Low chicago, p.20
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       Low Chicago, p.20

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

  I couldn’t help it. I ran to him and stared into his triumphant smile.

  Then I smacked him round the gob.

  As he dragged himself to his feet, I was about to finally come out with my Lauren Bacall line, when Tim ran past me and grabbed Croyd’s hands. He’d come from the underbrush. He was carrying something under his arm. “Don’t be angry with her,” he pleaded. “Please! We gotta get home!”

  “Kid, of course we’re going to—”

  All sound was cut off in that moment by the brightest light I had ever seen. It was like flashlights had suddenly illuminated the southern horizon. I now realize this must have just been the light of the impact reflected off the clouds, not even the light itself. “Take us back!” I shouted. “Now!”

  “I say, wait a mo!” That familiar voice had come from above. A small, silvery flying pod was descending at the edge of the jungle. In it sat Whistle. “I’ve been sent to persuade you to come back.”

  “No!” screamed Tim.

  “Is the ship all right?” I called to him as he stepped from the pod. I was fighting off a very British urge to apologize.

  “Oh yes, the disruption only lasted a few moments. In fact, as soon as I’m back, with or without you, we’re about to take off, because as you may have noticed, the second event we came here to observe is about to—”

  Another sound came from across the plain, a dull roar. We all looked in that direction. A blaze of light was rising into the sky.

  Whistle stared at it in horror. “Oh, the absolute rotters,” he said.

  And in that moment I knew that, somehow, we had all been part of the Trader’s plan. Or one that she’d come up with after meeting us, at any rate. If she could track one space-time event, she surely knew we were about to be rescued. She must, for some reason, want Whistle to come to the future.

  I looked to Tim, and saw what he had under his arm. He was carrying a dinosaur egg.

  “I had to save one,” he said. And he looked at me with such a determined expression that I couldn’t insist he part with it. Charlie Flowers was soon going to have a very big reason to take “Birdbrain” seriously.

  “Oh—” began Croyd, and I think he was going to finish that with “—kay!” But at that moment he gestured frantically just as a wall of light and sound and heat hit us and the edge of the jungle, and something from his hands hit the silvery shell of Whistle’s flight pod and I was suddenly on the déjà vu express again, and then—

  I was standing in the middle of an enormous stadium, full of people. I was naked. Again. Damn it. I became aware that the shouts of the crowd had now turned into a roar of … well, I think it was mostly applause. I looked round. Standing with me were a twelve-year-old boy clutching a huge egg and a little gray alien. They were both also naked. And, erm, well, I don’t quite know how to put this, but I think Whistle might find himself to be quite popular in his new time period.

  I covered myself. Ballplayers … Cubs players … came running over, either laughing or telling us off, asking if this was some stunt, but to give them due credit, those actually soon became concerned questions. Whistle was looking round, lost, without his translation device or his beloved cultural … probe. He let out a long, untranslated whistle.

  Security people ran on. I was provided with a blanket. I asked what day it was and found out we’d been gone for less than forty-eight hours. I directed all questions to Will Monroe’s office. After a while, a lawyer and some of Will’s assistants arrived and were allowed to collect us. Local law enforcement had been informed, but the Cubs weren’t pressing charges. Indeed, something was said about me pitching the first ball next season. So there’s that.

  We had maintained throughout that Whistle was a kid in a costume. Thankfully, nobody seemed to feel they had the authority to question that. As we were driven, fully dressed, out into blissful, sunlit Chicago once again, he looked as mournful as Tim and I looked relieved. A call had been put in to Charlie Flowers. I hoped, if he was also back from a time-travel experience, it might give him some more empathy with the kid. I took both their hands. “It’s going to be all right.”

  Whistle obviously didn’t understand my words. Tim just hugged the egg tighter to his chest. The experience sat in me, as yet undigested, but it was already starting to chill me, and it has ever since. There has been time, after all, for millions of years of consequences. At least nothing has changed about the present day. But what has the Trader done, in all that time, with her knowledge of the future?

