Low chicago, p.15
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       Low Chicago, p.15

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

  As they were watching, one of those black SUVs pulled into the lot and parked near the rear door leading to the kitchen. A couple of thugs got out of the SUV and went around to the back door, where one dragged out a young, blond girl who was bound and gagged.

  “That doesn’t look good,” Croyd said.

  Nighthawk said, “Whatever happens, we can’t interfere. You know that story Heinlein wrote about the butterfly effect? One little misstep, one slight change, could alter the whole time line. I’ve been thinking about it ever since our last stop—”

  “It’s just a story,” Croyd said. “And you’re wrong. Asimov wrote it, and what the hell did he know? Look—” He pointed at the girl struggling with the Mafia mooks. She’d gotten in a solid kick to the groin of one of them, but then another just doubled her over with a hard punch to her gut. “She’s just a teenaged whore. What difference—oh, shit!”

  Their target came out of his own place of concealment like a charging bull. It was the waiter from the hotel. You couldn’t mistake his bulked-up, abnormally broad form. Only this time he was wearing a construction worker’s hardhat and swinging a wrench.

  Nighthawk and Croyd looked at each other. “Hardhat!” they exclaimed at the same time.

  “What the hell?” Croyd added, in wonder.

  It had to be him, the mysterious ace who’d suddenly appeared in People’s Park in 1970 and vanished thereafter … but why the hell he had a vendetta against Gio Galante was a mystery.

  Before they could move, Hardhat crushed the skull of one of the Mafia guys with his wrench. He dropped the weapon as the guy who was holding the girl let her go. Then he simply picked him up and broke him, twisting his body like he was a rag doll. They could both hear the thug’s spine snap from where they stood.

  A younger man, stocky and strong-looking and also wearing a hardhat, stepped from where he’d been lurking to remonstrate with the ace. He must, Nighthawk realized, be in his eighties or nineties now, but his ace still appeared to be rather potent.

  They both heard Hardhat shout, “Go!” to the younger man, who paused for a moment, then scooped up the girl from where she lay on the asphalt of the parking lot, tossed her over his shoulder, and ran down a nearby alley.

  “Let’s get him, now!” Nighthawk said, and he and Croyd burst from their own cover to give Croyd a close, clear shot at Hardhat. But before they could reach him, eight or nine other obvious mafiosi bolted from the kitchen’s rear door and piled out into the parking lot.

  “Oh, hell,” Croyd complained. “Now we have these clowns to take care of too?”

  Maybe not, Nighthawk thought, as they raced across the parking lot.

  Hardhat charged into them. Bodies flew left and right. Guns fired. At one point the ace flipped over the SUV. It rolled over twice, scattering mafiosi, and came to rest on its roof. All the thugs managed to avoid being crushed, but that simply put most of them off-balance and made them easy targets for the rampaging hulk.

  By the time Nighthawk and Croyd reached the scene most were down. Nighthawk pulled off the black kid glove he’d placed on his left hand, glided close to one, and touched him. The man flopped like a dropped sack of potatoes. Nighthawk dealt with a couple of the thugs and suddenly it was just the three of them still standing.

  “Easy, big fellow,” Croyd said. “We’re friends—”

  Hardhat, breathing heavily, charged them.

  Nighthawk deftly stepped aside. The big ace unfortunately chose to focus on the wrong opponent. He was about to grab Croyd and twist him into a pretzel when Nighthawk slapped him across the back of his shoulder. He crashed to the asphalt like a ton of bricks … but limp bricks, nevertheless. Croyd let out a long gust of breath. “Man, that was too fucking close.”

  “I had it,” Nighthawk said quietly.

  “You didn’t kill him,” Croyd said. “He’s still breathing.”

  “He’ll be okay in a bit.” They both looked at Hardhat critically. He was bleeding in a couple of places from bullet wounds, but none looked to be in a particularly vital spot. “I just sucked enough out of him to knock him out.” He pursed his lips, looked over the fallen mafiosi. “I was a little less concerned with them—may have taken a few months off their lives.”

