<--Younger | The New York Magician | Older-->
It's not easy to get hold of an authentic flintlock dueling pistol in New York City. But this is New York City, which means you can get anything you want if you have enough money to spend and enough patience to figure out where to look.
This city, for example, contains a branch of Christie's Auction House, an internationally-famous venue for the trading of goods for money, both of all manner and flavor. I was sitting in the fourth row of the the small auditorium, watching the auctioneer go through the pre-sale pleasantries with the fifteen or so collectors and merchants who had shown up. I looked at the sale brochure in my hand.
A Fine cased set of Flintlock Pistols comprising a pair of 18 bore D.B. flintlock carriage pistols, accompanied by a single 38 bore flintlock box-lock pocket pistol.
All weapons inscribed by patent as being the work of Henry Nock, London; Gun-maker to His Majesty. Inscription date 1790.
I felt a bit naked under my sports jacket. Having had to check the Burberry at the door, I'd made sure to remove my gear from it prior to leaving the house, and at present I was wearing a thinner, less obtrusive (and less visible) version of my leather bandolier underneath the turtleneck which the sports jacket was covering. I was starting to sweat a bit under the display lights, which were shining brightly on the cases at the front of the room where the various bits of finery we would be bidding on were housed.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for your attendance and custom," began the auctioneer, starting a formula decades old which introduced the dance of money, prestige and lust which Christie's were past masters at harnessing.
It took around two hours to reach Item #14, in which I had sat quietly watching several maritime collectibles and pieces of art from the same period as Item 14 change hands. Finally, the three weapons were removed from the display cases and carted up to the sale stand. I had minutely inspected them during the period set aside for such examination prior to the auction; while I hadn't been able to handle them, the metal looked to be in excellent shape. The muzzles had been slightly stained by powder burns, indicating that these were working weapons rather than wall replicas; the flint mechanisms, while worn, were intact. I had high hopes for them.
High enough to pay out just over ten thousand dollars for the lot. I had two opponents during the bidding; a gun collector I knew vaguely from similar auctions, and a bidding agent whose principal remained anonymous. Both, apparently, had set limits at the ten thousand mark, and with the expenditure of ten thousand, five hundred dollars, the guns came to me.
I took them home in their display case, under my arm.
* * *
Later that week I rang Dreaver Fontaine's doorbell, again carrying the case under my arm. There was a gruff "What?" through the intercom.
Fontaine didn't reply, but the door buzzed. I pushed it open and started up the three flights of Mott Street stairs to Fontaine's abode, making sure it clicked closed behind me. The upstairs door buzzed open immediately after I knocked, and I slipped inside to a crowded, dim-light den with several pools of bright light hovering over worktables and desks.
Dreaver was the only one there, which was normal. He rolled his chair out from behind the desk he was currently at and met me across the low counter which stretched across the room in front of the door I'd entered. I let my thoughts turn, as they always did when I visited, how a man in a wheelchair lived in a third-floor walk-up, but then pushed the speculation away. Speculating about some people in New York is a dangerous and unwanted intrusion, and can get you in trouble even if you never talk to them about it directly. It can lead you to make assumptions, which are just as potentially lethal.
On the face of it, Dreaver Fontaine didn't look lethal. He looked crabby, to be sure; a perpetually irritated expression graced his pug features. That, coupled with his hunched posture in the wheelchair, tended to make him a somewhat daunting figure to those who hadn't dealt with him before.
It's not that dealing with him made you realize he had a heart of gold, or anything like that. It's just that once you dealt with him, 'daunted' would ratchet up to 'afraid' if you had any sense. You just couldn't let the fear rule you.
"Wibert. What the hell are you doing here? People work for a living here." Fontaine pulled up at the counter and stared at me.
"People?" I looked theatrically around the otherwise-deserted workshop. "I don't see people. I see some two-wheel-drive pain in the ass, but I don't see-"
"Okay, you big French idiot." He gave me a millisecond's worth of grin. "I'm busy here. Whatcha want?"
I put the case down on the table. "Got these earlier in the week."
"Yeah, I heard you were shopping for burners." I looked at him, and he shrugged. "Word on the street, Wibert. Nothing I can do about it."
