Low chicago, p.8
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       Low Chicago, p.8
 

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

  Hedda, however, was a better judge of human expression, and Nick watched her hard old eyes as they noted every nuance. Her lips pressed to a hard line. “You must excuse me, Nicholas.” She clutched her purse with an iron grip. “I have a sudden urge to powder my nose.”

  She patted him on the shoulder and winked, then sashayed off to the ladies’ room. Nick watched Hef continue to work the crowd while Julie chatted with Jack and Jackie, secretly plotting the future course of her life and theirs.

  Will Monroe’s eyes locked with Nick’s, looking like he desperately wished to tell him something, but couldn’t find where to begin, or how.

  Nick gazed back. He felt the same.

  A Long Night at the Palmer House

  Part 2

  CHARLES DUTTON SHAKILY GOT to his feet and moved over to the window, shunting the drapes aside. He stared out into the sky, which was still dark with the last legs of the night.

  “What’s happening out there?” he asked rhetorically. Neither he nor Nighthawk nor any of the others who drifted toward the window could make any sense of the noises, flashing lights, and dark shapes they saw moving erratically on the street until a sudden burst of sheet lightning illuminated the scene for a moment. Even then, they were distracted by the accompanying rolling rumble of thunder that seemed as if it would never stop.

  The escort Jack Braun had brought to the game—the twin who’d sneaked into the bedroom with Bellerose and had escaped the dangers of the fight—screamed aloud, wordlessly, turned, and ran from the room. Nighthawk and Dutton stared at other speechlessly, while Margot Bellerose sank to the floor on her knees and asked in a little voice, “What happened, mon Dieu, someone please tell me what happened.”

  Meek cleared his throat and said, diffidently, “Well—”

  And then the twin returned to the room, screaming even louder. “It’s changing! It’s all changing!”

  Nighthawk moved to intercept her as she ran crazily around the room, her eyes wild. He grabbed her arms, shook her. She blubbered wordlessly, the incoherent sounds she was making drowned out by another roll of thunder like the clap of doom hovering over the Palmer House.

  “Breathe deep!” Nighthawk ordered the girl. He held her tightly against his chest, and could feel the tremors running through her entire body. He took a shot in the dark. “Hildy?” Her head, tucked against his chest, nodded. “Calm down. Calm down and tell me what’s happening in the hallway.”

  “I was—I was waiting for the elevator,” she got out between hiccups, “and when it came—it was different. It wasn’t a regular elevator. It was a steel cage with a man in a uniform in it and he looked at me so funny, so funny, I just screamed and ran—”

  “Look at the buildings,” Dutton said in an awestricken voice.

  Nighthawk looked. They all did, except for Bellerose, who was still frozen, struck silent and motionless. Hildy looked for only a moment, gasped, and returned to the sanctuary of Nighthawk’s arms, nuzzling his chest with her face like a kitten trying to bury itself against the warmth of its feline mother.

  Outside, making the sounds of giant behemoths moaning in strange pain, the buildings were shifting, growing, shrinking, grinding against each other, changing in multiple ways that lasted only for seconds before they morphed again from skyscrapers to smaller, simple structures of stone or brick or even wood, or swelled into ovoids of glittering metal connected by sweeping ramps and skeletal metallic catwalks. Once they became a set of tepees along a tranquil stream, once burned-out, destroyed hulks from a blast so powerful it must have been nuclear.

  The sky itself was also changing, rippling from darkest night to strange purples shot through by rays of silver and golden light. Snowstorms and rain and fog whipped by tremendous winds howling between the buildings, but nothing except spatters of water made it down to the ground below. The rest all dissipated into mist or showers of colored sparks like the grandest fireworks display ever launched into the air.

  The Palmer House itself seemed mostly immune to the strange, seemingly endless transformation. The room they were in, at least, stood like a rock in a sea of chaos. But why, Nighthawk wondered, and for how long?

  “Time storm,” Donald Meek said in his mild voice. “We’re in the eye of a time storm.”

  “What?” Dutton asked, turning his attention back to inside the room.

