I've been asked by more than one person if there will be more of The New York Magician published. Indeed, yes; you might have noticed some of the stories that had been here have vanished. They're not gone; they're being reworked into the third book, and first unitary novel. Ah, but what about the second book? Well, I'm presently working on a second collection of short stories - all with the theme of Michel meeting new people (human or otherwise), tentatively titled Denizens of New York. There are at least two stories in the book which won't appear here, but this is the beginning of the one I'm currently working on. I do hope you enjoy it, and don't worry, I'll finish it here - I wouldn't leave you hanging. The final version which appears in the book might have additional material in it, but this one will stand alone and complete.
- The first New York Magician -
I was doing determined battle with a health insurance claim form when the Djinn walked in my office door. I was so surprised that I let my pen scrawl a wavery line through the field "Cause of Injury: Work related?" which had proved a real stumper. Azif was wearing a young athletic Asian man, dressed in casual clothes, but to my Sight his golden glow extended out past the body's edges. The young man, while in good shape, looked somewhat gaunt and unkempt. A habitual strong expression of wariness or fear had marked his face with lines.
He closed the door behind him. "Hello, Michel."
"Azif? What the hell are you doing here?"
"I apologize for disturbing your place of business, Michel, but I...need a favor."
I hadn't seen the Djinn for several months, and had wondered where he'd gotten to. I waved him to one of the chairs on the other side of my desk. "Sit down and tell me about it."
He moved to the left-hand chair and sat, economically. "Thank you. I need your assistance."
That caused me to raise my eyebrows. "The last time you needed my assistance, Azif, I ended up under contract to...well, to you know who." Fucking Cthulhu, I finished in my head, wanting very badly not to attract his notice.
"You were always under contract, Michel. You merely became aware of it. Looked at in that manner, I performed you a service."
"I think we're going to have to agree to disagree, Azif. But," I took hold of my fear-driven annoyance - "never mind that. What do you need?"
He relaxed his host body, slightly but visibly. "I cannot change hosts, Michel. This body has a problem. One I need your help with."
I tossed the forms back to the corner of the desk they'd been occupying for the past couple of weeks. "Shoot."
"This host - I entered him in Chinatown. As soon as I touched him, he panicked and ran, and I discovered why. I do not know what to do, nor do I know how to honorably depart."
"You've lost me, Azif. Honorably depart?"
"I cannot leave without endangering him."
I leaned back in my chair. "Is he aware, now? Does he know what's going on?"
"No. Not specifically. But this body has certain habits, certain reflexes. No doubt as a result of his particular problem, they remain, and thwart me. He will not...here, I will show you." He stood up and reached across the desk. I leaned back, instinctively. "Do not worry, Michel. Watch."
I sighed and stood up. The young man across from me reached for my arm, then froze, his own arm shaking. Azif struggled for a few seconds, then let the arm fall and looked back up at me. "You see?"
"He won't let you touch anyone?"
"But you could arrange for another to touch you, right-"
"That...is the problem."
I sat down again. "Azif, if you want my help, you're going to have to explain yourself. Clearly, in short words because I'm not that bright, and relatively soon."
"Michel, I am not trying...very well. Perhaps it is better if I show you. Can you spare a half hour? I promise, I am not trying to waste your time or mislead you."
I considered. "Sure." I picked up my London Fog from the rack behind my desk and checked that the Desert Eagle was secure within it before belting it around me. "Where are we going?"
"Not far, but there will likely be trouble."
"What kind of trouble?"
"You will need that." Azif nodded at my torso. I frowned.
"We will be in some danger. No other humans will be threatened or harmed, unless by us, however. I swear it."
That didn't sound very reassuring. But I owed Azif for my first and best tool. I also owed him for the Cthulhu introduction, and I still wasn't sure which side of the ledger that lay on. "All right." I swept an arm towards the door. Azif stood and exited. I followed him, nodding to my assistant as we left. "Will, I'll be gone about half an hour. If anyone needs me, take a message please."
"Sure thing, boss." Will looked curiously at Azif's host but visibly decided it wasn't his business. We walked out to the elevators and I punched the button.
"How dangerous is this likely to be?" I asked. Azif hesitated. I turned to face him when he didn't answer immediately, and he shrugged at me. I glowered back. "Really? Not even an answer to that?"
"How dangerous to you? It depends on what you do. To me? Not terribly, although I might end up sundered if we are not careful. To this host? Possibly fatal."
"Azif..." I trailed off, exasperated, as the elevator arrived and opened. Seeing it was empty, I continued as we shuffled inside, "I mean, what will I need to deal with?"
"All I can tell you is that we will be pursued. I - or he - will be attacked. I tell you now that the attackers will not harm you unless you interfere, and will not harm other humans by intent. But they will be difficult to stop."
