1879: Actual Play NYC: Session 5: The Dybbuk and the Database
GM: So when we last left our intrepid explorers, they had taken Fish Hook Matilda to a Promethean for healing after some kind of smoke demon came up out of the sewers and broke her knee.
Yang: We gotta go talk to Mike about this. Dude needs to know what we’re up against here.
Rivka: Is it still night?
GM: If we’re picking up right after you leave Abraham’s Connection, yeah, it’s after midnight but this is New York. There’s electric lights down Broadway, gaslights in the more genteel neighborhoods, and people in Five Points sleep in shifts so that one person can make sure the other’s boots don’t get stolen while they’re sacked out.
Abraham: Right off their feet.
GM: You got that right. You’re in the City that Never Sleeps. What have you got in mind?
Jennifer (OOC): That reference is from Frank Sinatra, dude. Seriously out of period.
Rivka: We, or I anyway, need to get to the construction company. I don’t think the architectural firm is going to have the day to day logistical records of supplies arriving at the site.
Yang: Oh right, breaking and entering!
All (interrupting): Your favorite thing!
GM: Okay, let’s assess a couple of costs here and figure out the transit route. Abraham, your Promethean Connection is in Manhattan, so you had to drive back over the bridge and up to Harlem.
Abraham: Home sweet home.
GM: Not at this point in history it’s not. Black families have just started to move into the area, being pushed north by developments further south.
GM: On a big scale. Couple of years from now, San Juan Hill is going to get knocked down to make room for the Lincoln Center.
Abraham: So a bunch of black folks lose their homes for a big fancy arts complex for the white upper class, and they try to take the curse off it by stickin’ Lincoln’s name on it.
GM: Yeah, kind of, but remember, Lincoln’s not remembered all that well in the game world. Your name is something of a burden because he’s the president who lost the war.
Abraham: Right, I remember we talked about that. So Harlem’s what, Jewish, Italian this point in time?
GM: Yeah, just starting to get black families as the ones that can afford to move out of the tenements head north, making room for the families coming up from the Confederacy.
Rivka: The Great Migration.
GM: More or less, started earlier in the game world. So you’re up in Harlem at this point, and the construction company has their offices on Church between Reade and Chambers. The bad news is, that’s about a block and a half over from City Hall all the way down at the other end of the island. The good news is, it’s on the west side of City Hall. Two blocks the other way and you’d be in Five Points.
Rivka: No thank you.
Abraham: So if we drive down there, we’ll get there around one in the morning, right?
GM: More or less. You’re going to have to grab some water at a municipal pump to top up your boiler.
Abraham: As long as I don’t have to drink that stuff, that’s not a problem.
Yang: We should park someplace a block or two over and walk the rest of the way. Or what’s traffic like in the area at this time of night?
GM: Not much. A few blocks north it’s mostly foot traffic, people going to skeevy bars and gambling houses, but those run out as you get closer to City Hall, and the couple of bordellos are higher class, maybe a private coach and pair with a driver waiting out front.
Bethelie: Not the kind of establishment that will have walk-in appointments, non?
GM: Right. And the building you’re looking for, if you want to drive past it? (glances at Abraham)
Abraham: Yeah, we’ll take a pass by it, not slowing down like we’re casing the place, you know, don’t want to pull a copper’s attention, but yeah.
GM: Nice place, two tier facade with fancy columns and sculptured ivy, two stories on the lower section and one on the upper, three story lobby inside, probably has the new Otis Brothers Engine-controlled elevators.
Bethelie: I am not so sure I trust those. How do you know the machine will not decide to start the car moving again while you are only halfway out?
Rivka: I could draw the sensor circuits and the algorithm for you.
Abraham: So we’re going in the back, and I’m taking the next turn to find the loading dock if they’ve got one.
Yang: Surreptitious entry!
All: Your favorite thing!
Yang: I don’t say it that often, do I?
Bethelie: Oui, you in fact do.
GM: The building does in fact have a loading dock, and you slide in next to the garbage cans. Good news, they’ve been emptied already, bad news, the rubbish guys did a sloppy job of it.
Rachel (OOC): Do we startle a cat? There’s usually a cat sound effect at this point in the show.
