Low chicago, p.24
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       Low Chicago, p.24
 

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

  Khan lowered the gun, but left the hammer cocked. Then he nodded at the couch and the other two armchairs that were set up around the coffee table in front of him.

  “Why don’t you have a seat, and we’ll talk things over. But please don’t try to make a run for it, any of you. I’m not here to hurt you, but if you run off to bring back trouble, I’ll put two rounds into each of you before you can make the door.”

  Moran looked at his enforcers and nodded. Then he walked over to the armchair directly across the coffee table from Khan and sat down.

  “He’s got a cat face under that mask,” one of the brothers said. “Looks like a damn tiger. Like some sideshow trick.”

  “I’d like to see that,” Moran said.

  Khan lifted his left hand and held it out for them to see, covered in orange and white fur as it was. He extended his claws slowly, and all four of the men in front of him flinched or gasped. Then he hooked one claw underneath the plaster of his mask and pulled it off carefully.

  “I’ll be damned,” Moran said. “What on earth are you, exactly?”

  “I can’t really explain that in a way that would make sense to you,” Khan said. “At least not yet. For now, let’s say I have an affliction.”

  “An affliction,” Moran repeated. “I see. Do you have a name?”

  “They call me Khan.”

  “That’s it? Just Khan?” Moran smiled. “I can work with that. Nice to meet you, Mr. Khan. Now, you want to tell me what went down at my warehouse this morning?”

  “You should have a rough idea by now. That wasn’t a police raid. The cops weren’t cops. They were a hit squad. Looking for you. I don’t think I need to tell you who hired them.”

  “I knew it,” Moran snarled, and looked at Adam, who was still standing and regarding Khan warily. “That fucking low-life beast.”

  “Jesus, Bugs. He damn near got all of us. You, me, everyone,” Adam said. Khan’s brain finally supplied a last name for the guy: Adam Heyer, the gang’s bookkeeper, Moran’s business manager.

  “I saw the cop car pull up in the alley,” Moran said. “Figured it was a shakedown raid. So Ted and I turned around and went for a coffee. Warned off Henry, too. If I’d gotten up a little earlier…”

  “If it wasn’t for him, we’d be dead now,” Heyer said. “Them guys were locked and loaded. They weren’t there to collect. You should have seen it, Bugs. He just tossed ’em like they were nothing. Snapped one guy’s shotgun right in half.”

  “How did you know this was going to go down?” Moran asked Khan. “You didn’t just happen to stroll through the alley, did you?”

  “No,” Khan said. “I knew they were going to hit someone because they were staking you out, so I decided to stake them out in return.”

  “They were staking the place? From where?”

  “They had a room in the apartment building across the street. The one with the double entrances. I didn’t know who they were after,” Khan lied. “So I had to wait it out and figure something out on the fly.”

  “I’ll be damned,” Moran said. “Right under our noses.” He looked back at the two brothers standing on either side of Heyer. “We gotta get out of town for a bit. Let things cool down. Figure out what we’re going to do about that greasy little prick.”

  Khan noticed that Moran had not called Capone by name so far, as if the name were distasteful to him.

  Moran turned around and looked at Khan again. He let his eyes wander to Khan’s clawed hand, then to the pistol on his lap.

  “Mr. Khan,” he said.

  “Just Khan, please.”

  “Khan. Okay. We are going to go out to a little place in the country. I was wondering if you’d care to join us. We can discuss your proposal on the way. Whatever it is you’re proposing.”

  “Bugs,” one of the enforcer brothers said. “You sure that’s a good idea? I mean, look at the guy. You want to take him out to the place? If he’s with Capone, he can do whatever he wants with us out there.”

  “If he’s with Capone, we’d all be dead by now,” Moran said. “And I think that this gentleman could do whatever he wants with us anytime, anywhere.”

  He smiled curtly at Khan.

  “You don’t like Capone, do you?”

  “I don’t like bullies,” Khan said. The answer seemed to please Moran.

  “Sure,” Khan said, and lowered the hammer of the gun in his lap. “I’ll come along. Let’s go for a drive.”

  “Great.” Moran slapped his thigh and stood up. “Call the rest of the boys, Frank. We’re going to go out for some fresh air.”

