Low chicago, p.16
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       Low Chicago, p.16

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

  “It’s called cable TV,” they heard Croyd saying as they approached. “I tell you, it’s the coming thing. If you start now, you’ll get a jump on everyone else. See, you hook up everyone’s television set with a length of cable that you run underground and then connect with your own station that you then charge a monthly fee to beam directly into their homes. You’ll make millions, I tell you—Oh, hi John and, hey, it’s Will Monroe—”

  Croyd was hyper, breathing hard and looking intense, with a hard stare in his eyes that told Nighthawk he was speeding. He must have scored some drugs from somebody at the party.

  “Mr. Meek has some fabulous ideas,” Hefner said, deftly extracting himself from the corner while Croyd was distracted. “Tell him to get back to me when they’re practical.”

  “But Hef—” Croyd exclaimed. He shut his mouth abruptly when he realized he was speaking to Hefner’s back. “Hey, John,” he repeated brightly.

  “What’ve you been doing?” Nighthawk asked in a low voice.

  “Speed,” Croyd said conversationally. “In the john—I mean the bathroom—with Lenny Bruce. You know, he’s really a funny guy.”

  “Concentrate,” Nighthawk said.

  “Sure, no problem,” Croyd said. “You rounded up Monroe. Let’s go.”

  He started to gesture, but Nighthawk grabbed his hand and held it down by his side.

  “Not yet,” he said. He told him about Cotton.

  Croyd frowned when Nighthawk finished. “Gee, that’s rough. Maybe we can leave her—”

  “Not a chance,” Nighthawk said. “We’ve got to track her down—”

  “There she is,” Monroe said, pointing across the room.

  She was moving across the crowded floor with a distressed look on her face, headed toward the women’s lounge.

  “Wonder why she’s upset,” Monroe said. “After all, some of this party is for her. She was just named as the first joker Playmate of the Month.”

  “Let’s find out,” Nighthawk said. He started across the room after her, Croyd and Monroe following in his wake.

  But someone else was on Cotton’s trail ahead of them. It was an older woman. She was portly and wore a grotesque hat that made her look as if she were wearing a key lime pie on her head. It took a moment, but Nighthawk remembered her as the gossip columnist who had ruined a thousand careers, the Hollywood harpy who hated Commies and queers and wild carders, not necessarily in that order. Hedda Hopper. She followed Julie Cotton into the women’s lounge.

  “John,” Croyd expostulated, “it’s the girls’ room—”

  “I know,” Nighthawk said. “Come on.”

  He went through the door.

  “Hey—” Croyd called out, but followed him, Monroe on his heels, stopped, and looked around, wonderingly. “It’s nice in here.”

  It was. It was like the lobby of a fine hotel, with flowered wallpaper, comfortable chairs scattered about, and a deep, soft carpet. End tables held baskets of lotions, packs of Playboy cigarettes and matchboxes of Playboy matches, with copies of the latest issues of the magazine as well. Makeup mirrors lined one wall, naughty lithographs the other.

  Only one person was in the room: the bunny attendant, who was looking at them wide-eyed. Nighthawk reached into his wallet, pulled out a ten-dollar bill. He took her by the elbow as he stuffed the bill down the front of her bustier.

  “Give us ten minutes.” He ushered her out of the lounge and then locked the door. There was a door across the lounge that led to the area that had the bathroom facilities. Nighthawk put a finger to his lips and led the way to the door. As they drew nearer they could hear the sounds of two women arguing, interspersed with weeping.

  Nighthawk cracked the swinging door, so they could hear more clearly.

  The dominant voice was clearly Hedda Hopper’s. “The nerve of trash like you—mixing with decent folks.”

  They could hear Julie Cotton’s weeping under Hopper’s virulent words.

  “I suppose I should thank you, though,” Hopper said in a triumphantly vicious tone, “you’ve given me the weapon to bring down that pinko Kennedy.”

  “What do you mean?” Julie said between her sobs.

  Nighthawk peeked around the cracked door. They were standing in front of a row of sinks with mirrors on the wall above them. The half-dozen bathroom stalls were in a line behind them. The room’s floor was tiled in brown Saltillo, the light was harsh and strong. They seemed to be the only ones in the room.

