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The screams woke me before my alarm clock did. I was out of bed before I really knew what was happening, the Desert Eagle in both hands, muzzle questing around my bedroom, but there was nobody there. I blinked five or six times, then realized how damn cold it was and how stupid I looked in my jockeys holding the enormous pistol, then decided I didn’t care when the scream ripped through the apartment again. The gun twitched towards the bedroom door of its own accord, and I ghosted over next to the entryway. After a breath or two, I opened it with my left hand, softly, then swung out into my small hallway.
A quick but tense check of my entire apartment showing nobody there except me, now sweating despite the chill in the two glimpses I’d gotten in the mirrors in my bathroom and in my living room. I returned to my bedroom, pulled on clothes and hardware hurriedly, and then returned to the kitchen with the pistol holstered under my Burberry. Another scream rent the air around me, making me wince; it sounded like the screamer was in the same damn room as I was.
I live in a small apartment below the meatpacking district, in the west end of Greenwich Village, in a building that was built sometime around the turn of the twentieth century. Whatever else I and the other residents have to say about its upkeep (and we have lots, mostly during co-op meetings) the walls of the building are solid and thick - one of the reasons that repairs cost so much to do properly. There was no way someone screaming from another apartment, or even the hallway outside, could have sounded that clear.
I closed my eyes and did what I could to stop my talent, shutting down my senses. I stopped Listening and waited.
Nothing happened for several minutes. I grimaced and Listened again. Ten seconds later, another scream assaulted my head but, I now knew, not my ears. Someone, or something, was in serious agony, and they weren’t screaming where normal people could hear.
I got my keys, made sure my bandolier was tight around my chest, and headed down onto the street.
Seven blocks later, I knew I was in trouble. I’d convinced Bobbi-Bobbi’s spearhead to Hunt for the source of the screams, and the piece of stone had led me seven blocks, to where I stood just off Hudson street and looked hard at a building that dripped 1960s from every inch of its utilitarian earth-tone faux-brick facade.
The police and I get along just fine, with one major caveat. I do everything in my power to make sure that they have no idea I exist. Oh, sure, Michel Wibert exists; I have a driver’s license, passport, all the various pieces of policeman tranquilizing paper that society has manifested over the years. One thing he doesn’t have, though, is a gun permit. Have you ever even looked at the requirements for getting a carry permit in Manhattan? Unless you’re a police officer or some Federal equivalent thereof, trust me, it’s a much easier proposition to march down to Washington D.C. and ask for an end-user certificate for this nice two-kilogram lump of plutonium-239 you have in your bedstand and want to sell overseas.
There’s no place at all to apply for permits to carry magic talismans. You just have to hope nobody sees you use them; at least, nobody who will report it and be believed.
As I stood there looking indecisively at the front of the police station, there was another scream. I winced, shook my head, and went inside. The entry hall was only moderately crowded, reflecting early morning in the Village. I ignored the familiar pulse of heat from my pocket watch as I passed through the metal detector posts just inside the door, heading for the corridor out of the lobby. There was another, stronger wave of warmth as the desk sergeant glanced my way and the Djinn’s shadow flexed from inside the watch to cover all of me rather than just the weapons under my coat.
I’d never been in this station before, but New York’s Finest weren’t all that imaginative and neither were their architects. Just off the lobby I found the wire-caged staircase up and took it two flights, past the community services floor to the realm of the actual police and pushed through a grimy double door whose windows bore a large NYPD shield. The bullpen was almost empty, most of the detectives on duty obviously out on the street, but the doors to the interrogation room corridor were closed.
I sighed, turned up my collar and hunched through the doors. Nobody even looked my way. The first room was closed, and I looked through the one-way mirror in the door before entering.
People assume that humans can’t hurt gods, or demons, or mythforms. They’re wrong. We can. It’s not easy, and it’s not always true - most of the othersiders walking New York aren’t bothered by whatever us smaller folks might do. But not all gods are created equal, and where one person can’t do much directed harm, people can cause all manner of pain.
