Low chicago, p.27
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       Low Chicago, p.27
 

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

  “It won’t last forever,” Nighthawk said. “If I remember right, Chicago went through a moral crusade and the Everleigh was shut down in like 1910 or 1911.”

  “Well, it’s only 1902, so we got a while.”

  Jenny returned, her arms full of clothes, which she dumped on the bed. “All I could find were these spare butler uniforms,” she said.

  “Come on,” Peterman said. “The party in the honor of Prince Henry of Prussia is starting downstairs. Get dressed.” He paused. “Unless you’d rather go naked. I’m sure there’ll be lots of that going on before the night is over.”

  Nighthawk wasn’t that comfortable with public nudity, yet. He grabbed a pair of pants and stepped into them as Jenny watched, giggling as he put on the rest of uniform. At least it fit and, given the racial tenor of the times, Nighthawk figured he could blend in a bit more if he was dressed as a servant. By long experience, he knew that servants were basically out of sight and out of mind of the paying folk. In the end, Nighthawk and Croyd wore outfits similar to Peterman’s, though less grand. They included white cotton gloves on both hands.

  Peterman checked his ornate pocket watch. “It’s past one thirty. Dinner is probably over now and the show will be starting.”

  “Show?”

  Peterman nodded. “Oh, yes, Minna and Ada have something very special in mind.” He smirked proudly. “I helped.”

  The top floor of the Everleigh Club consisted of a number of rather small bedrooms, thirty or so, where the butterflies entertained their clients privately, or sometimes in small groups. The first floor had two entrance halls, the dining room, which was designed to mimic a luxurious Pullman porter car, and twelve parlors, each with its own theme.

  Peterman led them downstairs. Jenny had to excuse herself because she had to get into her special outfit for the upcoming entertainment. Peterman took them through mahogany- and walnut-paneled hallways with sumptuous tapestries on the walls and ornate Persian carpets on the floors. Gold-framed paintings of nude women were everywhere.

  He took them to the musical parlor, which had a piano covered in gold leaf. A dozen men sat behind a long table, Prince Henry of Prussia surrounded by his entourage. They were already well into the bottled champagne that’d been placed around the table in ice buckets and was constantly being restocked by servants in the Everleigh Club livery as it was drained.

  “That’s him,” Peterman said quietly, surreptitiously indicating a tallish, middle-aged man. He was bearded and his hair lay close to his skull and was parted almost in the middle.

  Croyd sniffed. “Doesn’t look like much.”

  “He’s the kaiser’s younger brother. He’s touring the country, basically on a goodwill mission.” Peterman added proudly, “The Everleigh is the one place in Chicago that he really wanted to visit.”

  A trio of musicians, two violins and a cello, was seated near the gold-plated piano. They struck up a tune as Minna Everleigh, clad in a clinging silk gown, suddenly appeared in the room’s entrance. She was a smallish, attractive woman in her late thirties, but what you noticed most about her was the jewelry she wore: a scintillating diamond collar, half a dozen sparkling diamond bracelets on both forearms, and gleaming gemstones on each finger. Nighthawk saw Croyd’s eyes bug out at the sight of all those rocks.

  “Gentlemen, for your entertainment and edification, our ladies will reenact for you a sacred Greek rite depicting the death of the god Dionysus, whom some say is our patron deity.” She raised her arms dramatically. “Ladies!”

  “Now just stand against the wall and look servile,” Peterman said softly as a troupe of thirty courtesans dressed solely in abbreviated, tight-fitting fawnskin streamed past Minna like a flight of moths chasing an unseen moon. The costumes were so brief and formfitting that they left no doubt whatsoever that the dancers wore nothing under them. The music rose to a wild wail as they danced around the table, gyrating and leaping, where the astonished Germans sat, their hair flowing free and wild as their movements. They whirled about and the lead dancer suddenly broke from the pack. Nighthawk gripped Croyd’s arm and gestured. It was Irina.

  She twirled across the floor, heading toward Prince Henry, and leaped right into the astonished prince’s lap, encircling her arms around his neck and squirming madly. Others followed suit, until his entire entourage was grappling with the girls.

