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We caught a taxi on Riverside Drive. I had the hack drop me at 58th and 11th avenue, at the corner of the block-square shape of the IRT Powerhouse. I watched the cab slid away from the curb, continuing downtown towards my apartment, and walked a block East to 10th avenue. Across 10th was the brick facade of my destination, Roosevelt Hospital.
I felt a bit - well, I hated to think ghoulish, but I guessed it fit - looking for the Emergency Department, since I was only going to find what I needed if someone else didn't, but I couldn't think about it. I took up station near the ambulance entrance, and leaned against the wall while pretending to read on my smartphone. Nobody approached me or took much notice of me, since there was constant foot traffic into and out of the building, as well as several other people in the immediate area who were also obviously waiting around. When it was clear that no-one was paying me any attention, I put my hand inside my coat and brought up a slip, slowly, hoping to just fade from sight.
I waited for the next person to head through the automatic doors from the driveway, and followed them in. Looking around, dodging the normal crowded traffic of a Manhattan ER, I found my way to a corner and took up my post against the wall. It was harder than just waiting normally - I had to be sure nobody ran into me, or decided that my corner looked attractive for their own vigils. After about half an hour of foot traffic into and out of Triage, I saw the heads of the staff behind the main triage desk perk up slightly at an annunciator tone. When two nurses got up and moved out towards the doors, I kept watch. The sound of an ambulance pulling up followed immediately, and two EMTs banged their way in with a gurney. I looked at their patient, but other than being fairly banged up and having his neck in an immobilizer, he looked pretty healthy.
It took three hours before a wagon came in at high speed, and the staff jumped for the door. I saw a man wheeled past, his face gray under the oxygen mask. His shirt was cut open. They'd tried to resuscitate him, and so far failed. The handoff was rapid and professional, with a doctor and a nurse working as two orderlies rushed the gurney towards the ER proper inside. I pushed off from the wall and followed, careful not to get bumped under the slip.
I made like a fly on the wall while the doc and two nurses worked on him. They were at it for a good ten minutes - adrenalin shot, compressions, paddles - before they all seemed to slow down, simultaneously. When they sagged, slightly, I felt my own shoulders slump in sympathy under my coat. "I'm calling it," said the doctor, peeling off her gloves and looking at the clock. They all nodded, and moved from the frantic swing of emergency medicine to the slower interpretive waltz of paperwork. It took them less than a minute to clear the room, heading off towards the desks.
I was left alone with the man on the table. I looked at him, unwilling to ignore him. He was - or had been, really - an older gent, wth thin white hair. I'm not great at guessing age, but he looked like he'd had his threescore and ten, and probably then some. As I thought that, there was a sharp stab of pain, somewhere in my psyche, that told me that however flip and self-defensive that thought was, that didn't make what had happened okay.
I worry about myself occasionally. I try not to deal in death, but sometimes it's unavoidable. I've seen it; I've dealt it a few times, and those times will never leave me. I'm sure that while I'd rather I didn't have the memories, I'm also sure I'd worry more if I stopped thinking about it.
Shifting position, I moved around towards the head of the table so that I was facing the door. I found myself avoiding the direct sight of the patient, telling myself I needed to be vigilant if the trip wasn't to be wasted. I hitched my hip up onto a countertop which held various bits of medical equipment and kept my eyes on the entrance.
The door didn't move. So it was a shock when I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye. I swung my head to the left and saw a lean shape huddled in the corner of the room, unfolding to its full height of nearly seven feet. I couldn't determine if it had somehow managed to enter the room, or if it had been there the whole time - I was very sure I'd looked at that spot before, but there it was, standing. The nose, or muzzle, was rising to point towards the figure on the bed, and the arms moved away from its sides, claws extending forwards. Sweat popped out of my pores, driven through my skin by pistons of excitement and fear, and I reached under my coat to carefully draw the Desert Eagle.
As I was lifting the gun into line, the figure moved towards the gurney, seemingly oblivious of my presence. I threw a quick glance at the door. It was still closed, and the window in it showed nothing but an empty hallway. As the ghul approached the still figure on the gurney, I aimed the pistol at its midsection and without touching the pocketwatch concentrated hard on the space surrounding the oncoming creature. I was trying to align my slip with whatever was hiding it, without a method or knowledge of how - but magic is will, at base, and enough of mine made the difference. The atmosphere rippled slightly, and the ghul stopped dead in its tracks, turning its head to stare directly at me with lambent eyes. We looked at each other for a few seconds, me holding the gun level and it frozen with its talons raised towards the corpse.
"I don't want to hurt you," I said. It came out rusty and harsh, my fear and tension fuzzing the edges of the words. "I just want to talk."
