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       Low Chicago, p.4

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

  They swam on, chatting, mingling, and schmoozing, giving Nick a chance to meet the staff and get a sense of the magazine’s organization. Then, bobbing atop a Jacuzzi that bubbled like a witch’s cauldron or at least a tide pool attached to a thermal vent, sat a familiar face … familiar from newspapers and television. Hef grinned. “May I introduce our next president, John F. Kennedy?”

  “Just senator for now,” Kennedy said in his Boston Brahmin accent, raising his shoulders out of the pool, revealing an old scar, “but call me Jack. Who’s this?”

  “Our new photographer,” Hef told Kennedy, “Nick Williams. Out from Hollywood.”

  “Excellent dive you did there,” the senator complimented. “Probably be even better with swimwear.”

  “Everything’s better with swimwear,” remarked a pert Playmate perched on the edge of the bubbling hot tub in a white satin one-piece. It matched her fluffy baby-fine platinum hair, which Nick suddenly realized had huge rabbit ears sticking up out of it. Not the antennae from a television set, but actual White Rabbit–style white rabbit ears, albeit scaled up and sized for an adult woman. Or a joker. A matching fluffy white tail poked out of the rear of her bathing suit as she sat there dabbling her still human toes in the water. “Go ahead and stare.” She laughed. “Everyone does. It’s natural.”

  “Let me introduce Julie Cotton,” Hef said, “one of our aspiring Playmates.”

  “I’m guessing you’re Nick, the new photographer.” When Julie grinned her ears stood up straighter. “Hef said you were a swimmer.” She looked to Hef. “Can I have him for my photo shoot?”

  “If you like,” Hef said, then laughed. “You just got me to agree to give you a test shoot, didn’t you? Clever bunny.”

  Julie’s nose wrinkled as the pride transmitted to her ears, making them stand up higher. “Hey, a girl does what she can.”

  Kennedy laughed along with her. “That you do.”

  She touched her toes with their painted pink nails to his shoulders flirtatiously. “So do you,” Julie said, laughing, “for all of us. You’re a war hero. ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’”

  It sounded like a quote from something, Nick thought, and evidently Kennedy thought so, too. “Nice line,” he remarked. “Mind if I borrow it?”

  “It’s yours.” She laughed lightly. “You’re my favorite president.”

  He laughed in turn. “Not president yet. Not even nominee. Have Stuart Symington to contend with, and Lyndon Johnson, and refreshing as this party is, I need to talk with Mayor Daley tonight, or else my party may go with Adlai Stevenson again. But thank you for your vote.”

  She gave him a wistful look, as if there were something important she wanted to tell him, but only said, “I did my fourth-grade report on you.”

  Kennedy glanced back over his shoulder at the bunny girl. “You’re from Massachusetts? Not many girls would do a report on a lowly representative.”

  “My family moved around,” she confessed in an unplaceable midwestern accent, “especially after my card turned.” She smiled ruefully. “You’ve helped us jokers a lot.”

  “Not as much as I’ve wanted to.”

  “Every little bit counts, and you’re going to do more.” She bit her lower lip, revealing slightly, but cutely, buck teeth. Or bunny teeth. Nick couldn’t tell if it was a joker trait or the way her teeth were naturally.

  Nick considered. Julie acted awfully confident for a joker, even more confident than your average ace, and he should know. Maybe she’d drawn a prophetic ace, too?

  “Do you think he can beat Nixon?” Nick asked.

  Julie gave a pained look. “Yeah, but…” Her left ear flopped over enchantingly as she bit her lip again, looking at Jack Kennedy with profound adoration and hero worship.

  “Thanks.” Kennedy smiled, basking in her attention. “Still need to keep up the fight, though. Nixon might still be president.”

  “Yeah, but he’s a crook,” Julie swore. “It’ll come out. He won’t be president long. Trust me.” Her rabbit ears positively vibrated.

  Nick couldn’t be sure whether Julie was speaking prophecy or the quiet or not-so-quiet rage all wild cards felt for Nixon after the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. What had happened to Black Eagle, the Envoy, and poor Brain Trust was unforgivable, especially after they were betrayed by Jack Braun, the Golden Rat. As a joker, Julie could speak her rage publicly. As an ace up the sleeve, Nick needed to keep his feelings hidden, including his shame and ambivalence.

