/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy_city / Series: Dresden Files

Ghost Story

Jim Butcher

The eagerly awaited new novel in the #1 New York Times bestselling Dresden Files series.  When we last left the mighty wizard detective Harry Dresden, he wasn't doing well. In fact, he had been murdered by an unknown assassin.  But being dead doesn't stop him when his friends are in danger. Except now he has nobody, and no magic to help him. And there are also several dark spirits roaming the Chicago shadows who owe Harry some payback of their own.  To save his friends—and his own soul—Harry will have to pull off the ultimate trick without any magic...

Ghost Story

(Book 13 in the Dresden Files series)

A novel by Jim Butcher

To Air, for introducing me to Mab by onion-colored light

Acknowledgments

As always, there are too many people to thank and only a little bit of space to thank them in. This time around, I must especially thank my editor, Anne, for putting up with my delays in writing. I’m sure I gave her, along with several of the folks trying to schedule things at Penguin, headaches. My agent, Jenn, was invaluable in getting everything straightened out, as well as in helping me through the bumpy bits, and I owe her my thanks, as well. I would apologize to you all abjectly if I were sure it would never happen again. Seems sort of insincere to do it otherwise, all things considered, so I’ll just thank you for your patience and understanding.

To the inhabitants of the Beta Asylum, many more thanks than usual are owed, especially for everyone who sacrificed so much of their time and focus in the last few weeks before the revised deadline. Your feedback, support, and advice were particularly invaluable.

To my dear patrons, the readers, I can only thank you for your patience, after leaving the last novel the way I did, then making everyone wait another three months past the usual delay while I made sure this book was ready to go. Enjoy! (And, technically, guys, Changes did NOT end in a cliff-hanger. Seriously.)

And to Shannon, who had to live with me during this more-franticthan-usual period of insanity: I’m almost certain I’ll be sane again at some point in the reasonably near future. I’ll try to make it up to you.

Chapter One

Life is hard.

Dying’s easy.

So many things must align in order to create life. It has to happen in a place that supports life, something approximately as rare as hen’s teeth, from the perspective of the universe. Parents, in whatever form, have to come together for it to begin. From conception to birth, any number of hazards can end a life. And that’s to say nothing of all the attention and energy required to care for a new life until it is old enough to look after itself.

Life is full of toil, sacrifice, and pain, and from the time we stop growing, we know that we’ve begun dying. We watch helplessly as year by year, our bodies age and fail, while our survival instincts compel us to keep on going—which means living with the terrifying knowledge that ultimately death is inescapable. It takes enormous effort to create and maintain a life, and the process is full of pitfalls and unexpected complications.

Ending a life, by comparison, is simple. Easy, even. It can be done with a relatively minor effort, a single microbe, a sharp edge, a heavy weight . . . or a few ounces of lead.

So difficult to bring about. So easy to destroy.

You’d think we would hold life in greater value than we do.

I died in the water.

I don’t know if I bled to death from the gunshot wound or drowned. For being the ultimate terror of the human experience, once it’s over, the details of your death are unimportant. It isn’t scary anymore. You know that tunnel with the light at the end of it that people report in near-death experiences? Been there, done that.

Granted, I never heard of anyone rushing toward the light and suddenly hearing the howling blare of a train’s horn.

I became dimly aware that I could feel my feet beneath me, standing on what seemed to be a set of tracks. I knew because I could feel the approaching train making them shake and buzz against the bottoms of my feet. My heart sped up, too.

For crying out loud, did I just say that death isn’t scary anymore? Tell that to my glands.

I put my hands on my hips and just glared at the oncoming train in disgust. I’d had a long, long day, battling the forces of evil, utterly destroying the Red Court, rescuing my daughter, and murdering her mother—oh, and getting shot to death. That kind of thing.

I was supposed to be at peace, or merging with the holy light, or in line for my next turn on the roller coaster, or maybe burning in an oven equipped with a stereo that played nothing but Manilow. That’s what happens when you die, right? You meet your reward. You get to find out the answer to the Big Questions of life.

“You do not get run over by trains,” I said crossly. I folded my arms, planted my feet, and thrust out my jaw belligerently as the train came thundering my way.

“What’s wrong with you?” bellowed a man’s voice, and then a heavy, strong hand wrapped around my right biceps and hauled me off the track by main force. “Don’t you see the damned train?”

Said train roared by like a living thing, a furious beast that howled and wailed in disappointment as I was taken from its path. The wind of its passage raked at me with sharp, hot fingers, actually pulling my body a couple of inches toward the edge of the platform.

After a subjective eternity, it passed, and I lay on flat ground for a moment, panting, my heart beating along lickety-split. When it finally began to slow down, I took stock of my surroundings.

I was sprawled on a platform of clean but worn concrete, and suddenly found myself under fluorescent lights, as at many train stations in the Chicago area. I looked around the platform, but though it felt familiar, I couldn’t exactly place it. There were no other commuters. No flyers or other advertisements. Just an empty, clean, featureless building.

And a pair of polished wing tip shoes.

I looked up a rather modest length of cheap trousers and cheap suit and found a man of maybe thirty years looking back at me. He was built like a fireplug and managed to give the impression that if you backed a car into him, he’d dent your fender. His eyes were dark and glittered very brightly, hinting at a lively intellect, his hairline had withdrawn considerably from where it must have been at one point, and while he wasn’t exactly good-looking, it was the kind of face you could trust.

“Southbound trains are running pretty quick lately,” he said, looking down at me. “I figured you probably didn’t want to hook up with that one, mister man.”

I just stared up at him. I mentally added twenty years and forty pounds to the man standing in front of me, subtracted more hair, and realized that I knew him.

“C—” I stammered. “C-c-c—”

“Say it with me,” he said, and enunciated: “Carmichael.”

“But you’re . . . you know,” I said. “Dead.”

He snorted. “Whoa, buddy. We got us a real, gen-yoo-wine detective with us now. We got us the awesome wizardly intellect of mister man himself.” He offered me his hand, grinning, and said, “Look who’s talking, Dresden.”

I reached up, dazed, and took the hand of Sergeant Ron Carmichael, formerly of the Chicago Police Department’s Special Investigations division. He’d been Murphy’s partner. And he’d given his life to save her from a rampaging loup-garou. That had been . . . Hell’s bells, more than ten years ago. I saw him die.

Once I was standing, I stared down at him for a moment, shaking my head. I was a lot taller than he was. “You . . .” I said. “You look great.”

“Funny what being dead can do for you,” he said, widening his eyes dramatically. “And I tried Weight Watchers and everything.” He checked his watch. “This is fun and all, but we’d better get moving.”

“Uh,” I said warily, “get moving where, exactly?”

Carmichael stuck a toothpick in his mouth and drawled, “The office. Come on.”

I followed him out of the station, where an old, gold-colored Mustang was waiting. He went around to the driver’s side and got in. It was dark. It was raining. The city lights were on, but the place looked deserted except for the two of us. I still couldn’t tell exactly where in Chicago we were, which was damned odd; I know my town. I hesitated for a moment, looking around, trying to place myself by spotting the usual landmarks.

Carmichael pushed open the door. “Don’t bother, kid. Out there’re all the buildings that coulda been, as well as the ones that are. You’ll give yourself a headache if you keep thinking at it.”

I looked around once more and got into the old Mustang. I shut the door. Carmichael pulled sedately into the empty streets.

“This isn’t Chicago,” I said.

“Genius,” he said amiably.

“Then . . . where are we?”

“Between.”

“Between what?” I asked.

“Between what?” he said. “Between who. Between where. Between when.”

I frowned at him. “You left out why.”

He shook his head and grinned. “Naw, kid. We’re real fond of why around here. We’re big fans of why.”

I frowned at that for a moment. Then I said, “Why am I here?”

“You never even heard of foreplay, didja?” Carmichael said. “Cut straight to the big stuff.”

“Why am I here as opposed to—you know—wherever it is I’m supposed to be?”

“Maybe you’re having a near-death experience,” Carmichael said. “Maybe you’re drowning, and this is the illusion your mind is creating for you, to hide you from the truth of death.”

“Being here? With you? I’ve met my subconscious, and he’s not that sick.”

Carmichael laughed. It was a warm, genuine sound. “But that could be what is happening here. And that’s the point.”

“I don’t understand. At all.”

“And that’s the point, too,” he said.

I glowered.

He kept on smiling and said, “Kid, you’re allowed to see as much as you can handle. Right now, we’re someplace that looks a lot like Chicago, driving along in the rain in my old Mustang, because that’s what your limits are. Any more would”—he paused, considering his words—“would obviate certain options, and we ain’t big on that around here.”

I thought about that for a moment. Then I said, “You just used obviate and ain’t in the same sentence.”

“I got me one of them word-a-day calendars,” he said. “Don’t be obstreperous.”

“You kidding?” I said, settling back in the seat. “I live to be obstreperous.”

Carmichael snorted, and his eyes narrowed. “Yeah, well. We’ll see.”

Chapter Two

Carmichael stopped the Mustang in front of a building that reminded me of old episodes of Dragnet. He parked on the empty street and we walked toward the entrance.

“So, where are we going?”

“Told you. The office.”

I frowned. “Don’t suppose you could be more specific?”

He looked around, his eyes narrowed. “Not here. We aren’t in safe territory. Ears everywhere.”

I stopped on the completely empty sidewalk and looked up and down the motionless, vacant street, and saw nothing but lonely streetlamps, traffic signals, and windows unmarred by light or curtains, staring more blankly than the empty eyes of a corpse.

“Yeah,” I said. “Real hotbed of intrigue around here.”

Carmichael stopped at the door and looked over his shoulder. He didn’t say anything for a few seconds. Then he spoke quietly, without a trace of affectation in his voice. “There are Things out here, Dresden. And some Things are worse than death. It’s best if you get inside.”

I rolled my eyes at him. But . . .

Something about the emptiness around me was suddenly extremely nerve-racking.

I stuck my hands in my pockets and tried to saunter inside. The effect may have been slightly sabotaged by my desire to get some solid building between that emptiness and me. Carmichael used a key to open the door and let me in before coming in behind me, his face directed back toward the street until he had shut the door and locked it.

He nodded to a guard, a beat cop in dress uniform, who stood just to one side of an elevator, his back in an entirely rigid position of at-ease, his hands clasped behind him. The guard’s uniform was literally perfect. Perfectly clean, the creases perfectly sharp, his gloves perfectly white. He wore a silver-plated, engraved service revolver in a gleaming black holster at his hip. His features went with the uniform—utterly symmetrical, strong, steady.

I stopped for a second, frowning at the guard, and then reached for my Sight.

Professional wizards like me have access to all kinds of wild things. One of the wildest is the Sight, which has been described in various times and cultures as the second sight, the third eye, the evil eye, and a host of other things. It allows a wizard to look at the true nature of things around him, to see the unseen world of energy and power flowing around him. It’s dangerous. Once you see something with your Sight, you never forget it, and it never fades with time. Take a look at the wrong thing and you can kiss your sanity good-bye.

But this entire scene was so Rod Serling, I had to find something about it that I could pin down, something familiar, something that wasn’t being spoon-fed to me by a person who looked like a younger, thinner Carmichael. I decided to try to identify the single object that was most likely to tell me something about the people around me—a source of power.

I focused on the guard’s gun.

For a second, absolutely nothing happened. And then the black and silver of the gleaming weapon changed, shifted. The holster elongated, trailing down the length of the guard’s leg, and the pearl-handled revolver changed as well, the grip straightening. The silver of the barrel and chamber became the pommel, handle, and hilt of a cruciform sword. Light gleamed from the weapon, not reflected from the illumination in the entry hall of the building, but generated by the weapon itself.

The guard’s blue eyes shifted to me at once. He lifted a hand and said in a gentle voice, “No.”

And as suddenly as a door slamming into my face, my Sight vanished, and the weapon was just a gun again.

The guard nodded at me. “My apologies for being abrupt. You might have harmed yourself.”

I looked. His name tag read AMITIEL.

“Uh, sure,” I said quietly, lifting empty hands. “No problem, man. I’ve got no problem with you.”

Carmichael nodded respectfully to the guard and jammed a thumb down on the button to summon the elevator. It opened at once. “Come on, mister man. Time’s a-wasting.”

Officer Amitiel seemed to find the statement humorous. He smiled as he touched two fingers to the brim of his cap in a casual salute to Carmichael. Then he went back to his relaxed stance as a guardian, calmly facing the emptiness that had unnerved me.

The elevator doors closed, and the car rattled a little before it started moving. “So,” I said, “now that we’ve got at least one guardian angel between us and whatever it is you were nervous about, can you tell me where we’re going?”

Carmichael’s eyes crinkled at the corners. He grunted. “I’m pretty much a tour guide at the moment, Dresden. You need to talk to the captain.”

Carmichael took me through a precinct room, the kind with a lot of unenclosed desks as opposed to cubicles, where cops worked. It looked a lot like the Special Investigations headquarters in Chicago. There were several men and women at the desks, reading through files, talking on phones, and otherwise looking like cops at work. All of them were about Carmichael’s apparent age—right at the line where youthful energy and wisdom-creating life experience were reaching a state of balance. I didn’t recognize any of them, though Carmichael gave and received nods from a couple. He marched over to the only other door in the room, leading to a private office, and knocked.

“In,” said a clear, quiet baritone.

Carmichael opened the door and led me into the room. It was a small, well-used office. There were old filing cabinets, an old wooden desk, some battered wooden chairs. The desk had an in-box, an out-box, and a message spike, along with a rotary telephone. There was no computer. Instead, on a table next to the desk sat an old electric typewriter.

The man behind the desk was also more or less Carmichael’s age, and he looked like a professional boxer. There was scar tissue here and there around his eyes, and his nose had been frequently broken. He had hung his suit jacket over the back of his chair, and his shoulders and biceps strained the fabric of his white shirtsleeves. He had them rolled up to the elbows, revealing forearms that were approximately as thick as wooden telephone poles, and looked every bit as strong. His hair was blond, his eyes blue, and his jawline was heavy enough to make me think of a bulldog. He looked familiar somehow.

“Jack,” Carmichael said. “This is Dresden.”

Jack looked me up and down, but he didn’t get up. He didn’t say anything, either.

“He’s always this way before he’s had his cup of coffee,” Carmichael told me. “Don’t take it personal.”

“Hey, coffee,” I said into the silence that followed. “That sounds good.”

Jack eyed me for a moment. Then he said, in that same mellifluous voice, “Dresden, are you hungry?”

“No.”

“Thirsty?”

I thought about it. “No.”

“That’s because you’re dead,” Jack said. His smile was brief and not particularly reassuring. “You don’t need to drink. You don’t need to eat. There’s no coffee.”

I eyed Carmichael.

“I stand by my statement,” said Carmichael. He looked at Jack and hooked a thumb at the door. “I should get back to that rakshasa thing.”

Jack said, “Go.”

Carmichael slapped my arm and said, “Good luck, kid. Have fun.” And he strode out, moving like a man on a mission. That left me sharing an awkward silence with Jack.

“This isn’t what I expected out of the afterlife,” I said.

“That’s because it isn’t,” he said.

I frowned. “Well, you said I was dead. Ergo, afterlife.”

“You’re dead,” Jack said. “This is between.”

I frowned. “What, like . . . purgatory?”

Jack shrugged. “If that works for you, call it that. But you aren’t here because you need to cleanse yourself. You’re here because there was an irregularity with your death.”

“I got shot. Or drowned. Ain’t exactly rare.”

Jack lifted a big, square hand and waggled it back and forth. “It isn’t about the physical. It’s about the spiritual.”

I frowned. “Spiritual?”

“The opposition,” Jack said. “You died because they cheated.”

“Wait. What opposition?”

“The angel standing guard at the elevator is what we cops think of as a clue. You need me to draw you some pictures?”

“Um. Hell, you mean? Like . . . actual Fallen angels?”

“Not exactly. But if you want to think of it that way, it works. Sort of. What you need to know is that they’re the bad guys.”

“That’s why I’m here,” I said. “Because they . . . broke some sort of cosmic rule?”

“You were getting in their way. They wanted you gone. They broke the law to make it happen. That makes you my problem.”

I frowned at him and looked down at myself. I noticed idly that I was wearing jeans, a plain black T-shirt, and my black leather duster—which had been torn to shreds and consigned to the waters of the lake an hour or three before I got shot. I mean, my duster had died.

But I was wearing it, whole and good as new.

Which was when it really, really hit me.

I was dead.

I was dead.

Chicago, the White Council, my enemies, my friends, my daughter . . . They were all gone. Obsolete. And I had no idea whatsoever what was going to happen to me next. The room felt like it started spinning. My legs started shaking. I sat down on a chair opposite Jack’s seat.

I felt his steady regard on me, and after a moment he said quietly, “Son, it happens to all of us. It’s hard to face, but you gotta relax and focus, or there’s nothing I can do for you.”

I took some deep breaths with my eyes closed—and noticed for the first time how absolutely incredible I felt physically. I felt like I had when I was a kid, when I was full of energy and the need to expend it doing something enjoyable. My limbs felt stronger, quicker, lighter.

I looked at my left hand and saw that it was no longer covered in scar tissue from the burns I’d received years ago. It was whole, as if it had never been harmed.

I expanded the logic and realized that I didn’t actually feel all that incredible—I was simply missing an entire catalog of injuries and trauma. The faded, years-old scar I’d given myself on my right forearm, when my knife had slipped while cleaning the fish my grandfather and I had caught, was missing also.

The constant, slowly growing level of aches and pains of the body was simply gone. Which made sense enough, since my body was gone, too.

The pain had stopped.

I mopped at my face with my hand and said, “Sorry. It’s just a lot to take in.”

The smile appeared again. “Heh. Just wait.”

I felt irritated at his tone. It was something to hang on to, and I planted my metaphoric heels and dragged the spinning room to a stop.

“So, who are you?” I asked. “And how can you help me?”

“You want to call me something, call me Captain. Or Jack.”

“Or Sparrow?” I asked.

Jack looked at me with a cop face that showed nothing but the vague hint of disapproval. He reached across the desk and slid a file folder to the blotter in front of him. He opened it and scanned the contents. “Look, kid, you’re stuck here. You aren’t going anywhere until we get this discrepancy sorted out.”

“Why not?”

“Because what comes after isn’t for people who are rubbernecking over their shoulders or bitching about how unfair they had it,” Jack said, his expression frank. “So, we sort out how you got screwed over. Then you get to move on to what’s next.”

I thought of being trapped in the hollow shell of the city outside and shuddered. “Okay. How do we fix it?”

“You go back,” Jack said. “And you catch the scum who did you.”

“Back?” I said. “Back to . . .”

“Earth, yeah,” Jack said. “Chicago.” He closed the folder and dropped it into his out-box. “You gotta find out who killed you.”

I arched an eyebrow at him. “You’re kidding.”

He stared at me, his expression as jovial as a mountain crag.

I rolled my eyes. “You want me to solve my own murder?”

He shrugged. “You want a job here instead, I can set you up.”

“Augh,” I said, shuddering again. “No.”

“Okay,” he said. “Any questions?”

“Uh,” I said. “What do you mean when you say you’re sending me back? I mean . . . back to my body or . . . ?”

“Nah,” he said. “Isn’t available. Isn’t how it works. You go back as you are.”

I frowned at him and then down at myself. “As a spirit,” I said.

He spread his hands, as if I had just comprehended some vast and weighty truth. “Don’t hang around for sunrise. Watch out for thresholds. You know the drill.”

“Yeah,” I said, disturbed. “But without my body . . .”

“Won’t have much magic. Most people can’t see you, hear you. Won’t be able to touch things.”

I stared at him. “How am I supposed to find anything out like that?” I asked.

Jack lifted both hands. “Kid, I don’t make the law. I make sure it gets observed.” He squinted at me. “Besides. I thought you were a detective.”

I clenched my jaw and glared at him. My glare isn’t bad, but he wasn’t impressed. I exhaled slowly and then said, “Solve my own murder.”

He nodded.

Anger rose from my chest and entered my voice. “I guess it isn’t enough that I spent my adult life trying to help and protect people. There’s something else I have to do before going off to meet Saint Peter.”

Jack shrugged. “Don’t be so certain about that. With your record, son, you might just as easily find yourself on a southbound train.”

“Hell,” I spat. “You know what Hell is, Captain Sparrow? Hell is staring at your daughter and knowing that you’ll never get to touch her again. Never get to speak to her. Never get to help her or protect her. Bring on the lake of fire. It wouldn’t come close.”

“In point of fact,” Jack said calmly, “I do know what Hell is. You aren’t the only dead guy with a daughter, Dresden.”

I sank back into my chair, frowning at him, and then turned my head to stare past him to a simple landscape painting on the wall.

“If it makes any difference,” Jack said, “three of the people you love will come to great harm unless you find your murderer.”

“What do you mean, harm?” I asked.

“Maimed. Changed. Broken.”

“Which three people?” I asked.

“Can’t tell you that,” he said.

“Yeah,” I muttered. “I bet you can’t.”

I thought about it. Maybe I was dead, but I was sure as hell not ready to go. I had to make sure the people who’d helped me take on the Red King were taken care of. My apprentice, Molly, had been badly wounded in the battle, but that wasn’t her biggest problem. Now that I was dead, there was nothing standing between her and a summary beheading at the hands of the White Council of Wizards.

And my daughter, little Maggie, was still back there. I’d deprived her of a mother, just as someone else had deprived her of a father. I had to make sure she was taken care of. I needed to tell my grandfather good-bye . . . and Karrin.

God. What had Karrin found when she came back to the boat to pick me up? A giant splatter of blood? My corpse? She was misguided and stubborn enough that I was sure she would blame herself for whatever had happened. She’d tear herself apart. I had to reach her somehow, and I couldn’t do that from this spiritual Siberia.

Could they be the ones the captain was talking about? Or was it someone else?

Dammit.

My self might have felt full of energy and life, but my mind was weary almost beyond measure. Hadn’t I done enough? Hadn’t I helped enough people, rescued enough prisoners, defeated enough monsters? I’d made enemies of some of the deadliest and most evil things on the planet, and fought them time and again. And one of them had killed me for it.

Rest in peace, it says on all those tombstones. I’d fought against the rising tide until it had literally killed me. So where the hell was my rest? My peace?

Three of the people you love will come to great harm unless you find your murderer.

My imagination conjured scenes filled with the anguish of the people I cared most about. Which pretty much settled things. I couldn’t allow something like that to happen.

Besides, there was one more thing that made me certain that I wanted to go back. At the end of the day . . . some son of a bitch had freaking killed me.

That’s not the kind of thing you can just let stand.

And if it would let me get out of this place and let me move on to wherever it was I was supposed to go, that was a nice bonus.

“Okay,” I said quietly. “How does it work?”

He slid a pad and a piece of paper across the desk at me, along with a pencil. “You get to go to an address in Chicago,” he said. “You write it there. Driver will drop you off.”

I took the pad and paper and frowned at it, trying to work out where to go. I mean, it wasn’t like I could show up just anywhere. If I was going in as a pure spirit, it would be futile to contact any of my usual allies. It takes some serious talent to see a spirit that hasn’t manifested itself, the way a ghost can occasionally appear to the physical eye. My friends wouldn’t even know I was there.

“Out of curiosity,” I said, “what happens if I don’t catch the killer?”

His expression turned sober and his voice became quieter. “You’ll be trapped there. Maybe forever. Unable to touch. Unable to speak. Watching things happen in the world, with no ability whatsoever to affect them.”

“Hell,” I said quietly.

“Hell.”

“That’s cheerful.”

“You’re dead, son,” Jack said. “Cheer is contraindicated.”

I nodded.

I was looking at one hell—ba-dump-bump-ching—of a risk. I mean, fitting in here in Chicago-tory might not be fun, but it probably wouldn’t be torture, either. Judging from what Carmichael and Jack had said and from the way they went about their business, they were able to act in some fashion, maybe even do some good. They didn’t look particularly thrilled to be doing what they were doing, but they carried that sense of professional purpose with them.

A ghost trapped on the mortal coil? That would be far worse. Always present, always watching, and always impotent.

I never really developed my Don’t-Get-Involved skills. I’d go crazy in a year, and wind up one more pathetic, insane, trapped spirit haunting the town I’d spent my adult life protecting.

“Screw it,” I said, and started writing on the paper. “If my friends need me, I have to try.”

Jack took the pad back with a nod of what might have been approval. Then he stood up and pulled on his suit coat. Car keys rattled in his hand. He was only medium height, but he moved with a confidence and a tightly leashed energy that once more made him seem familiar, somehow. “Let’s go.”

Several of the cops—because I was sure they were cops, or at least were doing something so similar that the word fit—nodded to Jack as he went by.

“Hey,” called someone from behind us. “Murphy.”

Jack stopped and turned around.

A guy wearing a suit that would have looked at home in the historic Pinkerton Detective Agency came over to Jack with a clipboard and held it out along with a pen. Jack scanned what was on it, signed off, and passed the clipboard back to the man.

Jack resumed his walking speed. I stuck my hands in my duster pockets and stalked along beside him.

“Captain Collin J. Murphy?” I asked quietly.

He grunted.

“You’re Karrin’s dad. Used to run the Black Cat case files.”

He didn’t say anything. We went down the elevator, past the guard angel, and out to the street, where an old blue Buick Skylark, one with tail fins and a convertible roof, sat waiting by the curb. He went around to the driver’s side and we both got in. The rain drummed on the roof of the car.

He sat behind the wheel for a moment, his eyes distant. Then he said, “Yeah.”

“She’s talked about you.”

He nodded. “I hear you’ve looked out for my Karrie.”

Karrie? I tried to imagine the person who would call Murphy that to her face. Rawlins had done it once, but only once, and not only was he her partner, but he’d also worked with her dad when she was a little girl. Rawlins was practically family.

Anyone else would need to be a Terminator. From Krypton.

“Sometimes,” I said. “She doesn’t need much in the way of protection.”

“Everyone needs someone.” Then he started the car, the engine coming to life with a satisfying, throaty purr. Jack ran his hand over the steering wheel thoughtfully and looked out at the rain. “You can back out of this if you want, son. Until you get out of this car. Once you do that, you’ve chosen your path—and whatever comes with it.”

“Yep,” I said, and nodded firmly. “The sooner I get started, the sooner I get done.”

His mouth quirked up at one corner and he nodded, making a grunting sound of approval. He peered at the pad, read the address I’d written, and grunted. “Why here?”

“Because that’s where I’ll find the one person in Chicago I’m sure can help me,” I said.

Captain Murphy nodded. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s go.”

Chapter Three

Captain Murphy’s old Skylark stopped in a residential area up in Harwood Heights, a place that still looked as empty and hollow as the rest of the city. It was an odd home, for Chicago—a white stucco number with a red tile roof that looked like it had been transplanted from Southern California. In the steady rain and the mournful grey light of the streetlamps it stood, cold, lonely, and empty of purpose among the more traditional homes that surrounded it.

The Buick’s windshield wipers thumped rhythmically.

“Once you get out,” said Captain Murphy, “there’s no coming back. You’re on your own.”

“Been there, done that,” I said. I offered him my hand. “Thank you, Captain.”

He traded grips with me. I didn’t try to outcrush him. He didn’t try to crush me. The men who can really handle themselves rarely do.

I wished Captain Murphy had lived long enough for me to meet him in the real world. I had a feeling he’d have made one hell of an ally.

“I might be in touch with Karrin,” I said.

“No messages. I’ve done her enough harm,” he said, almost before I had finished speaking. His voice carried a tone of unquestionable finality. He nodded toward the house. “But you can tell the big fellow over there that I sent you. It might help.”

I nodded. Then I took a deep breath, opened the door of the car, and stepped out into—

I was more impressed with what I hadn’t stepped into, for a moment. Because when my feet hit the ground and the car door shut behind me, I wasn’t standing in Chicago’s rainy, abandoned corpse. Instead, I was on a city street on a cold, clear evening. No rain fell. The stars and moon burned bright overhead, and the ambient city light combined with a fairly fresh and heavy snowfall to make it nearly as bright as daylight outside.

Sounds rushed all around me. Traffic, distant horns, the thumping beat of music from a large stereo. A jet’s passage left a hollow roar behind it—I was standing only a few miles from O’Hare.

I turned to look behind me, but Captain Murphy’s car had vanished, back into Chicago Between, presumably.

I stood there alone.

I sighed. Then I turned and walked onto the property of Mortimer Lindquist, ectomancer.

Once upon a time, Morty had covered his lawn with decorations meant to be intimidating and spooky. Headstones. A wrought-iron fence with a big metal gate. Eerie lighting. The overall impression could be scary if you were gullible enough and the lighting was low, but mostly it had looked like cheap Halloween decorations outside a crack house.

Times had changed.

Morty had gotten rid of all the cheap junk, except for the fence. He’d turned his front yard into a Japanese garden. There were a few hedges, and a koi pond complete with a little wooden bridge that spanned it. Raised planters everywhere contained bonsai, all of them trees native to North America. It was a little unnerving to see what looked like an adult oak tree—only fifteen inches high and complete with miniature leaves.

There weren’t a lot of people in Chicago doing that for money, which implied that it was Morty’s own handiwork. If so, it had taken him a lot of effort and patience to create those.

I walked forward calmly, reaching out to open the gate.

My hand went right through it.

Yeah, I know, I was essentially a ghost, but I’d never gotten much practice with intangibility. I was used to reaching out for objects and being able to touch them. Now my hand simply tingled, as if waking up after I’d taken a nap and used it as a pillow. I pushed my arm a little farther forward, leaning to one side, and saw my fingertips emerge from the metal of the gate. I waggled my fingers, just to be sure.

“Okay,” I said. “No help for it, then.” I took a deep breath and held it as if I were about to jump into deep water. Then I hunched my shoulders and rushed forward.

Anticlimax. As I went through the gate, I was subjected to a swift, intense tingling sensation. Then I was on the other side.

I walked up a little stone path leading to Morty’s front door, but it wasn’t until I had gone over the bridge that I saw the man standing in the shadows on the front porch.

He was huge. Not built like a weight lifter or anything, just a naturally big-boned, brawny man standing almost as tall as I. His dark hair was gathered at the nape of his neck with a bit of ribbon. A long, dark blue coat fell to his calves, its sleeves marked with gold braid. Beneath that, he wore a uniform—a tight-fitting blue jacket, white shirt, white pants, and high black boots. He carried some kind of long-handled ax over one shoulder, and as I came to a halt, he was already drawing a flintlock pistol from his belt with his free hand. He leveled it just a little bit to one side of me and called out, “Halt! Identify yourself, scoundrel, or begone!”

“Scoundrel?” I asked, putting my fingers on my chest as if distressed at the accusation. “That’s a little unfair.”

“Ye’ve the look of a scoundrel!” boomed the man. “And a dandysprat and a ragamuffin. Though I’ll admit, for all that, ye could yet be a congressman.” I could see the white flash of his teeth in the dark as he smiled. “Give me a name, man.”

“Harry Dresden,” I said in a clear tone.

The barrel of the gun wavered a few more degrees away from me. “The wizard?”

“The late wizard,” I replied, then gestured down at myself. “The late Harry Dresden, really.”

“Zounds,” the man said. He frowned for a moment as if in thought.

It didn’t look natural on him.

“If you lie,” he said slowly, “I can see no veritable reason for doing so, and I am inclined to shoot you. Yet if you tell the truth, your presence here draws mischief to my friend’s house, and I am inclined to shoot you repeatedly.” He nodded firmly and settled the gun’s barrel on me. “Either way . . .”

He was about to shoot. I didn’t know if it would re-kill me or not, but given what I had experienced of the universe, it might. At the very least, I figured, it would probably hurt like a son of a bitch. I had to keep this bozo from bringing the hammer down. Assuming his period outfit was authentic, that might be simple.

“Little rude, isn’t it, to shoot me?” I asked him. “I’m unarmed, and I’ve offered no violence or insult to you. Introduced myself, even. Whereas you haven’t even told me your name.”

The man in the blue coat looked suddenly abashed, and the pistol dropped slightly once more. “Ah yes. Um, please excuse me. Societal graces were imperfectly instilled in me in my youth, and that sad fact tends to be reflected in my more temperate afterlife.” He straightened and literally clicked his heels together, without ever moving the gun far from me, and gave me a slight bow. “The late Captain Sir Stuart Winchester of the Colonial Marines.”

I arched an eyebrow. “Sir Stuart of the Colonial Marines?”

He shrugged. “It is a protracted and complex tale.”

“Well, Stu,” I said, “with all due respect, my business here is not with you. It’s with Mr. Lindquist.”

“I hardly think so,” Stu sniffed. “Have you an invitation?”

I gave him a blank look for a moment and then said, “I’m new to the whole ghost thing, but I’m damned sure you don’t just send out envelopes through the U.S. Ghostal Service.”

“Ye’d be surprised how many postal workers leave a shade behind,” Stu countered. “The routine, methinks, is what keeps them making their rounds. The poor things don’t even realize anything’s changed.”

“Don’t change the subject,” I said. “I need to talk to Mort.”

“I am sorry, sir,” Stu said. “But the standing order regarding the visit of any uninvited ghosts is to deny them entry.”

“And you have to follow Mort’s orders?”

“It isn’t as though you could cross his threshold uninvited in any case, man,” he said.

“Right,” I said. “You have to follow his orders.”

“We are not compelled,” Stu said at once, and severely. “We aid him out of friendship and respect and . . .” He sighed and added, “And boredom. Ye gods, but this city pales after but half a century, and I’ve lingered here more than four times that.”

I found myself grinning at the ghost. “Stu, let me make you a promise. Maybe even an oath. I come to ask Mort’s help, not to harm him—and I’m reasonably sure my presence will not contribute to your ongoing sense of ennui.”

Stu let out a rolling belly laugh and began to speak, but the sound died off, and he stared at me thoughtfully, tapping a fingertip against the pistol.

“If it makes any difference,” I said, “Jack Murphy was the one who dropped me off here. Told me to mention his name.”

Stu’s eyebrows shot up. I could see the thoughts racing behind his eyes. They weren’t going to win any sprints, but they seemed good for the long haul. “Aye?” He pursed his lips. “A good fellow. For an Irishman.”

I snorted. “If he’s ever around, you’d better smile when you say—”

A flood of intangible cold pressed against my back, as suddenly as if I’d been standing in front of an industrial freezer door when it opened.

I turned to see a humanoid, grey form floating just above the ground maybe five yards away from me and drifting closer. The details were obscure, the proportions slightly off, as if I were looking at a badly molded plastic doll. There were no real features on it, just hollow, gaping eye sockets within a sunken, nearly skull-like face, and a wide, empty mouth that hung open as if the tendons attaching the lower jaw had stretched out like old elastic bands.

It moved with a kind of shuffling grace, as if it had no real weight and needed only to touch the ground to propel itself forward with its toes. It made a sound as it came, a hollow, rattling, muted gasp. It was the sound of an agonized scream that had long since run out of breath to propel it—but tried to continue anyway.

It got closer to me, and I felt colder as it did.

“Get back,” I snapped. “I mean it.”

The creature came forward with another little touch of its toes to the earth, as mindless and graceful as a hungry jellyfish, and a hell of a lot creepier.

I took a pair of quick steps back and said, “Fine. Be that way.” I lifted my right hand, drew in my will, and snarled, “Fuego.”

And nothing—nothing at all—happened.

There was no stirring of forces deep inside me. There was no current of equal parts giddy excitement, vibrating tension, and raw lightning flashing through my thoughts. There was no flash of white-hot flame that would have incinerated the apparition coming toward me.

There was no magic.

There was no magic.

“Oh, crap,” I choked and reeled back as the thing’s fingers raked at me with deathly grace, the sound of its strangled scream growing higher pitched. Its fingers didn’t end in nails. They just sort of trailed off into drifting shreds that were surrounded by deadly cold.

Behind me, there was a mechanical sound, click-clack, of a large, halfcocked trigger being pulled fully back and ready to fire.

I whirled my head around in time to see Stu’s enormous old gun snap up to aim directly at the end of my nose. I’m sure its barrel wasn’t actually as big as a train tunnel, but at the moment it sure as hell looked like it.

I felt the wave of cold intensify against my back, and by the time Stu shouted, “Get down!” I was already halfway to the ground.

I hit hard—apparently being insubstantial didn’t free me from the laws of gravity or the discomfort of its unwavering enforcement—at the same time that Stu’s pistol went off.

Everything happened in dreamtime, slowly enough for me to see every detail, but so swiftly that I felt that no matter how fast I moved, I would not be able to keep up. I was expecting the crack of a pistol round, or even the hollow whump of a large-bore black-powder weapon. What I got was a roar that sounded like it had been distorted by a dozen different DJs and a mile of train tunnel. The standard plume of black-powder smoke didn’t emerge from the barrel. Instead, expanding concentric rings of pastel mist puffed out, swirling at their center as if pulled into following the contrail of the bullet.

The bullet itself was no lump of lead. It was a sphere of multicolored light that looked nearly big enough to be a golf ball. It went by a couple of feet over my head, and I swear it felt like I’d gotten a mild sunburn just from being close to it. A deep tone, like the thrumming of an amplified bass-guitar string, emanated from the sphere, vibrating through my flesh and against my bones.

I turned my head in time to see the sphere smash against the chest of the attacking apparition. The not-bullet plunged into its body, tearing a hole the size of my fist in its chest. A cloud of something that looked like steam poured out of the creature. Light kindled within it, almost like an old movie projector playing upon the vapor, and I suddenly saw a flicker of shadowy images, all of them dim, warped, twisted, as if someone had made a clips reel from the random strips of celluloid from the cuttingroom floor.

The images grew steadily dimmer, until there was nothing left but a thinning cloud of mist. It wasn’t until then that I saw that the grey form was gradually sagging, like a waterskin being slowly emptied.

The mists vanished. All that was left of the grey creature was an ugly, colorless lump on the ground.

Firm bootsteps came down the walkway from the porch, and Stu placed himself between me and the thing, whatever it had been. Though his hands were reloading the pistol, complete with powder horn and a short ramrod, his eyes swept up and down the street around us.

“What the hell was that?” I asked.

“Wraith,” he said quietly, with a certain professional detachment in his voice. “A ghost, like you or me, who gave in to despair and gave up his sense of self-reason.”

“Dangerous?”

“Extremely so,” Stu said. He turned to look down at me. “Especially to someone like you.”

“Like me?”

“A fresh shade. You’ve a paucity of experience in learning to defend yourself here. And it is all but impossible for a fresh shade such as yourself to hide: There is a sense of life that clings to you.” He frowned. “To you especially.”

“Because I’m a wizard, maybe.”

Stu nodded. “Likely, likely.”

“What would have happened if . . . ?” I gestured at the wraith’s remains.

“It would have devoured your memories,” Stu said calmly.

I considered that for a moment and studied the remains almost wistfully. “I don’t know. I’ve got some I wouldn’t mind losing.”

Stu slid his readied pistol back into his belt. “For shades, memories are life, sustenance, and power. We are memories now, wizard.”

“The images in the mist,” I said. “When it was . . . was dying. They were its memories?”

“Aye. What was left of them.” Stu moved forward and crouched over the remains. He held out his hand, palm down over them, and took a deep breath. After a few heartbeats, glowing mist began to rise from the wraith’s remains. It snaked through the air and into Stu’s chest, flowing into him like water into a pool. When it was complete, he stood again and let out a sigh.

Whatever had struck the wraith, it had evidently been made of the same substance as Sir Stuart. If ghosts, then, were memories . . . “The bullet,” I said. “You made it out of a memory?”

“Naturally,” he said. His expression filled with a gentle, distant sorrow. “A strong one. I’ll make it into another bullet at some point.”

“Thank you,” I said. “For helping me.”

“I must admit, I did not put the poor brute down exclusively for your sake, wizard. You represent a feast for any wraith. Fresh from the world of the living, still with a touch of vitality upon you, and full to bursting with fresh, unfaded memories. The wraith that ate you would become powerful—a dire, fell creature indeed. One that could threaten the world of the living as easily as it could the world of spirit. I won’t have that.”

“Oh,” I said. “Thanks anyway.”

Stu nodded and offered me his hand. I took it, rose, and said, “I need to talk to Mort.”

Even as I spoke, I saw two more wraiths appear from the darkness. I checked behind me and saw more coming, drifting with effortless motions and deceptive speed.

“If you get me inside Mort’s threshold, I’ll be safe from them,” I said, nodding to the wraiths. “I don’t know how to defend myself against them. They’ll kill me. And if that happens, you’ll have that monster wraith on your hands.”

“Not if I kill you first,” Stu said calmly, tapping a finger on the handle of his pistol.

I turned my head slightly to one side, eyeing him, studying his face. “Nah,” I said. “Won’t happen.”

“How would you know, spook?” he asked in a flat voice. But he couldn’t keep the smile out of his eyes.

“I’m a wizard,” I said, infusing my voice with portentous undertones. “We have our ways.”

He remained silent, expression stern, but his eyes danced.

I sobered. “And those wraiths are getting closer, man.”

Stu snorted and said, “The wraiths are always getting closer.” Then he drew his pistol and pointed it at my chest. “I hereby take you prisoner, late wizard. Keep your hands in plain sight, follow all my verbal instructions, and we’ll do splendidly.”

I showed him my hands. “Oh. Uh. Okay.”

Stu nodded sharply. “About face, then. Let’s go talk to the little bald man.”

Chapter Four

I followed Stu through the front door (dammit, tingle, ouch), and paused on the other side to consider that fact for a moment. Only a member of the household’s family could issue an invitation that would let an immaterial entity past the home’s threshold.

So. Sir Stuart was practically family around Mort’s place. Unless he was literal family. Hauntings, after all, have historically been known to remain with a specific family lineage. Could Stu be one of Mort’s ancestors, here to watch out for his familial posterity? Or had the little ectomancer always possessed an odd sort of family, one I had never known about?

Interesting. It would be wise to keep my eyes open.

The house looked much different. What had been a cheesily staged séance room had become a living room with a sofa, love seat, and comfortable chairs. I’d seen only part of the rest of the house, but as I walked with Sir Stuart, I could see that the dismal little den of a house had been renovated, redecorated, and otherwise made more beautiful. Stu guided me to a room that was part library, part office, with a fire crackling in the fireplace.

Mortimer Lindquist seemed to have finally given in to the inevitable. I’d seen him with a bad toupee, and with an even worse comb-over, but this was the first time I’d seen him sporting a full-on Charles Xavier. The unbroken shine of his pate looked a lot better than the partial coverage. He’d lost weight, too, since last I’d seen him. I mean, he wasn’t going to be modeling for Abercrombie & Fitch or anything, but he’d definitely dropped from self-destructively obese down to merely stout. He was in his early fifties, under five and a half feet tall, and dressed in black slacks and a grey silk shirt, and he wore little square-rimmed spectacles.

He sat at his table, a deck of playing cards spread out in front of him in what could be either a fortune-telling through the cards or a game of solitaire—they tended to have about the same amount of significance, in my experience.

“Did I hear a shot, Sir Stuart?” Mort asked absently, staring intently at the cards. Then his hands froze in the act of dealing another, and he shot to his feet, whirling to face me. “Oh, perfect.”

“Hiya, Morty,” I said.

“This is not happening,” Mort said, promptly getting up from the table and walking quickly toward another room. “This just can’t be happening. No one is this unlucky.”

I hurried forward, trying to keep up, and followed him into a hallway. “I need to talk to—”

“I don’t care,” Mort said, his arms crossing each other in a slashing, pushing-away gesture, never stopping. “I do not see you. I am not listening to you, Dresden. It’s not enough that you have to keep dragging me into things in life. So now your stupid ghost shows up to do it, too? No. Whatever it is, no.”

We entered a kitchen, where I found Sir Stuart already present, his arms folded, leaning back against a wall with a quiet smile as he watched. Mort went to a large cookie jar, opened it, and took out a single Oreo before replacing the lid.

“Morty, come on, it’s never been like that,” I said. “I’ve come to ask your help a couple of times because you’re a capable professional and—”

“Bullshit,” Mort snapped, spinning to face me, his eyes flashing. “Dresden came to me when he was so desperate he might as well try any old loser.”

I winced. His summation of our relationship was partially true. But not entirely. “Morty, please.”

“Morty, what?” he snapped back. “You’ve got to be kidding me. I am not getting involved in whatever international crisis you mean to perpetrate next.”

“It’s not like I’ve got a lot of choice in the matter, man. It’s you or no one. Please. Just hear me out.”

He barked out an incredulous little laugh. “No, you hear me out, shade. No means ‘no.’ It isn’t happening. It isn’t ever going to happen. I said no!” And then he slammed the door to the next room in my face.

“Dammit, Morty,” I snarled, and braced myself for the plunge through his door after him.

“Dresden, st—!” Sir Stuart said.

Too late. I slammed my nose and face into the door and fell backward onto my ass like a perfect idiot. My face began to throb immediately, swelling with pain that felt precisely normal, identical to that of any dummy who walked into a solid oak door.

“—op,” Sir Stuart finished. He sighed, and offered me a hand up. I took it and he hauled me to my feet. “Ghost dust mixed into the paint inside the room,” he explained. “No spirit can pass through it.”

“I’m familiar with it,” I muttered, and felt annoyed that I hadn’t thought of the idea before, as an additional protection against hostile spirits at my own apartment. To the beings of the immaterial, ghost dust was incontrovertible solidity. Thrown directly at a ghost, it would cause tremendous pain and paralyze it for a little while, as if the spook had been suddenly loaded down with an incredible and unexpected weight. If I’d put it all over my walls, it would have turned them into a solid obstacle to ghosts and their ilk, shutting them out with obdurate immobility.

Of course, my recipe had used depleted uranium dust, which would have made it just a tad silly to spread around the interior of my apartment.

Not that it mattered. My apartment was gone, taken when a Molotov cocktail, hurled by a vampire assassin, had burned the boardinghouse to the ground along with most of my worldly possessions. Only a few had been left, hidden away. God knew where they were now.

I suppose I couldn’t really count that as a loss, all things considered. Material possessions aren’t much use to a dead man.

I lifted a hand to my nose, wincing and expecting to find it rebroken. No such thing had happened, though a glob of some kind of runny, transparent, gelatinous liquid smeared the back of my hand. “Hell’s bells. I’m bleeding ectoplasm?”

That drew a smile from the late marine. “Ghosts generally do. You’ll have to forgive him, Dresden. He can be very slow to understand things at times.”

“I don’t have time to wait for him to catch on,” I said. “I need his help.”

Sir Stuart grinned some more. “You aren’t going to get it by standing there repeating yourself like a broken record. Repeating yourself like a broken record. Repeating yourself like a broken—”

“Ha-ha,” I said without enthusiasm. “People who cared about me are going to get hurt if I can’t act.”

Sir Stuart pursed his lips. “It seems to me that if your demise was to leave someone vulnerable, something would have happened to them already. It’s been six months, after all.”

I felt my jaw drop open. “W-what? Six months?”

The ghost nodded. “Today is the ninth of May, to be precise.”

I stared at him, flabbergasted. Then I turned, put my back against Morty’s impenetrable door, and used it to stay upright as I sank to the ground. “Six months?”

“Yes.”

“That’s not . . .” I knew I was just gabbling my stream of thought, but I couldn’t seem to stop myself from talking. “That’s not right. It can’t be right. I was dead for less than a freaking hour. What kind of Rip van Winkle bullshit is this?”

Sir Stuart watched me, his expression serious and untroubled. “Time has little meaning to us now, Dresden, and it’s very easy to become unattached to it. I once lost five years listening to a Pink Floyd album.”

“There is snow a foot and a half deep on the ground,” I said, pointing in a random direction. “In May?”

His voice turned dry. “The television station Mortimer watches theorizes that it is due to person-made, global climate change.”

I was going to say something insulting, maybe even offensive, but just then the rippling sound of metallic wind chimes tinkled through the air. They were joined seconds later by more and more of the same, until the noise was considerable.

“What’s that?” I asked.

Sir Stuart turned and walked back the way we’d come, and I hurried to follow. In the next room over, a dozen sets of wind chimes hung from the ceiling. All of them were astir, whispering and singing even though there was no air moving through the room.

Sir Stuart’s hand went to his ax, and I suddenly understood what I was looking at.

It was an alarm system.

“What’s happening?” I asked him.

“Another assault,” he said. “We have less than thirty seconds. Come with me.”

Chapter Five

“To arms!” bellowed Sir Stuart. “They’re coming at us again, lads!”

The ringing of the alarm chimes doubled as figures immediately exploded from the very walls and floor of the ectomancer’s house, appearing as suddenly as . . . well, as ghosts. Duh.

One second, the only figures in sight were me and Sir Stuart. The next, we were striding at the head of a veritable armed mob. The figures didn’t have the same kind of sharp-edged reality that Sir Stuart did. They were wispier, foggier. Though I could see Sir Stuart with simple clarity, viewing the others was like watching someone walk by on the opposite side of the street during a particularly heavy rain.

There was no specific theme to the spirits defending Mort’s house. The appearance of each was eclectic, to such an extent that they looked like the assembled costumed staff from some kind of museum of American history.

Soldiers in the multicolored uniforms of regulars from the Revolutionary War walked beside buckskin-clad woodsmen, trappers, and Native Americans from the wars preceding the revolution. Farmers from the Civil War era stood with shopkeepers from the turn of the twentieth century. Men in suits, some armed with shotguns, others with tommy guns, moved toward the attack, the bitter divisions of the era of Prohibition apparently forgotten. Doughboys marched with a squad of buffalo soldiers, followed by half a dozen genuine, six-gun-toting cowboys in long canvas coats, and a group of grunts whose uniforms placed them as Vietnam-era U.S. Army infantry.

“Huh,” I said. “Now, there’s something you don’t see every day.”

Sir Stuart drew his gun from his belt as he strode forward, checking the old weapon. “I’ve seen a great many years in this city. Many, many nights. Until recently, I would have agreed with you.”

I looked back at Sir Stuart’s little army as we reached the front door and passed through it.

“I—glah, dammit, that feels strange—guess that means you’re seeing a pattern.”

“This is the fifth night running that they’ve come at us,” Sir Stuart replied, as we went out onto the porch. “Stay behind me, Dresden. And well clear of my ax arm.”

He came to a halt a step later, and I stood behind him a bit and on his left side. Sir Stuart, who had been a giant for his day, was only a couple of inches shorter than me. I had to strain to see over him.

The street was crowded with silent figures.

I just stared out at them for a moment, struggling to understand what I was looking at. Out on the road were scores, maybe even a couple of hundred wraiths like the one Sir Stuart had dispatched earlier. They were flabby, somehow hollow and squishy-looking, like balloons that hadn’t been filled with enough gas—sad, frightening humanoid figures, their eyes and mouths gaping too large, too dark, and too empty to seem real. But instead of advancing toward us, they simply stood there in even ranks, leaning forward slightly, their arms held vaguely upward as if yearning toward the house, though their hands seemed limp and devoid of strength, their fingers trailing into shapeless shreds. The horrible sound of hundreds of nearly silent moans of pain emanated from the block of wraiths, along with a slowly building edge of tension.

“Tell me, wizard,” Sir Stuart said. “What do you see?”

“A crap-ton of wraiths,” I breathed quietly. “Which I do not know how to fight.” None of them had the deadly, focused look of Sir Stuart and his crew, but there were a lot of them out there. “Something is getting them worked up.”

“Ah,” he said. He glanced back over his shoulder at me, his eyes narrowed. “I thought your folk had clear sight.”

I frowned at him and then out at the small sea of wraiths. I stared and stared, bringing the focus of concentration I’d learned over endless hours of practice in my studies—and suddenly saw them. Dark, slithering shapes, moving up and down the ranks of wraiths at the backs of their lines. They looked vaguely like folk covered in dark, enveloping cloaks and robes, but they glided through the air with a silent, effortless grace that made me think of sharks who had scented blood in the water and were closing in to feed.

“Four . . . five, six of them,” I said. “In the back ranks.”

“Good,” said Sir Stuart, nodding his approval. “That’s the real foe, lad. These poor wraiths are just their dogs.”

It had been a long, long time since I’d felt quite this lost. “Uh. What are they?”

“Lemurs,” he said, with the Latin pronunciation: Lay-moors. “Shades who have set themselves against Providence and have given themselves over to malice and rage. They do not know pity, nor restraint, nor . . .”

“Fear?” I guessed. “They always never know fear.”

Sir Stuart glanced over his shoulder and bounced his long-handled ax against his palm, his mouth turned up into an edged, wolfish grin. “Nay, lad. Perhaps they were innocent of it once. But they proved quick learners when they raised their hands against this house.” He turned back to face the street and called out, “Positions!”

The spirits who had come along behind us flowed around and over us and—though I twitched when I saw it—beneath us. Within seconds, they were spread into a defensive line in the shape of a half dome between the house and the gathered wraiths and lemurs. Then those silent forms stood steady, whether their feet were planted on the ground or in thin air or somewhere just below the ground, and faced the small horde with their weapons in hand.

The tension continued to build, and the seething, agonized gasps of the wraiths grew louder.

“Um,” I said, as my heart started picking up the pace. “What do I do?”

“Nothing,” Sir Stuart replied, his attention now focused forward. “Just stay near me and out of my way.”

“But—”

“I can see you were a fighter, boy,” Stuart said, his voice harsh. “But now you’re a child. You’ve neither the knowledge nor the tools you need to survive.” He turned and gave me a ferocious glare, and an unseen force literally pushed my feet back across five or six inches of porch. Holy crap. Stuart might not be a wizard, but obviously I had a thing or two to learn about how a formidable will translated to power on the spooky side of the street.

“Stay close to me,” the marine said. “And shut it.”

I swallowed, and Sir Stuart turned back to the front.

“You don’t have to be a dick about it,” I muttered. Very quietly.

It bothered me that he was right. Without Sir Stuart’s intervention, I’d have been dead again already.

That’s right—you heard me: dead again already.

I mean, come on. How screwed up is your life (after- or otherwise) when you find yourself needing phrases like that?

I indulged myself in half a second of disgust that once again the universe seemed to be making an extraspecial effort to align itself against me, but it was my pride that was in critical condition. I was accustomed to being the guy who did the fighting and protecting. Fear had been fuel for the fire, meat and potatoes, when I was the one calling the shots. But now . . .