I had no idea where Fontaine got his information. Fair was fair; he didn't know where I got mine, and we didn't press each other. "Okay. Did the word on the street have anything else to say?"
"Yeah, it said you were shopping for antiques. Wall hangings. I didn't believe it, not until I saw this."
"Antiques, yes. But not wall-hangings. Dreaver, I need to know which of these can still be safely fired."
He opened the case and pulled one of the carriage pistols out, turning it over with fingers expert and loving. "Full charge?"
He looked up at me, peering into my eyes for a suspicious moment, before shrugging and putting the gun back into its niche. "Okay. Take me a couple days, I'm stacked up. Are you in a hurry?"
"Need it by mid-next week, if possible."
"Got a date?"
I grinned at him, showing teeth. "Actually, yes, sort of."
He laughed, a dark snort. "Okay then. Come back Monday."
I tipped my nonexistent hat to him and took my leave as he slid the pistol case onto his lap and headed off for one of the lit workstations. If I knew him, he'd start work on my guns immediately unless he had any other antiques in his work queue - but he sure as hell would make me wait for the results.
That was fair. His results were always the best you could ask for. Dreaver Fontaine was one of the best gunsmiths in New York City, in a city with at least ten of everything in it. Nobody knew where he'd been trained. Nobody knew much about him at all, least of all what he did or where he went when he wasn't working - but that was okay, because his work was top-notch, and while expensive, he was fine with not asking questions once you'd shown him a gun permit that covered the weapon you wanted him to work on.
Dreaver had a simple rule. If you ever tried to use his services to hide the fact that you (or a gun you brought him) had committed a crime, he'd never speak with you again. If you threatened him, or were persistent in trying to talk to him while he was ignoring you, various people who identified themselves as 'Friends of the Cripple' would start showing up in your life with disturbing regularity until you backed off.
Going to the cops was a bad mistake. Many of the Friends of the Cripple worked for the NYPD.
* * *
The weekend was somewhat eventful, and led to my having to replace my Burberry, something I wasn't happy about especially given my plans for the following weeks. When I returned to Fontaine's place, I was wearing a London Fog overcoat which, while warm, was notably lacking in many of the extracurricular add-ons which had made my Burberry such a comfort in trying times. I was still trying to work out the best way to keep the Desert Eagle and its rig from bunching uncomfortably underneath it.
Dreaver buzzed me in himself, working alone as usual. He slid the case back up onto the countertop as I approached. "Well, you're two-thirds shit outta luck, Frog."
"How so, wheels?" (in case it's not clear, there was a minimum acceptable insult content in any discussion with Fontaine).
He took one of the larger guns out. "The big boys - the carriage pistols - they're not really safe. One of 'em would be worth a try in a pinch - I marked it with an 'F' inscription after the main patent, see there - but you're looking at explosion risk on both of them at full charge. The one without the F has severe corrosion weakening at the base of the barrel; looks like condensation pooled inside it at some point. The F gun had some rust but not nearly as much, and it's along the bottom; I'd guess it was stored in the same environment but with the muzzle down, and condensate ran out of the barrel."
Putting back the carriage pistol, he pulled out the much smaller pocket pistol. "This one, though - this one doesn't have any corrosion problems at all, and the touchhole isn't reamed out. It's been fired, but not often. I'd guess the other two were on public display and kept unloaded. There was residue in the pocket gun, looks like it was kept loaded and oiled, so it's in much better shape. Bottom line, if you have to fire one of these, I'd use the pocket pistol - but it's gonna have really crappy range compared to the others. I'd say no more than fifteen or twenty feet for any kind of accuracy."
"I need it to get to fifty feet, Dreaver."
"You're serious? Fifty feet? Christ, Wibert, it's a pocket gun."
"I need something that'll hit out to fifty or sixty feet. Bottom line."
"What, are you expecting to fight a duel or something?" Dreaver caught the slight chill in my expression and hurried on. "Never mind, not my business. Sixty feet. Huh. Okay. If you don't mind me taking it up a caliber or so, I can rebore the barrel, there's enough material to do that. You'd need to have custom rounds, though...I could give you a mould for that...then I could work in some rudimentary rifling, maybe...hex turns, or something...hmm." He turned the pocket pistol over in his hands a couple times. "Tell you what, give me two days and I can make this something that'll have a reasonable chance of hitting something man-size - torso area - at sixty feet. That's all you're going to get, though, is reasonable chance, and the barrel's short enough that aiming it is going to be a cast-iron bitch."
