Low chicago, p.39
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       Low Chicago, p.39
 

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

  The ground floor held Holmes’s drugstore and various shops, all shuttered for the night. Holmes’s office was on the second floor—that was what Natya wanted. Hopefully there she’d find some clue as to whether there really was something wrong with the man, as all her instincts were shrieking, or if her suspicion was just an airy confabulation, born of misery and grief. It would be better if Kamilah were headed toward a happy wedding—but somehow, Natya doubted it.

  It was easy enough to climb the stairs to the second floor, staying in the shadows or creating them, as needed. But which door was his office? She tried one door after another, sending a sharp little forcefield to snap open locks as needed. Her investigation was interrupted by the man himself—Holmes came hurrying down the hallway, and Natya barely managed to spin herself a concealing cloak of forcefields before being discovered.

  The doctor checked the same doors she had just been at—he must have some sort of alarm system in place to alert him when people were walking around here. That was going to make things harder. But having him here did mean that Natya could follow him around—or at least she did until Holmes went to a hidden trapdoor, opening it to climb down, presumably into a room. Why was it there? When he emerged a few minutes later, Natya had to choose—keep following him, or investigate the room? Holmes headed down the main stairs, and her decision was made when she heard Kamilah’s voice.

  “Henry, are you sure it’s a good idea?”

  “My dear, it’s for your own benefit. I will pay the premiums, of course, but a personal insurance policy is the best way to ensure Rania’s future. I have already adjusted mine to note the pair of you as my beneficiaries, but if you get a policy as well, then she will be assured of a comfortable life, no matter what may befall. This life is so uncertain; you never know when tragedy is lurking around the corner, no matter how carefully you plan.”

  Oh, he was smooth. Natya hadn’t thought money would be involved in this, but why not? Had Holmes ever cared for her friend at all? Was she the first woman he’d done this to? Was she even the only woman he was involved with right now? They were climbing the stairs now, and Natya hid deeper in the shadows, spinning silently to build an impenetrable shield. Pirouette, pirouette, pirouette. No steps, no sound that might give her away.

  Kamilah was passing now, her voice low and trusting. “That’s so true. If Rania’s father could have been here, to take care of her, he would have. Instead, I’m left to struggle alone, as best I could. Well, if you’re sure it’s the best route; I trust in your judgment, Henry.”

  “Me too, Uncle Henry!” Rania’s little voice added.

  “I hope that you may trust me in all things, my dear Kamilah, and you as well, child. Now come—the papers are in my office; you can sign them, Kamilah, and then forget about them entirely. Hopefully, we’ll never need to look at them again. We can concentrate, I hope, on wedding plans? Perhaps over dinner, we might discuss your favorite flavor of cake?”

  “Cake!”

  “Oh, Henry. I don’t suppose it’s possible to get a rosewater cake here, with a vanilla frosting?”

  “For the right price, my dear, I’m sure it’s possible. And no expense will be spared for our wedding; I mean it to be a grand affair!”

  They headed into his office and closed the door behind them, freeing Natya to come to stillness. Not that she wanted to be still—she wanted to storm in and drag her friend out—but Kamilah wouldn’t believe anything was wrong, not without irrefutable proof. Natya couldn’t set off more alarms up here—the last thing she needed was Holmes finding her, poisoning her relationship with her friend.

  If walking around upstairs was a problem, how about down? The first floor seemed normal enough, but did this building have a basement? Most did in Chicago. Natya went looking, found stairs heading down. Her power made a small glowing light, just enough to see by as she headed into the darkness, fueled by her steps. When she finally arrived, she found—strangeness. A room, with a chute leading to it. A large table covered in some kind of metal—zinc, she thought. No other furniture in the room, but an array of tools, meticulously arranged, as one might need for butchering meat. The hotel didn’t have a restaurant. Did they lease the space to one that did prep down here? It seemed barely possible, and yet, deeply unlikely.

