Low chicago, p.30
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       Low Chicago, p.30
 

         Part #25 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin
“Please get me some clothes. I’d rather not leave here in a hospital gown and I did rather arrive with nothing.”

  “All right.”

  “One more thing.” She turned back again. “If I’m right will you help me?”

  “Yes. I’ll help you.” It was a promise she wasn’t likely to have to keep.

  “I think we’ve got a bunch of thugs here, if I may be permitted to say so.” The stentorian tones of Walter Cronkite.

  The images seemed seared on her eyes. The dark-haired young journalist being manhandled by security as he tried to interview a Georgia delegate being hustled out of the hall. The blow that sent him to the floor. His breathless report to the older, venerable newsman about how the security people had hit him in the stomach and “put him on the deck.”

  She was in Dr. Young’s office, where he had one of the new portable color televisions on a metal stand. He blew out a gust of air and ran a hand through his tousled hair. “If this is happening inside what’s going to happen to those kids? Maybe you should stay off the streets and out of the park, Sister.”

  “He was right,” Sister Mary-Catherine whispered.

  “What? Are you listening to me?”

  “Yes. No. Sorry. I have to go.” She snatched up the suit that Young had brought from home for their mysterious patient.

  Noel was sitting up and frowning at the far wall. His eyes were clouded. Expression bleak.

  “Okay, I’m inclined to believe you,” she said.

  “So, it happened to that reporter—”

  “Dan Rather.”

  “Whatever.” He waved her off and winced at the movement.

  “So, what are you going to do?”

  “Try to get home.”

  “And if you can’t?”

  “I could make a killing in the market.” He gave her a teeth-baring smile that never reached his eyes. “I’d invite you to join me, but you’ve got that whole vow of poverty thing going.”

  She tossed the clothes on the bed. “I need you to remember everything you can from that monograph. I’m going to try to get you to Hayden and Davis and Dellinger. No point going to Rubin and Hoffman. They’re gadflies.”

  “And why would I care what happens to these young fools in the streets? I’ve seen a lot of popular uprisings. Almost all of them are either pointless or end badly. And there is this whole butterfly effect when it comes to time travel. I’m not keen on wiping out my own future or doing something that endangers my wife and son.”

  “I thought you weren’t a particularly passive person.”

  “I’m very motivated when it comes to me. I find altruism to be overrated.”

  She folded her arms across her chest and glared at him. “You want my help. This is how you get it.”

  “Now that, I understand.”

  “I’ll remember to never appeal to your better nature,” she shot back.

  “Wise choice.”

  She had to help him out of the bed and assist him as he dressed. His face was white, lips compressed into a thin line with pain by the time they were finished. “I’ll get a wheelchair, and stop by the pharmacy and grab pain meds for you.”

  “Let me go with you. Once I’ve seen a place I can easily return.”

  “How?”

  “I can teleport. Well, that’s not technically true. My other selves can teleport.”

  “There are more of you?”

  “Just one. You haven’t met him yet.”

  “So introduce us.”

  “Can’t happen until morning.”

  “You really are just full of psychological hang-ups, aren’t you?”

  “And now you sound like my old handler.”

  A wheelchair was procured. He lowered himself gingerly into it and she pushed him briskly down the hall to an elevator. At the pharmacy she was lucky. The nurse on duty had stepped away, and Mary-Catherine grabbed several bottles of Dilaudid.

  Then they were out in the sultry night. She helped Noel to his feet. The heat smothered the city, the scent of tear gas laced the air. “It’s about six miles to the park. Can you—”

  “No. I can’t. Get us a car.”

  “The cops have the streets barricaded.”

  “So let’s get a cop car.”

  “What?” Then the irony struck her and she chuckled. “Can you really hot-wire a car?”

  “Oh, dear Sister. I have so many nefarious skills. You have no idea. But before I lead you into a life of crime are we sure this is a good move? Will these people you mentioned believe me any more than you did?”

  “I’ll tell them about Rather.”

