Low chicago, p.2
Low Chicago, p.2Part #25 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin
One of his attendants was an immense man, larger than even Khan or Meathooks, bald as an egg, and fat. “Let me help, little boy,” he said in a breathy, weirdly accented voice.
Nighthawk frowned, focusing on him for the first time. He was the spitting image of Tor Johnson, the professional wrestler turned actor—if you wanted to be kind about his thespian abilities. Nighthawk recalled memories of the adventure he’d shared with Fortune all those years ago. Fortune’s companion at the time had been Mr. Nobody, who had a habit of taking on the appearance of old-time movie stars—like Tor Johnson. Or, Donald Meek.
But if Mr. Nobody was with John Fortune as Tor Johnson, then, who …
Nighthawk glanced at Meek, who was standing by his side. The little man returned Nighthawk’s gaze with bland innocence.
Tor Johnson or Mr. Nobody or whoever he was turned the latch on the window and pulled up the lower pane. The sound of the street many stories below wafted into room, as did a warm nighttime breeze. “Is that what you wanted, little boy?” the big bodyguard wheezed, and Timmy, looking out into the night, nodded.
Everyone waited expectantly, and a moment later a pigeon flew into the room. It circled Tor Johnson as if he were an atoll in the ocean and the bird was seeking refuge after a long flight, and then landed on the round crown of Johnson’s bald head, cooing contentedly.
Dagmar—or was it Hildy?—broke into a giggle. “It looks like it’s hatching an egg,” she said, as Johnson almost went cross-eyed trying to gaze up at the bird.
The bird flapped away after a moment and sought out Fortune’s second bodyguard, landing on her shoulder. She—the bodyguard—craned her neck and looked uncertainly at it.
“Kiss the pretty lady,” Timmy said.
Nighthawk was a little worried about this one. All he was able to discover about the young Asian woman with the long braided hair was her name, Kavitha Kandiah. Nighthawk had been observing her as she’d been moving about the room, getting a drink for Fortune, placing a dish of candies by Johnson’s elbow on the table. She moved with a fluid grace that spelled martial artist or dancer. As an unknown factor, Nighthawk thought, she’d bear watching. The problem was, so would almost everyone in the room.
The pigeon reached forward to peck at her cheek, and she leaned backwards in her seat.
“We call him Birdbrain,” Flowers chortled. “Because he can control the minds of birds—one at a time, that is.”
As a longtime baseball fan, Nighthawk had already detested Charlie Flowers. Now, interacting with him personally for the first time, he really loathed him.
The bird flew up from Kandiah’s shoulder, circled the table, and landed in front of Galante, where it proceeded to spread its wings and do sort of a bobbing and hopping dance in front of Galante’s pile of chips.
Galante had a look of intense dislike on his face. “Disgusting thing,” he said. “Rat with wings.”
Next to Nighthawk, Meek made a gesture with his right hand. A spectrum of light, like a rainbow, arced from his palm, striking the bird in mid-hop. The pigeon vanished.
Nighthawk looked at Meek with new interest in his eyes, as did everyone else in the room.
“I told you,” Meek said to him. “I make problems disappear.” He glanced at Timmy, who was looking at him with somewhat like horror. “Don’t worry, kid, he’s okay. I just sent him to a better place.”
Teleportation? Nighthawk thought. Interesting. An extremely potent power, and useful. There was more to Meek, he decided, than appearances would allow.
“All right,” Flowers said briskly, unconcerned by his nephew’s downcast expression. “Let’s get to business. Or sport, eh?” He elbowed Dagmar in the ribs, rubbing his meaty hands together briskly.
“Yeah.” Galante took his gaze from Meek and ostentatiously consulted the expensive Rolex on his wrist. “Well, we’re expecting one more player. He seems to be running late. It’s past nine. Let’s give him a couple more minutes—”
Even as Galante spoke there was a shimmering in the air, felt more by the brain than seen by the eye. Suddenly three newcomers stood in the room.