"All I ask is miracles, Fontaine."
"You're telling me." He snorted again, but I could tell the problem intrigued him. "At least you're gonna shoot it, not hang it on a stupid wall. Okay, okay, come back day after tomorrow."
"You're the best, Fontaine. Can I take these others with me?"
"Yeah, sure. Fifty bucks for the assay."
I counted out fifty dollars onto the counter, nodded, and took the guns with me.
At home, I thought about it, shrugged, and then spent an hour with a Dremel and a cordless drill mounting the two carriage pistols over my living room sofa.
I thought they looked quite at home there. Before I took the ladder away, I took the 'F' gun into my study, opened a newly-stocked cabinet, and carefully loaded it with black powder and a lead ball, wetting the leather patch lightly with gun oil before ramming it in place to hold the load in.
Then I carefully arranged the two guns on the wall.
* * *
Two days later I picked up the pocket pistol and a bullet mould from Fontaine. I handed him five hundred dollars for the work, and took home the gun in a steel and plastic security case - Fontaine's way of telling me that he considered the little flintlock a live firearm, due all the respect such a thing required. I picked up my carrying case of loading materials and headed to the West Side Pistol Range.
Not many people shoot at modern ranges with flintlocks. If you bring one, you have to budget time for most of the shooters to wander over with the eager questioning look of the enthusiast in their eyes, or you have to cultivate a no-nonsense and stolid demeanor to put them off. I split the difference, with the result that only the most enthusiastic gun types felt comfortable walking up to ask me about my new gun, and I only lost perhaps half an hour of the three I spent on the lanes.
Fontaine had thoughtfully provided fifty bullets with the mould. The ritual was calming, actually. Swab, pour powder, patch, ram, ball, ram, patch, ram. Prime the pan. Lock the flint. Take aim down the smooth surface of the barrel, unadorned with sights, squint behind the goggles, and...squeeze...and...
The gun produced an enormous cloud of smoke when fired, and a report loud enough to dwarf all the modern firearms currently on the range save for the one gentleman at the far end who was firing what looked like a Ruger Blackhawk in .44 Magnum. I shot until I was able to hit the torso of the silhouette target in four of five shots, training myself to aim and fire quickly. I was a pretty good pistol shot, but this was not like anything I'd fired before - and the fact that I was going to be relying on it to protect myself gave me several chills.
But by the late afternoon, the gun was hot enough that it was 'jumping' as the heat-expanded barrel let gases out around the bullet, and it was getting difficult to get the loads to stay in the gun. I cleaned it thoroughly and put it back in the case.
Two days later was December 21st.
* * *
When I left my house on the 21st, I had made sure to leave my current will on the dining room table, and that I was carrying my medical insurance card prominently in my wallet. I deal with the mystical and barely known, but there's no sense in being an idiot about this stuff.
The pocket pistol rode in, well, my pocket. I'd carefully loaded it with one special bullet, made with care in Fontaine's mould in my living room with the help of a brazing torch and small crucible. In my normal shoulder rig, my silenced Beretta occupied the space normally taken by the Desert Eagle, which remained at home.
I walked uptown, slowly, enjoying the cold, crisp day. There was some wind, but the cloud coverage was perhaps 50 percent - for long periods I walked in bright sunshine through the hurrying crowds and concrete canyons of Manhattan. Despite the economy being in terrible shape, it was too close to the societally-mandated gifting day of Christmas for people not to shop at all - and people being people, most had procrastinated.
On the up side of the financial catastrophe, prices were at an amazingly low level. I was tempted several times on my way uptown, and only the uncertainty of my errand kept me from several shops.
Herald Square is not what it used to be. Once dominated by the somewhat staid and severe facade of Macy's, it is now instead dominated by the hideously garish glass-and-light stack of a miniature vertical mall across the street from the dowager store. I moved slowly to the southeast corner, directly across the square from Macy's. Traffic was heavy, as it always was in this part of Manhattan during the day. Sedans, minivans, delivery trucks, taxicabs, motorcycles, bicycles, sports cars; all these and more, crammed into the bloodstream of the island and fighting for position.
