Low chicago, p.29
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       Low Chicago, p.29

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

  “She’s an ace. According to the kids she just appeared, naked, injured, and violently disoriented.” She touched her throat. “She broke Miles’s nose.”

  He pulled her hand away from her throat. “And tried to choke you?”

  “Like I said, disoriented,” she said as he began his exam.

  “Knife cuts?” Mary-Catherine asked as he removed the makeshift bandage on her thigh.

  He shook his head. “I think these are claw marks.”

  “Big animal.”

  He gave her a quick smile. “If it was an animal. Who knows in this world we inhabit. We need to get her into surgery and reattach that breast. Sew up the tear in her belly. Fortunately it didn’t get past the muscle.”

  “She’s going to have some terrible scars. Poor thing. She’s so beautiful. I need to get back to the park.”

  “They’re not going to let you through with the curfew. You may as well stay here. Assist me.”

  She jumped at the chance.

  Sister Mary-Catherine pulled down her mask. Dr. Young rotated his neck, which gave a loud crack. They watched the woman be wheeled away. “If she was as disoriented as you said it might be best if someone stays with her.”

  “I’ll do it.”

  She followed the woman from recovery to a room, and checked her vitals. She then pulled over a chair, settled down next to the woman, and began to pray the rosary. The rosary had been her father’s. The black onyx beads alternated between smooth and carved with a rose pattern. The click and feel of the beads between her fingers was wonderfully soothing, but the worldly was overshadowing the holy. The tension in the streets had been growing. One protestor had already been killed, a young Native American man shot by police ostensibly for drawing a knife on them. She dreaded to think what would happen once the convention actually began, which was today now that Sunday had slipped into Monday.

  Several hours passed and pale gray began to show outside the window. Mary-Catherine began the morning collect. Lord God Almighty, who hast safely brought us to the beginning of this day, defend us in the same by Thy mighty power, that this day we may fall into no sin—

  The woman gave a gasp that was almost a moan, and her eyes snapped open. Sister Mary-Catherine broke off and looked up quickly from her breviary. She watched in shock as the woman’s features began to shift.

  “No! No! What’s happening?” the woman cried.

  Mary-Catherine ran to the door and yelled for a crash cart. She then raced back to the bed, and tried to decide what to do. She reached out and gripped the woman’s shoulders, only to feel the bones shifting and cracking beneath her hands. It was grotesque and terrifying. The sheet dropped as the breasts vanished, the bandage over the repaired breast sagged as the tissue vanished.

  It only took a few minutes and the black-haired beauty was gone, replaced by a man. He had neatly cut dark brown hair, a somewhat beaky nose. He looked to be the same height as the woman he had replaced, but with everything rearranged. His elegant, manicured hands flew to his face, the long supple fingers exploring his features. There was also a band of white on the fourth finger of his left hand where a ring had once rested. The eyelids lifted to reveal blue eyes in place of the woman’s silver orbs. Sister Mary-Catherine stood back a few prudent feet away just in case this new person proved to be as instantly hostile as the female version.

  “Where? Where am I?” he asked hoarsely.

  The nurses with the crash cart burst into the room and the man flinched, eyes widening in fear. She waved them back. “It’s okay. You’re not needed.”

  She turned back to her now male patient. “You’re in the hospital. You were badly mauled.”

  He lifted the loose bandage and stared at the seeping incision around his left breast. “God damn.”

  “Well, at least you still have an English accent,” she said somewhat acidly. “Everything else has certainly changed.”

  He frowned at the far wall. “I was … Lilith.”

  “Oh, that’s what you were trying to say when I asked your name. Last night you only managed to get out Lil. I had hoped it was Lily, but I suppose Lilith is more appropriate given her … attributes.”

  He lifted the bandage again. “Well, one attribute has certainly been defaced.”

  “I expect some men will find that sexy,” Sister Mary-Catherine replied.

  His eyes raked her. “In the same way some men like naughty nuns,” the man replied, and gave her a smirking smile.

