<--Younger | The First New York Magician | Older-->
I left Hapy with Msamaki, the latter excitedly asking questions and drawing in ever-replenishing spillage on the polished surface of the bar in his curiosity. I don’t think the man saw me leave. The other - I have no idea.
New York was waking fully up. It was Saturday, meaning it took me only twice as long as it should have to get back downtown to my apartment. I took off my hastily-donned clothes and redressed in my day-to-day outfit - a soft gray turtleneck underneath the bandolier, a set of gray slacks, crepe-soled dress shoes. The Burberry went back on atop it all, and various weapons about my person. Then I headed downtown.
I do have a day job, contrary to what it probably looks like. My day job involves managing my own and other peoples’ money, which I do using a variety of dirty tricks. The primary one is to have good employees. The second and infrequently utilized set involves talisman magic, but even so, it’s better to have subordinates who know what they’re doing. Wibert and Sharansky is a small money management firm, with offices in the World Financial Center - nine people, including staff. I carded myself in.
One of the reasons I’m free to wander around the City on mysterious errands of my own is my desk. Kharan Sharansky, my partner and the actual brains behind most of the money moving that happens at our firm, had come in the day I’d had it delivered, then shaken his head twice with finality. “Michel, you must be joking.”
“Why?” I was busily opening and closing the myriad small drawers and compartments in the thing. I’d spent a month and a half finding it, two months fighting importers to get hold of it, and two interminable weeks locked in combat with the World Financial Center administrative staff over a freight elevator slot to get it moved in. The thing was massive.
“Where the hell did you get that thing?”
I looked up, holding a small drawer which I’d pulled out entirely. There was a secret compartment behind the end cap of the drawer and a completely separate one underneath the bottom plate, and this was only one of - I counted - sixteen drawers in the desk. “I got it in Saint Petersburg. It was in the back room of a bookstore on Nekrasova, around the corner from 4 Liteiny Prospekt.”
Sharansky had glared at me. “Don’t fuck with me, Wibert. I know what that address is.”
“That’s why I told you. The bookstore owner claimed his grandfather had been building staff at number 4. This was supposedly the Chief of Station NKVD’s desk.”
Kharan crossed his arms. “That wasn’t my point. My point is that it’s huge and I can’t see you behind it.”
“So clients won’t be able to either. They’re not going to be comfortable.”
I laughed. “This wasn’t a desk intended to make people comfortable, Kharan. Quite the reverse.”
I held up a hand. “No, you’re right. I understand. But, seriously, so what? Clients don’t need to see me unless they want to do so, specifically. In that case, I have that side table over there by the window.” I pointed. “With a coffee service. That’s what it’s for. This desk is for me.”
Kharan had thrown up his hands and gone away. After that, I had been pleased to note that seeing clients in person wasn’t really part of my job description anymore. Since sixty-eight percent of the assets under management were mine, that made little difference in terms of my actual position in the firm, and meant that nobody expected me to be in the office to Deal With Things.
I like my desk.
Sitting there, I looked out North towards the hazy shape of the George Washington Bridge, lost in the distance some ten miles upstream. There was a McAllister tugboat on the river, shepherding a concrete barge up the middle channel, and three or four private sail yachts visible, their sails angling to catch sunlight up the Manhattan side near the marinas.
The river looked back at me, placidly. I scowled at it.
Reaching into my bandolier, I pulled out the spearhead and spun it on the desktop in front of me. Then I pulled a sterile lancet out of another bandolier pocket, unwrapped it and pricked my finger to squeeze the resulting drop of blood onto the spearhead. It stopped spinning instantly, a crackling sensation reaching up off the desk and up my arm, electric cold and acoustic fire crawling into my torso. I opened my hand, palm spread downwards, over the spearhead.
“Who sent Hapy here?”
The bit of stone spun indecisively, then coasted to a stop. I poked it, and it spun with no resistance. Damn it.
“All right.” I thought. “Who called Hapy here?”
The stone spun up of its own accord, but wobbled around a few times. Closer, but not quite.
“What called Hapy here? Where is it?”
This time the spearhead swiveled to stop, rock-solid, pointing just west of north. Uptown.
I dropped it back into the bandolier with a tight smile, opened one of the desk drawers and pulled out a mapping GPS receiver, dropped it in my pocket and swung back out of the office.
