Low chicago, p.45
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       Low Chicago, p.45

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

  He had no time to react to it. Suddenly behind him, the cottage door banged open and Nighthawk heard an angry voice call, “They didn’t leave the cash, Gio. Kill the bastard. We’ll teach them to fear the Black Hand—”

  It was Cynder, furious beyond measure. She was better dressed, better groomed, than Galante, but the anger twisting her face turned her countenance demonic. She stood at the cottage threshold, staring, and screamed, “You!”

  She cocked her arm and Nighthawk dove aside, grabbing Cap Anson and throwing him to the floor a second before the fireball swept over them, close enough for Nighthawk to feel its heat. Behind him, somebody screamed. He hoped it wasn’t Croyd. Nighthawk rolled, reached, and grabbed the stool, throwing it in one motion. Cyn, in the process of hurling another fireball, ducked, spoiling her aim. It hit the wall above the vanity and the dry wood burst into flame as the stool smacked Cyn in the side of the head, sending her tumbling to the floor.

  Anson was already on his feet. Choosing discretion over valor, he was out the door as flames danced over the cottage walls. Nighthawk hurled himself on Cynder as she tried to get to her feet. They fell to the floor together, rolling. She was cursing and spitting at him. He grabbed her wrists and pinned them to the floor. She bucked like a madwoman, but he held her down and began to drink.

  He drained her like a bottle of fine wine and her life felt good coursing through his body. He felt stronger, younger. She looked at him, terror in her eyes.

  “What are you doing to me?” she asked in a small voice, but he said nothing, just drank deep.

  As she weakened, Nighthawk risked a backwards glance. The bed was ablaze, with Galante on it. He screamed terrifyingly, and leaped to his feet like a flaming torch. He danced between Nighthawk and Croyd, waving his arms like a scarecrow ablaze.

  “John!” Croyd reached out, but a wall of flame already separated them. Croyd was trapped in the rear of the cottage. Nighthawk knew that he had to act quickly. He suddenly knew what he had to do. The heat was overpowering as the cottage burned. Croyd made a last gesture in Nighthawk’s direction, then he bounced a flash of temporal energy off the mirror, and was gone.

  Galante had stopped screaming and collapsed to the floor. He was blazing like a witch tied to a stake. Cyn had also stopped struggling. Her eyes were open, but unseeing as Nighthawk stood over her wrinkled and shrunken body. He had one chance and he took it. He covered his face with his arms, leaped, and crashed through the one window in the cottage wall, diving through a wall of flame headfirst. He felt it licking at his skin and clothes, then hit the ground and rolled, beating at the sparks dancing on his shirt.

  He got up from the ground. The fire had already spread to the barn. It would jump the river and rage throughout the city. But maybe he could outrun it.

  He ran back to the street, such as it was, through an open field and the first house that neighbored the O’Learys’. He was young again and he ran like he never had. Like he was running for something even more precious than his life. He passed another field and a house. People were already reacting to the fire, appearing in ones and twos outside their homes, staring with gaping mouths. Nighthawk ran. He ran until his gut was busting and his lungs felt as if they themselves were on fire. It wasn’t far, he told himself.

  He skidded to a stop before a pasture fenced off by wooden stakes and a couple of strands of barbed wire and unlooped the latch from around the gate, pulling it open. He left it open behind him, giving the livestock inside a chance to run for it before the fire reached them, and picked out a likely-looking horse. He’d been in the cavalry once and fought in Cuba next to Teddy Roosevelt and he knew how to ride. He didn’t need a saddle or bridle or reins. He grabbed a handful of mane and vaulted lightly onto the horse’s back, he kicked his heels into the horse’s side and shouted, rousing the other animals to flee in a stampede before him.

  He raced up the street. When they hit paved ground he was able to go faster, across the bridge and into the more urban part of the city. He pushed the horse unmercifully, but then, he reflected, he was saving the animal’s life. Not many near the source of the fire had survived; none, for example, of Mrs. Leary’s fabled cows. At least this animal would have a chance. People who were still out on this hot autumn evening looked at him as if he were mad. They shouted and waved at him, laughing and encouraging him on his way. But he needed no encouragement. He rode, the ride of a long strange lifetime.

