<--Younger | The New York Magician | Older-->
I was in an alley in Hell's Kitchen, waiting for 2 A.M. From my spot next to a Dumpster, which hid me from casual eyes out on the main street, I could see the hole I had come to find. It was around a foot across, bored through the asphalt of the alley's floor just where it met the western wall. I say 'bored,' but I had no idea how it had really come to be. It might have been water damage; it might have been punched there by a badly-handled Dumpster, it might have been gnawed there by rats (if you think rats can't chew their way through paving, you don't live in a large city near street level). I had heard that there might be something 'interesting' that tended to commute in and out of it around 2 in the morning, and thus there I was.
Steam was rising slowly into the fall air from several manholes within sight. It was fairly clean, for a New York alleyway - trash was piled in the several Dumpsters along the walls, but only a light layer of litter surfed back and forth across the ground in response to the trapped and mechanistic New York winds. It was perhaps 1:45 in the morning. It was fairly loud, naturally. At least one of the buildings which backed onto the alley apparently housed some form of dance club or performance venue; the muffled bass-heavy vibrations were a constant background. Car horns and engine sounds drifted in from various directions. A nearly subsonic rumble arose from underground, the cry of a downtown subway train.
A figure turned into the alley. I froze, startled - this wasn't the kind of alley people normally walked into voluntarily, and as far as I could tell (having looked) there weren't any entrances off it which looked like they were usable. I was in a shadowed area, standing against the bricks; I was fairly sure I was hard to see, but it turned out that didn't matter. The man (it was a man in a sweater and jeans) stopped in the center of the alley perhaps twenty or thirty feet from the street, still some twenty feet short of my Dumpster, and turned back to face the alley entrance. Three people were turning in to follow him, moving with the slightly hurried look of those in pursuit. They were all older than kids but younger than adults; they were dressed fairly quietly in blacks and dark colors with no loud accents or jewelry. I couldn't see them well enough to make out their faces, but they spread out to cover the alley and stopped ten feet from the first man.
This looked interesting. I unbuttoned my coat as unobtrusively as possible and unholstered the Desert Eagle, holding it under the coat down at my side. The first man was saying something to his followers, but I couldn't make it out over the ambient noise - he was facing away from me. Their reaction was visible, though - there was a lot of scorn in it, and the three of them moved forward slightly. One reached into his pocket and produced something which he held like a knife, although I still couldn't see clearly.
The first man was backing towards me, hands raised. I still wasn't sure I wanted to be involved, but if he saw me as he passed and reacted, I was going to be whether I wanted to or not. As quietly as possible, I reached over with my left hand and worked the big pistol's slide, chambering a round and cocking the action. I had been standing without leaning on the wall to avoid crushing my hat brim, so had no need to move my shoulders forward.
One of the three pursuers, the one in the middle, was gesticulating sharply at their quarry. I could hear his voice raised in anger. His target was still backing slowly down the alley, and would pass my Dumpster in another few seconds. I prepared to step out of the shadow.
There was a sudden flash of - something. It lit up the alleyway walls and floor momentarily, a strobe of blue-violet color between the man backing towards me and his pursuers. I couldn't see where it had come from, but the three followers stopped suddenly, and all of them clapped their hands to their faces. One fell to his knees. They might have been screaming, but it was hard to tell. Their quarry stopped and let his hands fall slowly to his side. I could see him shaking his head.
I stayed where I was, confused. I hadn't seen him do anything; both his hands had been raised and open, in my sight the whole time, so I was pretty sure he hadn't used a weapon. As I was leaning forward slightly, trying to get a better view of the three who had followed him, he started walking slowly back towards them. All three had now sunk down to the floor; the first one to fall had gone prone. They were still holding their faces, writhing. I could hear them screaming, now, their voices coming down into register from whatever pained and agonized hissing they had started out at.
I took a slow and quiet step forward to clear the Dumpster. None of them saw me. I kept the pistol in my coat, right hand tucked behind the left front panel of the London Fog. Facing the others, I leaned to one side slightly to keep all of the pursuing trio in view around the first man, and was just considering whether to say anything (or what) when one of the three on the ground dropped his hands from his face and started scrabbling in his coat pocket. I caught a glimpse of something odd on his face, and his eyes streaming tears but otherwise visible, and then he jerked his hand out of the pocket. There was a familiar matte black shape in it; it had the half angular, half ray gun outlines of the slide and top frame of a Glock handgun. I started to bring the Desert Eagle out from under my coat.
