Low chicago, p.12
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       Low Chicago, p.12
 

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

  Grabowski chuckled and took the bottle from him, opened it, and turned it up, taking a long swallow. He sighed deeply and said, “This is the real stuff, eh? Not rye or grain. Potatoes!” He laughed and handed the bottle back over.

  TT gave an appraising look to its mouth, then said, “Fuck it, I’ve already got the worst thing I could catch off you, anyway, right?” He took a slightly less generous slug than the old man had, then asked, “So how’d you wind up in California? How’d you wind up in the States at all?”

  “I came here for the only reason a man like me ever has to leave behind one’s nation, one’s home, culture, all of it.”

  “Chasing a dream?”

  Grabowski held his hand out for the bottle. “Chasing a woman,” he said, and grinned.

  TT rolled his eyes. Old guys. What are you going to do?

  “Okay,” said the younger man. “Did you catch her?”

  Then, to TT’s shock, Grabowski put one hand to his haggard face and let out a sob. “No. No, I never found her. Oh, Anna. Oh, God, oh, my Anna!”

  TT felt just about as fucking uncomfortable as he ever had. He started to pat the old man on the shoulder, but shit, maybe he should hug him or something. Finally, he just said, “Maybe have another slug of that vodka?”

  Grabowski did, then took a deep breath. “We were married by a priest who helped hide us in the woods. She was another of the fighters, younger than me by three years, but wiser by far. I do not know why she loved me. It was a great mystery.”

  TT shrugged. “Maybe you were just the best-looking guy in the woods.”

  Grabowski half smiled at that. “When she got pregnant, I moved heaven and earth to get her out of the country. There was a British agent who we worked with sometimes, and he smuggled Anna out. She was already showing, but I swore I would do all I could to join her in America before our child was born. This was after the Russians had taken over our country.”

  He held the bottle out for TT to take, and TT sipped a bit. “That must have been pretty fucking hard on you two,” he said.

  “Yes,” said Grabowski. “Yes, pretty fucking hard.” The expletive was unexpected coming from the old man, but it didn’t sound wrong at all. “It was ’46 before I made it to America. I was on a transport packed with people from all over Europe and North Africa, anchored off Governors Island. This was September. That September.”

  “When the virus hit New York,” said TT.

  “We could hear the screams from across the water. They kept us aboard for three more weeks. Some thought we had been forgotten or that we were to be turned back. Some even jumped the rails and tried to swim for it. I do not know if any of those made it to shore. All I know is that eventually they processed us, and I found myself in the city with very little English, no friends, no money. It was … bewildering.”

  “I fucking bet,” said TT. “Were you supposed to meet … um … Anna, in New York someplace?”

  “Yes, but she was not there. No one I spoke to had any information. I asked at the churches and at the consulates. I went to the Polish neighborhoods and asked at the groceries and the laundries. I asked everyone. I asked everyone I met for the next twenty-five years.”

  TT studied the scuff marks on his steel-toed boots.

  “I do not know whether I gave up before the devil marked me or after,” Grabowski continued. “But it was around then. I … became what I have become … and had the fight your brother spoke of with those children in San Francisco. And then the alien doctor came, as your mother said. He used his contacts with the American government to help me look for Anna for a little while, but I could tell that he thought it was hopeless. We did not find her.

  “But I did find someone. I found a girl who looked like my Anna, who I imagined might have been my own daughter, walking the streets in Oakland. She was a Polish girl, newly come to America, who had fallen in with very bad men. Very bad men who forced her to do very bad things.”

  “She was a hooker or something? How bad are we talking?” asked TT.

  “Yes, a prostitute. They forced that life upon her. She was afraid of me, especially after I … I … removed the threat of the very bad men. But she told me how she had come to be on the streets. She told me there were others like her. Many others. And I decided something. I decided that since I could not find my wife and child, since I could not save them, I would save others. The wives and children of other men who did not have the strength the curse had given me.”

  “You’re saying you started fucking up pimps in California?”

