- The first New York Magician -
I'd followed the rumors and the half-truths up from the streets of Manhattan, ascending into the hazy levels of the city's atmosphere. The whispers and the wary messages had spoken of some dark and fantastic warriors, refugees from nightmare, haunting the rooftops. Black shapes lurking on the parapets, slinking through the narrow ways between the HVAC units and the microwave towers and the floodlights.
So I'd found myself atop a redecorated office block on Varick Street. Low rise, converted industrial space, populated by incubators and startups and eager young techies with shiny laptops. The actual roof, above the penthouse spaces, was fairly small but I'd been assured by multiple informants that there had been multiple sightings of the mysterious visitors there. Sitting atop a humming air conditioning unit, my outline hidden behind a slip cast by the Djinn's Shadow inside my Patek Philippe, I watched the light leave the sky. Office windows and building floods took its place, the ochre haze of sodium lights rising up from the streets in a cloud.
By eleven o'clock, I was bored enough to explore the roof. I'd gotten up there by faking a visit to a media startup on the seventh floor, then poking around at the top of the building with the slip there to cover my trail. The emergency access door had been alarmed, but I'd simply gone through it with the slip up and found my perch. A security guard had come through it a few minutes later and done a quick but fairly thorough check of the rooftop before vanishing back through it. From his relative lack of curiosity, I suspected that building tenants occasionally tried to sneak out here, probably for a furtive cigarette. The anti-smoking pogrom had swept Manhattan, and life was tough for the unrepentant. I had been hidden from view, though, and the guard had departed to leave me and the rooftop in peace.
I was passing time by trying to identify the various industrial systems scattered across the roof - cooling towers, radio repeaters, a pair of dishes I suspected from their shape were satellite television antennas, and more. Moving past the elevator house, I looked up and considered trying to climb atop it - it was the highest point on the roof other than the iconic New York wooden water tank. The elevator house lacked a decent means of ascent, but the water tank had an inspector's ladder, so I went up that (carefully). I don't have vertigo, but I'm respectful of heights, as they're one of the hazards I haven't yet managed to find a means of insulating myself from. My heavily-invested London Fog would stop bullets or blades as well as turn flame and heat. I could probably survive underwater, in a pinch, by the use of the Waters of Life and Death. It wouldn't be pleasant, but I'd likely survive. Height and falls, though - so far, nothing had come to my attention which would help me there.
I almost missed the one really interesting thing on the roof, musing about gravity hexes and kinetic absorption cantrips. As I reached the bottom of the tank itself, suspended above the roof, I looked over to the elevator house. There was a layer of light stones atop it, to absorb oil, break rain impacts and probably prevent pigeons from clustering there. In one corner, though, there was an oblong shape, one that looked much newer than the elevator house. I would have dismissed it as some sort of monitor or circuit box, except the top surface had the distinctive shiny dark blue-black of solar cells - and I couldn't see any connections between the box and the building. It looked for all the world like someone had slung it up there and then forgot about it.
That kind of thing stands out, in the relatively predictable world of a recent high-tech building renovation. I abandoned my attempt to scale the tank and moved over to the elevator house, looking around for a way up. The nearest microwave tower was only a few feet from a ledge above the height of my head, from which I could probably make the top surface. Looking around the roof as well as I was able from my position, I decided it was empty enough to risk. Climbing the microwave tower was interesting but not too difficult - there were handholds for service technicians, and even the relay horn antennas were sturdy enough to make decent footing without creaking. In a few minutes I found myself standing on the ledge halfway up the elevator house, wondering if I'd taken any cellular damage from the microwave antennas or if the signal strengths were too low (or, indeed, if the Djinn's Shadow slipped the microwaves around me as effectively as it slipped visible light - something to experiment with later).
From that vantage point, the roof was a mere few seconds of panting and cursing away as I pulled myself up and over the parapet, looking only roughly half as ridiculous as I'd been afraid I would. Once up, I moved to the corner and inspected the shape I'd seen. It was a flat rectangle, maybe eighteen inches by thirty-six, and perhaps two inches in height from the surface on which it sat. It didn't protrude above the minimal parapet around the elevator house roof. I touched it; it was a bit warmer than ambient temperature, but not very much. An experimental shove with the same finger revealed that it wasn't mounted to the roof - it slid readily an inch or so, feeling like it massed perhaps seven or eight pounds. Light for its size, but then that was probably driven by the solar panels on the top. They were solar panels, I could see; the whole thing was very cleanly made. I debated myself for a few moments as curiosity and caution duked it out, then shrugged and slid my fingers under it and lifted it up. I had been right about it being light; it came off the roof with no resistance. The other surfaces were simple painted metal, a light one - aluminum, probably. Although there were unobtrusive fasteners along the edges of the bottom surface, there were no other obvious points of access, and the surface was otherwise smooth and undisturbed. No plugs, ports, brackets or keyholes. The only marking was a crude stencil, in light gray outline, on the bottom panel in the shape of a flower.
