Low chicago, p.13
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       Low Chicago, p.13

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

  Sonny nodded, awkwardly sliding from the passenger’s seat over the parking brake and gearshift to take the wheel. TT walked into the alley between the restaurant and what looked to be an empty insurance office next door, hoping to find whatever ladder or fire escape Grabowski had used to get up top.

  He didn’t find anything, and then he remembered the jumps he’d seen the old man making yesterday. How the fuck am I supposed to get up there?

  Well, the old man had obviously used his ace power to get to the roof.

  TT hadn’t tried to do anything with the glowing girders since the incident at the job site yesterday, despite Sonny’s harassing him all morning while they ate the breakfast burritos Ma whipped up and then made the trek out to this suburban shopping district. But he could feel the power inside him all the time.

  Working on instinct, TT constructed a glowing yellow staircase of girders in the alley. He idly wondered if he could make any other shapes besides the I-beams, but decided not to worry about it right then. He clambered up the structure and stepped onto the tarred roof.

  Grabowski was on the opposite side, looking down over the edge.

  “Hey!” TT shouted, trying for that goofy-ass tone of voice where you’re trying to be quiet and to yell at the same time. “Wojtek! Hey!”

  There was no response, so TT started across the roof. Trying again, he said, “Hey! Hardhat!”

  At that, the old man turned.

  TT stopped. Grabowski looked mad. Real mad. And mean. His T-shirt—oh for fuck’s sake it was one of TT’s T-shirts from his softball league and now look at it—was stretched out so far that the seams had split, showing the old man’s boulder-like muscles.

  Hairy bastard, TT thought unhelpfully, holding up both hands in a peace gesture.

  The old man clearly wasn’t interested in peace, though. He snorted like a bull, then charged like one, head bent low.

  “What the fuck?” TT barely stepped aside in time, and even at that Grabowski’s outspread left hand grazed him, barely fucking grazed him, and it was enough to send TT spinning. And it hurt.

  “Hey, calm the fuck down!” TT shouted, but Grabowski was turning and charging again.

  Only to come up dead against a wall of closely set glowing girders extending up from the roof like fence posts. TT heard the distinct sound of something hard and heavy striking steel, and he felt one of the girders come dangerously close to buckling. As soon as he was expending willpower to shore it up, Grabowski swung his other fist, landing a second blow on another of the girders. This one did buckle, falling toward TT, of fucking course, and so TT let it wink out of existence.

  Another one disappeared, too, not because TT willed it but because Grabowski just plucked it up and threw it across the alley to the next rooftop, where it landed heavily against an air-conditioning unit. For all that TT could make them float in air and appear in different configurations, apparently the girders were as heavy as the real thing.

  Which gave TT an idea.

  In his softball league—TT captained a team for Saints Stanislaus and Stanislaus Church—TT had a pretty good batting average. And since he thought he was getting the hang of this girder generation and manipulation thing pretty well, he decided to take a swing at Grabowski.

  Letting all the girders he had going dissipate into nothing, TT turned sideways to the old man, brought his hands up and back next to his right ear, and concentrated. A girder appeared, its I-shaped profile eighteen inches across, made up of glowing plates a couple of inches thick. TT guessed his creations defaulted to specs, which meant that since the girder was twenty feet long, despite the fact that it felt practically weightless in his hands, it weighed just a little more than half a ton.

  He pivoted his hips, extended his arms, swung through.

  Grabowski had been rushing TT, arms spread wide, and the beam struck him right at the waist.

  “Holy shit,” TT said, letting the beam fade and watching Hardhat fly through the air. The old man arced up and completely over the insurance office, disappearing as he plunged over the far end of the next building along, maybe a hundred yards away.

  Hoping he hadn’t killed the old man, TT hustled to the edge of the roof. He was just about to solve the problem of how to get across the alley with a girder when the access hatch to the restaurant flew open and a couple of suited dudes in sunglasses came climbing out, guns in their hands.

  “What’s all this fucking noise?” one of them asked. “How the hell did you get up here?”

