Low Chicagopart #25 of Wild Cards Series by George R. R. Martin / Fantasy / Science Fiction / History & Fiction
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To Lezli Robyn
a variant of seven-card stud poker
wherein the high hand splits the pot
with the low spade in the hole
A Long Night at the Palmer House
by John Jos. Miller
IT HAD BEEN ONE hundred and forty-two years since John Nighthawk had been inside the Palmer House, and then it had been the earlier incarnation of the luxurious Chicago hotel, known simply as the Palmer.
Nighthawk’s age was not apparent in his appearance. He was a smallish black man in a dark pin-striped suit with a discreet kidskin glove on his left hand. He looked to be in his thirties. He sighed as he gazed at the entrance to the hotel. Perhaps, he thought, it’s finally time to lay old ghosts. He hurried across the street, dodging early morning traffic with the ease of the longtime urbanite, and entered the hotel’s lobby.
Inside he paused momentarily, suddenly almost overwhelmed as one of his visions washed over him. They were part of the powers he’d gained on that first Wild Card Day in 1946 and usually came as warnings of great danger lurking in the near future. This one was more incoherent than usual, chaotic scenes of fire and ice, of great beasts and shifting landscapes, of quick flashes of the past he’d once seen and an even vaster past he’d never imagined.
He stood for a moment catching his breath, then went on to the elevator bank and up to the seventh floor, wondering what was in store for him this time around.
The door to room 777 opened at Nighthawk’s light knock, and he found himself looking down into the large, expressive eyes of a man even shorter and slighter than himself, no more than five four and maybe a hundred and ten pounds. The crown of his head was totally bald and there were baggy wrinkles under his soulful eyes. He looked as if he were in his fifties.
It took Nighthawk a moment to place his face. He was the spitting image of the actor Donald Meek. Nighthawk had loved him in Stagecoach, the original version with John Wayne. He’d seen it at the Theatre back in 1939 when it’d first come out.
“You must be John Nighthawk.” The man’s voice was high and flighty, fussy sounding.
“Come in, come in, and meet the client.”
Nighthawk entered the suite’s siting room. It was luxuriously appointed, as one would expect in the Palmer House, with period furniture that was a little too heavy and ornate for Nighthawk’s taste. Death himself stood in the doorway between the sitting room and one of the two bedrooms.
Death was tall, well over six feet, and cadaverously lean. He wore a black suit of old-fashioned cut and fabric. Rubies the size of walnuts gleamed in his silver cuff links. His face and head were skeletal, fleshless, mere yellowish skin stretched tightly over bone. His teeth, white and perfect, were exposed by a lipless grin.
“Perhaps you know Mr. Charles Dutton?” the man who looked like Donald Meek said. “The client.”
“We’ve never met,” Nighthawk said, “but of course I’ve heard much about you, sir.”
Dutton inclined his head. “And I of you, sir. I would like to engage you to help Mr. Meek take care of me for the next few days.”
Dutton’s voice was as cadaverous as Nighthawk expected it would be.
“You’re here for the game.” Nighthawk was so sure that he made it a statement rather than a question.
Dutton’s rictus of a smile may have widened a millimeter. “Quite so. You know of the game, Mr. Nighthawk?”
He did. “Poker. Dealer’s choice. Seven players. Hosted by Giovanni Galante, a high-ranking member of Chicago’s most prominent crime family. A million-dollar cash buy-in. Each player is allowed two attendants.”
“Some bring whores,” Dutton said dismissively.
“Some bring bodyguards,” Meek added.
Dutton’s eyes were dark and unreadable in the skin and bone of his face. “It begins tonight in a suite on an upper floor of the Palmer House and continues until one player has acquired all of the chips. I intend to be that player.”
Nighthawk nodded. He frowned at Meek. The man was not physically impressive. It was hard to imagine him guarding anyone. But of course he was not the real Donald Meek. The actor had been dead for decades. But there was a certain shadowy ace from New York City who called himself Mr. Nobody who could change his appearance at will and often liked to mimic film stars from the past. And Charles Dutton had been associated with Mr. Nobody, as he recalled.
“And your ace is?” Nighthawk asked Meek.
Meek giggled. “I make problems … disappear.”
“Okay.” If Nobody wanted to keep things close to his vest, that was all right with Nighthawk.
Dutton nodded to Meek. “Mr. Nighthawk will make a satisfactory addition to our little team.”
“Oh my, yes,” Meek said. “I told you he was the man for the job, Mr. Dutton.”
“Galante is hosting,” Dutton said, “but the names of the other players are supposedly secret until game time. I know that I have the ultimate poker face … but it might be helpful if we knew ahead of time who else will be attending.”
“And,” Meek added, “if we knew if they were bringing hookers or guns. Or both.”
“You being a local man, with contacts…” Dutton added.
“I’ll get right on it,” Nighthawk said.
“An inestimable choice,” Dutton said to Meek. Death sounded pleased.
