Always Time To Do It Over
“Nandi, you have a problem.”
“No Luis, I think I have this fixed; I didn't have the lasers all calibrated to the correct frequency.”
“No Nandi, you have a problem, with your paper.”
“What, in the printer?”
“Will you get out of the Wells? You're not going to be able to graduate tomorrow!”
“Masende kababa wakho I won't graduate tomorrow! I've spent six years on this PhD. I have a fellowship at DARPA waiting and I'll finally have the freedom and funding to pursue my research! There's a Nobel prize in my future for this, and anyway, I did all the damn work required! Why wouldn't I graduate?”
“Because you're not going to pass your American history class.”
Nandi climbed the ladder out of the central cylinder. The catwalk shook alarmingly as she returned to the table where Luis was looking over a shockingly thin handful of paper.
“Luis, I have an IQ of 163, so you must have worked very hard to confuse me. What the Bhebha are you talking about?”
“Well Ms. Genius, I know my IQ is only 160, but evidently in those three points you forgot how to do basic research.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your paper here, on the Chicago Fire of 1871,” Luis smacked the papers against the table. “Where did you read it was started by Mrs. O'Leary's cow?” He smiled a crooked grin. “Tell me Wikipedia, I dare you to tell me Wikipedia.”
“I didn't read it, I bought it,” Nandi replied defensively, leaning over his shoulder. “I didn't have time to write the research paper for that silly American History class that's required for graduation, so I bought one off the Internet. Since we're in Chicago, and it's the sesquicentennial , this one caught my eye.” She shifted uneasily, the facade of calm showing slight cracks. “What do you mean the fire wasn't started by the cow? Michael said the site was reliable.”
“I don't know about the site, but this paper isn't accurate. No credible historian believes the fire was started by the cow. The reporter who wrote that admitted 20 years later he'd made it up.”
“That ngquza. I'm going to rip his masende off and feed them to him!”
You don't know how sexy it is to hear a physicist swear in a language I don't understand. What are you going to do?”
“We're in a room with a time machine and you have to ask what we're going to do, Luis? Those three points IQ points must be more important than you know.”
“So you're going to go back in time and actually research a paper?”
“Of course not, that would violate Novikov's self-consistency principle. We can't travel back in time and change the past; if I were to go back and spend the last week doing a paper instead of the work I did on the magnetic couplers, that would involve a major change to what has already happened. The laws of physics don't allow that.”
“But they do allow you to go back and burn down a city?”
“The city burned with no help from me. I'm not creating any inconsistencies in the timeline; the city will still burn, only this time it will be the cow's fault.”
The lasers were invisible. Nandi had explained that Free Electron Lasers emitted terahertz radiation that was not within the visible spectrum. Luis, who had grown up watching Star Wars and Star Trek, felt cheated.
“The Josephson Effects in the SQUIDS show the magnetic fields are holding steady, and the lasers are approaching the proper density for the Tipler Cylinders!” Nandi yelled.
“Josephus, like Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian?” Luis yelled back, trying hard to gain an understanding, however tenuous, on the spectacle spread below him.
“Not even close, you Indiana Jones wannabe!” Nandi yelled back. “That's what you get for going into the soft sciences!”
The gantry swayed, causing Luis to grasp the upraised ladder for support. The wind was an aerologist's delight, dancing in eddies and downdrafts. Below the gantry mated pairs of concentric circles hung in the air supported only by magnetic fields within a robust lattice. The rings were mounted around a common central axis, creating a symmetry, Luis felt, uncomfortably similar to a bulls-eye. The upper level of rings descended toward the center; the physical structure and concave topography had inspired a literary minded associate professor to dub the machine 'The Wells'.
Luis' stomach lurched in time with the gantry. Beneath him another set of circles had begun to spin, altering the already chaotic air currents. Each ring spun in the opposite direction from its mate and its neighbors, Nandi had once explained, to prevent a killer vortex from forming and flattening the lab and everyone in it like a tornado. Within each ring a bank of lasers was embedded, facing toward their counterparts in the matching ring. From what Luis had understood when Nandi had first explained the theory, the rings were accelerated by a series of magnetic pulses under the same principles as a rail gun. Being suspended by magnetic fields made the lasers almost frictionless, allowing them to achieve incredible speeds. This was important, Nandi had said, because the spinning lasers were attempting to replicate the mass of an infinte cylinder from the energy of the impacting electrons. Each cylinder pushed the rings within it further into the past, overcoming a Tipler cylinder's inability to move beyond its own temporal existence when bending spacetime. There had been more, but after Luis had grasped it was very Quantum Leapish, he'd stopped listening and simply enjoyed watching Nandi move as she drew complicated equations on the room's whiteboard.
"The last ring is up to speed, lower the ladder!"
Luis' attention was jerked back to what passed for the present when standing over a time machine. He pulled the lever releasing the ladder and watched it drop into the center ring. In contrast to the concrete floor of the science building, the ladder thudded down on brown dry grass.
"Don't forget the backpack!"
"This would be a lot easier if you'd just changed beforehand!"
"Are you crazy? There's no way I was going to try climbing a ladder in a bustle and corset! You're lucky I'm going to wear them at all."
"No, you're lucky the Drama department did "My Fair Lady" last semester and still had the costumes. You couldn't go in just a tank and sweats, you'd be arrested for running around in your underwear!"
"Curse your ancestors' clothing mores! Now get down that ladder!"
"Just because your's ran around the African savanna naked..." Luis grumbled as he climbed down rung by rung. The heat from the invisible lasers made him break into a sweat; the chill air as he stepped onto the grass sent a shiver across his skin. Looking up he saw Nandi's impatient face staring at him from from the gantry and 150 years. He suddenly felt very far from home and very alone.
"Move, Luis, unless you want me to land on your head!"
His girlfriend's dulcet tones shocked Luis from his reverie, and he hastily stepped away. Nandi grabbed the ladder sides with her hands and feet and slid down in one smooth motion. Removing what appeared to be a television remote from her pocket, she pointed it toward the circle of light in the sky and began pressing buttons. The ladder withdrew into the bright halogen glow from the laboratory lights, which in turn disappeared into sudden darkness, causing Luis to blink madly as his eyes attempted to adjust. He vaguely saw Nandi bend down and press something into the dirt.
"A beacon, so we can find our portal again," she replied absentmindedly. She fiddled with the remote. "I have lithium batteries in here, so it should last for a couple of days, but I don't want to take any chances, so we should change and get this done."
"What happens if we get stuck?" Luis asked as he began pulling clothes from the rucksack.
"You get to write your history as an autobiography," Nandi replied sorting through the ball of cloth Luis thrust at her.
"Luis, you gave me the wrong clothes."
"Actually, I didn't. I figured with your short cropped hair and athletic build, it would be better to have you go as a man. I'm not sure what reaction a Mexican man and an African woman as a couple would get on the streets in this day and age. Plus, now you won't have to deal with corsets and bustles."
"Aww, you do love me. Now turn around."
"You do remember that part of the whole sex thing is I've seen you naked, right?"
"That's different. Then I wanted you to see me naked. Now I don't. Turn around."
"Okay, but may I ask why?"
"Because now that I know you think of me in a mannish way, it kind of freaks me out."
"I'm not going to get laid for a long time, am I?"
Nandi snorted genteelly. "You just became the first person to travel through time, you're standing over a century before you were born and you're living a historian's dream; yet your main concern is losing access to sex. You are so male."
Luis turned to face into the darkness and began changing quickly. "I'll be sure to tell my papi that next time he goes into his rant about becoming a professor instead of working in his construction company." Slipping his feet into the faux working boots, he grimaced. "Fah. I should have brought some inserts. Our feet are going to be killing us by the time we're done." He instinctively glanced at his wrist, Then grinned ruefully at how inadequate a conventional timepiece was in his present circumstances. "Nandi, what time is it, locally?"
Nandi adjusted her bowler hat to a rakish angle. "It should be around eight o'clock. I wanted to make sure it would be dark when we, uh, landed I guess. Why?"
"The fire started between nine and nine-thirty, and according to Google Maps, it's about three miles between the Water tower and the O'Leary's. We can make it, but we'll have to hurry."
"Ugh. Three miles in these shoes? Hang on a moment, I'm going to go barefoot."
"You probably don't want to do that."
"This is before the internal-combustion engine; the main mode of transport is the horse and buggy. Do I need to draw you a picture?"
Nandi finished retying her shoe and stood up. "History is really disgusting, you know that, right?"
"Heh, be glad one of us knows what they're doing here." He pulled a folded up piece of paper from his shirt pocket and squinted at it in the moonlight. "Ok, according to this, we need to take Chicago to State street, the go south till we hit Roosevelt, take that west to Clinton, then go north on Clinton to DeKoven. The barn was on the north side of the street, at the back of the lot."
Nandi stared at the multi-colored bands overlaying the map of the city in Luis' hand. "Luis, that shows the burn pattern of the city. You're a science-fiction fan! You know how dangerous it is to bring something like that with you into the past!"
"What do you think this is, a trope time-travel story? I'm not going to lose it, but I didn't have time to memorize everything I wanted to know and I figured this was a lot safer to bring than my PalmPilot." He refolded the paper and tucked it into his shirt. "Look, everything we brought with us, from our clothes to our mores is a potential contaminant. Mierda, our entire purpose here is to contaminate history. Let's get to the O'Leary's, burn down the city, and get home so you can graduate." Turning on his heel, Luis strode off, muttering imprecations in Spanish under his breath.
Nandi stood a moment, stunned by his outburst, then hurried after him. Coming alongside, she reached out toward him, remembering at the last moment her gender reversal. Searching for a way to break the icy silence, she broached what seemed to be the safest subject.
"It's very quiet."
Luis' body language told her he knew what she was doing, but with a sigh he allowed himself to be placated. "Not really, it's just the sounds you hear aren't what you're used too. You're expecting engines and televisions, sirens and crowds of people." He stepped down into the street, maneuvering carefully over the uneven bricks. "But if you try, you can hear the equivalent." A two wheeled hansom wagon pulled by a single horse trotted by. "The clip-clop of the horse's hooves is your engine sound. Get close to the houses and you'll hear piano or violin music, or people playing cards or just talking; that was how people entertained themselves before the television, or even radio. And if we're lucky," he angled across the street. "If we're lucky we won't hear the whistles police officers blow to summon assistance."
"Why would we hear that?"
"We're a black and Latino in the heart of the business district after dark, with no clear purpose. Maybe I'm being unfair, and we're perfectly safe, but I really don't want to take that chance, you know?"
"It sounds like what my grandparents used to say about living under Apartheid."
"I don't know if now it was institutionalized so much as societal." Luis' hands moved in small circles in front of him as he struggled to fit words into his concept. "Apartheid enshrined racism through the legal code. In this time the supremacy of white Anglos was a given, there didn't need to be laws to make it official."
"Is there a practical difference?"
"Not really, no."
"Then I don't see what...hey, the sidewalks are made of wood!"
A slight chuckle escaped Luis' lips. "Smart as a supercomputer, focused as a kitten on catnip. Yes, the sidewalks were made of wood. That was part of the problem when the fire happened. Do you feel how dry the air is?"
"Now that you mention it, yes."
"Chicago had been suffering through a drought for several weeks when the fire started. All the wood in the city, the sidewalks, the houses, the lumber piles, went up like tinder. The fire got so hot that the superheated air being blown before the fire ignited buildings before the flames actually reached them."
"So, all these things you weren't able to memorize before we left, what were they, exactly?"
"Hey, I grew up in Chicago, this is all just years of scholastic osmosis. I crammed as much as I could before we left, but we both know I've never been good with maps or directions, and the last thing I wanted to do was get lost. Speaking of which," Luis pulled the disputive map out of his shirt and checked against the local topography. "This is State Street. We turn left here."
"It's amazing that the streets have the same names."
"Most of them don't. Right now Roosevelt is named 12th street."
"It's 1871. Neither of the Roosevelts have been president yet."
"But you said there was a Clinton street."
"There is, but it must be a coincidence. There's no way it could have been named for the president or her dad."
"It's strange, referring to what we're doing in the past tense."
"I don't think English has invented the proper tense to use in this kind of situation. There's probably a doctorate in it for the person who creates one."
"Of all the possible advances I foresaw arising from time travel, refining linguistics wasn't one of them."
"Chalk it down to the Law of Unintended Consequences." Looking up at the sky Luis grunted. "It's not a surprise, I guess, but I'd hoped it'd be more impressive."
Following his gaze, Nandi stopped in her tracks. "It's so beautiful. I don't think I've ever seen the sky so clear. How could you be disappointed?"