  SIX: INDIANA

  THE GANG LEFT CHICAGO in a small convoy of three cars just before sunrise. Khan sat in the back of the first car, with Moran next to him and one of the enforcer brothers—Frank Gusenberg—in the front passenger seat. Khan had reapplied his plaster mask, and his tiger hand was gloved. He had Moran’s .45 tucked away underneath his coat, but he wasn’t worried about having to use it. In the tight confines of the car, his claws were quicker and better than any gun. He wasn’t even encumbered by a seat belt, because there weren’t any. It felt weird being in a car without basic safety features. Khan wondered what they would think if he started telling them about headrests, satellite navigation, and anti-lock brakes, or the five-hundred-horsepower Benz with the two-thousand-watt sound system he drove back in his own time. Gusenberg was nervous, the driver even more so, and both of them smoked like chimneys, flicking the glowing butts out of the windows and letting in a cold burst of winter air every time. Khan watched the windblown, snowy February landscape roll by outside as the Cadillac sedan purred its way south.

  “So what do you do when you’re not knocking Capone’s guys around?” Moran asked.

  “I’m in the personal protection business,” Khan replied. “I’m a bodyguard.”

  “And you’ve been doing that for a while now?”

  “Twelve years,” Khan said.

  “So you’re pretty good at what you do.”

  “I’m the best at what I do.”

  In the front seat, Frank Gusenberg let out a little derisive snort, but Khan ignored him.

  “I’ve never lost a principal,” he said. Until a few weeks ago at the Palmer House, he thought. But as far as he was concerned, his sheet was still clean. He had only lost Giovanni Galante—physically, temporally lost him. Khan didn’t know which year Galante had found himself in, but he knew that the little shit had still been alive when the event happened, and only thanks to Khan.

  Chicago was smaller back in 1929, and they were in the countryside soon, crossing from Illinois into northern Indiana. The farmlands south of Gary were the boring ass end of the world as far as Khan was concerned, and he found that they had already been the boring ass end of the world back in 1929.

  “As long as that vicious little greaseball is out there, I guess I’ll always have a need for bodyguards,” Moran said. “And you’ve certainly given one hell of a job interview at the warehouse already.” He pointed to the cars behind them with his thumb. “Without Adam and Johnny May and the Gusenberg boys here, I’d have to close up shop on the North Side. You did me a big favor back there. You stick with us for a bit, I’ll see what I can do for you.”

  An hour south of Gary, they left the main roads and turned onto a series of ever-narrowing side roads, crossing train tracks, passing isolated farms, and driving through small two-stoplight towns: Kersey, Stoutsburg, Wheatfield. The snow had picked up steadily on their drive, and Khan was starting to get worried about the winter-handling qualities of 1920s tire technology.

  Ten miles out of Wheatfield, they took a left onto a dirt road. A few miles farther down, the driver took a right turn onto a narrower dirt road that hadn’t been cleared of snow yet, and Khan thought they’d get stuck for sure and freeze to death here in Ass Bend, Indiana. But the Cadillac puttered on, and the two other cars followed slowly in its wake.

  There was a farm at the end of the dirt road, set back from the roa
d a quarter mile. Khan saw a large barn and a grain silo, and the farmhouse was a big one, two floors and a wraparound porch. The three cars chugged up the driveway and parked by the side of the farmhouse. Khan got out of the car and stretched his limbs. It was freezing cold out here in the middle of nowhere, but the place was isolated, and they’d notice anyone coming up that quarter-mile dirt driveway well before they got to the farmhouse.

  Inside, the place was warm and cozy. They all walked into the side door, which led into a big kitchen with a cast iron stove in the center of the room that was radiating heat. Moran and his guys took off their coats and hung them from hooks by the door, and Khan followed suit. A few moments later, a woman came down the stairs nearby and walked into the kitchen, and the men acknowledged her with respectful nods and murmured greetings.

  “Very sorry to drop in on you on short notice, ma’am,” Moran said.

  “You know it’s not a bother, Mister Moran,” she replied. “I’ve got the back bedrooms ready upstairs, but some of your boys may have to bunk on the floor. I wasn’t expecting all of you.”

