Low chicago, p.34
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       Low Chicago, p.34

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

  The sun reflecting off the tar roof made the air shimmer. Sweat began to roll down her forehead and down her sides. Some of it was nerves as well as the blistering heat. From the street below she heard faint cheers from the modest crowd that had gathered. Etienne smashed her prisoner against the parapet, knocking him unconscious.

  “That wasn’t necessary!”

  He ignored her. Instead he picked up a rifle that had been leaned against a stanchion. He settled it onto the edge of the parapet and peered through the sight. There was a brief flash of sun on glass.

  “Shit! Spotted,” he growled. “Get down!”

  He teleported behind her and carried her down to the roof as bullets whined past. “Get behind the stanchion.” She crawled to it. He was right behind her.

  “We need to get out of here!”

  “Not until I’ve done what I came to do.”

  “You can’t shoot him now!”

  There was again that feral grin and he pulled a scalpel from his pocket. The thought of it was horrifying to her. It was one thing to shoot the man, but this … The pistol was between them. Turn it ever so slightly, pull the trigger, and stop the madness. But she hesitated too long. Etienne leaped to his feet, ran to the parapet, glanced over, and vanished. An instant later bullets slammed into the roof where he had been.

  She heard screams and then Etienne was back. The cuff of his shirt and halfway up the sleeve was red and wet with blood. He grabbed her and they teleported away just as agents came boiling onto the roof.

  And then they were back in Malibu. She set the pistol on the kitchen counter. The blood from his shirt had stained her T-shirt. It was suddenly horrifying and she tore it off.

  “This avatar was once known as the Sword of Allah.” He walked the scalpel across his knuckles and through his fingers. “Not quite a sword, but quite adequate to the task.”

  I should have stopped him, she thought.

  “I … I have to get alcohol. Some bandages. There was a little store. I’ll be right back.”

  She donned a clean shirt, left the bungalow, and walked up to the market. There were people romping with dogs along the beach. A few mothers with small children who were digging in the wet sand. Cars whizzed past. Many of them convertibles with pretty girls in gaily colored scarves craning their faces into the sun while handsome men in sunglasses drove.

  No one looked around as her entrance sent the bell over the door ringing. A clot of young people carrying skateboards, and the market clerks were huddled around a television that sat on the counter next to the register. Walter Cronkite was on the screen. He looked haggard, and at one point he pulled off his glasses to rub his eyes.

  “As if this country has not endured enough,” he said, his voice hoarse and somber. “If you have children in the room I urge you to remove them. The images we’re about to show you are … disturbing.”

  After a moment he nodded and the picture changed to a view of the parade. Nixon standing up in the back of a convertible, beaming arms outstretched giving the V for victory sign. Suddenly Etienne appeared behind him, grabbed his hair, and quickly slit Nixon’s throat. He vanished before the security walking next to the car even had time to react.

  Vomit rose in the back of her throat. Mary-Catherine clapped a hand over her mouth and tottered backwards. She lost the battle with nausea and emptied the contents of her stomach into the gutter. A kindly girl, her hair in braids and adorned with flowers and ribbons, ran over and offered her a sip from her bottle of Coke. Mary-Catherine gratefully accepted.

  “Everything’s spoiled now,” the girl said. “The revolution’s gone toxic.”

  Mary-Catherine didn’t trust herself to answer. She nodded her thanks, and went back inside the store so she could hear more clearly. Reports were coming from the White House that the president had declared martial law, and that he had requested a bill from Congress to authorize a roundup of wild cards in an effort to locate the assassin.

  She stood frozen with indecision. Go to the police? She could lead them right to Noel, but he would just teleport away, or worse, kill them and then teleport away. Even if he was arrested how would they hold him? She had begun this cascade of horrors. She had to end it.

  She started back toward the bungalow only to realize that if she returned without the supplies Noel would be suspicious. She returned to the store, and mechanically bought the alcohol, bandages, Epsom salts, and antiseptic.

  The red-gold hair was wet from the shower and the blood washed away. Except it would never actually be gone. It stained the soul whatever form he might wear.

  He noted her pallor. “You okay?”

