<--Younger | The First New York Magician | Older-->
At 8th Avenue and Horatio there is a jagged weal in the grid system of Manhattan. The angled street grid of the West Village meets Greenwich and the bottom end of the aligned grid of Chelsea above it. Tucked away on 8th between Horatio Street, 13th Street and west 4th st (I said it was jagged, it also defies logic) is that rarity of sightings: a Manhattan gas station. Taxicabs are frequent custom here; a line of yellow cabs is usually to be found idling at the curb awaiting their turn to sup.
The taxicabs had all gone, flushed away as the skittish plovers they were, for their small urban feeder was an inferno.
I stood across 8th avenue inside the small triangular park that lay almost directly opposite. 8th was blocked by haphazardly parked fire engines, marshal's vehicles, police cruisers and the lethal humping snakes of live fire hoses feeding from the hydrants that pulse invisibly on New York's streets. A tanker truck had gone up while delivering fuel to the small independent station, and due to the station being surrounded on three sides by residential buildings the fire department was making a concerted effort to contain the blaze within the station itself. The only reason they looked like having a chance in hell was that the tanker had been parked as far from the back of the station as possible, essentially on the sidewalk, and the fire was (so far) limited to the underground tanks beneath it, the pumps themselves and the tanker's corpse, which hadn't moved.
Apparently the tanker had been full. This was bad as far as extinguishing the blaze went, but good in that there hadn't been a vapor-backed explosion; rather, it appeared that the transfer hose had somehow ignited, caused a slow and steady ignition rather than a detonation. This, too, meant the flames were for the moment contained within a thick barrier of foam the pompiers had placed around the site, maintaining it with grim determination. Burning fuel slid under the foam walls and promptly extinguished, and a second team was playing sprayers over the rivers of gasoline that emerged from beneath the gigantic bubble-bath in order to keep the air above it cool and keep it from igniting. There were two trucks of HAZMAT crews trying with some success to keep the fossil fuels from running into the storm sewers, liberally dispensing bentonite to absorb and block the flows. The entire area reeked of smoke and fuel. Since this was New York, the watching crowd had swelled to somewhat ludicrous levels, and pulled in all the street vendors from perhaps thirty blocks around. New Yorkers love a show. Occasional bursts of activity by the emergency services crews would prompt spatters of cheers, only a few of them sarcastic.
I had been on my way home from the A/C/E stop at 14th and 8th, happening by only a few minutes after the initial blast. I hadn't seen that, but upon exiting the subway I'd seen (and heard) the conflagration and had, like my fellow city dwellers, hastened to get a good spot. I'd had two hot dogs (one good, one foul) a falafel (quite good) and two pieces of fruit from the enterprising types with carts. I'd spent a few minutes scanning the scene and the crowd looking for any indication that there was Elder presence or involvement in the fire, and seen none; there were a couple of sylphs watching from a hundred feet back or so, but I'd seen them arrive after the fact. They'd nodded to me warily, and I'd nodded back, our personal differences suspended in New York truce, and they had been quietly watching the sights wrapped into and around a pair of trees at the back of the park. The slightly wavery outlines of the trunks where they were interposed, some fifteen feet up, was almost indistinguishable even to my sight, so I had no fear they would be seen by anyone.
As I turned to head downtown towards home (resigning myself to a detour away from Eighth due to safety barriers) my eyes came to rest on man crouched atop a newspaper vending box. It was his posture that arrested me, I'm fairly sure; he was poised, his feet together underneath him with his bent legs splayed out, hands resting not on his knees but on the newspaper box's surface. With his slight forward lean and intent stare, he looked almost like a sprinter in the blocks. I frowned and angled to walk past him. Other than his stance, he seemed perfectly normal, and mere pyromania - no matter how severe - couldn't serve to mark him as odd in this crowd.
