Low chicago, p.28
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       Low Chicago, p.28
 

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

  “Okay, Creighton, enter the scene. You’ve fought through hell to come to her, yes, great, great…” Creighton was a tall, slim man with an Arabic cast to his handsome features. “You take her in your arms and say, ‘At last, I have come for you’”—and Creighton dutifully repeated his lines in a somewhat exaggerated manner—“and you kiss,” Fortune continued, and they did, with a passion that was so real that it seemed it could set fire to the film stock that was recording it.

  “Aaaannndd, fade, and cut.” Fortune smiled and said, “It’s a wrap!” He turned and looked at Nighthawk and Croyd. “What took you so long?” he asked them.

  The offices of Fortune Films were moderately sized and modestly decorated. Framed movie posters advertising scores of films hung on the walls, depicting, among other actors, Charlie Chaplin, Broncho Billy, Fatty Arbuckle, and William Creighton, “Man of a Million Faces.” Film titles included Birth of a Notion, Sherlock Holmes’ Chicago Adventure, The Song of Solomon, Dracula on Lake Michigan, and many westerns, comedies, and historicals.

  “Sit down,” Fortune said, indicating the three comfortable-looking chairs before his paper-littered desk. “Creighton will be joining us in a moment. Irina is”—he thought for a moment—“a little skittish when it comes to seeing you again. Considering your last encounter, I don’t blame her.”

  Fortune smiled gently at them. For a young man, Nighthawk reflected, he had already been through more in his lifetime than any three or four men should have had to endure.

  “So you were expecting us,” Nighthawk said.

  “Irina told us some time ago that you were around,” a serious-looking, leanly built man of middle age said as he entered the office and lowered himself into the final chair before Fortune’s desk. “We didn’t think it’d take you that long to get around to us.”

  “How do you know her?” Croyd demanded.

  “You might say,” the newcomer said, “that I’ve known her, well, intimately for quite a while. I first met her at the poker game and then, later, or, I guess, you could say earlier, at the Everleigh Club. What is it, John, five years ago now?” He was addressing Fortune, not Nighthawk. Fortune nodded. “I was one of her regulars. When we got the studio running, she came to work with us and we turned her into a star.”

  “She told us all about you,” Fortune explained. “How you came to the Everleigh Club to take her and Peterman back to 2017. How Peterman tried to stop you.”

  “How she probably saved my life,” Croyd said.

  Fortune nodded. “And you granted her hers.”

  “He has a soft spot for teenaged hookers,” Nighthawk said.

  “I think we’ve mystified you long enough.” Fortune nodded at the newcomer. “This is my longtime bodyguard, my partner in Fortune Films, my friend. At the poker game he was Tor Johnson. Today’s movie fans know him as William Creighton, the Man of a Million Faces, the greatest makeup artist of all time. In our time he’s Mr. Nobody.”

  “Call me Jerry,” the man of as many names as faces said.

  “We arrived in 1908 bewildered, naked, and penniless,” Fortune continued. “It took us a while, but once we got ourselves settled, we knew what to do. It’s been pretty much forgotten in our time, but Chicago was one of the early centers of the movie industry. It’d already started by the time we arrived, so it was a natural thing to get into. After all, we’d had the benefit of over a hundred of years of moviemaking knowledge. We started by churning out the same basic stuff that was being made at the time, but added subtle, sophisticated improvements. Song of Solomon, which we just wrapped, will burn up the screen. It sizzles, thanks to Irina and Jerry.”

  “We made the first twelve-reeler years ago,” Mr. Nobody said, “shamelessly swiping from filmmakers from our own time, from Hitchcock to Tarantino. The audience loved it.”

  Nighthawk frowned. “Don’t you worry that your movies will change things?”

  Croyd groaned. “Oh, Christ, does this mean that we’re going to have to go back again and stop you guys before you got started?”

  Fortune shook his head. “I don’t think so. Irina did say you were trying to wipe out the changes that’d broken the time stream, but Jerry and I haven’t really changed anything in any way that others have imitated. They can’t. We’re kind of a unique operation, relying on our foreknowledge and Jerry’s ace ability to shape-shift into damn near anything human or near human. Besides”—his face took on a sad expression—“like most silent movies, much of our work will be lost over the years. The film stock we have today is pretty fragile. Most of it will disintegrate within three decades or so.”

