- The first New York Magician -
102 Bowery, when we got out of the cab in front, turned out to be a four-story Chinatown walkup building with the Tu Do Vietnamese Restaurant on the ground floor. Azif managed to get the small side door open with the keys from his pocket, and we squeezed in. I peered at the small row of mailboxes before finding Quyen's name. "Fourth floor."
We trudged upstairs. Azif let us in to the rear apartment. It was a small one-bedroom which showed its age; the wooden floors were bare and ragged, and the walls, while painted brightly, showed plaster damage. We entered directly into a small living room with kitchenette, with a bedroom at the back of the building. I shut the door behind us. Azif began to slowly wander through the apartment, looking at objects and running his fingers over them. I stayed quiet, wondering if this was a habit or ritual of his - familiarizing himself with his host's space? Trying to glean insight into them from their belongings? Or just simple curiosity?
I moved into the bedroom, which was remarkably boring. A cheap dresser and bed, with a wooden chair near the bed serving as a nightstand which held a digital alarm clock, a smartphone charging station and a pair of pill bottles. I picked them up; one was for a vitamin supplement, and the other was a prescription for metformin, a blood sugar maintenance drug I recognized from my own bedside table. The prescription was for Richard Quyen.
The drawers of the dresser held nothing but a variety of clean clothes, all of the same sort that Azif's host was wearing. I stood for a moment in the center of the room, frustrated by the lack of any useful information, before Azif's voice floated through the door. "Michel."
I went back into the living room and traced his voice to a small door which led to the equally small bathroom. Azif was standing just inside, in front of the sink, blocking my view of the room. He looked up as I approached, then moved aside into the corner, towards another door I realized must lead to the bedroom.
The bathroom was quite clean, despite being furnished in a particularly dingy shade of yellow. The sink held a toothbrush and toothpaste along with a dispenser of hand soap, and there was a medicine cabinet behind the mirror above it. The tub was the usual New York shower/tub, which no one in their right mind or above the size of a small dog would ever consider using for an actual bath.
The inside of the tub was occupied by an elaborate arrangement of what looked like candles and dead, dried plants.
I knelt down and looked at it. I had no idea what it was for, but the wax trails below the candles and the lines inscribed on the tub's floor between the plants and the candles - with what looked like a silver paint marker - told me clearly that it was used for ritual of some sort. I blew out a breath. "Damn it."
"Yes," Azif said.
This wasn't a good sign. See, magic works, if you have it. Or if you have, like me, bartered and schemed to acquire talismans which have it. But magic - at least, all of it I've ever seen - is something done by living (not necessarily mortal) creatures as an act of will. Although it's possible to bind magic to an object, it is entirely uncaring of the forms and shape of rituals. Magic users sometimes perform sorting or other exercises with talismans - I thought for a moment of the two old men in the underground, shuffling the Cards of New York - but the ritual is always for the user, to allow them to keep track of what they're doing with complex magic, rather than to call up or guide the magic itself.
This didn't look like that. It looked like someone - probably Richard Quyen - had constructed the elaborate diorama in the bathtub in an attempt to adhere to some plan or rule that had been given him by someone else. And that was bad. It meant someone had taken him, conned him for something - and lied at worst, or misled at best. With the result, as far as I could see, that Richard Quyen was dead, if not gone, and Azif and I were stuck with the results of his experimentation.
I took a photo of the arrangement with my cell phone. Putting it away, I frowned at the various dead plants. They weren't potted - they looked like small sprigs of some sort, each sitting in a little cone of soil on the bottom of the tub. The silver lines ran underneath each cone. "Azif," I said, standing up, "see if you can find the paint marker or the pots these came in."
He nodded, and we both started poking around the living room. I went to the small desk in one corner, which had a laptop sitting on it. In the third drawer I checked, I found a collection of paint markers. I took the silver ones over to the bathroom and drew a short line with each, until I found the one that matched, and looked at the label carefully. The label stated that the marker contained 'conductive silver paint' and bore the logo of an electronics supply company. I frowned, took a picture of the label, and pocketed the pen after making sure the cap was secure.
