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       Low Chicago, p.3
 

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

  Flowers smiled when Galante dealt him a second ace in the fourth round. He had the high hand showing, though Fortune was dealt a second deuce to join the ballplayer and Monroe with pairs. “About time,” Flowers said, not bothering to conceal a smile. He tossed four whites into the pot for another raise of two thousand dollars.

  Prince Siraj folded without a word or expression. Dutton folded with a smile that could only be described as sinister.

  “I’ll keep you honest,” Monroe said to Flowers with a straight face, tossing in two blues.

  Fortune silently added two of his own to the pot.

  Galante dealt the last round to the three who were still in the game. Monroe got a nine, Flowers a queen, and Fortune a three.

  Flowers looked from Monroe, who was expressionless, to Fortune, who had a small smile on his face. Flowers had one blue and ten white chips left.

  “Check,” he said.

  Fortune’s smile grew wider. He added six thousand dollars to the pot.

  Flowers stared at him. Fortune looked back levelly. Seconds ticked away.

  “Shit,” Galante said, “you might as well go all in in case he’s bluffing. You’ll be gone the next hand, anyway.”

  Seconds more passed like hours crawling by. Nighthawk could see sweat beading Flowers’s forehead. His hands twitched once, reaching for his final chips, and then froze as the door to the hotel suite opened. He looked back over his shoulder, but it was only a waiter delivering Galante’s sandwich on a covered silver tray. He also carried a small folding table.

  “Goddamn it,” Flowers swore.

  The waiter, an elderly man in hotel livery, came to the table.

  “Who ordered the steak sandwich?” he asked.

  Cyn, who had resumed her seat, nodded at Galante. “Over here.”

  “Bring me a whiskey on the rocks,” Galante said with a glance at Irina. He returned his attention to the game as the waiter deftly set the folding table down, after Cyn scootched her chair over to make room.

  Irina approached with the drink as Flowers pushed his remaining chips into the pot with an agonized gesture. Fortune looked at Monroe, who shook his head.

  “Your move,” he said.

  Still smiling, Fortune turned over his hole card, revealing a third deuce.

  “Goddamn it!” Flowers stood up suddenly, pushing his chair back and bumping into Irina, who staggered. The drink that she was delivering to Galante slid from her tray into his lap.

  For one brief moment time seemed frozen and Nighthawk could smell the danger that suddenly speared the air. He started to rise. Irina, a stricken look on her face, started to bend over, reaching out with the cloth napkin that had been draped over her forearm. “I’m sor—”

  Galante swiveled in his chair. “You clumsy bitch!” He slapped her in the face hard enough to knock her to the floor.

  There was another moment of silence, broken by a wordless shout of rage from the waiter, who swung the tray bearing the steak sandwich and accompanying fries at Galante, catching him on the side of the head and knocking him and his chair onto the floor.

  And suddenly all hell broke loose.

  Khan rose from his seat with a feline roar and reached for the waiter, but the old man was changing. In the blink of an eye his body mass seemed to double, shredding the uniform that he wore. All the added mass was solid muscle. The waiter backhanded Cyn and she slammed into the wall and rebounded, stunned. Khan reached across Galante’s fallen chair and he and the waiter grappled. They stood locked together for a moment, clearly matched in strength.

  Dutton, Nighthawk thought. He grabbed his client, hoisted him over the bar, and dropped him behind it onto the floor, turning back in time to see Khan and the waiter smash onto the table and roll over it, scattering chips and cards. John Fortune dove away. Tor Johnson stood, uncertain. Flowers drew a pistol he’d had in a shoulder holster. Lilith drew a blade and moved to Siraj, but Meathooks, next to her, lashed out, catching her in the side with the metallic hooks that’d sprung from his hands. Lilith staggered backwards, her gown suddenly torn and very bloody.

  It was all happening so fast that Nighthawk could do nothing but stand his ground. Besides, his duty was to Dutton and his job was to stay between him and whatever danger might come his way. So far, all of the action was across the table.

