Low chicago, p.33
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       Low Chicago, p.33

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

  “Why won’t you touch me when you’re in your real form?” she asked. “Does that feel like you’re betraying Niobe? Or are you just ashamed of the Noel body?”

  “Good God, woman, we’ve got more important matters than my psychological issues.”

  “So a little of both,” she said. “Okay.”

  “I’ve created a monster,” he growled, and disappeared into the bathroom. The water in the shower turned on.

  Wrapping a sheet around her, Mary-Catherine snapped on the small black-and-white television on its cheap metal stand. All three networks were carrying only the convention, and from every angle it was chaos. Fistfights were breaking out on the convention floor. Mary-Catherine sank down on the rough carpet and watched in shock as Daley’s police roamed the auditorium arresting delegates. Occasionally a nightstick would rise and fall. The voice of the crowd was an animal roar. The news anchors were trying to give some context to the chaos.

  Etienne padded out of the bathroom, a small towel imperfectly covering his equipment. Water still beaded the golden skin. Huntley/Brinkley had lost their low, slow delivery and were talking over each other. Cronkite sounded as devastated as he had on the day JFK had died. What became clear was that there had been an attempt to offer up Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson for the nomination, which had led to an outright revolt by the McCarthy delegates. They had literally rushed the stage to be met by the angry Humphrey delegates blaming them for the vice president’s death.

  Mary-Catherine took a shower, and went out in search of medical supplies and food. When she returned with sandwiches and fries from McDonald’s he was huddled on the bed staring at the television.

  She re-dressed his wounds while they watched. Various nominations were offered, speeches were made in support of the various candidates. It was hard to hear them over the boos and cheers and chants. All around the walls of the auditorium Chicago cops stood at the ready. At around nine o’clock Chicago time Lyndon Johnson entered with that distinctive rolling walk. He was barely visible behind the lines of security.

  The cameras switched outside, where all activity had ceased. The National Guard stood in lines blocking the route to the convention center. Protestors were in huddles around transistor radios listening to the reports from the convention floor. Turtle was broadcasting the reports over his PA system.

  Inside LBJ mounted the steps onto the stage and walked to the podium. His face sagged with fatigue and sorrow. He gripped the edges of the lectern, looked down at the wood surface. When he raised his head grim determination had replaced the earlier emotions.

  “First I’d like to ask for a moment of silence for Hubert Horatio Humphrey Jr. Senator, vice president, and my friend.” The hall fell silent. The people in the streets outside didn’t comply. The chants of “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today” started up.

  After a rather longer than normal silence LBJ resumed. “Our nation is faced with a grave danger. Our union is being torn apart by radicals and secret ace assassins.”

  “Like that won’t start a witch hunt,” Etienne grunted.

  “Well, you are an ace assassin,” Mary-Catherine retorted.

  “This is the time for proven leadership and stern resolve. Therefore I am reversing my decision and placing my name into contention for the nomination.”

  The room erupted in cheers and whistles matched equally by catcalls and loud boos. Mary-Catherine looked over at Etienne. His expression shifted between disbelief and terrifying rage. He leaped to his feet.

  “The bastard has just guaranteed Nixon’s victory! Son-of-a-bitch.” Etienne snatched the television off the stand and threw it against the wall. It shattered, glass flying in all directions. A sliver nicked Mary-Catherine’s forehead. A warm trickle ran down her face. She reached up, studied her fingers. They were red with blood.

  They fled the hotel. Mary-Catherine made Noel leave money on the bed to replace the broken television. She knew it was incongruous. She had thrown in with the man who had killed the vice president but she was worried about a TV? As they headed down the street Etienne kept glancing at the sun.

  “Still fucking daylight here! If I could just change. I’ve seen the pictures. Teleport in behind him. Double tap. Boom! Problem solved.”

  In the west the sun sank into the Pacific. Etienne gave a gasp and the body shifted back to Noel. Light still glowed on the horizon. Noel shook out a few more pain pills and gulped them down. “Will they do it? Will they nominate him?”

