Fantasy supernatural urban fantasy New York City

You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)

By Laura Anne Gilman
May 9, 2019 · 2,466 words · 9 minutes


From the author: In New York City, oddness is just a way of life. Most people don't even blink, no matter how weird the day gets. But some days, the weirdness won't be denied. Or: How the world of the Cosa Nostradamus looks from the outside.


 

You wanna know what happened?  I’ll tell you what happened. You can't live in New York City without realizing a few hard truths. One, everything costs a fucking fortune. Two, there are a lot of people - myself included - crazy enough to be willing to pay a fucking fortune to be here, because hey, New fucking York City, good and bad. There's an energy here I haven't found anywhere else, and trust me, I've bumped around a bit. Love it or hate it, the city zings.

The third hard truth about New York?  Weird shit, man. Weird shit goes down here.

I'm not talking about the usual weirdness every city kinda prides itself on, either. That we got in spades too, from the safe shit the tourists lap up to the darker shit we try to keep out of the news, stuffed into the gossip circuit and the off-key travel guides. I'm talking about the weird shit. The things that make you wonder what the fuck got put in your coffee, made you seriously reconsider your ability to go on five hours of sleep all weekend, made you stop and shake your head and decide that nope, nope, hadn't seen that at all.

People with horns. Or wings. Or horns and wings. Or skin the color and texture of something that ain't flesh not the way we've got it. And things that ain't people the way we fucking call it but look at you like they know what you're thinking and ain't fucking impressed by it.

Some of you think I'm crazy, yeah, but some of you know what I'm talking about. I know you do. It's everywhere, everywhere once you know where and how to look, but in New York just like everything else it seems we got more than our share and it's seriously fucking ramped up.

So the way I figure, you got three ways to handle it. Denial, which is a whole fuckload easier. Didn't see nothing nope, not even when it brushes up against me on the subway or hands me my change at the grease cart. Didn't hear nothing didn't see nothing don't have to deal with nothing. Ain't nothing wrong with that either. Whatever gets you through the day without popping antipsychotics like fucking Tums.

Second way is to look, nod, and look away. Accept that there's shit out there you don't know fuck about and let it fucking go. Most people, I think they do that. Just let it go, focus on the shit you can handle. Not a bad philosophy overall, yeah, if you can swing it. Chalk it up to the world moves in mysterious ways, and your ways and its don't have to do more than cross in passing. That was me, for a long time. Nod and look away, didn't matter if it was Queens or Kansas City or Kuwait City: you don't mind me and I won't mind you, peace on fucking earth.

Third way?  Third way I don't fucking recommend. Third way gets your nose dirty and your hands bloody and once you go there you can't ever go back.

#

"Fuck you, man."  It was too early for this shit, never mind I'd been up for near fucking four hours already. I didn't have coffee until I got off shift, not only because stopping to take a piss on the job was a pain in the ass but because there was no way I wanted to wake up all the way until I got home. Hard enough slinging other peoples' trash without your brain - and nose - getting involved.

Nobody'd told Jaime that, though. Fucker was wide awake and wanted to talk. He'd only been on my crew a week and we already wanted to kill him.

"But seriously man, think about it."

"No."

"Don't you have any curiosity at all?"

I picked up a barrel and slung it over my arm, feeling the strain stretch across my shoulders. After the holidays actually wasn't too bad: most of it was recyclables, and they were lighter than trash. Labor day was the worst, always: all the trash from cookouts and picnics, plus the shit people threw out at the end of the summer, plus, well, plus the heat making everything stink three times as bad. Winter, it was all sort of muted, even if your knuckles did freeze and crunch. "I got curiosity. I just don't care if they found another damn dinosaur unless they also found how to clone 'em micro-size so I have something new to buy my niece for next year, because I'm out of ideas."  Lee was eleven and jaded and didn't give a damn about dolls or Lego sets or whatever was the hot gift of the day, and she already had more tech than I did. Keeping 'best uncle' status was going to require some serious work.

