Low chicago, p.25
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       Low Chicago, p.25

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

  Moran and his guys had the drinks and playing cards out after dinner. Khan was a fair poker player himself, but he didn’t feel like socializing with the gang or blunting his senses with bootlegged hooch. Instead, he got some more coffee and took a chair by the kitchen door, in sight of the others but far enough away to remain out of their tobacco smoke cloud. They stayed up until well past midnight, strategizing and talking about people Khan didn’t know, and by the time they all turned in, it was blissfully silent in the kitchen again except for the popping logs in the wood stove that kept the place cozy.

  When he startled awake, he had no idea how long he had been asleep by the wood stove in the still-warm kitchen. The house was quiet except for the occasional creaking of settling wood beams and the soft tick-tock from the clock on the mantelpiece in the living room next door. Moran’s men were asleep in their bedrooms on the other side of the house. Izabela must have turned off the lights and covered him up, because the kitchen was dark, and there was a wool blanket loosely laid over him. The drowsy human part of Khan’s brain told him to go back to sleep, but the tiger part was awake and restless. Something wasn’t right. And when something set Khan’s fur on edge, he knew that it was wise to listen to the tiger.

  He swept the blanket aside and kicked off his shoes quietly. Then he stood up and tuned in to his senses.

  There was movement on the driveway outside. It was a dark, moonless light, and there were no outside lights on either farmhouse or barn, but his tiger eye didn’t need the light to see the trouble coming. Five, six, seven, eight, nine guys, all in winter coats, coming up the driveway from the dirt road, where Khan saw the two cars they had parked a quarter mile away to keep the noise down. Everyone was armed. Khan saw the distinctive drum magazines of Tommy guns, and one of the guys coming up the driveway carried an honest-to-goodness BAR, a Browning automatic rifle that could pop out twenty .30-06 shells in three or four seconds. A broadside from that thing would do even him in for good. By the time Khan had startled from his sleep, the armed group had already covered half the distance between road and farmhouse.

  Khan considered shouting down the house to warn Moran’s guys, but that would just end badly. They had as many guys inside as the crew outside did, but Moran’s men were asleep. By the time they were awake and ready to fight, the prepared group coming up the driveway would be pouring fire into the farmhouse already. He hoped that Izabela’s bedroom was toward the back of the house as well. The ’06 from that BAR would pierce through wood and drywall like an ice pick through a loaf of bread.

  Darkness worked in his favor much more than in theirs. Khan opened the kitchen door as quietly as he could, and then dashed across the farmyard and into the barn.

  He had almost reached the door on the other side of the barn when it opened, and one of the armed visitors stuck his head in and looked around in the darkness. The chickens were in their usual nighttime stupor, but the cows shuffled around a bit, and one of the sheep made a muffled noise. The guy in the doorway made a face at the smell. Not a country boy, Khan thought.

  There was no time, no opportunity for going light on these guys. The man in front of Khan had a Tommy gun in the crook of his arm, and if he managed to fire off a burst, the cat would be out of the bag, so to speak. So Khan leapt the rest of the distance, yanked the Tommy gun out of the guy’s grip, and then slashed his throat with one forceful swipe of his claws. The guy fell forward with a gurgle, twitched a few times, and let out a last wet breath from his ruined throat. Khan picked up the submachine gun. It had a hundred-round drum in it, a heavy thing the size of a dinner plate. The bolt of the gun wasn’t cocked yet, and Khan worked the charging handle quietly. Then he stepped out of the door and stealthily made his way to the corner of the barn.

  The other eight hit men were almost past the barn, and only fifty yards from the front of the farmhouse. Once they were in the farmyard, they started fanning out in a semicircle. Khan raised the Tommy gun, but immediately realized that any missed rounds from this angle would hit the house instead.

  Well, shit. But it’s not like they are paying attention to what’s behind them, he thought. Khan put the Tommy gun down into the snow beside the barn, flexed his muscles, and let the tiger take over.

