Low chicago, p.36
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       Low Chicago, p.36

         Part #25 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin
The time finally came when they heard boom across the darkness the words, “WHAT DO YOU NEED, SISTER?”

  “That’s our cue,” Nighthawk said, and they went through the crowd, drawn to the Turtle’s spotlight like moths.

  The conversation continued as they shoved their way through a knot of demonstrators to see the fallen figure of Lilith sprawled unconscious on the ground. She was naked, of course, her awful wounds desecrating her magnificent body. It was almost as if she wore a sheet of blood.

  Her left breast had been nearly severed and she had deep, long claw marks over her right thigh and abdomen. She also had scorch marks on her shoulders from Cyn’s flames. Someone had bound her wounds as best they could using what were now blood-soaked T-shirts, but Nighhawk could still see the awful extent of them.

  An attractive woman, maybe thirty, made her way through the onlookers, followed by the Turtle hovering seven or eight feet above the scene. She had to be the nun from the Crystal Lady’s story, though she wasn’t dressed like one.

  “THIS MIGHT BE A LITTLE SCARY,” the Turtle’s booming voice warned, and Nighthawk nudged Croyd as the Turtle’s mind reached out and started to lift both the nun and Lilith.

  Croyd made a casual yet careful gesture, unnoticed by the onlookers, who were focused on the two women now floating a foot or two above the ground, and Lilith, much to everyone’s amazement, vanished.

  The Turtle was so startled that he dropped the nun, but she fell only a foot or so before landing on the soft sward.

  “WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO HER?” the Turtle boomed.

  “I—I don’t know,” the nun said shakily. “I guess she just vanished—like she’d appeared.”

  Nighthawk and Croyd made their way through the amazed and astonished crowd.

  “That’ll give them something to tell their grandkids,” Croyd said smugly.

  A Beautiful Façade

  by Mary Anne Mohanraj

  NATYA NEVER SLEPT NAKED anymore. Not since the day when she’d packed her things and left her home. She could have stayed and fought for her life, with Minal and Michael, who loved her and wanted to marry her. With their toddler daughter, Isai. But she had made choices, made decisions that seemed right at the time, but which put cops in danger. Michael was too much a cop himself to forgive her for that. If he had, it would have broken him, so Natya had packed and left, to keep him from having to throw her out. To be honest, she hadn’t forgiven herself yet either. She’d fucked up, badly.

  Minal wanted her to stay, begged her to stay, tears streaming down her face. Swore the three of them could work it out, somehow. But sometimes good intentions, goodwill, weren’t enough. Sometimes you broke things beyond repair, and in return, the world broke you. Natya had been living alone since then, wearing the black slacks and white button-down shirts that had practically become her SCARE uniform since joining the agency, and sleeping in pajamas. Naked would have been too much a reminder of everything she’d lost.

  So why the fuck was she naked now?

  The last she remembered, she’d been watching a poker game. Well, not actually watching the game—in theory, Natya was supposed to be bodyguarding Fortune, but she was there to investigate John Nighthawk. Frightening little man, frightening abilities, though he hadn’t done nearly as much damage with them as he could have. If the world knew that an immortal walked among them, with a hand of death that could drain the life from anyone he touched, it would’ve caused utter panic.

  But Nighthawk wasn’t doing anything that night, just attending on Dutton, quiet and unassuming. She’d had trouble believing the small, dark-skinned man could possibly be as dangerous as her bosses believed. No, it was the waiter who started the trouble. The waiter, the girl spilling the drink, Galante slapping the girl.

  Natya had started tapping her foot, building power for a shield, in case she needed to throw it up in defense. But everything happened very fast—the waiter changed shape, grew huge, one of the women started throwing flames, and the stench of scorched flesh filled the air. Natya spun into a pirouette, but she must have been too slow, must have been hit by something that knocked her out, because the screams and chaos disappeared, the room full of people—she’d woken up here, head aching in the sudden silence.

  Natya was on the floor, and her elbow hurt, too, as if she’d landed on it, falling. She was naked on the floor of what looked like the hotel room she’d been in a minute before, but no one else was there, and her clothes were gone. Natya couldn’t keep from thinking of assault, rape—but it had been months since she’d had sex of any kind, and her body would surely be telling her now if something had happened. She felt fine, normal. A little dizzy still, but even that was improving.