GM: No cat, just a couple of street kids that were picking through the garbage and look for a quick exit.
Abraham: I flash that dollar coin and say, hold up. Lemme talk at you a second.
GM: Make a First Impression.
Abraham: How about a Streetwise? I’m trying to hire a little temporary help here.
GM: Okay, I’ll allow it.
Abraham: Got a twelve, I need karma on that?
GM: Nah, they hold up. They’re watching that coin flash in the single cheap flickering bulb over the loading dock rollup door.
Jennifer (OOC): You’re not going to pay them with fairy gold, are you?
Thomas (OOC): I got a plan here. (IC) Kids, you see this coin? I’ma give it to you, you keep an eye on this car of mine, watch out for anybody comin’ up on it, right? You see anybody comin’, you honk the horn. Now if you’re still here when I come out, you get another coin, but if you take off before I come back out, that one goes poof! (OOC) and I make a dramatic magic gesture.
GM: The one kid takes a couple steps closer. You’re pretty sure this one’s a boy, but it’s kind of hard to tell under the rags and the grime.
Abraham: Don’t matter to me.
GM: Kid says, you need a lookout?
Abraham: I nod, once, real slow. Yeah, you got it in one.
GM: Kid says, you know you’re working Shang Draper’s turf?
Abraham: (laughs) Boy, Shang Draper runs badgers up at Sixth Avenue and Fourth Street, this’s way south of his turf.
GM: Kid nods, says, you unnerstand, I gotta make sure?
Abraham: I get you. (OOC) I flip him the coin.
GM: He snatches it out of the air like a frog taking a fly. Anybody tries to fool with your car, he says, or follow you in, I honk the horn, but then I gotta hide someplace they can’t find me, so you gimme a minute you come back out before I show myself, right?
Abraham: You got it. I touch my hat brim, and we head in.
Jennifer (OOC): Okay, I get it. If he does the job, he gets paid, and if he doesn’t, he doesn’t.
Thomas (OOC): Told you I had a plan.
Yang: You said there’s a rollup door? Is there a regular door as well?
GM: Yeah, pretty solid wood, got a couple of big metal plates screwed down onto it so you can’t kick it in, and metal grating on the inside of the windows so you can’t bust the glass and reach in to open it. There’s a doorbell, or what’s left of one, but somebody’s jimmied it and stolen the button and some of the wire.
Yang: And it’s locked.
GM: You try it?
Yang: I try it.
GM: It’s locked. Doesn’t zap you or anything, owners either didn’t spring for trap enchantments or it’s worn out.
Yang: I got a ten on a Lock Picking, I need karma?
GM: Depends on whether you want the lock open or not.
Yang: That’s what I thought. Well, nuts, just a two. Total of twelve.
GM: You’re off form tonight.
Rivka: Excuse me? May I try?
Yang: I make an after you gesture and let the lady at it.
Rivka: Total of eighteen.
Yang: I was watching to see what she did different.
GM: Both of you get a tick box on your Lock Picking. Door’s unlocked.
Bethelie: I will take the point, if no one minds. A lady is less likely to be shot at than a man.
Abraham: Sexist facts of life. Lead on, ma’am.
Bethelie: I drop a slight and somewhat mocking curtsy and proceed.
GM: Fast forward to upstairs, as you see no guards in the service corridor and find no other locked doors between you and your target. Assuming you take the stairs up to the fifth floor and not the elevator?
Rivka: If it avoids the guards, then yes, we will climb the stairs, slowly and quietly.
GM: Okay, the fifth floor is a little less snazzy, plain tile floor instead of marble, no decorative moldings. Standard wooden door with the big pane of frosted glass with the name of the company painted on it.
Yang: Twenty-one. I redeem myself.
GM: You do, in fact. Yang pops the lock with only a few seconds of effort, and ushers you all into the offices.
Rivka: Skip the secretary’s desk and look for the accountant’s office.
GM: Easy enough to find. Small, cluttered, green glass banker’s lamp on a desk with a lot of papers and ledgers, and an Engine terminal with a green eyeshade hanging off the output hopper.
Rivka: Engine Programming, Rollup on the twelve, twenty-eight total.
