Low chicago, p.14
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       Low Chicago, p.14

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

  TT shrugged. “I get everything off the rack. Anyway, we knew he’d probably be here, and now we know where he’s at exactly, and he doesn’t know we’re here at all. So this doesn’t really change anything, does it?”

  Grabowski said, “I suppose it does not.” He opened the door and stepped out of the cab. TT followed suit. The plan was for them to skirt around to the kitchens and wait for whoever was bringing the girl to show up. If everything went perfectly, maybe they could grab her and get gone without anybody being the wiser. TT had a theory about how fucking perfectly things were likely to go, but he didn’t bother the old man with it.

  The old man paused by the bed of the pickup, looking over at TT’s toolbox. “Do you, perhaps, have a pipe wrench in there?”

  TT did.

  According to Grabowski’s story, he was at one and one with the tiger man. He’d gotten the better of him on TT’s crane on Friday, two days ago, so that was one win. But apparently the tiger man had handed the old man’s ass to him at the poker game at the Palmer House ten years in the future, so that was one loss.

  “Maybe he takes judo lessons or some shit like that between now and then,” TT whispered.

  The two of them were crouched by the kitchen’s exterior doors. People in white cook’s jackets and striped pants were moving in and out to a pair of catering vans in a constant stream, making it impossible for them to get any closer.

  “Anyway,” said TT. “He hasn’t done it yet, and you busted him up pretty good the other day, so you’re probably still better than him at this point on your individual personal time lines, if that makes any sense.” TT realized that that did not, in fact, make any sense, and also that he was talking way too much, which he supposed meant he was nervous.

  Grabowski said, “Once, in Poland, during the war, I fought with a man like you. One who talked before the fighting began.”

  TT figured he knew where this was going, but said anyway, “Good-looking son-of-a-bitch, I bet.”

  “Not at the end,” said Grabowski.

  One of those fucking black Suburbans rounded the end of the building and parked beside the catering vans. TT felt Grabowski tense beside him.

  The driver got out and whistled over the woman running the kitchen crew, who looked none too pleased at the interruption. But after a brief exchange, she called all the workers together and told them to take what was apparently an unscheduled break, and further, to take it somewhere else. The waiters and cooks and runners all shuffled off, lighting up cigarettes, talking to one another.

  When it was just the woman and the driver, two more guys got out of the Suburban and circled to the rear door of the vehicle.

  Now that there were a lot fewer people hustling and bustling and shouting, TT could hear what was being said.

  “The cake’s inside. I still can’t believe I agreed to this,” the woman said.

  “And I can’t believe we’re having this conversation,” the driver said. “Mr. Galante is paying you quite well for providing this evening’s meal. Mr. Galante has always paid you quite well. Don’t get squeamish on me now, Doris, or it’ll be you in the cake next time.”

  The woman humphed. “I’m too old to be scared by your threats, Frank. Especially since I know I’m way too old for any of the Galantes’ tastes. Bring her on in.” With that, she turned heel and walked into the kitchens.

  “You heard the chef,” said the driver. “Chop chop.”

  The two in back opened the cargo doors of the Suburban, leaned in, and pulled out a struggling blond girl, bound and gagged. She squirmed so much that the guy holding her feet lost his grip and she managed to kick him hard in the groin while he was struggling to grab hold of her.

  “Bitch!” the guy said between wheezes, and drew back one hand. TT tensed, ready to go right then, but the driver caught the guy by the wrist.

  “What are you, fucking stupid? You want to mark up little Gio’s birthday present? That wouldn’t be too bright, I don’t think.” Then he turned and punched the girl in the stomach, doubling her over. “Where it doesn’t show, dumbass.”

  These fucking guys, thought TT, and wondered if Grabowski would give the word to go now. But then he saw Grabowski had, in fact, gone. Had gotten all big and ugly and gone fast.

  The driver went down first, head caved in by the pipe wrench, and even before TT made it to the Suburban, Grabowski had taken the guy the girl had kicked by the arms and twisted his whole upper body so that it made a sickening crack.

  “Hey!” TT shouted. “I told you not to fucking kill anybody!”