The ghul tilted its head to its left, slightly, and I had just enough time to think to myself that the whole gamble might just pay off before it suddenly opened its jaw to display skeletal, curved teeth and arched its back slightly as the pervasive hiss of threat emerged from within it to lick at my skin with tones of horror.
"Don't!" I managed to croak, the gun the only thing about me that was steady. We stared at each other for a brief eternity. The ghul kept looking slightly past me, at the corpse on the gurney, then back at me. It might have been weighing its chances, but it was alien enough that I wasn't willing to lay any bets. Carefully, I stepped away from the body, trying to broadcast that I wasn't interested in preventing the other from doing what it had come for. I slowly moved towards the wall, still watching it, and its head swivels got longer and longer as the angle between me and the gurney increased. Finally, when my back touched the wall, I motioned towards the body with the gun and lowered the barrel halfway towards the floor. It cocked its head again, and I nodded. "Do it. I'm not here to stop you."
It turned back to the body, and then with a sudden rush it descended, its jaws working. I fought my gorge, reminding myself that it wasn't really tearing at the corpse. The body was jerking slightly, but I couldn't see any damage. It looked more like the ghul's long muzzle was dipping into its substance without tearing. Despite my revulsion, I was fascinated enough to let the gun dip further, waiting until it was finished so that I could try to talk to it once more.
Before it lifted its head, though, the door swung open. I jerked my head up to see two orderlies come through, heading directly for the gurney. The one in front stopped, then said to the other, "He's still twitching."
At the sound of his voice, the ghul jerked its head up, swung its body fully around to see the orderlies, then turned back to me. I had just enough time to raise a hand in protest, before the glowing eyes and teeth rushed towards me.
I didn't think. The Desert Eagle was up, and I pulled the trigger twice. The sound was incredible in the enclosed room. I'd had a clean shot on the ghul, as neither orderly was behind it or in my line of fire, but I pulled both rounds anyway. As the first bullet dropped just in front of the barrel, I felt my joints tighten as the kinetic energy flooded into me. I couldn't hold it long, but before I lost control I fired again, pulled that energy back and dumped both of them into a cone of broad kinetic force. I had just enough time to see the orderlies flinching at the sound, one falling backwards, before the cast hit the ghul in the torso. It jerked backwards, tumbling over the gurney and knocking aside several pieces of freestanding medical gear. I dove right, towards the door, and as I did so the ghul rose smoothly back to its feet against the far wall. Just as I got myself in front of the doorway, the orderlies now between me and the gurney, the ghul launched itself directly at me. I didn't have time to do anything other than take my finger off the trigger of the Desert Eagle and brace myself. It hit me with what felt like the force of a freight train as I heard the orderlies yelling in confusion.
There was an impact which I felt on every part of my body at once, and then I was on the floor in the corridor, against the far wall, the door swinging back and forth. I shook my head against the pain, looking right and left. The whipcord shape of my quarry was vanishing down the hallway to the right, back towards the main entrance, so I hauled myself to my feet and staggered after it. As I reached the double doors to the main reception area, I saw it sliding between waiting patients, even through spaces that were clearly too narrow for it to traverse. The image of its head sliding into the corpse's substance flashed in my head, camera-quick, and before I could even think about how ridiculous what I was trying to do was I thrust the gun at the floor and fired, feeling the rush of energy as people started screaming at the explosion they couldn't see.
Just before the ghul made it to the large double doors leading out towards the driveway, I raised the gun to point at its back, but rather than fire, slapped my left hand onto my coat over the pocketwatch and shouted, concentrating on solidity.
I had no idea whether it would work, but the ghul staggered suddenly. It recovered, approached the doors and threw itself at them, head and shoulders out and ready to slip through their substance - but instead there was a clearly-audible impact, and the doors swung away from it as it struck them head-on, falling out towards the street.
I hurdled an empty row of chairs, miraculously managing not to trip, lose the gun or worse fire it by accident, and then wobbled as I struggled to avoid running headlong into a confused-looking man in a wheelchair. Spinning drunkenly around him, I managed to come out of the stumble heading for the doorway and charged through it as the screams continued behind me.
As I came through the door, there was a flash of pain and light. I clenched my hand reflexively as the world tumbled, and the ghul's hissing rage filled my right ear as it carried me sideways over a low metal railing and onto the concrete. I clubbed at it with the gun - nearly five pounds of metal, better than nothing - and felt it connect solidly with the long skull, sounding just like it had hit bare bone. The ghul screamed again, and did something that resulted in me losing my wind in a storm of pain in my midsection. As I rolled over to my knees, sucking air, I realized I'd just been kneed directly in the groin by a mythical corpse stealer.
