Wild Cards Excerpt

May 10, 2016

A Long Night at the Palmer House


by John Jos. Miller

Part 1

It had been one hundred and forty-two years since John Nighthawk had been inside the Palmer House, and then it had been the earlier incarnation of the luxurious Chicago hotel, known simply as the Palmer.

Nighthawk’s age was not apparent in his appearance. He was a smallish black man in a dark pin-striped suit with a discreet kidskin glove on his left hand. He looked to be in his thirties. He sighed as he gazed at the entrance to the hotel. Perhaps, he thought, it’s finally time to lay old ghosts. He hurried across the street, dodging early morning traffic with the ease of the longtime urbanite, and entered the hotel’s lobby.

Inside he paused momentarily, suddenly almost overwhelmed as one of his visions washed over him. They were part of the powers he’d gained on that first Wild Card Day in 1946 and usually came as warnings of great danger lurking in the near future. This one was more incoherent than usual, chaotic scenes of fire and ice, of great beasts and shifting landscapes, of quick flashes of the past he’d once seen and an even vaster past he’d never imagined.

He stood for a moment catching his breath, then went on to the elevator bank and up to the seventh floor, wondering what was in store for him this time around.

* * *

The door to room 777 opened at Nighthawk’s light knock, and he found himself looking down into the large, expressive eyes of a man even shorter and slighter than himself, no more than five four and maybe a hundred and ten pounds. The crown of his head was totally bald and there were baggy wrinkles under his soulful eyes. He looked as if he were in his fifties.

It took Nighthawk a moment to place his face. He was the spitting image of the actor Donald Meek. Nighthawk had loved him in Stagecoach, the original version with John Wayne. He’d seen it at the Theatre back in 1939 when it’d first come out.

“You must be John Nighthawk.” The man’s voice was high and flighty, fussy sounding.

“I am.”

“Come in, come in, and meet the client.”

Nighthawk entered the suite’s siting room. It was luxuriously appointed, as one would expect in the Palmer House, with period furniture that was a little too heavy and ornate for Nighthawk’s taste. Death himself stood in the doorway between the sitting room and one of the two bedrooms.

Death was tall, well over six feet, and cadaverously lean. He wore a black suit of old-fashioned cut and fabric. Rubies the size of walnuts gleamed in his silver cuff links. His face and head were skeletal, fleshless, mere yellowish skin stretched tightly over bone. His teeth, white and perfect, were exposed by a lipless grin.

“Perhaps you know Mr. Charles Dutton?” the man who looked like Donald Meek said. “The client.”

“We’ve never met,” Nighthawk said, “but of course I’ve heard much about you, sir.”

Dutton inclined his head. “And I of you, sir. I would like to engage you to help Mr. Meek take care of me for the next few days.”

Dutton’s voice was as cadaverous as Nighthawk expected it would be.

“You’re here for the game.” Nighthawk was so sure that he made it a statement rather than a question.

Dutton’s rictus of a smile may have widened a millimeter. “Quite so. You know of the game, Mr. Nighthawk?”

He did. “Poker. Dealer’s choice. Seven players. Hosted by Giovanni Galante, a high-ranking member of Chicago’s most prominent crime family. A million-dollar cash buy-in. Each player is allowed two attendants.”

“Some bring whores,” Dutton said dismissively.

“Some bring bodyguards,” Meek added.

Dutton’s eyes were dark and unreadable in the skin and bone of his face. “It begins tonight in a suite on an upper floor of the Palmer House and continues until one player has acquired all of the chips. I intend to be that player.”

Nighthawk nodded. He frowned at Meek. The man was not physically impressive. It was hard to imagine him guarding anyone. But of course he was not the real Donald Meek. The actor had been dead for decades. But there was a certain shadowy ace from New York City who called himself Mr. Nobody who could change his appearance at will and often liked to mimic film stars from the past. And Charles Dutton had been associated with Mr. Nobody, as he recalled.

“And your ace is?” Nighthawk asked Meek.

Meek giggled. “I make problems… disappear.”

“Okay.” If Nobody wanted to keep things close to his vest, that was all right with Nighthawk.

Dutton nodded to Meek. “Mr. Nighthawk will make a satisfactory addition to our little team.”

“Oh my, yes,” Meek said. “I told you he was the man for the job, Mr. Dutton.”

“Galante is hosting,” Dutton said, “but the names of the other players are supposedly secret until game time. I know that I have the ultimate poker face… but it might be helpful if we knew ahead of time who else will be attending.”

“And,” Meek added, “if we knew if they were bringing hookers or guns. Or both.”

“You being a local man, with contacts…” Dutton added.