This was terror of an alien vintage: I was helpless.

Without warning, the air filled with whistling and ear-slashing shrieks, and the horde of wraiths washed toward us in a flash flood of strangled moans.

“Give it to them, lads!” Sir Stuart bellowed, his voice rising above the cacophony of screams with the silvery clarity of a trumpet.

Spectral gunfire roared out at once from the weapons of the hovering defenders. Again, clouds of powder smoke were replaced with bursts of colored mist. Bullets had been switched out for streaking spheres of violent radiance. Instead of the explosions of propellant and projectiles breaking the sound barrier, hammering bass-note thrums filled the air and echoed on long after a gunshot would have faded.

A tide of destruction swept over the assaulting wraiths, distorted light and sound tearing great, ragged holes in them, filling the air with faded, warped shadow-images as their feeble memories bled into wisps of cloud that were swallowed by the night. They fell by the dozens—and there were still plenty more wraiths left to go around. Wraiths closed in with the Lindquist Historical Home Defense Society—and it still wasn’t fair.

Sir Stuart’s troops reacted like the fighting men they had once been. Swords and sabers appeared, along with stilettos and brass knuckles and bowie knives. The wraiths came at them with a slow, graceful, terrible momentum and were hacked, stabbed, punched, clubbed, and otherwise broken—but there were a lot of wraiths.

I heard a hollow scream that sounded as if it had come from a couple of blocks away, and lifted my eyes to see half a dozen wraiths who had all attacked together swarm over a phantom doughboy, a scrawny young man in a baggy uniform. Though one of the things was literally opened from one side to the other by a slash of the ghost soldier’s bayonet, the other five just fastened onto him, first by a single fingertip, which was then blindly followed by others. Another wraith expired when the young soldier drew his knife. But then all those tattered fingers began winding and winding around him, lengthening impossibly, until within a few seconds he looked like nothing so much as a massive burn victim covered in heavy, dirty bandages.

The wraiths pressed closer and closer, their flabby bodies compressing until they hardly resembled human forms at all, and then with a sudden scream, they darted away in four different directions as more solid, lethal-looking shapes, leaving behind the translucent outline of a young man screaming in agony.

I watched, my stomach twisting, as even that image faded. Within seconds, it was gone.

“Damn their empty eyes,” Sir Stuart said, his teeth clenched. “Damn them.”

“Hell’s bells,” I breathed. “Why didn’t . . . Couldn’t you have stopped them?”

“The lemurs,” he spat. “I can’t give them the chance to get by me into the house.”

I blinked. “But . . . the threshold . . . They can’t.”

“They did the first night,” he said. “Still don’t know how. I can’t leave the porch or they’ll get through. Now be quiet.” His fingers flexed and settled on the haft of his ax. “Here’s where we come to it.”

As the wraiths continued to assault and entangle the house’s defenders, Sir Stuart moved to the top of the little stairs leading up to the porch and planted his feet. Out at the street, the shadowy forms of the lemurs had all gone still, each of them hunched down in a crouch, predators preparing to spring.

When it came, it came fast. Not fast like the rush of a mountain lion upon a deer, and not even fast like a runaway automobile. They were fast like bullets. One second, the lemurs were at the street, and the next they were in the air before the porch, seemingly without crossing the space between. I didn’t have time to do more than yelp and go into a full-body twitch of pure, startled reaction.

But Sir Stuart was faster.

The first lemur to charge met the butt of Sir Stuart’s ax, a blow that sent it into a fluttering, backward tailspin. The second and third lemurs charged at almost exactly the same moment, and Sir Stuart’s ax swept out in a scything arc, slashing them both and sending them reeling with high-pitched, horrible screams. The fourth lemur drove a bony-wristed punch across Sir Stuart’s jaw, staggering the marine and driving him to one knee. But when the lemur tried to follow up the attack, Stuart produced a gleaming knife from his belt, and it flashed in opalescent colors as he swept it in a treacherous diagonal slash over the thing’s midsection.

The fifth lemur hesitated, seeming to abort its instantaneous rush about halfway across the yard. Stuart let out a bellow and threw the knife. It struck home, and the lemur frantically twisted in upon itself, howling like the others, until the knife tumbled free of its ghostly flesh and fell to the snowy ground.

Five wounded lemurs fled from Sir Stuart, screaming. The sixth crouched on the sidewalk, frozen in indecision.

“Coward,” Stuart snarled. “If you can’t finish, don’t start.”

All things considered, I thought Stuart might be being a little hard on the thing. It wasn’t cowardly to not rush a juggernaut when you’d just seen your buddies get thrashed by it. Maybe the thing was just smarter than the others.

I never got a chance to find out. In the space of an instant, Sir Stuart crossed the lawn to the final lemur, only his rush ended not in front of his foe, but six feet past it. The lemur jerked in the twisting, surprised reaction I had just engaged in a moment before.

Then its head fell from its shoulders, hood and all, dissolving into flickering memory embers as it went. Its headless body went mad, somehow letting out a scream, thrashing and kicking and falling to the ground, where grey-and-white fire poured from its truncated neck.

A shout of triumph went up from the home’s defenders as they continued their own fight, and the suddenly listless wraiths began to be torn apart in earnest, the tide of battle shifting rapidly. Sir Stuart lifted his ax above his head in response and turned to almost casually step up behind a wraith and take its head from its shoulders with the ax.

Then, in the street, about ten feet behind him, a figure, one every bit as solid and real as Sir Stuart himself, appeared out of nowhere, a form shrouded in a nebulous grey cloak with eyes of green-white fire. It lifted what looked like a clawed hand, and sent a bolt of lightning sizzling into Sir Stuart’s back.

Sir Stuart cried out in sudden agony, his body tightening helplessly, muscles convulsing just as they would on an electrocuted human being. The bolt of lightning seemed to attach itself to his spine, then burned a line down to his right hip bone, burning and searing and blowing bits of the tattered, flaming substance of his ghostly flesh into the air.

“No!” I screamed, as he fell. I started running toward him.

The marine rolled when he hit the ground and came up with that ridiculously huge old horse pistol in his hand. He leveled it at the Grey Ghost and fired, and once again his gun sent out a plume of ethereal color and a tiny, bright sun of destruction.

But the cloudy grey figure lifted its hand, and the bullet bounced off the air in front of it smoothly, catching a luckless, wounded wraith who had been attempting to retreat. The wraith immediately dissolved as the first one had—and Sir Stuart stared up at the Grey Ghost with his mouth open in shock.

Magic. The Grey Ghost was using magic. Even as I ran forward, I could feel the humming energy of it in the air, smell it on the cold breeze coming off the lake. I didn’t move at ghostly superspeed. I mostly just ran across the hard ground, hurdled the little fence, went right through a car parked on the street (ow, grrrrrr!), and threw my best haymaker of a right cross at a point I nominated to be the Grey Ghost’s chin.

My fist connected with what felt like solid flesh, a refreshingly familiar smack-thump of impact that immediately flashed red pain through my wrist to the elbow. The Grey Ghost reeled, and I didn’t let up. I put a couple of left hooks into its midsection, gave it one hell of an uppercut with my right hand, and drove a hard reverse punch into its neck.

I am not a skilled martial artist. But I know a little, picked up in training with Murphy and some of the other SI cops over the years at Dough Joe’s Hurricane Gym. Real fighting is only slightly about form and technique. Mostly it’s about timing, and about being willing to hurt somebody. If you know more or less when to close the distance and throw the punch, you’re most of the way there. But having the right mind-set is even more important. All the technique in the world isn’t going to help you if you come to the fight without the will to wreak havoc on the other guy.

The Grey Ghost staggered back, and I kicked one leg out from under it as it went. It fell. I started kicking it as hard as I could, screaming, driving my toe into its ribs and back, then switching to move in and stomp at its head with the heel of my heavy hiking boot. I did not let up, not even for a second. If this thing could pull out more magic, it would deal with me as easily as it had Sir Stuart. So I focused on trying to crush the enemy’s skull and kept kicking.

“Help me!” snarled the Grey Ghost.

There was a flash of blue light, and what felt like a wrecking ball made from foam-rubber mattresses smashed into my chest. It threw me back completely through the car again (Hell’s bells, ow!) and I landed on my back with stars in front of my eyes, unable to remember how to inhale.

A nearby wraith turned its empty-eyed head toward me, and a surge of fear sent me scrambling to my feet. I got up in time to see the Grey Ghost rising as well, and those burning green-white eyes met mine.

In the air behind the ghost floated . . . a skull.

A skull with cold blue flames flickering in its empty eye sockets.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I whispered. “Bob?”

“You!” the ghost hissed. Its hands formed into arching clawlike shapes, and it hissed in rage—and in fear.

Click-clack, went the hammer of Sir Stuart’s gun.

The Grey Ghost let out a scream of frustration and simply flew apart into thousands of tiny wisps of mist, taking the floating skull along with it. The wisps swarmed together into a vortex like a miniature tornado, and streaked down the road and out of sight, leaving a hundred voices screaming a hundred curses in its wake.

I looked around. The lasts of the wraiths were dying or had fled. The house’s defenders, most of them wounded and bleeding pale ectoplasm and flickering memory, were still in their positions. Sir Stuart was holding one hand to his side, and with the other held the pistol pointed at the empty air where the Grey Ghost had been.

“Ahhhh,” he said, sagging, once it became clear that the fight was over. “Bloody hell. That’s going to leave a mark.”

I moved to his side. “Are you okay, man?”

“Aye, lad. Aye. What the hell were you trying to do? Get yourself killed?”

I glowered at him and said, “You’re welcome. Glad I could help.”

“You nearly got yourself destroyed,” he replied. “Another second and that creature would have blasted you to bits.”

“Another second and you’d have put a bullet in its head,” I said.

Sir Stuart idly pointed the gun at me and pulled the trigger. The hammer fell with a flash of sparks as flint struck steel . . . and nothing happened.

“You were bluffing?” I asked.

“Aye,” Sir Stuart said. “’Tis a muzzle-loading pistol, boy. You have to reload them like a proper weapon.” Idly, he reached out a hand toward the last remnants of a deceased wraith, and flickers of light and memory flowed across the intervening space and into his fingertips. When he had it all back, Sir Stuart sighed and shook his head, seeming to recover a measure of strength. “Very well, then, lad. Help me up.”

I did so. Sir Stuart’s midsection on the right side was considerably more translucent than before, and he moved as if it pained him.

“When will they be back?” I asked him.

“Tomorrow night, by my reckoning,” he said. “With more. Last night they had four lemurs along. Tonight it was six. And that seventh . . .” He shook his head and started reloading the pistol from the powder horn he carried on a baldric at his side. “I knew something stronger had to be gathering all those shades together, but I never considered a sorcerer.” He finished reloading the weapon, put the ramrod back into its holder, and said, “Pass me my ax, boy.”

I got it for him and handed it over. He slipped its handle through a ring on his belt and nodded. “Thank you.”

A thumping sound made me turn my eyes back toward the house.

A man, burly, wearing a dark, hooded sweater and old jeans, was holding a long-handled crowbar in big, blocky hands. He shoved one hand into the space between the door and the frame, and with a practiced, powerful motion, popped the door from its frame and sent it swinging open.

Without an instant’s hesitation, Sir Stuart fired. So did the house’s spectral defenders. A hurricane of ghostly power hurtled down upon the man—and passed harmlessly through him. Hell, the guy looked like he hadn’t noticed anything at all.

“A mortal,” Sir Stuart breathed. He took a step forward, let out a sound of pain, and clutched at his side. His teeth were clenched, his jaw muscles standing out sharply. “Dresden,” he gasped. “I cannot stop a mortal man. There is nothing I can do.”

The hooded intruder took the crowbar into his left hand and drew a stubby revolver from his sweater with his right.

“Go,” Stuart said. “Warn Mortimer. Help him!”

I blinked. Mortimer had made it clear that he didn’t want to get involved with me—and some childish part of my nature wanted to snap that turnabout was fair play. But a wiser, more rational part of me reminded my inner child that without Mort, I might never be able to get in touch with anyone else in town. I might never find my own killer. I might never be able to protect my friends.

And besides. You don’t just let people kick down other people’s doors and murder them in their own home. You just don’t.

I clapped Stuart on the shoulder and sprinted back toward the little house and its little owner.

Chapter Six

The gunman had a big lead on me, but I had an advantage he didn’t. I’d already been inside the house. I knew the layout, and I knew where Mort was holed up.

Oh. Plus I could run through freaking walls.

Granted, I think it would have been more fun to be Colossus than Shadowcat. But you take what you can get, and any day you’ve merely got the powers of an X-Man can’t be all that bad. Right?

I gritted my teeth and plunged through the wall into Mort’s kitchen and ran for the study, several steps ahead of the gunman.

“Mort!” I shouted. “Mort, they brought a hitter with them this time! There’s a gunman running around your house!”

“What?” demanded Mort’s voice from the far side of the ghost-dusted door. “Where’s Stuart?”

“Dammit, Mort, he’s hurt!” I called.

There was a brief pause, and then Mort said, as if baffled, “How did that happen?”

I was getting impatient. “Focus, Mort! Did you hear me? There’s a frigging gunman loose in your house!”

Real alarm entered his voice for the first time. “A what?”

The gunman had heard Mort shouting at me. He came toward the door to the study, moving lightly for a big man. I got a better look at him, and noted that his clothing was ragged and unwashed, and so was he. He stank, enough that it carried through to me even given my condition, and his eyes were wide and wild, rolling around like those of a junkie who is hopped up on something that makes him pay too much attention to his surroundings. That didn’t seem to have affected his gun hand, though. The semiautomatic he clutched in one big fist seemed steady enough to get the job done.

“Mort!” I called. “He’s coming toward your study door right now! Look, just get your weapon and aim at the door and I’ll tell you when to shoot!”

“I don’t have one!” Mort screamed.

I blinked. “You don’t what?”

“I am an ectomancer, not an action hero!” I heard him moving around in the office for a moment, and then he said, “Um. They cut the phone.”

The gunman let out a low, rumbling chuckle. “You are wanted, little man.” His voice sounded rotted, clotted, like something that hadn’t been alive in a long time. “It is commanded. You can come with me and it won’t hurt. Or you can stay in there and it will.”

“Dresden!” Mort called. “What do I do?”

“Oh, now you want to talk to me!” I said.

“You’re the one who knows about this mayhem bullshit!” Mort shrieked.

“Gonna count, little man,” said the gunman. “Five.”

“Surviving mayhem is about being prepared!” I shouted back. “Little things like having a gun!”

“I’ll get one in the morning!”

“Four!”

“Mort, there’s gotta be something you can do,” I said. “Hell’s bells, every time I’ve run into a ghost it’s tried to rip my lungs out! You’re telling me none of your spooks can do something?”

“They’re sane,” Mort shouted back. “It’s crazy for a ghost to interact with the physical world. Sane ghosts don’t go around acting crazy!”

“Three!” chanted the gunman.

“Go away,” Mort shouted at him.

“There’s gotta be something I can do!” I yelled.

“I don’t make the rules, okay?” Mort said. “The only way a ghost can manifest is if it’s insane!”

“Two!” the gunman screamed, his voice rising to an excited pitch.

I jumped in front of the lunatic and shrieked, “Boo!” I flapped my hands in his face, as if trying to slap him left and right on the cheeks.

Nothing happened.

“Guess that was too much to hope for, huh?” Mort called lamely.

“One,” the gunman purred. Then he leaned back and drove a heavy boot at the door. It took him three kicks to crack the frame and send the door flying inward.

Mort was waiting on the other side of the door, a golf club in hand. He swung it at the gunman’s head without any preamble, a grimly practical motion. The gunman put an arm up, but the wooden head of the club got at least partly around it, and he reeled back a pace.

“This is your fault, Dresden,” Mort snarled, swinging the club again as he spoke.

He hit the gunman full-on in the chest, and then again in one big arm. The gunman caught the next blow on his forearm, and swung wildly at Mort. He connected, and Mort got knocked on his can.

The gunman pressed one hand to a bleeding wound on his head and screamed, a howl of agony that was somehow completely out of proportion with the actual injury. His wild eyes rolled again and he lifted the gun to aim at the little man.

I moved on instinct, throwing myself uselessly between the weapon and the ectomancer. I tripped on a fragment of the ghost-dust-painted door and wound up falling in a heap on top of Mort and . . .

. . . sunk into him.

The world suddenly hit me in full Technicolor. It was so dark in here, the gunman an enormous, threatening shadow standing over me. His voice was hideous and so loud that my ears ached. The stench—unwashed body and worse things—was enough to turn my stomach, filling my nose like hideous packing peanuts. I saw the gunman’s hand tighten on the trigger and I threw my arm up. . . .

My black-clad, thick, rather short arm.

“Defendarius!” I barked, faux Latin, the old defense spell I’d first learned from Justin DuMorne, my first teacher. I felt the magic surge into me, down through my arm, out into the air, just as the gun went off, over and over, as some kind of restraint in the gunman’s head snapped.

Sparks flew up from a shimmering blue plane that formed in front of my outspread fingers, bullets and fragments of bullets shattering and bouncing around the room. One of them stayed more or less in one piece and smacked into the gunman’s calf, and he pitched abruptly to one side, still jerking the trigger until the weapon was clicking on empty.

I felt my mouth move as Mort’s voice—a voice that rang with a resonance and authority I had seldom encountered before, said, “Get off of me!”

If I’d been hurtled from a catapult, I don’t think I’d have been thrown away any faster. I flew off at an upward angle—and slammed painfully into the ghost-dust-painted ceiling of the study. I bounced off it and fell to the equally hard floor. I lay there, stunned, for a second.

The gunman got to his feet, breathing hard and fast, slobber shooting out from slack lips as he did. He picked up the golf club that had fallen from Mort’s fingers and took a step toward him.

Mort fixed hard eyes on the intruder and spoke, his voice ringing with that same unalterable authority. “To me!”

I felt the tug of some sudden force, as subtle and inarguable as gravity, and I had to lean against it to stop myself from sliding across the floor toward him.

Other spirits appeared, drawn in through the shattered door as if sucked into a tornado. Half a dozen Native American shades flew into Mort, and as the gunman swung the golf club, he let out a little yipping shout, ducked the swing more nimbly than any man his age and condition should have been able to, caught the gunman’s wrist, and rolled backward, dragging the man with him. He planted his heels in the gunman’s midsection and heaved, a classic fighting technique of the American tribes, and sent the man crashing into a wall.

The gunman rose, seething, eyes entirely wild, but not before Mort had crossed the room and taken an ancient, worn-looking ax down from a rack attached to one wall. It took my stunned brain a second to register that the weapon looked exactly like the one Sir Stuart had wielded, give or take a couple of centuries.

“Stuart,” Mort called, and his voice rang in my chest as if it had come from a bass-amplified megaphone. There was a flicker of motion, and then Sir Stuart’s form flew in through the doorway as if propelled by a vast wind, overlaying itself briefly onto Mort’s far smaller body.

The gunman swung the club, but Mort caught it with a deft, twisting move of the ax’s haft. The gunman leaned into it, using his far greater weight and strength in an attempt to simply overbear the smaller man and push him to the floor.

But he couldn’t.

Mort held him off as if he’d had the strength of a much larger, much younger, much healthier man. Or maybe men. He held the startled intruder stone-still for the space of five or six seconds, then heaved, twisting with the full power of his shoulders, hips, and legs, and used the ax’s head to rip the club from the intruder’s paws. The gunman threw an enraged punch at his face, but Mort blocked it with the flat of the ax’s head, and then snapped the blunt upper edge of the ax into the gunman’s face with an almost contemptuous precision.

The intruder reeled back, stunned, and Mort followed up with the instincts and will of a dangerous, trained fighting man. He struck the intruder’s knee with the weapon’s haft, sending a sharp, crackling pop into the air, and swung the flat of the blade into the intruder’s jaw as the bigger man began to fall. The blow struck home with a meaty thunk and another crackling noise of impact, and the gunman dropped like a proverbial stone.

Mortimer Lindquist, ectomancer, stood over the fallen madman in a wary crouch, his eyes focusing on nothing as he turned his head left and right, scanning the room around him.

Then he sighed and exhaled. The steel head of the weapon came down to thump gently against the floor. Shapes departed him, the guardian spirits easing free of him, most of them fading from view. Within a few seconds, the only shades present were me and an exhausted-looking Sir Stuart.

Mort sat down on the floor heavily, his head bowed, his chest heaving for breath. The veins on his bald pate stuck out.

“Hell’s bells,” I breathed.

He looked up at me, his expression weary, and gave me an exhausted shrug. “Don’t have a gun,” he panted. “Never really felt like I needed one.”

“Been a while since you did that, Mortimer,” Sir Stuart said from where he sat beside the wall, his body supported by the ghost-dusted paint. “Thought you’d forgotten how.”

Mort gave the wounded spirit a faint smile. “I thought I had, too.”

I frowned and shook my head. “Was that . . . was that a possession, just now? When the ghosts took over?”

Sir Stuart snorted. “Nay, lad. If anything, the opposite.”

“Give me at least a little credit, Dresden,” Mort said, his tone sour. “I’m an ectomancer. Sometimes I need to borrow from what a spirit knows or what it can do. But I control spirits—they don’t control me.”

“How’d you handle the gun?” Stuart asked, a certain, craftsmanlike professionalism entering his tone.

“I . . .” Mort shook his head and looked at me.

“Magic,” I said quietly. My bell was still ringing a little, but I was able to form complete sentences. “I . . . sort of bumped into him and called up a shield.”

Sir Stuart lifted his eyebrows and said, “Huh.”

“I needed to borrow your skills for a moment,” Mort said, somewhat stiffly. “Appreciate it.”

“Think nothing of it,” I said. “Just give me a few hours of your time. We’ll be square.”

Mort stared at me for a while. Then he said, “You’re here twenty minutes and I nearly get killed, Dresden. Jesus, don’t you get it?” He leaned forward. “I am not a crusader. I am not the sheriff of Chicago. I am not a goddamned death wish–embracing Don Quixote.” He shook his head. “I’m a coward. And I’m very comfortable with that. It’s served me well.”

“I just saved your life, man,” I said.

He sighed. “Yeah. But . . . like I said. Coward. I can’t help you. Go find someone else to be your Panza.”

I sat there for a moment, feeling very, very tired.

When I looked up, Sir Stuart was staring intently at me. Then he cleared his throat and said, in a diffident tone, “Far be it from me to bring up the past, but I can’t help but note that your lot in life has improved significantly since Dresden first came to you.”

Mort’s bald head started turning red. “What?”

Sir Stuart spread his hands, his expression mild. “I only mean to say that you have grown in strength and character in that time. When you first interacted with Dresden, you were bilking people out of their money with—poorly—falsified séances, and you had lost your power to contact any spirit other than me.”

Mort glowered ferociously at Sir Stuart. “Hey, Gramps. When I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.”

Sir Stuart’s smile widened. “Of course.”

“I help spirits find peace,” Mort said. “I don’t do things that are going to get me taken to pieces. I’m a ghost whisperer. And that’s all.”

“Look, Mort,” I said. “If you want to get technical, I’m not actually a ghost, per se. . . .”

He rolled his eyes again. “Oh, God. If I had a nickel for every ghost who had ever come to me, explaining to me how he wasn’t really a ghost. How his case was special . . .”

“Well, sure,” I said. “But—”

He rolled his eyes. “But if you aren’t just a ghost, how come I could channel you like that? How come I could force you out of me? Huh?”

That hit me. My stomach may have been insubstantial, but it could still writhe uneasily.

Ghosts were not the people they resembled, any more than a footprint left in the ground was the being that made it. They had similar features, but ultimately a ghost was simply a remainder, a reminder, an impression of the person who died. They might share similar personalities, emotions, memories, but they weren’t the same being. When a person died and left a ghost behind, it was as if some portion of his dying life energy was spun out, creating a new being entirely—though in the creator’s exact mental and often physical image.

Of course, that also meant that they were subject to many of the same frailties as mortals. Obsession. Hatred. Madness. If what Mort said about ghosts interacting with the material world was true, then it was when some poor spirit snapped, or was simply created insane, that you got your really good ghost stories. By a vast majority, most ghosts were simply insubstantial and a bit sad, never really interacting with the material world.

But I couldn’t be one of those self-deluded shades.

Could I?

I glanced at Sir Stuart.

He shrugged. “Most shades aren’t willing to admit that they aren’t actually the same being whose memories they possess,” he said gently. “And that’s assuming they can face the fact that they are ghosts at all. Self-deluded shades are, by an order of magnitude, more common than those that are not.”

“So what you’re saying is . . .” I pushed my fingers back through my hair. “You’re saying that I only think I did the whole tunnel-of-light, sent-back-on-a-mission thing? That I’m in denial about being a ghost?”

The ghost marine waggled one hand in an ambivalent gesture, and his British accent rolled out mellow vowels and crisp consonants as he answered. “I’m simply saying that it is very much poss—Mission? What mission? What are you talking about?”

I eyed him for a moment, while he looked at me blankly. Then I said, “I’m gonna guess you’ve never seen Star Wars.”

Sir Stuart shrugged. “I find motion pictures to be grossly exaggerated and intrusive, leaving the audience little to consider or ponder for themselves.”

“That’s what I thought.” I sighed. “You were about two words away from being called Threepio from here on out.”

He blinked. “What?”

“God,” I said. “Now we’re transitioning into a Monty Python skit.” I turned back to Morty. “Mort, Jack Murphy met me on the other side and sent me back to find out who murdered me. There was a lot of talk, but it mostly amounted to ‘We aren’t gonna tell you diddly, so just do it already.’ ”

Mort watched me warily for a moment, staring hard at my insubstantial form. Then he said, “You think you’re telling the truth.”

“No,” I said, annoyed. “I am telling the truth.”

“I’m sure you think that,” Mort said.

I felt my temper flare. “If I didn’t go right through you, I would totally pop you in the nose right now.”

Mort bristled, his jaw muscles clenching. “Oh yeah? Bring it, Too-Tall. I’ll kick your bodiless ass.”

Sir Stuart coughed significantly, a long-suffering expression on his face. “Mortimer, Dresden just fought beside us to defend this home—and rushed in here to save your life.”

Then it hit me, and I eyed Sir Stuart. “You could have come inside,” I said. “You could have helped Mortimer against the shooter. But you wanted to see where I stood when I was under pressure. It was a test.”

Sir Stuart smiled. “Somewhat, aye. I wouldn’t have let you harm Mortimer, of course, and I was there to help him the instant he called. But it didn’t hurt to know a little more about you.” He turned to Mortimer. “I like this lad. And Jack Murphy sent him.”

Both Mortimer and I glared at Sir Stuart and then settled slowly back from the confrontation.

“Head detective of the Black Cats a generation ago,” Stuart continued. “Killed himself at his desk. Sometimes new shades show up claiming they’ve had a run-in with him, and that he brought them back from the hereafter. And you know that he is no deluded fool.”

Mort didn’t meet Sir Stuart’s eyes. He grunted, a sound that wasn’t exactly agreement.

“Or maybe Jack Murphy’s shade is simply more deluded than most, and has a talent for nurturing the delusions of other new shades.”

“Hell’s bells, Morty,” I said. “Next you’ll be telling me that I didn’t even meet his shade. That I deluded myself into deluding myself into deluding him into deluding me that I made the whole thing up.”

Sir Stuart snorted through his nose. “A fair point.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Mort said. “There’s no real way to know.”

“Incorrect,” Sir Stuart interrupted. “Summon him. That shouldn’t be difficult—if he is just one more deluded shade.”

Mort didn’t look up. But he said, very quietly, “I won’t do that to Jack.” He looked up and seemed to recover some of his composure. “But even if Captain Murphy is genuine, that doesn’t mean Dresden’s shade is legit. Or sane.”

“Consider the possibility,” Sir Stuart said. “There is something unusual about this one.”

Mort perked up his metaphorical ears. “Unusual?”

“An energy. A vitality.” Sir Stuart shrugged. “It might be nothing. But even if it is . . .”

Mort let out a long sigh and eyed the shade. “You won’t let this rest, will you?”

“I have no plans for the next fifty or sixty years,” Sir Stuart said affably. “It would give me something to do. Every half an hour or so.”

Mort pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes. “Oh, God.”

Sir Stuart grinned. “There’s another aspect to consider, too.”

“Oh?”

“The attack was larger tonight. It cost us more defenders. And the creature behind it revealed itself.” He gestured at his still-translucent midsection. “I can’t keep holding them off forever, Mortimer. And the presence of a mortal pawn tells us two things.”

I nodded. “One. The Grey Ghost is bad enough to have its way with mortals.”

“Two,” Sir Stuart said. “The creature is after you. Personally.”

Mort swallowed.

I rose and shuffled over to look down at the still-unconscious intruder. The man let out a low groan.

“It is a good time to make friends,” Stuart said, his expression serious. “Dresden’s one reason you’ll live the night. And he had allies in this city—people who could help you, if they had a reason to.”

“You’re fine,” Mort said, his tone uncertain. “You’ve survived worse.” Sir Stuart sighed. “Perhaps. But the enemy isn’t going to give me time to recover before he attacks again. You need Dresden’s help. He’s asking for yours.” His expression hardened. “And so am I.”

The intruder groaned again and stirred.

Mort’s forehead broke out in a sudden sweat. He looked at the fallen man and then, rather hurriedly, heaved himself to his feet. He bowed his head. Then he turned to me and said, “Fine, Dresden. I’ll help. And in return, I expect you to get your allies to look out for me.”

“Deal,” I said. I looked at Sir Stuart. “Thank you.”

“One hour,” Mort said. “You get one hour.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Okay,” Mort echoed, evidently speaking mostly to himself. “I mean, it’s not like I’m trying to join the Council or anything. It’s one hour. Just one little hour. What could happen in one hour?”

And that’s how I knew that Mort was telling the whole truth when he said he wasn’t a hero.

Heroes know better than to hand the universe lines like that.

Chapter Seven

Mort drove one of those little hybrid cars that, when not running on gasoline, was fueled by idealism. It was made out of crepe paper and duct tape and boasted a computer system that looked like it could have run the NYSE and NORAD, with enough attention left over to play tic-tac-toe. Or possibly Global Thermonuclear War.

“Kinda glad I’m dead,” I muttered, getting into the car by the simple expedient of stepping through the passenger’s door as if it had been open. “If I were still breathing, I’d feel like I was taking my life into my hands here. This thing’s an egg. And not one of those nice, safe, hard-boiled eggs. A crispy one.”

“Says the guy who drove Herbie’s trailer-park cousin around for more than ten years,” Mort sniped back.

“Gentlemen,” Stuart said, settling rather gingerly into the tiny backseat. “Is there a particular reason we should be disagreeable with one another, or do you both take some sort of infantile pleasure in being insufferably rude?”

Now that the fighting was done, Sir Stuart’s mannerisms were reverting to something more formal. I made a mental note of the fact. The Colonial Marine hadn’t started off a member of proper society, wherever he’d been. The rather staid, formal, archaic phrasing and patterns of speech were all something he’d acquired as a learned habit—one that apparently deserted him under the pressure of combat.

“Okay, Dresden,” Mort said. “Where to?” He opened his garage door and peered out at the snow. It was coming down even more thickly than earlier in the night. Chicago is pretty good about keeping its streets cleared in winter weather, but it was freaking May.

From the deep piles of old snow that had apparently been there for a number of weeks, I deduced that the city must have become increasingly beleaguered by the unseasonable weather. The streets were covered in several inches of fresh powder. No plow had been by Mort’s house in hours. If we hit a patch of ice, that heavy, crunchy little hybrid was going to skitter like a puppy on a tile floor.

Thinking, I referenced a mental map of the city. I felt a little bad making Mort come out into weather like this—I mean, given that he wasn’t dead and all. I was going to feel like crap if something bad happened to him, and it wouldn’t be a kindness to ask him to go farther than he absolutely had to. Besides, with the weather worsening, his one-hour time limit seemed to put further constraints on my options.

“Murphy’s place,” I said quietly. I gave him the address.

Mort grunted. “The ex-cop?”

I nodded. Murph had gotten herself fired by showing up to help me one too many times. She’d known what she was doing, and she’d made her own choices, but I still felt bad about it. Dying hadn’t changed that. “She’s a pretty sharp lady. Better able than most in this town to look out for you.”

Mort grunted again and pulled out into the snow, driving slowly and carefully. He was careful to keep his expression blank as he did it.

“Mort,” I said. “What aren’t you telling me?”

“Driving over here,” he said.

I made a rude sound. Then I looked back over my shoulder at Sir Stuart. “Well?”

Sir Stuart reached into his coat and drew out what looked like a briar pipe. He tapped something from a pouch into it, struck an old wooden match, and puffed it to life. The smoke rose until it touched the ceiling of the car, where it congealed into a thin coating of shining ectoplasm—the residue of the spiritual when it becomes the physical.

“To hear him tell it,” he said, finally, indicating Mort, “the world’s gone to hell the past few months. Though I’ve got to admit, it doesn’t seem much different to me. Everything’s been madness since those computers showed up.”

I snorted. “What’s changed?”

“The scuttlebutt says that you killed the whole Red Court of Vampires,” said Sir Stuart. “Any truth to that?”

“They abducted my daughter,” I said. I tried for a neutral tone, but it came out clipped and hard. I hadn’t even known Maggie existed until Susan Rodriguez had shown up out of nowhere after years overseas and begged for my help in recovering our daughter. I’d set out to get her back by any means necessary.

I shivered. I’d . . . done things, to get the child away from the monstrous hands of the Red Court. Things I wasn’t proud of. Things I would never have dreamed I would be willing to do.

I could still remember the hot flash of red from a cut throat beneath my fingers, and I had to bow my head for a moment in an effort to keep the memory from surging into my thoughts in all its hideous splendor. Maggie. Chichén Itzá. The Red King. Susan.

Susan’s blood . . . everywhere.

I forced myself to speak to Sir Stuart. “I don’t know what you heard. But I went and got my girl back and put her in good hands. Her mother and a whole lot of vampires died before it was over.”

“All of them?” Sir Stuart pressed.

I was quiet for a moment before I nodded. “Maybe. Yeah. I mean, I couldn’t exactly take a census. The spell could have missed some of the very youngest, depending on the details of how it was set up. But every single one of the bastards nearby me died. And the spell was meant to wipe the world clean of whoever it targeted.”

Mort made a choking sound. “Couldn’t . . . I mean, wouldn’t the White Council get upset about that? Killing with magic, I mean?”

I shrugged. “The Red King was about to use the spell on an eightyear-old girl. If the Council doesn’t like how I stopped that from happening, they can kiss my immaterial ass.” I found myself chuckling. “Besides. I killed vampires, not mortals, with that magic. And what are they gonna do anyway? Chop my head off? I’m dead already.”

I saw Mort trade a look with Sir Stuart in the rearview mirror.

“Why are you so angry at them, Harry?” Mort asked me.

I frowned at him and then at Stuart. “Why do I feel like I should be lying on a couch somewhere?”

“A shade is formed when something significant is left incomplete,” Sir Stuart said. “Part of what we do is work out what’s causing you to hold on to your life so hard. That means asking questions.”

“What? So I can go on my way? Or something?”

“Otherwise known as leaving me alone,” Mort muttered.

“Something like that,” Sir Stuart said quickly, before I could fire back at Mort. “We just want to help.”

I gave Sir Stuart the eye and then Mort. “That’s what you do? Lay spirits to rest?”

Mort shrugged. “If someone didn’t, this town would run out of cemetery space pretty fast.”

I thought about that for a moment. Then I said, “So how come you haven’t laid Sir Stuart to rest?”

Mort said nothing. His silence was a barbed, stony thing.

Sir Stuart leaned forward to put a hand on Mort’s shoulder, seemed to squeeze it a little, and let go. Then he said to me, “Some things can’t be mended, lad. Not by all the king’s horses or all the king’s men.”

“You’re trapped here,” I said quietly.

“Were I trapped, it would indicate that I am the original Sir Stuart. I am not. I am but his shade. One could think of it that way nonetheless, I suppose,” he said. “But I prefer to consider it differently: I regard myself as someone who was truly created with a specific purpose for his existence. I have a reason to be who and what and where I am. How many flesh-and-blood folk can say as much?”

I scowled as I watched the snowy road ahead of us. “And what’s your purpose? Looking out after this loser?”

“Hey, I’m sitting right here,” Mort complained.

“I help other lost spirits,” Sir Stuart said. “Help them find some sort of resolution. Help teach them how to stay sane, if it is their destiny to become a mane. And if they become a lemur, I help introduce them to oblivion.”

I turned to frown at Sir Stuart. “That’s . . . kinda cut-and-dried.”

“Some things assuredly are,” he replied placidly.

“So you’re a mane, eh? Like the old Roman ancestral ghost?”

“It isn’t such a simple matter, Dresden. Your own White Council is a famous bunch of namers,” he said. “Their history is, I have heard, rooted in old Rome.”

“Yeah,” I said.

He nodded. “And, like the Romans, they love to name and classify and outline facts to the smallest, permanently inflexible, set-in-stone detail. The truth, however, is that the world of remnant spirits is not easily cataloged or defined.” He shrugged. “I dwell in Chicago. I defend Mortimer’s home. I am what I am.”

I grunted. After a few moments, I asked, “You teach new spirits?”

“Of course.”

“Then can I ask you some questions?”

“By all means.”

Mort muttered, “Here we go.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’m a ghost and all now. And I can go through just about anything—like I went through this car door to get inside.”

“Yes,” Sir Stuart said, a faint smile outlining his mouth.

“So how come my ass doesn’t go through the seat when I sit down on—”

I was rudely interrupted by the tingling sensation of passing through solid matter, beginning at my butt and moving rapidly up my spine. Cold snow started slamming into my rear end, and I let out a yelp of pure surprise.

Sir Stuart had evidently known what was coming. He reached over, grabbed me by the front of my leather duster, and unceremoniously dragged me back up into the car and sat me on the seat beside him, back in the passenger compartment. I clutched at the door handle and the seat in front of me for stability, only to have my hands go right through them. I pitched forward, spinning as if I were floating in water, and this time it was my face plunging toward the icy street.

Sir Stuart hauled me back again and said, in a faintly annoyed tone, “Mortimer.”

Mort didn’t say anything, but when I was once again sitting down, I didn’t fall right through the bottom of the car. He smirked at me in the rearview mirror.

“You don’t fall through the bottom of the car because on some deep, instinctual level, you regard it as a given of existence here,” Sir Stuart said. “You are entirely convinced that illusions such as gravity and solidity are real.”

“There is no spoon,” I said.

Sir Stuart looked at me blankly.

I sighed. “If I believe in an illusory reality so much, then how come I can walk through walls?” I asked.

“Because you are convinced, on the same level, that ghosts can do precisely that.”

I felt my eyebrows trying to meet as I frowned. “So . . . you’re saying I don’t fall through the ground because I don’t think I should?”

“Say instead that it is because you assume that you will not,” he replied. “Which is why, once you actively considered the notion, you did fall through the floor.”

I shook my head slowly. “How do I keep from doing it again?”

“Mortimer is preventing it, for the time being. My advice to you is not to think about too much,” Sir Stuart said, his tone serious. “Just go about your business.”

“You can’t not think about something,” I said. “Quick, don’t think about a purple elephant. I dare you.”

Sir Stuart let out a broad laugh, but stopped and clutched at his wounded flank. I could tell it hurt him, but he still wore the smile the laugh had brought on. “It usually takes them longer to recognize that fact,” he said. “You’re right, of course. And there will be times when you feel like you have no control whatsoever over such things.”

“Why?” I asked, feeling somewhat exasperated.

Sir Stuart wasn’t rattled by my tone. “It’s something every new shade goes through. It will pass.”

“Huh,” I said. I thought about it for a minute and said, “Well. It beats the hell out of acne.”

From the front seat, Mort let out an explosive little snicker.

Stars and stones, I hate being the new guy.

Chapter Eight

Murphy inherited her house from her grandmother, and it was at least a century old. Grandma Murphy had been a notorious rose gardener. Murphy didn’t have a green thumb herself. She hired a service to take care of her grandmother’s legacy. The flower garden in front would have fit a house four times as large, but it was a withered, dreary little place when covered in heavy snow. Bare, thorny branches, trimmed the previous fall, stood up from the blanket of white in skeletal silence.

The house itself was a compact colonial, single story, square, solid, and neat-looking. It had been built in a day when a ten-by-ten bedroom was considered a master suite, and when beds were routinely used by several children at a time. Murphy had upgraded it with vinyl siding, new windows, and a layer of modern insulation when she moved in, and the little house looked as if it could last another hundred years, no problem.

There was a sleek, expensive, black town car parked on the street outside Murphy’s home, its tires on the curbside resting in several inches of snow. It couldn’t have looked more out of place in the middle-class neighborhood if it had been a Saint Patrick’s Day Parade float, complete with prancing leprechauns.

Sir Stuart looked at me and then out at our surroundings, frowning. “What is it, Dresden?”

“That car shouldn’t be there,” I said.

Mort glanced at me and I pointed out the black town car. He studied it for a moment before he said, “Yeah. Kind of odd on a block like this.”

“Why?” asked Sir Stuart. “It is an automatic coach, is it not?”

“An expensive one,” I said. “You don’t park those on the street in weather like this. The salt-and-plow truck comes by, and you’re looking at damage to the finish and paint. Keep going by, Morty. Circle the block.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Mort said, his tone annoyed. “I’m not an idiot.”

“Stay with him,” I told Sir Stuart.

Then I took a deep breath, remembered that I was an incorporeal spirit, and put my feet down through the floorboards of the car. I dug in my heels on the snowy street as the solid matter of the vehicle passed through me in a cloud of uncomfortable tingles. I’d meant to simply remain behind, standing, when the car had passed completely through me. I hadn’t thought about things like momentum and velocity, and instead I went into a tumble that ended with me making a whump sound as I hit a soft snowbank beside the home next to Murphy’s. It hurt, and I pushed myself out of the snowbank, my teeth chattering, my body blanketed in cold.

“N-n-no, H-Harry,” I told myself firmly, squeezing my eyes shut. “Th-that’s an illusion. Your mind created it to match what it knows. But you didn’t hit the snowbank. You can’t. And you can’t be covered in snow. And therefore you can’t be wet and cold.”

I focused on the words, putting my will behind them, in the same way I would have to attract the attention of a ghost or spirit. I opened my eyes.

The snow clinging to my body and clothes was gone. I was standing, dry and wrapped in my leather duster, beside the snowbank.

“Okay,” I said. “That’s bordering on cool.”

I stuck my hands in my pockets, ignored the snow and the steady, gentle northern wind, and trudged across Grandma Murphy’s rose garden to Murphy’s door. I raised my hand and knocked as I’d done so often before.

A couple of things happened.

First, my hand stopped above the door, close enough that you could have slid one or two pieces of paper between my knuckles and the wood, but definitely not three. There was a dull, low thud of solid impact, even though I hadn’t touched the door itself. Second, light flashed, and something like a current of electricity swarmed up my arm and down my spine, throwing my body into a convulsion that left me lying on the ground, stunned.

I just lay there on the snow for a moment. I tried the whole “there is no spoon” thing again, but apparently there was perception of reality and then there was hard-core, undeniable, real reality. It took me several seconds to recover and sit up again, and several more seconds to realize that I had been hit by something specifically engineered to stop intruding spirits.

Murphy’s house had been warded, its natural defensive threshold used as a foundation for further, more aggressive defenses. And while I was only a shade of my former self, I was still wizard enough to recognize my own damned wards—or at least wards that were virtually identical to my own.

The door opened and Murphy appeared in it. She was a woman of well below average height, but built of spring steel. Her golden hair had been cut into a short brush over her scalp, and the stark style showed off the lines of muscles and tendons in her neck, and the pugnacious, stubborn set of her jawline. She wore jeans and a plaid shirt over a blue tee, and held her SIG in her right hand.

Something stabbed me in the guts and twisted upon seeing her.

A rush of memories flooded over me, starting with our first meeting, on a missing-persons case years ago, when I’d still been doing my time as an apprentice PI and Murphy had been a uniform cop working a beat. Every argument, every bit of banter and repartee, every moment of revelation and trust that had been built up between us, came hammering into me like a thousand major-league fastballs. The last memory, and the sharpest, was of facing each other in the hold of my brother’s boat, trembling on the edge of a line we hadn’t ever allowed ourselves to cross before.

“Karrin,” I tried to say. It came out a whisper.

Murphy’s brow furrowed and she stood still in the doorway, despite the cold wind and falling snow, her eyes scanning left and right.

Her eyes moved over me, past me, through me, without stopping. She didn’t see me. She couldn’t hear me. We weren’t a part of the same world anymore.

It was a surprisingly painful moment of realization.

Before I could get my thoughts clear of it, Murphy, still frowning, closed the door. I heard her close several locks.

“Easy, lad,” said Sir Stuart in a gentle, quiet voice. He hunkered down to put a hand on my shoulder. “There is no need to rush regaining your feet. It hurts. I know.”

“Yeah,” I said quietly. I swallowed and blinked away tears that couldn’t really be real. “Why?”

“As I told you, lad. Memories are life here. Life and power. Seeing the people you care for most again is going to trigger memories much more strongly than they would in a mere mortal. It can take time to grow accustomed to it.”

I wrapped my arms around my knees and rested my chin on my kneecap. “How long?”

“Generally,” Sir Stuart said very softly, “until those loved ones pass on themselves.”

I shuddered. “Yeah,” I said. “Well. I don’t have time for that.”

“You have nothing but time, Dresden.”

“But three of my people don’t,” I said, my voice harsh. “They’re going to get hurt if I don’t make things right. If I don’t find my killer.” I closed my eyes and took several deep breaths. I wasn’t actually breathing air. I didn’t need to breathe. Habit. “Where’s Mort?”

“Waiting around the corner,” Sir Stuart said. “He’ll come in once we’ve given him the all clear.”

“What? I’m the little chicken’s personal Secret Service now?” I grumbled. I pushed myself up to my feet and eyed Murphy’s house. “Do you see anything threatening around here?”

“Not at the moment,” Sir Stuart said, “other than the allegedly suspicious auto coach.”

“Well, the house is warded. I’m not sure if the defenses are purely against insubstantial intruders or if they might also attack a living intruder. Tell him not to touch the house with anything he wants to keep.”

Sir Stuart nodded and said, “I’m going to circle the place. I’ll return with Mortimer.”

I grunted absently, reaching out a hand to feel the wards around the place again. They were powerful, but . . . flawed, somehow. My wards were all built into the same, solid barrier of energy. These wards had solidity, but it was a piecemeal thing. I felt like I was looking at a twelvefoot wall built from LEGO blocks. If someone with enough mystic muscle hit it right, the ward would shatter at its weakest seams.

Of course, that would probably punch a hole in the barrier, but not a catastrophic one. If one portion of my wards lost integrity, the whole thing would come down and whatever remained of the energy that had broken it would come through. If someone knocked out a bit of these wards, it would send a bunch of LEGOs flying—probably soaking up all of the energy by dividing it among lots of little pieces—but the rest of the barrier would stand.

That might offer several advantages on the minor-league end of the power scale. The modular wards would be easy to repair, compared to classic integral wards, so that even if something smashed through, the wards could be closed again in a brief time. God knows, the ingredients for the spell were probably a lot cheaper—and you wouldn’t need a big-time White Council wizard to put them up.

But they had a downside, too. There were a lot of things that could smash through—and if you got killed after they came inside, the ease of repair wouldn’t matter much to your cooling corpse.

Still. It was a hell of a lot better than nothing. The basic profile was my design, just implemented differently. Who the hell would have done this to Murphy’s place? And why?

I turned and stepped off the porch to peer in a window, feeling vaguely voyeuristic as I did so. But I wasn’t sure what else I was going to do until Mort got here to do some speaking for me.

“Are you quite all right?” asked a man’s voice, from inside the house.

I blinked, scowled in concentration, and managed to stand up on some of the wispy shrubbery under the window, until I could see over the chair back that blocked my view from where I was standing.

There was a man sitting on the couch of Murphy’s living room. He was wearing a black suit with a crisp white shirt and a black tie with a single stripe of maroon. His skin was dark—more Mediterranean than African—but his short, neat sweep of hair was dyed peroxide blond. His eyes were an unsettling color, somewhere between dark honey and poison ivy, and the sharp angularity of his nose made me think of a bird of prey.

“Fine,” said Murphy. She was on her feet, her gun tucked into the waist of her jeans in front. SIG made a fine, compact 9mm, but it looked big, dangerous, and clumsy on Murphy’s scale. She folded her arms and stared at the man as if he’d been found at the side of the highway, gobbling up raw roadkill. “I told you not to show up early anymore, Childs.”

“A lifetime of habit,” Childs said in reply. “Honestly, it isn’t something to which I give any thought.”

“You know how things are out there,” Murphy said, jerking her chin toward the front of the house. “Start thinking about it. You catch me on a nervous evening, and maybe I shoot you through the door.”

Childs folded his fingers on one knee. He didn’t look like a big guy. He wasn’t heavy with muscle. Neither are cobras. There was plenty of room for a gun under that expensive suit jacket. “My relationship with my employer is relatively new. But I have a sense that, should such a tragedy occur, the personal repercussions to you would be quite severe.”

Murphy shrugged a shoulder. “Maybe. On the other hand, maybe we start killing his people until the price of doing business with us is too high and he breaks it off.” She smiled. It was almost gleefully wintry. “I don’t have a badge anymore, Childs. But I do have friends. Special, special friends.”

Between them there was a low charge of tension in the room, the silent promise of violence. Murphy’s fingers were dangling casually less than two inches from her gun. Childs’s hands were still folded on his knee. He abruptly smiled and dropped back into a more relaxed pose on the sofa. “We’ve coexisted well enough for the past six months. I see no sense in letting frayed tempers put an end to that now.”

Murphy’s eyes narrowed to slits. “Marcone’s top murderer—”

Childs lifted a hand. “Please. Troubleshooter.”

Murphy continued as if he hadn’t spoken. “—doesn’t back down that quickly, regardless of how survival oriented he is. That’s why you’re here early, despite my request. You want something.”

“So nice to know you eventually take note of the obvious,” Childs replied. “Yes. My employer sent me with a question.”

Murphy frowned. “He didn’t want the others to hear it being asked.”

Childs nodded. “He feared it might generate unintended negative consequences.”

Murphy stared at him for a moment, then rolled her eyes. “Well?”

Childs showed his teeth in a smile for the first time. It made me think of skulls. “He wishes to know if you trust the Ragged Lady.”

Murphy straightened at the question, her back going rigid. She waited to take a deep breath and exhale before responding. “What do you mean?”

“Odd things have begun happening near some of the locations she haunts. Things that no one can quite explain.” Childs shrugged, leaving his hands in plain sight, resting comfortably on the sofa. “Which part of the question is too difficult for you?”

Murphy’s shoulder twitched, as if her hand had been thinking about grabbing the gun from her waistband. But she took another breath before she spoke. “What’s he offering for the answer?”

“Northerly Island. And before you ask, yes, including the beach.”

I blinked at that. The island over by Burnham Park Harbor wasn’t exactly prime criminal territory, being mostly parks, fields, and a beach a lot of families visited—but “Gentleman” John Marcone, kingpin of Chicago’s rackets and the only plain-vanilla mortal to become a signatory of the Unseelie Accords, simply did not surrender territory. Not for anything.

Murphy’s eyes widened, too, and I watched her going through the same line of thought I had. Though, to be perfectly fair, I think she got to the end of that line before I did.

“If I do agree to this,” she said, her tone cautious, “it will have to pass our standard verification by Monday.”

Childs’s face was a bland mask. “Done.”

Murphy nodded and looked down at the floor for a moment, evidently marshaling her thoughts. Then she said, “There isn’t a simple answer.”

“There rarely is,” Childs noted.

Murphy passed a hand back over her brush cut and studied Childs. Then she said, “When she was working with Dresden, I’d have said yes, in a heartbeat, without reservation.”

Childs nodded. “And now?”

“Now . . . Dresden’s gone. And she came back from Chichén Itzá changed,” Murphy said. “Maybe post-traumatic stress. Maybe something more than that. She’s different.”

Childs tilted his head. “Do you distrust her?”

“I don’t drop my guard around her,” Murphy said. “And that’s my answer.”

The bleach-blond man considered her words for a few seconds and then nodded. “I will carry it to my employer. The island will be clear of his interests by Monday.”

“Will you give me your word on that?”

“I already have.” Childs stood up, the motion a portrait of grace. If he was a mortal, he was deadly fast. Or a ballet dancer. And somehow I didn’t think he had some Danskins stuffed in his suit’s pockets. “I will go. Please inform me if anything of relevance comes out of the meeting.”

Murphy nodded, her hand near her gun, and watched Childs walk to the front door. Childs opened it and began to leave.

“You should know,” Murphy said quietly, “that my trust issues don’t change the fact that she’s one of mine. If I think for a second that the outfit has done any harm to Molly Carpenter, the arrangement is over and we segue directly to the OK Corral. Starting with you.”

Childs turned smoothly on a heel, smiling, and lifted an empty hand to mime shooting Murphy with his thumb and forefinger. He completed the turn and left the house.

Murphy came over to the window where I was standing and watched Childs walk to the black town car and get in. She didn’t relax her vigilance until the car had pulled out into the snow and cruised slowly away.

Then she bowed her head, one hand against the window, and rubbed at her face with her other hand.

I stretched my arm to put my hand out to mirror hers, being careful not to touch the wards humming quietly around the house’s threshold. You could have fit two or three of Murphy’s hand spans into one of mine. I saw her shoulders shake once.

Then she shook her head and straightened, blinked her eyes rapidly a few times, and schooled her expression into its usual cop mask of neutrality. She turned away from me, went to the room’s love seat, and curled up on one side of it. She looked tiny, with her legs bunched up against her upper body, barely more than a child—if not for the care lines on her face.

There was a quiet motion, and then a tiny grey mountain lion with a notched ear and a stump of a tail appeared and leapt smoothly up onto the love seat with Murphy. She reached out a hand and gathered the cat’s furry body against hers, her fingers stroking.