  The third guy had gone pale and dropped the girl to the ground. He was struggling to get his gun out and TT suddenly realized that if Grabowski managed to take the guy out before he fired they might actually get out of here without too much trouble.

  The guy got his gun out and fired.

  “Fuck,” said TT. He rushed over and scooped the girl up the same way he’d scooped up Grabowski on the rooftop the day before. Her eyes were wide with fright, staring past TT at the old man, who, TT had to admit, was pretty fucking frightening.

  “Go!” said Grabowski. “Take her! I will hold them off!”

  Which was technically part of the plan, though it had been the part TT had mentally labeled “if everything goes to shit.” But he didn’t hesitate. He threw the girl over his shoulder and booked it for the truck.

  Everyone who had been milling around outside the entrance had gone inside for drinks and music or something, and even the guards weren’t in evidence. He was breathing hard by the time he got the girl into the cab, and so was she, nostrils flaring, air hissing around her gag. Oh fuck, the gag.

  TT pulled out his multi-tool and flipped open a utility blade. He made quick work of the girl’s bonds and gag. Even so, she didn’t say anything.

  “Yeah, I’m here to, y’know, rescue you and shit.”

  She rolled her eyes. “So you’ve done it. Let’s get out of here!” She had a southern accent.

  TT almost nodded. Almost jumped behind the wheel and started up the engine. Almost left Wojtek Grabowski to his fate.

  Then he said, “Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck.” He looked at the girl and said, “Wait here.” And he headed back for the kitchens.

  What TT hoped to find was a once again relatively scrawny Grabowski and three incapacitated mob guys. What he found mystified him.

  There weren’t three incapacitated mob guys, there were, at a quick count, twelve. And the Suburban was on its roof.

  The chef lady, TT had forgotten her name, cautiously stuck her head out the kitchen doors. Catching sight of him, she said, “Are they gone?”

  TT looked at the carnage around him. “You mean ‘Is he gone,’ right? You’re talking about a scary-looking guy with a hardhat and a pipe wrench, right?”

  The woman nodded. “And the two he was fighting with. They just … they took out the whole security detail!”

  “Slow down! What two was he fighting with? Was one of them that tiger asshole?”

  “No!” she said, looking frantically over her shoulder. “It was a black guy and some old guy—I don’t know, the white guy looked familiar, but I couldn’t say from where. I thought the guy in the hardhat—” She stopped and looked up at TT. “Why are you wearing hardhats?”

  TT had forgotten about his half-assed disguise, but just said, “What about him? What did you think?”

  “I thought he was going to rip them in half the way he turned that SUV over and tore through all of Galante’s guys, but then the black guy just touched him on the arm and he fell down. And then the two of them dragged him over to the SUV and kind of looked at themselves in the reflection off the windshield. Then … then they just … disappeared.”

  TT decided that maybe it would have been a better idea to stay with the girl at the truck. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more he thought he would hustle his ass back there right now.

  He turned to go.

  Luckily, the tiger man used his human fist to
hit him.

  This is fucking bullshit, thought TT, working his jaw back and forth and struggling up from where he’d been knocked on his ass. He considered whether to say something to the tiger man, but the guy was crouched, claws extended from his tiger hand, obviously getting ready to jump.

  TT figured he knew how to handle this one. He narrowed his eyes and turned. A girder came into being beside him, and TT manipulated it. He pivoted his hips, extended his arms, swung through.

  And missed.

  “Strike one,” rasped the tiger man. “You’re out.”

  “That’s not how the fucking game is played, asshole,” said TT. He caused another girder to come into existence horizontally right above the tiger man’s head, then another on top of that, and then a third and a fourth. Two tons crashed down on the guy, knocking him prone. Then, incredibly, the motherfucker propped himself up on his elbows and actually started to fucking stand up, but then he groaned and lay back down.

  TT didn’t check to see if he was alive. He took off.

  The girl had, of course, stolen his fucking truck.

  TT let Sonny drive.