  “So that’s how your ace works?” Croyd said. He shrugged. “They’re likely to come to a premature end, anyway. Give me a hand with this guy.”

  Together, they dragged Hardhat behind the SUV he’d upended. By the time they’d stopped to rest behind the overturned vehicle, he’d turned back into a tired-looking, beaten-up old man.

  “Better send him back and he can get medical attention,” Nighthawk said. “I hope.”

  Croyd nodded, concentrated, pointed. Color flowed from his palm and Hardhat was gone. “I can’t wait to learn what this was all about. In the meantime”—they both looked at the kitchen’s back door, where armed thugs were just now stirring about, cautiously peeking into the parking lot—“we’d better get the hell out of here ourselves before reinforcements arrive.”

  “That means ending up naked in the middle of Chicago.”

  “Better than ending up dead,” Croyd said.

  They looked at their reflections in the SUV’s heavily tinted window.

  Nighthawk nodded. “Do it.”

  A Long Night at the Palmer House

  Part 4

  THE AREA WASN’T MUCH different.

  The country club was there. The restaurant was there. The cars in the parking lot were there, though they were much larger and there were no SUVs. Caddys, yes. Lincolns. Buicks the size of yachts, Oldsmobiles, Thunderbirds, Impalas galore.

  There was one other thing. It was cold as hell. Snow was piled high around the parking lot, and in fact was coming down steadily in big fluffy flakes from the night sky. Nighthawk was already shivering. “When are we? Besides apparently in the middle of the goddamned winter.”

  “Nineteen sixty—I hope,” Croyd said. “I didn’t have much time to calibrate this jump.” He looked up at the snowflakes fluttering down from the sky. “We better find some clothes, fast, before we freeze our balls off.”

  “Let’s find an unlocked car, hot-wire it, and turn the heat on,” Nighthawk said, his teeth chattering.

  They went down one row without any luck. Nighthawk felt his feet almost freezing to the inch of snow that had fallen since the last time the lanes in the lot had been plowed.

  “Goddamn,” Croyd said. “These people are an untrusting lot of—uh-oh.”

  He straightened up from the land-boat they’d been bending over and looked back up the aisle.

  “We’re not alone, John,” he said in a low voice.

  Nighthawk looked over his shoulder.

  “What we got here, Floyd?” a drawling voice asked.

  “Looks like two buck naked car thieves, Harry,” another replied.

  Cops. Nighthawk squinted in the flashlight beams pointed at their eyes. More disconcerting was the fact that they were also pointing their service weapons at them.

  “Care to explain why you boys are running around buck naked in a snowstorm trying to break into cars?” the one called Harry asked.

  Nighthawk and Croyd looked at each other, and then back at the cops. One was small and wiry, the other was big and fat. Both were looking puzzled, but that didn’t keep them from drawing a steady bead with both pistols and flashlights.

  “No,” Nighthawk and Croyd said simultaneously.

  Croyd made a quick gesture and they were gone in a flash of rainbow light.

  As they ran toward the two neat piles of clothing bunched up on the ground, Nighthawk called, “Dibs on the skinny guy’s uniform.”

  “Damn!” Croyd said.

  They were both shivering badly but managed to dress quickly despite freezing fingers and shaking hands. They put on everything, except for the cops’ underwear, and both sighed contentedly when they’d bundled into their quilted winter jackets and put on their insulated winter caps and pulled down the earflaps. I
t was only a moment’s work to use the butt of a nightstick, also left behind, to break a side window in a roomy black Cadillac, unlock it, hop in, hot-wire the engine, and slip-slide out of the parking lot, Nighthawk driving.

  “Where’d you send them?” he asked Croyd, who was putting the heater on full blast.

  “Two hours into the future.” He paused for a moment with a satisfied smile on his face. “Maybe two days. It’s hard to say. I’d like to hear how they explain being buck naked in a parking lot at night.”

  “It’s the wild card, Jake,” Nighthawk said, quoting the old line from the Polanski film Jokertown.

  “Yeah,” Croyd said. “That does explain a lot.” He hugged himself for warmth for a moment or two, staring out the windshield.