When I managed to lift my head, still trying to get my breath back, I saw the grey shape staggering across the driveway towards the street. There wasn't anyone else in the immediate area. Realizing I had only one chance, I aimed the gun at the ground again and fired twice. This time, I kept the force cone narrower, concentrating on a circle the size of a softball directly between the ghul's shoulders. There was a thwacking noise and it tumbled again, rolling up against a brick pillar.
I pulled myself upright using the railing, holstered the gun, and looked around. A few people were looking around, puzzled at the noise they'd heard but couldn't link to anything they could see. I shuffled across the driveway, and just as the creature lifted its head to hiss again I kicked it across the jaw with everything I had.
We both fell.
I got up. It didn't.
Shakily, I reached under my coat and pressed my palm to the watch pocket on my bandolier, recalling - repairing, reinforcing - the slip that I was under. My right foot and ankle hurt. So did most of the rest of me. I bent down (which really hurt), grabbed hold of one of the ghul's feet and began to drag it away from the building, towards the small park area between it and the avenue. Staying to one side of the walkway, I pulled it along the edge of one of the support pillars as I came out from the driveway which ran underneath the front of the building. There was foot traffic up and down the stairs, people moving towards and away from the doors, but there didn't seem to be an exodus from the waiting area inside, which meant that I hadn't caused a panic. Not, I reflected somewhat guiltily, for lack of trying.
I dragged the ghul down the stairs into the park area and moved towards a currently unoccupied bench. Dragging the shape behind me to the base of the metal fence behind the bench, I pulled two plastic zip-ties from my bandolier, unrolled them, and fastened both its wrists to the base of the fence with its hands (paws?) through the bars. I tried not to look at the claws that tipped its digits, dark shining black and covered in patterns of faint color, oil on water. When I had it lying along the fence, handcuffed to one of the metal uprights, I sank down onto the bench next to its head wearily and looked around. Although there was traffic through the park into and out of the hospital, and a couple of people were seated around the area, no-one was looking in my direction, so I reached under my coat and dropped the slip. Across from me, one man looked up sharply, but looked back to his book again after seeing me sitting quietly in my trenchcoat, figuring he'd just noticed me sitting down.
Massaging my right foot, I looked at the ghul to my right. It was wavery and indistinct, since I was outside the slip that it was projecting, but I could see it. I leaned over my knees, trying to find the least painful position for my recently-abused groin. The thing hadn't caught me dead on, but had gotten close enough; now that the adrenalin was draining away, I felt the beginnings of nausea and hoped I wasn't about to vomit. People tend to look at you askance if you do that near a hospital, and although most would just move away from me, I didn't want anyone officious coming to either ask me to leave or to go get checked out.
After about ten minutes, during which the pain settled from 'really quite bad' to 'persistent but not nauseating', there was a rustling sound from the ground. I looked over to see the ghul try to pull its hands back through the fence and struggle for a moment with the restraints. I had no idea if plastic zipties would hold it. They work on humans mostly because we have really poor leverage with our arms behind our backs - all they have to do is provide more resistance than a badly out of angle shoulder joint, in that case. The ghul's physiology, though, was a mystery to me. I didn't even know if it was fully material. I hoped my solidity cast was still working.
After a few seconds, it stopped and looked around. The daylight reduced the burning of its eyes to a slight flicker behind a surface that seemed almost pebbled. Despite that, I could still tell when its gaze moved round to rest on me, even before it froze.
I nodded to it, then looked significantly around us at the other people before looking back. I was curious to know how much intelligence was riding behind that predator's stare.
It looked around, as well, then focused on one man across the seating area who was looking at me. Its gaze flicked from his face back to mine, and something - something I hoped wasn't just my wishful thinking - told me that its expression was quizzical.
"Yeah, he can see me," I told it. It didn't answer, just kept an unblinking lock on me, and I'd be lying if I said it didn't send primeval 'prey' signals trickling through my sympathetic nervous system. After a few moments, keeping my eyes on it, I reached into my bandolier, beneath the coat, and pulled out another zip-tie. Waggling it slightly to emphasize it, I reached into my trouser pocket with my other hand and pulled out a small lockblade knife and unfolded it with my thumb. The ghul was still watching me, and I saw its stare flick down to the knife and ziptie. When I knew it was looking, I carefully doubled the zip-tie and used the knife to cut it, then put the halves in my pocket. It looked back up. I nodded, then raised my finger to my lips. I had no idea if it could follow that most human of gestures, but it didn't move, even when I leaned over towards it with the knife in my hand. I paused, just before the knife moved past what I estimated was its field of view, but it continued to stare at my eyes, rather than the blade.