There were two people in the room behind the mirror. They were sitting on the side of the table near the door, facing the solitary figure in the chair on the other side. He was slumped to one side in the straight-backed wooden seat, and despite the poor angle I could see numerous wire leads snaking out from beneath his open shirt collar, connecting to a cart which sat next to him. I winced involuntarily. He was small, with features that would have been recognizable to anyone in the Cradle of Civilization and in our modern world served only to mark him.
As I watched through the window, he shuddered and the piercing shriek echoed in my skull again. The two cops in the room beyond showed no sign of having heard, although one was shaking his head wearily. I felt my face hardening. Schooling it to relax, I pushed open the door and walked in.
There were four interrogators in the room, not just the two I’d seen. Two were leaning against the wall to either side of the door, doing their best to look threatening. I managed not to sneer at the overkill, but it was difficult. Everybody turned to look at me as I came in; the Djinn’s shadow couldn’t do anything about doors moving.
“Who the hell are you?” That had to be the ranking cop. He was in his mid forties, which probably meant Detective Lieutenant. The other man at the table with him, I realized, wasn’t a cop at all. His suit pegged him as Federal, matching one of the two door lurkers. Ah, the joys of interagency cooperation. I ignored the question and looked at their subject. He was slumping further in the grip of the leads. Yep. Lie detector. Technological disbelief, in its most concentrated form.
“I said who the hell are you?” The cop stood up. The Feds merely looked interested, no doubt happy to have the cop look discomfited on his turf.
“I’m a neighbor. Get that thing off him.”
“What?” The demand was so flat the cop wasn’t even angered, just confused, for the moment.
“Get that thing off him.” I waved at the lie detector.
The Fed sitting at the table cocked his head interestedly. “Excuse me, but did you say who the hell you were?”
“No. I’m a neighbor.”
“A neighbor. How did you get in here?”
I grinned nastily at him. Damn, I was angrier than I had thought. “Bad call. See, asking how I got in here in front of the suspect admits that I shouldn’t be here and that I made it in here anyway.”
The Fed and the cop near the door, in a striking display of cooperation, had glanced at each other and begun drifting in behind me. I stepped forward to the other side of the table, putting it between myself and the four officials, and moved to the side of the figure in the chair. He looked up at me, his eyes almost blank. He was drooling slightly.
“Don’t touch him!” The cop, who hadn’t blocked my movement deeper into the room, reached across the table, but he was too late. I ripped the electrical pads from the slight figure’s chest and ribcage, eliciting a slight moan, and tossed them over the cart. At that , the cop who had been near the door came around the table and made a grab for my arm, there was a flash of golden light, and it all went pear-shaped.
When the dust had cleared, I was still standing. The four official types were slumped against one wall, out cold, and the Egyptian in the chair (for he was Egyptian, I knew) was watching me through hooded eyes, curious but weak. “Who are you?”
“Like I told them. I’m a neighbor. Welcome to New York. Sorry about the reception committee.” I helped him to his feet, wincing as he shuddered in pain at stretching muscles wrung taut by spasms.
“A neighbor. Who do you serve?”
We moved out into the hall. “My bartender. One moment.” I swung open the next door, and sure enough there was an observation room looking through a mirror into the room we’d just left. We hobbled in and I made my companion lean against a wall while I found the operating VCR. I rested my left hand on it and felt the Djinn’s shadow flood out into the machine in a rush of power, then took up his weight again and guided him downstairs. We made our way past the lobby with no more than a brief misdirection on my part (the watch was warm in its bandolier pocket, now) and then out onto the street. I hailed a cab on Hudson and we climbed in. “The Brasserie.”
On the way uptown, I turned to my companion. He was breathing hard, but visibly recovering from his ordeal. “Are you well?”
“I shall be. What was that terrible device?”
“A lie detector. Give them grace, they didn’t intend you harm. It does no hurt to humans.”
“A lie detector.”
“Yes. It is a technology based on disbelief.”
He shuddered again and turned to look out the window as the grey buildings flowed by. We rode in silence until the cliffs of midtown drew to a halt outside the cab. I paid and ushered him out of the car into the restaurant. Although I expected at least a question, he seemed too weary to care; when we slid into two empty seats at the long bar which curved its way through the basement space of the Brasserie, he slumped forward. I waited, not disturbing him; eventually, one of the bartenders noticed us and nodded. I nodded back and waited.
