<--Younger | The First New York Magician | Older-->

I don't remember landing. I know that when I was next aware, blinking stupidly in the cooler air of the lower floors, I was nearly entombed in a pile of rubble. Concrete, plaster, wood and metal debris were piled around and atop me, the pile spilling from the wall at one side over the edge of the stairway to the lower level at the other. The bannister had been smashed through by the deluge.

Although I could hear shouts coming from several directions, I was having trouble keeping my mind on them. I somewhat hazily self-diagnosed a mild concussion and swore at myself, trying to ignore the slowly rising pain in my skull. Oh sure, armor your damn coat, fireproof your hands. What's the most important thing you can damage, you idiot? Yeah. My headache got worse.

Trying to move my hands produced nothing other than a sense of imprisonment. I was pretty sure I hadn't done my central nervous system any damage because I could feel all my extremities; in some cases I could feel a lot of pain in them. My hands seemed to be relatively free from the palms out, but my arms were locked in place.

The shouts were converging. I thought about being rescued, and then realized that I had a problem. I was still slipped; the pocket watch's cloak of misdirection and avoidance was still wrapped around me. I had been on the verge of removing it to talk to my quarry, but hadn't completed the movement; my hand had never reached my chest. The Patek Phillipe was one of the most powerful of my talismans, but also one of the strictest. I had to have my forehead or one of my hands within a couple of inches of it in order to evoke any response. Those three points of power (or chakra, or what-have-you) were the three to which the power within the watch was keyed; without them, it would remain static. It wouldn't stop working, depending on how you defined 'working' - it just wouldn't change what it was presently doing. Since the last thing I'd told it to do was hide me, that meant I couldn't unhide without touching it.

Touching it, however, was going to be a major problem. I was past the point of needing the firefighters to remain unaware of my presence. Given the situation, I had hurriedly revised my priorities and fervantly needed them to be aware of me. Especially since it looked like getting myself loose before more of the top of this building fell in on me was becoming critically important.

I felt movement. Somewhere to one side, somebody was shifting debris and shouting. From the slight responding movement in the pile, I guessed that they had found my quarry, also trapped, and were working to free him. I shouted, or tried to, but my head exploded in a pyrotechnic display which faded into a paroxysm of of pain and coughing. No one appeared to have heard me. My slip was apparently still up.

Damn it.

I wiggled my fingers. The right hand had a bit more space: I tried gripping the piece of what felt like wood trapping my right wrist with them and moving it. Nothing. I felt stupid. Charging into a fire with the blithe expectation that my preparations would protect me; preparations which had been done with an eye towards personal defense, not environmental protection. Hindsight was working with its accustomed acuity; what the hell had I been thinking, following a firefighter into a burning building? Especially cloaked?

No time.

Left hand yielded no more than the right. The strongest muscles in the human body, by some reckoning, are the quadriceps and gluteus muscles, as they're the largest. I breathed out, trying to shrink inside my cocoon, and began flexing my legs as hard as I could. I was rewarded by a slight movement from whatever was surrounding my right leg, and concentrated on pushing that leg back and forth. My headache got worse, but after a minute or so I had almost a foot of play in the leg. Gritting my teeth again to hold off the pain in my skull, I wrenched my right knee upwards, praying there wasn't anything sharp in its way.

The debris shifted slightly, and I felt my right arm loosen. With another couple minutes of effort, I managed to shift it up towards my chest, past the void created by my leg moving. Exhausted, I closed my eyes and tried to concentrate, held the arm as close to my chest as it would reach and willed the pocket watch to stop hiding me.

I thought I felt the slight sliding sensation as the slip vanished, but I couldn't be sure. I was in a lot of pain, and things were pressing against my body from all sides. There was still noise from the other side of the debris pile, though, and I thought I could see lights playing against the wall over the top if it. I managed a croaking yell, and there was a pause, then one light came bobbing over the top of the pile. A form wavered into view in the thickening smoke.