Shrugging, I reached behind it and felt for the zip-ties holding its wrists. Carefully, I cut the first one, and waited. Neither of us moved or looked away, so I nodded and cut the other, then brought the knife back into its view and folded the blade away before elaborately putting it back in my pocket. Then I leaned back slightly, moving away from it, without looking away.
There was a second's pause, then in a terrifyingly swift and liquid movement - especially for something that seemed so far to be made primarily out of ferrous bones - it rolled to its feet and stood over me, looking down. I forced myself not to react, and merely kept my gaze on it.
We looked at each other for about half a minute, it standing in front of me as I sat on the bench. I was acutely aware of how vulnerable I was, sitting there, but remained still through pure will leavened by the fear of what it might do to me if I moved.
Then it stepped backwards once, twice. It stopped, still looking at me, and relaxed slightly, sinking into a vaguely simian slouch, waiting.
I let myself breathe out heavily in relief, then stood, very slowly. It waited as I moved slowly towards the street, finally looking away from it and not looking back, trying to project trust. When I reached the curb, I turned towards the traffic flow and raised my right hand, waiting. A taxi curved out of the traffic and swept over, coming to a halt. Opening the back door, I looked back. The ghul was standing a few feet behind me, head cocked slightly. When I nodded at the cab, it looked back and forth between the vehicle and me a few times, then swarmed past me and climbed onto the rear deck. Hurriedly, to cover the movement of the cab sinking on its suspension, I swung into the back seat and slammed the door. I could hear sharp sounds as the thing on the back moved forward, partially onto the roof, and I coughed a few times before giving the driver my address. I saw him look back once, and into his mirrors a few times, but apparently he didn't see anything, losing interest and turning out into traffic.
After a block or two, something touched my right shoulder. This caused me to startle, because my right shoulder was against the door. After jerking away from the door, I saw a black gleaming shape protruding from it which confused me for a few seconds until I realized it was one of the ghul's claws. The thing had apparently just reached through the surface of the cab, phasing past it or whatever it did, and then let itself become solid again, however impossible that sounded. I could see its arm just outside the C-pillar if I leaned forward and looked back; looking through the rear window I could see it crouching against the rear quarter of the cab, a monstrous skeletal shape, frozen, waiting.
When the cab stopped in front of my building, I heard a scrape as I was counting out bills for the fare. By the time I'd exited the car, the ghul was standing on the sidewalk, its eyes fixed on me again. I nodded and walked into my building. It followed, still slightly slouched, apparently docile.
When we got into my apartment, it didn't bother following me through the door, but phased through the wall next to it as soon as it saw me stop and put the key to the lock. I wasn't sure if that was just expediency or a not-so-subtle threat, but I followed it in and found it looking around the foyer. As I was shutting the door, Azif came out of the kitchen. He froze when he caught sight of the thing standing next to me, and for its part it reared up to its full height, tension crackling in its frame. The glow from its eyes, much more visible in the relative dimness of the foyer, flickered off the walls. I hurriedly got in between the two of them and held out my hands in the classic warding pose, looking from one to the other. "Azif, don't move."
We stood there for a time, then the ghul cocked its head again, looked at me, then back to Azif, and stepped back two paces. I began to have nasty thoughts about how intelligent the thing (if it was a thing) in fact was. Azif hadn't moved, but he didn't look happy. "Michel, what-"
I cut him off. "Let's go into the living room."
He shrugged, then moved that way, keeping a careful eye on the ghul. It watched him go, its stare almost birdlike, then looked at me. I followed Azif, taking my eyes deliberately off it. When I got to the middle of the room, I turned. It was still outside the doorway, and I beckoned. It moved in, its shoulders sliding through the substance of the doorframe, and came to a stop in the middle of the room. I sat and motioned Azif to do the same. "Azif, don't say anything until I tell you, including now."
He looked at me, then nodded and sat, eyeing the figure in the middle of the rug.
"So." I addressed it. "What now?"
After a moment, it raised one horribly clawed hand and pointed at me. No; at my torso. I tilted my own head to the side. "What?"
It pulled its talons (dewclaws?) into an unmistakeable pantomime. "Oh." I reached into the coat and carefully pulled out the Desert Eagle, using my fingers rather than holding it in shooting position. The ghul hissed once, ducking its head. I reached out and laid the big pistol on a side table, out of easy reach. It kept looking at me, then the gun, back and forth, so I shrugged and reached to the back of the table where a thick book was resting and pulled it forward so it lay atop the gun. It wasn't much of a reassurance, but I realized that the thing probably just needed to slow me by a fraction of a second or two if it became necessary, which made this a viable impediment.
When I moved my hand away from the book (a photographic tour of historical New York subways) it slouched again, slightly, and waited.
