Low chicago, p.10
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       Low Chicago, p.10

         Part #25 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin

  Not only was the game itself entertaining, but in the bottom of the first, a couple of latecomers went down the aisle, right past Croyd and Nighthawk, to the front row of boxes. A man and woman, both expensively, even extravagantly, dressed in the fashions of the day. Croyd noticed them first as they passed by. He poked Nighthawk in the ribs, and started to rise, but Nighthawk laid a cautionary hand on his arm as he watched Charlie Flowers and Dagmar take their seats.

  “Keep an eye on them,” he whispered. “And let’s enjoy the game.”

  It was a crisply played match, over in little more than two hours. In the eighth inning Shoeless Joe Jackson made an incredible running catch, preserving Williams’s perfect game. Williams waited on the mound to shake his hand as they headed for the dugout.

  Croyd shook his head. “Is Jackson really trying to throw the game?” he asked in a low voice.

  “Some say that he was in on the fix, but didn’t play like it, double-crossing the gamblers.” Nighthawk shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe he couldn’t help himself from catching the ball. Maybe he couldn’t let his teammates down in a game like this.”

  It was the only bit of help Williams needed to retain his perfect game. He struck out the side in the ninth inning, and the 2–0 score held up. As Williams was mobbed by his teammates for pitching the greatest game in World Series history, Charlie Flowers stormed up the aisle, a scowl plastered on his face, dragging Dagmar by the hand behind him.

  Nighthawk and Croyd looked away, watching out of the corners of their eyes until they passed.

  “Let’s go,” Nighthawk said. They followed at a discreet distance up the concrete stairs.

  They stayed behind the couple, sheltered by the crowd rushing out onto the streets to celebrate the victory. Nighthawk’s face was grim. He’d just witnessed one of the most incredibly historic sights of his life, and now they had to wipe it all away to mend the time line and preserve their present. It wasn’t a small thing, this breaking of the baseball color line decades before Jackie Robinson. It had tremendous implications, social, political, and economic, for his people, not to mention that it righted a great wrong that had kept deserving men from performing at the highest levels of their chosen profession. Nighthawk had no idea what possibly could have triggered the historic change and, even though it was positive, he and Croyd had to wipe it away. To erase it. To bring back an injustice that would harm the social fabric of the entire nation. He had to blink back tears, this time tears of frustration and rage. But he would remember. He would remember the two hours or so of perfection, just a second or less in eternity, but something of beauty and grace that was an accomplishment for the ages.

  They followed Flowers and Dagmar to the line of horse-drawn carriages waiting outside the park. The two time travelers climbed into the seat of an enclosed coach, Flowers shouting an address to the driver. Before he could pull away from the curb, Nighthawk and Croyd leaped into the coach themselves, taking the seat opposite.

  “Fancy meeting you here,” Croyd said, smiling.

  Flowers stared at them blankly for a moment, until recognition appeared in his eyes. “You’re—” he began, stopped, began again. “You’re those guys from the poker game. What the hell?”

  “We’ve come after you,” Nighthawk said, “to return you to our time.”

  Flowers stared at him. “What?” He shook his head. “Fuck. No. I like it here. I know important people. I am important people!”

  “You help fix the World Series, Charlie?” Nighthawk asked coldly.

  “What if I—I mean, what the hell you talking about?”

  “Come on, Charlie, it’s in all the history books.” Nighthawk paused. “Although I don’t recall reading your name in any of them.”

  “Well, you will.” Flowers flushed. “It was half-assed until I signed on—”

  Croyd shook his head. “You’ve got to go back, Charlie. You both have to go back. Our present is being torn apart. History is getting all messed up.…”

  “Who cares?” Flowers snarled. His face was dark with rage and suddenly he was holding a pistol in his hand. He still had an athlete’s reflexes. “I don’t give a goddamn. I was never very good at history. Let those lousy bastards take care of themselves. They fucked me over when they had their chance, well, fuck them, twice as hard—”

  Dagmar, sitting next to him on the seat, had quietly taken a cosh out of her bag. She smacked Charlie hard, on the side of the head. His eyeballs rolled up and he sagged limply on the seat as Nighthawk and Croyd looked on.