  It was wrong but she found herself enjoying the sparring so she shot back, “So Lilith. From the Hebrew—female demon, night hag. What’s your name now? Beelzebub?”

  “You’re a very odd nun. And no, it’s … it’s Etienne? No, Bahir.… Noel? I think it’s Noel.” He was frowning again. She recognized that particular furrow in the forehead.

  “You probably need pain medicine.”

  “Probably, but I’d like to clear my head. I’m trying…”

  “What?”

  “To remember. There were people screaming. Then I tried to go home, but there were strangers there too. They screamed. Then…” He shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know where I went.”

  “You appeared in Lincoln Park.”

  “Lincoln Park. Lincoln Park.” It was a musing singsong. “Oh, right, Lincoln Park. I visited the art gallery there before the … game … So I’m still in Chicago?”

  “Yes, you are in Chicago.”

  He pushed back the sheets. “I have to get back to the Palmer.” He tried to sit up and gasped in pain.

  Mary-Catherine again gripped his shoulders and helped lower him back onto the mattress. “No, I’m going to get that bandage reset and then you’re going to sleep. Things will probably be clearer after you rest.”

  Once Noel was snoring Sister Mary-Catherine gave him a quick physical. She studied the stunted male genitalia, parted his thighs and palpated the rudimentary vagina. She stepped back and snapped off her gloves and noted on the chart—Hermaphrodite. Ace. Possible psychological explanation for patient’s ability to assume a female form.

  She then went off to the Palmer Hotel to see if anyone could cast some light on her enigmatic patient, only to find it behind an almost impenetrable line of police and Secret Service agents.

  “I understand the vice president and Senator McCarthy are staying here,” Sister Mary-Catherine said as she tried to cling to her fast vanishing patience. “But I have a disoriented patient who claims to be staying here. I’m trying to get some information to help him recover his memory.”

  The Secret Service agent was an implacable monolith in a black suit as he stared down at her unblinking.

  She tried again. “Has anything … odd happened here recently?”

  That caused the impassive mask to shift. “Odd? Sister, have you looked around? All these hippies and yippies and freaks invading the city.”

  “They are in fact U.S. citizens exercising their First Amendment right to free assembly,” she shot back waspishly. “But I meant in the hotel. May I please talk with the manager?”

  The agent stared at the gold cross that hung on her white blouse and finally nodded. He allowed her through the front doors. Inside there were more police, and more agents. They were trying so hard to be unobtrusive that they stuck out like alligators in a child’s wading pool. She noted that everyone getting on the elevators was presenting ID to police.

  The desk clerk was a young man in a neatly pressed suit. She outlined her situation. “It would have happened late last night.”

  “Oh yeah, Gerald, the night manager, told me about it when I came in to work. It was like two A.M. when suddenly this bleeding, naked woman just appeared in the suite. There were a couple of McCarthy staffers working late. They freaked out. She attacked them, broke one guy’s arm, and then just vanished. We had to have a cleaning crew up there early this morning to get the blood out of the carpet.”

  “So she didn’t say anything?”

  “No, apparently not. Just beat the shit—
um, sorry, Sister, beat the tar out of them.”

  “Okay, thank you.”

  She started back to the hospital through clots of young protestors singing and marching, lines of police, and glaring residents who seemed to be viewing both sides with disapprobation. Halfway there she decided to swing through the park to get a read on the pulse of the protestors. The relaxed atmosphere from the night before was gone. Movement leaders were in the crowds discussing a march to the International Amphitheater. Others were practicing self-defense moves. The cops at the outskirts of the park clutched their nightsticks and watched the snake dancing and karate moves with trepidation.

  Mary-Catherine passed by the kids in charge of Pigasus, the enormous black-and-white pig the yippies had nominated for president. The animal was grunting and snuffling. Mary-Catherine crossed to them, and gave the hog a pat on the back.

  “You are feeding him, right?” she asked.

  “Yeah, he’s eating leftovers,” one girl said.

