/ Language: English / Genre:sf_horror, / Series: Dresden Files

Proven Guilty

Jim Butcher

Harry Dresden has spent years being watched and suspected by the White Council's Wardens. But now he is a Warden, and it sucks more than he thought... So when movie monsters start coming to life on his watch, it's officially up to him to put them back where they came from. Only this time, his client is the White Council, and his investigation cannot fail -- no matter who falls under suspicion, no matter the cost.

Jim Butcher

Proven Guilty

(Dresden Files - 8)

Chapter One

Blood leaves no stain on a Warden’s grey cloak. I didn’t know that until the day I watched Morgan, second in command of the White Council’s Wardens, lift his sword over the kneeling form of a young man guilty of the practice of black magic. The boy, sixteen years old at the most, screamed and ranted in Korean underneath his black hood, his mouth spilling hatred and rage, convinced by his youth and power of his own immortality. He never knew it when the blade came down.

Which I guess was a small mercy. Microscopic, really.

His blood flew in a scarlet arc. I wasn’t ten feet away. I felt hot droplets strike one cheek, and more blood covered the left side of the cloak in blotches of angry red. The head fell to the ground, and I saw the cloth over it moving, as if the boy’s mouth were still screaming imprecations.

The body fell onto its side. One calf muscle twitched spasmodically and then stopped. After maybe five seconds, the head did too.

Morgan stood over the still form for a moment, the bright silver sword of the White Council of Wizards’ justice in his hands. Besides him and me, there were a dozen Wardens present, and two members of the Senior Council-the Merlin and my one-time mentor, Ebenezar McCoy.

The covered head stopped its feeble movements. Morgan glanced up at the Merlin and nodded once. The Merlin returned the nod. “May he find peace.”

“Peace,” the Wardens all replied together.

Except me. I turned my back on them, and made it two steps away before I threw up on the warehouse floor.

I stood there shaking for a moment, until I was sure I was finished, then straightened slowly. I felt a presence draw near me and looked up to see Ebenezar standing there.

He was an old man, bald but for wisps of white hair, short, stocky, his face half covered in a ferocious-looking grey beard. His nose and cheeks and bald scalp were all ruddy, except for a recent, purplish scar on his pate. Though he was centuries old he carried himself with vibrant energy, and his eyes were alert and pensive behind gold-rimmed spectacles. He wore the formal black robes of a meeting of the Council, along with the deep purple stole of a member of the Senior Council.

“Harry,” he said quietly. “You all right?”

“After that?” I snarled, loudly enough to make sure everyone there heard me. “No one in this damned building should be all right.”

I felt a sudden tension in the air behind me.

“No they shouldn’t,” Ebenezar said. I saw him look back at the other wizards there, his jaw setting stubbornly.

The Merlin came over to us, also in his formal robes and stole. He looked like a wizard should look-tall, long white hair, long white beard, piercing blue eyes, his face seamed with age and wisdom.

Well. With age, anyway.

“Warden Dresden,” he said. He had the sonorous voice of a trained speaker, and spoke English with a high-class British accent. “If you had some evidence that you felt would prove the boy’s innocence, you should have presented it during the trial.”

“I didn’t have anything like that, and you know it,” I replied.

“He was proven guilty,” the Merlin said. “I soulgazed him myself. I examined more than two dozen mortals whose minds he had altered. Three of them might eventually recover their sanity. He forced four others to commit suicide, and had hidden nine corpses from the local authorities, as well. And every one of them was a blood relation.” The Merlin stepped toward me, and the air in the room suddenly felt hot. His eyes flashed with azure anger and his voice rumbled with deep, unyielding power. “The powers he had used had already broken his mind. We did what was necessary.”

I turned and faced the Merlin. I didn’t push out my jaw and try to stare him down. I didn’t put anything belligerent or challenging into my posture. I didn’t show any anger on my face, or slur any disrespect into my tone when I spoke. The past several months had taught me that the Merlin hadn’t gotten his job through an ad on a matchbook. He was, quite simply, the strongest wizard on the planet. And he had talent, skill, and experience to go along with that strength. If I ever came to magical blows with him, there wouldn’t be enough left of me to fill a lunch sack. I did not want a fight.

But I didn’t back down, either.

“He was a kid,” I said. “We all have been. He made a mistake. We’ve all done that too.”

The Merlin regarded me with an expression somewhere between irritation and contempt. “You know what the use of black magic can do to a person,” he said. Marvelously subtle shading and emphasis over his words added in a perfectly clear, unspoken thought: You know it because you’ve done it. Sooner or later, you’ll slip up, and then it will be your turn. “One use leads to another. And another.”

“That’s what I keep hearing, Merlin,” I answered. “Just say no to black magic. But that boy had no one to tell him the rules, to teach him. If someone had known about his gift and done something in time-”

He lifted a hand, and the simple gesture had such absolute authority to it that I stopped to let him speak. “The point you are missing, Warden Dresden,” he said, “is that the boy who made that foolish mistake died long before we discovered the damage he’d done. What was left of him was nothing more nor less than a monster who would have spent his life inflicting horror and death on anyone near him.”

“I know that,” I said, and I couldn’t keep the anger and frustration out of my voice. “And I know what had to be done. I know it was the only measure that could stop him.” I thought I was going to throw up again, and I closed my eyes and leaned on the solid oak length of my carved staff. I got my stomach under control and opened my eyes to face the Merlin. “But it doesn’t change the fact that we’ve just murdered a boy who probably never knew enough to understand what was happening to him.”

“Accusing someone else of murder is hardly a stone you are in a position to cast, Warden Dresden.” The Merlin arched a silver brow at me. “Did you not discharge a firearm into the back of the head of a woman you merely believed to be the Corpsetaker from a distance of a few feet away, fatally wounding her?”

I swallowed. I sure as hell had, last year. It had been one of the bigger coin tosses of my life. Had I incorrectly judged that a body-transferring wizard known as the Corpsetaker had jumped into the original body of Warden Luccio, I would have murdered an innocent woman and a law-enforcing member of the White Council.

I hadn’t been wrong-but I’d never… never just killed anyone before. I’ve killed things in the heat of battle, yes. I’ve killed people by less direct means. But Corpsetaker’s death had been intimate and coldly calculated and not at all indirect. Just me, the gun, and the limp corpse. I could still vividly remember the decision to shoot, the feel of the cold metal in my hands, the stiff pull of my revolver’s trigger, the thunder of the gun’s report, and the way the body had settled into a limp bundle of limbs on the ground, the motion somehow too simple for the horrible significance of the event.

I’d killed. Deliberately, rationally ended another’s life.

And it still haunted my dreams at night.

I’d had little choice. Given the smallest amount of time, the Corpse-taker could have called up lethal magic, and the best I could have hoped for was a death curse that killed me as I struck down the necromancer. It had been a bad day or two, and I was pretty strung out. Even if I hadn’t been, I had a feeling that Corpsetaker could have taken me in a fair fight. So I hadn’t given Corpsetaker anything like a fair fight. I shot the necromancer in the back of the head because the Corpsetaker had to be stopped, and I’d had no other option.

I had executed her on suspicion.

No trial. No soulgaze. No judgment from a dispassionate arbiter. Hell, I hadn’t even taken the chance to get in a good insult. Bang. Thump. One live wizard, one dead bad guy.

I’d done it to prevent future harm to myself and others. It hadn’t been the best solution-but it had been the only solution. I hadn’t hesitated for a heartbeat. I’d done it, no questions, and gone on to face the further perils of that night.

Just like a Warden is supposed to do. Sorta took the wind out of my holier-than-thou sails.

Bottomless blue eyes watched my face and he nodded slowly. “You executed her,” the Merlin said quietly. “Because it was necessary.”

“That was different,” I said.

“Indeed. Your action required far deeper commitment. It was dark, cold, and you were alone. The suspect was a great deal stronger than you. Had you struck and missed, you would have died. Yet you did what had to be done.”

“Necessary isn’t the same as right” I said.

“Perhaps not,” he said. “But the Laws of Magic are all that prevent wizards from abusing their power over mortals. There is no room for compromise. You are a Warden now, Dresden. You must focus on your duty to both mortals and the Council.”

“Which sometimes means killing children?” This time I didn’t hide the contempt, but there wasn’t much life to it.

“Which means always enforcing the Laws,” the Merlin said, and his eyes bored into mine, flickering with sparks of rigid anger. “It is your duty. Now more than ever.”

I broke the stare first, looking away before anything bad could happen. Ebenezar stood a couple of steps from me, studying my expression.

“Granted that you’ve seen much for a man your age,” the Merlin said, and there was a slight softening in his tone. “But you haven’t seen how horrible such things can become. Not nearly. The Laws exist for a reason. They must stand as written.”

I turned my head and stared at the small pool of scarlet on the warehouse floor beside the kid’s corpse. I hadn’t been told his name before they’d ended his life.