I considered the box, rotating it in my hands a few times, then put it back down on the gravel. I was curious, but there are six million different strange pieces of electronics in this city. For all I knew, it was a cell phone relay for a guerrilla Thai food delivery service.
But I didn't think so.
Nothing else happened that night. Well, nothing I found interesting. The rumored dark figures didn't put in an appearance, and the box sat where I'd left it. Eventually, as light was touching the eastern sky over the buildings between me and the Hudson River, I slipped down a fire escape at the rear of the building and made my way home.
A week or so later, I found myself on a rooftop again, this time atop a fairly tall skyscraper in midtown. I'd gotten there - well, never mind how. I burst out onto the roof proper with my Desert Eagle out, stopping to check around corners in case the hazy shape I'd been pursuing was waiting for me. I didn't think it was - generally, sylphs run for the roof so that they can disperse into the open air of the City - but better safe. As I came around an electrical junction box to cover the last part of the roof I hadn't seen, the corner opposite the access door, I scanned the area but saw nothing. I stood for a moment, considering, then holstered the Desert Eagle under my coat and started to turn back towards the door, already wondering how I was going to get back through it without having to damage it. My eye was drawn to a regular shape resting on the roof, leaning against a parapet, and I froze before turning back.
It was a familiar-looking dark box, with solar panels on the side facing out. It was at an angle which exposed the panels to the arc of sky visible above the skyscraper, between its taller neighbors. I moved over to it and knelt, tilting the top away from the parapet to look on the back side. The same flower outline was visible.
Well. That's interesting.
Rocking back onto my haunches, I considered my options. I had searched the internet for mention of anything like the boxes, or the logo that adorned their sides, but found nothing. I'd asked the opinion of a veteran I knew who had done his time in the Middle East; after describing it to him (he had winced when I described picking it up) he had opined that it probably wasn't dangerous, as I'd managed to do every possible thing that would be likely to set off an IED. I'd approached it close enough to register on a field sensor, poked it hard enough to set off a trip switch, picked it up and disturbed any possible gyro inside, leaned over it to shadow any ambient light sensors, and so forth. He'd shrugged and said it sounded like a piece of self-powered electronics, but probably not an industrial one if it only weighed a few pounds and wasn't locked down.
The sylph was gone. But maybe the trip hadn't been wasted. I picked up the box, tucked it under my arm and headed back for the roof access.
Back at my apartment I put the box on the table and considered it. The bottom edge had eight machine screws around the edge. I had already examined it with every tool at my disposal. The Waters of Life and Death told me there was nothing alive in it. The Djinn's Shadow had confirmed that there was very very low-level electrical activity of some kind in it, but that could be explained just by the changing light levels falling on the solar panels as I moved it. Shrugging, I rummaged in my desk drawer for a multidriver. It took a while to match the screw heads; I had to dig into my collection of security bits that I'd been carefully accruing and hoarding, but eventually, a dual-pin bit matched. I carefully removed the screws and set them aside. The bottom panel lifted off, revealing pretty much what I'd expected - a circuit board set against the backside of the solar panels, wired into a few points on the box's outer surface. I was just knowledgeable enough to identify what looked like a small battery pack and what looked like a CPU - but I was guessing. After taking a few pictures of the inside with my cell phone, I closed the panel back up and put it under my desk.
* * *
The next week was a busy one. I chased the mystery figures in black three times. The third time, I ended up on a rooftop in Hell's Kitchen - and I found them. Or rather, they found me. I had the slip up, and went through the roof door, and I was suddenly covered in something heavy and unwieldy. I struggled for a moment before falling over, bruising my shoulder. I heard voices - and since they were human voices, I immediately dropped the slip. Whatever was wrapped around me was composed of heavy strips of some kind, thick enough that it would have been hard to see what it was enclosing. Almost immediately, I was rolled over as the net was yanked sideways, and fell free to the roof surface. I looked up to see four figures in black surrounding me. Before I could decide how to handle this, one of them said "Shit," in a disgusted voice and helped me up. I stood, looking at each of them in turn. As I did so, they reached up and lifted dark visors, revealing sweaty and all-too-human faces. "Who the hell are you?" asked the one who had helped me stand.