I looked around. No police officers were in immediate sight. There was a single squad car heading north on Sixth Avenue, just reaching Thirty-fifth street. Far enough.
Reaching into my coat, I pulled out the pocket pistol and waved it in the air, my arm outstretched towards the sky but tilted over the avenue. This being New York City, I don't think anyone paid me enough attention to notice the gun; if they did, nobody said anything.
I swallowed, once (all that preparation!) and waved again.
There was a single horn, different from the treble honks of the traffic stream. This one was louder, deeper; I lowered my arm, pushing the gun into my coat, to see a large yellow cab cutting across Broadway traffic towards me. I stepped back as it came to a stop against the curb, then opened the door and stepped in. It was a Checker cab, built from the now-extinct Checker Marathon, with an appropriately checkerboard patterned stripe that would have done Admiral Nelson proud circling the car at the top of the fenders.
Settling into the back seat, I nodded to the driver, but didn't say anything. He nodded back, dimly visible in front of scarred plexiglass, and opened a small window in the barrier, waiting.
I handed him the pocket pistol.
He examined it briefly, but with familiarity; then he nodded, dropped it onto the front seat, and turned back to traffic. I closed my eyes.
There are many strange things, people and places in New York City. In my line of work I regularly ran across rumors, stories, legends, journals, articles and more which all purported to convey the truth of New York. Some were fantasy. Some were history. Some were something in between - a description of things that might be, if the reader wanted it enough, was willing to search off the beaten path and walk into the woods, out of the light, when the trail required it.
That research told me not to look, so I didn't. I held my gorge against carsickness as the cab jolted, swerved and zipped through New York traffic. I didn't know if it was traffic I would recognize, and finding out took a back seat to completing the errand I'd set out on by hailing the cab.
After perhaps twenty minutes, the cab stopped. The driver rapped on the partition, and I opened my eyes, the butterflies in my stomach kicking into a higher gear with the realization that the test was at hand. Reaching into my pants pocket, I withdrew five counterfeit American Gold Eagle coins, and handed them to the driver.
They were counterfeit, but only because I had been unable to find a commercially-available gold coin that was three nines fine. I'd had these five minted from gold using moulds taken from the American Eagle. This was the first step out onto thin ice; the research said that the coins must be three nines. It didn't say they had to be legal tender.
The driver bit one of the coins, nodded, and then passed my flintlock back through the barrier, turned off the cab engine, and settled back with his arms crossed. I nodded in return, took the gun and got out of the car.
I was in Central Park, in Sheep Meadow. Behind the trees was a line of low buildings to the West; looking to the left, another line of buildings, lower than they should be, were visible to the south. I swallowed, deliberately settling my stomach, and stepped forward to the six men dressed in black who waited some ten yards off. As I approached, all six bowed to me in unison. I bowed in return, eyes dropping to the ground, and all of us straightened up. One of the men waiting, slightly apart from the others, wore simple clothing, loose-fitting. He wore no hat. The others were dressed nearly identically in what to me was archaic dress wear. Three had top hats.
The gentleman on the end opposite from the loose-clad man extended a hand. I handed him the pocket pistol, butt first; he took it, nodding to me in acknowledgement, and then took out a jeweler's loupe, screwed it into his eye and began to examine the gun. After a minute or so he appeared to be satisfied, and passed the gun to his neighbor. It moved up the line until it reached the last man standing apart; he held up a hand, forgoing his right to examine the gun. I nodded to him, and he returned the nod, a supercilious look on his face.
I wasn't comfortable with this, but I had come too far to back out.
The gun was returned to me. I removed a small can of powder and shook a bit into the pan before closing the lid over it, priming the gun. The last man - the duelist, I had realized - drew a larger flintlock approximately the size of my carriage pistols at home, and stepped away from his companions to place his heels at a line scraped in the brittle turf. I looked around us, quickly, trying to record the scene for later study. The air was chilly, but not as cold as it had been in Herald Square. The sky was cloudless, and the sun was somewhere near its zenith; bright sunlight illuminated the park. Other than the seven of us, there was no-one in sight.