"Can you understand me?" I asked.
It cocked its head again, but showed no other reaction. Great.
"Okay, let's try this." I held my hand out towards Azif. "Give me the nut." He reached slowly into his pocket and pulled the areca out. As he reached towards me, the ghul shifted restlessly, but didn't react otherwise as he laid it in my hand. I held my hand out towards the creature, and looked pointedly at the nut before looking back at it. It was still watching me. I pointed at Azif with my other hand, then closed my fist over the nut. As I did so, I mimed fainting, slumping back towards the sofa for a moment, then opened my hand and sat back up.
The thing looked at me, then at the nut. Then at Azif, who murmured "I have never known them to reason, Michel."
"That doesn't mean they can't," I said out of the side of my mouth. "I'm going to close my hand again. Make like you're passing out. When I open my hand, sit back up." I closed my hand, and Azif slowly slumped sideways on the sofa without taking his eyes off the ghul. I waited for a five count, then opened my hand again. Azif sat up.
We stared at each other for a few seconds.
Then the bony shape stiffened, and it moved suddenly towards Azif. Before I could react, or before the Djinn with his unearthly reflexes could move, it stopped again, but this time frozen in tension. Its glance swung from Azif to me, then back, clearly waiting. I realized what it wanted. "Azif, it wants to examine you."
"You are certain?" Azif said, sounding incredulous.
"No. But I think it's worth the risk."
"You do!" he said, his voice higher than usual. Then he breathed out. "Fine." He raised a hand, and extended it slowly towards the ghul. After a few moments, the nightmare slid closer to him and extended its cattle-skull muzzle towards the hand, sniffing at it in birdlike motions. It stayed where it was, then looked back at me. Its head moved, towards Azif; clearly a nod. I stood and moved towards the Djinn.
"Azif, I'm going to touch you."
His voice was tight, under control. "Yes, I understand." He extended his other hand towards me.
I reached out and took that hand. He slumped slightly, his eyes defocusing; I felt a slight fuzz in my head, but that was all. The ghul, however, shrieked the same air-horn call of threat that we had heard in the Chambers Street subway station, and made an abortive move towards the Djinn before stopping once more. It froze there, hunched over him as if some enormous vulture, and its glowing stare flickered back and forth between the two of us.
I released Azif's hand.
It fell back, making clucking noises that spoke of confusion, and continued to look at us. As it did so, there was a sudden movement in the corner of my eye, and I turned my head to look. Three other ghul had appeared, sliding silently through the walls of my apartment, and were standing grouped around the entrance to the room. They weren't moving, however. I could see Azif tensing up, so I flung up a palm at him. "Wait!"
We did, although I wasn't breathing. The new arrivals looked at Azif, then as one looked at the ghul I had brought there. It opened its maw and screeched briefly, spreading its arms to lift its claws away from Azif, and stepped back a pace. The others drew back as well.
"I think it's working," I said, feeling the tremors of nerves in my arms and legs.
"Michel, whatever you think, I am not moving," said Azif with a trace of humor.
The ghul withdrew to the far end of the room. All four of them had turned to face each other in a group, huddling. The one that had arrived with us had turned entirely away, and was looking at each of its fellows in turn. They weren't making much noise other than shuffling sounds, but I could tell they were communicating simply by the pattern of body motion corresponding to their eye contact.
After a few moments, they turned back to us. The one I'd brought - I'd starting thinking of it as Spokesman - turned to me and cocked its head until I nodded. Then it indicated Azif with its claws, as one, all four of the ghuls pulled their arms back across their chest, crossing their forearms. Then they looked at me again.
"Michel, what are they doing?"
"I don't know, Azif, but I think they just said they won't come after you."
"I should trust this?"
"I think you should let me touch you again and we'll find out."
He grimaced. "I thought as much. Yes, very well."
I reached out, my eyes still on the ghuls, and touched Azif's arm. The four of them shifted restlessly, but that was all; their arms remained crossed, and they didn't step forward or make a sound. I withdrew my hand and nodded to them.
They cocked their heads at me, then at Azif, before turning and sliding silently through the walls of my apartment and out of sight.
I stood up, moved the book and retrieved my Desert Eagle, holstering it again. "That was one of the strangest damn things I've seen."
Azif stood as well. "What do we do now?"
After thinking for a moment, I shook my head. "This means you're probably safe from them if you touch anyone, but it doesn't help us figure out how to get you free of Quyen, and it doesn't really mean he'll be safe if you do manage to jump out. They'll probably come for him then, because he'll still be effectively dead, and I'm betting that whatever they do means that he will in fact be dead when they're done." I thought to myself about what Brian and Alan had said, that there was one case where they could kill a human - and that seemed to be a reasonable guess, that if the human was weak enough that an Elder could invest their body, that rendering them fully deceased would allow the ghul to fulfill their function. "I need someone who deals with corpses. And someone who might know something about the ghuls. Where to find someone..." I trailed off as an idea hit me. "That's it. DiCanzo."