Jaime shook his head in dismay, his stupid-ass braids flying everywhere. "You're a slug in the garden of the world, my man."

"True enough."  I didn't give a fuck enough to be offended, letting the machine chew up our offerings, and tossing the barrel back onto the sidewalk.

"I'm gonna buy you a subscription to NPR, get your brain open a little wider-"

I almost didn't hear it, over the grinding grumble of the truck, and Jaime's back-talk. But I saw it. Staggering out of a side alley, one hand gripping the brick with a hand too skinny to be healthy, fingers too long and too pale, stretching into a bare arm and a bent head covered in shaggy black hair and that was all I had time to see before they collapsed, fingers scratching against the brick and I could hear the noise even thought here's no way I could have.

And I should have nodded and turned away because I knew, there's no fucking way I didn't know that this was weirdness I didn't want to be part of. But whatever they were, they were down and it was too damn cold to be that naked, and I could hear Jaime yelling behind me but all I could see was the figure crumpled like polished bone and denim in front of me.

I squatted on my heels, not touching them, because you never know how someone's gonna react, a stranger touches them. "You okay?"

Stupid fucking question but what was I gonna say, "hey buddy you human?"

No need to ask.

"Hey. Pal. C'mon, you hurt?  I'm not gonna hurt you but do you need help?"  Hand hovering over that bare pal skin, fucking scary-white, up close, like I could see the bones and veins underneath. Harsh breathing, like something in their ribs hurt, but before I could say screw it, or do something we'd both regret, one hand lifted, fingers spreading, to stop me when I would have tried to help them up.

The voice was barely a whisper, wet and thready. "Call the pups."

"What?"

"The pups, call..."  The dark head lifted, and pale eyes looked at me cross-eyed, blood streaking from a flat nose, pale lips barely moving though the voice was steady and strong. "The pups... you're not cosa."  They were talking to themselves now, not me. "Of course not, never let anything go right tonight. Fuck."

"Buddy I got no idea what you're talking about but you look like you need help."  More help than I could give, more help than I wanted to give. "Give me a number and I'll -"

I'd barely gotten my phone out of my pocket, having to dig under the city-issue coveralls to reach it, when pale guy lurched forward, knocking me over on my ass. The fuck did they get strength to attack me and why the fuck had they?

Before I could react, there was another roar, this one coming from the alley pale guy'd staggered out of. I could hear Jaime yelling something in high-pitched Portuguese, and then something with the dear fucking god breath of a dockworker on a four-day bender landed on my chest, too-fucking-long claws the color of mud swiping at my face.

I rolled on my shoulder, tucking pale guy under me and trying to knock the claws away from my face with one arm, while not getting that arm torn off. I didn't carry on the job, but there was a folding knife in my boot, small enough to be legal but sharp enough to be useful, if I could just get to it before those claws got me.

I had no idea what the fuck had jumped us, but odds were good it was what had bloodied pale guy's nose and choosing between the guy who was polite and the guy who tried to tear my face off, I was gonna go with the first.

Pale guy scuttered out from under me, hissing like a tea kettle, and I managed to get my fingers on the hilt of the blade and then bad-breath-boy fell on me, like a fur coat dropped to the ground.

I kept rolling, coming back up on my heels, blade in my hand but held low, ready to stab it into whatever fucker moved first.

The third member of our team, Beth knelt over me, her chest heaving, the barrel next to the downed claws-and-fur telling the story: she'd brained the guy with a metal trash can, knocking it out.

"Nice," I managed. Beth just nodded once, her eyes a little wild around the edges. I probably didn't look much fucking better.

"What the fuck was that?"

Saul had gotten out of the truck, fists the size of fucking hams on his hips, glaring at us like we'd been the fucking problem. Jaime was behind him a safe distance, proving that he wasn't as much of a fucking idiot as I'd thought. Or that Beth was more a fucking idiot than all of us. Or all the above.

"And what the fuck is that?" Saul was looking at my bloodied friend now. "What the fuck?"

I'm guessing Saul hadn't ever seen anything out of the corner of his eye, before.