Before I could shout a warning, though, a couple of things happened. I could see the gunman's eyes widen as, presumably, he caught sight of me behind his target. The Glock was still coming up. Then the man between us shifted his right arm out to the side, sharply, and there was another, brighter flash of indirect light. My eyes closed involuntarily, and hurt; realizing I was vulnerable, I threw myself sideways and felt my right shoulder hit the wall, which meant I was once more hidden from the others by the Dumpster. There was a high scream, worse than before, and a loud explosive pop which didn't sound like a pistol shot.
I forced my eyes back open and found that they were streaming, and spots were floating in my vision. I staggered back out into the alley and brought the Desert Eagle up. As my vision cleared from the shock, I could see the first man had stopped where he had been when I'd last seen him. The other two pursuers were lying prone, on their backs, unmoving; the one who had drawn the Glock was clutching his wrist and screaming.
There didn't seem to be a hand attached to his wrist.
I watched as the lone man started forward again and moved to the injured form on the ground. He knelt, grabbed the other's wrist and forced it into view, fighting the panicked and weakened efforts of the gunman. I could see him shake his head, and then he lifted his left hand and covered the gunman's eyes while holding the wrist steady against the other's struggles with his right. Then he turned his head away. So warned, so did I, and closed my eyes.
There was another soundless blast of light, and when I opened my eyes, the gunman was still, apparently having fainted. The lone man examined the wrist he was holding, then I saw his shoulders slump. He gently lowered his victim to the pavement and carefully tucked the wrist inside the man's coat before straightening up and walking briskly out of the alley.
I stood there for a second, frozen with shock and indecision, then ran over to the three forms on the ground. All three appeared to be unconscious. I went to the one he'd been holding and pulled his arm out of his coat.
There was a blackened, smooth expanse of flesh where his hand should have been. His arm ended cleanly just behind the wrist. It looked like the wound had been cauterized; it was sealed tightly, and no blood escaped. There was a smell of cooked meat. Controlling my gorge, I stood up and holstered the Desert Eagle, looking around. Near the alley wall I saw a small dark object that looked artificial, so I grabbed it up and loped out of the alley to follow the first man towards Seventh Avenue.
I spared the thing I'd picked up a quick glance. It was a fragment of the Glock. Perhaps two inches of the slide, fractured and blown off the barrel; its edges melted and the whole thing hot as hell. I dropped it into a pocket as I reached Seventh, looking up and down. My quarry (their quarry) was walking downtown some hundred feet or so away, hands in his pockets and head hunched.
I fell in behind him. I didn't know if he had any idea I'd been in the alley, but he hadn't given any indication that he did. As we walked, I pulled out my burn phone and dialed 911, still watching the other man's back.
"911 operator, what's the emergency?"
"There are three adult males in an alley between Thirty-sixth and Thirty-seventh street, between Sixth and Seventh avenues. They need EMTs; one has lost a hand. They were all unconscious as of a minute ago."
"Sir, are you-" I thumbed off the phone, slid the battery compartment open and removed both battery and SIM card, then dropped everything back into my outer coat pocket. My quarry was still walking downtown steadily. We were approaching Thirty-Fourth street. Despite the hour, Penn Plaza's billboards were lit up as usual and there was moderate pedestrian traffic. Despite this, I was close enough to see when he produced his own cell phone and lifted it to his ear. I was too far back to hear what he said, of course, but the call lasted only a few moments. He slid the phone back into his pocket and stopped, then looked around. I slowed. After a moment, he turned suddenly and entered the subway. Fishing a Metrocard out of my pocket, I followed him onto the uptown 1 platform, walking past him to lean against a pillar some twenty feet away and look back past him into the tunnels for an approaching train like everyone else.