After I passed the newspaper box, though, I turned to look at him again. With the fire behind him, silhouetting him, the story was entirely different, causing me to stop and move instinctively to the building wall for a better look. He was still in the same pose, but around his body was a wavering brightness. On examination, it looked as though the light from the fire was being lensed around his body, compressed into bands of high intensity near his outline. A man-shaped bonfire, optical illusion, roared up from the vending machine into the New York skyline, merging with the light reflected from the surrounding buildings.
As I stood there in surprise, his head swiveled to look towards me. Our eyes met for just a moment, and then his face showed shock at the realization that I was looking at him, not the fire. His brows furrowed together for a second. At that moment, I pushed away from the wall and began to lumber through the flood of pedestrians towards him.
He leapt from the box with a convulsive straightening of his legs, landed on a small patch of clear ground without knocking anyone over, and then melted into the crowd. I was too far away and not tall enough to see him go. By the time I reached the newspaper box, he was long gone; even after I clambered up onto the space he had just vacated, I couldn't see him or any out-of-place movement in the crowd. He had apparently had the sense to move away just far enough and then move with the flow.
I climbed thoughtfully down off the box and went home.
* * *
I didn't think much of it for a couple of weeks. While sitting at my desk at work one day, however, I was caught by an image from the New York One video news feed which I kept running, along with several similar streams, on a flat panel monitor on my office credenza. Looking up from my newspaper, I saw a flash of fire, and reached for the remote. A click brought the NY1 feed up to cover the entire screen, and I watched a large powerboat (or small yacht, depending on your point of view) burn merrily. It seemed to be docked somewhere on the East River, perhaps near the Seaport, but it was hard to tell from the angles. The fiberglass hull coat and superstructure was deforming under the heat as the frozen therms of plastic and diesel liberated themselves in a sooty orange celebration. A fireboat and two fire engines were in attendance; the text scroll on the screen was explaining that the boat had been rammed by a runaway tugboat which had caused a rupture of the fuel tanks. The tugboat was visible in the background, having been unceremoniously hauled away from its victim. No casualties had been suffered; the powerboat had been parked and empty at the time of the collision. I was about to switch the feed back down when I saw a shape that looked out of place.
A man was crouched atop a large piling at the next pier down, his ungainly figure projecting above the small crowd that had gathered to watch the fun. I snatched the remote back up and tried frantically to get the idiot computer running the feeds to zoom in on him, but the camera cut away again. By the time the same angle popped back up on the screen, the piling was empty.
I rubbed my chin thoughtfully and caught myself idly readjusting the weight of the Desert Eagle underneath my oversized sportscoat.
* * *
I was drinking with Kevin a few days later when I remembered the two sightings. We were in Molly's, a shebeen on the lower east side near the Police Academy with an actual working fireplace and sawdust on the floor. Popular with the cadets, it was usually a good place to drink undisturbed. Staring into the flickering fireplace, I was struck by a sudden memory and turned to my companion.
"Kevin, do you know of anybody in Manhattan like you, but associated with a fire Elder?"
"What, like Belenus or Xolotl?"
"Or Vulcan, or Hephaestus, or anybody like that."
Kevin took a draught of Guinness, one worthy of his size and accent, thinking. I waited. He lowered the glass to the bar and shook his head. "Nope."
"Are you sure?" I asked, disappointed.
"Yeh. Me boss keeps tabs on those types. His counterparts, y'know."
"Yeah, I can see that."
"Sure. Anyway, he tells me when they're up to summat, and when they are it's always either in person or via a temporary avatar. I've not heard of them using a human for any long term work. They're difficult for a human to work with, o'course."
He grinned, reached forward and pinched out the candle. Waving his fingers, he showed the black soot mark on the thumb and forefinger to me. I understood. "Oh. They can't avoid heating their environments?"
"Well, they can, but they can't exist in environments that aren't uncomfy warm for us. Me, I'm from th'auld sod, so bein' soaked through to the skin is no great handicap."
I laughed and took a drink of my own. "Makes sense. As much as anything."
"Why d'ye ask, boy?"