I thought about it but couldn't see any reason to lie. "My name's Wibert. Michel Wibert."
"What the hell are you doing up here?"
Fortunately, I'm not as dumb as I look, and I'd come prepared. I said "I just ... I was looking for a place to have a smoke."
One of the other men shook his head and they all seemed to relax a bit. "Smoke? On the roof?"
I shrugged at him, trying to look cowed. "Have you tried smoking on the street? Who the hell are you guys?"
The speaker reached behind himself and pulled something out and shoved it at me. It was an NYPD badge. "ESU. Training exercise."
"Emergency Services Unit. Special Cop Forces. We used to be S.W.A.T." They all laughed at the in-joke. "Have you got ID?"
"Yes. Can I reach for it?" A lot of experience with cops, NYPD in particular, has taught me to ask first.
"Sure." They all tensed slightly anyway, but relaxed again as I went for my front pants pocket and came out with my wallet. I handed it to the speaker. He flipped it open and flicked on a tiny LED flashlight to examine it, then flashed the light in my face, flicking it back and forth professionally. He now knew I looked like the picture on the license, and my night vision was ruined, meaning if anything happened in the next minute or so I'd be at a serious disadvantage. "Thanks, Mr. Wibert. I'm going to have to ask you to leave the roof. We're still on an exercise."
"Have you guys been doing these a while?" I asked.
"Why do you ask?"
"Oh ... a bunch of my friends who work late say they've been seeing guys in black on rooftops at night, the past couple of weeks."
They looked at each other. "Yeah, that was probably us. We've been practicing access drills - get onto the roof of a building, set up an OP. If your friends been seeing us, means we still got some work to do, right guys?" Spokesman looked at his companions, who shuffled around slightly. "Have a good night, sir."
I took the hint and slipped back through the door, glad I hadn't had to explain the Desert Eagle.
On the way home I called a friend on the NYPD and gave him the badge number I'd memorized from Spokesman's badge. He called me back a few minutes later and confirmed that the badge in question belonged to an ESU sergeant, and that ‘access drills' were something that ESU did, indeed, do. I thanked him and texted a few acquaintances who had originally tipped me off to the rooftop visitations, letting them know that it wasn't anything eldritch or sub rosa, just the cops playing commando. I guessed the Elder community would probably avoid the rooftops for a while, until they were relatively sure the ESU was done with the training rotation.
My building was half a block from the Hudson River in the West Village. I stepped off the elevator, fished for my keys and slid the deadbolt key into the lock. As soon as I did, though, a slight vibration passed through my fingers, almost like the sensation of touching a nine-volt battery to your tongue. I let go of the keys, stepped back across the hall and drew the Desert Eagle without thinking, ending up frozen with the gun aimed at my door.
After ten seconds where nothing happened, I poked the door with my left forefinger. It was latched. Carefully, with my left hand (I'm right-handed) I unlocked the deadbolt and pushed the door open before stepping in, leading with the gun. The ward that had told me someone had been inside the apartment tugged at my nerves once more before evaporating, but nothing else happened. Pulling my keys and closing the door behind me, I stepped slowly into the apartment proper. As soon as I moved into the entryway I saw something out of place - there was a person lying on my office floor. I immediately moved out of line of sight and checked the rest of the apartment as thoroughly as I could without moving anything, but it looked like they were alone. I moved back into the office.
It was a man, slight of build. He was wearing dark blue jeans that looked relatively new and a black T-shirt with a light jacket over that. His shoes were high-top hiking boots with Vibram soles. He was lying curled on his right side, and he was out cold. Which was good, because it meant my security cast had done its job. The ward which had warned me had shorted out his nervous system. That stun lasted no more than twelve hours, but I hadn't been out that long in any case. I rolled him over onto his back. Short black hair, a sparse mustache, and deeply tanned skin, along with his facial structure made me think he was Middle Eastern, but this is New York City, so who the hell knows? I searched him. He had a roll of what looked like lockpicks in his back pocket, a wallet with two hundred bucks cash but no ID or plastic, and a ring of keys which had a number of what were most likely skeleton keys or tools in addition to the three or four normal-looking Medeco and Schlage keys and the odd-looking USB storage key on it. I left all this on the desk, shrugged off my coat and lifted him into the next room and put him on the sofa. Once he was seated, slumping to one side, I took the chair across from him, drew the Desert Eagle and put my left hand to the bandolier on my chest. I willed some of my own energy into the Waters of Life and Death, and there was a barely noticeable ripple in the air. My uninvited guest shuddered and stared to fall sideways, then caught himself and sat up straight, blinking. I sat with the big pistol resting on one knee, aimed generally at him, and waited for his eyes to focus on me. When they did, I raised one eyebrow invitingly.