Tears blurred my eyes as I saw Mister. My cat. When the vampire couple, the Eebs, had burned my old apartment down, I knew Mister had escaped the flames—but I didn’t know what had happened to him after that. I’d been killed before I could go round him up. I remembered meeting the cat as a kitten, scrambling in a trash bin, skinny and near starvation. He’d been my roommate, or possibly landlord, ever since I’d come to Chicago. He was thirty pounds of feline arrogance. He was always good about showing up when I was upset, giving me the chance to lower my blood pressure by paying attention to him. I’m sure he thought it a saintly gesture of generosity.

It’s a cat thing.

I don’t know how long I stood there staring through the window, but suddenly Sir Stuart was beside me.

“Dresden,” he said quietly. “There are several creatures approaching from the southeast.”

“You are not doing your lack of being named Threepio any good whatsoever, Sir Stuart.”

He blinked at me several times, then shook his head and recovered. “There are half a dozen of them, as well as a number of cars.”

“Okay. Keep Mort in his car until I can identify them,” I said. “But I suspect he’s in no danger.”

“No?” the shade asked. “Know you these folk, then?”

“Dunno,” I said. “Let’s go see.”

Chapter Nine

Ten minutes later, I was humming under my breath and watching the gathering in Murphy’s living room. Sir Stuart stood beside me, his expression interested, curious.

“Beg pardon, wizard,” he said, “but what is that tune you’re trying to sing?”

I belted out the opening trumpet fanfare of the main theme and then said, in a deep and cheesy announcer’s voice, “In the great Hall of the Justice League, there are assembled the world’s four greatest heroes, created from the cosmic legends of the universe!”

Sir Stuart frowned at me. “Created from . . .”

“The cosmic legends of the universe,” I repeated, in the same voice.

Sir Stuart narrowed his eyes and turned slightly away from me, his shoulders tight. “That makes no sense. None. At all.”

“It did on Saturday mornings in the seventies, apparently,” I said. I nodded at the room beyond the window. “And we’ve got something similar going on here. Though for a Hall of the Justice League, it looks pretty small. Real estate wasn’t as expensive back then, I guess.”

“The guests assembled inside,” Sir Stuart asked. “Do you know them?”

“Most of them,” I said. Then I felt obliged to add, “Or, at least, I knew them six months ago.”

Things had changed. Murphy’s buzz cut was just a start. I started introducing Sir Stuart to the faces I knew.

Will Borden leaned against one wall, slightly behind Murphy, his muscular arms folded. He was a man of below-average height and wellabove-average build. All of it was muscle. I was used to seeing him mostly in after-work, business-casual clothing—whenever he wasn’t transformed into a huge, dark wolf, I mean. Today, he was wearing sweats and a loose top, the better for getting out of in a hurry if he wanted to change. Generally a quiet, reliable, intelligent man, Will was the leader of a local band of college kids, now all grown-up, who had learned to take on the shape of wolves. They’d called themselves the Alphas for so long that the name had stopped sounding silly in my own head when I thought it.

I wasn’t used to seeing Will playing the heavy, but he was clearly in that role. His expression was locked into something just shy of a scowl, and his dark eyes positively smoldered with pent-up aggression. He looked like a man who wanted a fight, and who would gladly jump on the first opportunity to get into one.

On the couch not far from Will, the other Alpha present was curled up into a ball in the corner, her legs up to her chest. She had straight hair the color of a mouse’s fur that hung to her chin in an even sheet all the way around, and she looked as if a strong breeze might knock her to the floor. She peered owlishly out through a pair of large eyeglasses and a curtain of hair, and I got the impression that she saw the whole room at the same time.

I hadn’t seen her in several years, but she’d been one of the original Alphas and had gotten her degree and toddled off into the vanilla world. Her name was . . . Margie? Mercy? Marci. Right. Her name was Marci.

Next to Marci sat a plump, cheerful-looking woman with blond, curly hair held sloppily in place with a couple of chopsticks, who looked a couple of years shy of qualifying to be a television grandmother. She wore a floral-print dress, and on her lap she held a dog the approximate size of a bratwurst—a Yorkshire terrier. The dog was clearly on alert, his bright, dark eyes moving from person to person around the room, but focused mostly on Marci. He was growling deep in his chest, and obviously ready to defend his owner at an instant’s notice.

“Abby,” I told Sir Stuart. “Her name’s Abby. The dog is Toto. She survived a White Court vampire who was hunting down her social circle. Small-time practitioners.”

The little dog abruptly sprang out of Abby’s arms to throw itself toward Will, but the woman moved in remarkably quick reaction and caught Toto. Except it hadn’t been remarkably quick—it had simply begun a half second before the little dog had jumped. Abby was a prescient. She couldn’t see far into the future—only a few seconds—but that was enough talent to make me bet there weren’t many broken dishes in her kitchen.

Will looked at Toto as the little dog jumped, and smiled. Abby shushed the Yorkie and frowned at Will before turning to the table to pick up a cup of tea in one hand, still holding the dog with the other.

Next to Abby was a brawny young man in jeans, work boots, and a heavy flannel shirt. He had dark, untidy hair and intense grey eyes, and I could have opened a bottle cap with the dimple in his chin. It took me a second to recognize him, because he’d been a couple of inches shorter and maybe forty pounds lighter the last time I’d seen him—Daniel Carpenter, the eldest of my apprentice’s younger brothers. He looked as though he were seated on a hot stove rather than a comfortable couch, like he might bounce up at any second, boldly to do something ill conceived. A large part of Will’s attention was, I thought, focused on Daniel.

“Relax,” Murphy told him. “Have some cake.”

Daniel shook his head in a jerky negative. “No, thank you, Ms. Murphy,” he said. “I just don’t see the point in this. I should go find Molly. If I leave right now, I can be back before an hour’s up.”

“If Molly isn’t here, we’ll assume it’s because she has a good reason for it,” Murphy said, her tone calm and utterly implacable. “There’s no sense in running all over town on a night like this.”

“Besides,” Will drawled, “we’d find her faster.”

Daniel scowled from beneath his dark hair for a second, but quickly looked away. It gave me the sense that he’d run afoul of Will before and hadn’t liked the outcome. The younger man kept his mouth shut.

An older man sat in the chair beside the couch, and he took the opportunity to lean over the table and pour hot tea from a china teapot into the cup in front of the young Carpenter. He added a lump of sugar to it, and smiled at Daniel. There was nothing hostile, impatient, or demanding in his eyes, which were the color of a robin’s eggs—only complete certainty that the younger man would accept the tea and settle down.

Daniel eyed the man, then dropped his eyes to the square of white cellulose at his collar and the crucifix hanging beneath it. He took a deep breath, then nodded and stirred his tea. He took the cup in both hands and settled back to wait. After a sip, he appeared to forget he was holding it—but he stayed quiet.

“And you, Ms. Murphy?” asked Father Forthill, holding up the teapot. “It’s a cold night. I’m sure a cup would do you good.”

“Why not?” she said. Forthill filled another cup for Murphy, took it to her, and pulled at his sweater vest, as if trying to coax more warmth from the garment. He turned and walked over to the window where Sir Stuart and I stood, and held out both hands. “Are you sure there isn’t a draft? I could swear I feel it.”

I blinked and eyed Sir Stuart, who shrugged and said, “He’s one of the good ones.”

“Good what?”

“Ministers. Priests. Shamans. Whatever.” His expression seemed to be carefully neutral. “You spend your life caring for the souls of others, you get a real sense of them.” Sir Stuart nodded at Father Forthill. “Ghosts like us aren’t souls, as such, but we aren’t much different. He feels us, even if he isn’t fully aware of it.”

Toto escaped Abby’s lap and came scrambling over the hardwood floor to put his paws up on the walls beneath the windows. He yapped ferociously several times, staring right at me.

“And dogs,” Sir Stuart added. “Maybe one in ten of them seem to have a talent for sensing us. Probably why they’re always barking.”

“What about cats?” I asked. Mister had fled the living room upon the arrival of other people and wasn’t in sight.

“Of course cats,” Sir Stuart said, his voice faintly amused. “As far as I can tell, all cats. But they aren’t terribly impressed with the fact that we’re dead and still present. One rarely gets a reaction from them.”

Father Forthill gently scooped Toto from the floor. The little dog wiggled energetically, tail flailing in the air, and kissed Forthill’s hands soundly before the old priest passed him carefully back to Abby, smiling and nodding to her before refilling his own cup of tea and sitting down again.

“Who are they waiting on?” Sir Stuart asked. “This Molly person?”

“Maybe,” I said. There was one more chair in the room. It was closest to the door—and farthest from every other piece of furniture in the room. Practically every other seat in the room would have a clear line of fire to the last chair, if it came to shooting. Maybe that was a coincidence. “But I don’t think so.”

There was a quick chirping sound, and Murphy picked up a radio smaller than a deck of cards. “Murphy. Go.”

“Ricemobile imminent,” said a quiet voice. “Furry Knockers is running a sweep.”

Will blew out a sudden snort of amused breath.

Murphy smiled and shook her head before she spoke into the radio. “Thanks, Eyes. Pull in as soon as she’s done. Hot tea for you.”

“Weather’s just crazy, right? Only in Chicago. Eyes, out.”

“That is just so wrong,” said Daniel, as Murphy put the radio away. “That’s a terrible radio handle. It could cause mixed messages in a tactical situation.”

Murphy arched an eyebrow and spoke in a dry tone. “I’m trying to imagine the situation in which someone mistakenly being told to be alert for the enemy ends in disaster.”

“If someone on the team was juggling glass vials of a deadly virus,” Will supplied promptly. “Or nitroglycerin.”

Murphy nodded. “Make a note: Discontinue use of radio in the event of a necessary nitro-viro juggling mission.”

“Noted,” Will drawled.

Daniel stiffened. “You’ve got a big mouth, Mr. Borden.”

Will never moved. “It’s not my mouth, kid. It’s your skin. It’s too thin.”

Daniel narrowed his eyes, but Forthill put a hand on the brawny youth’s shoulder. The old man couldn’t possibly restrain Daniel physically, but his touch might as well have been a steel chain attached to a battleship’s anchor. His move to rise became an adjustment of himself in his seat, and he folded his arms, scowling.

“Pasty Face in five, four, three . . .” came from Murphy’s radio.

Backs tightened. Faces became masks. Several hands vanished from sight. Someone’s teacup clinked several times in rapid succession against a saucer before it settled.

I could see the front door from where I stood outside the window, and a couple of seconds after the radio stopped counting aloud, it opened upon a White Court vampire.

She was maybe five-two, with a dimpled smile and dark, curly hair that fell to her waist. She was wearing a white blouse with a long, full white skirt and bright scarlet ballet slippers. The first thought that went through my head was Awww, she’s tiny and adorable—followed closely by the notion that she would be fastidious when blood was everywhere. I could just see her carefully lifting the hem of her pristine skirt so that only the scarlet slippers would touch it.

“Good evening, everyone,” she said, breezing through the door without an invitation, speaking with a strong British accent. “I apologize for being a few moments late, but what’s a lady to do with weather like this? Tea? Lovely.” She minced over to the table and poured some hot tea into an empty cup. Her eyes fastened on Daniel as she did, and she bowed just low enough to draw the young man’s eyes to her décolletage. He flushed and looked away sternly. After a second.

Tough to blame the kid. I’ve been a young man. Boobs are near the center of the universe, until you turn twenty-five or so. Which is also when young men’s auto insurance rates go down. This is not a coincidence.

The vampire smirked, a surprisingly predatory expression on her cupid’s-bow lips, and glided back to the empty chair by the door, seating herself in it like Shirley Temple on a movie set, sure that she held the attention of everyone there.

“Gutsy,” I said quietly.

“Why do you say that?” Sir Stuart asked.

“She came in without an invitation,” I said.

“I thought vampires couldn’t do that.”

“The Reds ca—That is, they couldn’t without being half-paralyzed. The Black Court vampires can’t cross a threshold, period. The Whites can, but it cripples their abilities, makes it very difficult to draw on their Hunger for strength and speed.”

Sir Stuart shook his head. “Ah yes. She’s a succubus.”

“Well . . . not exactly, but the differences are academic.”

The shade nodded. “I’m not exposing Mortimer to that creature.”

“Probably not a bad idea,” I agreed. “He’s got access to way too much information. They’d love to get someone like Mort under their thumb.”

“Hello, Felicia,” Murphy said, her tone cool and professional. “All right, people. Mr. Childs won’t be here tonight. I’m holding his proxy.”

Felicia curled the fingers of both tiny hands around the teacup and sipped it. The tea had been scalding when the others had first sipped it. They’d been cautious. The vampire took a mouthful as if it had been room-temperature Kool-Aid and swallowed it down with a little shiver of apparent pleasure. “How convenient for you. Shall we ever see the dapper gentleman again?”

“That will be up to Marcone,” Murphy replied. “Abby?”

Toto was staring at Felicia and standing with stiff legs on Abby’s lap. If he’d been capable of a threatening growl, he’d have been doing it. Instead, there was just a steady squeaking sound coming from his general direction.

Abby took a firmer grip on Toto and looked down at a notebook in her lap. “The Paranet continues to operate at better than seventy-five percent of its original capacity. We actually regained contact with Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Alabama this week.” She cleared her throat and blinked her eyes several times. “We lost contact with Oregon.”

“Seattle or Tacoma?” Murphy asked.

“Yes,” Abby said quietly. “No one has heard from a member in either place there for the past three days.”

Forthill crossed himself and said something beneath his breath.

“Amen, Father,” Felicia murmured.

“Someone got their roster,” Daniel said, his voice harsh.

Will grunted and nodded. “Do we know who?”

“Um,” Abby said, giving Will a brief, apologetic smile. “We haven’t heard from anyone. So no. We’ll have to send someone to investigate.”

“Ugh,” Murphy said, shaking her head. “No. If that many people have been taken, it means one of the larger powers is at work. If the Fomor have come to Oregon in strength, we’d just be throwing our scout into a snake pit.”

“If we move quickly enough,” Abby disagreed firmly, “we might be able to save some of them.”

Murphy’s expression turned introspective. “True. But there’s nothing we can do from here.” She looked at Forthill.

“I’ll find out what I can through our channels,” he promised. “But . . . I fear you will find little in the way of remedy there.”

Murphy nodded. “We’ll kick this one up to the Wardens.”

Daniel snorted at exactly the same time I did. “Oh, sure, the White Council,” the young man said. “They’re the answer to this. Because they care so much about the little guy and the immediate future. They’ll wander in right away—a mere year or two from now.”

Will gave Daniel a flat look, and the muscles along his jaw twitched.

Murphy lifted a hand and said, “I’ll call Ramirez and ask him to expedite. I’ll ask Elaine Mallory to back me up.”

Elaine Mallory. When Murphy said it, the name cracked something in my head and a geyser of memories erupted from it. Elaine had been my first. First friend. First crush. First lover. First victim—or so I had believed for years, at any rate. She somehow escaped the flames that consumed my old mentor, Justin DuMorne.

About a million sense-memories hit me all at once. It was like trying to watch a warehouse wall lined with televisions, all of them on different stations, all of them blaring at maximum volume. Sunshine on skin. Smooth curve of slender waist and leanly muscled back as Elaine dove into a moonlit swimming pool. The blindingly gentle sensation of our first kiss, slow and tentative and careful as it had been.

Elaine. Who had been subverted into Justin’s slave. Who hadn’t been strong enough to defend herself when Justin came to claim her mind. Who I failed to protect.

Joy and pain came with those memories. It was deliriously intense, as disorienting and overwhelming as any drug.

Hell’s bells, I hate being the new guy.

I managed to push the memories off after a few moments, in time to hear the vampire speak. Felicia cleared her throat and lifted a hand. “As it happens,” she said, “I know that we have some assets in the area. It’s possible they might be able to find something.”

“It’s also possible that they’re responsible for the disappearances,” Marci said mildly.

“Nonsense, child,” Felicia responded with a little toss of her head. “We hardly need to capture our prey and corral them where their thick numbers will make hunting simple.” She gave Marci a sweetly dimpled smile. “We already have such pens. They’re called cities.”

“We will be happy for any information the White Court is willing to provide, Felicia,” Murphy said, her calm, professional, neutral tone expertly dulling the edges of the previous words. “What about Chicago, Abby?”

“We lost two this week,” Abby said. “Nathan Simpson and Sunbeam Monroe.”

“A ghoul took Simpson,” Will supplied at once. “We settled his account.”

Murphy glanced at Will in approval. “Have I met Sunbeam?”

Abby nodded. “The college student from San Jose.”

Murphy winced. “Right. Tall girl? Hippie-esque parents.”

“That’s her. She was accompanied to the El station, and someone was waiting at her destination. She never arrived.”

Murphy made a growling sound that more than made up for Toto’s lack. “We know anything?”

Will looked at Marci. The stringy girl shook her head. “The snow is holding too many scents in place. I couldn’t find anything solid.” She looked down at her knees and added, “Sorry.”

Murphy ignored that last bit. “She shouldn’t have been traveling alone. We’re going to have to stress the importance of partnering up.”

“How?” Abby asked. “I mean, it’s in every circular.”

Murphy nodded. “Will?”

Will drummed his fingertips on his biceps and nodded. “I’ll see to it.”

“Thank you.”

Abby blinked several times and then said, “Karrin . . . you can’t possibly mean . . .”

“People are dying,” Murphy said simply. “A good scare can do wonders to cure stupidity.”

“Or we could try protecting them,” said Daniel.

Forthill lifted a hand again, but the younger man ignored him, rising to his feet. Daniel’s voice was a rich, strong baritone. “All over the world, dark things are rising up against mortals connected to the supernatural. Killing them or dragging them away into the dark. Creatures that haven’t been seen by mankind in the past two millennia are reappearing. Fighting mortals. Fighting one another. The shadows are boiling over with death and terror, and no one is doing anything about it!

“The Wardens went from fighting the Vampire War to a new one, against an enemy without a face or an identity. The White Council doesn’t have Wardens enough to handle everything that’s happening anyway. If a cry for help is sent up anywhere but a major city, there’s no chance at all of them showing up. Meanwhile, what are we doing?” Daniel’s voice filled with quiet scorn. “Telling people to travel around in herds. Scaring them ourselves to make them do so, as if there wasn’t terror enough in the world already.”

Murphy stared steadily at him. Then she said, her tone hard, “That’s enough.”

Daniel ignored her, planting his feet and squaring his shoulders. “You know. You know what must be done, Ms. Murphy. You’re holding two of the greatest weapons against darkness that the world has ever known. Bring forth the Swords.”

A dead silence settled on the room, into which Sir Stuart asked me, conversationally, “Which swords?”

“The Swords of the Cross,” I said quietly, out of habit—I could have sung it operatically without anyone there noticing. “The ones with the nails from the Crucifixion worked into them.”

“Excalibur, Durendal, and Kusanagi, yes, yes,” Sir Stuart said, his tone a little impatient. “Of course I know the Swords of the Cross. And the little blond woman has two of them?”

I just stared at the burly shade for a long second. I’d found what amounted to a rumor that Amoracchius was, in fact, the same sword given to King Arthur, but I hadn’t ever heard anything about the other two— despite some fairly exhaustive research over the years. The shade had dropped their identities as if they were everyday knowledge.

Sir Stuart frowned at me and said, “What is it?”

“I just don’t . . . Do you know how much research I . . .” I blew out an exasperated breath, scowled, and said, “I went to public school.”

Back inside, Murphy didn’t break the silence. She just stared at Daniel for maybe two minutes. Then she directed a rather pointed glance at Felicia and eyed Daniel again.

The young man glanced at Felicia and closed his eyes as his cheeks got redder and his passion swiftly deflated. He muttered something under his breath and sat down again rather quickly.

The vampire sat in her chair, staring at Daniel over the rim of her teacup and smiling as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. For all I knew, it wouldn’t. “I love young men,” she purred. “I just love them.”

“Mr. Carpenter,” Murphy said. “I assume you have divulged secrets enough to the enemies of humanity for one evening?”

Daniel said nothing.

“Then perhaps you can join Eyes and Fuzz in keeping watch outside.”

He rose at once, slipping into his heavy, fleece-lined, blue denim coat. It was an old, well-used garment. I’d seen his father wearing it, but it was a little big on Daniel. Without a word, he left the living room for the kitchen and went out the back door.

Silence was heavy when he left.

“Both swords,” Felicia said, her tone light, her periwinkle eyes on Murphy. “My, my, my.” She sipped at her tea and said, “Of course, you’ll have to kill me, dear. If you can.” The diminutive vampire looked casually at each person in the room. “I give you one chance in four.”

“I can’t let the White Court know about the Swords,” Murphy agreed. Her fingers hung near the handle of her gun.

Will watched with sleepy eyes. But sometime in the past few seconds he had managed to center his weight over his feet. Marci still crouched with her legs curled up to the rest of her, but they were under her dress now. Within a heartbeat, she could have it off and clear it from impeding her shapeshifting.

Felicia was in exactly the same posture as several minutes before. She looked entirely unconcerned with any possible danger. I made a mental note never to play poker with her. “Well, darling. If you intended to dance, there would already be music. So perhaps we should talk.” She smiled, and her eyes glittered, suddenly several shades lighter than before. “Just us girls. We can go for a walk.”

Murphy snorted. She drew her gun from her belt and set it on the armrest of her chair. She rested her hand over it, not quite touching the trigger. “I’m not an idiot, Felicia. You’ll stay right where you are. As will I. Everyone else, outside.”

Abby had risen before Murphy finished speaking, holding Toto carefully as she left.

Will frowned at Murphy. “You sure?”

Father Forthill rose, frowning, and said, “These old legs want to go for a little walk, in any case. Good evening, Ms. Murphy. William?”

Will literally growled, and it came out sounding like no noise a human being ought to be able to make. But then he nodded to Murphy and turned toward the door. Marci hurried to her feet and went after him. Forthill stumped off after them. I heard everyone leave the house by the back door, probably to gather on the stone-paved patio just outside.

“I like this,” Felicia said into the silence, smiling. “This charming little house feels so intimate. Don’t you think?” She tilted her head. “Are the Swords on the premises?”

“I think you should name your price,” Murphy responded.

Felicia arched an eyebrow, a sensual little smile bending one corner of her mouth into a smirk.

“F—” Murphy cleared her throat. “Forget that. It isn’t happening.”

The vampire turned her mouth down in a mocking little pout. “Such a Puritan work ethic. Business and pleasure can coexist, you know.”

“This isn’t business, Ms. Raith. It’s blackmail.”

“To-may-toe, to-mah-toe,” Felicia said with a shrug. “The point is, Karrin, that you can hardly afford to be squeamish.”

“No?”

“No. You’re intelligent, skilled, and strong-willed—quite formidable. . . .” She smiled. “For a mortal. But, in the end, you are a lone mortal. And you are no longer beneath the aegis of city law enforcement or resident members of the White Council.”

Murphy moved nothing but her lips. “Meaning?”

Felicia sighed and said in a practical, dispassionate tone, “The Swords are valuable. They could be traded for a great deal of influence. Should the White Court learn of this and decide to take the Swords, they will take you. They will ask you where they are. They will force you to surrender them.”

Murphy might have twitched one shoulder in a shrug. Then she got up and walked toward Felicia, gripping her gun loosely in hand. “And . . . what? If I give you what you want, you’ll stay quiet?”

Felicia nodded, her eyelids lowering as she watched Murphy approach. “For a few days, at any rate. By which time, you will have been able to take measures to prevent them from being taken.”

Murphy said, “You want to feed on me.”

Felicia ran a very pink tongue over her upper lip, her eyes growing paler. “I do. Very much.”

Murphy frowned and nodded.

Then she whipped the pistol in a bone-breaking stroke, smashing it into the vampire’s jaw.

“Yes!” I hissed, clenching my hands into fists.

The vampire let out a short, stunned gasping sound and rocked beneath the blow. She slid out of the chair to her knees, feebly trying to move away from Murphy.

Murph wasn’t having any of it. She grabbed Felicia by the hair, hauled her halfway to her feet, and then, with a furious shout and a contraction of her whole body, Murphy slammed the vampire’s face down onto the coffee table. Felicia’s head shattered the teapot and the platter beneath, and struck the oak table with such force that a crack erupted from end to end in the wood.

Murph slammed Felicia’s head down with near-equal violence two more times. Then she turned and dragged Felicia over to the front door of her house by the hair. Murphy let her go with a contemptuous shove, stood over her, and pointed a gun at the vampire’s head.

“This is what happens,” Murphy said in a very quiet, hard voice. “You leave here alive. You keep your fucking mouth shut. And we never mention tonight ever again. If the White Court even blinks in the Swords’ direction, I am going to come find you, Felicia. Whatever happens to me in the end, before I am taken, I will find you.”

Felicia stared up at her, wobbling and shaking, clearly dazed. Murphy had broken the vampire’s nose and knocked out at least two teeth. One of Felicia’s high cheekbones was already swelling. The broken teapot had left multiple cuts on her face, and her skin had been scalded by the hot liquid still inside.

Murphy leaned a little closer and put the barrel of the gun against Felicia’s forehead. Then she whispered, very quietly, “Bang.”

The vampire shuddered.

“Do what you think best, Felicia,” Murph whispered. Then she straightened again slowly, and spoke in a clear, calm voice as she walked back to her chair. “Now. Get out of my house.”

Felicia managed to stagger to her feet, open the front door, and limp haltingly to the white limousine idling on the snowy street outside the house. Murphy went to the window to watch Felicia get into the limo and depart.

“Yeah,” I said, deadpan. “The little blond woman has two of them.”

“Oh, my,” Sir Stuart said, his voice muted with respect. “I can see why you’d come to her for assistance.”

“Damn skippy,” I agreed. “Better go get Morty while she’s still in a good mood.”

Chapter Ten

I met Morty and Sir Stuart on Murphy’s front porch. I guess it was a cold night. Morty stood with his entire body hunched against the wind, his hands stuffed into his coat pockets. His eyes darted around nervously. He was shivering.

“Hit the bell,” I said. “And this is just my opinion, but if I were you, I’d keep my hands in plain sight.”

“Thanks,” Mort said sourly, jabbing the doorbell. “Have I told you how much brightness you bring to my world whenever you show up in it, Dresden?”

“All in a day’s work when you’re created from the cosmic legends of the universe,” I replied.

“Be advised,” Sir Stuart said, “that there are wolves to the left and right.”

I looked. He was right. One was huge and dark-furred; the other smaller and lighter brown. They were sitting in the shadows, perfectly still, where a casual glance would simply pass over them. Their wary stares were intense. “Will and Marci,” I said. “They’re cool.”

“They’re violent vigilantes,” Mort replied through clenched teeth.

“Buck up, little camper. They’re not going to hurt you, and you know it.”

Mort gave me a narrow-eyed glare, and then Murphy opened the door.

“Ms. Murphy,” Morty said, nodding to her.

“Lindquist, isn’t it?” Murph asked. “The medium?”

“Yes.”

“What do you want?”

“Behind us,” Sir Stuart murmured.

I checked. A slender male figure in heavy winter clothing was crossing the street toward us. A third wolf, this one’s fur edged with auburn, walked beside him.

“I’m here to speak to you on behalf of someone you knew,” Mort told Murphy.

Murphy’s blue eyes became chips of glacial ice. “Who?”

“Harry Dresden,” Mort said.

Murphy clenched her right hand into a fist. Her knuckles made small popping sounds.

Mort swallowed and took half a step back. “Look, I don’t want to be here,” he said, raising his hands and displaying his palms. “But you know how he was. His shade is no less stubborn or annoying than Dresden was in life.”

“You’re a goddamned liar,” Murphy snarled. “You’re a known con artist. And you are playing with fire.”

Mort stared at her for a long moment. Then he winced and said, “You . . . you believed he was still alive?”

“He is alive,” Murphy replied, clenching her jaw. “They never found a body.”

Mort looked down, pressing his lips together, and ran his palm over his bald pate, smearing away a few clinging snowflakes. He blew out a long breath and said, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry that this is difficult.”

“It isn’t difficult,” Murphy replied. “Just annoying. Because he’s still alive.”

Mort looked at me and spread his hands. “She’s still in denial. There’s not much I can do here. Look, I’ve done this a lot. She needs more time.”

“No,” I said. “We’ve got to make her see. Tonight.”

Mort pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. “It isn’t like you’re getting any older, Dresden.”

Murphy fixed Morty with her cop glare. It hadn’t lost any of its intensity. “This is neither believable nor amusing, Lindquist. I think you’d better go now.”

Lindquist nodded, holding up his hands in a gesture of placation. “I know. I’m going. Please understand, I’m just trying to help.”

“Wait!” I snapped. “There’s got to be something you can say.”

Mort glanced at me as he began walking back toward his car and lifted both of his hands, palms up, in a little helpless gesture.

I ground my teeth, standing less than a foot away from Murphy. How the hell did I get her to believe it really was me?

“By having Morty talk about something only you could know, dummy,” I said to myself. “Morty!”

He paused about halfway down the driveway and turned to look at me.

“Ask her this,” I said, and spouted a question.

Mort sighed. Then he turned toward Murphy and said, “Before I go . . . Dresden wants me to ask you if you ever found that reasonably healthy male.”

Murphy didn’t move. Her face went white. After maybe a minute, she whispered, “What did you say?”

I prompted Mort. “Dresden wants me to tell you that he hadn’t intended to do anything dramatic. It just sort of worked out that way.”

The wolves and the man in the heavy coat had stepped closer, listening. Murphy clenched and unclenched her fist several times. Then she said, “How many vampires did Agent White and I have to kill before we escaped the FBI office last year?”

I felt another surge of fierce triumph. That was Murph, always thinking. I told Mort the answer.

“He says he doesn’t know who Agent White is, but that you and Tilly took out one of them in a stairwell on your way out of the building.” Mort tilted his head, listening to me, and then said, “And he also wonders if you still feel that taking up the Sword of Faith would represent a . . . a rebound career.”

Murphy’s face by now was almost entirely bloodless. I could almost visibly see her eyes becoming more sunken, her features overtaken by a grey and weary sagging. She leaned against the doorway to her house, her arms sliding across her own stomach, as if she were trying to prevent her innards from spilling out.

“Ms. Murphy,” Mort said gently. “I’m terribly sorry to be the one to bear this particular news. But Dresden’s shade says that he needs to talk to you. That people are in danger.”

“Yeah,” Murphy said, her voice numb. “That’s new.” She looked up at Mort and said, “Bleed for me.”

It was a common test among those savvy to the supernatural world but lacking any of its gifts. There are a lot of inhuman things that can pretend to be human—but relatively few of them have natural-looking blood. It wasn’t a perfect test, by any means, but it was a lot better than nothing.

Mort nodded calmly and produced a straight pin from his coat pocket. He hadn’t even blinked at the request. Apparently, in the current climate, the test had become much more widely used. I wondered if Murphy had been responsible for it.

Morty pricked the tip of his left thumb with the pin, and it welled with a round drop of ruby blood. He showed it to Murphy, who nodded.

“It’s cold out here. You’d better come inside, Mr. Lindquist.”

“Thank you,” Mort said with a heavy exhalation.

“Meeting time, kids,” Murphy said to those outside. “I want this joker verified. Will, please send someone to invite Raggedy Ann over.”

“I don’t want to be any trouble . . .” Mort began.

Murphy gave him a chilly smile. “Get your ass inside and sit down. I’ll tell you when you can go. And if you really are putting one over on us somehow, you should know that I am not going to be a good sport about it.”

Mort swallowed. But he went inside.

Murphy, Will, and Father Forthill spent the next half hour grilling Morty, and, by extension, me, with Abby and Daniel looking on. Each of them asked a lot of questions, mostly about private conversations I’d had with them. Morty had to relay my answers:

“No, Father, I just hadn’t ever heard a priest use the phrase screw the pooch before.”

“Will, look. I offered to pay for that ‘the door is ajar’ thing.”

“The chlorofiend? You killed it with a chain saw, Murph.”

And so on and so forth, until my blood—or maybe ectoplasm—was practically boiling.

“This is getting ridiculous,” I snapped, finally. “You’re stalling. Why?”

Morty blinked at me in surprise. Sir Stuart burst out into a short bark of laughter from where he lounged against a wall in the corner.

Murphy looked at Mort closely, frowning. “What is it?”

“Dresden’s getting impatient,” Mort said, his tone of voice suggesting that it was something grossly inappropriate, if not outright impolite. “He, ah, suspects that you’re stalling and wants to know why. I’m sorry. Spirits are almost never this . . .”

“Stubbornly willful?” Murphy suggested.

“Insistent,” Mort finished, his expression neutral.

Murphy sat back in her chair and traded a look with Father Forthill. “Well,” she said. “That . . . sounds a great deal like Dresden, doesn’t it?”

“I’m quite sure that only Dresden knew several of those details he mentioned in passing,” Forthill said gravely. “There are beings who could know such things regardless of whether or not they were actually present, however. Very, very dangerous beings.”

Murphy looked at Mort and nodded. “So. Either he’s both sincere and correct, in that Dresden’s shade is there with him, or someone’s been bamboozled and I’ve let something epic and nasty into my house.”

“Essentially,” Forthill agreed, with a small, tired smile. “For whatever it’s worth, I sense no dark presence here. Just a draft.”

“That’s Dresden’s shade, Father,” Mort said respectfully. Mort, a good Catholic boy. Who knew?

“Where is Dresden now?” Murphy asked. She didn’t exactly sound enthusiastic about the question.

Mort looked at me and sighed. “He’s . . . sort of looming over you, a little to your left, Ms. Murphy. He’s got his arms crossed and he’s tapping one foot, and he’s looking at his left wrist every few seconds, even though he doesn’t wear a watch.”

“Do you have to make me sound so . . . so childish?” I complained.

Murphy snorted. “That sounds like him.”

“Hey!” I said.

There was a familiar soft pattering of paws on the floor, and Mister sprinted into the room. He went right across Murphy’s hardwood floors and cannonballed into my shins.

Mister is a lot of cat, checking in at right around thirty pounds. The impact staggered me, and I rocked back, and then quickly leaned down to run my hand over the cat’s fur. He felt like he always did, and his rumbling purr was loud and happy.

It took me a second to realize that I could touch Mister. I could feel the softness of his fur and the warmth of his body.

More to the point, a large cat moving at a full run over a smooth hardwood floor had shoulder-blocked empty air and had come to a complete halt doing it.

Everyone was staring at Mister with their mouths open.

I mean, it’s one thing to know that the supernatural world exists, and to interact with it on occasion in dark and spooky settings. But the weird factor of the supernatural hits you hardest at home, when you see it in simple, everyday things: a door standing open that shouldn’t be; a shadow on the floor with no source to cast it; a cat purring and rubbing up against a favorite person—who isn’t there.

“Oh,” Murphy said, staring, her eyes welling up.

Will let out a low whistle.

Father Forthill crossed himself, a small smile lifting the corners of his mouth.

Mort looked at the cat and sighed. “Oh, sure. Professional ectomancer with a national reputation as a medium tells you what’s going on, and nobody believes him. But let a stump-tailed, furry critter come in and everyone goes all Lifetime.”

“Heh,” said Sir Stuart, quietly amused. “What did I tell you? Cats.”

Murphy turned to me, lifting her face toward mine. Her eyes were a little off, focused to one side of my face. I moved until I stood where she was looking, her blue eyes intent. “Harry?”

“I’m here,” I said.

“God, I feel stupid,” Murphy muttered, looking at Mort. “He can hear me, right?”

“And see you,” Mort said.

She nodded and looked up again—at a slightly different place. I moved again.

I know. It wouldn’t matter to her.

But it mattered to me.

“Harry,” she said. “A lot of things have happened since . . . since the last time we talked. The big spell at Chichén Itzá didn’t just destroy the Red Court who were there. It killed them all. Every Red Court vampire in the world.”

“Yeah,” I said, and my voice sounded hard, even to me. “That was the idea.”

Murphy blew out a breath. “Butters says that maybe there were some it missed, but they would have had to have been the very youngest and least powerful members of the least powerful bloodlines, or else sheltered away in some kind of protected location. But he says according to what he knows of magical theory, it makes sense.”

I shrugged and nodded. “Yeah, I guess so. A lot depends on exactly how that rite was set up to work.” But the Red Court was dead, the same way the Black Court was dead. Life would go on. They were footnotes now.

“When the Red Court fell,” Murphy continued, “their territory was suddenly open. There was a power vacuum. Do you understand?”

Oh, God.

The Red Court had tried to murder my little girl and all that was left of my family, and I wouldn’t lose any sleep over what had happened to them. (Assuming I would ever sleep again, which seemed to be a real question.) But I hadn’t thought past that single moment, thought through the long-term consequences of wiping out the entire Red Court.

They were one of the major supernatural nations in the world. They controlled a continent and change—South and most of Central America—and had holdings all over the world. They owned property. Stocks. Corporations. Accounts. They as much as owned some governments. Assets of every kind.

The value of what the Red Court had controlled was almost literally incalculable.

And I had thrown it all up in the air and declared one giant game of finders, keepers.

“Oops,” I said.

“Things . . . are bad,” Murphy said. “Not so much here in Chicago. We’ve repulsed the worst incursions—mostly from some gang of arrogant freaks called the Fomor. And the Paranet has been a huge help. It’s saved literally hundreds, if not thousands, of lives.”

In my peripheral vision, I saw Abby’s spine straighten and her eyes flash with a strength and surety I had never seen in her before.

“South America has the worst of it, by a long ways,” Murphy said. “But every two-bit power and second-rate organization in the supernatural world sees a chance to found an empire. Old grudges and jealousies are getting dusted off. Things are killing one another as well as mortals, all over the world. When one big fish shifts its power base to South America, dozens of little fish left behind try to grow enough to fill the space. So there’s fighting everywhere.

“The White Council, I hear, is running its tubby ass off, trying to hold things together and minimize the impact on regular folks. But we haven’t seen them here, apart from a couple of times when Warden Ramirez came by, hunting for Molly.”

“Molly,” I said. “How is she?” I dimly heard Mort relaying my words. I noted that he was doing a credible job of mirroring my tone of voice. I guess he really had done a lot of this kind of thing before.

“She’s still recovering from the wounds she took at Chichén Itzá,” Murphy said. “She says they were as much psychic as physical. And that hit to her leg was pretty bad. I don’t understand how your disappearance makes her a criminal to the White Council, but apparently it has. Ramirez has told us that the Wardens are looking to pass sentence on her—but he didn’t seem to be working his ass off to find her, either. I know what it looks like when a cop is slacking.”

“How is she?” I asked again. “Murph, it’s me. How’s she doing?”

She looked down and swallowed. “She . . . she isn’t right, Harry.”

“What do you mean?”

Murphy looked up at me again, her jaw set. “She talks to herself. She sees things that aren’t there. She has headaches. She babbles.”

“Sounds like me,” I said, at approximately the same time Will said, “Sounds like Harry.”

“This is different,” Murphy said to Will, “and you know it. Dresden was in control of it. He used the weirdness to make him stronger. Were you ever afraid of him?” Murphy asked. “Outright afraid?”

Will frowned and looked down at his hands. “He could be scary. But no. I never thought he’d hurt me. By accident or otherwise.”

“How do you feel about Molly coming over?” Murphy asked.

“I would like to leave,” Will replied frankly. “The girl ain’t right.”

“Apparently,” Murphy continued, turning back to me, “the presence of a wizard in a city, any city, all around the world, is an enormous deterrent. Weird things are afraid of the Council. They know that the White Council can come get you fast, out of nowhere, with overwhelming force. Most of the scary-bad things around, the ones with any brains, at least, avoid White Council territory.

“Only with you gone and the White Council having its hands full . . .” Murphy shook her head. “God. Even the vanilla news is starting to notice the weirdness in town. So. Molly wouldn’t stay with anyone. She’s always moving. But she got it into her head that Chicago didn’t need an actual White Council wizard to help calm things down—the bad guys just had to think one was here. So she started posting messages whenever she dealt with some wandering predator, and called herself the Ragged Lady, declaring Chicago protected territory.”

“That’s crazy,” I said.

“What part of she isn’t right didn’t you understand?” Murphy replied to Morty, her voice sharp. She took a breath and calmed herself again. “The craziest part is that it worked. At least partly. A lot of bad things have decided to play elsewhere. College towns out in the country are the worst. But . . . things have happened here.” She shivered. “Violent things. Mostly to the bad guys. But sometimes to humans. Gangers, mostly. The Ragged Lady’s calling card is a piece of cloth she tears off and leaves on her enemies. And there are lots and lots of pieces of cloth being found these days. A lot of them on corpses.”

I swallowed. “You think it’s Molly?”

“We don’t know,” Murphy replied in her professionally neutral voice. “Molly says she isn’t going after anything but the supernatural threats, and I’ve got no reason to disbelieve her. But . . .” Murphy showed her hands.

“So when you said Raggedy Ann,” I said, “you meant Molly.”

“She’s like this . . . battered, stained, torn-up doll,” Murphy said. “Believe me. It fits.”

“Battered, torn-up, scary doll,” Will said quietly.

“And . . . you just let her be that way?” I demanded.

Murphy ground her teeth. “No. I talked to her half a dozen times. We tried an intervention to get her off the street.”

“We shouldn’t have,” Will said.

“What happened?” Mort asked.

Will apparently assumed it had been my question. “She hammered us like a row of nails on balsa wood is what happened,” he said. “Lights, sound, images. Jesus, I’ve got a picture in my head of being dragged off into the Nevernever by monsters that I still can’t get rid of. When she gave it to me, all I could do was curl up into a ball and scream.”

Will’s description made me feel sick to my stomach. Which was ridiculous, because it wasn’t like I ate food anymore—but my innards hadn’t gotten the memo. I looked away, grimacing, tasting bitter bile in my mouth.

“Memories are weapons,” Sir Stuart said quietly. “Sharp as knives.”

Murphy held up her hand to cut Will off. “Whether or not she’s going too far, she’s the only one we have with a major-league talent. Not that the Ordo hasn’t done well by us, Abby,” she added, nodding toward the blond woman.

“Not at all,” Abby replied, undisturbed. “We aren’t all made the same size and shape, are we?” Abby looked at me, more or less, and said, “We built the wards around Karrin’s house. Three hundred people from the Paranet, all working together.” She put a hand on an exterior wall, where the power of the patchwork ward hummed steadily. “Took us less than a day.”

“And two hundred pizzas,” Murphy muttered. “And a citation.”

“And well worth it,” Abby said, arching an eyebrow that dared Murphy to disagree.

Murphy shook her head, but I could see her holding off a smile. “The point is, we’re waiting for Molly to confirm your bona fides, Harry.”

“Um,” Morty said. “Is . . . is that safe, Ms. Murphy? If the girl was his apprentice, won’t her reaction to his shade likely be . . . somewhat emotional?”

Will snorted. “The way nitroglycerin is somewhat volatile.” He took a breath and then said, “Karrin, you sure about this?”

Murphy looked around the room slowly. Abby’s eyes were on the floor, but her usally rosy cheeks were pale, and Toto’s ears drooped unhappily. Will’s expression was steady, but his body language was that of a man who thinks he might need to dive through a closed window at any second. Forthill was watching the room at large, exuding calm confidence, but his brow was furrowed, and the set of his mouth was slightly tense.

With the exception of Forthill, I’d seen them all react to direct danger.

They were all scared of Molly.

Murphy faced them. She was the smallest person in the room. Her expression was as smooth and expressive as a sheet of ice, her body posture steady. She looked as though she felt she was ready for just about anything.

But I’ve been in more than one fur ball with Murph, and I saw through her outer shell to the fear that was driving her. She didn’t know if I was real. For all she knew, I might be some kind of boogeyman from the nightmare side of the street, and that was unacceptable. She had to know.

The problem was that no matter what answer she got, it was going to hurt. If Molly pegged me as a bad guy, the knowledge that the real Harry Dresden was still missing and presumed dead, after the flash of contact Mort had provided, would be like a frozen blade in the guts. And if she learned that it really was my shade . . . it would be even worse.

“Molly will be fine,” Murphy said. “We need her. She’ll come through.” She passed her hand over her brush of hair. Her voice turned into something much smaller, weighed down by pain. “No offense to Mr. Lindquist. No offense to Mister. But I . . . We have to know.”

Paranoid? Probably.

But just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean there isn’t a wizard’s ghost standing beside you with tears in his eyes.

Chapter Eleven

Not long after, something scratched at the front door, and Will opened it to admit a grey-brown-furred wolf. The wolf trotted over to where Marci’s dress lay folded on the sofa, took it in her teeth, and vanished into the kitchen. Marci appeared a few seconds later, settling the dress around her slender form, and said, “She’ll be here any moment. I already told Andi and Eyes.”

“Thank you, Marci.” Murph looked at everyone and said, “Settle down, people. You look like you’re expecting Hannibal Lecter to come through the door.”

“I could handle Hannibal,” Will said. “This is different.”

Murphy put a fist on her hip and said, “Will. Molly is one of us. And you aren’t going to help her by looking nervous. If you can’t settle down and relax, get out of here. I don’t want you upsetting her.”

Will grimaced. Then he went into the kitchen, and a moment later a large wolf with fur the same color as Will’s hair padded back into the room. He went to a corner, turned around three times, and settled down on the floor. Toto let out a sharp little bark of greeting and hopped down to hurry over to Will. The little dog sniffed Will, then turned around three times and settled down next to him, their backs touching. The big wolf took a deep breath and exhaled it into a very human-sounding sigh of resignation.

“Thank you,” Murphy said. She glanced at Mort. “There’s a circle made out of copper wire in the kitchen. If it gets hot in here, you can run for it. You know how to empower a circle?”

“Yes, of course.” He licked his lips and said, “Though I can’t imagine running for my life and stopping in the kitchen. Meaning no offense to your protective ability, but I’ll stop when I’m home, thank you.”

“God,” Murphy said. “If only more people had as much sense as you.”

Murphy’s radio chirped, and Eyes started to say something. His voice drowned an instant later in a burst of static.

That ratcheted more tension in everyone. Wizards and their major magical talent are tough on hardware. The more complex a machine is, the more disruptive a wizard’s presence becomes, and electronics are nearly always the first to malfunction when a wizard is nearby. The wonky radio warned us of Molly’s approach every bit as clearly as a sentry shouting, “Who goes there?”

“Huh,” I said.

Mort glanced at me. “What?”

“The technology disruption a practitioner causes is relative to his—or her—strength.”

“I knew that, actually,” Mort said. “It’s why I have to keep replacing my cell phone. So?”

“So Molly was not a heavyweight in terms of raw power. She had to be practically close enough to touch something to hex it down that fast.” I narrowed my eyes. “She’s gotten stronger. Either that or . . .”

“She’s already in the room,” Mort said.

Murphy looked up sharply at that. “What?”

The house lights flickered for a second and then went out.

They weren’t gone long—the space of a heartbeat or two. But when they came back up, Murphy had her gun in hand, Marci had become a wolf with a sundress hanging around her neck, and a young woman wrapped in layers and layers of cast-off clothing sat on the sofa between Abby and Mort, not six inches away from either of them.

Molly was tall and built like a pinup model, with long, long legs and curves that not even the layers of clothing could hide. Her face was lovely and devoid of makeup, and her cheekbones pressed out harshly against her skin. Her hair was dirty, stringy, tangled, and colored a shade of purple so dark as to be nearly indistinguishable from black. A wooden cane stained the same color of deep purple leaned against her knees, and an old military-issue canvas knapsack covered with buttons and drawings in Magic Marker rested between her hiking boots. From Abby’s and Mort’s reactions, it must have smelled like it had been at least several days since her last shower.

But it was her eyes that were the worst.

My apprentice’s blue eyes were sunken, surrounded by shadows of stress and fatigue, and an odd light glittered there in the glassy shine I’d seen mostly in people recovering from anesthesia.

“It’s interesting that you would notice me,” Molly said to Mort, as if she’d been politely participating in the conversation all along.

The ectomancer twitched, and I saw him fight off the desire to get up and sprint for his car.

Molly nodded and looked around the rest of the room, person by person, until she got to Murphy. “I hope we’re planning a civil discussion this time, Karrin.”

Murph put her gun away, giving Molly a mild glance by way of reprimand. “We were being civil last time. We’re your friends, Molly, and we’re worried about you.”

My apprentice shrugged. “I don’t want anyone like friends anywhere near me. If you include yourself among them, you should leave me the hell alone.” Her voice had turned into a snarl by the end of the sentence, and she paused to take a slow, deliberate breath and calm down. “I don’t have the patience or the time for a group-therapy session. What do you want?”

Murphy seemed to consider her answer for a moment. She wound up going for brevity. “We need you to verify something for us.”

“Do I look like a fact-checker to you, Karrin?”

“You look like a homeless scarecrow,” Murphy said, her tone matter-of-fact. “You smell like a gutter.”

“I thought you used to be a detective,” Molly said, rolling her eyes. “See above, regarding not wanting anyone around me. It’s not all that hard to understand.”

“Miss Carpenter,” said Father Forthill in a sudden tone of gentle authority. “You are a guest in this woman’s home. A woman who has put her own life in danger to save others—including you.”

Molly turned an absolutely arctic look onto Father Forthill. Then she said, in a quiet, flat monotone, “I don’t particularly care to be spoken to as if I am still a child, Father.”

“If you wish to be respected as an adult, you should comport yourself as one,” Forthill replied, “which includes behaving with civility toward your peers and respect toward your elders.”

Molly glowered for a moment more, but then turned back to Murphy. “All things considered, it’s stupid for me to be here. And I’m a busy woman, Ms. Murphy—nothing but customers, customers, customers. So I’m out the door in five seconds unless you give me a good reason to stay.”

“This is Mort Lindquist, ectomancer,” Murphy said promptly. “He says he’s here to speak to us on behalf of Harry’s ghost, who is with him.”

Molly absolutely froze in place. Her face blanched beneath the grime.

“I’d like it if you could verify for us whether or not it’s true,” Murphy said, her voice gentle. “I need to know if he’s really . . . if it’s really his ghost.”

Molly stared at her for a second, then shivered and looked down at her hands. “Um.”

Murphy leaned a little closer to Molly. “You could tell. Couldn’t you?”

Molly shot her a wide-eyed glance and looked down again. She muttered something before she said, “Yes. But . . . not with so many people in the room.”

“Why not?”

Molly’s voice turned into a bitter snarl. “Do you want my help or not?”

Murphy folded her arms for a long moment. Then she said, “Time for another stroll in the evening air, people. Mr. Lindquist, please stay. Everyone else, out.”

Mort was trying very hard not to look like a man who wanted to run for the door, and getting mixed results. “I . . . Of course, Ms. Murphy.”

Murphy had to urge the werewolves to leave and help Marci get untangled from her dress. Forthill and Abby looked at each other and left the room without a murmur. Molly sat completely still during this, staring down at her folded hands.

“You don’t have clue one, do you?” she asked Murphy quietly. “You don’t have any idea what you’re asking me to go through.”

“If I could do it myself, I would.”

Molly looked up sharply at that. Her smile was unpleasant. Bordering on creepy.

“Easy words,” she said. “Easy words. They leave little trails of slime on your lips when they pass them. But it doesn’t make them go down any more smoothly.”

“Molly . . .” Murphy sighed and sat down and spread her hands. “You won’t let us help you. You won’t talk to us. But this is something I literally cannot ask of anyone else.”

“You always asked him,” Molly said, her tone spiteful.

“There’s a boiler about to burst,” Sir Stuart murmured to me.

“Shut your mouth,” I said quietly, coming automatically to her defense. But he was right. The kid was teetering on a cliff as I sat there looking at her.

I stared at Molly and felt absolutely wretched. She was my apprentice. I was supposed to have taught her to survive without me. Granted, I hadn’t planned on taking a bullet in the chest, but then, who does? Or was her condition simply symptomatic of the world she lived in?

Murphy regarded the younger woman for a long moment and then nodded. “Yes. I know enough to know when I’m out of my depth. My instincts say Mort isn’t trying to con me, but we’ve got to have more than just my intuition. I need your help. Please.”

Molly shook her head very slowly, shivering. She wiped at her face with her grimy gloves, and clean streaks appeared on her cheeks. “Fine.” She lifted her head, looked at Mort, and said calmly, “If you’re running a con, I will peel the skin off your brain.”

The ectomancer spread his hands. “Look. Dresden’s shade came to me. If it isn’t him, that ain’t my fault. I’m operating in good faith, here.”

“You’re a roach,” Molly said pleasantly. “Runs and hides from any threat, but you survive, don’t you?”

“Yes,” Mort said frankly.

“Maybe I should have been a roach, too,” Molly said. “It would be easier.” She took a slow, deep breath and said, “Where is he?”

Mort pointed a finger at me. I took a few steps until I stood in the mouth of the hallway that led down to Murphy’s bedrooms. I gestured to Sir Stuart to stay back.

“Why?” he asked.

“She’s going to use her Sight. The less she has to look at, the better.”

Sir Stuart shrugged and stayed near Mort. He watched Molly through narrowed eyes, his fingertips on the handle of that monster pistol.

Molly grabbed her cane and rose to her feet, leaning on it, taking the weight off the leg that had been shot at Chichén Itzá. She straightened her back and shoulders, turned toward me, took a deep breath, and opened her Sight.

I’d never seen such a thing from this angle before. It was as if a sudden light, burning steady and unwavering, kindled just between and above her eyebrows. As it flooded out of her, I felt it as a tangible sensation on my immaterial flesh. It was blinding. I lifted a hand for a moment to shield my eyes against it before I looked up to meet Molly’s gaze.

Her lips parted. She stared at me and tears blurred her vision. She tried twice to speak before she said, “How do I know it’s you?”

I could answer her. It’s called the Sight, but it embraces the entire spectrum of human perception, and then some. I met her gaze and composed my face. Then I said, in my very best Alec Guinness impersonation, “You will go to the Dagobah system. There you will learn from Yoda, the Jedi Master who instructed me.”

Molly sat down abruptly, missed the couch, and hit the floor instead. “Ohmygod,” she breathed. “Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod. Harry.”

I knelt to be on eye level with her. “Yeah, kid. It’s me.”

“Are . . . are you really . . . really gone?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess I am. I’m sorta new at this, and they aren’t in danger of winning any exposition awards around here.”

She nodded as more tears came, but she didn’t look away. “D-did you come to take me away?” she asked, her voice very small.

“No,” I said quietly. “Molly . . . no. I was sent back here.”

