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       Low Chicago, p.5

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

  One of the editors laughed and remarked, “So, you got the hot seat. Joker Julie talked Hef into having you shoot her.”

  “Kill da wabbit,” Constance sang under her breath with barely disguised jealousy to the tune of “Ride of the Valkyries.”

  A layout director with a heavy beard grinned and paused cutting his steak—the food at the mansion was top-notch—to tell Nick, “Hef’s a man of his word. He was calling Julie Cottontail his ‘clever bunny.’”

  “Dumb bunny is more like it,” Gwen stated, a little too loudly, cutting viciously into her steak. When all the men looked at her, she said, “Don’t you gentlemen know? All the girls do.”

  “Know what?” asked the editor.

  “Julie just asked Dr. Zimmerman for the pill. Just like that. Like it was the most ordinary thing in the world.”

  “The pill?” Nick echoed. “You mean birth control pills? Those aren’t fully legal yet, are they?”

  “No,” Constance said, rolling her eyes, “not unless you have severe menstrual cramps.”

  “Surprising the number of women who now have severe menstrual cramps,” Gwen remarked. “The pill might get legalized later this year, if we’re lucky.”

  “Yes, but then Julie just bounces in going, ‘Where can I get the pill? I lost my prescription, because my old doctor is being a baby now, so I need a new one.’”

  “Doc Zimmerman was not being a baby for refusing her,” Gwen stressed. “He’s got a wife and a baby boy to look after. He could have lost his license.”

  Constance nodded in violent agreement. “He has to play along with Congress’s charade. They’re the real babies here.”

  “Yeah, but Julie’s no prize either. Crazy bunny is more like it,” Gwen added. “Julie claims she’s been on birth control for years when Enovid has only been available for two.”

  “Clinical trials for a couple years before that, if you were lucky enough to get picked,” Constance chimed in, “not that they’d pick a teenager, let alone a joker.” She shrugged and took a dainty bite of steak. “Julie got the pill anyway, but only because Hef called in a favor and had us give her a talk first.” Constance shrugged. “Might as well call her lucky bunny.”

  “Oh?” Nick asked.

  “Yeah,” Gwen agreed in hushed tones with a glance up to the head of the table, “she could have ended up in jail. Around Christmas, Hef got a call from the Palmer House. These crazy swingers had set up in his favorite suite and were charging everything to his tab. Guy claimed he was a friend of Hef’s from Hollywood and had the passwords from Hef’s little black book. Hef didn’t know a thing about it and hasn’t even been to Hollywood yet. But he went down to have a chat, and the next thing we know, he’s paid the Palmer House, brought them back to the mansion, and they’ve been here ever since.”

  Constance stabbed a potato with her fork. “I think he just admires their chutzpah.”

  Nick had to admit that he did, too, though he was fairly certain there was more to Will Monroe and Julie Cotton’s story than just chutzpah.

  Nick awoke to a presence at the foot of his bed. Actually two.

  He was used to tuning out the electrical energy in other human beings, but only when awake. Asleep, it made him jumpy, and soon after drawing his ace, he’d even shocked people who tried to wake him up, but never so badly he hadn’t been able to blame it on static electricity.

  A locked door solved most of that risk, and getting in the habit of sleeping in the nude explained the need for a locked door. Fortunately, mentioning this peculiarity at the Playboy Mansion was greeted with cries of “Who doesn’t?”

  He opened his eyes the barest crack, seeing only darkness except for a dim bit of illumination from the narrow window. No one was standing at the foot of his bed, but his bed was placed against the wall, and the presences he sensed were just on the other side of that wall. And each bore double Ds—not breasts, but batteries.

  Somewhere there had to be an ace or deuce who could sense breasts, but Nick was not him. But batteries were easy, their size and charge, and whether or not the circuit was connected. These were paired D-cells in a configuration Nick immediately recognized as indicative of flashlights switched off. And the height they were held at suggested the bearers were female, breast size unknown, but given what he’d seen at the Playboy Mansion thus far, probably at least a B-cup, likely a C or above.