  He’d called the kid on his cell after he’d put a mile or two between him and the country club, and Sonny drove out to pick him up. When TT didn’t wave him out of the driver’s seat, didn’t even say anything about the radio station that was playing, Sonny actually kept his mouth shut and didn’t pester TT with questions.

  It was a weird fucking day.

  Back at the house, Ma took one look at his face and called Lynette and told her to come right over. TT told her he’d be fine, but then she was getting him settled on the couch in front of the television with his feet propped up on the glass-topped coffee table, which was usually no fucking way allowed, and bringing him painkillers and an ice pack.

  The only thing she asked was, “Is he gone?”

  TT nodded.

  “That’s probably a good thing, right?”

  TT thought about that. He was still thinking about it when a commercial came on, all loud trumpets and shooting stars and shit.

  “Oh! I meant to tell you about this!” Ma said. “They’ve been playing it all morning. They’re going to have tryouts at Soldier Field for that new show!”

  American Hero, it said on the screen. Then, Do You Have What It Takes?

  “Huh,” said TT. He wondered, briefly, if there was anything in the news about refugees in Egypt. He remembered what the old man had said about him dying. Mainly, he remembered what he had said about TT saving hundreds of lives.

  And down at the bottom of him, down at the fundamental part of himself, a card turned.

  “You should go on that show!” said Ma.

  “You know what?” TT said. “I should. I really fucking should.”

  A Long Night at the Palmer House

  Part 3

  TIME HOPPING WASN’T ANY easier the second time around. In fact, Nighthawk felt a lot more queasy and almost vomited as they arrived.

  “Remind me not to do this again on a full stomach,” he groaned to Croyd. He staggered away and sat down heavily on the bed by the mirror.

  The room appeared to be untenanted, and was furnished much less lavishly than it had been back in 1919. The furniture was sleeker and modern in design, and there was a digital clock on a nightstand, its red numerals glowing. The carpet and wall colors were light, more in tune with modern tastes. The curtains were open, revealing a nighttime sky.

  Croyd seemed marginally less affected by the time shifting. Rummaging through a waste bin, he found a discarded newspaper. “Two thousand seven,” he announced to Nighthawk. He opened the wardrobe and smiled. “We’re in luck,” he began, then caught himself. “Oh, no,” he said, rapidly thumbing through the clothes he’d pulled from the drawer.

  “What’s the matter?”

  Croyd looked at Nighthawk. “These are women’s clothes.”

  Fortunately, neither Nighthawk nor Croyd was a large man and whoever had checked into that room of the Palmer House favored pantsuits. Croyd found a wallet in a small handbag that had been left in the nightstand with eighteen dollars in it. He showed it disgustedly to Nighthawk, who was squeezing into a satin number that had an accompanying blouse of the same material.

  “That should be enough,” Nighthawk said. “I know where to find more.”

  The shoes proved problematic, but Nighthawk managed to stuff his feet into a pair of pumps whose heels he’d snapped off and Croyd found fuzzy bathroom slippers. They didn’t exactly go with the rest of the ensemble, but they couldn’t be choosy.

  “Let’s get the hell out of here before whoever owns this shit gets back,” Croyd said, and Nighthawk had to agree.

  Fortunately it was late enough at night that the hotel corridors were empty. The time travelers were able to slip out of a side entrance of the hotel without attracting much attention, though the cabbie waiting outside at the head of the taxi line eyed them dubiously as they climbed into the back of his hack. “You boys need to work on your fashion sense,” he observed, but Nighthawk just muttered an address in Bronzeville.

  The ride was short and uncomfortably silent. The fee came to $17.50. Croyd handed him the eighteen bucks. “You need to stop being judgmental,” he told the cabbie, who drove away cursing at the fifty-cent tip.

  Croyd looked up. “Whose place is this?”

  It was a nicely kept-up single-family house sitting back from the street on a slight rise of land. The lawn around it was immaculate green, the grass just about needing mowing. Flowers bloomed in an ornamental border along the walkway that led to the front door. “Mine,” Nighthawk said.

  “Hang on.” Croyd stopped him as he started up the walkway that led to the front porch of the wood-framed house. “What if you’re home?”