“Right,” I said tiredly, and wiped a clean corner of the grey cloak over my blood-sprinkled face. “I can see what they’re written in.”

Chapter Two

I turned my back on them and walked out of the warehouse into Chicago’s best impression of Miami. July in the Midwest is rarely less than sultry, but this year had been especially intense when it came to summer heat, and it had rained frequently. The warehouse was a part of the wharves down at the lakeside, and even the chill waters of Lake Michigan were warmer than usual. They filled the air with more than the average water-scent of mud and mildew and eau de dead fishy.

I passed the two grey-cloaked Wardens standing watch outside and exchanged nods with them. Both of them were younger than me, some of the most recent additions to the White Council’s military-slash-police organization. As I passed them, I felt the tingling presence of a veil, a spell they were maintaining to conceal the warehouse from any prying eyes. It wasn’t much of a veil, by Warden standards, but it was probably better than I could do, and there weren’t a whole hell of a lot of Wardens to choose from since the Red Court’s successful offensive the previous autumn. Beggars can’t be choosers.

I tugged off my robe and my cloak. I was wearing sneakers, khaki shorts, and a red tank top underneath. It didn’t make me any cooler to remove the heavy clothes-just marginally less miserable. I walked hurriedly back to my car, a battered old Volkswagen Beetle, its windows rolled down to keep the sun from turning the interior into an oven. It’s a jumble of different colors, as my mechanic has replaced damaged portions of the body with parts from junked Bugs, but it started off as a shade of powder blue, and that had earned it the sobriquet of the Blue Beetle.

I heard quick, solid footsteps behind me. “Harry,” Ebenezar called.

I threw the robe and cloak into the Beetle’s backseat without a word.

The car’s interior had been stripped to its metal bones a couple of years back, and I had made hurried repairs with cheap lumber and a lot of duct tape. Since then, I’d had a friend redo the inside of the car. It wasn’t standard, and it still didn’t look pretty, but the comfortable bucket seats were a lot nicer than the wooden crates I’d been using. And I had decent seat belts again.

“Harry,” Ebenezar said again. “Damnation, boy, stop.”

I though about getting into the car and leaving, but instead stopped until the old wizard approached and shucked off his own formal robes and stole. He wore a white T-shirt beneath denim Levi’s overalls, and heavy leather hiking boots. “There’s something I need to speak to you about.”

I paused and took a second to get some of my emotions under control. Those and my stomach. I didn’t want the embarrassment of a repeat performance.

“What is it?”

He stopped a few feet behind me. “The war isn’t going well.”

By which he meant the war of the White Council against the Red Court of vampires. The war had been a whole lot of pussyfooting and fights in back alleys for several years, but last year the vampires had upped the ante. Their assault had been timed to coincide with vicious activity from a traitor within the Council and with the attack of a number of necromancers, outlaw wizards who raised the dead into angry specters and zombies-among a number of other, less savory things.

The vampires had hit the Council. Hard. Before the battle was over, they’d killed nearly two hundred wizards, most of them Wardens. That’s why the Wardens had given me a grey cloak. They needed the help.

Before they’d finished, the vampires killed nearly forty-five thousand men, women, and children who happened to be nearby.

That’s why I’d taken the cloak. That wasn’t the sort of thing I could ignore.

“I’ve read the reports,” I said. “They say that the Venatori Umbrorum and the Fellowship of St. Giles have really pitched in.”

“It’s more than that. If they hadn’t started up an offensive to slow the vamps down, the Red Court would have destroyed the Council months ago.”

I blinked. “They’re doing that much?”

The Venatori Umbrorum and the Fellowship of St. Giles were the White Council’s primary allies in the war with the Red Court. The Venatori were an ancient, secret brotherhood, joined together to fight supernatural darkness wherever they could. Sort of like the Masons, only with more flamethrowers. By and large, they were academic sorts, and though several of the Venatori had various forms of military experience, their true strength lay in utilizing human legal systems and analyzing information brought together from widely dispersed sources.

The Fellowship, though, was a somewhat different story. Not as many of them as there were of the Venatori, but not many of them were merely human. Most of them, so I took it, were those who had been half turned by the vampires. They’d been infested with the dark powers that made the Red Court such a threat, but until they willingly drank another’s lifeblood, they never quite stopped being human. It could make them stronger and faster and better able to withstand injury than regular folks, and it granted them a drastically increased life span. Assuming they didn’t fall prey to their constant, base desire for blood, or weren’t slain in operations against their enemies in the Red Court.

A woman I’d once cared for very much had been taken by a Red Court vampire. In point of fact, I’d kicked off the war when I went and took her back by the most violent means at my disposal. I brought her back, but I didn’t save her. She’d been touched by that darkness, and now her life was a battle-partly against the vampires who had done it to her, and partly against the blood-thirst they’d imposed upon her. Now she was a part of the Fellowship, whose members included those like her and, I’d heard, many other people and part-people with no home anywhere else. St. Giles, patron of lepers and outcasts. His Fellowship, while not a mil-blown powerhouse like the Council or one of the Vampire Courts, was nonetheless proving to be a surprisingly formidable ally.

“Our allies can’t challenge the vampires in face-to-face confrontations,” Ebenezar said, nodding. “But they’re wreaking havoc on the Red Court’s supply chains, intelligence, and support, attacking from the mortal end of things. Red Court infiltrators within human society are unmasked. Humans controlled by the Red Court have been arrested, framed, or killed-or else abducted to be forcibly freed of their addiction. The Fellowship and the Venatori continue to do all in their power to provide information to the Council, which has enabled us to make a number of successful raids against the vampires. The Venatori and the Fellowship haven’t appreciably weakened the vampires, but the Red Court has been slowed down. Perhaps enough to give us a fighting chance to recover.”

“How’s the boot camp coming?” I asked.

“Luccio is confident of her eventual success in replacing our losses,” Ebenezar replied.

“Don’t see what else I can do to help,” I said. “Unless you’re wanting someone to go start fathering new wizards.”

He stepped closer to me and glanced around. His expression was casual, but he was checking to see if anyone was close enough to overhear. “There’s something you don’t know. The Merlin decided it was not for general knowledge.”

I turned to face him and tilted my head.

“You remember the Red Court’s attack last year,” he said. “That they called up Outsiders and assaulted us within the realm of Faerie itself.”

“Bad move, so I’ve heard. The Faeries are going to take it out of their hides.”

“So we all thought,” the old man said. “In fact, Summer declared war upon the Red Court and began preliminary assaults on them. But Winter hasn’t responded-and Summer hasn’t done much more than secure its borders.”

“Queen Mab didn’t declare war?”

“No.”

I frowned. “Never thought she’d pass up the chance. She’s all about carnage and bloodshed.”

“It surprised us as well,” he said. “So I want to ask a favor of you.”

I eyed him without speaking.

“Find out why,” he said. “You have contacts within the Courts. Find out what’s happening. Find out why the Sidhe haven’t gone to war.”

“What?” I asked. “The Senior Council doesn’t know? Don’t you have an embassy and high-level connections and official channels? Maybe a bright red telephone?”

Ebenezar smiled without much mirth. “The general turbulence of the war has stretched everyone’s intelligence-gathering abilities,” he replied. “Even those in the spiritual realms. There’s another level entirely to the war in the conflict between spiritual spies and emissaries of everyone involved. And our embassy to the Sidhe has been…” He rolled a weathered, strong shoulder in a shrug. “Well. You know them as well as anyone.”

“They’ve been polite, open, spoken with complete honesty, and left you with no idea what is going on,” I guessed.

“Precisely.”

“So the Senior Council is asking me to find out?”

He glanced around again. “Not the Senior Council. Myself. A few others.”

“What others?” I asked.

“People I trust,” he said, and looked at me directly over the rims of his spectacles.

I stared at him for a second and then said in a whisper, “The traitor.”

The vampires of the Red Court had been a little too on top of the game to be merely lucky. Somehow, they had been obtaining vital secrets about the dispositions of the White Council’s forces and their plans. Someone on the inside had been feeding the vampires information, and a lot of wizards had died because of it-particularly during their heaviest attack, last year, in which they’d violated Sidhe territory in pursuit of the fleeing Council. “You think the traitor is someone on the Senior Council.”

“I think we can’t take any chances,” he said quietly. “This isn’t official business. I can’t order you to do it, Harry. I’ll understand if you don’t want to. But there’s no one better for the job-and our allies cannot maintain the current pace of operations for long. Their best weapon has always been secrecy, and their actions have forced them to pay a terrible cost of lives to give us what aid they have.”

I folded my arms over my stomach and said, “We need to help them, sure. But every time I look sideways at Faerie, I get into deeper trouble with them. It’s the last thing I need. If I do this, how-”

Ebenezar’s weight shifted, gravel crunching loudly. I glanced up to see the Merlin and Morgan emerge from the building, speaking quietly and intently.