  Meathooks stumbled against Flowers as he avoided the sweep of Lilith’s blade. Charlie Flowers was shouting and spraying shots. One struck Prince Siraj as he rose from his chair. Khan and the waiter were hammering at each other, as a dazed Cyn pushed to her knees and unleashed a gout of flame that ripped the chandelier from the ceiling and set off the smoke alarm. Part of the heavy glass-and-metal fixture landed on Siraj. Fortune shouted, “Help him,” but before either of his bodyguards could move, Khan and the waiter, still locked together, lurched off the table and bumped into Cyn. Her flames licked across the room. Nighthawk felt the heat of it wash over him, but he was only at its very edge. Part of it flicked across Meek, who cried out in pain, raised both hands, and filled the suite with rainbow light.

  The rainbows seemed to wrinkle the very air. Whoever they touched simply disappeared. Only Charles Dutton, on the floor behind the bar, and Nighthawk, at Meek’s side, remained. All that remained of the other players, companions, and servers were a few untidy heaps of clothing and jewelry that marked where they’d been standing, sitting, or sleeping.

  The window drapes were aflame. Nighthawk, quelling the questions screeching in his brain, arose and put out the fire before the sprinklers came on, using a soda water bottle from the stocked bar. As he was spraying down the draperies the two women emerged from the bedroom, where they’d been occupied.

  “Siraj?” Margot Bellerose cried. “What happened? What happened?” Her voice rose in panic. “Where is everyone?”

  Nighthawk turned to Meek, who was slapping at the burning sleeve of his jacket. Teleportation, he thought. “Where did you send them?” Nighthawk demanded.

  But Meek shook his head. “Not where. When.”

  Down the Rabbit Hole

  by Kevin Andrew Murphy

  NICK WILLIAMS HAD NEVER been to Chicago before, let alone its Gold Coast district. The Playboy Mansion was Beaux Arts, built to impress, four stories of classical French brick and exposed limestone with a steep slate roof and attic windows flanked with Grecian urns. The chauffeur who’d met him at the airport carried his suitcase up the walkway. Nick carried the Argus’s case himself. He paused for a moment to read the brass plaque set over the main door: Si Non Oscillas, Noli Tintinnare. Nick grinned, his high school Latin coming in handy for more than the mottos of movie studios: If You Don’t Swing, Don’t Ring.

  The February weather was much cooler than Los Angeles, and he wished he’d brought a heavier coat. But it was warmer inside, especially in the parlor off the black-and-white marble foyer. Hef awaited in an ornate Victorian wingback chair upholstered in rose velvet, flanked not by classical urns but by classic beauties. Two young women, a blonde and a brunette, lounged on matching divans to each side, attired in diaphanous gowns like the Muses of old … or perhaps a more sybaritic interpretation of Old King Cole’s attendants, since the blonde was pouring Hef a snifter of cognac from the requisite decanter of an unlocked tantalus while the brunette reclined near a Delft tobacco jar and a matching porcelain box. The pipe was in Hef’s hand, and he was dressed in a rich black velvet smoking jacket and slippers, all the better to enjoy the roaring fire in the parlor’s fireplace. The porthole television in the burl-wood cabinet opposite glowed like a fortune-teller’s crystal ball. The all-seeing eye within winked and vanished, the CBS logo replaced by the Olympic rings, then the dizzying melody of Strauss’s “Acceleration Waltz” started up, a Dutch beauty entering the Squaw Valley ice arena.

  “Ah, Mr. Williams,” Hef said, rising as the chauffeur took Nick’s camera bag, “or may I call you Nick?”

  Nick removed his suit jacket, which the chauffeur also took. “Nick’s fine.” He doffed th
e new gray fedora he’d bought for the trip. He regretted letting it go, feeling like the soft felt was almost a part of him now. But the chauffeur was implacable.

  Hef clenched his pipe in his teeth so he could shake hands. “Welcome to the Playboy family.” He glanced up at Nick, who had a good six inches on him. “You’ll do just fine. Swimmer, I understand?” Hef glanced to the television, where the skater twirled through her revolutions. “The agent said you’d hoped to compete in Melbourne, but dropped out.”

  “I pulled something in college,” Nick confessed, failing to mention that it was an ace.

  Hef swirled his cognac contemplatively. “Any chance you’ll represent us this summer in Rome?”

  “Doubtful.” The Olympics tested for the wild card, and while Nick’s ace didn’t help him in the three hundred meter, it would still disqualify him. And tip his hand that he was also Will-o’-Wisp, the Hollywood Phantom, mystery ace of the movie lots, and Hedda Hopper’s horror.

