Blackjack: A Cross Novelby Andrew Vachss
TO: UNIT 3 Chicago
SUBJECT: Specimen Retrieval
TARGET: Shadowy hunter-killer teams, ID'ed via signature kills worldwide. Identifiable only by skull-spine removal from victims. No witnesses, no forensics, no particular race targeted. On/u>/u>/u>/u>/u>… See more details below
TO: UNIT 3 Chicago
SUBJECT: Specimen Retrieval
TARGET: Shadowy hunter-killer teams, ID'ed via signature kills worldwide. Identifiable only by skull-spine removal from victims. No witnesses, no forensics, no particular race targeted. On rare occasions, scraps of what appear to be playing cards found at murder sites.
OBJECTIVE: Locate and capture any member of such teams. MUST be taken alive for study and observation.
AUTHORIZATION APPROVED FOR USE OF OUTSIDE CONTRACTOR: Individual ID'ed only as "Cross" and his team. A pure mercenary outfit, well known throughout criminal underworld--no inside informants available. Ruthless, undeterred by risk, rumored never to fail, but UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES to be trusted. No known political or social objective, but has proven treacherous when retained by government in the past.
UPDATE: Cross and his team claim to have identified a pattern to the signature-kills, and believe they can predict a forthcoming strike. They are prepared to personally confront-and-capture, but financial arrangement alone not sufficient. What you describe as a "Get Out of Jail Free" card is hereby APPROVED.
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
"Vachss has always been able to pit his protagonists against the darkness of the human heart to great effect."
Read an Excerpt
THE LION'S full-maned magnificence filled the glass of the high-power telescopic sight. Accustomed to domination of all he sees, the beast was unaware that what he does not see was now holding him captive.
His captor dialed in with great care—only a perfectly placed shot would preserve the trophy he had paid so much to take. The lion was no menacing figure to the human cradling the rifle—he regarded himself as the king of a very different jungle, one much more vicious and far less forgiving.
To this man, the lion was a mere objet d’art: destined to become still another symbol of his elite standing, its value enhanced by difficulty of acquisition. Any man can buy things; only those of a special breed may grant themselves permission to take things. And what better way to illustrate the difference than to display those trophies they have taken with their own hands?
The title “King of the Jungle” had been reduced to ultimate irony. The lion’s multi-generational belief that he was master of all he surveyed had become an illusion. In reality, he was nothing but a mere target for an impending hostile takeover.
The sight’s crosshairs intersected on the lion’s vital organs—a head shot would destroy the trophy. The scope was mounted on a custom-built .458 Weatherby Magnum, the rifle itself bolted onto a tripod with its own click-adjustment capability. A separate range-finder–and–windage-meter combination was mounted within its housing. The rifle’s heavy, non-reflective barrel protruded through a mesh netting covering the open sunroof of a khaki-and-beige Land Rover.
If the lion knew an enemy was approaching, he would follow the natural sequence of his breed: first warn, then attack. But he had no such knowledge. Instead, he rested comfortably in the restorative sun, waiting for the female members of his pride to make a kill. The beast remained unaware that he had been reduced to a potential trophy from the moment the hunter’s kill-shot had been dialed in.
The hunter was dressed in couture jungle gear: knee-high black boots and matching cartridge belt topped with a leopard-banded bush hat. He stood frozen behind the scope, visualizing as would any artist picturing in his mind what he would create on the blank canvas before him. As always, this master artist’s preferred medium was blood.
“Isn’t he perfect?” the artist gloated. “Here, take a look for yourself.”
A woman’s head slowly emerged through the opening. A pink chiffon scarf covered her long blonde hair; another protected her throat. She was well aware that every asset she possessed was depreciating, so she guarded them all with extreme care, knowing that plastic surgery would, eventually, become self-mockery.
She slid closer to the man, calculating every movement, knowing her role was to be another of his trophies, always on display. Delicately, she peered through the scope, taking care not to let it actually touch her extended eyelashes.
“Oh, he is a beauty. I’ll bet he has his pick of the whole herd.”
“Pride. That’s what they call a herd of lions, a pride.”
“You have to understand the culture of this area, Celia,” the artist pontificated. “That’s the only way you can truly appreciate the thrill of the hunt.”
“I see...” she murmured, gently placing her hand on the man’s forearm arm as she gazed adoringly into his eyes. These seemingly spontaneous moves had been practiced and polished since her early teens, and perfected well before her first marriage.
Two natives squatted on the ground, grateful for the meager shade provided by the faux-camo Land Rover. They exchanged glances but did not speak. Like the woman, they had fully internalized their role many years ago; their every word and gesture honed by constant practice.
“He’s a man-eater,” the great white hunter said.
Celia checked her husband’s face for hint of a double-entendre. Detecting none, she quickly ran her tongue over her lips, taking care not to speak.
“No question about it, he’s the one. Killed three of their people so far, and I’ve got the documents to prove it. You know why that lion is so nice and relaxed? This whole area is reserved for photo-safaris. No hunting allowed. The only exception is when the government certifies that a particular animal has become dangerous to man.”
“Aren’t they all dangerous?”
“Only if they leave the preserve. And why should they do that? They’ve got everything they need right here: plenty of food, clean water, a goodly supply of game... you name it. If you lived at the Four Seasons, why would you ever check into a Motel 6?”
“Then how is this one different?”
“He’s not,” the man said, his voice a life raft bobbing on a perfect ocean of confidence. “I am. The ‘president’ of this so-called country is actually the owner—everything inside the borders belongs to him.
“You understand?” the man continued, glancing at the woman to make certain she missed none of the implications of his speech. “This country is his property. If you own something, you can sell it. Or rent it. But there’s nothing left for him to sell anymore, not from this country. Half the population’s already dead. Natural causes, like starvation and disease. There’s no infrastructure at all, no way to dis- tribute food or even seed. It could have been a paradise, but President-for-life Qranunto never understood even the simplest business principles. Now it’s impossible for that maniac to get his hands on hard currency.”
“He must have some—”
“Money? Sure. He did. But now it’s all gone. Sitting in banks all around the world. Billions. But he can’t get his hands on it.”
“If it’s in his name, why not just take it out?”
“Because he has no one he could trust, so he set everything up so that he’d have to show up in person to claim it. And he’s wanted by every country on the planet. The UN, the World Court, even whatever useless organization they have for Africa, they all have him under an arrest-on-sight order. If he wants any money in his hands, he has to have someone come over here and put it there.”
“‘Oh’ is right, baby. Cost me one-point-five million. That’s in euros, not dollars. For that, I get the run of the place. That’s why we’re using the Land Rover. What we’re doing isn’t some stupid ‘safari’—in fact, it’s not about hunting at all.”
“No,” he replied, in the same smug voice he used when a casino employee kowtowed to him—as a well-known “whale,” he was courted and comped by every legal gambling establishment from Vegas to Monte Carlo. “When you hunt for trophies, there’s all kinds of stupid rules about how to do it. But when you’re hunting for food, there’s never any rules.”
“We’re not going to eat that thing, are we? I mean—”
“Just listen!” the man abruptly halted whatever foolishness was about to come out of that ripe mouth of hers. Well within his rights, was he not? A man owns what he pays for, and those top-drawer collagen injections hadn’t come cheap.
“Some trophies are food. Not the kind of food you live on, the kind of food that lets you live any way you choose. When I walk into a boardroom, why do you think the others stand up? I’ll tell you why: because they know what I can do. They know what I’m capable of. And it’s trophies like that incredible creature over there that prove it.”
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