  “Yes.” She forced a smile. “You’re exhausted. You should get some sleep. Get off that leg. I’ll keep watch. Later I’ll work on…” She gestured at his bare leg exposed beneath the towel he had wrapped around his waist.

  He glanced at the bed. “All right.”

  He limped to the bed, pulled back the covers, and collapsed. Within minutes he was snoring. She went out to the small kitchen, pulled her father’s rosary out of her pocket, and studied the suffering figure that hung on the silver cross. She kissed it and hung it around her neck. She then picked up the pistol, walked back to the bedroom, and looked down at him. That body had brought her joy. The mind behind it had damned her.

  “You’re the devil,” she whispered, placed the muzzle against his temple, and pulled the trigger.

  It left a surprisingly neat hole. All the skull, blood, and brains were absorbed by the pillow. Death erased the wild card power that had created his avatars. Once that iron will was gone only the core man remained.

  She walked to the phone and dialed the newly established emergency number.

  “Nine one one. What is your emergency?”

  “I’ve just killed the assassin who killed Vice President Humphrey and Mr. Nixon. Please come and arrest me.”

  She gave them the address, hung up the phone, returned to the bed, and sat down. In death Noel seemed younger, the lines smoothed away, the bitterness and rage erased. She gently closed his eyes.

  A Long Night at the Palmer House

  Part 7

  NIGHTHAWK’S FIRST THOUGHT WAS, At least it’s warm this time around. He’d been getting tired of popping up naked in the snow. His second thought was, Oh shit, now what?

  They were still on the grounds of Fortune Films. After sending John Fortune and Mr. Nobody back to the future, they’d gone into Fortune’s washroom in his office to use the mirror there to punt themselves up to 1968, where he’d detected yet another schism in the time line.

  The studio seemed as good a place as any to appear in ’68. But they didn’t expect it to be a devastated wreck, a virtual shell of itself, like a burned-out sector in a war zone.

  A war zone, in fact, that was still inhabited by one of the competing forces that was camping out in the ruins and cooking over a fire built in a cut-down metal drum.

  There were maybe thirty of them, most young, most all clearly touched by the wild card. Jokers all, in ways minor and major. Their clothing was tattered and tended to the military. Fatigues and black boots, torn, stained, and some bloodied. They were all dirty and many were bandaged in some place or another. Some of their wounds looked quite recent, some were scarring over. They were almost equally divided between men and women, and all were armed or had arms near at hand. They looked up from their campfire, as surprised to see the two naked men appear in their midst as Nighthawk and Croyd were to see them.

  And then they all went for the weapons.

  “Hold it!” a harsh voice called out, thankfully before any guns went off, and all obeyed the command.

  A huge figure appeared from the shadows cast by a half-blown-down wall. He was about six feet tall, but twice as broad as a normal man. He wore tattered and much patched U.S. Army fatigues that had sergeant stripes on their sleeves. His skin was hairless, glabrous, and dead gray in color, his eyes round and protruding and covered by nictating membranes that were cons
tantly blinking. He had no nose, but a small cluster of tentacles that were constantly twitching. His hands, cradling an old-style automatic rifle, had long, attenuated fingers that looked more like tentacles than normal digits. He smelled faintly of the sea as he came up to Nighthawk and Croyd and looked them over carefully.

  Croyd stared at him. “Father Squid?” he finally said in an incredulous voice.

  “I ain’t your goddamn father,” the joker replied in a hard voice.

  “But,” Croyd rejoined, “you’re Father Squid, of the Church of Jesus Christ, Joker. You must be—”

  “I ain’t no goddamned priest, neither. What the fuck you saying, boy? I’m Squidface. Used to be a sergeant in the Joker Brigade, but I deserted to join the Joker Resistance when the Wild Card Powers Act was passed.”

  “Something’s gone wrong,” Nighthawk said, “badly wrong.”

  “I know you,” a young woman said to Nighthawk. She wore a tattered and stained camo T-shirt tucked into holey fatigues, and scuffed work boots. The T-shirt exposed slimly muscular arms, the left one with a fairly clean bandage tied around the biceps. Her dark hair was cut short. Her only eye, set in the classic cyclopean position above her nose, was bright blue. The single eye was the only obvious sign of her jokerhood. “I know you,” she repeated. “You’re John Nighthawk. I thought you were in the Camp—or dead.”

