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Stephen Leigh, William F. Wu, Melinda M. Snodgrass, Michael Cassutt,Victor Milan,Roger Zelazny,Kevin Andrew Murphy, Laura J. Mixon

Card Sharks

The Ashes of Memory

Stephen Leigh

1

How did I get involved in all this?

I'm not surprised at your question, given what I'm asking you to believe. Quasiman — you know him? He knows of you, but then I think everyone in Jokertown can say that — anyway. Quasiman gave me his tale. That's the real beginning, after all. With that and my background. I can visualize that horrible moment, but I wasn't there. I wasn't part of it. Not yet, anyway.

But I can see it. I can …

Evening mass in Our Lady of Perpetual Misery on September 16, 1993, was packed. Christmas, Easter, and Black Queen Night: those were the three times that Father Squid could count on a full house. Half of Jokertown seemed to be pressed shoulder to shoulder in the pews or standing in the aisles, giving the interior a look not unlike that of a Bosch painting. Many of them were families, with children entirely normal or as misshapen as the parents. Imagine a shape, anything vaguely human or even not so human, and there it would be somewhere in the crowd; a lipless frog's mouth open in the group prayer, tentacles folded in some imitation of praying hands, slimy shoulders adorned with a new dress or faceted eyes gleaming as they watched Father Squid at the altar, raising a chalice to the congregation.

Swelling chords filled the nave, a subsonic bass trembling the floor: that was Mighty Wurlitzer. MW, as he was called, looked anything but human. He had once been the choir director for All Saints' parish in Brooklyn; now he was a ten foot long, thick tube of knobby, sand-colored exoskeleton from which dozens of hollow spines jutted out. A vestigial head capped one end of the tube: two frog-like bumps of eyes, a slit nose, but no mouth. Mighty Wurlitzer couldn't move, couldn't speak, but the bellows of his lungs inside that confining sheath were powerful and inexhaustible. He could vent air through the natural pipes of his immobile body, creating a sound like a demented bagpipe on steroids. Modifications had been added since MW had been 'installed' in the choir loft. Flexible plastic tubing connected some of his spines to a rack of genuine organ pipes, allowing Mighty Wurlitzer to produce a truly awesome racket. It might not have been great music, but it was loud and energetic, and no joker in the congregation would ever fault another for doing the best he could with what the wild card had given him.

Mighty Wurlitzer sang and a wild music sounded, his voice a breathy orchestra. The jokers below joined in after the eight bar introduction.

'Holy, holy, deformed Lord, God of Hosts …'

Afterward, no one was certain who first noticed. Someone in the congregation must have been gifted with a keen sense of smell in exchange for their warped body — the wild card virus has that kind of sick sense of humor. At least a few would have noticed that the odor of the votive candles seemed to be particularly intense, that there was a thin pall of acrid vapor wafting in, that the air was growing hazy and blue …

'Fire!' The word was shouted into the teeth of the song, the warning drowned out by Mighty Wurlitzer's crashing thunder. A few people heard the warning. Heads began to crane around curiously, the song faltered.

A bright yellow tongue licked at the crack between the side doors of the church, flickering in like a snake's tongue and then retreating. A child nestled in the multiple arms of his mother began to cry. The first tendrils of gray smoke began to writhe under the doorways.

A jet of blue flame hissed as it shot from under the side doors.

'Fire!'

This time the cry came from a dozen throats. Up in the loft, Mighty Wurlitzer coughed, and the bagpipe drone hiccuped in mid-melody. Like drawing the Black Queen from the deck of the wild card virus, the soaring paean to Christ metamorphosed into something far more chaotic, more human, and more deadly. The interior of the church echoed not to a hymn but to screams and shouts. Mighty Wurlitzer abandoned the song to coughing, barking discords like someone pounding on a keyboard with desperate fists.

The panic, the deadly fear, began its reign.

Father Squid shouted from the altar, his whispering, sibilant voice amplified by the microphone under the tentacles of his mouth. 'Please! Don't shove! Everyone, let's move quickly to the nearest — '

The electronic voice went silent; at the same time, the lights inside the church died. In the sudden dark, the screams took on a new intensity. The surging, frightened congregation flailed and pushed and shoved toward the main doors at the rear.

There, the first people died.

Impossibly the doors were locked or barred. Worse, the metal bands of the great wooden doors were searingly hot, and through the seams of the oak a threatening brightness flickered. Those in front shouted pleadingly, but they were crushed against the unyielding doors by the weight of those behind. The doors bulged outward and then held, and now those unlucky ones who had been first to the doors were suffocating, as smoke billowed black around them and the roaring voice of the blaze announced itself.

The mob tried to retreat back into the church, pushing now, heedless of those who slipped and fell and were trampled underneath, none of them thinking now of anything but their own survival. Breathing became impossible. There was no surcease in the superheated air around them, and the smoke flared in their lungs like acid.

'Oh God, no!' Father Squid cried, but no one heard and God declined to intervene. The screaming had stopped out in the smoke-lost congregation. Those who could still breathe were saving that precious air for flight, for finding a way, any way out from the relentless hellpit that now surrounded and pursued them. Flames crawled the west wall, at the ceiling of the east wall a Niagara of superheated air boiled. Yet the fire had sucked most of the oxygen out of the interior, and the blaze seemed almost sluggish. The flames subsided to a sullen orange glow.

Then the main doors went down — pushed open or unlocked — and the opening sent fresh air gushing in. The conflagration suddenly erupted with an audible whoosh, the inferno roaring higher and more searing than before. The walls re-ignited, a fireball rolled down the central aisle. As the stained glass windows shattered and rained bright knives, waves of fire leaped inward.

The heat puckered Father Squid's face, made the golden thread of his vestments burn through the surplice beneath them. He couldn't breathe, couldn't see. He knew he was going to die. Now. There was only the smoke and the leaping, triumphant glare of flame. 'Mommy! Where are you?! Mommy!' A child screamed out in the roiling hell, and the sound caused Father Squid to take a staggering step toward the beckoning flames.

'Here!' he shouted into the roar. 'Come over here, son!'

A hand grasped his shoulder, pulled him back. 'Father — this way!'

'Quasiman. …' Father Squid squinted at the hunchbacked figure through the smoke and coughed, pointing back into the inferno that was the church. 'Save some of them … the children, the poor children …'

'Come!'

'Not me,' Father Squid protested. 'Them …' But the hand was implacable and incredibly strong. Father Squid couldn't resist and — to his shame — he found that part of him didn't want to resist. The choir loft fell in an explosion of sparks, Mighty Wurlitzer giving a last scream like the final chord for Armageddon. The west wall sagged; part of the roof fell. Over the thunder of the flames, they could hear sirens, but out in the

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