  “Probably. He’s the sitting president. Does Johnson ever acknowledge that the war was wrong? Might he end it if he gets a second term?”

  “I’m not sure. I believe he had doubts, but his ego wouldn’t allow him to admit it,” Noel said.

  “And on the other side we’ve got Nixon saying he has a secret plan to end the war. Does he?” Mary-Catherine asked.

  “Oh hell no, the war drags on for another four years.”

  “There’s no way to unite the party. Not after all this. Nixon will win unless we can find something awful on him,” she said.

  “Oh, that will happen, but not until early in the 1970s. A little thing called Watergate.”

  “What’s Watergate?”

  He told her as they made their way through the city and down to the beach. A place called Malibu. He also told her of Nixon’s disinterest in wild card issues that ultimately led to the Jokertown Riots.

  “Maybe we can’t change the future. Maybe it’s already set,” she said. Weariness seemed a crushing weight.

  “Nonsense, we already did. Removing a piece off the board definitely changes the future. It just has to be a major piece.” He gave her a mad grin. “Like Nixon.”

  Noel located a bungalow on stilts that stood dark and had a neglected look. He pulled into the carport beneath the house. A quick pick of the lock and they were inside. A few dying flies bumped against a window. Dust coated the surfaces of furniture. Noel opened the windows to allow the flies to escape and to cool the room. The scent of brine and seaweed flowed in along with the boom and hiss of the surf.

  He moved panther-like through the house, the pistol in his hand. “No television, but a radio. Guess we best get the news.”

  He snapped on the radio to discover the die had been cast. Johnson had received the nomination and picked Senator Jackson as his running mate. The news was schizophrenic, jumping between reports of violent protests in major cities. Arrests at the convention. It sounded like a war had broken out in the streets of Chicago.

  They looked at each other.

  “You want to go back,” Noel said.

  “Yes. I can help.”

  “No, you can’t. Oh, you can stroke a few fevered brows, and rinse out a few weeping eyes, and splint a few broken bones, but you can’t heal this country.” His voice was rising. “You can’t heal the world. You can’t fix fucking people!” He was shouting, face twisted with rage and grief and pain.

  She grabbed his shoulders and shook him. He gasped in pain as she grabbed the burns and twisted the wounds. “Yeah, you’re right. Humans are imperfect. That doesn’t mean we don’t try! Your family is lost to you. You need to just deal with that fucking reality. Do something now that makes you more than just a waste of air.”

  “Fine.” He stepped away and shifted to Lilith. Mary-Catherine grabbed up her medical bag as Lilith grabbed her, and they were abruptly back in Lincoln Park.

  “Go get your halo polished, you bloody twonk,” Lilith hissed as the billowing tear gas turned the streetlights a sickening shade of yellow. “Be at the restaurant where we had dinner at noon. Etienne will come for you then. Don’t be late or I’ll bloody well leave you to the tender mercies of the FBI and the Secret Service.”

  “I’ll be there. Thank you.” Lilith made a rude noise and vanished.

  Mary-Catherine ran toward the screaming.

  She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. If the riots from Wednesday night were bad they were nothing compared to this. The National Guard
formed the first rank with Daley’s cops behind them. They looked inhuman in their helmets and gas masks. Ahead of the humans, however, there were tanks. Rolling toward the protestors, their treads tearing up the asphalt. The protestors holding bricks and sticks and rocks gaped at the metal monstrosities bearing down on them.

  The plink of rocks hitting the armored exteriors was barely audible over the grind and roar of the diesel engines. Tear gas canisters were being constantly fired into the crowd, the billowing gas rising like evil genies to swirl around the young people. Mary-Catherine, choking despite the wet cloth wrapped across her face, wondered how long until some young soldier in the turret of a tank fired his machine gun into the ranks of protestors.

  The kids held until the tanks were only feet away, then nerves frayed and snapped and the line of protestors broke and fled. It was a maddened stampede. People were knocked to the ground, trampled by their fellows. Some stopped to try and help them to their feet. Some never got up and the treads of the inexorably advancing tanks ground them up, too.

