Low chicago, p.11
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       Low Chicago, p.11

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

  He reached out.

  And a superstructure of tightly spaced glowing neon-yellow I-beams came into existence below the falling steel, catching the girders in a net that bent, but did not break. TT felt the weight of the fallen load in his mind and instinctively added more support to the structure he had created.

  Sweat dripped into his eyes and he reached up and pulled off his hardhat, absent-mindedly pulling the squawking earpiece out as he did so. He risked a glance out along the crane and saw that the old man and the tiger man were both gone.

  Below, the Suburbans went peeling out of the lot, heedless of traffic.

  The glowing yellow structure stabilized, and TT realized it was because he was getting used to the feel of it in his mind. He could sense the matter and the energy of it, he could direct the matter and energy of it.

  “Well, fuck me,” said TT.

  TT had a cousin, Sylvia, who was a meteorologist at a TV station up in Green Bay, and a nephew, Tobias, who edited a trucking magazine. So technically speaking, he’d been around reporters before. Sylvia and Toby, though, weren’t assholes.

  “Todd! Todd! Is this the first time you’ve used your powers to save someone’s life?”

  “Mr. Tad … Tatsicko! Can you do anything else besides create magic girders? Can you fly? Can you shoot rays out of your eyes?”

  “Will you be keeping your job as a crane operator, Todd?”

  “Are you married? Have a special someone?”

  “What does your family think about your ace power?”

  Oh Christ, that last one got his attention. With the way Ma kept three televisions going all the time, not to mention her police scanner, not to mention his sister Margaret the firefighter probably having heard all about this from the emergency crews who had showed up after everything had already settled down, there was no fucking way his mother and his siblings wouldn’t have heard about his “ace debut” already.

  TT didn’t have a clue how to answer any of the questions, didn’t know which one to try to answer first, didn’t know which one of the many cameras he was supposed to be looking at. Luckily, Local #221 had proved again what his pops had always said when he first brought TT into the construction business: “Don’t look at dues as a cut out of your check. Look at ’em as an investment.”

  In this case, his investment had paid for the services of a union lawyer, a guy named Kassam who maybe wasn’t as slick as the lawyers on Ma’s programs but at least he knew how to talk to the media.

  “It’s Mr. Taszycki,” said Kassam, and he spelled it out, spelled it right and everything. “And he doesn’t have anything to say at this time, other than that he’s glad that nobody was hurt in the incident.”

  The “incident,” yeah, TT guessed that’s what it fucking was. Tiger man fighting off a super-strong old guy trying to pull off a mob hit by pulling down his crane. None of the reporters had asked about any of that, though, which was kind of fucking odd, now that TT thought about it.

  “Hey,” he asked the lawyer, “what about those motherfuckers in the Suburbans?”

  Unfortunately, a couple of the reporters heard him ask and they started in with the yelling bullshit again. But the lawyer and the shop steward hustled TT away from the scrum and into the architect’s trailer while the foreman and a couple of the guys kept the reporters from following them.

  “We don’t want to get into any details of what caused the accident, TT,” said the steward, who was, really, kind of a weaselly fucker TT had never gotten along with. “The main investor is pissed off that his son came so close to buying it and he’s not a man who likes publicity.”

  “But it was a fucking mob hit,” said TT. “We didn’t have anything to do with it. We should call the fucking cops or something, shouldn’t we?”

  “It would be the Feds if we were going to call anybody,” said the lawyer. “But we’re not going to make any such calls. Though I’m sure you’ll be contacted by them soon enough. Not the organized crime guys, though. SCARE or somebody like that. They’re always interested in new aces.”

  “I don’t want anything to do with any of that,” said TT. “I don’t know what happened out there. I should, I don’t know, go to the fucking doctor or something.”

  “What I advise you to do,” said the lawyer, “is seek legal counsel as soon as possible. I can make some recommendations. The reporters will file their stories and forget about you, hopefully, so long as you keep your head down and don’t start fighting crime or something stupid like that. But even if the government doesn’t come sniffing around, somebody will. Be careful, TT.”