  TT held his hands up and looked around. With Grabowski out of sight and none of his girders in existence, there was no visual evidence of the fight they’d just had. Except for the crushed AC unit on the next roof, which the mob guys didn’t appear to notice, the only thing out of the ordinary was TT himself.

  “I’m, uh, I’m here to check the roof,” TT improvised. “The property management company sent me.”

  The guy who’d spoken nodded at his partner, who walked over to TT and looked up and down the alley. “No ladder,” he reported.

  The first guy hadn’t pointed his gun away from TT yet. He said, “I’m going to ask you again, pal. What was all that racket? And how did you get up here?”

  “What the fuck is that?” asked the second one, pointing with his gun into the sky above TT’s head.

  It was the last thing he would say for a while, because what he’d seen was Grabowski cannonballing up and over the insurance office to land right on top of the poor son-of-a-bitch. The old man tucked and rolled, coming up hard by the first guy, who opened up with his pistol at point-blank range, to no apparent effect.

  Grabowski slapped the mook’s pistol away hard enough that the guy went spinning, then followed through from the other direction with his left hand, catching the guy upside the head hard enough to lift him off the ground. Both of the mob guys were down for the count, and TT was starting to feel severely underprepared for continuing a fight with Wojtek Grabowski.

  Another shot rang out. More mob guys were sticking their heads out of the trapdoor. TT hit the deck. Grabowski might number bulletproof among his ace powers but so far as TT knew, the girders were his whole fucking shtick.

  “Get Khan up here!” one of the new mobsters shouted, then yelped as a thousand pounds of glowing steel materialized right above him, forcing him and his friends down into the building. TT laid another girder right beside the first, sealing the exit.

  Then he decided maybe old Hardhat wasn’t bulletproof after all, because Grabowski was on his knees next to one of the unconscious gunmen. As TT watched, the old man appeared to wither, or shrink, his heavily muscled arms and legs diminishing down to a size that matched his head and waist. He didn’t look too fucking hot, but at least he didn’t look so pissed off anymore, either.

  “TT,” he said, “I am sorry. I was preparing to tear through the roof when you appeared. I did not know it was you.”

  “Yeah, well—” TT cut off. One of the girders had just shifted by a couple of inches and it sure as shit wasn’t him that had caused that. “Fuck, we’ve got to go. They’ve got somebody in there who can lift a thousand pounds.”

  Grabowski nodded. “Khan. The tiger. Can you hold him off? It will take me a few moments to recover.”

  TT laid another couple of girders atop the first pair, but didn’t feel any more attempts to shift them.

  “Um, there’s nothing stopping that guy from just walking out the front door and jumping up here and kicking our asses, is there?”

  The high-pitched honk of a foreign-car horn sounded from down in the alley. TT looked down. “Goddamnit, Sonny!”

  The youngest Taszycki was leaning out the window of his Toyota, gesturing wildly. He caught sight of TT and shouted, “Hey, there’s a ton of guys coming out the front doors! Come on!”

  Grabowski was beside him, still looking kind of beat up and tired, no help there.

  “Did they have slides on the playgrounds back in the old country?” TT asked.

rabowski looked mystified until the I-beam appeared angling down to Sonny’s car. TT picked the old man up like a groom carrying a bride and plopped his ass down on the girder. They were moving pretty fast when they got to the bottom, but it beat jumping, TT figured.

  He opened the back door of Sonny’s car and threw the old man in, then tumbled in after him. Sonny didn’t even wait for him to close the door before he threw the Toyota into gear and peeled out.

  As they cleared the mouth of the alley, a half dozen guys in suits went scrambling out of the way. Sonny slid onto the highway and ramped up the speed. TT looked out the back window but didn’t see any signs that they were being followed.

  Then he said, “Fuck, we left my truck.”

  Ma was a tall woman, and Wojtek Grabowski was a short man. These facts, combined with the way that Grabowski was slumping in a chair at the table in the kitchen while Ma read him the riot act, made TT think of all the times he’d seen one or the other of his siblings in that exact same position while they were growing up. Hell, he’d been in that position more than a time or two himself.

