Low chicago, p.31
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       Low Chicago, p.31

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

  She tentatively approached him, and let her eyes range across his body, noting the way the hair on his chest whorled into red-gold patterns, the sheen of sweat on his skin. The scent of him. Perhaps it was just exhaustion, but she swayed and he caught her by the shoulders. Breath caught in the back of her throat and warmth filled her groin. She pulled away.

  “Your bandages are too … tight … now. Let me … fix that.” She hurried to where she had left her medical bag. She re-dressed the wounds on his chest, belly, and thigh. As a doctor she had touched the bodies of men, but never before had a man bludgeoned her senses in quite this way.

  “Do you … have you … can you…” she stammered. She prayed he wouldn’t understand, and for an instant that seemed to be the case.

  “A name? Yes, several, but recently I’ve used Etienne.” But then his lips curved in a sardonic grin, and that prayer, like all the others she’d been uttering, went unanswered. “But I don’t think that’s actually what you meant. I think you meant sex, and yes, my equipment is fully functional. As all three entities.” Her face was flaming. He seemed to have an uncanny ability to delve into her deepest fantasies. “Though Noel is the least talented in the bedroom. His … er … equipment is mediocre at best. As you’ve seen.”

  As if pulled by a magnet her eyes dropped to his crotch and the reaction only imperfectly covered by the towel. Mary-Catherine’s chest felt paralyzed. She wheezed as she tried to breathe. Golden Noel reached out and touched her cheek. “You’re a beautiful woman. Why did you make this choice? And what is your real name? I can’t believe that any parent would lay that moniker on their daughter.”

  “It’s Jessica,” she whispered.

  “And that’s beautiful too,” he said softly. The accent, the gleaming eyes, the curve of his lips, added to the sense she was in a dream far removed from the structured life of Sister Mary-Catherine of the Poor Sisters of St. Francis. He took her hand. With his free hand he touched her cheek. Electricity seemed to pulse through her body.

  “You’re married,” she said faintly. And I really should mention my vows.

  “And never going to see her again. Jasper.…” Tears thickened his voice. He abruptly released her and turned away. “I’m lost, Sister.” Grief wailed on every word.

  She rushed forward, and gripped his bare shoulders. “But not alone. I’m here.”

  He spun, buried his head against her chest, and wept. She stroked the luxurious hair, was terribly aware of the powerful hands clutching at her back. His tears wet the front of her blouse. The press of his cheek against her breasts filled her with a heady warmth. He lifted his head. They were a breath apart. She tried to believe it was just him, but it wasn’t. She also leaned in and their lips met.

  There had been a few fumbling kisses from eager teenage boys back at her high school in Hudson. Hands that immediately tried to reach for her breasts. Diego had been hard and demanding. Maybe that was why she hadn’t surrendered completely. This man’s hands cupped her back gently, his lips were warm and soft, gentle as they explored her mouth. Breath escaped like a half-whispered prayer. Her lips parted and his tongue briefly touched hers. Fire exploded at the base of her spine, raced up the nerves and vertebrae to fill her head with fireworks. She allowed her tongue to enter his mouth.

  He reached up and deftly removed the pins that held the black veil in place over her coif. He held her at arm’s length, the golden eyes devouring her face. “Like a hijab,” he murmured. “Frames the face so beautifully. What color is your hair?”

  Her fingers were trembling as she removed the pins at her temples and at the back of her neck. The white material of her coif slid down her back to puddle on the floor. She reached up self-consciously to her shorn hair.

  “Wheat gold. You little Wisconsin beauty,” he whispered.

  He kissed her again. There was a brief surge of fear and guilt, but the sensations washed them away. She remembered a night of prayer and meditation when she had prepared herself to be a bride of Christ. There had been a moment like this one, a moment of physical ecstasy, but now her body yearned against a male body and not against the chill air in the chapel. He pulled back enough for her to reach up and unbutton her blouse. A plain bra held her breasts in tight confinement. His fingers expertly slipped the clasp. Her breasts swung free.

