Low chicago, p.40
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       Low Chicago, p.40

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

  There was more to the ball than dancing. Exotic food of all types was spread out on buffet tables along the walls. Croyd came up to him at one point, saying, “Try the monkey stew,” which Nighthawk politely declined.

  “Focus,” Nighthawk said. “We’re trying to find our target—”

  “It’s Natya,” Croyd said, polishing off the stew with some relish. “I’m sure of it. I can feel her in my mind—a bright shower of sparkles. Only there’s so many goddamn people—”

  Nighthawk wasn’t sure if it was Natya he was feeling, or the drugs. “Keep looking.”

  “I am, I am,” Croyd said. “But first I want to try some of that stuffed ostrich—”

  Nighthawk sighed and turned back to scan the crowd, and then he saw her, dancing with a bald man with a small mustache. She moved gracefully, much more so than her partner, as they whirled about the floor in a wild reel. As he watched them he consulted the memory palace he’d constructed in his mind to preserve a century and a half of memories. It was an old technique that was invented way back in the Middle Ages, but Nighthawk had come to it only in the last twenty years or so, after discovering an article about it on Wikipedia.

  You built a literal structure in your mind—in Nighthawk’s case a rambling old Victorian wood-frame house with several stories and many rooms. It was an architectural form he admired and he’d lived in several during his time in Chicago. Each room in Nighthawk’s memory palace was unique. Each room contained storage furniture or devices—closets with drawers, wooden card catalogs, one even had a computer in it with a comfortable chair set before it. Each was imagined in fine detail, each held a decade of memories.

  His earlier memories weren’t as sharp as the ones after he’d become an ace, as some details had already slipped away over the years, but they were there, fairly complete, ready to be accessed. Nighthawk stood still on the fringe of the dance floor and closed his eyes and in his mind went to the room that contained the 1890s. It was furnished in the style of the period. He sat down on the swivel chair in front of the card catalog and pulled out the drawer for the year 1894 and accessed his memories of the Columbian Exposition, which had lain unchecked for a long time. And there it was.

  Late July on the Midway. A woman’s voice calling his name, a light touch on his shoulder, and he’d looked back into a hopeful, beautiful face he’d never seen before. Her stopping him was apparently a case of mistaken identity, but it led to a night of passion that he now recalled in its full intensity. When you make love to a dancer, Nighthawk thought, you never can really forget it.

  She swirled closer with her partner, and the song was over, their dance was ended. She smiled, said something to him, and looked up and their eyes met. There was recognition, initial shock, then a flooding of relief, with a touch of, what, sorrow or regret? She watched him as he threaded past half a dozen couples to reach her side.

  “May I have this dance?” he asked, as the band began to play again. Fortunately, it was a much more sedate tune, more suited to conversation than the previous one.

  “Oh, no,” she said. “You’ve come to take me home.”

  “Do you mind?”

  She shook her head. “You’re older,” was the first thing she said.

  “Does it show that much?”

  “Only in your eyes,” Natya said. “They’re like they were back at the card game.”

  Nighthawk nodded. “I’d wanted to see you again,” he told her. “You know I was a Pullman porter then. Worked the City of New Orleans run. But when we reached New Orleans that time, they switched me to the L.A. route. It took me almost a month to get back to Chicago. And you were gone.”

  “I understand,” Natya said. “But how do we get home?”

  “Croyd’s the one with the temporal powers,” Nighthawk said. “I’m just his Chicago tour guide and keeper.”

  “Where is he?”

  Nighthawk gestured over his shoulder toward the buffet table. “Checking out the stuffed ostrich.”

  Natya laughed lightly. She suddenly seemed happy, almost carefree.

  “So,” Nighthawk said, “tell me about your adventures in Chicago.”

  Nighthawk pulled Croyd out of the buffet line.

  “We have to talk,” he said, and hustled him over to a corner of the room that was relatively free of onlookers.

  “Did you find Natya?” Croyd asked around a mouthful of stuffed ostrich.

  “Yes—and listen.”

  He told Croyd about her adventures with Holmes and her saving the mother and daughter from his murderous clutches.