  When I heard he was back from his efforts to save everyone who’d been in that room, I called Croyd, and after asking about who and how and all the times he’d been to, I finally got to use that line I’d prepared. Which had gained somewhat in pertinence. “Every time I see you,” I said, “I realize how much older we both got.”

  I also said sorry for hitting him. He just laughed. I think I can rely upon that.

  I worry particularly about Jube. I haven’t yet returned to New York, but when I do, what am I going to say to him? Did the tide of genetic anomalies ebb and flow enough to have made him look like he does by accident? Or is there something deeply wrong underneath all we experienced? Is there some meaning behind Jube’s resemblance to Snorsk?

  Because, if so, that might be jolly bad news for the human race.

  A Long Night at the Palmer House

  Part 5

  “THIS IS GOING TO be kind of tricky,” Croyd said as he gazed at the shiny curved side of the spaceship.

  “I didn’t need to hear—” Nighthawk began, but his final words were spoken into the void of the time stream as Croyd sent them on their way with the usual gut-jarring results.

  Again, it went on for what seemed to be far too long as they journeyed across millions of years. Actually, Nighthawk suspected, the trip took place between the beats of his heart, though it was hard to figure out the actual duration of their journey. He was getting somewhat used to the process, but the side effects of the transition were still quite disorienting.

  They landed in the usual denuded state in the countryside near an open road underneath a tree that looked comforting in its familiar modernity. As did the cab sitting in the shade under it, if in the cab’s case by modern you meant a model made somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century.

  The cabbie was sitting behind the wheel, reading a newspaper. He was a middle-aged black man, portly, dressed in a cap and a work uniform that had the name of the car company stitched over the pocket of his shirt. He lowered the newspaper and looked out the window at Nighthawk and Croyd. “You must be the gentlemen I was sent to pick up,” the cabbie said. “A white man and a black man, both naked as jaybirds.” He nodded.

  “Sent by who?” Croyd asked, after he and Nighthawk had exchanged glances.

  “I don’t ask no questions,” the cabbie told them, “and I don’t answer none. There’s clothes for you in the back seat.”

  “Our unknown benefactor strikes again,” Nighthawk said.

  “It could be a trap,” Croyd said suspiciously.

  “If so,” Nighthawk answered, “I want to be dressed when we have to fight our way out of it.”

  Croyd shrugged. “You have a point.”

  The clothes fit. Better yet, so did the shoes. They were all mid-century casual style.

  “Can you answer this question?” Croyd asked as he pulled up his pants. “What’s the date?”

  “It’s the twentieth of September, 1942,” the cabbie said.

  “Not too bad,” Croyd said in a satisfied voice as the cabbie looked on in studied disinterest. “I was aiming for the temporal anomaly in 1929—so thirteen years off in over thirty million. That’s a pretty small error.”

  “We’ll just have to jump again,” Nighthawk said.

  “That we will.” Croyd was still self-satisfied. “But there also happens to be an anomaly in 1942. We’ll take care of this one, then move back to 1929 and then we’ll be in striking distance of the Everleigh Club.”

They looked at the cabbie, and he just shrugged. “It’s all Greek to me.”

  Nighthawk said, “Uh-huh,” and turned to Croyd. “Sounds like a plan, I guess.”

  “I’m supposed to give you this.” The cabbie handed them a newspaper through the driver’s-side window after they’d finished dressing. Nighthawk took it from him and Croyd stood, annoyingly, over his shoulder, to read the front-page headline that screamed out in banner type: NAZI SPY CAUGHT IN LOVE NEST WITH DEAD ARAB.

  Below the headlines was a photo of a bewildered-looking Jack Braun wrapped in a sheet and wearing handcuffs, being led off by cops.

  “Get in,” the cabbie said. “I was told to take you to the Palmer House.”

  Nighthawk looked at Croyd, nodding. “Of course. There’s no way we’re going to be able to bust Braun out if he’s already in police custody. He’s either in the House of Corrections or the Cook County Jail, depending … believe me, it’d take an assault team of aces to get someone out of either place.” He paused, frowning. “I wonder why they think Braun’s a Nazi spy?”