  Grabowski took the bottle back. “Not the pimps, no. And not in California. Even after so long in America, I did not have the knowledge I needed to make a real difference. I did not know how criminal syndicates worked in America, I did not know the official laws of the government or the unofficial laws of the street. But I told you that before the war I was a scholar. I had been studying to be a lawyer. In Poland, you see, where many of these girls were coming from, I knew better how things worked, even though much had changed under the Communists. So I went back.”

  “To Poland? What, after the fight with Lizard King? Is that why I’ve never heard of you? You some kind of secret Iron Curtain super-guy?”

  “No, no. Not the way you mean. Secret, yes, but secret especially from the governments there. The Polish government, all of the client states of the Russians, had very strict policies about the wild card. There were very few aces or jokers there, and those who made themselves known disappeared in the state apparatus immediately. I was, what is the word? Clandestine.”

  “Like I said, secret Iron Curtain super-guy. Fighting crime and communism! Here’s to you!” TT raised the bottle in a mock toast.

  “I did not fight communism,” said Grabowski. “And the people I worked against were often not criminals, or at least they were not treated as such. Americans believe that when the Party lost control of Russia and the other countries that mobsters suddenly appeared and took control of everything. That is ridiculous. It is the same people! The men smuggling girls to the West then were soldiers and bureaucrats. When the states collapsed, they simply shrugged off their uniforms in favor of slick suits. That is why it is impossible today to tell the difference between a member of the secret police and a mobster there, because they are one and the same.”

  “So how long did you do that? Bust up slavery rings behind the Iron Curtain, I mean?”

  “Long time. A very long time, even after the Curtain fell. I was in Poland, Czechoslovakia, the Russian states, for … over forty-five years. I returned to America in 2015.”

  TT pointedly looked at the calendar hanging on the pegboard wall next to Grabowski. “See where it says July 2007 there, boss?”

  Grabowski got a faraway look in his eye. “In July 2007, where was I, where was I? Ah! I have it. Kiev. I remember because the man I killed there was an ace who worked for the Ukrainian government. An ugly business, and far more public than most of my activities.”

  TT decided to let it go, or at least to set it aside for the moment. “So, eventually, whenever, you came back to the States. Why?”

  “Because I learned a name. The name of the man who was responsible for much of the human trafficking between the old bloc and America. A name that came with a reputation as black as any I had ever heard.”

  “You’re about to tell me who this was, and it’s going to turn out to be that fucking mob kid, isn’t it?”

  “His name is Giovanni Galante. And after almost two years I finally learned where and when he would be. A particular time and date, a particular place. A poker game at the Palmer House.”

  “See,” said TT, deciding not to let it lie there this time. “This is where you kind of lose me. This being the summer of 2007 and all.”

  “Yes, so it says in the newspapers. I do not know how I came to be here—to be now. At the card game, where I went to kill Galante, I fought with the same ace you saw me fight this morning, except that he was older. There were gunshots, gout
s of flame, wild card powers of all kinds. Then the room was empty and I was alone there, naked. I took clothes from another room and soon learned that I had been thrown into the past. This was almost a month gone, now.”

  “And you’ve spent that time figuring out how to finish your hit on the Galante kid.”

  Grabowski nodded his head. “He will become a monster. I told you, he is only days away from killing the first of many young women he will murder by the time he is your age.”

  “I don’t know how you expect me to believe any of that,” said TT.

  “You must believe me. From what I know about you, young man, you will also want to help me.”

  “Help kill a teenager? No fucking way. And what do you know about me, anyway? You said something like that before you passed out back at the site.”

  “You are the new Hardhat. You are Todd Taszycki, from the television program. They played it even in Poland and Russia. You are the famous Polish-American construction worker from Chicago who can create and manipulate girders of yellow energy.”

  TT shrugged. “You could get all that from just seeing me this morning, old man. Don’t mean you’re from the future.”

  Grabowski looked at TT for a long moment, long enough that TT got antsy. The old man was looking at him like he felt sorry for him.

