- The New York Magician -
Midtown Manhattan is a neighborhood of contradictions. It is home to thriving commercial and business concerns alongside chintzy tourist attractions. Fine restaurants are shoulder to shoulder with some of the worst tourist food in the city. Times Square, once that bastion of sleaze and crime, now serves as a pedestrian mall to counterbalance the imposing featureless canyons of the East Side. Grand Central holds up a torch for imposing surface stations while Times Square and Penn burrow crazily into the earth.
Some of the city's most grounded rationalists share the region with some of the most spiritual and the most fanatic.
I was there because I like Portuguese food. It's a bit thin on the ground, even here in Manhattan, but it can be found if you look hard enough (and I recommend starting around 48th-47th streets, but be sure to look in the hard to find establishments rather than the ones with large signs). I'd polished off a highly satisfactory dinner, eating alone as was my habit. There were a few other folks in the small back room of the restaurant, all of us hiding from the garishly decorated front space which had better furniture and a much more boring menu.
As I slowly enjoyed my Barriga de Freira, cutting the thick sweetness with sips from a near-lethal brew of coffee, I became aware of sobbing from the next occupied table. I glanced over quickly, a New Yorker checking the environment, and found nothing to be concerned about- a family of four was seated there, and a young boy whom I assumed was the son was being gently scolded. He was hugging himself, though - rocking back and forth slightly - and I watched until I saw his father reach gently over and try to hug him. He pulled away and shook his head.
I worked on my dessert while the family continued to argue in low tones. My Portuguese was terrible - all right, mostly nonexistent - but the tones were familiar; the boy was insisting on something, and the parents were trying to explain that he had dreamed it.
That's what tweaked my interest. Children See far better than adults, in general - and this boy had seen something that apparently had frightened him badly. His parents were trying to comfort him by telling him he hadn't seen it - and he wasn't having any of that explanation. I listened as best I could without intruding, but the language barrier was making it difficult. His mother, turning to look around the restaurant, caught me listening and smiled apologetically, to which I shrugged and smiled back.
The boy had removed his arms from his sides and was energetically waving them around, cupping his hands. I realized he was outlining a large spherical shape around his head, apparently describing what he'd seen. Soon afterwards, the four of them packed up and left, the boy still protesting that what he'd seen was real if I was understanding him properly.
When the waiter came to present the bill, I asked him if he had heard what the boy had been saying. He laughed. "Oh, sure. He was telling his parents that he saw a coco in the Grand Central subway."
"A coco. A ghost, but with no head. Like in the old story, the old American story."
"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow?"
"Yes, that one. Anyway, in Portugal, coco means a ghost with no head or a pumpkin for a head. American kids call them, what, bogeys?"
"Oh, bogeyman," I said.
"Bogeyman! Right. Parents sometimes warn their kids of the coco to make them do their homework or stay in bed, but that kid was trying to warn his parents of one." The waiter laughed again. "I don't know if that will work for him if he's trying to avoid homework, especially trying that story so close to Halloween."
I laughed with him, and he went off to run my credit card. As soon as he'd left the table, though, I stopped laughing and started thinking. Halloween. It was late October, true enough. Problem was, in my experience Halloween in New York tended to hide all manner of tales which contained far more truth than one might wish.
* * *
Two days later I got a call from uptown, from Demaine. "Michel, mon."
"Demaine. What's up?" I was juggling a tax return document on my laptop at my desk, holding the cell phone to my ear with my shoulder.
"Michel, I an' I hopin' you could have a look at somet'ing up here. Dad say call you. You got time?"
I shoved the laptop away. Demaine and Alan never asked me for anything. Never. "I can make time, Demaine. What's going on?"
"I dunno if it true an' all, but we got kids saying they bein' followed by somet'ing, somet'ing tall wit' long wrong arms and like. Happen t'ree, four time. Now we got a kid missing."
I looked at my watch. October 30. "Okay, Demaine. I'll be there in a couple of hours."
