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       Low Chicago, p.7

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

  The peephole bolt was rusted shut, but electricity removed rust. Nick looked out into dimness, able to make out the silhouettes of a four-poster bed and the two people in it, one atop the other, the one on top sporting a round tail and distinctive long ears.

  “Did you hear that?” asked Julie Cotton.

  “Mmm, hear what?” asked Jack Kennedy in his Boston Brahmin drawl.

  “That sound.”

  “Just someone slamming a door somewhere.”

  Julie’s ears twitched in silhouette. “No, it was closer than that.” They swiveled toward Nick.

  Nick started to swing the peephole shut but there was a faint creak so he stopped. Julie’s ears stood straight up. Hoping her eyesight was only human, Nick covered the slot of the peephole with the soft gray felt of his hat brim. It muffled sound as well, but when he finally thought it safe to steal a glance, Julie’s silhouette was again facing forward.

  “—only thing creaking here is the bed,” Jack insisted, thrusting up into her, making the springs creak with his exertions.

  “I don’t think so.” Julie’s ears twitched. “These ears are for more than just petting, you know.”

  “Then it’s a rat.” Another thrust. “This place is old.”

  Nick did feel a bit like Judas, but he wasn’t one of Kennedy’s disciples, the man was just a politician, and what’s more, a married man, having an affair when he had not just a wife but kids. If Nick was a rat, he certainly wasn’t the only one.

  “Okay,” Julie said, “but promise me one thing. Don’t ever go to Texas.”

  “Can’t promise you that.” Jack laughed. “You’re a crazy bunny.” A grunt. “I like you, Julie.” Grunt. “But it’s a big state.” Grunt. “Gonna have to stump.”

  “I don’t care if you stump! Just don’t go there after you’re elected.”

  “Might wanna run for a second term.…”

  “I want you to too,” Julie cried, beginning to sob, “but you won’t. Trust me, you won’t. Just promise me you won’t go to Dallas.”

  “Dallas is a big city.”

  “Then just promise me you won’t go to Dealey Plaza,” Julie sobbed. “Don’t go anywhere near that damned school book depository.…”

  “Okay,” he moaned, “on one condition.…”


  “You quit teasing me with the crazy talk and we just have wild bunny sex!”


  With that, Julie began bouncing as gaily as the rabbit on the cover of Rabbit Hill, except instead of a hill, she was atop Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

  This was the money shot, but the room was too dark, and it would give away the game to use a flash. But unlike most photographers, Nick had an ace. He bled off electricity into the air like a Tesla coil, the ionic charge making the light bulbs light up on their own.

  Light up they did, enough to get three clear shots until the bulbs in the chandelier went up like flashbulbs, overloading one after another.

  “What the hell!” cried Jack.

  “What on earth!” cried Julie.

  Nick cried nothing, only used the distraction to slam and bolt the peephole.

  The bulb in his flashlight had blown, too, but he had will-o’-wisps to light the way.

  Two days later, Nick deposited a stack of photos on Hef’s desk. A second smaller stack of photos and their negatives were hidden under the lining of the Argus’s case.

  Two other photos and negative frames, one with a blurry photo on the model but a good focus on the background, another just a shot of a bookcase, had been left out. Nick had compared the eyes in the library peephole with the eyes of the Playmates and matched them with Constance and Gwen, as expected.

  Hef picked up the photos, flipping through them without comment, then began to lay them in groups atop the desk. “White Rabbit, March Hare, Peter Rabbit’s hot sisters … What’s this?”

  “The Velveteen Rabbit,” Nick answered.

  Hef nodded and came to the last set of photos, flipping through them. He paused at one. “Great action shot. Got centerfold written all over it.”


  “Yep,” Hef said, “had a gentleman’s bet with Will. He won. Asked me to make Julie centerfold. Was thinking of doing it anyway, but later. But these photos? I’m moving her up to Miss March. And we’ve got the new theme for the club. That harpy Parsons somehow got word we were doing kittens, so we’re going to switch it up and unveil bunnies instead.” Hef gazed at the centerfold, Nick’s shot of Julie bouncing gaily in the air, then laid it on the desk. He then opened a drawer and pulled out a book, setting it beside the photograph with a grim chuckle. “Knew I’d seen this pose before.”