“I’ll get right on it,” Nighthawk said.

“An inestimable choice,” Dutton said to Meek. Death sounded pleased.

* * *

The game was set for a suite on the Palmer House’s penultimate floor. Most of the regular furniture had been removed from the sitting room, though a couple of small sofas and overstuffed chairs were scattered around for the attendants, bodyguards, and other onlookers. A bar stood before one wall with rows of liquor bottles behind it. Doors to three bedrooms opened off the sitting room and a bathroom was located in the short hallway that led from the entrance to the sitting room.

A large purpose-built poker table covered with green felt filled the center of the room, with a lavish chandelier hanging over it. Seven comfortable leather chairs for the players were spaced around the table, with a number of other chairs a few feet back for the players’ attendants. Most of those chairs were already occupied when Nighthawk, Meek, and Dutton entered the room.

Nighthawk knew all of the players already present and several of their attendants. He would have recognized most of them even if he hadn’t spent the morning and afternoon hitting up his sources for information.

Foremost was their host, Giovanni Galante, presumptive heir to the Galante crime family. He was a familiar figure around Chicago. Mid-twenties, handsome in a sleazy way, he wore expensive, tasteless suits and potent cologne that failed to hide the smell of hard liquor that accompanied him everywhere he went. He was already at it, drinking whiskey out of a cut-glass tumbler, straight with only a couple of ice cubes.

One of Galante’s companions sat in a chair close to the table… though “sat” was an inadequate word to describe the way she held herself. “Posed” was perhaps more accurate, in a tight white designer gown that plunged low down the front and was cut high up her left hip, leaving an expanse of shapely thigh exposed. The ruby earrings and necklace were no more spectacular than her lush red hair. Her skin was flawless cream, her eyes a brilliant blue. An onlooker would be forgiven for assuming she was just arm candy, but Nighthawk knew better. Her name was Cynder and she was an ace with a potent flame-wielding ability. She worked full-time for the Galante family as a bodyguard and enforcer.

There could be no doubt about the nature of the man who stood stolidly behind Galante’s chair, hands clasped, eyes alive with suspicion. Nighthawk had never crossed paths with him before, but he knew of him. His name was Khan. Compared to Nighthawk, he was a relative newcomer to the Chicago scene, making his bones in the last decade or so as a freelance bodyguard. At six three and three hundred pounds, his physical prowess was evident, but the wild card virus had given him more than muscles. Half of his body was an anthropomorphic version of a Bengal tiger. His left side, including his face, was covered in black-striped orange and white fur, and he had fangs, a green feline eye, and cat whiskers. His left hand and foot were thicker and bigger than normal and had, now retracted, razor-sharp claws on all digits. To match the tiger fur on the left side of his face, Khan had grown a dark beard on the right and braided little bells into it, his own little cat joke. He mimicked the natural eyeliner of his tiger eye with cosmetics around his human eye.

As Nighthawk entered the room, followed closely by Meek, Khan’s gaze swept over them both. He seemed puzzled by Meek, but when his eyes met Nighthawk’s they widened a little. He nodded at Nighthawk. Nighthawk nodded back.

He and Meek stepped aside and Dutton, who liked to make a dramatic entrance, followed them into the room. Silence fell as everyone turned to look.

Dutton wore a black tuxedo of old-fashioned cut, complete with a top hat and opera cape. He was a symphony of black and white, except for the rubies that burned red at his wrists and the red rose pinned to his jacket. A black mask completely covered his face.

Galante called out affably, “Ah, you must be Charles Dutton, our guest from New York! Come in, come in! Grab a seat. Here—take this one—” He gestured to the empty chair next to the man seated to his left. “You know Jack, right?”

“Yes.” Dutton’s voice couldn’t have been colder. He moved around the table, to another empty chair.

Galante shrugged. “Or, hell, take that one. It don’t matter. Does it, Jack?”

“No,” Golden Boy said. He was a handsome, apparently young man, blond, an athletic six two, maybe a hundred and ninety pounds. He looked incredibly healthy. He was Jack Braun, the infamous strongman of the Four Aces, the first group of public aces. He’d gained his powers the same day that Nighthawk had, on that first Wild Card Day back in 1946, but later he had testified against his friends before HUAC. That had earned him the nickname of the Judas Ace. Nighthawk figured that Dutton, who also dated back to that era, was not one to forgive and forget. Braun, still apparently ageless, had been out of the public view for many decades now. A mediocre acting career followed by a rather more successful run in California real estate had earned him millions.

One of his two companions was sitting on his lap, the other hanging over his chair, her arms entwined around his neck. They were twins, statuesque, voluptuous, with long, braided silver-blond hair and vivid blue eyes. They wore identical very tight, very short skirts that clung to their curves like Saran Wrap on a serving bowl.