So I told him about what I'd seen. He shook his head. "Are ye sure ye saw something? Two sightings, one barely credible, for a moment on a TV?"
"Yeah, I'm sure, Kevin. It looked right." I looked into my beer for a bit. "I can tell when I'm Seeing things. I was, those times. Nobody else noticed."
"All right then. Was the man hisself visible only to you, or was it just the oddity that only you could see?"
I thought about that, too. "I...don't know. I think he was visible; I mean, I think I saw people avoiding him." I frowned, trying to pull the memory up. "Yeah, they walked around him."
"Hm. Sounds indeed like a mortal, of rare device."
"Ah well. I'm not sure why I even care. Unless he's the one setting the fires."
We drank for a moment, before Kevin asked of the air, "'Course, why is he runnin' away?"
I didn't have an answer to that which I liked.
* * *
Nothing happened on the firewatcher front for a couple of months. I had a run-in with a Paladin on upper Broadway which ended up with my having to purchase a bodega and the next door food stand due to demolishment, as well as invoke more favors than I would have liked to avoid official inquiry. The paladin lived, worse luck, but I vindictively hoped he'd be a bit more careful naming his Demons in future. I met three more Elders who were willing to talk about Nana, and I managed to avoid talking to Cthulhu or Azif once.
Then, around the time the weather changed to chill, I was walking down West Houston street when I turned my head and saw him. Just past Mercer Street, a bit west; he was sitting on the curb talking with two other men. Wiry but not small, he was wearing a leather jacket against the cold and was engaged in a loud and good-natured argument about baseball. His face, in profile, was unmistakeable despite its relative plainness; I had seen it outlined in faeried fire and compressed combustion. I continued walking east until I'd passed him and his companions, wondering what to do, before shrugging to myself and turning back to approach them. They trailed off arguing, three fairly confident-looking New Yorkers, Italian extraction if I was guessing right, and turned to look at me. I was inhaling to introduce myself when he looked up at my face.
Then he blanched, sprang to his feet, and took off north, cutting through traffic towards the Mercer block. I didn't want to wait around to find out how his friends were going to react, so I muttered "sorry," and belted off after him. There were shouts behind me, but no footfalls; I was gambling that his obvious flight would confuse them long enough to make them unwilling to get involved immediately.
I was perhaps fifty feet behind him when he hit Mercer proper. He was maintaining his lead when we blazed past Bleecker, a block later. He jumped a fence on the west side of Mercer and cut across a maze of development grounds; I stopped at the fence, my trenchcoat hampering me and, frankly, his speed so far making it unlikely I would catch him. I felt like an idiot.
Instead, I turned around. His friends where nowhere to be seen, so I walked down Mercer to Grand and cut east to get an espresso. Some fifteen minutes later I was sitting outside a tiny bakery, nibbling on a cannoli and sipping an espresso that had come out of a copper altar the size of my bathroom into an eggshell-thin Wedgwood cup. As I restored the calories wasted in pursuit, a black-on-black-on-black Cadillac STS wafted up to the curb in front of me. I raised my espresso cup to the darkened windows. One of the rear ones rolled down a few inches; so summoned, I picked up my espresso and strolled the five feet to the car, bending over to speak into the gap.
"Sir." There's no harm in being polite if you're not interested in starting trouble.
"So good to see you out and about. Does your trip concern anything I might want to know about?"
"No, sir. I'm just out for an espresso."
"Ah. I understand you were taking your exercise up near Bleecker."
Dammit. Never try to outbland an Italian south of Delancey. "I was, sir, but that to my knowledge doesn't concern any of you or yours. I would have spoken with you if I believed it did."
"Yes. You were raised polite, boy."
I nodded my head.