He was standing against a pillar as well, but facing the wall across the tracks. I studied him in profile. I didn't know him. He was a few inches shorter than I, and had brown curly hair. He was clean-shaven. His features were unremarkable - I couldn't see his eye color, but from what I could see he had a proportionate nose, strong cheekbones and a flat forehead. Thin lips, even without his hand rubbing his face and his expression of unhappiness. I watched as he shifted position, one hand going unconsciously to rub his stomach as if at a cramp. After a few moments, he reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out something which he unwrapped and began to eat - it looked like an energy or granola bar, something like that.
Since he'd stopped moving, I could finally do what I'd wanted to do since he'd left the alley - I put my right hand under my coat, against my pocketwatch, and looked at him carefully. I could see a couple of wispy shapes in the corner of my vision, some form of eldritch machination or presence in the Penn Station subway, but I ignored them and concentrated on my target.
Nothing. He looked exactly the same. Surprised, I lifted my hand from the pocketwatch.
I don't have much 'talent' of my own. I can See and Hear entities who would rather remain unnoticed; that's pretty much the extent of it. My Nana encouraged and nurtured this. She, it turned out, had the same ability. While in itself it wasn't much, she had shown me how to use my small gifts to converse and trade with those I could See - and the tools in my bandolier were the result of that. The changes wrought on my Patek Phillipe by the Djinn allowed me to extend my own meager talent in range and breadth - had there been anything of the Elders about this man, I should have been able to See it from where I stood. Even humans who have no idea they have been touched by the invisible or forsaken denizens of New York will show their sign when I look at them thus; but here, nothing.
I stood and watched him eat his snack as a train thundered into the station, sliding from my own eldritch knowledge of its location into a physical presence, and he and I both boarded.
The 1 train wasn't very crowded this late at night. I slouched at the other end of the car from my quarry and watched from the corner of my eye as he steadily ate his way through three snack bars, produced from various pockets. He stood up at 72nd street. I watched him stand in front of the doors as the train pulled to a stop, walking off as soon as they opened; then I rose myself and sauntered off the train. He was heading for the uptown end of the platform, bypassing the stairways at the south end. Taking a chance, I jogged up those stairs and exited the southern station house onto 72nd and Broadway. Hurrying, I jumped the fence into traffic on 72nd street and dodged cabs, moving to the north side of the street. Moving to the right a bit, I ensured I could see both ends of the northern station house - and sure enough, some half a minute later, I saw him walking out the north end and heading for 73rd street. Since he was angling to the East, I quickly crossed Amsterdam to the East side of the avenue and moved uptown as well.
He reached Amsterdam and 73rd and waited to cross, so I slowed. He crossed to my side of the avenue, then turned north, and I fell in behind, a third of a block behind him. We passed my favorite Tuscan small-plate restaurant and a decent chocolatier as we continued uptown. He turned right onto 74th street. I forced myself not to increase my pace, but turned right when I reached the corner some thirty seconds later.
He was nowhere in sight.
I schooled my face to remain impassive and simply continued walking east, looking carefully around with just my eyes. He wasn't hiding between cars, and both sidewalks were empty. On my side of the street there were no decent hiding spots; large buildings flush with the sidewalk, limited access. On the uptown side, however, there were several older buildings with steps up from the street over sun wells. If he hadn't gone into the large residential building on my right (number 170, I noted) he was likely hiding somewhere behind or under front steps across the street.
I forced myself to just keep walking without moving my head. When I reached the middle of the block, I looked behind me once, casually, as New Yorkers often do to check their area. Nothing.
I swung in between two parked cars. Crouching just in front of a useless luxury SUV, I carefully edged my head out around its front bumper. Still nothing. Quickly, still crouched, I crossed the street and ducked in between two cars on the uptown side. After waiting a moment, I edged my right eye out on the curb side.
An empty sidewalk. I waited.
After a minute or so, there was movement. I watched with one eye as a figure climbed out of a fenced-off below-street stairwell and looked both ways up and down the block. Apparently satisfied, he went up the main stairs to the building he'd been hiding under and used a key.
I waited another two minutes before sliding out from between the cars, relieved that no one had passed by and commented (even in New York City, lurking between parked cars at two in the morning is looked upon askance by pedestrians). Then I walked back down the block and noted the building he'd entered - number 181.
Committing it to memory, I walked back to the subway and headed back downtown.