  “Some place to hunker down and think.” Nighthawk thought for a moment. “The Palmer House is as good as any.”

  “I could use a hot shower and a stiff drink,” Croyd said.

  “Agreed,” Nighthawk said as he navigated the snowy street. The Caddy—he figured it belonged to some mafioso from the Galante family, because gangsters changed their favorite haunts as often as leopards changed their spots—was a smooth ride.

  The snowflakes were more drifting than pelting down, but it was cold as hell. Chicago’s streets were largely empty of traffic though it was still early in the evening. The nighttime was Nighthawk’s favorite time, when it was just him and the city and the people who made the night their home. Many had chosen to stay snug in their beds this winter evening and Nighthawk couldn’t blame them, but they were missing the thrill of the dark, the white blanket slowly descending from the dark sky, the fullness of the moon, and the crispness of the air. It was his time to fly, and he hadn’t tired of it yet, after all his years. He thought he never would.

  “We’re almost there,” he said quietly as they approached the Palmer House. “We probably should ditch the Caddy. We’re going to be conspicuous enough in these cop uniforms, without luggage. We don’t need to show up on the scene driving this boat.”

  “Yeah,” Croyd reluctantly agreed.

  The snow had stopped falling as they parked a block away from the Palmer. It lay like an unbroken white sable blanket over the sidewalks and the roofs of the surrounding buildings as they hustled through the cold, their breath puffing out like clouds before them as they went up the street. A warm gust of air hit them as they entered the lobby, which was quiet but not quite deserted on this cold winter evening.

  The reception clerk watched with apparent interest as they approached the counter.

  “We need a room,” Nighthawk said, deciding that the best approach to take would be brief and brusque.

  Surprisingly, the clerk just nodded briskly. “Yes, sir. The messenger from headquarters arrived with your luggage some time ago,” he added, even more surprisingly.

  As Nighthawk and Croyd exchanged uncertain glances, the clerk leaned forward and said in a conspiratorial whisper, “Management only asks that you quickly change from your uniforms so as to keep the surveillance of your suspect as discreet as possible.”

  “Of … course,” Croyd said.

  The clerk nodded knowingly. “I’ll send a boy up with your luggage right away. Registration has already been taken care of. Here’s your key, and good luck.”

  “Thanks,” Nighthawk said, automatically taking the key the clerk was holding out to him.

  “What the fuck was that all about?” Croyd asked as soon as they got into the privacy of the elevator and were going up to their room.

  “You’ve got me,” Nighthawk replied. “Has someone else taken a hand in our mission?”

  “Who?” Croyd shook his head in bewilderment. “Who else would know?”

  Nighthawk had no answer, though seemingly whoever was interfering seemed to be doing so to help them. This notion was confirmed when the bellboy arrived with two small suitcases while Croyd was enjoying the hot shower he’d been craving. Nighthawk, meeting the boy at the door, tipped him with a buck that’d been in the cop’s wallet and he handed the bags over with a cheery smile and salute.

  “By the way,” Nighthawk asked the boy as he turned away to go, “what’s the date?”

  “Date?” The bellhop looked momentarily surprised, but then Nighthawk thought that he probably had gotten crazier questions from befuddled or boozed-up hotel patrons before. “Why, it’s Leap Year day. February twenty-ninth.” He paused a moment, then added, just to make sure, “Nineteen sixty.”

  Nighthawk nodded. “I thought so,” he said, and closed the door.

  He took the suitcases over to the bed and laid them on it just as Croyd came from the bathroom, a towel wrapped around his skinny form. “What have we got here?” he asked.

  “Let’s see.”

  The suitcases were unlocked. Each yielded a heavy cloth winter coat, formal, modern cut—for 1960—and rather snazzy evening wear, complete with shiny black lace-up shoes and a manila envelope.

  Croyd removed one of the suits from the suitcase, and held it up. The jacket was dark, with a satin collar and lapels, the shirt had ruffles down the front and at the wrists.

  “Nice,” Croyd approved. “Are we going to a party?”