Luis took her elbow to jolt her into movement, and found himself forced to steer as Nandi continued to stare at the stars. "I was hoping the fact that we're predating the automobile would have cleared out the exhaust haze, but I forgot to factor in the fact that people are using wood or coal for heating and cooking. I just traded one kind of pollution for another."
"But the sky is so bright!"
Luis cast a critical eye toward the stars as he navigated down the street. "There's a lot less light pollution, that's true. But I was expecting it to be like at my abuelo's farm in Montana. The sky there is so clear the stars don't even seem to twinkle. I knew London had bad air in this time period; it was an industrial center and the famous 'Pea Soup' fogs were actually smog. I didn't think to consider that Chicago would have the same thing going on."
"You really take your history seriously, don't you."
"Seriously enough to have earned my Ph.D, just like you did in math."
"Physics, actually," Nandi replied primly. She hesitated a moment. "Why?"
"Huh? What do you mean?"
"Why history? It's over and done with. If you need to know what happened, you can just look it up. We used to mock the sociology, anthropology, history, all the soft sciences majors, while working in the math lab. Why study something so irrelevant?"
"Who invented calculus?"
"People have been fighting over if it was Leibniz or Newton for years."
"Ok, who first figured out the size of the Earth?"
"That's an imprecise question. Eratosthenes of Cyrene first calculated its diameter, if that's what you mean. You see, there was this well in Aswan, where on the Summer Solstice the sun shone straight down to the bottom, which meant it was a ninety degree angle; Eratosthenes then measured the angle of the shadow on the Solstice in Alexandria, Egypt, where he was, and from there it was a simple geometric equation. Of course he was a few thousand miles off, but..."
"And you know this because?"
"We studied the history of...oh, very clever Luis. I walked right into that."
The darkness did not quite cover Luis' smirk. "History helps us understand where we came from, why we are the way we are, and where we're going. No matter what field people enter, they usually begin by studying the history of what others did before. Newton himself said he achieved what he did by standing on the "shoulders of giants". That was a man who understood the importance of history."
"Are you sure this isn't just what historians tell themselves because they're stuck writing books while the rest of us get to play with cool gadgets?"
"Newton or who?"
"Leibniz....Piss off, Luis."
A companionable silence fell over them as they walked. Heading west along 12th Street, they crossed the river into a different world.
"The building are a lot smaller."
"We've left the business district. This area is home to the working class; figure the lower middle class of this time. The area we came from held the banks, the newspapers, the Government buildings, and the homes of the people who got rich off of them. This area is full of carters and clerks, the formless, faceless masses without whom society cannot function."
"That was almost poetic."
"It comes from writing books instead of playing with toys." Luis ignored Nandi's sneer as he stopped to compare the street sign to his map. "This is Clinton street, we turn north here. DeKoven is only a couple of blocks up." He shot her a glance from the corner of his eye. "Do you have a plan on how to change history?"
"We're not changing history, that's the point. No one really knows what happened; that's the only reason this will work. If we knew how the fire had started, then according to Novikov's self-consistency principle we'd be locked into that timeline. But because no one knows for certain, we can go back and select which theory is true. I'll be able to graduate and one of the big mysteries of history will be solved."
"So you're saying we can only go back to observe history we're ignorant of?"
"No, you can go back and watch whatever you want. You just can't make any changes if we know what occurred."
"What if I know, but you didn't? Could you make a change, even one that went against what I knew had occurred, because of your ignorance?"
"I don't think so. If the facts are certain, then history is immutable."
"Do you know how rare it is for a historical event to be without controversy? If two historians hold differing opinions on the significance of an event, then the first one to get his hands on a time machine can decide the truth for everyone?"
"You can't change history, I told you that. All that could happen is an uncertain event stops being uncertain." Nandi grabbed Luis' arm and pulled him up the street. "Talk while we walk. Take this example: was there a second shooter on the grassy knoll during the Kennedy Assassination? No one is certain, despite all the investigations and hearings. Theoretically, someone could go back in time and be the second shooter. If that person left evidence or was discovered during the crime, then there wouldn't be any question. The big picture wouldn't change; President Kennedy would still be dead, there'd just be a lot fewer crap books for sale."
"I'm not finished. Take the question of whether George Washington was a terrorist or a freedom fighter. This isn't a historical mystery, it's a question of interpretation, of opinion. No one questions what battles he fought in, or if he was elected president. Those things are historical fact, so we don't have to worry about an overly patriotic Brit going back and strangling him in his cradle. It's pure hubris to believe that an individual could alter something as vast as history."
"If you want anything more detailed, you're going to have to wait till we get back to Chicago, our Chicago, so I can show you the proofs."
"I was just going to ask how you even knew those historical events. You hate this stuff."
"I've been going out with you for over a year now. You think I had a chance to avoid picking some of it up?" She headed down a side street to their left, and began rubbing her hands nervously on her pants. "You said DeKoven was the second street up, is this it?"
Luis checked his map one last time. "Yeah, we go down the street and it's on the right hand side. The O'Leary's had a rental house on the street, then their house and the barn with the cow at the back of the lot."
"Luis, why do I smell smoke and charred wood?"
"Oh, that'd be from the fire."
Nandi grabbed the lapels of his jacket and spun him to face her, a wild look in her eyes. "What?! The fire's already started? You said we had at least an hour! Are we too late?"
"There was a smaller fire on October 7th, just north of the O'Leary's neighborhood." He slowly pried Nandi's fingers apart, freeing himself from her manic grip. "It burned several blocks before it was extinguished, and is one of the reasons today's fire did so much damage. When the fire watchman saw the fire in the O'Leary's barn he thought it was just a residual glow from yesterday's fire and didn't immediately sound the alarm."
"So we still have time?"
"I'd say we were right on time, if I knew what that term meant any more."
The sounds of music and merriment drifted across the street.
"Whoever is playing the fiddle is pretty good," Nandi remarked absently. "Luis, why are you grinning like the Cheshire Cat?"
"Peg Leg Sullivan isn't sitting by the fence. Richard Bales was right."
"Daniel Sullivan, known as "Peg Leg" because he'd lost his leg in the Civil War, testified after the fire that he had been sitting against the fence caddy corner to the O'Leary's on the night of the fire and from there saw the barn flame up. Richard Bales was an amateur historian who theorized late last century that Sullivan must have been lying because," Luis retraced his steps East to stand in front of the next house over from Nandi. "There was no way he could have seen the barn from where he said he was, as that house," Luis pointed to the O'Leary's Eastern neighbor, "was in the way. Bales was right."
"Why would he have lied?"
"He may have started the fire himself."
"Him? How? Why would he have been in the barn?"
"He might have been sneaking a smoke, or stealing milk. His mom kept a cow in the barn, so it's possible he was there legitimately. But the fire killed about 300 people, so he had a good reason to cover up his involvement."
"Where do you think he was?"
"It's about nine. Why don't we go find out?"
"The music's stopped," Nandi worried as they hurried across the street. "What if the O'Learys come out?"
"The street front house on the O'Leary's lot was rented by the McLaughlins. Mr. McLaughlin was a fiddler, and the music stopping was our signal," Luis explained as he moved Nandi toward the alley on the O'Leary's eastern property line. "The post-fire investigatory committee heard testimony that the music had ended before the fire started, so when we got here and I heard Mr. McLaughlin still sawing I knew we had time." The smell of dairy animals assaulted their noses as the bulk of a wagon blocked the alley. "The O'Learys were all in bed when the fire started, and didn't come out until the barn was pretty much engulfed." He slid the barn door open a fraction so they could slip through. Exclamations and groans drifted down from an oasis of light in the hayloft of the barn. "Damn! Cohn was telling the truth!"
Nandi slipped through the crack in the door and gently pulled it shut behind them. "Now what?"
"Some guy in the 1940's claimed to have started the fire while fleeing a crap game in the barn. Looks like he was telling the truth."
"Not as of now he isn't. Help me find a lantern. I can find the cows with my nose."
"But since we know the crap game started the fire, if we do it doesn't that violate the Nobby principle? Won't we cause a rift in the space/time continuum or something?"
"Save me from sci-fi physicists. Do we know Cohen or whoever started the fire?"
"He said he did."
"People admit to things they didn't do all the time. This guy's confession does not reality make. Help me find a lantern, and we'll make his reality."
They fumbled quietly through the barn, freezing when they heard the rattle of dice and moving as the players cheered their victories or mourned their losses. "Here, Luis! I found one! Quick, give me a lighter or something!"
"I don't smoke, why would I have carry those?"
"You don't have a way to light the lantern?"
"Hey! This isn't my history paper we're trying to write here! It's not my fault you didn't come equipped to commit grand arson!"
"What are we going to do?" Nandi was almost crying from frustration. "We're so close! What do we do now?"
"I have an idea." Luis moved toward the bottom of the ladder leading to the hayloft.
"Luis! What are you doing?"
"Hola! Amigos! I heard the hottest crap game in Chicago is being held here tonight! Mind if I join in?"
The rattle of the dice thundered into silence. Whispers and scuttling underscored the tread-thump as a tall, bearded man stumped to the edge of the hay loft. The lower half of his left leg was missing, replaced with a wooden rod.
"Hey, we got a Negro and a Burnt Guinea down there." His lilting burr was rough, buzzing. "What do you want to do with them, Jimmy?"
A waif in bedclothes came into sight. His slight stature and youthful appearance were at odds with the cynical cast of his head and the scoundrel look in his eyes. "What do you want? Did my mother send you to break up the game?"
"Yes, your mother sent us, two complete strangers, to break up a game run by her son in the hayloft of her barn." Nandi's cultured English tones, rich from her undergraduate days at Oxford, oozed upper class derision. "And she said to tell you that if you don't get back to bed this instant, the President will come in and tan your hide." She shot a withering look at Peg-Leg. "And I'm from Delhi, so I'm an Indian, not a negro."
The boy's face scrunched in incomprehension. "You don't look like a redskin."
Peg-Leg crossed his arms. "No, he means from India. It's a Palmy colony like Eire, so that laddie's people are under the same bootheel as ours." He gestured with his arm until someone passed him the lantern. Squinting down into the barn he studied the new arrivals. "But the accent says he's had some schoolin'. Which side of the boot were you on, boyo?"
"His family was a majarajah until the Mutiny," Luis broke in as Nandi stood gaping. "They fled to Italy until we both had to flee because of Garibaldi." Luis crossed his fingers behind his back for luck. "So, Senors, would you like to continue this discussion of our ancestry or would you like to win our money?" With a quick twist he pulled his class ring off of his finger. The glint of gold refracted red in the light of the lantern.
"Heh. I like him, he sounds funny." The boy waved Peg-Leg away from the top of the ladder. "Let 'em up."
"What if they're cops?" Peg-Leg moved aside but didn't lose his suspicious stare.
"You ever see faces like those walking a beat?" the boy retorted. "They look mostly like you. You want me to cut you out of the game?"
With a grunt that could have been either acknowledgment or disdain, Sullivan stepped clear of the top of the ladder, making space for the pair below to ascend.
"Nicely done, Nandi," Luis whispered as they moved through the barn. "I'm impressed you knew who the president was in 1871."
"I don't. I wasn't even sure if they had one," she confessed, grabbing the rungs. "But it seemed a safe bet."
Luis stared after her as she crested the lip of the hayloft. Shaking his head at the dumb luck of pluck, he moved quickly to join her.
The loft was cramped, crowded with stacks of hay bales and lit by a solitary kerosene lantern.
"What're ya called?" The young O'Leary insouciantly rolled a cigarette and lit it with a foul smelling match. Waving it out he dropped it nonchalantly on the hay strewn floor. The brief plume of smoke held Luis and Nandi's gaze until it faded away.
Nandi was the first to recover. "I am Nandi, and this is my traveling companion, Luis."
"Hey, Louie, now there's two of ye." The unnamed speaker was lounging against the wall of bales, a clay pipe in his mouth. Leaning forward, he extended a hand. "Denis. Our wooden legged friend is Danny, but we call him Peg-Leg, for obvious reasons. Louie's the small one there. He's a Christ-killer, but not a bad one. Jimmy's folks own the barn and he runs the game."
"Call me what you want Denis, I'm still walking out with most of your money tonight."
"The night's not over yet, Louie," Jimmy shot back. He held his hand out to Luis. "Let me see that ring." Bouncing it in his palm, he examined the etching in the side. "What is this, a family crest? And what, is the bird on fire?"
"It's a phoenix. According to mythology when it dies it's body burns to ashes, and a new phoenix rises from those."
"Kind of like Christ coming back from the dead? I figure it's worth ten dollars credit in the game."
"Ten?" Luis put on his best imitation of his father's 'negotiating face'. "It's worth thirty if it's worth a dime. That's solid gold there, and it's more unique than you could imagine." Given that the University of Chicago, Luis' alma mater, wouldn't be founded for almost two more decades, Luis felt what this statement lacked in exaggeration it more than made up in merit. "It could be worth thirty-five."