  A shiny Newbery Medal sticker adorned the cover of Rabbit Hill, a bunny bouncing beside it in the same pose, a hill with a little red house in the background below. “My daughter Christie’s seven,” Hef mentioned. “I asked Julie what sort of book a seven-year-old girl would like. She suggested this.”

  Nick reached out and flipped it open, noting the title page and the words below: The Viking Press—New York 1944. “Two years before Wild Card Day.…”

  “Must have made quite an impression.” Hef tapped the nude. “So will this.”


  “We’re going to need a clothed shot for the cover, but that doesn’t have to wait until Valdes swaps the kitten costumes into bunnies. Julie already has her own ears and tail.”

  “Should I be the one to tell her?”

  Hef mused. “Sure. Go ahead. You’ve earned it.”

  Nick knocked on the door of Will and Julie’s suite. Julie opened it.

  “Congratulations, Miss March,” Nick greeted her.

  Her face lit up while her ears stood up straight. “Are you kidding me?”

  “No, it’s almost as much a promotion for me as it is for you. I’ve gone from the pretty boy chosen for his looks to the guy who can actually shoot centerfolds.” Nick grinned. “May I come in?”

  “Of course.”

  Nick stepped inside. The suite was decked out in Oriental splendor, more elegance from Ada’s collection. Will was there, too, on a chinoiserie sofa, getting an early start on the scotch. “Sorry about the other night,” the older man apologized. “I babble when I’m drunk.”

  “No need. I think you were telling the truth, some of it anyway. You’re trying to find your father.

  “And you told some of the truth too.” Nick looked to Julie. “I may not be a wild card, but one thing I do know about wild cards is they seldom lie about what happened when their card turned, not the little details. You said your favorite book when you were seven was Rabbit Hill, that it was an old book. But if you were seven on Wild Card Day, that book was only two years old, and it’s not even an old book now.” Nick paused, then continued before Julie could dissemble, “But it will be for you, in the future where you’re from.”

  Julie’s jaw dropped, exposing her bunny teeth.

  “You’re not just a joker, you’re a joker-ace.” Nick pointed at her. “You’re the White Rabbit. You’ve got some power to murder the time, make it six o’clock and always teatime or fall down the rabbit hole into the past, taking others with you. But your power’s not perfect and you overshot, taking Will here, who wanted to find his father, to sometime a little before he’s born. But he won’t say who his mother is, because then his parents might never meet and he’d never be conceived. Am I right?”

  Julie said nothing, but Will took a slug of scotch. “Not quite, but close,” he admitted, and took another swallow. “Very close.”

  Nick nodded. “The only thing I’m not sussing is Pug. Is he your son and you lost him when you fell down the rabbit hole to meet his granddad or is something else going on?”

  “Something else.” Will took another drink. “Abigail’s former boyfriend sent him back to the Everleigh Club.”

  “Who’s Abigail and who’s her boyfriend?”

  “Abigail’s a young actress—British, talented
, was hoping to put her in a vehicle with Pug. Abby’s also an ace. She can read other aces’ powers, even copy them. We call her the Understudy.” Will regarded his scotch, then set it down and looked straight at Nick. “Her former boyfriend was one of the other players’ bodyguards, introduced as ‘Mr. Meek’ but I’m sure that’s an alias. He was a dead ringer for Donald Meek.”

  “Lots of aliases going around right now, ‘Will Monroe,’” Nick pointed out. “You think you’re the son of some president, but it’s not Monroe, and it’s not Roosevelt. Who is it really? Kennedy? Nixon?”

  “God I hope not.” Will reached for the scotch. He took a good swallow. “Lot of suspects. But Jack Braun wouldn’t have any reason to not acknowledge me. Same thing with Hef. Hef ended up being my mentor, and Jack’s been my poker buddy the past few years. Beyond that, I really don’t know.”

  Nick took out his cigarette case. “You weren’t kidding about the cigarettes, were you?”

  “No,” said Will, “it all comes out.” Julie nodded in agreement.

  Nick glanced to her. “So what’s the deal with Dealey Plaza?”