That's a really useful skill, by the way. I can't recommend it highly enough. Communication without having to give people your voice? Useful. Trust me. Besides, I had to work long and hard to be able to do it, and I always want to be sure people know it paid off. But anyway.
"What the fuck?" he said, patting himself down. "Where am I?"
"I'd hope you know where you are," I said. "I found you in my house."
He looked around, then looked through the doorway into the office and relaxed. "Oh."
"For what?" His accent, although slight, wasn't familiar to me. Awake and talking, he looked like a cross between your prototypical Muslim terrorist and a trace of Nepalese Sherpa.
"An explanation would be good. You looking to rob me?"
"Rob you? Motherfucker, you robbed me. I'm just here to get my own shit back."
That set me back. "I don't even know who the hell you are. I've never seen you before. How did I rob you?"
"You got one of my fields in here."
"What the hell is a field?" I waggled the gun slightly. "Look, I have the damn gun, and I'm still the one confused."
"It's a box, asshole." He raised his hands, made a square. "About so big. It's mine. You took it, I'm guessing, because I know it's in here somewhere and you just told me this was your house."
I didn't bother to point out the number of assumptions he'd just made. I was busy recognizing his description. "Oh. That's yours? I see."
"Yeah, it's mine. Where is it?"
"You know," I said, "I caught you breaking into my apartment. I could have you arrested. How'd you get in here, by the way?"
He tossed his head towards the office. "Your office window has a shit lock." I noted that the Desert Eagle didn't seem to bother him much. Although he was keeping relatively still on the sofa, his dismissal of its presence otherwise told me that he had, at least, been around guns enough to be quite familiar with them. Or he was one of the best actors I'd seen. "But I gotta give you props, I never saw the system that hit me." I refrained from explaining that it hadn't been a system at all.
"Okay. I think I can see a way out of our problem."
"What problem?" he asked, slightly belligerently.
"Well," I said, raising my eyebrow again (it didn't seem to be working, damn it) "I picked up something that was somewhere I'm guessing it shouldn't have been, because I was checking over the rooftop as part of my job." That was shaving the truth, but so long as you didn't look too closely at ‘my job' it wasn't too far off. "You, on the other hand, broke into my apartment, were caught, and admitted it. I'd say the problem is mostly yours." He looked a bit sullen, but didn't argue.
"So what's your suggestion?"
"You explain to me what that thing is. If I'm convinced it's no threat to me, or anyone I work for or know, I'll give it back and you can take it out of here."
He looked at me for a few moments. "Your word on that?"
"I'll give it to you, but I'm also holding a gun on you. What my word is worth is up to you."
He looked around the living room. Apparently not finding anything that looked too sinister or otherwise indicated I tortured people in my back closet, he deflated slightly and sat back. "It's one of my fields."
"You said that. It doesn't mean anything to me."
"My handle's Donald. As in Mack."
I raised my eyebrows. Both of them, this time involuntarily. That was a name I'd heard, although I'd never expected to meet its owner. I'd been talking to a friend of mine about finding someone to contract out some high-tech work, and he'd mentioned the name as being known ‘around the block' but hadn't had a way to contact its owner. "Okay. Hang on." I pulled out my phone and hit a speed dial. Fortunately, after a couple of rings, Mario Viloro's voice came on.
"Mario? It's Wibert."
"I know that, man. You never remember to block your damn number. What's up?"
"I got a guy here who broke into my place."
Mario laughed. "Poor bastard. He still breathing?"
"Yeah, he's fine. He tells me he's Old Mack Donald."
There was a brief silence. "No shit?"
"No shit. You got a description on that guy?"
"Yeah. Dark tan, maybe Hispanic, maybe something else, but not white. Five three to five five. Maybe a hundred forty-five pounds in the shower. Short black hair, straight but messed up. That's all I got."
"That matches. Nothing else? That's sort of vague."
"Well, not him, no, but I got one of his calling cards. They got a number on it, an internet address, and a flower."
That got my attention. "Flower?"
"Yeah. Outline, like a stencil. Poppy."
"How do you know it's a poppy?"
"Think where I been, motherfucker." Mario had spent two tours of duty with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, by far the world's foremost poppy-growing region. Narcotics and IEDs, he used to say, they both got good crops there.
"Right. Sorry. Thanks, man."