"What are they?"
"If you have dealt with them before, you will recognize them. If not, I would prefer to explain afterwards."
"You'd prefer." I shot him another glare, but he seemed impervious to my annoyance. It was beginning to dawn on me just how worried Azif was. Knowing his power, that realization was triggering significant concern on my part.
We left the building. Azif led us down Vesey Street, across the West Side Highway and up Barclay Street. I followed, uneasily checking my gun, my bandolier and my holster's spare ammunition as surreptitiously as possible. I transferred the two spare clips from the holster to my front left coat pocket for faster access.
At Church Street, we turned left and walked a few blocks to Chambers Street, where we descended into the subway. Azif led us to the north end of the platform, next to the uptown track. I realized that during the entire trip, his host had gracefully swerved and eeled to avoid so much as brushing any other people. "We should wait for a train," Azif said, looking around us. "This will do. There are not that many around us." It was true; the north end of the platform had two or three people waiting, but obviously trains had just been through. People were trickling in from the stairs several hundred feet to the south.
"What the hell should I expect, Azif? Stop fucking around with me. I'm willing to go through with this, but I need you to tell me more than you have so far."
"Touch me, Michel."
"Not yet I'm not going to. Not until you talk to me." I had my right hand under the coat, clamped firmly on the Desert Eagle's butt.
Azif sighed. "Whenever this boy is touched, they will come. They come for him. They will harm him if they catch him, and I do not know why. This is why his body fights me so strongly."
"How fast? What are they? How fast will they come?"
"I have never seen them move this quickly," Azif said soberly.
"Shit." How the hell did I get myself into this much crap so quickly? I'd been doing insurance forms, not fifteen minutes ago. They sounded...very attractive, now. I drew the Desert Eagle and stuck it through the outer pocket flap of my coat, leaving my wrist in the pocket entrance and the gun pointed down my side beneath the coat. In a pinch, I'd be able to lift and fire it directly, if I didn't have time to slide it back out of the pocket, but having my hands in my pockets, even in the warmth of the subway system, was less suspicious than having one held inside the breast of the overcoat.
Light smeared itself across the wall to the south of us, growing as the train entered the south end of the station and its front came into view. "Do it now. Do it now, Michel!" Azif was braced like a sprinter in a standing start. I reached out with my left hand, my palms already sweaty, and touched his body lightly on the cheek, following its head as it flinched away. I realized that Azif hadn't jumped hosts, into my body, as he had done before on occasions when I had touched his rider. I didn't have time to consider the fact, though, for almost immediately there was a screeching roar inside the station, seemingly coming from the tunnel to the north. I swung to look as the train rumbled to a stop beside us, and Azif darted in through the opening doors. "Michel! Michel! Come, come now!"
I backed into the train, still looking around. Across the platform, an arm that was far too long reached suddenly over the platform edge and pulled a whipcord shape up behind it. An elongated, gaunt head - almost the shape of a cattle skull - perched atop the ropy muscles of the torso, its eyes a haze of light. It swung its body up onto the platform, ignoring - and unseen by - the three or four people within ten yards of it. I was loath to pull the gun, as I hadn't been smart enough to put a slip up before backing into the subway car and there were a couple of dozen other passengers in it, but I decided that if it got upright on the platform before the doors closed, I'd have no choice.
Just as it swung a foot up to the platform edge, the welcome soft tone sounded and the doors began to slide closed. The attacker's mouth opened to emit what was clearly a scream of anger. It levered itself smoothly upright and turned back to face the train just as the doors met in the middle. As an experienced New York subway rider, I didn't relax - probably a third of the time, subway doors had to reopen and close again due to some jackass holding the doors, but this time it seemed commuting etiquette had held up. The train shook and started to move out of the station. I watched as the shape ran towards us and was afraid it would jump into the gap between cars, but I saw it stop, frustrated, watching us accelerate out of the station into the tunnels.
I turned back to Azif. He was leaning against the far door, holding on to the vertical bar. "Azif, how many come, and how long will they try?"
"I do not know, precisely. It does only seem to call the nearest, and the call only lasts as long as the touch. If we continue to move, we should be safe. The one we just escaped would be the only one to follow us, until it lost interest. Before you ask, I have no idea what that interest is."
"This isn't good. We have to find a way for you to jump hosts. We have to ask this kid what the hell is going on."
"Michel, there is a problem. You touched me."
It took me a few moments to recall my confused recognition from before seeing our pursuer. "I did. You didn't jump. That wasn't voluntary?"
"No. The host appears to have some hold on me."
"Why they hell didn't you bring this up- no, never mind." I sat heavily on a seat, with Azif sitting beside me as the train rattled northwards. "Do we have to worry about the next stop?"