  She turned to them. “Oh, take me home. Take me home, please!” She started to cry. “I hate it here. It’s so hot and dirty. There’s no television, the movies have no sound! And the food is terrible. Nothing is gluten-free, they don’t even have sushi. Oh, please, please—”

  Croyd gestured briefly. Nighthawk could see the rainbow ripples pass between him and his targets, and then Dagmar and Flowers were gone, leaving piles of clothes and a pistol behind them.

  “Jesus,” Nighthawk said, “that’s it? They back in our present?”

  Croyd nodded in satisfaction. “Yep. That’s it. Standing on Michigan Avenue in 2017 naked as jaybirds. Or jailbirds, in Charlie’s case. Let the son-of-a-bitch explain that.”

  “All right then,” Nighthawk said. “Let’s go find a mirror.”

  “No place like the Palmer House,” Croyd said.

  The desk clerk at the Palmer House didn’t bat an eyelash when Nighthawk and Croyd booked a room for the night, sans suitcases. Nighthawk, acting a part as Croyd’s valet, informed him that their luggage would be delivered later that evening.

  It made sense for them to return to the Palmer House. A hotel room provided the requisite privacy to make the jump, not to mention the necessary mirror. It also served as a ready source of clothing and other necessities for the newly arrived travelers. And both Nighthawk and Croyd were hungry. The hot dogs they’d had at the stadium had been a decent snack, but what they really needed was a good meal, which was just a phone call to room service away.

  They ordered steaks, several sides, a couple of desserts each—most of them for Croyd—and a large pot of coffee. Black. Croyd was used to remaining awake for extended periods of time. That wasn’t Nighthawk’s normal lifestyle, but for now at least he was willing to match Croyd’s string of sleeplessness. It might turn into a problem as their quest continued, Nighthawk realized, but for now he could deal with it. He was feeling tired, though, and at some point in the near future knew that he would have to energize himself with a jolt of life essence. Again, that was something to worry about perhaps during the course of their next jump.

  After their repast, Croyd sat at the table, staring into the bottom of his coffee cup.

  “Well, no time like the present,” Nighthawk said.

  “Yeah,” Croyd said. “Very funny.”

  They went up to the room and stood together in front of the full-length mirror on the wall next to the bed. “Wait a minute.” Nighthawk reached into his pants pocket and pulled out all the money he had. “Give me your cash. We might as well leave it on the nightstand to pay our bill. It can’t do us any more good.”

  Croyd’s meek-featured face crinkled in disappointment. “Much as I hate to part with money, you’re right.” He pulled out his cash and sighed. “Now look into the mirror.”

  The Motherfucking Apotheosis of Todd Motherfucking Taszycki

  By Christopher Rowe

  TT FEATHERED THE JOYSTICK to the right. He felt the tower crane’s cabling respond as he split his attention between the video feed on his control panel and the real-world view of the three-and-a-half-yard bucket hundreds of feet below. The bucket, carrying fourteen thousand pounds of wet concrete, shifted a few feet and came to a rest precisely on the mark his rigger had spray-painted on the ground in the middle of the busy construction site.

  “That where you want it, boss?” TT asked.

  “X marks the spot, TT,” the rigger replied, his voice crackling in TT’s earpiece

  “Fucking A,” said TT.

  The site foreman broke in, then. “Remember to watch your language on the radio today, TT,” he said. “When the investors get here they want to get wired up when we give them their hardhats. They’ll be listening.”

  TT rolled his eyes. He knew exactly who the “investors” on this project were and he doubted a bunch of motherfucking mob types were going to care much about whatever colorful words might float down from the crane’s operating cabin while they toured the site. Still, if he could rein it in around Ma and that piss-drunk son-of-a-bitch Father Dobrzycki then he could watch his tongue around a bunch of suited-up assholes who were probably packing guns.