  “I thought of that,” Nighthawk said. “But, first, this is one of let’s say several places I have around town. Second, I spent most of the summer of 2007 looking for a runaway teenager in L.A. And third, if I am home this will be the perfect opportunity to tell myself not to take this job.”

  “It’s not that bad,” Croyd said, “though maybe you could tell yourself to coldcock that old waiter when he comes through the door with Galante’s steak sandwich.”

  Nighthawk picked up the third stone from the end of the row bordering the left side of the walk. It wasn’t a real stone and it contained a key. “I’d rather not meet myself on this trip,” he told Croyd as they went up the rest of the walk and approached the door. He put the key in the lock. “It’s just too creepy to consider. Who knows what damage we could do?”

  Croyd said, “You’re just afraid that you won’t like yourself,” as Nighthawk opened the door.

  “I’ve lived with myself for a long time. I may know myself better than I want to, but I’ve come to accept things as they are. It has been a long, strange trip.”

  “Did you ever find that teenager in L.A.?” Croyd asked.

  Nighthawk paused for a moment. “Her body,” he said quietly.

  The house was dark and quiet inside. He wasn’t home. It had that empty feeling to it, like no one had been around for a while. There was nothing in the refrigerator except for a couple of cans of beer, and no groceries on the shelves except for some other canned stuff. It was neatly, quietly furnished, but sort of anonymous, without much in the way of a personality. It wasn’t so much a place to actually live, but just a place where you kept things that you might need someday. Croyd helped himself to one of the beers, popped the can, and took it into the living room, where Nighthawk was sitting in a comfortable La-Z-Boy chair, massaging his feet.

  “So where’s our target?” Nighthawk asked.

  Croyd took a thoughtful sip from the can. “Oh, he’s around, somewhere. I can feel his presence.”

  “Can you be more specific?”

  “It’s hard,” Croyd said judiciously. “Lots of people packed closely in a small, but complex area. Lots to sort through. If there was some way we could narrow our focus…”

/>   “If we knew exactly who we’re looking for?” Nighthawk asked.

  “That would help.”

  “Well,” Nighthawk said. “You say that the nexus of this particular break in the time line happened at the Palmer House—”

  “Yeah.”

  “Let’s see.” Nighthawk went to the counter that divided the living room from the kitchen and picked up the phone book. He thumbed through it for a moment, then took down the phone from where it hung on the wall and dialed a number. After a moment he said, “Registration desk,” then, after a moment, “Yes, hello, this is Garrison from the Tribune. That recent incident, when a naked person appeared—yes, that’s right. And did any other staff member turn up who witnessed?… No? So, the description remains—yes, old man, freakishly muscular.… Uh-huh. And he never reappeared?… Yes, well. Probably some teleporting ace gone wrong.… Yes. Thank you.” He hung up the phone and looked at Croyd. “The waiter.”

  “Yeah,” Croyd said. “The crazy old mystery man. The cause of all our troubles.”

  “Well,” Nighthawk said, “we know that he had a beef with Galante. I don’t think he jumped him simply because he slapped a girl.”

  “That was a little extreme,” Croyd agreed.

  “I don’t think his presence was a coincidence,” Nighthawk said. “I think he came to the room to deliver more than a steak sandwich.”

  “You think he came after Galante?”

  “It’s our only viable clue.”

  “So, even though I shoved him into 2007…”

  “… he’d still be after Galante,” they both said together.

  “I like the way you think.” Croyd took a long swallow of beer. “So, we find Galante, we find our waiter.”

  “I’ll make some more phone calls,” Nighthawk said.

  Nighthawk and Croyd, now dressed in men’s clothing Nighthawk had kept at the house, took a cab to within a block of the country club, then dismissed the cabbie. They’d provide their own means of transport when it came time to leave. It was dark, which at least provided some cover. They slipped around to the back of the restaurant, where Nighthawk’s contacts had told them Gio Galante would be celebrating his sixteenth birthday. There were a lot of cars in the back lot, a lot of big, fancy cars and several outsized black SUVs that seemed to have overtaken limos as mobsters’ preferred means of transportation.

 
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