  “I mean this.” Hopper reached into the purse that was hooked over her left forearm, and took out a sheaf of photos that she waved in Cotton’s face.

  The joker girl looked sick. “Where—how did you get those?”

  “I have my ways,” Hopper said. She looked at the pictures herself, fanning through them, rapidly. “Disgusting,” she said, looking back at Cotton. “Every carnal activity imaginable! John Fitzgerald Kennedy, cavorting with a joker slut!” She laughed. “A married man! A Catholic!” She managed to put as much vitriol into the word “Catholic” as she had “joker.” “His political career will be over when I release these shocking, shocking—”

  Nighthawk entered the room, taking the glove from his left hand.

  Hopper heard him come in and turned in his direction. “Negroes!” she shrieked, a look of sudden alarm on her face.

  Nighthawk covered the distance between them in a moment. He snatched the hat off her head and as she opened her mouth to shriek again rammed it in hard enough to make her stagger backwards until she butted up against the sink. He snatched the pictures from her hands, handed them over his shoulder to Croyd, who had followed him into the room.

  “Burn these.” He stepped forward as Hopper cringed away. He grabbed her purse. She pulled back. He grasped her jaw with his left hand, jerking her head up and staring into her eyes. She looked back for a moment, like a bird mesmerized by a snake, and then sighed and slipped limply to the floor. Nighthawk felt the energy jolt through his system. Suddenly, he wasn’t tired anymore. He didn’t know how much life he’d drained from the bitch, and he didn’t care. He let her go, but held on to her purse. Rummaging through it, he came upon a snub-nosed revolver and a fat envelope. The negatives were inside. “And these,” he said.

  Croyd already had a fire going in the sink. He was dropping the photos in them one at a time, pretending not to look at them as he did so. “Too bad,” he muttered. “Whoever took these had a really good eye.”

  “It’s all right, Julie,” Nighthawk said gently to the girl. Will Monroe swayed drunkenly, watching with a concerned look on his face. “You’re going home now.”

  “Home?” Julie Cotton said suddenly in a strained voice. “You mean, 2017? I’m not going. I’m staying here with Jack. He loves me. I have nothing in 2017. I’m what, a cocktail waitress? At best. Here, I have a man who loves me. I’m carrying his child. He’s going to leave his wife—”

  Nighthawk saw it all in his head. High-powered politician impregnates joker girl, leaves his duly wedded wife for her. They may have destroyed the photographic evidence, but if Julie’s story was true …

  “So Nixon becomes president?” Croyd said unbelievingly, voicing Nighthawk’s very thought. “In 1960? That fucker!”

  “Julie,” Nighthawk said earnestly, “you have to believe me. Your relationship with Kennedy will destroy our time line. It’s the butterfly effect. There was a story by Robert Heinlein—”

  “Asimov,” insisted Croyd.

  “Never mind,” said Nighthawk. “One change leads to multiple others through time, until everything spirals out of control and the future, our future, is completely fucked.”

  “More fucked than JFK getting assassinated in Dallas?” Julie Cotton asked defiantly, rubbing the tears from her eyes, her rabbit ears standing up straight as two exclamation points. “More fucked than the Vietnam War?”

  “Nixon in the White House,” said Nighthawk. “You will still get the Vietnam War. But no Civil Rights Act, no Voting Rights Act.”


  Julie started crying again. “I love him,” she said. “What about our child?”

  Monroe went up to her, put his arms around her to comfort her. “Don’t worry, kid,” he said quietly. “I know what it’s like to grow up without a father. I’ll take care of you, and when the time comes, he’ll know all about what his mom gave up to save the world.”

  She put her head against Monroe’s chest and sobbed like a lost child. The producer held her close, looking over her to Nighthawk and Croyd. “Listen,” Monroe said, “have you picked up Pug Peterman yet?”

  “No,” Nighthawk said, “he’s still among the missing.”

  “Well, we’ve seen his picture in an old photo album of the Everleigh Club. Turn of the century. Chicago’s most famous bordello. Have fun.” He nodded at Croyd, who waved a hand. Will Monroe and the tearful Julie Cotton were gone in the rainbow glow.

  “Did we do the right thing?” Croyd asked. “She would have saved JFK—”

  “And made Nixon president eight years early.”

