The music playing on the jukebox in the grubby little cafe was not entirely unpleasant, though Lohmann could not identify the instruments — some kind of pipes? The singer’s voice was breathy but in-tune, and the lyrics were some nonsense about wanting to die with one’s beloved. Romantics never did give up. After fifty years or more of this kind of thing, Lohmann had to admit they were beginning to win him over through sheer persistence.
He kept an eye on the young man feeding quarters to the machine, while Skuld — it still felt odd using her name — sat nearby, talking to a woman in an outfit that even Lohmann, even in a city he’d never visited and a decade he’d never expected to see, could tell was chic.
The woman’s name seemed to be Evie, and the young man by the jukebox was Maxie — well, Count Hauk-Šendorf. They spoke myriad languages, though nearly always with a slight accent. They were both short, slim, and very pretty, and occasionally dropped knowing references to people and events from well before the twentieth century. Lohmann was fairly sure they did not work for any of the Departments he was aware of. They’d come into the cafe together, where Skuld and Lohmann had been waiting for them.
While his partner chatted to Evie, Lohmann focussed studiously on the sandwich before him, not without a sense of dread — he’d noticed that the food changed just as much every ten years as every ten miles, and he wondered what people in 1980s New York found palatable.
The bread was much too sweet, as was the sauce. The ground-up beef, however, was salted enough to show that the dish had been intended as a savoury. Lohmann set the sandwich down on the square of paper it had been wrapped in, and glared at it for a while. One of the young people with funny hair at the next table giggled, and he glanced at them and shrugged, with an embarrassed smile.
“Fast food, man,” said a skinny youth whose hair was dyed green and stiffened into spines like a parrot’s poll. “Cheap, and there when you need it, but tastes like fried cardboard.”
The Inspector was trying hard, very hard, not to goggle at his surroundings like a tourist, but this was the first time he’d ever been to New York and it did indeed look like all the pictures he’d seen of the place, some fifty years before. It was dirtier, of course, but that was the way of cities. From the moment he and his colleague had arrived he had breathed in the smoke and gasoline and watched all the different oddly-dressed people and felt very much at home.
The advantage of cities was that no one noticed an extra stranger or two; and so no one clammed up in their presence. The green-haired lad (Lohmann had already begun to think of him as Papageno) went back to discussing local matters with his friends; in particular the recent disappearances of an acquaintance and the strange behaviour of another:
“Adrian – I’m not surprised she vanished. Girl sold drugs. But Sarah works in a clinic, which I guess is the same thing but it’s usually a bit safer, and she’s been freaking out about some guy who claims he’s sick and can’t figure out what’s wrong. I tell you, this city is being weirder than usual.”
The girl who spoke was dressed in a collection of brightly-coloured triangles, with a hairstyle that made it appear as though her head was on fire. It wasn’t to Lohmann’s taste, but he couldn’t honestly say he hadn’t seen stranger get-ups.
“May I remind you that New York is agreed to be neutral territory?” Evie bristled.
“I’m not here to interfere with you,” replied Skuld, carelessly. “You overestimate yourself — you’re nothing more than an alchemical experiment gone terribly right. Though I must admit, I thought you’d died in Prague?”
Evie had drawn herself up to her full height (which was less than three-quarters of Skuld’s) and glared like an angry cat when the Valkyrie accused her of overestimating; but when her interlocutor confessed puzzlement, she laughed.
“Oh, I just wanted everyone to leave me alone,” she said. “And it’s really not hard to play dead. I’d been doing it for centuries on the stage, after all. After that poor dear burnt what she thought was my father’s formula, and they all left the hotel room, I just got up and left out the back door.”
“And picked up your lover from the sanitarium before leaving town, I’m guessing?” Skuld nodded towards the youth still fiddling with the jukebox in the corner. “Looks like you gave him a dose of the formula too.”
“He wasn’t much good to me as an old man,” Evie said, but her expression had softened slightly.
“He’s still a bit light in the head,” Skuld observed.
“Oh, he always was, even back in Madrid. The formula restores and prolongs youth, it can’t do anything for a scattered brain. But he’s a sweet boy.”
“He must be. I think he’s the only person you’ve ever really cared for.” Skuld’s tone, too, had softened; but Evie set her mouth stubbornly. The valkyrie continued: “Fine. We didn’t come to pry into your affairs anyway — we came to ask a favour.”
“What kind of favour?”
“And in return?”
“I shall owe you a favour. You’re bound to need one sooner or later, living the way you do.” Skuld took a sip of her coffee and grimaced. “Why do you come to this restaurant, of all places?”
“It’s near my rehearsal space. Maxie likes the jukebox. And I thought you weren’t going to ask me any more personal questions?”
“Fair enough. Do we have a deal?”
Evie’s smile was as dazzling as Skuld’s, and colder:
“What do you wish to know about?”
“55 Park West. The Šandor building.”