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Authors: Andrew Vachss

Blackjack

BOOK: Blackjack
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Praise for Andrew Vachss

“Many writers try to cover the same ground as Vachss. A handful are good. None are better.”


People

“Vachss’s stories don’t feature pointless bloodshed. Instead, they burn with righteous rage and transfer a degree of that rage to the reader.”


The Washington Post Book World

“Strong, gritty, gut-bucket stuff, so unsparing and vivid that it makes you wince. Vachss knows the turf and writes with a sneering bravado.”


Chicago Tribune

“Gritty, frightening, compelling and ultimately satisfying.”


The Plain Dealer

“Vachss’s tough guy writing style grabs you by the hair and jerks you to attention.”


Detroit Free Press

“Gripping, unusual, and exciting.”


Nashville City Paper

ANDREW VACHSS
BLACKJACK

Andrew Vachss is a lawyer who represents children and youths exclusively. He is the author of many novels, including the Burke series, numerous stand-alones, and three collections of short stories. His work has been translated into twenty languages, and has appeared in
Parade, Antaeus, Esquire, Playboy
, and
The New York Times
, among other publications. He divides his time between his native New York City and the Pacific Northwest.

www.vachss.com

ALSO BY ANDREW VACHSS

THE BURKE SERIES
Flood
Strega
Blue Belle
Hard Candy
Blossom
Sacrifice
Down in the Zero
Footsteps of the Hawk
False Allegations
Safe House
Choice of Evil
Dead and Gone
Pain Management
Only Child
Down Here
Mask Market
Terminal
Another Life

OTHER NOVELS
Shella
The Getaway Man
Two Trains Running
Haiku
The Weight
That’s How I Roll
A Bomb Built in Hell

SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS
Born Bad
Everybody Pays
Mortal Lock

A VINTAGE CRIME/BLACK LIZARD ORIGINAL, JULY 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Andrew Vachss

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

Vintage is a registered trademark and Vintage Crime/Black Lizard and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Cross™ and all prominent characters featured herein are trademarks of Andrew Vachss.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

The Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file at the Library of Congress.

eISBN: 978-0-307-74472-2

www.weeklylizard.com

www.vachss.com

Cover design by Mark Abrams

v3.1

for George Schmidt

    
husband to the lovely Sibylle, sire of The Mighty Nicolas

    
the first (and finest) translator of my books into German

          
You went out on your shield

          
a warrior to the end

          
I expected nothing less

              
And I’ll see you soon enough, old friend

Contents
 

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.”

“What?”

“Pride. That’s what they call a herd of lions, a pride.”

“Oh.”

“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 distribute 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.”

“ ‘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.”

“It’s not?”

“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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