“I wanted to talk to you,” Ebenezar said, evidently for the benefit of anyone listening. “Make sure Morgan and the other Wardens are treating you square.”

I went along with him. “When they talk to me at all,” I said. “About the only other Warden I ever see is Ramirez. Decent guy. I like him.”

“That says a lot for him.”

“That the Council’s ticking time bomb has a good opinion of him?” I waited for Morgan and the Merlin to leave, but they paused a little way off, still talking. I stared at the gravel for a long time, and then said, much more quiedy, “That could have been me in there today. I could have been that kid.”

“It was a long time ago,” Ebenezar said. “You were barely more than a child.”

“So was he.”

Ebenezar’s expression became guarded. “I’m sorry you had to see that business.”

“Is that why it happened here?” I asked him. “Why come to Chicago for an execution?”

He exhaled slowly. “It’s one of the great crossroads of the world, Harry. More air traffic comes through here than anywhere else. It’s an enormous port city for shipping of any kind-trucks, trains, ships. That means a lot of ways in and out, a lot of travelers passing through. It makes it difficult for any observers from the Red Court to spot us or report our movements.” He gave me a bleak smile. “And then there’s the way Chicago seems to be inimical to the health of any vampire who comes here.”

“That’s a pretty good cover story,” I said. “What’s the truth?”

Ebenezar sighed and held up his hand in a conciliatory gesture. “It wasn’t my idea.”

I looked at him for a minute and then said, “The Merlin called the meeting here.”

Ebenezar nodded and arched a shaggy grey brow. “Which means…?”

I chewed on my lower lip and scrunched up my eyes. It never helped me think any better, but that was no reason not to keep trying it. “He wanted to send me a message. Kill two birds with one stone.”

Ebenezar nodded. “He wanted you stripped of your position as a Warden, but Luccio is still the technical commander of the Wardens, though Morgan commands in the field. She supported you and the rest of the Senior Council overruled him.”

“Bet he loved that,” I said.

Ebenezar chuckled. “I thought he was having a stroke.”

“Joy,” I said. “I didn’t want the job to begin with.”

“I know,” he said. “You got rocks and hard places, boy. Not much else.”

“So the Merlin figures he’ll show me an execution and scare me into toeing the line.” I frowned, thinking. “I take it there’s no word on the attack last year? No one found with mysterious sums of money dumped into their bank accounts that would incriminate a traitor?”

“Not yet,” Ebenezar said.

“Then with the traitor running around loose, all the Merlin has to do is wait for me to screw something up. Then he can call it treason and squish me.”

Ebenezar nodded, and I saw the warning in his eyes-another reason to take the job he was offering. “He genuinely believes that you are a threat to the Council. If your behavior confirms his belief, he’ll do whatever is necessary to stop you.”

I snorted. “There was another guy like that once. Name of McCarthy. If the Merlin wants to find a traitor, he’ll find one whether or not one actually exists.”

Ebenezar scowled, a hint of a Scots burr creeping into his voice, as it did anytime he was angry, and he glanced at the Merlin. “Aye. I thought you should know.”

I nodded, still without looking up at him. I hated being bullied into anything, but I didn’t get the vibe that Ebenezar was making an effort to maneuver me into a corner. He was asking a favor. I might well help myself by doing him the favor, but he wasn’t going to bring anything onto my head if I turned him down. It wasn’t his style.

I met his eyes and nodded. “Okay.”

He exhaled slowly and nodded back, silent thanks in his expression. “Oh. One other thing,” he said, and passed me an envelope.

“What’s this?”

“I don’t know,” he answered. “The Gatekeeper asked me to give it to you.” The Gatekeeper. He was the quietest of the wizards on the Senior Council, and even the Merlin showed him plenty of respect. He was taller than me, which is saying something, and he stayed out of most of the partisan politics of the Senior Council, which says even more. He knew things he shouldn’t be able to know-more so than most wizards, I mean-and as far as I could tell, he’d never been anything but straight with me.

I opened the envelope. A single piece of paper was inside. Letters in a precise, flowing hand read:

Dresden,

In the past ten days there have been repeated acts of black magic in Chicago. As the senior Warden in the region, it falls to you to investigate and find those responsible. In my opinion, it is vital that you do so immediately. To my knowledge, no one else is aware of the situation.

Rashid

I rubbed at my eyes. Great. More black magic in Chicago. If it wasn’t some raving, psychotic, black-hatted bad guy, it was probably another kid like the one who’d died a few minutes ago. There wasn’t a whole lot of in-between.

I was hoping for the murderous madman-sorry, political correction; madperson. I could deal with those. I’d had practice.

I didn’t think I could handle the other.

I put the letter back in the envelope, thinking. This was between the Gatekeeper and me, presumably. He hadn’t asked me publicly, or told Ebenezar what was going on, which meant that I was free to decide how to handle this one. If the Merlin knew about this and officially gave me the assignment, he’d make damned sure I didn’t have much of a choice in how to handle it-and I’d have to do the whole thing under a microscope.

The Gatekeeper had trusted me to handle whatever was wrong. That was almost worse. Man.

Sometimes I get tired of being the guy who is supposed to deal with un-deal-withable situations.

I looked up to find Ebenezar squinting at me. The expression made his face a mass of wrinkles. “What?” I asked.

“You get a haircut or something, Hoss?”

“Uh, nothing new. Why?”

“You look…” The old wizard’s voice trailed off thoughtfully. “Different.”

My heartbeat sped up a little. As far as I knew, Ebenezar was unaware of the entity who was leasing out the unused portions of my brain, and I wanted to keep it that way. But though he had a reputation for being something of a magical brawler, his specialty the summoning up of primal, destructive forces, he had a lot more on the ball than most of the Council gave him credit for. It was entirely possible that he had sensed something of the fallen angel’s presence within me.

“Yeah, well. I’ve been wearing the cloak of the people I spent most of my adult life resenting,” I said. “Between that and being a cripple, I’ve been off my sleep for almost a year.”

“That can do it,” Ebenezar said, nodding. “How’s the hand?” I bit back my first harsh response, that it was still maimed and scarred, and that the burns made it look like a badly melted piece of wax sculpture. I’d gone up against a bad guy with a brain a couple of years back, and she’d worked out that my defensive magic was designed to stop kinetic energy- not heat. I found that out the hard way when a couple of her psychotic goons sprayed improvised napalm at me. My shield had stopped the flaming jelly, but the heat had gone right through and dry roasted the hand I’d held out to focus my shield. I held up my gloved left hand and waggled my thumb and the first two fingers in jerky little motions. The other two fingers didn’t move much unless their neighbors pulled them. “Not much feeling in them yet, but I can hold a beer. Or the steering wheel. Doctor’s had me playing guitar, trying to move them and use them more.”

“Good,” Ebenezar said. “Exercise is good for the body, but music is good for the soul.”

“Not the way I play it,” I said.

Ebenezar grinned wryly, and drew a pocket watch from the front pocket of the overalls. He squinted at it. “Lunchtime,” he said. “You hungry?”

There wasn’t anything in his tone to indicate it, but I could read the subtext.

Ebenezar had been a mentor to me at a time I’d badly needed it. He’d taught me just about everything I thought was important enough to be worth knowing. He had been unfailingly generous, patient, loyal, and kind to me.

But he had been lying to me the whole time, ignoring the principles he had been teaching me. On the one hand, he taught me about what it meant to be a wizard, about how a wizard’s magic comes from his deepest beliefs, about how doing evil with magic was more than simply a crime- it was a mockery of what magic meant, a kind of sacrilege. On the other hand, he’d been the White Council’s Blackstaff the whole while-a wizard with a license to kill, to violate the Laws of Magic, to make a mockery of everything noble and good about the power he wielded in the name of political necessity. And he’d done it. Many times.

I had once held the kind of trust and faith in Ebenezar that I had given no one else. I’d built a foundation for my life on what he’d taught me about the use of magic, about right and wrong. But he’d let me down. He’d been living a lie, and it had been brutally painful to learn about it. Two years later, it still twisted around in my belly, a vague and nauseating unease.

My old teacher was offering me an olive branch, trying to set aside the things that had come between us. I knew that I should go along with him. I knew that he was as human, as fallible, as anyone else. I knew that I should set it aside, mend our fences, and get on with life. It was the smart thing to do. It was the compassionate, responsible thing to do. It was the right thing to do.

But I couldn’t.

It still hurt too much for me to think straight about it.

I looked up at him. “Death threats in the guise of formal decapitations sort of ruin my appetite.”

He nodded at me, accepting the excuse with a patient and steady expression, though I thought I saw regret in his eyes. He lifted a hand in a silent wave and turned away to walk toward a beat-up old Ford truck that had been built during the Great Depression. Second thoughts pressed in. Maybe I should say something. Maybe I should go for a bite to eat with the old man.

