“You don’t know.” She said it flatly, disbelievingly. “What do you know?”
He shrugged helplessly. Looking down into the amber depths of his glass, he lifted it and drained it in one fast, fierce torrent. The rawness of it didn’t affect his voice, although it felt like it should. “I know I was chasing a slitherer.”
“A slitherer?” Incredulity open in her voice now, and impatience too. As if she’d decided he was playing some kind of a game and she’d had enough.
“I’m not scamming you.” The word sat oddly on his tongue, yet the sense of it held a familiar resonance. He wondered how he knew all this, about this world, this language, these people.
“What?” Still impatient, but the woman’s face held more than that. It held concern. She recognized his shock. More perceptive than she had any right to be, or his new face was revealing more than it should.
New face?? Where had that come from?
“This isn’t my world,” he said slowly, trying it out on his tongue, unable to deny the truth of it when it was spoken. “That’s how I know about slitherers and grabbers and the other demons.”
“Demons?” The paling face was at odds with the scorn in her voice. She looked around quickly, but no one was showing any interest in their close-voiced conversation.
Had he used the wrong word? The language seemed to come readily to his tongue now, but perhaps the fluency was misleading. He said cautiously, “The word seemed appropriate. If it’s not —.”
“Appropriate? What the hell does that mean?”
He spread his hands. He didn’t want to antagonize her. This wasn’t his world, he was sure of that now if nothing else, and this woman was the only guide to it he had. Lifting his glass in a gesture aimed at softening the moment, he found it empty. He glanced at the woman’s glass. Empty too. Instinct told him he should get more drinks, that it was a courtesy she would expect.
How did he know that, if this world and its people were strange to him? But presumably he came from somewhere else, some other world, where people lived and behaved much as people here did.
Panic fluttered in his gut again. What other world? There was nothing, worse than nothing, a hollow aching void, where his world should have been. His world; his people.
The panic must have shown, because the woman — what had she called herself? Elly? — asked, “What now?” Both concern and impatience had faded, been replaced by her earlier wariness. He couldn’t blame her.
“I don’t know anything.” He tried to speak steadily, not to deny his panic but to force it into some shape, to control it. “I don’t know who I am or where I come from or anything about my past. I remember arriving here, on the street, not long before we met. I remember everything being … incomprehensible. And then the world took shape and color. And I saw the slitherer, and I knew I was chasing it, and I knew I had to destroy it. Then I sensed your grabber.”
“Not mine!” She caught her breath, studying him narrowly. “For an alien, you look normal enough. Well, you’re a bit fashion-challenged, but you seem to have all the right parts. Head: one; legs: two.” She waved at him as if to signify all the other parts she couldn’t be bothered to itemize.
Fashion challenged? He couldn’t make sense of that, although he understood both words. When he asked the question, she gestured again at his body. No, he realized after a moment, at the clothes he was wearing. He frowned down at himself, thinking of the people he’d seen on the street. “They don’t seem out of keeping with other men I’ve seen.”
“Each one’s fine,” she agreed. “It’s putting them together that’s the problem. That dark suit belongs to a lawyer; the tee shirt screams artist; the boots belong to some sort of heavy; the coat … Mmm.” She smiled. “The coat is definitely cool. What is it? Some new synthetic? It kinda looks like leather, but …” She reached over the table and, bewildered, he held out an arm. She stroked his sleeve. “Mmm,” she said again. “Doesn’t feel synthetic. It almost feels alive.”
“It is.” The words tripped off his tongue without thought. He frowned. “It was.” That made more sense, although the thought of wearing the hide of a once-living creature was discomforting.
Elly didn’t seem shocked. Her hand kept stroking as she said, “So it is leather?”
Leather was the hide of a cow. He shook his head. “The creature this belonged to wasn’t from this world.”
Her face lost its pleased expression as she withdrew her hand. “We back to this other-world garbage?”
He felt a spurt of impatience. “The grabber you saw, do you think it was from this world?” A voice inside chided him. That was wrong, to show impatience. His panic must have unsettled him.
And her face had tightened. Though it may have been the words rather than his tone. She looked down, into her glass, then lifted her head to show a different face, smooth and empty. “I’m guessing this alien shtick means you don’t have the dough to buy your round?”
Another failure of communication, but he thought he got the gist. He shook his head. She sighed and muttered something under her breath, then got up, taking the glasses, and went over to the bar. He could have done without the opportunity for reflection.
Not comforting thoughts, not comforting at all. His mind shied away from them even as he thought them, but he wasn’t going to let fear rule him. When she came back, he voiced his thoughts aloud. Maybe that would show him how stupid they were. “I don’t think I was dressed like this before I came here. I’m not even sure I had this body.” No. Saying it aloud really didn’t help.
Elly looked at him as if she’d used up all her stock of disbelief. Then she took a large swallow from one of the glasses in her hand and put both glasses down. “Look, it’s been wild. But I think it’s time I bailed.” She started to turn away.
“You can’t go!” A couple of the people at the bar turned around at his raised voice. Although all his attention seemed focused on the woman, he noticed that, and noticed himself noticing. And that somewhere in his head, something had been keeping note of who left and who arrived, and even how many drinks each person had consumed while they’d been sitting there.
Elly turned back and put one hand on the table, leaning toward him. “Look,” she paused, as if wanting to put a name in there, not knowing what name to put. “You saved me and I’m grateful. And if you really can’t remember anything, then I’m sorry. But New York’s full of scam artists, and I really don’t know if you’re one of them. And if you’re not, if you’re just some crazy who’s lost his mind, then, like I say, I’m sorry. But I’ve got my own problems, and I sure in hell don’t need another loser in my life.”
He had been thinking, panicked, that she was all he knew of this world, but now he remembered his earlier thought. “And if they come after you again? It wasn’t just a random mugging. Grabbers are scouts. It had targeted you. For someone else. Something else.”
She froze. Something moved in her eyes, and she sat down again and said quietly, “Like what?”
“I don’t know. An angel probably.” He let his voice drop ominously. He was reluctant to panic her, but she had to take this seriously. “Maybe even an archangel.”
She burst out laughing, all the tension melting away. “Okay, you got me. But that’s enough games, okay? You’ve had your fun; you’ve got a couple of drinks out of it. Quit while you’re ahead.” She started to rise again.
He frowned, bewildered by her reaction. Most people would be shitting themselves at the thought of an archangel after them.
Maybe she was the one deranged?
He gave a mental shrug. Didn’t matter. She was all he had right now.
He said, “I’m deadly serious, and this isn’t a game. I don’t know what it is, but it’s sure in hell not a game. And an archangel is not anything you want to laugh about.”
Something of his seriousness must have impressed itself on her, because she settled down again, though still with the air of someone about to leave any minute. Her voice was amused as she said, “Don’t you think God would have something to say about them playing for the other side?”
His face quirked into disbelief. “And I suppose you think the Creator of the multiverse likes people?”