Low chicago, p.21
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       Low Chicago, p.21

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

  Nighthawk whirled into action, Croyd at his heels.

  There was chaos in the sitting room. Jack Braun and the body of poor Siraj had materialized. Prince Siraj was lying there bleeding. Signora Fermi was sitting at a small table, her hands to her face, looking at Siraj’s body and screaming. Jack had been in the process of falling backwards when the time beam had struck him, so he continued to fall backwards, stumbling into an FBI agent, who was reaching for his gun. Fermi had been conveying a pastry to his mouth. He was still sitting in his chair, not quite knowing where to stare himself.

  Nighthawk and Meek added more chaos to the situation by revealing themselves, Nighthawk shouting, “Jack, take the FBI guys!”

  For all his drunken state and the uncertainty of his position, Braun was a man of action with good instincts. He pushed off the one agent, the mere flick of his wrist sending him slamming back into the wall, and headed for the other. The second agent belatedly reached for his gun. The look of astonishment on his face turned to terror when his shot ricocheted off Jack’s chest. Before the bullet could strike Jack his entire body began to glow with the golden sheen that contributed so heavily to his name and legend. He reached out and grabbed the agent by the shirt, lifted him effortlessly with one hand, and whirled, throwing him into the other where he lay on the floor, fumbling for his own weapon. They collided with an audible smack and both lost any interest in the proceedings. “What the fuck!” Braun roared. He stared at Nighthawk, panting more from sheer surprise than exertion.

  “Hang cool,” Nighthawk said, “we’re here to send you home.”

  Jack looked around, his general attitude resembling that of the bull ready to destroy the china shop. “Where am I now?”

  “Croyd!” Nighthawk yelled.

  Croyd was suddenly at his side, color blooming from his hands, and Jack was gone.

  Signora Fermi was reduced to a silent, gaping expression. The professor looked on with astonishment.

  Nighthawk turned to him. “It’s an honor to meet you, sir,” he said.

  Fermi’s soulful eyes turned to him. With his bald head and bags under his dark eyes he looked like a larger, better-fed version of Donald Meek.

  “I don’t know if you’ve actually formulated it yet,” Nighthawk told him, “but in about four years you’ll have the answer to Fermi’s Paradox.” He winked at the doctor, and turned to Croyd. “Let’s blow.” Together they both went down the hall, back to the bathroom.

  “Extraordinary,” said Enrico Fermi.

  Stripes

  by Marko Kloos

  ONE: PALMER

  ONE MOMENT, SOME HULKED-OUT meathead was trying to pull Khan’s head off his shoulders and, from the feel of it, almost succeeding. The next moment, Khan pushed back into empty air with all his might. Not even his reflexes were fast enough for him to catch his momentum, and he stumbled forward and plowed face-first into the carpet.

  Teleporter, he thought at once. The guy’s strong as a freak, and, He can teleport? Some guys get all the good skills.

  The suite around him, which a moment ago had been noisy with the sounds of no-holds-barred tussling, had turned quiet as quickly as if someone had turned off the sound with a switch. Khan gathered himself, rolled over on his back, and jumped back to his feet, claws out and ready to cut. The suite had been plunged into darkness, too, but to his left eye, that made almost no difference at all. But there was nobody in here with him. Ten seconds ago, he had been wrestling with whoever had made an attempt on his client, that little prick Giovanni Galante, and the room had been full of people. All the high rollers, their bodyguards, the girls who were serving the drinks. And now it was completely empty. Khan had walked in wearing an expensive suit, a Colt .45 automatic in a python-skin holster, and a thousand-dollar pair of shoes, and now he looked down at himself and saw that he was naked, without a scrap of clothing on his body. No suit, no shoes, no socks. No gun. No underwear.

  “What the fuck,” he said out loud. “What. The. Fuck.”