"I do not know. I have not tried the trains, yet."
"Okay." I levered myself back up again, forcing down the shakes in my legs that the adrenaline comedown was producing, and moved to stand against the end of the subway car where a windowed but locked sliding door showed the dark of the operator's compartment ahead of us. At my gesture, Azif stood as well and moved to stand next to me. The few people in the car, who had been diligently ignoring our scattered conversation as being just another pair of New York crazies quietly moved away from us, back past the first set of doors, until we were alone at the end of the car. That suited me fine; if another one of those things was waiting at the next stop, I wanted no people between us and it.
The next stop was Canal, a quick trip from Chambers. When the train came into the station, I made sure to stay between Azif and the door. When we slid to a halt near the north end of the platform, I debated whether to stick my head out but decided that if anything was watching, in the station, there was no reason advertising what car we were in. Azif waited quietly, shoulders agains the front wall. One man, approaching the front set of doors, caught a glimpse of me in guarded position and decided to walk back to the middle of the car. After a few seconds, the doors shut and we moved off without anything untoward happening.
I turned back to Azif. "So if anyone touches you, they come? What the hell are they?"
"They are ghul."
"Ghouls? I've never seen them before."
"Be glad of that. They haunt the graveyards and tombs, anywhere the dead rest. They are sometimes known as the eaters of the dead."
"Why- no, never mind that right now. What the hell are they doing here in New York?"
"They have always been here. As long as I have been here, I have seen them. Usually, however, they keep to themselves. Something is very different, for them to pursue this boy."
"And you're sure they're not after you."
"I am sure. For one, they can inconvenience me but not harm me. For another, when this boy was touched by my previous host, he was fleeing one of the creatures. They do not seem to have recognized that I have joined him. I am unsure if they are aware of my existence, at present."
I noted the ambiguity - whether they were aware of his existence at all, or just his presence with the boy - and regretfully filed that question for later, if at all. "Okay. Where were you when you jumped into him? And why didn't you jump out?"
"There seems to be something holding me. The boy touched several people after I joined him, in his flight. Normally, contact for the first few seconds after I transfer does not cause me to jump again - I am still reforming within the first host. But I made no attempt to stop his flight at the time, given that he was clearly terrified and running away, and despite several instances of contact with other people, I was not drawn away from him. Each time, and when you touched him earlier, I can feel the beginning of transfer, but something holds me here instead."
"Where did you meet him?"
"Chinatown. On the Bowery. When I realized he was pursued, and as he fell silent under me, I ran northward, seeking a taxicab. When I found one, I had him take me to Central Park, and walked to Sheep Meadow so as to have the widest field of view of any approaches. Nothing happened for an hour or more, certainly enough time for a ghul to have reached me from Chinatown. I made my way westward, and on Central Park West I brushed a stranger in an attempt to escape the situation, but discovered that I could no longer transfer - but as soon as I touched her, I heard the cry of a ghul - either the same, or a nearer one, I do not know - and I was forced to run westward." He fell silent for a few moments. "It caught me - him - near Broadway. It was attempting to breach the boy's chest cavity. I felt his pain. I have not - felt pain, Michel, in a long, long time, when I could not block it at my wish."
"How did you get away?"
"We were on Amsterdam and Seventy-Third - just near Broadway, really, as it splits off there. The creature was holding the boy while attempting to breach his skin at his chest. It was distracted by the boy's passivity. I managed to surprise it and threw it into the path of a bus angling close to the sidewalk to make the turn towards Broadway. It lost its grip, howling - I do not think the humans nearby saw or heard it, but they could certainly feel something was wrong. I ran south, found another taxi just leaving a red light on Broadway at Seventy-Second, and jumped in. Then I came to you, taking care not to touch another person."
I thought about that for a while. "Okay. Then we have to change trains at the Port Authority."
We rode uptown to 42nd Street. When we exited, I took us up to the mezzanine and through the passageway to the stairway down to the 7 line. I found myself walking slightly in front of Azif, doing my best to deflect anyone who might brush him and trusting him (or his host's phobias) to avoid touching me. The crowds weren't at rush hour levels, and we managed to make it down to the platform and on to the waiting train without any incident. I gestured Azif to stand in a corner of the end of the car and stood in front of him. We attacted a few curious looks but no more notice than that.
"Michel, where are we going?" I turned to look at Azif. He was frowning slightly.
"I need to ask questions. You're coming with me."
"We have to go to Grand Central."
"Ah." His face cleared in understanding.
"Yeah." I turned around again to maintain our space with my glare, if necessary, as preferable to having to use force. It worked; even though the train filled up perhaps halfway at Times Square, I managed to keep Azif isolated. One stop later, we got off at Grand Central and trudged carefully into the Main Lobby and headed for the Cafe.