The woman in the center was the tallest. She was almost six feet and wore a robe of shining fabric that for some reason Nighthawk found difficult to focus his eyes on. Her skin was pale, her long black hair fell like a rippling cloak to her waist, but her silver eyes were her most arresting feature. Nighthawk felt that it might be unwise to look into them too deeply or for too long.
She embraced two others, one in the crook of each arm. The other woman was almost as tall as her, leggy, blond, with smoky-blue eyes and a bored expression on her exquisite face. She wore a black sheath dress that revealed the creamy skin of her upper breasts and displayed a lot of silky thigh. Around her long, graceful neck was a diamond choker with a single large sapphire shining like the tear of an angel.
Nighthawk was relieved—somewhat. The woman in the diamond choker was Margot Bellerose, internationally famous French actress. Nothing to worry about there. The ace who’d delivered her was another matter. Lilith. Teleporter and assassin. Mistress of the knife. The case that held the buy-in cash was slung around one of her shoulders.
As to the player himself—
“Siraj, Hashemite Prince of the Royal House of Jordan and President of the Caliphate of Greater Arabia,” Lilith announced in a voice that managed to be haughty and languid at the same time.
Siraj bowed a precise millimeter in the general direction of the poker table and put out his hand. Bellerose took it with an air of pouty boredom and they approached the table together. Siraj was short, handsome, and dark, if more than a little plump. He was reputed to have a sharp mind and an almost bottomless bank account.
Prince Siraj took the last empty seat at the table and snapped a finger to one of the two barmaids, who hustled up another chair. Bellerose slipped into it with the air of a queen about to expire from ennui, playing with her choker as she glanced disinterestedly around the table.
“Let’s get this show on the road!” Flowers suggested.
“Agreed,” Galante said with a degree of oily unctuousness, “but first, the house rules. They are few, but important. Number one, gentlemen. The buy-in.”
Khan strolled around the table, collecting the various bags, valises, and briefcases offered by the players or their seconds.
“The cash will be counted,” Galante said, “just for propriety’s sake, and be put in the suite’s safe for safekeeping. Your chips are already in place before you. Rule number two. The game is over when one player holds all of those chips. Rule number three. The play is table stakes, dealer’s choice, no limit. Is that all agreeable?”
Murmurs went around the table.
“Good. Play will be continuous, but if someone wants to take a break for a snack, or, whatever, heh-heh, there are private rooms in the suite to eh, freshen up in.”
Flowers, eyeing one of the barmaids, a lissome joker model with bunny ears and a cute fluffy tail, asked, “All part of the service?”
“All part of the service,” Galante agreed.
“Finally, no telepathy.” Galante’s voice turned low with more than a hint of danger. “We have ways of detecting it and identifying whoever may be using it. The offender will lose their stake.” He paused a moment. “And probably more.” He looked around the table, his gaze resting momentarily on each player. “Understood?”
He got six answers in the affirmative. The last player he looked at was Dutton, and his eyes lingered.
“I know the world we live in, but this is a friendly game.” Galante’s smile was almost sincere. “Masks are not allowed at the table, Mr. Dutton, because of the unfair advantage that they give.”
Dutton may have smiled under his mask. At least, it moved a little bit on his face. “Far be it for me to take unfair advantage, Mr. Galante,” he said in his sepulchre voice.
He removed the mask and let it drop on the table before him. There were several audible gasps. E
“Shall we play?” Dutton asked, what might have been a smile twitching across his face.
Galante grinned in reply and broke open a pack of cards sitting near him on the table.
“Of course,” he said. “As host, I deal the first hand. The game starts, as always, with a hand of Low Chicago. Afterwards, winner deals and chooses the play. Ante up, gentlemen.”
Everyone took one of the red chips from the pile before him and tossed five thousand dollars into the pot.
There was, Nighthawk thought as the game began, an authentic rush of excitement in the air. He’d been involved in a few marathon poker games in his life, nothing approaching stakes like these, of course, and he knew that they had a rhythm, a kind of ebb and flow, depending largely on the personalities of those involved. And the seven players here, he realized, had about as wide a range of personalities as could be found. It didn’t take too long to sort them out.