"Do enjoy your drink, and be welcome." The window rolled up and the Cadillac breathed away from the curb. See, car types have got it all wrong. They continually lambaste the Caddy for having soggy suspension and no ability to use the power it has; but that's not what it's for. The reason The Man In The Long Black Car always rides in a Lincoln or a Caddy is because the enormous Detroit lumps in the front have enough torque to waft the car around Little Italy without coming up past idle - and as a result, you never notice that the damn car is right behind you until too late.
It works, too. Until the signage on Mulberry Street is in Korean, there will always be at least a niche market for those cars.
I sat back down and dug out a sterile lancet from an inner pocket, unwrapped it and drove it into my finger. Then I reached that finger into my bandolier and touched the spearhead.
The resulting CRACK of power felt like it had lifted the crown of my skull off as always, especially after a native espresso, but when things had settled down there was an insistent tugging on my soul to the northwest. I paid my bill and walked in that direction.
* * *
The pulling on my mind led me over as far as Sixth Avenue, then northward. I trudged onward until suddenly I was yanked left, towards the other side of the avenue. There was a low building there, with a garage door painted red...
Oh, of course. Engine 24.
I kicked myself, hard, for stupidity, then placed my palm over my chest and expressed a small fold of power from the pocketwatch, covering myself from view with a slipcloth of imagination and distraction. I was about to walk over to the fire station and wait for someone to open a door when the big door opened, and Engine 24 spun out with the spinners lit and the horns going.
I grimaced, waited until it turned uptown past me, and grabbed one of the rear posts, swinging myself aboard to stand behind the hose stack. Nobody saw me. We roared up Manhattan for several blocks, then turned West, coming finally to a halt before a four-storey building in the West Village that was definitely burning. No flames were visible, but there was surely an awful lot of smoke coming from the top floor windows. I hopped off and watched various firefighters hurry around the truck to remove gear-
-and there he was. Helmet on his head and faceshield down, but the spearhead wouldn't lie and it pulled me towards him as he geared up and slapped another firefighter on the shoulder. Together, they hefted prybar and axe and moved towards the front of the building. I moved up behind them. After they had yanked the front door from its track and gone in, I followed.
I know, but it's not as stupid as it sounds. I'm protected against a whole raft of stuff when I'm cannoned up, as I was, and smoke inhalation really doesn't weigh in as a heavy hitter in my personal fight card. Nor does heat. Actual combustion, well, that was still a problem, but not as big of one - the Burberry was imbued with enough power to remain impenetrable for several minutes, if it came to that. I pulled on my gloves as we went in.
The problem with this magical armor routine, in my opinion, is that I've never yet found a power equation that will let me avoid sweating like a pig. Small price to pay, I suppose. I try to stay in decent shape, that helps. But now, with my scarf over my lower face and the coat closed and gloves on, I started to feel damp almost immediately.
I followed my quarry up one flight of stairs, and then the two separated, apparently intending to search the floor. I followed my pigeon, and when he took a cursory look around the rear room and continued upstairs, I was right behind him.
The fire was beautiful. It was flowering nearly silently across the upstairs hallway wall, and flowing with mesmerizing fluidity across the ceiling, a blue and yellow and orange blanket of life and death. I shook myself to stop myself staring at it-
And saw that he had stopped. He was staring at it with much the same expression I must have had on my face, but his hands hung limp at his side. I was behind him and several steps below him on the stairs, and I could see the view of the fire distorting around his head. I moved up a step, as quietly as possible despite the audible crackling of floorboards and ceiling joists, squinted, and...
Saw. There was a head around his head, transparent and nearly four times human size, looking at the fire with him; from this angle, inside the giant, almost crystalline shape, he looked like a pomegranate seed inside its angular jacket. Both he and whatever he was wearing were looking at the flames, entranced. I looked downstairs; I probably only had a few seconds.
I was wrong. The ceiling fell in at that moment, directly on top of him. I lunged forward, but my outstretched gloves met only debris, and then both me and him and the ceiling and the floor slowly detached from the sidewall of the building and lazily tumbled the three floors down to the first floor, waiting below.
* * *
<--Younger | The First New York Magician | Older-->