A shadow fell across his Game Boy. Without taking his eyes off the screen, he adjusted himself on the low concrete wall until it was gone. Then it was back, and he shifted again. A third time, and he finally looked up.
A young woman stood next to him, sunglasses propped on her head, long red hair dazzling in the sun. She was pretty, in an understated way, dressed in jeans and a large floppy sweater. She smiled shyly at Masulaef. “What are you playing?” she asked. She peered at the screen.
“Kingdom Hearts,” he said in his thick accent, watching her curiously. There was something about her…
“Is it any good?” she said, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. "I’ve never heard of it.”
“It is not out yet,” he answered, and stood up, sliding the Game Boy into the oversized pocket of his jacket. “Can I help you, miss?”
“I don’t know,” she said, frowning as she looked around the small outside terrace, noisy with the sounds of nearby traffic. “I think I’m lost. And, well, you looked like you might know the neighborhood. Being a telephone repairman and all.” She nodded at his New York Telephone jacket.
The jacket was old, but Masulaef had never bothered replacing it. It kept the wind and rain off, and he hadn’t had too much trouble getting into places he needed to go. Older residents got a kick out of it. He should get a new one sometime soon, he reflected. What was the name now? Bell Atlantic? Verizon? He couldn’t remember.
He pulled his thoughts together and looked at the woman again. “I would be happy to help, miss. Where is it you need to go?”
“Carnegie Hall.” She pulled a creased paper out of the back pocket of her jeans, a photocopy of a photocopy, by the look of it.
“Practice, practice, practice,” Masulaef intoned in a solemn voice, the one he usually reserved for dealing with wandering street preachers.
Momentarily taken aback, the woman stared at him, eyes wide. Then she began to laugh, her amusement spilling freely into the October sunshine. A harried-looking mother towing her protesting toddler glanced over at her and smiled. After a few seconds she clapped her hand over her mouth, looked around with a guilty expression, and subsided into giggles. Masulaef waited patiently, unable to suppress a small grin of his own.
With a final hiccup, she began again. “Wow, I can’t believe I walked right into that one! What a straight line!” She smiled warmly at Masulaef, dazzling him with the sheer radiance of it. What had he been thinking? She wasn’t just pretty, she was beautiful. Suddenly she remembered the paper she was holding. “My friend is having a recital there, and I want to surprise her. See? That’s her.” She pointed to a picture of a young woman playing the violin, one of a quartet of young adults looking very serious as they stared at their music. The name “Cora” and an address and phone number were handwritten under the photo. “It’s today, 2 o’clock, and I got turned around somehow. I flew in this morning, and a really nice pretzel vendor told me which train to take, but I think I went the wrong way out of the station.”
Masulaef surprised himself by making a slight bow, gesturing with his right arm for her to proceed him. He had no idea why, but suddenly he knew he had to go with her. “It is not far. I will accompany you, if you do not object.”
“Wow, would you? That’d be great, thanks! I’m not disturbing you, am I?” She looked a bit worried at the thought.
“I have no pressing concerns,” he replied, and they began to walk east.
“I love your accent. If it’s not too weird a question, where are you from?” she asked as they passed two young men arguing in Spanish. The shorter of the two looked their way, made a comment to the other, and both laughed, though not unpleasantly. Masulaef looked at them mildly, nodding a greeting. Sobering, they nodded back, and moved off down the sidewalk.
“I emigrated from Croatia,” he answered. “And yourself?”
“I was born in Alabama, but I’m going to school in Austin now,” she said. “Cora’s been my best friend since we were kids. We played violin together, and we both got invited to Juilliard. But I decided to go to Austin instead. Austin is great, but I really miss Cora sometimes.” Her hands stuffed in her jeans pockets, she kicked at an empty soda can, then ran over to the can and picked it up. “Sorry,” she said with an apologetic smile, “I’m kind of obsessive about littering.” She held onto the can until they passed a street vendor with a large colorful placard advertising hot dogs and Indian food — an odd combination, but Masulaef had seen stranger. She politely asked the vendor if she could dump it there, and the weathered Iranian gruffly agreed. Then he looked over at Masulaef and winked.
