<--Younger | The first New York Magician | Older-->
I got off the number 7 train at 111th st and Roosevelt avenue. Descending from the elevated station, I looked around to get my bearings. A few blocks down, Roosevelt Avenue followed the El across the Grand Central Parkway and into Flushing Meadows where the scenery opened up. I bought a cup of coffee from a handy coffee shop and walked east-northeast along Roosevelt.
Crossing the Grand Central Parkway, sandwiched on the bridge between the rushing traffic below and a rumbling train above on the El, I reached out around me with what senses I had, but felt nothing except the bones of the moving city. The Elevated tracks branched off to the right, spur line heading for the Flushing yards; a short walk later I turned off onto Shea Road, crossing under the spur and heading for the Olmstead center.
Since I almost never leave Manhattan, the trip was naturally a fairly complete bust. The front desk at the Olmstead center helpfully informed me that Erika Shearson was out of the office working (probably in Central Park) but that no, they didn't know how to reach her and I certainly wasn't going to be allowed to wait in her office.
I gave in to the inevitable and wished it wasn't so late in the year. I might've had a chance of catching a game across the road at Citi Field. I took the subway back into Manhattan and decided I was going to have to do things the hard way.
* * *
The next morning at 8 or so I was waiting outside Ms. Shearson's apartment when she left. I fell in some twenty yards behind her and walked with her up to Eighth avenue and downtown the one block to the subway entrance at 16th. She entered the system in a clutch of commuters. I was forced to push a bit to stay within sight, and I came out onto the mezzanine level of the station maybe ten yards behind her as she headed for the uptown stairs. I hurried after her.
I wasn't sure where they came from, but before I reached the stairs, there were four figures standing shoulder to shoulder in my way. They were dressed in normal New York commuter wear, which is to say a wild variety of clothing. One was in a trenchcoat much like mine. The one to its left was in sweats of a lurid green color, and the one down the line from that was wearing what looked like a business suit whose measurements were just noticeably off.
I say 'it' because as I approached, I realized they sure as hell weren't human.
I still wasn't wearing the Desert Eagle, and in any case, pulling it in the middle of a crowded subway station wasn't really something that struck me as a good idea. I put my right hand inside my coat and brought up a slip, hoping to ease past them.
They started towards me. All four of them. That wasn't a good sign.
I poured more power into the slip, enough that the surroundings took on a slight dim indistinctness. The four figures, however, started to glow slightly. I squinted at them and finally looked carefully.
They weren't human, and they weren't anything else I'd seen. Their faces and hands, the only parts of them exposed, were of a uniform whitish gray that rung a bell but that I didn't immediately recognize. Their faces had features, but those looked indistinct and rudimentary, composed of slightly lighter gray and simple curves and shapes. It almost looked like they'd been constructed of plasticine and then stuck onto their heads.
Just as I was wondering what my best move was, the first of them reached me and grabbed for my left arm. I dodged to the right, but the next one in line moved up and caught my right arm behind the wrist, where it emerged from my coat, my hand still on the bandolier. I pulled, but to little avail, and it dragged my hand out of my coat before twisting, hard.
I lost my footing and went sliding across the floor towards one of the walls. Fast. I had just enough time to twist slightly so that I hit with my shoulder blades rather than the back of my head, but it was still bad enough that I lay there blinking for a moment. While I was doing that, two of my assailants turned and jogged down towards the platforms, following Erika Shearson; the remaining two - business suit and green sweats - approached. I struggled to my feet, watching the commuters pass all three of us by unseeing, the slip that I had pulled up over myself hiding me from prying eyes. I wasn't sure how my opponents were managing not to be noticed.
I reached my feet just as they came within range. Back to the wall, I let my arms open slightly and braced myself. "Come on, fellas. Can't we talk about this?" They ignored me and bored in. I'd expected that. I pushed my left hand under my coat with the precision of practice and snapped a half kilojoule of capacitance energy into my body. My right hand shot out and grabbed the arm of the nearer opponent beneath his sweatshirt cuff.
My hand sank into his flesh in a disturbing manner, my palm and fingers slipping a few millimeters into the grey lack of substance. As soon as I touched him, I felt a tingling hiss in my hand, mirrored in my head, but before anything else could happen I pushed the energy I'd just liberated through the pocketwatch and shoved it into the not-quite-wrist I was holding.
There was a howl, one with overtones of broken electronics, and the figure I was holding thrashed suddenly in a good imitation of someone who had just been Tasered. I kicked it between the legs for good measure, and although I met the same not-flesh consistency with nothing that felt like bone behind it, I managed to throw it off balance. It went down.
I pinched another capacitor and as the second one started to step over the first, I opened my right hand and let the energy push out in the form of pure light, aiming at its face.
Nothing much happened. There was an elongated brilliant flash, enough to burn back the shadows surrounding its head. I saw its features sink, flattened by the burst of light, revealed as the tricks of depth they were. There really was only one option left to me, and I began to lift my right hand towards the ceiling, waiting for the worn smooth wood of the pocket pistol to touch my palm, but then its right arm came up and across my chin.
There was stars. Then there was blackness.
The blackness hurt.
* * *
When I woke up, I was slumped against the wall of the station mezzanine. None of my assailants were anywhere in sight. I blinked twice, amazed at the pain in my skull, then coughed and spat something sharply iron-tasting at the wall. Brown sputum and bright blood, probably running down my throat from my nose, which had dried to a blackened mass over the front of my face and shirt.
"Nice catch there, Wibert," Cheeky called to me from his staircase across the mezzanine. The light was still slightly dim and flickery, and the fact that no-one had stopped or even called a cop, even in New York, meant I was probably still slipped. That was interesting. I didn't recall having held a slip while unconscious before, but usually the slips I used weren't as heavy as the one I'd pulled up trying to hide from whatever the hell they were.