  Mary-Catherine started grabbing people, trying to disrupt the panicked run, to get people off the street, into doorways, anything to avoid the deadly advance. Tom Hayden was doing the same. At one point their streaming eyes met. He gave her a nod and plunged back into the crowd. The problem was that every side street was also blocked by soldiers and cops. They were like the cattle in the nearby stockyards being driven to slaughter.

  Turtle was trying to snatch people out of the way with his telekinesis while at the same time pushing back the advancing armor. Mary-Catherine glanced down a side street and saw a soldier settling a bazooka onto his shoulder.

  She screamed a warning, but hidden inside his armored shell there was no way for Turtle to hear. The artillery launched and slammed into the hovering ace, exploding and leaving a massive hole in the armor.

  The shell careened wildly. A cheer went up from the soldiers and police. People tumbled out of Turtle’s telekinetic grip and fell screaming to the street. The shell crashed among the tanks but not before a young soldier sitting in a turret was decapitated by the plunging shell. Blood fountained and the headless body collapsed. Any semblance of order among the protestors vanished.

  Mary-Catherine watched as soldiers advanced on the downed shell, the door was forced open, and a somewhat pudgy young man dressed in blue jeans and a Make Love Not War T-shirt was pulled out. His face was dark with soot, one arm hung limp, the bone protruding through the skin. He was thrown into the back of a police van.

  Realizing that she might also be arrested, she faded back, hurrying to hide herself among the limping, weeping, terrified kids. They ended up penned in the parks with a cordon of cops and Guardsmen tightening the noose. There was no way she was going to be able to reach the restaurant and meet Noel’s male avatar. He had been right. She was a twonk—if that meant idiot. To make herself feel less foolish she began to tend to what hurts she could.

  There was that familiar pop from behind her and Lilith whispered in her ear, “Willing to admit I was right?”

  “Well, not now. After you’re so smug about it,” she shot back, then added, “Get me out of here.”

  Lilith landed them on the beach in front of the bungalow. Mary-Catherine gazed out at the silver-tipped waves and the vastness of the Pacific stretched out before them. The white foam on the sand as the waves retreated was like lace. “At least this endures,” she murmured.

  “Oh just wait. You still have climate change to look forward to,” Lilith drawled.

  Mary-Catherine shivered. The image of the shell, the decapitation, the blood, would not leave her mind. Lilith put an arm around her and hugged her close.

  “It was worse than anything I saw in Guatemala or the Congo. Where did my country go?”

  “Come to bed. Things will seem clearer in the morning,” Lilith said.

  The back room of the bungalow contained the single bedroom. It soon became apparent why the house was on stilts. As the tide came in the bedroom was now over the water. With windows on three sides she lay listening to the soft shush of the waves beneath them.

  Mary-Catherine buried her face in the pillow and tried to blot out the images. Slender hands were on her shoulders as Lilith sat on Mary-Catherine’s hips and began to deliver a massage. At first she tensed wildly, but the strong grip was soon kneading her tight and twisted muscles and it felt so good that she moaned and relaxed despite her psychological discomfort. The massage moved down the length of her back, into her hips. Lilith’s hand slipped between her legs and tangled in her bush, and flicked across her clitoris. She gasped, reared up, but felt a rush of warmth and wet into her groin.

  “What are you doing? Don’t!”

  Mary-Catherine squirmed around until she was facing the dark-haired beauty. The waterfall of ebony hair fell over Lilith’s shoulders, covering her breasts and the bandage. Her skin was marble white against the dark. Lilith held up her hands in an I-give-up gesture.

  “Just trying to make you feel a bit better.”

  “This isn’t the way. I mean, I’m not … I mean you’re a girl—”

  “Am I?”

  “Doesn’t this bother you?”

  “It’s just sex. Does the equipment really matter? And I’m rather intimately acquainted with both designs.”

  “This just feels really … wicked and wrong, but…”

  “Dawn’s almost here. Better decide quick. Lilith does have quite the wicked tongue.”