The face of the one sitting on his lap took on an expression of concern. “What’s the matter, Honey Boy?”

“Nothing,” Braun murmured, “nothing at all, Hildy.”

“I’m Dagmar.”


Dutton turned his masked features to the man sitting next to the empty chair. “Do you mind, sir?” he asked politely.

“No, not all,” he replied. “Sit down. I’m Will Monroe.”

Nighthawk pulled the chair out for Dutton, since Meek was carrying the briefcase that held a million dollars in thousand-dollar bills. Dutton nodded to Monroe and his companions.

Monroe was blond, mid-fifties, clearly tall though now sitting down, with an epicanthal fold to his eyes. He was slim and he wore his expensive though casual clothes quite well. His watch was a high-end Rolex, which made it expensive indeed, and he wore a gold-and-diamond ring on his left hand. The bastard son of Marilyn Monroe, he had made his own mark on Hollywood as a very successful movie producer.

Two innocuous-looking young people accompanied him. One was Gary “Pug” Peterman, Monroe’s personal assistant and yes-man. A former child star, Pug had gotten his nickname from either his upturned nose, his soulful brown eyes, or his overall demeanor of a puppy who’d just been paddled for piddling on the rug. Nighthawk knew little of his acting career. He hadn’t liked the first of his movies, so he’d never seen another.

Monroe’s second attendant was a young woman with black hair. Her short-sleeved blouse revealed Asian ideograms tattooed on both her forearms, as well as a variety of hearts and skulls. Nighthawk thought they ruined her rather bright demeanor. His sources told him that she was Abigail Baker, an aspiring young British actress.

Nighthawk studied Monroe for a moment. He disliked predators of all types and he wondered if Monroe fit the typical Hollywood stereotype. Monroe felt the pressure of his glance and looked up at him. That almost made Nighthawk miss the bit of byplay where Meek winked at Baker and the actress looked at him quizzically. Will Monroe looked as if he were going to say something, but then the door to the suite opened and more newcomers barged in.

In the lead was a stocky, plug-like man in his fifties, who seemed as if he’d once been slim but had gained weight over the years. His shock of coarse dark hair had streaks of gray in it and was cut in Buster Brown bangs that covered his forehead almost to his eyebrows. He strutted confidently into the room, accompanied by the usual two attendants.

It was easy to pick out the bodyguard. He was tall, grizzled, and his dark hair was a bit gray, though he was maybe only pushing forty. His hands were stretched and warped out of all human proportion. They looked like slabs of meat the size of car batteries and were definitely more suited to smashing things than fine manipulation. His name was Ali Husseini, an ex-con with a rep for violence. Nighthawk knew that he’d found Allah during his last term in prison. He was better known by his ace name of Meathooks; the report on him said that metal hooks protruded from his body when he became angry. The other newcomer was just a kid, struggling with a valise that Nighthawk guessed contained the buy-in. He hardly looked to be in his teens, if that. He was nerdish, short, a little chubby.

The one with the Buster Brown haircut strolled confidently up to the table, smiling when he caught sight of Jack Braun. “Hey! Golden Boy!” He plopped down into the open seat next to him, beaming. “We met back at a card show in Peoria, what was it, ’06, ’08?”

“Um—” Braun was clearly bewildered.

“Charlie Flowers!” Flowers didn’t seem to mind Braun’s faulty memory. “Signing autographs? Remember?”

“Oh, ah, sure.” Braun nodded.

Flowers leered at Dagmar. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to the talent?”

Braun glanced away, looking at Giovanni Galante. “Our host— Mr. Galante—”

“Oh, sure.” Flowers half stood up, reaching out. Dagmar squirmed more tightly against Braun as Flowers’s arm more than brushed her breasts. “Pleased to meet you.”

Flowers had meaty hands. He wore diamond rings on both pinkies as well as a huge, multi-jeweled gold ring on each ring finger. Nighthawk shook his head, half in disbelief, half in admiration, for the size of Flowers’s balls. It took immense—something—to wear your World Series rings in public after being banned from professional baseball for gambling on games.

Galante took his hand with an insincere smile. “Likewise.”

Flowers held on, his arm still firmly pressed against Dagmar’s breasts. He gestured backwards with his chin. “That’s my bodyguard, Meathooks. I know we’re all friends here, but, why take chances, amirite? Oh, and that’s my nephew Timmy. He’s an ace, too, so watch out.…” Flowers leaned forward conspiratorially, bringing his face almost as close to Dagmar’s breasts as his arm.

