<--Younger | The First New York Magician | Older-->

I spent a couple of days holed up in my apartment while my head slowly stopped hurting. I read newspapers and watched local news, but there was nothing about escapes from St. Vincents or anything about the fire I'd been found in. While I was waiting to see if the police would decide to come knock on my door, indicating that they had gotten my ID, I double-checked the weapons stash above my bedroom closet, spending several hours with the Patek Phillipe putting a slip on the pull-down panel. When I was done, it didn't look any different to me, but hopefully I'd poured enough power into the slip that others would have real trouble either seeing the panel or summoning up the will to pull it down. I didn't have anyone to test it on, though, so I wasn't planning on relying on it.

I also spent a great deal of time on my computer, doing research. Engine Company 24 had fought some serious fires; they'd been in some hairy situations. But since 9/11, they hadn't lost a firefighter on the job. A couple had died; one in a car accident and one of a heart attack, but neither were working at the time. The FDNY doesn't lose that many guys, but the 24 had been in some severe skyscraper fires; ugly ones. It wasn't enough to make me suspicious, but it was slightly odd. I couldn't even find any records of any of their guys being injured, meaning that if they had been it was penny-ante stuff.

On the fourth day, I walked back down and across town to park myself outside the Company house.

I waited there for a few hours, watching firefighters sit around, shoot the breeze, and wash the engine in the open bay before my quarry arrived. Melucci didn't show all morning or afternoon, so I knocked off to get a pizza. One advantage of casual stakeouts: the food is usually better than stale donuts. The rescue truck went out twice, and one of the engines spun out on a call while I was coming back from my pizza. I couldn't be sure, but it didn't look like Melucci was on either call, so I stuck around.

It was only after evening had darkened the sky (but not the Manhattan streets) that I remembered that firefighters on call lived in the house. If Melucci was on call, and not still on medical leave, he could still be in there.

I thought about it for about ten minutes, watching cars rumble past occasionally and evening crowds trickle through the streets. Then I shrugged, got up from the low wall I'd been sitting on for an hour or so and walked across the street to knock on the door of the firehouse.

It was pulled open by one of the largest men I have ever seen in my life. He wasn't much taller than me, if at all, but he was easily three times my width. Maybe three and a half at the shoulders. From the shirt stretched across his torso, it didn't look like any of it was fat. He scowled at me. "Yeah?"

"Er...hi. I'm looking for Melucci."

The moose at the door looked me up and down. "Yeah? What for?"

"Nothing bad. Promise. I just want to talk to him. His crew pulled me out of that Village townhouse a couple of days ago."

"Oh. One sec." The door closed in my face (but gently) and I heard indistinct yelling from inside. Then it opened. "Okay, come on in. Melucci's here, but he's not on shift, he's still got a brace on from that night. You sure you wanna talk to him and not his crew?"

"All of them, but Melucci first, please."

"Yeah." He stepped back from the door, and I entered. The engine bay was well lit but still felt dark, machines crouching in the two stalls. My guide closed the door and gestured for me to follow. Taking us up a set of stairs, he held the door at the top for me and I walked out into what looked to be the on-call rec area. Ten guys were scattered around the room; three around a TV set watching the Yankees, a few playing cards, and a few here and there reading. One of the latter had a brace on his leg, and, sure enough, was Melucci. He looked up as we came in, and as he saw me his face elongated in a surprised look, followed quickly by trepidation.

"Hey Melooch, this guy here..." my guide began. Melucci started to scramble up out of his chair before falling back into it again after trying to put weight on his injured leg. "Melooch, what the hell?"

"Get that guy outta here!" Melucci's voice was high-pitched, almost panicky. I felt the sudden and hostile weight of eleven pairs of eyes fall on me. Just to defuse the situation before I got buried under around a ton-plus of Italian and Irish New York firefighter, I raised my hands to shoulder height, palms out, and backed up against the wall next to the door.

"Hey, easy on. I'm not here to hassle anyone."

"Melooch, this guy says your crew pulled him outta that townhouse with you. D'you know him?" My guide was giving me suspicious looks in between glances at his comrade.

"Yeah! Yeah I know him, he's..."

"...I'm just grateful, is all. Really." I overrode Melucci's reply. He stopped and stared at me. "Hey, man, I just wanna talk for a minute. You got ten buddies here, what could I possibly do?"

"What d'you wanna talk about?" Melucci looked even more nervous, if that was possible.

"Whatever. Strange stuff you see some nights. How many drinks I'm going to buy you and your friends. Why I followed you into that building even though it was on fire."

We had the attention of the whole room riveted. Nobody was moving. My guide interjected, "You followed them in there? After the fire started? Why?"

I turned slightly to face him and lowered my hands. "I'll tell you, but I'd like to talk to Melucci first. If he says okay, no problem, I'll hand you the story."

Melucci narrowed his eyes and looked at me. I did my best to look harmless. "Why'd you chase me the other day on Houston?"

"I was trying to talk to you and you rabbited, man."

"Hey, yeah," said one of the other watchers over his paperback. "I remember that. Melucci, you ran as soon as this guy said hello."

Heads swiveled back to Melucci. My guide frowned. "Melooch, what's going on?"

Melucci stood up, shakily. "Nothing. I think I should talk to this guy."

"You sure? Why you gotta talk in private?"