  And that was pretty much that for TT’s debut as a superpowered construction worker. Catching the falling I-beams then lowering them to the ground had been easy compared to all the bullshit that followed talking to the union and the construction company and the lawyers and the reporters. But at the end of the day, TT found himself in the mobile locker room with the rest of the crew, like usual.

  The trailer was big enough for twelve showers and a bank of lockers, and the crew was big enough that it was always crowded in there come five o’clock. But today, TT noticed, he didn’t have to elbow his way to his locker and wait in line for the shower. The other guys kind of made way for him in a way that wasn’t comfortable at all.

  Finally, he said, “C’mon, what the fuck is this? You assholes going to treat me different now? I didn’t ask to get the virus and if any of you motherfuckers had been paying attention in sixth-grade science you’d know it ain’t catching. At least I didn’t grow three more cocks or something.”

  Bell, one of the riveters, said, “That’d give you a total of three, then,” and the other guys all laughed and then it was more or less back to normal until TT pulled his phone down from the little shelf at the top of his locker and saw that he had a hundred and nine missed calls and forty voice mails. Most of them from Ma.

  TT lived in a room above his mother’s garage, and it would take him about an hour to get home, where she’d be fixing supper for him and for whichever of his sisters and brothers would be coming over tonight. On a Friday night, there would be more of them than usual. Hell, on a Friday night when one of the siblings had been on the local news all afternoon for being a fucking ace all of them might show up. Ma would have to put the extra leaf in the dining room table.

  That piss-drunk son-of-a-bitch Father Dobrzycki would probably wander over from the Polonia Hall, too. Better stop for extra wine, then.

  He was always one of the first guys to arrive on the site in the morning, which meant his truck was parked at the far end of the row. Parking was tight enough that there was a rule that you took the farthest space available when you arrived. TT had the same We Build Chicago bumper sticker that most of the other trucks and cars did on his F-250, and his wasn’t even the only F-250. So TT figured it was either just a coincidence or because his vehicle was the most secluded from the street that the old man had crawled into the plastic-lined bed of his truck.

  TT thought he was just some homeless dude at first sight, but then the old man rolled over and those three gaping wounds were still bleeding on his face from where the tiger man had clawed him. The old man looked different, though. His arms and legs weren’t so heavily muscled. In fact, his coveralls hung off him like they were a couple of sizes too big. He’d actually fucking shrunk since his fight up on the crane.

  Somebody yelled at him to have a good weekend and to try and stay out of the papers and TT threw up a hand, waving in response. The old man looked out at him from his hiding space, held up a finger in front of his lips asking TT to keep quiet.

  This was a fucked-up situation.

  TT walked over to the driver’s-side door of the pickup and stepped up on the footrail where he could lean in and open the toolbox behind the cab. He looked around, but nobody was close.

  “What’s up, dziadek?” he asked.

  The old man gave him a ghastly grin. TT could see some of his teeth through his torn open cheek.

>   “I have no wnuki that I know of,” he said. “But I have been called grandfather before. Recently, in fact. Or, rather, ten years from now.”

  Oh yeah, this was making more fucking sense all the time.

  “I’m going to get you to the ER, old man. And you should try not to talk. It makes you bleed more and it ain’t too fucking pretty, neither.”

  “No,” said the old man. “No hospitals. No police. No authorities. I will heal in time, Hardhat.”

  TT supposed that wasn’t that weird a thing to call him, given that he was, in fact, carrying a hardhat. Still, he said, “Name’s Todd Taszycki. TT unless you’re my mother or my priest.”

  “I know your name,” said the old man. “I know all about you.”

  And then he passed out.

  TT figured his big sister Lynette, an ER nurse, would probably be at the house and he was right. Her old blue Saturn was parked on the street among a half dozen other cars belonging to various of his siblings. Because he still lived at home, TT rated off-street parking and pulled into the driveway, parking in front of the detached garage and interrupting the basketball game his brothers Caleb and Sonny were playing.