* * *
By the time I got back down to the alleyway in Hell's Kitchen, the EMTs had carted off the three men we'd left there. One squad car, one unmarked sedan and an NYPD services truck were parked near the end of the alleyway. Walking past, I could see two uniformed cops, two detectives and what must have been a couple of forensics guys working- the latter with digital SLR rigs and voice recorders. I gave the scene the expected glance of a curious New Yorker and continued walking. When I got to the corner, I went into a bodega and bought a coffee and a pair of donuts to tide me over while I waited.
It took a couple of hours, but the cops finally packed up their gear and left. I gave it another hour, until the first light of day was peeking down the cross-street canyons from the East, and then sauntered back down the street and turned into the alleyway. There were chalk marks where they'd found the three men, and several other smaller marks on walls where they'd found things they'd decided to photograph. I moved back to my favorite Dumpster and took up station on the far side again, settling in to wait. I presumed that whatever lived in the hole I'd been watching hadn't exited or returned while the cops had been clattering around, but I didn't know how long it had taken for the first responders to reach the scene.
My patience was rewarded half an hour later when a short figure hurried into the alley. It was dressed in a ragged raincoat and what looked like stumpy boots, and was wearing a rain hat pulled down over its face. Only by looking very closely could I see the extended snout or the clawed paws protruding from the disguise, and I sat there frozen as it looked around frantically before shrugging its way out of the clothing in a quick flash of motion. Gathering up the items it had just doffed, it stood frozen in the half-light of the alley for just a moment - just long enough for me to see the sharp little features and the strong haunches of a quadruped.
Kawauso. A Japanese river otter, a yōkai, legendarily able to leave the water and pass as human. Although I wasn't sure what it was doing here, I wasn't surprised - there were probably tens or hundreds of thousands of Japanese in New York, after all, and Manhattan existed between two rivers.
I stepped out from behind the Dumpster, and it froze further, turning its head to me. I raised both my hands away from my sides and knelt down, bringing my head to a level only a foot or so above its own.
We waited there for perhaps thirty seconds.
Then it came over, slowly, peering at me and blinking. I stayed where I was, and watched it come. It stopped perhaps a yard in front of me, then pumped its head two, three times and tentatively reached out a small furred paw. It stopped, a foot or two in front of my head.
I slowly bowed my head.
It waited for ten seconds, then darted in and pulled my Homburg off my head. When I lifted my head again, it was standing where it had been, holding the Homburg in front of its body. The hat was big enough to hide its torso. It was looking at me, the question in its eyes.
I nodded twice.
It blinked, then moved forward before touching my right arm - almost a pat - and then faster than I could follow it vanished from the alley. I had just a glimpse of blurred motion as it slid into the hole in the alley floor I'd originally come to watch.
I grinned. Then I stood, listened to my knees protest for a moment, and sauntered out of the alleyway in search of breakfast and bed.
* * *
I woke up sometime in the middle afternoon, glad it was Saturday. After a quick run along the newly-renovated Hudson River waterfront, I returned home to shower and change before taking the subway back up to 72nd street. I picked up a Depression Special at Gray's Papaya; when I reached 74th and came within sight of number 181 West, I found a stoop several buildings along to sit on. Reaching into my pocket for a sterile lancet, I pricked the forefinger of my left hand and laid it on the spearhead inside my bandolier. When my vision cleared from the usual shock, I found myself staring directly to my right and up, at the fourth floor of number 181. Satisfied, I removed my hand and got comfortable, turning my attention to the hot dogs and sugary drink.
New York food. Nothing like it in the world, and that goes for every tier.
The skies had darkened before my invisible thread began to angle downwards. I stood and moved down the block to stand in front of 181, watching the door. I made sure my hands were visible at my sides.
He stopped just inside the vestibule, seeing me there. I nodded to him once, letting him know I was indeed waiting for him, and extended my hands away from my sides. He stared at me for a few moments, then opened the front door and slowly moved down the steps, stopping three above where I waited on the sidewalk.
"Who are you and what do you want?" His voice was slightly high. I took it for nerves. He was wearing a down vest over a short-sleeved shirt, which was slightly eccentric given the season, but it wasn't all that cold out.
