Low chicago, p.6
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       Low Chicago, p.6

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

  Nick also put together her age now with what she’d said. “You were one of the first,” he realized. “You changed back in ’46 when the blimps blew.”

  She gave him a wide-eyed look like a frightened bunny. “Yeah, on Wild Card Day. In ’46.” She looked away. “All I knew is that I had an awful fever like the kid in The Velveteen Rabbit, then I dreamed about … Rabbit Hill … and I woke up like this.” She looked up at him and her ears twitched. “What about with you?”

  “What?” Nick asked. “What about what with me?”

  “What was it like when you turned your card?”

  “I’m not a wild card,” Nick denied on reflex. “I’m a nat.”

  “You sure?” Julie asked, her ears perking up a bit straighter. “You asked me the way us cards ask each other, like you already knew what it’s like.” She tilted her head the other way. “Don’t worry. If you’re up the sleeve, it’s okay.”

  Hef was right. Clever bunny indeed. But all Nick said was, “Sorry, really, I’m just a nat.” He then added, since it was true and gave him cover, “I’m just from Hollywood. Lots of jokers end up there for B movies. Makes easy costuming for monsters.”

  “That’s exploitative,” Julie remarked disapprovingly, sitting there naked beside a pile of costumes.

  “It’s a job,” Nick pointed out.

  Julie gave a wry grin. “Speaking of which, since I’m already nude, wanna do my centerfold?”


  “Hey, aim high. Worst Hef can do is say no.” She grinned wider, fishing around in the pile of props until she came up with a circlet of braided wheat. “What better Miss March than the March Hare?”

  With that, she placed it on her head, reaching up and pulling it down over both ears. On any other model, it would have looked like a head wreath for a harvest queen or a classical accessory for a Gilded Age tableau of the Greco-Roman goddesses, the wheat sheaf crown of Demeter/Ceres. But on Julie Cotton, tilted rakishly askew like the halo of a hungover angel, it made her resemble Tenniel’s illustration of the Mad Hatter’s chum from the Mad Tea Party.

  “Got a teacup?” Nick asked.

  “Oh yes.” Julie produced one from her pile of rummaged props. “And I’ve got something even better.…” With that she hopped over to the bookshelf, doing a mad little dance en route with terpsichorean grace before pulling down a volume.

  She flipped it open, revealing a copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with hand-tinted illustrations. The page she’d chanced on bore the illustration of Alice and the Cheshire Cat.

  A scrap of paper fluttered out, landing on the floor in between them. Nick reached down and picked it up. The penmanship was round and feminine, European in style, with two words: possible costume.

  Nick showed Julie. “Lownes wants the Playboy Club girls to be dressed up as sexy kittens.”

  “The Pussycat Dolls.” Julie rolled her eyes, then raised her teacup and the book, thumbing forward a couple pages to show the illustration for the Mad Tea Party. “Rather than fake kittens, wouldn’t it be better if the first Playboy mascot were an actual bunny girl?”

  She was audacious, he gave her that. Playboy had yet to even feature a black girl. “You need to sell that to Hef, not me,” was all Nick told her as he took the first photo.

  Julie was easy to work with, eager and almost ridiculously photogenic. She donned a gentleman’s waistcoat and pocket watch to give the impression of the White Rabbit, assuming the White Rabbit was a young woman with large breasts. “I’m late! I’m late!” she cried, holding a running pose with a ballerina’s poise, purposefully pointing her ears back to give the impression that she was racing like the wind.

  Nick used half a roll of film for that, getting her from multiple angles.

  Julie cycled through her pile of props: A carrot and a shotgun made for Bugs Bunny. An Edwardian red woolen wrap and a series of three poses made for Peter Rabbit’s sisters, Flopsy, Mopsy, and, of course, Cottontail. The Velveteen Rabbit was less obvious, but a beautiful nude reclining on divan with an assortment of vintage children’s toys was still a sexy pose.

  “So what’s Rabbit Hill about?” Nick asked, changing film, remembering back to childhood. He’d never read the book, but he’d thought it was relatively new, not a reprint of a forgotten classic. He recalled a cover with a rabbit hopping gaily over a hill. There’d been a new copy on the shelf at his school library, but the book had looked too cutesy to bother with, so it hadn’t crossed his recollection till she’d mentioned it now.

