<--Younger | Beginning | Older-->
There’s an old, old rule that applies to drinking in New York. It will keep you safe in the worst bars, in the worst neighborhoods - even the ones where the stockbrokers drink. A cabbie once told it to me when I was seventeen, which in New York terms means three years past drinking age. “Kid,” he said as he let me off in front of an Alphabet City bar which had been colonized by bikers, “What the hell are you doing going in there?”
There wasn’t really a good answer to that, since I wasn’t really sure myself. “I’m looking for someone,” I had told him, almost entirely truthfully.
He’d shaken his head at me in the rear-view mirror and then turned, cabbie style, one arm across the front bench seat to look through the hazed Plexiglas window that separated us. “Can I give you some advice?” he’d asked. I’d looked at him, then at the bar out the passenger side window. Two enormous men dressed in decorated leather jackets were urinating against the front of the bar while a third lounged with his arms crossed, leering at a girl who was walking by in the company of no less than seven teenagers whose clothing screamed ‘GANG MEMBER.’ She shrank from his gaze and all eight of them hurried their steps.
“Sure,” I said.
“I ain’t gonna tell you not to go in there, ‘cos it looks like you’re gonna no matter what I say. But look me in the eyes while I tell you this.”
I looked him in the eyes. “Go on.”
“You got three inches of space around you, son. That’s your personal Red Zone. When you walk in there, if your Red Zone touches anybody without them meaning it, you say ‘excuse me, sir’ and you keep walking. If anybody comes into your Red Zone like they mean to do it, you give ‘em one chance by walkin’ around em. That’s courtesy. Shows you ain’t looking to cause shit. If they come into the zone a second time, you ask ‘em if you can help ‘em. If they don’t make nice, then that’s three strikes, you got me?”
I nodded, swallowed, then asked the question. “What do I do if they get three strikes?”
He grinned at me. “That’s your problem. What I’m telling you is this: if you follow those rules, the only people who you’re gonna have to deal with are the ones who were gonna start a fight with you no matter what you did once you walked in that door. You might still haveta fight or run, but you’ll always know you had no choice.”
I’d tipped him double the fare. He shook his head while he drove away.
I walked past the three huge guys at the front door, making a slight jog so my Red Zone didn’t touch theirs. They looked at me but didn’t say anything. I went into that bar that night, and I found who I was looking for, and I got out of that bar that night. I’m not telling you I never got in fights, but I’m telling you that that cabbie was right; every time I’ve followed that rule, I’ve never had to fight anyone that wasn’t doing his or her damnedest to make sure we squared off no matter what I did.
Unfortunately, some days there’s just one of those jackasses in the bar.
I was in a dark and dusty corner joint in Washington Heights, the kind with an Irish name but nary an Irishman in sight and where the beer is decidedly American but the rum, if you know how to ask for it, is dark, wicked and unnamed. If you did know the name you’d probably have to report the owner to the Customs and Excise people for illegal trafficking with some dark and mysterious South American lost city.
I like rum like that. That’s one of the reasons I was there.
The other reason was rumors. I chase rumors much of the time. It’s what I do. The leather bandolier across my chest is strung with the fruits of those pursuits, and has saved my life more times than I can count.
Would my life have been endangered if I hadn’t pursued those rumors in the first place? Ah, well, that’s another of life’s questions. I sipped rum and sniffed appreciatively at the odors from the illegal propane grill midway down the bar where the bartender was frying something that smelled a lot like pork and plantains.
Anyway, there had been rumors. The weather had been ferocious in New York this summer so far; thunderstorms, even hail. Global Warming was big on the radio, as was El Nino, but the buzz Uptown was that Someone was in town. Someone was upset.
I was poking around to find out who it was, and if they’d talk to me. That’s why I follow rumors. I talk to those who have few others to talk to. Mostly because my grandmother once taught me that too much respect just creates a wall of loneliness, and loneliness can be worse than death.
I love my grandmother.
The rum was even more evil on the third cup than the second. I had been listening to conversations all over the bar for a couple of hours, and while people were talking about all manner of things, none of them seemed to be talking about the shitty weather or about mysterious visitors from out of town. This, too, was normal; most of the chase involves sitting around listening. I’m good at that, too.
Sometimes I trade on the markets. You’d be surprised at what listening to the communities of New York as a full-time occupation can tell you. I don’t do too badly.
