Low chicago, p.37
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       Low Chicago, p.37

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

  “Give me your best hootchy-kootchy moves,” the man said, looking her over with dead eyes. Arousal seemed the furthest thing from his mind.

  It had been years since she’d tried to dance overtly sexy, but Natya had done a brief stint at a strip club in her college years, and her body fell easily into those moves. No pole to work with here, but scarves were almost as useful; she trailed them across her body, teasing the manager with views that appeared and disappeared. Her hips knew the motions he wanted, and his eyes followed them intently. The hardest part was resisting the urge to use her power, too—she had spent a decade integrating it into her dance, so that she didn’t have to think about it climbing her spine, spilling out her fingertips. Now, Natya worked to hold it back—the last thing she needed right now was some dramatic display that would send this man running for the street, screaming.

  The man nodded, turning away. “Good. You’re lucky; two of my girls are sick with the flu; don’t know if they’re coming back. For now, you’re hired—you can start in the morning. Go talk to Cami out front; she’ll fill you in on the routine. Call’s at seven A.M.”

  Cami, it turned out, was actually Kamilah, a soft-spoken Egyptian woman a few years younger than Natya.

  “This isn’t the sort of thing I usually do, but my husband passed.” She stumbled on the word “husband,” making Natya wonder if they’d actually been married—not that she cared, but she imagined most people in this era would. “And I have a little girl—do you want to meet her?”

  “I’d be happy to.”

  “Rania! Come here, habibi.”

  The little girl ran up and oh—it hurt, not in the heart, but in the gut. Bad enough to make her want to bend over, but instead, Natya stiffened her spine and stood up straight. The girl was only a little older than Isai, skin a little lighter, eyes a bit more oval. Beautiful, in the way all children were at that age, especially the ones who moved so freely, knowing nothing of how the world was waiting to beat them down. Did Isai cry for her mother at night? Minal had always been the motherly one.…

  “She’s a lovely child,” Natya said sincerely.

  “I know this isn’t the best environment for her,” Kamilah said, her brow furrowed in worry, “but the other girls help keep an eye on her.”

  “I’d be happy to help too.”

  “Oh, thank you. I didn’t mean to imply—” Kamilah flushed. “I’m seeing a gentleman—a doctor—and we’ve only been seeing each other a few weeks, but he’s already starting to hint at marriage. It’s too soon, of course, but maybe someday…”

  “Well, you’re very lucky.” It seemed odd, a doctor wanting to marry a nautch girl from a traveling fair exhibit. But maybe Natya didn’t understand this era as well as she thought; perhaps class issues weren’t as rigid as she’d expected. And Kamilah was very pretty. “I’d love to meet him sometime.”

  “Oh, of course. He usually brings us some sandwiches for lunch. So you can meet him tomorrow. He’s so charming, such a gentleman. I just wish my mother could have met him. She passed a few years ago. So now it’s just me and Rania.” She bent down and hugged the little girl, who squawked in protest and then ran off.

  “You’re lucky to have her,” Natya said, softly.

  “Oh, I know. She’s my everything.” Kamilah sighed. “But life’s hard sometimes.”

  Natya could only nod in agreement.

  The White City, they called it. Natya had seen pictures of the Columbian Exposition, the great World’s Fair—old black-and-whites that completely failed to convey the grandeur, the scale, of what had been accomplished here. Considering the limited machinery they had to work with, the time and money constraints, it was astonishing. She grew used to the train ride, to arriving in the early hours when fog often still hung over the tall neoclassical buildings on the Midway Plaisance, the haze softening all the edges, making the illusion complete. Natya was transported back in time—ironically—to the ancient world, Venice or Greece, away from the dirt and grime of the modern industrial age.

  She had been here only three weeks, but Natya was coming unmoored in time and space, and only the stench of the air grounded her here, her body telling her, emphatically, that this was real. The stockyards were nearby, and as the fairgrounds filled, the great mass of unwashed souls joined their scent to the already thick air with a pungency unmatched by anything in Natya’s life thus far. At home, she was an ace, but her wild card was a thing of light and force—it had no power over scent. So Natya suffered, and she danced. If anything had the power to help her escape, it was the sweat that dripped off of her, the rising heat of late May in Chicago, with nary an air conditioner in sight.