"See you, mon." He hung up.
I stood up, shrugged on my trenchcoat and headed for the subway.
When I got to the small junk shop, there were no kids sitting watch outside, an absence I'd never seen. I opened the door and moved into the wall of hash smoke, threading my way to the back where the counter man - whom I didn't know - nodded to me and lifted the gate. I nodded back and went through, passing through the wall hangings and going down the narrow stairs. When I reached the metal door, I thumped twice and waited while the peephole slid back. It slid shut and the door opened, letting me squeeze through. I waited while Demaine relocked the door, then traded forearm clasps with him which, as always, left mine sore. He was a big kid and none of it was fat. "Demaine."
"Ah, France, is good to see you. Dad, he waitin.'"
I nodded, slapped his rock-like shoulder and moved into the back room. Unusually, the lights were all on, displaying the walls of weapons and gear. At the desk in the center of the room two chairs had been drawn up to face Alan as he sat there. One was already occupied by a woman I didn't know, who looked like she'd been crying. I moved to the desk and Alan stood to greet me. The woman turned and made as if to stand, but he waved her back down while we shook hands and then both sat. "Marisa, dis is my friend. Call him France."
She nodded, nervously. "Hello."
I smiled at her in what I hoped was a reassuring manner. "Hi."
"France, Marisa's son gone missing a day now. I t'ink to call you because the children, they talkin' bout these ghosts they seein'."
I turned to the mother. "Where did you last see your son?"
"He left the house yesterday morning to go see friends. They always go biking on Sunday. But he never came home, and when I called them they said they hadn't seen him and thought he'd stayed home." Her voice was controlled, but the fear was audible.
"Tell me about your son and where you live."
She reached into a handbag and pulled out a small photo of a grinning boy. "This is Samuel. He's twelve. We live over closer to the river; they like to bike around the park along there, or bike up and over to the Bronx."
I took the photo. "May I keep this?" She nodded. "Thanks. Alan, you were saying the kids had been seeing things?"
"Yeah. Dey all describin' the same t'ing. Tall, no head or huge head wrapped in cloth so you can't see it; robes or rags, long arms wit' claws, too long."
Cocos. "Okay. Where have they been seen?"
"You gon' look?"
"Yes." I turned back to the mother. "I'm going to look for your son, but I honestly don't know if I'll be able to find him. Have you gone to the police?"
"Yes, I did, but they told me it was too soon to look. I told them he's just a boy, but they tell me I have to wait two days." She looked as if she was about to cry again, turned away. Alan came around the desk, murmured to her and walked her to the door, handing her out to Demaine before coming back.
"France, I don' know dat woman well, but she neighborhood. I tell her we do what we can."
"I'm going to try, Alan." I stood up, and he handed me a slip of paper.
With that in hand, I shook his hand again and left the shop.
I headed east, towards the address given. The building was a medium-sized apartment block, set in a complex with a concrete basketball court and plaza in front. There were three boys riding dirt bikes around the court, looking to be about the same age as Samuel. I waved to them, but they looked at me suspiciously which, I suppose, I could understand. "Hey, can I ask you guys a question?"
They looked at each other. One of them rode over, the other two obviously prepared to bolt if I did anything suspicious. "What you want, man?"
I held out the photo. "Do you know this kid?"
He looked at it, then back to me. "Why?"
"He's missing. I'm looking for him for his mother Marisa."
He looked back at his friends; they shrugged, and he turned back. "Yeah, that's Samuel. We know him. We ride with him around the block."
"When did you last see him?"
"Few days ago. His mom called my mom to ask if we saw him Sunday, but we didn't. He didn't come ride with us."
"Where do you guys ride, usually?"
"Up and down the river, most times. Around the highway bridges and like that."
"Where do you meet? Here in the court?"
"Yeah, we bring our bikes down and ride out."
I dug in my pocket and handed him three five dollar bills. "Thanks. Share it out."
