Low chicago, p.26
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       Low Chicago, p.26

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

  One day at a time, he told himself while he checked the fit of his suit jacket in the mirror. In seventeen years, the wild card virus would hit New York City, and then he could be himself again. He planned to be long out of the bodyguard business by then. Prohibition would end in another four years, and then people like Capone and Moran would have to go back to robbing banks or holding up racetracks again. That gave Khan four years to pile up enough mob cash to ride out the Great Depression and World War II, preferably in a neutral country where the dollar went far.

  They went out to dinner. Well, Moran and his accountant had dinner, while Khan sat in a booth close by and sipped club soda, keeping an eye on the place while Moran and Heyer ate steak and asparagus tips. After dinner and drinks, one of the Gusenbergs picked them up in front of the restaurant, and Khan walked ahead and made sure the neighborhood was clear before Moran and Heyer got into the car. They drove back to the Parkway Hotel, talking business, Khan mostly ignoring them while he kept an eye on the surroundings.

  Back at the hotel, Moran dismissed Khan at the door of his apartment.

  “I’m going to talk some more shop with Adam. Why don’t you tap out for the night. But keep your eyes and ears open. You smell any funny business, you come and tell me. Ain’t nobody got any business on this side of the fifth floor except our guys.”

  “Will do, Mister Moran,” Khan said.

  “Peter says the cops are done with the warehouse. We’re going back in the morning to get the trucks running again. Show that greaseball guinea he can’t run us off our turf. Make sure you’re ready to go by eight. I’ll send Frank over to fetch you.”

  “I’ll be ready,” Khan said. “Have a good night, sir.”

  He went into his own apartment, locked the door and the security chain, stripped off his suit, and took a long, hot shower. Then he checked his .45, put it under the pillow, and climbed into bed while still damp from the shower. Stretching out and sleeping in a proper bed after weeks of camping out felt decadent—not quite as great as making love to a beautiful woman or eating a perfect two-hundred-dollar filet mignon, but pretty damn close.

  The radio woke him up in the morning. It popped into life in the living room at low volume with a commercial for laundry soap.

  He knew the radio hadn’t been on when he went to sleep, and he was pretty sure they didn’t have timed outlet switches back in the 1920s. Khan reached under his pillow for the .45, flicked the safety off, and quietly climbed out of bed.

  He sensed his visitors even before he opened the bedroom door. They were sitting on the living room couch, side by side, looking like they were waiting for room service or the morning paper. Khan recognized them both immediately. They had been attending one of the players back at the Palmer House in 2017, the guy with the skull face—Charles Dutton. One of them was a small black man with wrinkles in the corners of his eyes. He was sitting with his hands on his lap, looking around the room with a mildly interested expression. His companion looked considerably more ragged. Khan had run across plenty of tweakers, and this guy was pumped to the gills with amphetamines. He too looked around the room, but he was fidgeting and tapping his feet on the carpet. He looked like he hadn’t slept in days.

  Khan pushed the door open all the way and leveled the .45 at the two visitors.

  “Good morning,” the black man said, unperturbed.

  “So it happened to you too. Whatever that was. I was starting to think I was the only one.”

  “Oh, no.” The black man started to pull off the glove he was wearing on his left hand. “You were not the only one. Khan, was it? You were with Mister Galante.”

  “Please tell me he’s around too. I’d love to have a word with him in private.”

  “We have not, uh, bumped into him yet. But he’s not in 1929, if that’s what you mean. You’re the only one who ended up in this year.”

  “So it happened to everyone? Whatever it was.”

  “I’m afraid we don’t really have the time to get into the details, but my companion here, Mr. Meek, accidentally blasted everyone in that suite all over time. We have tracked down a few of you, but we still have a lot of pickups to make, and my companion is getting tired.”

  “He looks a little rough.”

  “He feels a little rough, too,” Mr. Meek said. “Cut the palaver and get to the point, Nighthawk.”

  “The point,” Nighthawk said. “The point is that you, Khan, have a choice right now. You can’t stay in 1929. Your presence has mucked up the time stream. Just our being here with you is altering reality in 2017 as we speak. Are you familiar with the butterfly effect?” He exchanged a look with Mr. Meek, who frowned.