"I'll give you twenty to split between the two of you." Jimmy tossed the ring back, unimpressed. "And that's only because I think Louis is going to take home most of your money tonight. Smoke?"
Luis caught the ring, declined the tobacco pouch, and looked at the hand carved dice. "What are we playing?"
Louie caught up the dice and rolled them between his hands. "It's sixes and sevens. Know the rules?"
Nandi hunched down, squatting on her haunches. "No, but throw a few passes and I'll figure it out. We'll start betting now though, to keep things fair."
Peg-Leg eased his way to the floor, bracing himself off Denis' shoulder. "It's your money, lad. Throw the dice Louie."
"Right. Five." The tossed dice came up a three. Louie handed the dice to Denis, who repeated the move with a quick shout of "nine." The dice rolled a four, and he continued rolling. Nandi stared intently.
After several passes, Nandi stepped up to take the dice. "Seven," she said, and with a quick flick of her wrist the dice tumbled along the floor, landing with a six and one face up. "I suppose we should have asked, but what's the bet?"
Jimmy looked up from where he was rolling another in a neverending stream of cigarettes. "Two bits per pass. That bit o' pretty should keep you and your friend for a while yet." He surveyed the winning role with chagrin. "Even longer if your luck holds like that. Looks like you might not take home our money after all, Louie."
"As long as I take home more than I brought, it's still a good night Jimmy." Louis' laconic answer was belied by the gleam in his eyes. "I'm still up."
Nandi rolled again, but the snakeeyes brought her winning streak up short. Passing the dice to Jimmy, she sat back against Luis.
"Nandi, what are you doing?"
"The game is pretty simple. You choose what number you want to try to roll, and if you get it, you win. If you don't roll it, then the number you did roll become your new target number, unless it's a two, three, or another number based on the number you chose. It's like craps, but a little more complicated."
"No, I mean what about your paper? We're starting to get outside our timeline. What happens if the fire doesn't happen because you're playing games?"
"I told you, that can't happen. I need you to trust me. I used those extra three IQ points to come up with a plan."
Shaking his head, Luis accepted the dice from Jimmy, and at Nandi's insistence, tried to roll a nine. Nandi walked around the group and bummed a homerolled off of Jimmy, staying by the back wall as she choked her way through the rough tobacco.
The dice continued their circuit, pausing to grant Louie a four roll run that saw him build a respectible pot. One of the dice settled on its corner in a gap between the floor boards and after a brief argument Jimmy declared the roll to be a loss for Louis and the dice were passed again to Nandi. "Anyone know what time it is?"
Denis pulled a battered pocket watch out of his waistband. "Bout nine thirty. Why, you got a wife keeping you tied to home?"
"No," Nandi replied, with a glint Luis knew well. "Just keeping track of other things." Kneeling by the chalk circle, her toss was interrupted by a huge sneeze, which convulsed her body and caused her throw to go wild. One of the die skittered past Luis and disappeared over the edge of the loft.
"Damn it Luis, why didn't you catch it?!"
"What? Hey, don't blame me because you screwed up!"
Nandi stood, brushing the hay off of her legs. "I'll go find it. Someone hand me the lantern. Luis, you come with me. This is your fault too. You should have stopped it."
Denis started digging between some of the bales. "We don't need it. We keep an extra set here just in case."
"I like this set, it feels lucky." She held out her hand as Luis moved to the ladder. "Hand me the lantern and we'll be right back."
"I don't want to sit up here in the dark. If that die means that much to you, go find it and we'll let you back in." Jimmy moved to another set of bales and pulled out a leather bag that bulged with dice. "There's another lantern down there by the door. Use that."
Luis paused, his head just visible. "Well give her some matches so we can light it."
"Matches, you mean the lucifers?" Jimmy tossed the small cardboard box to Nandi. "Bring 'em back. They're a penny a box."
Nandi hurried to the ladder, almost knocking Luis from the rungs in her haste to descend.
As they reached the bottom, Luis whispered angrily "What's the deal, are you trying to break my neck?"
"At any moment, one of them is going to figure out you just called me a girl. I'd like to be out of here before that realization hits."
Luis moved to grab the lantern from the shelf by the door and raised the glass cover to light the wick. "I'm sorry, it was habit. How are you going to get the cow to kick the lantern?"
"Like this." Nandi took the lantern and threw it on the floor at the cow's rear feet. The spilled lamp oil spread into the strewn hay and ignited with a low whoomph. "The cow just kicked over the lantern! The barn's on fire! Out! Everyone get out!"
descended on the hayloft, to be explosively replaced by sound and
movement. The mad rush down the stairs was impeded by Peg-Leg's slow
pace. Regan swung himself over the side and, hanging by his hands,
dropped heavily to the floor below. With a yell Jimmy threw himself
off the loft and into Luis' and Nandi's bodies, knocking them down in a
tangle of limbs and bruises. Louie, waiting impatiently at the head of
the ladder suddenly disappeared from view, reappearing a moment later
and descending almost on top of Sullivan's head.
Jimmy extradited himself from the three person dogpile and rushed off. The influx of fresh air as he swung the barn door wide cleared the air of the gathering smoke, but the breeze caused the fire to flare anew. The panicked lowing of the cows was piteous, and carried clearly over the kicking of the horse against his stall wall.
"Luis, get up! We need to get out!"
"I think the little bastard broke my hip," Luis panted, clutching his right side. "I need help getting up. I don't think it'll support me on it's own."
Nandi pulled on his arm ineffectively. Outside, Donald Regan could be heard rousing the O'Learys. "Damn it Luis, it's times like this I wished you spent more time at the gym and less at the library. You know I can't lift you." Peg-Leg clomped past suddenly, refusing to meet their gaze. Despite his wooden limb he easily avoided Nandi's grasping hand. "Crawl will you?!" Get your fat ass out of this barn; I don't have time to give it the kicking it desearves before the roof caves in!"
Luis glanced upwards. The ceiling was hidden by the billowing smoke, but glimpses of burning haybales could be seen through the smoke eddies. The air stank of burning meat as the cow carcasses broiled, and a resounding crash signaled the horse's successful escape. "Look, just leave me. Get back to our time and..."
"Ah, spoken like a true Louis." The diminutive frame of Louis Cohn crawled out of the smoke to join them. "But such noble sentiments cannot go unrewarded. Here," he directed his attention to Nandi. "Help me get him up."
Leaning against each other, the trio tumbled through the hole in the horse's stall into the clear air. A crowd had gathered at the front of the barn, gyrating in a milling mass of chaos and confusion.
"I thought you'd left," Nandi choked out as they laid Luis in the alley next to the cart. Behind them burning brands from the barn had begun to fly downwind. The heat from the nearby flames singed their hair and caused streams of sweat to run down their skin.
"I went back for the money," Louis grinned. "I won it fair and square." He dug into his pocket and pulled out Luis' class ring. "Here, take this back." Looking critically at the fire breaking out among the houses across the street, he went on. "This is going to be bad, and you may need it to help you get through the next few days."
"That's very generous of you," Luis said, taking the proffered ring. "Thank you."
"If we all live through this, you can repay me by coming back and telling me why an Italian and an Indian prncess were playing dice in this kind of neighborhood." He smiled at Nandi's look of gaping amazement. "you just move differently. It's in the hips." The crowd at the front of the barn jumped back as something collapsed inside, spraying sparks out the disintergrating door. In the distance the clamour of fire bells could be heard. "If you'll excuse me, I don't think I want to be associated with this." With a final pat on Luis' shoulder, Cohn nonchalantly walked down the the alley and turned away into the street, his hands stuffed deep in his pockets.
Luis shifted his right leg, groaning at the movement. "Louie has the right idea. We need to get out of here before the firefighters show up and people start asking questions. I don't think we could provide satisfactory answers."
"We can't move you on a broken hip," Nandi protested. "We need to get you to the hospital."
"I'd rather take my chances moving," Luis said through gritted teeth. "I think it's just bruised, not broken. That little punk landed right on me." Rolling heavily, he grabbed the wagon wheel and began pulling himself up by the spokes. "Next time I'm reaching for the Virtual Wii-ality goggles to play raquetball remind me of tonight and suggest we do it for real."
"Deal." Nandi kneeled next to him and putting her shoulder under his arm helped him to his feet. At the front of the barn sprays of water and shouts of command announced the belated arrival of the fire engines.
Even limping, Luis and Nandi easily outpaced the fire. The ringing of the fire engines fell behind them as they stumped east across the river, crossing back into the business district. Luis studied the contentious map by the light of one of Jimmy's purloined matches. Nandi conspicuously remained silent.
"If we keep going east and then cut north on State, we'll stay ahead of the burn pattern. According to this, the fire didn't make it to the Water Tower until 2:30 am."
"The fire doesn't make it to the Tower until 2:30. You were mangling your tenses."
"Tell you what, you invent the proper verb tense for this situation, and I will use it."
"You're a little testy, aren't you? I'd think you would be happy. You just solved something like a dozen historical mysteries today." A clanging fire engine raced down the street, forcing the pair to retreat to the wooden sidewalk. You can make your career 'researching' this night alone."
"I'm contemplating walking three miles with a hip that's on fire, possessing information sought by historians for a century and a half, that I can't explain the origins of or independently prove. The best I can do is write a 'speculative history' book that will get me derided by my professional colleagues and ignored by potential employers."
Nandi bit her lip in chagrin. "Well, I love you."
Luis wrapped his arm around her shoulders, and ignoring their assumed rolls, squeezed her tight. "I love you too. You don't say that very often."
"I wasn't raised that way. The whole concept of a touchy-feely family is still new to me. I'm surprised my parents endured physical contact long enough to create my brothers and myself." She guided Luis into a turn to the north. "We're back at State street." The wind blew hot, and the smell of burning wood drifted through the air. The height of the buildings blocked any view of the fire itself, but Nandi imagined she could see the occasional flaming ember fly above the skyline across the street. "Are you sure that map's accurate? I'd hate to get caught up in that."
"The fire blew north-northwest in a pretty direct line for the first few hours before it spread out later tomorrow morning. We should have about four hours before the Water Tower area is threatened, and the fire didn't start spreading east and west until sevenish. Still," he said as he increased his stride, "it wouldn't hurt if we picked up the pace a bit. I think my hip can handle it."
"I'd say don't strain yourself, but under the circumstances that seems silly." Nandi put her shoulder in Luis' armpit, taking some of the weight off of his injured hip. Given the size differential between them, Nandi knew any assistance she offered was more psychosomatic than physical. Still, she felt better.
For a time they traded conversation for speed, spurred by the now visible glow to the southwest. Luis' limp became more pronounced, and his breath came in short ragged jerks, with a rhythmic hiss every time his right foot hit the ground. Finally he ground to a halt and, leaning against a wall, supported himself on his left leg while flexing the right in a variety of directions. His face was pale, and Nandi had felt the clamminess of his skin through his shirt.
“Are you sure you can make it? With the map we could avoid the fire, maybe law low for a few days until your hip heals...”
“We left the portal to the laboratory open,” Luis pointed out, his head resting backwards against the wall, eyes closed. “What do you think a firestorm like the one that's about to engulf the city would do to your precious Wells?”
“We know the Water Tower survives, so the lab should be ok,” Nandi replied. Her face twitched, betraying her uncertainty.
“Uh-huh. And while we're waiting here, what's happening, time-wise, back in the lab?”
“Since we had to leave the portal open, the temporal continuum is flowing at the same rate as it is here.”
“So if we wait the three days it would take for the fire to burn itself out to the point where we could even get to the Tower, you would have missed your graduation, it's likely our attempt to change history would be discovered, and all of this would be for nothing?”
“But if the other option is dying because you're too hurt to move...”
“What I've never understood,” Luis cut in, in a shift of conversation Nandi recognized as signaling the topic was closed, “is how this experiment got based out of the Water Tower anyway.” He shifted his weight to both legs, and began a determined plod up the street. “I always thought it was a national park or something.”
“Most people do. But back in the twenty-naughts, '08 I think, the governor of Illinois ran the state into a budgetary black hole, and a lot of state parks and other historic sites went on the auction block to pay for his mismanagement. Loyola University quietly bought the Water Tower and surrounding park. When the University of Chicago was looking for a discrete place to base the Wells, the Tower seemed a logical place. Everybody 'knows' it's a 'park or something', so nobody suspects it of being the site of a top secret government experiment in time travel.”
“Wait a minute! You've been letting me in there for almost a year and I don't have a security clearance!”
“True. But I like the way you look at me while I'm working, all surreptitious so I won't notice. It turns me on.” Stage 12
The crowds and smoke thickened in the streets.