GM: You’re in like Flint, straight past the front end and into the secondary storage. That was what you were looking for, right?
Rivka: Yes, the cooked books.
Abraham: Knew it.
GM: It’ll take a while to run a tape of the entire set. Something specific you’re looking for?
Rivka: Yes, bricks past the count needed for lining the tunnel as planned, and any other supplies. Send the output to tape and I’ll read through it later.
GM: Okay, the tape punch starts up. It’s kind of loud.
Rivka: I close the door and hope.
Yang: While she’s pulling the data, I search the senior partner’s office. I’m looking specifically for floor safes, drawers that don’t run the length of the desk or cabinet, you know, hiding places.
Bethelie: I shall go through the secretary’s desk, but carefully, so as not to disarrange things. People always forget how much the secretary knows.
GM: Yang, make a Field Engineering, since you’re looking specifically for special construction. Bethelie, I need an Awareness Test, unless you’ve got a Skill that’s more on point. Abraham, what are you up to?
Abraham: I’m keeping an eye on the hallway, got the door open just a crack, and I’m keeping an idea in the back of my head for a Psychic Apparition, letting my mind fill in the details so it’ll be good and ready if I need it.
Bethelie: Eighteen, rollup on the ten.
GM: Yang, you find a false bottom in a lower drawer, and the guy’s stash of French postcards.
Yang: Ew, I’m not touching those.
Bethelie: Any French letters with them?
Yang: Double ew.
GM: Bethelie, you’ve been going through the appointment book, and there’s some interesting notes in there. Apparently senior partner Willoughby Fisk has been blocking long lunches and some evenings with someone whose initials are A.N. There’s nobody with those initials in the Contacts section at the back of the book.
Abraham: Wait a minute, Fisk? Like any relation to Jubilee Jim?
GM: That’s a good question, now, isn’t it. Rivka, your tape is done.
Rivka: I shut down the terminal. We should leave, this was noisy.
Abraham: Good thought. Everybody ready to clear out?
Yang: I guess so. I was hoping to make another pass and see if there was anything better.
GM: The elevator dings.
Abraham: We’re out. Close the door quietly, make sure it latches, and walk fast down the hall away from the elevator and hope there’s another stairway.
Yang: Ought to be, these buildings are usually symmetrical.
GM: You get about halfway to the corner, and a guard comes around the corner.
GM: Go for it.
GM: Ten or better?
Abraham: Twelve. I do love it when a plan comes together. I fire off the Psychic Apparition. Got an eighteen on the Spellcasting, and a thirteen on the Effect, I’m throwing Karma, rollup, total of twenty-six.
GM: Okay, what are you projecting and to whom?
Abraham: I’m targeting just the guard. First, the floor is wet. Second, I’m in overalls with a tool belt. I say, “electric short”, and then a spray of sparks comes out the ceiling right in front of him.
GM: Okay, you’ve gone straight through his Mystic Defense, and you’ve got a simple set of conditions. He believes it. The rest of you see Abraham snap his fingers at the guard and say “electric short”, and the guard leaps back like a snake struck at him.
Bethelie: You are going to give him the heart attack!
GM: He clutches his chest a second, staggers back another step, and says “you got this?”
Abraham: Yeah, I got this, but it ain’t safe up here until I get it locked down.
GM: The guard backs up around the corner and you hear the elevator open and close.
Yang: Nice one, dude.
Rivka: And we make our exit, hopefully with no further excitement?
GM: Yep. You come out the back and there’s your car, the two kids sitting in the front seat licking the last of the grease out the inside of the paper bag Yang’s leftover gyro was in.
Yang: Aw man. I was gonna eat that for breakfast.
GM: Not now you aren’t.
Abraham: I pull another dollar coin, a real one this time, and hold it up. Trade me, I say.
GM: The kid looks at you and his eyes narrow. You set us up with fairy gold.
Abraham: I grin. Told you it’d go poof if you ran. Trade me.
GM: The kid holds up the fairy gold, and snatches the real dollar the instant you make a move for the fake one. He and the girl, you’re pretty sure that’s a girl anyway, run off to the corner, stop a second, and call back, that weird sandwich wasn’t worth no dollar, and then book it around the corner.