"Just..just gimme a few minutes, okay DiCanzo? Just a couple minutes." Melucci hobbled across the room towards a doorway, jerking his head at me to follow him. I did, slowly, making sure nobody was getting hostile, but they were all looking at him, confused.

He held the door for me. I went through ahead of him and he closed it after us. We were in a barracks, beds arranged down the rows on either side, all neatly made. He limped over to the nearest and sat down heavily. "Okay, look, what?"

I sat on the bed opposite him. "You know what, Melucci. What's your first name, anyway?"

"Nobody uses it. Call me Melooch."

"Okay. You know what it's about. I saw you back at that gas station fire on Eighth Avenue a while back. Then I saw you on the piling down near South Street during the boat blaze."

"So? Not a crime."

"Jesus, man, lighten up, I didn't say it was. I just wanted to ask you a couple questions, that's all."

"Okay. What?"

"Well, first of all, when did you make the deal?"

He started, face blanching. Bingo. "What deal? What're you talking about?"

I stood up and started to pace the room slowly. He watched me. "The deal, Melooch. You made some kind of deal with something. That's what I saw you wearing at both fires. Some other entity. I'm guessing a fire god."

He was breathing hard. "I don't know what you're..."

"Oh, save it. Why? No, wait, don't answer that, I can guess." I sat back down. "You did it for your buddies, right? I checked, Melooch. Nobody from your unit's been killed since 9/11. No serious injuries, even. That's a damn good record for a dangerous job."

"Plenty of units got perfect safety."

"Yeah, but yours has been in the shit a few times, hasn't it? Come on, man, I'm just asking."

"Why? Why're you so concerned about this anyway?"

I sighed and leaned back onto my hands. "Call it my job. If anything is hanging around New York City, I keep tabs on it."

"What, like the Ghostbusters?"

"Nope. Just sort of like immigration. So what was the deal?"

He was looking at me warily now. "How can I trust you?"

I looked back at him for a second, then shrugged and placed my hand on my chest. A small push of will and the slip snapped up. Melooch jumped involuntarily as I vanished off the bed. "What the hell- hey! Come back!"

I dropped the slip. "See?"

"Who the hell are you, man?"

"My name's Michel."

"That don't answer the question."

"Michel Wibert. I'm a financial type, work down by WFC. I live in the Village, have all my life. But I can see things, talk to things."

Melucci's face was slowly changing into what looked like relief. "Yeah? You can talk to these things too?"

"Sometimes. If they want to talk to me. Do they talk to you?"

He shook his head. "Not anymore. I made a deal, yeah, maybe a month after 9/11. All those guys gone...anyway, I was working a deal uptown in Chelsea and a couple of my guys went into a building after some woman's kids. Building was all done. I was outside, running water to cover. I looked up..." he paused.

"You looked up?"

"Yeah. I looked up, and I saw this hazy thing sitting over the fire. I didn't know what it was. I turned the hose on it; nothing . Then it turned around, and it looked at me, I swear. You know when you know something's looking at you? Like that. And I saw it open up its mouth, or whatever, and look down at the building, and I asked it in my head to let my guys out, I'd do anything. Just let them come out." He looked down.

"They came out, didn't they?" I asked softly.

"Yeah." He was still looking at the bed. "Yeah, they did. And this thing, it got in my head. It likes fires. I know, 'cuz I can feel it. Every week or two, it comes back, and I have to take it to watch. Usually happens when I'm working, and it just looks for a while and leaves, but sometimes it gets stuck looking, and I can't move. I just stand there. That's how come I got banged up last time."

"I know. I saw you standing there with it, then the floor collapsed under us both."

"You were there?"

I nodded. "Yeah, like I said, I followed you in. Stupid. I was slipped, like you just saw me do, and I almost burned because I couldn't get unslipped in time for your guys to see me. But they did, and here we both are."

"What d'you have to do about it?"

"Me?" I shrugged. "Nothing, really. I just wanted to know, to make sure nothing really bad was going on."

"Bad how?"

"Bad like it was making you start fires." At Melucci's stricken look, I raised my eyebrows. "Oh, shit. It's not, is it?"

"I...I dunno. Like I said, sometimes it gets caught up and I get caught up too, all stupid. I don't remember doing anything like that, but sometimes, you know, sometimes I wonder if I did when I get to fires before the crews do when I'm off."

"So it rides you, and it protects your guys?"

"Yeah. I think so. I think that's the deal."

"Okay." I stood up. "Thanks. I need to ask a favor."

"What?" Melucci looked up at me.

"Tell one of your friends about this. Have him watch you. When he sees it show up, have him call my cell phone." I dropped a business card onto the bed next to him "If you want, I can stay and help you explain it."

He shook his head, picked up the card. "Nah. This is a smoke thing."

"Okay." I crossed to the door, opened it. Everybody in the room was doing a great job pretending they hadn't been silent as the grave a second before, listening. I addressed the room at large. "Melooch and I are all square. Like I said, I just wanted to talk to him. I'm going. Thanks."

Melucci came out of the door as I reached the stairway. "Hey, DiCanzo. Get in here. I got something I need to tell you." I turned and looked at him. He looked at me, nodded. I nodded back and headed downstairs as the enormous man who'd let me in frowned and headed into the barracks.

<--Younger | The First New York Magician | Older-->