  “He really likes those new Big Mac sandwiches,” another offered.

  “Okay, just take care of him, okay? You really should let the authorities take him.”

  “No way, man. No telling what the pigs would do to him,” a boy said with absolutely no self-awareness of the irony.

  Probably treat him better than they will you, she thought, but she kept that to herself.

  A night without sleep and clothes she hadn’t changed in two days sent her back to the convent for a nap, a wash, and a change of clothes. She tried to slip out without being spotted, but Mother Superior Perpetua was reputed to have eyes in the back of her head, and she proved it again.

  The older nun had not given up the traditional habit. The long skirts whispered across the stone floor and her heels rapped as she effectively cut off Mary-Catherine’s escape.

  “You were not at mass yesterday, Sister.”

  The blue-veined and gnarled hand was held out. Sister Mary-Catherine knelt and kissed the ring. “No, Mother. There were too many injuries. Thank God nothing serious but lots so I needed to stay.”

  “I think you wanted to stay and that’s something quite different.” She folded her hands across the front of her scapular with its embroidered red cross. “It concerns me. I think you identify too closely with these young people. Our concerns are not of this world.”

  “But our duty is to heal in the world, Mother. There’s a reason I’m not in a contemplative order.” She knew she was being “pert” and she braced for a rebuke, but the older woman just sighed and drew a hand across her cheek. The scent of soap and incense wafted off her.

  “I love you, Sister, for your passion, but I pray you will not be led too far astray as some in our church have been.”

  Mary-Catherine considered giving the expected response, but realized she didn’t want to lie. “I’ll try, Mother,” was the best she could manage.

  As she trotted down the steps from the convent she reflected on the Berrigan brothers, Philip and Daniel. Both priests, both activists. Also the revolt of a number of American priests against the pope’s Humanae Vitae regarding contraception. Having worked in poor developing countries, Mary-Catherine secretly shared their objections. The plight of woman without the means to prevent pregnancy was not a pretty one. She had nursed and lost too many women enduring their seventh or eighth childbirth.

  Back at the hospital she found Etienne, Bahir, Noel, holding the receiver of the phone in his room and staring at it in bemusement. “What’s wrong? Forgotten how to dial?” she asked. She noted his color was better.

  “Why do you have such ancient phones? I’ve seen better in the third world,” he said.

  “Sorry we’re not up to your exacting standards.”

  “I need to make a long-distance call to my wife and I doubt the hospital allows for that. May I use your phone?”

  “My convent won’t let you make a long-distance call either, though I might be able to convince Mother Superior.”

  “Cell. Phone,” he enunciated slowly. “Or do your vows preclude such modern conveniences?” he added spitefully.

  Staring at him in confusion, Mary-Catherine hesitantly said, “I’m not sure what you mean when you say cell phone. I’ve used a radio transceiver in Africa, but.…” Her voice trailed away and she shook her head. His expression now matched hers. She changed the subject. “Wife. So you’re starting to remember.”

  “Some. The events of last night still have large gaps.”

  “Well, I can fill in some. You apparently appeared in a suite in the Palmer House, knocked the crap out of some of the staffers, and vanished again leaving blood and a broken arm in your wake. You next appeared in the park and that’s when I got involved. I got Turtle to bring us—”

  “Turtle? What the hell is he doing in Chicago? That old fossil hasn’t been seen in public for years.”

  “Old? Not seen?” She knew she sounded like an idiot from the man’s expression and that made her mad. She glared at him. “He’s here for the convention. He’s protecting the protestors, and keeping your sorry self from bleeding to death last night.”

  Noel lurched up and grabbed her arm. His grip was painful. “Who is the president?”

  “What?”

  “Tell me!” His voice was a rough growl.

  “Ow! Lyndon Johnson, and you’re hurting me!”

  He fell back against the pillows with a moan that wasn’t due entirely to pain. “Oh God, oh God. It’s 1968.”