  “Well, good for her—”

  “Good for her?” Nighthawk repeated. “Look—we’re here to repair the time line. That woman was supposed to die. And there were more … she was not Holmes’s last victim, I am almost sure of that. The unintended consequences—we have to go back, again—as much as I don’t want to—and extract Natya before she saves those people.”

  “John, John, John,” Croyd said with forced patience. “We’re talking about a mother and a daughter, here, victims of a fucking serial killer, not the fucking North Side mob that you made Khan take out back in ’29. Or would that be ahead in ’29?”

  “Who cares?” Nighthawk said impatiently. “Mother, daughter, fine. What about the daughter’s kids? And their kids? And their—”

  “What about them?” Croyd said. “What if one of them finds a cure for cancer?”

  “We don’t know what if—we can’t know.”

  “What if we do change history? A little bit, anyway?” Croyd was getting into it. His eyes were intense, his voice louder than it should be. “History is fucked. It’s full of massacres, murders, genocides. What’s one more or less? Look, here’s an idea. While we’re doing this, why don’t we just go back and help Jetboy and make sure the virus is never released? That will solve all our problems.”

  Nighthawk groaned. “Think, man! First of all, we’re in Chicago, not New York. Second, I can’t even imagine the paradoxes doing something as radical as that would set up. For all we know, the world might implode!”

  “I find that possibility very unlikely,” Croyd said stiffly.


  Suddenly Croyd’s face took on a more pleasant expression as Natya approached them, smiling. “Natya!” he said, welcomingly. “Great to see you again! Goodbye!”

  With that, he pointed, and she was gone.

  “Croyd!” Nighthawk gasped in a choked whisper.

  “What?” Croyd set his empty plate on the seat of a nearby folding chair.

  Nighthawk was about to ask him if he was out of his mind, but he shut his mouth. He couldn’t risk pushing him any more in such a public place.

  “Nobody saw.”

  As Nighthawk glanced around he saw expressions on at least three different faces that indicated that, yes, indeed, some saw what happened. Fortunately, it was late, people were tired, the lighting wasn’t the best, and many had been imbibing all night. Let it lie, Nighthawk told himself.

  “Now let’s go find a mirror,” Croyd said, then paused thoughtfully. “There’s probably one in the bathroom. I have to pee anyway.”

  Meathooks on Ice

  by Saladin Ahmed

  ALI “MEATHOOKS” HUSSEINI WOKE slowly from dreams of his childhood. Of fourth grade, years before he drew the wild card. A class trip to a state park. He could hear the birds and the insects. He could smell the earth and feel the brisk air on his face.

  Inch by inch, Ali’s mind climbed into consciousness. He came to and realized he was no longer dreaming. The smell was real. He’d had to hide out in the country a couple of times in his life, and the smell was like that but richer. Thicker. Full of pine. He blinked his eyes open and squinted at the sunlight filtering through the trees above him. A forest. He was in a forest somewhere. And he was on his back, lying cold and naked in a patch of ice and mud.

  “What the fuck is this?” He sat up slowly.

  Something stung his forearm, just above the poin
t where the thick invulnerable raw meat that formed his huge fist began. A mosquito, the biggest Ali had ever seen, sat there feasting on his blood. He squashed it absent-mindedly

  Memories started to return. The card game. The card game went to shit. He’d been working a legit job, his best gig since getting out of prison, serving as bodyguard to Charlie fucking Flowers of all people. He was accompanying Mr. Flowers to a high-stakes poker game. A cigar-smoky room full of VIPs and human weapons. Ali couldn’t remember how it had started, but there was shouting, a scuffle, and a flash of rainbow light. And then … what? Someone clocked me? Gassed me? Some ace shit? He remembered everything around him bending and warping and Ali saw some sort of rainbow light. He remembered feeling sick to his stomach. Then blacking out.

  It wasn’t the first time in his life some motherfucker had knocked Ali out and dragged him somewhere else. Knowing his luck it probably wouldn’t be the last.