The game was set for a suite on the Palmer House’s penultimate floor. Most of the regular furniture had been removed from the sitting room, though a couple of small sofas and overstuffed chairs were scattered around for the attendants, bodyguards, and other onlookers. A bar stood before one wall with rows of liquor bottles behind it. Doors to three bedrooms opened off the sitting room and a bathroom was located in the short hallway that led from the entrance to the sitting room.
A large purpose-built poker table covered with green felt filled the center of the room, with a lavish chandelier hanging over it. Seven comfortable leather chairs for the players were spaced around the table, with a number of other chairs a few feet back for the players’ attendants. Most of those chairs were already occupied when Nighthawk, Meek, and Dutton entered the room.
Nighthawk knew all of the players already present and several of their attendants. He would have recognized most of them even if he hadn’t spent the morning and afternoon hitting up his sources for information.
Foremost was their host, Giovanni Galante, presumptive heir to the Galante crime family. He was a familiar figure around Chicago. Mid-twenties, handsome in a sleazy way, he wore expensive, tasteless suits and potent cologne that failed to hide the smell of hard liquor that accompanied him everywhere he went. He was already at it, drinking whiskey out of a cut-glass tumbler, straight with only a couple of ice cubes.
One of Galante’s companions sat in a chair close to the table … though “sat” was an inadequate word to describe the way she held herself. “Posed” was perhaps more accurate, in a tight white designer gown that plunged low down the front and was cut high up her left hip, leaving an expanse of shapely thigh exposed. The ruby earrings and necklace were no more spectacular than her lush red hair. Her skin was flawless cream, her eyes a brilliant blue. An onlooker would be forgiven for assuming she was just arm candy, but Nighthawk knew better. Her name was Cynder and she was an ace with a potent flame-wielding ability. She worked full-time for the Galante family as a bodyguard and enforcer.
There could be no doubt about the nature of the man who stood stolidly behind Galante’s chair, hands clasped, eyes alive with suspicion. Nighthawk had never crossed paths with him before, but he knew of him. His name was Khan. Compared to Nighthawk, he was a relative newcomer to the Chicago scene, making his bones in the last decade or so as a freelance bodyguard. At six three and three hundred pounds, his physical prowess was evident, but the wild card virus had given him more than muscles. Half of his body was an anthropomorphic version of a Bengal tiger. His left side, including his face, was covered in black-striped orange and white fur, and he had fangs, a green feline eye, and cat whiskers. His left hand and foot were thicker and bigger than normal and had, now retracted, razor-sharp claws on all digits. To match the tiger fur on the left side of his face, Khan had grown a dark beard on the right and braided little bells into it, his own little cat joke. He mimicked the natural eyeliner of his tiger eye with cosmetics around his human eye.
As Nighthawk entered the room, followed closely by Meek, Khan’s gaze swept over them both. He seemed puzzled by Meek, but when his eyes met Nighthawk’s they widened a little. He nodded at Nighthawk. Nighthawk nodded back.
He and Meek stepped aside and Dutton, who liked to make a dramatic entrance, followed them into the room. Silence fell as everyone turned to look.
Dutton wore a black tuxedo of old-fashioned cut, complete with a top hat and opera cape. He was a symphony of black and white, except for the rubies that burned red at his wrists and the red rose pinned to his jacket. A black mask completely covered his face.
Galante called out affably, “Ah, you must be Charles Dutton, our guest from New York! Come in, come in! Grab a seat. Here—take this one—” He gestured to the empty chair next to the man seated to his left. “You know Jack, right?”
“Yes.” Dutton’s voice couldn’t have been colder. He moved around the table, to another empty chair.
Galante shrugged. “Or, hell, take that one. It don’t matter. Does it, Jack?”
“No,” Golden Boy said. He was a handsome, apparently young man, blond, an athletic six two, maybe a hundred and ninety pounds. He looked incredibly healthy. He was Jack Braun, the infamous strongman of the Four Aces, the first group of public aces. He’d gained his powers the same day that Nighthawk had, on that first Wild Card Day back in 1946, but later he had testified against his friends before HUAC. That had earned him the nickname of the Judas Ace. Nighthawk figured that Dutton, who also dated back to that era, was not one to forgive and forget. Braun, still apparently ageless, had been out of the public view for many decades now. A mediocre acting career followed by a rather more successful run in California real estate had earned him millions.
One of his two companions was sitting on his lap, the other hanging over his chair, her arms entwined around his neck. They were twins, statuesque, voluptuous, with long, braided silver-blond hair and vivid blue eyes. They wore identical very tight, very short skirts that clung to their curves like Saran Wrap on a serving bowl.
The face of the one sitting on his lap took on an expression of concern. “What’s the matter, Honey Boy?”
“Nothing,” Braun murmured, “nothing at all, Hildy.”
Dutton turned his masked features to the man sitting next to the empty chair. “Do you mind, sir?” he asked politely.
“No, not all,” he replied. “Sit down. I’m Will Monroe.”
Nighthawk pulled the chair out for Dutton, since Meek was carrying the briefcase that held a million dollars in thousand-dollar bills. Dutton nodded to Monroe and his companions.