  “I’d say that goes for all three versions of you,” Mary-Catherine snapped. Lilith laughed then groaned. “Besides, you should probably rest too and not indulge in any bedroom gymnastics right now.”

  Mary-Catherine grabbed the bottle of pills off the nightstand and tossed them to Lilith. She swallowed several. Shook the bottle. “Going to need to replenish these soon.”

  Dawn came and the shift occurred. Noel fell asleep. She went down to the beach. The retreating tide left a few scattered shells, and long strings of odiferous seaweed. Whatever happened next, she reflected that she probably wasn’t going to be donning the veil again. That life had ended when a certain naked ace had crashed into her world. More likely that she would end up in prison or dead.

  When she returned Noel was up and had pulled together a breakfast out of what he had found in the cabinets and the fridge. As he set the plate in front of her, he said, “I suppose you’re going to make me leave money for these people too.”

  “Yes. We’re supposed to be the heroes.” She took a bite. “This is good. I thought you were English.”

  “Ha, ha. I’ll have you know in 2017 we’ve become well known for our cuisine.”

  “So what do we do next?” she asked.

  “I think we have to take out Nixon. It will create chaos among the Republicans.”

  “I just saw kids crushed in the streets by tanks. What will Nixon do that’s so much worse?”

  He stared at her. His eyes seemed clouded and she knew he had taken the last of the pain pills. “You know, you’re right. We should take them both out—Nixon and LBJ. And Daley too. He’s the one who sent the Guard into Chicago.”

  Images of bodies crushed beneath tank treads sent rage racing through her again. But then she remembered the young decapitated soldier. He thought he was being a hero. The kids chanting for peace thought they were heroes. Were there no heroes? She had no answer.

  Etienne took them back to Chicago. Parts of the city smoldered, for Daley had ordered a huge police presence into Chicago’s black neighborhoods. Naturally there were incidents that soon escalated into riots.

  What they did learn was that someone—local Republican politicians, the party itself—had arranged for Nixon to get a ticker tape parade near where the Democrats’ disastrous convention had just ended. As Noel said, it was quite the dickish poke in the eye to the opposing party.

  It was easy to determine the route of the parade—the streets were closed off. Etienne made a brief foray into the pharmacy at the hospital to reple
nish his pain pills. They hid out in an abandoned warehouse waiting for the parade to begin.

  Etienne downed three pills. Despite the sleep he’d gotten he was red-eyed and wan. When she touched his cheek he was hot. She started to unbutton his shirt.

  “What are you doing?”

  “I want to check that belly wound. And take off your pants.”

  He leered. “Not sure we have time.”

  She gave him an exasperated look. “Just do it. You’re spiking a fever. My guess is one of these injuries is infected.”

  It was the thigh. The lips of the wound were raw and oozing and red marks were radiating out from the cuts. “Once this is finished I’ll need to drain that.”

  “Fine. But right now I have to get to work.” He gave her that mad grin again.

  “What is your plan?”

  “I’ll teleport from rooftop to rooftop. If I’m lucky I’ll get a long gun off one of the agents that I’m bound to meet.”

  “Don’t kill them.”

  “They’re going to be trying to kill me,” he said.

  “They’re just men doing their job. Ordinary people. They don’t deserve to die.”

  “Nobody ever does, my sweet.”

  “Then take me with you,” she said. “I’ll guard them while you do … what you do.”

  “Kill. I’m going to kill this man. Say it!”

  “Why? What does it matter?”

  “Because how can I trust that you’re truly committed if you won’t?”

  “Yes. All right. Fine! You’re going to kill Nixon. Happy now?”

  The smile he gave her was poisonous. He handed her the pistol. “You know how to use one of these?”

  “Yes.”

  Etienne gathered her in the circle of his arms and they made the jump. The wind for which Chicago was famous covered the sound of their arrival. There were three men on the roof. Etienne took out two of them. Mary-Catherine thrust the gun into the back of the third and he froze before he could move against the ace.

 

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