Although it doesn’t look like it when you walk it, Manhattan isn’t flat. There are ridges and hills, not all of which have been smashed flat by urban development into names on a map. Murray Hill, Turtle Bay - even in the older parts of the City, if you look up the cross blocks carefully you’ll notice you see sky or earth, not horizon, and a lot closer than you might think. Central Park retains some few preserved ripples.
The west side rail yards and the west side rail tunnel is a hidden piece of that topography. It’s nearly always a surprise for non-natives to approach the upper west side’s Hudson River shoreline and suddenly realize that they are more than a hundred feet above sea level, but it’s true; by Ninety-Sixth and Riverside, the Parkway is thirty feet up and it isn’t even atop the rail tunnel. Riverside Park is, and it’s squatting quietly on top of a massive space that has housed entire sub-cities of inhabitants, sharing their volume intermittently with the blasting thunder of Diesel locomotives when the line was running.
Today there was no sound of anyone present. I broke through stagnant construction barriers in the rail yards above Fifty-Seventh, passing beneath the eye of the enormous Trump development that loomed just east of the flat space, and followed the spearhead underground to the north.
It wasn’t dark in here, there being numerous gratings facing the river, but it wasn’t bright. I walked uptown at a regular pace, noting the unchanging direction of the Spearhead’s pointer. Some thirty blocks later, the empty gravel expanse of the tunnels was interrupted by a mass of plywood and debris on the eastern side, formed into what looked like a maze of cubicles. The outer ones had windows cut into them, looking out onto the tracks - a squatter’s paradise. There were no people visible, though, and no sounds other than the ever-present noises of the city’s belly. I stopped for a moment and listened; nothing. Pulling out the Desert Eagle, I held it and my focused palm ready and felt for the pointer. It was angling right, pulling me into the maze.
I took a moment and pulled energy out of the pocket watch, enfolding myself in muffling waves. I couldn’t make myself invisible, and there wasn’t enough traffic here to truly take eyes away from me, but I could certainly blend into the surroundings well enough in my tan and gray outfit. The pistol, matte gray finish already swallowing light, had its own permanent link to the watch, making it incredibly difficult to see unless one knew it was there. I held it out in front of me, invisibility waved before me as a shield, and stepped into the maze.
Ten minutes later I was lost. The tunnels were some hundred yards behind me, and I was moving inside an ancient and formidably large storm drain somewhere underneath what must have been West End Avenue by that point. There were still intermittent structures breaking up the lines of sight, all abandoned; the rail lines had re-opened some two years before, and the squatters of the tunnels had all been evicted. Some had left everything they owned, apparently - arcane and bizarre collections of the City’s detritus stretched out in all directions. One cube was stacked from floor to ceiling with obsolete but beautiful soda water dispensers, the old refillable kind in bright green and blue glass with metal siphons; stacked in wooden carriers, there must have been a thousand of them. Hammer Beverages, read most of the wooden boxes. All were empty.
A pile of typewriters greeted me around the next corner, Underwoods and Smith-Coronas, IBMs and the odd late-model electronic Panasonic or Canon. The manuals were in all conditions, those on the top of the pile in relatively good shape with those further down rusted into undifferentiated masses. I threaded my way through the museum of obsessive collecting, flowers of years on New York streets, and continued.
The spearhead gave me only a few moments’ warning, twisting slightly in its compartment as I turned to follow a passageway. I froze, immediately, at the sound of voices in the next corridor Westward - then moved again, around the corner towards a slight pale flicker of bright white light and the hissing of a Coleman lantern. Mutterings were coming from the room ahead, shadows moving across the lamp. I listened again, then reached out with more than ears; twistings were coming from there, too, the telltale feeling of work on higher planes reaching out to touch my tools. I stepped through the final doorway into a pool of gaslight.
There were two figures seated there, staring intently at their cards, laid out on a ruined wooden tabletop. The cards were from the standard Western deck, but there was more than one deck in play, judging from the duplicates, and the pattern was unknown to me. I moved closer to the lamp, gun trained on the two of them. They ignored me. Both were dressed in rags, appropriate to the surroundings; both were men, older, in a condition that would surprise you not at all if you met them sleeping in a subway station.