  Whatever she had been afraid of—that Holmes might be a rapist, or even a killer, she hadn’t expected all of this. The locals called this hotel the Castle, but if Natya was reading these clues correctly, this place was far more than a simple grandiose gesture on the part of an arrogant man. She needed to warn her friend, needed to get her out of here, even if she had to use force, even if meant Kamilah never spoke to her again. Natya turned, and hurried up the stairs.

  Natya stepped out into the hallway—only to feel an arm wrap around her, pinning her against a man’s body. A smothering cloth pressed against her face, a sweet, chemical scent overwhelming her senses. She wanted to fight, but her limbs wouldn’t obey her; she had been fighting for her life not even twenty-four hours ago, had danced all day, and she was still drained. Natya felt consciousness slipping away, and blackness descending.

  Natya woke, groggy and with her head aching, lying on a hard surface. The floor? A table? How much time had passed? She couldn’t tell, and the room was pitch-black, not a fragment of light. Her first instinct was to dance, to generate light—but her first attempt at movement revealed that she’d been tightly bound—hog-tied, in fact, wrists to ankles and the coarse rope wrapped around her body as well, pinning her arms to her back. She could barely move at all, and for a moment, Natya despaired. Her heart was racing, and with every moment that passed, it felt harder to take a proper breath.

  But the lake hadn’t defeated her, and neither would this man. She had always used large movements to fuel her powers, but she had studied dance for more than a decade—she could isolate every muscle in her body, make it tense and release. Tiny motions, but enough—she worked with her legs, and quickly built power, feeling it coiling within her, wanting release. She let a little bit out, to light the space—not a room at all, but a metal box, a vault extending only a few feet around her own body, and no sign of airholes. Holmes had undoubtedly intended it for her coffin, but he hadn’t reckoned with the wild card.

  Power building. Light was insufficient—what she needed was heat and force. A ball of energy that burned between her bound hands. Oh, it was getting hot, and her hands wanted to flinch away from it, but Natya held on—just a little more, and then she hurled it as hard as she could behind her, at the top of the box. The metal groaned, but held. She did it again, and again, struggling against the dizziness that threatened to overwhelm her, until finally, the metal gave at a seam, ripping open, letting in fresh air.

  Once Natya could breathe again, it didn’t take long before she fashioned a slender field to slice through the rope that bound her, and then slammed open the metal, bending it back enough to release her from the box. Natya stood free, in yet another room of the Castle, but it was the work of moments to blast the locked door open, and step out. Second floor, which meant Holmes’s office was just down the hall. Were Kamilah and Rania still there? Were they still alive?

  Natya ran to the office door, tried to turn the knob. Locked, and when she snapped a forcefield to crack open the lock, the door still resisted her. Bolted too? How many locks would Holmes have on his private office? Natya took a deep breath, spun into a routine, a quick sequence of steps that oh, it had been a lifetime since she’d last performed. Six months and a hundred years, but her body remembered, the bend, the twist, and step-step, leap. Power built until she snapped it out, a massive forcefield smashing the door open. And on the other side of it, Rania, fallen on the floor, and Kamilah, unconscious in Holmes’s arms, a white cloth pressed to her face.

  She could have killed him in that moment. It would have been understandable, justified.

  Holmes dropped Kamilah, her head hitting the floor with a nasty thunk. He leaped toward Natya, and was almost fas
t enough. Fast enough to grab her, to hurl her backwards, to slam her own head into the doorjamb. Fuck, that hurt. But that was his one shot, his only chance to knock her out, and the bastard hadn’t pulled it off. She wanted to dazzle him, to spin him a nightmare of forcefields and illusion, terrify him so that he’d never dare attack a woman again.

  Instead, she spun a cocoon. A smothering field that swallowed him whole, pressing in and taking his air, as he had tried to take hers, so that within minutes, Holmes had gone completely limp within it. Natya had planned this move, had practiced it, ever since that fight years ago, when her little girl had been kidnapped and she’d had no idea how to keep her safe—she’d wanted a way to incapacitate people quickly, should she need it. This worked.