Galante was a bold, impulsive player. He also wore his emotions openly on his face. He took chances—it was gambling, after all—but more often than not he succeeded when he did. He also drank steadily, but he seemed to hold his liquor well.
Jack Braun, to his left, was the most distracted player at the table. One and sometimes both of the twins were hanging on to him. He had a fair poker face—a reviewer had once said that as an actor his facial expressions ran the gamut from A to B—but was careless with the way he held his cards and in the way he played. He didn’t drink as much as Galante, but then he didn’t hold his drink as well, either.
Charlie Flowers was the most intense player at the table. He gripped his cards tightly, he stared around at everyone as the bets were made like he was trying to read their minds. Unfortunately, he was a bad reader.
Siraj’s play was as smooth and deft as his manners. He was probably, in Nighthawk’s judgment, one of the two best players at the table.
Dutton, with his ultimate poker face, was the other. He too was suave and mannered, but he had the advantage of looking like Death.
Will Monroe was affable and full of chitchat. Nighthawk couldn’t tell if he was just a little scatterbrained, or was cunningly trying to distract the other players as he explained, sometimes in excruciating detail, the fine points of the game to his attendant, Abigail, who didn’t seem all that interested. Nighthawk kept wondering why she was there. She seemed more bored than anyone else present, except possibly for Timmy, who soon lost interest in the proceedings, but thankfully didn’t call in any more birds to play with.
John Fortune was all business, as if this were work for him, not fun. He concentrated on the game, though as it started he acknowledged Nighthawk with a nod. Which Nighthawk returned. He wondered if his presence was conjuring bad memories for Fortune, since the last time he’d seen him he was being held by the Midnight Angel and sobbing over his father’s death. It hadn’t been a pleasant time for anyone.
Flowers got off to a bad start, Siraj to a fast one. Within the first hour Siraj had won three hands in a row, taking a lot of chips from Flowers.
“Motherfucking—” Flowers began after Siraj had called his bluff and raked in a big pot.
Prince Siraj looked at him, quirking an eyebrow. “What did you say?”
Flowers gestured impatiently. “Hey, nothing personal. Wasn’t talking to you, directly.”
“There are ladies present,” Siraj said in his smooth English accent.
“Ladies,” Flowers snorted. “If by ladies you mean whor—”
“I mean ladies.” Siraj cut him off again, this time with iron in his tone. “And if you want to take a brief break and discuss this matter personally, I will be more than happy to indulge you.”
“Hey, Prince, it was just locker room talk—”
“We are not currently in a locker room, Mr. Flowers,” Siraj said, “and when you were you didn’t know how to behave decently. Your actions were beneath contempt.”
Next to him, Bellerose tittered.
Flowers flushed red for a moment. He turned and looked at Julie Cotton, the joker bar attendant, who was standing nearby, just having brought Galante another tumbler of whiskey, straight up. “Hey, girlie,” he said. “Bring me a bourbon.” He paused. “Does that tail come off with the costume, honey?”
Bellerose tittered again.
“No, sir,” Cotton said with as much dignity as she could muster.
“Enough,” Galante said impatiently. “Deal the cards. We’re playing poker here, right?”
By two A.M. Nighthawk was starting to think that all the bodyguards were a bit unnecessary. The game progressed with intensity, but without untoward incidents. Even though the fortunes of all players were shifting, no one was yet showing signs of worry.
Whether Dutton’s supreme poker face helped him or not, he and Prince Siraj were the big winners. They had piles of chips stacked before them, representing about half the total table. John Fortune was playing with stoic skill, but so far the cards weren’t favoring him. He was essentially even after the first five hours of play. Jack Braun was drunk as a lord and losing steadily, but he seemed unconcerned and was paying more attention to Hildy and Dagmar than the cards. He’d left the table with them twice, taking them to one of the private rooms for two half-hour breaks, and returning each time if not more sober at least with a happy look on his face. He and Galante, who was drunk as a pissed-off mafioso, and Will Monroe, who was steadily sipping scotch and ginger ale, had about two million in chips among them. Charlie Flowers was moaning over his pile, which was about half as high as when they’d started.