  “Listen to me,” Grabowski said. “I know things that are going to happen to you. You will be famous. You will travel with other aces to fight in Egypt. And you will die.”

  “That supposed to be some kind of prophecy?”

  “It is a memory!” Grabowski roared, leaping across the garage far more quickly than his appearance allowed for and grabbing TT by the shoulders. “Whether you believe me or not, I remember it! You go on the television to play games with other so-called heroes, but then you become a hero for real. You go to fight at the Nile River, and there, you will die!”

  TT shook himself free of the old man’s grip. “Die saving innocent people, right?”

  Grabowski eyed him up and down. “Yes. Hundreds of them.”

  Sonny stuck his head in the door. “Ma says you guys should come eat.”

  TT waved. “Tell her we’ll be there in just a minute.”

  Sonny looked for a second like he was going to stick around, but then he caught the mood in the garage and ducked out.

  “Look,” said TT, “I’m not going to let you kill some fucking sixteen-year-old kid. It doesn’t matter if you’re some kind of fucking time traveler or not. And I’m sure as fuck not going to help you.”

  Grabowski said, “We can discuss Galante later. I am beginning to think my purpose in being here has little to do with him and everything to do with you.”

  “What about me?”

  “Perhaps I am here to save you.”

  TT nodded at the door. “Nah, I don’t need saving. Big-time fucking hero, remember? That’s me.”

  Ma had commandeered every one of TT’s siblings present to throw together an authentic Polish dinner in honor, she said, of Grabowski coming to teach TT to be a hero, though where she had gotten that idea TT couldn’t say.

  So the family and their unexpected guest sat down to pierogis with white mushrooms and cabbage, tripe soup, roasted lamb with stewed beetroots, and a big pudding for dessert. All washed down with cold bottles of Żywiec beer. TT hadn’t had that much Polish fare in one sitting in a long time, since Ma kept trim by eating mainly vegetarian dishes, but he sensed he shouldn’t mention that.

  After dinner, Sonny booted up his laptop and started reading highlights aloud from articles about the wild card virus, about aces and jokers and the impact of a turned card on family life. Because a card had turned in the Taszycki family, and TT’s siblings were curious to a one about it.

  Charlotte held her hands over her abdomen. “Should I be worried about the baby?”

  TT hadn’t even thought about that. Fuck, come to think about it he did remember something about how the virus spread among family members, but—

  “Nah,” said Sonny, reading off his screen. “The odds of it showing up in a nephew or niece aren’t any higher than among the general population. Todd was a latent, that’s all, and the stress of seeing those girders fall triggered his card.”

  TT had described the near disaster to his family, kind of glossing over the parts where their new pal Grabowski was trying to kill a fucking kid and fighting a tiger man, though the shape he’d been in when TT had pulled him out of the truck had kind of clued them in that there was more to the story than what he was telling. TT didn’t know yet what he was going to do yet about Grabowski’s declared intentions.

  There was also all this time-travel bullshit to think about. TT didn’t suppose it was any more impossible than aliens and flying women, or, for that matter, tiger men and projecting glowing yellow I-beams. It didn’t feel like the truth, exactly, but neither did he have old Grabowski pegged as a liar, and TT put a lot of store in his instincts. Not having a solid instinct on the situation was, in fact, kind of fucking upsetting, if TT was being honest with himself.

  The siblings who lived farthest from home left earliest, drifting off one at a time until there were just Sonny, who was spending the weekend at home from his summer classes to get some laundry done, and TT, who of course lived there full-time. Ma had made it clear at dinner that Grabowski would be taking TT’s room over the garage and TT would be bunking it on the other twin bed in Sonny’s room, which struck TT as just a tiny bit of bullshit, but then he guessed that for all her talk about welcome to our home and here’s a big Polish dinner maybe she didn’t want the old ace actually sleeping under her roof.

  Ma turned in about eleven, and Sonny disappeared down to the den in the basement to play video games or surf the internet or something. TT walked Grabowski out to the garage, the two of them drinking the last bottles of Żywiec.