  And by the glimmer of moonlight coming in the window, once Nick’s eyes adjusted to the dimness, he could see a tiny strip of paneling was missing, and behind the missing strip he could see the glitter of a pair of eyes belonging to the owner of one of the pairs of batteries and the presumed flashlight.

  Nick tamped down the instinct to fluoresce with an aura of light and energy. It had happened a few times and was the worst defense for an ace trying to keep his card up the sleeve, and the only thing that had saved him before was that no one had seen his face. But Hef and half of the Playboy staff knew who was sleeping in the former maid’s bedroom, and then they’d not just get the show they’d been hoping for, the former swim champion sleeping alone in the buff, but also get to see an ace blowing his cover.

  Using a parlor trick to draw some of the energy out of the batteries and light up the flashlights was also not a good idea, nor was ionizing enough energy to light up the light bulbs in the room without touching the light switches. But touching the lights as a nat would …

  Nick reached out and pulled the chain of the bedside lamp.

  The light crackled to life as the slot in the paneling slammed shut. Nick felt the pairs of double D batteries retreat along with the associated human energy fields.

  Being able to control electricity did not mean being able to control light, and Nick was blinded by the sudden glare. But once his eyes adjusted, he got up and went and looked at the paneling. The panels were smooth and polished, but he could just make out the crack in one, set in to look like a bit of piecework used to remove a knothole. Nick’s ace, however, could sense the metal behind, the interference consistent with an iron bolt and a hinge.

  Two more hinges were detectable as well as a latch. Feeling around on a nearby section of panel revealed a knothole not large enough to warrant removal, but the center functioned as a button. The panel at the foot of his bed swung out.

  Nick had already been dropped down one secret chute—thankfully into a swimming pool and not a vat of acid—and now he’d been spied on through a peephole from a secret passage.

  The chance that the architect of Chicago’s Murder Castle had designed only one such building was not a chance that Nick was willing to bet his life on. So while it would usually be the height of foolishness for a former swimmer to wander nude into a dark cobwebbed passage, most former swimmers weren’t aces who could conjure ball lightning charges that could hang in the air with the same illumination as Chinese lanterns. Plus his will-o’-wisps moved as he willed. And Nick could sense other people, especially if they carried flashlights.

  Whoever had spied upon him was definitely shorter since they hadn’t broken the cobwebs at his head height. He used his hands for that, not wanting to set the mansion on fire, and explored down the passage, will-o’-wisps bobbing before and after.

  A few yards down, he found the bolt-and-hinge arrangement of another Judas peephole. Nick recalled his will-o’-wisps, letting the energy ground back into his reservoir, dousing their light, then popped the peephole and gazed out into the bedroom of two Playmates. A night-light provided soft and erotic illumination of one lying on her back in a languid pose, breasts exposed and glorious. Nick wished he’d brought the Argus and some Kodak 120. The second Playmate was not in a flattering pose, sprawled face-first into the pillow, arm dangling over the side of the bed, having apparently lost a wrestling match with the comforter.

  Nick shut the peephole and proceeded on, keeping his ace alert for the presence of batteries, especially moving ones. There were a disconcerting number of flashlight D-cells throughout the mansion, all switched off at t
he moment, stored at heights you’d expect for dresser drawers, until Nick sensed one move and then have the circuit connected, turning on.

  He vanished his will-o’-wisps back into himself, dousing the light, ready to race blind down the passage, realizing that perhaps he hadn’t thought this plan through completely. The flashlight batteries moved forward and back, again and again, as if their holder were searching for something. Nick held his breath, hearing only the pounding of his heart and then a low oscillating whine reverberating through the walls.

  The batteries continued to move and the whirring hum was joined by the sound of a woman moaning. Moaning in pleasure.…

  Nick brought a glow to his eyes long enough to find the peephole, then spied in, seeing a Playmate atop her bed, naked in the moonlight, demonstrating that flashlight batteries could be used in other handheld tools, in this case a vibrator, as she came closer to finding what she was looking for, that something being her G-spot.

  “Oooooo!” the Playmate moaned, having found it.

  Nick found his erect penis sticking into cobwebs. He wiped them free then shut the peephole. The Playboy Mansion was showing itself to be less Murder Castle and more Voyeurs Paradise. But there was still more to explore.