“W-why?” she whispered.

“To find my murderer,” I said quietly. “People I care about are in danger if I don’t get the job done.”

Molly began rocking back and forth where she sat. “I . . . Oh. I’ve been trying. . . . The city has become so dark, and I knew what you would expect of me, but I’m not as strong as you. I can’t just s-smash things like you could. . . .”

“Molly,” I said in a calm, clear tone.

Her reddened, exhausted blue eyes looked up at me.

“You know who I want to know about, don’t you? Who I wouldn’t want you to talk about in front of anyone?”

I hadn’t said my daughter’s name since returning to Chicago. Hell, I’d barely dared to think it. As far as the rest of the world knew, Maggie had been engulfed in the conflagration that devoured the Red Court. Anyone who knew of her identity might well hold it against her. I didn’t want that. Not if I wasn’t going to be there to protect her.

My throat felt tight, because I thought it should, I suppose. “You know who I’m asking about?”

“Yes,” she said. “Of course.”

“Is that person safe and well?”

“As far as I know, yes,” she said. A small smile made her, for an instant, resemble the girl I remembered. “Chewbacca is with her.”

There was only one giant walking carpet to whom she could be referring—my dog, Mouse. The beast was smarter than a lot of people, and was probably the single best supernatural guardian any child could have had. And he was huge and warm and fuzzy, and perfectly content to be a blanket or pillow—or a furious incarnation of preternatural strength and speed, depending on which was needed at the moment. Hell, Maggie was only eight. He was probably spending half his time pretending to be a pony.

I exhaled slowly and felt a little dizzy. The memories I had of Maggie—what few there were—were hammering their way across my consciousness. I mostly remembered holding her in the quiet after it was all over. I’m not sure how long I sat there with her. She had been a small, sleepy warmth in my arms, grateful for the comfort of being held.

“We can go see her,” Molly suggested. “I mean . . . I know where she is.”

I wanted to shout an agreement and leap at the chance. But I couldn’t. So I didn’t.

“Maybe after we take care of business,” I said.

“All right,” Molly said, nodding.

“Better button up your Sight, kid,” I said quietly. “There’s no reason to leave it open so long. Bad things could happen.”

“But . . . I won’t be able to see you. Or hear you. Which . . . seems odd, given that it’s called the Sight . . .”

“It encompasses a lot,” I said loftily. “Kid, you’ve got a gift. Trust your instincts. Which in this case should suggest to you that what you need is the spirit-viewing ointment we made off of Rashid’s faerie-sight recipe, or something like it.”

“Okay,” she said. “Okay.” She frowned and bowed her head, and I saw her Sight being withdrawn, the light at her forehead dwindling and finally winking out.

Murphy was sitting at the very edge of her chair, her back straight, her hands in her lap. “Miss Carpenter?”

Molly turned to look at Murphy. It seemed to take her a second or two to focus her eyes. “Yes?”

“It’s him?”

“He greeted me with a quote from The Empire Strikes Back.”

Murphy’s mouth twitched at one corner. “Him.”

My apprentice nodded and didn’t meet Murphy’s eyes.

“So,” Murphy said. “He’s really . . . really gone. That bullet killed him.”

“He’s gone,” Molly said. “The shade is . . . It’s Harry in every practical sense. It will have his memories, his personality.”

“But it isn’t him.”

Molly shook her head. “I asked him about that once. About what happens to a soul when a ghost is left behind.”

“What did he say?”

“That he had no idea. And that he doubted anyone would ever get a straight answer.”

“Molly,” the older woman said. “I know you’re tired. I would like it if you let me offer you some clothes. A meal. A shower. Some real sleep. My house is protected. I’d like to be able to tell your parents that I did at least that much for you, the next time they call me to ask about you.”

Molly looked around the room for a moment, biting her lip. “Yes . . . it . . .” She shivered. “But . . . it’s better if I don’t.”

“Better for who?”

“Everyone,” Molly said. She gathered herself and rose, using the cane to get to her feet once again. She grimaced in the process. It was obvious that using her leg still caused her pain. “Honestly. I’ve been playing a lot of games, and I don’t want any of them to splash onto you.” She paused and then said tentatively, “I’m . . . sorry about the detective remark, Karrin. That was going too far.”

Murphy shrugged. “Least said, soonest mended.”

My apprentice sighed and began pulling her tattered layers about herself a little more securely. “Mr. Lindquist appears to be working in good faith. I’ll come back tomorrow with something that might let you communicate with Harry’s shade a little more easily.”

“Thank you,” Murphy said. “While you’re at it, it might be smart to—”

There was the sudden blaring of a pocket-sized air horn from outside.

Mort hopped up from his seat into a crouch, ready either to run or to fling himself heroically to the floor. “What was that?”

“Trouble,” Murphy said, unlimbering her gun. “Get d—”

She hadn’t finished speaking when gunfire roared outside and bullets began ripping through the windows and the walls.

Chapter Twelve

I did what any sane person would do in a situation like that. I threw myself to the ground.

“Oh, honestly, Dresden,” Sir Stuart snapped. He sprinted toward the gunfire, out through the wall of the house. I actually saw the building’s wards flare up with spectral, blue-white light around him as he went through unimpeded.

“Right, dummy,” I growled at myself. “You’re already dead.” I got up and ran after the elder shade.

The living were all kissing hardwood floor as I plunged into the wall of the house. I wasn’t worried about the wards keeping me in—no one ever designed their wards so that bad things couldn’t leave, only so that they couldn’t enter. Besides, I’d had an invitation to come in, which technically made me a friendly—but I found out that “friendly” wards operated on much the same principle as “friendly” fire. Going out through the warded wall didn’t just tingle unpleasantly. I felt like I’d just plunged naked down a waterslide lined with steel wool.

“Aaaaaaaagh!” I screamed, emerging from the wards and onto Murphy’s front lawn, chock-full of new insight as to why ghosts are always moaning or wailing when they come popping out of somebody’s wall or floor. Not much mystery there—it freaking hurts.

I staggered for several steps and looked up in time to see the drive-by still in progress. They were in a pickup truck. Someone in the passenger’s compartment had the barrel of a shotgun sticking out the window, and four figures in dark clothing crouched in the truck’s cargo bed, pointing what looked like assault weapons and submachine guns at Murphy’s house. They were cutting loose with them, too, flashes of thunder and lightning too bright and loud to be real, seemingly magnified by the quiet, still air between the snow and the streetlights.

These guys weren’t real pros. I’d seen true professional gunmen in action, and these jokers didn’t look anything like them. They just pointed the business end more or less in a general direction and sprayed bullets. It wasn’t the disciplined fire of true professionals, but if you throw out enough bullets, you’re bound to hit something.

Bullets went through me, half a dozen flashes of tingling discomfort too brief to be more than an annoyance, and I suddenly found myself sprinting toward the truck beside Sir Stuart, exhilarated. Being bulletproof is kind of a rush.

“What are we doing?” I shouted at him. “I mean, what are we accomplishing here? We can’t do anything to them. Can we?”

“Watch and learn, lad!” Sir Stuart called, his teeth bared in a wolfish grin. “On three, be on the truck!”

“What!? Uh, I think—”

“Don’t think,” the shade shouted. “Just do it! Let your instincts guide you! Be on the truck! One, two . . .” The shade’s feet struck the ground hard twice, like a long jumper at the end of his approach. I followed Sir Stuart’s example on little more than reflex.

A sudden memory flashed into my head—a school playground from my childhood, where mock Olympic Games were being run, students competing against one another. The sun was hot above us, making the petroleum smell of warm asphalt rise from the surface of the playground. I had been competing in the running long jump, and it hadn’t been going well. I forget exactly why I was so desperate to win, but I was fixated on it as only a child could be. I remembered willing myself to win, to run faster, to jump farther, as I sprinted down the lane toward the pink-chalk jump line.

It was the first time I used magic.

I had no idea at the time, naturally. But I remembered the feeling of utter elation that flooded through me, along with an invisible force that pushed against my back as I leapt, and for just an instant I thought I had spontaneously learned to fly like Superman.

Reality reasserted itself in rapid order. I fell, out of control, my arms spinning like a windmill. I went down on the blacktop and left generous patches of skin on its surface. I remember how much it hurt—and how I didn’t care because I’d won.

I broke the Iowa state high school long-jump record by more than a foot. It didn’t stick, though. They disqualified me. I hadn’t even gotten serious about puberty yet. Clearly, something irregular had happened, mistakes had been made, and surely the best thing was to ignore the anomalous leap.

It was a vivid recollection, silly and a little sad—and it was my first time.

It was a powerful memory.

“Three!” Sir Stuart cried, and leapt.

So did I, my eyes and will locked on the retreating pickup full of gunmen.

There was a twisting, dizzying sensation that reminded me very strongly of a potion Bob had helped me mix up when I’d tangled with the Shadowman. It was that same experience: a feeling of flying apart into zillions of pieces, rushing forward at a speed too great to be measured, only to abruptly coalesce again.

There was a sudden cold wind against my face and I staggered, nearly falling off the roof of the pickup as it continued to slowly accelerate down the street.

“Holy crap!” I said, as a huge smile stretched my face. “That was cool. First Shadowcat, now Nightcrawler!”

I turned to find Sir Stuart standing on the bed of the truck, looking up at me with a disapproving eyebrow lifted. One of the shooters’ backs was in the same space as the shade’s right leg.

“Doesn’t that hurt?” I asked him, nodding to his leg.

“Hmmm?” Sir Stuart said. He glanced down and saw what I was talking about. “Oh. I suppose, yes. I stopped noticing it after seventy or eighty years. Now. If you don’t mind, Dresden, might we proceed?”

“To do what?” I asked.

“To teach you what are obviously badly needed lessons,” Sir Stuart said, “and to stop these pirates.” He spat the last word with a startling amount of venom.

I frowned and eyed the gunmen, who were all reloading, having emptied their weapons in sheer, nervous excitement. They weren’t particularly good at reloading, either.

“Hell, one man with a handgun could take them all right now,” I said. “Too bad neither of us has one.”

“We cannot touch flesh,” Sir Stuart said. “And while it is possible for a shade to, for example, move an object, it is impractical. With practice, you could push a penny across a table over the course of a couple of minutes.”

“Too bad neither of us has a penny,” I said.

He ignored me entirely. “That’s because we can put forth only minuscule physical force. You couldn’t lift the coin into the air against the pull of gravity.”

I frowned. This sounded a lot like a basic lesson most young wizards received. Most of the time, when you wanted to move something around, you didn’t have the kind of energy you needed stored inside you. That didn’t mean you couldn’t move it, though. It just meant you had to get the energy to do so from another source. “But . . . you can co-opt energy from elsewhere?”

The big man pointed an index finger at me, a smile stretching his mouth. “Excellent. We cannot interact with something being moved by a living creature. We can’t even touch an object that is being carried too closely to a living body. But . . .” He glanced up at me, inviting me to finish the thought.

I blinked twice, mind racing, and said, “Machines. We can work with machines.”

Sir Stuart nodded. “As long as they are in motion. And there is an enormous amount of energy and motion passing through a nonliving, mechanical engine.”

Without another word, he paced forward, through the back wall of the cab, sat on the passenger’s seat, and leaned to his left. I couldn’t see what he was doing, so I dropped to all fours, took a deep breath, and stuck my face through the roof of the cab. It tingled and hurt, but I had literally spent a lifetime learning to cope with pain. I pushed it to the back of my mind, gritted my teeth, and watched.

Sir Stuart had pushed his hand into the steering wheel of the truck. He pushed the other forward, leaning partly through the dashboard to do it, and waited patiently, watching the road ahead of us. It didn’t take long for the truck to hit a hummock in the ice coating the streets, and the truck bounced, shocks squealing. Just as it did, the shade’s eyes fluttered closed, and he gave a peculiar jerking twist of his arm.

The truck’s air bag exploded out of the steering wheel.

It struck the driver, smacking him back into the driver’s seat, and the man panicked. His arms tightened in surprise as he was hit, and he turned the steering wheel several degrees to one side. Then he broke the cardinal rule of driving on ice and stomped his foot on the brake.

The slight turn and the sudden braking motion put the car into a slide. The driver was trying to push the air bag out of his face, and he didn’t compensate and turn into the slide. The slide became a spin.

Sir Stuart watched in satisfaction, looked up at me, and said, “Not much different from spooking a horse, really.”

The gunmen in the back were screaming in confusion as the car spun through three ponderous circles, somehow putting forth the illusion of grace. They bounced off the snow piled high on one side of the street, and then slid into an intersection, up over a sidewalk, and through the front windows of a small grocery store. The sounds of shattering glass and brick, screaming metal crumpling through its zones, and cracking snow and ice were shockingly loud.

The steadily ringing bell of the store’s security alarm sounded like my old Mickey Mouse alarm clock, in comparison.

The gunmen sat there doing nothing for a moment, clearly stunned, but then they began cursing and scrambling to get gone before the cops showed up.

Sir Stuart vanished and reappeared across the street. I made the same effort of will I had while jumping to the truck, reaching back for that memory once more. Again I flew apart and came back together, reappearing standing next to Sir Stuart, facing a brick wall.

“Next time turn around on the way,” he advised.

I snorted and looked back at the gunmen. “What about them?”

“What about them?”

“Can’t we . . . I don’t know, possess them and make them bang their heads into a wall or something?”

Sir Stuart barked out a harsh laugh. “We cannot enter unless the mortal is willing. That is the purview of demons, not shades.”

I scowled. “So . . . what? We stand here and watch them walk?”

He shrugged. “I’m not willing to leave Mortimer alone for so much time. You may also wish to consider, Dresden, that dawn is not far away. It will destroy you if you are not within a sanctum such as Mortimer’s residence.”

I frowned, looking up at the sky. City light had wiped away all but the brightest stars, but the sky to the east held only a hint of blue, low on the horizon. Dawn was hard on spirits and shades and magical spells alike. Not because one is inherently good and one inherently evil, but because dawn is a time of new beginnings, and the light of a new day tends to sweep away the supernatural litter from the day before. For spirit beings to survive sunrise, they had to be in a protected place—a sanctum. My trusty lab assistant, Bob, had a sanctum; in his case, a specially enchanted skull designed to protect him from dawn and daylight and to provide a home. A plain old threshold wouldn’t get it done, although my old apartment had probably qualified as a sanctum, given how many layers and layers of defense I’d put up around it.

But I didn’t have either of those things anymore.

“Go back to Mort,” I said. “It was fun playing Maximum Overdrive with these chowderheads, but that isn’t going to protect the people we care about. I’m going to follow the shooters back to their place and see what I can find out about them.”

Sir Stuart frowned at me and said, “The dawn is not something to take chances with, man. I strongly advise against your doing so.”

“So noted,” I said, “but the only real weapon I have against them is knowledge. Someone needs to get it, and I’m the only one who isn’t susceptible to lead poisoning. I’m the logical choice.”

“Assume you get the information and manage to survive the dawn,” the shade said. “Then what will you do?”

“I give it to Murphy, who uses it to rip the bad guys’ tongues out through their belly buttons.”

Sir Stuart blinked. “That . . . is certainly a vivid image.”

“It’s a gift,” I said modestly.

He shook his head and sighed. “I admire your spirit, man, but this is foolish.”

“Yeah. But I’ve gotta be me,” I said.

Sir Stuart put both hands behind his back and tapped a toe on the ground a few times. Then he gave me a resigned nod. “Good hunting,” he said. “If you have a problem with wraiths again, vanish. They won’t be able to keep up.”

“Thank you,” I said, and offered him my hand.

We traded grips, and he turned on a heel and started marching back toward Murphy’s place.

I watched him for a moment, then turned around and hurried after the snow-blurred forms of the gunmen, wondering exactly how much time I had left before the sunrise obliterated me.

Chapter Thirteen

The bad guys started hoofing it, and I followed them.

“Over here,” said one of them. He was youthfully scrawny, his skin bronze enough to look Native American, though his tangled red hair and pug nose argued otherwise. His eyes were an odd shade of brown, so light as to be nearly golden.

“What, Fitz?” one of the other gunmen said.

“Shut up,” Fitz said. “Give me your piece.”

The other handed over his gun, and Fitz promptly removed the magazine, ejected a round from the chamber, and pitched it into the snowbank, along with the weapon he was carrying.

“What the fuck?” said the disarmed gunman, and struck Fitz lightly in the chest.

Fitz slammed a fist into the other man’s face with speed and violence enough to impress even me—and I’ve seen some fast things in action. The other gunman went to his ass in the snow and sat there, hands lifted to cradle his freshly broken nose.

“No time for stupid,” Fitz said. “Everyone, give me your guns. Or do you want to explain to him why you tried to get us all thrown in jail?”

The others didn’t look happy about it, but they passed over the weapons. Fitz unloaded them and threw them all into the snowbank. Then, at his direction, they started patting snow into the hole the weapons had made, concealing them.

“Stupid, man,” said one of the young men. “One of those wolves gets on our trail, we got nothing to defend ourselves.”

“One of the wolves follows us back, we’ll have the Rag Lady on our asses, and guns will be useless,” Fitz snapped. “Pack it in tighter. Smooth it.” Then he turned to the man he’d struck and piled some of the fresher snow into the man’s hands. “Put that on your nose. Stop it from bleeding. You don’t want to leave any blood behind if you have a choice.”

The seated young man looked frightened, and did as Fitz told him.

“What are we doing?” asked another of the gunmen. He was smaller than the others, and his tone wasn’t challenging—it was a question.

“The truck’s stolen. They can’t trace it to us,” Fitz explained, dusting snow off his hands. “Even if the winter breaks tomorrow, it’ll be days before this melts and they find the weapons. With luck, they’ll never connect the two.”

“That’s long-term,” the little one said. “I sort of want to survive the night.”

Fitz almost smiled. “You want to walk down the streets of fucking Chicago with assault weapons in your hands? We could keep them out of sight in the truck. Not out here.”

The little guy nodded. “I can keep the knife, right?”

“Out of sight,” Fitz said, and lifted his head, listening and frowning. Sirens were a common sound in nighttime Chicago, but they had shifted from background noise to something louder, nearer. “Get moving, people.”

Fitz jammed his hands into the pockets of his rather light coat and started walking. The others hurried to keep up with him.

I walked next to Fitz, studying him. I was more impressed with the young man in the lousy attack’s aftermath than I had been during the drive-by. Any idiot can point a gun and squeeze a trigger. Not everyone can keep themselves calm and rational in the wake of an automobile collision, weigh the liabilities of the situation, and make—and enforce—their decisions in the face of opposition. Though the attack had been amateurish, it had not been stupid, and Fitz’s actions in response to the sudden hitch Sir Stuart had thrown into his plans were probably as ideal as the situation allowed.

Fitz was smart under pressure, he was a natural leader, and I had a bad feeling that he was the sort of person who never made the same mistake twice. He had just done his best to kill several people I cared a great deal for. Brains plus resolve equals dangerous. I’d have to see to it that he was neutralized at the first opportunity.

I followed them through cold I no longer felt and practiced vanishing. I’d jump ahead of them, behind them, onto ledges above them—all the while trying not to notice that the sky was getting lighter.

Something bothered me about the redheaded kid.

With the cops on the way, the store alarm ringing, his associates bleeding and dazed around him . . . why take a few extra, vital seconds to empty the guns? It had cost him about half a minute of time he certainly couldn’t afford to lose. Why do it?

I asked myself why I might do something similar. And the only answer I could come up with involved preventing whoever found the weapons from getting hurt. Fitz was willing to riddle a small Chicago house—and potentially the houses behind it, given the power of the weapons in question—with bullets, but he got all safety conscious when disposing of weapons? It was a contradiction.

Interesting.

Even more interesting was the fact that I’d cared enough to notice. Generally, if someone took a swing at my friends, I’d cheerfully designate him a target and proceed to make his world a noisy and dangerous place until he wasn’t a threat anymore. I didn’t lose a lot of sleep over it, either.

But I couldn’t just throw myself into the fight now, dammit. And, unlike before, those who threatened my friends could not also threaten me. I was safe from Fitz and his crew, unless they planned to keep walking until sunrise, and I was similarly no danger to them. Normally, I’d be fuming at the presence of people who had tried to kill my friends. But now. . .

We were absolutely no threat to one another. That made it sort of hard to keep my inner kettle of outrage bubbling along at maximum boil.

Fitz kept them all moving through the snowbound streets, stopping only once to check on the bleeder’s nose. Packing it in snow had stopped the blood loss, but the young man was disoriented from the wreck and the pain. There were other small injuries among his crew, and he stopped at a little convenience store, emerging with a bottle of water and an economy-sized bottle of painkillers. He passed them off to the short, inquisitive kid, and told him to double-dose everyone—and to keep moving.

It took them most of an hour of steady trudging through the cold to clear Bucktown and head for the South Side. A lot of people think of the South Side as a sort of economic desert crossed with a gang-warfare demilitarized zone. It isn’t like that—or at least, it isn’t like that everywhere. There are neighborhoods you don’t want to walk through wearing certain colors, or being a certain color, but they’re more exception than rule. The rest of the South Side varies pretty widely, with plenty of it zoned for industry, and Fitz and his group of battered pedestrians headed into an area on the fringe of an industrial park to a manufacturing facility that had been closed and abandoned for several years.

It took up a block all by itself, a big building only a couple of stories high that covered acres of ground. The plows had piled snow higher and higher around it, like a fortress wall, with no need to create an opening for the unoccupied building. Fitz and his crew went over the wall of snow at a spot that had evidently been worked with shovels to form narrow, if slippery, stairs. There was a foot and a half of snow covering the building’s parking lot, with a single pathway shoveled out of it. They followed it in single file, to doors that looked as if they’d been solidly chained shut—but Fitz rattled the chains and nudged one of the doors open wide enough for the crew of youngsters, all of them still skinny, to squeeze through.

I went through the doors ghost style and tried to ignore the discomfort, the way Sir Stuart did. It hurt anyway—not enough to make me howl in agony or anything, but way too much to simply lose track of. Maybe it just took time for your “skin” to toughen. At least there hadn’t been a threshold, which would have stopped me cold. This place had never been meant to be anyone’s home, and evidently nobody who lived there thought of it as anything special. The exact process that formed a threshold had never been fully explained or documented, but it might be a good idea for me to get a better idea of the exact why and how, given my circumstances.

“No, it is not a good idea. Focus, Dresden,” I muttered. “The idea is for you to take care of business so you never have to learn all about the environmental factors of long-term ghostosity.”

Fitz stopped long enough to do a head count, out loud, as the ragged troop of would-be gangsters moved deeper into the building. It was an industrial structure and it had been built for economy, not beauty. There weren’t a lot of windows, and it was definitely on the shady side—even with dawn almost here and the lights of the city and sky reflecting from fresh snow. Cold, too, judging from the way the breath was congealing into fog every time the young men exhaled.

Fitz broke out a camping light and flicked it on. It was a red one, and didn’t so much light the way as clarify the difference between utter darkness and not-quite darkness. It was enough for them to move by.

“I wonder,” I mused aloud. After all, I was immaterial. Ghosts and the material universe didn’t seem to have a completely one-way relationship, the way mortals and physics did. I didn’t actually have pupils to dilate anymore. Hell, for that matter, light apparently passed right through me—how else was I invisible to everyone, otherwise? Which meant that, whatever it might seem like, I wasn’t really seeing the world, in the traditional sense. My perceptions were something different, something more than light reflecting onto a chemically sensitive surface in my eyes.

“There’s no real reason I should need the light to see, is there?” I asked myself.

“No,” I said. “No, there isn’t.”

I closed my eyes for a few steps and focused on a simple memory—when, as a kid in a foster home, I’d first found myself in a dark room when a storm knocked out the power. It was a new place, and I had fumbled around blindly, searching for a flashlight or matches or a lighter, or any other source of light, for almost ten minutes before I found something—a decorative snow globe commemorating the Olympics at Lake Placid. A small switch turned on a light that made the red, white, and blue snowflakes drifting in the liquid gleam in sudden brilliance.

The panic in my chest had eased as the room became something I could navigate safely again, my fear fading. I could see.

And when I opened my ghostly eyes, I could see the hallway through which we walked with perfect clarity, as plainly as if the long-dead fluorescents overhead had been humming along at full glow.

A quick, pleased laugh escaped me. Now I could see in the dark. “Just like . . . uhhh . . . I can’t think of an X-Man who I’m sure could see in the dark. Or was that a Nightcrawler thing . . . ? Whatever. It’s still another superpower. There is no spoon. I am completely spoonless over here.”

Fitz stopped in his tracks, turning suddenly, and lifted the camping light in my direction, his eyes wide. He suddenly sucked in a deep breath.

I stopped and blinked at him.

Everyone around Fitz had gone quiet and completely still, reacting to his obvious fear with the instant, instinctive stillness of someone who had good reason to fear predators. Fitz stared down the hall uncertainly, moving the light as if it might help him see a few inches farther.

“Hell’s bells,” I said. “Hey, kid. Can you hear me?”

Fitz reacted, his body twitching a little, his head cocked to one side, then the other, as if trying to trace a faint whisper of sound.

“Fitz?” whispered the little kid with the knife.

“Quiet,” Fitz said, still staring.

I cupped my hands over my mouth and shouted. “Hey! Kid! Can you hear me?”

The color had already drained out of his face, but the second call to him got another reaction. He licked his lips, turned away quickly, and said, “Thought I heard something, that’s all. It’s nothing. Come on.”

Interestinger and interestinger. I stuck my hands in the pockets of my duster and paced along beside Fitz, studying him.

He was maybe an inch under six feet tall, but taller than all the others with him. He couldn’t have been seventeen, but his eyes were decades older. He must have been surviving on his own for a while to have had so much composure at his age. And he’d known at least a little about the way a practitioner could use blood to send all kinds of mischief and mayhem at his enemies.

He had scars at the corner of his left eye, like a boxer—except boxers collected them on both eyes, and they were spread out, scattered around. These were all in a relatively tiny space. Someone right-handed had punched him in the same spot irregularly, repeatedly. I’d seen Fitz’s speed. He hadn’t tried to get out of the way.

Hell’s bells. We’d just been hit by Oliver Twist.

It took Fitz and the gang about five minutes to make it to what had once been a shop floor. It was open to the thirty-foot ceiling. There were skylights—translucent panels on the roof, really—and the place looked like something out of an apocalypse movie.

Equipment sat neglected everywhere. The motorized assembly line was still. Cobwebs stretched out, covering everything, coated in dust. Empty racks and shelves gave no clue as to what was made there, but several steel half barrels were scattered around an open area halfway down the shop floor. They had been filled with flammable scraps, mostly doors, trim, and shelves that must have been scavenged from other parts of the building. Ragged old sleeping bags were scattered among the fire sources, along with trash sacks of what I guessed were meager personal belongings.

One of the low barrels had a metal grate over it—a makeshift grill. There was a man crouched over it. He was thin, practically skeletal, and wore only a pair of close-fitting jeans. His skin was pasty and white. His smooth head was covered with crude-looking tattoos—symbols of protection and concealment from multiple traditions of magical practice, completely encircling his skull. He needed to shave. His patchy beard was growing out in uneven lumps of brown and black and grey.

There were several cans of beans and chili sitting on the grill, presumably being prepared for Fitz’s gang, who looked painfully interested in them. The bald man didn’t give any indication that he knew Fitz had arrived until the group had been standing silently for a full five minutes. Then he asked, “Is it done?”

“No,” Fitz said.

“And where are the guns?”

“We had to ditch them.”

The bald man’s shoulders clenched, suddenly stiff. “Excuse me?”

Fitz lifted a hand to touch his fingertips to his left eye, a gesture that struck me as unconscious, instinctive. He lowered it again quickly.

“There was an accident. The police were coming. We had to walk out and we couldn’t carry the guns with us.”

The bald man stood up and turned to face Fitz. His eyes were dark, deep-set, and burning. “You lost. The guns. The guns I paid so much for.”

“The guns were already lost,” Fitz said, his eyes on the floor. “There wasn’t any sense in all of us going to jail, too.”

The bald man’s eyes blazed and a scream exploded from his chest. There was a horrible, rushing, bass-thrumming sound in the air, and an invisible force struck Fitz full in the chest, knocking him back ten feet before he hit the concrete floor and tumbled another ten.

“Sense?!” the bald man screamed. “Sense? You don’t have any sense! Do you know what the consequences of your idiocy could be? Do you know how many groups precisely like this one have been wiped out by the Fomor? By the Rag Lady? Idiot!”

Fitz lay on the floor, body curled defensively, and didn’t even try to lift his head. He was staying down, hoping not to provoke Baldy any further, his expression resigned to the fact that he was probably going to suffer more pain in short order—and that there was nothing he could do about it.

“It was simple!” Baldy continued, stalking toward the young man. “I gave you a task that men with their veins and noses full of drugs execute routinely. And it proved too great a challenge? Is that what you are telling me?”

Fitz’s voice was too steady to be sincere. He was used to hiding his fear, his vulnerability. “I’m sorry. The Rag Lady was there. We couldn’t have gotten any closer. She’d have taken us. We had to hit them and run.”

Baldy’s rage vanished abruptly. He stared down at the young man with no expression on his face and spoke in a gentle voice. “If there is some reason you believe you should be allowed to keep breathing, you should share it with the class now, Fitz.”

Fitz had a good poker face, but it had been a long night for him. He started breathing jerkily. “The idea wasn’t to kill them, you told me. The idea was to make sure that no one pushes us. That we push back. We showed them that. We accomplished the mission.”

Baldy stared at him and did not move.

I saw a bead of sweat on his brow. “It isn’t . . . It’s not . . . Look, I can get the guns back. I can. I marked where we buried them. I can go get them.”

Baldy glowered down at the young man and kicked him in the belly. The blow was offhand, absentminded, almost an afterthought. He seemed to reach a conclusion, and turned around to go back to the grill.

“Food’s hot, boys,” Baldy said. “Come eat up.”

The gang moved forward nervously. After a moment, Fitz began to rise, being careful to make no sound.

There was a sudden, puffing sigh of displaced air. Baldy’s shape blurred from the grill back over to Fitz, sending one of the young gunmen flying sideways. Baldy was suddenly slamming a hard right to Fitz’s head, his fist moving almost too quickly to see.

The hit sent Fitz to the ground. I was close enough to see the scar tissue around his eye break open, blood trickling rapidly down the young man’s cheek.

“Not you, Fitz,” Baldy said, his voice gentle again. “I don’t give food to dead men. Eat when you have corrected your error.”

Fitz nodded, without looking up, his hand pressed to his head. “Yes, sir.”

“Good lad,” Baldy said. He wrinkled his nose as if there were a mild stench in the air, and spat, mostly on Fitz. Then he turned to walk away.

The kid looked up at Baldy with murder in his eye.

I don’t mean that Fitz looked angry. You hear a lot about “if looks could kill” these days, but there just aren’t many people who really know what it looks like. Killing—or, more accurately, making the choice to kill—isn’t something we’re good at lately. Ending the life of another living creature used to be part of the daily routine. Chickens were beheaded by the average farm wife for dinner. Fish were likewise caught, cleaned, and prepared for a meal. Slaughtering pigs or cattle was a regular event, part of the turning of the seasons. Most people on earth—farmers—worked and lived every single day with lives they knew they were going to choose to end, eventually.

Killing’s messy. It’s frequently ugly. And if something goes wrong, it can be wretched, seeing another being in mortal agony, which means there’s a certain amount of pressure involved in the act. It isn’t easy, and that’s just considering farm animals.

Killing another human being magnifies the worry, the ugliness, and the pressure by orders of magnitude. You don’t make a choice like that lightly. There’s calculation to it, consideration of the possible outcomes. Anyone can kill in a frenzy of fear or hatred—you aren’t making the choice to kill that way. You’re simply giving your emotions control of your actions.

I watched Fitz’s eyes as he calculated, considered, and made his choice. His face went pale, but his jaw was clenched, his eyes steady.

I don’t know what motivated me, exactly, but I leaned down near him and snapped, “Don’t!”

The young man had begun to shift his weight, to get his feet beneath him. He froze in the act.

“He’s expecting it, Fitz,” I said in a harsh, forceful tone. “He spat on you to drive you to it. He’s ready. He’ll kill you before you’ve finished standing up.”

Fitz looked around him, but his gaze went right through me. He couldn’t see me, then. Huh.

“I’ve been where you are, kid. I know this bald loser’s type. Don’t be a sucker. Don’t give him what he wants.”

Fitz closed his eyes very tightly for a moment. Then he exhaled slowly, and his body relaxed.

“Wise,” Baldy said. “Make good on your claim, and we might still have a way to work together, Fitz.”

Fitz swallowed, and grimaced as if at a bitter taste in his mouth, and said, “Yes, sir. I’m going to check the perimeter.”

“An excellent idea,” Baldy said. “I’d rather not see you for a while.” Then he walked away from Fitz, leaning down to touch the shoulder of one of the young men, and muttered softly.

Fitz moved, quickly and quietly, getting off the shop floor and moving out into the hallway. There he hugged himself tightly, shivering, and began walking rapidly down a hallway.

“I’m not crazy,” he said. “I’m not crazy. I’m not crazy.”

“Well . . . kinda,” I said, keeping pace. “What are you doing working for an asshole like that?”

“You aren’t real,” Fitz said.

“The hell I’m not,” I replied. “I just can’t figure out why it is that you can hear me talking.”

“I’m not crazy,” Fitz snarled, and put his hands over his ears.

“I’m pretty sure that won’t help you,” I noted. “I mean, it’s your mind that perceives me. I think you just happen to get it as, uh . . . one of those MV4 things, instead of as a movie.”

“MP3,” Fitz corrected me automatically. Then he jerked his hands from his ears and looked around him, eyes wide. “Uh . . . are you . . . you actually there?”

“I am,” I confirmed. “Though any halfway decent hallucination would tell you that.”

Fitz blinked. “Um. I don’t want to piss you off or anything but . . . what are you?”

“I’m a guy who doesn’t like to see his friends getting shot at, Fitz,” I told him.

Fitz’s steps slowed. He seemed to put his back against a wall out of reflex more than thought. He was very still for a long moment. Then he said, “You’re . . . a, um . . . a spirit?”

“Technically,” I said.

He swallowed. “You work for the Rag Lady.”

Hell’s bells. The kid was terrified of Molly. And I’d known plenty of kids like Fitz when I was growing up in the system. I met them in foster homes, in orphanages, in schools and summer camps. Tough kids, survivors, people who knew that no one was looking out for them except themselves. Not everyone had the same experience in the system, but portions of it were positively Darwinian. It created some hard cases. Fitz was one of them.

People like that aren’t stupid, but they don’t scare easily, either.

Fitz was terrified of Molly.

My stomach quivered in an unpleasant manner.

“No,” I told him. “I don’t work for her. I’m not a servitor.”

He frowned. “Then . . . you work for the ex-cop bi . . . uh, lady?”

“Kid,” I said, “you have no idea who you’re screwing around with. You pointed weapons at the wrong people. I know where you live now. They will, too.”

He went white. “No,” he said. “Look . . . you don’t know what it’s like here. Zero and the others, they can’t help it. He doesn’t let them do anything but what he wants.”

“Baldy, you mean?” I asked.

Fitz let out a strained, half-hysterical bark of laughter. “He calls himself Aristedes. He’s got power.”

“Power to push a bunch of kids around?”

“You don’t know,” Fitz said, speaking quietly. “He tells you to do something and . . . and you do it. It never even occurs to you to do anything else. And . . . and he moves so fast. I’m not . . . I think he might not even be human.”

“He’s human,” I said. “He’s just another asshole.”

A faint, weary spark of humor showed in Fitz’s face. Then he said, “If that’s true, then how does he do it?”

“He’s a sorcerer,” I said. “Middleweight talent with a cult to make him feel bigger. He’s got some form of kinetomancy I’m not familiar with, to move that fast. And some really minor mind mojo, if he’s got to pick kids to do his dirty work for him.”

“You make him sound like a small-time crook . . . like a car thief or something.”

“In the greater scheme, yeah,” I said. “He’s a petty crook. He’s Fagin.”

Fitz frowned. “From . . . from that Dickens book? Uh . . . Oliver Twist?”

I lifted my eyebrows. The kid had read. Serious readers weren’t common in the system. Those who did read mostly seemed to focus on, you know, kids’ books. Not many of them rolled around to Dickens unless they got unlucky in high school English. I would have been willing to bet that Fitz hadn’t made it past his freshman year of high school, at the very most.

He was someone who thought for himself, and he had at least a little bit of magical talent. That probably explained why he’d been put in charge of the other boys. Aside from his evident good sense, his company notwithstanding, the kid had some innate magical talent of his own. Fitz had probably been slowly learning to shake off whatever magic it was that Baldy—Aristedes—used on him. The bad guy operated in a cultleader mind-set. Anyone who wasn’t a slavish follower would be utilized as a handy lieutenant, until such time as they could be disposed of productively—or at least quietly.

I didn’t like Fitz’s chances at all.

“Something like that,” I said.

Fitz leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes. “I didn’t want to hurt anyone,” he said. “I don’t even know any of those people. But he ordered it. And they were all going to do it. And I couldn’t let them just . . . just turn into murderers. They’re the only . . . They’re . . .”

“They’re yours,” I said quietly. “You look out for them.”

“Someone has to,” Fitz said. “Streets weren’t ever easy. About six months ago, though . . . they got hard. Real hard. Things came out. You could see them at night sometimes—shapes. Shadows.” He started shivering, and his voice became a whisper. “They’d take people. People who didn’t have someone to protect them would just vanish. So . . .”

“Baldy,” I said quietly.

“He killed one of them,” Fitz whispered. “Right in front of me. I saw it. It looked human, but when he was done with it . . . It just melted, man.” He shook his head. “Maybe I am crazy. God, it would almost be a relief.”

“You aren’t crazy,” I said. “But you’re in a bad place.”

The light went completely out of the kid’s eyes. “What else is new?”

“Oy,” I muttered. “Like I didn’t have enough to do already.”

“What?”

“Nothing. Look, kid. Go back to the guns at eleven tonight. That street will have gotten quieter by then. I’ll meet you.”

His dull eyes never flickered. “Why?”

“Because I’m going to help you.”

“Crazy, imaginary, invisible-voice hallucination guy,” Fitz said. “He’s going to help me. Yeah, I’ve lost it.”

There was the sudden, burring, metallic buzz of a bell, much like you’d hear in a high school or university hallway. It echoed through the entire building.

“Time for class?” I asked.

“No. Aristedes had us set it up on a timer. Says he needed the warning for his work. It goes off about five minutes before sunrise.”

I felt my back stiffen. “Five minutes?”

Fitz shrugged. “Or seven. Or two. It’s in there somewhere.”

“Hell’s bells,” I said, turning it into a swearword. “Stu was right. Time does get away from you. Be at the guns at eleven, Fitz.”

He grunted and said, in a tired monotone, “Sure, Harvey. Whatever.”

Old books and old movies. I had to help this kid.

I turned away from him and plunged through several walls and out the side of the building, clenching my teeth over snarls of discomfort. The sky had grown almost fully light. Red was swiftly brightening to orange on the eastern horizon out over Lake Michigan. Once yellow got here, I was history.

Five minutes. Or seven. Or two. That was how long I had to find a safe spot. I consulted my mental map of Chicago, looking for the nearest probable shelter, and found the only spot I thought I could get to in a couple of minutes, Nightcrawler impersonation and all.

Maybe I could get there. And maybe it would protect me from the sunrise.

I gritted my teeth, consulted the images in my memory, and, metaphorically speaking, ran for it.

I just had to hope that it wasn’t already too late.

Chapter Fourteen

One of the things a lot of people don’t understand about magic is that the rules of how it works aren’t hard-and-fast; they’re fluid, changing with time, with the seasons, with location, and with the intent of a practitioner. Magic isn’t alive in the sense of a corporeal, sentient being, but it does have a kind of anima all its own. It grows, swells, wanes, and changes.

Some facets of magic are relatively steady, like the way a person with a strong magical talent fouls up technology—but even that relative constant is one that has been slowly changing over the centuries. Three hundred years ago, magical talents screwed up other things—like causing candle flames to burn in strange colors and milk to instantly sour (which had to be hell on any wizard who wanted to bake anything). A couple of hundred years before that, exposure to magic often had odd effects on a person’s skin, creating the famous blemishes that had become known as the devil’s mark.

Centuries from now, who knows? Maybe magic will have the side effect of making you really good-looking and popular with the opposite sex—but I’m not holding my breath.

I mean, you know.

I wouldn’t be. If I still had any.

Anyway, the point is that everyone thinks that the sunrise is all about abolishing evil. It’s the light coming up out of the darkness, right?

Well, yeah. Sometimes. But mostly it’s just sunrise. It’s a part of every day, a steady mark of the passing of whirling objects in the void. Granted, there isn’t much black magic associated with the sun coming over the horizon—in fact, I’ve never even heard of any. But it isn’t a cleansing force of Good and Right.

It is, however, one hell of a cleansing force, generally speaking. Therein lay my problem.

A spirit isn’t meant to be hanging around in the mortal world unless it’s got a body to live in. It’s supposed to be on Carmichael’s El train, I guess, or in Paradise or Hell or Valhalla or something. Spirits are made of energy—they’re made of 99.9 percent pure, delicious, nutritious magic. Accept no substitute.

Spirits and sunrise go together like germs and bleach, respectively. The renewing forces flowing through the world with the new day wash over the planet like a silent, invisible tsunami, a riptide of magic that will inevitably wear away at even the strongest of mortal spells, giving them an effective shelf life if they aren’t maintained.

A wandering spirit, caught out beneath the sunrise, would be dissolved. It isn’t a question of standing in a shady spot, any more than standing in your kitchen would protect you from an oncoming tsunami. You have to get to somewhere that is actually safe, that is somehow shielded, sheltered, or otherwise lifted above the renewing riptide of sunrise.

I was a ghost, after all. So I ran for the one place I thought might shelter me, and that I could reach the quickest.

I ran for my grave.

I have my own grave, headstone already in place, the darned thing all dug out and open, just ready to receive me. It was a present from an enemy who, in retrospect, didn’t seem nearly as scary as she had been at the time. She’d been making a grand gesture in front of the seamier side of the supernatural community at large, delivering me a death threat while simultaneously demonstrating her ability to get me a grave in a boneyard with very exclusive access, convincing its management that it ought to break city ordinances and leave a gaping hole in the earth at the foot of my headstone. I don’t know what she’d bribed or threatened them with, but it had stayed where it was, yawning open in Chicago’s famous Graceland Cemetery, for years.

And maybe it would finally be useful as something other than a set piece for brooding.

I pulled Sir Stuart’s vanishing trick and realized that I couldn’t jump much farther than maybe three hundred yards at a hop. Still, I could do it a lot faster than running, and it didn’t seem to wear me out the way I would expect such a thing to do. It became an exercise like running itself—repeating the same process over and over to go from Point A to Point B.

I blinked through the front gate of Graceland, took a couple more hops, trying to find the right spot by this big Greek temple–looking mausoleum, and arrived, in a baseball player’s slide, at the gaping hole in the ground. My incorporeal body slid neatly over the white snow that ran right up to the edge of the grave, and I dropped into the cool, shady trench that had been prepared for me.

Sunlight washed over the world above a few heartbeats later. I heard it, felt it, the way I had once felt a minor earthquake through the soles of my shoes in Washington State. There was a harsh, clear, silvery note that hung in the air for a moment, like the after-tone of an enormous chime. I closed my eyes and scrunched up against the side of the grave that felt most likely to let me avoid obliteration.

I waited for several seconds.

Nothing happened.

It was dim and cool and quiet in my grave. It was . . . really quite restful. I mean, you see things on television and in movies about someone lying in a coffin or in a grave, and it’s always this hideous, terrifying experience. I’d been to my grave before, and it had disturbed me every time. I guess maybe I was past all that.

Death is only frightening from the near side.

I sat back against the wall of my grave, stretching my legs out ahead of me, leaning my head back against it, and closed my eyes. There was no sound but for a bit of wind in the cemetery’s trees, and the muted ambient music of the living, breathing city. Cars. Horns. Distant music. Sirens. Trains. Construction. A few birds that called Graceland home.

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt so . . .

Peaceful. Content.

And free. Free to do nothing. Free to rest. Free to turn away from horrible, black things in my memory, to let go of burdens for a while.

I left my eyes closed for a time, and let the contentment and the quiet fill me.

“You’re new,” said a quiet, calm voice.

I opened my eyes, vaguely annoyed that my rest had been interrupted after only a few moments—and looked up at a sky with only a hint of blue still in it. Violet twilight was coming on with the night.

I sat up, away from the wall of my grave, startled. What the hell? I’d been resting for only a minute or two. Hadn’t I? I blinked up at the sky several times and pushed myself slowly to my feet. I felt heavy, and it was harder to rise than it should have been, as if I’d been covered in wet, heavy blankets or one of those lead-lined aprons they use around X-ray machines.

“I always like seeing new things being born,” said the voice—a child’s voice. “You can guess what they’re going to become, and then watch and see if it happens.”

My grave was about six feet deep. I’m considerably over six feet tall. As I stood, my eyes were a few inches above the top of half a foot of snow that covered the ground at that spot. So it wasn’t hard to see the little girl.

She might have been six years old and looked small, even for her age. She wore a nineteenth-century outfit, an almost ridiculously frilly, ornate dress for a child who would probably have it splattered with dirt or food within the hour. Her shoes looked handmade and had little buckles on them. Over one shoulder she was carrying a tiny, lacy parasol that matched her dress. She was pretty—like most children—and had blond hair and bright green eyes.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hello,” she said, with a little Shirley Temple curtsy. “It is a pleasure to meet you, the late Mr. Harry Dresden.”

I decided to be careful. What were the odds she was really a little girl, as she appeared? “How did you know my name?”

She folded the little parasol closed and tapped it against the headstone. It was made of white marble. Letters had been inscribed upon it in gold, or at least something goldlike, and it still gleamed despite about a decade of exposure. It had a pentacle inscribed beneath its simple legend: HERE LIES HARRY DRESDEN. Beneath the pentacle, it continued: HE DIED DOING THE RIGHT THING.

For a moment, there was a strange, sweet taste in my mouth, and the scent of pine needles and fresh greenery filled my nose. A frisson rippled up and down my spine, and I shivered. Then the taste and scent were both gone.

“Do you know me?” she asked. “I’m famous.”

I squinted at her for a moment. Then I made an effort of will and vanished from the bottom of the grave, reappearing beside the child. I was facing the wrong direction again, and I sighed as I turned to face her and then glanced around me. In Graceland there’s a statue of a small girl, a child known as Inez. It’s been there for going on two centuries, and every few years stories circulate about how the statue will go missing—and how visitors to the graveyard have reported encounters with a little girl in a period dress.

The statue was gone from its case.

“You’re Inez,” I said. “Famous ghost of Graceland.”

The little girl laughed and clapped her hands. “I have been called so.”

“I heard they debunked you a couple of years ago. That the statue was just there as advertising for some sculptor or something.”

She opened the parasol again and put it over a shoulder, spinning it idly. “Goodness. People confused about things that happened hundreds of years before they were born. Who would have imagined.” She looked me up and down and said, “I like your coat.”

“Thank you,” I said. “I like your parasol.”

She beamed. “You’re so courteous. Sometimes I think I shall never again meet anyone who is properly polite.” She looked at me intently and then said, “I think . . . you shall be”—she pursed her lips, narrowed her eyes, and nodded slowly—“a monster.”

I frowned. “What?”

“All newborn things become something,” said Inez.

“I’m not a newborn.”

“But you are,” she said. She nodded down at my grave. “You have entered a new world. Your old life is no more. You cannot be a part of it any longer. The wide universe stretches before you.” She looked around the cemetery calmly. “I have seen many, many newborns, Mr. Dresden. And I can see what they are going to become. You, young shade, are quite simply a monster.”

“Am not,” I said.

“Not at the moment, perhaps,” she said. “But . . . as time goes by, as those you care about grow old and pass on, as you stand helpless while greater events unfold . . . you will be. Patience.”

“You’re wrong.”

Her dimples deepened. “Why are you so upset, young shade? I really don’t see anything wrong with being a monster.”

“I do,” I said. “The monster part?”

“Oh,” the girl said, shaking her head. “Don’t be so simple. People adore monsters. They fill their songs and stories with them. They define themselves in relation to them. Do you know what a monster is, young shade? Power. Power and choice. Monsters make choices. Monsters shape the world. Monsters force us to become stronger, smarter, better. They sift the weak from the strong and provide a forge for the steeling of souls. Even as we curse monsters, we admire them. Seek to become them, in some ways.” Her eyes became distant. “There are far, far worse things to be than a monster.”

“Monsters hurt people. I don’t.”

Inez burst out in girlish giggles. She turned in a circle, parasol whirling, and in a singsong voice said, “Harry Dresden, hung upon a tree. Afraid to embrace his des-tin-y.” She looked me up and down again, her eyes dancing, and nodded firmly. “Monster. They’ll write books about you.”

I opened my mouth, but no words came out. I didn’t know what to say.

“This little world is so small,” she continued. “So dull. So dreary.” She gave me a warm smile. “You aren’t shackled here, Mr. Dresden. Why remain?”

I shivered. A cold feeling swelled up in the pit of my stomach. It began to spread. I said nothing.

“Ahh,” Inez murmured—a sound of satisfaction. Her eyes went to my gravestone and she tilted her head to one side. “Did you?” she asked brightly.

I shook my head. “Did I what?”

“Did you die doing the right thing?”

I thought about it for a moment. And for a moment more. Then I said, quietly, “I . . . No. I didn’t.”

She tilted her head the other way. “Oh?”

“They had . . . a little girl,” I said quietly. It took me a moment to realize that I was speaking the words out loud and not just hearing them in my head. “They were going to hurt her. And I pulled out all the stops. To get her back. I . . .”

I suddenly felt sick again. My mind flashed back to the image of Susan’s death as her body fought to change into a monstrous form, locking her away forever as a prisoner of her own blood thirst. I felt her fever-hot skin beneath my lips where I had kissed her forehead. And I felt her blood spray as I cut her throat, triggering the spell that wiped out every murdering Red Court son of a bitch on the same planet with my little girl.

It had been the only way. I had no choice.

Didn’t I?

Maybe not at that point. But it was the choices I’d made up until that moment that had shaped the event. I could have done things differently. It might have changed everything. It might have saved Susan’s life.

I shuddered as another memory struck me. Complete, lifeless numbness in my legs. Aching pains of the body. The helpless fury I’d felt when I realized that a fall from a ladder had broken my spine—that I was paralyzed and helpless to do anything for my daughter. I remembered realizing that I was going to have to do something I would never have considered before that point.

“I crossed a line,” I said quietly. “Lines, plural. I did things I shouldn’t have done. It wasn’t right. And I knew it. But . . . I wanted to help the little girl. And I . . .”

“Sinned?” she suggested, her large eyes eerily serene. “Chose the left-hand path? Fell from grace? Cast the world into madness?”

“Whatever,” I said.

“And you think you aren’t a monster.” Calmly, she folded the parasol again and trailed its tip in the snow, humming a quiet little song.

That cold, sick feeling swelled and began to spread even more. I found myself shivering. Dear God, she was right. She was exactly right. I hadn’t meant any of it to hurt anyone, but did that really matter? I had made a decision to do something I knew was wrong. I bargained my life away to Queen Mab, promised her my service and loyalty, though I knew that the darkness of the mantle of the Winter Knight would swallow me, that my talents and strengths could be subsumed into wicked service for the Queen of Air and Darkness.

My little girl’s life had been on the line when I made that choice, when I had acquired power beyond the ken of most mortals.

I thought of the desperation in the eyes of Fitz and his gang. I thought of the petty malice of Baldy and those like him. Of the violence in the streets.

How many other men’s daughters had died because of my choice?

That thought, that truth, hit me like a landslide, a flash of clarity and insight that erased every other thought, the frantic and blurry activity of my recent efforts.

Like it or not, I had embraced the darkness. The fact that I had died before I could have found myself used for destructive purposes meant nothing. I had picked up a red lightsaber. I had joined the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.

I had become what I always fought.

There was no denying it. No chance to correct my mistake. I suddenly wanted, desperately, to simply drop back into the grave and seek out the quiet and peace I had found there. Dammit, but I wanted to rest.

I folded my arms and stared at Inez. My voice came out ragged and harsh. “You aren’t the ghost of a little girl.”

Her little face lit up with another smile. “If I am no ghost, why do you look so haunted?”

And then she was gone. No sound, no flash, no nothing. Just gone.

If I were living, then the headache I felt coming on would be typical of this kind of situation. Cryptic supernatural entities go with the territory in my line of work.

But, man, I hate it when they get in the last word.

“An insufferable entity,” murmured a slow, deep, redolent basso voice behind me. “Her soul is made of crooked lines.”

I stiffened. I hadn’t sensed any kind of presence the way I had with Inez, and I knew exactly what could happen when you let someone sneak up behind you. Even though rule number one for dealing with supernatural beings—never show fear—is simple, it sure as hell isn’t easy. I know the kinds of things that are out there.

I turned, very calmly and slowly, reminding myself that I didn’t have a heart to pound wildly, and that there wasn’t really any sweat on my palms. I didn’t need to shiver from fear any more than I needed to shiver from cold.

My self apparently found its own assurances unreliable. Stupid self.

There was a tall and menacing figure floating in the air behind me, maybe three feet off the ground. It was swathed entirely in a rich cloak of patina, its hood lifted, creating an area of completely black shadow within. You could see the dim suggestion of a face in the blackness. It looked like the old images of the Shadow, who clouded the minds of men. The cloak wavered and billowed slowly in a breeze with the approximate viscosity of a lava lamp.

“Um,” I said. “Hi.”

The figure drifted downward until its feet were resting atop the snow. “Is this preferable?”

“Aren’t we literal?” I said. “Uh, yes. That’s fine.” I peered at it. “You’re . . . Eternal Silence. The statue on Dexter Graves’s monument.”

Eternal Silence just stood there in silence.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” I said. “I guess you aren’t really just a local statue. Are you?”

“Your assumption is correct,” Eternal Silence replied.

I nodded. “What do you want?”