  Minna made another gesture and suddenly the lights dimmed. The girls abandoned their lap-dance partners, and sprang back onto the floor, attacking a great cloth bull stuffed with cotton that a liveried butler had dragged into the room. They tore at it with nails and teeth, ripping its fabric skin and gouging out tufts of cotton—metaphorically—flesh. Nighthawk supposed this represented the death of the Greek god. He and Croyd exchanged glances.

  Minna gestured again and things got really weird. Male servants of the house brought out platters of raw sirloin steak, which the girls tore to pieces with their teeth, their faces soon streaky with blood that ran from the rare meat.

  Croyd’s mouth hung open. “What the fuck…”

  Nighthawk only shook his head, but the Germans loved it. They stamped and cheered and waved bottles and glasses high.

  Minna suddenly clapped her hands and the girls fled giggling from the room.

  “Give my butterflies a chance to wash up and change for the rest of the evening. In the meantime”—she gestured expansively at the bottles of champagne sitting in ice—“please, drink!” She snapped her fingers and one of the servants gave her a champagne glass. “To the health of Kaiser Wilhelm the Second of Germany!”

  As one, the Germans rose and knocked back glasses of champagne to the health of their kaiser. Other toasts came quickly. By the fourth or fifth the butterflies were returning to the parlor, this time dressed in evening gowns. Then the serious drinking started.

  After a bit some of Henry’s entourage drifted off with chosen butterflies to their private room on the second floor. The string trio continued to play and there was dancing that ranged from the spirited to the sensual, given the dancers’ various moods and temperament and the amount of champagne they’d imbibed.

  At one point Nighthawk felt compelled to join the others in livery in filling glasses, as the demand was endless. While on one such mission, he noticed Peterman whispering to one of the butterflies. He kept an eye on her as she approached Croyd very closely and whispered in his ear. Croyd smiled, and hand in hand they slipped away from the room. Nighthawk glanced surreptitiously at Peterman, but he was busy ordering around a couple of the other servants.

  Nighthawk busied himself for a while serving the Germans and wasn’t really surprised when Jenny approached him and suggested that they take a break in her private room for a while. He demurred. She pressed him, but, to her eventual disappointment, failed to convince him to leave the party.

  Nighthawk bustled about, pretending to be busy. At one point he noticed Peterman and Irina in deep conversation, and finally after almost an hour Croyd rejoined the party. Not only did he seem happy, he also seemed very tipsy.

  Much to Nighthawk’s mixed horror and amusement, Croyd, champagne glass in hand, seated himself in a momentarily empty chair next to the prince, and engaged him in what seemed to be a serious discussion. Nighthawk approached the pair.

  Croyd had not only gotten himself laid, he was also drunk as a lord. “You’ve got to make your brother understand,” he was saying seriously to an equally inebriated and more than somewhat bewildered Henry, “that he can’t start World War One, because if he starts World War One, then we get Hitler, and no one wants Hitler, do they?”

  He was so earnest that the mystified prince just shook his head. “No, of course not.”

  Croyd fixed his gaze on Nighthawk. “You don’t want Hitler, do you, John?”

  “No, Croyd.” He turned to Henry. “You’ll have to forgive my friend, Your Highness. He likes to talk politics when he’s in his cups.”

  “But what is this Hitler?” the puzzled prince asked.
>
  Nighthawk was saved from answering that difficult question as suddenly a slipper flew past them and struck a stack of filled champagne glasses that were pyramided on the table waiting for takers. One of the glasses fell into the upright slipper.

  Nighthawk looked over his shoulder. It was off one of the butterflies who’d been dancing enthusiastically around the table, high kicking in time with the music. In fact, it was Irina. She froze, staring at Nighthawk, as Croyd lurched to his feet and picked up her slipper. All eyes in the room were suddenly on him. “Well,” he said gallantly, holding up the slipper. “We can’t let you get your little foot wet.” He held it to his lips and drank down the champagne before offering it back to Irina.

  “On with the dance,” someone yelled.