“Charlie,” Braun said in a voice with a hint of warning in it.

“What?” He turned, bringing his nose perilously close to lodging in Dagmar’s cleavage.

“Back off.”

Flowers turned back, grinned at Galante, released his hand. “Hey, no harm done.” He turned the grin onto Dagmar. “Sorry to wrinkle your dress, sweetie. Hey, Timmy. Show the folks what you can do.” Flowers sat back in his seat with a smile on his face.

“Sure, Uncle Charlie.”

Timmy went around the table to the wall with a set of three windows opening up to the street below. It was night already, and dark outside. He climbed up on one of the sofas that was set against the wall, fumbling for the window latch, but couldn’t reach it. The kid looked back at his watching uncle almost helplessly until one of the attendants rose to his feet to help.

Nighthawk didn’t know the player, exactly, though he recognized him. Once, he’d almost had to kill him, to save the world from his Black Queen, which was raging out of control.

His name was John Fortune. He’d been a teenager when they’d first crossed paths. Now, twelve years later, he was a mature man of almost thirty, a man who’d once been prominent as leader of the Committee, the ace arm of the United Nations, but had dropped from public view. He’d been in the war to save the joker community of Egypt, and the experience had hardened him, Nighthawk saw, turning him from the inexperienced young boy Nighthawk had once known to someone who’d witnessed the horrors of battle.

One of his attendants was an immense man, larger than even Khan or Meathooks, bald as an egg, and fat. “Let me help, little boy,” he said in a breathy, weirdly accented voice.

Nighthawk frowned, focusing on him for the first time. He was the spitting image of Tor Johnson, the professional wrestler turned actor—if you wanted to be kind about his thespian abilities. Nighthawk recalled memories of the adventure he’d shared with Fortune all those years ago. Fortune’s companion at the time had been Mr. Nobody, who had a habit of taking on the appearance of old-time movie stars—like Tor Johnson. Or, Donald Meek.

But if Mr. Nobody was with John Fortune as Tor Johnson, then, who…

Nighthawk glanced at Meek, who was standing by his side. The little man returned Nighthawk’s gaze with bland innocence.

Tor Johnson or Mr. Nobody or whoever he was turned the latch on the window and pulled up the lower pane. The sound of the street many stories below wafted into room, as did a warm nighttime breeze. “Is that what you wanted, little boy?” the big bodyguard wheezed, and Timmy, looking out into the night, nodded.

Everyone waited expectantly, and a moment later a pigeon flew into the room. It circled Tor Johnson as if he were an atoll in the ocean and the bird was seeking refuge after a long flight, and then landed on the round crown of Johnson’s bald head, cooing contentedly.

Dagmar—or was it Hildy?—broke into a giggle. “It looks like it’s hatching an egg,” she said, as Johnson almost went cross-eyed trying to gaze up at the bird.

The bird flapped away after a moment and sought out Fortune’s second bodyguard, landing on her shoulder. She—the bodyguard— craned her neck and looked uncertainly at it.

“Kiss the pretty lady,” Timmy said.

Nighthawk was a little worried about this one. All he was able to discover about the young Asian woman with the long braided hair was her name, Kavitha Kandiah. Nighthawk had been observing her as she’d been moving about the room, getting a drink for Fortune, placing a dish of candies by Johnson’s elbow on the table. She moved with a fluid grace that spelled martial artist or dancer. As an unknown factor, Nighthawk thought, she’d bear watching. The problem was, so would almost everyone in the room.

The pigeon reached forward to peck at her cheek, and she leaned backwards in her seat.

“We call him Birdbrain,” Flowers chortled. “Because he can control the minds of birds—one at a time, that is.”

As a longtime baseball fan, Nighthawk had already detested Charlie Flowers. Now, interacting with him personally for the first time, he really loathed him.

The bird flew up from Kandiah’s shoulder, circled the table, and landed in front of Galante, where it proceeded to spread its wings and do sort of a bobbing and hopping dance in front of Galante’s pile of chips.

Galante had a look of intense dislike on his face. “Disgusting thing,” he said. “Rat with wings.”

Next to Nighthawk, Meek made a gesture with his right hand. A spectrum of light, like a rainbow, arced from his palm, striking the bird in mid-hop. The pigeon vanished.

Nighthawk looked at Meek with new interest in his eyes, as did everyone else in the room.

“I told you,” Meek said to him. “I make problems disappear.” He glanced at Timmy, who was looking at him with somewhat like horror. “Don’t worry, kid, he’s okay. I just sent him to a better place.”

Teleportation? Nighthawk thought. Interesting. An extremely potent power, and useful. There was more to Meek, he decided, than appearances would allow.