  She looked shocked. “How did you…”

  “I talked with Kennedy,” Nick lied quickly. “He said you were adamant that he not go anywhere near Dealey Plaza in Texas. Why? What happens there?”

  Julie’s ears wilted like wax tulips in the sun. “He dies. Assassinated. By Oswald.”

  “We’re not talking about the magic rabbit Walt Disney sold to King Features, right?”

  “No, Lee Harvey Oswald.”

  “Harvey’s the invisible rabbit from that Jimmy Stewart movie.”

  “I am not making this up!” Julie ranted, her ears standing back up. “Yes, it’s a dumb name, but he kills Jack Kennedy!” Her ears began to turn pink and quiver with rage. “But anyway, it doesn’t matter, I’ve already changed history. I had sex with Jack Kennedy.”

  Will considered her over his drink. “You plan for him to fall in love with you and leave Jackie and the kids?”

  “Pretty much,” Julie admitted. “Sucks for Jackie, but I figure she’d rather be a divorcée than a widow. At least that way her kids have a living dad. And I’m not jealous—I can share. Plus I’ve got my ace in the hole. It’s not much of an ace, and I always considered it more of a joker, but I’m using it. Already have.”

  “What’s that?” Nick asked.

  “Along with a rabbit’s sex drive, the wild card gave me a rabbit’s fertility.” Julie grinned, showing her rabbit teeth. “You won’t believe the number of birth control pills I had to go through till I found one that worked. And they won’t make it for another fifty years.” Julie picked up a carrot from a snack tray and nibbled it like Bugs Bunny. “And Kennedy’s a Catholic, and with me pregnant now, that means the baby will arrive in November, just in time for the election. What do you think Jack’s chances will be then?”

  Nick stared at her. Kennedy having a love child with a joker Playmate? Hedda’s photos were now just icing on Nixon’s inauguration cake. “Wait, I thought you hated Nixon.”

  “I do,” Julie swore. “Asshole’s responsible for getting my grandpa killed in Vietnam. You won’t believe how bad that screwed up my family. But Nixon’s president in ’69 anyway, so why not move up the timetable? Either Oswald ices him in ’63, or Tricky Dick gets caught for Watergate a few years later. Win-win either way.”

  “Watergate?” Nick echoed, beyond perplexed.

  “I’d recommend you watch All the President’s Men,” Will remarked, topping off a new glass of scotch, “but that’s not going to be made until 1976. If ever.” He took a sip, considering. “Going to royally screw up Hoffman’s and Newman’s careers. Are we ever going to get the Butch Cassidy Film Festival?”

  “You really are a movie mogul in the future,” Nick realized, looking at Will. “That’s why you know all this.”

  “That and a film history major,” Will admitted. “Who knew it would come in so useful?”

  “I studied joker rights.” Julie cocked her ears. “Playboy didn’t have a joker centerfold until a letter-writing campaign in 2003. Then they overcompensated and recruited a bunch of cat girl jokers for The Pussycat Dolls. But I thought, now that I’m here in 1960, why not do it early when it might do some good?”

  Nick nodded. “Looks like you thought of everything.” He glanced at both of them. “Anything you’d like me to do?”

  Julie bit her lip. “If anything happens to us, promise me you’ll keep Kennedy away from Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963.”

  “That’s when he dies?”

  “Yeah,” she said sadly, her ears wilting, “he does.”

  “Then I promise,” Nick swore.

  The Playboy Club opened, appropriately, on Leap Day, February 29. The chic, the influential, and the press were lined up outside. Hedda Hopper, being all three, arrived in style, her latest millinery confection bewilderingly beribboned and festooned with swags of lemon-yellow silk and twists of cream-colored lace, its resemblance to a lemon meringue pie accentuated by rhinestone-encrusted lemon-wedge hat pins.

  Hollywood’s harpy queen arrived early, with Hef himself squiring her in, bringing her by Nick’s table. “And let me introduce Nick Williams, our newest photographer, out from your town.”

  “He’s even more handsome than Louella said. Lollipop scooped me about you hiring him.” Hedda gave Hef the world’s most insincere smile. “But I’ll try to not hold that against him.”

  “Nick here even photographed our new centerfold, tomorrow’s Miss March,” Hef bragged.