  “Let’s see it, TT,” said Sonny, not even saying hello. “Build something.”

  Sonny was the youngest of the family, nineteen but living in the dorms at Northwestern. Caleb, who managed a grocery store, was the oldest. He said, “Leave him alone, kid, he’s had a rough day.”

  “Fucking right I have,” said TT. “Not as rough as my passenger here, though. Caleb, give me a hand getting him into the house. Sonny, run and get Lynette.”

  Then it was a gang of Taszyckis hustling to get the unconscious old man spread out on the picnic table in Ma’s sunroom and Lynette yelling at them to keep clear or else go get something for her or else give her a hand.

  “He has to have lost a lot of blood,” she told TT. “But I don’t even know if I should sew him up. Look, you can see the wounds closing on their own. I never had to treat an ace before.”

  “Why’d you bring him here?” Charlotte asked. She was heavily pregnant and had always been a worrier.

  “What the fuck was I supposed to do with him?” TT asked.

  “Todd!” Ma said. “Don’t talk to your sister that way. Or in front of company. Or ever.”

  TT blushed and ducked his head. “Right, right. Sorry, Ma. Sorry, Charlotte.”

  The old man stirred then, and by this point the wounds really had closed all the way. He came to lying flat on his back surrounded by almost a dozen people, all leaning in and looking at him.

  He blinked once, then said, “Gdzie ja jestem?”

  “‘Where am I?’ Is that what he said?” asked Sonny. Sonny was fewer years away from Polish Scouts language lessons than the rest of them.

  Ma patted the old man’s hand and said, “A safe place. You’re in a safe place.”

  Which was all well and good, and old Polish home week was a fine thing and all, but TT couldn’t stop thinking about how the old man had flung the tiger man around and tried to kill the mob kid and his minders. In a way, it was good to have something to think about besides the glowing yellow girders.

  Not that Ma was going to let him forget about that anytime soon.

  “So,” she said, turning on him. “So I see on television that you are an ace now? When were you going to tell us?”

  “I would have told you if I fu—I would have told you if I knew, Ma,” TT insisted. “But this was the first time anything like this has ever happened.”

  “I thought wild cards turned when you were a kid,” said Caleb, and TT saw Lynette starting to answer him, but the old man startled them all by sitting up and it was he who answered.

  “I was in my forties when the devil marked me,” he said.

  Ma and Charlotte crossed themselves, and then everybody else looked kind of embarrassed and followed suit.

  Lynette said, “When the virus first hit New York it affected people of all ages. Caleb’s right that it mostly expresses at puberty now, but there are plenty of exceptions.”

  TT was glad that the guys at work couldn’t hear anything suggesting that he’d just now hit puberty.

  Ma was staring at the old man closely. She said, “How old are you now?”

  The old man shrugged. “Very old. Very old.”

  “You’re Hardhat!” Sonny said, practically shouting. “You’re the ace that fought the Lizard King and that other guy back in the sixties! You were in that movie about Destiny! Only the guy they had playing you didn’t look much like you. And he sure as hell wasn’t Polish.”

  The old man shrugged again. “It was in 1970.”

  The look on Sonny’s face told them all that the kid didn’t think that made much difference, but TT was struggling to remember the details of the fight from the Oliver Stone movie about the Lizard King. All he remembered was a guy wearing a hardhat getting his ass kicked by Kurt Russell, which wasn’t particularly helpful, as Kurt Russell was always kicking guys’ asses.

  “So you’re all mobbed up now?” TT asked. “Working as a hit man in your golden years?”

  “No,” said the old man. “No, it is not like that. I am … I am working to save people. Girls.”

  “There was a daughter,” said Ma, nodding. “There was a story in Life about you after you disappeared.” Ma and her articles. How did she remember this stuff? “They interviewed Dr. Tachyon. He said you lost track of your family after World War Two and you were trying to find them. That you’d spent all those years since the war trying to find them.”