  “My fault,” Meek said meekly. “When Galante’s bodyguard lashed out with her fire power, I was caught in the edge of it.” His singed eyebrows and ruddy, though not deeply burned face and hands, attested to that. “And I returned fire.” He sighed, looked from Dutton to Nighthawk. “Unfortunately, the power can be hard to control.”

  “So,” Nighthawk said hesitantly, “they’re out there somewhere—somewhen—doing things that are … are…”

  “Ripping the time stream apart,” Meek said resignedly. “Changing history. Continually and at cross-purposes. There’s no unified ‘present’ anymore—only a dozen warring ‘presents’ overlapping, contradicting, competing with, and melting into each other.” He gestured toward the window. “A time storm.”

  Hildy moaned softly, and Nighthawk felt her going limp. He half walked, half dragged her to a nearby chair and set her down in it. Bellerose finally wandered closer to the others. She looked out the window listlessly.

  “What will happen?” Dutton asked in a low voice.

  “Oh,” Meek said. “I suppose that eventually the fabric of the universe will tear and the Earth will be destroyed and maybe eventually everything else with it. Or not.” He shrugged. “This is all new to me too. I haven’t had this power long.”

  “Unless—” Nighthawk prompted. “Can you find them?”

  Meek frowned in concentration. “They were scattered around the room and absorbed different levels of time shift. Those close to each may have been popped into the same time. They’re all in the same space.” He rubbed his chin. “Somewhen in the Palmer House, if they were sent to a time when the Palmer House exists. They’re all somewhere in Chicago, anyway. If they were sent to a time when Chicago existed.… but I can sense them, more or less, like blips on the radar screen of time.”

  “Then we can go after them—” Nighthawk began.

  “I could send you after them,” Meek said, “at least one of them. But what good will that do? You can’t bring anyone back. You could stop one from acting, but which one is causing the most damage? Or is it a question of accumulative damage to the time stream brought on by all of them.…”

  “These ‘rays,’” Dutton said thoughtfully, “the rainbows you shot out … that’s what caused these temporal displacements?”

  “Yes,” Meek said.

  “Are they reflective?”

  “What? The rays?”

  “Yes,” Dutton said. “Of course.”

  “I … don’t know.”

  “The bedrooms have full-length mirrors in them,” Margot Bellerose offered helpfully without looking at them.

  “Okayyyy,” Meek said. He and Nighthawk looked at each other.

  “We have to do something,” Nighthawk said.

  Meek looked reluctant, but nodded. “I suppose we do.”

  Nighthawk turned to Dutton. “Lock the door. Don’t let anyone in. Barricade it as best you can. There’s a couple of guns lying around.” He reached down for the .38 he kept snugged in an ankle holster. “Here’s mine.”

  Dutton took it, nodding. “Let me accompany you into the bedroom.”

  They turned and looked at Bellerose. She was silently contemplating the landscape below them through the hotel windows. Out of the dark sky a great flying lizard swept with leathery wings, soaring toward the window. She ducked, screaming. The lizard banked away at the last moment.

  Dutton nodded to the bedroom door. “We had best do this soon,” he said quietly.

  Bellerose was right. The room had a full-length mirror placed strategically on the wall before the bed. “In the service of full disclosure,” Dutton said to Nighthawk, “there is
something we should tell you.”

  “A surprise?” Nighthawk said with an expectant frown.

  “Of a sort.” Dutton gestured at Meek grandly. “Meet Croyd Crenson.”

  Nighthawk pursed his lips, but remained silent. Of course, he thought. He should have known. “The Sleeper,” he observed. That explained much. He felt more than a little annoyed at himself for not suspecting, and somewhat more annoyed at them for keeping him in the dark. “I see. The Sleeper, at a card game with seven million in the wall safe.”

  “Hey,” Croyd said, “it’s not like we were planning on stealing the cash or anything. Dutton was going to win it fair and square.” He laughed, shortly and insincerely. “Heh. Sorry we didn’t let you in on it sooner, but we, uh, thought it best to keep that on a need-to-know basis.”

  “Now that the stakes have changed,” Dutton intoned, “it’s best you know the truth.” His expression and his voice grew even more serious, if that were possible. “Of course, sooner or later Croyd will need to sleep again. And when he sleeps, he transforms.”

  And loses his powers. Nighthawk eyed Croyd dubiously. “How long have you been awake already?”

  “Oh, only a couple of days. Don’t worry, I’m used to it. I can handle it.”

  So you say, Nighthawk thought. “We’d better get started,” he said in a neutral voice.

  “I guess,” Croyd said, “we’ll be right back. Or maybe not. We’re dealing with time here. Who the hell knows?”

  “Good luck,” Dutton said. “Everything’s riding on you!”

  “We better get real close,” Croyd said, “like hugging close.”

  They stood before the mirror. Side by side, one arm wrapped around the other’s waist.

  “Ready?” Croyd asked.

  Nighthawk felt a roiling in his gut. This was the strangest, most dangerous thing he’d ever done. But it was better to die trying rather than just stand by and watch the world disintegrate around them. “Yeah. Just do—”

  The rainbow arced again from Croyd’s palm and hit the mirror. As the spectrum of colors rebounded and washed over Nighthawk he felt like someone hit him all over his body with the hardest punch he’d ever taken. The air swooshed out of his lungs, his testicles tried to ascend back into his abdomen, and his buttocks clenched so tightly that you couldn’t pull a pin out of his ass with a tractor. He thought he was struck blind and then he realized that he’d just closed his eyes. He was naked, but warm air caressed his skin, as well as Croyd’s arm, which was still around his waist. The soles of his feet were planted on thick, lush carpet.

  “—it.”

  Nighthawk looked ahead, blinking, and realized that he and Croyd were standing behind two men. One was young, immaculately well dressed in the finest of evening attire, if, Nighthawk recognized, you were going out to do the town about a hundred years ago. He wore an expensively cut black coat and white tie, and the second man was using a whisk broom to brush off some imaginary flecks of dust from his well-clad shoulders.

  They were standing before a full-length mirror and the young man was admiring his reflection in it when he caught sight of Nighthawk and Croyd materializing behind him. His eyes suddenly bulged out of his pleasantly featured face and he did a credible imitation of a goldfish removed from water gasping for breath. His lips moved, but it took a moment for words to actually issue from them. When they did, they were in a striking English accent.

  “I say,” he said. Then, apparently unable to think of anything to add, he continued with, “I say, I say, I say.” Struck with further inspiration, he added, “What? What now? What?”

  He was rather tall and willowy built. The other man, who also wore formal attire, but more in the line of someone in service, a valet, probably, was even taller and more solidly built. He turned and looked at them. He had a shrewd-looking face with an imperturbable expression and a steady, intelligent gaze.

  Croyd made an embarrassed sound in his throat, took his arm away from Nighthawk’s waist, and stepped a foot or two to the side.

  “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “We’re from the future.”

  The valet’s left eyebrow lifted a quarter of an inch, as if expressing vast surprise.

  They were in a luxuriously appointed hotel room. Nighthawk could recognize the general outlines of the room they’d just left, though the furnishings were completely different. Everything was expensive-looking, if heavy and ponderous. There was a large four-poster bed, an ornate wardrobe, a smaller dresser, side tables on either side of the bed with bric-a-brac all over them, and an overstuffed chair with antimacassars on the arms and back.

  “Indeed, sir?” the valet asked. His gaze swept over them briefly and then focused somewhere on a distant spot between them. “And does everyone in the future go about disrobed?”

  “Ah, well,” Croyd replied. “That’s just an effect of time travel, itself. You can’t bring anything with you. Not even clothes.”

  The young man had turned around and was eyeing them with a puzzled expression that somehow seemed habitual. “Rummy, that,” he said, then added briskly, “Well, we can’t have you sporting about starkers. There must be something you can find—”

  “Immediately, sir.”

  “Well, fine. Fine, fine, fine.” The young man beamed at the unexpected arrivals. Nighthawk couldn’t help but feel an instinctual liking for him.