  He’d been rooting for Nixon when the Four Aces trial had been going on, an idiot high school kid in conservative Orange County, his head filled with equal parts swimming and girls—which left plenty of room for hatred of Reds and the twisted victims of an alien virus, except for Golden Boy, whom Nixon praised. But after Nick’s own card turned, he’d gotten a jolt, not just of electricity but of reality. He’d had to reexamine HUAC and himself, not liking what he saw.

  Will-o’-Wisp, the Hollywood Phantom, was as much an attempt to assuage his guilt as anything else. Not that idiot high school nat Nick had done much to help Nixon break the Four Aces. But a whole lot of people doing not much added up to a lot so it came to the same thing.

  Even so, there were things you couldn’t say when you were up the sleeve unless you wanted to attract attention. “Are you sure?” Nick asked. “I know Nixon’s conservative, but I think he’s an honest patriot.”

  “He’s a crook,” Julie stressed. “Trust me.”

  Hef chuckled. “Knew you were Californian, but hadn’t pegged you for a Nixon man.”

  “My family’s from Whittier,” Nick admitted with a bashful grin. “Went to the same high school as Dick.”

  “Hard to compete with a hometown hero,” Jack said with a laugh, “but I’ll try.”

  Nick turned his self-deprecating grin to the senator. He’d already decided a while ago Kennedy would get his vote if he got the nomination, but he was not about to tell anyone. Not even Jack Kennedy as it turned out. “I’m willing to listen.”

  Nick did. He was not enough of a policy wonk to follow everything, but Kennedy’s stance on civil rights was quite clear, for jokers, aces, Reds, blacks—everyone.

  Hef patted Nick on the back. “Convinced now?” He then said to Kennedy, “Remember that same speech, with the same intensity. We’ll have you deliver it tomorrow on Playboy’s Penthouse when we introduce Nick. And I’ll try to get Mayor Daley there for a second chat.”

  “Do I get introduced too?” Julie asked hopefully, her ears flopping slightly as she cocked her head.

  “We’ll see, but I want to see your test shoot first. Talk about it with Nick.”

  “Talk about what?” asked a tall blond middle-aged man walking up along the deck. He looked about Nick’s own height, around six four, and even had the same epicanthal fold next to his eye like Nick had inherited from his mom. “Who’s Nick?”

  Nick looked closer, realizing the man looked and sounded like his uncle Fritz, if slightly older and in better shape.

  “This is Nick,” Hef said, “our new photographer. Nick Williams, meet Will Monroe, Julie’s … agent.”

  Nick shook Will’s hand as he stepped down into the hot tub. “Nice to meet you.”

  “Likewise.” Will’s smile was genuine, but cursory. He gave Nick an intent look, but then distracted by the inexorable draw of celebrity, turned to Senator Kennedy.

  “John Kennedy.” The senator introduced himself with a politician’s handshake. “But you can call me Jack. Monroe, huh? Not perchance a descendant of President Monroe?”

  “Not so far as I know”—Will Monroe chuckled, sitting down in the hot tub—“but I might have a president somewhere in my family tree.…”

  “Any relation to Marilyn Monroe?” Nick asked. He’d never met her himself, but they’d been on the same set when he’d gotten a bit part for the swimming ensemble in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

  Will gave him a sly look.
“Not yet,” he said with a chuckle.

  “Everyone wants to meet my first centerfold,” Hef pointed out, adding to the merriment. “Hell, I still want to meet her. I just bought pictures a calendar company took before she made it big.” He glanced then to Kennedy. “But speaking of meeting people, think you’ve soaked your shoulder enough to mingle a bit before seeing Daley?”

  “Happy to.” Jack Kennedy climbed over the lip of the Jacuzzi and back into the main pool.

  Nick could take a signal: Hef had left him to talk with Julie the joker and get ideas for her shoot. This was a test for him as well as her. Fortunately for Nick, he’d gotten over the idea of jokers a while ago, having barely missed becoming one himself.

  Will Monroe asked Nick, “Join me?” He gave a glance to Julie as well. “You too.”

  “Okay,” she conceded, her coral-painted lips forming a perfect moue, “but don’t laugh if I end up looking and smelling like a wet rabbit.”