"Thanks, Cheeky," I rasped, and pulled myself upright enough to cross the mezzanine - again, attracting no attention - and wobble into a seated position next to the poltergeist's bannister. "How's things?"
"Always good any day I get to see you take a few in the chops, Frenchie," said the little creature.
"Glad to oblige," I muttered, feeling my jaw. It was sore, but not broken - apparently, the boneless (if dense) nature of my assailant had meant I'd taken a wallop but not one sharp enough to break bones. Grateful for small favors, I started checking my teeth to see if any were loose. "What the hell was that?"
"That, Wibert, is why I asked you to leave me the hell out of this whole carnival," said Cheeky from atop the bannister. "Get the picture now?"
"Yeah," I said. "I don't like it, though. Where'd those guys come from? Who the hell are they? What are they?"
"Don't know," said the poltergeist. "When they're around I try to stay real quiet."
"Makes sense," I said. I struggled for a bit, then stood, sliding my back up the metal poles of the railing. "Tell me one thing, though."
"Does Shearson know those things are following her? I tailed her from her apartment, and they didn't show up until she got underground."
"I don't know," said the little figure. "I don't think she does, but I also don't think the woman is fully herself, if you know what I mean."
"She doesn't look like she's working on all cylinders, man. By the time she passes me, she's already got a glaze on her eyeballs would do a jelly donut proud."
"That's...interesting," I said, still rubbing life back into my jaw. At least I hadn't bitten my tongue. "Thanks, Cheeky."
"Just 'thanks?'" spluttered the poltergeist.
"Yeah. Sorry." I reached under my coat and knocked another fifty days off the little figure's imprisonment. "Gotta go."
"Cheapskate!" shouted the poltergeist as I staggered back up out of the subway.
* * *
One thing I could be sure of - if the heavies didn't even get to Shearson until she got to the subway, her apartment was probably clear, especially during the day. I stopped in a small Puerto Rican coffee shop on Eighth where I was known, and moved through to the small bathroom in back with little more than a couple of raised eyebrows for the blood on my face. After fifteen minutes, I was fairly damp but had managed to get most of the blood out of my shirt (one side benefit of the London Fog was that blood wouldn't stick to it at all) and was mostly back together. The cold water had helped, and the king-size cafe con leche I had after exiting the john helped further.
Back on Seventeenth street, I picked my way into 332's foyer and looked at the mailboxes. Third floor, and yep, walkup. I walked up. Shearson's door was large, double-size like all the others I'd seen, and had what looked like two Medeco locks and a regular latch. It took me fifteen minutes to get through them, first firing off a third capacitor in case she had an alarm system.
Fortunately for me, nobody walked by while I was struggling with the door locks. I know in the movies it looks like lockpicks are just as good as keys, and who knows, maybe if you're good enough they are. Not to me, though. I know how to use them, and I practice when I can, but it's still a close-my-eyes and -stick-my-tongue-between-my-teeth sort of zen fumble.
Erika Shearson appeared to live alone, and she did have an alarm. It was flickering unhappily as I moved into the apartment past it and closed the door, but it didn't seem to have sent out any sort of alert. I stood in the middle of the large loft space, put my right hand on the pocketwatch and spread my left hand out, spinning slowly in place.
At only one place in the apartment did I feel anything that felt like the four things I'd gone up against. It wasn't a hissing sort of tingle like them, but there was a slight vibration against my hand - a sort of constant tingle of energy that felt familiar. I opened my eyes.
My left hand was pointing directly at the phone.
It wasn't a regular phone, either - incongruously for the otherwise stylish and modern apartment, the phone was one of the old heavy Bakelite and steel Ma Bell monstrosities. I picked it up, and the vibrations of the energy I was feeling harmonized perfectly with the soothing hum of a dial tone.
I put the phone back on the cradle and looked at it. Then I ran my hands around it. The hiss was back, and I recognized it now that I had context.
There was an area of perhaps a meter around the phone in all directions where the static was detectable. It didn't seem to change strength, much. But it was there. I frowned, went into the bedroom and found another phone, and checked it.
Nothing. The dial tone was there, reassuring, but no shell of static around this phone tickled my senses. This was a newer phone, with an LCD display and a cordless handset - I would have expected more static from the radio link, but such wasn't the case.
This wasn't radio, then.
I carefully put things back and left the apartment, closing the door thoughtfully behind me.
* * *
"Mario?" I asked my cell phone, back outside.
"Yeah. Wibert? Is that you?"
"Yeah. You got some time?"
A pause. "Sure. Right now?"
"Anytime before tonight."
"Be there around five." The phone clicked and Mario Vilorio hung up. Mario was a good kid - he'd done two years in the Army before returning to his native Bronx. I was pretty sure he was a gangbanger of some flavor or other, but we didn't talk about that. A couple of years prior, he and I had met in a nasty situation in the subway. He'd come through it remarkably well for someone who didn't believe in any of the things he was dealing with. He'd helped me make it out of there alive, and in return, I'd given him an introduction to the kinds of things that could be found lurking in New York City.
He helped me out occasionally. I'd warned him twice when his name had come up in conversations around the Bronx with abnormal frequency. The first time he'd left town for a bit, and the second I wasn't sure about - but people still used his name in conversation, just in more hushed tones.
The figures following Shearson hadn't bothered with anybody else, even any of the hundreds of New York commuters who had brushed close to her as she traveled. They'd come after me, specifically. That meant they knew who I was, or rather, that someone or something knew enough about me to know he didn't want me near Erika Shearson. Which meant I was really burning to have a good chat with her by this point.
But maybe, even if they knew me, they wouldn't know Mario.
I'd set him on her tail for a few days and see what came of it.
<--Younger | The first New York Magician | Older-->