  Just then he saw a pair of SUVs pull into the fenced parking lot. TT was only twenty-six and had excellent vision, and had been up in the cabin long enough to learn to recognize things from above that most people normally never even saw from above. So he could tell easy that these were a pair of black, late-model Suburbans, windows tinted way darker than the legal limit. Not that he needed to actually see them to guess those details. Fucking mob guys all drove the same cars.

  He checked the job list the foreman had handed him that morning at seven. Next up was unloading some truckloads of girders, but TT didn’t see any eighteen-wheelers in the delivery yard yet—probably stuck in traffic, the poor assholes—so he figured he’d be sitting tight for a little bit. He reached into his lunch pail and took out his little pair of field glasses and the bird-watching log his younger brother Sonny had given him for Christmas. Last year, TT had been into Chicago’s architecture. This year it was birds. There was a lot of time to look at shit from the crane, and you couldn’t beat the view.

  “Holy shit, take a look at this guy,” came a voice over the radio. “They ain’t going to find a lid that’ll fit him.”

  That was Joey Campsos down in the welding shop. TT waited for Joey to get dinged on his language, but looking down, he saw that the foreman was busy shaking hands with some suits standing by the gate. One of the suits looked … odd.

  TT trained his field glasses on the little gathering and saw what was fucked up about the guy Joey had seen. He was an ace or a joker or something. Big guy, all bulked out, which wasn’t that weird. What was weird was that the motherfucker was half tiger. Not split top and bottom like the old goat-legged joker actor who advertised prescription drugs to keep your cock hard on TV. Like, down the middle. Like his left half was some big muscly mook like mob guys always kept around and his right half was a motherfucking tiger.

  TT opened up his bird-watching log to the blank pages in the back and wrote MOTHERFUCKING TIGER MAN in careful block letters.

  He did not, however, get to add any new birds to the book over the next half hour. The downtown Chicago high-rise taking shape around him was used as perching space by a lot of birds, but none he hadn’t seen already. After a while, TT got bored looking at starlings and pigeons and decided to watch the mob guys and their tiger man bodyguard tour the site.

  Huh, TT thought, one of them’s just a fucking kid.

  The lone member of the tour group taking their time checking out the site who was not wearing a slick gray business suit was a black-haired kid, maybe sixteen. He was wearing a white tracksuit. Through the binoculars, TT could make out the gold chains the kid was wearing, which probably meant they were some pretty fucking big gold chains. The guys in business suits—all wearing hardhats now except for tiger man—deferred to the kid.

  Must be some high-up mob fucker’s son getting his feet wet on an easy project, thought TT. He was losing interest, though—the tiger man wasn’t actually doing anything—when the foreman came over the radio.

  “Hey TT, the iron is inbound and our guests want to see the crane operate. When the beams are unchained move a bundle of them up to sixteen, okay?”

  The sixteenth floor was currently the highest floor of what would eventually be a forty-story office building. TT watched two trucks slowly make their way into the unloading yard and began to manipulate the controls of the crane. He wasn’t exactly nervous about being watched by the mob guys, but he was extra careful in lowering the hook for the truck drivers and the yard hands to attach to a bundle of girders.

  Once the load was secure, TT began the delicate process of maneuvering it over the site and up to the sixteenth floor, where a crew was waiting to guide it in. The video feed on the jib was less useful to him during the move than it was during loading and unloading, so he was looking out and down at the carefully balanced load when he saw one of the truck drivers crouch on the bed of his trailer and jump from the unloading yard, arcing up and over the welding shop and the architect’s trailer, to land among the mob guys.

  “What the fuck?”