  “Why should that fellow have all the fun?” one of the Germans asked. He grabbed a nearby courtesan, lifted her leg, and shouted, “Off with your slipper!”

  Everyone cheered and reached for the nearest girl. Slippers were removed, filled with champagne, and toasts were drunk as a strange and somewhat unsanitary tradition was born.

  Irina reached out hesitantly and took the slipper from Croyd. “I know you. From the poker game.”

  “We’re here to take you back,” Nighthawk said.

  Her eyes suddenly grew large, almost terrified. “No, please. I don’t want to go—”

  Nighthawk was about to reply, but he paused for a moment, unable to explain what was happening to the time line in this mad environment. Before he could say anything, she fled, running out of the parlor.

  Nighthawk pursued her. Croyd paused for a brief bob of his head toward Henry, then took off after him. They ran down a quiet corridor. All the action was happening either in the music parlor or on the second floor. The rest of the place seemed deserted.

  Irina ran, but ultimately there was nowhere for her to go.

  Nighthawk caught up to her as she backed into a dead end where the hall stopped in a gigantic mirror. Croyd stumbled to a halt behind him. Peterman was there, waiting. He had a pistol in his hand.

  “I can’t go back,” Irina said. “Don’t you see, I’m nothing there. Less than nothing. They treat me decent here.”

  Nighthawk shook his head. “Looks like you don’t want to go, either,” he said to Peterman.

  “That’s right,” the onetime child star said. “I’m through carrying Monroe’s coat. I’m sick and tired of being his yes-man. Irina and I have both made lives here—we’re not going back.”

  “I’m sorry,” Nighthawk said. “We have to repair the time line—”

  “I don’t give a shit about your time line,” Peterman snarled. “You’re not taking anyone back if you’re dead.”

  He switched his attention to a bewildered Croyd.

  “No, Pug!” Irina suddenly called out. “Don’t kill him!”

  She was closest to Peterman. She reached out and shoved him as he pulled the trigger. The gunshot echoed in the closed-in hallway as the bullet clipped Croyd’s cheek before it buried itself between the eyes of a smiling nude woman hanging on the wall. Peterman swore and swiped at Irina, but Nighthawk was already on the move.

  He tore the white cotton glove off his left hand and slashed Peterman across the cheek, almost in the exact same place where his bullet had cut Croyd. It was a stinging slap, but he also put a touch of his power into it. He felt the sweet ecstasy of Peterman’s life-force surging into him, enough to wash away the weariness that’d been dragging him down. He didn’t take much, just enough to make Peterman slide bonelessly to the carpeted floor.

  Irina stared at him. “Did you kill him?” she asked, looking at Nighthawk with terrified eyes, sudden shocked tears running down her cheeks.

  Nighthawk shook his head. “No. Just knocked him out.”

  Croyd, suddenly looking sober, stepped over Peterman and pointed. “Off you go, Puggsly.” And the child star vanished, like he’d never been there.

  Croyd draped his arm over Nighthawk’s shoulder.

  “I just can’t stand crying women,” he said, then yelled, “Duck, Irina!”

  The girl had the wits to follow his order. Nighthawk tried to pull away, but Croyd held on as he bounced a beam of energy off the mirror over Irina and it struck them solidly in their chests.

  “Dammit, Croyd!”

  Nighthawk was angry. Naked, again, and angry.

  “She was just a teenaged hooker—”

  “You mean another teenaged hooker,” Nighthawk said irritably.

  “Sorry.” Croyd did look contrite. “I just couldn’t do it to her. I guess I have a soft spot in my heart—”

  “For teenaged hookers,” Nighthawk interrupted again.

  “She did save my life.”

  Nighthawk sighed. Croyd did have a point. Although Nighthawk’s own weariness had vanished, he thought charitably that Croyd was probably in worse shape. Not to mention also drunk and speeding. He shut his mouth, knowing that someone had to maintain control during the remainder of this temporal circus, and that someone was him.

  “Let’s see if we can find something to wipe the blood off your face,” he said to Croyd.