  “You can’t know that for sure. Maybe one of the other Democrats would have beaten him. LBJ or Hubert or somebody.”

  “We can’t take that chance,” Nighthawk said. “Not a big one like that.”

  They both suddenly heard a pounding on the outer door.

  “And we can’t stand here and argue about it,” Nighthawk said.

  “What about her?” Croyd asked, toeing the unconscious form of Hedda Hopper.

  “What about her?” Nighthawk asked. “This’ll be one of the greatest locked-room mysteries ever. Let her solve it. Now let’s get the hell out of here.”

  Croyd gestured into the mirror.

  Nighthawk again felt the prickly sensation of rushing through the time stream, but this time around there was something different to the process. Though the previous jumps had never been instantaneous—and it was difficult to measure time while time traveling—they’d always seemed to Nighthawk to be quick, blink-of-the-eye things. This one was perceptibly longer.

  Then suddenly it was all over and, as usual, they were naked and momentarily disoriented in a strange place. Nighthawk looked all around in the suddenly bright sunlight, and his first thought was, Jesus, it’s hot and muggy all of a sudden, and his second thought was, Je-susss, are those dinosaurs over there?

  A Bit of a Dinosaur

  by Paul Cornell

  I THINK IT’S IMPORTANT to say, immediately, that I am in no way responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs.

  I mean, yes, they went extinct, and yes, I was there, and yes, mistakes were made. But I was not privy to any aggression toward them. Indeed, it has to be said, they were pretty damn aggressive toward me. The dinosaurs are not the injured party here. Well, apart from … the extinction … but I’m getting away from my point.

  Listen, I have just got back from the single most traumatic episode in my life, and I’d like to be able to say that no major ecological epochs were harmed during the making of it, but I just can’t, okay? I don’t even know why I feel guilty about this. Without me and Tim, I mean, without the events we were merely innocent bystanders at, we’d all be covered in feathers and eating rodents right now. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Some of my best friends—but anyway.

  Where was I? I have no idea. I should start at the beginning.

  Hello. My name is Abigail Baker. I am a serious actor. That is to say, it’s not currently what I’m employed doing. In fact, right now, I’m not entirely sure if I still have a job of any kind, but it’s what I … am. I’m an actress just like I’m young (well, twenties) and British and what the Americans call an “ace.” When all this started, I was working for Will Monroe. You know, the producer? The producer who’s finally, with a series of big hits, gotten away from being just “her son.” I wasn’t working for him in the way that I’d like. That is to say, as an actor. Though we had been talking about me getting an audition. Well, to be honest, I’d been the one doing most of the talking, and he’d been listening, just about, usually while texting more important actors.

  I suppose this all started when he came along to see a production of The Pirates of Penzance in which I was in the chorus. Everyone backstage was talking about him being there to see someone low down on the billing, but I didn’t imagine that was me, until I got out front, got midway through, appropriately enough, the number “How Beautifully Blue the Sky,” and found myself floating up into the lighting rig.

  Of course, they left me there. At least in New York, such things are not unknown in the theater, and the custom is to simply wait until the end of the performance and then send up stage crew with hooks on poles. So I had a bird’s-eye view of the whole performance, while doing my best to remain professionally still and not upstage anyone down below by, for instance, shaking too much or, indeed, screaming. I was well aware that at any moment the ace whose powers I was accidentally picking up like Wi-Fi (because that, dear reader, is the nature of my own power) might pop out to the bathroom. If they did, and that bathroom was too far away from the auditorium, I would plummet, and all that would be left of me would be an intriguing theatrical anecdote. “It’s how she’d have wanted to go,” they’d have said. They would have been horribly wrong. I have, actually, on some previous occasions, needed to calculate how far a theater’s bathrooms were from the stage, but never with quite such manic intensity.

  Still, I got to the end of the performance, and the stagehands with the poles did indeed rescue me, and backstage, now allowing myself at least a slight tremble, I was introduced to Mr. Monroe, who’d inherited his mother’s expressive eyebrows. It turned out he’d come to the theater that evening to see me, and had brought along as his guest an ace who could control gravity. Will had heard of my ability and had wanted to test it out. In a few weeks he would be going along to a high-stakes poker game, and knew there would be various dubious characters in the room, and needed to find a way to know if there was anyone present who could read either his cards or his mind, or perhaps control his actions.