  “I … I shouldn’t,” she whispered, but she found herself reaching for the zipper on the back of her skirt.

  “Would it help if I…” Etienne snatched up the clerical collar from the bag and held it to his throat. It accentuated the gold of his skin, the etched tendons in his neck, the sparkle of stubble along his jawline. She giggled.

  “I’m so confused,” she whispered as the skirt pooled around her feet, still encased in her sensible black shoes and stockings.

  “No you’re not. Your body knows. Let your mind follow,” he whispered as his hands cupped her breasts. His lips nibbled down her neck. He ducked his head and took one breast in his mouth, his tongue teasing at her nipple. Electricity shot through her as the nipple stiffened. She moaned and clutched at his hair.

  After that it was just a confusing kaleidoscope of hands and lips. Joy, physical ecstasy blended with pain as his penis broke her virginity. She was a physician. She knew how human reproduction worked, the theory of sex. What she hadn’t expected was how he used his body and his penis to bring her to the edge of quivering release, then pulled back and teased her again and again. He was very careful to keep his injuries from hitting her body. She knew he was in pain, but couldn’t bring herself to stop him. It all felt too good.

  When the release finally came she had a momentary sense of blindness and the feeling the top of her head had come off. Her hands raked at his back, though she remembered to avoid the burns on his shoulder. Spasm after spasm shook her and she cried out. He grinned down at her, sweat trickling through his sideburns. His hips began to thrust again, and then his own release shuddered through him. She felt warmth spreading through her insides and sudden panic hit. Her eyes widened and he once again read her mind.

  “No, you aren’t going to get pregnant. My sperm has very little motility and that’s the case no matter which body I’m wearing. It’s why Niobe and I had such trouble conceiving.”

  “Oh, okay.” The sense of relief was enormous. If she was honest she knew she was using this to justify her terrible behavior. He was married. She had taken a vow. None of it mattered.

  Her thoughts flitted in a hundred different directions. One stuck. “I thought it would be faster,” she blurted. At his expression she hastened to add, “No offense. It was wonderful. I had no idea it could be like that, but when friends in high school talked about it, and I sometimes see—not that I’m spying, but the kids in the park are pretty casual about where they … do it—well, it seems like it happens very quickly.”

  “That’s youth and inexperience. This was your first time. It needed to be all about you, not me.”

  She relaxed back against the sagging mattress. “Aren’t you supposed to go to sleep now? That’s what all the textbooks say.”

  “I’m drowsy but my job required I train myself to resist the impulse.”

  “You used sex in your work?”

  He laughed. “Oh yes.”

  “What about … Lilith. Can she…”

  “No, my ovaries are scarcely developed at all. So I’m the safest fuck anyone can ever have.”

  He leaned on an elbow next to her and drew a finger down her nose and outlined her lips. “So when is the guilt going to hit?”

  She frowned. “I don’t know. I should feel guilty. I should be running back to the convent or to the nearest church to confess.… Maybe it’s all these kids advocating free love.” She gave him a shy smile.

  “Make love not war,” he added as he rolled out of bed. “And that’s just what we’re going to do. Humphrey out, McCarthy in. War ends. Rainbows and unicorns everywhere,” he concluded, and padded to the small bathroom.

  After he cleaned up sh
e helped him dress and hooked the clerical collar. The stark black of the shirt made his coloring even more dramatic. “Would you like to come with me?”


  “To the Vatican.”

  She glanced down at her pelvis. “I’m worried I might burst into flames,” she drawled. He laughed and it became a groan as he pulled the stitches in his belly. “I’d suggest that you wear dark glasses. There probably aren’t all that many ace priests either.”

  “Good advice. Well, I’m off to work, honey.” He vanished. There was a pop as air rushed into the space his body had once inhabited. Mary-Catherine tottered backwards, hit the edge of the bed with the backs of her knees, and sat down abruptly.

  This, she reflected as she touched her groin, was almost too many new experiences for one day.

  When Noel returned he was wearing a pair of wraparound sunglasses and toting a portable typewriter, a plastic pan, a bottle of bleach, a bottle of acetone, and cotton swabs. She raised her eyebrows at the jumble of items.