  “And, unlike Irina and Peterman, we’re willing to return to our home time,” Jerry said.

  “So she’s still adamant about staying?” Nighthawk asked.

  “She’s a movie star here,” Jerry said. “She’s happy and well- adjusted. Hasn’t had any children, unlikely to have any. Eventually”—and here, his serious face took on a sadder cast—“her star will fade and she’ll be forgotten like virtually every other silent film star, from Broncho Billy to Ben Turpin.” He sighed. “I will miss her. Greatly.”

  “It’s been fun playing movie mogul,” John Fortune said. “But it’s time to go home and work on some of the problems of our own time.”

  “You’re willing to give all this up?” Nighthawk said. “You must have made a fortune.”

  Fortune and Jerry looked at each other. “Well,” Fortune said finally, “I suppose we can trust you guys. Yeah, we have made a crap ton of money.”

  “And,” Jerry added, “knowing that you were on our trail and that we couldn’t take anything with us, we converted most of it because we didn’t want to leave it all as cash in banks with the Depression looming on the horizon.”

  “Converted?” Nighthawk asked.

  “Yep. To gold coins and high-end gemstones. Diamonds, rubies, emeralds.”

  “I even managed to track down three Honus Wagner T-cards. In really nice shape. It was like finding needles in a haystack, but I did it,” Jerry said. “They should go for more than three million apiece back in 2017. My usual line is movie memorabilia, but maybe I’ll keep one for myself. Charlie Sheen will be green with envy.”

  “But what did you do with it all?” Croyd asked, mystified.

  Fortune nodded. “Well, we made sure it was well protected in a lead-lined coffin, paid for and registered for perpetual care, and buried it in a cemetery which we know will survive under a headstone with the name Tor Johnson over it.”

  “It was a big coffin,” Jerry said.

  The Sister in the Streets

  by Melinda M. Snodgrass

  “SISTER MARY-CATHERINE! SISTER MARY-CATHERINE!”

  The use of her full name and title and the thread of panic in the young male voice told her the problem was real and probably severe. Often the young people jamming Lincoln Park called her “penguin” or Nunzilla, or asked when she was going to sing or fly. It didn’t bother her because for the most part they were so cute and earnest and starry-eyed. “We’re gonna change the world!”

  At thirty Sister Mary-Catherine had a more jaded outlook. She had nursed bodies broken by riot police in Bolivia and Guatemala, handled gunshot wounds in the Congo. Her feeling was that while the world might change people’s sinful natures didn’t. Her medical degree had been used mostly to heal the wounds of war and revolution, which was a sad commentary.

  The young man who ran up to her was as gangly as a colt, with long matted brown hair and wide, frightened blue eyes. He wore a leather vest that exposed his hairless chest, dirty jeans, and was barefoot. A girl, her wreath of braided flowers slipping over one eye, was clinging to his arm. They were panting and sweat beaded their faces. It was a very sultry August night in Chicago, and it reminded her of her days in the Congo during that country’s failed revolution.

  “Bad trip?” Sister Mary-Catherine asked.

  “I don’t think—”

  “We don’t know,” the girl interrupted. “S
he just appeared.”

  “And she’s bad hurt, Sister, so we better hurry.”

  Grabbing her medical bag, she ran after them as they wove through the crowds. She was grateful not to be coping with the floor-length skirts that had been required when she first took her vows. The knee-length skirts were far more practical and sanitary in hospital settings.

  Smells of cooking food, the sweet aroma of pot smoke, unwashed bodies, and patchouli incense floated in the air, and in the background the ominous scent of tear gas left over from the march earlier in the day and the police action that evening. A spotlight raked across the swarming crowds but this one was benign. It was Turtle floating overhead, a guardian angel making sure the protestors were safe. At the edges of the park were more lights strobing blue and red—police cars, and lines of police waiting like the monsters ancient people used to draw onto the edges of maps.