That got me a suspicious grin, but a grin nonetheless, and he took the money with a nod before pedaling energetically back to his friends who all waved to me. I waved back and walked south and east, towards the East River.
On the way, I got on my cell phone and left messages for various people and others, asking them if they'd heard anything about kids going missing. None had gotten back to me by the time I reached the river. There was a covered pedestrian mall sprawled for three blocks from 116th to 119th; uptown the Triborough Bridge's snarl of highway interchanges was visible, but there wasn't anything that caught my eye. Besides, the kids had ridden here without seeing Samuel. I grimaced and headed back west towards the 6 train at 125th street.
* * *
The rest of the day I spent on the phone, talking to various people and others I knew. Several had heard of kids being followed by what sounded like cocos; a couple had heard that the cocos themselves had arrived in the city recently and had staked out some particular underground spot, maybe in the tunnels under Grand Central, for their own. It wasn't until I got a call back from a Portuguese baker I knew, however, that I got really worried. He explained that the cocos were generally not known to interact with people other than the usual stories of them carrying off 'bad kids' - but the source of that myth was sobering. It seemed that the only way a coco could be free of its limbo-like existence was to ride the coattails of another soul into heaven - and the only way to be relatively sure that was their destination was to use a child.
The child was also easier to manipulate, as they could See better than adults.
"What do you mean 'use'?" I asked him, gripping the phone tightly.
"I'm sorry, senhor, I am just telling you the story," he said nervously. "They were said to gather around the child once they had him, because they can only touch real things very lightly. Dozens would be needed to kill the child; they would smother the child with their bodies and then follow its soul to heaven."
I thanked him for his help and hung up. Damn it. Damn it damn it damn it. Generally, I don't have to deal with this kind of shit - the Elders in New York are fairly intent on just getting along - but once in a while something would come into town - something that didn't know the rules, or didn't care. This was why I hated Halloween.
It was night when I looked out the window. I'd pulled every string I could, and the only thing I'd gotten - other than more information about the cocos - was vague rumors of Grand Central. But I could search that building for years and not find a kid hidden in it somewhere - and the cocos themselves wouldn't likely be there until daylight - they'd be roaming around in the blanket of the night until the sun drove them back underground. I had no idea how they'd nabbed the kid during the day, but it wasn't as if there weren't interesting underground places in New York he could have been exploring.
Much as it grated, I decided to get sleep during the day and to arrive at Grand Central at evening. Although I probably wouldn't be able to find the kid just searching, I had a much better chance of doing so by finding and following a coco back to their lair. I called Alan to give him an update. He said he'd send some people to look around the Terminal during the day, just in case, and told me where to meet them at dusk if they hadn't found the kid by then.
Sleeping was hard. I had to put on a sleep mask and a white noise generator and finally get up and drink a stiff bourbon to stop myself thinking about Samuel and his photograph.
When I arose from bed, the sun was dipping behind New Jersey. I cannoned up, unsure of what I was facing. The Burberry was a given; the Desert Eagle and two stun grenades went under my coat. I checked the bandolier to ensure that the vial and the pocketwatch were there. I had an assortment of charms and sigils of protection; most were of uncertain value, but I figured better to be safe than sorry, so I distributed them around my trenchcoat before heading out in to the gathering Hallow's Eve.
I had to push through preparations for the Halloween parade and through throngs of tourists crowding lower Manhattan, but eventually I made it to the 6 train and up to Grand Central. I met Alan's crew near the entrance to the Shuttle train; they gave me a rundown on where they'd been able to look - mostly the commuter tracks and the 4/5/6 subway tracks, as well as the public spaces - but they hadn't found the boy. I thanked them and told them I'd be looking in the lower levels, and we all split up to contiue searching.
I had descended to the lower Metro-North tracks and was prowling along the various platforms when I saw it. The figure was taller than I was, wearing a cloak of some sort. It was moving smoothly along the easternmost platform, heading for the tracks, and its head looked too big under the hood it was wearing. It was threading between the various commuters on the platform, and they were paying it no notice at all.