  “It was easier to steal a document that already had the seal rather than steal both stationery and a seal.” He handed over the paper. It was on heavy parchment.

  She studied it. “It’s an Easter greeting. It’s August.”

  “So we’re going to rewrite it.”

  “In Latin?”

  “Remember, I went to Cambridge, and if I should make some mistake in declension I doubt anyone on the Humphrey staff or Humphrey himself will catch the error.”

  “So how do you remove the ink?” she asked.

  “Watch and learn.”

  She hovered as he carefully dipped the paper in bleach then quickly dipped it in acetone, taking care to keep the letterhead and the seal out of the liquid. A gentle blotting with cotton swabs and the ink melted away. Within a few minutes the type was gone, leaving only the seal and the letterhead.

  “Now we place it beneath a book.” He snatched a copy of the Gideon Bible out of a drawer. “To allow it to dry flat, type in our own message, and voilà!”

  “Where did you learn to do this?”

  “Spy school.” He shot her a grin.

  “Yeah, right.”

  “No, really.”

  “You’re a spy?”


  In the sweltering room it didn’t take long for the paper to dry. Noel ran it into the typewriter and gave her an inquiring look. She dictated a bland message about God giving guidance to the leaders of nations and offering a blessing. Noel turned it into Latin. It was done.

  “Now we go to the Hilton.” Mary-Catherine swallowed but the lump of fear that blocked her throat didn’t ease. “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to know who is the current pope.”

  That made her laugh. “Yes, it would probably be good if a priest knew that. Pope Paul the Sixth. I’d just refer to him as the Holy Father.”

  “I don’t suppose we’ll be lucky and Humphrey is a Catholic.”

  “No. We’ve only had one Catholic president and…” She couldn’t finish. “I was in nursing school when we heard. Classes were canceled. I took the bus home from Minneapolis. Everyone was crying. My parents had a picture of John F. Kennedy right next to our sacred heart and the crucifix and the statue of Mary. I think it helped me make my decision.”

  “To become a nun.” She nodded. “Apparently it inspired Turtle to go public in a time when wild cards were in hiding.”


  “Yes, it’s in his memoirs.”

  “Memoirs.” She shook her head trying to grasp it. “Well, if we succeed we’ll have a second Catholic president. McCarthy is Catholic.” She looked down at the document they had created.

  “I’m trying to decide which is the worst sin I’ve committed today.”

  “We’ll confess once this is all over,” he said glibly.

  “You’re not Catholic,” she accused.

  “We have confession in the Anglican Church too.”

  “Have you ever availed yourself of it?” she snapped.

  A bleak expression leached all the animation from his face. “I’d be there for days.”

  “Bastard! Selfish, shortsighted bastard!” The lamp from the bedside table crashed into the mirror over the dresser. The shards rained down, glass tears as jagged as Etienne’s grief.

  The sound echoed the breaking of the glass-topped coffee table and the dirty highball glasses on its surface when the Secret Service agents had wrestled Noel to the floor. Mary-Catherine rubbed at her arms, sore and bruised by the agents who had grabbed her as well. Was there anything they could have done differently?—

  It had been surprisingly easy to reach Humphrey. The agents at the door of the hotel had waved them in after taking in their clerical garb and explanation. Etienne wore dark glasses, carried a white cane, and gripped her arm, creating the illusion he was a blind man. He did it most convincingly.

  At the front desk he fumbled for the letter and allowed her to hand it to the desk clerk. He phoned up to the vice president’s suite and a few minutes later an aide had arrived to escort them upstairs. Their escort, a bright-eyed young man whose energy and enthusiasm reminded Sister Mary-Catherine of the young people in the park.

  He and Etienne had made conversation while the elevator rose. Mary-Catherine was amazed at the ease with which Etienne conversed … and lied. Her throat felt like a tennis ball had been lodged inside. She doubted she could make a sound.

  The suite smelled of cigarette smoke, stale food, burnt coffee, and male sweat. Phones were ringing, a Xerox machine was clanking out copies, the rumble of male voices formed the counterpoint to the soprano ring of the phones. There were only a few women present.

