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I sat in the Cafe at Grand Central, watching humanity move into Manhattan with the measured flow of blood. The corridors pulsed with marble muscles moving the rush along, New York City mainlining its fuel for the day while I crunched on ice made opaque and sweet by the remnants of cream and liqueur in the bottom of my glass.
Morning was best at the Cafe. The sunshine came through the tall windows, recently cleaned, in angled beams which struck downwards for the vast expanse of the Main Lobby's floor. People moved through the bars of light and dark, intent on errands and time, faces hidden and revealed as they pushed past. I waved my hand at the bartender, who nodded and turned her head back to the low shelves of bottles, selecting the vodka and Kahlua.
I watched as she mortared ice from the cooler, leaving it fine-grained in the glass, and poured in equal amounts of the dark and light liquors before topping it with cream and shaking it once, twice and sliding it down the bar towards me. I stopped it with a hand, gently; none spilled. She smiled, one-sidedly, and returned to cleaning glasses, watching me as I took a drink.
I was trying not to watch her, my right hand clutched around the pocketwatch in my jacket pocket. Old-fashioned, heavy and expensive, it was a Patek Phillippe that had taken me two years to save up for, and three years more to invest properly. Now it was my shield and sword, and my only hope.
Another sip. The tender's hair was the fine white of snow, her face unlined with strong features, the skin soft and unblemished, her eyes dead and cold. She had finished polishing the final glass in the row and was standing with her arms crossed, watching the commuters. I closed my eyes and tried to still my heart, drawing the warmth from the pocketwatch up my arm, the power building in my chest and surrounding my heart. I didn't know if it would be enough, but I hoped so - it was all I had.
"Excuse me, miss?" My voice was rusty, the old accent all but gone.
She turned, one eyebrow arched. I noticed the row of potted plants behind the bar, blocking the view of anyone behind it, and my voice firmed with the recognition. "Please note, I'm not asking this - but if I was to ask the bar to turn its back to the forest and let me in-"
I hadn't finished before she jerked forward, reflexively, arms arched as if to claw. I stumbled backwards, taking the stool over with me; I caught myself on the bar's edge and managed through main force not to turn away. She and I looked at each other, eyes locked, for perhaps ten seconds, perhaps a century -
- and then she turned away, shrinking, behind the bar.
I let out a breath, slowly.
When she turned back, her eyes were brilliant, twinkling. Her skin was as wrinkled as any I'd seen, her back bent, and her hair, while still white, was coarse and stringy. Her voice came out a croak. "Well met, young 'un. Well met."
"Nothing, Baba. Nothing. I didn't ask. I said-"
"Aaaaahhhh, yes. You said, if you were to ask. Clever boy."
She laughed for a time, an honest humor, leaning on the bar. No-one else came past; below, the commuters continued their one-way dance into the city. I took up my drink again with trembling hands, sipped, and found that all the ice was gone. The cream had curdled, into solids; I spat it back into the cup, placed it on the bar as quietly as possible, but she saw anyway and swept it into the sink. "Ah, the milk. It'll happen, grandson. It'll happen. Let me get you another."
"Baba, may I-"
She looked up, sharply. "Is that what you came for?"
"I came to ask what you would have, in return, for that mixture."
She looked at me for a moment, then sighed, reached across and chucked my chin with her fingers. They felt dry and cold, winter's sticks in summer awaiting the fire. "You'll come and speak with an old woman, boy?"
"I would, grandmother."
I took the watch out of my pocket and laid it on the bar, turning it to face her. "My word, Baba."
She looked into the watch, and a smile crossed her ancient face. "Ahhh. He comes through here, betimes. He would say your word is good, eh? Belike." Reaching under the counter, she brought out two bottles, one dark, one light, and mixed them in a jigger, then swiftly poured the result into a small crystal bottle which she produced from beneath the bar as well. Stoppering it with glass, she shook it once, twice; at each motion, reality shivered in ripples away from the bottle and I felt the power shake my liver and lights.
Then she handed it across the bar to me. I took it in my hands, the waters of Baba Yaga, and tucked it into my inner jacket pocket next to the Patek Phillipe. She nodded at me. "You've places to be. Come see me Thursday morning."
I'm a hard trader; I'm a user and a bastard, but I could hear the quaver of the lonely grandmother in the instruction, and that more than anything else ensured that it would be obeyed. I leaned across the bar and kissed the old woman on her dust-dry chilly cheek. "I promise, Baba."
I slid off the stool, both my talismans leaching power into my gestalt from under my jacket. Faerie fire flickered from my fingertips before I could muffle it, the power sliding out and grounding itself in the decades-old marble of Grand Central Terminal with the appearance of purple lightning. I slid my belt around, the polymers of the gun neutral even against my skin, and moved off into the flow.
The cold gaze of the white-haired fashion model watched me go.
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