“All right,” Flowers said briskly, unconcerned by his nephew’s downcast expression. “Let’s get to business. Or sport, eh?” He elbowed Dagmar in the ribs, rubbing his meaty hands together briskly.

“Yeah.” Galante took his gaze from Meek and ostentatiously consulted the expensive Rolex on his wrist. “Well, we’re expecting one more player. He seems to be running late. It’s past nine. Let’s give him a couple more minutes—”

Even as Galante spoke there was a shimmering in the air, felt more by the brain than seen by the eye. Suddenly three newcomers stood in the room.

The woman in the center was the tallest. She was almost six feet and wore a robe of shining fabric that for some reason Nighthawk found difficult to focus his eyes on. Her skin was pale, her long black hair fell like a rippling cloak to her waist, but her silver eyes were her most arresting feature. Nighthawk felt that it might be unwise to look into them too deeply or for too long.

She embraced two others, one in the crook of each arm. The other woman was almost as tall as her, leggy, blond, with smoky-blue eyes and a bored expression on her exquisite face. She wore a black sheath dress that revealed the creamy skin of her upper breasts and displayed a lot of silky thigh. Around her long, graceful neck was a diamond choker with a single large sapphire shining like the tear of an angel.

Nighthawk was relieved—somewhat. The woman in the diamond choker was Margot Bellerose, internationally famous French actress. Nothing to worry about there. The ace who’d delivered her was another matter. Lilith. Teleporter and assassin. Mistress of the knife. The case that held the buy-in cash was slung around one of her shoulders.

As to the player himself—

“Siraj, Hashemite Prince of the Royal House of Jordan and President of the Caliphate of Greater Arabia,” Lilith announced in a voice that managed to be haughty and languid at the same time.

Siraj bowed a precise millimeter in the general direction of the poker table and put out his hand. Bellerose took it with an air of pouty boredom and they approached the table together. Siraj was short, handsome, and dark, if more than a little plump. He was reputed to have a sharp mind and an almost bottomless bank account.

Prince Siraj took the last empty seat at the table and snapped a finger to one of the two barmaids, who hustled up another chair. Bellerose slipped into it with the air of a queen about to expire from ennui, playing with her choker as she glanced disinterestedly around the table.

“Let’s get this show on the road!” Flowers suggested.

“Agreed,” Galante said with a degree of oily unctuousness, “but first, the house rules. They are few, but important. Number one, gentlemen. The buy-in.”

Khan strolled around the table, collecting the various bags, valises, and briefcases offered by the players or their seconds.

“The cash will be counted,” Galante said, “just for propriety’s sake, and be put in the suite’s safe for safekeeping. Your chips are already in place before you. Rule number two. The game is over when one player holds all of those chips. Rule number three. The play is table stakes, dealer’s choice, no limit. Is that all agreeable?”

Murmurs went around the table.

“Good. Play will be continuous, but if someone wants to take a break for a snack, or, whatever, heh-heh, there are private rooms in the suite to eh, freshen up in.”

Flowers, eyeing one of the barmaids, a lissome joker model with bunny ears and a cute fluffy tail, asked, “All part of the service?”

“All part of the service,” Galante agreed.


“Finally, no telepathy.” Galante’s voice turned low with more than a hint of danger. “We have ways of detecting it and identifying whoever may be using it. The offender will lose their stake.” He paused a moment. “And probably more.” He looked around the table, his gaze resting momentarily on each player. “Understood?”

He got six answers in the affirmative. The last player he looked at was Dutton, and his eyes lingered.

“I know the world we live in, but this is a friendly game.” Galante’s smile was almost sincere. “Masks are not allowed at the table, Mr. Dutton, because of the unfair advantage that they give.”

Dutton may have smiled under his mask. At least, it moved a little bit on his face. “Far be it for me to take unfair advantage, Mr. Galante,” he said in his sepulchre voice.

He removed the mask and let it drop on the table before him. There were several audible gasps. Even Galante blanched a little. Flowers murmured, “Eew.” Bellerose, seemingly entranced, whispered, “Magnifique.” Golden Boy looked on, unmoved.

“Shall we play?” Dutton asked, what might have been a smile twitching across his face.

Galante grinned in reply and broke open a pack of cards sitting near him on the table.

“Of course,” he said. “As host, I deal the first hand. The game starts, as always, with a hand of Low Chicago. Afterwards, winner deals and chooses the play. Ante up, gentlemen.”

Everyone took one of the red chips from the pile before him and tossed five thousand dollars into the pot.