Three drinks is usually my limit, though. Time to find another bar. Nobody had bothered me, and I hadn’t bothered anyone, just had my drinks. I was rising from the booth to go when my Red Zone flashed a warning and I sat back down quickly to get my hands beneath my table. A slender man in a dressy shirt and slacks slid into the seat across from me and smiled. I didn’t know him, so the smile made me instantly wary. “Can I help you?”
“Probably.” He didn’t go away. Strike two.
“How?” My hands were still below the table.
“Well, for one, you can put your hands on the table.” He had both of his in view, resting on the table in front of him.
“Really. Is that a threat?” Belligerence was creeping into my voice. I wasn’t sure what was going on, so this was opening move 47-j - test the waters.
“I rather think so, yes.” He was still smiling and his hands hadn’t moved. I narrowed my eyes.
“Why should I do that, precisely?” I gave him a once-over, visibly. I’m not a very big guy, but I was larger than him, and there was little doubt I was in better shape. The intimidation behind that once-over? Secondary move 32-q.
Didn’t work. His eyes got a little harder. “I really don’t want to make a nasty scene in here.”
Strike three. Time to move to my favorite weapon. I ran my mouth. “Is that so? That’s just terrible. I’d hate to drop you down the popularity list in the neighborhood watch. Your compadres here look like they’d take it terribly amiss if your fur got ruffled.” I waved my left hand at the other denizens of the joint, solid South American blue-collars all.
My boothmate didn’t rise to the bait and look away. He lifted his hands from the table in what looked at first to be a placating gesture, palms towards me - until I noticed that his fingertips were curled slightly inwards. “They won’t notice a thing. Not a thing, I assure you.”
Okay, so the hands were a bad sign. He was armed, and in a nasty way, or at least he knew enough to make me believe he was. I looked at his hands, then at him. “What do you want?”
“I want you to very, very slowly open your coat and then hand me the leather bandolier that you have strapped across your chest. Without,” he continued with calm emphasis, “touching your palm to its center at any time. I know you can unhook it at your waist.”
Damn. Now he was making me nervous. Nobody should know that much about me. My mouth continued firing. “You want me to undress for you? That figures.”
“Mr. Wibert. You won’t make me angry. You will annoy me, but that won’t cause me to lose control or even distract me, although it might make me do terrible, horrible things to you, later.” His voice assumed a nasal tone at the end. “All I want is the bandolier, and I’ll leave. You have no right to them, in any case.”
“Oh really? Why is that, may I ask?” I knew his answer, of course. I’d heard it before. Sure enough, real anger colored his response.
“Because you have no concept of the power you hold. You have no birthright to it; you have no ability to direct or use it. You are a shadow, Wibert. Just like the rest of them.” At this, he waved one hand slightly at the rest of the bar. Surprised by his motion, I glanced over. Everyone else in the bar was frozen in place, the lights dimmed. There was a blur over the doorway that I knew would prevent anyone outside from deciding to enter.
Crap. This was bad.
“Wow. That’s pretty good,” I heard my mouth say, still running on automatics. “Do you do lighting for high school plays?”
His eyes flashed, but he was under control. “They will, as I told you, notice nothing. If you refuse to give me the bandolier, Wibert, I will be forced to harm you and take it from your corpse.”
He could, too. The guy was manipulating time flows, from the look of it, with some power and a great deal of expertise. I looked at the bar again and noted that the area extended at least as far as the walls. I looked back at him and shrugged. “Okay.”
His face flickered. “You agree?”
“Don’t look so surprised, Senor dipshit. I don’t like death.” I reached for my waist and unfastened the bandolier at my left ribcage, then drew it slowly over my neck.
“Slowly!” His hands returned to face me. I paused with the bandolier still over my head, the ends of it held in my left hand, the center dangling uselessly in midair.
“See, I’m guessing here. Do you mind if I speculate? I can’t touch the talismans here-” I shook the bandolier above me- “-and I’m insanely curious, not having any Power my own self.”
He glared at me for a second, then looked at the bandolier. “Very well. Put the bandolier down on the table with the center fold towards me.”
“Sure,” I said agreeably, and did so carefully. The vial and pocketwatch, snug in their pockets, were pushed out towards him, out of reach of my hands now.
“And so you know,” he said with a cold smile, “if you attempt to shoot me from under the table, you will fail. I have a shield up that will simply accelerate the cast I am prepared to make at you using the strike of your bullet as a source of power.”
