Low chicago, p.22
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       Low Chicago, p.22

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

  “If you got a dog in there, asshole, it ain’t gonna help ya much,” the other guy said from outside. “Why don’t you come on out.”

  “Don’t make me,” Khan grumbled.

  “Oh, I insist,” the other guy said. Khan could smell the gun oil and the powder in the cartridges before he heard the cocking of the hammer of the gun the guy had in his hand now.

  “You may wish you hadn’t,” Khan said, and stood up, flipping the tarp back and over his head as he did.

  There were two of them—his nose hadn’t lied—and they both looked a little rough, winter coats that were on the ratty side, worn-out shoes, unshaven faces. One of them was maybe five nine, and wearing a driving cap on his head. The other guy, the one holding the gun, was considerably larger, probably six one to Khan’s six three. Khan grinned, knowing full well that even in the low light of dawn, they couldn’t miss the three-inch canines on the left side of his mouth. Both guys stepped back quickly, and he could smell the sudden, sharp stench of fear on them.

  “What the hell are you,” the smaller guy said.

  The bigger guy—presumably named Eddie—didn’t bother trying to find an answer to that. Instead, he raised the revolver in his hand and aimed it at Khan’s chest. Then he pulled the trigger. His finger made it halfway through the trigger’s arc before Khan lashed out with his left hand, the tiger one, extending his claws along the short way to Eddie’s wrist. Eddie’s hand, now separated from the rest of him, was still holding the gun when it flew past the shorter guy and thumped down into the underbrush on the slope somewhere.

  “Didn’t I say you may wish you hadn’t insisted?” Khan said. “Now look what you’ve done. Idiot.”

  The shorter guy didn’t have a gun, that much Khan could smell. But he did have a knife, a fixed blade that looked like it had started life as a butcher’s knife. To his credit, the short guy had balls. He pulled the knife from his coat pocket and thrust it at Khan’s side. Khan leaned back and avoided the blade easily. With his feline reflexes, he could have lit a smoke while waiting for the blade to arrive at the spot where his chest had been just a few tenths of a second ago. Then he grabbed the smaller guy with his right hand, pulled him close, and threw him down the slope and into the underbrush, the same way Eddie’s hand and gun had gone. The small guy yelped as he crashed into the thicket and rolled down the slope in the darkness.

  Eddie didn’t seem to be in the mood for a fight anymore. He stood doubled over, his left hand around his right wrist, which now ended in a stump that squirted blood onto the snow rather messily. He groaned and looked up at Khan with an expression of utter disbelief.

  “What the hell are you?” He echoed the earlier words of his shorter pal.

  “I could explain, but you don’t have the time,” Khan said. “You need to get your ass to a hospital and get that sewn up before you bleed out.”

  “You’re not gonna kill me.” Eddie’s face was contorted with pain, but Khan saw the concern, and the quick glance toward the claws still sticking out of his left hand. Khan wiped them on the laundry bag he was wearing for a tunic, then retracted them.

  “I should. Probably do the world a favor before you jack someone else and try to shoot them in the gut for nothing. But I’m not going to. Now get the fuck out of here.”

  The big guy turned around, still half crouched and holding his bleeding wrist.

  “Wait a second,” Khan said. “Leave your coat. I’m freezing my ass off.”

  Eddie peeled himself out of his coat without complaint, probably more than happy to lose only that worn-out garment instead of his head.

  “You’re not worried about me ratting you out?”

  Khan laughed. With the vocal cords from his feline side, it sounded like a cross between a cat purring and a motorcycle idling.

  “Go ahead, if you think they’ll believe you. Now drop the coat and beat it.”

  With the two transients knowing where he had camped out, Khan pulled his pathetic little tent up and looked for a new place to wait out the day, which was a pain in the ass. On the plus side, Eddie’s coat was warm and almost fit him properly, even if it did smell like someone had dragged it through a piss-filled ashtray repeatedly. And he would have had to lie if he’d claimed that roughing up those two idiots hadn’t been the first fun he’d had since right before he’d walked into that fucking Palmer House, one night ago and eighty-eight years in the future.