  “Wow, you’re a quick one. Also the sky is blue, and you’re clearly disoriented.”

  “No. I’m lost. Jasper … Oh God—” He broke off and threw an arm across his eyes. “My name is Noel Henry Matthews, I was born December third, 1981. And I’m completely and utterly fucked.”

  She spent the rest of the day working and reflecting on her odd patient. She had soothed him, telling him, “What you are is delusional from trauma and blood loss. Sleep will help.” She had backed it up with a shot of morphine as he had murmured about having to find a way back.

  That evening she stopped in the bathroom, removed her coif and veil, and rumpled her shorn hair. She rinsed her face and stopped by the nurses’ lounge for a coffee and whatever stale Danish might be available. The TV was on and tuned to the convention, cameras focused on Mayor Richard Daley’s bulldog face.

  “As long as I am mayor of this city, there’s going to be law and order in Chicago!”

  “Well, that was conciliatory,” Mary-Catherine said as she chewed on an apple Danish. The filling was glutinous and fairly disgusting, but hunger overrode distaste.

  One of the older nurses pursed her lips. “It’s the fault of these young thugs. They should go home or back to school. Do something useful.”

  “Maybe they think this qualifies as doing something useful,” Mary-Catherine said with such cloying sweetness that the older woman flushed.

  “Well, this isn’t the way.”

  I’ve been in Guatemala. Sometimes this is the only way, she thought as she left the room.

  She wanted to get back out in the streets, go to the park, read the pulse of the city, the police, and the protestors, but found herself stopping by Noel’s room. There was something fascinating about the injured man … woman … ace. To find him collapsed on the floor between the bed and the door. With the aid of an orderly she got him back into bed and checked his stitches.

  “What in heaven’s name were you thinking? You’re lucky you didn’t tear open these wounds.”

  “I have to go. Have to find a way back. Have to go home.”

  She lightly touched the pale spot on his finger. “I’ll accept you were married, but it looks like you left that state.”

  “No. I guess nothing can travel through time other than the living person.”

  “Good to know marriage still exists in the future. Are there flying cars? Do people just eat food pellets?”

  “You’re making fun of me. You don’t believe me.”

  “No, I don’t. It’s crazy.”
r />   “In a world where people possess astounding powers and you cavil at that?” His tone was acidic. “How can I convince you?”

  “Tell me something that’s going to happen.”

  “Humphrey will be nominated and Nixon will win.”

  “Nonsense. Humphrey hasn’t run in a single primary. He’s tainted by his association with Johnson. The party won’t be stupid enough to take it away from McCarthy.”

  “Oh you sweet innocent.”

  His tone was so condescending that she wanted to hit him. Knock that smug smile off his face. She managed to keep her reaction limited to sarcastic words. “Whatever. And since it’s August we won’t be able to test it out for two more months.”

  “Has the convention started?” Noel asked.

  “Yes. Daley just gaveled it into order.”

  “Let me think. Let me think. I read a monograph by an excruciatingly dull Canadian scholar about ’68. Battleground Chicago.” He pressed his fingertips against his closed eyelids, lips moving soundlessly. His eyes snapped open. “Tuesday night a journalist is going to be assaulted by security inside the amphitheater and your Mr. Cronkite is going to refer to them as a bunch of thugs and earn the ire of Mayor Daley.”

  “Daley’s a pig, but he’s not stupid. They’ll beat the hell out of the kids, but they’re not going to risk alienating journalists or delegates.”

  He gave a bleak little smile. “Time will tell.” He looked toward the window, where night had fallen. Even through the walls they heard the wail of sirens. “Or perhaps my mere presence here has already shifted the time line. Will I vanish? Of course if one goes down that line of reasoning one would do nothing. Be terrified to act. Fortunately I’m not a particularly passive person.”

  Mary-Catherine glanced toward the floor where he had fallen. “Clearly not. Now stay in bed. We’ll worry about the future once we get there.”

  She started for the door.

  “A favor.”

  “What?”

 

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