- The New York Magician -
I was on the way back from Peter Luger's steak house, I remember that much clearly. This meant I was sitting on the J train as it came rattling back across the bridge from Williamsburg, adjusting my waistband that extra emergency notch out. The steak had been really disappointing, but I'd found enough to eat anyhow. I like steak. I like bacon, too, and Luger's will offer you quarter-inch thick bacon slices as an appetizer. I'd let my dinner companions finish the steak and had five or six slices of the bacon, plus fries and a couple of beers, so I was pretty comfortable sitting on the hard plastic seat of the New York Subway. The car was one of the new R160s, still clean and gleaming inside, with small touches of high-tech like the LED route displays.
Sleep was trying hard to pull my eyelids down. I thought about napping for a couple of stops, but decided against it; it was late enough that the J didn't run that frequently, which meant missing my stop would be inconvenient as all heck. As a result, I was resting the back of my head against the window, ignoring the other five or six people in the car, letting the vibration of the train work on my shoulders.
We'd made it past Delancey Street, and then The Bowery and were pulling out of Canal Street. I was thinking of getting up to exit at Fulton street and change trains, but decided I could keep sitting until the train came to a complete stop - for safety, really, not because my legs were tired. I swear.
Somewhere in the darkness outside the Canal street station, the J train slowed to a halt, eliciting a familiar groan from the inhabitants. The conductor's voice, slurred into the international language of PA, mumbled something that sounded a bit like "train-head-stopped-traffic-moving-shortly."
Everyone in the car rearranged their limbs, almost at the same time, settling in for the wait. I congratulated myself on not getting up before time.
The lights went out.
The groan came again, redoubled. This, too, was familiar to New York straphangers, and emergency lights kicked in from either end of the car. In the sharp glare of the LED fixtures, people took on the appearance of Hammer Films extras - features flattened into black and white, sharp edges and shadow.
The fans had stopped when the lights went out, usual when the power was cut to a subway car. In the resulting silence, the sudden WHAM on the side of the subway car was unbelievably loud and sudden enough to cause all of us to jump. I ended up on my feet, reflexes sending my right hand under my Burberry onto the worn leather pouch on my bandolier where my pocketwatch rested, but then I froze. Everybody was looking around.
My heart was racing, exhaustion forced to give way to adrenaline. Sheepishly, I withdrew my hand. There was a moment of silence.
The sound had come from the side of the car opposite me, near one of the center doors. As I considered stepping over to that side of the car, there was a final shrieking of metal and one of the sliding doors buckled inward.
People screamed and scrambled away from the door as a gaunt shape levered itself up through the dark gap and stood awkwardly in the light from the emergency floods. It was dressed in what looked like overly formal wear, fairly somber, and it wasn't until I noticed the stitching holding its mouth shut that I started to really get worried.
Come on. A fucking zombie?
This is New York, though. As I went for my Desert Eagle, hung under my coat, a kid at the other end of the car was quicker. He came up with what looked like a plastic 9mm, gun held sideways in best gangster style, and popped off four or five shots at the form that had just entered. I had time to be impressed - three of the four shots seemed to hit it, and the fourth sparked on the door just to one side of it. The zombie looked slightly irate and jerked around a bit, matter spraying off the side opposite where it had been hit, and then turned its head jerkily and started walking for the kid, who promptly emptied his magazine into its torso to little effect.
Although screaming something unintelligible and profane, the kid started scrabbling in his pocket, obviously looking for reloads. At around this time, I managed to get the Desert Eagle clear, and with my left hand now under the coat and resting on a different pouch, I pulled the trigger twice. The first round dropped a couple of feet past the muzzle, its energy stolen and dumped into the vial underneath my left palm. There was a silver flash around my torso, and the second round spun out of the big pistol with a fluid reflective wake behind it. I could feel the Waters of Life and Death flaring against my chest as the second bullet hit the zombie in the back of the skull. There was a flash of silver light, and then its head exploded. The rest of the body shuddered for a second and then dropped straight to the floor, animation gone, ending up in a discordant heap.
There was a pause. The screaming which had filled the car had stopped, as had motion. The kid with the nine was standing frozen with a magazine just touching the butt of his pistol. The empty was lying on the floor where he'd ejected it. Everybody was looking at either the corpse or me.
I pulled my left hand out and dropped the Desert Eagle's muzzle towards the floor. "Everybody okay?"
There was a chorus of shaky murmurs. The kid finished reloading, his hands shaking, and moved towards me, his pistol still aimed at the still figure on the floor. "What the fuck is that? What the fuck IS that?!?" I noticed that although his voice was wavering, the pistol was remarkably steady. I reached out and gently touched his arm to bring him to a halt as he passed me.
"Nothing you want to disturb."