  Croyd shrugged. “He pops up mysteriously in a hotel room. He has a German surname. It’s 1942.”

  “Must be more to it than that.”

  “We’ll have to ask him when we rescue his golden ass,” Croyd replied. “But why the Palmer House?”

  “We have to get to him before the cops do.”

  “Riiiiight,” Croyd said, nodding.

  “Just give your names at the front desk,” the cabbie told them as they stopped at the Palmer’s entrance. “There’s a reservation waiting for you.”

  Nighthawk and Croyd exchanged glances, Nighthawk shaking his head in bewilderment.

  “Wish we could tip you for all you’ve done for us,” Nighthawk said.

  “Don’t worry about me,” the cabbie told them. “I’ve been well taken care of. You gentlemen take care of yourselves, now.” Whistling tunelessly, he pulled away from the curb.

  It was like the man said. They told the reception clerk their names, he handed over the room key that was waiting for them. As they entered the elevator Croyd nudged Nighthawk surreptitiously, gestured with his eyes toward the young black operator who’d just asked them their floor number.

  Nighthawk nodded. “I heard you had some excitement here a couple of days ago.”

  “Yes, sir,” the young man said. “Some crazy man somehow got into a suite, shot a foreign gentleman.” He looked at Nighthawk with a scandalized expression on his face. “And they were both naked.”

  “That’s pretty strange,” Nighthawk commented.

  “Sure was,” the operator said, warming to the story. “They scared the professor so much that they moved him right out of there. And you know what?” he added conspiratorially. “They wasn’t the police that arrested the crazy man. It was the FBI, sure enough. Then they took the professor and his wife away somewhere else.”

  “The professor?” Nighthawk asked.

  “Yeah. Some little Italian guy. Nice guy, though.”

  Nighthawk mulled that over, trying to link the date and an Italian name in his mind in the few moments they had before they reached their floor. Chicago, 1942. An Italian professor. It finally clicked as the elevator came to a halt and the door dinged open.

  “It wasn’t Dr. Fermi, was it?” he asked.

  The elevator operator thought for a moment, then nodded. “Yeah, that was his name. He was always so polite—your floor, sir.”

  “Thanks,” they both said, not to be undone by the foreign professor, as they exited the elevator.

  “Well, that explains it,” Nighthawk said. “Enrico Fermi.”

  “Wasn’t he a scientist?” Croyd said as they walked down the hall. “Had something to do with the atom bomb, right?”

  “Yeah,” Nighthawk said, “something. He designed and supervised the construction of the first nuclear pile to have a controlled, self-sustaining reaction. You know, the one they put in the old squash court under the football field stands at the University of Chicago. The one they built as part of the Manhattan Project, starting, well, right about now.”

  “Holy crap,” Croyd said. “So someone calling himself Jack Braun shows up naked in his hotel suite with a dead guy? No wonder they thought he was a Nazi spy.”

  “I’m sure Braun had a calm, rational explanation for it. He probably told them he came from the future. He was drunk as a skunk at the game, you will recall.”

  Croyd rolled his eyes as they stopped at the door of the very same suite where the action had taken place several days before and which their unknown benefactor had thoughtfully reserved for them. Croyd opened the door. They went in, looked around. It was very nice.

  “Well,” Croyd said.

  Nighthawk nodded. “No sense prolonging this.”

  “Yeah.” Croyd thought for a moment. “Let’s go in from the bathroom. That’ll give us a fraction of a moment of surprise before we rush in with our junk hanging out.”

  Nighthawk smiled at the thought of Donald Meek saying “junk.”


  “Nothing,” Nighthawk said. “Drop the cops, or the FBI agents, or whoever the hell has a gun first. Just remove them from the scene. That’ll give us a chance to deal with Braun.”

  “Good plan,” Croyd said. Then he shrugged. “Or, at least as good as it can be.”