  Even after all these years, it was still a little frightening to Khan just how easily the fighting and killing business came to his tiger half when he put it fully in control. He moved so quickly that the world seemed to shift into slow motion. He was on the first two hit men half a second after his leap. Both of them went down hard, clotheslined by a three-hundred-pound half tiger at the end of a thirty-foot leap. Their guns skidded into the snow. The next man down the line was missing an arm and the shotgun he was holding before he had even turned toward the new disturbance. Khan slashed him twice across the throat and chest for good measure.

  Five left.

  One got a shotgun blast off that clipped Khan in the side with a few buckshot pellets. It took his breath away for just a moment, and the tiger brain went into full autopilot mode. Khan yanked away the shotgun with his human hand, grabbed the hit man’s head with his tiger hand—it fit easily—and wrenched it sideways. There was a sharp snap, and the hit man dropped on the spot with the lack of coordination particular to the freshly and suddenly deceased.

  Four.

  The first machine-gun fire of the night broke out. The farmyard was dark, and the remaining hit men didn’t know what or who was ripping them to shreds from the rear, and Khan could smell their sudden fear and panic. He dodged and rolled to avoid the burst of fire from the BAR. Then he kicked out with his clawed foot and took the shooter’s right leg off just below the knee. The hit man screamed as he went down. Khan yanked the heavy BAR from his grip and swung the gun around. The last three attackers were running up to the farmhouse, where a light had just come on in the kitchen, outlining the door. There was nothing but dark Indiana landscape behind the trailing hit man from Khan’s angle, so he brought the gun up and squeezed off a quick burst. The guy dropped and skidded through the fresh snow face-first for a yard or two, then lay motionless. Then the last two hit men were inside the farmhouse.

  Khan cursed and ripped the magazine from the gun, then tossed it aside. Then he sprinted back toward the kitchen door.

  Inside, there was shouting in the living room to Khan’s left, and then three gunshots in quick succession. A moment later, another shot rang out that had a ring of finality to it. But in front of him, in the middle of the kitchen, one of the hit men had Izabela in a choke hold, and the muzzle of a shotgun pressed against her chin from below. He looked at Khan with unconcealed terror in his eyes.

  “I’ll fucking blow her head off! I’ll fucking shoot her! I’ll fucking…”

  Khan had been to the firing range several times a week for the last twelve years. The 1911 in his waistband was not very different from the one he carried back in his own time, and it functioned exactly the same. With his tiger reflexes, he could have made the shot five times, but only one was necessary here. Khan drew the .45, flicked off the safety, brought the pistol up in a two-handed grip firmly enough to make the grip panels creak, and pulled the trigger. The bullet hit the middle of the guy’s forehead. Khan knew that the man was dead already before he was halfway to the floor. He would have pulled Izabela to the ground with him, but she flinched with a shout and shrugged him off, then went to her knees.

  Moran’s men streamed into the kitchen, all of them armed and in various states of dress. Khan flicked the safety of his gun back on and stuck the .45 into his waistband.

  “Any more?” Frank Gusenberg wanted to know. He seemed out of breath, and Khan could smell he was so high wound with stress that his nerves were practically humming with tension.

  “Other than this dope here? I got six more in the yard,” Khan replied. “One inside the barn. You get the one in the living room?”

  “Yeah,” Gusenberg said. “The fuck did they come from?”

  “They parked out by the road,
Khan said. “Walked the rest of the way. They were halfway to the house before I heard them.”

  “Some fucking bodyguard you are.”

  “He did just fine,” Moran said. He had walked into the kitchen last, a snub-nosed revolver in his hand. “If he laid out eight guys. Go check, Frank. Take Peter. And go see if they left someone with those cars.”

  Peter and Frank Gusenberg came back into the farmhouse ten minutes later, their coats frosted with snow.

  “Like he said, Bugs. Six guys out in the yard. He ripped the arm off of one.”

  “You know any of them?”

  “Yeah. One’s Fred Burke. The one in the barn.”

  “Fred Burke,” Moran said. “Egan’s Rats. That ape.” He looked at Khan. “You did the world a favor, my friend. That was Capone’s number one cleanup crew you just took out.”

  Moran’s face contorted with anger. He snatched a coffee mug from the kitchen table and threw it against the wall, where it shattered and made a dent in the plaster.