"Tell me about it sometime." He hung up. I put the phone away and looked at my guest.
"Okay. You got a card on you somewhere I missed?"
"What, I'm gonna carry ID on a B&E?"
"Not ID. Calling card."
He looked at me for a few seconds, sighed, then slid his left shoe off and pulled out a flat plastic case. Opening it, he handed me a tan business card. In the middle of the card was the same stenciled poppy, just above a number I was just knowledgeable enough to identify as most likely an IP address. I looked at it, then looked at him and nodded, putting the Desert Eagle back into its rig under my arm. "Okay, that'll do. I'll accept the thing is yours. Now tell me what it is."
‘Donald' sat back in the couch and rubbed his face. "It's a farm, man. That's what I do. I do big data analysis, but I can do it without nobody knowing or messing with my work. It's slower, but safer. I don't use Amazon or Rackspace or Cloudera or anything like that. I don't jack time on other people's networks. I have my own network." He shrugged. "Those boxes. They're my server farm. I got a bunch of them all over the city. But I have to be next to them to drop off new work units and pick up completed ones. That way nobody can get control of ‘em remotely."
"Shit, man, I could, if somebody else was doing this and had phone-home on the boxen. So I gotta figure they can too."
"Okay. So you have these things around the city, and you leave them where they can work in the sunlight?"
"Yeah, they're not as fast as wall powered servers, but they're pretty good and they can store up enough juice to keep working overnight if it's a sunny day. I like rooftops because they're almost never bothered, and because they get good sun. I mean, these aren't my only farm, but those are the ones I use for private stuff."
"How'd you find me?"
"Oh. You picked up the field. It's got a separate security module in it, a Raspberry Pi physically not connected to the main board. When you moved it, it fired up a 4G and WiFi system. Once it stopped moving for more than an hour, it started trying to phone home and tell me where it was. You got wifi in here, right?"
"Yeah." I nodded.
"Yeah, it cracked your WPA2 and sent me an email. Told me where it was. I verified it with the cable company, got the billing address on your cable modem IP, and came by tonight to see if I could get my property back."
I looked at him for a second. He was young, maybe in his very early twenties. I remembered being that cocksure, and I couldn't help it. I laughed. "Okay. I'll buy it. What the hell do you do with a farm like that?"
"Whatever I get hired to do. I can do Hadoop runs on rainbow tables, I can run distributed cracker algorithms, the works. When I don't have a gig, they sit there and mine Bitcoins. I make something like a hundred fifty K a year at current rates, but the Bitcoin thing is gonna crash, so I pretty much sell ‘em on as fast as possible."
I had no idea what he was talking about, but it sounded plausible to me, and it didn't sound like he'd come for any reason other than the one he'd given me. I said "Wait a second." Standing, I went into the office and reached under the desk. I came out with the box and went back into the other room. His face brightened as he saw it. I handed it across. "Here. I opened it, but I didn't touch anything."
He took it from me, flipped it over and back. "Can I have my stuff back?"
I went back and scooped up his belongings, took them back in and laid them on the coffee table between us. He reached for the keyring and grabbed the USB drive. "Thanks." Stripping it off the ring, he placed it against the solar panel, centering it in one of the cells. There was a moment's wait, then the USB drive beeped loudly twice. Yellow and green LEDs lit up on it. He nodded and stuffed it into his pocket. "Okay. Can I go?"
I nodded. "Yeah. But wait a second." I pulled out a business card. "Take this."
"Because I need tech, sometimes. And I need someone who knows it."
"Who the fuck are you, anyway?"
"My name's Michel. Ask around. You might hear it. You might not. Either way-" I took a pair of hundreds out of my wallet and held them out. "For the inconvenience. And the right to call you for consults."
He took the money, then tilted his head to look at me. "You're a weird bastard." He stuffed his things back into his pockets and tucked the field box under one arm. "Okay. You know how to reach me?"
"When you go to the address on the card I gave you, remember this: EIEIO."
"Have a good weekend, weird man." He headed for the door.
"Hey, one second."
He turned. "What?"
"What ethnicity are you?"
"Why the fuck you care?"
"Trying to see if my guess was close."
"I am-" he drew himself up slightly "Pashtun."
I thought. "Afghan?"
He bristled slightly. "Pashtun. Afghanistan is where we live, but Pashtun is what we are. This country hid from the Soviets behind nukes. We fought them with rifles. Remember that."
I kept a straight face. "I will. Thanks."
He flipped a lazy salute and left my apartment.
Old Mack Donald. This fucking city. No limit to what you'll run across.
- The first New York Magician -