  “You are lucky to have such a family. They are lucky to have you,” said the old man.

  TT nodded. Yeah, family was a big deal, but he didn’t feel like talking about it with this guy who was at least a would-be murderer and, for all TT knew, was already a murderer in fact. Time-traveling murderer with super-strength. So instead of replying to what Grabowski had actually said, he said, “We’re going to have to have another talk in the morning.”

  Grabowski said, “Yes. A good long talk.”

  TT wandered down to the den, where Sonny was blowing up aliens or saving princesses or whatever the fuck it was he was doing with all the button mashing and jittering around on the couch.

  “Hey,” he said. “Hey, shut that shit down. I need you to look something up for me.”

  “Hang on,” said Sonny.

  “C’mon, Sonny, push pause or whatever, I need a favor.”

  The images on the screen froze and Sonny was looking up at him. “A favor? Since when do you ask me for favors?”

  “Since right fucking now and don’t make a big fucking deal of it, okay? I need you to punch up on your computer there and see if there’s been any news about a fight between aces in … oh fuck, where did he say? Kiev! Look up ace fights in Kiev.”

  Sonny gave him a mystified look, but pulled his laptop off the coffee table and set to typing. In just a few minutes, he said, “Huh.”

  “Huh what?”

  “How did you hear about this? Yeah, see, there was a fight in a warehouse at the Kiev airport that sent a bunch of people to the hospital. A guy with some kind of magnetic powers or something fought a super-strong … old man. Hey! Is that our old man? No, wait, of course not, couldn’t be.”

  “Why not?” demanded TT. “Why couldn’t it be our old man?”

  Sonny pointed at the screen. “Because this just happened about twelve hours ago.”

  Oh yeah, thought TT. One good fucking long talk is what we’re going to have.

  But in the morning, he was gone, and goddamn if the son-of-a-bitch hadn’t taken TT’s truck.

  “I still don’t see why I can’t drive. It’s my car,” said Sonny.

/>   “Shut up,” said TT. “I’m concentrating. Anyway, it was me fucking taught you to drive.”

  “Are you saying you didn’t do a good job?”

  TT turned Sonny’s battered little Toyota into the parking lot of the Italian restaurant they’d been directed to and said again, “Shut up.”

  The union lawyer had been happy to take TT’s call until he figured out that TT wasn’t calling to talk about using his ace power to advance the cause of labor or whatever bullshit he was apparently imagining. But if he’d gotten kind of distant when TT had interrupted that line of thought, he’d gotten absolutely hostile when TT told him why he was actually calling. TT wanted to know where the Galante crime family hung out, and the lawyer was offended that TT thought he would know.

  Of course, it turned out that he did know because he was a fucking lawyer for a construction union in Chicago, but that didn’t stop him from being kind of pissy about the whole thing.

  “Hey, TT,” said Sonny. “There’s your truck!”

  “Oh, shit, that means he beat us here,” said TT, pulling into a spot next to a shiny black Suburban and setting the parking brake.

  “You don’t have to do that, you know,” said Sonny. “It’s not like we’re on a hill or anything.”

  “Shut the fuck up. Always set your parking brake, it’s for fucking safety.”

  Sonny ignored that. “Are we going in? Or are you just going to use your spare keys and take the truck?”

  “You are going home,” said TT. “I’ll be along in a little bit. I have to find Grabowski.”

  “Found him,” said Sonny.

  “What?”

  Sonny pointed up to the roof of the single-story restaurant. Sure enough, there was the old man, back turned to them, stalking across to the opposite side. He looked different now, like he had when TT had first spotted him yesterday morning, all bulked up and as broad as he was tall.

  “What’s wrong with him?” Sonny asked. “He looks like he’s dosed up with steroids or something. Is that his ace power?”

  TT shrugged, getting out of the car. “I guess. Look, get out of here, okay? I’m going to go up there and talk to him.”

 
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