It drifted slowly closer. The deep voice—and this guy made James Earl Jones sound like Mickey Mouse—rumbled out. “You must understand your path.”

“My path.”

“That before you. That behind.”

I sighed. “That’s less than helpful.”

“It is more than necessary,” Eternal Silence said. “It is essential to survival.”

“Survival?” I asked, and I couldn’t help myself. I chuckled. When you’ve faced off with enough Grim Reaper wannabes, it gets kinda routine. “I’m already dead.”

It said nothing.

“Okay,” I said, after a minute. “Survival. Of who?”

It didn’t answer for a long moment, and I shook my head. I began to think that I could probably spend all night talking to every lunatic spirit in this freaking place and never make sense of any of them. And I didn’t have all night to waste.

I had begun to focus my thoughts on another series of Nightcrawler hops, when that deep voice spoke—and this time, it wasn’t something I heard. It just resonated in my head, in my thoughts, a burst of pure meaning that slammed into my head as if inscribed on the front of a cruise missile:

EVERYONE.

I staggered and clutched at my skull with my hands. “Agh!” I stammered. “Hell’s bells! Is it too much to ask you to turn down the volume?”

UNINTENTIONAL. MORTAL FRAILTY. INSUFFICIENT UNDERSTANDING OF VOCALIZATION. PRECONSIDERED VOCABULARY EXHAUSTED.

I actually discorporated at this full-on assault of thought. My freaking spirit body spread out into a giant, puffy cloud of vaguely Dresdencolored mist. And it hurt. I mean, that’s the only word I can think of that really applies. It wasn’t like any kind of pain I’d felt before, and I’m a connoisseur when it comes to pain. It wasn’t pain of the body, the way I had known it. It was more like . . . like the way your head feels when you hear or see an image or concept that flabbergasts you so hard that the only thing you can say about it is, “That is so wrong.”

That. Times a million. And not just in my head, but full body.

It took a full minute for that feeling to fade, and it was only then that I could see myself coming back together again.

“Don’t explain!” I said, almost desperately, when I looked up to see Eternal Silence hovering a little closer to me. “Don’t! That hurt!”

It waited.

“We have to keep this simple,” I stuttered, thinking out loud. “Or you’re going to kill me. Again.” I pressed the heel of my hand against my forehead and said, “I’m going to ask yes or no questions,” I said. “For yes, stay silent. For no, indicate otherwise. Agreed?”

Nothing. Eternal Silence might not have even been there, except that his cloak kept rolling and billowing, lava-lamp fashion.

“Is your cloak red?”

The hood of the cloak twitched left and right, once.

“Fantastic,” I muttered. “Communication.” I mopped at my face with my hands and said, “Okay. When you say everyone, are you talking, like, everyone I know?”

Twitch.

“More than that?”

Silence.

“Um. The whole city?”

Twitch.

“What—more?”

Silence.

“So . . . you mean . . . like . . . everyone-everyone. Everyone. The whole planet.”

Silence.

“And me understanding my freaking path saves them?”

Silence. Twitch.

“Great,” I muttered. “Next you’ll want me to take a pebble out of your hand.”

Twitch.

“I wasn’t being literal. . . . Okay, yeah, you and I aren’t going to communicate well this way.”

Silence. Somehow . . . emphatic.

I stopped and pondered for a moment. Then I said, “Wait. This is connected, isn’t it? With what Captain Murphy sent me to do.”

Silence.

“Find my killer?” I asked him. “I don’t get it. How does finding my killer save the world?”

The deep voice repeated earlier phrases. “You must understand your path. It is more than necessary. It is essential to survival.”

“There’s a little irony in Eternal Silence being stuck on a looping sound bite.” I sighed.

A wraith’s moan drifted into the air, and I tensed, looking around.

One of those ragged-scarecrow shapes was rising from the earth of a grave, like something being hauled up out of deep mud. It moaned in mindless hunger, its eyes vacant.

Then there was another moan. And another. And another.

Wraiths were coming up out of graves all around me.

I started breathing harder, though I didn’t need to. “Yeah, okay, brilliant idea for a safe house, Harry. It’s a freaking graveyard. Where else are ghosts going to be?”

Eternal Silence only stared at me. There was an amused quality to its silence.

“I have to go,” I said. “Is that all you had for me? Understand my path?”

Silence. It lifted a green-shrouded limb in a gesture of farewell.

The first wraith finished with what was evidently its nightly routine of slogging out of the earth and moaning. Its empty eyes turned toward me and it began to drift my way, immaterial toes dangling down through the snow.

“Screw this,” I said, and vanished. One, two, three hops, and I was to the nearest brick wall of the cemetery. I gritted my teeth and plunged into it.

And slammed my face into cold stone.

Pain lanced through my nose, and I snarled at my own stupidity. Dammit, Harry. Walls are built to keep things out—but walls around graveyards are built to keep things in. I’d known that since I was a freaking kid.

I checked behind me. The wraiths were drifting after me in a slow, graceful horde, adding members as they went. They weren’t fast, but there were dozens and dozens of them. Again I was reminded of documentaries I’d seen showing giant clouds of jellyfish.

I gritted my teeth and thought fast. When walls are built, they are intended as physical barriers. As a result of that intention, invested by dozens or scores of builders, they took on a similar solidity when it came to the spiritual, as well. It’s why they held most ghosts inside graveyards—and it probably had something to do with the way a threshold formed around a home, too.

But where human intention had created a barrier, that same intention had also created an access point.

I turned and began vanishing in a line, straight for the gates of the boneyard.

I don’t know what I would have done if they had been closed. Shut gates and shut doors carry their own investment of intention, just as the walls do. But open gates are another matter entirely, and the gates of Graceland stood wide-open. As I went through them, I looked back at what seemed like a modest-sized army of wraiths heading for the opening.

I had a lightbulb moment.

The gates of the cemetery were being left open.

And hordes of wraiths haunted the streets of Chicago by night lately.

“Aha, Morty,” I said. “And now we know where they’re coming from.”

Someone, someone alive, was opening those gates at night. That meant that we had a place to begin, a trail we could attempt to follow to find out who was stirring up the city’s spooks to use against Morty—and why.

I had information. I had something to trade Mort for his ongoing help.

I suddenly felt like an investigator again.

“Hot diggity dog,” I said, grinning. “The game’s a-freaking-foot!”

Chapter Fifteen

I revved up the memory and started jumping. It was a quick way to travel in the city—the ability to go over buildings and ignore traffic signals, one-way streets, and cars was a real plus. It didn’t take me long to get to Mortimer’s house.

It was on fire.

There were fire trucks there, lights blazing. The firemen were moving quickly, professionally, but though the house was well ablaze, they had only one hose up and running. As I stood there, staring, two more started up, but I knew it was a lost cause. Morty’s place was burning even more swiftly and brightly than mine had. Or maybe the dark was just making it look that way.

A cop or two showed up as the firemen kept the blaze from spreading to the houses around it—not hard, given the snow on the ground. Blue lights from the bubbles on the cop cars joined the red and yellow of the CFD. People stood around watching the fire—in my experience, they often do.

Of course . . . they didn’t usually do it out in the cold. And they didn’t usually do it in six inches of snow. And they tended to wander off when the fire began to subside. And talk. And blink. And their clothing is generally from the current century.

The crowd of onlooking Chicago civilians were ghosts.

I walked among them, looking at faces. They were much like any other group of folks, apart from the period outfits. I recognized a few from Sir Stuart’s home-defense brigade—but only a few, and they were the more recent shades. The rest were just . . . people. Men, women, and children.

A boy maybe ten years old was the only shade who seemed to notice me. Beside him stood a girl, who must have been about seven when she died. They were holding hands. He looked up at me as I passed by, and I stopped to stare down at him.

“Where do we go now?” he asked. “I don’t know another place to go.”

“Um,” I said. “I don’t know, either. Hey, did you see what happened?”

“It came back again tonight. Then men came with fire. They burned the house. They took the little man away.”

I stiffened. “The Grey Ghost took Mort?”

“No, men took him,” the boy said.

The girl said, in a soft little voice, “We used to play with other children by the river. But he brought us here. He was always nice to us.” Her facial expression never changed. It was flat, empty.

The boy sighed, touched the little girl’s shoulder, and turned back to stare at the dwindling flames. I stood there watching them for a moment, and could see them growing more visibly transparent. I checked the other shades. It was happening to them, too, to a greater or lesser degree.

“Hey,” I said, to the boy. “Do you know Sir Stuart?”

“The big man. The soldier,” the boy said, nodding. “He’s in the garden. Behind the house.”

“Thank you,” I said, and went to look, vanishing to the side of Mort’s house and then jumping again, to the garden.

Mort’s backyard was like his front—sculpted, carefully maintained, decorated with Japanese sensibilities, spare and elegant. There was what looked like a koi pond, now filled with snow. There were trees, and more of the little bonsai pieces, delicate and somehow vulnerable. The fire had been close enough and hot enough to melt any coating of snow from their little branches.

What was left of Sir Stuart lay in a circle in the snow.

They’d used fire.

A perfect circle was melted in the show, out toward the back of the yard. They’d used gasoline, it looked like—the snow was melted down all the way to the scorched grass. Alcohol burns about three times as hot as gas, and faster, and it melts the snow fast enough for water to drown the flame. Someone had used the fire as part of a circle trap—pretty standard for dealing with spirits and other heavily supernatural entities. Once trapped in a circle, a spirit was effectively helpless; unable to leave, and unable to exercise power through its barrier.

The devilish part of the trap was the fire. Fire’s real, even to spirits, and brings pain to the immaterial as fast as it does to flesh-and-blood creatures. That’s one huge reason I always used fire in my mortal career. Fire burns, period. Even practically invulnerable things don’t like dealing with fire.

There was maybe half of Sir Stuart left. Most of his upper body was there and part of his right arm. His legs were mostly gone. There wasn’t any blood. What was left of him looked like a roll of papers rescued from a fire. The edges were blackened and crumbling slowly away.

The horrible part was that I knew he was still alive, or what passed for being alive among ghosts. Otherwise, he would simply be gone.

Did he feel pain? I knew that if I were in his condition, I would. Sure, maybe I knew that there was no spoon, but when it came down to it, I wasn’t sure I could deny that much apparent reality. Or maybe the memory of pain wasn’t an issue. Maybe the weird form of pain Eternal Silence had showed me had some sort of spiritual analogue. Or maybe, fire being fire, he was just in very real, very familiar agony.

I shuddered. Not that I could do anything about it. The circle that trapped him would keep me out as easily as it kept him in. In theory, I could take it down, but only if I could physically move something across it to break its continuity. I looked around quickly and spotted a twig standing out of the snow a few feet away. All I would need to do was move it about three feet.

It was like trying to eat broth with a fork. I just couldn’t get hold of the stick. My hand went through it time and time again, no matter what I tried. I couldn’t even get the damned thing to wiggle.

I wasn’t ghost enough to help Sir Stuart. Not like that, anyway.

“Sir Stuart?” I asked quietly.

I could see only one of his eyes. It half opened. “Hmmmm?”

I squatted down on my heels next to the circle. “It’s Harry Dresden.”

“Dresden,” he slurred, and his mouth turned up in a faint smile. “Pardon me if I don’t rise. Perhaps it was something I ate.”

“Of course,” I said. “What happened?”

“I was a fool,” he said. “Our attacker came at the same time every night. I made the mistake of assuming that was true because it was as soon as the attacker could assemble his forces.”

“The Grey Ghost,” I said.

Sir Stuart grunted. “Arrived at dusk, sooner than I would have dared the open air. No mob of spirits this time. It came with half a dozen mortals and they set the house on fire. I was able to get Mortimer out of the house in time, but they’d set a trap for me in the backyard.” One hand gestured at the circle within which he lay. “He was taken at the command of the Grey Ghost.”

I frowned. “These mortals. They could hear the Grey Ghost?”

“Aye,” Sir Stuart said.

“Stars and stones,” I growled. “I could barely get two people in Chicago to hear me. This joker has half a dozen? How?”

Sir Stuart shook his head faintly. “Would that I knew.”

“We’ll find Morty,” I said. “Let me figure out how to get you out of there, and then we’ll go find him.”

He opened his eyes fully and focused on me for the first time. “No,” he said in a gentle voice. “I won’t.”

“Come on,” I said. “Don’t talk like that. We’ll get you patched up.”

Sir Stuart let out a small laugh. “Nay, wizard. Too much of me has been lost. I’ve only held together this long so that I could speak to you.”

“What happened to our world being mutable in time with our expectations? Isn’t that still true?”

“To a degree,” Sir Stuart said affably, weakly. “I’ve been injured before. Small hurts are restored simply enough.” He gestured at his broken body. “But this? I’ll be like the others when I restore myself.”

“The others?”

“The warriors who defended Mortimer’s home,” he said. “They faded over time. Forgetting, little by little, about their mortal lives.”

I thought about the soldiers I’d seen battling the enemy shades and wraiths—silent, severe, seemingly disconnected from the world around them. They’d fought loyally and ably enough. But I was willing to bet that they couldn’t remember why they did so or who they were fighting.

I imagined Sir Stuart like the rest of them—a translucent outline, his empty eyes focused on something else entirely. Always faithful. Always silent.

I shivered.

It could happen to me, too.

“Listen to me, boy,” Sir Stuart said. “We didn’t trust you. We assumed you were mixed up in whatever it is the Grey Ghost wanted.”

“Like hell,” I said.

“You don’t know that,” Sir Stuart said flatly. “For all we knew, you could have been directed by that creature without your own knowledge. For that matter, you don’t have the feel of a normal ghost. It could have created you whole from the spirit world.”

I scowled and began to argue—and couldn’t. I’ve been faced with the odd and unusual and had drawn incorrect conclusions too many times. When people are scared, they don’t think straight. Mort had been terrified.

“Do you still think that?” I asked.

“No reason for you to be here if you were,” Sir Stuart said. “The worst has happened. Were you a plant, you would not have come. Though I suppose you might still be a dupe.”

“Thanks,” I said wryly.

He softened the words with another smile. “But dupe or not, it may be that ye can help Mortimer. And it is critical that you do so. Without his influence, this city will be in terrible danger.”

“Yeah, you aren’t exactly increasing the tension by telling me that,” I said. “We’re already sort of playing for maximum stakes.”

“I know not what you mean,” Sir Stuart replied. “But I tell you this: Those shades standing around the house, one and all, are murderers.”

I blinked and looked back at the still-smoldering house and at the enormous circle of spirits around it.

“Each and every one of them,” Sir Stuart said. “Mortimer gave them something they needed to turn aside from their madness: a home. If you do not restore him to freedom so that he may care for these poor souls, they will kill again. As sure as the sun rises, they won’t be able to help themselves.” He exhaled wearily and closed his eyes. “Fifty years of maddened shades unleashed upon the city all at once. Preying on mortals. Blood will run in buckets.”

I stared at him for a moment. Then I said, “How am I supposed to do that?”

“I’ve not the foggiest,” Sir Stuart replied. He fumbled at his belt and drew that monster pistol. He paused for a moment, grimacing. Then he tossed it weakly at my feet. It tumbled through the circle with a flicker of energies and landed atop the snow without sinking into it—the apparition of a weapon.

I stared for a second. A spirit couldn’t project its power across a circle—and I was sure that power was exactly what the gun represented. So if it had crossed the circle’s barrier, it meant that it was power that no longer belonged to Sir Stuart. On several levels, what he had just done was a violent act of self-mutilation—like chopping off your own hand.

He gestured weakly toward the gun, and said, “Take it.”

I picked it up gingerly. It weighed a ton. “What am I going to do with this?”

“Help Mortimer,” he replied. His shape began to flicker and fade at the edges. “I’m sorry. That I couldn’t do more. Couldn’t teach you more.” He opened his eyes again and leaned toward me, his expression intent. “Memories, Dresden. They’re power. They’re weapons. Make from your memory a weapon against them.” His voice lost its strength and his eyes sagged closed. “Three centuries of playing guardian . . . but I’ve failed my trust. Redeem my promise. Please. Help Mortimer.”

“Yes,” I said quietly. “I will.”

That faint smile appeared again, and Sir Stuart nodded once. Then he let out his breath in a sigh. He faded even more, and as I watched, his limbs simply renewed themselves, appearing as his shape became more translucent. The damage reversed itself before my eyes.

A moment later, he sat up. He looked around, his gaze passing right through me. Then he paused and stared at the ruined house, his brow furrowed in puzzled concentration—an expression mirrored on the faces of most of the spirits present.

Sir Stuart was nowhere to be seen in the shade’s hollow eyes.

I bowed my head and clenched my teeth, cursing. I had liked the guy. Just like I had liked Morty, whatever insults I may have offered him. I was angry about what had happened to him. And I was angry about the position he had put me in. Now I was the one responsible for somehow finding and helping Morty, when I could barely communicate with anyone without him. All while the bad guy, whatever the hell it was, apparently got to chat it up with its own flunkies at will.

I couldn’t touch anything. I couldn’t make anything happen. My magic was gone. And now not only was I to track down my own murderer, but I had to rescue Mort Lindquist, as well.

Fabulous. Maybe I should make it my new slogan: Harry Dresden—I take responsibility for more impossible situations in the first twenty-four hours of being dead than most people do all day.

More snow was beginning to fall. Eventually, it would break the circle that had trapped what was left of Sir Stuart. Though I didn’t know where he would go to take shelter from the sunrise. Maybe he would just know, the way I had seemed to—some kind of postdeath survival instinct. Or maybe he wouldn’t.

Either way, it didn’t seem like there was much I could do about it, and I hated that fact with a burning passion. Sir Stuart and the other spirits needed Morty Lindquist. Before I died, I might have been Harry Dresden, wizard at large. Now I was Harry Dresden, immaterial messenger boy, persuader, and wheedler.

I desperately wanted to blow something into tiny, tiny pieces—and then disintegrate the pieces.

All things considered, it was probably not the best frame of mind in which to handle a confrontation in a rational, diplomatic manner.

“Ah,” said a whispery, oily voice behind me. “She was right. The tall one returns.”

“Look at him,” said another voice, higher-pitched and inhuman. “He will make such a meal.”

“Our orders are—”

“Orders,” said a third voice, filled with scorn. “She is not here. We shall share him, the three of us, and none shall be the wiser.”

“Agreed,” said the second voice eagerly.

After a pause, the first voice said, “Agreed.”

I turned and saw three of the dark-robed forms from the night before during the attack on Casa Lindquist. Lemurs. Their clothing stirred with lazy, aquatic fluidity at the touch of an immaterial wind. From this close, I could see the faint images of pale faces inside their hoods, and the sheen of gleaming, hungry eyes.

“Take him!” said the first lemur.

And three of the hungriest old ghosts of Chicago blurred toward the new guy.

Chapter Sixteen

The lemurs pounced, and I vanished, straight up.

I stood in empty air a hundred feet above them, furious, and called down, “You mooks picked a really lousy time to start up with me!”

Hooded heads searched upward, but I was an indistinct shape in a darkened sky already blurred by snow, while they were sharp outlines against a field of white.

I started throwing a punch, vanished again, and reappeared right behind lemur number one. My fist drove into the base of his neck just as I shouted, “BAMF!”

There isn’t much honor in a rabbit punch, but it’s a pretty darned good way to down an opponent. Whatever rules governed the world of spirit, there must have been some kind of analogue to a human nervous system. The lemur let out a choking gasp and fell to the ground as the other two panicked at the sudden assault and vanished. I kicked the downed guy in the head and neck a few times to help him on his way to Analogue-Concussion Land, screaming in pure and incoherent rage all the while.

I had a fraction of a second’s warning, a cold breath on the back of my neck, a rippling wave of ethereal pressure against my back. I vanished, to reappear five feet behind my original position—and this time, I meant to be facing the same way when I arrived.

I got there in time to see one of the other lemurs swing a freaking hatchet at the space my skull had recently vacated. He stumbled, off balance from the miss, and I kicked his ass—literally. I leaned my upper body back a bit and pretended I was using my heel to stomp an aluminum can flat. It’s a powerful kick, especially with my full body weight behind it, and the lemur flew forward and into the snow.

“Who’s the man?!” I screamed at the sprawled lemurs, fear and anger and excitement pitching my voice about an octave higher than usual. “Who’s the man?!”

The hood had fallen from the face of the second, and an unremarkable man of middle age goggled at me in complete incomprehension—which made sense. Who knew how many decades of pop culture the lemurs had missed out on. They’d probably never even heard of Will Smith.

“I am completely unappreciated in my time,” I muttered.

I am also, apparently, no wizard when it comes to simple mathematics: While I was Will Smithing, lemur number three appeared out of nowhere and smashed a baseball bat against the side of my neck.

The pain was something incredible—more than merely the reaction of physical trauma that I would have expected from such a blow. It also encompassed an almost Olympian sense of nausea combined with a force-five storm of whirling confusion. I felt myself note idly that I guessed egos literally could be bruised. It took me another second or two after that to realize that I was floating, drifting sideways and slightly upward, my body at a forty-five-degree diagonal to the ground. There was a roaring sound in my head. An eerie cry of triumph and hunger pealed through the night.

Then the lemurs came for me.

I felt bitterly cold fingers seize me, clamping down like steel claws. I was hauled out to horizontal by frigid, steely hands. I was still disoriented—I was barely able to turn my head enough to see the third lemur approach.

Her hood had fallen back. She was a young woman of unexceptional appearance, neither beautiful nor displeasing. Her eyes, though, were dark and hollow, and a hideous emptiness lay behind them. She stared intently at me for a long beat, her body quivering in some kind of dark rapture.

Then she let out a slow hiss, sank her fingers into the flesh of my left biceps, and ripped off a handful of meat.

Ectoplasmic blood flew. My blood. It scattered through the air in lazy globules that, once they were a few feet from me, fell like raindrops to the surface of the snow.

It hurt. I screamed.

All three lemurs screamed with me, as if triggered into a response by my own cries. The female lemur lifted the gobbet of flesh aloft in triumph, then held it over her open mouth and squeezed. More blood pattered out onto her lips and tongue, and she let out a gasp of unadulterated ecstasy before shoving the raw flesh into her mouth as though she hadn’t eaten in weeks.

Her eyes rolled back into her head. She shuddered. “Oh,” she breathed. “Pain. He’s felt so much pain. And rage. And joy. Oh, this one lived.”

“Here,” said the second lemur. “Come take his legs. My turn.”

The female bared her bloodied teeth at him and tore another, smaller piece from my arm. She snapped it up and then leaned on my legs, pinning them. The second lemur looked me over like a man perusing a side of beef. Then he ripped a handful of flesh from my right thigh.

It went like that for several minutes, with the three of them taking turns ripping meat from my body.

I won’t bore you with the details. I don’t like to think about it. They were stronger than me, better than me, more experienced than me when it came to spiritual conflict.

They got me. The monsters got me. And it hurt.

Until footsteps crunched toward us through the snow.

The lemurs never took notice. I was in too much agony to care very much, but I wasn’t exactly busy, either. I looked up and saw a lone figure slogging my way through the thick snow. He wasn’t very big, and he was dressed in a white parka and white ski pants, with one of those ninja capmask things, also white, covering his face. In his right hand he carried a big, old-style, heavy, portable spotlight, the kind with a plastic carrying handle on top. Its twin incandescent bulbs shone a garish orange over the snow.

I sniggered to myself. He was a person. He sank into the snow with every step. He wouldn’t be able to see what was happening right in front of him. No wonder the lemurs paid him no mind.

But ten feet away from me, he abruptly froze in his tracks and blurted, “Holy crap!”

He reached up and ripped off the ninja hood, revealing the thin, fine features of a man of somewhere near forty. His hair was dark, curly, and mussed from the hood; he had glasses perched askew on his beak of a nose; and his dark eyes were wide with shock. “Harry!”

I stared at him and said, through the blood, “Butters?”

“Stop them,” Butters hissed. “Save him! I release you for this task!”

“On it, sahib!” shouted another voice.

A cloud of campfire sparks poured out of the two sources of light in the spotlight, rushing out by the millions, and congealed into a massive, manlike shape. It let out a lion’s roar and blurred toward the lemurs.

Two of them were sharp enough to realize something dangerous was coming, and they promptly vanished. The third, the young woman, was in the middle of another bite—and she didn’t look up until it was too late.

The light form hit the lemur and simply disintegrated it. As I watched, skin and clothing and flesh were ripped away from the evil spirit, as swiftly and savagely as if peeled off with a sandblaster. A heartbeat later, there was nothing left but a gently drifting cloud of sparks, speckled here and there with the floating shapes of somewhat larger, prismatic gemstones.

The light being looked up and then promptly split into two parts, each one becoming a comet that hurtled into the night sky. There was an explosion almost at once—and the raining bits and pieces of a second lemur came drifting lazily down through the night air, along with more multicolored gems.

There was a terrible howling sound in the night sky above. I heard the flap of heavy robes snapping with rapid motion. The second comet of light darted back and forth, evidently engaged in some kind of aerial combat, and then lemur and comet both came hurtling back down. They struck earth with a thunder that shook the ground while leaving the snow untouched.

The orange lights flowed together into a manlike shape again, this time straddling the lemur’s prone form. The being of light rained blows down on the lemur’s head, over and over, striking with the speed and power of a motor’s pistons. Within ten or twelve seconds, the head of the lemur had been crushed into ectoplasmic guck, and his sparkles of light—his memories—and the same odd, tiny gems began to well up from his broken form.

The light being rose from the form of the fallen lemur and scanned the area around us, his featureless face turning in a slow, alert scan.

“What the hell!” Butters said, his eyes wide. “I mean, what the hell was that, man?”

“Relax, sahib,” said a young man’s voice. It was coming from the fiery figure, which nodded and made hand-dusting motions of unmistakable satisfaction. “Just taking out the trash. Scum like that are all over these old mortal cities. Part of the posthuman condition, you might say.”

I just watched. I didn’t feel like doing anything else.

“Yeah, yeah,” Butters said. “But he’s safe now?”

“For now,” the being said, “and as far as I know.”

Butters crunched through the snow and stared down at me. The little guy was one of Chicago’s small number of medical examiners, a forensic investigator who analyzed corpses and found out all sorts of details about them. A few years ago, he’d analyzed corpses of vampires that had burned to death in a big fire someone started. He’d asserted that they obviously were not human. He’d been packed off to an institution for half a year in response. Now he treaded carefully in his career—or at least he had when I was last alive.

“Is it really him?” Butters asked.

The being of light scanned me with unseen eyes. “I can’t spot anything that would suggest he was anything else,” he said cautiously. “Which ain’t the same as saying it’s Harry’s ghost. It has . . . more something than other ghosts I’ve encountered.”

Butters frowned. “More what?”

“Something,” the being said. “Meaning I’m not sure what. Something I’m not expert in, clearly.”

“The, uh, the ghost,” Butters said. “It’s hurt?”

“Quite severely,” the being said. “But it’s easily mended—if you wish to do it.”

Butters blinked at him. “What? Yes, yes, of course I wish it.”

“Very good, sahib,” the being said. And then it whipped and darted through the night air, gathering up all the floating, glittering gems from the vanishing remains of the lemurs. It brought them together into a single mass and then knelt down next to my head.

“Bob,” I said quietly.

Bob the Skull, formerly my personal assistant and confidant, hesitated beside me as I said his name. Once again, I became aware of his intense regard, but if he saw anything, it didn’t register on his featureless face.

“Harry,” he said. “Open up. You need to restore these memories to your essence.”

“Restore what?” I asked.

“Eat ’em,” Bob said firmly. “Open your mouth.”

I was tired and confused, so it was easier to just do as he said. I closed my eyes as he dropped the mass of gems into my open mouth. But instead of feeling hard gems, fresh, cool water flowed into my mouth, swirling over my parched tongue and throat as I eagerly swallowed it down.

Pain vanished instantly. The disorientation began to fade and disappear. My confusion and weariness followed those others within a moment, and a deep breath later, I was sitting up in place, feeling more or less as sane and together as I had been when I had woken up that evening.

Bob offered me a hand and I took it. He pulled me to my feet as if I’d weighed less than nothing. “Well,” he said. “At least you don’t seem to be a bad copy. I was half-afraid you’d be some kind of demented Winter Knight wannabe with an eye patch and a goatee or something.”

“Um,” I said. “Thank you?”

“De nada,” Bob said.

“Bob,” Butters said in a firm voice. “You’ve fulfilled your task.” Bob the Skull sighed and turned to bow in a florid gesture of courtesy toward Butters, before dissolving into a cloud of orange sparks again and flowing back toward the flashlight. I saw then that the spotlight casing hadn’t contained lightbulbs and batteries and such—just Bob’s skull, a human-bone artifact of a long-dead enchanter who had built it as a haven that could harbor the essence of a spiritual being.

“Hey, Bob,” I said. “Could you relay my voice to Butters?”

“Don’t have to, former boss,” Bob said cheerfully. “On account of the fact that Butters is a whole heck of a lot more talented at magical theory than you.”

I frowned. “What?”

“Oh, he doesn’t have a lick of magical talent,” Bob assured me. “But he’s got a brain, which, let’s face it, hasn’t always been your most salient feature.”

“Bob,” Butters said in a scolding tone. Then he fumbled in his parka’s pocket and produced a small, old radio. “Here, see? I had Bob go over your notes from the Nightmare case, Harry. Bob said you created a radio that he could communicate through. So . . .”

I refrained from hitting my own head with the heel of my hand, but just barely. “So it wasn’t much of a trick to turn it into a baby monitor. You just needed an old crystal radio.”

Butters listened with his head tilted toward the radio and nodded. “I explained the concept to Molly this morning and she put it together in an hour.” He waved the spotlight housing Bob’s skull. “And I can see spooks by the light of the spirit’s form. So I can see and hear you. Hi!”

I stared at the skinny man and didn’t know if I wanted to break out into laughter or wild sobs. “Butters . . . you . . . you figured this all out on your own?”

“Well . . . no. I mean, I had a tutor.” He bobbled the spotlight meaningfully.

“Ack! Don’t make me puke,” Bob warned him. “You won’t like me when I puke.”

“Hush, Bob,” said Butters and I in exactly the same tone at exactly the same time.

We both turned to eye each other for a moment. He might have tucked the skull close to his side in a protective gesture of possession.

“You shouldn’t stay here, with all the official types around,” I said.

“Just thinking the same thing,” Butters said. “Come with me?”

“Sure,” I said. “Uh. Where?”

“Headquarters,” he said.

From Butters’s other pocket, there was a hiss and a squawk from what proved to be a long-range walkie-talkie. He picked it up, looked at something on its little display, and said, “Eyes here.”

“We’ve got nothing at his old place,” said Murphy’s tired voice. “What about you, Eyes?”

“He’s standing right here talking to me,” Butters said, and not without a trace of pride.

It looked good on him.

“Outstanding, Eyes,” Murphy said, her voice brightening with genuine pleasure. “I’m sending you some shadows. Bring him in right away.”

“Wilco,” Butters said. “Out.” He put the radio away, beaming to himself.

“Eyes?” I asked him.

“Daniel kind of gave me the nickname,” he said. “They kept putting me on watch, and he wanted to know why they kept making the foureyed guy our lookout. It stuck as my handle.”

“Except we have six eyes,” Bob the Skull said. “I tried to get him to get me a pair of glasses, and then we’d have eight. Like spiders.”

I nodded, suddenly understanding. “You still work for the morgue.”

Butters smiled. “There are plenty of people listening to our transmissions. Murphy wouldn’t let me use my name.”

“Murphy is smart,” I said.

“Extremely,” Butters said, nodding agreement.

“She gave Bob to you?”

“She did,” he said. “You being dead and all. She wanted to keep it need-to-know.”

“It doesn’t upset me,” I said, even though it sort of did. “I entrusted those things to her judgment.”

“Oh, hey, great segue. Speaking of judgment, you’d better come with me.”

“I can do that,” I said, and fell into pace beside him. “Where are we going?”

“The Batcave,” he said. “Headquarters.”

“Headquarters of what?” I asked.

He blinked at me. “The Alliance, of course. The Chicago Alliance.”

I lifted my eyebrows. “What Chicago Alliance?”

“The one he organized to help defend the city from the Fomor,” Butters replied.

“He?” I asked. “Fomor? What he? He who?”

“I’m sorry, Harry,” he said. He bit his lip and looked down. “I figured you knew . . . Marcone. Baron John Marcone.”

Chapter Seventeen

I found Stu’s pistol on the ground where I’d dropped it during the struggle. Then I followed Butters to his car—an old Plymouth Road Runner. It looked almost worse than my old VW Beetle had the last time I’d seen it. Dents and dings covered its all-steel frame, and some of them looked suspiciously like they’d been raked into the metal with a two-pronged claw—but its engine throbbed with impressive, harmonious power. Its license plates read: MEEPMEEP.

“I kinda traded in my old one,” Butters told me as I got in, going straight through the door. I didn’t make any noise about the discomfort. Not in front of Butters. It would totally blow my ghostly cool.

“For another old one,” I said. My voice issued out of the radio he slipped into a clip attached to the car’s sun visor.

“I like steel better than fiberglass,” he said. “The Fomor and the faeries are apparently related. Neither one of them likes the touch of any metal with iron in it.”

Bob’s skull rested in a container that had been custom mounted on the Road Runner’s dash—a wooden frame set on a plate that made the skull wobble back and forth like a bobblehead doll. “Lot of interbreeding there,” Bob said. “Back in the old, old, old days. Before the Sidhe Wars.”

I lifted my eyebrows. “I haven’t heard much about it.”

“Crazy stuff,” Bob said with tremendous enthusiasm. “Even before my time, but I’ve heard all kinds of stories. The Daoine Sidhe, the Tuatha, the Fomor, the Tylwyth Teg, the Shen. Epic alliances, epic betrayals, epic battles, epic weddings, epic sex—”

“Epic sex?” I sputtered. “By what standards, precisely, is sex judged to be epic?”

“And tons and tons of mortal simps like you used as pawns.” Bob sighed happily, ignoring my question. “There are no words. It was like The Lord of the Rings and All My Children made a baby with the Macho Man Randy Savage and a Whac-A-Mole machine.”

Butters sputtered at that image.

But . . . I mean, Hell’s bells. Who wouldn’t?

“Anyway,” he choked out a moment later, “the Fomor have a lot of faerie blood in their makeup. I like having Detroit steel around me when I drive.”

“Murphy said something about the Fomor last night,” I said. “I take it they’ve been moving in on the town?”

His face grew more remote. “Big-time. I’ve been busy.” He exhaled a slow breath. “Um. Look, man. It’s really you?”

“What’s left of me,” I said tiredly. “Yeah.”

He nodded. “Um. There’s a problem with Molly.”

“I saw,” I said.

“You didn’t see,” he said. “I mean, I heard that Murphy told you she was a couple bubbles off plumb last night, but there’s more than that.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“Seventeen people murdered in the past three months,” he replied in a steady voice.

I didn’t say anything for a couple of blocks. Then I said, “Who?”

“Scum,” he said candidly. “Mostly. A cop who was maybe raping a prostitute. Petty criminals. Muggers. She doesn’t even try to avoid being seen. She’s gone totally Dark Knight. Witnesses left and right have reported a tall woman dressed in layers and layers of ragged, cast-off clothing. Took the papers about two weeks to name her the Rag Lady. People call her various versions, to make fun, to show her they aren’t afraid, but . . .”

“A lot of people get killed in this town,” I said. “Doesn’t mean it’s Molly.”

“Harry . . .” Butters stopped at a light and gave me a direct look. “I’ve examined twelve of the victims. Different manner of death for each of them, but I found them all with a scrap of torn cloth stuffed in their mouths.”

“So?” I demanded.

“I matched the cloth. It’s the same as what was left of the clothes you wore to Chichén Itzá. They had some of it in evidence when they investigated the scene of your . . . your murder. Only someone got in there without being seen by anyone or any camera, and took it right out.”

Memory flashed at me, hard. The silent stone ziggurats in the night. The hiss and rasp of inhuman voices. The stale, reptilian scent of vampires. My faerie godmother (yes, I’m serious. I have one, and she is freaking terrifying) had transformed my clothes into protective armor that had probably saved my life half a dozen times that night without my even being aware of it. When they had turned back into my coat, my shirt, and my jeans, there had been little left of them but tatters and scraps.

Sort of like me.

Someone who had major issues with my death was killing people in my town.

Could it be my apprentice?

She had a thing for me, according to practically every woman I knew. I didn’t have a thing back. Yes, she was gorgeous, intelligent, quickwitted, brave, thoughtful, and competent. But I’d known her when her bra had been a formality, back when I’d begun working with her father, one of the very few men in the world I hold in genuine respect.

There was darkness in Molly. I’d soulgazed her. I’d seen it in more than one of her possible futures. I’d felt it in the black magic she had worked, with the best of intentions, on fragile mortal minds.

But though she’d fought tooth and nail at Chichén Itzá, beside the rest of us . . . she wasn’t a killer. Not Molly.

Was she?

People could be driven to extremes by the right events, the right stakes. I’d bargained away my future and my soul when I had needed to do it to save my daughter.

And I was Molly’s teacher. Her mentor. Her example.

Had she let herself be driven to extremes at my loss, the way I had been to the potential loss of my daughter? Had she turned aside from everything I’d tried to teach her and let herself slide down into the violent exercise of power?

Why shouldn’t she have done so, moron? I heard my own voice say in the dark of my thoughts. You showed her how it worked. She’s always been an able student.

Worse, Molly was a sensitive, a wizard whose supernatural senses were so acute that surges of powerful magic or the emotions that accompanied life-and-death situations were something that caused her psychic and physical pain. It was something I had barely even considered when I dragged her along to Chichén Itzá with me for the largest, most savage, and deadliest brawl I had ever personally participated in.

Had the pain of participating in the battle done something to my apprentice? Had it left her with permanent mental damage, just as the gunshot wound she’d received must have left her a permanent scar? Hell, it didn’t require any supernatural elements at all for war—and that was what Chichén Itzá was, make no mistake—to screw up young soldiers who found themselves struggling to stay alive. Throw in all the mystic menace on top of it, and it started to seem a little bit miraculous that I’d gotten as far as I had while remaining mostly sane.

I didn’t want to admit it or think about it, but I couldn’t deny that it was possible that my apprentice hadn’t been as lucky as I had.

“Hey,” Butters said quietly. “Harry? You all right?”

“That’s . . . kinda subjective, all things considered,” I answered.

He nodded. “No one wanted to be the one to tell you the details. But Murphy’s pretty sure. She says that if she was still working as a cop, she’d be convinced and digging as hard as she could to turn up enough evidence to let her put the perp away.”

“Yeah,” I said quietly. “I get what she means by that.” I swallowed. “Why hasn’t she?”

“We need Molly,” Butters said. “She’s made the difference between happily ever after and everyone dying in two raids against the Fomor.”

I rubbed my eyes. “Okay. It’s . . . something I’ll start processing. But I’m not saying that I believe it. Not until I talk to her about it. See her reaction with my own eyes.”

“Right,” Butters said, his voice gentle.

I eyed him. “Murphy wouldn’t want you telling me this.”

He shrugged. “Murphy’s not full all the way to the brim herself some days. What she’s been doing . . . It’s been hard on her. She’s gotten more and more guarded.”

“I can imagine.”

Butters nodded. “But . . . I’ve always been kind of a trust-my-instincts guy. And I think you need to know this stuff.”

“Thanks,” I said. “We’ve got some other problems, too.”

His tired, worried face lifted into a sudden grin. “Of course we do. Harry Dresden is in town. What’s that?”

I put Sir Stuart’s pistol into the voluminous pocket of my duster and said, “A cannon. Someone gave it to me.”

“Huh.” His voice turned casual. “Could something like that hurt me?”

I grinned and shook my head. “Nah. Ghost-on-ghost action only. Assuming I’m able to make it work in the first place.”

The snow had stopped falling, and Butters turned off his windshield wipers. “What’s it like?”

“What is what like?”

“Being . . . you know.”

“Dead?”

He shrugged a shoulder, betraying his discomfort. “A ghost.”

I thought about my answer for a moment. “Everything in my body that used to hurt all the time got better. I don’t feel hungry or thirsty. Other than that, it feels a lot like being alive, except . . . my magic is gone. And, you know, hardly anyone can see me or hear me.”

“So . . . so the world is the same?” he asked.

I shivered. “No. It’s chock-full of all sorts of weird stuff. You wouldn’t believe how many ghosts are running around this place.”

Even as I spoke, I turned my head to watch two wraiths glide down the sidewalk as the car passed them. I frowned. “Including one of you, Bob.”

Bob the Skull snorted. “I’m not mortal. I don’t have a soul. The only thing waiting for me when I cease to be is entropy. I can’t leave a ghost.”

“Then how come I saw a floating skull with blue eyelights helping attack Mort Lindquist’s place last night?”

The skull just stared for a moment. Then he suggested lamely, “You were high?”

I snorted. “Can’t be many things like that running around,” I said. “What do you know?”

“I have to think about this,” Bob said in a rushed tone, and his orange eyelights winked out.

Butters and I both stared at the skull.

“Huh,” Butters said. “I’ve never seen anyone make him shut up before.”

I grunted. Then I said quietly, “Scared the hell out of me, seeing that. Thought something had happened to him.”

“He’s fine,” Butters said. “Best roommate I ever had.”

“I’m glad you’re taking care of him,” I said. “He wouldn’t do well alone.”

“It’s not a big deal, right?”

“What isn’t a big deal?”

“If there’s an Evil Bob out there,” he said. “I mean . . . it’ll just be another nerd like this one, right? Only with a black hat?”

The orange eyelights winked back on, and Bob said, “Hey!”

“Butters . . . Bob is spooky strong,” I said quietly. “Knowledge is power, man. Bob has a lot of it. When I accidentally flipped his switch to black hat a few years ago, he nearly killed me in the first sixty seconds.”

Butters blinked several times. He tried to talk for a few seconds, swallowed, and then said in a small voice, “Oh.” He eyed Bob sideways.

“I don’t like to make a big thing of it, sahib,” Bob said easily. “Not really my bag to do that kind of thing anyway.”

I nodded. “He was created to be an assistant and counselor,” I said. “It’s unprofessional to treat him as anything else.”

“Which sahib doesn’t,” Bob noted. “Due to complete ignorance, but he doesn’t.”

“Oh,” Butters said again. Then he asked, “How do I . . . make sure not to set him on black hat?”

“You can’t,” Bob said. “Harry ordered me to forget that part of me and never to bring it out again. So I lopped it off.”

It was my turn to blink. “You what?”

“Hey,” Bob said, “you told me never to bring it out again. You said never. As long as I was with you, that wouldn’t be an issue—but the next guy could order me to do it and it would still happen. So I made sure it couldn’t happen again. No big whoop, Dresden. Oy, but you are such a little girl sometimes.”

I blinked several more times. “Oy?”

“My mother calls me twice a week,” Butters explained. “He listens in.”

“She’s right, you know, sahib,” Bob said brightly. “If you’d just do something with your hair and wear nicer clothes, you’d find a woman. You’re a doctor, after all. What woman doesn’t want to marry a doctor?”

“Did he just get a little Yiddish accent?” I asked Butters.

“I get it twice a week already, Bob,” Butters growled. “I don’t need it from you, too.”

“Well, you need it from somewhere,” Bob said. “I mean, look at your hair.”

Butters ground his teeth.

“Anyway, Harry,” Bob began.

“I know,” I said. “The thing I saw with the Grey Ghost must be the piece that you cut off.”

“Right,” he said. “Got it in one.”

“Your offspring, one might say.”

The skull shuddered, which added a lot of motion to the bobblehead thing. “If one was coming from a dementedly limited mortal viewpoint, I guess.”

“So it’s a part of you, but not all of you. It’s less powerful.”

Bob’s eyelights narrowed in thought. “Maybe, but . . . the whole of any given being is not always equal to the sum of its parts. Case in point: you. You aren’t working with a lot of horsepower in the brains department, yet you manage to get to the bottom of things sooner than most.”

I gave the skull a flat look. “Is it stronger than you or not?”

“I don’t know,” Bob said. “I don’t know what it knows. I don’t know what it can do. That was sort of the whole point in amputating it. There’s a big hole where it used to be.”

I grunted. “How big?”

Bob rolled his eyes. “Do you want me to tell you in archaic measurements or metric?”

“Ballpark it.”

“Um. A hundred years’ worth of knowledge, maybe?”

“Damn,” I said quietly. I knew that Bob had once been owned by a necromancer named Kemmler. Kemmler had fought the entire White Council in an all-out war. Twice. They killed him seven times over the course of both wars, but it didn’t take until number seven. Generally remembered as the most powerful renegade wizard of the second millennium, Kemmler had at some point acquired a skull inhabited by a spirit of intellect, which had served as his assistant.

Eventually, when Kemmler was finally thrown down, the skull had been smuggled away from the scene by a Warden named Justin DuMorne—the same Justin who had adopted me and trained me to grow up into a monster, and who had eventually decided I wasn’t tractable enough and attempted to kill me. It didn’t go as he planned. I killed him and burned down his house around his smoldering corpse instead. And I’d taken the same skull, hidden it away from the Wardens and company, and named it Bob.

“Is that bad?” Butters asked.

“A bad guy had the skull for a while,” I said. “Big-time dark mojo. So those memories Bob lost are probably everything he learned serving as the assistant to a guy who was almost certainly the strongest wizard on the planet—strong enough to openly defy the White Council for decades.”

“Meaning . . . he learned a lot there,” Butters said.

“Probably,” Bob said cheerfully. “But it’s probably limited to pretty much destructive, poisonous, dangerous stuff. Nothing important.”

“That’s not important?” Butters squeaked.

“Destroying things is easy,” Bob said. “Hell, all you really have to do to destroy something is wait. Creation, now. That’s hard.”

“Bob, would you be willing to take on Evil Bob?”

Bob’s eyes darted nervously. “I’d . . . prefer not to. I’d really, really prefer not to. You have no idea. That me was crazy. And buff. He worked out.”

I sighed. “One more thing to worry about, then. And meanwhile, I still don’t know a damned thing about my murder.”

Butters brought the Road Runner to a stop and set the parking break. “You don’t,” he said. “But we do. We’re here. Come on.”

Chapter Eighteen

I gritted my teeth and got out of Butters’s car, then paused to look at my surroundings. The piled snow was deep, and the mounds on either side of the street were like giant-sized versions of the snow ramparts that appeared every year in the Carpenters’ backyard. They changed the outlines of everything—but something was familiar.

I stopped and took at least half a minute to turn in a slow circle. As I did, I noticed a pair of fleeting shadows moving easily over the snow—wolves. Murphy’s comment about sending shadows to escort Butters home made more sense in context. I watched one of the wolves vanish into the darkness between a pair of half-familiar pines, and only then did I recognize where we stood. By then, Butters had taken Bob from his holder in the car and was carrying him in the handheld spotlight case again. He shone the light around for a moment until he spotted me, then asked, “Harry?”

“This is my house,” I said after a moment. “I mean . . . where my house was.”

Things had changed.

A new building had been put up where my old boardinghouse—my home—had been. The new place was four stories tall and oddly cubical in appearance. The walls fell even farther out onto the lawn than those in the old building had, encasing it in a strip of yard only slightly wider than my stride.

I moved close enough to touch the wall and pushed my hand inside. It hurt, but the hurt never varied as I pushed in farther. This was no facade. It was made of stone. I’m not kidding. Freaking stone. Basalt, maybe? I’m no stonemason. It was dark grey with veins and threads of green and silver running through it, but I could only see them from up close.

The windows were narrow—maybe nine inches wide—and deep. There were bars on the outside. I could see more bars on the inside, and there was at least a foot between them. The roof was lined with a staggered row of blocks—real by-God crenellation. As the pièce de résistance, gargoyles crouched at the corners and at the midpoint of each wall, starting up at the second floor and moving in three rows of increasingly ugly statuary toward the roof.

Someone had turned the ruin of my home into a freaking fortress.

A plaque hung over what had to be the main entrance. It read, simply, BRIGHTER FUTURE SOCIETY.

Butters followed my gaze to the plaque. “Ah,” he said. “Yeah. We named it that because if we didn’t do something, there wasn’t going to be much of a future for this town. I wanted Brighter Future Group, actually, for the initialism, but I got voted down.”

“Hell’s bells,” I said. I did some math. To build on the ruins of the boardinghouse, construction would have had to start practically the same day that I died. Actual stone is expensive to build with because it’s difficult and time-consuming. This place was as big as a small castle. It should have taken months and months and months to build. It had gone up in six. Probably significantly less, given the weather. “This place cost a damned fortune.”

“Meh,” Butters said, and walked to the front door. “Hang around a bit and you’ll take it for granted like the rest of us.” He entered a sequence of numbers on the keypad beside the door. They made a little mechanical clicking sound that reminded me of a manual typewriter. He put his hands back into his pockets and waited.

A moment later, a heavily accented basso voice emerged from a crackling speaker box. “Who goes there?”

“Butters,” he said. “With Dresden’s shade. Hi, Sven.”

The speaker made a rumbling sound. “Waldo,” it said, pronouncing it Valdo. “The night is dangerous. One day you will stumble across a fox and it will eat you.”

Roars of laughter erupted from the speakers—evidently, several other men were with the door guard.

Butters didn’t laugh, but he did grin. “I’ll just get stuck in his throat until you can haul your walrus ass over to him and save me, Sven.”

Louder laughter erupted from the speaker, and a voice half-choked with it said something in a language that had come from somewhere in northern Europe. There was a click, and Butters opened the door. I started to follow him in—and remembered, in time, to put my hand out and check the doorway first. My hand moved smoothly past the twelve inches of stone, but then hit something as solid as a brick wall where the doorway opened up into the entry hall.

“Uh, Butters,” I said.

He smacked the heel of his hand against his forehead. “Right, sorry. Please come in.”

The invisible wall vanished, and I shook my head. “It’s got a threshold. People live here?”

“Bunch of ’em,” Butters confirmed, and we went inside. “Lot of Paranetters come through for a little while when they don’t have a safe place to sleep. Uh, visiting Netters who are passing through town. Venatori, when they meet with us. That kind of thing.”

I felt anger stirring in me, irrational but no less real. “My home . . . is a supernatural flophouse?”

“And armory! And jail!” Bob said enthusiastically.

Ghosts can sputter in outrage. “Jail?”

“And day care!” Bob continued.

I stopped in my tracks and threw my hands up. “Day care? Day care?!

“People have kids, man. And they have jobs,” Butters said in a gentle voice. “The Fomor aren’t above using children to get what they want. High-risk kids come here on workdays. Now, shut up, Bob. And get off your high horse, Harry. People need this place.”

I turned my gaze to Butters and studied him for a minute. The little guy had come a long way from the somewhat timid, insecure man I’d first met years before. That Butters would never have said anything like that to me.

Or maybe he was the same guy. Butters went right to the wall for the sake of the truth, even when it cost him his job and got him locked up in a nuthouse. He was a man of principles.

And he was probably right. This wasn’t my home anymore.

We passed the guard station after we got buzzed through a security gate. Four of the biggest, toughest-looking men I’d ever seen were stationed there. They wore biker leathers—and swords. Their muscles swelled tight against their skin, their beards bristled, and their uniformly pale eyes watched us pass with calm attention.

“Einherjaren,” Butters said quietly. “Soldiers of Valhalla, if they’re telling the truth.”

“They are,” I replied just as quietly. “Where did we get them?”

“Marcone. They aren’t cheap.”

“Him again.”

Butters shrugged. “I don’t like the guy, either, Harry. But he’s smart enough to realize that if the Fomor take control of the streets, they’re going to get rid of him as a matter of course.”

“Too simple,” I said. “Too easy. He’s running some kind of game on you.”

We went through another door and then up some stairs, which opened onto the second floor.

The place was one enormous chamber almost entirely free of interior walls. There was a small gym, complete with shower rooms and a boxing ring. Inside the ring, Murphy, wearing her street clothes, stood facing a man who had inherited a portion of his DNA from a rhinoceros—and not many generations ago. He was huge and heavily muscled, his dark hair and beard in long braids. He wore an old pair of jeans and nothing else. His upper body was coated with more dark hair.

(Not like a werewolf or circus freak or anything. Just at the top end of the hirsute bell curve. A real hair ball.)

Butters froze in place, waiting.

Murphy stared steadily at the big man for several moments, her body relaxed, her eyes never blinking. He returned a blank stare of his own. Then they both moved.

I couldn’t tell who went first, but Murphy’s fist streaked toward the big guy’s groin. He twisted his hip, deflecting the blow, and when he returned it to balance, his leg scythed up in an arc that clipped the tip of Murphy’s chin. She spun away and went down.

Hair Ball did not hesitate for so much as a second. He moved toward her, fast for someone so large, and stomped his heel down toward her head.

Murphy rolled and dodged the blow, but he followed up and she had to keep rolling to stay ahead of his sledgehammer heels. She hit the edge of the boxing ring, then abruptly reversed her roll, moving toward him instead of away.

She slipped the next stomp, scissored his knee with her legs, twisted her whole body, and brought him down. Hair Ball fell like a tree, huge and slow. The boxing ring ropes shook when he landed.

Murphy came up onto all fours, scrambled a bit to one side, and then swept her foot at Hair Ball’s head. He dodged, but her kick shifted direction, her leg moving up, then straight down, bringing her heel down like a hatchet onto the hand Hair Ball was using to support his weight. Bones snapped.

Hair Ball howled, scrambled to his feet, and started swinging wildly at her. Murphy dodged and slipped one blow after another, and at one point abruptly turned and drove her heel into Hair Ball’s solar plexus.

The blow rocked him back a step, but Murphy followed it too closely, too recklessly. Hair Ball recovered from the kick almost instantly, slapped a blow aside, and seized her arm. He turned and flung her, one-handed, over the top rope of the ring and into the nearest wall. She hit it with a yell and bounced off onto the floor.

“Dead,” I snarled, my fists clenched. I started forward and took three or four whole steps before I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to hit the guy. Or blow him up. Or send him on a vacation to another reality. Hell, I couldn’t even sneak up on him and shout, “Boo!”

“Harry, wait,” Butters hissed. “It’s okay.”