  They received a few curious glances, a number of suspicious glances from the Secret Service agents in the room, but most of Humphrey’s staff ignored them. At one point Etienne blundered into one of the agents and murmured an apology. They continued through to the bedroom, where Humphrey sat with a group of harried-looking men. Mary-Catherine heard the words—delegates, McCarthy, planks—float past. They were discussing the peace plank and their determination to block it. Her hands coiled into fists, and her nails bit into her palms.

  The aide leaned down and whispered in Humphrey’s ear. His round face was split with a grin and he heaved himself out of his chair.

  “Father. Sister. So honored.” He pumped Etienne’s hand and gave her an oddly courtly little bow.

  “Thank you for seeing us, Mr. Vice President. We have a letter from the Holy Father. In these troubled times America is a necessary beacon and he wished to offer his blessing to any of the men who might lead her.” Etienne held out the letter, but off to Humphrey’s side, nicely continuing the deception.

  “Most gracious. Most gracious.” Humphrey scanned the page, continuing to smile though it was clear he understood not a word.

  “If we might have a brief word in private, Mr. Vice President,” Etienne said after a suitable interval. “We have a more personal message from the Holy Father.”

  Humphrey looked puzzled, but waved out the pols who were present. One of the Secret Service agents hesitated, but Humphrey gave a sharp nod and he left, too. The door closed behind them.

  “Really, Father, I find this most unusual. Meaning no offense, but I’m not a Catholic.”

  “We know.” Etienne’s intonation had changed. It was now far more clipped and cold. “You’re about to become the Democratic nominee—”

  “Well, I certainly hope so,” Humphrey interrupted, chuckling. His high-pitched voice was one of the things that made the vice president seem so weak.

  “—and go on to lose the election to Richard Nixon.”

  “I beg your pardon?” The genial smile had given way to the angry stubborn look of a frustrated baby.

  “I’m an ace. Through a variety of complicated and unimportant reasons I have found myself transported from 2017 into this time period. I don’t like it, but I can at least do something to improve on what’s to come. Withdraw your nomina
tion, throw your support behind McCarthy. History will thank you for it.”

  “And I’m supposed to just believe this nonsense? How do I even know you’re an ace?”

  Etienne removed his glasses. Humphrey took a step back. Fear and anger warred across his round face.

  “You’re nothing but goddamn fakes! Hippie infiltrators, spinning lies and fairy tales.”

  “Believe me, I have nothing in common with those unwashed children in the streets,” Etienne drawled. “But I’m deadly serious about what happens. You’re going to lose. They hate Johnson and they hate you. Dump the Hump!” He stalked toward the older man with a panther’s grace and just as much menace.

  Humphrey backed away and shouted for security. Etienne lunged for the portly politician, but what Mary-Catherine saw in his face terrified her, and she blocked him, pressing her hands frenziedly against his chest. He gave a hiss of pain at the pressure on the torn breast. The agents boiled into the room and wrestled Etienne to the floor, breaking the coffee table as he fell. An agent grabbed her, his fingers digging into her upper arms. It was shaming as well as painful.

  Security began to drag them out of the bedroom. Etienne was struggling and he threw back one last poisonous barb as they were dragged away.

  “Johnson was right when he said he had your pecker in his pocket. You’re a weak little—”

  Humphrey’s look of shame and hurt made her cringe. “How … how did you know? I never told anyone,” the vice president whispered through stiff lips.

  “It was on the tapes. He despises you. And I know because I’m from the future, you stupid prat!”

  In the outer room of the suite Etienne suddenly twisted and broke free of one of the agents holding him. He roughly yanked Mary-Catherine away from all but one of her captors and pulled her close.

  There was a terrifying, disorienting moment of black and cold and a feeling that some rage-filled entity saw her and then she was tumbling to the grass in the park. Etienne rolled smoothly to his feet, and kicked the disoriented agent who had accompanied them in the face while at the same time shouting to the gaping crowds.

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