  He shrugged and his breath caught as the burns rubbed against his shirt and coat and the stitches were pulled. He dug out a bottle and dry-swallowed a couple of Dilaudid.

  Mary-Catherine tugged at her lower lip and considered. “Actually, the person we really need to convince is Humphrey. He was a progressive warrior until Johnson neutered him. He would consider the good of the country.”

  “Great!” Noel’s tone was cheerfully manic. “How do we get close to the vice president of these United States?”

  “Let’s think about that.”

  “Let’s think about that over a meal.”

  “You have no money.”

  “I can handle that.”

  “More nefarious skills?”

  “Absolutely.”

  They ended up in front of a French restaurant. They had a few minutes before closing. Noel drew his thumb across the bills in the wallet.

  “Where did you get that? I didn’t see you—”

  “I should hope not. Bloody terrible magician if you had. I took it off some gentleman near one of the hotels. At least the suit did not mislead. A tidy sum.”

  “You picked him because of his suit?”

  “Yes, it was Savile Row. Always stick with the classics.” She should have been shocked. Instead she chuckled.

  An obsequious maître d’ bowed them into the restaurant. The borrowed suit wasn’t all that fine, and the fit was less than perfect, but there was something in the Brit’s demeanor that demanded respect. Mary-Catherine stole a sideways glance at the beaky profile. Not handsome but … there was something. She reined in her errant and galloping thoughts, offered a quick prayer though she wasn’t entirely certain what kind of protection she was seeking. Guidance on how to make a difference.

  They were seated, menus offered with a flourish, and the maître d’ retreated. It was a very fancy restaurant. There were no English translations of the French words. Mary-Catherine’s eyes flickered across the pages. The prices made her blanch.

  “You need a translation.”

  “I picked up a little French in the Congo. I’ll manage.”

  A waiter arrived and fluent French flowed between the server and her enigmatic companion. “Très bien, monsieur.” The waiter departed. A few moments later he returned with a glass of whiskey. Noel drained it in one swallow and handed back the glass. They gave their orders. The waiter padded away and came back with a wineglass and a bottle of red wine.

  “I don’t get any?” Mary-Catherine asked.

  “I wouldn’t want to tempt you into further naughty behavior.”

  “First, you better not drink a bottle of wine on your own. Particularly when you’re on pain meds, and secondly, the Lord Himself was a proponent of the grape. I remember this wedding and water.…” She challenged him from beneath lowered brows.

  Noel threw back his head and laughed. Too loudly, too long. The waiter left and returned with a second glass. The glasses were filled. He held his up for a toast.

  “Here’s to the oddest nun I’ve ever met.”

  “Had a lot of experience with penguins, have you?”

  “Nope. C of E.”

  “Did you ever attend?”

  “Ooh, the lady has teeth. And yes, chapel every Sunday while I was at Cambridge. We mostly go for the music. And to avoid the buggery … unlike you lot.” She gave him a puzzled look. He sloshed more wine into his
glass. “You’ll find out.”

  She took a sip and it seemed like roses blossomed in her mouth. “That’s … that’s wonderful.”

  Noel picked up the bottle and gave it a critical look. “Château Margaux, ’65. I’ll have to remember this once I get back—”

  He broke off abruptly and she saw the anguish. She changed the subject. “So, Humphrey.”

  “Won’t be easy to get to him. Probably impossible at the convention.”

  “So, it has to happen at the hotel. Which room were you staying in? Can you get us inside?”

  He looked confused. He stared down into his glass and spun the ruby liquid. “I don’t think so. I was there, but … there were a lot of people. I was … Why can I remember things from college but not that night?”

  “It’s not uncommon. Trauma and injury can affect short-term memory. It will probably come back.”

  “If I could remember how I got here, maybe.…” He shook his head. “As for the hotel. Remember—naked—so no key.”

  “Well, let me give you what I saw when I went there yesterday. There’s security on the front doors. At the elevators—”

  “You have the makings of an operative, dear Sister.” Food began to arrive. “Let’s table this discussion for the moment. I hate to give myself indigestion by planning instead of appreciating.”