Yang: He did not diss my gyro.
GM: He most certainly did.
Yang: Damn. That’s cold.
Abraham: Pile in, people, that guard’s gonna realize there weren’t no service call any second now.
GM: As you pull away, the guard bursts out the back door and yells at you, but you can’t understand what he said over the engine and your wheels clattering over the cobbles.
Rivka: Another successful data retrieval.
Bethelie: You will carve the notch in your bed post?
Rivka: I blink at her, and then blush, hard.
Yang: So about that spirit worker you knew?
Rivka: Thank you. Yes, we still need to go and see her, but should we not wait until morning? I don’t know about the rest of you, but I could use some sleep before I try to explain this.
Yang: Weren’t you the one who sunk a knife into that thing? Kind of an emergency if you ask me.
Abraham: I’m with Yang on this one. What’s the worst that happens, we go and wake her up?
Rivka: She drops out the window, lands behind us, and cuts all our throats before we can tell her the problem.
Bethelie: She sounds efficient.
Yang: Efficient? Holy cow. She a spirit worker or some kind of ninja?
Rivka: She is a resistance fighter from Russia. There have been pogroms.
Abraham: Like genocide type stuff? I thought the Tsar was just throwing people out he didn’t like.
Rivka: What the Tsar does not like, sometimes his army just kills rather than drives off.
Bethelie: So this is where you learn to knife fight?
Rivka: Mostly from Peshe, a woman from Bialystok I met at synagogue, but she is another resistance fighter and introduced me to Tsilla. I should tell you, Tsilla is, um, different in her observance.
Bethelie: How so?
Rivka: She does not attend synagogue, and lives alone. The men do not approve of her partly because she refuses to marry and to have children, to continue our people, but mostly because she has studied Jewish mysticism, and developed her talents with spirit working, which is normally reserved for the men.
Yang: Your people don’t like women reading books?
Rivka: That sounds very close to racist, Yang. I would have thought better of you.
Yang: Sorry, that came out awkward. You know I didn’t mean it that way. But seriously, only men are allowed to be scholars? That doesn’t seem right.
Rivka: I have questioned this myself. I’m a Byron. That means I have studied quite a lot. But it’s numbers, and machinery. The scriptures, and the mystical texts, those are reserved for men. Except Tsilla learned it when she had the chance, and kept the books, and because she did, the books and the knowledge still exist after the Tsar’s men came to burn the village.
Bethelie: So she is like Maimonides in a way?
Rivka: Something like, though she would not be pleased to be compared to such a great man. But yes, she has broken one tradition in order to preserve another.
Abraham: So are we gonna go see her now or wait until morning? Cause that thing down the sewer is not gonna be sleeping, I can guarantee that.
Bethelie: I too believe we would be justified in awakening her.
Rivka: All right, but I must go up to her door by myself. She’s … cautious.
Yang: Meaning paranoid.
Rivka: If someone is actually trying to kill you, then you are not paranoid.
GM: Okay, the address that Rivka gives you takes you north and east. Do you want main streets or side streets?
Abraham: I’m going with the main streets so we get lost in the traffic. Side streets, people might remember us going by at this hour.
GM: Okay, so Broadway up to Grand, hang a right, across Grand to Suffolk, a left and up to Delancey. Gets kind of picturesque along the way, more so the further east you go. Broadway here is far south of the Tenderloin enough it’s respectable, the Brooklyn Life Insurance building, the New York Board of Education right after you make the turn onto Grand, not a lot of nightlife through here, mostly people on their way south after their revels.
Abraham: Watching out for drunk drivers.
GM: There’s more than a few. While there’s a law about driving while drunk, the coppers generally use it to tack on a charge after a collision, or as a way of collecting fines at a roadblock, rather than any kind of preventative measure. You cross the Bowery –
GM: Not that bad at this point. You’re a good five blocks north of Five Points, so while there’s some garbage in the gutters, the shops are in decent condition. Two blocks past it is Lord and Taylor, and you know they’re not going to be set up in a bad neighborhood. Past them, though, the upkeep declines pretty fast, and by the time you get to Suffolk, the public school on the corner looks more like a homeless shelter than an educational institution.