* * *

There was, Nighthawk thought as the game began, an authentic rush of excitement in the air. He’d been involved in a few marathon poker games in his life, nothing approaching stakes like these, of course, and he knew that they had a rhythm, a kind of ebb and flow, depending largely on the personalities of those involved. And the seven players here, he realized, had about as wide a range of personalities as could be found. It didn’t take too long to sort them out.

Galante was a bold, impulsive player. He also wore his emotions openly on his face. He took chances—it was gambling, after all—but more often than not he succeeded when he did. He also drank steadily, but he seemed to hold his liquor well.

Jack Braun, to his left, was the most distracted player at the table. One and sometimes both of the twins were hanging on to him. He had a fair poker face—a reviewer had once said that as an actor his facial expressions ran the gamut from A to B—but was careless with the way he held his cards and in the way he played. He didn’t drink as much as Galante, but then he didn’t hold his drink as well, either.

Charlie Flowers was the most intense player at the table. He gripped his cards tightly, he stared around at everyone as the bets were made like he was trying to read their minds. Unfortunately, he was a bad reader.

Siraj’s play was as smooth and deft as his manners. He was probably, in Nighthawk’s judgment, one of the two best players at the table.

Dutton, with his ultimate poker face, was the other. He too was suave and mannered, but he had the advantage of looking like Death.

Will Monroe was affable and full of chitchat. Nighthawk couldn’t tell if he was just a little scatterbrained, or was cunningly trying to distract the other players as he explained, sometimes in excruciating detail, the fine points of the game to his attendant, Abigail, who didn’t seem all that interested. Nighthawk kept wondering why she was there. She seemed more bored than anyone else present, except possibly for Timmy, who soon lost interest in the proceedings, but thankfully didn’t call in any more birds to play with.

John Fortune was all business, as if this were work for him, not fun. He concentrated on the game, though as it started he acknowledged Nighthawk with a nod. Which Nighthawk returned. He wondered if his presence was conjuring bad memories for Fortune, since the last time he’d seen him he was being held by the Midnight Angel and sobbing over his father’s death. It hadn’t been a pleasant time for anyone.

Flowers got off to a bad start, Siraj to a fast one. Within the first hour Siraj had won three hands in a row, taking a lot of chips from Flowers.

“Motherfucking—” Flowers began after Siraj had called his bluff and raked in a big pot.

Prince Siraj looked at him, quirking an eyebrow. “What did you say?”

Flowers gestured impatiently. “Hey, nothing personal. Wasn’t talking to you, directly.”

“There are ladies present,” Siraj said in his smooth English accent.

“Ladies,” Flowers snorted. “If by ladies you mean whor—”

“I mean ladies.” Siraj cut him off again, this time with iron in his tone. “And if you want to take a brief break and discuss this matter personally, I will be more than happy to indulge you.”

“Hey, Prince, it was just locker room talk—”

“We are not currently in a locker room, Mr. Flowers,” Siraj said, “and when you were you didn’t know how to behave decently. Your actions were beneath contempt.”

Next to him, Bellerose tittered.

Flowers flushed red for a moment. He turned and looked at Julie Cotton, the joker bar attendant, who was standing nearby, just having brought Galante another tumbler of whiskey, straight up. “Hey, girlie,” he said. “Bring me a bourbon.” He paused. “Does that tail come off with the costume, honey?”

Bellerose tittered again.

“No, sir,” Cotton said with as much dignity as she could muster.

“Enough,” Galante said impatiently. “Deal the cards. We’re playing poker here, right?”

* * *

By two A.M. Nighthawk was starting to think that all the bodyguards were a bit unnecessary. The game progressed with intensity, but without untoward incidents. Even though the fortunes of all players were shifting, no one was yet showing signs of worry.

Whether Dutton’s supreme poker face helped him or not, he and Prince Siraj were the big winners. They had piles of chips stacked before them, representing about half the total table. John Fortune was playing with stoic skill, but so far the cards weren’t favoring him. He was essentially even after the first five hours of play. Jack Braun was drunk as a lord and losing steadily, but he seemed unconcerned and was paying more attention to Hildy and Dagmar than the cards. He’d left the table with them twice, taking them to one of the private rooms for two half-hour breaks, and returning each time if not more sober at least with a happy look on his face. He and Galante, who was drunk as a pissed-off mafioso, and Will Monroe, who was steadily sipping scotch and ginger ale, had about two million in chips among them. Charlie Flowers was moaning over his pile, which was about half as high as when they’d started.