  The food was delicious and as she dug in she realized she couldn’t recall when she’d last had a real meal. At last the plates stopped arriving. The waiter brought Noel a snifter of brandy. He rolled the glass between his hands, the long fingers caressing the curve of the glass. Sister Mary-Catherine found herself staring at them.

  “You have beautiful hands,” she blurted, and felt her cheeks beginning to burn.

  “Why, thank you. I would say they are quite my best feature.” An awkward silence fell across the table. “So explain to me the purpose of this … intervention.”

  She leaned back, wineglass cupped between her palms. “If Humphrey knows he’s going to lose he might be willing to step aside. Throw his support behind McCarthy. Unite the party. If that news got to the protestors all of this”—she gestured at the wider city—“would end.”

  “Peace, love, and rock ’n’ roll,” Noel drawled.

  “What made you so cynical?”

  “Long experience with the world and people who try to make it better.”

  “I’m sorry for you.” She leaned intently in over the table. Laid a hand over his. She realized she was perhaps a bit tipsy, but she didn’t pull back from the contact. “Look, upstream, in the future you’ve left a wife and child. Let’s assume you can’t get back. What can you do, here, now, that would make their lives better?”

  His hand twisted until it covered hers and he gripped it hard. “I don’t know. Where does McCarthy stand on wild cards? Joker rights in particular? My Niobe is a joker.”

  “Well, for starters he wants the war in Vietnam to end. Jokers don’t get deferments. They get drafted. In my area of expertise he’s talked about wanting to increase spending on health care for jokers and funding research on the virus to improve survivability and to reduce the more damaging effects. He understands that civil rights is about all oppressed minorities. He’s a good man.”

  “But can he beat Nixon?”

  “Well, according to you Humphrey can’t, so the best we can do is hope … and reset the board.”

  “Can one really change history?” Noel murmured. His brow was furrowed again. He pulled out the pills and swallowed two more.

  “We won’t know until we try.”

  He set aside the glass. “It’s the riots that help ensure Nixon’s election.” He gave her a thin smile. “The dear cud-chewing citizens of Middle America are horrified by the violence they witness in the streets and turn to Mr. Law and Order. You Americans are a very stupid people.”

  The patronizing tone had a bubble of anger rising in her breast. She tried to curb her unruly tongue, but to no avail. “Yeah, well, you might recall without our help you’d probably be speaking German now. And by the way, I’m from Wisconsin.”

  Again that smile that held very little humor and made her feel like he was about to bite. “I rest my case.”

  “You’re calling me stupid?”

  “Yes.” The rudeness rocked her back in the booth. She glared at him. “You have a beautiful face, good legs, and a nice rack. But you chose to become a bride of Christ.” The scorn was evident.

  “Thank you, I guess, and you’re not the first man to notice. Look, the church paid for my education. I couldn’t have become a doctor otherwise. And I do more than pray. I’ve brought aid to people in the Congo, in Guatemala and Bolivia. Saved lives. What’s your contribution?”

  Judging from his expression, she had hit a nerve. He didn’t answer. “If I had my memories I could teleport us into a hallway, but…” He shook his head. “Unfortunately there’s no Google so I can’t get a read on the interior.” She opened her mouth and he hurried to add, “I’ll explain Google later.” He thoughtfully tugged at his upper lip. “I could take ID off a Secret Service agent.”

  Mary-Catherine’s hand went to her throat. She had a sudden disquieting image of Noel choking an agent. Dragging the unconscious (or worse) man into an alley. She cast about for an alternative.

  “Or,” she said slowly, “we get invited in to see the vice president.”

  “And how pray tell do we do that?”

  The inchoate thoughts began to form into a plan. “We’re bringing a message of goodwill from the Holy Father. We just have to get you the proper clothes.”

  He gave her a droll look. “You want me to mug a priest?”

  “No. I want to keep you from mugging anybody.”