My excuse hadn’t been untrue, though. There was no way I could eat. I could still feel the droplets of hot blood hitting my face, still see the body lying unnaturally in a pool of blood. My hands started shaking and I closed my eyes, forcing the vivid, bloody memories out of the forefront of my thoughts. Then I got in the car and tried to leave the memories behind me.

The Blue Beetle is no muscle car, but it flung up a respectable amount of gravel as I left.

The streets weren’t as bad as they usually were, but it was still hotter than hell, so I rolled down the windows at the first stoplight and tried to think clearly.

Investigate the faeries. Great. That was absolutely guaranteed to get complicated before I got any useful answers. If there was one thing faeries hated doing, it was giving you a straight answer, about anything. Getting plain speech out of one is like pulling out teeth. Your own teeth. Through your nose.

But Ebenezar was right. I was probably the only one on the Council with acquaintances in both the Summer and Winter Courts of the Sidhe. If anyone on the Council could find out, it was me. Yippee.

And just to keep things interesting, I needed to hunt down some kind of unspecified black magic and put a stop to it. That was what Wardens spent all their time doing, when they weren’t fighting a war, and what I’d done two or three times myself, but it wasn’t ever pretty. Black magic means a black practitioner of some kind, and they tended to be the sorts of people who were both happy to kill an interfering wizard and able to manage it.

Faeries.

Black magic.

It never rains but it pours.

Chapter Three

Between one heartbeat and the next, the passenger seat of the Blue Beetle was suddenly occupied. I let out a yelp and nearly bounced my car off of a delivery truck. The tires squealed in protest and I started to slide. I turned into it and recovered, but if I’d had another coat of paint on my car I’d have collided with the one next to me. My heart in my throat, I got the car moving smoothly again, and turned to glare at the sudden passenger.

Lasciel, aka the Temptress, aka the Webweaver, apparently some kind of photocopy of the personality of a fallen angel, sat in the passenger seat. She could look like anything she chose, but her most common form was that of a tall, athletic blonde wearing a white Greek-style tunic that fell almost to her knee. She sat with her hands in her lap, staring out the front of the car, smiling very slightly.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I snarled at her. “Are you trying to get me killed?”

“Don’t be such a baby,” she replied, her tone amused. “No one was harmed.”

“No thanks to you,” I growled. “Put the seat belt on.”

She gave me a level look. “Mortal, I have no physical form. I exist nowhere except within your mind. I am a mental image. An illusion. A hologram only you can see. There is no reason for me to wear my seat belt.”

“It’s the principle of the thing,” I said. “My car, my brain, my rules. Put on the damned seat belt or get lost.”

She heaved a sigh. “Very well.” She twisted around like anyone would, drawing the seat belt forward around her waist and clicking it. I knew she couldn’t have picked up the physical seat belt and done that, so what I was seeing was only an illusion-but it was a convincing one. I would have had to make a serious effort to see that the actual seat belt hadn’t moved.

Lasciel looked at me. “Acceptable?”

“Barely,” I said, thinking furiously. Lasciel, as she appeared to me now, was a portion of a genuine fallen angel. The real deal was trapped inside an ancient silver denarius, a Roman coin, which was buried under a couple of feet of concrete in my basement. But in touching the coin, I’d created a kind of outlet for the demon’s personality-embodied as an entirely discrete mental entity living right in my own head, presumably in the ninety percent of the brain that humans never use. Or in my case, maybe ninety-five. Lasciel could appear to me, could see what I saw and sense what I sensed, could look through my memories to some degree and, most disturbing, could create illusions that I had to work hard to see through-just as she was now creating the illusion of her physical presence in my car. Her extremely attractive and wholesome-looking and entirely desirable presence. The bitch.

“I thought we had an understanding,” I growled. “I don’t want you coming to see me unless I call you.”

“And I have respected our agreement,” she said. “I simply came to remind you that my services and resources are at your disposal, should you need them, and that the whole of my self, currently residing beneath the floor of your laboratory, is likewise prepared to assist you.”

“You act like I wanted you there in the first place. If I knew how to erase you from my head without getting killed, I’d do it in a heartbeat,” I replied.

“The portion of me that shares your mind is nothing but the shadow of my true self,” Lasciel said. “But have a care, mortal. I am. I exist. And I desire to continue to do so.”

“Like I said. If I could do it without getting killed,” I growled. “In the meanwhile, unless you want me to chain you into a little black closet in my head, get out of my sight.”

Her mouth twitched, maybe in irritation, but nothing more than that showed on her face. “As you wish,” she said, inclining her head. “But if black magic truly is once more rising within Chicago, you may well have need of every tool at hand. And as you must survive for me to survive, I have every reason to aid you.”

“A tiny black box,” I said. “Without holes in the lid. Smelling like my high school locker room.”

Her mouth curled again, an expression of wary amusement. “As you wish, my host.”

And she was gone, vanishing back into the undeveloped vaults of my mind or wherever she went. I shivered, making sure my thoughts were contained, shielded from her perceptions. There was nothing I could do to prevent Lasciel from seeing and hearing everything I did, or from rummaging randomly in my memories, but I had learned that I could at least veil my active thoughts from her. I did so constantly, in order to prevent her from learning too much, too quickly.

That would only help her reach her goal-that of convincing me to unearth the ancient silver coin buried under my lab and sealed within spells and concrete. Within the coin, the old Roman denarius-one of a collection of thirty-dwelt the whole of the fallen angel, Lasciel.

If I chose to ally myself with her, it would get me all kinds of strength. The power and knowledge of a fallen angel could turn anyone into a deadly and virtually immortal threat-at the low, low cost of one’s soul. Once you signed on with one of the literal Hell’s Angels, you weren’t the only one in the captain’s chair anymore. The more you let them help you, the more you surrendered your will to them, and sooner or later it’s the fallen angel that’s calling the shots.

I’d grabbed the coin a heartbeat before a friend’s toddler could reach down for it, and touching its surface had transferred a portion of the personality, the intellect of Lasciel into my head. She helped me survive several nasty days the previous autumn, and her assistance had been invaluable. Which was the problem. I couldn’t allow myself to continue relying on her help, because sooner or later, I’d get used to it. And then I’d enjoy it. And at some point, digging up that coin in my basement wouldn’t seem like such a bad idea.

All of which meant that I had to stay on my guard against the fallen angel’s suggestions. The price may have been hidden, but it was still there. Lasciel wasn’t wrong, though, about how dangerous situations involving true black magic could become. I might well find myself in need of help.

I thought about those who had fought beside me before. I thought about my friend Michael, whose kid had been the one about to pick up the coin.

I hadn’t seen Michael since then. I hadn’t called. He’d called me a couple of times, invited me to Thanksgiving dinner a couple of times, asked if I was all right a couple of times. I had turned down his invitations and cut every phone conversation short. Michael didn’t know that I’d picked up one of the Blackened Denarü, taken possession of a token that could arguably make me a member of the Knights of the Blackened Denarius. I’d fought some of the Denarians. I’d killed one of them.

They were monsters of the worst sort, and Michael was a Knight of the Cross. He was one of three people on the face of the earth who had been chosen to wield a holy sword, an honest-to-Goodness holy sword, each of them with what was supposed to be a nail from the Cross, capital C, worked into the blade. Michael fought dark and evil things. He beat them. He saved children and innocents in danger, and he would stand up to the darkest creatures imaginable without blinking, so strong was his faith that the Almighty would give him strength enough to defeat the darkness before him.

He had no love for his opposites, the Denarians, power-hungry psychopaths as determined to cause and spread pain and suffering as Michael was to contain them.

I never told him about the coin. I didn’t want him to know that I was sharing brain space with a demon. I didn’t want him to think less of me. Michael had integrity. Most of my adult life, the White Council at large had been sure that I was some kind of monster just waiting for the right time to morph into its true form and start laying waste to everything around me. But Michael had been firmly on my side since the first time we’d met. His unwavering support had made me feel a whole hell of a lot better about my life.

I didn’t want him to look at me the way he’d looked at the Denarians we’d fought. So until I got rid of Lasciel’s stupid mental sock puppet, I wasn’t going to ask him for help.

I would handle this on my own.

I was fairly sure that my day couldn’t get much worse.

No sooner had I thought it than there was a horrible crunching sound, and my head snapped back hard against the headrest on the back of the driver’s seat. The Beetle shuddered and jounced wildly, and I fought to keep it under control.

You’d think I would know better by now.

Chapter Four

I managed to get one wild look around, and it showed me someone in a real battleship of an old Chrysler, dark grey, windows tinted, and then the car slammed into the Beetle again and nearly sent me into a deadly spin. My head snapped to one side and hit the window, and I could almost smell the smoldering of my tires as they all slid forward and sideways simultaneously. I felt the car hit the curb, and then bounce up. I wrenched at the steering wheel and the brakes, my body responding to things my stunned brain hadn’t caught up to yet. I think I kept it from becoming a total disaster, because instead of spinning off into oncoming traffic or hitting the wall at a sharp angle, I managed to slam the Beetle’s passenger-side broadside into the building beside the street. Brick grated on steel, until I came to a halt fifty feet later.