"Who the fuck are you?" He looked at me, at the corpse, and back at me. I shook my head and slid my gun back under my coat. The action seemed to reassure him, which had been the idea. I nodded at his gun, and he lowered it to point at the floor but didn't put it away. He looked back at me, his face closing. "You a cop?"
"No, I'm not a cop. That was good shooting."
The comment helped. He blew out a breath, then put his own gun into a clip holster that was riding inside his waistband. "Yeah. Thanks. You too." He tugged his shirt up so it rode behind the gun, leaving the butt clear. "You gonna report me?"
I laughed. "Shit, no. Not unless you report me." He grinned, finally. I held out my hand. He shook it. Together, we turned to look at the rest of the car. There were four other people in the car, huddled at the far end, looking at both of us with worry. One of them, a man, was trying to open the intercar door, but it wasn't cooperating. "Folks, everybody calm down."
That didn't work, not that I'd expected it to. "What the fuck is going on?" shouted a woman standing closest to us. "What did you do?"
"We shot it." I shrugged. "It's dead."
"It? What do you mean, 'it'? You shot that guy. You just shot him."
"It's not a guy." I moved to the corpse, looked at it carefully. "Have a look." The kid moved over first, looking slightly sick in the sharp light. Then he frowned, and poked at the suit and the holes where his bullets had gone in.
"There's no blood."
"Nope." I stood up, listening to my knee joints crackle as adrenaline faded and sugar vanished from my bloodstream. "He was dead when you shot him."
"I don't know. But he was dead, and he'd been buried. Look at his midsection."
The kid poked more gingerly at the shirt and jacket. A button popped off, and the shirt fell open slightly. "Oh...oh, Jesus, he's all cut up..." the kid staggered off to one side and was noisily sick out of the torn-off door onto the tracks. The others, however, stopped trying to run and were watching. It turned out the reason the man hadn't been able to get out the door was because there were people trying to get in; two others struggled through as we clustered around the corpse. One was wearing a motorman's hat and the traditional dark sweater vest.
"What the hell happened in here?" He pushed through the small cluster of people and saw the corpse at my feet. "Holy shit, what happened? Did this guy get shot?"
"Yeah." I gestured. "But it's not a guy."
"You keep saying that!" a woman shouted. "What the hell do you mean?"
The kid pulled his head back into the car, wiping his mouth. "It was dead, man. It was dead. Look at the chest. It's all cut up, like on TV, when they do an autopsy. There's no blood."
"Figures." That from the man who'd been trying to open the door.
"What?" I looked over at him.
"It's after midnight, man. It's October 31."
I actually slapped myself on the forehead. "Oh, for fuck's sake. It's Hallowe'en."
"Yeah. Did you just kill some kid in a costume?"
"No." I picked up what was left of the corpse's head, which had been lying next to it. It was perfectly dry and leathery. "Here." I threw it at the guy, who caught it reflexively then pulled his hands back in fear and disgust. The bits of skull and skin dropped to the floor. "It's dry, isn't it."
"Yeah!" He looked at me, then at the skull. "Holy shit. It's dry. What the fuck is that?"
Everybody was looking at me, again. I shook my head, tiredly. "It's a zombie. Or anicorpus, or whatever you want to call it."
"That's not real, man." The kid was looking at the body, and his hand was back on his gun.
"You tell me. You shot it."
"Yeah, and that's another thing. I shot it, and nothing happened. You shot it and its head exploded. What the hell did you shoot it with?"
"Well..." I unshipped the Desert Eagle again, careful to keep it pointed at the floor. A few people flinched anyway. I showed the gun to the kid. "Mine's a little bigger."
There was a pause, again. Then he and I and the guy who had been trying the door all broke out into laughter, the sort of half-hysterical laughter that New Yorkers tend to put out when the shit has truly hit the fan. When we ran down, I holstered the gun again and looked at the motorman. "I think you should get everybody in the train together and we should try to walk to a station. Which was closest?"
"Canal. We should go out the back of the train." He moved towards the back of the car and opened the door, strode through.
Everybody except the kid hurried after him. He looked at the corpse one last time and then looked at me. "I'm Mario."
"We going too?"
"Hell yes. Wait a second." I dragged the corpse over and kicked it out the broken side door. He helped me push it the last few inches, and we both straightened up. As we did so, there was a chorus of screaming from the next car back.
"Shit!" Mario pulled his gun, made to move towards the noise.
"Wait!" I grabbed his arm.
"What the fuck you mean wait?"
"One second." I closed my eyes and touched the vial again. Some of the power was still there, but not much. I pulled the Desert Eagle, aimed it out the broken door, and put my left hand on Mario's gun.
"What the hell are you doing?"