“What is it that drives people to stare at oncoming danger in fascination, instead of being prudent and removing themselves from the situation?”
Nandi's question was sardonic, Luis knew, and not totally fair. State Street was filling as people gathered to gawk and talk. The smell of smoke and the glow from the flames were evident and the source of much conversation among the gathered crowd. But several households, either more paranoid or more perspacious than the rest, were loading steamer trunks onto wagons hitched to nervous horses. Other, more entrepreneurial teamsters were hawking their wagons' carrying capacity to an increasingly restless crowd.
“I think it's a sense of being disconnected from reality, the feeling 'nothing bad can happen to me,'” Luis replied. “It's probably one of those perversely counterintuitive evolutionary adaptations that allowed humanity to survive.”
“How do you figure that?”
“Most animals act on instinct, and are constantly on the alert for predators. But their consciousness doesn't extend past the immediate now. But humanity developed intelligence, and more importantly, imagination. Our ancestors had the ability to look into the future, and project possible outcomes. One of those outcomes involved being eaten by lions.”
“Is that an Africa crack?”
“No, evolutionary fact. If our ancestors had really felt connected to the constant dangers they were threatened with, they would never have left the caves to go club a mammoth.”
“I know you know we're descended from savanna apes. Mammoths came later.”
“I was being dramatic, and I know you know that. But the basic premise remains the same: if people weren't disembodied from the constant threats to their survival their intellect screamed surrounded them, then they would never unfold from a fetal position under the covers.”
“So you're saying humanities survival hinged on its inability to acknowledge it was in danger?”
“In a big picture way, yes.”
“I'd like to think humans were smarter than a deer in car headlights,” Nandi replied, looking around the milling crowd, “but the evidence seems stacked against me.”
“It's that same obliviousness that has allowed mankind to achieve some of its most notable feats,” Luis pointed out as he took a moment to lean against a laden cart. The drover eyed Luis suspiciously for a moment, then decided someone of Luis' physique was unlikely to sprint away with one of the crates being piled in the wagon bed. “A sensible race would not trap themselves in metal canisters to voyage to the bottom of the sea, or strap themselves to a semi-controlled explosion to travel to distant planets.”
“Or hurl themselves through time either, I suppose,” Nandi added wryly.
“There is that.” Luis heaved himself off the side of the cart with a nod of thanks to the driver, who studiously ignored him. The Brownian movement of the crowd was shifting away from the fire, hastened by the stench of burning wood and smoke that now enveloped the area. The change in the dynamic allowed Luis and Nandi to move with the flow instead of having to fight for every inch of progress. A logjam was visible ahead as the crowd attempted to compact itself to fit onto the river bridge.
“What time is it?”
Luis pulled his pocketwatch from his jacket and flipped open the lid. “A little after Midnight. Between my hip and the crowds we've been moving a lot slower then we did on the way to the O'Leary's. We should still have a couple of hours before the fire hits this area though. Plenty of time to make it back to the portal and get home.”
“And then a bath.”
“And a nap.”
“No, no nap for you. I need to get ready for graduation, and you're going to help me.” Nandi and Luis joined the jostling mass struggling to get over the bridge. “Matter of fact, I might just skip that bath. I'm just going to get sweaty wearing that gown anyway. I'll wait until tonight.”
“You don't want to do that,” Luis had to raise his voice to be heard over the imprecations bandied among the fleeing Chicagoans. “You smell like smoke and burned cow.”
The tip of the Water Tower was visible among the trees. Nandi covertly pulled the beacon detector out from her jacket, and cupped her hand over the tiny directional screen. The crowd split into several streams after crossing the bridge; the majority headed toward the lakefront to the east, but steady flows coursed north and west as well. Luis and Nandi slipped into the quiet area surrounding the Water Tower, following the invisible signals from the tracking beacon.
Nandi suddenly stopped and pointed the control to the sky, like a sorcerer summoning angels. Luis could sense rather than hear the soft buttons being pressed.
“I don't get it,” Nandi said. “The device obviously has power, but I can't get the lights to turn on or the ladder to drop.”
“Nandi, listen. What do you hear?”
“People. A cricket. Bells.” Her frustration was evident. “What's your point, Luis? We're a bit busy here.”
“That's just it! All those sounds are local. We should be right under the Wells, right?”
“Not exactly underneath, the temporalspacial geography doesn't work that way, but close enough.”
“Where's the sound of the Wells?”
“What?” Nandi's voice was distracted, her attention focused on the remote.
“When we arrived here,” the calmness in Luis' voice shocked Nandi out of her reverie. “When we arrived here the hum of the Wells spinning wasn't loud, but it was noticeable. According to the beacon, we should be right underneath the hole, but I'm not hearing anything.”
Nandi powered down the remote and put it in her pocket. “Hmm, I guess I should have replaced that fuse before we left.”
A queasy feeling rolled around Luis' stomach. “What are you talking about?”
“One of the fuses had been giving us problems, and I was going to replace it after the graduation ceremony. In the rush to get here and do this I forgot. It must have blown.”
“And that means?”
“It means the time machine shut down, closing the portal between our time and now. Unless we can find a way to repair that fuse from one hundred and fifty years in the past, we're trapped here.”
“By trapped, I presume you're using an amusing euphemism for 'This is a small problem, easily fixed.'”
“No, I'm using the slightly more traditional definition of 'stuck without a way out'.”
“You seem awfully calm about this.”
“That's because I'm still processing the situation. Why are you so calm?”
“Because I haven't convinced myself that you aren't lying to me for your own twisted pleasure. It's been known to happen.” Luis looked south toward the approaching glow. “We're really trapped with no way home?”
“In a city about to be ravaged by a monstrous fire?”
“Then I feel it appropriate to say that considering the circumstances, a new tie will not cut it for Christmas this year.”
“I will note that, and upgrade your present to a 'World's Best Boyfriend” mug.”
“Thank you. Shall we engage in unrestrained panic now?”
“No.” Nandi's pose shifted from relaxed contemplation to impending action. “Panic is unproductive, as is your attempts at gallows humor. We will be better served by attempting to correct the situation rather than wallow in it.”
Luis' face showed how the gallows humor comment had stung. “Well, if you can come up with a better idea, then I'm listening.”
“I already have.” Nandi reached into Luis' shirt pocket and removed the burn pattern map. “Did you check your mail before you came to the lab today?”
“I don't...What does that have to do with...Why does that matter?”
“It's vital. Did you check your mail before you came to the lab?”
“No, I left my apartment early to buy your graduation gift.”
“You did? What did you get me?”
“I don't think that's relevant here, and anyway, I'm not going to tell you. You get it after you have your diploma,” Luis grinned in spite of the circumstances. “Which means you'll have to wait a hundred and fifty years if you don't figure out how to get us home.”
“Oh I already did that. We need to post a letter.”
“Saying what? Not to do this?”
“No, to Michael, telling him how to get into the laboratory to fix and restart the Wells.”
“You're putting a lot of faith in the U.S. Post Office.”
“Shouldn't I? The whole 'rain, sleet or dead of night' thing would seem to indicate a fairly serious level of dedication.”
“Oh, I'm not knocking the postal service's dedication. It's their organization I'm more worried about. Especially since I think the main branch is in the fire zone.” Luis moved to stand behind Nandi to look at the map. She shifted in irritation, moving the map out of his view.
“It's rude to read over someone's shoulder.”
Luis shifted to stand beside Nandi, and resumed his perusal. “The Post Office won't work. We don't have any local money, we don't have an address they can use, and none of the branches would be open this time of night. I doubt they'll open for the next few days either, with the fire and everything.”
“What other option is there? We need that letter delivered or we don't go home.”
Luis took Nandi's hand and began heading east. “You aren't a classic sci-fi movie fan are you?”
“You're the geek, Luis, not me.” She shot hims a suspicious look. “You're not going to start quoting 'Serenity' at me again, are you?”
“No, we're going back further than that. We need to find a Western Union office.”
“What madness do you have in mind now?”
“Well, I was thinking we could go back in time to alter history so I could graduate...oh, no that was your idea.” Luis stood on the street corner, watching the flow of humanity push past the Watertower. With a sudden leap he lunged into the crowd, extricating a middle aged man in a dark suit. The man carried a carpet bag in one hand and with his other tried vainly to press a bowler hat to his head. It drifted into the crowd and was crushed under panicked feet.
“Wait...my hat!...what do you want?” The man's smoothly shorn cheeks contrasted with his open shirt cuffs and hinted at a toilet interrupted. He clutched his carpet bag to his chest, as if expecting an attack. “I am a poor man, and have nothing worth stealing.”
Luis released the man's lapels and stepped back. “I apologize for the rude handling, senor,” he intoned, slipping into his professorial voice. “But we are visitors to your fair city, and are in need of sending a telegram. Do you know where the closest Western Union office would be?”
The man's eyes goggled out of his head. “You want to send a telegram? Don't you know the city is on fire?”
“Oh, si senor,” Luis hammed up the 'enthused foreigner' routine. “It is muy interesante! My relatives in Cadiz will be so proud to know I am witnessing history in this great land!”
“Your relatives should think you are insane, wanting to send a telegram while you are in danger of burning to death,” the man muttered loudly under his breath, evidently subscribing to the belief that people with an accent were either deaf or stupid. “The nearest telegraph that is open overnight is South, across the street from the Custom's Building.”
“Mucho Gracias, I mean, Thank You, senor.” Staying in character, he turned and shot Nandi a rapid fire translation, in Spanish, of the man's directions he knew she didn't understand. She in turn rattled off a string of imprecations of his ancestry in Zulu, then tipped her hat to the confused Chicagoan and began moving south against the rush of humanity. As Luis moved to follow her, the man tugged on his arm.
“Look, this isn't a good time to be going into the city. There's a very large fire loose, and no one is sure where it's headed. Going back to send this telegram is putting you in terrible danger.”
“Your concern for strangers does you credit, sir,” Luis replied, taking the man's hand in his own and shaking it. “But I believe we will be ok. He looked theatrically toward the glowing horizon. “I would suggest heading east to the lake, senor, then heading south. I believe, with the wind, the fire will spend itself here in el norte.” With one last shake, Luis turned and hurried to where Nandi waited impatiently at the edge of the pressing crowd.
“You are such a ham.”
“Oh yeah. I'm so bad there's a fatwa against hanging out with me.”
“You sound inordinately proud of that. You should have majored in acting. You won't get to do it much as a history professor.”
Luis shot a quizzical look back over his shoulder at her. The movement of the crowd had them pressed against the west side of the bridge. Luis' bulk forged forward against the rush, clearing a reluctant path. In the middle of the bridge a mule stood hitched to a deserted cart, flicking its ear and stomping its hoof in impatience and boredom. “I thought you had taught, back in grad school.”
“I did. One class. For half a semester. Then they pulled me out and made me a 'research fellow'. It was for the best. I had lazy students. They refused to pay attention, and a lot of them just stopped coming to class.”
“Did you make them want to?”
“Make them want to? They were in college, not grammar school! They should have wanted to come to class out of a desire to learn, and because it was costing someone a lot of money to hold their seat.”
“Yes, that is true,” Luis said, as he patiently shoved a man out of their path. “But I have a question: did you want to be in that classroom?”
“No. It was a distraction from my research.”
“If you didn't want to be there, why would your students?” They were nearing the southern end of the bridge. A scuffle broke out ahead of them as a well dressed woman began beating the head of the man in front of her with a parasol. “Good educators teach not only because they enjoy passing on information, but because they like to be the center of attention. The best teachers are the ones who entertain and motivate their students, who make them want to come to class every day. Inside every successful professor is an actor on the verge of breaking forth.”
“So the ability to transfer knowledge isn't important?”
“It is, but the key to transferring knowledge is being able to communicate. And a big part of communicating is keeping your recipient's interest. Bored people tune you out. How much information can you convey to people who aren't listening?”
“I'm sorry, what were you saying?”
“Cute, Nandi, very cute.”
The altercation at the end of the bridge intensified as people tried to push past the blockage and escape over the bridge. With a scream the woman fell, or was pushed, over the edge and fell into the river below. The current quickly carried her, treading water and haloed by a nimbus of her floating petticoats, out of view under the span.
“Can do nothing. Her fate was sealed long before we were ever born, our being here doesn't change that.” An eddy in the crowd cleared the way to the shore, and with a shove Nandi propelled Luis onto Terra Firma.
Away from the bridge, chaos ruled.
The streets were full of the hustle of businessmen trying to save their property and the bustle of people trying to save themselves, but the urgency was much more civilized than the scrum of panic at the bridge. A few quick questions gained them quizzical looks and directions to the Custom House. Luis and Nandi thanked the personages for their help, ignored their questions, and hurried on.