  “You realize this all depends on your pinpoint control of the time stream,” Nighthawk warned. “We’re talking about arriving seconds before or after Braun. Even being minutes off might prove disastrous. I can’t even think of the paradoxes that might occur if we have to go after them again. The notion makes my head hurt.”

  “No pressure,” Croyd muttered. The expression on his face made Nighthawk wonder how much longer the Sleeper could go on.

  A pleasant-faced, clean-cut, well-dressed young man was sitting on the toilet when Croyd and Nighthawk popped into the bathroom. He was the very picture of a young, bright-eyed FBI agent. The look on his face was something to see as the time hoppers materialized in front of the sink right next to him. He began to stand up, started to reach for the gun holstered in a shoulder rig under his left arm, then reached for his pants. His indecision proved unfortunate.

  Nighthawk popped him a hard one right on the point of his jaw. His head snapped backwards and hit the wall behind the toilet, came forward again. Nighthawk crossed with a left that slammed him into the bathtub, where he went down in a heap. Nighthawk was on him instantly, but he was out like a light.

  “Dibs on his pants,” Nighthawk said in a low voice.

  “Not again!”

  “Ssshhhh,” he shushed Croyd as he reached for the towel hanging in the rack by the sink. “Toss me that washcloth.”

  He quickly gagged and bound the FBI agent, whose identity was confirmed by the badge he carried in his hip pocket. Nighthawk relieved him first of his pants, then of his gun. He hoped he wouldn’t have to use the gun, but at the very least it might come in handy as persuasion. He put on the man’s pants and cinched his belt tight around his waist. He looked down at him, still unconscious in the bathtub.

  “You could take his shorts,” he said to Croyd in a low voice.

  “Ewww, really?”

  Nighthawk shrugged. “Up to you.” Naked, Donald Meek looked a bit like a shaved monkey. The boxers that the unconscious agent wore wouldn’t have helped much.

  “Screw it,” Croyd said, which did sound funny in Meek’s voice. “I am what I am.”

  “I’ll lead,” Nighthawk said quietly. “If we can get the drop on them maybe you won’t have to pop away any of the agents. In any case, we have to be quick.”

  “Okay.” Croyd glanced down at the still unmoving agent. “We better get going before they send out a search party for this guy.”

  Nighthawk went quietly on naked feet to the bathroom door, Croyd following just as silently after him. He unlocked the door, pulled it slightly open. The bathroom was located in the same spot as it had been in the future, in the short
hallway before the suite’s front entrance and the sitting room. From that room came the sound of murmured conversation, the clinking of cups being set down, of silverware scraping across plates. Obviously, someone—a few people—were having tea, or a light snack.

  Nighthawk looked at Croyd and mouthed the words “Where’s Jack?” and Croyd shrugged helplessly. Together, they crept silently up the short hall to the unobstructed entrance to the sitting room.

  As they moved, Nighthawk realized that he could detect at least three voices. One, male, speaking excellent English with a musical Italian accent. Another, female. Her English was less certain, her accent thicker. The third was a younger man speaking flawless English with a drawl. He addressed the other two as Doctor and Signora Fermi, and Nighthawk nodded. His suspicions were confirmed. Fermi had probably recently arrived in Chicago to take over the construction of what became known as Chicago Pile One, and the rest was nuclear history.

  The government was putting him up at the Palmer House before finding regular housing for him. Nice work, Nighthawk thought, if you could get it. Of course, Fermi was worth it. The man who’d left Italy because of restrictive laws they’d passed that affected his Jewish wife had helped the Americans beat the Germans to the atomic bomb. The use the bomb had been put to was debatable, Nighthawk reflected, but if the Germans had won the race everyone in his time in America would be speaking German, at least to their overlords. It was no wonder that they’d leaped to the conclusion that the strange intruders, no matter how weirdly they’d arrived on the scene, were probably German spies.

  With that thought, as if on cue, came the sound of sudden thuds in the sitting room, followed immediately by the noises made by chairs scraping across the floor, china being dropped, and a woman’s choked scream.

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