Stars swarmed over my vision and I tried to swat them away so that I could get a look at the Chrysler’s plates-but it was gone in a heartbeat. Or at least I think it was. Truth be told, my head was spinning so much that the car could have been doing interpretive dance in a lilac tutu and I might not have noticed.

Sitting there seemed like a really good idea, so I sat. After a while I got the vague notion that I should make sure everyone was all right. I looked at me. No blood, which was positive. I looked blearily around the car. No screaming. No corpses in my rearview mirror. Nothing was on fire. There was broken safety glass everywhere from the passenger-side window, but the rear window had been replaced with a sheet of translucent plastic a while back.

The Beetle, stalwart crusader against the forces of evil and alternative fuels, was still running, though its engine had acquired an odd, moaning wheeze as opposed to the usual surly wheeze. I tried my door. It didn’t open. I rolled down my window and hauled myself slowly out of the car. If I could get up the energy to slide across the hood before I got back in, I could audition for The Dukes of Hazzard.

“Here in Hazzard County,” I drawled to myself, “we don’t much cotton to hit-and-run automotive assaults.”

It took an unknown number of minutes for the first cop to arrive, a patrolman I recognized named Grayson. Grayson was an older cop, a big man with a big red nose and a comfortable gut, who looked like he could bounce angry drunks or drink them under the table, take your pick. He got out of his car and started asking me questions in a concerned tone of voice. I answered him as best I could, but something between my brain and my mouth had shorted out, and I found him eyeing me and then looking around the inside of the Beetle for open containers before he sat me down on the ground and started routing traffic around. I got to sit down on the curb, which suited me fine. I watched the sidewalk spin around until someone touched my shoulder.

Karrin Murphy, head of Chicago PD’s Special Investigations department, looked like someone’s cute kid sister. She was maybe a rose petal over five feet tall, had blond hair, blue eyes, a pug nose, and nearly invisible freckles. She was made all of springy muscle; a gymnast’s build that did not preclude feminine curves. She was in a white cotton shirt and blue jeans that day, a Cubs ball cap on her head, reflective sunglasses over her eyes.

“Harry?” she asked. “You okay?”

“Uncle Jesse is gonna be awful disappointed that one of Boss Hogg’s flunkies banged up the General Lee,” I told her, waving at my car.

She stared at me for a moment and then said, “Did you know you have a bruise on the side of your head?”

“Nah,” I said. I poked a finger at it. “Do I?”

Murphy sighed and gently pushed my finger down. “Harry, seriously. If you’re so loopy you can’t talk to me, I need to get you to a hospital.”

“Sorry, Murph,” I told her. “Been a long day already. I got my bells rung pretty good. I’ll be fine in a minute.”

She exhaled, and then nodded and sat down on the curb with me. “Mind if I have one of the EMTs look at you? Just to be careful?”

“They’d want to take me to a hospital,” I said. “Too dangerous. I could short out someone’s life support. And the Reds are watching the hospitals, putting hits on our wounded. I could draw fire onto the patients.”

“I know that,” she said quietly. “I won’t let them take you.”

“Oh. Okay, then,” I said. An EMT checked me out. He shined a light into my eyes, for which I kicked him lightly in the shins. He muttered at me for a minute, poked me here and there, examined and measured and counted and so on. Then he shook his head and stood up. “Maybe a mild concussion. He should see a doctor to be safe, Lieutenant.”

Murphy nodded, thanked the EMT, and looked pointedly at the ambulance. He sidled away, his expression disapproving.

Murphy sat down with me again. “All right, spill. What happened?”

“Someone in a dark grey Chrysler tried to park in my backseat.” I waved a hand, annoyed, as she opened her mouth. “And no. I didn’t get the plates. I was too busy considering a career as a crash test dummy.”

“You’ve got the dummy part down,” she said. “You into something lately?”

“Not yet,” I complained. “I mean, Hell’s bells, Murphy. I got told half a freaking hour ago that there’s bad juju going down somewhere in Chicago. I haven’t even had time to start checking into it, and someone is already trying to make me into a commercial for seat belts and air bags.”

“You sure it was deliberate?”

“Yeah. But whoever it was, he wasn’t a pro.”

“Why do you say that?”

“If he had been, he’d have spun me easy. No idea he was there until he’d hit me. Could have bumped me into a spin before I could have straightened out. Flipped my car a few times. Killed me pretty good.” I rubbed at the back of my neck. A nice, all-body ache was already spreading out into my muscles. “Isn’t exactly the best place for it, either.”

“Attack of opportunity,” Murphy said.

“Whassat?”

She smiled a little. “When you weren’t expecting the shot, but you see it and take it before the opportunity passes you by.”

“Oh. Yeah, probably one of those.”

Murphy shook her head. “Look, maybe I should get you to a doctor anyway.”

“No,” I said. “Really. I’m okay. But I want to get off the street soonest.”

Murphy inhaled slowly and then nodded. “I’ll take you home.”

“Thanks.”

Grayson came ambling over to us. “Wrecker’s on the way,” he said. “What do we got here?”

“Hit and run,” Murphy said.

Grayson lifted his eyebrows and eyed me. “Yeah? Looked to me like you got hit a couple of times. On purpose-like.”

“For all I know it was an honest accident,” I said.

Grayson nodded. “There’s some clothes in your backseat. Looks like they have blood on them.”

“Leftovers from last Halloween,” I said. “It’s costume stuff. A cloak and robes and such, had fake blood all over them. It looked cheesy as hell.”

Grayson snorted. “You’re worse than my kid. He’s still got some of his football jerseys in his backseat from last fall.”

“He probably has a nicer car.” I glanced up at the Beetle. It was a real mess, and I winced. It wasn’t like the Beetle was a priceless antique or anything, but it was my car. I drove it places. I liked it. “In fact, I’m sure it’s a nicer car.”

Grayson let out a wry chuckle. “I need to fill out some papers. You okay to help me fill in the blanks?”

“Sure,” I told him.

“Thanks for the call, Sergeant,” Murphy said.

De nada,” Grayson replied, touching the brim of his cap with a finger. “I’ll get those forms, Dresden, soon as the wrecker gets here.”

“Cool,” I said.

Grayson moved off, and Murphy stared at me steadily for a moment.

“What?” I asked her quietly.

“You lied to him,” she said. “About the clothes and the blood.”

I twitched one shoulder.

“And you did it well. I mean, if I didn’t know you…” She shook her head. “It surprises me about you. That’s all. You’ve always been a terrible liar.”

“Urn,” I said. I wasn’t sure how to take that one. “Thank you?”

She let out a wry chuckle. “So what’s the real story?”

“Not here,” I said. “Let’s talk in a bit.”

Murphy studied my face for a second, and her frown deepened. “Harry? What’s wrong?”

The limp, headless body of that nameless young man filled my thoughts. It brought up too many emotions with it, and I felt my throat tighten until I knew I wouldn’t be able to speak. So I shook my head a little and shrugged.

She nodded. “You going to be all right?”

There was a peculiar gentleness in her voice. Murphy had been playing in what amounted to a boys-only league in her work with CPD, and she put off a tough-as-nails aura that made her seem almost as formidable as she actually was. That exterior almost never varied, at least out in the open, with other police officers nearby. But as she looked at me, there was a quiet, definite, and unashamed vulnerability in her voice.

We’ve had our differences in the past, but Murphy was one hell of a good friend. I gave her my best lopsided smile. “I’m always all right. More or less.”

She reached out and twitched a stray bit of hair from my forehead. “You’re a great big girl, Dresden. One little fender bender and you go all emotional and pathetic.” Her eyes flickered to the Beetle again, and suddenly burned with a cold blue fire. “Do you know who did this to you?”

“Not yet,” I growled as the wrecker arrived. “But you can bet your ass I’m going to find out.”

Chapter Five

By the time we got back to my place, my head was starting to run at its normal speed, the better to inform me how much it hurt. I had a nice, deep-down body ache to go along with the bruised skull. The light of the afternoon sun stabbed at my eyes in a cheerfully vicious fashion, and I was glad when I shambled down the steps to my basement apartment, disarmed my magical wards, unlocked the door, and shoved hard at it.

It didn’t open. The previous autumn, zombies had torn apart my steel security door and wrecked my apartment. Though I was getting a modest paycheck from the Wardens now, I still didn’t have enough money to pay for all the repairs, and I had set out to fix the door on my own. I hadn’t framed it very well, but I try to think positive: The new door was arguably even more secure than the old one-now you could barely get the damned thing open even when it wasn’t locked.