  Once Holmes was safely unconscious, she released the fields—if she’d left them around him, he would have suffocated to death. Natya wasn’t sure that wasn’t the right choice. She knew what Michael would say—that this was a matter for the police, not for vigilante justice. Holmes needed to be investigated—charges should be pressed, and a full team sent out to discover what he’d been hiding. Kamilah and Rania were still breathing. If they hadn’t been, Natya wasn’t sure even the thought of Michael would have been enough to restrain her.

  Tomorrow. She could set the wheels of justice in motion tomorrow. For today, she would take her friend and the little girl to a doctor, make sure they recovered safely. As soon as they were safe, she’d be back for Holmes. She danced again, one more time, arms outstretched in the silent room. Natya raised power to lift her friends, carry them away, out of this hideous place. She would get them to safety, and then she’d be back. For the first time in months, Natya wanted to cry. She had saved them; she had destroyed her own family, but she had saved them. Maybe that meant she was worth saving, too.

  It took less than an hour to get them to a hospital, into the care of doctors. Natya had carried them almost to the doorstep, shielding all the way, then dropped the shields and cried out for help. “There’s a woman here, and a little girl! They need help!” Then she’d faded away, watched while the medical staff took her friends inside. She hoped they would be all right, but there was nothing else she could do for them now. Then she turned, and ran back, power lending speed to her feet, so that she was almost skating along. She’d never done this before, didn’t even know she could, but she was moving at least twice as fast as she normally could run, and for a moment, it was exhilarating. Even here, trapped in the past, there were things worth learning, things worth doing!

  All of that excitement drained away when she came back to the hotel to find Holmes had disappeared.

  She asked around the next morning, of course—apparently, Holmes had left town for a few days. In addition, she learned that he was engaged to someone else altogether, someone he might actually plan to marry. Natya was determined to let that poor woman know what was going on—she would go confront her the next day. Kamilah and Rania were going to be all right, although they would need a few days to recover, and they had no real memory of what had occurred. Kamilah was bewildered when Natya came to visit her in the hospital: “I was with Henry, and then it almost felt as if he attacked me—but that can’t be, can’t it? That doesn’t make any sense.”

  “Just stay away from him, for a little while.”

  “Oh, but we’re engaged. I have to talk to him, find out what’s going on.”

  “Please, Kamilah. He’s not a good man—he’s engaged to someone else.”

  “What?”

  “It was all an insurance scam—I’m so sorry.”

  That convinced her, when perhaps nothing else would have, and Kamilah, weeping, promised that she would avoid Henry Holmes from now on.

  She dashed tears from her eyes to protest, “You can’t just sit here by my bedside all day. We’re going to be fine,” she said, bravely, “and you’ll miss the ball.”

  Natya had forgotten entirely, in the midst of everything. It was Wednesday, August 16, the night of the great Midway Ball. The Tribune had called it “The Ball of the Midway Freaks.”

  “I don’t care about that.” In fact, she’d been a bit irritated by the Tribune article, in which they claimed that the Board of Lady Managers of the fair were upset by the belly dancers, herself included: “… what is not considered very much out of the way on the banks of the Nile or in the market places of Syria is entirely improper on the Midway between Jackson and Washington Parks.” Those words had burned into her brain. They were the barbarians, and didn’t know a damned thing about real, serious dance.

  “Oh, you must go. It’s going to be splendid—go for us, so you can tell us everything. Please. And maybe you might dance with Director General Davis, or even Mayor Harrison. He might fall in love with you, want to marry you, and it would solve all of your problems.”

  “Kamilah, I think you have had more than enough of engagements for the both of us.” Still, she might as well go. The manager would expect it of her, especially with Kamilah out of commission. One more evening wouldn’t hurt anything, with Holmes out of town. She would take care of him the moment he returned.

  The ball took place in the Natatorium, a large building dedicated to swimming and bathing. The ballroom galleries were hung with golden triangles of embroidered silk, incredibly lush. Natya took her place in the procession of Midway performers, dressed not in her belly dance costume, thankfully, but in a more demure robe, topped with a turban. It was tremendously hot, and sweat dripped down her face and body, under the concealing fabric. The maharajah of Kapurthala, visiting that week from India, sat on a throne on the ballroom stage fanned by three servants; Natya wondered if he could tell, looking at her, that she was South Asian rather than Egyptian. The other Egyptians knew she wasn’t truly one of them, but no one else seemed to question it.