  “Sonny is nineteen years old!” Ma said. “Nineteen! And now he’s probably on some kind of Mafia hit list!”

  That probably wasn’t true, TT thought, and not exactly fucking fair to the old man. “Ma, I told Sonny to leave when we got to the restaurant.”

  She turned on him, finger raised, and said, “You, I’ll get to in a minute.”

  Fucking great.

  Luckily, Caleb and his husband, Steve-o, walked in just then, Steve-o twirling TT’s keys around his finger. He tossed them over. “They were in the ignition,” he said.

  TT shot Grabowski a look and the old man spread his hands in apology, clearly glad of the distraction.

  “No trouble, though?” TT asked them.

  Caleb shook his head. “We didn’t see a soul. There were a couple of cars in the parking lot of the restaurant but nobody hassled us or anything. We just drove up, Steve-o got into your truck, and then we came here.”

  “And you weren’t followed?”

  The two of them exchanged a look, then Caleb said, “Todd, I work at a grocery store. Steve-o is a dermatologist’s PA. How would we know if we’d been followed?”

  Which was fair enough, but still kind of fucking unfortunate. TT wished one of his siblings were a PI or something. Hopefully there wouldn’t be any trouble, because as far as he knew, none of his brothers or sisters so much as owned a gun. Maybe he should call his cousin Babs. Her husband was always mouthing off about having been in Special Forces even though when you pressed him for details he claimed he couldn’t talk about it.

  “Madame,” Grabowski said, “it was never my intention to put any of your sons in danger.” His look took in all of them, and TT could tell Ma was about to explain that Steve-o was in fact her son-in-law, which she loved to do at any opportunity, but TT decided having that particular conversation with a hundred-year-old Polish Catholic who thought his wild card power was the touch of the devil might be something best left for another day. They had more pressing fucking problems.

  “Yeah, speaking of your intentions, what was your plan once you tore a hole in the roof of that joint? Just jump in and start tearing guys apart with your bare hands?”

  For what it was worth, Grabowski at least looked embarrassed. “I was hoping that Galante would be there.”

  “Oh for fu—you mean you don’t even know if the kid you mean to kill was out there? Sounds to me like you just got in the mood to crack some skulls and went off script a little bit.” TT was getting worked up. “And it turned out that tiger man was there, and I bet you didn’t know that either, did you?”

  Sonny chimed in, “What kind of tiger man? Like a joker or something?”

  TT let out a frustrated sigh, looked over at his mother, and said, “Ma?”

  She got it. “Okay, boys, let’s let the aces have their talk. We can go out onto the sun porch and have some tea and Steve-o can remind Sonny about why he should wash his face every night.”

  “Ma!” Sonny said, but he was leaving with the rest of them.

  When they were gone, Grabowski said, “You have a good family. It is hard to believe you left them to go on television.”

  “Yeah, well, that does sound like something I wouldn’t do, especially on account of the fact that I’ve not fucking done it,” said TT.

  “Yet. You have not done it yet.”

  TT had been thinking about the whole time-travel angle. “Look, you think you’re from the future or some crazy shit like that, right? But if you’re here now, telling me this stuff, haven’t you already changed the past? How do you know that the Galante kid will even still have a birthday party? His people have got to be kind of concerned about security at this point, them having been attacked by a crazy old man two days in a row now.”

  Grabowski shrugged uncomfortably. “I cannot take that risk. If I can save that girl, I must.”

  Which kind of turned the problem around on its head a little bit and now TT was the one who was uncomfortable. “I don’t want any girl to die, either. I don’t want anybody to get killed.”

  Grabowski looked at him. “That is why you went to Egypt, then? Because of all the refugees being killed by the soldiers?”

  TT rolled his eyes. “I went to Massachusetts for Caleb’s wedding. That’s the farthest I’ve ever fucking been from this house, okay? There’s no TV show! There’s no refugees for me to rescue!”