  “What you did at the mob warehouse is having downstream effects you can’t even begin to predict. You prevented the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.”

  “So I kept a few mobsters alive,” Khan said. “It was just seven guys, you know. And two of them weren’t even with the gang.”

  “The public outrage after the massacre got the Feds motivated to bring Capone down. It was the beginning of the end for him. Without that event, you’ve probably extended the gangland wars by five years,” Nighthawk said.

  “Who really gives a shit who controls the bootlegging in Chicago?” Mr. Meek growled. “Capone, Moran, whatever. You know someone’s gonna rise to the occasion. Prohibition’s over in four years anyhow. Let’s just grab this guy and go back.”

  Nighthawk shook his head and held up a hand to interrupt Mr. Meek. Then he looked at Khan intently.

  “Even worse—those seven Moran boys are alive when they should be dead, Khan. They will kill people who would have lived full lives without your intervention. They will have children that should not be born, that will mess up the time stream in ways nobody will be able to fix. What if one of them has a son who turns out a street thug, and that kid kills your grandfather before your mother is born?”

  “You can undo what you did in the hotel suite?” Khan asked.

  “My associate can,” Nighthawk said. “He can bring you back to the future … or the version of it that exists after you’ve thrown a big boulder into the time stream.”

  “And if I say no?”

  Nighthawk looked around in the hotel room.

  “Then we would have … conflict. But you really want to remain here? In this year? A joker-ace like you? How long do you think you’ll be able to fool people with disguises?”

  Khan’s first thought was of Naya and his mother. He had already resigned himself to the fact that he’d never see them again. How could he not go back home? His presence here mucked up the time line, Nighthawk had said. What if he stayed, and changed history to the point where Naya wouldn’t even be born? The thought gave him nausea.

  “No,” he said firmly. “You can get me back, you get me the hell back. I only did what I did because I figured I’d be stuck here for good.”

  “I completely understand,” Nighthawk said. “I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same thing.” He smiled, and there was a twinkle in his eyes. “And changing the outcome of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Who gets a chance to rewrite history like that?”

  “So let’s go,” Khan said. “Get me back to our own time. You’ll get no argument from me.”

  Nighthawk and Mr. Meek exchanged a glance.

  “There’s only one problem. You have to fix what you changed. Get the time stream back on track. So we get back to our own reality, not one we won’t recognize.”

  “And how do you propose I do that?” Khan asked.

  Nighthawk looked at his companion again and shook his head with what seemed like genuine sorrow on his face.

  “The people that should have died need to take their predestined place in history. And that’s against the wall of that warehouse. The public needs the outrage. The Feds need the catalyst to go after Capone.”

  “Oh, you have got to be kidding me.” Khan lowered the .45 and leaned against the frame of the bedroom door. “You want me to go over ther
e and machine-gun the whole lot?”

  “They were already machine-gunned,” Nighthawk said. “They died. You’re just making sure they stay dead. For history’s sake. That is the price you’ll have to pay to go home.”

  “Hell of a price,” Khan growled. “I’m a bodyguard. I’m not a murderer.”

  “I wish I had a more palatable alternative, trust me. I don’t relish the idea either. But you have to decide, and you have to decide now. My companion is getting more tired by the minute, and we have more people to track down and get back in time before he goes to sleep again. We can’t do it because it has to look like Capone’s guys did it.”

  “Give me just a minute,” Khan said, even though he knew that he had made the decision the second his sister’s memory had popped into his head again.

  “Let’s just get him back right now,” Mr. Meek said. “I’m fucking tired, and I have my limits. If he takes off, we’ll spend too much time tracking him down again. And then we’ll lose all the rest of them, if you want to talk about fucking up the time line completely.”

  “No,” Nighthawk said firmly. “Khan will undo what he did. And we will give him an hour to get it done.” He gave Mr. Meek a sharp look, and there was a tense moment of silence between them.