"What?" Azif asked.
"DiCanzo. Never mind, he's a firefighter. I need to talk to him; I need to find out if there's someone...Azif," I said to him, heading for the door, "stay here. I'll be back as soon as I can."
"As you say." He sat back down, slumping slightly. I almost said something about the fatigue visible in his posture before catching myself and heading back down to the street.
Engine Company 24 was in-house when I got there. I'd dealt with them a few times before. When I knocked, a firefighter I didn't know opened the door. "What?"
"Is DiCanzo here?" I asked.
He looked me over. "Yeah, he's here. One second." He shut the door. I waited for a minute or two before it opened, and DiCanzo - a wider man than any I've ever seen, none of it fat - beckoned me inside.
"Hey, Wibert. What's up?" He took me in to a lounge where two other firefighters were studying, books and notes and all. "Want a coffee?"
"No, thanks. I need to ask a favor."
"Sure." He sat, and I sat across from him. "Melooch isn't on this week, but he'd be up for helping out too."
"This is a real easy question, DiCanzo. Do you know anybody in the Medical Examiner's office? I remember you have a cousin in the NYPD."
"The ME's office? Nah, I mean, I see those guys around sometimes, but not much." He looked at me searchingly. "I'm not gonna ask you why."
I shrugged. "It's not that secret. I'm trying to find someone who deals with dead bodies in the City who might have seen some weird stuff."
"No, in general. Weird like the stuff we handled last time." I didn't recognize the other two men in the room, so I didn't get specific.
"Oh, yeah, like that." He nodded. "Well, you want guys that deal with stiffs early? Or late?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well the ME, see, they deal with corpses at the end. They do autopsies, stuff like that. When they get the body, it's been in the system for a bit - been hauled back from wherever, at the morgue. Do you mean them? Or people who deal with bodies out in the field?"
I thought about it. "The latter. Who would regularly see bodies right after death?"
"Oh, yeah, that's probably the CSU. Sorry, Crime Scene Unit. They're part of NYPD. I think they're all detectives. But that's the guys with the cameras and the fingerprint kits and all that stuff, show up to look at the scene before the medics haul the body off, if it's a live scene."
"Yeah, them, that sounds perfect. You know anybody in that office? Anybody that might have seen strange stuff?"
"Nah, not me, but my cousin might. Hang on, let me give him a call." DiCanzo pulled out a cell phone, punched a couple of buttons. "Hey, it's me. Yeah. Quick one, I gotta question. Remember that guy? With the permit? Yeah, him. You know anybody in the CSU who might be used to seeing, you know, strange stuff? Yeah, like that stuff. Like we talked about. Uh-huh." He reached for a pad on the table, pulled a pen out of his shirt pocket and scribbled on it. "Can he use your...yeah, okay. Thanks. Beer on me." He slid the phone back into his pocket and pushed the note across the table. I picked it up. 'Detective Kelly, CSU' it said, and there was a phone number.
"Thanks, DiCanzo. I'll pick up that bar tab."
He grinned. "No problem. Come by and tell me how it comes out, okay?"
I grinned back. "If I can." We stood, and he showed me out.
I pulled out my own cell and called the number on the paper, committing it to the phone's memory. After three rings, it was picked up. "Yeah. Kelly."
"Detective Kelly? My name's Wibert. I got your number from an officer DiCanzo. Do you have a second?"
"DiCanzo? Wibert? Who are you?"
"I'm a civilian. I did his cousin a favor, and I have a problem involving, uh, strange stuff. He said you might know something about it."
"Strange stuff? Like what?" The voice was suspicious. There was an Irish lilt to it, but it was faint, almost buried under the New York accent.
"Strange. Stuff you might not want to tell people about. Stuff involving dead people."
"You some kind of reporter?"
"No, not at all. Look, can we meet? I'll buy lunch. If you don't want to talk, you'll never see me again, but I think we can help each other."
"Help me? What do I want help with?"
"I don't know. But I'm used to dealing with strange stuff, and if you ever ran across anything like that, maybe I could help. I'm calling because I have a couple questions about your work - nothing specific, nothing about any particular incident," I hastily added. "I don't have an axe to grind, nothing, but I ran into some strange stuff myself, and I'm looking for a couple of answers for a friend of mine."
There was a silence on the line for maybe ten seconds. "You don't want to give me any hints about this strange stuff?"