  She danced—danced with a score of men in black dress suits, all ready to be charmed by her. Natya didn’t have it in her to be charming, but she did hope to dance with Mayor Harrison. It might be helpful, having him on her side, when she moved to take down Holmes. That man was going to pay for each and every one of his crimes. So she danced, and drank, and ate—a wild exuberance possessed her, born of the lights and the crowd and the overall air of extravagance. The food was astonishing—stuffed ostrich, boiled camel humps, monkey stew, fricassee of reindeer, fried snowballs—a far cry from the cheese sandwiches she’d mostly been subsisting on the last few months. Natya ate, and then went back to dancing, and if there were a few more sparkling lights in the ballroom, everyone assumed it was yet another lavish special effect.

  Natya was swinging to the end of a wild reel, hours past midnight, when someone grabbed her arm, stopping her cold. A balding white man, not dressed for the occasion, with eyes dilated wide and sweating profusely. “Come on!” he hissed. “Hurry!” Mr. Meek. That’s when she saw the other man, standing just inches away. Well-dressed, in a dark suit. John Nighthawk, but not as she had seen him last, young for all his forty-one years, kissing her goodbye. This man looked younger in body, but his eyes—his eyes bore the weight of centuries.

  “Oh, no,” she said, softly. Time to go home.

  A Long Night at the Palmer House

  Part 8

  NIGHTHAWK AND CROYD CHECKED into the Palmer House and enjoyed a lavish dinner in one of the hotel’s fine restaurants. They figured that they owed it to themselves after aborting that terrible time line they’d just experienced firsthand. Then they went up to their room, ready to check out of 1968.

  Their list of the missing, Nighthawk reflected, was getting shorter, with only four names left. Kavitha, Cyn, and Meathooks, all bodyguards, and of course Giovanni Galante, their genial host. Four more lost chrononauts, and, as best as Croyd could detect, three more jumps. Nighthawk was getting worried. He was hanging in there, but Croyd was getting increasingly erratic.

  Croyd was jittery when they stood side by side looking into the mirror.

  “Wait a second,” he said, and reached into his pocket, pulling out t
he Baggie of pills from the last care package. He took a handful and tossed them into his mouth, dry-swallowing them. He looked at Nighthawk, his eyes a bit too bright. “Just in case,” he said, looked again into the mirror, and they were gone—

  —finding themselves naked as always, in a hotel room that was dark and quiet, its decor and decorations those of the century past.

  “Made it!” Croyd said. Nighthawk didn’t like the tinge of surprise in his voice.

  At least the room was quiet and empty—although, they soon discovered, not quite.

  The first thing that Nighthawk saw was a newspaper on the nightstand by the bed—a copy of the Tribune, dated August 11, 1894, open to a page with an article titled “The Ball of the Midway Freaks.”

  Nighthawk picked it up and scanned it. It was somewhat sarcastically critical of a dance scheduled for that evening at the Columbian Exposition, specifically at the Natatorium.

  He looked up as Croyd called to him, “Hey, John, check this out.” He was holding two suits hanging in the wardrobe at the foot of the bed.

  “And here, we have what might be called a clue,” Nighthawk said, holding the newspaper out to Croyd.

  Croyd took the paper. He looked up after quickly reading the article. “Everyone loves a World’s Fair. Or whatever they actually call it.”

  “Yes,” Nighthawk agreed. “I liked this one just fine the first time I saw it.”

  The memories came back, fleeting and shady, when he saw her dancing. Again, he realized. Dancing.

  It was several hours past midnight, and the ball was still going full force. There were a lot of people still crowding the huge building that was called the Natatorium, people of all sorts, from the Midway workers themselves to ordinary fairgoers to dignitaries as prominent as the mayor of Chicago and his entourage. The mayor had been introduced to the crowd and been hailed with polite clapping and a smattering of boos, based, Nighthawk figured, on the political affiliations of the onlookers.

 
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