  Then she’d be brought back to herself, slammed into her body again, by the cries of the men who crowded the stage, who saw Natya and the others as playthings, strange, half-animal creatures. The dancers grew adept at dodging, and still, there were too many days when some man managed to tear away a bit of sheer fabric, grope a handful of breast. They were expected to take it in stride; they were paid for this, after all. Not much, but enough to live on. Natya took note of the worst ones, and if a little forcefield slipped out, causing one to slip in the muck and land on his ass, well, she felt she was still being kind. She could have done much worse.

  Once, Natya forgot herself, and danced a little too well. The men loved it, of course. But Fahreda Mazar Spyropoulos, golden coins jingling on her hips, cornered her behind the tent and brandished a wicked little knife in her face. “Little Egypt,” as she was called, reminded Natya, “I am the star of this show, and no half-breed girl is going to take my place. Understand, mongrel?” The girl looked rabid, spittle flying from her mouth with her fury, and for a moment, Natya’s own frustration rose to meet her. That pathetic little knife—with the tiniest burst of her power, Natya could send it spinning back at its owner. If she wanted, she could take over as queen of Egypt, queen of the fair.

  The fantasy lasted only a moment—the fair would end in October, so what would be the point? Better to keep her head down, save her money, so she’d have some real options when winter came. Natya bowed her head, and swallowing bile, apologized. “Little Egypt” stomped off, mollified.

  The nights helped. As it turned out, Betsy had had ulterior motives for inviting her to share her bed. Betsy didn’t like men at all, but she did like Natya.

  “Go on, sweetheart.” Betsy’s small hands on Natya’s shoulders, urging her down, her soft curves rolling under her. Only two breasts, two nipples—nothing like Minal’s wealth of flesh—but two seemed sufficient. Natya buried her face between those luscious mounds, slid her body down, slick and eager. Betsy parted her legs for Natya, then wrapped her legs around her back, holding her down. Tangled fingers in Natya’s hair and convulsed beneath her, muffling her cries with a pillow, so the thin walls of the boardinghouse didn’t give them away.

  Mrs. O’Brien ran a good house, she did, didn’t let men inside the walls. She took care of her girls, and she didn’t want any trouble. Natya was grateful for the solid, if uninspired, meals Mrs. O’Brien provided, for the safety of four walls and doors that you could lock.

  She didn’t want to risk losing that, but when Betsy rolled her over and started licking her way down Natya’s body, the pleasure had to come out somehow. If it couldn’t be allowed out in whimpers and moans, then it was stars and fireworks, bright illusions up above, and it was a good thing that Betsy’s eyes and attention were so firmly focused down. Natya wouldn’t have been able to explain it.

  The nights made the days bearable, and even justified the commute. The White City wouldn’t last forever, after all; if Natya was truly stuck here in the past, then eventually, the exhibition would close, and she would have to find another job, probably in the city. She didn’t want to think about that yet, about whether she and Betsy might set up house together someday, whether she could find work dancing in a show.

  That future was too frightening to consider. For now, Natya lived in the moment, exhausting hersel
f with dancing by day, and bed games at night. If she worked hard enough, she could manage to avoid thinking at all.

  She had made something of a life for herself, or thought she had—but it all started falling apart in late May. “What’s the matter, honey?” Betsy rolled over after their latest bout, the pink slowly fading from her skin, her breath slowing.

  Natya shook her head and leaned back against the headboard. “Nothing. I’m fine.”

  Betsy frowned. “Come on. You’re not fine. I wish you’d talk to me. All we do is make love.”

  Natya raised an eyebrow. “I thought that was what you wanted.”

  The other woman sniffed. “As if you’d know what I wanted. As if you’d ever bother to ask.”

