A story of The New York Magician
I had no idea how he'd come by my name, but the man in my office was wearing grimy high-visibility colors, heavy boots and a hard hat. He had an angled flashlight attached to his vest, and the logo on his shoulder told me that he worked for the MTA - the Metropolitan Transit Authority.
"How did you come to see me, again?" I asked as politely as I was able. This probably wasn't very politely - I had been in the middle of a somewhat complicated research project when he had knocked at my door and pushed through. I could feel the various critical facts sliding slowly from my mental grasp as they fled my skull into the aether, and I wasn't looking forward to re-reading the crumbling pages of the journal I carefully closed and placed back down onto the oilcloth in the middle of my desk.
"It's...uh." My visitor looked around, unsure of himself, before looking back at me and unconsciously smoothing his hi-vi vest with somewhat grimy hands. "I got your name from a cop I know."
"Do I know this cop?" I asked.
"I...I don't think so, but this other cop, named DiCanzo, gave me your name. After I got told to call him, I mean."
That got me interested. DiCanzo and I weren't close, but he hadn't sent me a dud reference yet. "Really. Okay. Why did this other cop tell you to go to DiCanzo? Why did he think DiCanzo could help?"
"It's a she. The cop I know, I mean. She's worked that station. And she knows DiCanzo. I dunno, I figure the cops gotta have a guy that knows about the whack New York stuff, right?"
"Back up a bit," I asked. "What station?"
"Oh, yeah. Um. Fourteenth Street, West Side. The A, C, E station. That's where...so okay, lemme start at the beginning."
Well, damn it all to hell. I sighed, wrapped the journal I'd been reading in the oilcloth, and carefully placed it back into a side drawer in my desk. As I did so I noted that the drawer, like all the others in my desk, was getting uncomfortably full. Various objects were stuffed into it. I tended to leave things in my desk that I didn't want others to mess with, as I'd spent a week once trading favors to have my desk modified in subtle ways to discourage anyone who wasn't me from disturbing its contents. But I was running out of room - I seem to run across a relatively large number of interesting things that I have the desire or need to keep private, and I had no other protected place to put them. I made a mental note to see about getting a bigger desk. Ideally one which was already attuned to magic in some way, so that it wouldn't be such a chore to protect it. "Okay. Have a seat over there by the window."
My visitor looked over and ambled to the chairs that sat by my office's window wall. The view was really rather nice, looking out as it did towards New Jersey across the Hudson River. There were a few chairs there, including one that was hard wood. I watched to see which he would choose as I stood and came out from behind my desk.
He earned back points by unconsciously rubbing his hand over his oily and dirty work trousers and then choosing the hard wooden chair rather than the leather or the upholstered one. I settled into the leather armchair across from him and pulled a notepad and pen off the coffee table between us. "Okay. Tell me about it. First of all, what's your name?"
"I'm Roy. Roy Schuster."
"Hi Roy. I'm Michel. So tell me what's up with Fourteenth Street."
"I come through the Fourteenth mezzanine a lot, right? We're doing cap improvement work on the A line, and we've been mustering at 14th and 8th nights, heading down to do work between 2 and 7 am. Maybe the third time I'm going down, I'm right behind this girl, she's going for the C train, and I hear this wolf whistle but nobody around made it. Then the next night, I hear another one, this other girl and I. I start looking around, but I don't see nobody. She thinks it was me, 'course, gives me the stinkeye and keeps going."
"How do you know nobody there whistled?"
"Nobody was close. We're at the Fifteenth street stairs, east side. Nearest other person was at the 16th street entry, block away. That whistle was close."
"Go on." I uncapped the pen and scribbled a few notes.
"So nothing, I figure it's the guys gassing me. Then the next night, I'm down near the gates at Fourteenth and I hear that whistle again, but like it's still up near Fifteenth. There's a few people there, and I hear this scream right after, so I go running up there. There's this girl, and she's standing with her back against the wall, right, looking around like she wants to whack somebody, but there's nobody nearby. I ask her if she's okay, and she says somebody pinched her."
"Yeah, you know, onna butt. She's pretty pissed, but not at me, 'cause she saw me come up from Fourteenth. I ask her who it was and she don't say nothing for a little bit then says never mind, she must've been mistaken."
"So a couple nights later, I'm on the platform. Uptown side, bottom of those stairs. I'm about to start closing off the north part of the platform, with one other guy. These girls come downstairs and look like they're gonna go north, so we tell 'em they gotta stay there or go south. We got the tool train on the local track, and the guys are mustering gear on the north half of the platform. They start up the stairs, so I tell 'em they can go south on the platform, so they do. See, we hadn't blocked the top of the stairs first, so we let 'em through the fence, then I go up the stairs to block 'em off at the top, and when I'm halfway up, something hits me inna back of the head."