  AFTER THREE NIGHTS IN the underbrush by the railway yards, Khan was starting to get convinced that this was not a temporary thing. Every morning, he woke up hoping to see the familiar walls of his apartment’s bedroom, or even the suite at the Palmer Galante had booked for the night. Khan had worked for many clients he didn’t like personally, but Giovanni Galante was now the first one he officially hated. Not only was the guy a punk and a shitbag, he had also triggered whatever had bounced Khan back in time the better part of a century. The worst thing was that he couldn’t even look the little prick up and cut him to ribbons because Galante wouldn’t be born for another sixty-odd years.

  If he was going to be here for good, he figured that he’d have to find a way to get around and do something constructive, because huddling in a tent by Lake Michigan in the freezing January weather was getting tedious. On the fourth night, Khan decided to make a few supply runs into downtown.

  There were plenty of stores nearby, in and around the Loop, and neither of them had an alarm system worth a shit compared to 2017 standards. Khan hadn’t even known they had burglar alarms all the way back in the 1920s, but a lot of the bigger stores had them installed, primitive things working with copper contacts on the door frames and windowsills. They were easy enough to bypass or destroy outright by pulling the alarm boxes off the walls, where they were usually mounted high up near the gutters.

  Clothing proved to be a bit of a problem. There were lots of clothing stores and tailors, but none of them had anything on the racks for a physique like Khan’s. He got lucky in a place where they sold working clothes, overalls, and heavy winter work jackets for longshoremen or rail yard workers. That made him look more like a regular person except for the fact that half his face and one hand sticking out of the sleeves of his new heavy jacket looked decidedly inhuman.

  He found a temporary solution in a pharmacy down by Randolph and Lake, which had medical supplies stashed in the back: bandages, Plaster of Paris for casts, crutches, and all kinds of stuff that looked like quackery to Khan. He loaded up a bag with stuff that looked useful for what he had in mind. Two hours and a side trip for food to a corner grocery on Lake later, Khan was back in his hideout for the night. He had found another service shack at the southern end of the train yard, and that one had a proper bathroom in it. At least he had gotten knocked back to a time when indoor plumbing was already a thing.

  It took a bit of time and practice, but a little while later, he had used a bunch of bandages and a plaster half mask to turn himself into a fairly convincing recovering burn victim. The plaster mask covered the tiger part of his face completely, and the bandages helped tie everything into place and cover his furry left paw. He could still rip everything off quickly, but now he could pass casual muster on the street as just some poor longshoreman who had gotten himself torched in a warehouse fire or something. People in 2017 weren’t very aware of their surroundings most of the time; he suspected that things weren’t all that different in 1929.

  There was no cooking setup in the shack, but Khan had taken stuff from the grocery store that didn’t require preparation—bread, sandwich meats, cake, candy, a bunch of other high-calorie junk. He ate all of it while sitting at the small table in the service shack and reading the newspapers he had grabbed on an impulse on the way out of the store. If the date on the masthead was right, it was Wednesday, January 30, 1929. The prices on the grocery store ads in the back of the paper were ludicrously low—Campbell’s soups for ten cents a can, peanut butter for twenty-nine cents a pound, six cents for
a sixteen-ounce can of pork and beans. He had hauled back a shitload of groceries from that store, and all in all, he had probably stolen five bucks’ worth of food. Of course, the average weekly paycheck right now was fifty or sixty bucks, he reminded himself.

  Nineteen twenty-nine, he thought with wonder, reading newspaper articles with local names he didn’t know, reporting on events that had happened almost ninety years ago in Khan’s head.

  I won’t be born for another fifty-six years, he thought. Naya won’t be born for another fifty-seven. Shit, by the time the old man is born over in Punjab, I’ll be three years from collecting Social Security.

  Naya. Thinking of his little sister stung much more than the biting cold outside, more than the hunger he had felt the last three days before the grocery store break-in.