  “But I never did, even after the alien’s virus marked me. I tried for a while longer, learning many dark things about my new country. So when I realized that I would never find my wife and daughter, I decided to use the devil’s gift to save other wives and daughters.”

  TT thought about what he knew about the Chicago mob, the rumors he’d heard his whole life, and his lip curled. “You mean the girls that wind up working for the Families,” he said. “The ones they kidnap or whatever.”

  “They are not all kidnapped, sadly,” said the old man. “Some of them choose the life of their own free will, though how a teenaged girl can make such a choice for herself is beyond me. They all learn, though. Even the ones who choose the life come to regret that decision. As for the others, the ones who did not choose, they come to despair even more quickly.”

  “But the guy you tried to kill today”—and TT heard Ma gasp at that—“he was just a kid. Sixteen or seventeen at the most.”

  “He is fifteen,” said the old man. “His name is Giovanni Galante and he will turn sixteen in three days. And on that day, he will kill for the first time.”

  TT said, “Mob guys got some kind of fucked-up ritual where you kill somebody when you turn sixteen?” Ma didn’t even shush him.

  “No, no,” said the old man. “A girl will be at the celebration. A gift from his father. She will do something to anger him and he will stab her to death with the knife he uses to cut his steak.”

  TT looked around at his gathered siblings and at his mother. None of them said anything. In fact, they were all looking at him like he was the one who should fucking say something.

  Finally, he asked, “Um, and how exactly do you know that, old-timer?”

  In response, the old man turned to Ma. “Madame, with your permission, I believe it would be best if I spoke to young Todd alone.”

  And surprising everyone, Ma nodded. “You look like you’re feeling much better, Mr.… Grabowski, wasn’t it? It does sound like you’ve got some things to say that may better be said in private. Unless you want me to send for Father? When was the last time you made confession?”

  The old man, Grabowski, looked up at the ceiling the way people do when they’re trying to remember something. “That is difficult to say, madame. It was either a long time ago or will happen a long time from now.”

  TT was catching a brain wave from the old man that indicated he wasn’t exactly grounded in
the here and now, which didn’t make him much look forward to a one-on-one conversation. But Ma seemed to think it was a good idea, so he led Grabowski outside and into the workshop on the first floor of the two-car garage.

  One side of the garage was given over to a workbench and room to work on projects. A small car draped in a tarp was parked on the other side. It was the candy-red 1973 Polski Fiat 126p Pops had imported before TT was born, and he and his siblings had made a long slow family project of restoring it. Right now they were waiting on some period headlamps from an Austrian dealer Sonny had found on the Internet.

  “Okay, Mr. Grabowski,” TT said. “You haven’t said a whole lot since I found you in my truck, but almost everything you have said has been fucking crazy. What’s the story?”

  The old man nodded and leaned wearily against the workbench. “It is a long story. And a strange one,” he said.

  “I don’t have to be back to work until Monday morning,” TT said.

  It was a pretty fucked-up story.

  “I was a scholar,” said Wojtek Grabowski. “But then the Germans came so I fought them. And then the Russians came, and I fought them, too.”

  “Yeah, I thought the Russians and the Germans fought against each other in that war,” said TT.

  “Yes,” said Grabowski. “And everyone fought the Poles. It has always been this way.”

  TT wasn’t exactly sure about that, as it seemed a little paranoid, but then again Pops always had bitched about the Russians a lot.

  “I guess the timing with the virus didn’t work out for you to be able to get all bulked up and throw tanks around and shit, though,” said TT. He knew that wild cards hadn’t started turning until after World War II.

  “No, no,” said the old man. “That was many years later, in California. Long after I had left Europe. Just before I went back.”

  TT turned and opened the little fridge sitting next to one of the garage’s red tool chests. He pulled out a bottle of Luksusowa vodka then looked around for anything that would do for glasses.

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