  “That bastard. That filthy swine.”

  “We’ve been using this place for years,” Frank Gusenberg said, and looked at Khan. “Then this guy shows up, and the first night we’re back here, they know exactly where we went. I wonder why that is.”

  “Somebody ratted us out,” Moran said. “Or we had a tail all the way from Chicago. Who gives a shit. You think Capone would let this guy kill his best wrecking crew? Use your fucking brain, Frank.”

  Next to Khan, one of Moran’s men—Weinshank?—had finished frisking the dead guy on the kitchen floor. He’d had that shotgun of his, a Colt pocket pistol, and a wallet with a small stack of bills in it. Weinshank took out the money, counted it, and put it in his own pocket.

  “Get that piece of shit out of here before he gets his blood all over Mrs. Sobieski’s floor,” Moran ordered. “Get rid of the other bodies too.”

  “Ground’s frozen, Bugs,” Frank Gusenberg said. “What do you want us to do with them?”

  “Put ’em in their fucking cars, drive ’em out into a field somewhere, and set them on fire,” Moran snapped. “Do I have to do all the thinking around here?”

  He looked at Khan.

  “Go help these guys, will ya? And when you’re done, we’re heading back into town, first thing in the morning. You’re riding with me, ’cause we got stuff to talk about.”

  He jammed his hands into the pockets of his trousers and looked out into the dark farmyard.

  “Two hits in three fucking days. We’re gonna go back downtown and show that greaseball how it’s done right.”

  They carried the bodies back to the cars parked by the road a quarter mile away. The Gusenbergs each drove one of the cars, and Khan rode with Frank Gusenberg in the second car while four of the dead hit men were stacked up on the back seat like bloody cordwood. They drove around in the dark Indiana countryside for twenty miles until they found an old abandoned homestead. They drove the cars behind a half-collapsed barn, and the Moran boys got out gasoline cans and splashed their contents all over the vehicles. Then Frank Gusenberg lit a cigarette and ignited the trail of gasoline. It took a little while for the cars to catch, but after a few minutes, the tires and ragtops caught fire, and then the upholstery in the interiors. Khan had smelled burning bodies before. People who claimed it smelled like barbecue never had to smell a human body burn up. While they watched the cars go up in flames, the Gusenbergs and the other Moran man, a jumpy guy named Schwimmer, went through the wallets from the bodies and removed the cash before tossing them into the burning cars. Frank Gusenberg counted out the money from the two wallets he had emptied, then turned to Khan and held out a stack of bills.

  “Your share,” Gusenberg said.

  “Keep it,” Khan replied. “I don’t need it.”

  Gusenberg shook his head and smirked at Khan.

  “You did these guys, you should claim your share. One hell of a thing you did. You barely left any for us to finish.”

  One of the other guys, the accountant named Heyer, had followed them with one of the gang’s Cadillacs, and Khan and the other three returned to the farm in the Caddy. Khan had the scent of gasoline and burning hair in his nostrils all the way back.

  They rode back to Chicago not too long after sunrise. Khan rode in the back of the lead car with Moran again, who was still seething.

  “You asked for a job, I’ll give you a job,” Moran said. “I can’t keep looking over my shoulder every time I walk down the street on the North Side. Kill Capone. Take the bastard out for me. I’ll pay you fifty thousand.”

  Khan tried to calculate how much fifty grand was in 2017 money. Moran took the silence as hesitation.

  “Seventy if you get Frankie Rio too. That’s his bodyguard. And if you kill Frank Nitti—a hundred thousand. I’m dead serious. A hundred thousand, cash. You’ll never have to work a day in your life again.”

  “I’m a bodyguard, Mr. Moran,” Khan said. “I’m not a contract killer. I don’t do that kind of stuff.”

  “What are you talking about? You just killed seven of Capone’s best guys like someone swattin’ flies on a windowsill.”

  “They were coming to kill us. That’s different.”

  “Ain’t no difference there,” Moran said. “Any of his guys will do us in if they get the chance.”

  “And if they come for us, I’ll kill them too,” Khan replied. “But I’m not in the business of striking first.”