  Nothing in the room looked right. Khan was a bodyguard, and when he had walked into this suite earlier tonight, he had memorized the layout before Galante had even made it to his chair at the end of the table. You had to be able to read a place and predict threat directions in his line of work. Never seat the principal near a window. Always make sure you have your back to a wall. Sit in a place where you can see the door, so you can spot trouble coming as soon as possible. Khan had mapped the suite in his head thoroughly—every piece of furniture, every corner, every bar or counter solid enough to hide behind. And the room he was standing in looked nothing like the one he had walked into with Giovanni Galante earlier.

  Oh, it was the same room, no doubt. The geometry was the same—door ahead and to the left, two bedrooms on the far side, two over on his left, a bathroom by the little entrance hallway. But aside from the lack of people, the furniture was all wrong. The huge card table that had been in the middle of the room—the one he had flipped over while fighting off the ace who had attacked Galante—was no longer there. In its place stood a coffee table and a couch, and two matching armchairs on the short ends of the table. They looked red in the darkness, and there were little tassels on the bottom fringes of the chair covers. The bar at the other end of the room was gone, and there was a fireplace where there had been a liquor cabinet and a sink before.

  The room smelled different, too. In fact, the whole place did. It stank like tobacco smoke, the sort of smell that permeates walls and carpets in a place where smokers live for years. It made Khan wrinkle his nose in disgust. He had never liked the smell of that shit even before his card turned. Now, with the super-acute sense of smell of his tiger half, it was almost like a physical assault on his olfactory nerve. When he thought about it, the place didn’t sound right either. The Palmer House was inside the Loop, and even though it was the middle of the night, it shouldn’t have been this quiet out there. This was downtown Chicago, after all.

  Khan checked himself for injuries. There weren’t any to speak of—a bunch of bruises from where the ace who had attacked Galante had pummeled him a few times, but there were no broken bones, and he knew the bruises would stop aching and disappear in an hour at the most. He padded over to one of the windows, which now had heavy red brocade curtains in front of them. Then he reached out and moved the curtains aside to get a look at the outside.

  “What the fuck,” he said again. It seemed to have become the theme of the evening.

  Outside, it was dark, and it was snowing. And while Khan knew that he was looking at the corner of State and Monroe—he knew the topography inside the Loop like the stripes on the left side of his face—it wasn’t the State and Monroe he knew. The streetlights, the power lines, the signs on the stores, everything was off. There was snow piled up on the edges of the sidewalks, which as unusual enough considering that Galante had been bitching about the August heat and the shitty air-conditioning in the Palmer when they had walked in. A car puttered along Monroe, and it looked like something straight out of a museum. There were more cars parked by the curbs on Monroe and State, and they all looked old, yet new at the same time, like someone was holding a street meet of perfectly restored vintage cars out there.

  I know where I am, he thought. The question is, when am I?

  There had been other aces in the suite with him and Cyn when the fight started. Cyn, Golden Boy, Meathooks, and a few others that Khan knew by reputation, powerful and dangerous people. The Arab prince’s companion in particular had worried Khan—not because she looked like a huge physical threat, but because none of the guys in the room could keep their eyes off her for longer than ten seconds. None of the high rollers would have been careless enough to just bring regular muscle along, not with the stakes on the table. The aces in the room had been the most impressive concentration of fearsome abilities he had ever seen in one place together. Shit, everyone knew Giovanni Galante’s temper.

  The guy who attacked him hadn’t been in the suite when the game
started, though. He had been dressed as a waiter, brought Galante his steak, and then it had all gone full rodeo within a second or two. But Khan didn’t think the false waiter was responsible for this. First the fists and claws had come out, Cyn had started tossing flames, then someone had whipped out a gun and started shooting … but someone else had unleashed a big can of temporal whoop-ass right in the middle of the fight. Khan didn’t know if he was the only one in the suite who had been ripped from the time stream and unceremoniously dumped somewhen else, but he supposed it didn’t much matter right now.

  That false waiter—he knew he hadn’t seen the guy before, but now his brain told him otherwise. It was like there were two sets of memories battling for dominance in his tired brain. One memory said he’d never met that freakishly strong guy swearing in Polish. Another said that he had fought him before, years ago, on a construction site somewhere on the South Side. Khan vaguely remembered fists and steel girders, and a massive headache when it was all over. And he couldn’t quite figure out which memory was true. Maybe they both were.