"Magic. Shut up." I pulled the trigger. There was a flat BLAM and a quick flash of sparks in the tunnel. I pulled as much energy as I could back from the round and poured it through the vial into Mario's weapon; felt it seek out the lead and sink into it. I knew the rounds in his magazine would be glowing the faint violet blue of Cherenkov radiation, but it would fade quickly. "Okay. Don't shoot anybody alive."
He was looking at me with fear and amazement. "What the hell...?"
"I told you. Magic. Don't worry about it. If you have to shoot, make sure what you shoot at." With that, I high-ported the Desert Eagle and jogged towards the screaming.
I lost a few seconds tugging back the autoclosing door, and then I burst through into the next car into a scene of pure chaos. There were people staggering around, and the shadows from the emergency lights were confusing everything, but I could see people pushing to get out the other end of the car. In between them and me, three figures were hunched in the middle of the car, crouched over a fourth. They were moving jerkily, hands ripping, heads bobbing.
I moved to the right. I felt Mario move to my left, both of us trying to get a shot without aiming at the group at the other end of the car. Mario shot first, two rounds going into one of the bobbing shapes' head. The head popped in an explosion of dust, and that zombie dropped to the floor. The other two, faces smeared with blood that looked black in the harsh light, turned towards us simultaneously. Mario's next two rounds went into the torso of the one moving towards him, and although it staggered, there wasn't enough power in the bullets to disrupt the animation cast holding the corpse upright, so it kept coming.
I had put two shots into the head of the second zombie. It was staggering around; since I hadn't cast, just shot, it hadn't lost its animation either but was hampered by not having much of a head left. I moved forward and kicked it hard in the chest; it fell backwards over the body on the floor and started drumming its heels and hands spastically. I turned to see the last zombie closing on Mario, who was apparently holding his fire because I was behind the zombie. I had time as I pounded after it to admire his cool - I wasn't sure I'd be making decisions like that - and grabbed the thing around its neck in a clumsy tackle. It fell to one side. Mario danced out of the way and I fell on top of it. As I fell, I shoved my left hand under my coat and touched the vial. There was another, lesser flare, which I pulsed down my right arm into my hand, and brought the butt of the Desert Eagle onto the thing's head. It smashed, and there was a flicker of light - and then nothing. I was lying on a completely dead body, gasping.
There was a series of flat PAM PAM PAM sounds - Mario emptying his magazine into the one thrashing on the floor. There were a few weak flashes of purple light, and then it, too, stopped moving suddenly.
I got up, breathing hard. Mario pulled my elbow as I came up, and I clapped him on the shoulder. "Fuck me."
"Man, what the hell is going on?" He looked at his gun, then holstered it. "I'm out."
"Damn. I only have one more clip with me." I pulled it out and reloaded the Desert Eagle. "No idea what's going on. Looks like somebody's pissed at us."
"Whoever sent these things."
"Sent? They didn't just come after us on their own?"
"Nah. Somebody had to animate 'em." I looked at the body on the ground. It was the woman who'd been shouting at me earlier, and she wouldn't be shouting at anyone again. I swallowed my gorge and moved towards the now-empty back of the car. "Come on. Let's get the fuck out of here."
We caught up with the motorman and the rest of the passengers as they were dropping out the rear door of the train, single file. The conductor was there as well; they were shepherding people carefully towards the wall, away from the third rail, moving them along down the tunnel. Mario jumped down, and I looked back one last time, saw nothing moving, and followed him. The motorman waved to me, and I shook my head. "I'm going last." I waved the gun. He swallowed, but nodded and turned around. Mario followed him, looking back at me, and I moved off in their trail, turning my head to try to keep an eye out everywhere in the gloom.
"Mario, keep a watch."
"You think I'm not?" He laughed, shaky. "I'm gonna scream like a bitch if I see something."
"Yeah, well, scream where it is, too."
We moved down the tunnel. There were intermittent incandescent lights in the tunnel, glowing brown through layers of grime. It looked like the system hadn't lost power, just our train. Looking back, I saw only a hulking shape with the sharp glare of the emergency lights flicking through the door at the rear. Looking ahead, there was light, but not enough for a lit station - Canal must be out too, leaving only its emergency lights working. I didn't know if that meant the third rail was live, but figured better to assume so.
After about five minutes of slow and stumbling progress, I started to feel a cold on my neck. Not a draft, just a cold patch, like a reverse sunbeam. I turned my head, looking, and the cold patch slid across me - a beam of chill. I couldn't see anything in that direction, but something was there, watching. I stopped walking and listened to the footsteps die out ahead of me, just waiting. With my right hand, I found the pouch holding my watch and called up a slip, feeling the prickling slide over my body as the watch bent light and perception around me.
"That foolish veil will not work on me." The voice was breathy, and floating in the darkness what sounded like six or seven meters in front of me, in the middle of the tunnel.