That was encouraging, but the risk was still there. I took a deep breath. "You ever see anything really weird-looking messing with bodies? Things nobody else saw, nobody else can see?"
The silence was longer this time. "DiCanzo, huh. Yeah, I think you maybe should buy me lunch."
I let out a breath in relief. "Absolutely. Where and when?"
"One Police Plaza. Make it three thirty. Security checkpoint, main entrance."
I looked at my watch. It was just after two-thirty. "I'll be there. Thanks."
* * *
At three-thirty, I was outside the main entrance to One Police Plaza. One of the cops on duty had come over to see what I was waiting for. I'd been honest and said I was waiting to meet a police officer but that since I was carrying a gun I didn't want to come through the checkpoint. He had immediately asked for my carry permit and identification. When I'd given him those, he'd scrutinized them closely and relaxed a bit, and asked me to wait outside the building. Not wanting to make him nervous, I'd said sure and gone outside to sit on a bench.
At three-thirty, a solid-looking man in standard Detective uniform - inexpensive jacket, artificial fiber trousers, comfortable shoes - came out and looked around. Seeing me, he headed over. I stood to meet him. "Detective Kelly?"
"Yeah. You are?"
"I'm Michel Wibert. We spoke on the phone."
His face relaxed slightly. "Yeah, okay. I got half an hour. You okay with getting a dog and a soda?"
"Sure, but I'm happy to buy a more serious lunch."
He laughed, a bit grimly. "Maybe next time." We moved across the plaza and I bought us a pair of hot dogs, which we took to a bench. "So," he said as we started in on them, "what kind of strange stuff?"
I chewed for a bit, thinking. "Detective-"
"Call me Kelly."
"Kelly, I was born in this town. I've lived here all my life, in lower Manhattan. I grew up seeing things that I found out later other people couldn't see, or wouldn't see, I don't know. I have a friend I'm trying to help right now. I helped DiCanzo's cousin - the firefighter - and his friends with something like it. But I don't want to betray confidences, and I don't want to tell you stories that'll make you think I'm crazy. So let me say this. You met with me because I said I wanted to talk about strange stuff. That's something a New York cop wouldn't do unless he had actual questions, actual things he wanted answers to. But I also think you're not going to give me any information until and unless you're sure I can help you find those answers." I paused, took another bite. "How am I doing so far?"
He shrugged. "Not too bad."
"Okay. I'll tell you what. I already told you, I can't tell you the things I helped these other people with, not unless they tell me it's okay to talk about it. How about you call DiCanzo, get the number for his cousin, and you ask him about me. If he says I can talk to you, you can hand me the phone and I'll hear it from him, and then I'll tell you what I can."
Kelley finished his hot dog and wiped his hands with a napkin, methodically. "This sounds like a lot of runaround," he said mildly.
"Not runaround." I finished my own, chewed, swallowed. "If DiCanzo says I can tell you, then I'll tell you."
"Okay." He pulled out a cell phone. "But if this doesn't lead to anything, we're done."
"Fair." I held out my hand for his napkin and empty soda. He passed them to me, and I stood. "Call DiCanzo." Then I walked over to the nearest trash can and dumped them in. When I got back, he was on the phone, looking at me and speaking.
"Yeah. Yeah, he's five-eleven, maybe six. He's got a trench coat on. Yeah." He covered the phone. "Let me see your ID." I silently dug out my driver's license and pistol permit and handed them over. "Yeah, New York license, carry permit. Did you...? Okay. Yeah. Hang on." To me: "Show me your gun. Don't draw it."
I pulled back my coat lapel, slowly, and half-drew the Desert Eagle, showing it to him.
"Yeah, DiCanzo, it looks like a Desert Eagle. Big stupid gun." He paused. "Okay. Thanks. I'll call him." He hung up, then dialed another number. "Is this DiCanzo? Yeah, this is Kelly. I got a guy here named Wibert. He says if you okay it he'll tell me what he means by 'strange.' You okay with that? Okay. Hang on." He passed me the phone.
I took it, held it to my ear. "DiCanzo?"
"Wibert? Hey. Yeah, Melooch says you can talk to this guy. My cousin okays him."
"Thanks, man." I handed the phone back to Kelly, who took it.
"DiCanzo? Yeah, thanks. I'll let you know." He hung up and put the phone away, then turned to face me. "So give."
I sighed. "DiCanzo has a buddy, Melucci. He was being haunted by a Shinto kami, or spirit elemental. Kagu Tsuchi. He's the embodiment of fire. In the legends, his birth burned and killed his mother, and his father cut him into eight pieces, scattering them around the world. They came to rest in fires, or volcanoes. When I met Melucci, he was being visited or invested by a part of the kami, and it was 'riding' him to fires, to search for its broken pieces. I mediated between it and his Engine crew. They let it ride along, and it protects them from fire."