While I was in home-renovation mode, I put down linoleum in the kitchen, carpet on the living room and bedroom floors, and tile in the bathroom, and let me tell you something.

It isn’t as easy as those Time-Life homeowner books make it look.

I had to slam my shoulder against it three or four times, but the door finally groaned and squealed and came open.

“I thought you were going to have a contractor fix that,” Murphy said.

“When I get the money.”

“I thought you were getting another paycheck now.”

I sighed. “Yeah. But the rate of pay was set in 1959, and the Council hasn’t given it a cost-of-living increase since. I think it comes up for review in a few more years.”

“Wow. That’s even slower than City Hall.”

“Always thinking positive.” I went inside, stepping onto the large wrinkle that had somehow formed in the carpet before the door.

My apartment isn’t huge. There’s a fairly roomy living room, with a miniature kitchen set in an alcove opposite the door. The door to my tiny bedroom and bathroom is on the right as you come in, with a redbrick fireplace set in the wall beside it. Bookshelves, tapestries, and movie posters line the cold stone walls. My original Star Wars poster had survived the attack, though my library of paperbacks had taken a real beating. Those darned zombies, they always dog-ear the pages and crack the spines the minute they’re done oozing foul goop and smashing up furniture.

I have a couple of secondhand sofas, which aren’t hard to get cheap, so replacing them wasn’t too bad. A pair of comfortable old easy chairs by the fire, a coffee table, and a large mound of grey-and-black fur rounded out the furnishings. There’s no electricity, and it’s a dim little hole, but it’s a dim, cool little hole, and it was a relief to get out of the broiling sun.

The small mountain of fur shook itself, and something thudded against the wall beside it as it rose up into the shape of a large, stocky dog covered in a thick shag of grey fur, complete with an almost leonine mane of darker fur around his neck, throat, chest, and upper shoulders. He went to Murphy straightaway, sitting and offering up his right front paw.

Murphy laughed, and grabbed his paw briefly-her fingers couldn’t have stretched around the offered limb. “Hiya, Mouse.” She scratched him behind the ears. “When did you teach him that, Harry?”

“I didn’t,” I said, stooping to ruffle Mouse’s ears as I went past him to the fridge. “Where’s Thomas?” I asked the dog.

Mouse made a chuffing sound and looked at the closed door to my bedroom. I stopped to listen for a moment, and heard the faint gurgle of water in the pipes. Thomas was in the shower. I got a Coke out of the fridge and glanced at Murphy. She nodded. I got her one too, and doddered over to the couch to sit down slowly and carefully, my aches and pains complaining at me the whole while. I opened the Coke, drank, and settled back with my eyes closed. Mouse lumbered over to sit down by the couch and lay his massive head on one knee. He pawed at my leg.

“I’m fine,” I told him.

He exhaled through his nose, doggie expression somehow skeptical, and I scratched his ears, to prove it. “Thanks for the ride, Murph.”

“Sure,” she said. She brought out a plastic sack she’d carried in and tossed it on the floor. It held my robe, stole, and cloak, all of them spattered with blood. She walked over to the kitchen sink and started filling it with cold water. “So let’s talk.”

I nodded and told her about the Korean kid. While I did that, she put my stole in the sink, then started washing it briskly in the cold water.

“That kid is what wizards mean when they talk about warlocks,” I said. “Someone who has betrayed the purpose of magic. Gone bad, right from the start.”

She waited a moment and then said, in a quiet, dangerous voice, “They killed him here? In Chicago?”

“Yes,” I said. I felt even more tired. “This is one of our safer meeting places, apparently.”

“You saw it?”

“Yes.”

“You didn’t stop it?”

“I couldn’t have,” I said. “There were heavyweights there, Murphy. And…” I took a deep breath. “I’m not sure they were completely in the wrong.”

“Like hell they weren’t,” she snarled. “I don’t give a good God damn what the White Council does over in England or South America or wherever they want to hang around flapping their beards. But they came here.”

“Had nothing to do with you,” I said. “Nothing to do with the law, that is. It was internal stuff. They would have done the same to that kid, no matter where they were.”

Her movements became jerky for a moment, and water splashed over the rim of the sink. Then she visibly forced herself to relax, put the stole aside, and went to work on the robe. “Why do you think that?” she asked.

“The kid had gone in for black magic in a big way,” I said. “Mind-control stuff. Robbing people of their free will.”

She regarded me with cool eyes. “I’m not sure I understand.”

“It’s the Fourth Law of Magic,” I said. “You aren’t allowed to control the mind of another human. But… hell, it’s one of the first things a lot of these stupid kids try-the old Jedi mind trick. Sometimes they start with maybe getting homework overlooked by a teacher or convincing their parents to buy them a car. They come into their magic when they’re maybe fifteen or so, and by the time they’re seventeen or eighteen they’ve got a full -grown talent.”

“And that’s bad?”

“A lot of times,” I said. “Think about how men that age are. Can’t go ten seconds without thinking about sex. Sooner or later, if someone doesn’t teach them otherwise, they’ll put the psychic armlock on the head cheerleader to get a date. And more than a date. And then more girls, or I guess other guys if I’m going to be PC about it. Someone else gets upset about losing a girlfriend or a daughter getting pregnant and the kid tries to fix his mistakes with more magic.”

“But why does that mandate execution?” Murphy asked.

“It…” I frowned. “Getting into someone’s mind like that is difficult and dangerous. And sooner or later, while you’re changing them, you start changing yourself, too. You remember Micky Malone?”

Murphy didn’t exactly shudder, but her hands stopped moving for a minute. Micky Malone was a retired police officer. A few months after he’d gotten out of the game, an angry and vicious spiritual entity had unleashed a psychic assault on him, and bound him in spells of torment to boot. The attack had transformed a grandfatherly old retired cop into a screaming maniac, totally out of control. I’d done what I could for the poor guy, but it had been really bad.

“I remember,” Murphy said quietly.

“When a person gets into someone’s head, it inflicts all kinds of damage-sort of like what happened to Micky Malone. But it damages the one doing it, too. It gets easier to bend others as you get more bent. Vicious cycle. And it’s dangerous for the victim. Not just because of what might happen as a direct result of suddenly being forced to believe that the warlock is the god-king of the universe. It strains their psyche, and the more uncharacteristically they’re made to feel and act, the more it hurts them. Most of the time, it devolves into a total breakdown.”

Murphy shivered. “Like those office workers Mavra did it to? And the Renfields?”

A flash of phantom pain went through my maimed hand at the memory. “Exactly like that,” I said.

“What can that kind of magic do?” she asked, her voice more subdued.

“Too much. This kid had forced a bunch of people to commit suicide. A bunch more to commit murder. He’d turned a whole gang of people, most of them his family, into his personal slaves.”

“My God,” Murphy said quietly. “That’s hideous.”

I nodded. “That’s black magic. You get enough of it in you and it changes you. Stains you.”

“Isn’t there anything else the Council can do?”

“Not when the kid is that far gone. They’ve tried it all,” I said. “Sometimes the warlock seemed to get better, but they all turned back in the end.

And more people died. So unless someone on the Council takes personal responsibility for the warlock, they just kill them.“

She thought about that for a moment. Then she asked, “Could you have done that? Taken responsibility for him?”

I shifted uncomfortably. “Theoretically, I guess. If I really believed he could be salvaged.”

She pressed her lips together and stared at the sink.

“Murph,” I said, as gently as I knew how. “The law couldn’t handle someone like that. You couldn’t arrest them, contain them, without some serious magic to neutralize their powers. If you tried to bring an angry warlock into holding down at SI, it would get ugly. Worse than the loup-garou.”

“There’s got to be another way,” Murphy said.

“Once a dog goes rabid, you can’t bring him back,” I said. “All you can do is keep him from hurting others. The best solution is prevention. Find the kids displaying serious talent and teach them better from the get-go. But the world population has grown so much in the past century that the White Council can’t possibly identify and reach them all. Especially with this war on. There just aren’t enough of us.”

She tilted her head, staring at me. “Us? That’s the first time I’ve heard you reference the White Council with yourself included in it.”

I wasn’t sure what to say to that, so I drank the rest of my Coke. Murphy went on washing for a minute, set the robe aside, and reached for the grey cloak. She dropped it into the sink, frowned, and then held it up. “Look at this,” she said. “The blood came out when it hit the water All by itself.”

“It’s like that kid never died. Cool,” I said quietly.

Murphy watched me for a moment. “Maybe this is what it feels like for civilians when they see cops doing some of the dirty work. A lot of times they don’t understand what’s happening. They see something they don’t like and it upsets them-because they don’t have the full story, aren’t personally facing the problem, and don’t know how much worse the alternative could be.”

“Maybe,” I agreed.

“It sucks.”

“Sorry.”

She cast me a fleeting smile, but her expression grew serious again when she crossed the room to sit down near me. “Do you really think what they did was necessary?”