  A secret stairwell led up and down. Nick chose upstairs, finding a peephole into the library: currently unoccupied but with a light left on. A collection of photo albums lay on the coffee table, one open to boudoir photos of beauties half a century past.

  Nick proceeded on, spying through another peephole into the ballroom, empty at the moment. Then he sensed the presence of two sets of flashlight batteries on the move, not in pleasure, but coming up the stairs at the end of the passage. Nick grabbed the knob on the panel in front of him and turned. It wouldn’t budge and the flashlights were nearing the top of the stairs. He pulled his will-o’-wisps into himself, plunging the secret corridor into darkness.

  The darkness did not last long, beams of light illuminating the end of the hall. Nick fumbled desperately then found the catch, releasing it. The panel beside him slid aside, a hidden pocket door, but rolled slowly. Nick squeezed through the gap the moment he could, turning his shoulders sideways.

  The ballroom was illuminated by moonlight through the grand windows. Nick ran to the piano, pulling on the gilded bar to the right of the music stand. He heard a click from the trapdoor, then ran to stand atop it. For a second time, he fell down the secret chute, this time on purpose. But this time also without the rug or pants. The cobwebs he was covered in offered scant protection as he discovered the slide was not so smooth when you slid down it naked.

  He dove on instinct.

  The pool was not deserted, but everyone there was drunk, no one questioning his use of the slide or his apparent decision that clothing was optional at this hour.

  Nick took one of the mansion’s guest robes from the poolside cabinet then went back to his room, half expecting someone to be waiting for him.

  No one was. After a long while staring at the secret panel, Nick pulled the chain on the bedside table lamp and went back to sleep.

  The next day, Nick went out of the mansion for a walk until he found a convenient phone booth and dialed a number. A woman’s voice answered: “Hedda Hopper’s office. Who may I say is calling?”

  “Nick Williams,” Nick answered.

  “Nicholas darling,” Hedda replied. “So, what did my favorite gumshoe find out for mother?”

  Nick started with the petty gossip: the Playboy Club’s theme was still undecided, but a toss-up between a revamped Everleigh Club corset models and sex kittens.

  “How quaint. I’ll tell Lollipop. Let’s see how she spins that.” Hedda laughed nastily. “But on to my question. Is Hef an ace?”

  “No,” said Nick.

  “Does he employ one?”

  “Probably not, but…” Nick related the bare details about Will Monroe and his Golden Globe picks.

  “Well, far be it from me to say I’m happy with being beaten at my own game,” Hedda remarked, “but I’m at least pleased that it isn’t some cheating ace. Will Monroe, you say? Name’s not ringing any bells. Likely assumed. I’ve never heard of those pictures or those actors either. DiCaprio and Schwarzenegger? A wop and a kraut? And one of the films is Hindenburg? Smells like German cinema. You said ‘Monroe’ is blond? How tall?”

  “About my height. Couldn’t tell precisely. We were both sitting down.”

  “Still not tall enough,” Hedda’s tinny voice snapped over the phone, speculating out loud. “Murnau was a freak back when they weren’t common, just one inch shy of seven feet. And he was queer as a three-dollar bill. But there are rumors of him having a love child with some actress. Still … Just how old is this ‘Will Monroe’?”

  “I’d guess mid-fifties, maybe a little less.”

  “Likely too old then, unless Murnau fathered him at ten. But thirteen/fourteen? Murnau/Monroe? If I were Murnau’s love child looking for an alias, that is what I would go for. And who knows? Very tall boy, very small woman? It’s really not outside of possibility, especially if it’s what put Murnau off girls to begin with.…” The phone held silence except for the static, then Hedda pronounced, “I’ll dig on this end, you dig on that. See how far down the rabbit hole you can get.”

  “Okay,” Nick said, “but speaking of rabbits…”

  He told her about Julie. Hedda was not pleased. “Well,” she said, “it would compromise you as my spy to have you take unflattering pictures of her, so do your best. But on to my most pressing question. Why is Hefner so certain that Kennedy will win the presidency?”