The various bodyguards all mostly remained in a state of taciturn alertness. None of them had partaken of alcoholic beverages, although the one who looked like Tor Johnson had consumed an ungodly amount of bar snacks ranging from chips and salsa to caviar-spread crackers to a dozen doughnuts of various types and fillings. Others had eaten more sparsely of the spread, which was dispensed efficiently and prettily by the bunny-eared joker and the dark-haired, dark-eyed girl, who’d also been kept busy serving single malt to Braun, bourbon to Flowers, whiskey to Galante, and other beverages to the rest of the players.
Abigail was the most attentive of the onlookers. She sat in a chair a little behind Will Monroe, following every turn of the cards. Pug the ex–child star was asleep on the far right sofa that lined the suite’s outside wall. Flowers’s nephew with the contemptuous nickname of Birdbrain was soundly asleep on the middle sofa. One of Fortune’s bodyguards, the dancer or martial artist, occupied the third one, but she at least was alert … though it seemed to Nighthawk that she was watching him and Meek more closely than the game. Nighthawk never looked at her directly, but he could feel her eyes upon him and Meek and he wondered why they were the center of her attention.
“Shit!” Flowers exclaimed crudely and loudly, throwing his cards down in disgust as John Fortune raked in the current pot. “I need something to change my luck!” He stood and grabbed the arm of the dark-haired bar attendant named Irina. She’d just passed by his seat after delivering another whiskey to Galante. “Come on, baby, let’s see what you can deliver besides drinks.” He pulled her into one of the bedrooms and closed the door after them.
Fortune piled his chips, tossed in a red for the ante. “Seven-card stud,” he announced.
He liked, Nighthawk had noticed, the more straightforward games, without wild cards or split pots.
By five o’clock Golden Boy was busted. All his chips were gone, as was one of the twins, who’d disappeared with Bellerose into one of the private rooms, unnoticed by everyone but Nighthawk. At least, no one had the poor taste to remark upon their absence. Braun himself was still seated at the table, but was asleep, head down upon it. Dagmar (or was it Hildy?) was curled up on the chair behind Braun, also asleep, but a lot cuter than Jack, who, much to Galante’s disgust, was snoring.
His redheaded bodyguard named Cyn stood, stretched like a cat, and went to Braun’s side. She was a pleasure to watch as she pulled Golden Boy Braun upright and settled him back in his chair, then continued on her way to call room service. “Ah, Mom,” Braun moaned. “It ain’t time to milk the cows yet. Lemme sleep s’more.”
There were general guffaws and titters around the table.
“C’mon,” Flowers said, “we gonna play cards or milk the cows? I got a lot of money to win back.”
“Good luck with that,” Will Monroe observed dryly. He tossed in a red chip to ante for the next hand. “You got enough to cover that?”
Flowers had maybe a dozen blues and a slightly higher stack of whites, the two lowest denominations at a thousand and five hundred dollars each, respectively.
“You worry about your own pile, movie boy,” Flowers said gruffly, but Nighthawk thought that the ex–baseball player had to know that Monroe was right. He was one, maybe two losing hands away from being busted.
At this point Dutton was the big winner, Fortune and Siraj were roughly tied with the second largest piles of chips. Monroe and Galante were both down.
“I’ll give you a chance to last another couple hands,” Galante, who had won the previous pot, said generously as he started to deal. “Five-card stud.”
Galante dealt the first card facedown around the table, then the second, faceup. The exposed cards ranged from John Fortune’s deuce to a queen for Prince Siraj. Siraj checked and the bet went around the table to Galante, who had a ten showing.
“Bet a thousand,” he said, and everyone added a blue chip to the pot.
The third up card was dealt and Flowers got an ace, but Monroe received a second eight.
“A thousand on each,” the producer said. All called but Galante, who folded.
Low Chicago by George R. R. Martin / Fantasy / Science Fiction / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes