Low chicago, p.9
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       Low Chicago, p.9

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

  “So,” Nighthawk said as the door closed, “whoever we’re after—”

  Croyd looked at him and nodded. “Would have ended up—”

  Nighthawk shook his head, his eyes shifting to the elevator operator who stood in front of him. “Say,” he said, “any strange things happen in the hotel, lately?”

  “Mister,” the operator said without turning around, “strange stuff is always happening around here. You’d be surprised.”

  Actually, Nighthawk thought, he wouldn’t. “Like what?” he asked.

  “Well—” He thought for a moment. “Couple of weeks ago this crazy white man broke into a room, somehow, naked as a jaybird. He—”

  The operator glanced back over his shoulder, catching Croyd’s eye. “Sorry, sir,” he said. “I didn’t mean—”

  “No, no,” Croyd said. “This is fascinating. Do you know what he looked like?”

  “Well, he was kind of, uh, stocky, I guess you could say.” He paused for a moment. “And he had a funny haircut for a grown man. You know, like that Buster Brown in the comic strip.”

  Croyd and Nighthawk looked at each other.

  “Charlie Flowers,” they said simultaneously.

  A bell dinged as the elevator stopped.

  “Your floor, sirs,” the young man said.

  The air on the Chicago street was cool and crisp with the tang of early autumn. It was as crowded a street as any Nighthawk had walked down during the twenty-first century and perhaps even noisier. But he’d forgotten the old smell of the city. It all came back to him in a sudden rush when they left the Palmer House lobby.

  “What’s that smell?” Croyd asked, wrinkling his nose.

  Nighthawk waved at the street. “Horse manure.”

  Horse-drawn carts and carriages were still battling the automobile for supremacy on the streets of Chicago. It was a losing fight, but there were enough of the old-fashioned conveyances that the distinctive sweet tang of horseshit still lingered on the air. They stepped into the flow of the foot traffic and let it carry them down the street until they came upon a café that had a few tables set out on the sidewalk as well as inside.

  “I could use a bite to eat,” Croyd said.

  Nighthawk was hungry as well. Such mundane concerns as food and drink had been forgotten in the excitement of the game and subsequent events, but now they came back to the time travelers. They took a seat at one of the small sidewalk tables and a white-aproned waiter appeared almost instantaneously. They ordered ham sandwiches and beer and were surprised and happy at the size of the slabs of rye bread, the thick cuts of ham, the whole dill pickles on the side, and the mugs of beer. A pot of spicy German mustard accompanied the sandwiches, which both slathered generously on the bread.

  As they tore into the thick, juicy sandwiches, a newsboy came by hawking the afternoon edition of the Tribune. He was a runty little kid, maybe ten or twelve, looking like he stepped out of a Norman Rockwell illustration, or, Nighthawk realized, his memories.

  “Hey, kid,” Croyd called. “Give me a paper.” He reached into his pocket for the bill that their British benefactor had given them back in the room in the Palmer House.

  The kid’s eyes grew big as Croyd held it out. “Jeez, mister, I can’t change a twenty.”

  “How much is the newspaper?” Croyd asked.

  “Two cents.”

  Croyd laughed. “Two cents? Even when I was a kid…” He looked at Nighthawk in surprise. “It was three cents,” he said, wonder in his voice. “Have I forgotten so much?”

  “You’d probably be surprised,” Nighthawk said with a gentle smile.

  Croyd called the waiter over. “Give the kid a nickel,” he said, “and add it to our bill.”

  The waiter complied.

  “Keep the change, kid,” Croyd said.

  “Thanks, mister!”

  From where he sat, Nighthawk could read the banner headlines: IRISH HOME RULE NEAR! The front page was crowded with columns of text. “Don’t keep me in suspense. What’s the date?”

  “Oh, October 8, 1919. Say—” Croyd looked up, frowning in concentration. “I got us pretty close. Flowers has been here a month, tops. Not too much time to get up to a lot of mischief. Now all we have to do is find him. He’s around here somewhere. But where, exactly? How many people lived in Chicago in 1919?”

  “Two and a half million.”

  “Really?” Croyd looked at him.

  “I do know Chicago,” Nighthawk said, looking up and down the bustling street. The memories were flooding back upon him like a wave that threatened to drag him under with its powerful pull. “Wait a minute … 1919? October?”

  Croyd looked at him. “Yeah. What?”

  Nighthawk set his sandwich back down on the plate, chewing thoughtfully. “At least we missed the riots,” he said.


  “Chicago’s worst race riots—ever.” Nighthawk’s voice became pensive, his gaze turned inward. “The summer of 1919 was known as Red Summer because of the racial tension that spread across the entire country. There were riots in many cities. My people were coming up from the South in massive numbers. Here in Chicago the tensions boiled over when a thrown rock killed a young black man at a beach in late July. By the time the National Guard had been called in to quell the violence, almost forty people were dead, a few more blacks than whites, but most of the property damage occurred in the Black Belt on the South Side, at the hands of organized ‘athletic clubs.’” Nighthawk frowned at Croyd. “Mostly Irish, mostly fairly recent immigrants themselves, competing for the jobs with the blacks coming up from the South.”

  “What are you, a history buff or something?” Croyd asked.

  “Or something,” Nighthawk said quietly. “It was pretty terrible. But, look, what else happened here in Chicago in 1919?”

  Croyd, thumbing through the paper, looked up. “What?”

  “The Black Sox scandal! The year the White Sox threw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds.”

  Croyd’s eyes widened. “Flowers would be drawn to that like a fly to shit. But is the Series still going on? Wait a minute.” He flipped the pages more quickly. “Here it is.” He looked up at Nighthawk. “Game seven is at Comiskey Park this afternoon.”

  Nighthawk frowned in concentration. “Give me a minute.… Yes, that’s right. The White Sox win today, four to one.”

  “Wait,” Croyd said, “the White Sox won game seven? I thought they threw the Series—”

  “This was one of the years when the World Series was a best of nine.” Nighthawk signaled to their waiter. “Pay him,” he told Croyd, when the boy came over.

  “Wait,” Croyd said again. “They played a nine-game World Series? You knew that?”

  Nighthawk smiled. “I’m a baseball fan.”

  “Where are we going?”

  “I know a man—”

  “You know a man?”

  “I’ll explain later,” Nighthawk said as the waiter came back with their change. They had a little less than nineteen dollars left.

  “You’d better. Just where are we headed?”

  “You know that Black Belt I mentioned?” Croyd nodded. “We’re going to a part of it called Bronzeville.”

  The geography of Chicago hadn’t changed all that much in a century, and the details of it came back to Nighthawk quickly. The Palmer House was located fairly near the northern edge of the Black Belt, which ran about thirty blocks, from Thirty-first to Fifty-fifth Street along State Street, but, as indicated by its name, was only a few blocks wide. The heart of Bronzeville, Chicago’s Black Metropolis, was around Forty-seventh Street.

  They took the el, and got off at a pleasant neighborhood that consisted of rambling single-family homes interspersed with business centers lived in and run by blacks. It looked fairly prosperous, except for some spots of destruction they passed where buildings once stood but had obviously recently been burned to the ground. Rubble still remained in many of these spots like broken teeth in an otherwis
e healthy smile.

  “Results of the riots?” Croyd asked.

  Nighthawk nodded grimly. “Yes. Like I said, Irish ‘athletic clubs’ paid the hood a visit. And since most of the cops were Irish themselves, they weren’t too interested in restraining their friends. It took five thousand National Guardsmen to enforce the peace.”

  “Doesn’t sound pleasant,” Croyd said.

  “It wasn’t,” Nighthawk muttered. Before Croyd could question him further, he said, “Here we are,” and turned up the steps of a pawnshop that was in a row of businesses—grocer, barbershop, drugstore, and other small stores.

  Inside it was well lit, airy, and spick-and-span clean, with shelves stocked with every kind of item you might be looking for, from clothes to tools to furniture. Near the front, behind a glass counter that was divided by display cases containing guns—small arms, mainly—and jewelry, stood an immense black man. He was fashionably and expensively dressed, with diamond rings on both pinkies and a diamond stickpin in his tie that was the size of a walnut.

  “Hello, Ice,” Nighthawk said.

  The man looked at him, frowning.

  “You know my father,” Nighthawk said.

  “John Nighthawk,” the man said, his face lighting in a broad smile. “You favor him, most precisely.”

  Croyd opened his mouth and Nighthawk stepped on his foot.

  “I’m happy to say that I do,” Nighthawk said. “He’s a good-looking man.”

  “Yes, indeed,” the Iceman said.

  “This is my friend, Mr. Crenson,” Nighthawk said, indicating Croyd, who smiled and nodded.

  “Any friend of John Nighthawk’s son is a friend of mine,” Ice said. “Welcome to Bronzeville.”

  “Thanks,” Croyd said. “It looks like a swell place.”

  Ice nodded. “What can I do for you—” He paused.

  “John. After my father.”


  “Mr. Crenson and I just got into town and we’d like to attend the game this afternoon—”

  Ice smiled broadly. “So you came to see Ice?”

  “We know it’s a hard ticket. We’re willing to pay—”

  Ice made a dismissive gesture. “I got what you need, boy, but the money of John Nighthawk’s son is no good here.” He reached into his waistcoat pocket and came out with a sheaf of tickets. “Good thing you got here now, though. I was just going to send my boys out to see what we could get for them. All prime seats. Here, take two.”

  Nighthawk knew better than to argue. “Thanks, Ice.”

  As he handed over the tickets, the pawnbroker said, “Since you’re just back in town—a warning. I hope you don’t have any business going on the game.”

  “Business?” Nighthawk asked. “You mean a bet? No. Is it rigged?”

  “Sure as hell is. It’s not well-known, but Ice knows all. He hears everything. You can’t fart in my town without me knowing. That eastern trash comes to our town with their dirty money and bribes our boys to throw it!” There was real anger in Ice’s voice and eyes. “Thank God our boys aren’t part of that filthy deal.”

  “Our boys?” Nighthawk asked.

  “You know—Smokey Joe and the Thunderbolt. They wouldn’t take dirty money. They wouldn’t let Chicago down.”

  “No,” Nighthawk said thoughtfully.

  “Anyway…” Ice brightened some. “Smokey Joe Williams is pitching today, and he’ll show them. Tomorrow, though…” He shook his head. “The white boy is going, the other Williams, Lefty. Bet on Cincinnati if you want to, but I wouldn’t dirty my money.”

  “Nor would I,” Nighthawk said.

  “Damn right. Well…” Ice smiled as they turned to go. “You remember me to your daddy. And tell him to come by sometime soon. He always brings the best when he comes to visit.”

  “I will,” Nighthawk said as they left the shop.

  Croyd looked at him. “What the hell?”

  Nighthawk sighed. “I suppose I should explain.” He paused. The street was quiet, with a few people passing them as they went about their daily business. “I’m … older than I look.”

  “Hey, man, I don’t judge,” Croyd said. “After all, I’m like, Jesus, seventy-seven myself. Or about that.”

  “Yeah, well, I’m older than that.” There was a faraway look in his eyes.

  Croyd looked impressed. “No shit?”

  “No shit. I’ve been around a long time. And though I’ve done some traveling, worked for a while in lots of places, Chicago has been my home ever since I came here after the war.”

  “What war was that?” Croyd asked.

  Nighthawk looked at him. “The Civil War.”

  Croyd’s jaw dropped. “Hey, I’m not trying to pry or anything. We all have our little secrets, our little foibles. It’s not like you’re a vampire or something and drink blood to stay alive for so long.” He paused a moment before adding, “Right? Because, if you were, that would be disgusting.”

  “No,” Nighthawk said. “I don’t drink blood.”

  “Great. That’s cool.” They started down the street again, heading for the el. “You know, I was a kid when the virus hit, back in ’46. I never finished school.” He shook his head. “Always regretted that I never learned algebra, but then it hasn’t really come up much in my life. I always loved history, though.”

  “I’ve lived through a lot of it,” Nighthawk said.

  “You ever meet General Ulysses Grant?”

  Nighthawk shook his head. “No. But I knew Teddy Roosevelt pretty well.”

  “Tell me about it,” Croyd said.

  “Well, there was this time when we were ordered to take this hill … you think Cuba is something now, you should have been there in the 1890s.…”

  Comiskey Park, known as the Baseball Palace of the World, was jammed to the rafters, and then some. Even though it was one of the largest baseball stadiums of its time, every seat was taken and even the aisles were crammed with standing-room-only patrons. Ice’s word was good—the tickets he’d given to Nighthawk and Croyd were excellent, box seats located on the field level, just behind the White Sox dugout. Nighthawk was impressed. He’d been to many games at Comiskey Park, before it fell to the wrecking ball in 1991 … not only White Sox games, but also those of the Negro National League before, and even after, Jackie Robinson broke the major league color barrier. But he’d never seen it so crowded.

  While unusual but not unique for this time, Comiskey Park wasn’t racially segregated, so no one even batted an eye when Nighthawk and Croyd took their seats, right on the aisle about six rows above the dugout. Nighthawk didn’t notice any other black fans in his immediate neighborhood, though that was more of an economic rather than a social commentary on the times. These were expensive seats, $5.50 each, as printed on the tickets. Though the stands were already crowded, the field itself was empty. The players had yet to appear for infield practice or even warm-up games of catch.

  A vendor passed by hawking scorecards, and Nighthawk called him over. He gave the kid a nickel for the pamphlet. Nighthawk looked at the cover musingly as the kid moved on with his wares. Croyd glanced at him. “Who’s that on the cover?” he asked.

  “Oh, the owner, of course, Charles Comiskey. A notorious skinflint whose miserly ways in large part caused the…” He paused, looked around, and lowered his voice. “You know, the thing that Ice told us about.”

  “Right. Got ya.”

  Nighthawk glanced up. The players were just starting to take the field in ones and twos, strolling about and stretching desultorily. He looked back down at the program, thumbing through it. “You know how much this nickel program would be worth back in—back home?”

  “How much?” Croyd asked, interested.

  “I’m not really sure, but probably thous—” He stopped. “Oh my God!”

  “What?” Croyd asked.

  Nighthawk stood up, staring out onto the field with a shocked expression on his face. He was silent for several moments, despite Croyd’s
repeated, “What?” and he finally sank back into his seat.

  “What is it?” Croyd asked. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

  “On the field,” he croaked. “Black men.”

  “Yeah, so … oh. Right.”

  “Jackie didn’t break the twentieth-century color barrier until 1946,” Nighthawk said in a choked whisper, “in the minors. Forty-seven in the majors.”

  He thumbed through the program until he came to a team photo. It was grainy black and white, but he pointed out the three men who were quite obviously black. The names under the photo read Joe Williams, Oscar Charleston, and Spottswood Poles.

  He wasn’t familiar with Poles, but knew the other two quite well. He’d seen them play, followed their exploits in the black newspapers of the day. And Ice had named them, though what he’d said was so foreign to Nighthawk that he hadn’t really processed it. Smokey Joe Williams, six feet four, a towering figure on the mound who’d come out of the dusty diamonds of west Texas, half black and half Indian. He’d pitched well into his forties, and was said to throw harder than the Big Train, Walter Johnson. Said so even by Johnson himself, whom he’d faced frequently in exhibition games when black players faced major leaguers back in their day. And Oscar Charleston, a compact but strongly built outfielder, who was called the Hoosier Thunderbolt because of his combination of power and speed.

  He looked out over the field. There he was. Charleston was playing catch with Shoeless Joe Jackson himself and chatting with a smaller, more slimly built black man who had to be Spottswood Poles, tossing the ball with a player whom Nighthawk didn’t recognize.

  As he watched a tall black man came strolling up the sidelines accompanied by another player in catching gear. He started to warm up. It was Smokey Joe Williams himself.

  “Are you all right?” Croyd asked in a low voice.

  Nighthawk suddenly realized that tears were running down his cheeks.

  “I’m fine,” Nighthawk said. “I’m just fine.” He turned to Croyd and smiled. “I’m really going to enjoy this game.”

  And he did.

  It was the fourth inning and the White Sox were leading the Cincinnati Reds 2–0. Spot Poles, who turned out to be a speedy outfielder and lead-off man, had walked in the first inning and then scored when Charleston, who was hitting fourth, right after Joe Jackson, tripled to deepest center. Charleston then homered in his second at bat. No other Sox player had done much at the plate, but no one else had to. Williams was on his game, and was throwing heat. He had a perfect game going through four innings and had struck out seven of the twelve Reds who’d come to the plate, including their own black players, the veteran shortstop John Henry Lloyd and Cuban-born outfielder Cristóbal Torriente. No one was touching Williams and maybe no one on the White Sox dared to boot a play purposely.

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