He looked at me for a few seconds. I shrugged. "You asked."
Finally, he blew out a breath and looked away. "Yeah. I did. And that's mostly the story DiCanzo told me, a while back. He didn't tell me your name."
We sat there for a few minutes, watching people walk through the small plaza. Finally he turned back to me. "Okay. So what do you want to know?"
"Have you ever seen anything weird messing with corpses?"
His laugh was low, unhappy, but somehow relieved. "Anything weird. Yes. Couple of times."
I controlled my excitement. "What did it look like?"
"Have you seen them?"
"Maybe. If you tell me what they looked like, I'll tell you."
He looked up, into the middle distance. "Tall. Thin. Their eyes glow. They had these huge claw things, and their faces look like some kind of lizard skull. Lots of teeth. When I was first on the job in CSU, I saw one. I'd seen some weird shit before, around New York, but it only involved people, you know? Just people. So I was on a scene, I'd gotten there with my partner in the truck, and all the cops on site were holding everybody outside this room in a brownstone. They sent us in to do the initial scope, cameras, whatever. We go in, and the vic is on the floor, lying there in the middle of the room. There's this guy leaning over him, big, and I yelled at him to get the fuck off the body. He stood up, and it's this..." he trailed off for a second, then shook his head. "This thing. Tall. Glowing eyes. I drew down on it, shouted at it to stop, and before I could do anything, it just vanished. Gone. Jumped away towards the wall, disappeared. My partner's looking at me like I'm a nut, I'm trying to figure out why he didn't react. Turns out he didn't see a damn thing."
Shaking his head, he went on. "I told him I'd seen a shadow, thought it was a guy. It was dark in the room, they had work lights on on the floor, not totally crazy, but he thought I was some kind of jumpy nut, pulling a gun on a shadow. Took me a year to get past that."
I said, quietly, "The head was a skull, like a cattle skull. The claws were black, so black they were hard to see. There were patterns like oil on water on the claws. It screamed, sounded like a siren."
He turned to me, his face both haunted and relieved. "Yeah. That was it. That's the thing. I saw them five, six times since then. Always on corpses, newly dead. I think they know I can see them, they always look at me. I nod at them, wait for them to finish. They do...whatever they do, then they're gone." He dry-washed his hands between his knees, stared at them for a few seconds. "Sounds stupid, I know, but I feel like they know what I do. Like we're colleagues." A quick laugh, barked. "Crazy."
"No. It's not crazy. It's sort of close. They're responsible for the dead. They have to...to process them. It's what they were made for."
Kelly turned on the bench so he was fully facing me. "How do you know all this? Where did you learn it?"
I shrugged. "My grandmother taught me. And I learned some on my own."
"The ghul. Why are you interested in them?"
I stared at him, surprised. "How do you know their name?" I asked.
"I first saw 'em fifteen years ago, maybe. After the second time, a year later, I went looking. I hunted up every weird occult nutjob I'd run into on the force, and I squeezed 'em. I'm not proud, I went looking rough, but it was that or accept that I was crazy. I made a few enemies. But I learned some things."
I chose my words carefully. "I would be really grateful if you could tell me what you learned about them."
"Are these things related to the problem you're having with your friend?"
"They're coming for him. They keep coming for him. And he's not dead. Is that the problem?"
"That's the problem." I was controlling my voice, my desire to know almost a physical thing. It's why I get into the things I get into. Because I have to know. Finding someone else who knows these things - another human - it's a rush, every time.
There was another pause. I could tell he was trying to decide what to tell me. I gambled. "Kelly, have you ever been to the Ondermarkt?"
His head whipped around. "You know about that?"
"I've been there."
"You've been there..." his need was palpable. He gave a short ugly laugh. "I'm a cop. I've been trying to get into the Ondermarkt for ten years, ever since I heard about it. Nobody'll talk to me. I spent a year trying to find out where it was, find a way in. Almost lost my job. Finally, I gave up. But it makes me crazy, that somewhere in this town there are answers I can't get."
"I don't know if the answers to your questions are there. But it's real."
"Okay." He took a deep breath. "That's what I want, then. I think I can help you and your friend. But I want you to show me the Ondermarkt."
I thought about it. "I can't say yes right now." At his bitter look, I held up my hand. "I've only been there once, and there are people there who apparently really don't like me. I don't even know why. But I'm an outsider there too, and I don't know if I can show it to you. But I'll tell you what, I'll find out, and I'll do my best. If I can get you in, will you help me?"
He looked at me for a few seconds, then nodded. "Okay. When you know the answer, get in touch. You have my number. And I'll give you what I know."