  Nick wondered how to phrase it without tipping his own voting preferences. “Hef’s as liberal as they come, and Kennedy was visiting the mansion.…”

  “Kennedy?” Hedda nearly shrieked. “Talk about burying the lede! Tell me everything.”

  Nick did.

  “Flirting with a joker prostitute in a hot tub?” Hedda fumed. “What I wouldn’t give for pictures of that!” After a moment of sinister static, Hedda added, “Fortunately I know a photographer.…”

  Once the call concluded, Nick reached frantically for his cigarette case. He felt dirty after that conversation, and even dirtier after he realized he’d used his last match in the book, then on reflex mimed lighting one and shielding it in his hands to light a cigarette. In reality, he conjured a tiny will-o’-wisp in the palm of his hand.

  He took a slow draw till the cherry caught, then pulled the electric charge back into himself and flicked his hand sharply to toss the nonexistent match into the gutter before it could burn his finger. Nick took a drag on his cigarette, checking those in view for any reactions. But no one evidenced any, not the smart young couple out walking a pair of pugs, not the boy on the bicycle wearing a crowned beanie.

  Nick exhaled a cloud of smoke. There was not much remarkable about a tall man in a fedora and an overly thin coat walking down the sidewalk with a cigarette. Will-o’-Wisp, or at least reports of him, was left safely back in Hollywood. At least for the moment.

  After collecting the Argus’s case from his room, Nick found his way to the library. He glanced to the coffee table with the photo albums and, from the angle of the open one, guessed which bookshelf held the peephole and presumably the secret door.

  Julie Cotton was already there, apparently oblivious to the secret passage. Today she wore nothing but lingerie, a white satin singlet with bustier, customized like yesterday’s swimsuit with a spot for her fluffy tail to stick through, sticking up in the air as she bent over a random assortment of garments stacked on a red velvet sofa. “What do you think?” she asked, straightening up and gesturing to the collection.

  Nick thought she’d have given a great show to any voyeur using the vintage peephole but only said, “I think you won’t have a chance to wear all those. The point of Playboy is to see women with their clothes off, not on.”

  She smiled. “I thought you read it for the articles.”

  “That too.” Nick
grinned. “But the pictures bear repeat viewing.”

  “True,” she admitted, “but we girls get interviews too. If you could ask me one question, what would it be?”

  “How did your card turn?” Nick answered honestly.

  “Exactly. Most guys will beat around the bush a bit, but that’s what everyone wants to know. And, you know, if there are any other surprises down there.…” She reached up to the top of her bustier, putting her hands atop her large and very natural-looking breasts. “Want a peep?”

  Nick nodded.

  With a stripper’s training, she teased the edge of one side of the bustier down, then the other, exposing two pink and perfect aureoles before finally letting him see her full breasts. They were magnificent, smooth and firm with pale white skin and the faintest tracery of blue veins, without any visible stretch marks. She slid the costume down, exposing her slim middle, perfect navel, and finally, the surprise.

  The surprise was something Nick both halfway expected and, he realized on some level, hoped for. The hair of her feminine triangle, while matching her natural platinum blond, also matched the soft down of an angora rabbit, just like the fluffy fur on her ears and tail.

  She let the costume fall to her feet, stepping out of it, then turned around so he could see only her pert derriere and the fluffy white cottontail she twitched flirtatiously as she peered at him over her shoulder.

  “Julie … Cottontail?”

  “Yep.” She cocked her head and her ears flopped coquettishly. “If you think the kids teased me with that before my card turned, you should have heard them after.” She turned, falling back on the sofa, and laughed as her breasts bounced with the springs. “I was seven and mad for bunnies. Had some as pets, had the slippers, had them sewn on my clothes, Bugs Bunny pajamas, the works. Even rabbit wallpaper and bunny cutouts my mom glued on my lampshade. Plus all the books. The Velveteen Rabbit, of course, and the March Hare and the White Rabbit from Alice, and Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny from Beatrix Potter. But my favorite was Rabbit Hill, this old kids’ book that won the Newbery Medal.” She looked troubled then, but then most wild cards did when discussing the trauma of their card turning.

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