Jokers Wild



There is Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Carnival in Rio, Fiestas and Festivals and Founders' Days by the hundreds. The Irish have St. Patrick's Day, the Italians Columbus Day, the nation its Fourth of July. History is full of mummers' parades and masques and orgies and religious pageants and patriotic extravaganzas.

Wild Card Day is a little of all of that, and more.

On September 15, 1946, in the cold afternoon sky over Manhattan, Jetboy died and the Takisian xenovirus-known colloquially as the wild card-was loosed upon the world.

It is unclear just when the observances began, but by the late sixties, those who had felt the touch of the wild card and had lived to talk of it, the jokers and aces of New York City, had taken the day as their own.

September 15 became Wild Card Day. A time for celebrations and lamentations, for grief and joy, for remembering the dead and cherishing the living. A day for fireworks and street fairs and parades, for masked balls and political rallies and memorial banquets, for drinking and making love and fighting in the alleys. With each passing year, the festivities became larger and more fevered. Taverns and restaurants and hospitals did record-setting business, the media began to notice, and finally, of course, the tourists arrived.

Once a year, without sanction or statute, Wild Card Day engulfed Jokertown and New York City, and the carnival of chaos ruled the streets.

September 15, 1986, was the fortieth anniversary.

Chapter One

6:00 a.m.

It was as dark as it ever gets on Fifth Avenue, and as quiet.

Jennifer Maloy glanced at the streetlights and the steady stream of traffic, and pursed her lips in annoyance. She didn't like all the light and activity, but there wasn't much she could do about it. This was, after all, Fifth Avenue and 73rd Street in the city that never sleeps. It had been equally as busy the past few mornings she'd spent checking out the area and she had no reason to expect that conditions would ever get any better.

Hands thrust deep into the pockets of her trench coat, she strode past the five-story graystone apartment building and slipped into the alley behind it. Here was darkness and si lence. She stepped into an area of the alley that was screened by a garbage dumpster and smiled.

No matter how many times she'd done this, she thought, it was still exciting. Her pulse speeded up and she breathed faster in anticipation as she put on a hoodlike mask that obscured her finely sculpted features and hid the mass of blond hair tied in a knot at the back of her head. She took off her trench coat, folded it neatly, and set it down next to the dumpster. Under the coat she wore only a brief black string bikini and running shoes. Her body was lean and gracefully muscular, with small breasts, slim hips, and long legs. She bent down, unlaced and removed her sneakers and put them next to the trench coat.

She ran a hand almost caressingly over the rear wall of the graystone apartment building, smiled, and then walked right through the wall.

It was the sound of a power saw biting into sodden hardwood. The whine of steel teeth made Jack's own teeth ache as the all-too-familiar boy struggled to hide deeper within the cypress tangle.

"He in dere somewhere!" It was his uncle Jacques. The folks around Atelier Parish called him Snake Jake. Behind his back.

The boy bit his lip to keep from crying out. He bit deeper, tasting blood, to keep from changing. Sometimes that worked. Sometimes.

Again the steel saw shrieked into wet cypress. The boy ducked down low; brown, brackish water slopped against his mouth, into his nose. He choked as the bayou washed over his face.

"Tol' you! Dat little gator-bait right dere. Get 'im." Other voices joined in.

The power saw blade whined one more time.

Jack Robicheaux flailed out in the darkness, one arm trapped in the sweaty sheet, the other reaching for the phone. He slammed the Tiffany lamp back against the wall, cursed as he somehow caught its petals-and-stems base and steadied it on the bed table, then felt the cool smoothness of the telephone. He picked up the receiver in the middle of the fourth ring.

Jack started to curse again. Who the hell had this number? There was Bagabond, but she was in another room here in his home. Before he could get his lips to the mouthpiece, he knew.

"Jack?" said the voice on the other end