  I’ll never see her again, he thought. I’ll be eighty-nine by the time she’s born. If I make it that long. He knew his history, and he knew that the time between now and 1987 was anything but peaceful. The Great Depression. World War II. The wild card virus. He’d have to live for another eighteen years disguised as a burn victim or somewhere out in a shack in the wilderness before he could even be himself again without people trying to kill him or stick him into a circus.

  I can’t live in a shack and steal bread and canned pork and beans from the grocery store for eighteen years, he thought. If I’m stuck in this, I have to make the best of it. I have to go back to doing what I know.

  He wasn’t much into sports, so he had no idea what to bet on to become rich in the past. He didn’t know anything about the stock market other than the fact that it would crash hard later this year and usher in the Great Depression, and he had no money or contacts to mess with stocks even if he did. But he did have his strong arms, the claws at the end of his left hand, and the ability to see and smell trouble coming. Khan was a bodyguard for shady people with money, and if he wasn’t certain of much else right now, he knew that the city of Chicago was lousy with those in 1929.

  Every place has a feel to it, especially big cities. New York felt like New York, L.A. like L.A., and you were never in doubt which one you were in even if you were to lose your eyesight. Smell, sound, weather, even the din of the bustle around you were different in every city. And Chicago still felt like Chicago, even though the sensory details were muffled and filtered somehow, like he was looking at everything while wearing tinted glasses and noise-altering headphones. But after walking the nighttime streets inside the Loop for a few days, even the old cars didn’t seem out of place anymore, and he had gotten used to the smell of cigarettes and 1920s personal care products. There was the familiar rattle of the el cars overhead, the cold wind coming in from the lake, everything he remembered from 2017, so familiar that he could imagine himself back in his time when he closed his eyes.

  The criminal scene, however—there was nobody he knew. No contacts, no family, no reputation. The Galante family wasn’t even on the map yet. None of his old principals were. Khan knew about Capone, of course, and his rival Bugs Moran. But there was no easy in for him, nobody he could ask for an introduction or a favor. He briefly thought about getting some attention by walking into a speakeasy or two and stirring up trouble, but he dismissed the idea almost as soon as it popped into his head. He knew he could scare the shit out of the locals, but that wasn’t the kind of attention he wanted, not yet anyway.

  Can’t work my way up the way I did after my card turned, he thought. I need something big, something that will put me on the map instantly.

  The answer came to him somewhere on Wabash, at one in the morning. He was out for one of his nighttime walks, when few people were out in the freezing cold. A poster in one of the grocery store windows—a six-pack of soda bottles, with a frilly heart next to them and a Cupid in one corner.

  VALENTINE’S DAY! Your party guests will welcome COKE—Take Home Several Cartons Today!

  He felt like slapping himself on the side of the head. All those history books he read, born and raised in Chicago, and the date and year hadn’t popped into his head earlier. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre—February 14, 1929. That was less than two weeks away. Khan knew it was going to be a bunch of Bugs Moran’s guys getting shot to ribbons by a Capone hit squad. He knew it was going to happen. He even remembered some of the names. Hard-ass Frank Gusenberg, one of Moran’s enforcers, who would briefly survive the shooting and tell the cops that “nobody shot him” even though he’d have fourteen bullet wounds in him. Fred “Killer” Burke, a nasty piece of work pulling triggers for Capone. Khan didn’t remember all the players, but he knew when and where it would go down, and that was all he needed.

  He didn’t remember the address, but he knew the name of the warehouse—SMC Cartage. Two minutes in a phone booth were all he needed to get the address of the place, 2122 North Clark Street. The travel map of Chicago Khan had swiped a few nights earlier—God, how did people ever live before GPS and cell phones?—told him that 2122 North Clark was up in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. And blessedly, he saw that Lincoln Park, all twelve hundred acres of it, already existed in 1929. Best of all, 2122 North Clark was only a block from the park.

  Khan felt more energized than he had been since that fucked-up poker game. It felt damn good to have a plan again. He didn’t bother going back to the rail yard to collect his stuff. It was a bit of a hike to Lincoln Park from downtown, he could hit a shop or two along the way for more food and supplies, and he wanted to beat the sunrise.