  First priority, covering herself. Natya staggered to her feet, the room spinning around her. Steadied herself on the bed and reached for the covers—but then heard a clicking metal sound from the door to the room. A key? Hadn’t they used keycards? The door was opening, though, and she had no time for getting to the sheets; instead she spun into her standard pirouette, slightly off-balance, her body not quite responding right. But it lent her wild card enough energy to generate a small forcefield, a little ball of force—the man shouted in surprise, “Hey!” And then Natya threw it at him, hitting him hard, so that he went staggering back, hitting his head on the doorframe. He fell to the floor.

  Dammit. She hadn’t meant to do that. Natya quickly went over to check—breathing, thankfully. Just knocked out, though with a small trickle of blood on his head. Sorry, sorry! She dragged him inside, just far enough so she could close the door, retrieving the heavy metal key from his hand. And then she stood there, key in hand, not sure what to do next. Clothes. She needed clothes. Dressing herself in illusory forcefields was possible, but wouldn’t be sustainable for long. Plus, she’d look ridiculous, dancing down the hall, even if she seemed dressed. And she’d feel naked.

  An open suitcase sat at the far end of the room, and it was a moment’s work to rifle through it and pull out dark slacks and a button-down white shirt. The stranger was thankfully close to her height, enough that she could cuff up the pants legs, but he was at least twice as big around as she was. Socks were fine; shoes were impossible. Natya knew she looked like a child playing dress-up. But it felt like her heartbeat finally slowed down to normal once her breasts and butt weren’t hanging out anymore, for any stranger to see. She might have a dancer’s build, and not much in the way of either breasts or butt, but still, it’d been unnerving to have them completely exposed.

  Natya needed to know where she was. Same room? Same view, anyway, the lake beyond, unchanging. But it was daytime now, the sun beating down on the restless waters of Lake Michigan. It had been night before. Had she slept the night away?

  The lamps. No outlets for plugging in your devices, and more—the lamps were gas, not electric. She’d been a little girl the last time she saw a real gas lamp; her parents had taken her on a tour of historic Mystic, Connecticut, a seaside town. They’d walked a clipper ship, climbed down into the hold, talked to actors in costume and character from an era long gone. They’d used gas lamps in the old days, now sold them in the gift shop. Her mother had bought one, and lit it on occasion, throwing out a smoky scent that made Natya think of long skirts, billowing sails, and sea air.

  What other clues—oh, there! A newspaper on the desk. Gods, yes. First recorded college basketball game, between the Geneva College Covenanters and the New Brighton YMCA. A Belgian general strike, and a massive riot; Belgian parliament approves universal suffrage. Salt Lake Temple finally completed and dedicated, after forty years of construction. World’s Columbian Exposition, opening to the public tomorrow! April 30, 1893. What the hell?

  The man on the floor groaned. Natya couldn’t be here when he woke up. She needed money. Knelt down, swiftly removed his wallet, took all the cash inside, and stuffed it in her pocket. His eyes blinked open, still dazed, and on impulse Natya bent down, giving him a swift kiss. Sorry! Let him believe for a little while that
this was all a dream—some dreams had bad bits along with the good. She left the man his key, slipped out the door, closing it behind her.

  She needed better clothes, women’s clothes. Where might she find them? The laundry. In the basement? Best bet. Next step, an elevator. No. If this was really 1893—how was that possible?—the elevator would be a problem. Her skin was dark enough that people might take her for black. Were black people even allowed in fancy hotel elevators in this era, if they weren’t the ones operating them? Maybe, maybe if you were rich enough. But not dressed the way she was—too big a risk that someone would make a fuss, call the cops. Natya didn’t know what they’d make of her, but it wasn’t likely to be good. She had to stay low, under the radar. Stairs. There.

  The laundry was easy enough to find, but busy, women coming in and out. Natya crouched in a dark corner of the hall, waiting for her chance. Finally, there was only one woman in the room—the best chance she was likely to get. Natya rose to her feet, pushed herself into a spin—one, two, three, building energy. Then, pas de bourrée, jeté, a leap down the hallway, and this was good; Natya felt better, more herself and more confident as she danced. The energy building inside her, pouring out in a concealing shimmer of air.