  “Camp?” Nighthawk asked.

  It was obviously the wrong question. Her hand fell to the butt of the automatic holstered around her slim hip. “What the fuck you talking about?” she said. “Everyone knows about Camp Nixon—the place where President Agnew sent all the aces they could round up—and the lucky jokers. The ones they didn’t kill out of hand.”

  Nighthawk and Croyd looked at each other. “We didn’t know,” the Sleeper said. “We’re not from around here.”

  “Where the fuck you from?” Squidface asked suspiciously.

  Croyd smiled as best he could manage. “We’re from the future. We’ve come to help.”

  “This is 1968, right?” Nighthawk asked. “What the hell happened?”

  Squidface frowned, causing his facial tentacles to wiggle like a nest of disturbed baby snakes. “If you’re time travelers,” the joker drawled, “you’ve taken a wrong turn. It’s 1975.”

  Nighthawk looked at Croyd, who shrugged helplessly. “What can I say? This part of the time line seemed pretty turbulent, and I guess I overshot our target by a bit.”

  “By a bit,” Nighthawk muttered.

  Squidface and the young woman looked at each other.

  “What do you think, Angel Eye?” Squidface asked.

  “Maybe they’re telling the truth,” she said. “Maybe they’re spies for the Purity Police. They’d have to be dumb as shit to teleport naked right into the middle of us, though.”

  “I don’t know. Maybe they’re aces working for that Agnew bastard,” Squidface said in a voice heavy with suspicion. “This is all above my pay grade. Better send a messenger to the Lady. See what she wants to do about them.”

  Angel Eye nodded. “I’ll go myself.”

  “Hurry back,” Squidface said. “I’ll keep an eye on our new pals.”

  Nighthawk didn’t like the heavy emphasis he put on the word “pals,” nor the flat, hard expression the joker leveled in their direction. He felt particularly vulnerable and exposed standing naked before Squidface and the other members of the Joker Resistance, who were all watching them like deadly carnivores just praying for an excuse to attack.

  “You, uh, have any spare pants?” he asked the joker.

  It didn’t help Nighthawk’s mood any when they told him that the clothes he and Croyd were donning had belonged to two members of the Resistance who’d been killed earlier in the day in a skirmish with the Purity Police. Dressing in dead men’s clothes was never a good option, but it was marginally better than running around naked. At least the shoes fit.

  Angel Eye returned soon after Nighthawk and Croyd had gotten dressed. She nodded to Squidface. “She said to bring them in.”

  Squidface left the rest of the Resistance fighters to their meager dinner of potatoes on sticks roasted over the steel drums and led them deeper into the complex of buildings that had once been Fortune Films. As they entered what appeared to be the most blown-out area of the old studio, Squidface issued a gruff warning. “Stick close and step exactly where I step. This section is booby-trapped with IEDs.”

  Nighthawk and Croyd exchanged wordless glances, and stuck very closely to the joker’s heels as he took a circuitous route through piles of garbage that had once been buildings. They finally reached what looked to be an old Quonset that squatted discreetly amid the destruction and was also protected by a covering of camouflage netting.

  Two large, well-armed, mean-looking jokers appeared seemingly out of nowhere, then melted back into hiding when they recognized Squidface, who breezily waved them off. He knocked at the door of the hut, then entered immediately. The interior was lit by a string of naked bulbs hanging from a cord in the ceiling. It was furnished as living quarters as well as a working office with an old battered desk covered with papers and piles of files with an uncomfortable-looking high-backed wooden chair occupied by a striking joker who gazed narrowly at them as they entered her domain.

  “What have you brought me?” she asked in a drawl.

  “Damned if I know, Lady,” Squidface admitted.

  Nighthawk glanced at Croyd, who was openly staring. And who wouldn’t? The Lady’s skin and flesh were completely transparent, revealing ghostly layers of muscle and the network of veins and arteries pulsing through and among her bones. Her internal organs were hidden by the camo T-shirt she wore. She had no hair and her eyes were a clear, startling blue.