"Michel." Azif came back over from the small kitchenette. He was holding a short stack of plastic shapes - several small plant cups of the sort live herbs were sold in. I looked them over. The soil seemed to match that in the small piles in the tub, but there were no markings on the pots.
"Damn. I was hoping for a sales label or something." I tossed them back into the trash Azif had found them in.
"There is something." Azif reached into his pocket and pulled out the dried fruit I'd noticed earlier. "This." He handed it to me.
"What about it?" I looked at it. It didn't look very appetizing, but other than that I couldn't identify it.
"It looks like an areca nut."
Azif had a look on his face which told me he was conflicted about something. "It is not a normal areca nut. There is the residue of magic on it."
I took it and looked at it more closely. I couldn't see anything, but my talents were not conducive to detecting trace magic - I was more useful at detecting active casts. "What sort?"
The djinn shrugged. "I cannot tell. But it is similar to the traces I see on the plants in the tub."
"Ah." I handed him back the nut. "I'd ask where he got it, but this is Chinatown."
"If he bought it with the cast on it, it would not have been in a street shop."
I gave Azif a narrow look. "Do you know where he might have found it?"
"Perhaps." His reluctance was palpable.
"Azif," I said, turning to face him, "you look like someone who knows something he doesn't want to tell."
"Michel, I know many things, many of which I cannot tell you."
"Now you're stalling," I said. "You came to me for help, remember?"
"I did." He looked down for a few moments, then shrugged and met my eyes. "We are close to the Ondermarkt."
I made no effort to hide my bafflement. "The Ondermarkt?"
"Yes. You have not been there."
"Sounds like it's time, then."
Azif shook his head and left the apartment. I followed him, closing the door behind me.
We walked down the Bowery onto the Manhattan Bridge plaza. I followed Azif across the Bowery to the west side to avoid the access roads to the bridge, then south across Canal to Bayard street. When we reached Bayard, he took us east back across the Bowery again and into a cluttered, nondescript Chinese trading emporium. As we threaded our way through aisles of cheap electronics and cooking supplies, the djinn stopped. As I was behind him, I perforce stopped as well. "Michel," Azif said, without turning to face me, "I must ask you for something."
"What?" I looked around. We were halfway down a narrow aisle, between high shelves containing woks, cooking implements, and generic pots on one side and rows of restaurant-grade ceramic teacups on the other.
"While we are here, allow me to speak with anyone we come to."
"Azif," I said carefully, "did you just ask me to shut up and let you do the talking?"
He sighed. His shoulders slumped slightly. "Yes."
I thought for a few seconds. "Okay. So long as you answer my questions once we've left."
"All my questions."
"And if anything in here looks threatening, I'm not waiting for your permission."
"Michel...nothing in here will threaten you."
"I'd prefer to be the judge of that."
"No," he said, turning to face me suddenly. "I am asking you to let me be the judge of that."
Taken aback, I stared back at him. My talent showed me the silent flame dripping from his eyes. He looked at me directly, something he didn't usually do. "All right, Azif. I won't do anything rash. But if I think I need to run, I'm running, and I'm not waiting for you."
"That is fair." His expression showed relief, and he turned back to head further into the store. I was left standing for a moment, confused. Why the hell was he worried about what I might do? I shook my head. Time to start thinking of good questions for after, I supposed, and hurried to catch up.
At the back of the store was a counter which took up half the back wall. A young Chinese woman was standing behind it, her attention entirely taken by her smartphone. Her thumbs were flying across its screen. Azif stopped in front of the counter, and we waited for a moment. After a few seconds, she looked up, nodded, and returned her gaze to the phone. Azif walked left, past the end of the counter, and through a beaded curtain hanging over a narrow doorway. I followed him, glancing once at the girl, who paid me no attention whatsoever.
Through the curtain and to the left was a narrow, grimy stairway down. The treads were ancient cracked linoleum, with metal edging. The stairs creaked as we moved down them. Light came from a wan industrial fluorescent fixture attached to the top of the wall at the bottom of the first flight of stairs; its weak glow made it difficult for me to see the wall. Azif turned to the right as he reached it, and I followed him around the corner to the second flight of stairs.