Murphy picked herself up from the floor, moving slowly. As she did, the giant Hair Ball came over to the nearest side of the ring, holding his right hand in his left. Murphy brushed some dust from her clothing and turned to face him. Her blue eyes were steady and cold, her mouth set in a small smile. Her teeth were white, and rich red blood quivered on her lower lip where the impact had split it open. She wiped the blood off on her sleeve without looking away from Hair Ball. “Three?” she asked.

“Broke all four,” he said, moving his right hand a little by way of demonstration. “Took out my best sword hand. Good. If you hadn’t gotten greedy for the kill, maybe you’d have taken this round.”

Murphy snorted. “You’ve been drinking bad mead, Skaldi Skjeldson.”

That made Hair Ball smile. “Sword tomorrow?”

Murphy nodded. The two of them stared at each other for a moment, as if each expected the other to suddenly charge the second the other turned his back. Then, with no detectable signal passing between them, they simultaneously nodded again and turned away from each other, relaxing.

“Butters,” rumbled Skaldi Hair Ball. If he really had broken fingers, it didn’t look like they were bothering him much. “When are you going to get in this ring and train like a man?”

“About five minutes after I get a functional lightsaber,” Butters replied easily, much to Hair Ball’s amusement. Then the little medical examiner nodded to Murphy and said, “Can we talk in the conference room?”

“Sure,” she said. She walked by the ring and bumped (left) fists with Skaldi. Then she led Butters and me out of the gym, down another hallway, and into a long, narrow conference room. She shut the door behind us, and Butters popped Bob’s flashlight onto the table. His eyelights winked on again, and I saw Murphy react visibly when that light revealed my presence.

She stiffened a little, looking at me, and her eyes showed a sudden weariness and pain. She took a deep breath through her nose and closed her eyes for a second. Then she took off her jacket, moving gingerly, and said, “Hi, Harry.”

Butters put the radio on the table and I said, “Hi, Murph.”

She was wearing thin, light padding under the jacket—like the stuff I’d seen on stuntmen on a case I’d done not long after I’d gone into business. So her full-contact practice hadn’t been as vicious as it had looked. She’d be covered in bruises, but the impact with the wall hadn’t actually been likely to break her back. Her skull, maybe, but not her back.

“You okay?”

She rolled one shoulder with a grimace of discomfort. “I will be.”

“Big guy like that going to town on you,” I growled. “Someone needs to push his face in.”

Her eyes glittered as she gave me a sharp look. “Dresden . . . when, exactly, am I going to fight someone my size and strength?”

“Um.”

“If you want to wrestle hostile mooses—”

“Moose,” Butters corrected absently. “Singular and plural, same word.”

“Gorillas,” Murphy continued, hardly breaking stride, “then the best way to train for it is by wrestling slightly less hostile gorillas. Skaldi’s two hundred pounds heavier than me, almost two feet taller, and he has going on two millennium—”

“Millennia,” Butters said. “Millennium is the singular.”

Murphy pushed a breath out through her nose and said, “Millennia of experience in breaking the backs of annoying little doctors with annoying little grammar fetishes.”

Butters grinned.

“I’m not going to beat him, Harry. Ever. That isn’t the point.” She looked away and her voice became quiet. “The point is that the world isn’t getting any kinder. A girl’s got to take care of herself.”

The expression on her face? It hurt. Hearing the words that went with it felt like a knife peeling back layers of skin. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t let it show. Murphy would have been offended at the notion that she needed my protection, and if she thought I felt guilty for not being there to protect her, to help her, she’d be downright angry.

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t think Murphy was a princess in a tower. But at the end of the day, she was just one person, standing in defiance of powers that would regard her with the same indifference as might an oncoming tsunami, volcanic eruption, or earthquake. Life is precious, fragile, fleeting—and Murphy’s life was one of my favorites.

“Okay, Harry,” Murphy said. “Where do we get started?”

I felt awkward standing there while she and Butters sat at the table, but it wasn’t like I could pull out a chair. “Um. Maybe we get started with what you know about my . . . my shooting.”

She nodded and pulled on her cop face—her expression professionally calm, detached, analytical. “We don’t have much, officially speaking,” she said. “I came to pick you up and found the blood and a single bullet hole. There wasn’t quite enough to declare it a murder scene. Because the vic . . . because you were on the boat and it was in motion, there was no way to extrapolate precisely where the bullet came from. Probably a nearby rooftop. Because the bullet apparently began to tumble as it passed through your body, it left asymmetric holes in the walls of the boat. But forensics thinks it was something between a .223 assaultrifle round and a .338 magnum-rifle round; more likely the latter than the former.”

“I never got into rifles. What does that mean?”

“It means a sniper rifle or a deer rifle,” Butters clarified. “Not necessarily military. There are plenty of civilian weapons that fire rounds in those calibers.”

“We never found the bullet,” Murphy said. She took a deep breath. “Or the body.”

I noticed that both Murph and Butters were staring at me very intently.

“Uh,” I said. “I . . . sort of did that whole tunnel-of-light thing—which is a crock, by the way.” I bit down on a mention of Murphy’s father. “Um, I was sent back to solve the murder. Which . . . sort of implies a death. And they said my body wasn’t available, so . . .”

Murphy looked down and nodded.

“Huh,” Butters said, frowning. “Why send you back?”

I shrugged. “Said what came next wasn’t for whiners or rubberneckers.”

Murphy snorted. “Sounds like something my father would say.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Heh.”

Butters arched an eyebrow. His dark eyes flickered between me and Murphy, and thoughtful lines appeared on his face.

“Anyway,” I said. “That’s what you know officially, right? So . . . what else do you know?”

“I know it wasn’t Marcone,” Murphy said. “All of his troubleshooters have alibis that check out. So do he and Gard and Hendricks. I know which building the shot probably came from, and it wasn’t an easy one.”

“Four hundred and fifty yards,” Butters said. “Which means it was probably a professional gunman.”

“There are amateurs who can shoot that well,” Murphy said.

“As a rule, they don’t do it from buildings at their fellow Americans,” Butters replied. “Look, if we assume it’s an amateur, it could be anyone. But if we assume it was a professional—which is way more likely, in any case—then it gives us the beginning of an identity, and could lead us back to whomever he works for.”

“Even if we do assume that,” Murphy said, “I don’t have the access to information that I used to. We’d need to review TSA video records, security cameras—all kinds of things I can’t get to anymore.”

“Your brother-in-law can,” I said. “Dick can.”

“Richard,” she corrected me. “He hates that nickname.”

“Dick who?” Butters asked, looking between us.

I said, “Her brother-in-law,” at the same time she said, “My exhusband.”

Butters’s brow arched even farther and he shook his head. “Man. Catholics.”

Murphy gave him a gimlet look. “Richard runs by the book. He won’t help a civilian.”

“Come on, Murph,” I said. “You were married to the guy. You’ve got to have some dirt on him.”

She shook her head. “It isn’t a crime to be an asshole, Harry. If it was, I’d have put him away for life.”

Butters cleared his throat. “We could ask—”

“No,” Murphy and I said at the same time, and continued speaking over each other.

“The day I ask for that bastard’s help will be the day I—”

“—told you before, over and over, that just because he’s reasonable doesn’t mean he’s—”

“—a murderer and a drug dealer and a pimp, and just because Chicago’s corrupt government can’t put him away doesn’t mean—”

“—you were smarter than that,” Murphy finished.

Butters lifted his hands mildly. “Okay, okay. I was on board at no. No going to Marcone for help.” He paused and looked around the room as if he’d never seen it before. “Because that would be . . . unprecedented.”

“Wally,” Murphy said, one eyebrow arching dangerously.

He held up his hands again. “Uncle. I don’t understand your reasoning, but okay.”

“You think Marcone was behind it, Harry?” Murphy asked.

I shrugged. “Last time I saw him, he said he didn’t need to kill me. That I’d get myself killed without any help from him.”

Murphy frowned. It made her lip hurt and she winced, reaching up. The wince made it hurt worse, apparently, because fresh blood appeared. “Dammit. Well. You can take that a couple of different ways, can’t you?”

“Like how?”

Murphy looked at me. “Like maybe Marcone knew something was happening already, and that’s why he said he didn’t need to kill you. It wasn’t him, but it was still something he was aware of.”

I grunted. Marcone ran Chicago like his own personal clubhouse. He had legions of employees, allies, and flunkies. His awareness of what happened in his city wasn’t supernatural; it was better than that. He was rational, intelligent, and more prepared for a crisis than any man I’d ever seen. If the Eagle Scouts had some sort of Sith equivalent, Marcone was it.

If someone’s wet-work specialist had come to town, Marcone was very likely to have learned of it. He and his underworld network missed little.

“Dammit,” Murphy said, evidently coming to the same conclusions I had. “Now I have to talk to the scum.” She got out her little notepad and scribbled on it. “Butters, you said that Lindquist’s house had burned down?”

“Big-time,” said Butters.

I nodded. “According to the ghosts hanging around it, the Grey Ghost showed up—I didn’t tell you about the Grey Ghost, did I?”

“Mr. Lindquist filled us in after the shooting,” Butters said.

“Oh, right. Anyway, it showed up with several mortals and snatched him. We’ve got to get him back.”

Murphy nodded, still writing. “What happens if we don’t?”

“A bunch of serial killer–type ghosts start wandering around Chicago, looking for a good time. Ghosts like that can manifest—make themselves the next-best thing to real, Murph. Like the Nightmare. People will get hurt. A lot of them.”

Murphy’s mouth thinned into a line. She wrote on her notepad. “We’ll do triage in a minute. What else?”

“I found the gang who shot up your house last night,” I said.

The tip of Murphy’s pencil snapped against the notepad. She looked up at me, and her eyes were cold, furious. She spoke in a very quiet voice. “Oh?”

“Yeah,” I said. I paused for a moment to think about what I was going to say: Murphy’s temper was not a force to be invoked lightly. “I don’t think you’re going to have to worry about them anymore.”

“Why?” she asked, in her cop voice. “Did you kill them?”

There’d been a little too much intensity in that question. Wow. Murphy was clearly only too ready to go after these guys the minute she knew where they were.

I glanced at Butters, who looked like someone sitting near an armed explosive.

“No,” I said, working out my words carefully. If Murphy’s fuse was really as short as it seemed, I didn’t want her charging off to deal with Fitz and his poor crew in true Viking tradition. “But they don’t have the resources they had before. I don’t think they’re going to hurt anybody in the immediate future.”

“That’s your professional opinion, is it?”

“Yes.”

She stared at me for a minute, then said, “Abby was standing on my patio last night when they came by. She took a round in the belly during that attack. She didn’t get down fast enough. They don’t know if she’s going to live or not.”

I thought of the plump, cheerful little woman, and swallowed. “I . . . I didn’t know, Murph. I’m sorry.”

She continued speaking as if I hadn’t said anything. “There was a retiree living in the house behind mine. He used to give me tomatoes he grew in his garden every summer. He wasn’t as lucky as Abby. The bullet hit him in the neck while he was sleeping in bed. He had enough time to wake up, terrified, and knock the handset of his phone out of its cradle before he bled out.”

Hell’s bells. That put a different spin on things. I mean, I had been hoping to go for a no-harm, no-foul argument with Murphy. But if blood had been spilled and lives lost . . . Well. I knew Murphy. Whether or not she was a cop anymore, she wasn’t going to back away.

“Where are they?” she asked.

“This is not a time to kick down doors,” I told her. “Please hear me out.”

Her hand tightened into a fist, but she visibly took control of her anger, took a deep breath, and then nodded. “Go ahead.”

I told her about Fitz and his gang. I told her about Aristedes.

“I notice, Harry,” she said, “that you didn’t tell me where they are.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I, uh. I sorta told the kid I would help him. That you would help him.”

Murphy narrowed her eyes. “You did what?”

“They’re kids, Murph,” I said. “In over their heads. They need help.”

“They’ve killed at least one person, maybe more,” Murphy said. “There are still laws in this town, Dresden.”

“Send the cops in and it’ll get ugly. I’m not sure how much juice their boss has, but even if he can’t shoot, he’d be a nightmare for the police—even SI.”

Murphy frowned. “How sure are you about that?”

“Guys like him use fear and violence as daily tools. He won’t think twice about hurting a cop.”

Murphy nodded. “Then I’ll deal with him.”

“Murph, I know you can handle yourself, but—”

“Dresden, I’ve dealt with two men since you . . . since the shooting, who were skilled enough for Carlos to call them the next-best thing to full Council-quality warlocks. I’ve handled several lesser talents, too. The Fomor like to use them as officers and commanders. I know what I’m doing.”

“You’ve killed them,” I said quietly. “That’s what you mean, isn’t it?”

She looked away. It was a moment before she answered. “With someone that powerful . . . there’s not really a choice. If you try to take them alive, they have plenty of time to kill you.”

I winced in sympathy for her. She might not be a cop anymore, but it was where her heart lay—with the law. She believed in it, truly believed that the law was meant to serve and protect the people of Chicago. When she was a cop, it had always been her job to make sure that those laws worked toward that purpose, in whatever way she could manage.

She loved serving her city under the rule of law, and that meant judges and juries got to do their job before the executioner stepped in. If Murphy had dispensed with that belief, regardless of how practical and necessary it had been, regardless if doing so had saved lives . . .

Butters had said that she was under stress. I now knew the nature of that stress: guilt. It would be ripping away steadily at her insides, at her conscience, scraping them both raw.

“They were all killers,” she said, though I don’t think she was talking to me. “Killers and kidnappers. And the law couldn’t touch them. Someone had to do something.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Someone always does.”

“The point is,” she continued, “that the way you deal with this kind of problem is to hit it with absolutely everything you’ve got, and to do it immediately. Before those spell-casting yahoos have enough time to fort up, bend people’s minds into defending them, or to start coming after you or someone you care about.” She looked up at me. “I need the address.”

“You don’t,” I said. “I’ll bring the kids to you. Once you get them away from Aristedes, he’s out of help and vulnerable. Then you can help Fitz and company.”

“Fitz and company,” she said in a flat tone, “are murderers.”

“But—”

“No, Harry. Don’t give me any rap about how they didn’t mean it. They opened fire with deadly weapons in a residential neighborhood. In the eyes of the law and anyone the least bit reasonable, It was an accident is unconvincing. They knew what could happen. Their intentions are irrelevant.”

“I know,” I said. “But these aren’t bad kids. They’re just scared. It drove them to a bad choice.”

“You’ve just described most of the gang members in this town, Harry. They don’t join the gang because they’re bad kids. They do it because they’re frightened. They want to feel like they belong somewhere. Safe.” She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter if they started out as good kids. Life changes them. Makes them something they weren’t.”

“What do you want to do?”

“Take a team to their hideout. Deal with the sorcerer. We’ll make every effort to avoid harming the others.”

“You’re going to open fire with deadly weapons on their home. Maybe you don’t want to hurt the kids, but you know what could happen. If you wind up with bodies on the floor, your intentions would be irrelevant. Is that what you’re telling me?”

Her eyes flashed with sudden anger. “You haven’t been here the past six months. You don’t know what it’s been like. You—” She pressed her lips together. Then she looked at me and stared, clearly waiting.

I said, very quietly, “No.”

She shook her head several times. Then she said, “The real Dresden wouldn’t hesitate.”

“The real Dresden would never have gotten a chance to see them. To talk to them. He’d just skip to the fight.”

She flipped her notepad closed with a snap of her wrist and stood. “Then we’ve covered what needs doing. There’s nothing more to discuss.”

Murphy got up and left the room without a word, her steps smooth and purposeful.

Butters rose and collected Bob and the little spirit radio. “I, uh . . . I usually follow along after her when she’s setting up something. Take care of the details. Excuse me.”

“Sure,” I said quietly. “Thanks for your help, Butters.”

“Anytime,” he said.

“You, too, Bob,” I said.

“De nada,” the skull replied.

Butters hurried out.

I was left standing in the conference room alone.

Chapter Nineteen

I stood there for several minutes, doing nothing. Not even breathing.

Doing nothing is difficult. Once you aren’t busy, your head starts chewing things over. Dark, bleak thoughts appear. You start to think about what your life means. If you’re a ghost, you start to think about what your death means.

Murphy was being slowly devoured from within by a guilty conscience. I had known her a long time. I knew how she thought. I knew what she held dear. I knew what it looked like when she was in pain. I had no doubt that I made the right call on that one.

But I also knew that she was a woman who wouldn’t kill another human, even if he were over-the-hill-and-around-the-bend crazy, unless it was absolutely necessary. No killing is easy for anyone of conscience—but Murphy had been facing that demon for a long time. Granted, she’d been hurt by my death (and let me tell you how furiously frustrated it made me that I was powerless to have changed that). But why would her conscience start catching up to her now? Why develop a sudden case of the damsels when I’d asked her to get more information from her exhusband? Brick walls didn’t stop the woman when she had a mind to walk somewhere.

I noticed something, too, when we had been talking about the shot that had killed me and the shooter’s location, and gathering more information about potential assassins. Murphy hadn’t said much—but she’d not said a whole hell of a lot more.

She had never, not once, mentioned Kincaid.

Kincaid was a partially inhuman mercenary who worked for the scariest little girl on God’s green earth. He was centuries old and he was a phenomenon in a fight. He had somehow overcome the negative aspects of the human nervous system, at least as it applied to firing a weapon under pressure. I’d never seen him miss. Not once.

And it was he who had told me that if he wanted to kill me, he’d do it from at least half a mile away, with a heavy-duty rifle round.

Murphy knew as well as I did that the opinion of an assassin with centuries of experience would be invaluable in the investigation. Initially, I hadn’t suggested it, because Murph had kinda been dating the guy for a while, and seemed to care for him. So it seemed more appropriate to let her bring it up.

But she hadn’t.

She’d never mentioned him at all.

She’d run the meeting too rapidly, and was ready to fight with me over something, anything. The entire argument about Fitz and his crew had been a smoke screen.

The only question was for whose benefit it had been. Mine, so that a possibly crazy ghost wouldn’t go storming off for vengeance of some kind? Or had it been a veil of fog for her own benefit, because she couldn’t reconcile her view of Kincaid with that of the faceless person who had killed me?

That felt right. That she knew it in her heart and, without realizing it, was frantically scrambling to find a less painful truth with her head.

My reasoning was based on my knowledge of human nature and of Murphy’s personality, and on my intuition—but I’d spent a lifetime trusting my instincts.

I thought they were probably right.

I played through the possibilities in my head. I imagined Murphy, distraught and falling to pieces on the inside, in the days after my murder. We never got to find out if we’d be anything together. We’d missed it by moments. I knew that when there had been enough time for her rage to abate, the sorrow would begin to pile up. I imagined her in the next month or so, no longer a cop, her world in shambles.

Word of my death would have gotten around fast—not only among the wizards of the White Council, but among the remaining vampire Court, over the Paranet, and from there to the rest of the supernatural world.

Kincaid probably heard about it within a day or two. As soon as someone filed a report about me, the Archive, the supernatural recorder of all written knowledge that dwelled within a child named Ivy, would have known. And I was probably one of the only people in the world she thought of as a friend. She was what? Twelve? Thirteen?

News of my death would shatter Ivy.

Kincaid would, I think, have gone to Murphy to offer what comfort he could. Not the hot-chocolate-and-fluffy-robe brand of comfort. He was more likely to bring bottles of whiskey and a sex-music CD.

Especially if he was already right here in town, a dark, nasty part of me whispered in my head.

I imagined Murphy taking shelter where she could and bidding him farewell when he left—and then, over the next few weeks, slowly lining up facts and reaching conclusions, all the while repeating to herself that she was probably wrong. That it couldn’t be what it looked like.

Frustration. Pain. Denial. Yeah, that would be enough to draw rage out of anybody. Rage she would be carrying with her like a slowly growing tumor, becoming more and more of a burden. It was the sort of thing that might push someone to kill another person, even when maybe it wasn’t necessary.

That death would cause more guilt, more frustration, which would cause more rage, which would cause more violence, which would add to guilt again; a literal vicious cycle.

Murphy didn’t want to get shots from airport and train-station security cameras because she didn’t want to find out that the man she’d been sleeping with had killed one of her friends. When drawn close to that plausibility, she reacted in anger, pushing away the source of illumination about to fall on what she didn’t want to see.

She probably wasn’t even aware of the clash of needs in her head. When you’re grief-stricken, all kinds of irrational stuff flies around in there.

Detective work isn’t always about logic—not when you’re dealing with people. People are likely to do the most ridiculously illogical things for the most incomprehensible of reasons. I had no logic to aim at Kincaid. But the theory fit a whole lot of pieces together. If it was correct, it explained a lot.

It was only a theory. But it was enough to make me want to start digging for more evidence where I might not otherwise have looked.

But how? How was I going to start digging into Jared Kincaid, the Hellhound, the closest thing to a father Ivy had ever had—and do it without Murphy’s help? For that matter, I’d have to find some way to do it without her knowledge, and that seemed like something that would be more than a little slimy to do to a friend. Augh. Better, maybe, to focus on the immediate problems first.

I had to find Morty, whose plight had clearly been low on Murph’s priority list.

I had to help Fitz and the rest of his clueless, teenage pals.

And for all of it, I needed the help of someone I could trust.

I took a deep breath and nodded.

Then I walked until I had passed through an exterior wall of the Bright Future house, and set off to find my apprentice before the night got any deeper.

Chapter Twenty

I always considered myself a loner.

I mean, not like a poor-me, Byron-esque, I-should-have-broughta-swimming-buddy loner. I mean the sort of person who doesn’t feel too upset about the prospect of a weekend spent seeing no one, and reading good books on the couch. It wasn’t like I was a people hater or anything. I enjoyed activities and the company of friends. But they were a side dish. I always thought I would also be happy without them.

I walked the streets of a city of nearly three million people and, for the first time, there was nothing that connected me to any of them. I couldn’t speak to them. I couldn’t touch them. I couldn’t get in an argument over a parking space, or flip the bird to a careless driver who ran a light while I was crossing. I couldn’t buy anything in one of the stores, making polite chitchat with the clerk while paying. Couldn’t pick up a newspaper. Couldn’t recommend a good book to someone browsing the shelves.

Three million souls went about their lives around me, and I was alone.

Now I understood Captain Murphy’s shadow Chicago. The actual town had already begun to feel like the shadow version. With enough time, would the real city look that way to me, too? Dark? Empty? Devoid of purpose and vaguely threatening? I’d been here for barely a day.

What would I be like if I was here for a year? Ten years? A hundred years?

I was starting to get why so many ghosts seemed to be a couple of French fries short of a Happy Meal.

I had to wonder, too, if maybe Sir Stuart and Morty were right about me. What if I really was the deluded spirit they thought I was? Not the true Harry Dresden, just his image in death, doing what the lunatic had always done: setting out to help his friends and get the bad guy.

I didn’t feel like a deluded spirit, but then, I wouldn’t. Would I? The mad rarely know that they are mad. It’s the rest of the world, I think, that seems insane to them. God knew it had always seemed fairly insane to me. Was there any way I could be sure I was anything other than what Sir Stuart and Mort thought?

More to the point, Mort was the freaking expert on ghosts. I mean, I knew my way around the block, but Mort had been a specialist. Normally, on purely technical matters regarding spirits and shades, I would give his opinion significant weight, probably a little more than I would my own. Morty had never been a paragon of courage and strength, but he was smart, and clearly tough enough to survive a long career that had been a lot more dangerous than I thought.

Hell. For all I knew, while I had been busy saving Chicago from things no one knew were there, Mort might have been saving me from things I never knew were there. Funny world, isn’t it?

I stopped in my tracks and shook my head as if to clear water from my eyes. “Dresden, have your personal existential crisis later. The bad guys are obviously working hard. Get your ass in gear.”

Good advice, that.

The question was, How?

Normally, I would have tracked Molly down with a fairly simple piece of thaumaturgy I’d done a thousand times. After her unplanned vacation to Arctis Tor, in Faerie, I had always been sure to keep a fairly recent lock of her hair handy. And more recently, I’d found I could get a fix on all the energy patterns she used to make her first few independent magical tools—like the hair, they were something specific and unique to her and her alone. A signature. I could be pretty sure to find her when I needed to do so. Hell, for that matter, I’d spent so much time around her that she had become almost like family. I could generally tell by pure intuition when she was nearby, as long as she wasn’t actively trying to hide herself.

That, of course, had all been when I had magic. Now I didn’t.

Which was, upon thinking about it, probably another bit of evidence in favor of Stuart and Mort’s theory, and against mine. You can’t take magic away from a person. It’s a part of who and what they are. They can abandon it, if they work at it hard enough, but you can’t strip it out of them. If my ghost had truly been me, it would have had power, just as that bastard Leonid Kravos’s ghost had.

Right?

Or . . . maybe not. Maybe I’d been making more assumptions without ever questioning them. I had already assumed that matter was solid when it wasn’t; that I could get cold, which I couldn’t; and that I was still beholden to the laws of gravity, which I wasn’t.

Maybe I’d made the same assumptions about magic. I mean, after all, I had thrown a solid shield spell during the first attack on Mort’s place, when I had been sharing space with the ectomancer. That would seem to show that my talent was still there, still real.

I just had to figure out how to access it.

Memories are power.

I dug into my duster’s pocket and drew out the massive pistol Sir Stuart had given me. Black-powder weaponry isn’t my thing, but I made sure there was nothing in the priming pan before turning it barrel down and shaking it. I had to give it several hard thumps with the heel of my hand to get the ball, wad, and powder to spill out into my palm.

The ball, the bullet, gleamed as if newly molded. Upon closer look, fine swirls on the surface of the metal took on the shapes of a simple, pastoral scene: a colonial-style home in the middle of a little green valley surrounded by apple trees; clean, neat cropland; and a pasture dotted with white sheep. Just looking at it seemed to give the scene life. Wind stirred the crops. Apples stood out like specks of bright green against the darker leaves. Lambs gamboled among adult members of the flock, playing for the pure joy of it. The door to the house opened, and a tall, straightbacked woman with hair blacker than a raven’s wing emerged from the house, trailing a small cloud of children, clearly giving calm instructions.

With the sight, a flood of emotions coursed through me. A fierce and jealous pride of possession—not pride that I owned such a beautiful home, but that the home was beautiful because I owned it, because I had made it so. Mixed with that was an ocean-deep surge of love for the woman and her children, raw happiness at seeing them—and a heavy, entirely pleasurable surge of desire for the woman, whom I had not held in far too long—

I suddenly felt that I had intruded upon something personal and intimate. I closed my eyes and looked away from the scene.

Memories, I realized. These were all things from Sir Stuart’s mortal memories. This memory was what he had cast forth against that wraith the first time I met him. He hadn’t used memories of destruction as his weapon, but those of identity, of the reasons he was willing to fight.

That was why as a ghost he still used that ax, this pistol. Far more modern weapons were available to copy, but his memories were of himself using those weapons, and so they were the source of his power, the embodiment of his will to change what was around him.

They were Sir Stuart’s identity. They were also his magic.

Memories equaled power.

For a moment, I thought it couldn’t be that simple. But a lot of magic is actually disgustingly simple—which is not to be confused with easy.

There was only one way to find out.

The first spell I’d ever done had been during that long-ago class Olympics—but that was spontaneous, accidental magic, hardly worthy of the term. The first conscious spell I’d knowingly worked, fully planned, fully visualized, fully realized, had been calling forth a burst of fire.

Justin DuMorne had shown me how it worked.

I plunged into the memory.

“I don’t understand,” I complained, rubbing at my aching temples. “It didn’t work the first fifty times. It isn’t going to work now.”

“Forty-six times,” Justin corrected me, his voice very precise, like always. He had an accent, but I couldn’t figure out which kind it was. I hadn’t heard one like it on TV. Not that Justin had a TV. I had to sneak out on Friday nights to watch it in the store at the mall, or else face the real risk that I’d miss Knight Rider altogether.

“Harry,” Justin said.

“Okay,” I sighed. “My head hurts.”

“It’s natural. You’re blazing new trails in your mind. Once more, please.”

“Couldn’t I blaze the trails somewhere else?”

Justin looked up at me from where he sat at his desk. We were in his office, which was what he called the spare bedroom in the little house about twenty miles outside Des Moines. He was dressed in black pants and a dark grey shirt, like on most days. His beard was short, precisely trimmed. He had very long, slender fingers, but his hands could make fists that were hard as rocks. He was taller than me, which most grownups were, and he never called me anything mean when he got mad, which most of the foster parents I’d been with did.

If I angered Justin, he just went from saying please to using his fists. He never swung at me while screaming or shook me, which other caretakers had done. When he hit me, it was really quick and precise, and then it was over. Like when Bruce Lee hit a guy. Only Justin never made the silly noises.

I ducked my head, looking away from him, and then stared at the empty fireplace. I was sitting in front of it with my legs crossed. There were logs and tinder ready to go. There was a faint smell of smoke, and a bit of wadded-up newspaper had turned black at one corner, but otherwise there was no evidence of a fire.

In my peripheral vision, I saw Justin turn back to his book. “Once more, if you please.”

I sighed. Then I closed my eyes and started focusing again. You started with steadying your breathing. Then once you were relaxed and ready, you gathered energy. Justin had told me to picture it as a ball of light at the center of my chest, slowly growing brighter and brighter, but that was a load of crap. When the Silver Surfer did it, energy gathered around his hands and his eyes. Green Lantern gathered it around his ring. Iron Fist had glowing fists, which was pretty much as cool as you could get. I guess Iron Man had the glowing thing in the middle of his chest, but he was, like, the only one, and he didn’t really have superpowers anyway.

I pictured gathering my energy together around my right hand. So there.

I pictured it glowing brighter and brighter, surrounded by a red aura like Iron Fist’s. I felt the power making tingling sensations up and down my arms, making my hairs stand up on end. And when I was ready, I leaned forward, thrusting my hand into the fireplace, released the energy, and said clearly, “Sedjet.”

And as I spoke, I flicked the starter on the Bic lighter I had palmed in my right hand. The little lighter immediately set the newspaper alight.

From right next to me, Justin said, “Put it out.”

I twitched and dropped the lighter in pure surprise. My heart started beating about a zillion times a minute.

His fingers closed into a fist. “I don’t like to repeat myself.”

I swallowed and reached into the fireplace to drag the burning paper out from under the wood. It singed me a little, but not enough to cry about or anything. I slapped the fire out with my hands, my cheeks turning bright red as I did.

“Give me the lighter,” Justin said, his voice calm.

I bit my lip and did.

He took the lighter and bounced it a couple of times in his palm. A faint smile was on his lips. “Harry, I believe you will find that such ingenuity may be of great service to you as an adult.” The smile vanished. “But you are not an adult, boy. You are a student. This sort of underhanded behavior will not do. At all.”

He closed his fist and hissed, “Sedjet.”

His hand exploded into a sphere of scarlet-and-blue flame—which pretty much made Iron Fist’s powers look a little bit pastel. I stared and swallowed. My heart beat even faster.

Justin rotated his hand a few times, contemplating it, and making sure that I saw his whole fist and arm—that I could see it wasn’t sleight of hand. It was completely surrounded in fire.

And it wasn’t burning.

Justin held his fist right next to my face, until the heat was beginning to make me uncomfortable, but he never flinched and his flesh remained unharmed.

“If you choose it, this is what you may one day manage,” he said calmly. “Mastery of the elements. And, more important, mastery of yourself.”

“Um,” I said. “What?”

“Humans are inherently weak, boy,” he continued in that same steady voice. “That weakness expresses itself in a great many ways. For instance, right now you wish to stop practicing and go outside. Even though you know that what you learn here is absolutely critical, still your impulse is to put play first, study later.” He opened his hand suddenly and dropped the lighter in my lap.

I flinched away as it struck my leg, and let out a little yell. But the red plastic lighter simply lay on the floor, unmarked by any heat. I touched it with a nervous fingertip, but the lighter was quite cool.

“Right now,” Justin said, “you are making a choice. It may not seem like a large and terrible choice, but in the long term, it may well be. You are choosing whether you will be the master of your own fate, with the power to create what you will from the world—or whether you will simply flick your Bic and get by. Unremarkable. Complacent.” His mouth twisted and his voice turned bitter. “Mediocre. Mediocrity is a terrible fate, Harry.”

My hand hovered over the lighter, but I didn’t pick it up. I thought about what he had said. Then I said, “What you mean is that if I can’t do it . . . you’ll send me back.”

“Success or failure of the spell is not the issue,” he said. “What matters is the success or failure of your will. Your will to overcome human weakness. Your will to work. To learn. I will have no shirkers here, boy.” He settled down onto the floor next to me and nodded toward the fireplace. “Again, if you please.”

I stared at him for a moment, then down at my hand, at the discarded lighter.

No one had ever told me I was special before. But Justin had. No one had ever taken so much time to do anything with me. Ever. Justin had.

I thought of going back into the state system—to the homes, the shelters, the orphanages. And suddenly, I truly wanted to succeed. I wanted it more than I wanted dinner, more even than I wanted to watch Knight Rider. I wanted Justin to be proud of me.

I left the lighter where it was and focused on my breathing.

I built up the spell again, slowly, slowly, focusing on it more intently than on anything I’d ever done in my life. And I was nearly thirteen, so that was really saying something.

The energy swelled until I felt like someone had started a trash fire in my belly, and then I willed it out, through my empty, outstretched right hand, and as I did, instead of using the Egyptian phrase, I said, “Flickum bicus!”

And the remaining tinder under the logs burst into bright little flames. I didn’t think I’d ever seen anything more beautiful.

I sagged and almost fell over, even though I was already sitting on the floor. My body suddenly ached with hunger and weariness, like this one time when all us orphans had gotten to go to a water park. I wanted to eat a bucket of macaroni and cheese and then go to sleep.

A strong, long-fingered hand caught my shoulder and steadied me. I looked up to see Justin regarding me, his dark eyes flickering with warmth that wasn’t wholly the reflection of the small but growing fire in the hearth.

Flickum bicus?” he asked.

I nodded and felt myself blushing again. “You know. ’Cause . . . the mediocrity.”

He tilted his head back and let out a rolling laugh. He ruffled my hair with one hand and said, “Well-done, Harry. Well-done.”

My chest swelled up so much I thought I was going to bounce off the ceiling.

Justin held up a finger, went to his desk, and returned with a brown paper package. He offered it to me.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Yours,” he said. “You’ve done the work after all.”

I blinked and then tore the package open. Inside was a Wilson baseball mitt.

I stared for several seconds. No one had ever given me a present before—not one that was meant for me, and not just some random, charity-donated Christmas package with a label that said: FOR: BOY. And it was an excellent glove. George Brett had one just like it. I’d been to two Kansas City Royals baseball games on field trips when I was little, and they were awesome. So was Brett.

“Thank you,” I said quietly. Oh, come on. Now I was gonna cry? Sometimes I thought I was kinda goofy.

Justin produced a baseball, a brand-new one that was still all white, and held it up, smiling. “If you’re up for it, we can go outside right now.”

I felt really tired and hungry, but I had a brand-new glove! I shoved my hand into it until I figured out where all my fingers were supposed to go. “Yes,” I said, pushing myself up. “Let’s do it.”

Justin bounced the ball up and down in his hand a couple of times and grinned at me. “Good. When all is done, I think you’ll find baseball a rewarding experience.”

I followed him outside. It didn’t matter that I was tired. I was practically floating.

I opened my eyes, standing on a random Chicago sidewalk, immaterial and unseen. I turned my right hand palm up and focused upon that sudden kindling of light and hope, crystallized by the memory of that moment of triumph and joy.

“Flickum bicus,” I whispered.

The fire was every bit as beautiful as I remembered.

Chapter Twenty-one

It took me a couple of hours to work out how to make my trusty tracking spell function. I easily found several memories that I could use to power the spell; it was figuring out how to create the link to Molly that was hard. Usually, I would use one of the trusty traditional methods for directing thaumaturgy—a lock of hair, a fresh drop of blood, fingernail clippings, et cetera. That wasn’t going to work, obviously. I couldn’t touch them, even if I had them.

So instead of tracking Molly with physical links, I tried using memories of her in their place. It worked—sort of. The first tracking spell led me to the hotel that had once hosted a horror convention known as SplatterCon! It was closed now, and deserted. I guess maybe all the deaths at SplatterCon! had taken a toll on the hotel in the civil-court cases that followed the phobophage attacks. I took a quick spin through the place, hardly even flinching before I stomped through one wall after another. Except for a few transients who had broken into the building and were squatting there, I found nothing.

I went back over my work. The memory I’d used was one that had stuck in my head for some reason, of Molly here in this building. That must have thrown off the spell. It had homed in on this place because it had been part of the memory I used to create the link.

I tried again, this time omitting the background and picturing only Molly against an empty field of black. This second attempt took me to a police station from which I had once posted bail for Molly’s boyfriend. I figured I’d bungled the spell somehow, but took a quick look around anyway, just in case. No Molly.

“Okay, smart guy,” I said to myself. “So what if the memory-image you’re using is too old? You’re tracking her memory-self to a memorylocation. Which means you have to think of her as she is now to find where she is now. Right?

“Theoretically,” I said to myself.

“Right. So test the theory.”

Well, obviously. Although discussing a problem with yourself is almost never a good way to secure a divergent viewpoint.

“In fact, talking to yourself is often considered a sign of impending insanity,” I noted aloud.

Which hardly seemed encouraging.

I shook off the unsettling thought and worked the tracking spell again. This time, instead of using one of my earlier memories of Molly, I used my most recent one. I pictured her in her cast-off clothing and rags, as she’d been at Murphy’s place.

Forming a memory into an image that would support the energy required for a spell isn’t as simple as closing your eyes and daydreaming. You have to produce it in exact, even fanatical, detail, until it is as real in your mind as any actual object. It takes a lot of practice and energy to do that—and it is why people use props when they set out to do magic. A prop can be used as an anchor, saving the spellcaster the effort of creating not just one, but multiple, mental constructs, and supporting them all in a state of perfect focus and concentration.

I had learned how to do magic the hard way first—all of it in my head. Only after I’d proved I could do it without the aid of props did Justin tell me that it was even possible to use them. Over the years, I’d practiced fairly complex thaumaturgic spells without props maybe once a season, keeping my concentration and imagination sharp. It was a damned good thing I had. Working magic as a ghost was all about doing it au naturel.

I reached into my memory to produce the construct I’d need to stand in for Molly in the tracking spell. At the time, I’d been handed a lot to process, and I hadn’t really taken stock of exactly what kind of shape Molly was in. I’d seen that she was under strain, but upon closely reviewing the memory, I was somewhat shocked at how gaunt and weary she looked. Molly had always been the sort of young person who almost glowed with good health. After six months on her own, she looked like an escapee from a gulag: scrawny, tough, and beaten down, if not broken.

I added more than that to the image. I imagined her cheery goodwill, the self-loathing she still sometimes felt for the pain she’d caused her friends in the days before I agreed to teach her. I thought of her precise, orderly approach to her studies, so much different from my own, her diligence, and the occasional arrogance that pretty much every young wizard has until they’ve walked into enough walls to know better. I thought of the most powerful force in her life, a deep and abiding love for her family, and added in the desolation she must be feeling to be separated from them. Eager, beautiful, dangerous Molly.

I held that image of my apprentice in mind, drew together my will, and tapped into the recollection of one of my more memorable tracking spells, all at the same time. I established the pattern of the modified version of the spell I’d had to cobble together, walked, chewed bubble gum, and released the spell with a murmured word.

The power surged out through me, and a precise, powerful force spun me into a pirouette. I extended my left arm, index finger pointing, and felt a sharp tug against it each time it passed an easterly point of the compass. Within a couple of seconds I stopped spinning, rotated a little past the point, and then settled back slightly in the opposite direction. My index finger pointed straight at the heart of the city.

“Crombie,” I said, “eat your heart out.”

I followed the spell to Molly.

I pulled my vanishing act and went zipping downtown a few hundred yards at a time. I paused to check the spell twice more and correct my course, though by the third check, I was starting to feel like a human weather vane. I had to stop more frequently as I got closer to make sure I was moving in the right direction, and the trail took me down into the great towers within the Loop, where the buildings rose high enough to form what felt like the walls of a deep ravine, a man-made canyon of glass, steel, and stone.

I wasn’t terribly surprised when the spell led me to the lower streets. Some of the streets downtown have two or even three levels. One is up on the surface, with the others stacked below it. A lot of the buildings have upper and lower entrances and parking as well, doubling the amount of access to the buildings within those blocks.

There were also plenty of empty spaces, pseudo-alleyways, walkways, and crawl spaces. Here and there, abandoned chambers in the basements and subbasements of the buildings above sat in silent darkness, waiting to be remade into something new. The commuter tunnels could connect down there, and there were several entrances to the insane, deadly labyrinth beneath the city known as Undertown.

Chicago cops patrolled the lower streets on a regular basis. Things came slinking out of Undertown to prowl the darkness. Traffic would blaze through on the actual streets, which were occasionally only separated from the sidewalks by a stripe of faded paint.

All in all, it’s not the sort of place a sane person will casually wander through.

I found Molly standing in one of the narrow alleyways. Snow had fallen through a grate twenty feet overhead and covered the ground. She was dressed in the same rags I’d seen the night before, with her arms clenched around her stomach, shivering in the cold. There was a fresh, purpling bruise on her cheek. She was breathing heavily.

“Again,” said a cool, calm woman’s voice from farther down the alley, out of sight.

“I’m t-t-tired,” Molly said. “I haven’t e-eaten in a day and a half.”

“Poor darling. I’m sure Death will understand and agree to return another time.”

There was a sharp hissing sound, and Molly threw up her left hand, fingers spread. She spat out a word or two, and flickering sparkles of defensive energy spread from her fingertips into a flat plane.

Molly simply didn’t have a talent for defensive magic—but this was the best shield I’d ever seen the grasshopper pull off.

A hurtling white sphere hit the shield. It should have bounced off, but instead it zipped through the shield, its course barely bent. The sphere struck Molly in the left shoulder and exploded into diamond-glitter shards of ice. She let out a short, harsh grunt of pain and staggered.

“Focus,” said the calm woman’s voice. “Use the pain. Make the shield real with your will. Know that it will protect you. Again.”

Molly looked up with her teeth clenched. But instead of talking, she raised her left hand once more, and another ball of ice flew at her. This one hit the shield and went through—but its path was attenuated more significantly than the last. It flew past her, barely clipping one arm.

She gasped and sank to one knee, panting. Magic taxes the endurance of anyone who uses it—and if you use magic you aren’t particularly skilled with, you get worn down even faster.

I shivered to see Molly like that. I knew how she felt. When Justin began teaching me how to create protective shields, he threw baseballs at me at top speed. When I failed, I was hit with a fastball moving at more than eighty miles an hour. Justin said pain was an excellent motivator, and that the activity was good training.

When I had been teaching Molly how to shield, I hadn’t used anything more painful than fluffy snowballs and rotten fruit.

“That will do for now,” said the woman’s voice. “Tomorrow we will move up to knives.”

Molly shuddered and looked down.

The speaker came walking calmly down the alley to stand over Molly.

It was my faerie godmother, the Leanansidhe.

Lea was beautiful beyond the loveliness of mere humanity, but it was a stark, hungry, dangerous beauty that always reminded me of a hunting cat. She was tall and pale, her hair the color of autumn leaves at sunset. Her ears were very slightly pointed, though I wasn’t sure she hadn’t done that to herself in order to conform to mortal expectations. She wore a long gown of green silk, wholly unsuitable to the task of protecting a mortal from the weather, but as she was one of the most powerful Sidhe of the Winter Court, I doubted she even noticed the cold.

She reached out a hand and touched Molly’s hair with her fingertips.

“Why?” Molly asked, her voice barely more than a whisper. “Why are you doing this to me?”

“Obligation, child,” Lea replied. “Favors owed and loyalties given.”

“You owed it to Harry to do this to me?” Molly asked.

“Nay, child, not me. But my queen is committed to him through ancient law and custom. She dispatched me to continue your training in the Art—and pain is an excellent teaching tool.”

“Harry didn’t believe that,” Molly said, her voice brittle. “He never hurt me.”

The Leanansidhe stooped and seized Molly’s chin, jerking my apprentice’s face up to meet her inhuman gaze. “Then he wronged you badly, child,” Lea replied, enunciating each word sharply. “He cheated you of the legacy he lived—and suffered to acquire. I am not teaching you how to tie knots in rope or to bake pastries. I am making you ready to face battle and emerge alive.”

“I have faced battle,” Molly said.

“In which you were shot, of all things, by a mere mortal foot soldier,” Lea said, contempt flavoring her words. “You nearly died, which would have been greatly humiliating to your mentor and by extension to my queen.”

“What does it matter to Mab?” Molly said, her voice bitter. “He’s dead.”

Lea sighed. “Mortals can be so obsessed with useless detail. It grows tiresome.”

“I don’t understand,” Molly said.

“Your mentor took an oath of fealty to my queen. Such oaths are not to be made lightly—and they place mutual obligations on both parties. Minor details do not excuse either party from its responsibilities.”

“His death is a minor detail?”

“As these things go,” Lea said, “of course it is. You’re all mortals. Even the life length of a wizard is something brief and transitory to an immortal. Similarly, extending her hand to the assistance of those her vassal knew in life is a minor detail. If you live another three centuries, it is little more than a long season to the Queen of Air and Darkness.”

Molly closed her eyes. “He made her promise to take care of me?”

Lea blinked at her, politely baffled. “No, of course not, child. He took an oath of fealty. She is one of the Sidhe. The oath binds her as tightly as it does him. Just as when I was”—Lea shivered—“unable to perform my duties to young Dresden, Mab assumed those responsibilities until I could be restored to them. Thus does she now do for you, through me.”

Molly wiped a hand over her eyes. She shook her head and rose to her feet, moving slowly. “Did he know? I mean . . . did he know Mab would do this?”

“I should have,” I said quietly. “If I’d stopped to think about it for two minutes. I should have known.” But neither of them heard me.

“I knew the boy well,” Lea said. “Better than ever he realized. Many a night did I watch over him, protecting him, and he none the wiser. But I was not privy to his mind or his heart.”

Molly nodded slowly. She looked at Lea for a long moment. My godmother simply watched her, waiting until Molly nodded to herself and said, “His shade is in town, looking for the person who killed him.”

The Leanansidhe’s pale red-gold eyebrows flew up. It was one of the most drastic reactions I’d ever seen from her. “That . . . seems unlikely.”

Molly shrugged. “I used my Sight. It’s his ghost, all right. A construct couldn’t have hidden from me.”

“Six months after his death?” the Leanansidhe murmured. “It is rare for a shade to arise after the season in which it was made—and he was slain last autumn. . . .” Her eyes narrowed. “Interesting.” She tilted her head, studying Molly. “What is your condition?”

Molly blinked dully once before she said, “I need to curl into a ball and sleep for a week. I’m starving. I’m cold. I think I’m getting a cold. I hurt everywhere. I would—” Molly paused and eyed Lea. “Why do you ask?”

The Sidhe only smiled in answer.

Bootsteps sounded, heavy and quick, and a small crowd appeared at the far end of the alley. They were all rough-looking men, carrying an assortment of guns, blades, clubs, and axes. They dressed exclusively in black, to the extent that it looked like they all shopped in the same store. They were also wearing turtlenecks—every single one of them. Talk about weird.

Molly let out a hiss. “Servitors. How did they find me here?”

“I told them where to look,” Lea said calmly.

Molly whirled to her. “You what?”

“I didn’t share your location with the Fomor themselves, child. Just with some of their guard dogs. They think that if they catch you and return you to the Fomor, they will gain great honor—and I did not give them enough time to contact their masters for instructions.” She smiled, showing daintily pointed canines. “Initiative in an underling can be such a troubling thing.”

Molly made a disgusted sound. “I don’t believe this.”

Twenty armed thugs kept striding forward, exuding the calm that comes only from professionals who are not hurrying, keeping their spacing smooth. They were all glaring at Molly.

Lea smirked, already fading out of sight. “It is good training, child.” She vanished Cheshire Cat style, only she left her voice behind instead of her smile. “Let us see what you have learned.”

Chapter Twenty-two

“What I’ve learned,” Molly muttered, mostly under her breath. “So help me, one of these days, I’ll show you what I’ve learned, you skinny bitch.”

Then she focused on the enemy, took a breath, just as I’d taught her to do under stress, and calmed herself. She began to withdraw, calmly, slowly, one pace at a time. That was smart. Had she turned and sprinted, it would have provoked immediate pursuit. Instead, the guys in turtlenecks kept their professional cool, moving steadily forward in a solid block of muscles and weapons. All of them ready to kill a lone, exhausted young woman.

Scum. No way in hell that was happening to my apprentice.

I hadn’t yet tried any true evocation magic, the fast-and-dirty side of violent wizardry, but I thought I had the basic concept down. So I tuned in to a memory of a particularly powerful evocation, when I had blown a rampaging loup-garou straight through the brick wall of one building and entirely through the building across the street. I left out all the details except for the energy blast itself, vanished, and reappeared in front of the oncoming servitors, and snarled, “Fuego!”

A blast of flame and raw kinetic force exploded from my outflung right hand. It hit the front of the enemy formation like a blazing locomotive—

—and washed completely through them, having no effect whatsoever. I didn’t even ruffle their clothes.

“Oh, come on!” I shouted. “That is just not fair!”

I still couldn’t act, couldn’t touch, couldn’t help.

Molly faced the men alone.

She kept walking back until she emerged from the alley into a small parking lot contained within concrete walls and open to the sky. There were only a handful of cars in it, along with a motorcycle and a couple of mounds of piled snow. There were doors fitted with those magnetic card-swipe locks on two of the lot’s walls—employee or executive parking, obviously. The fourth opening led out to the lower avenue, where dull yellow lights cast a feeble gleam.

Molly walked to the middle of the little lot, looked around her, and nodded. “Well, boys,” she said aloud. “I don’t suppose there’s any chance we could talk about this over a cup of coffee at Denny’s? I’m starving.”

One of the turtlenecks, presumably their leader, said, “Submit yourself to the will of the masters. Your pain will be much shortened.”

“Right,” Molly said. She rolled her neck as if to loosen it up and nodded at the speaker. “You’re my huckleberry.”

The turtleneck tilted his head to one side, frowning.

Molly blew him a kiss.

A gust of wind, channeled through the lower street, rushed by, tugging at her ragged clothes, pulling her long coattails out like a flag beside her—and then she exploded.

It happened so fast that I could barely understand what was happening, much less anticipate what would come next. Where my apprentice had been standing suddenly became half a dozen identical, leanly ragged figures darting in every direction.

One Molly flew sideways, both arms extended in front of her, firing a pair of 1911 Colts, their hammering wham-wham-wham as recognizable as familiar music. Another flipped into a cartwheel and tumbled out of sight behind a parked car. Two more ran to each door, virtually mirror images of each other, swiping a card key and slamming into the buildings. A fifth Molly ducked behind a mound of snow and emerged with a shotgun, which she began emptying at the turtlenecks. The sixth ran to the motorcycle, picked it up as if it had been a plastic toy, and flung it toward her attackers.

My jaw dropped open. I mean, I had known the kid was good with illusions, but Hell’s bells. I might have been able to do one of the illusions Molly had just wrought. Once, I had managed two, under all kinds of mortal pressure. She had just thrown out six. Simultaneously. And at the drop of a hat, to boot.

My gast was pretty well flabbered.

The turtlenecks clearly didn’t know how to react, either. The ones with guns returned fire, and they all scattered for cover. The motorcycle didn’t hit anyone as it tumbled past the group, though the crashing sound it made when it landed was so convincing that it made me doubt my such-as-they-were senses. The guns barked several times as the illusionary Mollys all sought cover behind the snow mounds and cars.

I gritted my teeth. “You aren’t one of the rubes, Dresden. You’ve got a backstage pass.” I bent my head, touched my fingers to my forehead for a moment, and opened up my own Sight.

The scene changed colors wildly, going from a dull winter monochrome to an abstract done in smearing, interweaving watercolor. The blurs of magic in the air were responsible for all the tinting—Molly had unleashed a hell of a lot of energy in very little time, and she’d done so from the point of exhaustion. I’d been there enough times to know the look.

Now I could see the illusions for what they were—which was the single largest reason why the wizards of the White Council didn’t put much stock in illusion magic: It could be easily nullified by anyone with the Sight, which was the same thing as saying “anyone on the Council.”

But against this band of hipster, emo, mooklosers? It worked just fine.

Molly, behind an almost perfect magical veil, was standing precisely where she had been at the beginning of the altercation. She hadn’t moved a muscle. Her hands were extended at her sides, fingers twitching, and her face was still and expressionless, her eyes shifted out of focus. She was running a puppet show, and the illusions were her marionettes, dancing on strings of thought and will.

The illusionary versions of Molly were very slightly transparent and grainy, like I remembered movies being when I was a kid. The motorcycle had never moved from where it was parked—an illusion had flown through the air, and a short-term veil was now hiding the bike.

The turtlenecks, though, weren’t going to be shut down by half a dozen young women, even if they had just appeared out of nowhere and apparently were possessed of weapons and superhuman strength. At barked orders from their leader, they came bounding over parked cars and mounds of snow in teams of five, moving with the light, lithe grace rarely seen outside of the Olympics and martial arts movies. They advanced with the kind of frighteningly focused purpose you see only in veterans. These men knew how to survive a battle: Kill before you are killed.

If even one of them closed in on Molly, it was over.

I thought of what it might be like to watch my apprentice die with my Sight open, and almost started gibbering. If that happened, if I saw that horror with eyes that would make sure I could never, ever forget it or distance myself from it, there wouldn’t be anything left of me. Except guilt. And rage.

I shut away my Sight.

“It must be difficult,” said my godmother, standing suddenly beside me, “to watch something like this without being able to affect the outcome.”

“Glah!” I said, or something close to it, jumping a few inches to one side out of sheer nerves. “Stars and stones, Lea,” I said between my gritted teeth a moment later. “You can see me?”

“But of course, Sir Knight,” she replied, green eyes sparkling. “My duty to oversee my godson’s spiritual growth and development would be entirely futile could I not perceive and speak to a spirit such as thee.”

“You knew I was there a moment ago. Didn’t you?”

Her laugh was a bright, wicked sound. “Your grasp of the obvious remains substantial—even though you do not.”

A curtain of green-blue fire about seven feet high sprang up and swept rapidly across the width of the parking lot, between the position of the various Mollys and the turtlenecks. The flames emitted eerie shrieking sounds, and the faces of hideous beings danced about inside them.

