Wild Cards Volume 15 - BLACK TRUMP
As is now standard, this concluding chapter in the Card Sharks trilogy is presented in the 'mosaic' style with five writers contributing. However, In a slight break from the norm, the events in this globe-trotting tale take place over an unspecified time period (although it's probably just over a month).
The core characters in this one are:
Gregg Hartmann (by Stephen Leigh)
Billy Ray, AKA Carnifex (by John J. Miller)
Jay Ackroyd, AKA Popinjay (by George R.R. Martin)
Mark Meadows, AKA Cap'n Trips (by Victor Milán)
Zoe Harris (by Sage Walker)
with close back-up from:
Jerry Strauss, AKA Mr Nobody
Croyd Crenson, AKA The Sleeper
And so, with three vials of the deadly Black Trump in transit to various parts of the globe, the countdown begins for a disparate group of aces to find them before the Card Sharks can culture enough to finish the Wild Cards off forever.
Gregg and Hannah start things off by narrowly escaping a set-up and go underground in pursuit of the virus, closely followed by agents April Harvest and Billy Ray, who's seen what it can do up close. A Black Dog invites Croyd and Zoe to see the world and bring back the ultimate bargaining tool while they're at it; Jay Ackroyd and his team go over the top and lead a jailbreak before going down under to track down their part of the puzzle; while Mark Meadows' revolution comes to a halt when he's kidnapped and forced to choose between two evils, though not necessarily the lesser.
Gregg experiences real terror in Ireland and rediscovers an old skill; a short cut back to Jerusalem results in Croyd taking a well-earned rest, while Zoe's state of mind isn't improved when she is forced back into the desert to work for the enemy. Jerry gets treated like family when he encounters Mark Meadows in Burma; in England, Ray causes a riot when he goes to communion, and turns to self-abuse after losing his partner.
As the Black Dog prepares to unleash armageddon, and the Sharks finish synthesising their version of it, our heroes close in for the endgame. Gregg has to talk himself out of trouble in a rematch with the Nur; Billy Ray, Croyd and Zoe find betrayal and vengeance in the desert, Mark does everything but give peace a chance when the Radical makes a timely return, while Jay steps into the past when he takes to the sky and battles a man with half a face.
By tale's end, Quasiman has found his purpose in life, Gregg does the right thing for the right reasons, Ray refuses to play the sap, Zoe goes off the deep end, and Jay keeps his end of the deal.
Make no mistake, this concluding chapter in the Card Sharks triad is a cracker - perhaps even up there with Dealer's Choice in terms of tension and excitement - and makes a fitting finale to the original decade-long cycle of books. In fact the creators seem to have taken the concept of sharks literally in regards to the pacing, since similar to its underwater brethren the tale is in constant motion, with each character racing around the globe seemingly at a moment's notice, solving one problem only to have another immediately takes its place, in a superior race-against-the-clock thriller.
The book starts as it means to go on with an homage to those James Bond pre-credits sequences, this one starring Billy Ray as he infiltrates and single-handedly dismantles a Shark hideout in the Carribean - and you can almost hear the 007 theme tune as you're reading it. Yet it's at this point, as he witnesses up close the Black Trump's effects on Wild Card victims, that Billy's character suddenly has to cope with a new enemy - introspection. This, coupled with the almost paternal attitude he exhibits towards young jokers when he infiltrates the Twisted Fists later on, adds even more layers to one of the more appealing personalities in the whole series. It's certainly diificult now to recall the one-dimensional palooka of the early days.
And, of course, we've got the welcome return of the Radical - and it only took fifteen volumes for Mark Meadows to get there. All good things to those who wait however, and, despite many of his bon mots surpassing Jay's in cringeworthyness, the return of the Radical is definitely a good thing. Seeing Mark finally reach some kind of peace after decades of frustration is highly satisfying, and the Radical's spectaular reappearance at a point when Mark really needs him is reader-manipulation at its finest. Special mention at this point should be made of the unfortunate henchman, Layton, who, judged purely on his subsequent actions on meeting the ace, can easily lay claim to the title of 'Dumbest Man in the Universe'.
What else? Well, we finally meet that elusive terrorist, the Black Dog. Often mentioned, never seen (even here he's masked), the charismatic joker makes fleeting appearances at crucial moments throughout the tale, remaining an enigma even after the end credits. Then there's the thoroughly objectionable Snotman, who makes an uninvited appearance at the beginning of the story only to be thwarted again by superior tactics - this time by Quasiman(!) who simply decides to teleport him elsewhere. And he hasn't been heard from since.
Bringing the series full circle, George R.R. Martin pays tribute to the first Wild Cards story, Thirty Minutes to Broadway! during the climax, with his staging of Jay Ackroyd's dramatic face-off with the deranged conspirator, Carter Janarvon. The blimp, the virus, the maniac with half a face, they're all present and correct - Jay even mimics the Al Jolson quote.
Bizarrely, Jay also does something by tale's end that is totally out of character: by fulfilling his part of the clearly unenforcable contract he made with Brandon van Renssaeler (who's a Card Shark, by the way) earlier in the story. Okay, it gets a cheap laugh, but to send one of his allies to another planet is pretty unforgivable, especially for someone as moralistic and self-righteous as Ackroyd. Even more so when it's later revealed (in Death Draws Five) how long it took for that person to get back to earth. It's a real puzzler of a scene, and one really has to wonder what George RR Martin was thinking when he wrote it.
Other than that misstep, though, the only other fault with the story is that there are simply too many nutcases for one book to contain: Carter Janarvon (totally insane); Gunther Ditmar (perverted torturer); O.K. Casaday (murderous CIA dickhead); Nur al-Allah (religous fanatic); Leo Barnett (ditto); the Black Dog (psychotic terrorist); Pan Rudo (genocidal nazi). And that's not even mentioning Zoe Harris' collapse or the mental state of the other remaining Card Sharks.
While Black Trump ties up many - though, by no means, all - of the loose ends in the series, the last few pages hint at a possible future storyline that has been all but ignored in subsequent instalments. Probably for the best as a 'Zoe's Revenge' scenario sounds a little too similar to a certain Astronomers's revenge in Joker's Wild.
In retrospect, It's fortunate that the writers packed as much into the book as they did, as we would have to wait seven years until the next volume.
Belew: 'If Casady could be found, I would have found him years ago. Emerson said, Pay every debt, as if God wrote the bill.'
Jay Ackroyd: 'Imagine thinking up something like that in between making all those refrigerators.'
Owl: 'I never seen anyone who could fight like you.'
Billy Ray: 'I was born with it, kid. That's all. Some people are, some aren't. I just was.'
Hannah: 'Fanatics in front, fanatics in back - you know if you closed your eyes and just listened to the Nur and Black Dog, you'd have trouble telling them apart.'
Black Dog: 'You must be Carnifex.'
Billy Ray: 'So who are you under the mask, Sherlock Holmes?'
Black Dog: 'We won't discuss that. You're after the Black Trump, of course.'
Billy Ray: 'No shit, Sherlock.'
Jay Ackroyd: 'Are you one of Mark's friends?'
Radical: 'The first and the last.'