  So now he was in the boonies somewhere. Whatever happened, Ali had apparently been out like a light for some time. He must have been out a long time for them to have thrown him in a trunk or whatever and driven him all the way out from downtown Chicago to … here. Wherever here was. Had they just dumped him? Were they watching him? You usually didn’t drive a guy way the fuck out to the woods and lay him down in the mud unless you planned to kill him.

  So who wants to kill me, and why? It was a question he’d had to ask himself countless times in the past, and it almost felt good to be asking it again.

  He got to his feet and the forest exploded.

  Something leapt at him from behind and cut him. Lines of blood burned down his back and Ali screamed in pain. His feet scrabbled on ice and dead leaves. He fell onto his back.

  A tangle of fur and teeth and claws pounced on his prone body. Out of reflex more than anything, Ali threw up his raw red slab-hands. They’d stopped bullets and knives before, and now they saved his ass again. The thing sank its massive fangs into Ali’s fist. It didn’t hurt, but the creature was stuck and he got his first good look at it.

  Ali had done a lot of B&Es in his day and had come across pit bulls, rottweilers, and Dobermans. This was bigger than any of them. But it was … A cat?

  What the fuck is this? The tiger or puma or whatever the fuck it was raked out its claws and tore gouges in Ali’s arm and chest. They hurt like hell, and he screamed again. As the pain and anger filled him, the meat spread across his body. Up his arm in sinews and patches. Here and there, fishhooks sprouted from his skin. He felt filled with strength.

  Ali brought his other fist down and crushed the giant cat’s skull. Blood gushed over his arm and sprayed his face. The thing stopped moving. Ali yanked its fangs out of his fist with a wince, and shoved its body off of him. He got to his feet.

  He looked down at the big cat’s corpse. It was even bigger than he’d realized. And those fangs. He’d seen one of these things before, he realized. On another class trip. To the natural history museum. It was a fucking saber-toothed tiger.

  “Mash’Allah,” Ali said out of habit. But he knew he didn’t deserve God’s protection.

  His stomach rumbled. He didn’t know where the fuck he was. He didn’t know who the fuck had brought him here. He didn’t know how the fuck to get home. But he was bleeding and he needed to eat.

  Bugs buzzed around the gore on his fists and the wet red slashes on his chest. Ali swatted at them, angry. The mosquitoes were as long as a man’s finger. Well, a normal man’s finger. “Motherfucker. Motherfucker. Motherfucker,” he muttered. What is this? The Amazon? But it’s cold.

  “I was trying, God. I was trying to do right. But I’m gonna kill whoever did this.” In prison, Ali had learned to talk to God when he was alone. Sometimes it kept shit at bay. Sometimes.

  His stomach rumbled again. Ali set out to find food.

  His earliest memories were of the smell of bread. Khubz arabi, what white people called pita bread. His father had been a baker, making cheese and meat pies for the neighborhood back in Beirut. Ali remembered only flashes of his parents’ bakery and the flat above it—flour everywhere, jostling crowds of customers, Arabic singers on the radio, cinder-block walls hung with sepia photos of thick-mustached men. But war drove his parents from Lebanon, with six-year-old Ali and his older sister in tow. When the family came to Detroit, Ali’s father had to take a job working for another baker, the brother of a man he couldn’t stand in the old country.

  School had been hard at first. The white kids, the black kids, and even the kids who’d been in America only a couple years, all teased the new FOB boy. But Ali was big and savvy. When kids pushed, he pushed back. And he learned to make others targets.

  He remembered throwing trash at a joker boy they called Stinky who didn’t actually stink, but was covered in thick black fur with a white stripe, like a skunk. The boy—Steve was his real name—hadn’t stayed in Ali’s class for very long. The kids said he had been sent to a special school for jokers. When Ali’s own card had turned, the first thing that had come to his mind was Stinky’s skunk-like face, crying and covered in old food that Ali had thrown at him.

  Though almost all of the trees around him were evergreens, near sunset Ali finally managed to find a tree with leaves, full of fruit that sort of looked like apples. A light jab from his big fist brought down a rain of the big green things. They were sour as hell, but they were food. He sat with his back against the biggest tree he’d ever seen and ate five of them, washing them down with a hunk of ice.