"Get back in the truck," I said, getting up onto my knees, resting my hands on my thighs and letting my back bitch me out for thinking I was still twenty-something. "Just get back in the fucking truck."

Don't fuck with the power of denial. Saul got back in the truck. Jaime went with him.

"You okay?" Beth asked.

"Fuck no. You?"

"Think I busted my hand."  She shook out the hand in question, wincing at the movement. "Yeah. Hey, little guy, you okay?"

Pale guy rolled their eyes up at her, the hissing noise dying down to a faint whistle, then silence. Then, "I don't suppose either of you is carrying any booze?"

"City workers," Beth said. "Sorry."

"Pity."  He - I was assuming he from the deepness of his voice but I wasn't gonna ask and I wasn't gonna look - leaned against the brick, those pale fingers pulling him up with...yeah, those were suckers at the end of his fingers, like a fucking frog. Part of me felt a little sick, and part of me was a five year old thinking that was the neatest thing ever.

"I appreciate your aid," frog-guy was saying, semi-steady on his feet again, and I glanced down at the ordinary brown boots and wondered if his toes had suckers on 'em too. "But as you are not part of the cosa it would be best if you were not involved when the pups arrived. It would require paperwork on their side, and... explanations you may not be wishing."

"I'm good with that," Beth said, hauling herself to her feet with only one hand, cradling the other against her chest. "Gonna have enough paperwork filing workman's comp. You gonna back me up how it happened, Pauly?"

"Just tell me how it went down," I agreed.

Pale guy hissed in what might have been laughter, who the fuck knows. "You should go as well."

"You needed me to call someone," I reminded him. My phone had gotten kicked across the alley, but when I retrieved it - limping more than I wanted to admit - it looked undamaged. "I assume someone who can also cart off tall dark and comatose?"  The urge to kick the other figure was fucking intense, but I squelched it. Only shits kicked someone when they were out.

"By now I suspect they are on their way," he said, tilting his head back and squinting up at the sky. His nose was still bleeding, slowly, and I wondered how much fucking blood he could lose before he fell over. "We had been in pursuit before the migoi got a jump on me, and Pietr will likely want to be the first to read me the riot act for not waiting for him."

"Um. Right."  I had no idea what the guy was fucking on about, but he sounded coherent enough he probably didn't have a concussion. Or maybe he did and he was just babbling. I didn't have a fucking clue.

The truck's horn bleated once, making us both jump. Frog-guy looked at the truck, then back at me, then dipped two fingers into the pocket of its pants, pulling out a fucking business card.

"If you have questions," he said, handing it to me. "They can explain. Now, please. Go."

I looked at the cards, the act that I had to squint suggesting I might have a fucking concussion, great. "PUPI?"  The smaller lettering underneath as too small for me to read, just then.

"Humans, like yourself. Well, somewhat like yourself. Investigators who...specialize in this sort of thing.  They can answer any questions you might have, better than I."

The pile of muscle stirred, indicating that the party-crasher was starting to wake up. Frog-guy looked at him with disdain.

"You can handle this?"  I was close to reminding him he'd gotten the shit kicked out of him already, but it wasn't like me and my knife were gonna be much fucking help either. And he said he had backup coming....

"Indeed."

The horn bleated again, reminding me that we were supposed to be blocks away by now, clearing out the trash we were paid to clear out. I grabbed hold of the truck opposite Beth, and slapped the side with one fist, telling them to go.

The card was tucked into my pocket. I didn't think I was going to call.

I didn't think I would. But I was getting the idea that once you don't look away, it's hard to go back.

Let me be a fucking lesson to you all.

 


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Miles to Go: A Sylvan Investigation

Danny Hendrickson: Human mother, faun father, 100% Attitude. For the most part, he’s made his own way, first as a member of the NYPD and then – when they started looking too closely at non-humans in the force – as a private investigator, straddling the line between human and fatae (supernatural) in his job the way he does in his life...

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Laura Anne Gilman

Speculative fiction. Sometimes dark, occasionally slipstream. 100 words to 100,000.