"My name's Wibert. Michel Wibert. I'd like to talk to you if you've the time and inclination."
He cocked his head to the right. "About what?"
"Oh, I think you know. But I don't want anything from you, or want you to do anything, and I'm not out to tell anyone else anything. This is just for my own curiosity."
"And why should I indulge your curiosity?" he asked, belligerence creeping into his voice as he descended the last three steps to stand a couple of yards from me.
"No reason," I said evenly. "But I don't know you, and I know a lot of things about this town and the different people running around it. Maybe we could trade information." I put a slight accent on different.
"How d'you mean, different?"
I looked around us. No-one was closer than the avenue. I looked back at him, grinned, and slowly moved my right hand to my bandolier. He watched my hand but didn't panic. I laid my palm against the pocketwatch's pouch and brought up a slip. He started violently, but didn't look around; he kept his eyes where he'd last seen me. After a few seconds, I dropped the slip and he started again but not as badly. He looked at me for a few seconds, then rubbed his mouth, considering. He swung around to look up and down the block a couple of times. Apparently satisfied, he turned back to me. "Answer for answer?"
"Okay. I was on my way to dinner. You can join me so long as we're talking."
He set out along 74th towards Amsterdam at a walking pace, and I fell in alongside him. He turned to me. "That was you, last night, wasn't it?"
"Yeah, it was."
"Why were you following me?"
"Actually, I wasn't, originally. I was standing in that alleyway when you first came in."
He stopped and glared at me suspiciously. "Why?"
"My own business." I stopped too, and looked back at him as neutrally as I could. "If you want to ask me about it, you can ask me over dinner. I'll buy, since I'm the one interfering with your evening."
We looked at each other for a few seconds, then he laughed, a sharp bark. "Fair enough, Mr. Wibert." We started walking again. "My name's Mason. Douglas Mason."
"Good to meet you, Mr. Mason."
"Doug is fine."
"Michel." We turned south onto Amsterdam. "Where were you heading?"
"There's a little Italian place in the next block."
"The salumeria?" I asked.
"Yes. Do you know it?"
"Yes. Good choice."
"Okay then," he said, with what sounded like the first trace of humor I'd heard in his voice, "you get to pick the wine."
He'd only made a reservation for one, but the tables in the tiny Tuscan small-plate restaurant were for two anyway. The headwaiter recognized us both and ushered us (well, shoehorned us) into the small table near the window. I chose a Paolo Scavino Lange Nebbiolo 2007, and he chose the large salumi tasting plate. We both added a couple of dishes. I was cheating; I know absolutely nothing about wines - that alone being enough to ensure I was never acknowledged as a Frenchman - but the folks that ran this restaurant did, and I had been introduced to the Nebbiolo some trips prior. I just stuck with it.
"So," Doug asked when the waiter had poured and gone, "what's your interest in me?"
"I'm..." I stopped, thinking, and drank. "How long have you been in New York?"
"About four months. Still waiting."
I wave a hand in acknowledgement. "I try to keep track of strange things that go on in New York City. I know that sounds grandiose."
He snorted. "More psychotic. 'Strange things?' How would you keep up?"
I laughed. "Fair enough. I cheat."
"My turn. What do you do for a living?"
His face closed somewhat. "I'm a scientist. Medical researcher. How do you cheat?"
"I have some friends and acquaintances who give me a hand. Are you currently working?"
"No, I'm not. I had some problems with my last job. What kinds of friends and acquaintances?" He was definitely looking more suspicious now.
"Nobody who knows or cares about you, I'm fairly sure," I said. "What did you do to those guys in the alley?"
He looked at me, then put down his wine glass. I picked up mine and took a drink, indicating ease. "You were there."
I put the wine glass down again. "I was. I was behind you. I saw them after you left, close up."
"They threatened me," he said. His voice trembled slightly. I took that as a good sign; not insensitive to what he'd done, after all.
"I didn't ask you why," I said as calmly as I could. "I asked what."
He blew out a breath, looked away, looked back. "That's the question you really want answered, isn't it."
"One of them, yes."
The waiter chose that moment to put some bread and olive oil in front of us, and we both spent a minute on that. He looked directly at me. "Will you tell anyone?"