  The living room part of the suite was empty, but there were four bedrooms in the place, and all the doors were closed. Khan stepped next to each door in turn, smelling and listening, hoping the place wasn’t rented out to some rich family or a bunch of foreigners on a leisure trip. But the bedrooms all smelled like nothing but laundered linen and cigarette smoke.

  He opened all the doors and started going through the closets for something to wear. If he stepped out looking the way he did, he suspected that the negative attention would be much worse than usual. Whenever this was, it looked like it was well before the first Wild Card Day, and nobody out there would know shit about jokers or aces. With luck, they’d just flip out and consider him a circus freak. With a little less luck, they’d call the cops and try to pump him full of buckshot. Khan wasn’t in the mood for either right now.

  The closets in the bedrooms were empty. There was a walk-in coat closet by the door, but that one was empty as well except for a laundry bag on a coat hanger. Khan checked the bathroom and found two bathrobes hanging on hooks. He tried one on and promptly tore it in half along the seam in the back when he tried to slip his arms into the sleeves. He tossed the robes aside and went back to the walk-in closet. The laundry bag was a big piece of canvas that looked like a sleeping bag. He popped out his claws and tore holes into it for his head and arms. Then he slipped the whole thing on. It was tight, but it did at least make him feel like he was wearing something.

  There was a mechanical clock ticking on the mantelpiece of the fireplace. It showed ten past two. Even at this hour, leaving the suite through the door and wandering the Palmer House hallways didn’t seem like a good idea. Khan was good at sneaking, and he was sure that security cameras were not yet an issue whenever this was, but there was no way to make it through that huge lobby and out the door without being spotted.

  He walked over to the windows on the far side of the room, which looked out over an alley and toward the next building on State. They had simple latches, and he popped them and opened both. They weren’t worried about people falling out and liability lawsuits, whatever the year was right now. Khan looked to make sure nobody was out on the sidewalk right below him, and then leaned out of the window. There was a fire escape, but it was three floors below the windows of this suite. Outside, the wind blowing through the alley was bitingly cold.

  Khan muttered a curse and swung his legs over the windowsill. Then he let himself drop down to the fire escape three floors below. He landed with a muffled crash and the alarming sound of creaking and popping steel as his three hundred pounds of mass landed on the grating. For a moment, he expected the welds of the steel to give way under him and kick off a pancaking collapse, but the structure merely groaned under his weight. A few minutes later, his hands and feet were numb with cold, but he was safely down in the alley.

  State Street to my right, he thought. The park is to my left. Two blocks across Wabash and Michigan Avenue. Find a place to hole up, get warm, figure out what to do next.

  He set out down the snow-covered alley, as quietly and swiftly as he could on numb feet. Two blocks to cover and safety, and maybe some warmth.

  TWO: LAKESIDE

  THERE WAS NO PARK yet, of course. Not the one Khan knew from his own time, the one they had just finished in the late 1990s. In what was still the present time in his own mind, you were in Millennium Park as soon as you got across Michigan Avenue. But this Michigan Avenue, in whatever year this was, didn’t border a park. It was a rail yard, rows and rows of tracks, some with freight cars parked on them. It didn’t look very inviting at all. But he had gotten too cold on his dash through the alleys, and his mind was still coming to terms with the fact that this now wasn’t his now, so Khan leapt the fence and went into the yard to look for shelter anyway. At least he wasn’t likely to run into anyone out here at two thirty in the morning.

  The wind was blowing stronger out here near the lake. The rows of railcars were tempting, but Khan didn’t try to open any. He would have been able to get into even the locked ones, of course, but he was tired and didn’t want to be halfway to Indianapolis when he woke up. Moreover, some of the railcars had people in them. He could smell them, hear them moving around even in their sleep, and dealing with freaked-out bums was low on his short list of things he wanted to manage tonight.