  “Don’t matter who strikes first. Only who strikes last. You get rid of my problem for me, I’ll be running the whole market in Chicago. I can make you rich. Think about it.”

  Khan had no problem taking a life. His ledger had a lot of names on it. But every last entry on his list was someone who had swung the knife, aimed the gun, struck the blow first.

  “I’ll think about it,” Khan said, even though he already knew that his answer wouldn’t change, not for any amount of money.

  Moran leaned back in his seat and rubbed his hands together.

  “Oh, and you’re hired,” he said. “You’re my chief bodyguard now. How’s five hundred a week sound?”

  “Five hundred a week sounds good to me,” Khan said, but his mind was already somewhere else. This would have to do until he had his legs under him, but he had decided that he didn’t care much for Moran. The man reminded him too much of Galante, throwing money around to make others clean up his shit for him. The Roaring Twenties had seemed so wild and romantic in his history books when he was a kid, but it turned out that the game was the same as it was in his time, and it didn’t matter whether its name was bootlegging or crack hustling. It was all just little minds in expensive clothes climbing over piles of bodies to get power, dogs pissing on lampposts and snapping at each other.

  EIGHT: RESET

  THEY WERE BACK IN Chicago in the early afternoon. Moran didn’t want to use the warehouse at 2122 North Clark just yet, in case the cops were still going through it or Capone’s men were staking it out for a second attempt. Instead, they went back to the Parkway Hotel, two blocks from the warehouse and a much more public setting. Moran had Khan walk ahead and scout the lobby and the elevator, and the two Gusenberg boys were bringing up the rear, guns ready under their winter coats. But Khan smelled no trouble. He didn’t doubt Capone would go after Moran again—the two seemed to have a massive anger hard-on for each other—but it wouldn’t be today.

  “We need to get you a place to stay,” Moran said a little while later when they were sitting in his living room. Moran had a drink in his hand even though it was just two in the afternoon. “I want you close by. I’ve got some of my boys here in the Parkway. How do you feel about that? I’ll call downstairs and have them set you up here on the fifth floor.”

  Khan shrugged.

  “Sure. Beats a tent out in the park.”

  “That’s where you’ve been living? Jeez. You can afford better now. And we need to get you to a tailor and get you something nice to wear. So you don’t stick out as much.”
r />   “He’s gonna stick out no matter what,” one of the Gusenbergs said.

  “We can fix him up with something better than that plaster. Don’t worry. By the time we’re done with you, ain’t none of Capone’s guys want to come close to you, my friend.”

  Peter Gusenberg and Moran took him to a place downtown where a very old and slow tailor measured Khan for the better part of an hour with his tape measure. Khan had to take his overcoat and shirt off for the measurements, and he didn’t miss the veiled looks of fascination and repulsion from Gusenberg when he saw his unconcealed muscular frame, with the demarcation line between fur and skin running exactly down the center of his body. Even though he must have been the strangest and most unusual person the tailor had ever measured, the old man never lost a word over his appearance or anything else, limiting his utterances to directions for Khan to lift an arm, turn halfway, let his arms hang by his side, and so on.

  By the time they got back to the Parkway, there was an apartment ready for Khan, a three-room unit two doors over from Moran’s place. His tailored suits wouldn’t be ready for another two weeks, but they had bought him some off-the-rack clothes that were a lot nicer than the workman’s overalls and weather coat he had been wearing.

  “Put your stuff away and settle in,” Moran told him. “Make yourself at home. We’re going out to dinner at Ralphie’s in an hour. I’ll need you to keep an eye out while we’re there.”

  “Not a problem, boss,” Khan said.

  They left him to square his things away. The apartment was pretty nice, even if Khan didn’t care much for 1920s decor. At least it wasn’t the seventies, he told himself. He stashed the new clothes in the bedroom closet and put on a pin-striped suit. They hadn’t found a dress shirt with a collar wide enough for him to button it and wear a tie, but even without that accoutrement, he looked much better than he had since he arrived in this decade. There was some money in his pocket, a loaded .45 on his hip, and he didn’t feel like a tent-dwelling bum anymore.

 
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