"Not if you ask me not to," I said steadily.
"I need to tell you about my last job," he said, sitting back. I sat back as well, the mood in our small bubble of New York private space relaxing a bit. There was a couple at the table adjoining ours, and another at the table beyond them; as far as I could tell, both had been staring into each others' eyes and paying no attention whatsoever to the two middle-aged men at the end table. I guess we didn't look enough like a couple to be interesting.
"I was lead scientist on a project to build medical nano," he started. "The design goal was to build autonomous devices small enough to fit into a blood vessel that could clear plaque from the coronary arteries without risking infarction or stroke."
I nodded, not wanting to interrupt his sudden volubility. I'd been right; he needed to tell someone the story.
"We ended up going with a unit size significantly smaller than we'd originally designed. The original plan had been for a unit around the size of a grain of rice, able to hold position in the artery and remove the obstruction. We ended up going orders of magnitude smaller, and went with a self-replicating nanomachine.
The nanobes were built in phases. The first ones did nothing but report back from whatever test solution we put them in. The second phase could report back as well as reproduce themselves, but self-destructed after three generations. The third phase...well, you get the idea."
I drank some more wine. "How'd they end up in you?"
He laughed, a bit bitterly. "It's that obvious, is it?"
"Yeah." He sighed, drank. "It was obvious to the study supervisors, too." He poured us both more wine. "I had a minor heart attack, see. Unrelated to the project. I like," he continued drily, "steaks."
"Yep. Somewhere around phase six, which was still well before human trials but with the things doing pretty much what we wanted, I went into the lab and ran off a batch and stuck 'em into a standard syringe, and..." he shrugged.
The waiter chose that moment to arrive with a platter of various cured meats and cheeses and a couple of small plates - lasagne with perfect bechamel, a leek and Romano torte. We watched him arrange his burden fussily on our tiny tabletop, managing the task without either dropping anything or moving our wine glasses. He nodded politely to us and whisked off.
Doug picked up a slice of finocchiona. "This is my favorite."
I followed suit, stacking Parma cotto onto a sliver of panini. "I guess I can see where the problem came from."
"Yeah." He munched for a bit. "Anyway, the things didn't work."
"They didn't?" I must have sounded surprised, because he snorted in amusement.
"Not really. They went to my coronary arteries, sure, but they seemed to...lose interest, I don't know, after a couple of days. There was a small improvement. But then I realized that they were sending back corrupted signals."
"How do they report?"
"They can transmit over Bluetooth, if they get together in a group. It takes enough power to do that they then have to sit quiescent for a while."
"Let me guess," I said, finishing my own meat while he heaped a second round. "They got corrupted. Didn't you have a means of getting rid of them?"
"Sure. I panicked when they started sending back bad data - went to the lab managers and admitted what I'd done. Mistake. They immediately demanded I go through the emergency protocol."
"What was the get-out?"
"Whole-body X Rays and MRI. We'd intentionally designed them so that either of those two would prevent them from reproducing and kill their ability to metabolize sugars or fat, so they'd eventually go dead and the body would flush them normally. They were hypoallergenic and intended to present a minimal signature to the immune system."
"I'm guessing something went wrong," I said.
"Of course it went wrong." We ate for a bit, then he shoved his plate away. "They died. At least, it looked like they did. They came out in my urine, we verified it, and my bloodwork showed I was clear of them. So they took a bunch of data from my tests and then fired me. I guess they had the right."
He sighed. "And then, a few months later, I was sitting at home working on a round of resumes and cover letters, and the damn Bluetooth client popped up on my Mac." He drank while I watched. "Scared the living shit out of me. Thought it was a software glitch at first, of course. Nuked the Mac. But then the generic Bluetooth layer kept throwing up alerts, and when I put the client back on, it popped up again. They were back, and they were trying to report, like they were designed."
"Must have been worrying."