Damn. “Oh, I figured that,” I lied. Think, damn it. “I just wanted to know, though. See, you’re holding entropy down in the rest of the bar, and we’re still talking. I’m guessing you’re working with balances, here?”
He cocked his head, hands still poised. “Continue.”
“I figure if you cut loose at me, what’s going to happen is that all the time that isn’t passing over there-” -I nodded at the bar- “-is going to happen right around me. But really fast and really hard. Probably satisfy some form of arcane math involving energy decay and volumes.”
“That is correct, Mr. Wibert.” Ooh, I was a mister again. “Astute of you for someone with no talent himself.”
Asshole. “Oh, I have talents,” I told him. “Just not like you. That was a shitty Peter Lorre imitation. May I go?”
He studied me carefully. “If you stand carefully, and walk slowly to the door, I will allow you to leave. I will hold these others as hostages to your good behavior.”
“Yeah. I figured that.” I looked at him carefully, searching for the signs I was looking for.
Found it. Sweating, just below the hairline.
I stood up, carefully, and with two fingers gently slid the bandolier over to him, then stepped back from the table. He turned in his seat to keep his hands focused on me. “Mr. Wibert?”
“I have one question. Allow me an answer to convince me of your motives.”
“Why do you give me these so easily?” he nodded at the bandolier. He was sneering, but only half - he was actually curious.
I shrugged. “I’ve got other tools, whoever you are. And one of the reasons I’m still around despite playing in a world inhabited by things like you is that I know when to walk away.” His eyes tightened at the insult, and I wondered if I’d overplayed it, but he nodded.
“I understand. Very well. Thank you. Please accept that you were simply outmatched here, and there will be no need for another meeting.”
I looked at him stonily for a moment, and then turned away towards the door. He called behind me, “Please walk slowly. I will extend the field with you.” I nodded without looking back and began a measured pace to the door.
Step. Step. I passed a pair of men drinking, one caught in mid-laugh, perhaps a foot away. Neither budged. So he had fine control of the field. I had a clear path to the exit. Step. Step. I was nearly to the bar’s corner, perhaps eight feet from the door.
When I reached the blur that blocked the doorway, I turned to face him, still sitting in the back booth. “Hey, you’ll need to-” but as I spoke, I whipped back my coat with one hand and drew the big pistol with the other. I had time to see his face tighten and his hands clench; then there was a rippling feeling around me, but by that time I had taken aim and fired.
The Desert Eagle roared tinnily in the space that was tightly enclosed by his talent, the sound ricocheting up the airspace around my arm and to my ears. I felt the blast compress the skin on my right arm, gases burning my wrist, and then the bullet punched through the propane tank propped behind the bar a few feet down from the grill.
Blue and orange flame flowered from the tank in slow motion, coupled with a sudden massive rise in the ambient temperature around me as the entropy from the explosion was channeled through whatever the little git was doing to my immediate vicinity. I roared in pain as my exposed skin burned, and suddenly there was a blast of cool air on me. I opened my eyes at a sudden change in the nature of the roar of sound to find myself standing in the middle of the bar holding the Desert Eagle. There was a rising hubbub of voices around me.
I looked at the bar. The propane tank was split open and blackened, but no flame issued from it.
The booth where I’d been sitting was a pyre of white flame. A high, thin scream issued from it as the chronomancer struggled to escape the storm of energy his channeling cast had been funneling when the overload of the propane explosion blew his control. I dashed towards the back booth, stuffing the gun into my coat, and grabbed the end of the bandolier which had been knocked off the table in his thrashing.
Without looking back, I barreled into the rear of the bar and out a narrow door into an alley as a fire alarm began to blare from the front of the building. I didn’t know if anyone had gotten a good look at me, but I didn’t want to chance it. Jogging out of the alley, I turned away from the avenue and began making distance, fastening the bandolier around myself.
Yeah. Three strikes. And every time one of those supercilious motherfuckers tries to tell me that I’m homo deprecatus or whatever and he’s the Next Evolutionary Thing, I have to remind him of the golden rule.
Homo sapiens took down everybody else to become the apex predator on this planet, and not because we were bigger, badder, sharper, faster, harder or more frightening than anybody else.
We’re tool users.
Just like me.
<--Younger | Beginning | Older-->