But they were not demented. Nor were they drugged. They were silently moving the cards around on the table, in a pattern which I realized looked something roughly like Manhattan. There must have been a couple of hundred cards. One of them turned and looked directly at me, then snorted and turned back, moving a six of Clubs three inches to the right - or Westwards, if the map held true. I just stared.
“It’s the boy.” The other spoke without looking at me, voice as rough as his skin and clothes.
“Mmmm.” The first tapped another card, this one face down, then withdrew his hand and looked over the arrangement.
The second looked up, also directly into my eye, through shields and gloom and past the brilliance of the lamp. I saw the rheum and milky color of his blindness, then, and lowered the gun but not my flash hand. “Hello, fathers.”
“Polite, he is, at least.”
I moved closer, into the light. “May I sit?”
The one who’d first looked at me turned again. I noted that he was wearing a New York Mets cap, incongruously clean; his compatriot was bareheaded. “Sit.”
I looked about, located a chair from a pile of several, and pulled it up to the table, then sat. I watched them quietly for a few minutes as they slowly and carefully shuffled cards around the table; from the closer distance I could see a rough chalk outline drawn around the cards that, indeed, resembled Manhattan’s shoreline. In the center of the island was a rectangle of leaves and grass, where the park would be. I couldn’t determine any other pattern in what they were doing; the cards moved, some slightly and some rapidly, either inches or yards. Some were face up, and some face down.
There was power on the table, but I was unable to determine its purpose.
The Mets fan placed a final card on the map, somewhere in East Harlem, and turned to me. “Ask.”
I frowned. “Are you moving cards to determine change? Or are you tracing change with them?”
“Is there a difference?”
“There is to me, father.”
The bareheaded wizard nodded. “You’re a tool user, boy. The flow is there. Can you feel the flow?”
I reached a palm out over the table. The Mets fan hissed once, but didn’t interfere. I spread my hands, reaching for the tendrils of energy that moved and built around my tools when I used them, but there was nothing. Still, I could tell the space above the table was far from empty. “No.”
I turned to him, surprised. “Why good?”
The Mets fan answered me, his voice gone harsh. “Because you may leave this place, then, boy.”
I looked from one to the other. “You cannot leave? Either of you?” Both shook their heads. “Why not?”
The Mets fan spoke. “My name is Brian. I’ve been here eighteen years. Since the power came. It brought me here, back when the tunnels were bad, son, real bad. It’s been good, and bad, and now there’s no-one, but we stay. The power keeps us here. If we move, the balance breaks. We’re all that keeps it in check.” He reached out and flipped a card, apparently at random. The nine of diamonds, near Times Square.
I looked carefully across the table. “What is the balance?”
“The balance is what you see. All the Gifted, all the Others, they’re all here. They come, and go, but within Manhattan Island, we watch and balance. That’s our task.”
“All of us? We’re all there?”
Brian reached out and flipped a card just East of Times Square. The Queen of Spades. “Do you know her?”
“Who?” I looked at the card. It was a Bicycle, the plastic worn.
I placed my finger on the card, face up on the table, and there it was-
The drink was too strong for him, far too strong, but he’d been sneering at her for an hour or more and there was nothing for it. Three swallows and he’d fall, if he was lucky; if he persisted, tried to prove his strength and took the fourth, then the growths would start in his throat and lungs, and he would waste and wrinkle as his life poured itself into the twisted seeds that took his blood. The Water of Death into the martini glass, just a drop, placed on the bar, and watch for his sneering smile. The smile of the human who thinks he’s found the answer, just like all the rest.
Four swallows, little sheep, just four-
I pulled my finger off the card instinctively. I was sweating, suddenly, my flash hand curled into a tight fist at my side and the pistol lying on its side on the table where I’d placed it instinctively when I touched the card. Baba Yaga’s thoughts were not just cold and hard, not just earthen and rotten, not just warm and lush, but completely and utterly wrong; they felt of crystalline age and swam with memories a thousandfold too complex for my brain.
“Where-” My voice cracked. I swallowed (one swallow) and tried again, forcing spittle into my mouth. “Where is my card?”
Brian looked at me, then reached out and plucked a pasteboard Hoyle from the table and held it out, the back to me. I looked at the pattern, then at him. “Can I-”
“You can, but will you?”
I reached out and took the card.
<--Younger | The First New York Magician | Older-->