Abraham: Pretty close to the same in a neighborhood like this.
GM: One block further up, and it’s not tenements, the buildings are in decent condition and the plumbing probably all works, but it’s run down and from the number of clotheslines strung up overcrowded.
Rivka: Okay. I will go up the side stairs to Tsilla’s room and knock, then step to the side.
Yang: I’m keeping a watch down at the corner of the building, one pistol drawn. I don’t trust this neighborhood.
Bethelie: I think Abraham and I should stay at the car, he in case we must make the fast departure and I in case we need to defend the coach.
Abraham: I’m with that.
GM: Rivka, you wait for maybe half a minute, then a voice in your ear whispers in Russian, and says fire, flood, or blood?
Rivka: I whisper, dybbuk.
GM: Abraham, the hair on the back of your neck just stood straight up.
Abraham: I got a fifteen on an Astral Sight.
GM: Biggest damn ward you ever saw just went active. Complicated sucker too, focuses on that room up there Rivka’s standing outside, but there’s protections that extend to the building and out to the property line. You can barely even see Rivka’s aura through it.
Abraham. Ho-lee shit.
Abraham: I hope to hell not.
GM: The door eases open, and Rivka, you get a slow looking over before Tsilla gives you a nod and beckons you in.
Rivka: I wave down to Yang like everything’s fine and go in.
GM: The door closes.
Yang: I hope she knows what she’s doing up there.
Abraham: Me too, cause I don’t know if I could dispel through that fast enough to get to her.
GM: Rivka, you’ve known Tsilla for a while now, not well enough to make her a Connection, but enough there’s some degree of trust. Once you’re inside, and I’m going to skip the descriptive of her room if you don’t mind, she just says, tell me. Still in Russian.
Rivka: I keep it simple and straight, and tell her we fought a smoke demon across the river earlier this evening, and that it’s killed at least two men to stop the steelworkers and sandhogs from unionizing. I show her my knife, maybe there’s some kind of residue on it? I don’t know how this sort of thing works.
GM: She glances briefly at the knife, shakes her head, says there’s nothing there but she wouldn’t expect it. Do you know where the thing is now?
Rivka: No. We don’t have the talent to track it. We do know where it’s been, and where it’s killed.
GM: She grabs her go bag, an old canvas satchel with a lot of Hebrew and Russian embroidery on it, shoves her feet into a pair of military boots, and puts on a set of belts and bandoliers with knives, wands, little wooden boxes tied with ribbon, and such, then throws an old threadbare coat on over it all to hide most of her kit. You can introduce me to your friends and tell me the rest on the way. I trust you to be telling me the truth so far.
Rivka: I thank her for that trust, and wait for her to open the door.
GM: She lets you out, follows you onto the landing, and chants some kind of prayer, you don’t follow it, it sounds kind of like Hebrew but it’s not, as she closes the door and locks it. Abraham, the ward just went to standby, but that room up there has enough voltage, astrally speaking, to fry your ass if you screwed up trying to get in.
Abraham: My mama didn’t raise no stupid. I ain’t messin’ with that.
GM: Rivka comes back down with a woman you could lose in any group of a dozen in this neighborhood, dark curly hair half tucked under a hastily tied scarf, high cheekbones, dark eyes, average height, bulky clothing, but Abraham, your astral sight is still running and you can see that magically speaking she’s loaded for bear.
Yang: I holster my pistol and follow them to the car. I’ll take shotgun so the women can all ride together in the back.
Rivka: Good idea. Our traditions require a separation of the genders when possible.
Abraham: Once she’s in, put it in gear and head for Brooklyn. We’re almost at the bridge, I want to ruin Mike’s breakfast with the story we have to tell.
GM: Okay. We’ll assume you catch Tsilla up on the happenings on the way. Her name is Tsilla Matusevitch, by the way, although she’s gotten used to Americans and their informality and will go by her given name and not expect to be addressed as Miss Matusevitch.
Bethelie: A shame, a proper formality among us would have been nice.
GM: And we’ll pick up next session with your very early morning arrival at the Syrian bakery, in time for the first hot za’atar bread out of the oven and a cup of tea before you roust Michael and lay out what you’ve found.