  “Um, rabbits. On a hill.”

  “I sort of expected that.” Nick thought back. “The rabbit on the cover was naked, right? Bouncing in the air but standing up?”

  “Ooh, that’s a good idea!” Julie exclaimed. “Let’s do that!”

  With that she leapt onto the sofa and began bouncing, not so much like a child on a bed as a naked woman on a trampoline. Nick began to take photos, Julie’s glorious breasts bouncing for all to see, “all” in this case meaning him and the camera.

  And maybe someone using the peephole. Nick felt a presence there, the electrical energy the hazy outline of a living being but with the telltale nuggets of a flashlight.

  He wasn’t a professional dancer, unless you counted a bit part in the men’s water ballet in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but a swimmer and actor could still do sudden leaps. Nick did, angling the Argus to get a wild action shot of Julie while in the background snapping the spying eyes. The peephole snapped shut and the flashlight batteries completed their circuit as they retreated, the hazy human energy along with them. Nick continued shooting Julie until the film roll was exhausted and so was she.

  He was a bit, too, and also curious if the spy in the secret passage would come back. “Want to take a break?” he asked. “Look at the albums from the Everleigh Club?”

  Julie smiled. “Hef said something about those. They’re here?”

  “I think so.” Nick picked a spot on the love seat with the best angle on the closed peephole, which now looked like nothing more than a strip of carved laurels.

  Julie, still nude, picked up the open album and brought it back to the love seat so they could both look at the pictures.

  The Everleigh Club girls modeled bustiers and corsets, some sporting headbands with oversize poppy rosettes to each side, the fashion of the era. White ink, neatly penned onto the album’s black paper, gave the names of the girls and the various special occasions. This album, dated 1902, featured a visit from the smiling, bearded, and mustached Prince Henry of Prussia. Ada and Minna Everleigh, the club’s eponymous proprietresses and madams, posed with the prince, a bevy of girls about them.

  Julie giggled as she paged through the rest of the album, but Nick was distracted by the dual tasks of trying to monitor the peephole and the very close presence of a beautiful naked woman snuggled into the love seat beside him.

  “Let’s look at another!” Julie closed that album and picked the next at random: 1908. Highlights included a tableau with the girls costumed as Eskimos, a pair of selkie maids in sealskin coats, and a polar bear played by a large woman clothed only in a polar bearskin rug, all fawning over Admiral Peary, the famed polar explorer. A page on, another nude woman played mama bear, but this time with a brown or at least sepia-tone bearskin rug, hunted by none other than Teddy Roosevelt. Beside TR, playing his guide and gun bearer while looking directly at the camera and grinning ear to ear, stood a young man with pale skin, dark hair, and dark soulful eyes, and an amusingly upturned pug nose.

  “It’s Pug!” Julie exclaimed, pointing to TR’s pug-nosed guide.

  Nick read the caption: Our intrepid guide, Gary Peterman, leads President Roosevelt to the lair of Ursula, the She-Bear!

  “Who’s ‘Pug’?” Nick asked.

  “Um, a child actor,” Julie answered. “He’s a friend of Will’s.”

  “Here he is again.” Nick pointed to the next page, where Teddy Roosevelt posed formally if cheerfully with Ada Everleigh while Minna
was escorted by Gary Peterman, again with the goofily charming grin, giving both thumbs up to the camera like the world’s cheeriest Roman emperor.

  “Child actor?” Nick questioned. “I assume you mean on stage, right? Because this guy’s at least twenty and these photos are from 1908.”

  Julie bit her lip and looked at Nick anxiously. “Um, yeah. On stage. Pug’s career didn’t make it into talkies. I mean silents. But he was hoping to start it up again.”

  “Again? Is he still around? He must be in his seventies.”

  “Um, I hope so. Will will want to find him. And he needs to see these. Sorry.” She got up, clutching the photo album to her ample chest as if it were the most precious thing in the world, and ran out of the room like the White Rabbit late for a croquet date with the Queen of Hearts. Naked croquet.