"More than that!" he laughed. "I thought of going back to the lab, but decided no way, they'd just sue me or something. The next day I was trying to figure out how to scam a clinic into giving me a comprehensive enough CAT scan or MRI when the thing popped back up and I actually read the reporting message. Turns out that a few of them had been damaged, or corrupted, mutated, I don't know. Anyway, however many of them, maybe only one, had built metal shielding around their cores. I know that was something we were planning on putting in eventually so we could shove them around the body using magnetic fields. But I was sure we hadn't activated that code. But anyway, it must have protected a few or maybe even only one of them from the X-Rays and MRI. And that one reproduced. And somehow, the killswitch didn't work - and it kept on reproducing."
We were about half-way through our food. I poured us more wine and listened, which was all I could do for him right now. His hand was trembling on his wineglass and his eyes weren't focused on anything nearby, or probably anything larger than a few micrometers in size. "So anyway, I was panicking for a while, but the population flattened out, like it was supposed to. Never got above the critical population per kg of body weight, just like we designed. But these things...something got into them."
"Doug, how were they originally designed to report in?"
He laughed, a few steps shy of a hysterical note in his voice. "You got it in one. They were originally supposed to clump up and send Bluetooth frequencies out of the body. But something went wrong with these. They can send Bluetooth, sure. But I found that they were listening to me."
"Like when you talked?"
"No! No, listening to my head." He drank convulsively. "Like an EEG. I found I could tell them where to go, and they'd concentrate there. I don't know if it's just evolved biofeedback, what, but I can tell them roughly where in my body to go."
I got it, then. "And you can tell them where to report to. And these don't just send Bluetooth."
"Nope!" he laughed again, then stopped when the couple next to us turned to look, grimacing in apology. "No, these can send a bunch of frequencies. One of which is roughly the same frequency as a microwave oven, and one of which is ultraviolet."
"That's what I saw in the alley?"
"Yeah. Microwave isn't much good for precise work because I can't see it. But they can lase ultraviolet. I have no idea how." He laughed again. It wasn't a good sound. "I can tell them where to go, and I can tell 'em where and when and how to report back."
I sat back, thinking. "So you can essentially produce maser or UV laser bursts from your skin. Why doesn't it fry you?"
"I wondered about that too!" he said. "Then I realized that each broadcast cluster was really small, and only the ones that had migrated to just beneath the epidermis would send. But there are lots of them. And God help me, they can do trig. So I have to tell them how far away to converge. I have," he said, suddenly sober, "been getting pretty good at that."
"That's why you had to eat," I said. "After you let them disperse, they go refuel. From you."
"Yeah." We drank in silence for a few minutes. He looked inexpressably relieved, probably at having someone to tell the story to. The waiter cleared away the food, and we both ordered coffee. When it came, he looked up at me. "My turn. How did you do...whatever you did?"
I laughed. "It's a long story."
Doug shrugged. "I have time."
"Sure," I said. "Let's get out of here."
So we did. I paid for dinner, and we strolled across Amsterdam to sit on the low walls in the pedestrian plaza surrounding the subway station house. I told him the story of my Nana, and a select few other stories besides.
"Huh," he said, when I'd finished. "So you use what, those capacitors?"
"Yeah," I said. "Or this." I pulled my coat back and showed him the butt of the Desert Eagle. He leaned back, unconsciously. "I either use it as it is, or I can take the energy out of a shot. Don't ask me how, I don't know."
He leaned back and turned to look out across the crowds of people hurrying to and fro in front of us for a time. I did the same. Then he asked, without looking over, "What do you think I should do?"
"Tell me this," I said. "Who were those guys in the alley?"
He tensed. He knew I wasn't just asking. "I don't know who they were if you mean what their names were," he said. "But-" he turned to me and looked me in the eye- "they had come to get a blood sample. They told me that when they showed me the guns, in the Times Square station. I didn't ask who had sent them. I just blinded them and ran."
"You lased them at the end," I said. "Burned their faces?"
"Yes. I tried to keep away from their eyes. But then that last one pulled his gun, and I don't know, I think I just did it without thinking."
I turned to face him. "You blew his hand off his wrist."
He hunched in, slowly, drew his arms in and brought his feet back to the wall. "Yeah. I did."
I looked at him for a second, then nodded and turned back to look out again.
"Was that the right answer?" he asked quietly.
"It'll do," I said.
"What would you have-"
"Not going to tell you," I said, overriding the question. After a few moments, he nodded.
"And who gave you the right?" he asked, but without rancor.