The various bodyguards all mostly remained in a state of taciturn alertness. None of them had partaken of alcoholic beverages, although the one who looked like Tor Johnson had consumed an ungodly amount of bar snacks ranging from chips and salsa to caviar-spread crackers to a dozen doughnuts of various types and fillings. Others had eaten more sparsely of the spread, which was dispensed efficiently and prettily by the bunny-eared joker and the dark-haired, dark-eyed girl, who’d also been kept busy serving single malt to Braun, bourbon to Flowers, whiskey to Galante, and other beverages to the rest of the players.

Abigail was the most attentive of the onlookers. She sat in a chair a little behind Will Monroe, following every turn of the cards. Pug the ex–child star was asleep on the far right sofa that lined the suite’s outside wall. Flowers’s nephew with the contemptuous nickname of Birdbrain was soundly asleep on the middle sofa. One of Fortune’s bodyguards, the dancer or martial artist, occupied the third one, but she at least was alert… though it seemed to Nighthawk that she was watching him and Meek more closely than the game. Nighthawk never looked at her directly, but he could feel her eyes upon him and Meek and he wondered why they were the center of her attention.

Shit!” Flowers exclaimed crudely and loudly, throwing his cards down in disgust as John Fortune raked in the current pot. “I need something to change my luck!” He stood and grabbed the arm of the dark-haired bar attendant named Irina. She’d just passed by his seat after delivering another whiskey to Galante. “Come on, baby, let’s see what you can deliver besides drinks.” He pulled her into one of the bedrooms and closed the door after them.

Fortune piled his chips, tossed in a red for the ante. “Seven-card stud,” he announced.

He liked, Nighthawk had noticed, the more straightforward games, without wild cards or split pots.

* * *

By five o’clock Golden Boy was busted. All his chips were gone, as was one of the twins, who’d disappeared with Bellerose into one of the private rooms, unnoticed by everyone but Nighthawk. At least, no one had the poor taste to remark upon their absence. Braun himself was still seated at the table, but was asleep, head down upon it. Dagmar (or was it Hildy?) was curled up on the chair behind Braun, also asleep, but a lot cuter than Jack, who, much to Galante’s disgust, was snoring.

“Somebody wake that stiff up. He’s drooling on my card table,” Galante said. “And order me a steak sandwich.”

His redheaded bodyguard named Cyn stood, stretched like a cat, and went to Braun’s side. She was a pleasure to watch as she pulled Golden Boy Braun upright and settled him back in his chair, then continued on her way to call room service. “Ah, Mom,” Braun moaned. “It ain’t time to milk the cows yet. Lemme sleep s’more.”

There were general guffaws and titters around the table.

“C’mon,” Flowers said, “we gonna play cards or milk the cows? I got a lot of money to win back.”

“Good luck with that,” Will Monroe observed dryly. He tossed in a red chip to ante for the next hand. “You got enough to cover that?”

Flowers had maybe a dozen blues and a slightly higher stack of whites, the two lowest denominations at a thousand and five hundred dollars each, respectively.

“You worry about your own pile, movie boy,” Flowers said gruffly, but Nighthawk thought that the ex–baseball player had to know that Monroe was right. He was one, maybe two losing hands away from being busted.

At this point Dutton was the big winner, Fortune and Siraj were roughly tied with the second largest piles of chips. Monroe and Galante were both down.

“I’ll give you a chance to last another couple hands,” Galante, who had won the previous pot, said generously as he started to deal. “Five-card stud.”

Galante dealt the first card facedown around the table, then the second, faceup. The exposed cards ranged from John Fortune’s deuce to a queen for Prince Siraj. Siraj checked and the bet went around the table to Galante, who had a ten showing.

“Bet a thousand,” he said, and everyone added a blue chip to the pot.

The third up card was dealt and Flowers got an ace, but Monroe received a second eight.

“A thousand on each,” the producer said. All called but Galante, who folded.

Flowers smiled when Galante dealt him a second ace in the fourth round. He had the high hand showing, though Fortune was dealt a second deuce to join the ballplayer and Monroe with pairs. “About time,” Flowers said, not bothering to conceal a smile. He tossed four whites into the pot for another raise of two thousand dollars.

Prince Siraj folded without a word or expression. Dutton folded with a smile that could only be described as sinister.

“I’ll keep you honest,” Monroe said to Flowers with a straight face, tossing in two blues.

Fortune silently added two of his own to the pot.

Galante dealt the last round to the three who were still in the game. Monroe got a nine, Flowers a queen, and Fortune a three.

Flowers looked from Monroe, who was expressionless, to Fortune, who had a small smile on his face. Flowers had one blue and ten white chips left.

“Check,” he said.

Fortune’s smile grew wider. He added six thousand dollars to the pot.

Flowers stared at him. Fortune looked back levelly. Seconds ticked away.