  If the woman looked the wrong way, she might blink, wondering what she was seeing, if she was seeing anything at all. But the gas lamps were set high, the air smoky and concealing. She would doubt herself. Long enough for Natya to reach the bin she wanted, the one full of maids’ uniforms, grab a few, and dance away again. Until finally, in that same dark corner of the hall, she could sort through them, choose the one that came closest to fitting her, and change. Black dress, white collar and cuffs, white pinafore. Loose in bodice and waist, but close enough. Black socks. Shoes were still a problem. She’d have to buy them. But maybe people wouldn’t notice right away. As a maid, she was almost invisible.

  Survival was taken care of, for the moment. The man had had forty dollars in his wallet—enough, surely, in 1893, to buy shoes and rent a room and eat for a few days? But what happened after a few days? Croyd must have somehow sent her back in time—but why? Would he come for her? Would anyone? Natya had no way home, and no idea if anyone would come for her. If she’d actually had anyone back home waiting for her, it would have been heartbreaking. As it was … well. Maybe this was her punishment, the gods sending her so far away, she could never hurt anyone she loved, ever again. It would be just.

  “I hear the Wooded Isle is bee-yoo-ti-ful. Charles says he’s gonna get us a gondola, and we’re going to take it all around the White City.” The woman working the mangle had muscled arms, damp clothes (as they all did), and a pair of long black braids that were frizzing up dramatically.

  The second brunette, this one with hair pulled back in a tight bun, said, “Charles promises you a lot of things, girl, but does he ever actually deliver?”

  Braid-woman snapped back, “Oh, like your Joe is any better. Still living with his mother, isn’t he?”

  A third girl, a bouncy blonde, cut in, “Oh, don’t fight, girls. We should all go together. I’ve got enough saved up for tickets. I want to see those girls in Egypt Street.” She reminded Natya of Minal—the curvy shape of her, those generous hips and ass. And the way she smiled, bright enough to light the room.

  “You go see those girls, your eyes are going to melt out of your head! What would your momma say, Betsy?”

  Betsy laughed. “My momma ain’t here, is she? I left her behind on the farm! And besides, I want to be a dancer someday, just like them.”

  The woman with the bun laughed. “Well, maybe wearing a few more scarves.”

  Betsy raised an eyebrow. “A few, maybe. But not too many!”

  It had proven easier than Natya had feared to find shoes in the end—they were given out for polishing, so she’d simply stolen a pair in the right size. With her hair braided and pinned up, she fit right in, and when Natya told the laundry supervisor, who went by Aunt Molly, that she was new, the woman hadn’t asked any questions—just put her to the worst job, scrubbing out stubborn stains in the sheets. Natya tried not to think about where those stains had likely come from.

  She kept her head down and listened to the chatter of the other women, hoping to find information she could use, about a paid job, a place to stay. But all they were talking about was the Columbian Exposition, Chicago’s World’s Fair, due to open tomorrow, May 1—the city was apparently going mad for it, wondering if it’d actually be finished in time, if it would be the fabulous moneymaker the organizers had promised, or if the city would go broke trying to pull it off. Either way, these women planned to get their fair share of fun.

  She dared a question, almost the first words she’d said since starting work: “Do you know if they’re hiring dancers?”

  Betsy tilted her head, considering. “You dance, honey? You sure look like it. Pretty as a picture, too. Well, I don’t know, but it can’t hurt to go down and ask. Just don’t let Aunt Molly know that you’re already looking for another gig; she won’t like it. She likes to hold on to her girls.”

  “Thanks. Really.”

  “No problem, sugar. Try a little more bleach on that—it’ll come out easier.”

  Braid-woman said, “I didn’t catch your name?”

  “It’s Natya.”

  “That’s a pretty name; I haven’t heard it before. I’m Candace, Candy for short. You from around here?”