  They were still in the hallway of the Everleigh Club, but it was different now, desolate and chill, and not only in the physical sense. The life had gone out of the place. The corridor was devoid of all furnishings, the wallpaper was dirty and partially torn away. The floor was filthy and debris was strewn about.

  “Looks like nobody’s been here for a while,” Nighthawk said.

  There was no lighting. It was dark, like the inside of a deserted building.

  “Hey,” Croyd said. “Look at this.”

  He’d wandered back up the corridor toward where the music parlor had been and stooped over to pick up a neatly bundled package.

  “It’s clothing,” he announced.

  There were two bundles, actually, and they contained everything they needed from shoes to hats. Even new, neatly folded underwear.

  “What the heck,” Nighthawk muttered, stunned to mildness. He slipped into the briefs and put on the pants, checking the pockets. From the left front pocket he pulled out a roll of bills, several hundred dollars’ worth. He held them close so he could see them better in the dimness. They were crisp and clean and from the early part of the twentieth century. In the right front pocket of the pants was a business card. It read, Fortune Films, Props. John Fortune and William Creighton, and gave an address out on Wells Street.

  Croyd, also dressed, called out, “Hey, look—a newspaper. Dated June 5, 1913. Damn, I was off five years. I was aiming for 1908. Oh well. Guess I wasn’t that badly off, shooting on the fly. And drunk.”

  “No,” Nighthawk said thoughtfully. “That’s not what’s worrying me. Someone clearly knows the trail we’re following.”

  Croyd stopped buttoning his shirt and looked at him. “Yeah. But who?”

  Nighthawk shook his head. “Damned if I know.”

  Nighthawk and Croyd taxied to the address they’d found on the business card and discovered that Fortune Films was a large complex of buildings and standing sets located on the outskirts of Chicago. It was a buzzing beehive of activity, with people in and out of costume scurrying about purposefully. There were cowboys and Indians, Romans in armor and togas, Arabian sheiks and sultry-eyed harem girls, camels, horses, men in ordinary work clothing delivering to soundstages items large and small of nearly every description.

  They stopped at the small guard station at the gateway and were waved on through by the uniformed gatekeeper after they’d identified themselves.

  “Almost like we’re expected,” Nighthawk commented to an equally mystified Croyd.

  The taxi dropped them off at the soundstage that the guard had directed them to. It was a large building, almost hangar sized with large sliding doors big enough to admit elephants or airplanes. Nighthawk and Croyd took the normal-sized door cut into one of the sliding panels. It was dark inside and they took a moment to orient themselves. Adjacent to a far wall
was a brightly lit stage surrounded by a score of people watching as a scene was filmed.

  As they got closer and could discern details, Nighthawk saw that they were staging some kind of Arabian Nights fantasy inside what seemed to be a harem room, complete with colorful handwoven carpets, hanging bronze lamps with open lattice designs, billowing silken wall hangings, and a bevy of barely clad courtesans who were showing a lot more skin than might be expected on a silent movie set. They were all posing around a marble fountain that was spouting water high into the air and contained rose petals floating on its surface, as well as a languid Irina Adamczyk luxuriating sultrily in the perfumed water.

  “Holy cow!” Croyd remarked. Nighthawk could only agree.

  Standing beside the man cranking away at the camera was John Fortune, directing the scene.

  He looked a shade older than at the game, and Nighthawk realized that for him five years or so had passed. He was a mature man, not the young teenager he’d been when Nighthawk had first met him, nor the young man who’d led the Committee in the war to save the Egyptian jokers.

  Right now, his attention was on the scene playing out in front of him as he directed Irina through the scenario, speaking aloud because, of course, this was after all a silent film.

  “That’s right, Irina, very good, looking great. You’re pensive, as if thinking deeply, but at the same time yearning, wanting. Suddenly, you hear something and you look quickly to your left. Your eyes widen, you rise, slowly, from the pool. Your handmaids run to you.… Yes, that’s right, hold them up and wrap them around her waist.”

  They were, Nighthawk noted, gauzy draperies that didn’t quite hide the parts they covered, and left her bare from the waist up in what was an utterly frank and sensuous pose.

 
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