone around the table groaned good-naturedly except for Leo, who knew about it same as everybody else. But he’d forgotten. “Paper Demon. You wrote that right after the Rathole?”

“Yes and no. I was out from undercover, but I’d just begun working on the book when the diner got shot up. My life with the gangs of Jokertown,” he mused, supplying the second part of Paper Demon’s title. “I was just getting used to hearing my own name again, instead of ‘Nimrod.’ Yeah, that’s what they called me. Man. It feels like a hundred years ago.”

The detective said, “Tell me about it.”

Though it’d only been a rhetorical response, Dr. Pretorius took him up on it. “I’ll tell you about it. I’ll tell you about a teenaged street joker who got railroaded for a crime he almost certainly didn’t commit.”

“Did you represent him?” Leo asked. “I don’t remember.”

“He escaped before the trial. I never got a chance to defend him, only to file his paperwork.” The lawyer seemed to be restraining himself when he said quietly, “I was going to use his case in my class next semester. The kid couldn’t have done it.”

Lucas Tate spoke up, saying, “That’s a little hard to argue. I mean, he was holding a king’s ransom in drugs when they picked him up— and that was after he’d spent a week helping himself to the stash he took from the diner. Everybody knew that cook was dealing.”

“We never argued that point. But—”

It was Kant’s turn to object. “Christ, Storgman. I hope you’re not thinking of looking into that case again. No point wasting time and energy on a thirty-year-old crime. We got the guy, and now he’s dead. They’re all dead.”

Father Squid muttered, “We’re not.”

“Hey, Nimrod,” Leo said, wanting to steer away from the potential disagreement. “Come Monday, I’ll be swinging by the Cry. Will you be in?”

“I’ll be in,” he confirmed. “But I won’t answer to that anymore, Ramshead. Go ahead and come by my office, while you’re at it. We’ll talk about the bad old days, and I’ll slip you a copy of Paper Demon...in case you’ve somehow misplaced your own.”

Leo said, “Good idea. I think I might’ve...uh...lost my copy.”

Almost everyone laughed.

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