I was two platforms westwards, and the tracks between us were empty. Rather than go back to the terminal and around, I ran northwards to the end of the platform, dropped down onto the tracks after a quick check to make sure nobody was looking, and began to carefully work my way eastwards. I was across the first track when I saw the figure glide past, on the track level itself now, headed north. I pulled the Desert Eagle and followed it, moving across the track between us and ending up some thirty or forty feet behind it as it accelerated down the tunnels.
Footing was precarious, and I didn't have time to pull out my flashlight. Both of these kept my speed down, so I was barely managing to keep it in sight by the time we passed the first two switch sections as the tracks necked down towards the four main lines which ramped upwards to join those above in the Park Avenue tunnel. The figure ahead of me, though, was moving towards the wall, and as I watched, puffing up behind it, it moved through a portal of some kind and vanished. I slid to a stop in front of a notch cut into the wall, through which a ladder ran up and down. I looked up; nothing, the top of the ladder lit by the track lighting on the level above. Down was blackness.
Holstering the pistol (climbing a ladder holding a primed firearm is a really good way to shoot yourself) I swung onto the ladder. It was metal, utility yellow, with gridded cross members. I hooked my feet around the outside, grabbed the poles and slid downwards as best I was able. A few seconds later I came to a somewhat hard stop at the bottom, and ducked out of the niche as I pulled my gun out again.
There was movement to the north. I followed, still trying to keep my footing in even dimmer light. Ahead, the tunnel was blocked by hulking dark shapes. The form I was following was heading for one of them, and as I got closer I realized it was a derelict train car. The coco floated up the back and vanished inside. I came to a stop at the bottom of a short ladder leading to the back observation deck of the old car, breathed for a few seconds and then climbed up. I moved to the door, listening; I wasn't sure what I expected to hear, given that I hadn't heard that cocos made any noise, but in any case what I did hear was whimpering.
My anger was there at once, and it took a few seconds to get it under control. The whimpering was that of a child, and it was overlaid with multifarious rustling noises. I checked the Desert Eagle, making sure there was a round chambered and the safety was off. I put my hand to the bandolier and placed my hand on the pocketwatch. I didn't want to make myself invisible; this time, I figured I needed all the shock value I could get, so I told the Djinn's gift to do the opposite of what it normally did. I watched my surroundings brighten as the watch pulled light towards me, the areas farther away darkening, and before I could think of a reason not to I kicked the door as hard as I could and when it smashed inward in rotted pieces I jumped through, yelling my wordless rage.
There was a narrow empty space with benches down both sides. As I entered, it brightened with the light I brought in and I could see a crowd of shapes gathered in the center of the car. They were clustered around something on the floor. I raised the gun and fired once, pulling the power back; fired again, and again, alchemical changes to magnesium causing the second and third shots to burst forth from the barrel in fountains of blindingly bright white light. I fired another two flare rounds into the walls and started forward towards the crowd of cocos as they all straightened up and turned towards me, long arms hanging at their sides with what appeared to be talons at the end and several with what looked like flames flickering around where their heads should be.
Had I not been so angry, the fear would have stopped me, then, but I'd left myself no choice. I brought the Desert Eagle up, lifted my left hand towards the ceiling and called the light from the watch around it, holding it as a torch, and began to run forward, waiting for them to jump towards me as I shouted my anger.
But I was wrong.
There was a huge, multi-source scream - the cocos, all of them, screaming - but instead of charging me, they scattered. Several went out the dusty windows, and the rest fled out the back of the car, tumbling over each other as they squeezed through the narrow exit. I slid to a stop over the form huddled on the floor, surprised and off-balance, but not displeased.
After making sure they were all gone, and not just hanging back, I holstered the gun and knelt down next to the figure of the boy, in fetal position and shuddering. I laid my right hand on his shoulder, cleared my throat from the rawness of the scream. "Samuel?"