"Who are you?" I was pleased my voice didn't waver.
"Oh, for fuck's sake," I said for the second time that night. I could sense surprise from the entity outside the light. "Do you know how goddamn clichéd that is?"
"I care not. Since you can hear me, you shall be the first to pay."
"Pay for what?"
"For this destruction of the land. For the lack of penance, lack of offering. For the ancestors not given into my care. For the whole of this abomination of a village and the foulness it wallows in."
There was an accent. It sounded almost too Central Casting to believe, but it was Chinese. That made sense, I realized; moving south from Canal Street as we had, we must be roughly under Chinatown.
I turned to fully face the voice, and switched the Desert Eagle into my left hand, the absorbing side. "Do you know who I am?"
The voice laughed, sounding like a grandfather just before the coughing fit. "Why should I care? You live here, and you will die."
"I can hear you. I'd bet I could see you if you stopped lurking in the dark like a pussy. You aren't curious why?"
"No." The voice was hardening, anger in its tones. I could hear a new sound, too; the shuffling of feet, coming down the tunnel towards me from the direction we'd left the train in. "I am not curious. I know what I need to know, and I know you will die here, tonight."
I sighed. "You know, I really wish you hadn't said that."
"Why?" The voice was mocking.
"Because now I have to do this." With my left hand, I aimed carefully (I'm a rightie) and fired a single shot. Calling on reserves of skill I hoped would respond, I focused the pocketwatch into building a pathway behind the bullet. As it zipped out of the gun, a wake of ionized air followed it, fully conductive; the bullet moved some five feet, then struck the third rail of the track on which I was walking.
There was a flare of light so violent that my eyes shut down in protest. As they did so, however, I spread my right hand wide and pointed it in the direction of the voice. Power, six hundred volts DC and God knew how many amps (enough to push a train) slid up the rod of ion track and into my left arm. I could feel it cooking bits of my hand, but my will caught it and shoved it through my shoulders, preventing it from passing through my heart, and the power transformed as it swirled around the vial in my bandolier. The silver flashed into life again, flooded down my right arm, and blew outwards towards the tunnel center in what looked like a firehose of reflective glare.
The Waters of Life and Death hummed in my head, their power seeking down the conduit, and there was a moment of shock as the power came to rest on an entity that resonated outside the world's vibrations. There was a short scream, and then a sizzling noise. I don't know how long I stood there, shaking in the grip of the electrons and resulting necromancy, but it couldn't have been longer than ten seconds or so before the breakers somewhere tripped and the power cut off. I fell to my knees, released.
In the split second before the glare of the short had vanished, I'd seen a small Chinese-looking man with a white beard shaking under the lash of the Waters before he'd vanished, driven into the air as into water, the sight of him disappearing. Behind him, a dozen or so zombies had been shuffling towards me; with his disappearance, they had all shuddered and then dropped where they stood.
The tunnel lights brightened.
I lay on the ground and tried to keep breathing, smelling burnt cloth and meat. The power surge had blown the slip away. My left hand felt entirely wrong. Bits of it were numb, the sort of numb that promised serious hurt later.
A hand touched my shoulder. I tried to scream, but couldn't. Mario put a hand under my arm and levered my up to my feet. "Man, I'm not even going to ask what the hell that was. You gonna die?"
"N...no." I whispered it, hoarse. "Just...just want to."
"Yeah." Mario supported me as we moved towards the light down the tunnel, now the comforting blue of working flourescents where Canal street's power had come back online. "What was that thing?"
"God. Chinese...god. Pissed," I managed to get out.
"You kill it?"
"Can't...kill it. But...he's...gone, for now. Hurting. Pissed."
"Yeah, well, you make nice friends, man." We laughed a bit more, and that hurt, too.
When we reached Canal Street, I watched Mario climb onto the platform, and then shook my head and started to walk down the tunnel. "Where the hell you going, man?"
I stopped, looked at him. "You think I want to talk to the cops?"
He looked around at the group of people sitting on the platform, and at the police starting to come into view and look down the tunnel back behind us towards the train we'd abandoned, and what was left of Tu Di Gong's ancestor army. "Shit, no." He dropped onto the tracks with me, looking around. Nobody was paying us any attention.
"Where you going?"
"I don't wanna talk to 'em either, man. Let's get the hell out of here."
I laughed weakly. "Okay."
We walked into the darkness again. He tapped my arm. "Listen, you gotta do something for me."
"You gotta explain to me what the hell just happened down there."
I fumbled in my pocket, came out with a business card. "Call me next week, kid. I'm beat."
He laughed, but he took it. We staggered northbound, heading for The Bowery.
- The New York Magician - for Necronodecon: The 2008 Halloween Horrorquest! -