I just blinked. Holy crap.

I hadn’t taught the kid that.

“Tsk,” Lea said, watching the scene. “She has an able mind, but she is filled with the passions of youth. She rushes to her finale without building anything like the tension required for something so . . . overt . . . to prove effective.”

I wasn’t sure what my godmother was talking about, but I didn’t have time to try to pry an explanation out of her. . . .

Except that I did.

I mean, what else was I going to do, right?

“Whatever do you mean?” I replied in a polite tone. I almost managed not to grit my teeth.

“Such an”—her mouth twisted in distaste—“overt and vulgar display as that wall of fire is worthy only of frightening children or appearing in something produced by Hollywood. It might yield a short-lived panic reaction, if built up and timed properly, but it is otherwise useless. And, of course, in very bad taste.” She shook her head in disapproval. “True terror is much more subtle.”

I gave my godmother a sharp look. “What?”

“Veils are of limited utility with snow upon the ground,” she explained. “The footprints, you see. It’s quite difficult to hide so many individual disruptions of the environment. Thus, she must work in another medium to survive.”

“Stop this. You’re going to get her killed,” I said.

“Oh, child,” the Leanansidhe said, smiling. “I’ve been doing this for a very long time. All teaching involves an element of risk.”

“Yeah,” I said, “and look at what happened to your last student.”

Her eyes glinted. “Yes. From nothing more than a terrified child, in a mere score of years he grew into a weapon that all but utterly destroyed a world power. The Red Court lies in ruins because of my student. And it was, in part, my hand that shaped him.”

I clenched my teeth harder. “And you want to do the same thing to Molly.”

“Potentially. She has a talent for verisimilomancy—”

“Versa what?”

“Illusion, child,” Lea clarified. “She has a talent, but I despair of her ever truly understanding what it is to cause terror.”

“That’s what she’s learning from you? Fear?”

“In essence.”

“You aren’t teaching her, Godmother. Teachers don’t do that.”

“What is teaching but the art of planting and nurturing power?” Lea replied. “Mortals prattle on about lonely impulses of delight and the gift of knowledge, and think that teaching is a trade like metalsmithing or healing or telling lies on television. It is not. It is the dissemination of power unto a new generation and nothing less. For her, as for you, lessons demand real risk in order to attain their true rewards.”

“I won’t let you turn her into a weapon, Godmother.”

Lea arched a red-gold eyebrow, showing her teeth again. “You should have thought of that before dying, child. What, precisely, will you do to stop me?”

I closed my hands into impotent fists.

The turtlenecks had been briefly stymied, but not stopped, by the wall of flame. It wasn’t high enough. I saw three of them moving together. Two of them linked their hands while a third backed off, then sprinted toward the other two. The runner planted his foot on the linked hands of his supporters, and then both men lifted while the runner leapt. They flung him a good twenty feet up and over the wall of flame.

The runner flipped neatly at the top of his arc and landed in a crouch, holding a machete in his right hand, a pistol in his left. He calmly put two rounds directly into the shotgun-wielding Molly, and two more into the pistol-packing version. Before the last shot rang out, a second turtleneck had gone over the wall and landed beside the first—the leader, I noted. He carried no obvious weaponry, though his belt had been hung with several seashells in a manner that suggested they were dangerous equipment. He remained in a crouch when he landed, looking around with sharp, steady eyes, while his partner covered him.

Shotgun Molly crumpled slowly to the ground, still fumbling at a pocket for more shells for the weapon, while scarlet blood stained the fresh layer of thin snow. Two-Gun Molly’s head snapped back as a dark hole appeared in her forehead, and her body dropped to the snow like a rag doll. Motorcycle-Chucking Molly screamed and snatched up her fallen sister’s guns.

The turtleneck on lookout raised his weapon, but Captain Turtleneck moved his hand in a sharp, negative gesture, and the man lowered the weapon again. Both did nothing as the newly armed Molly aimed the guns and began to fire. Puffs of snow flitted up from the ground a couple of times, but neither was hit.

Captain Turtleneck nodded to himself and smiled.

Crap. He’d figured it out. Coordinated squads of bad guys are one thing. Coordinated squads of bad guys being led by someone who remained observant and cool in the middle of combat chaos were far, far worse.

“Ah, disbelief,” Lea murmured. “Once the mark begins to suspect illusion is at work, there’s little point in continuing.”

“Stop them,” I said, to Lea. “Godmother, please. Stop this.”

She turned to blink at me. “And why should I?”

Captain Turtleneck scanned the ground, and I saw his eyes trace the line of footsteps Molly had made when she had backed into the center of parking lot, when the confrontation had begun. His eyes flicked around and I could practically see the thoughts going through his head. A trail of messy, backward tracks suddenly ended in two clear boot prints. The only Molly in sight had proven to be an illusion—and therefore the real Molly must be nearby, supporting the still-active illusions around him. Where would she be standing?

That last set of boot prints seemed a logical place to look.

Captain Turtleneck drew one of the seashells from his belt, murmured something to it, and gave it an expert, effortless flick. It sailed through the air and landed only inches from my invisible apprentice’s toes.

“Oh,” Lea said, setting her mouth into a pouting moue. “Pity. She had such potential.”

I gave my godmother my most furious glare and sprinted forward.

The shell began to glow with a urine-colored light.

It had worked for Morty. Maybe it would work again.

I flung myself at Molly, focusing on protecting her, and I felt myself slide into her, merging and mingling from the soles of my feet to the crown of my head. (Which hardly made sense, given how much taller I was than she—one more example of the way physics doesn’t necessarily apply to spirits.)

I suddenly felt utterly exhausted, frightened, and at the same time in a state of euphoric exultation. I could feel the various illusions dancing upon threads of my will, demanding complete focus and concentration. My legs and feet ached. My ribs ached. My face and shoulder hurt.

And then I felt myself choke, then wonder what the hell was happening to me.

It’s me, kid, I thought, as loudly as I could. Don’t fight me.

I didn’t know what the seashell would do, but there wasn’t much time to get particular. I extended my left hand along with my will, and murmured, “Defendarius.”

Blue energy suddenly blazed up around Molly and me in a sparkling sphere.

The seashell shone brighter and exploded into a sphere of pure white fire, as hot and fierce as a microscopic nuclear warhead. It lashed against the blue sphere like a bat hitting a baseball. The sphere went flying, taking us with it. I braced my arms and legs against the sides of the sphere, straining to hold it together. Without my shield bracelet, I wasn’t sure how long I could keep it up.

The sphere struck a car and bounded off it into the wall of the building. Its path had us careening tail over teakettle, but our braced arms and legs kept us from smashing our head against the sphere’s interior. We wobbled and rolled into a corner of the lot, and I realized dully as I looked around that Molly’s illusions had vanished. My bad. The strength of the shield had cut her off from them and ended her ability to keep them going.

I looked up to find the turtlenecks advancing on us in a crowd, and I dismissed the sphere, landing in a crouch. I gathered more of my will together and swept my arm from left to right with a murmured word, and a second curtain of blue fire sprang up between me and the oncoming bad guys.

One of them gave the wall of flame a disdainful snort and calmly walked into it.

Like I said, I’m not much when it comes to illusions.

I am, however, reasonably good with fire.

The turtleneck didn’t scream. He didn’t have time. When fire is hot enough, you never really feel the heat. Your nerves get fried away and all you feel is the lack of signal from them—you feel cold.

He died in the fire, and he died cold. The cinder that fell backward out of the fire could never have been casually identified as human.

Now, that got their attention.

I stood there holding the fire against the remaining turtlenecks, the heat scorching away the thin layer of snow on the asphalt, then making it bubble and quiver, changing it into my own personal moat of boilinghot tar. It was hard work to keep it going, but I’ve never been afraid of that.

Harry, I need some room, came a thought from Molly, hardly able to be heard over the blaze of concentration necessary for maintaining the fire.

I gritted my teeth. It was like trying to hold an immensely heavy door open while half a dozen friends squeezed in around me. I felt an odd sensation and increased weariness and blocked them both away. I needed to focus, to hold the turtlenecks away from Molly.

Once again, the bad guys impressed me. They knew that an intense magical effort could be sustained for only a limited amount of time. They didn’t risk losing more men to the fire. Instead, they played it smart.

They just waited.

The fire blazed for another minute, then two, and as my control over it began to get shaky, something attracted my attention.

Flashing blue lights, out on the lower avenue.

A CPD prowler had stopped across the entrance to the parking lot, and a pair of cops, guys I’d seen before, got out and walked quickly into the lot, flashlights up. It took them about half a second to see that something odd was going on, and then they had both guns and flashlights up.

Before the turtlenecks could turn their guns on the police, the officers had retreated to the cover offered by their car, out of direct line of sight from the parking lot. I could clearly hear one of them calling for backup, SWAT, and firefighters, his voice tense and tight with fear.

I felt myself giggling with exhaustion and amusement as I grinned at Captain Turtleneck. “Bad boys, bad boys,” I sang, off-key. “Whatcha gonna do?”

That made Molly cough up a chittering belly laugh, which shouldered my awareness aside and came bubbling out of our mouth.

Captain Turtleneck stared at me without expression for a moment. He looked at the fire, the moat, and then at the police. Then he grimaced and made a single gesture. The turtlenecks began to move as a single body, retreating rapidly back the way they had come.

Once I was sure they were gone, I dropped the wall and slumped to the ground. I sat there for a second, dazzled by the discomfort and the weariness, which I had rapidly grown accustomed to missing, apparently. The smell of hot asphalt, a strangely summertime smell, mingled with the scent of charred turtleneck.

I shivered. Then I made a gentle effort and withdrew from the same space Molly occupied. The weariness and pain vanished again. So did the vibrant scents.

The grasshopper looked up and around, sensing the change. Then she said, “Hold on, Harry,” and fumbled at her pockets. She produced a small silver tuning fork, struck it once against the ground, and then said, “I can hear you with this.”

“You can?”

“Yeah, no big deal,” she said, her voice slurred with fatigue. “See you, too, if I line it up right. And it’s easier to carry around than a bunch of enchanted Vaseline.”

“We’ve got to get out of here,” I said. “Before the cops show up. They’d try to lock you up for a long time.”

Molly shook her head.

“Kid, I know you’re tired. But we have to move.”

“No,” she said. “No cops.”

I arched an eyebrow at her. “What?”

“Never were any cops,” Molly said.

I blinked, looked at the empty entrance to the parking lot, and then found myself slowly smiling. “They were another illusion. And you sold it to the turtlenecks because they thought you’d already blown your wad on the flashy stuff.”

“Excellent,” purred Lea, appearing at my side again.

I flinched. Again. Man, I hate that sudden-appearance stuff.

“An unorthodox but effective improvisation, Miss Carpenter,” she continued. “Adding complexity on the meta level of the deception was inspired—especially against well-informed adversaries.”

“Uh-huh, I’m a rock star,” Molly said, her voice listless. “Lesson over?”

The Leanansidhe glanced at me and then back to Molly, still smiling. “Indeed. Both of them.”

Chapter Twenty-three

Which only goes to prove that you’re never too old, too jaded, too wise—or too dead—to be hoodwinked by one of the fae.

“You set her up,” I snarled, “for my benefit? As a lesson for me?”

“Child,” Lea said, “of course not. It was entwined with her own lesson as well.”

Molly smiled very slightly. “Oh yes. I feel I have grown tremendously from my experience of nearly being incinerated.”

“You saw that your survival depended on the protection of another,” my godmother responded, her voice sharp. “Without help from my godson’s spirit, you would have died.”

“There are a lot of people who can say something like that,” Molly said. “There’s no shame in being one of them.”

Lea looked from Molly to me and then said, “Children. So emotional—and so rarely grateful. I will leave you to consider the value of what I have this evening shown unto you both.”

“Hold it,” I said. “You aren’t going yet.”

Lea looked at me with a flat expression. “Oh?”

“No. You’re giving Molly money first.”

“Why would I do such a thing?”

“Because she’s hungry, she’s tired, she survived your lesson, and she needs to eat.”

Lea shrugged a shoulder. “What is that to me?”

I scowled. “If you’re her mentor, your support of her physical needs while she learns is implicit in the relationship. And since you’re filling in for me anyway, and since my choice right now would be to get food into her, if you don’t do it, you’ll be failing in your duty.”

The Leanansidhe rolled her eyes and murmured, with a trace of amusement, “Now is when you choose to begin paying attention to proper protocol, child?”

“Apparently,” I said. “Stop being cheap. Cough up the dough.”

Her green eyes narrowed dangerously. “I do not care for your tone, child.”

“I’m through being intimidated by you,” I replied, and to my surprise, it came out in a calm and reasonable tone, rather than a defiant one. “You’re the one with an obligation. I’m not being unreasonable. Pay up.”

The Leanansidhe turned to face me fully, those feline eyes all but glowing with either anger or pleasure. Or maybe both.

Molly ordered the Moons Over My Hammy. And hot chocolate.

I sat across the table from her at Denny’s, my elbow on its surface, my chin resting on the heel of my hand. The table could support my elbow because I had decided it should. Her tuning fork sat upright on the table, humming slightly, directly between us. She’d said she could see me if I didn’t move too far to the left or right.

Molly tore into the food with a voracious appetite.

“Weren’t you the one always trying to get me to eat healthier?” I mused.

“Bite me,” she mumbled through a mouthful of food. “Freaking ice age out there. Gotta have fats, proteins, carbs, just to get my furnace going, keep my body temperature up.”

“You know what else would keep it up?” I asked her. “Being indoors.”

She snorted and ignored me for several minutes, venting a ravenous appetite onto the food. I watched her and found it oddly fulfilling. I’d been looking out for the grasshopper for a while. It made me feel good to see her hunger being satisfied because of something I had done.

I guess ghosts have to take pleasure in the little victories—just like everyone else.

I waited until she was cleaning up the remains to ask, “So. What’s with the Ophelia act in front of Murphy and company?”

She froze for a second, then continued moving bits and pieces around her plate with somewhat less enthusiasm. “It isn’t . . .” She exhaled slowly, and her eyes moved around the room restlessly. “There’s more than one reason.”

“I’m listening,” I said.

“Well. Who says it’s an act?” She flipped a couple of bits of hash brown onto her fork and then into her mouth. “Look at me. I’m sitting here talking to my dead mentor. And half the restaurant is worried about it.”

I looked around. She was getting covert stares, all right. “Yeah, but there’s hardly anyone here.”

She laughed a bit harshly. “That makes me feel better.” She put her cup of hot chocolate to her lips and just held it there, trails of steam curling up around her blue eyes. “So. You’ve finally been inside me. I feel like I should be offering you a cigarette.”

I choked and had to clear my throat. “Um. It wasn’t like that, kid.”

“Of course it wasn’t,” she said, an edge in her voice. “It never was. Not for you.”

I rubbed at the back of my neck. “Molly. When I met you . . .”

“I was a child who didn’t need a bra,” she said.

“It’s about your father, too,” I said. “Michael—”

“Is the uncle you never had,” she said, her voice still calm but crisp. “You’ve always wanted his approval. Because he’s a good man, and if he approves of you, you can’t be a total wreck.”

I scowled at her. “I’ve never said that,” I said.

She looked at me through wisps of steam and said, “But it’s true all the same. I had that worked out by the time I was about seventeen. You were afraid that if you touched me, you’d be losing his approval. That it would make you some kind of monster.”

“I was afraid that I’d be losing my approval of me,” I responded. “And not a monster, Molly. Just an asshole.”

“When I was a child,” she said, still speaking very quietly, “you’d have been right. I’m in my mid-twenties, Harry. I’m not a child.”

“Don’t remind—” I paused. Then I said, “I was going to make an old-age joke.” I looked down at my immaterial self. “But all things considered . . .”

She let out enough of a snort to stir the steam. She took a slow drink of hot chocolate. “Little inappropriate. Even if you were still alive.”

“But funnier,” I said.

“You’re not the one who is going to watch her entire family grow old and die, Harry.” She said it without malice. “Not just my parents. My brothers and sisters. All of them. I’m going to be beginning to get respect from other wizards about the same time Hope and Little Harry are dying of old age.”

“Maybe you’ll get lucky and someone will kill you first.”

She shrugged. “Lea’s been doing what she could about that. If it happens, it happens. As long as there’s a reason for it, that kind of death wouldn’t bother me.”

I shivered, just from the emotionless tone of her voice. “Except for the dead part?”

“Everyone dies, Harry,” she said. “There’s no use whining about it.”

I waited for a couple of beats and then said, “Here’s where you talk about how what you do with your life is what’s truly important.”

Her head fell back and she let out a belly laugh. It sounded warm and natural. Her eyes were just too wide, though, her smile too strained.

“Yeah. Exactly.” She shook her head and looked at me intently. “Is that what it’s always like for you? Throwing fire that way?”

I blinked and tried to change mental gears. I didn’t do it as smoothly as she had. Someone uncharitable or unbiased might note that it could be because Molly had stripped said gears. “Um. Oh, back at the fight with the Fomor guys?”

“They weren’t the Fomor,” Molly corrected me. “They were humans the Fomor have altered. They’re called—”

“Turtlenecks,” I said.

She arched an eyebrow. “You and Murphy both. No, they’re known as servitors. The Fomor muck around with them. Install things. Gills, extra muscles, organs for sonar, night-vision eyes . . .”

I whistled. “All kinds of fun.”

She nodded. “The odd bits kind of turn to jelly when they die. Police are calling them transients.”

I nodded, and tried to keep the conversation casual. “A lot of them dying around here?”

“It’s Chicago,” she said. “There’s always someone dying around here. And you should see what these . . . these animals do, Harry. They take people right out of their beds. Grab children waiting for the school bus. They’ve tortured people to death for fun.”

As she spoke, the calm in her voice had begun to fracture. It wasn’t dramatic. Just a break of her voice, an inhalation between sentences that was a little too harsh.

“You can’t stand around doing nothing,” I said, nodding.

“No,” she said. “They’ll come and scream at you in your sleep if you try. So . . .”

“So?”

Molly was silent. I didn’t push. Five minutes went by before she closed her eyes and whispered, “It’s easy. It shouldn’t be so easy.”

Technically, I didn’t have a heart anymore. It couldn’t twist. It couldn’t break.

It did anyway.

“The first one was paying off a cop. Gold coins. He stood there with a little girl in a gym bag and paid the cop to look the other way.” She swallowed. “God, if I could be like you. Have so much power to pour out. Like water from a hydrant. But I’ve just got a squirt gun. Not even a Super Soaker. Just one of the little ones.” She opened her eyes and met mine. “But it was enough. They didn’t even know I was there.”

“Molly,” I said gently, “what did you do?”

“An illusion. A simple one. I made the bag of gold look like a gun. The cop drew his weapon and shot him. But the servitor lived long enough to break the cop’s neck.” She held up a pair of fingers. “Twofer. For one little illusion.”

I swallowed. I couldn’t speak.

Her voice slowly gained volume. “There have been others like that. I mean, God, they make it simple. You just need an opportunity and the right little nudge at the right time. Green traffic light instead of a red one. Put a knife in someone’s hand. Or a wedding ring on one finger. Add a spot of blood to someone’s collar. They’re animals. They tear into one another like animals.”

“Molly,” I said gently.

“I started leaving the bits of rag on them,” she said. “It hurt at first. Being near that kind of . . . experience. It still hurts. But I have to do it. You don’t know, Harry. What you did for this town.”

“What do you mean?”

“You don’t know how many things just didn’t come here before, because they were afraid.”

“Afraid of what?”

She looked at me as if her heart was breaking. “Of you, Harry. You could find anything in this town, but you never even noticed the shadow you cast.” Her eyes overflowed and she slashed at them angrily with one hand. “Every time you defied someone, every time you came out on top against things you couldn’t possibly have beaten, your name grew. And they feared that name. There were other cities to prey on—cities that didn’t have the mad wizard Dresden defending them. They feared you.”

I finally understood. “The Rag Lady.”

“Sometimes me,” Molly said. “Sometimes it’s Lea. She’s like a kid on recess when she takes a shift. I’m building a new name. Creating something else for them to fear. I can’t do what you did, Harry.” Her eyes, red and blue, flashed with something dangerous, deadly, and she slammed the heel of her hand onto the table as she leaned toward me. “But I can do that. I can kill them. I can make the fuckers afraid.”

She stared at me, her breathing heavy. It took her several seconds to look slowly around the room.

Every eye in the place was locked on Molly. A waitress stood with wide eyes and a telephone against her ear.

Molly looked around at them for a moment and then said, “God, you people have it good. You don’t know. You wouldn’t know if one of them walked up to you and tore the thoughts out of your skull.”

She rose, grabbed the tuning fork, and left a pile of wadded bills on the table. She pointed at the waitress and said, “Put the phone down. Or you won’t get a tip.”

The telephone dropped from the woman’s fingers and clattered on the floor.

“See?” she said, glancing back in my general direction. “It’s what I do. It’s what I’m good for.”

I sat there, stunned and heartbroken, unable to think of anything to say or do to help Molly.

I watched my mad apprentice stalk out of the silent restaurant and into the frozen night.

Chapter Twenty-four

I walked the shadowy streets, thinking. Or, at least, trying to think.

When I’d been alive, walking was something I did when I needed to chew something over. Engage the body in effort and activity and the purely physical manifestations of a mental problem stop being distractions. I didn’t have a body anymore, but I didn’t know how else to cope with so many overwhelming troubles.

So I walked, silent and invisible, my head down, and I thought furiously as I went.

A single fact glared out at me, blazing in front of my mind’s eye in stark reality illuminated by all the lives that were on fire around me:

In the end, when it had mattered most, I’d blown it.

I grew up an orphan with nothing but a few vague memories of my father before he’d died. My childhood hadn’t been the kind of thing I’d wish on anyone. I had run into some bad people. Justin was the worst—a true monster.

When I was sixteen or seventeen, still agonized by his betrayal, and certain that I would never know anything like a home, friends, or family, I made myself a promise: I would never allow a child of mine to grow up as I had—driven from home to home, an easy victim with no protector, never stable, never certain.

Never.

When Susan had asked me to help her recover Maggie, I went all-in without a second thought. The child was my daughter. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t known about her or that I had never seen her with my own eyes. There was a child of my blood who needed my help and protection. I was her father. I would die to protect her if need be.

End of story.

I may have had good reasons. I may have had the best of intentions.

But intentions aren’t enough, no matter how good they are. Intentions can lead you to a place where you’re able to make a choice.

It’s the choice that counts.

To get my daughter back, I’d crossed a line. Not just crossed it; I’d sprinted at it and taken a flying freaking leap over it. I made a pact with the Queen of Air and Darkness, giving away my free will, my very self, to Mab in exchange for power enough to challenge the Red King and his monstrous Court. That was stupid.

I’d had excuses at the time. My back had been against the wall. Actually, it had been broken and against a wall. All the help I’d been able to call upon, all the allies and tricks and techniques in my arsenal, had not been enough. My home had been destroyed. So had my car. I couldn’t even get up and walk, much less fight. And the forces arrayed against me had been great—so great that even the White Council of Wizards was terrified of confronting them.

In that bleak hour, I had chosen to sell my soul. And after that, I had led my closest friends and allies out on what I knew was practically a suicide mission. I’d known that such a battle would put a savage strain on Molly’s psychic senses, and that even if she did manage to survive, she might never be the same. I’d risked the two irreplaceable Swords of the Cross in my keeping, sending them into the battle even though I knew that if we fell, some of the world’s mightiest weapons for good would be captured and lost.

And when I saw that the sacrificial blood rite the Red King had intended to destroy me could be turned back on the Red Court, I had used it without hesitation.

I murdered Susan Rodriguez on a stone altar in Chichén Itzá and wiped out the Red Court. I saved my little girl.

I created a perfect situation for chaos to engulf the supernatural world. The sudden absence of the Red Court might have removed thousands of monsters from the world, but it meant only that tens of thousands of other monsters were suddenly free to rise, to expand into the vacuum I’d created. I shuddered as I wondered how many other men’s little girls had been hurt and killed as a result.

And, God help me . . . I would do it again. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t noble. It wasn’t good. I’d spent less than three hours in the company of my daughter—and so help me, if it meant keeping her safe, I would do it again.

Maybe the White Council needed an Eighth Law of Magic: the law of unintended consequences.

How do you measure one life against another? Can thousands of deaths be balanced by a single life? Even if Mab had not had time to fully take possession of me, how could I be sure that the very act of choosing to cross that line had not changed me into something monstrous?

I found myself stopped, standing on the Michigan Avenue bridge over the Chicago River. The mounded snow filled the night with light. Only the waters below me were dark, a black and whispering shadow, the Lethe and the Styx in one.

I looked up at the towers nearby. NBC. Trump’s place. The Sheraton. They stood tall and straight and clean in the night. Lights winked golden in windows.

I turned and stared south of me at the Loop, at the skyline I knew so well. There was a rare moment of stillness down Michigan Avenue. Streetlights. Traffic lights. A scattering of fresh snowflakes, enough to keep everything pretty and white instead of slushy and brown.

God, my town is beautiful.

Chicago. It’s insane and violent and corrupt and vital and artistic and noble and cruel and wonderful. It’s full of greed and hope and hate and desire and excitement and pain and happiness. The air sings with screams and laughter, with sirens, with angry shouts, with gunshots, with music. It’s an impossible city, at war with itself, every horrible and wonderful thing blending together to create something terrifying and lovely and utterly unique.

I had spent my adult life here fighting, bleeding, to protect its people from threats they thought were purely imaginary.

And because of what I’d done, the lines I crossed, the city had gone mad. Fomor and their turtlenecks. Freakish ghost riots. Huddled groups of terrified folks of the supernatural community.

I hadn’t meant for that to happen, but that didn’t matter. I was the guy who made the choice.

This was all on me.

I stared down at the quiet blackness of the river. I could go down there, I realized. Running water would disrupt supernatural energy, disperse it, destroy the pattern in which it flowed.

And I was made out of energy now.

The black, whispering river could make everything go away.

Styx. Lethe. Oblivion.

My apprentice was bitter, damaged. My friends were fighting a war, and it was tearing at their souls. The one guy who I was sure could help me out had been snatched, and there wasn’t a whole lot I could do about it. Hell’s bells, I was doing well just to find someone who could hear me talk.

What could I do?

What do you do to make up for failing everyone in your life? How do you make it right? How do you apologize for hideous things you never intended to happen?

I don’t remember when I fell to my knees. Memories, stirred by my rumination, flooded over me, almost as sharp and real as life. Those memories stirred others and brought them along, like pebbles triggering a landslide. My life in Chicago rolled over me, crushed me, all the black pain and bright joy doubling me over, ripping tears out of my eyes.

Later, it was quiet.

It was difficult. A tremendous, slow inertia resisted my desire. But I pushed myself to my feet again.

I turned away from the river.

This city was more than concrete and steel. It was more than hotels and businesses and bars. It was more than pubs and libraries and concerts. It was more than a car and a basement apartment.

It was home.

My home.

Sweet home Chicago.

The people here were my family. They were in danger, and I was part of the reason why. That made things pretty clear.

It didn’t matter that I was dead. It didn’t matter that I was literally a shadow of my former self. It didn’t matter that my murderer was still running around somewhere out there, vague prophecies of Captain Murphy notwithstanding.

My job hadn’t changed: When demons and horrors and creatures of the night prey on this city, I’m the guy who does something about it.

“Time to start doing,” I whispered.

I closed my hands into fists, straightened my back, and vanished.

Chapter Twenty-five

I was ten minutes late to the meeting with Fitz, but he was still there, lurking at a nearby storefront, looking about as innocent as an only child near a fresh Kool-Aid stain. He had a huge, empty sports-equipment bag hanging over one shoulder. For the love of God. The kid might as well have been wearing a stocking cap and a black mask, with a giant dollar sign printed on the outside of his bag to boot.

I appeared next to him and said, “You look so relaxed and calm. I’ll bet any cop that rolls by will ask you for tips on self-control.”

Fitz twitched, clearly controlling an instant instinct to flee. Then he spat on the frozen ground and said, “You’re late, Harvey.”

“Forgot to wind my watch,” I said.

“And I was starting to think my brain had thrown a rod after all.” Fitz looked up and down the street and shook his head. “But nothing’s ever that easy.”

“Life can be a bitch that way,” I said.

“So, you’re real.”

“I’m real.”

Fitz nodded. “You said you would help. Were you serious about that?”

“Yes,” I said.

A gust of wind pulled his longish, curly red hair out to one side. It matched his lopsided smirk. “Fine. Help.”

“Okay,” I said. “Turn left and start walking.”

Fitz put a fist on his hip and said, “You were going to help me with the guns.”

“Never said that,” I said. “You need help, kid, not tools. Guns aren’t gonna cut it.” I waited for him to begin to speak before I interrupted him. “Besides. If you don’t play along, I’ve arranged for word to get to Murphy about where you and your band of artful dodgers are crashing.”

“Oh,” he snarled. “You . . . you son of a bitch.”

“Excuse me?” I said.

“You can go fuck yourself.”

“You need help. I’ve got it to give. But there ain’t no free lunch, kid,” I said in a calm and heartless tone. “You know that.”

“You can kiss my ass is what you can do,” he said, and turned away.

“Go ahead and walk,” I said. “But you’re throwing away your only chance to get your crew out from under Baldy.”

He stopped in the middle of taking a step.

“If you bug out now, where are you going to go—back to Baldy? He’ll kill you for failing to get the guns. And after that, Murphy’s crew and the Rag Lady will take out the whole building. Baldy will probably skate out on your buddies, and do the same thing to some other batch of kids.”

Fitz turned his head in my general direction, his eyes murderous. But he was listening.

“Look, kid. Doesn’t have to be the end of the world. If you work with me, everything’s peachy.”

I was lying, of course. The last thing I wanted was to hand Murphy a convenient target in her present frame of mind. And I really did want to help the kid—but I’ve been where he was mentally. He wouldn’t have believed in a rescuer on a white horse. In his world, no one just gave anyone anything, except maybe pain. The best you could hope for was an exchange, something for something, and generally you got screwed even then. I needed his cooperation. Handing him a familiar problem was the best way to get it.

“I’m not a monster, Fitz. And honestly, I don’t care about you and your goons or what happens to you. But I think you can help me—and I’m willing to help you in return if you do.”

The young man grimaced and bowed his head. “It’s not as though I have a lot of choice, is it?”

“We’ve all got choices,” I said calmly. “At the moment, yours are limited. You gonna play ball?”

“Fine,” Fitz spat. “Fine. Whatever.”

“Groovy,” I said. “Hang a left and get going. We’ve got some ground to cover.”

He shoved his hands into his pockets, his eyes sullen, and started walking. “I don’t even know who the hell you are.”

“My name is Harry Dresden,” I said.

Fitz stumbled. “Holy shit,” he said. “Like . . . that Harry Dresden? The professional wizard?”

“The one and only.”

He recovered his pace and shook his head. “I heard you were dead.”

“Well, yeah,” I said, “but I’m taking it in stride.”

“They say you’re a lunatic,” Fitz said.

“Oh yeah?”

Fitz nodded. “They also . . .” He frowned. I could see the wheels spinning. “They also say you help people.”

“So?”

“So which is it?”

“You’ve got half a clue, Fitz,” I said. “You know that talk is cheap. There’s only one way to find out.”

Fitz tilted his head to one side and then nodded. “Yeah. So. Where we going?”

“To visit an old friend.”

We went to a street toward the north end of the South Side. Seedy wasn’t a fair description for the place, because seeds imply eventual regrowth and renewal. Parts of Chicago are wondrous fair, and parts of Chicago look postapocalyptic. This block had seen the apocalypse come, grunted, and said, “Meh.” There were no glass windows on the block—just solid boards, mostly protected by iron bars, and gaping holes.

Buildings had security fences outside their entrances, literally topped with razor wire. You’d need a blowtorch to get through them. At least one of the fences in my line of sight had been sliced open with a blowtorch. Metal cages covered the streetlights, too—but they were all out anyway. Tough to make a cheap metal cage that stops rounds from a handgun.

Every flat, open space had been covered in spray-painted graffiti, which I guess we’re supposed to call urban art now. Except art is about creating beauty. These paintings were territorial markers, the visual parallel to peeing on a tree. I’ve seen some gorgeous “outlaw” art, but that wasn’t in play here. The thump-thud of a ridiculously overpowered woofer sent a rumbling rhythm all up and down the block, loud enough to make the freshly fallen snow quiver and pack in a little tighter.

There was no one in sight. No one. Granted, it was getting late, but that’s still an oddity in Chicago.

I watched as Fitz took in the whole place and came to the same conclusion I had the first time I’d seen it—the obvious squalor, the heavy security, the criminally loud music with no one attempting to stop it.

“This is territory,” he said, coming to an abrupt halt. “I’m alone, I’m unarmed, and I’m not going there.”

“Vice Lords,” I said. “Or they were a few years ago. They’re a long-term gang, so I assume they still are.”

“Still not going there,” said Fitz.

“Come on, Fitz,” I said. “They aren’t so bad. For a gang. They almost always have a good reason to kill the people they kill. And they keep the peace on this street, if you aren’t too far behind on your payments.”

“Yeah. They sound swell.”

I shrugged, though he couldn’t see it. “Police response time for this place is way the hell after everything has already happened. People here are more likely to get help from a gang member than a cop if they’re in trouble.”

“You’re a fan?”

“No,” I said. “It shouldn’t be like this. The gangs are dangerous criminals. They rule through force and fear. But at least they don’t pretend to be anything else.”

Fitz grimaced and looked down to stare at his open palms for a moment. Then he said, “Guess I’m not in a place where I can throw stones.”

“You couldn’t break anything if you did,” I said. “You’re of no use to me dead, kid. We’re not going down the block. First place on the right. If you don’t walk past there, you won’t be crossing any lines.”

Fitz frowned. “The place with the metal shutters?”

“Yeah. You remember what I told you to say?”

“Yeah, yeah, I remember the script,” Fitz said, scowling. “Can we get this over with?”

“I’m not the one who can knock on the door.”

He scowled more deeply and started walking.

The building he went to was part of a larger building that had once held four small businesses. One had been a clinic, one a lawyer, and one a small grocery. They were gutted and empty now. Only the fourth one remained. The metal shutter over the doorway held the only thing that looked like actual art: a nearly life-sized portrait of a rather dumpy angel, the hem of his robe dirty and frayed, his messy hair doing nothing to conceal his oncoming baldness. He held a doughnut in one hand and had a sawed-off shotgun pointing straight toward the viewer in the other.

“Heh,” I said. “That’s new.”

Fitz regarded the painting warily. “What is this place again?”

“A detective agency,” I said. “Ragged Angel Investigations.”

“Looks kinda closed,” Fitz said.

“Nick can’t afford an apartment,” I said. “He sleeps here. He drinks sometimes. You might have to be loud.”

Fitz eyed the block and then the door. “Yeah. Great.” He rapped on the metal shutter. Nothing happened. He repeated it, knocking slightly louder and longer. Still nothing.

“Ticktock, kid.”

He glowered in my direction. Then he started pounding on the shutter in a heavy, steady rhythm.

Maybe five minutes later, there was the click of a speaker, evidently small enough to be concealed virtually in plain sight. “What?” said a cranky, whiskey-roughened voice.

“Um,” Fitz said. “Are you Nick Christian?”

“Who wants to know?”

“My name is Fitz,” the kid said. He’d pitched his voice slightly higher than usual. It made him sound a hell of a lot younger. “Harry Dresden said that if I was ever in trouble, I could come to you.”

There was a long silence. Then Nick’s voice said heavily, “Dresden is history.”

“That’s why I’m here,” Fitz said. “I don’t have anywhere else to go.”

Nick sounded annoyed. “Dammit. He told you to say that, didn’t he?”

Fitz looked slightly bemused. “Well. Yes, actually.”

“I am getting too old for this crap,” he growled. Then there were several loud clicks and a short, heavy screech of metal, and the shutter rolled up.

Nick Christian hadn’t changed much since I’d last seen him. He was short, out of shape, well past his fiftieth birthday, and had sharp, quick, dark eyes that seemed to notice everything. His bald spot was larger. So was his stomach. He was dressed in a white undershirt and boxer shorts, and he held an old wooden baseball bat in his right hand. He shivered and glared at Fitz.

“Well, boy. Get in out of the cold. And keep your hands in sight, or I’ll brain you.”

Fitz held his hands up in plain sight and went in. I followed. There was a threshold at the doorway, but it was flimsy as hell, and felt more like a sheet of Saran Wrap than a wall. The muddling of business and home life in the same space was probably responsible. I pushed through it, following Fitz.

“Right,” Nick said. “Close the shutter and the door. Turn all the locks.”

Fitz eyed Nick for a moment. Streetwise and cynical, the kid didn’t like the idea of locking himself into a strange building with a strange old man.

“It’s all right, Fitz,” I said. “He might kick your ass out his door if you give him trouble, but he won’t do anything to hurt you.”

Fitz glowered in my general direction again, but he turned and followed Nick’s instructions.

We stood in his one-room office. It looked . . . Hell, it looked almost exactly like mine had, though I’d never compared the two in my head before. Old filing cabinets, a coffee machine, a desk, and a couple of chairs that had been pushed all the way to one wall to make room for a simple folding cot on an aluminum frame. Nick also had a computer and a television set, features my office never had. Nick was no wizard—just an old detective with a set of iron principles and a self-appointed mandate to help people find their lost children.

There were also seven pictures on his wall, every one of them an eight-by-ten school photo of a child between the ages of six and thirteen. The first few were faded, the hair and clothing styles in them clearly aged.

Nick went around to the back of his desk, sat down, pulled a bottle of rye from the top drawer, and slugged back a swallow. He capped it, put it back, and eyed Fitz warily. “I don’t get involved in Dresden’s line of work,” he said. “I know my limits.”

“The magic stuff,” Fitz said.

Nick shuddered and glanced at his top drawer. “Yeah. That. So if you came here for that, you’re out of luck.”

“No,” Fitz said. “It’s about gangs. Dresden said you knew them.”

Nick shrugged one shoulder. “Some.”

“A man I know was abducted,” Fitz said. “There’s a description of the guy we think did it.” Fitz dished out what I remembered about the thug who had broken into Morty’s house.

Nick listened to it all without saying a word. Then he nodded once. Then he asked, “Who is this man to you?”

“No idea,” Fitz said. “You’re the expert.”

“Not the kidnapper.” Nick sighed. “The victim.”

Fitz hardly hesitated. “My uncle.”

Nick mused over that. Then he said, “I am too old to get up in the middle of the night and get conned. Get out.”

“Wait,” Fitz said, holding out a hand. “Wait, please.”

Nick opened the top drawer again, but this time he came out with an old 1911. He didn’t point it at Fitz. “Good try, kid. But I’ve been in this town a while. Walk back to the door and let yourself out.”

“Dammit,” I muttered. “Fitz, listen to me. Tell him this, word for word.”

Fitz listened, nodded, and then said, “I can’t tell you everything for a reason, Mr. Christian. Dresden said you and he had an understanding. That you wanted nothing to do with his side of the street.”

“I don’t,” he said. “Get out.”

I fed Fitz his next line.

“He also said that you owed him a favor.”

Nick narrowed his eyes to slits. “What favor?”

Fitz listened to me, then said, “All the money and fame the Astor case brought you.”

Nick arched an eyebrow. “All the . . .” He looked away and shook his head. He couldn’t keep the smile off his mouth, until he finally snorted. When he spoke, there was laughter under his words. “That sounds like Harry.”

The Astor case had been about a little girl lost. Her parents cared more about the fame of having an abducted daughter than they did about her, and when she ran off one day, they hired the child-recovery specialist Nick Christian and his apprentice, Harry Dresden, to find her. We did. She hadn’t been kidnapped, but the Astors had reported her so, and, in the absence of an actual perpetrator, fingered Nick and me. It had been a trick and a half to get her safely back into her parents’ custody without going to jail. There was a lawsuit afterward. The judge threw it out. But, all in all, finding that little girl had cost Nick about two thousand bucks.

Nick hadn’t wanted to take the case. I had talked him into it. He had wanted to cut and run the moment I confirmed the kid was at liberty. I had talked him into seeing it through, being sure she was safe. When I’d completed my apprenticeship, Nick’s graduation present had been to forgive me the two grand I owed him.

“You were tight with him?” Nick asked.

“He was sort of my adviser,” Fitz said. “Sometimes it’s almost like he’s right there next to me, still.”

Nick grunted. “Investigation apprentice or the other kind?”

Fitz put on a sober face. “I’m not at liberty to say.”

“Hngh,” Nick said, nodding. “Heard he’d picked up an apprentice. You’re holding back to keep me distanced from the situation.”

“Yes.”

“And you just want the information? You don’t want me to work the field on it?”

“That’s right.”

“A wwww,” Nick said. He scratched at his ear and said, “Yeah. I guess. What else can you tell me about this guy?”

I fed Fitz his lines. “He was crazy.”

Nick snorted. “Whole hell of a lot of gangers are crazy, kid. Or the next best thing.”

“Less money-drugs-sex-violence crazy,” Fitz said. “More creepy-cult crazy.”

“Hngh,” Nick said. Lines appeared on his brow. “There’s one, where they all wear the hoodies with the hoods up all the time. Got rolling maybe three or four years back. They don’t call themselves anything, but the gangs call them the Big Hoods. No one knows much about them.”

“Perfect,” I said to Fitz. “Sounds like the assholes we’re looking for. Ask him where they’re set up.”

“A tunnel under the Eisenhower Expressway, on the south end of the Meatpacking District. The other gangs think they’re crazy to be where the cops move so freely, but the Big Hoods never seem to attract any police attention.” He scrunched up his eyes. “Don’t think they even claim any territory. That’s all I got.”

“Because they aren’t a gang, per se,” I said. “Excellent, Fitz. Let’s move.”

“Thank you,” Fitz said to Nick.

“Thank Dresden. Wouldn’t have said that much to anyone else.”

“I’ll do that.” Fitz stared intently at Nick for a moment and then said, “What do you do here?”

“As a private cop?” Nick asked. “Take some cruddy work to keep the lights on—divorces and so on. But mostly I look for lost kids.”

“Doing it a while?” Fitz asked.

“Thirty years.”

“Find any?”

“Plenty.”

“Find any in one piece?”

Nick stared hard at Fitz for a long time. Then he pointed a finger up and behind him, to the row of portraits on the wall.

“Seven?” Fitz asked.

“Seven,” Nick said.

“In thirty years? You live like this and . . . Seven? That’s it? That’s all?”

Nick leaned back in his chair and gave Fitz a small smile. “That’s enough.”

Outside, Fitz said, to me, “He’s crazy.”

“Yeah,” I said. “And he helps people.”

Fitz frowned and moved hurriedly back out of the Vice Lords’ domain. He was silent for several blocks, seemingly content to walk beside me and think. Eventually, he looked up and asked, “You still there?”

“Yeah.”

“All right. I helped you. Pay up.”

“Okay,” I said. “Take a right at the next corner.”

“Why?”

“So I can introduce you to someone who will help.”

Fitz made a rude sound. “You really love not telling people things, don’t you?”

“I don’t love it, so much as I’m just really good at it.”

Fitz snorted. “Does this guy drink, too?”

“Nah. Sober as a priest.”

“Fine,” Fitz sighed, and kept trudging.

Chapter Twenty-six

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” said Fitz.

We were standing outside Saint Mary of the Angels. Calling the place a church is like calling Lake Michigan a swimming hole. It’s huge, literally taking up an entire city block, and an architectural landmark of Chicago. Gorgeously built, a true piece of gothic art, both inside and out, St. Mary’s had often served as a refuge for people with the kind of trouble Fitz was facing.

The kid was not in good shape. We’d done a considerable bit of hiking that evening, and despite what might have been the beginnings of a thaw, it was still below freezing, and the slight lack of bitter cold in the wind wasn’t stopping it from cutting through Fitz’s layers of mismatched clothing and his old jacket. Those lean, gangly kids have the worst of it when winter sets in. They lose their body heat fast. He’d been making up for it in exercise, but he was getting tired, and I remembered that he probably hadn’t eaten since I’d seen him before the previous day’s sunrise.

He stood clutching his arms around his body, shivering and trying to look like nothing was wrong. His teeth were chattering.

“I know a guy here,” I said. “Go around to the back door and knock until someone answers. Ask for Father Forthill.”

Fitz looked skeptical. “What’s he gonna do for me?”

“Give you a blanket and some hot food, for starters,” I said. “Look, kid, I’m giving you my A game here. Forthill’s a decent guy. This is what he does.”

Fitz clenched his jaws. “This isn’t getting me the guns back. I can’t go back without them. If I can’t go back, I can’t get my crew out.”

“Go inside,” I told him. “Talk to Forthill. Get some food in you. If you decide you want to go back and try to sneak the guns out of that drift on your own, you’ll have plenty of time before dawn.”

Fitz set his jaw stubbornly.

“Your choice, man,” I said. “But going hungry in cold like this is hard on the body. You had, what—seven weapons? Most of them submachine guns? Comes out to maybe forty pounds. Call it fifty if you bring back all the clips and ammo. Think you can burrow into a half-frozen snowbank, get all those guns out, load them up, and walk for most of an hour in the coldest part of the night? On an empty stomach? Without a cop spotting you and wondering what a guy your age is doing on the dark streets so late, carrying a really heavy bag?”

He grunted.

“At least have a damned sandwich.”

Fitz’s stomach gurgled audibly, and he sighed. “Yeah. Okay.”

It took Fitz five minutes to get anyone to answer the door, and when it finally opened, a dour, sour-looking elderly man in a heavy brown bathrobe vaguely reminiscent of a monk’s habit opened the door. His name was Father Paolo, and he took himself very seriously.

Fitz told him that he needed to see Father Forthill, that it was a matter of life and death. Only after several minutes of emphasizing his original statement did Father Paolo sigh and invite Fitz in.

“Stay there,” Paolo said, pointing a stern finger at Fitz.

Fitz pointed at the ground, questioningly, and then nodded. “Got it.” Then he deliberately took a small shuffle-step to one side as the priest began to turn away, drawing a scowl worthy of at least a cardinal.

I probably shouldn’t have undermined Paolo’s authority by chuckling like that, but come on. That’s comedy.

Forthill came down the hall from his chambers a few moments later, dressed in flannel pajamas and a heavy, black terry-cloth robe. He had thick, fuzzy house shoes on his feet, and his fringe of hair was standing up every which way. His bright blue eyes were a little watery and squinty without the aid of his glasses. He blinked at Fitz for a moment and then said, “Can I help you, my son?”

“Harry Dresden said you could,” Fitz said.

Forthill raised his eyebrows. “Ah. Perhaps you should come with me.”

Fitz looked around and then nodded. “I guess.”

Forthill beckoned and led Fitz back down some hallways to the neat, modest chamber where he slept and lived. It was maybe ten feet square and contained a bed, a desk, a chair, and a couple of lamps. Forthill let Fitz in, then closed the door behind the young man. “Please have a seat, my son.”

Fitz looked around for a moment, then sat down on the chair. Forthill nodded and sat on the edge of his bed. “First things first,” he said, his eyes twinkling. “Should I give you a good set-up line for you to make a pithy comment about Catholic priests and sexual abuse of young men, or would you prefer to find your own opening during the conversation?”

Fitz blinked a couple of times and said, “What?”

“Such remarks are apparently quite popular. I wouldn’t want to deny you the enjoyment.”

“Oh, uh. No, that’s all right, Father.”

Forthill nodded gravely. “As you wish. Shall we talk about your problems now?”

“All right.”

“Well, then,” the priest said, “perhaps you should start by telling me when Dresden told you to come to me for help.”

“Uh . . .” Fitz said. He glanced around, as if looking for me.

“Go ahead,” I told him. “Just tell him the truth. It’s all right.”

Fitz took a deep breath and said, “About thirty minutes ago, Father.”

Forthill’s eyebrows tried to turn themselves into a toupee. “Oh?”

“Yeah,” Fitz said, his eyes restless. “I, uh. I hear dead people.”

“That must be disconcerting.”

“I’m not crazy,” Fitz said quickly.

“I never thought you were, my son,” Forthill said.

Fitz gave him a suspicious scowl. “You believe me?”

The old man gave him an imp’s grin. “I’m well aware of the supernatural facets of our city—and that the streets have been particularly dangerous for the past six months or so.”

“That’s . . . putting it sort of lightly, Father,” Fitz said.

He nodded. “I’m sure your experience has not been a gentle one,” he said. “I won’t add to it with my own disbelief.”

Fitz bit his lower lip for a moment. “Okay.”

“I am also aware,” Forthill continued, “that Dresden’s shade is apparently taking a hand in things. I assume that’s who you’ve spoken to?”

“Yeah.”

Forthill nodded and looked around the room. “He’s . . . he’s here with you, isn’t he?”

“Wow,” I said. “Points for Forthill.”

“Yeah,” Fitz sighed. “He . . . kinda doesn’t shut up.”

Forthill chuckled. “He is—he was—a very determined young man.”

“Hasn’t changed,” Fitz said.

“I see,” the priest said. “My son, I am sure you understand that these are perilous times. I am afraid that I must ask for some kind of confirmation that this entity is who he says he is.”

Fitz looked at the priest blankly. Then around the room. “You hear that?”

“Yeah,” I said. I walked over to the far wall of the room and stuck my head through it. On the other side was a dark space, a hidden storage compartment just large enough to contain a couple of small file cabinets. The concealed compartment had been unknown to anyone but Forthill until I worked a case for an archangel a while back. Michael Carpenter and I had seen him open the hidden cabinet.

“Come over here,” I said. “Knock on the wall, right here. Forthill will know what it means.”

“Uh, dude,” Fitz said. “I can’t see where you are.”

I sighed. “Can you hear my voice?”

“Yeah,” he said, “but it’s just . . . like, this disembodied thing. There’s not much direction to it.”

Which made sense. He was not actually, physically, hearing me speak. Fitz’s gift to sense spirits simply expressed itself as something his mind could interpret—in this case, auditory stimulus.

“Uh, okay,” I said. “Walk over to the back wall of the room, the one you were facing when you came through the door.”

Fitz said to Forthill, “He’s trying to tell me how to prove he isn’t full of crap.” Then he stood up and walked across the room.

“Okay,” I said. “Put your hand out on the wall. Now move to your right. Little more. Little more. Too far. Okay, now about nine inches down, and rap on it with your knuckles.”

Fitz did all of that and finally knocked on the wall. Then he turned to Forthill and said, “Mean anything to you?”

The old priest pursed his lips and nodded. “Indeed. Indeed it does.”

“Man,” Fitz said, shaking his head. “Old people.”

Forthill smiled at that. “Well, my son. Are you as cold and hungry as you look?”

Fitz tried to look nonchalant. “I could eat, I guess.”

“How long has it been since you’ve had a hot shower?”

Fitz rolled his eyes and said, “Now, if that isn’t a straight line, I don’t know what is.”

Forthill chuckled and spoke to the air. “Dresden, I’m sure that you’re in a hurry and that there is some kind of dire deadline, but I’m not talking business with you until the young man is seen to.” He said to Fitz, “That door leads to my bathroom. There’s a shower. There’s a cardboard box under the sink with several items of clothing in it. I keep them on hand for events such as this. Feel free to take any of them.”

Fitz just stared, frowning. “Uh. Okay.”

“Get cleaned up,” Forthill replied, his tone firm. “I’ll go round up something to eat while you do. Do you prefer tea or cocoa?”

“Um,” Fitz said. “I guess cocoa.”

“Excellent taste,” Forthill said. “If you will excuse me.” He left the room quietly.

Fitz started looking around the room immediately.

“I doubt there’s much to steal,” I said. “Forthill isn’t really into material things.”

“You kidding? Look at this place. Pillows, blankets.” He looked under the bed. “Three pairs of shoes. It’s a hell of a lot more than my crew has. Zero rolls in four pairs of socks and some old moccasin house slippers.”

“Guy’s offering you clothes and food,” I said. “You’re not seriously going to steal his stuff, are you?”

Fitz shrugged. “You do what you have to do to live, man. I do. Everyone does. Nothing personal.” He looked in Forthill’s closet, at maybe half a dozen outfits’ worth of clothing, and shook his head. “Ah. He’ll notice if I try to take any of this stuff.” He looked toward the bathroom.

“Go ahead,” I said. “You can lock the door behind you. I’m telling you, kid, Forthill is one of the good guys.”

“That’s make-believe. There ain’t no good guys,” Fitz said. “Or bad guys. There’s just guys.”

“You’re wrong about that,” I said.

“Heard that one before. People who want to use you always say they’re the good guys,” Fitz said. “You’re one of them, right?”

“Heh,” I said. “No. I’m an arrogant ass. But I know what a good guy looks like, and Forthill is one of them.”

“Whatever, man,” Fitz said. “I haven’t had a shower in two weeks. If I tell you to buzz off, will you do it? Or do I have to keep hearing you yammer?”

“Sorry, Fitz. You aren’t my type.”

He snorted, went into the bathroom, and locked the door behind him. I heard the water start up a moment later.

I stood in the priest’s empty chamber for a moment, looking around it. Everything there was plain, modest, functional, and cheap. The quilt covering the bed looked like it might have been made for Forthill by his mother when he went to seminary. There was a King James Bible next to the bed. It, too, looked worn and old.

I shook my head. Granted, my life hadn’t exactly been featured on an MTV series covering the excesses of the rich and famous, but even I’d had more than Forthill did. How could a man go through life with so little? Nothing of permanence, nothing built up to leave behind him. Nothing to testify to his existence at all.

The kind of man who isn’t focused on his own existence, I guess. The kind of man who cares more about others than he does himself—to the point of spending the whole of his life, a life as fleeting and precious as anyone else’s, in service to his faith and to humanity. There was no glamour in it, no fame.

Forthill and men like him lived within their communities, where they could never escape reminders of exactly what they had missed out on. Yet he never called attention to himself over it, never sought sympathy or pity. How hard must it be for him to visit the expansive, loving Carpenter family, knowing the whole time that he could have had a family of his own? Did he ever spend time dreaming of what his wife would have been like? His children? He would never know.

I guess that’s why they call it sacrifice.