  She looked at Khan, who felt a little out of place in this kitchen, dressed in longshoreman weather gear when everyone else was wearing suits.

  “Who is your tall friend?”

  “This is Khan,” Moran said. “Just Khan. He helped us out back in the city. Khan, this is Mrs. Sobieski. She owns this farm. We stop by from time to time when we need to get out of the city for a while.”

  “Izabela,” she said. There was just the faintest familiar Polish lilt in her voice, and Khan figured that if she hadn’t come right off the boat, her parents had.

  “Dzień dobry,” he said on a hunch. “Jak się pani miewa?”

  “Bardzo dobrze, dziękuję,” she replied, almost reflexively. Then she turned to Moran and smiled a little.

  “Your friend speaks very good Polish.”

  “My mother is Polish,” Khan said. “Her parents came from Łódź.”

  “Mine are from Katowice,” Izabela said. She reminded him a bit of his mother, back when he was a teenager, right before his card turned. She had the same dark hair, the same understated beauty that a hard life hadn’t quite managed to paint over yet.

  Moran’s men obviously knew the place. They made themselves right at home, pulling up chairs to the big kitchen table and getting out their cigarettes. Khan tried to map the place in his head discreetly—entries, exits, corners, approaches to the kitchen door from outside. For a bunch of guys who had almost gotten machine-gunned by their rivals the day before, Moran’s guys were not nearly paranoid enough about their safety, but Khan wasn’t about to change his habits. Letting your guard down could get you killed, whether it was 2017 or 1929.

  Later in the afternoon, when the gang was dispersed all over the house, Khan sat at the now empty kitchen table and awkwardly sipped a cup of coffee around the plaster bandage with the right side of his mouth. Behind him, Izabela took a big pot of hot water off the wood stove and filled two tin buckets with it. He gave her a curious look.

  “For the chickens,” she said. “It warms them up.”

  She took a bucket handle in each hand and lifted the buckets. Then she walked toward the kitchen door, with the hot water in the buckets trailing wisps of steam behind her.

  “Let me help you,” he said, and stood up. He opened the door for her, then deftly took the buckets out of her hands as she passed him. She looked amused.

  “I can take care of this,” she said.

  “I’m sure you can. Lead the way,” he said.

  They walked over to the barn, through snow that was knee-deep. Izabela opened the sliding door wide enough for them to step through, then flicked a light switch on the inside wall. There were a few cows, not even half a dozen, some goats and sheep, and maybe two dozen chickens that were huddled in an enclosed coop at the other end of the barn. Khan put the buckets down, and Izabela filled up the water pan in the coop, which had a layer of ice on top of it. The hot water dissolved the ice and steamed in the cold barn air. The chickens hopped off their roost one by one and came to get their free warm-up.

  “That’s not a lot of animals for a farm this size,” Khan said.

  “We had more,” Izabela replied. “When my husband was still alive. Ten horses, thirty cows. A hundred chickens. But there’s only so much I can do by myself.”

  “Sorry to hear about your husband.”

  Izabela stepped into the back of the coop and stooped down to collect eggs from the laying boxes. She put them into the pockets of her apron. To Khan, they didn’t look like a lot of eggs for so many birds, and he said so.

  “They slow down in the winter. When it’s warm, it’s one egg per day from each of them. And when they stop laying, they go in the soup.”

  “What do you have to do with these guys?” he asked. “Moran and his gang. You know what they do, right?”

  “They are bootleggers,” she said. “My husband ran a still. Two hundred gallons a month. One day, they stopped his truck while he was delivering to Mister Moran’s warehouse. Capone’s men. And they shot him.”

  “Sorry,” Khan said again.

  “Mister Moran helps me out. I don’t run the still, but they come and stay here sometimes, and he pays me for it.”

  She looked at his face and reached up to touch the plaster mask.

  “What happened there? This doesn’t look like you really need it.”

  Khan was intrigued by her total lack of fear. He was three times her weight and a foot taller, and they were alone in a semi-dark barn in the middle of rural Indiana, but she wasn’t afraid of him at all.