  Nick felt the presence at the peephole again and took a picture of the eyes that appeared the moment it was opened. The peephole shut as quickly and the flashlight batteries retreated. Nick suspected Gwen and Constance. But eyes were distinctive and there were a lot of Playmate photos. What was more intriguing was Julie and Will. For as much as they maintained a playful affability, Julie was possibly Will’s daughter. They acted like they had a shared history, but not necessarily a sexual one.

  But more to the point, Will had mentioned that he was a bastard, his mother an actress, his father presumably a rich and powerful man, but one who could be undone by scandal. Will Monroe, perhaps not the illegitimate son of F. W. Murnau, but the bastard son of Ada or Minna Everleigh and one of their prominent guests? Prince Henry of Prussia would certainly explain Will’s Germanic look, as would the Dutch origins of the Roosevelt dynasty. And Gary “Pug” Peterman, the former child actor, then apparently Ada and Minna’s trusted majordomo? Who better to act as surrogate father to the famous madams’ unacknowledged son and nephew?

  This also explained Will’s interaction with Kennedy and for that matter Hefner. Teddy Roosevelt was long dead, Prince Henry likewise, but the senator was the closest Monroe might come to actually meeting his father, or at least a man like him. And Hefner was the closest thing Chicago had to a carriage trade brothel keeper like the Everleigh sisters.

  Then there was the Everleigh sisters’ fortune. If Monroe was the unacknowledged bastard son of one, but could find proof in the albums Hefner had purchased from Ada’s estate, then he might have a good chance of suing for at least that half of his inheritance, maybe even extracting acknowledgment or at least hush money from the Roosevelts or whatever was left of the Prussian royal family.

  So many possibilities. Nick didn’t know if he’d guessed the right one, but he meant to follow the rabbit hole down.

  That night, the taping of Playboy’s Penthouse went much as planned: Nick was introduced as the new Hollywood photographer, then served as a foil for Kennedy to give his speech. Then Julie bounced in, introduced as nothing more elevated than a “prospective Playmate,” but that in itself was a civil rights statement, as was Kennedy’s conversation with her, pledging his support to the joker community.

  Nick was rotated out for this, relegated to the sidelines of the penthouse cocktail party that was really just a soundstage at WBKB. Mayor Daley entered. Will Monroe stood beside Nick as they watched Julie hop to fetch drinks for Kennedy and Daley, Hef smiling, ever the genial host. Nick got out his cigarette case and wordlessly offered one to Will.

  “Shorry, don’t shmoke,” Will told him, slurring his words. He’d been moved to the sidelines to keep up the Playboy image of social drinking, not wanton inebriation. “Y’shouldn’t either. Things’ll kill you.”

  “These are filtered. Companies say they’re safe now.”

  “They’re lying,” Will stated flatly. “It’ll come out. Trust me.”

  He was curiously insistent about this, like a prophet. But Nick had heard fire-and-brimstone health warnings before, mostly recycled temperance rants like Carrie Nation going on about President Grant and his lips rotting off. “Well, Prohibition didn’t turn out too well either.” He nodded to Will Monroe’s scotch.

  “I’ve got reasons to drink.” Will raised his glass. “Trust me on that too.”

  “And I’ve got reasons for not drinking.” With that, Nick put his cigarette case away and lit his cigarette with one of the numerous matchbooks that littered the set. He then whispered sotto voce, “So, Kennedy reminds you of your father?”


  Some of the best clues were dropped by drunk people, so Nick pressed on. “Put two and two together. You think your father was someone powerful, maybe a politician. Julie ran off with the album with the photos of Teddy Roosevelt. You’re the right age. I’m guessing either TR or Prince Henry of Prussia, with an outside chance of F. W. Murnau.”

  “Always loved his work, but that would be a trick.” Will Monroe guffawed and took a swig of scotch. “Murnau was gay.…”

  “Or maybe Admiral Peary?”

  “No, try again.”

  “Gary Peterman?” Nick prodded and saw Will Monroe’s eyes go wide. “I was thinking he was a surrogate father, but maybe he’s your actual father? Julie said Pug was a child actor, and you mentioned the psychic said your father was an actor.…”

  “Pug and I had a father-son relationship, but it’s not what you think.” Will Monroe’s eyes narrowed as he nursed his scotch, then he shrugged. “Maybe you’re my father. Who knows?”