God help me, I nodded.

“Is this why the Council was so hard on you for so long? Because they thought you were a warlock about to relapse?”

“Yeah. Except for the part where you’re using the past tense.” I leaned forward, chewing on my lip for a second. “Murph, this is one of those things the cops can’t get involved in. I told you there would be things like this. I don’t like what happened anymore than you do. But please, don’t push this. It won’t help anyone.”

“I can’t ignore a dead body.”

“There won’t be one.”

She shook her head and stared at the Coke for a while more. “All right,” she said. “But if the body shows up or someone reports it, I won’t have any choice.”

“I understand.” I looked around for a change of subject. “So. There’s black magic afoot in Chicago, according to an annoyingly vague letter from the Gatekeeper.”

“Who is he?”

“Wizard. Way mysterious.”

“You believe him?”

“Yeah,” I said. “So we should be on the lookout for killings and strange incidents and so on. The usual.”

“Right,” Murphy said. “I’ll keep an eye out for corpses, weirdos, and monsters.”

The door to the bedroom opened and my half brother Thomas emerged, freshly showered and smelling faintly of cologne. He was right around six feet in height, and was built like the high priest of Bowflex-all lean muscle, sculpted and well formed, not too much of a good thing. He wore a pair of black trousers and black shoes, and was pulling a pale blue T-shirt down over his rippling abs as he came into the room.

Murphy watched him, blue eyes gleaming. Thomas is awfully pretty to look at. He’s also a vampire of the White Court. They didn’t go in for fangs and blood so much as pale skin and supernaturally hot sex, but just because they fed on raw life force rather than blood didn’t make them any less dangerous.

Thomas had worked hard to make sure that he kept his hunger under control, so that when he fed he wouldn’t hurt anyone too badly-but I knew it had been a difficult struggle for him, and he carried that strain around with him. It was visible in his expression, and it made all of his movements those of a lean, hungry predator.

“Monsters?” he asked, pulling the shirt down over his head. He smiled pleasantly and said, “Karrin, good afternoon.”

“That’s Lieutenant Murphy to you, Prettyboy,” she shot back, but her face was set in an appreciative smile.

He grinned back at her from under his hair, which even when wet and uncombed was carelessly curling and attractive. “Why, thank you for the compliment,” he said. He reached down to scratch Mouse’s ears, nodded to me, and seized up his big, black gym bag. “You have some more business come to town, Harry?”

“That’s the scuttlebutt,” I said. “I haven’t had time to look into it yet.”

He tilted his head to one side and frowned at me. “What the hell happened to you?”

“Car trouble.”

“Uh-huh,” he said. He slung the bag’s strap over his shoulder. “Look, you need some help, just let me know.” He glanced at the clock and said, “Gotta run.”

“Sure,” I said to his back. He shut the door behind him.

Murphy arched an eyebrow. “That was abrupt. Are you still getting along?”

I grimaced and nodded. “He’s.. I don’t know, Murph. He’s been very distant lately. And gone almost all of the time. Day and night. He sleeps and eats here, but mostly when I’m at work. And when I do see him, it’s always like that-in passing. He’s in a hurry to get somewhere.”

“Where?” she asked.

I shrugged.

“You’re worried about him,” she said.

“Yeah. He’s usually a lot more tense than this. You know, the whole incubus hunger thing. I’m worried that maybe he’s decided appetite control was for the birds.”

“Do you think he’s hurting anyone?”

“No,” I said at once, a little too quickly. I forced myself to calm down and then said, “No, not as such. I don’t know. I wish he’d talk to me, but ever since last fall, he’s kept me at arm’s length.”

“Have you asked him?” Murphy said.

I eyed her. “No.”

“Why not?”

“It isn’t done that way,” I said.

“Why not?”

“Because guys don’t do it like that.”

“Let me get this straight,” Murphy said. “You want him to talk to you, but you won’t actually tell him that or ask him any questions. You sit around with the silence and tension and no one says anything.”

“That’s right,” I said.

She stared at me.

“You need a prostate to understand,” I said.

She shook her head. “I understand enough.” She rose and said, “You’re idiots. You should talk to him.”

“Maybe,” I said.

“Meanwhile, I’ll keep my eyes open. If I find anything odd, I’ll get in touch.”

“Thank you.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Wait for sundown,” I said.

“Then what?” she asked.

I rubbed at my aching head, feeling a sudden surge of defiance for whoever had run me off the road and whatever black-magicky jerk had decided to mess around with my hometown. “Then I put on my wizard hat and start finding out what’s going on.”

Chapter Six

Murphy stayed until she was sure I wasn’t going to suddenly drop unconscious, but made me promise to call her in a couple of hours to be sure. Mouse escorted her to the door when she left, and Murphy swung it shut with two hands and a grunt of effort in order to make it close snugly into the frame. Her car started, departed.

I prodded my brain with a sharp stick until it figured out my next move. My brain pointed out that I knew the current Summer Knight of the Summer Court, and that the guy owed me some fairly big favors. I’d saved his life when he’d just been a terrified changeling trying not to get swallowed up by an incipient war between Winter and Summer. When everything settled, he was the new Summer Knight, the mortal champion of the Summer Court. It gave him a lot of influence with fully half of the Sidhe realm, and he’d probably know more about what was going on there than any other native of the real world. My brain thought it would be really wonderful if maybe I could make one little phone call to Fix and get all the information I needed about the Sidhe Courts handed to me on a silver platter.

My brain is sometimes overly optimistic, but I indulged it on the off chance that I came up a winner in the investigative lottery.

I reached for the phone. It rang eleven times before someone answered. “Yes?”

“Fix?” I asked.

“Mmmph,” answered a rumpled-sounding male voice. “Who is this?”

“Harry Dresden.”

“Harry!” His voice brightened with immediate, if somewhat sleepy, cheer, which seemed far more appropriate to the Summer Knight of the Sidhe Courts. “Hey, how are you? What’s up?”

“That’s the question of the day,” I said. “I need to talk to you about Summer business.”

The sleepiness vanished from his voice. So did the friendliness. “Oh.”

“Look, it’s nothing big,” I started. “I just need to-”

“Harry,” he said, his voice sharp. Fix had never cut me off before. In fact, if you’d asked my professional opinion a year before, I’d have told you he never interrupted anyone in his life. “We can’t talk about this. The line might not be secure.”

“Come on, man,” I said. “No one can monitor the phone line with a spell. It’d burn out in a second.”

“Someone isn’t playing by the old rules anymore, Harry,” he said. “And a phone tap is not a difficult thing to engineer.”

I frowned. “Good point,” I allowed. “Then we need to talk.”

“When?”

“Soonest.”

“Accorded neutral territory,” he responded.

He meant McAnally’s pub. Mac’s place has always been a hangout for the supernatural crowd in Chicago. When the war broke out, someone managed to get it placed on a list of neutral territories where, by the agreements known as the Unseelie Accords, everyone respected the neutrality of the property and was expected to behave in a civil fashion when present. It might not have been a private rendezvous, but it was probably the safest place in town to discuss this kind of thing. “Fine,” I said. “When?”

“I’ve got business tonight. The soonest I can do it is tomorrow. Lunch?”

“Noon,” I replied.

There was a sleepy murmur on the other end of the phone-a woman’s voice.

“Shhhhh,” Fix said. “Sure, Harry. I’ll see you there.”

We hung up, and I regarded the phone with pursed lips. Fix sleeping this late in the day? And with a girl in bed with him, no less. And interrupting wizards without a second thought. He’d come a ways.

Of course, he’d had a lot of exposure to the faeries since the last time I’d seen him. And if he had anything like the power that I’d seen the champions of the Sidhe display before, he’d have had time to get used to his new strength. You can never tell how someone is going to handle power-not until you hand it to them and see what they do with it. Fix had certainly changed.

I got a little twist in my gut that told me I should employ a great deal more than average caution when I spoke to him. I didn’t like the feeling. Before I could think about it for too long, I made myself pick up the phone and move on with what my brain told me was a reasonable step two- checking around to see if anyone had heard anything about bad juju running around town.

I called several people. Billy the Werewolf, recently married. Mortimer Lindquist, ectomancer. Waldo Butters, medical examiner and composer of the “Quasimodo Polka,” a dozen magical small-timers I knew, plus my ex’s editor at the Midwestern Arcane. None of them had heard of anything, and I warned them all to keep an ear to the ground. I even put in a call to the Archive, but all I got was an answering service, and no one returned my call.

I sat and stared at the phone’s base for a moment, the receiver buzzing a dial tone in my gloved left hand.

I hadn’t called Michael, or Father Forthill. I probably should have, working on the basic notion that more help was better help. Then again, if the Home Office wanted Michael on the case, he’d be there regardless of whether or not anyone called him and how many immovable objects stood in the way. I’ve seen it happen often enough to trust that it was true.