  He was a hypocrite now, taking Croyd’s side in their argument about the butterfly effect. But who could blame him?

  He fled east and then north, outrunning the conflagration that pursued him. He pondered briefly the role that the Palmer House had played in all this, from beginning to end. Was it fate, or was it all just random?

  Nighthawk reined in the horse at the entrance to the Palmer, as this earlier iteration of the Palmer House had been called. He patted his mount on the neck, hugging it briefly. “Good horse,” he whispered. “You’re free. Run!” Ignoring all the stares of those around him, he ran into the lobby shouting, “Fire! Fire! Coming up from the south! Evacuate the hotel!”

  He didn’t stop to see if his words had any effect. He kept running until he hit the kitchen and swept into it, almost breathless. “Fire!” he shouted. “Go now! Just go!”

  He went through the kitchen, hurriedly, searching. People here knew him. He worked at the hotel as a porter. He was well liked and his word was trusted, so they believed. He knew that most had escaped the fire. Only a few, a very few, had died when the hotel was set ablaze. He’d been off that night, and no one knew why the ones who were trapped had been trapped. He kept looking, searching …

  In the end, he finally found her coming out of the ice room. “Louella!” he called, and crushed her to him.

  She was young, younger than Nighthawk and taller than him, slim and pliant as a willow.

  “John? What are you doing—”

  She was a cook and waitress at the hotel and he loved her, still loved her after all this time, more than anyone or anything in the world. “No time to talk—we have to move. There’s a big fire coming. It’ll sweep the hotel—” And kill you, he thought, almost choking, and I’ll never know why you died.

  “You crazy?” she asked him. “I’ve got to take an order up to the top floor—”

  “Louella, please. If you love me, come with me, now.”

  “But—our things, what about—”

  “No time for that. We’ve got to get out of the burn zone. Please.”

  “But—we’ll lose everything!”

  “We’ll have each other,” Nighthawk said. “And that’s all we’ll need.”

  A Long Night at the Palmer House

  Epilogue

  NO ONE NOTICED NIGHTHAWK when he quietly entered the room. He was a man of silence and shadows, anyway, and he never sought the spotlight.

  Croyd Crenson was sprawled on one of the sofas, sound asleep. Charles Dutton stood over him, tucking a pillow under his head. Half a dozen of the others were there as well, some looking on with concern, others with no more than mild interest. Not all of them, not by any means. Croyd’s power moved people through time, not space. Only some had returned to the Palmer House. Some had been there long enough to dress. Others were wrapped in blankets, or still naked.

  It was Khan who first sensed Nighthawk’s presence. He looked up, right into his eyes, and for a moment even the tiger man was startled. Finally, he grunted, and smiled.

  Nighthawk smiled back and walked into the sitting room.

  Some of them actually jumped, others looked like they were seeing a ghost.

  Nighthawk took off his hat, smiled back. He was dressed in one of his dark pin-striped suits, natty and out of time, as always.

  Dutton was the last to catch on. “Mr. Nighthawk. This is a surprise.”

  “Nice to see you, too.”

  “You look older,” Dutton said.

  Nighthawk straightened one of the overturned chairs and took a seat at the poker t
able. “It has been a long night. A hundred and forty-six years?”

  “How did you return to the present without Croyd’s powers?” asked John Fortune.

  “Day by day,” Nighthawk said. “I just lived through it all.”

  “Lived?” That was Mr. Nobody, wearing the face of Rod Taylor.

  “That would make me”—Nighthawk smiled—“three hundred and five years old now.”

  “What happened?” Dutton asked him.

  “Well,” Nighthawk said, “that’s a long story. But I can hit the highlights. You see, I lost the love of my life to the Great Chicago Fire. You all”—he gestured at those before them—“gave me a second chance to save her. For that, I’ll always be grateful. We had fifty years together before I lost her again.”