I ushered Azif to an end stool. We sat. The bartender finished with two other customers and walked over, a remote look on her model's face. When I raised two fingers, she turned aside to the bar, picked up a bottle of Woodford bourbon and continued on. When she reached us, she ducked down to retrieve two glasses. When she stood, the wrinkled face of Baba Yaga smiled up at me. She placed the glasses and filled them, then asked "Who is your friend, Michel?"
"You don't know him?" I asked, picking up the glass. "Look again, Baba."
She turned to face Azif fully, and her face wrinkled further into a frown. "You are familiar. You..." she squinted. "You are not human, are you."
I worked to control my surprise. "Baba, you cannot see him?"
"Michel," she murmured, still searching the face of Azif's host, "I deal with mortals. This is not a mortal, but they do not look familiar..." she drew in breath, sharply. "Azif?"
Azif bowed his head. "Grandmother."
"No kin of mine, shining one. Yet...yet...what are you about, here, sundered?"
"I am not sundered, Grandmother."
Abruptly, Baba Yaga reached across the bar. Azif jerked back from her. "Are you afraid of me, shining one?"
"No, Grandmother, but when I am touched, now, the ghul come for me. We do not know why."
Her face cleared suddenly. "Oh. Oh, Azif, you poor thing."
I put down the bourbon I had been making serious inroads on. "Baba, do you know what has happened?"
"Of course, Michel. I had difficulty recognizing him. Azif, to me, is a pattern of life unlike that of humans, but he is always contained within a human's pattern and form unless he is sundered. I have come to know him as a particular texture within a mortal's life. Hence my confusion."
"Why are you confused, Grandmother?" I asked. My hand was shaking; I thought I knew what was going on, now, but wanted very badly to be told I was wrong.
Baba Yaga shook her head. "You say Azif is not sundered. But I cannot see the pattern around him. He must be riding a corpse."
Azif's face paled. I clenched the glass and shut my eyes for a moment, proven right, in my fear. "The host. He's dead?"
"Yes," she said simply.
"But is he gone?"
Baba Yaga leaned forward over the bar and squinted. Azif, seeing that she was not going to touch him, held still. "Michel, he is dead, but he may not be gone. I can see faint patterns, here...very faint, but at the core-" she stared at the boy's torso- "at the core, there is a presence. He is not gone. Azif is sustaining this body, but the boy is not gone."
Azif and I looked at each other. He looked as shocked as I felt. I turned back to Baba Yaga. "Would that explain why he does not jump when touched?"
"Certainly. If the boy is not gone, what is left of him will grasp Azif as his only hope, and will not permit the djinn to leave him. Usually," she said, settling back down onto her feet and reaching behind her for the bottle to refill my drink, "usually the host most urgently wants the djinn gone. When a chance arises, the host will push the djinn out, into another host, to regain its self." Azif nodded, glumly. "But now, the boy seems aware that only Azif is sustaining him. That in itself is unusual - it means he must have known his state even before Azif entered his body. What happened?"
Azif told her the same story he had told me, while I concentrated on soaking up enough Woodford to lower my heart rate. Finally, she shook her head. "The ghul, of course. They think him dead, and thus their charge."
"Why do they come when-" Azif began, but she cut him off.
"When you begin to transfer, as is your nature, this body slides back to death. As such, it is dead, and yet still animate - and the ghuls can feel that, as they are aware of all corpses and are drawn to them. When you are pulled back, they cannot sense you - but they will rush to wherever you were when touched, as a walking corpse is the purpose of their existence."
I asked quietly, "How so?"
Baba Yaga turned to put the bottle back on the shelving behind the bar. When she turned her face to us again, it was unlined, fine as porcelain, and completely disinterested. Her glance met mine for a moment, and then she turned away towards a commuter who had moved up to the bar. I looked at Azif to find him looking back at me. "I think that's all she's willing to tell us."
He nodded. "What can we do?"
I thought very hard for a few seconds. "Azif, I'm going to level with you. I don't know if we can save this boy, but I'm not going to let you transfer until we know for sure one way or the other."
The djinn looked at the bar surface. "I would expect nothing else. But that means you must remain with me."
"I know." I drank off the second bourbon and placed the glass back on the bar. "Let's see what you have in your pockets."
Azif obediently emptied his pockets onto the bar. A set of keys, a cell phone, and a wallet, along with a money clip with a few bills folded neatly and clipped in it, and what looked like a dried fruit. I picked up the wallet and opened it, took out the driver's license that was held behind clear plastic within it, and read it off. "Richard Quyen, 102 Bowery." I put the license back in the wallet and slid the pile back to him. "I think we should go see what the hell this kid was into, don't you?"
to be continued