  “I wasn’t around in 1908 to have an affair with the Everleigh sisters.”

  “The Everleigh sisters?” Will chuckled. “No, my mom’s an actress. A famous one. But I’m not going to tell you who. But my father?” Will smiled, his expression equal parts bemusement and admiration as he looked Nick up and down. “You even look like me, or at least like I used to. Still swim laps, try to keep in shape. But no one stays young forever.…”

  “Except the Golden Rat,” Nick put in. “Guy’s in his thirties, but still looks like he’s in high school.”

  “Just you wait.” Will Monroe chuckled and took another swig of scotch, adding, “Jack swore he wasn’t my dad, and I finally believed him, but he looks like me too. Or did. Or will.”

  Nick took a long drag on his cigarette and raised an eyebrow at the drunk man. “So Jack Braun is not only strong and invulnerable, but he can travel in time?”

  “Maybe not now, but he will.” Will downed his glass. “I wonder where he is now.”

  “In Hollywood somewhere boning a starlet.”

  “No, I meant my old poker buddy.” Will Monroe staggered, putting his arm around Nick for support. “Jack’sh the one who told me about the Palmer House game.” He paused. “If I tell Jack now to not go to the poker game, then…”

  Nick didn’t know what Will was talking about, but he did know that a drunk was passing out on him. Nick dropped his cigarette as Will dropped his glass. It shattered on the floor of the set, scotch and glass shards flying everywhere, as he grabbed the older man around the middle and eased him to the floor.

  “Your name’s Nick Williams.” Will grabbed Nick’s hand and squeezed it, looking at him plaintively. “William’s my first name. But my mother always called me Will.…”

  The alcohol on Will’s breath was almost overpowering and the fumes from the spilled scotch even more so. Nick felt a shock going through him from the contact high and it was all he could do to keep his internal battery in check.

  “Are you him?” Will begged, clutching his hand. “Are you my father? Will you be?”

  “I’m sorry,” Nick said honestly. “I can’t be.” He gritted his teeth with the effort to keep from lighting him up like a Christmas tree and shocking Will to death, but he forced the bleeding electricity away into an invisible ionic charge.

  Floodlights overloaded, light bulbs exploded, cameramen began swearing, then with a crack and a pop and a cascade of sparks, the studio was plunged into darkness.

  “What the hell!?” came Hef’s voice. “We’re on air!”

  “Not anymore!” someone called ba
ck. “Blew a circuit breaker!”

  Nick knelt by Will, cradling him like a baby, the only illumination the cherry of the dropped cigarette then the flare as it caught the spreading pool of scotch. The drunk man’s face crumpled up like a wet paper bag in the hellish glow. “My father…” He sobbed a child’s sob. “My father … I never knew my father.…”

  Nick laid a hand of solace on the drunk’s forehead, brushing back his hair from his eyes. “I’m sorry,” Nick apologized, “I don’t know who he is.”

  Back at the mansion, Hef had a couple Playmates who were also trained nurses. They were given the job of hydrating Will and getting him to bed. Hef took another couple Playmates to bed himself, and while there were Playmates ready and willing to join Nick, he begged off, preferring to turn in early for the night.

  Of course, he’d also seen Julie Cotton still fawning over Kennedy, and part of a private investigator’s job was taking pictures of men having affairs. Hedda had wanted pictures of Kennedy and Julie in a hot tub, but Nick thought he could find even hotter water than that.

  This time, however, he brought a flashlight and wore clothes to explore the Playboy Mansion’s secret passages, including his hat.

  The mansion had more than one set of passages. The main ones, until him, had not been explored by anyone tall, judging by the breaks in the cobwebs. The secondary corridors had not been explored in years, if that, opening in secret off of already secret passageways.

  Of course, most explorers weren’t able to sense the electromagnetic interference caused by a spiderweb-covered bolt. Nick could and in short order found his way down a cobweb-draped corridor that led to the room where Jack Kennedy was staying.

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