At the bottom was a dimly lit concrete floor. We had come out in the corner of what looked like a basement which extended the length of the shop above, and some distance back from the rear wall we had just passed through. There were three or four incandescent lamps rising above piles of crates and miscellaneous junk - just what you'd expect to see in the basement of a Chinatown shop. Azif turned left, towards the back of the shop, and angled towards the left wall. I followed, resisting the impulse to pull a Mag-lite out of my coat. We came to a metal sliding door, which he knocked on. After a moment the door slid back, and two men beckoned us through, sliding the door closed behind us. I looked at them carefully. One was about my size. The other was larger. Much, much larger. I'm not small, but I was looking distinctly up to meet his gaze - and I couldn't, precisely, because he was wearing sunglasses. They both were. Black, plastic and cheap. The light was bad enough that I couldn't even be sure of their ethnicity; both were wearing long coats similar to mine. The big one gave me a direct look, which required no interpretation; I held my arms out from my body, angled down. He looked me up and down, then pointed at my torso. I nodded, and with my left hand patted the coat where he was pointing, over the spot where the Desert Eagle rested.
He cocked his head at me, then held out his hand. I looked at Azif, who made a go on gesture with his eyes. Damn it. I'd agreed. I opened the coat with my right hand, and with my left reached awkwardly in and pulled the big pistol out by the butt with my thumb and forefinger. I held it up before me, dangling from my hand. The big guy gestured, and I laid it in his hand. He expertly spun it and dropped the magazine into his hand. Handing the gun back to me, he raised the oiled steel magazine to his face; I saw his nostrils dilate as he sniffed it. After a second, he nodded and handed me the magazine. When I made to replace it in the gun, he shook his head, and I understood. I holstered the gun, then deliberately placed the magazine in my right pocket. That won me another nod, and a gesture to pass.
We walked into the gloom. A few paces in, another faint light became apparent - yet another door, this one set in a low well in the opposite wall. It looked like we had moved across the next store's basement when we reached it. Azif reached for the door handle, moving ahead of me, and there was a sudden flare of painfully bright light.
The total silence of it was unexpected, and I had to refrain from reaching for the gun. My hand twitched before I could control the impulse. Azif froze as the light pulsed bright white, then bright red three times, then returned to full white again. The basement, I could see, was completely empty, an earthen-floored oblong with the two doors its only furnishings. The walls were whitewashed cinderblocks. The two guards had moved quickly across the basement towards us, but I noticed that the door they'd left was barred behind us. I turned and raised my hands. Azif turned as well. I was mentally reviewing what my promise to Azif would let me do, given that there didn't seem to be anywhere to run, when both guards went right past me and grabbed the djinn.
I was so confused I just stood there for a second. Still in silence, they had backed him against the wall next to the second door and were holding him there, his feet six or seven inches off the floor, by both biceps. I was still trying to think of something helpful to say when the smaller one, who I could see in the light was also Chinese, pulled a wooden rod from inside his coat and waved it in front of Azif's face. Azif looked tense but not afraid, and wasn't resisting, so I forced myself to stand quietly. After a moment, as the rod moved back and forth in front of the djinn's borrowed features, I could see the flames in his eyes brighten sharply, dripping down his cheekbones.
The two guards put him down abruptly. The smaller one put the rod back in his coat, and bowed fractionally. Azif nodded. I was about to say something snide, as is my habit in tense situations, when I remembered my promise and held my mouth closed. Azif looked over at me, and damn it, I saw a shadow of a smile - the bastard knew I'd just had to bite my tongue.
Azif dusted himself off and opened the door. The two guards walked back across the basement, and the light - which, I realized, had no visible source, despite my making a quick survey of the entire space - died back to near darkness, with just a faint glow around the door Azif was holding open, looking at me.
I shook my head and went through the open door into crowds.