  There was a maintenance shed a quarter mile down the tracks, and he didn’t sense anyone in it. The door was locked with a heavy padlock, which he grabbed with his tiger hand and tore off. Inside, the place smelled of grease and oil and mildew, but it was a shelter from the wind, and there were some tarps stacked in a corner he could use to cover up for the night. There was a metal advertising calendar on one of the walls that said CENTRAL CHEMICAL CO., MANUFACTURING CHEMISTS, and on it was a dirtied sheet of paper that said 1929—JANUARY—1929 across the top, with the days and weeks of the month in the rows underneath.

  Nineteen twenty-nine, he thought with amazement.

  Whatever that ace in the hotel room had unleashed, it had knocked Khan eighty-eight years into the past. He wondered what had happened to the other people in the suite when it happened. Were they here—or would they be here soon—in 1929, freezing their asses off in the streets of Chicago? He almost had to chuckle at the thought of that little shit Giovanni Galante, buck naked, without his shiny tracksuit and his gaudy hundred-thousand-dollar jewelry, or his cash or credit cards, trying to figure out what the fuck was going on. The kid was practically helpless without his cell phone and a responsible adult to watch his ass.

  Khan scratched together his knowledge about 1929 while he was making himself a sleeping nest in a corner of the shack. His sister Naya had brought him all sorts of books from the library during those agonizing months after his card had turned and the wild card virus had slowly changed him into what he was now. Mostly fiction, but lots of other stuff, too. He had always liked reading about history.

  Prohibition, he recalled. Speakeasies. Booze smuggling. Gang warfare. Not a lot unlike the shit that went down in the present—his present—with crack and coke and amphetamines. It was sort of his world, they just used a different commodity.

  Nothing about this made any sense, and he wasn’t about to try and unravel it tonight. Khan decided to sleep on it and then figure things out tomorrow. Maybe he’d be back in the suite up in the Palmer in 2017 when he woke up, with a drunk Galante sleeping off his booze coma next to a trio of high-dollar hookers. Not exactly something Khan would wish for under ordinary circumstances, but at this point it would improve the situation massively.

  He wrapped himself in the musty-smelling canvas tarps and closed his eyes. Sleep came surprisingly easy, considering what a weird-ass night it had been so far.

  Khan woke up with the first daylight from the ruckus of a freight train slowly rumbling across the train yard on a nearby track. A fucking steam train, chuffing past the shack slowly like something from an old movie. It smelled li
ke burning coal and hot grease. He checked the wall of the shed, where the same calendar still hung: 1929—JANUARY—1929. Outside, a way off still but coming closer, were voices, undoubtedly rail yard workers showing up for the morning shift.

  Looking the way he did, he figured it wasn’t wise to show himself in broad daylight. He got up, gathered the canvas tarps he had found, and looked around for other useful stuff. There were grease buckets and tools, nothing he wanted to burden himself with at the moment. He found a length of rope and took that as well, and a knife he found in a drawer underneath the workbench. Then he opened the door a crack to peek outside, and took off across the rail yard toward the lake. The snowfall had picked up in the night, and the shed was out of sight in the snow squall when he was a hundred yards away.

  Down by the lake, there were plenty of spots that were just unkempt slope covered in shrubs and small trees. Khan found a spot at the base of a tree that was sheltered from the wind on three sides and spent the next half hour making the ugliest tent in the world out of the tarps and the stolen rope. Then he huddled down in it and waited for nightfall.

  He had been dozing lightly when he heard someone coming down the slope where he had set up camp. It was still dawn outside, but the snow had slacked off. He could smell the two guys who were headed straight for his little tent—body odor, mostly, with some booze and cigarette smell thrown in. They stopped in front of his tent and started talking quietly among themselves, probably thinking he was asleep. Then one of them bent down and grabbed one of the sides of his tent tarp.

  Khan let out a low growl.

  The guy who had grabbed the tarp let it go as if he had burned himself.

  “What the hell, Eddie. Some fucking animal.”

  “Piss off, the both of you,” Khan said. “Find another spot and let me sleep. I don’t have anything to steal, trust me.”

 
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