Monroe was blond, mid-fifties, clearly tall though now sitting down, with an epicanthal fold to his eyes. He was slim and he wore his expensive though casual clothes quite well. His watch was a high-end Rolex, which made it expensive indeed, and he wore a gold-and-diamond ring on his left hand. The bastard son of Marilyn Monroe, he had made his own mark on Hollywood as a very successful movie producer.
Two innocuous-looking young people accompanied him. One was Gary “Pug” Peterman, Monroe’s personal assistant and yes-man. A former child star, Pug had gotten his nickname from either his upturned nose, his soulful brown eyes, or his overall demeanor of a puppy who’d just been paddled for piddling on the rug. Nighthawk knew little of his acting career. He hadn’t liked the first of his movies, so he’d never seen another.
Monroe’s second attendant was a young woman with black hair. Her short-sleeved blouse revealed Asian ideograms tattooed on both her forearms, as well as a variety of hearts and skulls. Nighthawk thought they ruined her rather bright demeanor. His sources told him that she was Abigail Baker, an aspiring young British actress.
Nighthawk studied Monroe for a moment. He disliked predators of all types and he wondered if Monroe fit the typical Hollywood stereotype. Monroe felt the pressure of his glance and looked up at him. That almost made Nighthawk miss the bit of byplay where Meek winked at Baker and the actress looked at him quizzically. Will Monroe looked as if he were going to say something, but then the door to the suite opened and more newcomers barged in.
In the lead was a stocky, plug-like man in his fifties, who seemed as if he’d once been slim but had gained weight over the years. His shock of coarse dark hair had streaks of gray in it and was cut in Buster Brown bangs that covered his forehead almost to his eyebrows. He strutted confidently into the room, accompanied by the usual two attendants.
It was easy to pick out the bodyguard. He was tall, grizzled, and his dark hair was a bit gray, though he was maybe only pushing forty. His hands were stretched and warped out of all human proportion. They looked like slabs of meat the size of car batteries and were definitely more suited to smashing things than fine manipulation. His name was Ali Husseini, an ex-con with a rep for violence. Nighthawk knew that he’d found Allah during his last term in prison. He was better known by his ace name of Meathooks; the report on him said that metal hooks protruded from his body when he became angry. The other newcomer was just a kid, struggling with a valise that Nighthawk guessed contained the buy-in. He hardly looked to be in his teens, if that. He was nerdish, short, a little chubby.
The one with the Buster Brown haircut strolled confidently up to the table, smiling when he caught sight of Jack Braun. “Hey! Golden Boy!” He plopped down into the open seat next to him, beaming. “We met back at a card show in Peoria, what was it, ’06, ’08?”
“Um—” Braun was clearly bewildered.
“Charlie Flowers!” Flowers didn’t seem to mind Braun’s faulty memory. “Signing autographs? Remember?”
“Oh, ah, sure.” Braun nodded.
Flowers leered at Dagmar. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to the talent?”
Braun glanced away, looking at Giovanni Galante. “Our host—Mr. Galante—”
“Oh, sure.” Flowers half stood up, reaching out. Dagmar squirmed more tightly against Braun as Flowers’s arm more than brushed her breasts. “Pleased to meet you.”
Flowers had meaty hands. He wore diamond rings on both pinkies as well as a huge, multi-jeweled gold ring on each ring finger. Nighthawk shook his head, half in disbelief, half in admiration, for the size of Flowers’s balls. It took immense—something—to wear your World Series rings in public after being banned from professional baseball for gambling on games.
Galante took his hand with an insincere smile. “Likewise.”
Flowers held on, his arm still firmly pressed against Dagmar’s breasts. He gestured backwards with his chin. “That’s my bodyguard, Meathooks. I know we’re all friends here, but, why take chances, amirite? Oh, and that’s my nephew Timmy. He’s an ace, too, so watch out.…” Flowers leaned forward conspiratorially, bringing his face almost as close to Dagmar’s breasts as his arm.
“Charlie,” Braun said in a voice with a hint of warning in it.
“What?” He turned, bringing his nose perilously close to lodging in Dagmar’s cleavage.
Flowers turned back, grinned at Galante, released his hand. “Hey, no harm done.” He turned the grin onto Dagmar. “Sorry to wrinkle your dress, sweetie. Hey, Timmy. Show the folks what you can do.” Flowers sat back in his seat with a smile on his face.
“Sure, Uncle Charlie.”
Timmy went around the table to the wall with a set of three windows opening up to the street below. It was night already, and dark outside. He climbed up on one of the sofas that was set against the wall, fumbling for the window latch, but couldn’t reach it. The kid looked back at his watching uncle almost helplessly until one of the attendants rose to his feet to help.
Nighthawk didn’t know the player, exactly, though he recognized him. Once, he’d almost had to kill him, to save the world from his Black Queen, which was raging out of control.
His name was John Fortune. He’d been a teenager when they’d first crossed paths. Now, twelve years later, he was a mature man of almost thirty, a man who’d once been prominent as leader of the Committee, the ace arm of the United Nations, but had dropped from public view. He’d been in the war to save the joker commu