"What hit you?"
He pulls his flashlight off his vest. "This."
"Did it swing up?"
"Nah. It was on my belt, right, when I was downstairs. Then when I was halfway up, it comes sailing outta nowhere and hits me, friggin' hard, too. I go down on my knees on the stairs, lucky I don't slide down. Got my hat on, so I ain't hurt, but I'm sure confused."
"Nah. He'd gone south on the platform to get the girls past the fencing. He wasn't in sight. Nobody was at the bottom of the steps, and nobody was on the mezzanine either when I looked. So there's no way anybody coulda slung this thing at me even if I'd dropped it on the platform."
"You're saying you hadn't dropped it."
"Nah." Roy stood up, then slid the flashlight into a loop on his belt which held it just to the right of his belt buckle, the body vertical and the lens facing forward at his waist. "It was here. And it was snapped in, too, like this." He demonstrated. "Sure, I mean, if I caught it on something, it coulda come out, but no way I wouldn't have known."
I took a few more notes. "Interesting. Keep going."
"A few more things. More whistles. Another woman got groped with nobody near her. So after that one, I was getting like kinda nervous and kinda pissed off, so I told the air to fuck off, you know?"
"Yeah, after the second woman left, I look around, nobody there, so I like tell...the station, I guess, to quit it and fuck off."
Roy pulled up the right sleeve of his work shirt. His arm was bandaged from forearm to up above his elbow. "This. Light fixture came out of the ceiling. Didn't drop, neither - was a big shriek, like metal tearing, and it came right down on my arm. Tore it up pretty good, smashed onna floor."
"Ugh." I took another note, then looked up. "How bad?"
"Docs all said I was lucky, it missed alla tendons and bones and stuff, but I got a big cut all the way up my bicep."
"When did you talk to your cop?"
"Couple days later, I was gettin' a coffee at the roach coach up on Eighth, maybe three AM. She comes by, says hi - she's Narco down that area until her Detective slot opens up. She's a bright kid, got the points and street time. Anyway, we're drinkin' coffee, she asks what happened to my arm, so I tell her the whole story. She laughs, asks if I'm being haunted, and you know, I dunno what I thought, so I didn't answer for a while. She gets serious, like, turns to look at me, asks again. I laugh it off, but she keeps lookin' at me, and then she pulls out one of her cards and puts a number on it, tells me to call this other cop if I keep having problems."
"I'm going to go out on a limb and guess you did."
"Yeah. Couple more whistles, couple more pinches, over the next week. Finally I go look on the net, you know, what to do about bad ghosts." He looked away, apparently embarrassed. "I figure, can't hurt, right? So this guy uptown, people say, he knows his shit. I go up there, he's got all kinda Jamaican junk in his shop, and he won't talk to me, I gotta tell him like six times I'm not kidding. So he tells me to burn this stuff, carob. Like the stuff they make fake chocolate out of. I figure I asked, right? So I get some from this bodega he tells me about and melt it into a candle, it's like a powder, and I put the candle near the stairs. They're still blocked off. I leave it lit, and I go down to the platform, and I'm halfway down and something kicks me inna ass, real hard. I go rolling down the steps, lucky I didn't break nothing."
I was scribbling. "Carob, huh."
"Yeah. So that morning I get home and my knee is hurting bad, and I take the card out and call this guy, DiCanzo. I tell him she gave me his card, and he listens for a while, then says I gotta come see you. He tells me where you work, and...and here I am." He ran down, visibly relieved at having finished his story, and looked at me expectantly.
"That's a pretty serious story."
"You think I'm kidding," he says, his face falling.
"No, I don't, Roy. Would I be taking notes if I thought you were kidding?" I finish the last scribble, cap the pen and close the notebook. "Okay. I think I want to take a look at your station."
"Yeah? Hey, how much...I mean..."
I laughed. "Don't worry, Roy, I'm not going to charge you. This is more like a hobby."
"You believe in poltergeists, Michel?"
"I've never met one. But now I'm looking forward to making the attempt."
* * *
That night, I bought three coffees from the Starbucks on Greenwich & 8th Ave, then walked up the short block and descended into the 14th Street station. The mezzanine level - the level with the turnstiles, below the street but above the platforms - wasn't deserted, but traffic was light. I swiped my Metrocard and moved north, sipping. Starbucks is convenient, but their coffee is almost uniformly burnt, in my opinion. Well, if it isn't, it sure tastes like it is.
At the second set of stairs down to the platforms, I found Roy's light box. Or, rather, where it had been - there was an empty spot on the ceiling, and I could see scarring on the tile floor beneath. I angled right to the uptown platform stairway, which was closed off with tape fencing. Looking down, I saw Roy and another MTA worker at the bottom. I waved, and Roy beckoned, so I swung my legs over the fencing (juggling the coffee) and headed down to meet them.