  There were murmured conversations, the throb of drums, strumming guitars, and singing. Some of it good, most of it emphatically not. Mary-Catherine thought longingly of the choir at her convent or even the MC5 concert where they had Kicked Out the Jams earlier in the evening. That had been before the police moved in and tried to enforce a curfew. That attempt had been thwarted by Turtle so the crowds remained, though not without some casualties. She and Dr. Young had spent the later half of the evening dealing with bumps, bruises, and watering eyes from the tear gas. The one serious casualty—a broken arm—had been taken to Cook County Hospital by the doctor.

  She could have lived cloistered when she had joined the Poor Sisters of St. Francis, but she wanted to serve God by alleviating suffering, so she had become a doctor. It also helped that the church paid for her education. Something her family could never have afforded. As to why she had been rotated back to the United States—she had a feeling it was because of worry she identified too closely with the downtrodden communities in which she had served. Little did the mother superiors know that the revolution was coming to America.

  There was a knot of people gathered in a circle. Her two guides held back and Mary-Catherine pushed through. Lying on the trampled grass was an extraordinarily beautiful and horribly injured unconscious woman. She was also completely naked, but there was nothing sexy about it since her body was bathed in blood from the left breast, which was hanging by a thread, the four long slashes in her upper right leg, and the cuts across her belly. Mary-Catherine hoped the moist gleam she saw was muscle and not intestines.

  There was the smell of burnt hair and part of the mane of jet-black hair had been burned away. The skin on her right shoulder was burned and blistered. Mary-Catherine dropped to her knees on the trampled grass, and yanked open her case.

  “There was like this loud pop and then she was just here.” The boy offering the added information had a scraggly beard that imperfectly hid his acne.

  “She’s gotta be a wild card,” another added, muttering around the Astro Pop that hung out of his mouth like a peculiarly shaped cigar.

  “Get to the perimeter. Get one of the cops to radio for an ambulance!” Mary-Catherine ordered.

  “I’m not talkin’ to those pigs,” a young joker man in a Lizard King T-shirt muttered. The wattles that hung beneath his chin like a peculiar green-and-yellow beard waggled as he talked.

  She jumped to her feet, grabbed the front of his T-shirt, and yanked him in close. The wattles stiffened in alarm. “Then she’s going to die and it will be your fault! So maybe you could set aside your self-righteous bullshit for one second and help me save this woman!”

  She pushed him away, and went back to her patient. The chastised boy and several others took off running. Fortunately toward the police. The bandages in her bag weren’t up to the task of trauma this great. She pulled out a roll of medical tape, and glanced around the watching crowd, spotted two girls with reasonably clean T-shirts.

  “Give me your shirts!” Fortunately the era of free love also seemed to go with no modesty so the girls she’d selected quickly pulled off their shirts, revealing tanned, bare breasts.

  She laid the torn breast back in position, and heard a moan and a retch from the crowd. Folding the T-shirt to form a rough bandage, she taped it tightly to stop the bleeding. She then did the same to the thigh. The woman moaned, struggling toward consciousness. The last thing Sister Mary-Catherine wanted, but she had no way to sedate her. Slurred words tumbled from her lips.

  “Jasper, Niobe. Home. All wrong.” She appeared to have a British accent.

  “What is your name?” she asked. “Can you tell me your name?”

  “Lil…”

  The boys returned from the edge of the park, pulling her attention from the woman. “They were really shitty,” one boy said.

  “Did they radio?” the nun demanded.

  “Yeah, but the roads are blocked so they said it wouldn’t be quick,” the boy answered.

  “They seemed happy about it,” the joker boy added.

  “Well, it was only one of them,” his companion offered in an attempt to be fair.

  “Well, I can’t wait.” The woman had slipped once more into unconsciousness. Mary-Catherine jumped up and ran toward the roving spotlight. Stood under it and waved her hands over her head.

  “WHAT DO YOU NEED, SISTER?” Turtle’s voice was amplified by the speakers.

  “I have a badly hurt woman. She needs to get to the hospital. The roads are blockaded. Can you take us?”

  “SURE.”

  Turtle followed her back to the huddle. The woman was muttering, hands flexing as if reaching for something. Sister Mary-Catherine indicated the woman.