  “You quite suck the joy out of everything. The effect of too much religion, I expect. But it is a very good idea.”

  She looked around the restaurant. “It’s late. These good people would probably like to go home, and you need to get into a bed. Let’s find you a hotel.”

  “Where are you going to sleep?” he asked faintly as she helped him to his feet.

  “Not with you. I’m going to go back to the park. The curfew’s approaching. The cops will try something so I’ll have patients. We’ll reconvene in the morning.”

  Wednesday morning. She had grabbed a few hours of sleep at the convent, bought a paper at a newsstand, and was rapidly reading while she headed to the run-down hotel where they had finally managed to find Noel a room. Today the peace plank was going to be offered into the party’s platform. They’ll give the protestors that much of a bone, she thought. It will cost them nothing. The only thing damaged by it will be LBJ’s pride.

  When Noel answered the door his hair was damp. He had a towel wrapped around his waist. She reached out to touch the bandages over his torn breast and belly and was relieved to find them dry.

  “I’ve been hurt enough times to know not to get the dressings wet,” he said.

  “Do I even want to know why?”

  “Probably not.” He limped to his clothes and fished out the bottle of Dilaudid.

  It wasn’t difficult to locate a Catholic store. The appropriate collar and attire were purchased though the clothing he picked seemed large. When she brought that up he just gave her a mischievous look and didn’t answer. A few items of religious jewelry appropriate for a priest to wear, a rosary and a crucifix and a small Latin missal, were added, and they approached the cashier. Noel whispered out of the side of his mouth, “And here I thought all that Latin I had to study at Cambridge was an utter waste of time.”

  They returned to the hotel room. He shrugged out of the suit jacket and gave a cry of pain. Sweat-darkened rings were beneath his armpits. He looked around the room. “No bloody air-conditioning. Didn’t notice last night.” Unbuttoning his shirt, he went and opened a window. The rank effluvia from the stockyards came wafting into the room. He gave a mutter of disgust and shut the window again. “I suppose heatstroke is preferable to asphyxiation.” He took o
ff the shirt, and fanned himself with a piece of stationery taken from the desk.

  “So are we ready?” he asked.

  “It would be best if we had a general and bland statement of blessing in these troubled times,” she said.

  “I’m assuming special stationery?” She nodded. “Anything else distinctive?”

  “The papal seal.”

  “Do you have any examples at your convent?”

  “Hardly.”

  “What time is it?”

  She checked her watch. “Ten twenty.”

  “Still daylight in Rome,” he murmured.

  “The convention’s ending tomorrow. We really don’t have time for a European excursion,” Mary-Catherine snapped.

  He gave her that wolf’s smile again. “Going to make another little change here.”

  He gave a grunt that became a moan. Alarmed, Mary-Catherine watched as the same horrifying rippling and rearranging that occurred when Lilith vanished was taking place beneath his skin. Skin that was shifting from milk white to golden tan. The dark hair became a mane of fiery red gold, and when he raised his lids his eyes were whirling pits of gold. Lilith had been darkness and the silver of starlight. The man who now stood before her was the fire of dawn and sunset. He seemed to blaze in the dimness of the cheap hotel room.

  Look away! Look away! a small voice was yammering. It became the aged and cracking voice of Mother Superior. Neither voice had any effect. Mary-Catherine stood drinking in the male perfection that stood before her. The broad shoulders, narrow waist, muscular legs. This entity was taller and broader than Noel. She had thought that Diego, with whom she had shared some heavy petting and passionate kisses in the jungles of Guatemala, had been handsome. He was nothing compared to this man.

  “Well. You’re … he’s … something.” She hated herself for stammering.

  The mobile lips twisted into a sneer. “He’s a fourteen-year-old’s idea of a male ideal. Just like Lilith is that same teenager’s sex fantasies about women. Both of them are absurd. Probably to make up for the extremely deficient human that created them.”

  “I would say you’re deficient in terms of your moral compass but otherwise…” She shrugged.

 
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