  Natya shook her head. “No—no, I’m from pretty far away. Just moved to Chicago. I’m from out west.” West and west, past the setting sun and keep on going. Eventually you’d make it to Sri Lanka, the country she’d been born in, although right now, that’d mean living under British rule. She could try to find her great-great-grandparents, but even if that wouldn’t mess up the time line and erase her from existence, she was likely safer here. Although maybe Natya would have a better chance at a dance job if they thought she was from Egypt.… “My momma was Egyptian, actually. My daddy was from California; that’s where I grew up.” She’d spent a year there once, living in Oakland after college.

  Candy said, “Whoee! That’s so exciting—you’ve been all over! I’d love to travel someday, maybe Charlie will take me to California. He says there’s still gold out there, for anyone with the wit and strength to find it.”

  Bun-woman shook her head. “Charlie’s a fool, Candy.”

  “You’re just jealous. Joe’s so cheap, he won’t even tip his hat.” Candy turned back to Natya. “Listen, we’re going to go to the fair Saturday, after work. You want to come with us? Since you’re new in town?”

  “That’d be great; I’m not working, but I could meet you here? At five?”

  “Sounds perfect. Hey, where you staying?”

  “Nowhere yet.” They all turned to look at her, clearly startled. Natya hurried with her prepared explanation. “I just arrived this morning, on the overnight train. I thought I’d find a place after work; I needed the money. Bad.”

  Betsy exclaimed, “Oh, sweetheart. Sounds like you’re running from something. A man, I bet. Men are the worst—I’m glad I don’t have one to fret about.”

  Natya bit her lip and nodded—might as well let them think that, if it’d make them more sympathetic, more likely to help her. She needed all the help she could get. Was she still running from Michael and Minal? Better not to think about it—they were lost to her now, one way or another.

  “I’m Betsy. You can bunk with me tonight, if you want. And we can see if Mrs. O’Brien has any more rooms available. It’s not a fancy place, but it’s clean, and close to work.”

  One more problem solved. “Thanks, Betsy. Seriously, thanks.”

  Betsy gave her a sympathetic smile. “No problem, sweetie. Us girls have to stick together. Chicago’s an exciting place to be, but it sure ain’t easy.”

  They took the train down, arriving late afternoon on Saturday at the huge southwest railroad terminus. Immediately, Natya, Candy, and Charlie were assaulted by an overwhelming cacoph
ony of voices, music, and crowds. Inside the grounds, the first sight was the immense Administration Building, a great domed structure, beautifully white to Natya’s eyes, after the grime that covered much of Chicago.

  “Let’s go to the Court of Honor! It’s so romantic, Charlie!” Natya obediently trailed behind them as they visited a large reflecting pool containing an elaborate fountain and tremendous gilded statue of the Republic. Orchestral music drifted in from the lakefront, following them as they entered Machinery Hall. Exhibits were crammed into every corner of a vast building that felt like an airplane hangar—Whitney’s cotton gin, sewing machines, the world’s largest conveyer belt, and the power plant, providing electricity for the entire fair.

  Natya soon lost Charlie and Candy in the crowd, but she was more relieved than not—Candy’s incessant chattering was annoying. And she wanted to take this in—this was history that she could reach out and touch. Natya would have liked to spend the rest of the day wandering from building to building, but she really needed to find the promised dancers. She did reach out to touch the cotton gin, just for a moment; she had read about it as a little girl in school.

  “Keep your hands to yourself, blackie!” a security guard snapped at her, and she jumped back, startled, jostling someone in the process. A white man who glared at her, and a white woman on his arm who said, sneering, “Some people just don’t know how to behave in a civilized place.”

  Natya bit her lip—wanting to respond, but feeling the crowd’s hostility around her. What would happen to her if they thought she was offering an insult to a white woman? She had known that her skin marked her here, but she hadn’t understood, in her bones, just how much she was at risk.

  It hadn’t been hard to find the dancers in the end—the sound of tambourines, German bands, foreign languages, and screams from passengers on the Ice Railway could be heard in the distance on the Midway Plaisance. Natya just had to follow her ears, passing models of the Eiffel Tower and St. Peter’s Basilica, a volcano diorama, a “world’s congress of 40 beauties,” a German and Javanese village, Old Vienna, and finally her destination, a street in Cairo, Egypt.

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