  “Can you lie?” Hef grinned. “I know you’ve done some acting, and it will stir up interest on Playboy’s Penthouse.”

  “I can lie,” Nick admitted truthfully.

  Hef glanced to the chauffeur. “Percy, take those to Mr. Williams’s room.” Hef swirled his snifter. “Care for cognac? Sherry? Port?”

  “I don’t drink,” Nick confessed, not mentioning that alcohol made it harder to control his ace, “but I do smoke.”

  “Constance?” Hef glanced to the brunette.

  She pulled open the drawer of the tobacco jar’s table, revealing it to be a humidor stocked with a wide assortment of cigars. She also lifted the lid of a porcelain box disclosing French Gauloises. Nick took one and allowed Constance to give him a light.

  It was good, and Nick took a puff while Hef gestured to the furnishings. “These used to be in the Everleigh Club’s Rose Room.” He took a puff of his own pipe. “Ada just passed away and we were able to acquire her whole collection.”

  “Everleigh Club?” Nick cocked his head and took a drag on the cigarette.

  “Chicago’s carriage trade brothel. Exceedingly exclusive, but gone half a century next year.” Hef took another puff on his pipe. “Of course, the Playboy Mansion’s my home, and our new Playboy Club will be a gentleman’s club, but it doesn’t hurt to have some of the gas lamp finery.” He took a sip of cognac, then handed the snifter to the blonde. “Thanks, Gwen.” Hef gestured to the foyer and the grand staircase leading up. “May I give you the tour?”

  “Please.”

  Plush carpeting secured with brass runners led the way to the next floor, which was nothing if not more opulent. “Got the place last year. Built for Dr. Isham and his wife, Katherine, in 1899,” Hef explained. “Supposedly Teddy Roosevelt visited. Let me show you the ballroom. We host our most swinging parties there.” He ushered Nick back up the grand staircase, Constance and Gwen fluttering after them like salt and pepper moths.

  If the second floor was opulent, the ballroom was beyond compare, the ne plus ultra in fin de siècle luxury, with tall Doric columns carved in rich mahogany instead of marble, matching paneling, a cavernous coffered ceiling with gilded rosettes and painted beams, a limestone fireplace large enough to walk into flanked with the sculpted visages of guardian lions, and, in the center of the sweeping parquet floor, a piano covered with a fortune in gold leaf, glittering like the hoard from Das Rheingold.

  “Ada’s treasure.” Hef looked slyly to Nick. “We had to have it. Do you play?”

  “Not one of my talents, I’m afraid,” Nick admitted. “Where is everyone?”

  “Oh, they’re around the mansion. Lots of bedrooms. Even rumors of some hidden passageways. Still discovering all the secrets.” Hef gave a wink as Constance and Gwen fluttered right and left around the dance floor in preordained orbits until coming to rest at the piano bench, starting a girlish duet of “Tea for Two.”

  Nick let his host escort him across the floor until Hef paused him midway, instructing, “Kick off your shoes. Just had it polished and it’s nice to get the full effect.”

  It was a bit odd, but Nick was not going to disappoint his host, and there was a certain childlike fun to sliding across the smooth wood in your socks.

  Nick’s ace was electrical, the wild card having saved him from electrocution by turning him into a human electrical capacitor. It mostly gave him the power to toss ball lightning, but along with that came an attunement to the electromagnetic spectrum. Nick sensed something: not electricity, but interference, a good bit of metal somewhere in the floor below them. He didn’t have time to make sense of it, his host beckoning for him to join him at the piano.

  Nick took a last puff of his cigarette, then stubbed out the butt on the plum blossoms of the cloisonné ashtray atop the Chinese smoking stand by the piano’s head. “Stand there,” Hef instructed, indicating a small Oriental accent rug by the crook of the piano a few steps back, “you get the best sound.”

  Constance and Gwen fluttered their lashes coquettishly, sharing some private joke as they continued their duet, but Nick did as he was told, stepping onto the accent rug. Constance winked, reaching up to turn the sheet music, but instead pulled a gilded lever.

  The floor fell out from under Nick, but not the rug, and he felt himself falling down a chute into darkness. He panicked, remembering stories of Chicago’s infamous Murder Castle. He lit up with a nimbus of electricity, but it almost as quickly grounded itself on the copper sides of the chute he was sliding down, the accent rug acting like the burlap sack at a carnival slide to speed his descent. Nick concentrated, letting his electric glow come only to his eyes, illuminating the chute but not grounding on it while his ace sensed something below him, not metal, not earth, but … water.