I found Forthill in the church’s kitchen, assembling a meal from leftovers. When I’d been the one taking shelter in the church, it had been sandwiches. Fitz was rating a larger meal. Hot soup; a couple of sandwiches, turkey and tuna, respectively; a baked potato; an ear of corn on the cob; and a small salad.

A few seconds after I walked into the kitchen, Forthill paused, aimed a vague smile at the room, and said, “Hello, Harry. Assuming that’s you, of course.”

“It’s me, Father,” I replied. I mean, he couldn’t hear me and I knew it, but . . . it just seemed sort of rude not to say anything.

“I had a difficult conversation with Karrin this evening,” Forthill said. “She told me that you had found the persons who shot at her home last night. And that you want us to help them.”

“I know,” I sighed. “It sounds insane, but . . .”

“I think that to Karrin, you must have sounded quite insane,” he continued. “But I consider your reaction to be remarkable for its compassion. I can only presume that the boy is one of these gang members.”

He finished off the food preparations and turned to face me, more or less. “Don’t worry. I have no intention of bringing Ms. Murphy into this situation—at least not for the time being. Her judgment has been clouded since your death, and grows more so as the fighting goes on.”

I felt myself relax a little. “I hoped you wouldn’t.”

“I will grant the boy sanctuary here for now. I’ll talk with him. I’m sure he will tell me the particulars of his situation. After that, I will have to act in accordance with my conscience.”

“Can’t ask a man for more than that, Father,” I said. “Thank you.”

He picked up the simple wooden tray laden with Fitz’s meal and stood there for a moment. “It’s a shame we can’t converse. I would love to hear about your experience. I should think it would be fascinating, a chronicle of one of the most enigmatic functions of Creation—Death itself.”

“Nah,” I said. “The mystery doesn’t stop even after you get to the other side. There’s just a lot more paperwork.”

“Also, I find it interesting that you are here on holy ground,” Forthill said. “If I remember correctly, the last ghost who attempted to enter this church couldn’t even touch the building, much less wander freely around it. What does it mean?” He shook his head, bemused. “I suppose you’d be the one to ask, eh?” He tipped his head in a polite, if badly aimed, nod, and left the room.

It was an excellent question, the thing about ghosts and holy ground. When Leonid Kravos, aka the Nightmare, had come to kill one of my clients I’d stashed at the church, he hadn’t been able to get in. He’d torn up several thousand dollars’ worth of landscaping and flower beds in sheer frustration.

The Nightmare had been a more powerful shade than I was at the moment. So why could I make myself at home, when he’d been stopped as cold as the Big Bad Wolf at the third Little Pig’s house?

“Note to self,” I said. “Look into apparent mystic anomaly later. Help your friends now.”

I sometimes give myself excellent advice. Occasionally, I even listen to it.

It was time to pay a visit to the Grey Ghost and the Big Hoods.

Chapter Twenty-seven

I headed for the Big Hoods’ hideout with several important facts in mind.

Fact one: The Big Hoods themselves could not do me harm.

Fact two: There wasn’t diddly I could do to the Big Hoods.

Fact three: The Big Hoods were apparently led by this Grey Ghost, a spirit that had been tossing lightning around with impunity during the attack on Morty’s house. That meant that the Grey Ghost was the shade of someone with at least a sorcerer’s level of talent, and while I felt sure I could defend myself against such an assault if I was ready for it, if I got blindsided, I might end up like Sir Stuart quicker than you could say ka-zot.

Fact four: The Grey Ghost had a bunch of lemurs hanging around. While my own spectral evocations might not be able to affect the living, they would sure as hell work on lemurs and the like. I could handle them easily one-on-one, but it seemed likely that they would come at me in waves, or maybe try to wear me down by throwing a horde of wraiths at me first.

Fact five: If the Grey Ghost was giving the orders to mortal cultists, they might have taken measures of their own to deal with ghosts. There might be circle traps prepared. There might be wards or other magical barriers. There might be dangerous substances like ghost dust. If I went in all fat and happy and confident, I could wander right into serious trouble.

Fact six: There were all kinds of spiritual beings in the wide universe, and ghosts were only a tiny cross section of them. I had to be ready for anything. Another entity of some sort might well wander in, drawn by the conflict. Or, hell, for all I knew, one might already be taking a hand.

“No closed minds, Dresden,” I ordered myself. “Don’t get suckered into thinking this is one limited, small-scale problem. There’s every chance it might be part of a much, much larger problem.”

If my afterlife went anything like my life had, that seemed a safe bet.

Fact seven: Sooner or later, dammit, I was going to start laying out a little chastisement where it was long overdue.

I flashed back to several vivid memories of when I had done exactly that. Images of violence and flame and hideous foes flickered through my head, sharp and nearly real. The emotions that accompanied those memories came along for the ride, but they were one step removed, distant enough to let me process them, identify them.

Rage, of course. Rage at the creatures who were trying to harm the innocent or my friends or me. That rage had been both a weapon and armor to me in moments of mortal peril. It was always there, and I always welcomed its arrival—being filled with anger was infinitely preferable to being filled with terror. But seeing it in my heightened memories, it made me feel a little sick. Rage was a word we used for anger when it was being used in the cause of right—but that didn’t sanctify it or make it somehow laudable. It was still anger. Violent, dangerous anger, as deadly as a flying bullet. It just happened to be a bullet that was aimed in a convenient direction.

Fear next: always fear. It doesn’t matter how personally courageous you are. When something is trying to kill you and you know it, you’re afraid. It’s a mindless, lizard-brain emotion. There’s no way to stop it. Courage is about learning how to function despite the fear, to put aside your instincts to run or give in completely to the anger born from fear. Courage is about using your brain and your heart when every cell of your body is screaming at you to fight or flee—and then following through on what you believe is the right thing to do.

The White Council blamed me for causing trouble with various supernatural evils, and while I’m not quite arrogant enough to blame all the world’s problems on my mistakes, they probably had a point. I have issues with bullies and authority figures. And I refuse to stand by and do nothing when those too weak to defend themselves become victims.

But how much of that had been courage, and how much of it had been me embracing my probably righteous anger so that I wouldn’t feel the fear? As the memories flipped by, I saw myself again and again throwing myself into the fire—sometimes literally—to help someone who needed it or to kill something that needed killing. The tidal surges of my emotion had propelled me, fueled my magic, and many times they had made it possible to survive when I wouldn’t have otherwise.

But when I’d been running on adrenaline, I’d rarely stopped to consider the extended consequences of my actions. By saving Susan from Bianca of the Red Court, I had offered a high-profile insult to the entire vampire nation. When Duke Ortega had shown up to challenge me to a duel, to restore the honor of the Red Court and forestall a war, it had ended in a bloodbath—and it had never occurred to me to attempt to ensure any other outcome. As a result of the disastrous duel, a wizard named Ebenezar McCoy, my grandfather, had brought an old Soviet satellite down from its orbit, right on top of Ortega’s stronghold. No one survived. Then Arianna, Ortega’s wife, the daughter of the Red King, had sought her own vengeance even as the Red Court launched a fullscale war.

Arianna’s vengeance had materialized in the form of murdering my daughter’s foster family and abducting her. Once Susan heard about it, she got in touch. And again I flung myself into fire without a thought.

None of those things had to happen. I mean, I wasn’t the only guy in the world who had driven that course of events. I knew that. But I had been the guy who had been standing at the tipping point between possible outcomes with depressing regularity. Could I have done something differently? Was it even possible to know?

In my memories, I murdered Susan Rodriguez again.

Time heals all wounds, they say, but I somehow knew I wouldn’t be able to escape this one. Granted, only a few days’ subjective time had passed since the events of that evening, so the memory was still fresh in my painfully clear recollection. But time wasn’t going to help much with what I had done. And it probably shouldn’t.

I wanted to hurt the Grey Ghost and its merry band of shades. I wanted to hurt them badly, make them feel the vitriol burning inside my belly. I wanted to take them on and smash them to flinders upon my will.

But. . .

Maybe I should pause for a moment. Maybe I should think. Maybe I should reject both anger and fear and strive for an outcome beyond kicking down the door and smashing everything in my way. Play it smart. Play it responsible.

“Little late for you to be learning that lesson now. Isn’t it, dummy?” I asked.

No. It was never too late to learn something. The past is unalterable in any event. The future is the only thing we can change. Learning the lessons of the past is the only way to shape the present and the future.

Why did I want this fight so badly?

“Here’s a thought, genius,” I said to me. “Maybe it’s got something to do with Maggie.”

Maggie. My little girl. I would never see her grow up. I would never get to watch for any signs of manifesting talent, so that I could teach her and give her the choice of how to live her life. I would never get to hear her sing a song, or go trick-or-treating, or send her a present for Christmas. I would never . . .

At some point during that dark thunderstorm of regret, fire had erupted from seemingly every surface of my body, a furious red-gold flame. It wasn’t hot at first, but after a few seconds it got uncomfortable and rapidly progressed to actual pain. I ground my teeth, closed my eyes, and forced order upon my thoughts, tried to replace the outrage with cool, steady logic.

Several seconds later, the fire died away. I opened my eyes slowly, eyeing the scorch marks on my coat and a blister or two on my exposed skin. Clear bubbles of ectoplasm dribbled from the blisters.

“So, yeah,” I said. “You may have anger issues where Maggie is concerned, Harry.”

Heh. You think?

“Got a rocket,” I sang, “in your pocket. Turn off the juice, boy.”

Show tunes? Really? It wasn’t bad enough that you’ve started talking to yourself, man. Now you’re doing performing art.

But the musically inclined me had a point.

“Play it cool, boy,” I whispered. “Real cool.”

I approached the Big Hoods’ lair obliquely and cautiously. One might even accuse me of being overly cautious. I circled the lair from all angles, including up above, in a slow, spiral-shaped pattern that only gradually drew closer. I held a veil over myself the entire time, too. It wasn’t any easier as a ghost than it had been in the flesh, and I still couldn’t throw the greatest veil in the world, but I managed to make myself if not invisible, at least difficult to see.

I wasn’t there to fight. I was there to learn. Mort needed my help, but maybe the best way to give it to him wasn’t to go charging in like a rogue rhinoceros. Knowledge is power. I needed all the power I could get if I was going to help Morty.

The problem was that the Grey Ghost had apparently marshaled supporters of both the spirit and the flesh—and I couldn’t fight the damned crazy thugs who just happened to be made of solid matter. I’d need help. Maybe I could hop into Morty again and toss out enough power to let him run away—but that assumed Morty would let me step in at all. He sure as hell didn’t seem to like it the first time. It also assumed that he would be free and able to physically escape, and that I could neutralize his material captors. There was no guarantee either of those things would be the case.

I thought that the tip from Nick was a good one. I think he had identified the right bunch of yahoos, and I had faith in his knowledge of Chicago streets. After a lifetime walking them—and surviving—Nick was an expert. Chicago PD’s gang unit sometimes went to him for advice. Sometimes he even gave it to them.

But any expert could be wrong. If the Grey Ghost was wily enough to have a hideout separate from its material mooks’ living quarters and had stashed Mort there, I was about to waste a whole lot of time. But how would it get a setup of its own without physical help to establish it? If it was strong enough, I supposed, it could have a demesne of its own in the Nevernever—the spirit world. I’d dealt with a ghost named Agatha Hagglethorn once, and she’d had her own little pocket dimension filled with a Victorian-era copy of Chicago.

(It burned down.)

(I was not responsible.)

Anyway, I had to wonder if the Grey Ghost didn’t have a similar resource. It would make one fine hidey-hole to avoid annoying things like sunrise, daylight, and recently deceased wizards.

I paused for a moment to consider a notion. I wondered if I could establish a demesne of my own. I mean, theoretically, I knew how it would work. Granted, there’s as much space between theory and practice in magic as there is in physics, but it isn’t an unbridgeable gap. I was reasonably sure that it could be done. Maybe I could get Butters to let me talk shop with Bob for a few minutes. He’d know what I needed to make it happen, I was sure.

But what would I make it look like? I mean . . . in theory, I could make it practically anything I wanted. I’m sure there would be some kind of energy-to-area requirement that would limit it in absolute terms, but if I wanted, I could make it look like the Taj Mahal or the old Aladdin’s arcade where I used to play video games, back before my magic made it all but impossible. I could have a mansion. I could probably make some kind of simulacrum of a butler, if I wanted.

I sighed. Bob would, I was certain, suggest simulacrum French maids tottering around in stiletto heels as his first and most conservative contribution. It would only get more depraved from there.

In the end, there was really only one of a couple of things my demesne could possibly be: a Burger King restaurant or my old apartment. The one that had burned with the rest of my life.

Suddenly, there was no appeal in considering my own demesne anymore.

“Stop wasting time,” I told myself.

I shook off the thoughts and continued my stalk of the Big Hoods’ clubhouse, sniffing around for possible magical defenses; alarm spells seemed most likely, but I had to assume that a ghostly sorcerer could create as much destructive mayhem as a mortal one. I could run into anything from ill-tempered guardian entities to a magical equivalent of claymore antipersonnel mines.

Hell, I’d seen a vampire’s nest that used actual AP mines. Nasty toys. I would be keeping an eye out for any physical defenses as well, in the event I needed to warn Murphy or her crew about them when I showed up for the actual rescue operation.

“For the op,” I corrected myself. “Sounds cooler if you call it the op.” I moved closer, veil in place, senses tuned to the possibility of danger. “Definitely. Murphy would call it the op.”

The entrance to the hideout was just where Nick had said it would be, beneath an overpass where a steel door had once led to an old cityworks storage area. I found no suspect magic in the immediate area around the bridge, which made sense. If I had been spreading detection spells around my own hideout, I wouldn’t have gone to the trouble to set them up where the sunrise would obliterate them every morning.

To make something that lasted longer than a day or two at most, considerable effort was required. At the very least, you’d have to use some kind of physical object to harbor the spell’s energy. Technically, you could use any object, though it was not unheard-of for wizards to utilize whatever they happened to have in their pockets at the time. It’s probably where all the old stories of enchanted spindles, combs, brushes, and mirrors come from.

Most often, the magical energy was channeled into carvings or painted symbols. I’d once set up a rental storage unit as a short-term haven in case things ever went to hell. I’d laid up about a hundred small protective spells on the walls, floor, and ceiling of the place in various colors of paint. The energy inside them was stored in the paint, safe from the sunrise and ready to project a shield whenever the symbols felt the touch of hostile magic.

But a monitoring spell wouldn’t be the kind of thing that could lie dormant. It had to actually be “looking” around all the time. That meant a constant, modest expenditure of energy, which would in turn be exposed and vulnerable to sunrise. Land mine–type spells were a lot easier, like my protective spells, only with more kaboom in them. I wasn’t surprised that I didn’t find any of those outside the hideout. Few people would host a picnic underneath the overpass, but it was Chicago, and all sorts of folks would be through this area during the day. Random people being horribly incinerated would certainly draw the attention of the local authorities, and possibly that of the White Council. The Grey Ghost didn’t seem to be an idiot. No death traps were left lying around where some schoolkid or bum might stumble into them.

I wouldn’t have set up like that, either. It made far more sense for such sentry spells to be laid down underground, deep enough for the steady presence of the earth to shield the spell energy from disruption.

The Grey Ghost was smart. Things would get interesting about fifteen or twenty feet down.

I finished my last circuit of the site and moved to the door. I reached out a hand and stopped with my palm about an inch away from the metal. I sensed something subtle but there, like the attractive field around an old, weak magnet. I frowned and focused on it, finding a spell of a composition unlike anything I’d ever seen before.

It was something subliminal, sending out a kind of beckoning energy that I wouldn’t have noticed had I not been specifically looking for something like it. It would otherwise have been buried in the background energy of the city and its inhabitants. I stretched out a hand to touch the stream of energy flowing steadily outward. It oozed over the surface of my skin, a crawling sensation that made me shudder.

It’s smarter not to play around with unfamiliar magic. Besides, I had other things to do. I lowered my hand and stepped toward the source of the music I’d begun hearing in my head at some point. There was little sense wasting more time up on the surface. And I hadn’t heard that song in forever, but I could still sing along. I started humming and—

—and stopped myself with my nose about half an inch from the steel door.

I broke out into a cold sweat.

Hell’s bells. That magic hadn’t been heavy-duty, but it had been puissant. A few seconds after touching it, I had almost walked blindly and mindlessly through the door and into whatever reception was prepared for intruders on the other side. I couldn’t know exactly what was over there without getting a look, but it sure as hell wasn’t a gift basket and a bottle of wine.

I stepped back from the door and the siren spell with what I felt was a properly Darwinian appreciation of the danger it represented. Oh, it might not blow you up like the defensive wards I’d had on my apartment, but a scalpel can open up your arteries just as readily as a sword. In some cases, more so. I shivered and clutched my arms to my belly.

That spell wasn’t the work of a novice or marauding sorcerer experimenting with magic he’d found in the metaphysical section of a bookstore. Whoever had put that thing together had been a true professional, one with centuries of experience.

One who was probably more capable than I when it came to magic.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m hoss. When the spells start flying, mine are some of the flashiest, most violent on the planet. I’m like the Andre the Giant of the supernatural world. I’ve got a lot of power and mass to throw around.

Andre would be a great person to have on your side in a brawl against a rowdy tavern crowd. But in a more focused situation, he would be at the mercy of professionals who, while lacking his raw power, could nonetheless apply their own strength more efficiently and effectively. Murphy was an excellent example of that kind of fighter. She wasn’t much bigger than a bread box, but I’d seen her toss around guys weighing most of three hundred pounds like they were unruly puppies.

If the Grey Ghost was responsible for that spell, then I was lucky to have survived our first meeting. The smart move would be to scamper. If it came to a fair fight, I might find myself completely outclassed.

I felt a shivering, cold presence on the back of my neck, and turned to find wraiths nearby. They drifted toward the hideout from all directions, coming in a slow, steady procession and moving in perfectly straight lines. The siren spell made sense to me now. It wasn’t a guard spell, though it could certainly have that purpose. It was also a beacon, a dinner bell being rung to signal the mindless horde now approaching.

They never sped up, never slowed. They just kept floating forward until they began to pass through the closed steel door in groups of two and three as they converged upon it.

I pursed my lips, thinking. The Grey Ghost wasn’t killing wraiths. It was using them. For the moment, at least, there wouldn’t be any kind of guard spell on the other side of the door. There couldn’t be, or the Grey Ghost would be slaughtering its own troops and wasting its own investment of time and energy to boot.

I might have an opportunity here. The inbound wraiths would almost certainly be routed by what amounted to a cattle chute. That route would most likely be clear of supernatural booby traps. It might be possible to gain entry, find a vulnerable point along the chute, and then duck out of it to run a quick reconnaissance of the Grey Ghost’s headquarters and find Mort.

It took half an hour for the procession to be complete, and the flow of wraith traffic never let up. I stopped counting them at 450 and swallowed. That wasn’t a herd of wraiths. That was a bloody horde. If one of the wraiths decided it wanted to eat me, it would have to perform a miracle to divide me into enough pieces to feed all of its dinner company.

My veil seemed to have prevented me from being noticed as they approached, but that could just as easily be the effect of the beacon spell. For all I knew, once the beacon shut off, they’d all turn around and come at me like greyhounds leaving the gate. It would require a singularly stupid man to go hang around in narrow tunnels and cramped spaces alongside a threat like that.

“And I, Harry Dresden, am that man,” I stated.

I waited for the last wraith to go in and counted to twenty. My mouth felt dry. Fear boiled in my belly and made my knees feel unsteady. My fingers trembled.

I told them all that they were just preconceived residual memories anyway and that I would tolerate no guff from them.

Then I ground my teeth and followed the horde.

Chapter Twenty-eight

I slipped through the steel door and into the blackness on the other side. I ignored the darkness until it went away, and then began to move stealthily forward.

I stopped with the Scooby-Doo action a couple of feet later and just started walking. I mean, honestly, sneaking. It wasn’t as though I could step on a twig or accidentally kick an old can and make a sound, right? Being a ghost, the problem wasn’t being sneaky—it was getting noticed in the first place.

Besides. Nobody who was concerned about detecting my presence would be using their ears to sense me coming.

I began extending my wizard’s senses out in front of me.

When I say wizard senses, I mean it in a similar fashion to spider sense. Spidey’s enhanced senses detect when he’s in danger and warn him that he’s got incoming. A wizard’s senses don’t do that (though I suppose with enough work, someone could come close). What they do sense is the presence of magic, in both its natural state and its worked forms. You don’t have to be concentrating to make it happen—it’s natural in every practitioner.

The theory I’ve heard espoused most often is that the ability to sense such energies makes it possible for a regular person to become a wizard, providing the kind of sensory feedback he needs to gradually work with more and more energy. So while a regular person who lacked the sense could, technically, learn how to use magic without it, it would be a process as difficult as someone who was born blind teaching himself to paint.

I focused on that sense in me, partially blocking out my less important, physical senses to give greater attention to the presence of magic in my surroundings. It was pretty thick in here. The door led to a concrete stairway going down into the earth, and each step bore lit candles and thickly painted magical symbols. The latent energy in the paint was almost devoid of arcane power, barely detectable, but it was there and I saw it as faint phosphorescence. The energy of the beacon spell was still going strong. Somewhere in my head I had evidently decided to interpret it as a sound, because I could hear its slow throb like a bass beat on a big woofer.

I went down the stairs, my senses attuned to the ground at my feet. What looked like one more bit of barely magical scribbling could be concealing something far more potent and dangerous—but it didn’t. I went down two flights of stairs unmolested.

The bottom of the stairway opened onto a rectangular room that had once been some sort of electrical junction. It obviously wasn’t in service anymore. Large steel boxes and glass-faced readouts were spotted with rust and dust. There was more of the occult writing down here—all of it disjointed and fantastically disconnected, as if someone had composed a poem in a foreign language by randomly stringing together words from a dictionary.

It all bore the same trace amounts of magical energy as the writing on the stairs. The Big Hoods evidently had a certain amount of latent talent, which seemed to fit together with the idea of the Grey Ghost recruiting some mortal flunkies to assist it in . . .

. . . In whatever the hell he or she was trying to do.

What was he or she trying to do?

I mean, I knew the Grey Ghost had attacked Mort’s place. But why? Why take Mort to begin with? Granted, the little ectomancer could probably be a pain in the ass to any ghost who got too ambitious in Chicago, but the Grey Ghost’s ambitions seemed to have been limited to gunning for Morty. What could he possibly have to offer as a target?

At the far end of the junction room, there was a gaping, ragged hole in the wall that looked like it had been made with sledgehammers. It opened onto a rough tunnel beyond—the beginnings of Undertown proper.

A man’s anguished scream came from the opening.

I nearly burst into a sprint but stopped myself. Unthinking sprints were a good way to get killed. Re-killed. Instead, I moved forward into the rough-hewn corridor. It was cold and damp, and slime and mold were everywhere. I unimagined the strong, musty smell that would otherwise have filled my nose and paced forward, watching for traps and working hard not to move my feet in time with the bass-drum rhythm of the beacon spell.

I passed a number of alcoves that joined the corridor. They were individual quarters for the Big Hoods, apparently. Each contained a mattress or an air mattress and something resembling bedding, only covered with mildew and mold. Each had a box or a couple of bags, containing what I presumed to be personal belongings. More arcane gibberish covered the walls, along with slogans such as THE LIZARD FOLK ARE ALREADY HERE! WATCH FOR THEIR EYES! A couple of them looked occupied, with large, bulky forms snoring under the disgusting blankets.

A minute or two later, the passage opened up into a torch-lit room about the size of a hockey rink. The entrance was high up on one wall, so that my head was level with the larger room’s ceiling. There were stairs cut into the wall beneath my feet, so that I could walk down them into the large room—which I didn’t, as it was packed full of bad guys. I swallowed and made sure my veil was still running strong.

The bass beat of the beacon hammered loudly here, coming from a pit that had been cut into the floor. It must have been at least ten feet across, and I couldn’t tell how deep it was. It was surrounded by written formulae that were far less nonsensical than the others, and they sent out flashes of dim red light in time with each pulse of the beacon.

The pit was full of wraiths.

They swirled round and round in steady, mindless motion, each of them overlapping with dozens of others, so that it looked less like a group of beings moving in a circle than some bizarre stew with the occasional recognizable portion of human anatomy appearing above the mix. The hollow not-scream of the empty-eyed wraiths was a huge and hideous sound, one that surged in time with the beacon.

Maybe two dozen lemurs were scattered around the room. They’d lowered their hoods, and without their faceless menace to back them up, they just looked like people. Some were standing. Some were sitting. Another group was playing cards. Still others just stared at nothing, bemused.

A group of Big Hoods was gathered around the pit, all but two of them on their knees and chanting. They bowed at regular intervals and clapped their hands together at others. A gallows that looked like it had been constructed out of a driveway basketball goal hung over the pit, with a pair of Big Hoods holding one end of the rope.

Morty dangled from the other end, trussed up from his hips to his neck. He was swinging back and forth on the end of the line and slowly spinning. Gasps and broken sobbing sounds came from him.

Standing in empty air directly before him, moving as he did, was the Grey Ghost. The figure looked at least as menacing as it had the first time around. When it spoke, its voice was liquid, calm—and feminine.

“You need not do this to yourself, Mortimer,” the Grey Ghost said. “I take no pleasure in inflicting pain. Yield. You will do it in the end. Save yourself the agony.”

Mort opened his eyes. He licked his lips and said in a cracked, thick voice, “G-g-go fuck yourself.”

The Grey Ghost murmured, “Tsk.” Then nodded and said, “Again.”

“N-no,” Morty choked out, beginning to twist against his bonds. He accomplished nothing other than to start spinning more rapidly. “No!”

The two Big Hoods holding the rope calmly lowered Mort down into the swirling pit of insanely hungry wraiths. They collapsed in on Morty, as if the surf could choose where it wished to crash—and it all wished to crash on the little ectomancer. The cauldron of mad ghosts boiled and congealed onto him, all but hiding him from sight.

Mort began to scream again, a horrible, humiliated sound.

“One,” counted the Grey Ghost. “Two. Three. Four.”

At the last number, the flunkies hauled him up out of the pool of wraiths, and Morty hung there, swinging back and forth and sobbing again, gasping for breath.

“Each time you refuse me, Mortimer, I will add another second to the count,” said the Grey Ghost. “I know what you’re thinking. How many seconds will it take to drive you mad?”

Mort tried to regain control of his breathing, but it was a futile effort. Tears marked his face. His nose had begun to run. He opened his eyes, his jaw clenched, his bald pate scarlet, and said, his voice cracking, “Go watch the sunrise.”

“Again,” said the Grey Ghost.

The Big Hoods lowered Morty into the pit once more. I didn’t know what happened to a living mortal attacked by a wraith, but if Morty’s reaction was any indicator, it wasn’t good. Again he screamed. It was higher pitched than a moment before, more raw. The screams all but drowned out the calm, monotonous count of the Grey Ghost. She went to five, and then the Big Hoods hauled him up again. He twitched in spasmodic motion, as if he’d developed a simultaneous charley horse in every muscle and sinew. It took his screams at least ten seconds to die away.

“It’s more art than science,” the Grey Ghost continued, as if nothing had happened. “In my experience, most minds break before seven. Granted, most do not have your particular gifts. Whatever happens, I’m sure I will find it fascinating. I ask again: Will you help me?”

“Go jump in a river, bitch,” Morty gasped.

There was a moment of silence. “Again,” the Grey Ghost snarled. “Slowly.”

The obedient Big Hoods began to lower Mort slowly toward the wraith pit again.

Mort shook his head vainly and twisted his obviously battered body, trying to curl up and away from the swirling tide of hungry ghosts. He managed to forestall his fate by a few seconds, but in the end, he went down among the devouring spirits once more. He screamed again, and only after the scream had well and truly begun did the Grey Ghost start counting.

I’d never really had the highest opinion of Morty. I had hated the way he’d neglected his talents and abused his clients for so long, back when I’d first met him. He’d gone up in my estimation since then, and especially in the past day. So maybe he wasn’t a paragon of virtue, but he was still a decent guy in his own way. He was professional, and it looked like he’d had more juice all along than I thought he had.

That said a lot about Morty, that he’d kept quiet about the extent of his ability. It said even more about him that he was standing in the lion’s den with no way out and was still spitting his defiance into the face of his captor.

Dammit, I thought. I like the guy.

And the Grey Ghost was destroying him, right in front of my eyes.

Even as I watched, Morty screamed again as the wraiths surged against him, raking at him with their pale, gaunt fingers. The Grey Ghost’s calm voice counted numbers. It felt like a minor infinity stretched between each.

I couldn’t get Mort out of this place. No way. Even if I went all-out on the room and defeated every single hostile spirit in it, Mort would still be tied up and the Big Hoods would still be looming. There was no percentage in an attack.

Yet standing around with my thumb up my ghostly ass wasn’t an option, either. I didn’t know what the Grey Ghost was doing to Morty, but it was clearly hurting him, and judging from her dialogue (straight out of Cheesy Villain General Casting, though it might be), exposure to the wraiths would inflict permanent harm if Morty continued to refuse her. And there were the murderous spirits back at the ruins of Mort’s house to think about, too.

And as if all that wasn’t enough, sunrise was on the way.

Dammit. I needed an edge, an advantage.

The fingers of my right hand touched the solid wooden handle of Sir Stuart’s pistol, and I was suddenly keenly aware of its power, of the sheer, tightly leashed potency of the weapon. Its energy hummed silently against my right palm. I remembered the fight at Morty’s place and the havoc Sir Stuart’s weapon had wreaked among the enemy—or, rather, upon a single enemy.

The Grey Ghost had feared Sir Stuart’s gun, and I couldn’t imagine she’d done so for no reason. If I could take her out, the other spirits who followed her would almost certainly scatter—the kind of jackals who followed megalomaniacs around rarely had the stomach for a confrontation without their leader to stiffen their spines. Right?

Sure. Just because the lemurs still outnumber you more than a dozen to one doesn’t mean they’ll see you as an easy victim, Dresden. You’ll be fine.

There should be a rule against your own inner monologue throwing around that much sarcasm.

But there was still merit in the idea: Kill the Grey Ghost and then run like hell. Even if the lemurs came after me, at least the main voice who appeared to be guiding the Big Hoods would be silenced. It might even get all the malevolent spiritual attention entirely off of Morty.

All I had to do was make one shot with Sir Stuart’s pistol. No problem. If I missed, I probably wouldn’t survive the experience, sure, but other than that it should be a piece of cake.

I gritted my teeth and began to move slowly toward the Grey Ghost. I didn’t know how close I could get before my half-assed veil became useless, but I had to do everything I could to maximize the chances of a hit. I wasn’t a marksman, and the pistols of the eighteenth century weren’t exactly precision instruments, but I couldn’t afford to miss. Of course, if the Grey Ghost sensed me coming, she would have time to run, to dodge, or to pull some sort of defense together.

I had to kill her before she knew she was under attack. There was some irony there, considering the way I’d died.

The Grey Ghost finished her count, and the Big Hoods hauled a sobbing Morty out of the pit again. He hung there, twitching, suffering, making involuntary sounds as he gasped for breath. The Grey Ghost stood in front of him, motionless and, I felt certain, gloating.

Ten feet. I knew my veil was shoddy and my aim only middling, but if I could close to ten feet, I figured I had a fairly good chance of hitting the target. That would put me on the near edge of the wraith pit, shooting across it to hit the Grey Ghost. Of course, if I missed, the Grey Ghost wouldn’t need to kill me. All she’d have to do was freaking trip me. The wraiths, once they sensed my presence, would be all over me.

Then I’d get what Morty was getting. Except that as a ghost myself, they’d be tearing me into tiny, ectoplasm-soaked shreds. And eating them.

What fun, I thought.

I tried to move steadily, to keep myself calm. I didn’t have any adrenaline anymore to make my hands shake, but they shook anyway. Dammit. I guess even a ghost is still, on some level, fundamentally human. Nothing for it but to keep moving.

Thirty feet.

I passed within a few yards of a lemur who was apparently staring into nothingness—though his eyes were lined up directly with me. Perhaps he was lost in a ghostly memory. He never blinked as I went by.

Twenty-five.

The wraiths wheezed out their starving, strangled howls in the pit a few feet ahead of me.

Twenty.

Why do I keep winding up in these situations? Even after I’m dead?

For the fun, I thought to myself. For the fun, fun, fun-fun, fun.

Chapter Twenty-nine

Then the floor near the Grey Ghost’s feet rippled, and a human skull floated up out of it, its eye sockets burning with a cold blue flame.

The Grey Ghost turned to look at the skull, and something about her body language soured. “What?”

“A Fomor messenger is at the outer perimeter,” the skull said. It sounded creepily like Bob, but there was a complete absence of anything but a vague contempt in its voice. “He bears word from his lord.”

I got the impression that the Grey Ghost tilted her head beneath its hood. “A servitor? Arriving from the Nevernever?”

“The outer perimeter is the Nevernever side, of which I am custodian,” the skull replied. “The inner perimeter is the mortal world. You established that more than a year ago.”

The Grey Ghost made a disgusted sound. “Have a care, spirit. You are not indispensible.” She looked at the suspended Morty and sighed. “Of course the Fomor disturb me with sunrise near. Why must my most important work continually be interrupted?”

The skull inclined itself in a nod of acknowledgment. “Shall I kill him and send back the body, along with a note suggesting that next time they call ahead?”

“No,” snapped the Grey Ghost. “Of course not. Curb your tongue, spirit, lest I tear it out for you.”

“If it pleases you to do so. I am but a servant,” the skull said with another nod. The contempt in its tone held steady, though. “Shall I allow him to pass?”

“And be quick about it,” the Grey Ghost snarled.

“As it pleases you,” the skull replied, speaking noticeably more slowly than a moment before. It vanished into the floor.

I held very, very still. Motion was the hardest thing for a veil to hide, and I suddenly realized that the one-shot, one-kill plan had a serious flaw in it: I had forgotten to account for Evil Bob. The spirit was powerful, intelligent, dangerous—and apparently incapable of anything resembling fear or respect. I suppose that after a few decades of working with Kemmler, the most dangerous necromancer since the fall of the Roman Empire, it was difficult to take a lesser talent seriously.

Not that regular Bob was exactly overflowing with respect and courtesy. Heh. Take that, bad guy.

In any case, I had a chance to find out more about the enemy. You can’t ever get too much dirt on these cloaked lunatics. Frequently, learning more about them exposes some kind of gaping hole in their armor, metaphorical or otherwise. I’ve never had cause to regret knowing more about an enemy before commencing a fight.

Besides. If the Grey Ghost was a part of some kind of partnership, instead of operating alone, I had to know about it. Bad-guy alliances were never good news.

The Grey Ghost stepped away from the pit. In fewer than thirty seconds, the ground rippled again and a man appeared, arising from the ground a bit at a time, as if he were walking up a stairway. The skull came with him, floating along behind, just above the level of his head.

I recognized him at once: the leader of the Fomor servitors who had come after Molly. He was still dressed in the black turtleneck, but had added a weapons belt with a holstered pistol beneath his left hand and a short sword at his right. It was one of those Japanese blades, but shorter than the full katana. Wakazashi, then, or maybe it was a ninja-to. If it was, minus points for carrying it around out in the open like that.

Oh, there was something else odd about him: His eyes had changed color. I remembered them as a clear grey. Now they were a deep, deep purple. I don’t mean purple like the dark violet eyes that lots of Bob’s romance-novel heroines always seem to have. They were purple like a bruised corpse, or like the last colors of a twilit sky.

He faced the Grey Ghost calmly and bowed from the waist, the gesture slow and fluid. “Greetings, Lady Shade, from my master, Cantrev Lord Omogh.”

“Hello. Listen,” the Grey Ghost replied, her tone sour, “what does Omogh want from me now?”

Listen bowed again, purple eyes gleaming. “My master desires to know whether or not your campaign is complete.”

The Grey Ghost’s voice came out from between clenched teeth. “Obviously not.”

Listen bowed. “He would know, then, why you have escalated your search to a seizure of a second-tier asset.” The servitor paused to glance at Morty and then back to the robed figure. “This action runs counter to your arrangement.”

The eye sockets of the skull flickered more brightly. “We could still send the Fomor the message about calling ahead.”

“No,” the Grey Ghost said severely.

“It would be simple and direct. . . .”

“No, spirit,” the Grey Ghost snarled. “I forbid it.”

The skull’s eyes flickered rapidly for a moment, agitated. Then it bowed lower and said, “As you wish.”

The Grey Ghost turned to Listen and said, “My servant believes it would be logical to murder you and send your corpse back to your master in order to express my displeasure.”

Listen bowed again. “I am one of many, easily replaced. My death would be but a brief annoyance to my lord, and, I think, a somewhat anemic symbolic gesture.”

The Grey Ghost stared at him and then said, “If you weren’t speaking the literal truth, I think I should be satisfied with letting the skull have you. But you really have no sense of self-preservation at all, do you?”

“Of course I do, Lady Shade. I would never throw away my life carelessly. It would make it impossible for me to ensure that my death is of maximum advantage to my lord.”

The Grey Ghost shook her head within the hood. “You are a fool.”

“I will not contest the statement,” Listen said. “However, Lady Shade, I must ask you for an answer to return to my lord.” He added mildly, “Whatever form that answer may take.”

“Inform him,” said the Grey Ghost, voice annoyed, “that I will do as I see fit to acquire an appropriate body.”

Whoa.

The Lady Shade was looking for a meat suit.

Which meant . . .

I shook off the line of logic to be examined later. I focused on the conversation at hand.

“You made no mention of requiring such a valuable specimen for your ends,” Listen said.

“Look at what I have to work with,” Lady Shade snarled, gesturing at the Big Hoods gathered around the pit. “Scraps that cannot support the weight of my talent. Tell Omogh that if he wishes an ally who can face the Wardens, he must be tolerant. This specimen is of the least value to his purposes, and the greatest to mine.”

Listen considered that for a moment and then nodded. “And the Rag Lady?”

“Once I am seated within a mortal form, I will deal with her,” Lady Shade said. Her voice became detectably smug. “Assuming, of course, you have not already removed her yourself. Is that a burn on your cheek, Listen? I hope it does not pain you.”

“Very kind, Lady,” Listen said with another bow. “I am in no discomfort worth noting. May I tell my lord that you will make him a gift of these fourth-tier creatures, once you are restored?”

Lady Shade seemed to consider that for a moment. She tilted her head and looked around at the Big Hoods. “Yes, I suppose so. I’ll have little need for such baubles.”

“Excellent,” Listen said. He sounded genuinely pleased.

Lady Shade shook her head again. “Is he so enamored of such minor talents?”

“A moment ago,” Listen said, “I was preparing to inform him of the potential loss of a second-tier. Now I may inform him of the probable gain of a dozen lesser acquisitions. It pleases me to draw positive gains for my lord from negative situations.”

From his place dangling over the pit, Morty said, in a slurred voice, “Tell him he ain’t getting squat. Bitch can’t have me.”

Listen lifted both eyebrows and looked at Lady Shade.

“I require his consent,” the Lady Shade said, her voice tight. “I will have it. Had you not interrupted me, I would have it already. Now dawn nears. It may be several hours after sundown before I complete the transfer.”

“Ah,” Listen said. Nothing in his tone made him sound overtly skeptical, but I got the impression that he was nonetheless. “Then with your leave, I will depart to carry word to my lord and trouble you no more.”

Evil Bob popped up into sight over Listen’s shoulder again. “Are you sure you do not wish this creature to be departed, my lady?”

“Go in peace, Listen,” Lady Shade said without so much as glancing at Evil Bob. “Inform your lord that I anticipate that we will be able to move against the Rag Lady and her allies in the fortress sometime tomorrow evening.”

Listen bowed at the waist again; then he turned and, followed by the floating skull, stepped down into the floor, vanishing from mortal reality and into the spirit world.

The moment Listen was gone, Lady Shade waved a hand, and with reedy howls of protest, the wraiths in the pit were unceremoniously scattered from it, the heavy bass beat of the beacon spell coming to an abrupt halt. The will of Lady Shade pressed against them like the current of a river, and they were driven from the chamber, carried out through the walls and the floor by an unseen force.

I could feel it myself, the force of her will, simultaneously banishing the wraiths and commanding the attention of the lemurs in the chamber. I fought to hold still before it, to let it slide away from me around my veil, to use it to help me hide rather than being revealed by it.

“Children,” she said, her tone full of contempt, “beware: The dawn approaches. To your sanctums, all.” She turned to the Big Hoods. “Mortal dears. Mother is pleased with you. Keep safe the prisoner until nightfall. His life is worth the world to me. Guard him with your own.”

The Big Hoods shivered, as if they’d heard the voice of a god whispering in their minds, and bowed their heads as one. They murmured words of some kind of ritual devotion, though they were too mushmouthed for me to clearly understand them. The lemurs began clearing out at once, rising from their activities (or lack thereof) and departing, moving silently from the chamber.

I got lucky. None of them actually plowed into me by mistake.

“Well,” murmured Lady Shade to Morty. “We shall continue our discussion in several hours. You will have no food, no water. You will not be untied. I’m sure that sooner or later, you will see things my way.”

“I would rather die than let you in,” Morty replied, his voice a croak.

“You can’t always have what you want, dear child,” Lady Shade said. Her voice was matter-of-fact, calm, and practical. “I will continue to hurt you. And eventually, you will be willing to do anything to stop the pain. It is an unfortunate limit of mortality.”

Morty said nothing. I couldn’t tell whether he shivered at the coldblooded confidence in her voice, but I did.

And I realized, finally, who I was dealing with.

The Grey Ghost turned and sank into the floor, evidently moving into a demesne in the Nevernever. I waited until I was sure she was gone, then simply vanished, straight up, appearing over the streets of Chicago above. Dawn was a golden promise over the eastern horizon. I headed toward my grave as fast as I could possibly travel.

The Grey Ghost was a shade; that I knew. But where had the shade come from? From someone with a knowledge of possessing others’ bodies. From someone who seemed confident she could confront the Wardens of the White Council, the cops of the wizarding world, and come out on top. From someone who had been known to this Omogh person, whoever he was, and who needed a body with enough of an innate gift for magic to support what was apparently a much greater talent.

Only so many people with a wizard’s level of ability had perished in Chicago. Most of them had been foes of mine. I hadn’t been the one to gack all of them, but I’d killed this one. With a gun, no less, from about ten feet away.

I reached the shelter of my grave and sank into it gratefully, still shivering.

Morty was in the hands of the Corpsetaker, one of the heirs of that lunatic Kemmler, a body-hopping wizard with a serious case of the long-term crazies and maybe three or four times my own ability with magic. If she got into Morty, I was guessing that, like me, she would have access to her full abilities once more. She would be able to start hopping bodies again, and pick up her career right where she left off.

And she’d start by killing Molly.

I’d survived my original encounter with her thanks only to the intervention of “Gentleman” John Marcone, a little bit of good luck and better guesswork, and some truly epic paranoia. She was an absolute, first-class threat, one I would prefer to avoid confronting at all, much less alone.

Sunrise came roaring over the land, and I felt grateful to have it between the Corpsetaker and me. I was glad to have a chance to rest while I could.

Things had gotten considerably more urgent.

Come nightfall, I knew, I was going to have to find a way to take her on.

Chapter Thirty

I huddled in my grave as the sun rose. I would have thought I’d be more nervous about a personally lethal, fiery cataclysm sweeping over the world, but I wasn’t. When dawn came, it was like listening to a big truck roll by outside—dangerous if you were in front of it, but nothing but background noise if you weren’t. My grave was peaceful.

I tried to track that feeling, to identify that sense of contentment I enjoyed down in the ground. It took me a few moments, but then I understood: It was like being in my basement apartment during a winter storm. Outside, the wind howled and the snow and sleet fell, but I was home with Mouse and Mister piled onto the couch for warmth, sipping a cup of hot chicken soup in front of a big fire in the fireplace, and reading a good book.

It was the same thing, resting in my grave. Peace. I wasn’t going anywhere and it made me happy. If only I’d brought a book, my day would have been perfect.

Instead, I just leaned back against the earthen wall of the grave and closed my eyes, soaking in the quiet. I would be trapped here until sundown. There was no sense in chewing my own guts out worrying about what would happen that evening.

I drifted through my memories, sad and joyous and just plain ridiculous.

I thought about Elaine and me in high school. We had lived like superheroes: two young people with incredible powers who must hide themselves from those around them, lest they be isolated and persecuted for their different-ness.

I hadn’t really been interested in girls yet when I met Elaine. We’d both been twelve, bright, and stubborn, which meant that we generally drove each other crazy. We had also been best friends. Talking about our dreams of the future. Sharing tears or a shoulder, whichever was needed. At school, we both found the subject matter to be tedious beyond bearing—in comparison to the complexity of Justin’s lessons, acquitting ourselves well in the public-school curriculum had been only nominally more difficult than sharpening a pencil.

It was difficult to relate to the other kids, in many ways. We just weren’t interested in the same things. Our magic talents increasingly made television a difficulty, and video games had been downright impossible. Elaine and I wound up playing a lot of card and board games, or spending long, quiet hours in the same room, reading.

Justin had manipulated us both masterfully. He wanted us to bond. He wanted us to feel isolated from everyone else and loyal to him. Though he put up a facade about it that fooled me at the time, he wanted us to work through our nascent sexuality with each other and save him the bother of explaining anything—or the risk of either Elaine or me forming attachments with someone outside our little circle.

I never suspected a thing about what he really wanted, until the day Elaine stayed home sick. Concerned about her, I skipped my last class and came home early. The house seemed too quiet, and an energy I had never sensed before hung in the air like cloying, oily perfume. The second I walked in the door, I found myself tensing up.

It was my first encounter with black magic, the power of Creation itself twisted to maim and destroy everything it touched.

Elaine sat on the couch, her expression calm, her spine locked rigidly into perfect posture. I now know that Justin had put the mental whammy on her while I was gone, but at the time I knew only that my instincts were screaming that something was wrong. A wrongness so fundamental it made me want to run away screaming filled the room.

And besides. Elaine only sat like that when she was making a statement—generally, a sarcastic one.

I still remembered it, plain as day.

Justin appeared in the kitchen doorway, on the other side of Elaine, and stood there for a moment, looking at me, his expression calm.

“You skipped class again.” He sighed. “I probably should have seen that coming.”

“What’s going on here?” I demanded, my voice high and squeaky with fear. “What have you done?”

Justin walked to the couch to stand over Elaine. Both of them stared at me for a long moment. I couldn’t read their expressions at all. “I’m making plans, Harry,” he said in a steady, quiet voice. “I need people I can trust.”

“Trust?” I asked. His words didn’t make sense. I couldn’t see how they applied to the current situation. I couldn’t see how they would make sense at all. I looked from Elaine back to Justin again, searching for some kind of explanation. Their expressions gave me nothing. That was when my eyes fell to the coffee table and to the object lying quietly next to my well-mauled paperback copy of The Hobbit.

A straitjacket.

There was something quietly, calmly sinister in the congruence. I just stared for a moment, and the bottom fell out of my stomach as I finally realized, for the first, awful time, what my instinct had been screaming at me: I was in danger. That my rescuer, teacher, my guardian meant to do me harm.

Tears blurred my vision as I asked him, in a very quiet, very confused voice, “Why?”

Justin remained calm. “You don’t have the knowledge you need to understand, boy. Not yet. But you will in time.”

“Y-you can’t do this,” I whispered. “N-not you. You saved me. You saved us.”

“And I still am,” Justin said. “Sit down next to Elaine, Harry.”

From the couch, Elaine said in a quiet, dreamy monotone, “Sit down next to me, Harry.”

I stared at her in shock and took a step back. “Elaine . . .”

Justin threw kinetomancy at me when I looked away.

Some instinct warned me in the last fraction of a second, but instead of trying to block the strike, I moved with it, toward the front picture window, weaving my own spell as I went. Instead of interposing my shield, I spread it wide in front of me like a sail, catching the force of Justin’s blast and harnessing it.

Me, my shield, Justin’s energy, and that picture window exploded onto the front lawn. I remembered the enormous sound of the shattering glass and wood, and the hot sting of a dozen tiny cuts from bits of flying glass and wood. I remember being furious and terrified.

I went through the open space where the window had been, fell onto the lawn, took it in a roll, and came up sprinting.

“Boy!” Justin said, projecting his voice loudly. I looked over my shoulder at him as I ran. His eyes were more coldly furious than I had ever seen them. “You are here with me—with Elaine. Or you are nowhere. If you don’t come back right now, you are dead to me.”

I lopped the last two words off the sentence to get his real meaning and poured on more speed. If I stayed, he meant to render me helpless, and from that beginning there could be no good endings. If I went back angry, I could fight him, but I couldn’t win—not against the man who taught me everything I knew. I couldn’t call the cops and tell them Justin was a mad wizard—they’d write me off as a nutcase or prankster without thinking twice. It wasn’t like I could run to Oz and ask a more powerful wizard for help.

He’d never told me about the White Council or the rest of the supernatural world. Abusers like to isolate their victims. People who feel that they are completely alone tend not to fight back.

“Boy!” Justin’s voice roared, now openly filled with rage. “Boy!”

He didn’t need to say anything more. That rage said it all. The man who had given me a home was going to kill me.

It hurt so much, I wondered if he already had.

I put my head down and ran faster, my tears making the world a blur, with only one thought burning in my head:

This wasn’t over. I knew that Justin could find me, no matter where I ran, no matter how well I hid. I hadn’t escaped that straitjacket. I had only delayed it for a little while.

I didn’t have any choice.

I had to fight back.

“What happened next?” asked a fascinated voice.

I shook my head and snapped out of the reverie, looking up to the sunlit sky outside my grave. Winter’s hold was definitely weakening. The sky was grey clouds interspersed with streaks of summer blue sky. There was a lot of water dripping down the edges of my grave, though the snow at the bottom was still holding its chill.

The Leanansidhe sat at the edge of my grave, her bare, dirty feet swinging back and forth. Her bright red hair had been bound back in a long tail, and she was dressed in the shreds of five or six different outfits. Her head was wrapped in a scarf that had been knitted from yarn duplicating various colors of dirty snow, and the tattered ends of it hung down on either side of her head. It gave her a sort of lunatic-coquette charm, especially considering the flecks of what looked like dried blood on the pale skin of her face. She looked as happy as a kid on Christmas morning.

I just stared up for a moment and then shook my head faintly. “You saw that? What I was thinking?”

“I see you,” she said, as though that explained it. “Not what you were thinking. What you were remembering.”

“Interesting,” I said. It made a certain amount of sense that Lea could discern the spirit world better than I could. She was a creature who was at least partly native to the Nevernever. I probably looked like some kind of pale, white, ghostly version of myself to her, while the memories that were my substance played across the surface.

I thought about the wraiths and lemurs that Sir Stuart had put down on my first night as a ghost, and how they had seemed to bleed images as they faded away.

“Yes,” she said, her tone pleased. “Precisely like that. My, but the Colonial Knight put on a display for you.”

“You knew Sir Stuart?”

“I have seen him in battle on several occasions,” Lea said, her eyes somewhat dreamy. “He is a worthy gentleman, in his fashion. Quite dangerous.”

“Not more dangerous than the Corpsetaker,” I said. “She destroyed him.”

Lea thrust out her lower lip and her brow furrowed in annoyance. “Did she? What a contemptible waste of a perfectly doughty spirit.” She rolled her eyes. “At least, my godchild, you have discerned your foe’s identity—and that of her pet.”

I shivered. “Her and Evil Bob.”

She waved a hand. “Evil is mainly an aesthetic choice. Only the spirit’s power is significant, for your purposes.”

“Not true,” I said mildly. “Though I know you don’t agree.”

Her expression was pensive for a moment before she said, “You have your mother’s Sight, you know.”

“Not her eyes?”

“I’ve always thought you favored Malcolm.” The serious expression vanished and she kicked her feet again. “So, young shade. What happened next?”

“You know. You were there.”

“How do the mortals say it?” she murmured. “I missed that episode.”

I coughed out a surprised little laugh.

She looked faintly miffed. “I do not know what happened between the time you left Justin and the time you came to me.”

“I see.” I grinned at her. “Do you think I just give away stories for free? To one of the Sidhe?”

She tilted back her head and laughed, and her eyes twinkled. Like, literally, with little flashes of light. “You have learned much. I began to despair of it, but it seems you may have acquired wisdom enough, and in time.”

“In time to be dead,” I said. “But, yeah. I’ve worked out by now that the Sidhe don’t give anything away. Or take anything for free. And after however long, I realized why that might be: because you can’t.”

“Indeed,” she said, beaming at me. “There must be balance, sweet godchild. Always balance. Never take a thing without giving such a thing in return; never give a favor without collecting one in kind. All of reality depends on balance.”

I squinted at her. “That’s why you gave Bianca Amoracchius years ago. So that you could accept that knife from her. The one Mab took from you.”

She leaned toward me, her eyes all but glowing with intensity and her teeth showing in a sudden, carnivorous smile. “Indeed. And such a treacherous gift it was, child. Oh, but if that deceitful creature had survived you, such a vengeance I would have wreaked that the world would have spoken of it in whispers for a thousand years.”

I squinted at her. “But . . . I killed Bianca before you could balance the scales.”

“Indeed, simple boy. Why else, think you, that I gifted you with the most potent powers of faerie to protect you and your companions when we battled Bianca’s ultimate progenitors?”

“I thought you did it because Mab ordered you to.”

“Tsk. In all of Winter, I am second in power only to Mab—which she has allowed because I have incurred with it proportionate obligation to her. She is my dearest enemy, but even I do not owe Mab so much. I helped you as much as I did, sweet child, because I owed you for collecting a portion of my due justice from Bianca,” the Leanansidhe said. Her eyes grew wider, wilder. “The rest I took from the little whore’s masters. Though I admit, I hadn’t expected the collection to be quite so thorough.”

Memories flashed in my head. Susan. An obsidian knife. I felt sick.

I’ll get over it, I told myself. Eventually. It hadn’t been much more than a day from my point of view. I was probably still in shock or trauma or something—if ghosts could get that, I mean.

I looked up and realized that Lea was staring at me, at my memories, with undisguised glee. She let out a contented sigh and said, “You do not settle things by half measures, do you, my godson?”

I could get mad at her f