"Hey, Michel. This is Luis." Roy nodded to his colleague, who nodded back, obviously curious. "Luis, Michel is...he's..."
I picked up as Roy faltered. "I'm a writer. I'm working on a historical study of subway art, and this station, of course..." I gestured vaguely. The 14th St. station has a number of sculptures scattered around it - miniature bronze people, hiding in corners, stealing tokens. They're the result of the MTA Arts for Transit program, and are long familiar to any subway rider who passes through 14th, although I couldn't remember the artist's name offhand. Luis shrugged, seeming to accept my story, since Roy obviously knew me.
"So Michel," Roy said, "you probably wanna just hang out around the top of that stairway. You know, after you look around at 'em all."
"Right," I said, and handed over the other two coffees. "I bring gifts. Or bribes. Whichever."
"Hey, all right," said Luis, grinning finally. "I take bribes." He accepted one of the cups and dumped sweetener in it.
"We'll be down on the platform," said Roy. "Got a bunch of electrical work to do."
"Okay, thanks." I headed back up to the mezzanine. Looking around, I spotted a bench in the center of the space and moved over to it. It was some thirty feet from the stairway. I tossed the empty bag in a trash can and settled in to finish my coffee.
A whole passel of nothing happened for an hour or so. I practiced the New York sport of people-watching, making up stories and destinations in my head for the various people who moved past me, in transit through the New York night. I was debating silently whether two girls (I couldn't call them women, no matter how politically correct - I wasn't even sure if they were out of high school) were going to a party, a movie, or to some horrifically improbable assignation when one of them screeched and jumped a foot into the air. She came down looking around angrily while her friend pulled her own earphones out and asked what was wrong.
Her gaze settled on me for a moment, but I was clearly out of range. There wasn't anyone else near them. They conversed in sharp but low tones for a few moments, then hurried away south towards the L train. I watched them go, interest piqued. That had looked and sounded a lot like what Roy had described.
After they were gone, I stood and sidled over to the stairway. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. No odors, no strange warmth or chills, nothing. Just a subway station past midnight. I examined the tiles where the girl who had jumped had been standing, but found nothing out of the ordinary. I looked up at the ceiling, but there wasn't anything there either. No liquids dripping, nothing other than a grimy station ceiling.
I closed my eyes for a second and tried to clear my mind. I can See and Hear Elders and, sometimes, mortal Arcana - but if it's not right in front of me, I can miss it. My Talent is subtle. I don't usually see anything out of the ordinary - it's just that that includes veils, slips, and illusions. So while I can, for example, see an Elder standing in front of me trying to hide in plain sight, they'll just look...well, normal is the wrong word, but I'll have to have context to realize that they're trying to hide. When I'm looking for something but don't know what it is, I can't usually just glance around unless whatever my quarry looks like is clearly abhuman.
I used to think that by concentrating I could do better. A year or so before, however, I'd run across another Talented human who had advised me to instead try to clear my head of human vision and hearing, and to let the Elder and the Arcane show themselves via the contrast. It seemed to work better, although I couldn't be positive.
The station wasn't quiet, of course. The New York subway never is. Far-off and nearby voices alike echoing off the tile and concrete and pillars of overpainted steel; the rumble of trains moving through the system pushing harmonics through the very bones of Manhattan; occasional tool sounds from the platform below. There was a constant thrum which I'd learned was sixty-cycle, from the huge number of electric lights and motors and rectifiers that ran the Subway bathing the system in monotonics. Fans and air conditioners throbbed a harsher descant to the choral tone of the electrics.
Nothing sounded out of place, though. I held my eyes closed for a five count, then opened them slowly and looked around, trying not to focus on anything. The blurred earth tones and mute colors of the station pressed in on me, normalcy fighting to crush me beneath Eighth Avenue.
Right then, something kicked me hard. In the ass.
I fell forward with what was probably a completely undignified squawk, and managed to turn my forward fall into a clumsy roll. Rather than spraining or breaking my wrists, I instead only bruised my right shoulder badly and dirtied up my overcoat as I pushed back up to my knees and then feet, backing away from where I had been standing.
There wasn't anyone there, of course.
I continued to step backwards, still staring at my coffee cup where it lay spilled on the tile, until I fetched up against the opposite wall of the mezzanine. Absently I rubbed the offended part of my anatomy and winced at what would almost definitely be a stellar bruise in a few hours. The fall had prevented me from reflexively reaching into my coat for a tool or a weapon, which turned out to be a good thing. A few moments later, three people entered the area from the turnstile gates at sixteenth street and began moving towards me. Since I was just leaning against a wall, none of them paid me any attention.
A poltergeist. This looked trickier than I had expected.