  “Not yet,” Grabowski said again.

  “Oh, for fuck’s sake, let’s just set that shit aside for now, all right? If you honest to God believe that some kidnapped girl is going to be, what did you say, given as a fucking gift to that little Mafia puke on his birthday then I’m with you on saving her. So long as we can do it without anybody getting killed. Which is why I think we should call the cops.”

  Grabowski shook his head. “And tell them what? That an old man with no identification papers believes he may know where a kidnapped girl is? No, I have gone to the authorities before and there are always more questions about me than about those I am trying to save. Besides, the Galantes, the Chicago police…”

  Yeah, TT knew what that was about. The cops might not be all bought off like in the bad old days but there was bound to be someone in the department somewhere who would get wind of any investigation and tip off the guys in the suits. And who knew what they’d do to the girl if that happened?

  “So what do you know about this girl anyway? Where’s she at now? Can we just cross our fingers that tiger man isn’t guarding her and go kick some Mafia ass and rescue her?”

  “No, no,” said Grabowski. “I am sorry, but I don’t have those kind of details. I didn’t learn of the girl’s death until years after it happened when I began investigating Galante, putting together a dossier on him. The murder is a legend among Chicago criminals ten years from now. The boy cannot control his temper.”

  TT gave the old man a sour look. “Yeah, that’s kind of fucking going around.”

  “I am sorry. You are right. When the anger comes upon me, I have difficulty controlling my actions.”

  “Well, we’re going to have to work on that for this plan to work.”

  “What plan?”

  “The plan we come up with where you and me go save the day, asshole.”

  “You know, I’m pretty sure my pops was on the crew that built this place,” TT said. “I remember him telling me once about building some clubhouse for a club that would never let him join.”

  “Italians,” said Grabowski, sitting beside TT in the cab of the pickup truck, “do not like Poles.”

  TT said, “Yeah, maybe in your time. I think Pops was talking more about how rich people don’t like hanging out with construction workers at their la-di-da fucking country clubs.”

  There was actually some construction going on at the suburban club right now, looked maybe like a new locker room for the tennis courts, which was a lucky break. TT had eased his truck into the
far end of the parking lot, where there was a trailer, some portable toilets, and a little fenced-off materials yard set up. There was nobody working the site on a Sunday afternoon, naturally, but TT figured none of the guests arriving up at the club’s main building would give them a second glance. In fact, just to complete the picture …

  “Here,” he said, handing over a hardhat to Grabowski and plopping one down on his own head, “camouflage.”

  Grabowski had turned out to have a good eye for spotting which of the people milling around outside the clubhouse were actually security guards, which amounted to about eight guys, and which of the guests were probably armed as well, which accounted for pretty much everyone fucking else. TT had started to ask who the hell went to a kid’s birthday party carrying but then he figured the answer was probably just “mobsters.”

  The plan wasn’t complicated. The birthday party for the budding sociopath was already well under way, but if Grabowski’s story was to be believed—and since TT was sitting there he supposed that he believed at least parts of it—the big surprise gift happened late in the festivities. They were making her jump out of a cake, the sick fucks.

  “Ah, this is unfortunate,” Grabowski said. He was watching the clubhouse through TT’s birding binoculars.

  “I’m guessing that you’re not talking about the general situation,” said TT.

  Grabowski handed over the field glasses and pointed off to one side of the clubhouse, where a breezeway led out to a patio and an enormous swimming pool. There was a guy sitting all by himself in one of the lounge chairs there, turned side on to the parking lot so his silhouette could just be made out beyond a big potted fern.

  TT trained the glasses on the guy, wondering what he was supposed to be looking at, when the guy kind of turned a little to lean over and pick up a drink that was sitting on the flagstones. It was the tiger man.

  “Wonder where he gets those outfits,” TT said. “Not at fucking Sears, that’s for sure.”

  Grabowski looked at him incredulously. “There are tailors for the Mafia. There are tailors for aces.”

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