  As Ali sat there the sunlight, already dimmed by the thick canopy of pine branches, slowly began to fail completely. He wouldn’t starve, at least, or die of thirst. It could be worse. But where the hell was he? For one thing, it was freezing cold, which made no sense, since it was summer.

  Sleep began to overtake him, and he let it, despite his lack of shelter. For a normal person, sleeping naked in an icy forest would probably be a death sentence. Unlike most normal people, though, Ali had once been locked in a walk-in freezer for three days by a gangster named Crazy-Face Carlos. Ali had been as surprised as anyone to learn that the meat within him had somehow kept his insides from freezing. He felt a brief flash of joy remembering Carlos’s extra-crazy face upon seeing Meathooks alive, then he slid into sleep.

  The next morning he woke suddenly from a dream of prison. He was cold, hungry, and confused. The wounds on his chest and back no longer hurt, but they were raw and itched like hell. He heard a loud sound, like a dump truck or a bulldozer, and Ali realized that it had been this that had woken him. He sat still and focused. A minute later, there were more big, crashing machine sounds. Machines means people. Ali stood and scanned the woods around him, but he didn’t see anything but birds and weird-looking squirrels.

  He heard the noise again and followed it. About fifty yards ahead of him the land dropped off into a ravine. The noise was coming from down there. Ali got down and crawled to the edge as if he were on a rooftop downtown. He peered over.

  The ravine looked like a giant rock had been sheared in two and split apart. There was a steep drop of maybe fifty feet and the bottom was green with vegetation. Huge brown shapes moved back and forth, crushing branches and bushes beneath their feet.

  Are those fucking elephants?

  Ali gazed a bit longer. Some of the creatures turned and looked up at him lazily, but only for a moment. He could smell their musky fur from where he was. Fur.

  Not elephants. Mammoths.

  “Ya Allah. What the fuck is this Flintstones shit?” he spoke aloud, and it felt weird.

  It dawned on Ali that it might be not a question of where he was, but a question of when he was. It was crazy. But maybe no crazier than a guy who could turn into meat-and-metal because he caught an alien disease that allowed other people to fly.

  Whatever the fuck had happened, however the fuck it had happened, now he had to find a way back.

  Ali’s parents had managed to escape the bombs and bullets of Beirut, but the country they’d brought the
ir children to held its own dangers. By the time he was in junior high, Ali had shed his accent and ascended to the top of the junior high food chain. He was too big and too restless to not be dangerous. Smart enough to get myself into trouble, too dumb to get myself out, was the way he’d always thought about it.

  His parents were quiet, pious people, and Ali had hated them for it. Their rules, their sayings, their expectations. The only person he’d given a shit about was Wafa. His sister had understood him and loved him, even if she didn’t approve of his behavior. She had thought him a good person, and Ali could count on one big meaty hand the number of people he could say that about.

  In junior high he started doing little bullshit B&Es and nickel-bag hustles under the tutelage of the high school dropouts he thought of as the Older Guys.

  In 1988, when Ali was fourteen, the Detroit Tigers were in the World Series and all sorts of people came to Detroit. “All that money out there,” as Fadi had put it. Fadi was an older delinquent who drove Ali and his buddies to jobs. They’d gone up and down Trumbull, breaking windows and grabbing car radios while listening to the game announcers express utter bafflement at the poor decisions being made by the Tigers’ new manager, Charlie Flowers. Years later Ali would learn, along with the rest of the country, that Charlie Flowers had bet an enormous sum of money against his own team.

  By the time he was seventeen, Ali had dropped out of school himself and he was the one giving the lessons. He started working as muscle for southwest Detroit’s low-rent hoods. He got his own place and visited home only to see Wafa.

  And that’s when his whole family drew the wild card.

  Ali had come home one night, a week before his eighteenth birthday, coerced by Wafa to sit at a dinner table he wasn’t wanted at. He found them all lying on the living room floor, thick blood dribbling from their eyes and mouths and noses. Ali had barely looked at his parents. He knelt by Wafa’s side and took her hand. What happened? was the last thing he remembered thinking before the convulsions started.

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