  “You changed history,” Dutton pointed out. “Your children…”

  Nighthawk shook his head. “We had none of our own. Louella couldn’t have any. But we took care of others. We surely did. You see, I did a bit of real estate speculating. Right after the Fire, every bit of money we had we put into this swampland north of the city. People laughed at us, said we were fools. We bought it for pennies an acre, hundreds of acres. Then, in the 1880s Harry Palmer—funny how he keeps coming up in this story—bought some of our land and filled in the swamp. We sold it to him on the condition he fill in our other acreage, which he was glad to do. He built a mansion on the land and all his rich friends followed and built nearby. The area’s now known as Chicago’s Gold Coast.” Nighthawk shrugged. “They wanted land. We had it. We made a fortune.”

  Dutton studied him “You changed many lives.”

  “Stepped on a lot of butterflies,” said Khan.

  Nighthawk shrugged. “Maybe. Or maybe Croyd was right all along. Maybe time is a river, and we’re just throwing stones in the water, making little ripples. They’re there momentarily, then they’re gone.”

  “Like my movies.” John Fortune laughed. “Gone and forgotten.”

  “Of course, some stones are pebbles, and some are boulders,” Nighthawk said. “That’s why I did what I could to help Croyd and myself along the way. I left care packages, clues, clothing, in all the places where I knew we’d be turning up.”

  “You left Meathooks,” said Fortune. “And Irina, the bar girl.”

  “Pebbles,” said Nighthawk.

  “That makes things easier in a way,” said Charles Dutton. “Gentlemen, we have seven million dollars in the wall safe. Shall we divide it between all those who returned?”

  “That’s a very generous idea,” John Fortune said. “As it happens, Jerry and I have a nice inheritance coming from our grandfather Tor.”

  Jerry smiled. “I got plenty out of the deal.”

  Dutton looked at Nighthawk, who shook his head. “My bank account is fine.”

  Dutton looked at Jack Braun, who shrugged. “What the hell, I lost it all, anyway. I guess I can find a way to take it off my taxes. Sure, I’ll take a cut.”

  “I’ll take mine too,” said Khan. “I damn well earned it.”

  “Splendid,” Dutton said. “We will have to hunt down the others. They will be popping up naked all over Chicago by now, the ones who haven’t arrived already. I am sure most of them will be glad of the money.” Death smiled at them all and somehow managed to not seem too sinister as he did so. “Now my best advice to you,” he said, “is don’t lose it.”

  Everyone had left the suite, except Nighthawk and Dutton … and Croyd, snoring on the sofa. He still looked like Donald Meek. The changes hadn’t started to come over him yet.

  “Are you angry at him,” Dutton asked, “for leaving you behind?”

  Nighthawk pursed his lips. “Can’t say I was happy when it happened, but it did help me make up my mind. Louella was always in my head, but I was afraid of changing history. Croyd’s leaving kind of forced my hand. I made up my mind to save her, and I’m glad I did.”

  “You didn’t tell the whole story, did you?” Dutton asked.

  Nighthawk looked into that Grim Reaper face, those dark, unblinking eyes. “You figured that out, did you?” He sighed. “Well, I didn’t lie. Everything I said was true. Only…” He paused. “After the Fire, they never found Louella’s body. Among the half dozen or so of those trapped in the hotel … well, there wasn’t enough left of any of them to identify them positively. But I always thought that she was one of them. Everybody did. Now … I’m not so sure. When I warned her about the Fire and took her away from the hotel, I realized that the next day my earlier self would look for her. I was afraid of a possible time paradox, so I convinced her to leave the city immediately. In the face of all that chaos it wasn’t difficult to disappear.”

  “In essence,” Dutton said, “you think that you may have stolen her from yourself?”