"Holy shit, there's a civ over here! Chavez, Telasco, get over here, the rest of you get Melucci out." The figure clambered off the debris near my head and started moving chunks. "Hey, can you hear me?"

"Yeah." I managed to rasp, coughing again. "Thanks."

"Don't thank me yet. Chavez, damn it, bring your bar!" The firefighters worked at the pile for a few minutes, during which I let my gaze drift upwards. The top floor of the building, those yards above me, looked to be fully involved, with flames working their way down the stairwell walls. Burning bits of matter were drifting or falling around us, and one of the firefighters was leaning over my head to protect me while they worked. "Hey, stay with us. Can you move your legs?"

"Yeah, I can move everything, and everything hurts."

"Well, count yourself lucky then, sounds like you didn't break your back, and you can't have broken your head too bad since I don't see much blood." A particularly large chunk of something rolled off my left leg, and I reflexively brought my knee up. A hand brushed my leg as it levered more junk off me.

There was a disturbance, and then figures scrambled away from the other side of the pile. One of the others working on me said "They got Melucci. C'mon, get it get it get it." The other two with him started shoving with more alacrity, I supposed because their buddy was no longer under the same pile, and within minutes had me exposed enough to lift into a fireman's carry.

I had time to think about how funny it was that they actually used that method, given its name, and then I passed out.

* * *

I woke up in a hospital bed, feeling strangely light. Looking around, I realized that it was because I was wearing nothing but a hospital jumper. I recognized the hospital room as one at St. Vincent's, which was good. I lay there for a moment, relishing the lack of present pain, and then slowly levered myself to my feet. As I did so, a lanyard I hadn't noticed clipped to the shoulder of my jumper popped off a clamp at the head of the bed, and a strident electronic wailing started from underneath. Shit.

I forced myself up, moving towards the small closet at the corner of the room. Yanking it open and mumbling desperately to myself, I found my Burberry and a small stack of my clothes. The latter, ripped and no doubt smelling of smoke, were packed inside a clear plastic bag. I shoved it to the side and there against the back wall of the closet was my bandolier. I almost sobbed in relief and slung it around my torso, fastening it with shaking fingers, before slapping the watch's pocket and bringing the slip back up just as an orderly walked into the room. He looked around, startled, then moved past me into the bathroom before heading back out of the room at a run.

I struggled into the Burberry. Palpating my pants through the plastic long enough to determine that my wallet was still inside them, I left the room and turned left, away from the knot of people moving towards me from the nursing station. Going through the first stairway door I saw, I walked up two flights and then wandered the hallway until coming to a bathroom. Once inside, I opened the bag and dressed, then pulled the Burberry back on, buried the plastic bag underneath a column of used paper towels in the trash, and made my way to the elevators and thence to the street.

My head was starting to pound again, and I realized I had no idea how badly I'd been hurt. All I knew was that I was completely uninterested in explaining to the police who I was, and since the Desert Eagle was missing, I had to assume that they probably were quite curious about that. I pulled out my wallet as I walked down Seventh Avenue, and while my driver's license was still in it, that didn't mean they hadn't Xeroxed it or some such.

Crap. I wasn't thinking straight. I swerved into a coffee shop, bought a cup, and continued the walk, more slowly. If the wallet was still in my pocket, then that meant that the police probably hadn't gotten hold of it yet, because they would have just kept it until they interviewed me. The gun was gone, of course, but they probably didn't have that either, yet, if they didn't have the wallet. Which meant that so far the only records of me were at the hospital.

Reluctantly, because my head was still thumping, I jogged home and changed into my second-best trenchcoat and put on new clothes. I took the time to shower as well, scrubbing as much of the smoke off of my skin as possible. My exploration found a very painful spot on the top of my skull which seemed to have been shaved and had a pressure bandage on it. Since I didn't have time to shave my head or otherwise change my appearance commensurate with it, I dug in my closet and came out with a dark grey Homberg and crammed it onto my head. I debated getting another weapon, then decided against it. Rummaging in a drawer, I came out with another wallet which I switched for my own, transferring the cash, and headed back uptown.