“Shit,” Galante said, “you might as well go all in in case he’s bluffing. You’ll be gone the next hand, anyway.”

Seconds more passed like hours crawling by. Nighthawk could see sweat beading Flowers’s forehead. His hands twitched once, reaching for his final chips, and then froze as the door to the hotel suite opened. He looked back over his shoulder, but it was only a waiter delivering Galante’s sandwich on a covered silver tray. He also carried a small folding table.

“Goddamn it,” Flowers swore.

The waiter, an elderly man in hotel livery, came to the table.

“Who ordered the steak sandwich?” he asked.

Cyn, who had resumed her seat, nodded at Galante. “Over here.”

“Bring me a whiskey on the rocks,” Galante said with a glance at Irina. He returned his attention to the game as the waiter deftly set the folding table down, after Cyn scootched her chair over to make room.

Irina approached with the drink as Flowers pushed his remaining chips into the pot with an agonized gesture. Fortune looked at Monroe, who shook his head.

“Your move,” he said.

Still smiling, Fortune turned over his hole card, revealing a third deuce.

Goddamn it!” Flowers stood up suddenly, pushing his chair back and bumping into Irina, who staggered. The drink that she was delivering to Galante slid from her tray into his lap.

For one brief moment time seemed frozen and Nighthawk could smell the danger that suddenly speared the air. He started to rise. Irina, a stricken look on her face, started to bend over, reaching out with the cloth napkin that had been draped over her forearm. “I’m sor—”

Galante swiveled in his chair. “You clumsy bitch!” He slapped her in the face hard enough to knock her to the floor.

There was another moment of silence, broken by a wordless shout of rage from the waiter, who swung the tray bearing the steak sandwich and accompanying fries at Galante, catching him on the side of the head and knocking him and his chair onto the floor.

And suddenly all hell broke loose.

Khan rose from his seat with a feline roar and reached for the waiter, but the old man was changing. In the blink of an eye his body mass seemed to double, shredding the uniform that he wore. All the added mass was solid muscle. The waiter backhanded Cyn and she slammed into the wall and rebounded, stunned. Khan reached across Galante’s fallen chair and he and the waiter grappled. They stood locked together for a moment, clearly matched in strength.

Dutton, Nighthawk thought. He grabbed his client, hoisted him over the bar, and dropped him behind it onto the floor, turning back in time to see Khan and the waiter smash onto the table and roll over it, scattering chips and cards. John Fortune dove away. Tor Johnson stood, uncertain. Flowers drew a pistol he’d had in a shoulder holster. Lilith drew a blade and moved to Siraj, but Meathooks, next to her, lashed out, catching her in the side with the metallic hooks that’d sprung from his hands. Lilith staggered backwards, her gown suddenly torn and very bloody.

It was all happening so fast that Nighthawk could do nothing but stand his ground. Besides, his duty was to Dutton and his job was to stay between him and whatever danger might come his way. So far, all of the action was across the table.

Meathooks stumbled against Flowers as he avoided the sweep of Lilith’s blade. Charlie Flowers was shouting and spraying shots. One struck Prince Siraj as he rose from his chair. Khan and the waiter were hammering at each other, as a dazed Cyn pushed to her knees and unleashed a gout of flame that ripped the chandelier from the ceiling and set off the smoke alarm. Part of the heavy glass-and-metal fixture landed on Siraj. Fortune shouted, “Help him,” but before either of his bodyguards could move, Khan and the waiter, still locked together, lurched off the table and bumped into Cyn. Her flames licked across the room. Nighthawk felt the heat of it wash over him, but he was only at its very edge. Part of it flicked across Meek, who cried out in pain, raised both hands, and filled the suite with rainbow light.

The rainbows seemed to wrinkle the very air. Whoever they touched simply disappeared. Only Charles Dutton, on the floor behind the bar, and Nighthawk, at Meek’s side, remained. All that remained of the other players, companions, and servers were a few untidy heaps of clothing and jewelry that marked where they’d been standing, sitting, or sleeping.

The window drapes were aflame. Nighthawk, quelling the questions screeching in his brain, arose and put out the fire before the sprinklers came on, using a soda water bottle from the stocked bar. As he was spraying down the draperies the two women emerged from the bedroom, where they’d been occupied.

“Siraj?” Margot Bellerose cried. “What happened? What happened?” Her voice rose in panic. “Where is everyone?”

Nighthawk turned to Meek, who was slapping at the burning sleeve of his jacket. Teleportation, he thought. “Where did you send them?” Nighthawk demanded.

But Meek shook his head. “Not where. When.”

Excerpted from Low Chicago, copyright © 2018 by George R. R. Martin

Posted in Wild Cards News.
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