  Nick did a swimmer’s push-up, hauling himself out of the pool and swinging his legs around into the hot tub just as Julie slipped in. He glanced to Will. “From SoCal too?”

  “Yep. Hollywood. Grew up in the movie business. Mom was an actress.”

  “Anyone I’ve heard of?”

  Will Monroe paused, giving a smile of equal parts humor and sadness. “Possibly.”

  Nick judged Will Monroe’s age and did the math. “Didn’t make it into talkies?”

  “Oh, she had some success there.” Will smiled. “Lost her, well, a few years ago, but it feels like a lifetime away.”

  “What about your dad?”

  “Never met him.” Will looked sad. “Or at least not that I knew.” He sighed. “Big scandal, of course. But my mom was a bigger star, so she just went on. Papers had a field day, everyone speculating. All I know is that it was someone important, someone powerful: politician, movie mogul, maybe someone in the mob. Mom never told anyone, not even me.” He grimaced. “Every time I asked her, she got angry, then cried. But I think the truth was, she was scared and trying to protect me.”

  Nick couldn’t really understand Will’s pain. He had a close relationship with his father—or at least close enough, he’d never told Dad he’d drawn an ace—but mentioning the fact would be cruel. So he just said, “I’m sorry.” After a long moment, broken only by the bubbles of the tub and the bright chatter in the background, he asked, “Any other possibilities? Other leads?”

  “Not really.” Will shook his head. “After a while, I learned not to ask. It hurt Mom, and I knew she wasn’t going to give me an answer, so I just went on with my life.” He sighed again. “The only other chance is something I didn’t really pay attention to. When I was busy making The Final Ace, my first major picture, there was this fake psychic who said she knew who my father was and would tell. And she did. Dumped an old beat-up man’s hat on her head, said she was channeling his spirit—like bad community theater with no costume budget. I was so used to people making up wild guesses and bullshit that I completely blew it off until my mother threw lawyers at the psychic to make her shut up.” Will looked up over at Nick, tears in his eyes. “That’s when I knew the psychic had said something right. I’d never seen my mom so scared, not just for herself, but for me. She made me promise never to look into what that psychic said.”

  “Even a stopped watch is right twice a day,” Nick pointed out. “I know fake mediums were a big thing in the twenties, but the more convincing ones dug up dirt on their targets first. Could be this medium was a better investigator than she was a psychic.”

  “Funny you should mention that.” Will gave a dark chuckle. “The psychic said her phantom had been a private investigator too, some minor gumshoe and background actor who’d stumbled into something bad with my mom and paid the ultimate price.”

  Nick felt geese walk over his grave, a horrible horripilation all the weirder for being in a hot tub. But broken watches were often right because coincidence was always a possibility. “Well, at least in the twenties they didn’t have real psychics. Not like now.”

  Will chuckled a bit too long. “No, not like now.”

  The conversation had taken an odder and more uncomfortable angle than Nick had expected, so he switched the subject. “So, what do you think about Hef guessing the Golden Globe nominations on last week’s Penthouse and scooping the scandal sheets? Louella Parson’s livid, and Hedda Hopper’s speculating that Hef’s a secret ace.”

  Will laughed uproariously. “That crazy old bat. Actually, Hef’s picks were my picks. We had a gentleman’s bet, so he asked me to prove it. So I told him who would be nominated.”

  Nick was taken aback. “So you’re the ace?”

  Will shook his head. “No, just a guy from Tinseltown who knows the score.”

  Nick whistled. “Knowing the score like that, you should be composing for the cinema.”

  Will shrugged. “They’re both savvy women, but Louella has her ego and alliances while Hedda has a whole arsenal of axes to grind and puts those at a higher priority. Whereas I just have a professional interest in the business and not much in the way of alliances.”

  “Except Hef.”

  “We go back a long way.”

  “Father figure?”

  “You could say that.” Will chuckled again.

  “So what is your professional interest in the business? Just agent?”

  “For the present,” Will said, sharing another chuckle with Julie at some private joke, “but I’ve made some pictures myself. Not acting, mind you—producing and directing. The Final Ace with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Hindenburg with Leonardo DiCaprio.”

  “Sounds like Rudolph Valentino.” Nick laughed. “Stage names?”

  “No, their actual names.”

  “Never heard of them. Sorry.”