  I was about to say, because I’d become aware, without the need for any powers, that the glorious jealousy my fellow artistes in the backstage area had been emanating as they listened in on our conversation was turning to contempt, that I couldn’t possibly sign up for any job where I wasn’t being hired as an actor. I knew how disliked I was becoming for a notoriety that had nothing to do with my skills as a thespian. I was somewhat aggrieved that Will, of all people, being in the business himself, had failed to understand that. However, at that point Will had quoted an hourly rate, the glorious jealousy of my peers had instantly returned, and I’d found myself declaring that I was indeed between jobs, and that I looked forward to exploring a new medium.

  Will briefed me thoroughly about what to expect. I was given photos of all the participants and their retinues, so I’d be able to immediately identify whoever it was using powers. Thankfully, more experience with using my abilities has made me aware, these days, of a sense of direction and intensity when I’m starting to take on a power set. So I’m actually pretty useful as a power meter. But it wasn’t the job itself that worried me when I saw the pictures. It was the identity of the bodyguard to one of the other players. “Donald Meek?” I said, incredulously, because the name and the face rang a bell. A wrong bell. As if you’re expecting a particular bell, but … look, I’m an actor, not a writer, okay? “Donald Meek,” I went on, my brain racing, “was a character actor in Hollywood in the 1940s. He was in Stagecoach, The Thin Man … Goes Home, I think, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Hold That Co-ed—”

  “You know your classic Hollywood,” said Will, who at that moment seriously approved of me. I had mentioned on a handful of occasions that I knew all his mother’s movies by heart.

  “—but he’d be much older than this now, to the point where he would surely be very dead by now, and I watched a lot of those movies with an old boyfriend who always pointed out Donald Meek and … oh, this is him. This is him looking like an
d taking on the alias of Donald Meek, and he is going to be at this poker game, and you should really be aware of that.” I pointed at the photo. “This is actually Croyd Crenson, the Sleeper, and he’s the wild card here, because when you meet him at that game his power that evening could be anything.” Will looked guardedly at me, either because I’d use the words “wild card” in polite company, which you just don’t do on social media these days, but hey, I’m a fellow sufferer, I’m allowed … or because he’d researched me and knew all about my prior connection to Croyd.

  “Is that going to be a problem for you?” he asked.

  “We’re friends now. We keep in touch.” Meaning Croyd always replied to my emails about six months after I’d sent them, whenever he decided that actually he wasn’t Mr. 1940s guy and did know how to use the internet. He was, perhaps unsurprisingly for someone with an unusually long romantic life, reasonably okay at being decent to me as an ex. For my part, I’d kept those times I’d hated him out of sight of him and anyone else. “He’ll want everything to stay calm, and if bad stuff starts to happen, he’ll try to look out for me.”

  “Good to know,” said Pug. Pug was Will’s PA, Gary Peterman, a former child star, whom I knew from such movies as The Lost Boys 2: Vampaces, Sea Trek V (the crap one where they meet God and He turns out to be an evolved joker), and Cowquake I–VI (he got out while they were still “good”). His face had that stretched like a balloon look that either meant plastic surgery or a bit of joker in there or both. I hadn’t added that whether or not Croyd tried to look out for me or anyone else was often down to how long he’d been without sleep and what he’d done to stay awake, but by the look on Peterman’s face as he researched Croyd on his tablet, those details leapt out anyway.

  I dropped Croyd a line that night, and this time got an immediate reply, and we had a quick back-and-forth talking honestly about what we expected from the game, and Croyd was as straight with me as he’d always been. I was able to tell Will, the next morning, that Charles Dutton’s party, at least, was coming to the game just to play cards. Croyd had been pleasingly concerned about how I might react to his presence. His group had, of course, researched the opposition, just as Will had, so he’d seen I was coming along. He warned me about how he looked these days. It seemed that “hey, I like older men” was no longer up to the task of adequately explaining our previous relationship. I took it from his tone that he was at a calm place in his sleep cycle, and all in all I was glad that we were both planning to treat each other like adults.

 

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