Masulaef recognized the man. It was Tabbris, a Mercurian of Yves. They had both spent many years in what was then the Austrian Empire, before Tabbris had been reassigned. Masulaef had been surprised to find him already in New York when he arrived, in a different vessel but still the same cheerful angel he’d always been. He had run into him off and on over the years. Tabbris liked being outdoors, watching humanity in all its variety as it passed him on the street. His food was good too, although Masulaef had learned to stay away from the really spicy dishes, especially in his Molosser vessel. They made him thirsty for hours afterwards.
Meeting up with Tabbris was a most fortunate coincidence — but somehow Masulaef didn’t think it was a coincidence at all. The Divine moved in mysterious ways, and no one knew that better than him.
He turned to the young woman. “Are you hungry?” he asked. “Did they feed you adequately on the plane?”
She had already passed the cart, but now she hesitated. “Well, I am, a little. I haven’t had anything since breakfast…” She looked back longingly. “But I don’t want to be late!” Her voice held a note of anxiety.
“We are very close now, five minutes at most. Please, you should eat something. You would not want the rumblings of your stomach to disturb your friend’s performance.” He gazed at her gravely, one corner of his mouth twitching.
She laughed again, a pure happy sound that made his heart rejoice. Tabbris looked up with surprise and a touch of wonder. He glanced at Masulaef, lifting his eyebrows, and Masulaef gave him a small nod. Tabbris called to her then. “Miss, would you like to try a samosa? I made them myself, not two hours ago.” He gestured at scratched plastic shelves lined with paper plates holding two samosas each. “Very good, only $3 for two.”
She smiled her thousand watt smile, a smile more brilliant than any lightbulb Tesla and Edison combined could have produced. “Ok! Do you want some too?” she asked Masulaef. “It’s the least I can do to thank you.”
She did not appear at all troubled about funds, so he said yes to please her. Tabbris removed two plates from the shelves, and added a couple of cans of diet soda. “On me,” he said over her protests. “It is a beautiful day, and I am celebrating the birth of my third grandchild, a beautiful healthy girl. Please, take them!” She congratulated him, and his hand brushed hers as he took her $6.
They walked on a few steps in silence, biting into the flaky pastries with caution and finding them both hot and good. Fragrant steam rose into the air. Then Masulaef said, “Please, keep walking, I will rejoin you in a moment. I will get us some napkins.” She nodded, her mouth full, and he turned around and quickly retraced his steps.
“So?” he said quietly to Tabbris, who took his time ostentatiously searching for napkins in the supplies at the bottom of his cart.
“A Soldier,” the angel whispered. “She will be a Soldier of God. Don’t lose her, Masulaef! She has great potential.”
“I will not,” he promised. “Thank you, Tabbris. I will keep in touch.”
“See that you do,” Tabbris answered, waving cheerfully at the young woman who had stopped and was looking back at them. “I want to know what happens to this one.”
The sidewalks were crowded now, but Masulaef guided her through the crush with the skill of a native. As the century-old building came into view, he pointed it out to her, and she clapped her hands with delight. Then she checked her watch. “Twenty minutes to spare! Thank you so much!” she said, giving him an impulsive hug, and then stepped back, embarrassed. “Oh gosh, I’m sorry, I don’t usually act like this, but you’ve been so nice to me. And I didn’t even ask your name!”
“Please do not apologize,” he said, bowing slightly. “I am Howard Mastiff. Of course, that is not my real name, but you might find that difficult to pronounce.” He offered his hand and she shook it, suddenly very formal.
“And I’m Felicia. Felicia Day,” she said. “Pleased to meet you.” The formality left as quickly as it had come, and she bounced up and down in her excitement. “I can’t wait to see Cora! Thank you! Maybe I’ll run into you again sometime.”
“I would like that very much,” he said. “Goodbye.” He raised a hand in farewell as she plunged into the afternoon crowds surrounding the building. Then he went in search of someplace more private to change into his canine vessel, and wait for her to emerge. She was his charge now, and he would protect her until his Archangel could find someone suitable to gently introduce her to the ways of the Symphony. But he rather hoped Jean might take his time.