We were standing at the top of a metal staircase leading down to the right, along the wall, to the floor of a large underground space. I couldn't tell how big it was since the light was mostly coming from sources below my line of sight, confusing my view of the ceiling and distance. Azif started down the stairs without hesitation. I followed, burning with curiousity but realizing that I'd have to hold on to my questions until after we'd gotten out. I promised myself that the Djinn wasn't going to skip out on the Q&A, though.
On the ground, I could see that the space wasn't that wide, but stretched out of sight around a slight curve in both directions. In fact, the shape of it tripped recognition; the degree of curve, the width and the height. We were in a disused subway tunnel. I looked at the ground, but couldn't see any evidence there had ever been tracks there. One side of the tunnel, the side opposite the wall we'd entered, was obscured by what looked like somewhat dingy wooden frontage, some parts with what appeared to be shop windows in them. Light shone through many of these. In front of the wall, though, was a riot of small tables and booths which were instantly recognizable as a bazaar of some sort. People were everywhere, walking up and down the clear lane near our wall and threading through the tables and such, going in and out of the areas behind the stalls.
Azif set off to the left, uptown. I followed, staying a few steps behind him. The light wasn't great; there were all manner of sources visible, from a few battery fluorescents to glowing glass globes which had to be magic of some sort all the way to a riot of smaller LED camping lanterns. Some of the local population were wearing headlamp flashlights, used to great effect as they bent over to examine wares. I noted that some stalls had bright lights within, whereas some had what looked like deliberately dim lighting on their tables.
We passed a section with no tables. The frontage here had a mismatched hodgepodge of small windows, looking like various pieces of different French doors lashed together. There was brighter light coming from behind them, although those that weren't wavy glass were smudged over with grime and it was impossible to see anything behind them save vague shapes passing in front of the lights. There was a door at one side of the collection of windows, looking like a regular interior doorframe had just been slapped into place; the door, however, looked heavier than a cheap closet door, and the handle had been replaced with an industrial steel bar handle. Even though I couldn't see inside, I was drawn to the place; after a few seconds, I realized why. The size of it and the placement of the lights and shadows inside all screamed 'BAR' to my acute drinker's senses. I looked at Azif, but he was continuing down the tunnel without even a sideways glance.
"Later," I mumbled to the bar, a rummy's promise. Then I went reluctantly after the Djinn.
A few yards down the tunnel, the stalls brightened. Several had actually bright work lights set up on their top rims. Azif slowed and turned, heading for one in particular. Catching glimpses of their wares as we threaded our way through a bit of a crowd, I could see plants and fruits laid out among odder piles of bark and stone.
At the back of the stall Azif stopped at was an older lady. I couldn't tell how old, precisely; at different angles, her face changed appearance. One moment she was wizened, another middle-aged; her hair went from rich and auburn to thready and white as she turned to speak with a customer, as if I was looking at her through a diffraction grate.
Azif waited until she wasn't in conversation before stepping forward. I stepped up with him, staying a pace behind and to his left. He leaned in, and I heard him mutter to her over the constant crowd noise, amplified and distorted by the echoing walls of the tunnel. She flicked her glance sideways, at me (shifting from a black-haired gaunt face with gray eyes to a motherly blonde) and I saw her draw breath as she stared at me. Their conversation become a bit more pointed, with her making clear gestures towards me with her chin once in a while. Azif stood his ground, and I saw him reach into his pocket and bring out the areca nut he'd found there as well as a sprig of what must have been one of the plants from the bathtub in Quyen's apartment. She drew away from him slightly, then looked carefully into his face. He straightened, nodding, and I saw fear come into her eyes. Before I could decide whether to intervene, she reached under the board she was using as a counter and thrust something into his hand, then made shooing motions. Azif inclined his head and turned away, gathering me in with his gaze as he moved back past me. I looked from him back to the woman, fascinated by her shifting appearance, only to see a glare of what was unmistakeably hatred on her face. Shocked by this, I reflexively stepped backwards, into the main traffic area of the tunnel. Azif tugged once on my sleeve, and I followed him, glancing back one last time to see her eyes glittering at me as she watched us walk away.
-to be continued-