  Gods—what did the woman want? She’d had a dozen orgasms tonight, and Natya’s arm was sore. “You seem happy enough with what I’m giving you.”

  Betsy grabbed the sheet, pulled it up to cover herself. “What? You’re doing this out of charity now? Screwing me out of the kindness of your heart?”

  Shit. That hadn’t come out so great. “I didn’t mean that. I’m sorry, Betsy.”

  “Sure you are. You always act like you’re so special, like you’re too good to be with me, to be here with us, down in the muck.”

  Was that really how Betsy saw her, how Natya came across? Like some perfect statue?

  “I know, Betsy, I know,” Natya offered, but to no avail.

  The little blonde was still ranting, the anger pent up, spilling out. “You came here with nothing, princess. You didn’t have a pillow to lay your head on, and if I hadn’t taken pity on you, there’s a good chance you would’ve ended up sleeping in the street that first night, and who knows if you’d have survived it!”

  “I know, I owe you so much.…”

  Betsy punched her then, in the arm—hard enough to sting. “There you go again, talking like it’s some kind of quid pro quo. Are you in my bed because you think you owe me something? I thought you liked me. Do you even know what a risk I’m taking, being with you? It’s bad enough being friends with someone like you—the other girls don’t really like it. If they knew what we were doing…”

  Someone like her. Brown-skinned, she meant. Betsy was crying now, and Natya awkwardly tried to pull her into a hug, but the other woman pulled away. “Just get out. Go—go walk it off or something. Walk the mean out of you. Don’t come back here unless you’re ready to be with me, really with me.”

  “I’m truly sorry, Betsy,” Natya said, slowly getting to her feet. “I never meant to hurt you. I wish—”

  “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. That’s what my momma used to say, and I guess she knew something after all. Now. Get. Out.” She threw a pillow at Natya. A few weeks ago, Natya had watched Betsy working on that pillowcase after dinner, embroidering little pink hearts all along the edge; that should have told her something. Ridiculous as it all was, Natya felt her heart breaking a little, all over again, for Betsy, for herself, for everything. She slipped out the door, letting it close quietly behind her.

  Now she was really alone.

  “It’s very kind of you to let me stay here,” Natya said, as Holmes unlocked her room.

  “Nonsense. I could hardly let a friend of Kamilah’s sleep in the street! When she told me of your desperate situation, I was very glad that I would be able to be of assistance.”

  She had met Kamilah’s gentleman caller, Henry Holmes, a few weeks previously. He was well dressed and handsome, and spoke in fine language; clearly an educated man, as you’d expect from a doctor. Holmes had the most intense blue eyes—not his fault, of course, but they were oddly disconcerting. More of a problem was the way he behaved when Kamilah wasn’t there—if she left the area, and he was alone with Natya, those eyes fixed on her.

  “You have the most exotic beauty, my dear. I would have liked to meet your mother; she must have been astonishing. I’m sure your father was completely bewitched.” Was he implying that it would have taken sorcery for a white man to marry a brown woman? Probably, given this era, but surely not polite to say so out loud. “That hair, so long and thick—it flows like a Nubian river.”

  Natya had immediately wanted to braid it and tie it up, even tuck it under a scarf, out of sight, but of course, the manager preferred it down. She’d been grateful when Kamilah walked up, her eyes brightening at the sight of the doctor, giving Natya an excuse to duck away. But now here she was, alone with the man, throwing herself on his mercy.

  “But the discounted rent…” He wouldn’t let Natya pay full price, no matter how she protested. And of course, she could use the money.

  “It’s nothing, my dear. I’m just glad we had a room available. The hotel does get quite full.”

  The room he showed her into was of decent size, and well kept, although there was something odd about it. Natya couldn’t place it at first, and turned slowly, trying to settle the itch in her brain. What was the problem here? Bed, dresser, even a little desk. Washbasin and pitcher. It wasn’t until she stepped out of the room and then back in that it all clicked together.

  “Something wrong?”