" Nobody gave me the right. I assumed it. Others gave me power, and I use it."
"So what happens now?" he asked.
"Depends on you," I said. "I don't deal with people like you, much. You're strictly a technological phenomenon. I won't interfere unless you interfere with me, or if you start hurting people other than in self-defense."
"How would you know?" he asked, curiosity in his voice.
I gave him a tight grin. "I talk to a lot of people. Everywhere. They talk to me."
"Fair enough." He stood, slowly, and brushed off his clothes. "Thanks for dinner, Michel. Will I see you around?"
I stood, too, and handed him a business card. "Sure. If you need anything, or if you see anything you don't like and can't explain, call me."
He took the card, tapped it twice against his palm, and then slid it into a pocket and grinned at me before he face took on an awful intensity and he reached out and grasped the lapel of my coat and I didn't react because I could sense the fear on him and he looked me in the eyes and asked "Are there any more like me?"
I waited until he released my coat, looking slightly embarrassed. Then I straightened my lapel and said "I don't know about anyone else like you." I waited for a few seconds. He nodded.
When he turned away, showing me that he wasn't going to attempt any sort of coercion, I called him back and told him about the dynomancer who lived on the Upper East Side. His face was a study in surprise and interest and relief, and I grinned and told him that between the two of them they could probably start a decent comic book title. While he was laughing I clapped him on the shoulder and swung into the subway to head back downtown.
* * *
On the way, I stopped at a liquor store and at an upscale supermarket. At the latter I got a pound of the best salmon I could find. Bearing packages, I returned to the alleyway around ten in the evening and made sure it was empty before moving to the hole on the east side. I carefully unwrapped the salmon and laid it on the ground just in front of the hole, the wrapping paper flat beneath it. Then I moved back across the alley and waited.
Nothing happened for perhaps three or four minutes.
Then a pair of glowing eyes slowly became visible in the dark space below the pavement. I spread my arms again and knelt on my side of the alley. The otter head slid smoothly into view and held my eyes without looking left or right - a sign of trust. I gestured to the salmon, and the kawauso reached a paw out and slid the paper into the hole. I had a brief glimpse of it vanishing, but then (too soon for it to have eaten the fish) the head came back out. It tilted its gaze, clearly inquiring. I reached beneath my coat and brought out the tall paper bag, then stood slowly. The small form stayed still. I slid the bottle of sake out of the bag and walked carefully across the alleyway to place the bottle in front of the little figure, then walked backwards again and knelt back down.
It came fully out of the hole and sniffed around the bottle. I saw it look at the cap, tilting its small furry head this way and that, before grasping the cap in its teeth and spinning the bottle with its paws. The cap came off, and it placed the plastic carefully on the ground and sniffed. Then it went into sudden and hyperkinetic motion, wiggling all the way across the alley and around behind me, slithering up against me before spinning out again and dancing back to the bottle. Surprised, I couldn't help laughing, but it didn't seem to mind. Carefully placing the cap back on the bottle, it dove down the hole for a moment, leaving the bottle standing, and then popped back up and scampered across to me. It looked into my eyes for a few seconds, paws clasped, before opening them and letting a small object click to the pavement. Then it moved back to the bottle, hugging it, and gestured to me. I reached down and brought up the small stone it had dropped there. It was dark, polished as if by the waves; an oval perhaps five centimeters long. In one end there was a perfectly circular hole, rounded and smoothed. A vein of something shiny, pyrite or perhaps gold, ran jaggedly across the center of the stone. I turned it over and looked at it, then looked at the little yōkai.
It pumped its head twice, then held out one paw and grasped, squeezing, and looked back at me. I nodded, closed my fist around the stone and squeezed, shaking my fist once for emphasis. The small figure danced twice around the bottle and then before I could say anything it was gone, a faint tinkly scrape telling of the sake's sudden trip into the depths.
I laughed again, opening my hand and looking at the stone as I stood. I thought of the little creature I'd just traded with, forced from the safety of its burrow by wants familiar to any of us, food and luxury; thought of it forced back into the security of darkness by the day, and shook my head, resolving to leave a bottle here every few weeks.
Then I brushed off my coat and went home.
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