When he arrived, he offered me an elegantly inclined eyebrow. “Bourbon. Hirsch if you have it,” I stated. “And if Msamaki is here, tell him France wants to see him.” I put a twenty down on the bar. “Run the tab.”
The tender nodded again, respectful of the tip. I took my hand off of it, and he performed the bartender magic of making it vanish without bringing his hands near it. “For your friend, sir?”
“He’ll order when we see you again.”
“Very good.” He slid off. I like The Brasserie for two reasons. One, it’s open twenty-four hours a day. Two, and as a consequence, the staff is actually fairly competent if you know how to find the right ones.
My companion’s shoulders shook. It looked as if he was weeping, but I didn’t ask or interfere. Two minutes and fifteen seconds later, my drink appeared, a walking dead bourbon from a time long past; I sipped it appreciatively and let it relax my shoulders.
“I don’t know why I am here.” His voice was unremarkable, even muffled by his forearms. In fact, most of him could have been described as unremarkable, sitting there. I sipped again and looked at the figure which had screamed its agony into New York’s nightmares.
“What is the last thing you recall?”
He lifted his face from his crosed arms and blinked at me. He had, indeed, been weeping. “I was standing on the banks. There was new growth. I remember birds.”
I was distracted by someone approaching behind the bar. I turned, but it was Msamaki, whom I had expected. His face opened as he recognized me. “France. It is good to see you.”
“And you, Maki. I need your help.”
“What can I do for you?” Msamaki looked good, standing before me in the Brasserie’s slightly overdone uniform. I had helped him past some overly aggressive minor Djinn when he arrived, immigrating from the town of Bani Suef. In the ten years since, I had consulted him a handful of times when I needed help with Egyptian lore, as I was fairly sure I did now. I nodded to my companion.
Msamaki looked over the other carefully, frowning slightly, and offered “Ahlan wa sahlan.”
My rescuee looked up briefly and shook his head. Msamaki tried again, his face more interested. “Em hotep nefer?”
The other’s eyes brightened slightly, and he nodded. Msamaki sucked in his breath and looked carefully at the figure, then reached under the bar and pulled out a glass. Without looking, he waved the bar wand over it and placed it in front of the other, who sat up and took it with a short bow of thanks.
As he picked it up, it slopped over the side. I stared at it, because Maki had only filled it halfway. On the way to his lips, it spilled several cups. After he placed it on the bar, water slowly and quietly began to well up over the rim and spread down the surface. I lifted my arms off the countertop. Maki swept the glass off the counter and clasped the other’s hands in both of his, pulled them to his mouth and kissed the man’s clenched fist.
Well, that answered one of my questions.
I let them talk urgently in what definitely wasn’t modern Arabic for several minutes. In fact, I let them talk until I’d finished my Hirsch, at which point my patience ran dry as well. I wiggled my glass at Maki, who noticed only after I poked him in the shoulder.
“I’m sorry, France.” He took my glass and dashed off back to the back wall where the bottles were, returning momentarily with a generous pour of bourbon.
“Maki, what’s going on?”
“Where did you find him?” The excitement was setting off warning bells in my head. I frowned at the bartender.
“Never mind that right now. Who is he?”
“This is Hapy.”
I mulled that over and tried to pull a reference out of the mess that is my head. “Hapy. Hapy. Wait. On the banks...” I turned to look at the nondescript man on the stool next to me. “God of the Nile?”
“Yes!” Msamaki hissed, blazingly excited but trying to keep his voice down. “God of the Nile! Fertility and produce, bringer of life to the valley.”
I looked at the slight figure, who bowed his head. Something was bothering me. Something old.
“Maki, the Nile was linked to fertility because...” I trailed off, looking at the little man and then the remaining puddle on the bar in horror. Msamaki finished for me, oblivious to my expression.
“Because it would overflow regularly and fertilize the valley, yes. Why?”
I sat there at the bar in Midtown Manhattan, snug between two rivers, and looked at him.
It took a few seconds for him to turn his gaze to me and notice, and then he blanched.
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