  Nighthawk had opened the manila envelope in the other suitcase and was holding a sheet of paper and a metal key. The key had a familiar-looking rabbit-head logo as part of its design.

  “I guess we are,” Nighthawk said in wonder. “A party being held to celebrate the opening of the Playboy Club.”

  Croyd’s mouth made an “o” of astonishment. “Holy shit,” he said. “Have I died and gone to heaven?”

  This time Nighthawk drove the Caddy right up to the front door of the four-story building on Walton Street in the part of Chicago’s Gold Coast called the Magnificent Mile.

  The area was lit up like a beacon in the night. The street was crowded with traffic, the sidewalk with pedestrians. Nighthawk handed the keys of the Caddy over to a valet, reluctantly relinquishing the car he’d probably never see again. It had been a fine ride. The Mafia had good taste, at least in regard to cars.

  Croyd and Nighthawk went to the front door together and showed their keys to the Door Bunny ensconced in the lobby beyond the front door, a beautiful, leggy young woman dressed in the iconic outfit, this one in blue satin, complete with bunny ears and tail, which reminded Nighthawk of the young joker waitress who’d been serving drinks at the poker game.

  “Welcome,” she said, flashing a smile and opening the inner door for them in a manner that suggested she was a houri inviting them to paradise. And in a way, maybe she was.

  The large room was crowded with packed tables and almost exclusively male patrons, most youngish, all well dressed, being served drinks by a bevy of beautiful young women wearing the bunny satin bustier and ears and tail.

  “Who are we looking for?” Nighthawk asked.

  “I have no idea,” Croyd replied, “but I’m going to like the looking.”

  “Hundreds are packed into this place,” Nighthawk said. “Let’s split up. We’ll rendezvous by the piano.” He nodded toward a corner of the room where a man sat providing a jazzy background soundtrack to the bedlam of conversation.

  Croyd nodded. “Got it.”

  They separated, wending their way through the crowd.

  Nighthawk soon realized that he was awash in a sea of white faces. Few gave him a second glance, though there were some disapproving looks as he passed through. He’d had long experience with such and he’d long since evolved a method for dealing with them. Ignore them when he was focused on a particular job, respond to them when they interfered with that job. Or, sometimes when he was in a bad mood. Now he was focused like a laser, looking for a familiar face. There must be some reason why they’d been sent here, specifically, and maybe if he discovered the reason he’d discover the identity—and motives—of their benefactor.

  When the meeting happened, it was totally by accident. They almost collided. Will Monroe wasn’t looking where he was go
ing, and his step was uncertain. Nighthawk grabbed him by his arm and Monroe paused, looking down with irritation. “Well, what is it? What do you—” He paused, suddenly staring. “Mister…” He paused, again, quite evidently searching for a name. “… Nighthawk, isn’t it? What—”

  “Don’t worry, Mr. Monroe,” Nighthawk said earnestly. “I’ve come to take you home.”


  Monroe was drunk. Nighthawk could see it on his face and read it in his swaying, uncertain stance. For a moment he stared blankly. Then sudden relief flooded Will Monroe’s features. “Oh, thank God. You have no idea what we’ve been through!”

  Nighthawk looked around the opulent room. “You seem to have done okay. Come, we need to find Meek. You can tell us all about it once we get going.”

  Monroe looked at him as if not quite knowing what to say. “But—but what about Julie?”

  “Julie?” Nighthawk frowned in concentration. “You mean—Julie Cotton? The joker girl? She’s here, too?”

  Monroe nodded. “In a big way. And I don’t think she’s going to want to leave.”

  As Monroe told him about Julie’s affair with John F. Kennedy, Nighthawk got grimmer and grimmer. “This is some serious screwing with the time line,” he said, as he pulled Monroe through the crowded room after him. “We’ve got to get the hell out of here. There’s Meek!” Nighthawk pointed to a corner of the large room where Croyd seemed to have cornered Hugh Hefner and was earnestly discussing something with him. At least Croyd was talking. Hefner was listening, with an increasingly distraught look on his face.

  “Come on,” Nighthawk ordered urgently, dragging Monroe in his wake.

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