  “Yes,” Nighthawk said. “But I had to do it. If I’d done the noble thing and faded away after saving her and my younger self had found her the next day, my life would have been irrevocably changed. I would not be the same John Nighthawk who wound up dying of old age in that charity ward in a New York City hospital on September 15, 1946. I would have never caught the wild card virus. I would never have gone back in time to save her.”

  “A paradox, indeed,” Dutton murmured.

  “But in doing so, I condemned myself to a life without her. It was a hard and lonely life. I never married. I drifted from job to job, place to place, always looking for something that I knew I’d lost and could never find.” Nighthawk fell silent.

  “Well,” Dutton said. “In the end, was it worth it?”

  “Those fifty years with her? Yes. Yes it was.”

  “Then you did do the right thing.”

  Nighthawk nodded. He looked down at Croyd, who was muttering something about monkey stew under his breath. “What are you going to do with him?” he asked.

  Dutton sighed. “I’ll take him back to New York City,” he said. “I have a place in the back of the Dime Museum he uses from time to time.”

  Nighthawk smiled. “When he does wake up, will you give him a message from me?”

  “Gladly.”

  “Tell him it was Bradbury.”

  The Wild Cards Universe

  The Original Triad

  Wild Cards

  Aces High

  Jokers Wild

  The Puppetman Quartet

  Aces Abroad

  Down and Dirty

  Ace in the Hole

  Dead Man’s Hand

  The Rox Triad

  One-Eyed Jacks

  Jokertown Shuffle

  Dealer’s Choice

  Solo Novels

  Double Solitaire

  Turn of the Cards

  The Card Sharks Triad

  Card Sharks

  Marked Cards

  Black Trump

  Deuces Down

  Death Draws Five

  The Committee Triad

  Inside Straight

  Busted Flush

  Suicide Kings

  The Mean Streets Triad

  Fort Freak

  Lowball

  High Stakes

  The America Triad

  Mississippi Roll

  Low Chicago

  Texas Hold’em (forthcoming)

  About the Editor

  GEORGE R. R. MARTIN is the author of the international bestselling A Song of Ice and Fire series, which is the basis for the award-winning HBO series Game of Thrones. Martin has won the Hugo, Nebula, Bram Stoker, and World Fantasy Awards for his numerous novels and short stories.

  Visit him online at www.georgerrmartin.com, or sign up for email updates here.

  Twitter: @GRRMspeaking

  Thank you for buying this

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pdates on the editor, click here.

  Contents

  Title Page

  Copyright Notice

  Dedication

  Low Chicago

  A Long Night at the Palmer House

  Down the Rabbit Hole

  A Long Night at the Palmer House

  The Motherfucking Apotheosis of Todd Motherfucking Taszycki

  A Long Night at the Palmer House

  A Long Night at the Palmer House

  A Bit of a Dinosaur

  A Long Night at the Palmer House

  Stripes

  A Long Night at the Palmer House

  The Sister in the Streets

  A Long Night at the Palmer House

  A Beautiful Façade

  A Long Night at the Palmer House

  Meathooks on Ice

  A Long Night at the Palmer House

  A Long Night at the Palmer House

  A Long Night at the Palmer House

  The Wild Cards Universe

  About the Editor

  Copyright Acknowledgments

  Copyright

  Copyright Acknowledgments

  “A Long Night at the Palmer House” copyright © 2018 by John Jos. Miller.

  “Down the Rabbit Hole” copyright © 2018 by Kevin Andrew Murphy.

  “The Motherfucking Apotheosis of Todd Motherfucking Taszycki” copyright © 2018 by Christopher Rowe.

  “A Bit of a Dinosaur” copyright © 2018 by Paul Cornell.

  “Stripes” copyright © 2018 by Marko Kloos.

  “The Sister in the Streets” copyright © 2018 by Lumina Enterprises.

  “A Beautiful Façade” copyright © 2018 by Mary Anne Mohanraj.

  “Meathooks on Ice” copyright © 2018 by Saladin Ahmed.

  This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the authors’ imaginations or are used fictitiously.

 
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