I moved to stand back-to-back with the duelist, my pistol at my side. With my right thumb, I locked the flint back The five men stepped back in unison some ten paces, and I turned my head to the right to watch them. One remained a step in front of the others; he raised his hand, with a handkerchief in it. His voice, when he spoke, shocked me slightly as it broke the silence of the proceedings.
"Gentlemen. Your quarrel being intractable, I hereby agree to officiate the settling of the question. When I lower my hand, both parties to walk forward ten paces, and stop. When I cry 'action!' both parties will turn in place and fire. Is that understood?"
"Aye," said my opponent.
"Yes," I said. I was pleased to note my voice was steady.
"Then await the signal!"
I breathed in, deeply, to settle my nerves. The smell of dogwoods, elm and of beeches and grass - the smells of Central Park, even in my New York - filled my nose. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the handkerchief fall, and took a measured pace forward. Step.
The grass crunched slightly below my feet. Step.
I realized that I couldn't see the buildings south of the park clearly; they wavered as though in heat mirages. Step.
The butterflies in my stomach were almost unbearable. Step.
Step. I froze in place, tightening my right hand (but not too much) around the pistol, waiting...
I spun to my right, dropping to my knees as I did so. As far as I could tell, this was an acceptable motion, and as my knees hit the earth I caught sight of my opponent, just coming out of his own turn. My right arm was extended fully, my head turned to the right, so I only needed to make a quarter-turn; just when my right hand came up, the other duelist swam into my vision just over the smooth barrel. I didn't think.
There was a tugging on my front, across my chest. I couldn't see anything through the immense cloud of smoke that had issued from both guns, but as far as I could tell without looking down, I hadn't been wounded badly. I slowly rose to my feet, realizing that my drop hadn't in fact confused my opponent.
The smoke began to blow to the North. My opponent was still facing me, his right shoulder back, his gun hanging at his side. His face wore an expression of amazement.
We stared at each other for a few moments, and then he crumpled to the grass.
I lowered my gun and looked down. There was a burned scar across the front of my London Fog, and one of the lapels which had been sticking out forward had a bullet hole in it.
I carefully lowered my gun, bent forward slightly, and vomited onto the grass in reaction.
One of the five men, assisted by one of his fellows, was examining my opponent. They both looked up at the three remaining and slowly shook their heads. The same spokesman looked at me, his eyes hard but not condemning. "I declare this matter closed. You may leave the field."
I turned back towards the cab, unsteadily, and wobbled my way to it. I opened the door, but before I got in, I did what I had been planning to do the entire trip - I reached into my coat and drew the Beretta. Holding it awkwardly in the fingers of my right hand, I swung into the cab and sat down. The cab driver opened the barrier, and I passed him both guns, holding my breath.
He took them, then turned to look at me. I looked back as steadily as I was able. Carefully, he looked a the pocket pistol, then dropped it on the seat and just as carefully examined the Beretta. He looked out the side window, where the five men were carrying off the Duelist. Opening his window, I heard him shout something, although I couldn't make it out. The spokesmen left the pallbearers and moved to the cab. There was a quick discussion, at the end of which the spokesman shook his head and shrugged. The cabbie nodded, turned to me and nodded in turn.
I sat back in the thin ragged cushions of the 1970s back seat and breathed out a long, long sigh of relief.
* * *
That night, after the cab had dropped me off back in Herald Square, I made my way downtown to Cafe Tabac, on Watts Street. Displaying a pugnacity and rudeness I would never offer unprovoked normally, I managed to convince four of the brownies in the bar to follow me out to the street, violence on their minds. When they closed in around me, I turned to face them and raised my right hand to the air. Confused, they stopped and looked at each other.
My fingertips sorted the two hard objects I could feel in the air, grasped, and when I dropped my arm, the Beretta was resting comfortably in my hand, silencer extended in eager curiosity.
I nodded to my assailants, and dropped my hand to my trouser seam. I felt the lightening as the gun vanished back where it had come, and I spread my arms out, hands extended, apologized to the brownies, and convinced them to come back into the bar so that I could buy them a round of milk.
Although I couldn't see them, I remembered where my fingers had been in relation to my head, and I could somehow sense the bullets there. Metal and powder, potentials vibrating just outside the frequency of my New York, waiting eagerly in their prison of metal, wood, plastic, light and shadow.
<--Younger | The New York Magician | Older-->