  THE TWO-BLOCK AREA AROUND the SMC Cartage warehouse was much smaller than the Loop. Khan scouted it every night, and by the time Valentine’s Day came around, he knew every last detail about this little stretch of 1929 Chicago—every store, every alley, every streetlight—and he had even started to memorize the license plate numbers of the cars in their regular nighttime parking spots.

  For a little while, Khan had been worried that the time stream may have been thrown off by his arrival, that history had started to take a different flow around him somehow. Maybe the massacre wouldn’t happen. Maybe everything he thought he knew about the events to come was already wrong. But it eased his fears when he noticed that he wasn’t the only one staking out the warehouse. This part of North Clark was lined with residential buildings, and one of them was almost right across the street from the warehouse. Khan had a nose for danger spots—it was his job, after all—and he knew that three or four guys were holed up in one of those apartments and kept a steady watch on the garage every day for three days running. He knew which car they drove. One night, he even ventured into the apartment building from the rooftop and stood in front of their door for a while, listening to them talking in low voices. They carried guns, all of them. Khan could smell the gun oil and the powder in the cartridges. He could have popped the door off the hinges and cut all three of them up before they could draw their guns, of course. But there would just be three dead mobsters in a rented apartment, with nobody to carry word back to the guys they were trying to kill. Khan had to let them go through with their plan until the last moment, until the triggermen had Moran’s men lined up.

  On the plus side, February 14, 1929, started just like Khan’s old history books said it did. On the minus side, it didn’t end precisely how he had planned to rewrite it.

  The dawn had brought a light snowfall, and the streets were covered in dirty slush. Khan was out in the daytime for the first time in a week. A guy his size with half his face in a mask would have drawn attention no matter how much he tried to blend in, so he was crouched on the flat rooftop of the brownstone building next to the warehouse, huddled underneath a ratty and dirty piece of tarp. He roughly knew how the whole thing was going to go down, and once Capone’s gunmen showed up, timing would be critical.

  The sun had been up since seven, but neither Capone’s nor Moran’s men were early risers. It was well past eight before Khan saw the first of Moran’s men arrive at the warehouse. They were all dressed much more nicely than Khan—suits
, ties, long winter coats, snazzy hats. It looked like the movies hadn’t lied, and that the mobsters of this day liked to be dressed in their best when out and about on business. He had to admit that these guys looked much more sharp than Giovanni Galante in his tracksuit.

  I’m going up against Capone, Khan thought, and the idea put a grin on his face, cold and uncomfortable as he was on that snowy rooftop. Al motherfucking Capone. This was stuff right out of the history books.

  A bit past midmorning, two cars puttered down the alley toward the garage. The one in the lead was a marked police car. It was followed by a shiny black sedan. Khan slipped off the tarp that had kept him covered, and stretched his arms and shoulders a little to get the blood flowing again. He extended the claws on his tiger hand and took off the oversize boot that covered his left foot so he could extend his toe-claws as well.

  In the alley below, the two cars came to a halt. Khan saw movement out of the corner of his left eye and looked down the alley to see two men in suits and winter coats stop cold at the sight of the police car. Then they turned and walked back around the corner toward North Clark. Moran’s men, Khan figured, or maybe even Moran himself. They think the place is getting raided.

  The doors of the cars opened. Two cops got out of the police car. Khan knew they were Capone’s triggermen, merely dressed like cops, but Moran’s men had no way of knowing that, and they’d all line up for them in front of the wall without a fuss in about thirty seconds. Phase two of Capone’s plan undoubtedly involved the two men in civilian clothes who stepped out of the second car. They were dressed smartly as well, long woolen winter coats and fedoras, and each of them carried a Thompson submachine gun. Khan watched with a little thrill as they took magazines out of their coat pockets and loaded their guns. Tommy guns, he thought. Just like in the fucking movies. He knew his way around guns after ten years on the job. Nobody used Thompsons anymore because they were heavy as fuck and about as ergonomic as railroad ties, but he had fired one a few times before, and they made a lot of .45-caliber holes in things very quickly.

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