  “Fine,” Mr. Meek said. “One hour. But you best keep me busy. Because if I nod off, we are all fucked. You, me, Tiger Boy here, and all of known history.”

  Frank Gusenberg came to fetch Khan twenty minutes later. Nighthawk and Mr. Meek were in his bedroom, out of sight, waiting for him to return—or getting ready to hunt him down again if he didn’t.

  “Where’s the boss?” Khan asked when they stepped outside.

  “The boss likes to sleep in a little,” Gusenberg said. “He’ll be along after he’s had his coffee. We don’t need him to get the trucks ready anyway.”

  They walked down Dickens Avenue and took a right onto North Clark. Khan could see the front of the warehouse just a block ahead. The sidewalk edges were lined with knee-high walls of dirty snow, pushed up by the city plows.

  “Hey, just so you know, I wanna say sorry for what I said back at the farm,” Gusenberg said. “About you being in cahoots with Capone’s guys. You’re all right. No hard feelings, right?”

  “No hard feelings,” Khan said, feeling like the world’s biggest asshole.

  They walked into the front entrance of the garage. Everyone was there, milling around and smoking cigarettes—Peter and Frank Gusenberg, Heyer the bookkeeper, the other four guys who had been there first time around. In the back of the garage, Khan saw the familiar face of Johnny May, looking up from under the hood of one of the trucks.

  You dumb bastard, Khan thought. Jesus. Seven kids. Shoulda read the want ads in the paper.

  There were seven men in the garage, the .45 in his coat pocket held seven rounds, and Khan’s hand-eye coordination was out of this world. He cocked the hammer of his pistol quietly and let out a sigh.

  For Naya.

  “Just so you know, fellas,” he said to the room in general as he brought out the Colt. “This ain’t personal.”

  A Long Night at the Palmer House

  Part 6

  THE ROOM WAS ORNATELY, almost stuffily decorated, with a canopied four-poster bed, an overstuffed chair with claw-legged feet, dangling tassels, silk overthrows, and pillows piled upon it, end tables crowded with bric-a-brac and trinkets of all sorts, an ornate padded stool with a brocaded fabric seat set before a mirror attached to a table that was packed with makeup and perfume bottles. There were numerous gilt-framed pictures on the velvet-papered walls, most of them more than vaguely pornographic, and an almost naked girl with only a gorgeous silk robe draped around her voluptuous body reclining languidly on the bed.

  She looked up, a little startled, but recovered her composure immediately.

  “Oh! I didn’t hear you gentlemen come in.” She smiled sensuously, with readily apparent welcome. “It’s more for two at once,” she purred.

  Nighthawk and Croyd looked at each other.

  “It worked,” Croyd said.

  “I never doubted you,” Nighthawk replied, lying only a little. In fact, he was becoming concerned about Croyd’s state of mind, as well as more than a little tired himself. They’d been awake a long time. Croyd was still under control, but some of his ideas were getting a little wild. Since they seemed close, temporally, to their latest quarry, he’d thought the best way to trace him would be to go to the physical location where Monroe told them he’d be, then travel directly there through time.

  It was easy to get to the spot in 1929. Nighthawk knew where the Everleigh Club had been located—almost anyone who’d lived in Chicago during the early part of the twentieth century knew about the club—which turned out to be an abandoned building on the South Side, on a run-down section of Dearborn Street. Two buildings, actually. Twin connected brownstone mansions at 2131–2133 South Dearborn. Nighthawk recognized the location, though it was but a sad shade of its former glory.

  “Do you know where we are?” he asked his companion as they stood across the street from the obviously abandoned structure, which, sadly, seemed to be waiting for the inevitable wrecking ball.

  “No idea,” Croyd said.

  “This part of Chicago is called the Levee.” He gestured at the run-down street that seemed to be sleeping under the thick blanket of snow. “From the late 1800s through the first decade of the twentieth century, it was Chicago’s red-light district.”

  Croyd quirked an eyebrow. “I’m shocked that you would know this, John.”

  “Uh-huh,” Nighthawk said. “And that, my friend,” he continued with something of awe in his voice as he pointed to the desolate structure across the street, “was the finest brothel in Chicago. Maybe the best house of ill repute in America, if not the entire world: the Everleigh Club.”