The air was thick with smoke and ashes. The horizon to the south and west was filled with the roofs of burning buildings, and the furnace hot wind and burning cinders presaged the firestorm bearing down. Desperate men covered the roof of one building with carpets and began passing up buckets of water from a nearby well. As the outlying attached shed was already smoldering, Luis judged their attempt to be a Quixotic effort.
“Do you know where we're going?” Nandi yelled over the din.
“According to those kids carrying the coffins, it should be down the next block,” Luis shouted in reply. I think that's the roof right there.”
“You mean the one that's on fire?” Nandi pointed.
She was correct. Bright tongues of flame were dancing along the dome, and several of the surrounding buildings were already engulfed. As the duo watched, a building up the street suddenly ignited, flaring up in a blossom of red and yellow. The flames, pushed by the wind, licked the walls of neighboring structures, and a new branch of the fire raced into downtown Chicago.
“Luis, this isn't going to work! That whole area is about to turn into a firestorm!”
“We've got to try! The fire is going to roar through Water Tower Park before we can find another telegraph office!” He grabbed Nandi's hand and pulled her along behind him. A woman on horseback raced past them, her long tresses aflame and the horse wild with fear. Screams could be heard as the animal ran pell-mell into the crowd which had abandoned attempts to salvage their belongings and were starting to stampede in search of safety. The stalwarts of the carpet covered building were the sole exceptions, stubbornly dowsing the carpets with water. Buildings on either side of the street were merging in a wall of flame, running rapidly before the wind. Nandi found herself blinking involuntarily as her eyes dried almost instantaneously in the oven dry air.
“Damn it, no!” She tugged ineffectively against Luis' manic grip. “This plan is going to get us killed! Luis, we have to leave, we'll find another telegraph office, one that hasn't been burned to a crisp!” Luis didn't slacken his grip, and with a single minded dedication inexorability dragged Nandi toward the incandescent mass of molten city. With a sudden lunge, Nandi leapt forward and punched Luis in his bruised right hip. Stumblingly he fell into the street, catching himself on his hands and knees. Curses in Latin tumbled from his lips.
“I'm sorry, I'm so sorry,” Nandi knelt beside Luis, cradling his head against her. She stared in horror as the men defending the carpet covered building began jumping from the roof as flames climbed the sides and shot out of the windows. “I'm sorry Luis, it wasn't supposed to be like this.”
“I'm just trying to get us home, Baby.” Luis pushed himself to his feet, and extended a hand down to help her up. He winced and flexed his leg. “I was just thinking about getting us back to our future. If this doesn't work, I don't know how ”
“I'm thinking about our future too,” Nandi said, still on her knees. “And I'd rather have a future with you here now than lose you forever.”
“Really? I've never heard you accept we'd have a future together.” A strange look crossed his face. “Well, we have this rather backwards, I'm the one supposed to be on my knees. Nandi, will you marry me?”
“What, you're asking this now?”
“I may not get the balls to do it again. Will you marry me?”
Nandi stared up at him in disbelief. “Of course I will.” She took his extended hand and pulled herself into a sharp embrace, pressing her lips against his. “I don't know if this is the most romantic place to propose, but it certainly is the most unique. Of course I'll have to make up a tale I can tell my mother. She'd never believe this even if I could tell her.”
The body lay, bent and broken, sprawling obscenely in the street. The long tresses had burned down to the scalp, leaving the skin raw and red. Her head looked over her shoulder at an angle nature had never intended, and her eyes followed Luis and Nandi as they rushed past.
“I hate that we can't do anything for her,” The tears that glistened in Nandi's eyes came from more than the smoke that billowed from the burning buildings spotting the blocks around them.
“We could go back and finish breaking her neck,” Luis replied shortly, his breath coming in short gasps.
“No, that's realistic,” Luis replied. “We can't outrun the fire if we're carrying her, and we'll probably kill her if we try.”
“I can't believe you're that heartless,” Nandi said, picking her way amongst the bricks from a fallen wall. The building's wooden frame blazed merrily nearby. The missing wall exposed the interior, full of neat rows of wooden desks, each a candle in the encompassing inferno.
“I think it was Xerxes who, when it was pointed out to him that every man in his massive army would be dead in one hundred years, wept,” Luis worked his way past the brick blockage and tried to pick up speed. “That's two-thirds of the time between us and her. She's been dead to us for a long time.”
“It's still cold.”
“I wish we were, Baby, I wish we were.”
Fire raced from building to building. The heat and sparks would fly ahead of the actual flames, and occasionally a building well beyond the main body of fire would flare up in a localized firestorm, setting the benchmark for safety even farther away.
“Luis, we can't outrun the fire moving with the wind,” Nandi shouted above the incessant crackling. “We need to try to move at an angle to get somewhere clear. Otherwise we're going to end up like that woman back there!”
“We need to head east then,” Luis shouted back. “The fire took longer to spread there.”
“What street do we take?”
Luis looked at the inferno around them. “I don't think it matters. And anyway, I'm not even sure I know where we are. And it's not like there's anyone here we can ask for directions.”
“Ah, you're a man, you wouldn't anyway.” Nandi took Luis's hand and pulled him toward a side street. “This one looks wider than the others. This way!”
Moving across the heat was worse, if possible, than following it. More than once they were caught up short as a wall of flame blew across the lane, forcing a momentary but panic stricken pause in their flight. The sidewalks were engulfed like kindling, and the metal lampposts were starting to sag, stalwart warriors slowly succumbing to an unrelenting foe.
“My track coach always used to say 'Feel the Burn' while we were running, but I don't think this is what she meant.”
“Yeah, but there is no second place when racing for your life,” Luis rejoined, forcing one foot in front of the other. “I think we made a bad choice, Nandi.” His skin, despite his dark complexion and first degree burns was pale and sweating. “I don't think we're going to make it out of the burn area before my body gives out.”
“Well I'm not leaving without you, you big lump, so if I die, you killed me.” Nandi squinted through the heat waves and flames. It was difficult to tell, but the area ahead seemed clearer, less ruined. “I think we're almost out, Luis, one more block, I promise. Then we'll find the lake and drink it dry.”
Luis pushed himself forward. Nandi was right, the fire was lessening as they advanced. Ahead, blocks of buildings intact and unburned loomed against the hellish sky, offering a mecca of safety against the hades behind them.
The air was hot, choked with soot, smelled of charred flesh, and was sweet as the nectar of the gods. Nandi and Luis leaned against an office building's wall, sucking in oxygen like a pair of vacuum cleaners, reveling in the unexpected joy of being alive. A small handful of onlookers stared in wonder at their burned and bedraggled forms, until a good Samaritan thought to bring them a carafe of water from a nearby kitchen. Seeing the soot-stained pair guzzle down the entire container opened the floodgate to questions.
“Which way is the fire heading?”
“Where are the firemen?”
“Are we going to be alright?”
“Is the city lost?”
Luis, bent over and wheezing, stared at the crowd through ash clogged eyes. Nandi pulled herself to her full rangy height, raised her hand for silence, then spoke to the crowd.
“More water, please.”
Another pitcher full was brought. Nandi whetted her hands, and carefully washed the detritus of the fire from her eyes. She then unceremoniously dumped the remainder over Luis' head, causing him to squawk like a wet hen.
Turning away as Luis wiped furiously at his face, Nandi tried to cut off the resurgent tide of inquiries. “The entire city isn't lost, but this part is. I suggest you take only that which you absolutely cannot live without, and start heading...” She leaned over Luis' sputtering form. “Where should they go?”
Luis' response was an unintelligible croak, but his arm flailed toward the east. “Go to the lake, then head south,” Nandi interpreted. “Keep going until you're out of the city.” She looked back at the blaze. “I'd grab whatever food, money and credit cards you have handy and go now. We are.”
The crowd broke into confusion and commotion. Most people either disappeared into nearby buildings or simply started walking down the street toward the glint of Lake Michigan. Nandi's attention was drawn to a nearby stoop, where a woman holding a babe in each arm was wilting under the tirade of a man with massive forearms and no shoes.
“We're staying here, woman, and that's final! I'm not trusting the word of a nigger and a Mexican; they're probably telling everyone to leave so they can loot our belongings after we're gone! As my wife, you'll go where I go and stay where I tell you!” She flinched as he raised his hand, and one of the infants started to cry.
Nandi stepped forward quickly. The fire in her eyes raged more fiercely than the one around her. “Excuse me ma'am,” she interjected. They both turned to look at her, the moment disrupted. Nandi pointed at the children. “But aren't you going to save those babies?”
The maternal protective instinct roared forth, and woman's bent spine snapped straight like a leaf spring relieved of tension. “John Jacobs, you can stay here and die like the idiot you are, but I won't sacrifice my children on the altar of your stupidity!” Handing the children to Nandi, the woman stormed inside, leaving her husband gaping like a stupefied fish. She returned a moment later, with a tablecloth bundle on her back. Taking her children from Nandi's arms, she strode down the street without a backwards glance. Luis, abandoning his role as a bemused spectator, tapped the man on the shoulder. “Excuse me, sir, but what's the best way to get to the Water Tower?”
“Go east to State Street, then north. It's right across the river.” His eyes, lost and bewildered, latched onto Luis. “She left. She's never done that before. What do I do now?”
“Put on some shoes, and follow her,” Luis replied gently. “Apologize for your behavior and never do it again. She may take you back.” Luis' eyes slid momentarily to Nandi. “Women can be wonderfully unpredictable.”
The man's gaze focused now that he had a goal. He moved toward the door, then turned back. “If the fire's as bad as you said, why are you going north? The fire's headed that way, if it's not there already.”
Luis knew he was about a century too early but couldn't resist. “We have to,” he said. “We're on a mission from God.”
Without the fire, the flight through the city was almost pleasant.
“A mission from God? What was that about?”
“It's an iconic Chicago response. I just wish I'd had sunglasses so I could have gotten the full affect.”
“Do sunglasses even exist now?”
“Sort of. They were prescribed to help people with syphilis deal with their light sensitivity. Not the kind of image I was looking to project.”
“You are a font of useless knowledge.”
“All knowledge is useless until you need it. Then it becomes invaluable. The thing is, you're never going to know when a particular bit of information might be critical, so it's best to learn as much as you can so you're always prepared.”
“Is that how you justify buying books when you can't afford food?”
“That and you'll cook for me.”
“Next time you come begging I'm going to make you eat an index first, to show you the error of your ways.”
The roads were eerily empty. A group of men down the street were emptying a grand mansion into a large cart. The battered-in door suggested legal ownership of the household items had not been transfered beforehand. Nandi and Luis gave the looters a wide berth. The thieves, for their part, ignored the pair, workmen at their job.
The air in the street seemed to be polite disinterest. Small groups wandering passed focused hurrying individuals. A harried looking police officer was positioned to direct traffic that seemed to have long past ebbed. He maintained his position with a wary eye to the west and the horizon's red glare. A man carrying a large rolled up canvas accidentally swept Nandi's hat off her head with an errant swing, apologized, and hurried on.
“What was that?”
“Rothermel's The Battle of Gettysburg, if I'm not mistaken,” Luis said, looking back at the brightly colored cloth.
Nandi looked critically at the man's burden. “That's a big painting.”
Luis nudged her to keep moving. “It's telling a big story. And remember, at this point the battle happened less than a decade ago, so it looms large in the national consciousness. Paintings like that are the equivalent of a Ken Burns documentary.”
“I'm surprised he was able to carry it by himself then.”
The streets began to thicken with people. Given more time to understand the threat the fire posed and to prepare, families were working fervently to pack their valuables and secure their households. Drovers negotiated astronomical rates with desperate homeowners to cart goods and loved ones to safety. Wads of cash flashed as bidding wars rose in crescendos of desperation.
“You there, boy!” a man called out behind them.
Luis and Nandi took a few more steps before realizing the imperative command was directed at them. Luis turned, his face darkening, but Nandi stepped in front of him with a look of bemused humor.
“Yes sir, may we help you?”
An older man, carrying a steamer trunk, looked shocked at the erudite tone, but rallied. “I have a proposition for you, young man. I need this taken to the Milwaukee Depot. If you will do this, I'll pay you one hundred dollars.”
“We're a little busy, sir, but thank you for the offer...” Luis tapped Nandi on the shoulder and moved smoothly to intervene.
“Mr. Tinkham, isn't it? Of the Central Bank?”
The man paled and took a step back. Luis stepped forward quickly and stuck out his hand in welcome. The man habitually put down the trunk and completed the handshake ritual, but did not seem reassured. “Of the Second National, actually.” The man's voice was sick with dread. “Do I know you?”