  “Well then,” Hedda said, still smiling, “you won’t mind if I join this handsome young man to get my own scoop?”

  “Of course,” said Hef, “but Nick’s sworn to secrecy.”

  “Humor me?”

  Hef took this offer as a chance to extricate himself from the Terror of Tinseltown and go greet less venomous guests. “Of course.” He gave Nick a glance of mixed gratitude and warning.

  Once Hef had left, Hedda snugged into the booth beside Nick, shedding her shawl and, in the same motion, reaching into the pocket of Nick’s jacket where there was an awaiting packet of photographs and negatives. She slipped this into her pocketbook, covering the motion as an excuse to take out a compact and check her lipstick. “There,” she pronounced, clicking the clasp shut, “I should probably take a powder room break in a bit, see if there’s anything shocking.”

  Nick smiled, wondering how Hedda would feel if she knew those photographs, regardless of whether they caused Kennedy to withdraw from the campaign due to blackmail or scandal, would eventually lead to her hero Nixon’s death or disgrace. Then Nick frowned, wondering how he would feel himself. Once Nixon won, if all other things remained unchanged, would there still be an assassin awaiting him in Texas in November 1963? Would there be a slightly different date or site? And if Nick foiled Nixon’s assassination, would it make him complicit in Nixon’s later crimes, including the death of Julie’s grandfather? Or would that war even happen if the Watergate scandal, whatever it was, occurred a decade early?

  Nick didn’t know what to do, but his decision could wait. November 1963 was almost four years away. A lot could happen in that time. The point might be moot. Nick hoped so.

  He looked across the room to where Will Monroe sat, still looking, in quiet moments, like a lost little boy, aside from the glass of scotch. Nick wished there was something he could do to bring him comfort, to help him find his father.

  But after Will was born? Well, then there’d be ample time to find out whoever his father was, and his mother, too.

  Of course, Nick considered, Will had said the psychic had channeled his father’s spirit, and with this being in the future, the psychic could be an ace instead of a charlatan. But that future was also a long time away. And it might be changed.

  After seating the fourth estate, the second was ushered in, the foremost being Senator Kennedy and his beautiful wife, Jacqueline. Hef seated Jack and Jackie with Will Monroe, wh
ose demeanor immediately changed to one of genial surface charm, the mask of Hollywood.

  Hef took the stage and the microphone. “Gentlemen, ladies, our beloved guests and fellow swingers, welcome to the Playboy Club. I know there’s been some speculation as to our secret theme, the surprises for our March issue, and I thank you for waiting for Leap Day. But now, without further ado, I’d like to reveal the reason why. Cy, would you like to begin?”

  Cy Coleman, the pianist, started into the Playboy’s Penthouse theme song, but quickly segued into a jazzy variation on “The Bunny Hop” as the curtain went up and the Playboy Playmates were revealed in their new costumes, the Playboy Bunnies, wearing silk bustiers in jewel tones with matching satin ears on their headbands. They were all huddled together in a knot, leaning forward, fluffy cottontails facing out like a bunch of bunnies. But then they rose, turned, and parted, revealing that they all bore trays on straps, like cigarette girls.

  All save Julie Cotton, who rose up from where she’d been hidden, revealing herself as wearing the same satin bustier designed by Zelda Wynn Valdes, but with her own ears and tail.

  Gasps erupted from the audience, none louder than Hedda Hopper’s. Nick took a certain pleasure in that.

  “Let me introduce Miss March, Julie Cotton!” Hef announced with a showman’s flourish.

  All the other Bunnies promenaded down into the club with their trays, but instead of being filled with candies and cigarettes, they bore the March issue of Playboy.

  Hedda accepted hers, and opened it to the centerfold. Men about the club were doing the same. “Well, Nicholas darling, it appears you may have a future in photography,” Hedda sniffed after a long look, “but I would suggest you look for more worthy subject matter.” She folded the magazine back up, turning across the way to view Julie Cotton cozying up to the Kennedys. Julie leaned over and whispered something in Jack’s ear. His expression went from happy to shocked, but just as quickly covered as Julie turned to chat with Jackie, who smiled back graciously, seemingly oblivious to the news Julie had whispered to Jack.

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