  The mikes of the radio system were voice-activated, so TT guessed he would have been in trouble with the foreman for offending the delicate sensibilities of the investors, but the investors were busy pulling out handguns and unloading on the truck driver. The truck driver who, TT could see, was landing some serious blows on the suits, sending a couple of them flying halfway across the site as he watched. One suit wasn’t shooting, though, he was hustling the kid in the tracksuit back toward the parking lot.

  “Fuck, the beams!” TT remembered. He stopped the load in its swing up and over, slightly overcorrecting and feeling the sway in the crane mast as the tons of steel came to a halt. But he shouldn’t feel that much of a sway.

  The radio was useless now, voices overlapping and cutting one another off as guys from all over the site yelled at the foreman to get down while the mob guys yelled and cursed. At least one of the mooks who’d gone flying was still alive and conscious; he was screaming. There was no way anybody would hear TT ask for somebody to get eyes on the tower to see what was causing it to vibrate.

  “Shit, shit, shit,” said TT as alarms sounded. The load suspended from the jib was shifting, which was bad enough. But he was getting icons flashed across the panel that indicated the whole crane was losing stability.

  He cycled through the camera feeds until he found one looking straight down from beneath his control booth, and was astonished by what he saw. The jumping truck driver was now climbing the mast, reaching up for a crossbar and launching himself up fifteen or twenty feet at a time to catch the next. And right below, closing fast, came the tiger man.

  “It’s a hit. It’s a fucking mob hit,” said TT. “With motherfucking aces, oh shit.”

  The tiger man didn’t launch himself up in jumps like the truck driver, the truck driver, who, TT could now see, was an old man. Like a hundred years old or something, but with arms and legs and a neck as big around as TT’s torso. No, the tiger man just climbed, but he climbed fucking fast.

  What the hell are they doing coming up here? TT wondered, but then, finally, a voice broke through the chaotic chatter on the radio. It was the foreman, screaming, “TT! Move the beams! Move the fucking beams!”

  TT looked out at the boom. The girders were tilting badly and would soon slip free of the cable loops holding them. And if they fell, they would fall …

  Right into the fucking parking lot! Right onto those fucking Suburbans! That’s what the old man is doing, he’s trying to crush that mob kid!

  The old man was no longer climbing, though. He’d made his way to the slowing unit just aft of TT’s cabin and was now running along the jib like he was just running down the street, headed for the hoist unit with its drum and gearbox. Tiger man was right behind him, reaching out, then yes, catching the old man before he could do whatever he was planning to do to the cable.

  Tear it right in fucking two, I guess.

  Then the two aces were trading blows, hitting each other so hard that TT could feel the vibrations traveling through the crane’s superstructure. The old man staggered back, blood flowing down one side of his face from where the tiger man’s claws had opened up a trio of ugly gashes, and the tiger man closed in.

  But the fall was a feint. When the tiger man kicked out, tr
ying to send the old man off the crane, the old man caught his tiger leg and lifted the mobster high. He swung the tiger man down hard against the jib’s metal lattice, looking like a steel driver swinging a hammer down on a spike, except the hammer was a twisting, spitting, clawing ace. An ace who slumped, dead or unconscious, once he struck the crane.

  The old man turned his back on his foe and walked over to the hoist unit. Then, proving TT’s prediction true, he reached out and rested one hand on the main cable array. He squeezed his fingers together, and the strands parted. Below, the load fell.

  “Oh, fuck. No!”

  Then, in the operating cabin of a Liebherr tower crane situated in a construction site near Chicago’s Loop, something happened that had happened thousands of times before across the world over the previous sixty years. Something that had been studied and speculated upon by the finest minds of more than one planet.

  Inside Todd Taszycki, a change occurred on, at least, the chromosomal level. Some of those fine minds had theorized that the change occurred even more fundamentally than that, at the level of gluons and gauge basins, right down at the very bottom of matter, where the world becomes impossible to both understand and predict at the same time.

  Inside Todd Taszycki, a card turned.

  Outside, the girders surrendered to gravity and plummeted toward the parking lot below. TT saw people scattering.

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