He jerked as I touched him, then slowly lifted his head to mine-
And started to laugh. He laughed loud, and long; not hysteria, but honest mirth. As I rocked back, confused, the laugh deepened, and he rolled to one side to sit up, still laughing, but he was somehow taller, and longer-
I scrambled back, pulling out the gun again, and put my back to the wall as the figure in front of me pulled itself to its feet. It clearly wasn't the boy Samuel, but I had no idea what was going on until it turned to face me and I saw the jet-black unkempt hair and the weathered skin that I recognized as a face I'd seen once before.
Malsumis - for it was, indeed, the Abenaki god - lifted a hand in a sort of wave, sort of a gesture of 'wait' and visibly got control of himself, his laughter choked back and dying away, until he stood up straight and looked at me directly, still with a huge grin on his face. "Michel. Oh, me, Michel, that was perfection."
"Malsumis, what the fuck-"
"Put the gun away, son, before you hurt yourself." Malsumis moved to the other side of the car and sat on the decrepit bench that ran down it. I moved sideways until I was in front of the opposite bench and did the same. I knew the gun wouldn't do much to the Elder in front of me, so I holstered it. My confusion was giving way to anger, again.
"Malsumis, where the fuck is the boy? If you tell me that, I'll let this whole thing go."
That set him off again, and he laughed for half a minute. I waited him out, grimly, thinking of ways to hurt him. I couldn't think of any, offhand, but that didn't mean I wasn't going to try. "Michel, Michel, you're so predictable. Don't worry."
"The boy is fine, son. He's with his mother. They went to visit her sister in New Haven three days ago."
"Bullshit. Yesterday-" but before I could finish, his features flickered and Marisa was sitting across from me, tears still in her eyes.
"My son, Frenchman! My son!" The voice had changed too.
I stared at him, working on stomping my anger down flat. "The boy was never in danger."
His form flickered and changed back. "No. He and his mother just left town for the holiday."
"Malsumis-" the first and only time I'd seen him before this, we'd not been on good terms at all. "What the fuck is going on? You did all this to scare me?"
"Oh no, boy, what makes you think that? You? That was just a bonus."
And I got it.
"The fucking cocos. You set this all up. For them."
He laughed again. "The looks on their...well, not faces...when you came barging in! I hadn't even had to prep them, much, they'd heard all about the crazy human with the tools that hunted their kind in the day, and you were perfect, just perfect, with the torch-hand and the gun and the yelling. Night's sake, son, you should do that for a living. I've never seen a mythform so damn scared in my life."
"You changed to the boy when you heard me coming. They gathered around you because they were confused." Malsumis broke out laughing once more, nodding.
When he'd gotten control of himself again, he peered at me through narrowed eyes. "My word, boy, you did go all out, didn't you...six...no, eight charms of protection, the gun, the bandolier all charged up, and, wait, grenades? Hahaha!" He was off again.
I stood up, wearily. "I'm going to check with Alan before taking your word for this, Malsumis."
"Of course. I'm not lying to you, the boy is fine." He wiped his eyes, unexpectedly human gesture, then looked up. "You do know why this worked so well, don't you? Do you have any idea what you look like from the other side of the fence? Arrogant, power-hungry, overbearing human, hunting down those who just want somewhere quiet where they won't be bothered. Then you come charging in, having spent all that time finding ways to make them hurt, ways to make them submit. I don't know if there's a Michelin guide to New York in the Elder community, but if there is I would pay dearly to read the entry on you, boy. You're probably the one they tell new ones about to make them behave. The bogeyman's bogeyman!"
I moved towards the end of the car, thinking about all the careful diplomacy I would have to do to make contact with the cocos now. "Fuck you, Malsumis."
He raised an arm to wave as I swung back into the tunnel. "Happy Halloween, Frenchman!"
- The New York Magician - for Children of the Night: The 2012 Halloween Horrorquest! -