“No sir, but I have seen you while in Second National on business for my employer,” Luis replied. “He was a notable, if not significant, depositor with your establishment and wanted me to know who was whom in case I ever was required to conduct his business. He did not want to be embarrassed by my lack of knowledge.”
Mr. Tinkham's shoulders relaxed tension he may not have known he was feeling. “And who was your employer, young man? I'm afraid I don't recognize you.”
“No sir, and there is no reason you would. As for my employer, he would not thank me for revealing his name. There is good reason to believe he has lost everything in this calamity, and until he can again meet his obligations, he would not want his losses known. I am Luis Montoya, though, sir, and I am at your service.”
“Well, Mr. Montoya, I am in need of assistance.” Leaning forward, Mr. Tinkham whispered loudly. “This case contains a significant amount of cash from the Second National vault. I need it taken to the Milwaukee train depot, and my offer of one hundred dollars stands if you will do this. I am afraid that if I were to be recognized as a bank official by someone less honest than yourself, the contents of the case would be in great danger.”
“Whereas the sight of a common clerk such as myself carrying a case under these circumstances will draw no second thoughts,” Luis mused. “I have a business proposition for you, Mr. Tinkham. I will carry the case to the Milwaukee depot, but for one thousand dollars...”
“It is ungentlemanly to take advantage of the situation sir!” Tinkham exclaimed with some heat.
“Please sir, allow me to finish.” Luis' voice could have extinguished a burning city block. “As I said, the price would be one thousand dollars, the sum of which is to be kept in an interest bearing account by Second National Bank for, say, one hundred and fifty years, until one of my descendants, bearing my name, shall be entitled to claim it.”
“How do you know you will have descendants in one hundred and fifty years, young man, or that they will be naming their children after you?”
Luis laughed, an oasis of joy in the desert of despair. “Oh, because I will tell them to do so, Mr. Tinkham. I suspect that with the fortune this will become at stake, there will be tribes of Luis Montoya's a century and a half from now.”
“But why deprive yourself of this money now? If Chicago survives, it will be rebuilt, and a young man of foresight like yourself could make his fortune with seed money such as you are asking.”
“Yes sir, but a young man of my foresight can also see that many unexpected occurrences can intervene with the best laid plans.” Luis swept his arm toward the fire. “The kind of unforeseen circumstances that can result in two men of very different stations such as ourselves having this kind of conversation at this time in the morning. I think of it as an insurance policy against the vicissitudes of fate, Mr. Tinkham. Should I or my descendants fail, helping you tonight will gain my great-great grandchildren another chance.”
“It will be done as you wish, Mr. Montoya,” Mr. Tinkham said, respect in his voice. “And if, after this 'occurrence' is settled you are in need of employment, come see me at the bank. If there is not a position for a young man such as yourself I will make one.” Tinkham extended his hand, and held it in the air.
Luis grasped the hand firmly. “I will need directions, to the terminal. I've never been that far north before.”
“Nothing could be simpler. Go north across the river and then follow the lake up till you hit the train station. I will follow behind.”
“Very good sir. Nandi,” Luis gestured to the trunk. “Pick this up. We have a delivery to make.”
Nandi stood rooted to the spot for a moment, then jerkily threw the case over her shoulder, “accidentally” clipping Luis in the process. Holding his hand to his head to staunch the bleeding, Luis moved down the street at a steady clip, rapidly leaving the more aged Mr. Tinkham behind. Beside him, Nandi's body radiated anger.
“What is this about? What about getting home? Why are we doing this 'good deed', and what's with all the terms and conditions on payment? We might need that money if we get stuck here.”
“I'm an optimist, and believe we're going to get home. And when we do, one thousand dollars gaining interest for one hundred and fifty years should result in a good chunk of cash. You're the mathematician, how much?”
Her brows creased in thought. “Assuming five percent interest, compounded annually, about one and a half million dollars.”
“See? Not bad for a 'good deed'. And I have to pay for your engagement ring somehow.”
Nandi smiled. “And after having me carry this trunk across town, how are you going to cover the rest of the cost?”
In the end, they took turns carrying the trunk.
“We should hire a cart. We have the cash.”
“That would be dishonest. Plus, I don't think a cart would move any faster than we are.”
“I'm not worried about the speed, I'm looking for someone else to take the weight.”
“Remember how I was supposed to remind you you wanted to get in better shape? Stop whining, Luis, and carry the trunk. It won't kill you.”
The lake shore was crowded with people, animals, and possessions. A sense of eery calm permeated the area, as if the fire had burned all other emotion out of the huddled masses crouched by the water. The collective gaze was riveted to the west, and only the occasional cough to disturb the silence.
“It's like a morgue,” Nandi muttered, shifting her hold on the trunk. “I can hear the water lapping.”
“It's the death of many of these people's dreams, so your analogy is apt.”
“But the rebuilding of the city should offer plenty of opportunities for those willing to work hard,” Nandi protested. “What happened to the American 'Can Do' spirit?”
“They have it; you can tell by the way the area bounced back. In just over twenty years Chicago would host a World's Fair; not bad for a metropolis that lost it's business district and the heart of the city. Sorry,” Luis apologized as he maneuvered around a man embracing two small children in his lap. Tears streamed down the man's face. The golden gleam on his left hand indicated at least one missing family member. The children stared blankly, their heads listlessly laying on their father's chest. There was a catch in Luis' voice as he continued. “But we're looking at the situation with the benefit of knowing the future. As far as these people know, they've lost everything. Their homes, their livelihoods, their savings. We know that in a few days the banks will reopen and honor deposits. We know that aid will flood in from around the world to help the displaced and homeless. We know that the death toll will be incredibly low for a fire of this magnitude. But right here, right now, these people don't know if the fire is going to consume even the lakeshore, killing them all.”
“No. It comes close, and things will be very uncomfortable, but these people should survive.”
Nandi looked back at the man and children. “It's too late for some.”
“About two to three hundred, in the end. Not a lot considering the extent of the damage and the density of the population.”
“Three hundred people isn't a lot?”
“A number of fires broke out tonight, raging all around the Great Lakes. The town of Pestigo, Wisconsin is going to be destroyed, and at least twelve hundred people are going to die. But because it's a small town in a rural area, it won't get near the attention or folklore this fire does.”
“Why were there so many fires?”
“Weather conditions. There's a group that thinks the fires were started by a series of meteor strikes, but as we've seen, that simply isn't true.”
Nandi and Luis were suddenly slammed aside as a petite woman rushed through them. The man climbed numbly to his feet barely in time to be bowled over as the woman hit him with a tackle that would have gotten her a NFL contract in a later age. The children jumped into the fray, and the family rolled on the ground, a pointillist spot of joy in the canvas of despair. A sad smile crept across Nandi's face. “No, it was started by a cow.”
The train station was surprisingly empty.
Luis and Nandi sat on the steamer trunk, waiting for Mr. Tinkham. The train platform, which could have been expected to be clogged with refugees, sat bare and deserted, its only occupant a man handcuffed to the stair railing. He was arguing quietly with a disinterested policeman who was casually swinging his billy club by its leather strap.
“You're interfering with the Freedom of the Press, you know,” they man argued earnestly. “The First Amendment clearly states...”
“Yur wantin' ta run down inta the fire, sir,” the policeman answered patiently. “Ya ken prattle on 'bout yur 'mendments all ya want, but enyone wantin ta head inta the fire is ov'sosly mentally empaired, so I'm no enterfer'n with the press, I'm protectin' a dangerous lunatic fro' doin' 'arm ta 'imself or others.”
“I am filing an official complaint with the chief of police about the way I'm being treated! Be warned, officer, the Chicago Tribune does not tolerate the unlawful restraint of its managing editor, and the consequences for you could be severe!”
“Ef ya wan' ta complain ta me sergent, then ya can go right ahead.” The journalist's threats seemed to cause no concern to the imperturbable copper. “I'm sure 'e'll give it all the attention et merits.” He stopped swinging his club long enough to scratch his head. “Asides, its no like your rag coul' print enything ya were to write enyway, as et looks li' your building burned down.”
“But this is the biggest story of my life!” The man's bellicosity was rapidly dissolving into tears. “This would the shining pinnacle of my career! The paper's managing editor, braving doom to bring his readers the story from the heart of the inferno! It would be picked up by the wires! My byline would appear across Europe!” He began jerking his arm in a vain attempt to free the handcuff from the railing. “But instead I'm trapped here by the obstinate hidebound shackles of authority!”
“More likely y'd be a footnote in the Obituary Section,” the officer said as he walked away to patrol the station. “Be careful with the 'shackles' there, sir, ef ya break 'em I'll 'ave ta charge ya with damagin' City Property 'nd instead a' merely restrained you'd be un'er arrest. Then ya could give yur readers a fascinatin' report a' yur time in the gaol.”
The man continued his ineffectual tugging as the officer wandered off, whistling tunelessly. Luis stood up and flexed his aching back, and Nandi snatched the opportunity to stretch out on the trunk. Luis stared at her for a moment, then good-naturedly moved to sit on the platform. A quiet lethargy settled over him, and the pain in his hip, so long overcome by adrenaline, began a slow, dull throbbing. Nandi's gentle snoring served as a metronome to the jerking droops of his head as emotion and exhaustion overcame him.
“Well, I'm glad to see my sentinel is so diligent!”
Luis awoke with a start, and felt the fire of pain bloom in his hip. Nandi was already standing and shanking Mr. Tinkham's hand. “We were taking our slumber is spells, sir,” the full Oxford enunciation was on. “In order to ensure our charge was always properly attended.”
“I certainly have no complaints. I was worried when I lost site of you during our transit, and was even more concerned that you had perhaps fallen victim to one of the fire surges that threatened me on my way. Instead I find you here fulfilling your duties in an exemplary manner.” He extended a hand and assisted Nandi in pulling Luis to his feet. “I have tickets on the next train north, and shall establish your trust.” He picked up the trunk and bent in to whisper. “You have done Second National a great favor today, young man. I shall ensure we respond in kind.” With a nod Mr. Tinkham walked down the platform and refusing the assistance of a porter, climbed into the first class car of a nearby train.
“Congratulations Luis, you've secured our financial future. Now we just have to get back to that future to enjoy it.”
“I agree. Let's ask at the ticket desk about the telegraph.”
“I have a better idea.” Nandi moved to sit beside the man chained on the stairs. “Excuse me sir, but did you say you were the managing editor of the Chicago Tribune?”
The man started slightly. His arm had shallow gnaw marks, evidence of a halfhearted attempt to chew his arm off. “Um, yes, I am. Joseph Medill, at your service.” The handcuff clanked against the metal railing. “Excuse me for not shaking your hand.”
“Quite understandable,” Nandi replied. “It's shocking how the local constabulary refuse to allow you to do your job.”
“It's untenable, is what it is.” Medill looked hopeful. “You wouldn't happen to have a hacksaw, would you?”
“I can go you better than that.” Nandi's voice made silk feel rough and honey jagged. “I can offer you an exclusive from someone who was there when the fire started.”
Mr. Medill looked at Nandi critically. “And who would that be?”
“My manservant and myself.” Nandi looked the editor straight in the eyes. “I can tell you where, when, and how the fire started, all of which you can easily verify. Based on the veracity of that information you can judge if I'm telling you the truth about the circumstances under which it started. Interested?”
“Yes.” The answer was drawn out slowly, slowed by suspicious thought. “And what would you want in return? Scoops like this don't come free.”
“The price is twofold, but I think you'll find them most agreeable.” Nandi ignored his mutter of “We'll see.” “First, you will not mention the presence of my man or myself.”
“There's bound to be an official investigation when this is over,” the newspaperman pointed out. “And if I claim to have an eyewitness account, but refuse to name who gave it to me, then I could go to jail.”
“And if word of my location gets back to my father, he will drag me home to an unwanted arranged marriage,” Nandi lied without batting an eye. “I am determined to see the world and sow my wild oats while I can, Mr. Medill. My father's attentions would make that most difficult.”
Medill sighed. “I'm not sure that what you're asking is possible.”
Nandi stood. “The fire was started in a barn at the back of the O'Leary's property on De Koven street around 9:30 yesterday evening. You'll find that out in the next day or so, but it's not general knowledge yet. When you do, you'll ask yourself, if she knew all that, what else did she know?”
Mr. Medill's eyebrows rose till they almost touched the brim of his hat. “She?”
Nandi bit her lip. “She,” she said. “I never said which end of the arranged marriage I was on.”
Mr. Medill looked from Nandi to Luis. “And I'll bet those oats you're sowing aren't that wild.”
“Not terribly, no.”