  “THIS MIGHT BE A LITTLE SCARY,” Turtle warned.

  She felt the grip of a giant force closing carefully around her body, and she was lifted into the air. As her sensible black shoes left the ground she had a moment of panic, but forced it back. She had endured worse moments.

  “Try to keep her flat,” she called up to Turtle as she hung beneath the shell.

  “OKAY.” The woman floated up until she hung next to Mary-Catherine. It was like she was lying on an invisible stretcher.

  “WHERE DO YOU WANT TO GO?”

  “Cook County.”

  “YOU THINK THE COPS DID THIS?” Turtle asked.

  “I don’t know. I don’t think so. The kids said she just appeared.”

  “MAYBE AN ACE.”

  They were floating over the heads of the cops now. Helmeted heads craned back and faces were pale blurs under the spotlight and the streetlights.

  “HOPE THEY DON’T DO SOMETHING STUPID WHILE I’M GONE,” Turtle said, and Mary-Catherine sensed it was more of a warning to the cops than an innocent remark.

  Of course she knew about the virus and wild cards, but growing up in Hudson, Wisconsin, she had never actually come in contact with a victim of the virus. During her medical training she had treated jokers; the virus did terrible things to the human form and most of those afflicted had various kinds of health problems. She met a few more jokers during her work in Africa and South America, but she had never met an ace. She glanced over at her patient. The woman herself seemed perfectly normal, though if it hadn’t been for the blood and muscle tissue Sister Mary-Catherine would have suspected those breasts owed their perfection to silicone rather than genetics. The one intact breast seemed far too firm to be real.

  They soon reached the hospital and Turtle gently lowered them to the pavement in front of the emergency entrance. Someone must have been watching because orderlies rushed out with a gurney and quickly got the woman inside.

  “I need saline, lots of it, disinfectant, and start an antibiotic drip,” she ordered as she began to unwind the makeshift bandages.

  As she uttered the final word the woman’s eyes snapped open, her hand shot out, and her fingers tightened on Mary-Catherine’s throat. Wheezing, she tried to pull air into her lungs and she felt cartilage grinding at the vise-like grip. Her hands clawed at the woman’s. She found herself staring down into strange silver eyes.


  Turtle was right, and I’m about to be killed by an ace, came the errant and foolish little thought. Blood pounded in her ears, muffling the sound of people shouting in alarm.

  Orderlies grabbed her shoulders. The woman cried out in pain as hands gripped the burns. Her fist flew back and hit one orderly in the face. He fell back, blood spurting from his nose. She rolled off the exam table and went to deliver a sweeping kick to the other orderly, but her torn leg couldn’t support her weight and she fell. The torn breast was flopping on her chest, blood flowing across her rib cage and belly.

  Mary-Catherine leaped in behind her, got an arm around her neck, and pulled her close. “You’ve been hurt! You’re at the hospital. Let us help you and you’ll be all right.”

  An orderly was filling a syringe with sedative. Mary-Catherine shot him a desperate hurry look. He darted in from the side, and injected the tranquilizer.

  “Fuck you all,” the woman muttered. She slumped as the sedative took effect.

  Dr. Quentin Young pulled aside the curtain screening the woman. Mary-Catherine was glad it was him and not some of the older doctors. They tended to condescend to her despite her medical degree. Dr. Young never did.

  What brought them together was their advocacy for the poor and downtrodden. Sister Mary-Catherine had elected to take her skills to the third world. The physician chose to work in America. He had helped found the Medical Committee for Human Rights, which had brought medical care to civil rights workers in the South, and had brought health care clinics to the Black Panthers. He had even done a rotation at the newly founded Blythe van Renssaeler Clinic in New York’s Jokertown, which meant he had experience with wild cards. They had met because they had both volunteered to help the protestors who had gathered in Chicago. Sister Mary-Catherine liked and respected him.

  He pushed up his heavy black-framed glasses with a forefinger and ran a nervous hand through his shock of unruly dark hair. “What have we here, Sister?” There was a touch of silver at his temples. At forty-five he was probably the oldest person involved in the ongoing protests.

 
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