  “Not a problem. Didn’t expect you to.” Will Monroe shrugged. “They’ll be famous in Hollywood one day. So will I.”

  “You already are to me,” Julie Cotton told him. Her rabbit ears were, as warned, beginning to look bedraggled, like a wet bunny.

  She was being kind and flirtatious, but Nick had been around Hollywood enough that he knew how the casting couch worked. Yet even so, he asked, “So what’s the story with you two? How’d you get together?”

  “Oh, you know, the usual,” she said, glancing to Will. “I was working as a waitress, hoping to be discovered, then fate just threw us together.…”

  “She brought me a martini,” Will reminisced. “Next thing we knew, we were naked together in a hotel room.”

  “A swanky hotel room,” Julie bragged. “The Palmer House.”

  “We realized we shared a future.”

  “Then Will suggested we visit his friend Hef and here we are.” Julie looked about herself to the Playboy grotto and waggled her ears, a party trick making them point to their surroundings as expressively as a model’s hands.

  Nick shrugged. It all sounded relatively innocent or at least unremarkable. Julie was hardly the first young woman to hook up with an older man, and when you were a joker, your options were even more limited.

  Even so, there was something that was itching him. Julie seemed unusually self-confident even for a modern woman, let alone a joker, and the brashness of most jokers of Nick’s acquaintance was a mask over self-loathing. Nick knew that trick too well himself. Will displayed a similar confidence, and a lot more than you’d expect for a middle-aged producer who didn’t much make it out of the silent era and was now playing host to a young protégée. Then again, as astute as Will was with the pictures biz, it wasn’t a bad move to go in as the power behind the throne to a new player on the media world stage.

  “You think Hef’s going to move out to Hollywood?” Nick asked.

  “You can bet money on it,” Will told him.

  The banter continued, pleasant but innocuous, and after setting a time for the photo shoot tomorrow, they moved on, as did Nick, chatting with Playmates, both past and aspiring, and generally getting a sense of the pl
ace. Constance and Gwen showed him the way to his room so he could freshen up before dinner, then left him to his own devices and bemusement.

  The bedroom was small as things went in the mansion and nowhere near as palatial as the ballroom or Hef’s bedroom, which the girls deliberately led him through. Nor was it bedecked in Gay Nineties grandeur. It had plain paneling and few frills, looking to be originally intended as maid’s quarters, but had been expertly painted in black and turquoise, the latest colors, with matching carpeting, geometric sunbursts, and sleek modern furnishings. Nick’s camera bag sat on a desk, his suitcase had been placed at the foot of the bed, and his jacket and hat awaited on a valet stand along with his freshly laundered and pressed pants, shirt, and tie. His shoes were likewise by the bed, his socks inside, clean and dry.

  Somewhat stubbornly, Nick put the same outfit on, went to dinner, and noted seat arrangements. Hef sat at the head of the table like a convivial king, Senator Kennedy at his right hand, in the place of honor. Apparently the dinner with Mayor Daley had been canceled or postponed. An aspiring Playmate whom Nick had been only briefly introduced to—Sally something-or-other—sat to his right. Kennedy ignored her, focusing his attention on Julie Cotton sitting opposite, Julie alternately doting on his words or making him laugh with her at some witty repartee. Will Monroe sat between her and Hef, the left-hand place of a king’s secret adviser, his attention focused on Kennedy, his expression a mixture of hope and sadness when his immediate dinner companions weren’t looking at him, but masking it quickly with Hollywood poise when anyone gave him their attention.

  Nick tried to understand what was going on with Will, but then realized that, though the man looked old enough to be Nick’s father, and did resemble a slimmer version of his uncle, in place of Uncle Fritz’s jocular charm, Will Monroe’s resting expression was that of a lost little boy, looking alternately to Kennedy and Hef as if there were something he desperately wished to ask them or tell them but couldn’t find the right words.

  Nick was seated much farther down the table with a group of photographers and editors interspersed with Playmates and hopefuls. Their banter was a mixture of ribbing and jealousy; it was well known that Nick was the pretty boy brought out from Hollywood more for his looks in front of the camera than his talent behind it. It made for some unexpected camaraderie with the Playmates, some of whom had aspirations of their own beyond modeling, including Gwen and Constance, who sat flanking Nick like they had Hef earlier in the day.

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