  “No, no.” The room was narrower than it should be, that was all, based on the door placement to either side. And there was an odd jog at one corner. Perhaps there were some mechanicals in the wall that necessitated the awkward construction. But it didn’t matter; it would make no difference to her. “You really have been so kind, and this room is lovely. Thank you.”

  “My pleasure.” Holmes took her hand then, bending over it to drop a kiss. Brief and entirely proper for the era, and yet she shivered, and had to resist the urge to pull her hand away. “I’ll leave you to get settled then.” He pressed the key into her hand, and walked away.

  Natya forced herself to wait until he was safely down the hall before closing the door and locking it firmly. Then she lay down on the bed, still fully clothed, staring up at the ceiling, where the corners seemed to meet in not quite a right angle. Everything in her life had gone askew; it was only appropriate that her new bedroom did as well.

  After moving to Holmes’s hotel, Natya met more than a few of the people who worked and lived there. She mostly avoided the men; it seemed safer, and some of them, like the carpenter, Pitezel, struck her as more than a little unsavory. But Holmes employed several women—Minnie Williams, for example, had been his personal stenographer, and Natya heard rumors from the other residents that she was actually a railroad heiress, who had come to Chicago for love of the handsome and charming Dr. Holmes. If that was true, what would he want with poor Kamilah?

  Of course, Minnie wasn’t a threat anymore—apparently her sister Annie had come to visit last April, and soon after, both women disappeared. Some of the residents said Minnie and Holmes had been engaged, that she had “vanished,” leaving him brokenhearted. But he didn’t act like a man who’d been engaged, or one who was brokenhearted. Probably the women had just gotten homesick and gone home to Texas.

  But it was odd, and Natya found herself prowling the hotel late at night, looking, listening, for anything strange. The building was eccentric—she found doors that opened to brick walls, oddly angled hallways, stairways leading to nowhere, and doors that could only be opened from the outside. The residents put it down to construction issues, a series of workers who had misread the plans, creating problems that were too expensive to fix. It was possible, wasn’t it? Natya didn’t really know anything about building in the 1800s, but she had the impression that Victorian homes had been known for their quirky layouts. Still, it worried her.

  Through most of June, Natya joined Kamilah and Rania for lunch on the Wooded Isle. Tucked away between the Japanese architectural compound and the Hunter’s Cabin, a monument to Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, they could usually find an empty park bench to share a shady escape from the press of the crowd. They shared cheese sandwiches today, and crisp apples. Under the trees, Natya could almost forget that she wasn’t in a park at home.

  The little
girl finished eating, and ran off to play a game of pretend, dancing through the trees. “Stay where we can see you, habibi!” Kamilah frowned after her, looking simultaneously proud and worried. “Sometimes, I think I should take Rania back to Egypt. She has never seen her homeland; she is growing up entirely American.”

  “Like me, you mean?” Natya said, her tone lightly ironic.

  Kamilah put an apologetic hand on Natya’s arm. “Oh, I didn’t mean to offend you. It does seem sad, though, losing your mother tongue.”

  Natya shrugged. “I suppose my mother thought it more important that I learn English. It was hard enough, being a stranger in a strange land.”

  “Were people very cruel to you?” Her eyes were full of sympathy for Natya’s imagined past.

  Not really, in truth, though there had been a few incidents, here and there. A hundred years later, less had changed than one might hope. Once, Natya had applied for a job over the phone, and they’d all but promised it to her, but when she showed up at the final interview and they’d seen her brown skin, the job had mysteriously disappeared. Another time, a cashier at the grocery store had mocked her mother’s thick Sri Lankan accent, and Natya had been forced to translate for her. Small things, but they burned.

  “It wasn’t so bad,” she said to Kamilah.

  “It has been very hard for us, very hard. Sometimes I think I should find some way to take Rania back home, try to find an Egyptian husband. But Dr. Holmes says that no one would dare give offense if we were under his protection, and I’m sure he is right.”

  “Mama, Mama, I need to use the toilet.”

  “All right.” Kamilah stood up. “Will you come back with us?”

  “I’ll be back in a little bit. It’s just so pleasant here.”

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