  “Well, sit down and tell me all about this ‘future’ business. Or”—his expressive face suddenly took on a concerned expression—“wait a mo’ … let’s get some”—he made a helpless gesture with his hands—“you know, some, uh, before you sit, you know.”

  Nighthawk understood, and shook his head at Croyd, who was about to plop his butt into the overstuffed chair. Croyd caught himself at the last moment and nodded.

  “Oh, sure. Sure. Very generous of you—”

  The young man shook his head, briskly. “Not at all. Not at all. I’ve been touring your country—just out of New York, Boston. Fascinating. Everyone’s been most accommodating. Least I can do to help out you chaps. And from the future you say! Extraordinary!”

  The valet had been piling up articles of clothing from both a dresser drawer and the wardrobe, and he approached Nighthawk and Croyd with an armload. The young man’s face fell as he handed the items over. “Not the new checked suits!” he said. “I just got those in New York.”

  “I know, sir,” the valet said imperturbably. “I feel they will serve these gentlemen more suitably.”

  Nighthawk thought he could detect something of a note of relief in his voice as he handed the suits over. Nighthawk understood. They were not exactly his style, either.

  “Ah, well,” the young man said, shrugging. “Needs must, I suppose.”

  “Yes, sir,” his man said. He watched critically as Nighthawk and Croyd dressed. “I’m afraid, sirs, that the fit is not perfect. The young master is taller—”

  “That’s all right,” Nighthawk said. “We’ll make do.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  There was something in this man, Nighthawk perceived, something that bound him to the younger man who was so generous and, well, naive was probably a kind word, with cords of loyalty and protectiveness that went deep into the soul. He nodded, and the valet nodded back.

  “So,” the young Britisher said eagerly as they dressed, “tell me all about the future.”

  “Well—” Croyd began. He and Nighthawk exchanged glances. “You wouldn’t believe it,” Croyd finally said.

  “We can’t say much,” Nighthawk explained, “on the chance that you can use your knowledge to change history.”

  The Englishman looked crestfallen. “That’s a bit of a disappointment.”

  “But I’ll tell you one thing,” Croyd said.

  “Yes?” the young man said eagerly.

  “Don’t trust Hitler. And another thing—whatever you do, don’t visit New York City on September 15, 1946. It’ll be very dangerous on that day.”

  “Well, thanks awfully for t
he warning.”

  “You bet,” Croyd said. He and Nighthawk looked at each other. “Well, time to go save the world. Thanks for everything.”

  “Certainly. Good luck, chaps.”

  Croyd paused. “One last thing.”

  “Yes?”

  “Could you loan us a twenty?”

  The young man shook his head as he reached for his wallet. “I say,” he said, “they’ll never believe this at the Drones Club.”

  “So how does this temporal tracking ability of yours actually work?” Nighthawk asked Croyd as they went down the hotel corridor, heading for the elevator.

  “I kind of see those displaced in time as blips on the temporal landscape,” Croyd said. “Sort of like a radar screen. I can’t tell who they are and it’s hard to say how many are in a given location, especially since we’re dealing with a relatively small number of people.”

  “Seems like enough to me,” Nighthawk said. “And the actual place where they landed is, essentially, the same place they left?”

  They stopped at the elevator bank and punched the button for the lobby.

  “Well, most times anyway. I suppose. Actually, I really haven’t sent too many people back in time. Just that pigeon. Oh, and an alley cat when I first woke up. It seems like a pretty useful power, but, really, how often would the necessity for using it come up?”

  Great, Nighthawk thought. Our temporal expert seems to be groping around as much as I am. The elevator arrived and Croyd and Nighthawk got on. The car was empty except for its operator, a tall, young black man in Palmer House livery. Seeing him took Nighthawk back through a hundred and forty–some years of memory to a time when he, too, wore the Palmer House uniform, when he worked at the hotel that stood on this very spot, before the Great Chicago Fire. Memories flooded into his mind and he clamped down on them and sent them away to where he kept them, hidden, but never forgotten.

  “Floor, please,” the young man said.

  “Lobby,” Croyd said.

 
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