A deep sigh escaped Medill's lips. “Fine, I agree to your first condition, your secret is safe with me.” He perked up. “Perhaps I'll be jailed for refusing to give your name. I can see it now: “Managing Editor Jailed For Protecting Informant'. It has a nice ring and should sell some papers.” Leaning against his imprisoning rail, he began groping in his jacket pocket. “And your second condition?”
“The second,” Nandi sat back down. “You will take receipt of a letter, to be held, unopened, for 150 years. It will be delivered, by the current Managing Editor, according to the date and address on the letter. They will then leave, asking no questions.”
“I can't guarantee the editor at the time will be willing to go along with the 'No Questions' provision. In fact, if they are any type of newsman, I can assure you they won't.”
“Fine. In return for doing this, and for suppressing their curiosity, I will promise them an exclusive interview on a story that will make even this,” Nandi swept her arm toward the towering cloud of smoke, “seem pale in comparison.”
An awed look spread across Mr. Medill's face. “Who are you?”
Nandi's smile was quick and bright. “Just an African Princess seeking a new beginning in the Land of the Free, Joseph. Do we have an agreement?”
Joe fished a pad of paper and a pencil out of his pocket. Balancing the pad carefully on his leg, he licked the tip of the pencil and poised it above the paper. “Yes, I think we do.”
Nandi settled back against the stairs. “Well then. The fire was started when a cow kicked over a kerosene lantern. There was a craps game going on in the barn, see...”
'Coming to America' reference.” “I
met Ambassador Murphy a few years ago, at a party my parents threw
for the American consulate. He was just as funny as he was in his
movies, but much cleaner.” “It
must have been interesting to see the person behind the characters.” “He
was very...intense, and proud of his work. The EU ambassador, Mr.
Van Damme, made some cracks about Mr. Murphy's Gumby impressions.” “Did
Murphy go all 'Beverly Hills Cop' on Van Damme's ass?” “No,
Ambassador Van Damme tossed him around like a rag doll. He was a
black belt in karate or something, while Mr. Murphy was an actor with
stunt doubles. It didn't get much past the insults and shoving stage
anyway. The other guests intervened pretty quickly, and by the end
of the evening the movie 'am-Bad-Ass-adors' was in production with
them as costars. My mother was mortified about the fight, so they
gave her an associate producer credit.” “Didn't
that win 'Best Movie' at the Oscars?” “They
sent my mom a miniature version of the statue. She always poo-pooed
her contribution, but I noticed she kept the statuette on the mantle
where people would ask.” The
station was full of desperate refugees. A brutal triage was taking
place, with the police only allowing women and children to board.
Several scuffles had broken out as desperate husbands, fathers and
even single men had attempted to force their way aboard an outbound
train. Already a half-dozen handcuffed men had joined Mr. Medill on
the railing. Daylight
had not improved the vision of Chicago. The tall plume of smoke from
the still burning city bridged the gap between ground and sky like
the finger of an inditing god. Soot and ash fell like black snow,
and the air still retained its hot and arid feel even this far from
time did you put in the letter?” “Midnight.
You said the rain starts this evening, right?” “Yes.
The wind dies down, so the fire stops expanding and starts to starve
from lack of fuel. The rain then finishes smothering it overnight.
The city will still be hot, but that very heat will help protect us
by keeping curious sightseers out.” “I
hope so. Any suggestions on what to do until then?” “Food.
I'm starving.” “That's
a good idea, but I don't know where we're going to get it.” Nandi
stared off into the dawn kissed streets. “It's not like there's a
McDonald's handy.” “We
could always stay here and found the company,” Luis said, flashing
a grin. “But seriously, soup kitchens and such were set up pretty
quickly to help the destitute after the fire, but I don't know how
soon or where.” “Then
let's find out.” Nandi strode up to one of the police barricading
the train platforms. “Excuse me officer...” “Only
wimen 'n wee one's ellow'd en the trains, boyo,” the officer began,
“you can...oh, et's you. I rimember ye bein' here this morn'
a'fore the mobs showed up. I still can' let ye get on the train.” “Not
trying to officer. I was wondering if provisions had been made to
feed the homeless.” “The
mayor 'as pu' the city unner martial law so I'd 'spect the army to be
movin' in to provide relief soon. Entil then I'd try All Saint's,
you can see the spires o' the bell tower there 'b'tween the
you. May I get you anything?” The
copper shot a glance at another officer with stripes on his sleeve.
“If you did, me sergent would eccuse me o' mumpin', so I'd better
not. I 'preciate the offer though. 'Ey, you there!” He rushed off
down the train where a group of men were attempting to slip aboard a
boxcar. His whistle shrilled, bring the sergeant at a run. Nandi
watched with amusement as the would be train jumpers scattered like a
flock of quail. Waving to Luis to join her, she headed toward the
bell towers visible beyond the houses. The
manicured lawns of North Chicago looked like a refugee camp. Elegant
mansions formed a contrasting backdrop to the tent cities that were
springing up on every patch of green available. Civic duty and human
compassion were much in evidence, as the citizens of Chicago delved
into their own stores to feed and clothe the newly destitute, not
waiting for government relief or largess. The lost looks and
hopeless despair of the lakefront were slowly giving way to hope and
determination. The energy of revival was already palpable in the
amazing how people can bounce back from even the most terrible
navigated through a group of children who had set up a game of tag in
the street. “Human nature is pretty resilient. In less then three
decades San Francisco will suffer its earthquake and resultant fire,
but will be rebound into a powerhouse on the Pacific. New Orleans
has done the same thing in our lifetime. Humanity seems to be
basically optimistic, and once the initial shock of a setback wears
off, people generally set too with a will to rebuild more grandiosely
than before.” “I
vaguely remember pictures from Katrina. It wasn't as big a thing in
South Africa as it was in the US, especially at first. I remember
some of my classmates talking as the government response bogged down,
but I didn't really pay attention. It didn't seem terribly relevant
to me at nine years old.” “Not
enough numbers?” “Lots
of numbers, but no interesting interrelationships to explore. It was
all straight death toll, displaced people, billions in aid, that sort
of thing. My math teacher did have us run some computer models on
the rate of flooding based on reported wind speeds and Google Earth
maps, but there's only so much of that you can do and still keep a
classroom's attention.” “You
did all this at nine?” “Like
you were any different! What were you doing at nine?” “Reading
Niall Fergusson's history of the British Isles and building Steampunk
computer case mods.” “One
of the things I love about you is no matter what I say, you make me
feel less geeky. It's very uplifting.” The
church already had a line of people stretching along a rope leading
to an impromptu outdoor soup kitchen. It was a typically American
queue, resembling more clumps of grapes on a vine than discrete dots
on a line. Nuns in flowing habits roamed the area, rendering aid,
keeping order, and providing comfort as needed. Priests pouring soup
mingled with soot covered refugees peeling potatoes while well
dressed men carted garbage and women of all classes tried to keep
pace with a steady stream of dirty dishes. The smell of stew and
fresh bread wafted throughout the neighborhood, a welcome relief from
the ubiquitous stench of charred wood. Across the street, strictly
segregated by gender, men and women slept the sleep of exhaustion in
an open field under a prelate's watchful eye. Nandi eyed the
somulecent forms greedily. “I think I've found our stop after
so long as we don't miss our rendezvous with Michael. I don't have
an alarm clock you know.”
“Nice 'Coming to America' reference.”
“I met Ambassador Murphy a few years ago, at a party my parents threw for the American consulate. He was just as funny as he was in his movies, but much cleaner.”
“It must have been interesting to see the person behind the characters.”
“He was very...intense, and proud of his work. The EU ambassador, Mr. Van Damme, made some cracks about Mr. Murphy's Gumby impressions.”
“Did Murphy go all 'Beverly Hills Cop' on Van Damme's ass?”
“No, Ambassador Van Damme tossed him around like a rag doll. He was a black belt in karate or something, while Mr. Murphy was an actor with stunt doubles. It didn't get much past the insults and shoving stage anyway. The other guests intervened pretty quickly, and by the end of the evening the movie 'am-Bad-Ass-adors' was in production with them as costars. My mother was mortified about the fight, so they gave her an associate producer credit.”
“Didn't that win 'Best Movie' at the Oscars?”
“They sent my mom a miniature version of the statue. She always poo-pooed her contribution, but I noticed she kept the statuette on the mantle where people would ask.”
The station was full of desperate refugees. A brutal triage was taking place, with the police only allowing women and children to board. Several scuffles had broken out as desperate husbands, fathers and even single men had attempted to force their way aboard an outbound train. Already a half-dozen handcuffed men had joined Mr. Medill on the railing.
Daylight had not improved the vision of Chicago. The tall plume of smoke from the still burning city bridged the gap between ground and sky like the finger of an inditing god. Soot and ash fell like black snow, and the air still retained its hot and arid feel even this far from the flames.
“What time did you put in the letter?”
“Midnight. You said the rain starts this evening, right?”
“Yes. The wind dies down, so the fire stops expanding and starts to starve from lack of fuel. The rain then finishes smothering it overnight. The city will still be hot, but that very heat will help protect us by keeping curious sightseers out.”
“I hope so. Any suggestions on what to do until then?”
“Food. I'm starving.”
“That's a good idea, but I don't know where we're going to get it.” Nandi stared off into the dawn kissed streets. “It's not like there's a McDonald's handy.”
“We could always stay here and found the company,” Luis said, flashing a grin. “But seriously, soup kitchens and such were set up pretty quickly to help the destitute after the fire, but I don't know how soon or where.”
“Then let's find out.” Nandi strode up to one of the police barricading the train platforms. “Excuse me officer...”
“Only wimen 'n wee one's ellow'd en the trains, boyo,” the officer began, “you can...oh, et's you. I rimember ye bein' here this morn' a'fore the mobs showed up. I still can' let ye get on the train.”
“Not trying to officer. I was wondering if provisions had been made to feed the homeless.”
“The mayor 'as pu' the city unner martial law so I'd 'spect the army to be movin' in to provide relief soon. Entil then I'd try All Saint's, you can see the spires o' the bell tower there 'b'tween the buildin's.”
“Thank you. May I get you anything?”
The copper shot a glance at another officer with stripes on his sleeve. “If you did, me sergent would eccuse me o' mumpin', so I'd better not. I 'preciate the offer though. 'Ey, you there!” He rushed off down the train where a group of men were attempting to slip aboard a boxcar. His whistle shrilled, bring the sergeant at a run. Nandi watched with amusement as the would be train jumpers scattered like a flock of quail. Waving to Luis to join her, she headed toward the bell towers visible beyond the houses.
The manicured lawns of North Chicago looked like a refugee camp. Elegant mansions formed a contrasting backdrop to the tent cities that were springing up on every patch of green available. Civic duty and human compassion were much in evidence, as the citizens of Chicago delved into their own stores to feed and clothe the newly destitute, not waiting for government relief or largess. The lost looks and hopeless despair of the lakefront were slowly giving way to hope and determination. The energy of revival was already palpable in the air.
“It's amazing how people can bounce back from even the most terrible catastrophe.”
Luis navigated through a group of children who had set up a game of tag in the street. “Human nature is pretty resilient. In less then three decades San Francisco will suffer its earthquake and resultant fire, but will be rebound into a powerhouse on the Pacific. New Orleans has done the same thing in our lifetime. Humanity seems to be basically optimistic, and once the initial shock of a setback wears off, people generally set too with a will to rebuild more grandiosely than before.”
“I vaguely remember pictures from Katrina. It wasn't as big a thing in South Africa as it was in the US, especially at first. I remember some of my classmates talking as the government response bogged down, but I didn't really pay attention. It didn't seem terribly relevant to me at nine years old.”
“Not enough numbers?”
“Lots of numbers, but no interesting interrelationships to explore. It was all straight death toll, displaced people, billions in aid, that sort of thing. My math teacher did have us run some computer models on the rate of flooding based on reported wind speeds and Google Earth maps, but there's only so much of that you can do and still keep a classroom's attention.”
“You did all this at nine?”
“Like you were any different! What were you doing at nine?”
“Reading Niall Fergusson's history of the British Isles and building Steampunk computer case mods.”
“One of the things I love about you is no matter what I say, you make me feel less geeky. It's very uplifting.”
The church already had a line of people stretching along a rope leading to an impromptu outdoor soup kitchen. It was a typically American queue, resembling more clumps of grapes on a vine than discrete dots on a line. Nuns in flowing habits roamed the area, rendering aid, keeping order, and providing comfort as needed. Priests pouring soup mingled with soot covered refugees peeling potatoes while well dressed men carted garbage and women of all classes tried to keep pace with a steady stream of dirty dishes. The smell of stew and fresh bread wafted throughout the neighborhood, a welcome relief from the ubiquitous stench of charred wood. Across the street, strictly segregated by gender, men and women slept the sleep of exhaustion in an open field under a prelate's watchful eye. Nandi eyed the somulecent forms greedily. “I think I've found our stop after food.”