  “I’m hiding my face with it,” he said. “Half of it, anyway.”

  “Why?”

  “So I don’t scare people.”

  “Let me see,” she said in Polish. He sighed and pulled the mask off the left half of his face. He had expected her to scream and run for the door, but instead she put her hands in front of her mouth. Then she reached out to touch the fur fringe hanging down from his jawline.

  “How did this happen?”

  “A virus,” he said. “A sickness. When I was fifteen.”

  “Did it hurt?”

  “Oh, yeah. Worst pain I ever felt. It took months. When it was done with me, I looked like this.”

  “How long ago was that?”

  Khan didn’t quite know whether to answer sixteen years ago or in seventy-two years. The week was already complicated enough. So he shrugged and said, “A while ago.”

  He picked up the buckets and stepped around the chickens that were filling their beaks from the warm water pan.

  They trudged back to the house through the snow. The farm looked nothing like his own place, or even the house he grew up in, but Khan felt a swell of homesickness when they walked back into the warm kitchen. The kind you feel not for a place, but for people. For some reason, it hadn’t fully hit him until now that he’d never see Naya or his mother again, that he was stuck here for good out of his own time, among people who regarded him as a sideshow curiosity. The wild card virus wouldn’t hit New York City for another seventeen years. They would be long and lonely years, and whatever fun he’d had finding himself at the tail end of the Roaring Twenties was dissipating quickly. There was no way home, because home was Naya and Mom, and they didn’t exist yet.

  Galante, he thought, I hope you got bounced back to 1929 too. Or 1931, or 1935. Just as long as there’s a chance I’ll bump into you, and I get to strangle you with your own fucking guts.

  SEVEN: FARMVILLE

  THE NEXT DAY, MORAN sent one of the guys into town for sundries and newspapers. When he came back a few hours later, he brought several different papers with him, which Moran and his lieutenants read over breakfast. Several of the papers made reference to the incident at the warehouse. The cops had arrived not too long after the gunfire, but the warehouse had been empty, with just some shell casings and two broken guns on the floor. Without suspects or victims, the cops had nothing to d
o, nobody to arrest or question.

  “He’s gonna try again,” Moran said, slurping his coffee. “Son-of-a-bitch knows I’m gonna come after him for this.”

  He turned to one of the Gusenberg brothers.

  “Remember when we went to his place a few years back? In Cicero? A thousand rounds into that inn, and the bastard walks away.”

  “Yeah, but there wasn’t a clean set of drawers left in that place,” Gusenberg said, and Moran chuckled. Then his expression turned serious again.

  “He guns for us, we gun for him. One of these days he’s gonna run out of luck. He can’t stay holed up in that hotel forever.”

  Or yours is going to run out, Khan thought. He was standing across the room by the kitchen window, sipping his own coffee and looking out of the kitchen window. The history books said that the cops really started cracking down on Capone after the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and that the whole thing spelled the beginning of the end for both Capone and Moran. Four more years of Prohibition, and Capone would be in prison for tax evasion before the end. That was the old history, of course, before Khan had stuck his claws into the time stream. Without the massacre at the warehouse, both Capone and Moran would ratchet up the conflict. Moran certainly seemed like the type. Khan could smell the anger radiating off the man.

  Well, at least I’ll have secure employment for a while, he thought.

  Khan spent the day checking the farmhouse from all angles. The snow out beyond the farmyard was knee-high, but he slogged through it to circle the place. To see how you have to protect a location, you first have to think like someone who’s trying to get into it. Some of Moran’s men were watching him from the windows as he did so, talking among themselves as they did. He knew that they still didn’t trust him fully, especially not the Gusenbergs, whose main contribution to Moran’s organization wasn’t intellectual wattage.

  He helped Izabela with the water and the animal feed again, grateful to have something to do that let him use his muscles. Physical labor made him feel useful, like he hadn’t gotten all that strength just to hurt people. The hay bales for the cows weighed eighty pounds at least, but he took one in each hand and carried them to the cattle enclosure over the gentle protestations of Izabela. Then he brought in half a cord of firewood and restocked all the wood stacks in the house, which gave him a good opportunity to see more of the interior layout.

 
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