Once I reached St. Vincent's, I paused in the front lobby, reached underneath my hat and touched the head wound (ouch) and then touched the spearhead with the resulting smear of blood. Where's my gun?

The usual surge of power made my eyes water as my head throbbed, but I felt myself pulled out of the lobby and down a first-floor corridor. I sauntered along the wall, making sure my slip was still in place, until I reached the Security Office. I peeked in. There were two uniformed cops in there, talking to what looked like a shift supervisor. One of the cops had a notebook out. And naturally, there on the desk between them, was the Desert Eagle, still in its shoulder holster with the two extra magazines.

I winced, and thought hard. I didn't see any other paperwork, which meant that it was at least a possibility that they hadn't copied my ID by the time the cops had gotten there. I had to imagine that someone in triage had looked at it, but first things first. Try to think about this as a problem, one to be solved. Don't think about it as a huge and potentially lethal complication.

I needed to get the gun out of the office. Without anyone knowing I'd done it. I figured it was fine if security and the cops realized they'd lost the gun, so long as they didn't know whose it was. Before I could let myself wonder if what I was doing was actually going to work, I palmed the Patek Phillippe again and brought up the tightest slip I could envision before my eyes started watering. I stood there for a second, then opened the door and slipped into the office. I moved some four feet to the left of the door as the three men at the table all looked around at the door, which was just clicking closed.

None of them looked at me.

Okay, so far so good.

After a couple of seconds, all three looked around the small room and turned back to each other. The cop with the notebook went back to scribbling in it while his partner asked questions of the security man. "Did anyone see him leaving the hospital?"

"No. We don't know where he went or how he got out."

"But he wasn't in a secure ward?"

"No, I've told you. He had a weapon, so we confiscated it, but there was no indication he'd committed any sort of crime, much less a violent one, so we didn't restrain him." The cop playing stenographer snorted but didn't look up. The security supervisor reddened slightly and looked like he was going to snap at the cop but then visibly thought better of it. Good Cop waved placatingly.

"Okay, okay, don't worry about it. When did you guys notice he was gone?"

"About an hour and...twenty minutes ago. An orderly went in to check on him and the bed was empty. He searched the halls, pulled in a couple of nurses and called my office. By the time my guys got to the room, there was no sign of him or his clothes."

"Were the clothes gone when the orderly went in?" Damn it, that cop was too quick for my peace of mind.

"I dunno."

"Fine. Can we talk to the orderly?"

"Sure. Hang on." The security man got up and went for a clipboard hanging over the monitor desk that took up the back wall.

Now.

Heart pounding in my throat and the back of my skull, I scooted forward as the questioning cop watched him go and his partner finished transcribing. Neither was looking at the table, not closely. I reached out, grabbed the Desert Eagle and holster, and lifted them straight up to minimize scraping noise. Then I stepped back to the wall, and before they could look around, I reached out and swung the door wide again before moving back to my original spot a few feet to the side of it.

All three of them swung around again, and it took a couple of seconds before the cop with the notebook swore, loudly and profanely, and slapped his partner on the shoulder, swinging up to run towards the hall.

"SHIT!" yelled the questioning cop and lurched after him. The security man paused, just having turned back with clipboard in hand and a puzzled expression. A moment later, he looked at the table and understanding dawned on him. He dropped the clipboard and also headed out, pulling a radio from his belt and bleating for whoever was on duty.

I stood in the empty office for a five-count, breathing hard, and stuffed the big pistol under my coat. Then I moved out into the hall, keeping as close to the walls as possible. Five or six people passed me on my way to the emergency room entrance but none of them looked my way, the slip passing their perceptions around me in smeary whispers of deception. I could feel the off-white paint on the walls leaching across me, hiding me from sight.

Head pounding, I waiting for the ER doors to slide open as someone entered and eeled past them into the early evening outside, stumbling downtown and avoiding pedestrians with all of my unnoticed attention.

<--Younger | The First New York Magician | Older-->

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