“Just so long as we don't miss our rendezvous with Michael. I don't have an alarm clock you know.”
In the end, no alarm clock was needed.
Resting in the field was harder than it looked, and less refreshing then expected. The ground was very urban, free of rocks and almost as flat as a bowling lawn. The unseasonal temperatures alleviated the need for a coat, although a covering would have ended the chilling affect of the stiff breeze. The challenge came not from the environment but from the environs. The chorus of snores, sneezes, snuffles and shuffles provided an orchestration of nasal noise.
Nandi rolled, for the umteenth time, trying to find a position where the bodily emissions of her neighbors wouldn't bother her. For the umpteenth time, she failed.
“If Hell truly is other people, one of the lower pits must be full of people who snore.”
Luis lay, content with the world, with Nandi's bowler hat across his face. “I don't see how that would be much of a punishment.”
“It would be for the people stuck there who didn't. Get up.”
“I would like to point out that I was sleeping very happily until you woke me up. And not, I might add, by snoring.”
“How can you sleep through this?”
“It's a tradition that my father and uncles brought their families to my grandparents for Christmas. All the grandkids would sleep in the living room under a bunch of communal blankets while the adults took the bedrooms.”
“I still don't understand.”
“The men in my family were all champion snorers. My father alone could rattle the walls. Get him, my uncles and grandfather together and they move furniture. Add to that a pile of wrestling, roughhousing, blanket hogging cousins, and you either learn to sleep under any conditions or spend the Christmas holiday exhausted. Plus,” his grin was visible under the brim of the hat, “plus, my girlfriend snores.”
“I do not!”
“Oh yes you do. It's very soft and ladylike, but in the deep darkness of the night it reverberates throughout the room.”
Nandi sat up, brushing herself irritably. “Be that as it may, it is immaterial to our present situation,” she said brusquely. “If we can't sleep, we should be doing something.”
“What? We can't head into the city until the fire dies down, we can't get home until we're in the city, and if we did get into the city, we'd just have to hang out in a devastated wasteland until midnight anyway. I'm not sure what you think we're going to accomplish by being anywhere but here.”
“Well, I won't be bored.”
“After the events of the last day, I'm welcoming a little boredom right now.”
Nandi began poking Luis with her foot. “Come on, get up!”
Luis shifted irritably trying to escape Nandi's prodding. “To do what?”
“It doesn't matter. I'm bored of being bored. Let's go see what we can see of Chicago.”
Luis sat up, his interest obviously perked. “It would be silly to waste this opportunity. But let's go get some lunch first. It might be the last meal we get for 150 years.”
“Deal. Lunch, then shopping.”
“You mean sightseeing.”
“Well, I might see something I really like.”
Luis sighed, then leveraged himself to his feet. Reaching down, he assisted Nandi in doing the same, then theatrically dusted off her hat before handing it to her. She brushed grass from his back as they crossed the street, finding themselves in the soup line behind the officer from the train platform.
“They finally giving an honest bobby a break, officer?”
“Eh? Ach, et's t' two of you, is it? I see ye found t' food, effun a lil' late.” He eyed them susupicously. “'En where 'ave t' two a' you been for the last few 'ours?”
“Oh, asleep in the field,” Nandi replied airily. “Did they finally get enough police for you to be relieved?”
“Ach, the mayor, 'e's declared martial law o'er t'city, don'cha know. A'fore nightfall they're'll be a cordorn a' soljers aroun' t' city w' shoot-on-sight orders to prevent lootin' an' t' keep t' peace. Won' be much work for an' honest copper while t' bluecoats are en town, 'n I'll be glad o' t' rest.”
Luis and Nandi exchanged worried looks. “Shoot-on-sight?” Luis asked. “Isn't that a bit...excessive?”
“Me sarj'nt 'eard there'd already been twae attempts by anarchist's t' start more fires down south. T' resultant mobs dealt 'em summ'ry justice, but'n we don' wan' tha' kin' a' idea t' spread.”
“Which idea, the anarchy or the lynchings?” Nandi asked dryly.
The officer gave her a withering look. “There nay be a difference, boyo. Arson or mob justice, anarchy's anarchy, an' once society starts t' break apart, there t'aint an easy way t' pu' it back together.” He looked at the rapidly advancing line of hungry people. “Look a' these people. They be scared now, bu' a'fore t' long tha' fear 'll turn t' anger. Efun t' forces a' law an' order don' be in place a'fore tha' happens, E'ryone who's lost everything cou' decide they 'ave nothin' left t' lose, and t' thin veneer tha' keeps t' social classes from each ot'er's throats will disappear. Efen that happens, the city'll go up en a conflagration such that t' las' couple o' days won' e'en make t' papers. Ah, t'ank ye, sister.” The copper took his stew and beer from the nun distributing the food and headed off without a backward glance.
“You know what this means,” Luis said to Nandi as they took their bowls and mugs to a quiet corner to eat.
“Yes.” The bread was fresh; someone's oven was working overtime today. Nandi juggled the hot loaf in her hand as she tried to avoid spilling her stew. “We can't wait for tonight. We need to head into the city now.”
“Buena Madre Maria y todos sus sobrinos locos, this street is hot!”
Slipping into the city had been ridiculously easy. Most people were still concentrating on getting as far from Chicago's corpse as possible. The few gawkers and sightseers were withdrawn and self-absorbed, little inclined to take an interest, much less investigate, two figures delving deeper into the ruined landscape.
“It's not just the street,” Nandi panted, hopping from foot to foot. “The air itself is radiating heat. This may be worse than the actual fire!”
“We should have drunk more water before we came in.” Luis mopped ineffectually at the bucket of perspiration streaming off him. “The last thing we need is for one of us to collapse from heat stroke.”
“No, the last thing we need is for people to see us dousing ourselves, draw the obvious conclusion, be detained, and miss the rendezvous.” She eyed Luis' girth critically. “Besides, you could afford to sweat off a few pounds.”
Luis patted his paunch. “Fine, I'm a camel. But what about you? What are you going to do if you dehydrate to the point you pass out?”
Nandi's grin was incongruous in the ravaged landscape. “Why Luis, you'll do what beasts of burden are designed to do! You'll carry me!”
The piles of soot and ash, while not common, had become routine. Their proximity was telegraphed by the smell of charred meat that would permeate the air, even if the lump of burned flesh wasn't visible. This lump, however, was different.
“It's too small to be a cow or horse. Maybe a small pony or large dog?”
Nandi looked critically at the blackened lump. “Human. Either a small woman or large child would be my guess from the apparent body mass.”
“Really?” Luis knelt down and began scraping the charcoal flakes of skin away from the corpse. “Si, you're right. Here's the skull.” He moved up the length of the indiscriminate mass, his hands covered with a sooty grease. “Ah ha! There's a golden gleam here, where the metal melted into the street.” Luis stood up, wiping his hands on his pants. He looked nonplussed when the greasy mixture clung stubbornly to his palms. “I'd say probably a woman.” He shifted the body with his foot, carefully using the sole and minimizing the contact with the baked flesh. “I don't see any extra bones, so she couldn't have been married long.”
“Why the interest, Sherlock?”
“I always wanted to take a forensic anthropology class when I was an undergrad, but they were always scheduled to overlap a class I needed. My papi wasn't happy with my career choice anyway, so I didn't want to test his financial support by taking extraneous classes.”
“Ok then, the game is afoot; defend your conclusions. Why a woman instead of a teenager, of either gender? And if it was a woman, how could you tell how long she'd been married?”
“Ah, my dear Watson. I'm positing that the gold melted into the street at what would be the end of an arm indicates a wedding band. Combine that with your assessment of the body mass, and we get someone old enough to be married but too small to be a grown male. Given that birth control in this day and age was rudimentary at best, any normal active couple could expect to be expecting in the first year or two. So we have a young woman, not yet a mother, married for less than two years.” He preened at his analysis.
“Don't hang up your deerstalker yet, Holmes. A) she could have not had her children with her, or b) the bones could have been consumed by the fire.”
“Bah, what mother wouldn't be with her children at that time of night?
“The one we saw reunited with her family on the beach.”
“Ok, but,” here his voice lost it's decisive tone and became more uncertain, “isn't it instinctual for parents to cover and cradle their children with their own bodies?”
“You know,” Nandi ignored the question and knelt down to more closely examine the body herself. “That guy Cohen at the dice game would have been about this size, and I remember him wearing a ring on his finger. What do you think the odds are...?”
Luis started to back away, a look of horror crossing his face. “You don't think...,” then he caught himself, and stood up straight. “Very good. I admit, you got me. But we know Louis survives until the 1940's.” He looked at the desceased with more respect. “You did have me worried there for a moment.”
Nandi also straightened, arching her back to stretch cramped muscles. “As entertaining as this is, why are wandering around like this? Shouldn't we be getting to the Watertower?”
“We're killing time is part of it. I don't want to get to the Tower and then just sit there, you'll get bored and might start kicking me again.” Luis began walking, pulling his map out of his shirt pocket. “And part of it is I'm not sure exactly where we are.”
“What do you mean you don't know where we are? You're the one with the map.”
“Which is of limited utility since all the street signs have melted. I'm trying to navigate by landmarks, but as you may have noticed,” his arm swept an arc of the surrounding devastation, “those are in pretty short supply as well.”
“So what do you suggest we do? Even if we could find someone to ask for directions, it's not like you would.”
We'll just have to continue wandering, hoping we stumble upon the Tower?”
“And if we don't?”
“Not finding the Tower,” Luis replied slowly, raising his arms slowly in the air, “is no longer our primary concern.”
Nandi looked at him quizzically, then turned and raised her hands as well, as the armed group of men strode slowly down the street toward them, guns leveled.
“Reach for the sky, pilgrim!”
The unwavering gun barrels provided small dark punctuation points to the command. The men behind the sights wore fripperish finery that was smudged and stained with ash and dirt. Their persperation covered faces and ruddy skin bespoke an extended stay within the baking hot ruins. The nimbus of canteens they had festooned themselves with suggested a willingness to make it longer.
“Damn looters! I saw an intact lamppost a couple of blocks back, we can hang 'em there!”
The speaker held a double barreled fowling shotgun with scrollwork on the barrels and a walnut grain stock. His bowler hat had a wide sweat stain extending into the brim, and his gold watch fob swung in time as he danced from foot to foot to minimize extended contact with the pavement. Luis felt as if his feet were about to blister, but didn't dare make a move, unless he precipitate a very one sided gun fight. Nandi stood beside him, a puzzled look on her face.
“I told you before, Wallace, we're not going to hang anyone. We're here as peacekeepers, not vigilantes.” A tall, weathered man in a frock coat and no hat stepped forward and pushed Wallace's gun toward the ground. He had a large, plain revolver strapped to his thigh in a worn leather holster. Looking Luis and Nandi up and down, he grinned. “Besides, I don't think they're looters. Note the lack of pilfered items, sacks to carry off the stolen goods, etc.”
Wallace raised his shotgun slowly, then pointed it at the sky under the other's stern gaze. The rest of the men followed his example, and Luis started to breath again. Wallace glared at the pistolero. “Or maybe, Charles, they're just incompetent.” He gestured to the others in the group. “Search 'em.”
“Turn out your pockets, gentlemen,” Charles' voice rang through the ashes. The pair of men who had moved forward stopped in confusion. “Empty your pockets and give an account of yourselves.”
Nandi, with her hands still raised, stepped forward. “Lo siento, Senor, pero no comprenemos Ingles.”
“They're foreigners,” Wallace exclaimed. “Come to steal our possessions and ravish our women in this time of tragedy.”
Charles shot him an amazed look. “Wally, you need to stop reading those penny dreadfuls, they're filling your head with all sorts of crazy ideas. The prettiest thing out here is your gun, and if they can ravish that little thing, well, they don't have much to brag about as men.”
As the rest of the troop hooted with laughter, Charles turned to Nandi and Luis, who were slowly lowering their arms. Nandi took the opportunity to seize the initiative. “Excuse me sir, but do you know where my Aunt Maria is? It is very important we find her. My mother is going to be so worried.”
“No, young man, I afraid not.”
“You speak Mexican?” Wallace was amazed in spite of himself. “When did you learn to speak Mexcian?”
“The language is Spanish, you buffoon,” Charles replied, the disdain evident in his voice. “Mexican is a nationality, like American or Canadian. And to answer your question, when I was running cattle from Texas to Chicago, I made sure to learn the language of the people who worked for me. It's hard to tell people what you want them to do if they can't understand you.”
“That's why I'd make 'em learn English, like a civilized person.”
Charles shook his head in disgust. “You would,” he muttered under his breath.
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