  A bell rang and not just in Nick’s head as he came to the end of the chute and another trapdoor sprang open, spitting him out into light and brilliance.

  It was instinct, Nick had felt this before, leaping from the plunge into the high-dive pool at the University of Southern California. Muscles tensed, hands placed together, not in prayer, but to part the water as he entered, steeling himself, pulling his ace taut so none of his internal reservoir would ground out.

  The water was warm and the pool was deep. Nick swam down instinctively, then up and over, surfacing at a distance to the strains of more piano music, this time from a black baby grand, and the sprightly chatter and laughter of a pool party.

  Women in bathing suits and a few men swam about or lounged poolside, the whole basement chamber decorated with African masks, dracaena, and birds of paradise till it resembled a mermaid’s grotto.

  The bell sounded again and the ceiling chute fell open, Hef coming down feetfirst, sans robe, slippers, and pipe, now wearing only swim trunks.

  He plunged into the pool, then came up laughing, swimming over to Nick. “Welcome to the Playboy Family. Thought a swimmer wouldn’t be too shocked with our initiation prank.”

  Nick smiled, teeth gritted with the realization of how close he’d come to electrocuting everyone. “Not shocked, no.”

  “You should have seen him dive!” exclaimed one of a bevy of bathing beauties floating like nereids nearby. “Didn’t even make a splash! Like an eel!”

  Electric eel, Nick thought but did not correct her.

  Hef laughed and the bell rang again, the trapdoor opening as Constance and Gwen entered the pool together, their diaphanous gowns shed like moth wings, now clad only in daring bikinis, black and white. They swam over, Gwen reaching out to him, smiling. “Let’s get you out of these wet things.…”

  Nick didn’t resist, Gwen releasing him from his wet tie and unbuttoning his equally soaked shirt, Constance diving down like a pearl diver and taking off his pants. Hands strayed and lingered, flirtatious and beyond. Nick stopped Constance before she pulled his boxers free, but didn’t stop her entirely. If you don’t swing, don’t ring.…

  Constance put the play in Playmate, splashing back, laughing, having teased him then stolen his socks. Hef swam o
ver as the pair of nymphettes left the pool with their booty. “Let me show you around.”

  It was like Neptune introducing his court, except the mermaids were Playmates and the assorted castaway sailors and dolphin riders had been replaced by photographers, editors, and layout directors of the Playboy staff. Nick could hardly keep track of them all. The only one of especial note seemed to be Victor Lownes, Playboy’s promotions director, who was swimming about with a young actress named Ilse. “So, Hef, what do you think about Ilse’s kitten idea?”

  “Still like my original plan, but so long as we get Zelda Wynn Valdes to design the final costume, I don’t much care.”

  “Then let me get someone else’s opinion.” Lownes glanced to Nick. “We’ve been batting around outfits for our new place. Hef wants satin corsets, like the gals at the old Everleigh Club.”

  “Got some great examples of those now,” Hef pointed out. “Ada’s photo albums are in the library. You need to look at them.”

  Lownes nodded while paddling. “Yeah, but Ilse had a swell idea: Playboy’s mascot is the tomcat, so she thought we could have the girls dress up as sexy kittens.”

  “Pussycats,” Ilse purred with a pronounced and erotic Eastern European accent.

  “Maybe a little too on the nose.” Hef turned to Nick, explaining, “When we were first going to launch, we wanted to be Stag Party with a swinging stag for our mascot. But then Stag magazine sued so we swapped to Playboy and went with the tomcat.”

  “So what do you think?” Lownes pressed.

  “Not sure, but I like the idea of Valdes.” Nick knew Hollywood politics and when to be a yes-man. “She did Josephine Baker’s costumes, right?”

  “Some of them,” Hef agreed. “Not sure if she did the ‘banana dance’ one, but that’s the iconic look we want.” He turned to Lownes and Ilse. “Make a mock-up and I’ll decide.”

  “My mother sews,” Ilse told Lownes, who said, “Done.”

  It seemed poolside business was as much a thing in Chicago as it was in Hollywood.

 
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