  “Chrysalis,” Croyd blurted.

  Squidface frowned. “This is the Crystal Lady,” he said. “She’s the leader of the Joker Resistance in the Midwest.”

  Of course. Nighthawk had never met Chrysalis in the flesh, but he’d read and seen pictures of the joker who’d been a major figure on the New York scene until her murder back in 1988.

  “She was called Chrysalis in Manhattan, back in our time line,” Croyd said.

  “Was I?” she drawled.

  “Yeah,” Croyd explained. “You ran the best bar in Jokertown. What happened to your British accent?”

  Something passed across the Crystal Lady’s face. It might have been a sense of loss, a fleeting stab of regret. “I had a dream, once,” she said, her muscles gliding smoothly as she shrugged. “I wanted to escape my life and go to New York City and be someone else. But reality intervened, and I ended up here.”

  “We can change this reality,” Nighthawk said. “And give you that dream back.” He hesitated, then decided not to say that it would end in her premature death. Like everyone else, she deserved not to know her ultimate fate.

  “Can you?” Her voice was flat and unbelieving.

  “Yes,” Nighthawk said. “I’m John Nighthawk, and this is Croyd Crenson.”

  She looked at them with what might have been more respect on her face. “Nighthawk and the Sleeper? You two might be the last two aces loose in the Midwest.”

  “What happened to everyone else?” Croyd asked. “The Turtle?”

  The Crystal Lady looked down, almost pensively. “He was shot down trying to defend the students during the riots back in ’68 when it was all turning to crap. A couple of National Guardsmen were killed when his shell crashed on them. He was arrested for murder, tried, and eventually executed.”

  “What?” Croyd blazed with anger. “He was my friend! My goddamned friend!”

  The Crystal Lady continued to look sad. “Golden Boy fled the country. He’s supposed to be somewhere in South America. Dr. Tachyon was forced to close his clinic and return to Europe.”

  “There’s that new dude out in California,” Squidface chimed in. “He’s a real badass.”

  “Yes,” the Crystal Lady said. “Calls himself the Radical. He’s lea
ding a resistance force out in the Sierras somewhere … if we could only reach him, somehow.…”

  “How did all this begin?” Nighthawk asked in a low voice.

  “No one knows for sure,” the Crystal Lady said, “but we can pretty well pinpoint the time from information that came out during the show trial they had of the nun.”

  “Nun?” Croyd said.

  “Supposedly she was the lover of these two assassin aces, a man and a woman. The woman killed Hubert Humphrey, who was going to be the Democratic nominee, probably. Shot him dead during the convention here in Chicago in ’68. The man killed Richard Nixon, right on television during a ticker tape parade—teleported right behind him and cut his throat with a knife. Near took his head off.” The Crystal Lady shook her head. “Later, something happened, some kind of love triangle thing, and the nun shot the guy in the head. The female assassin, this woman with silver eyes, was never found, despite a massive manhunt. Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s vice-presidential candidate, was elected president. He rammed through the Wild Card Containment Laws. Which led to all this.”

  Nighthawk and Croyd looked at each other. “Lilith,” they said together.

  “You know her?” Crystal Lady asked.

  “We do,” Croyd said.

  “She’s one of the people we’re tracking through time,” Nighthawk explained. “We’re collecting people from our time who’ve been lost in the past. All we have to do is stop them before they cause the time line to change, and send them home.”

  “When did Lilith make the scene?” Croyd asked.

  “That’s the strange part,” the Crystal Lady said. “Supposedly she just appeared one night in Lincoln Park, bloody and wounded. The nun found her and took her to the hospital. She was also…” The Crystal Lady paused for a moment. “Naked. Like you two.”

  “No doubt about it,” Nighthawk said. “She’s one of the ones we’re after.”

  “So you can change all this?” the Crystal Lady asked.

  “All we need is the date Lilith showed up at the park,” Croyd said, “and a reflective surface of some kind.” There was a hard look in the Sleeper’s eyes that Nighthawk didn’t like. He hadn’t been speeding long enough to turn psychotic yet, but the news they’d heard about the Turtle and the fate of other aces and jokers certainly wasn’t helping his mood. “Got a mirror?”

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