  Croyd nodded, impressed. “Well, let’s hope it’s open when we get there.”

  The girl shifted slightly on the white silk coverlets, her long, curly red hair spilling like a sunrise against a pile of silk-covered pillows. She leaned forward, her robe sliding slightly more open to artfully expose the entirety of one large, firm, dark-tipped breast.

  “I’ve rarely seen gentlemen so ready for my attentions,” she said. “Where are your clothes?”

  “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” Croyd said.

  “Try me,” she purred, shifting her long, slimly muscled legs languorously, more welcomingly.

  “Back in 1929,” Croyd said.

  She frowned. “You’re right.”

  “Forget that,” Nighthawk said. “Actually, we’re looking for someone.”

  She smiled. “Won’t I do? I adore chocolate,” she said, and then shifted her gaze to Croyd, “and vanilla. Especially at the same time.” She licked her lips slowly.

  “Eh—yes,” Nighthawk said. He glanced at Croyd. “Who are we looking for?”

  “Uh…” Croyd blinked, and focused. “Peterman. Pug Peterman.”

  “Oh, Puggsly?” she said, surprised. “Why, yes. I’m sure he’s downstairs. He helps Miss Minna as a kind of greeter and arranger. In fact—he helped her plan the big party they’re throwing tonight for our foreign guests.” She suddenly shifted, quick and graceful as a cat, and was facing them, kneeling, with her palms flat upon the mattress. “Royalty is visiting the Everleigh tonight. A prince!”

  “Is that so?” Croyd asked.

  “Prince Henry!” she exclaimed. “He’s German, you know.”

  Her avid gaze was lowered, centered upon their groin areas.

  “Is that so?” was all Croyd could repeat.

  “He’ll be happy to see us,” Nighthawk said, though he wasn’t entirely sure. “He’ll make it worth your while.”

  “Oh,” she said, springing lithely off the bed, “I’ll be happy to do a favor for Puggsly.”

  As she brushed past them, Nighthawk could feel the heat radiating off her body, could smell the floral perfume scent wafting off her
hair and clean, supple skin.

  Peterman was happy to see them, if not overjoyed.

  “Back from the future?” he asked, then turned to the girl who’d followed him back to her room. She was watching with wide eyes. It was rather crowded with all four there. “I can tell,” Peterman added, “because you’re naked. It happened to me and Irina when we ended up here, too.” He shook his head. “Man, we went through some tough times at first. Jenny, get some clothes for my friends here.” He looked back at Nighthawk and Croyd, who were getting so familiar with being denuded that they were almost used to it. “You’d be surprised at the things that frequently get left behind in a brothel, even one as high class as this.”

  “Irina—the waitress?” Nighthawk asked. “If she’s here too, that’s another name off the list.”

  “So what do you guys want?” Peterman asked as the girl hustled off on her errand.

  “To bring you home,” Croyd said.

  Peterman frowned. “But I am home, now,” he said. “I like this place. I’ve got a great job helping Minna and Ada run this place. The pay is good, the side benefits are unbelievable, believe me. I get to meet important, interesting people—”

  “We don’t have much of a choice, Pug,” Nighthawk said, and explained about the unraveling of the time stream.

  “It’s like that story by Asimov,” Croyd added after Nighthawk was done. “You know, the butterfly effect.”

  “Heinlein,” Nighthawk corrected automatically.

  “Well, I don’t care who wrote it,” Peterman said. “I like it here. Besides, you’ll never convince Irina to leave. She had nothing in 2017. Here, she’s one of the most admired of the butterflies—”

  “Butterflies?” Nighthawk interrupted.

  “It’s what the Everleigh sisters call the girls who work for them. Look,” Peterman said earnestly. “You don’t know what it’s like here. Minna and Ada—they care for their girls. They teach them manners and diction and how to act in society. They dress them well and feed them well and guard them against harm. They’re not brutal pimps. The butterflies make a hundred, some as much as four hundred dollars a week. Can you imagine that?”

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