It was a good rationalization, but it wasn’t fooling anyone. Not even me. The truth was that I didn’t want to talk to either one of them unless I really, really, really had to.

The dial tone turned into that annoying buzz-buzz-buzz of a no-connection signal.

I hung the phone back up, my hand unsteady. Then I got up, reached down to the clumsily trimmed area of carpet that covered the trapdoor set in the apartment’s floor, and pulled it open onto a wooden stepladder that folded out and led down into my laboratory.

The lab is in the sub-basement, which is a much better name for it than the basement-basement. It’s little more than a big concrete box with a ladder leading up and out of it. The walls are lined with overflowing white wire shelves, the cheap kind you can get at Wal-Mart. In my lab, they store containers of every kind, from plastic bags to microwave-safe plastic dinnerware to heavy wooden boxes-and even one lead-lined, lead-sealed box where I store a tiny amount of depleted uranium dust. Other books, notebooks, envelopes, paper bags, pencils, and apparently random objects of many kinds crowd each other for space on the shelves-all except for one plain, homemade wooden shelf, which held only candles at either end, four romance novels, a Victoria’s Secret catalog, and a bleached human skull.

A long table ran down the middle of the room, leaving a blank section of floor at the far end kept perfectly clear of any clutter whatsoever. A ring of plain silver was set into the floor-my summoning circle. Underneath it lay a foot and a half or so of concrete, and then another heavy metal box, wrapped with its own little circle of wards and spells. Inside the box was a blackened silver coin.

My left palm, which had been so badly burned except for an outline of skin in the shape of Lasciel's angelic symbol, suddenly itched.

I rubbed it against my leg and ignored it.

My worktable had been crowded with material for most of the time it had been down in my lab. But that no longer was the case.

At that point I felt I owed someone an apology. When Murphy had asked me about the money from the Council, the answer I’d given her was true enough. They’d set the pay rate for Wardens in the fifties-but even the Council wasn’t quite hidebound enough to ignore things like standard inflation, and the Warden’s paychecks had kept pace through discretionary funding in-my God, I’m starting to sound like part of the establishment.

Long story short. The Wardens have sneaky ways of getting paid more, and the money I was getting from them, while not stellar, was nothing to sneeze at, either. But I hadn’t been spending it on things like fixing up my apartment.

I’d been spending it on what was on my worktable.

“Bob,” I said, “wake up.”

Orangish flames kindled wearily to life inside the open eye sockets of the skull. “Oh for crying out loud,” a voice from within complained. “Can’t you take a night off? It’ll be finished when it’s finished, Harry.”

“No rest for the wicked, Bob,” I said cheerfully. “And that means we can’t slack off either, or they’ll outwork us.”

The skull’s voice took on a whiny tone. “But we’ve been tinkering with that stupid thing every night for six months. You’re growing a cowlick and buck teeth, by the way. You keep this up and you’ll have to retire to a home for magical geeks and nerds.”

“Pish tosh,” I said.

“You can’t say pish tosh to that,” Bob grumped. “You don’t even know what it means.”

“Sure I do. It means spirits of air should shut up and assist their wizard before he sends them out to patrol for fungus demons again.”

“I get no respect,” Bob sighed. “Okay, okay. What do you want to do now?”

I gestured at the table. “Is it ready?”

“Ready?” Bob said. “It isn’t ever going to be ready, Harry. Your subject is fluid, always changing. Your model must change too. If you want it to be as accurate as possible, it’s going to be a headache keeping it up to date.”

“I do, and I know,” I told him. “So talk. Where are we? Is it ready for a test run?”

“Put me in the lake,” Bob said.

I reached up to the shelf obligingly, picked up the skull, and set it down on the eastern edge of the table.

The skull settled down beside the model city of Chicago. I’d built it onto my table, in as much detail as I’d been able to afford with my new paycheck. The skyline rose up more than a foot from the tabletop, models of each building made from cast pewter-also expensive, given I’d had to get each one made individually. Streets made of real asphalt ran between the buildings, lined with streetlights and mailboxes in exacting detail-and all in all, I had the city mapped out to almost two miles from Burnham Harbor in every direction. Detail began to fail toward the outskirts of the model, but as far as I’d been able to, I modeled every building, every road, every waterway, every bridge, and every tree with as much accuracy as I knew how.

I’d also spent months out on the town, collecting bits and pieces from every feature on my map. Bark from trees, usually. Chips of asphalt from the streets. I’d taken a hammer and knocked a chip or two off every building modeled there, and those pieces of the originals had been worked into the structure of their modeled counterparts.

If I’d done it correctly, the model would be of enormous value to my work. I’d be able to use various techniques to do all kinds of things in town-track down lost objects, listen in on conversations happening within the area depicted by the model, follow people through town from the relative safety of my lab-lots of cool stuff. The model would let me send my magic throughout Chicago with a great deal more facility and with a far broader range of applications than I could currently manage.

Of course, if I hadn't done it correctly…

“This map,” Bob said, “is pretty cool. I’d have thought you would have shown it off to someone by now.”

“Nah,” I said. “Tiny model of the city down here in my basement laboratory. Sort of projects more of that evil, psychotic, Lex Luthor vibe than I’d like.”

“Bah,” Bob said. “None of the evil geniuses I ever worked for could have handled something like this.” He paused. “Though some of the psychotics could have, I guess.”

“If that’s meant to be flattering, you need some practice.”

“What am I if not good for your ego, boss?” The skull turned slowly, left to right, candleflame eyes studying the model city-not its physical makeup, I knew, but the miniature ley lines that I’d built into the surface of the table, the courses of magical energy that flowed through the city like blood through the human body.

“It looks…” He made a sound like someone idly sucking a breath through his teeth. “Hey, it looks not bad, Harry. You’ve got a gift for this kind of work. That model of the museum really altered the flow around the stadium into something mostly accurate, speaking thaumaturgically.”

“Is that even a real word?” I asked.

“It should be,” he said with a superior sniff. “Little Chicago might be able to handle something if you want to give it a test run.” The skull spun around to face me. “Tell me that this doesn’t have something to do with the bruises on your face.”

“I’m not sure it does,” I said. “I got word today that the Gatekeeper-”

Bob shivered.

“-thinks that there’s black magic afoot in town, and that I need to do something about it.”

“And you want to try to use Little Chicago to find it?”

“Maybe,” I said. “Do you think it will work?”

“I think that the Wright Brothers tested their new stuff at Kitty Hawk instead of trying it over the Grand Canyon for a reason,” Bob said. “Specifically, because if the plane folded due to flawed design, they might survive it at Kitty Hawk.”

“Or maybe they couldn’t afford to travel,” I said. “Besides, how dangerous could it be?”

Bob stared at me for a second. Then he said, “You’ve been pouring energy into this thing every night for six months, Harry, and right now it’s holding about three hundred times the amount of energy that kinetic ring you wear will contain.”

I blinked. At full power, that ring could almost knock a car onto its side. Three hundred times that kind of energy translated to… well, something I’d rather not experience within the cramped confines of the lab. “It’s got that much in it?”

“Yes, and you haven’t tested it yet. If you’ve screwed up some of the harmonics, it could blow up in your face, worst-case scenario. Best case, you only blow out the project and set yourself back to ground zero.”

“To square one,” I corrected him. “Square one is the beginning of a project. Ground zero is the area immediately under a bomb blast.”

“One may tend to resemble the other,” Bob said sourly.

“I’ll just have to live with the risk,” I said. “That’s the exciting life of a professional wizard and his daring assistant.”

“Oh, please. Assistants get paid.”

In answer, I reached down to a paper bag out of sight below the table and withdrew two paperback romances.

Bob let out a squeaking sound, and his skull jounced and jittered on the blue-painted surface of the table that represented Lake Michigan. “Is that it, is that it?” he squeaked.

“Yes,” I said. “They’re rated ‘Burning Hot’ by some kind of romance society.”

“Lots of sex and kink!” Bob caroled. “Gimme!”

I dropped them back into the bag and looked from Bob to Little Chicago.

The skull spun back around. “You know what kind of black magic?” he asked.

“No clue. Just black.”

“Vague, yet unhelpful,” Bob said.

“Annoyingly so.”

“Oh, the Gatekeeper didn’t do it to annoy you,” Bob said. “He did it to prevent any chance of paradox.”

“He…” I blinked. “He what?”

“He got this from hindsight, he had to,” Bob said.

“Hindsight,” I murmured. “You mean he went to the future for this?”

“Well,” Bob hedged. “That would break one of the Laws, so probably not. But he might have sent himself a message from there, or maybe gotten it from some kind of prognosticating spirit. He might even have developed some ability for that himself. Some wizards do.”

“Meaning what?” I asked.

“Meaning that it’s possible nothing has happened, yet. But that he wanted to put you on your guard against something that’s coming in the immediate future.”

“Why not just tell me?” I asked.

Bob sighed. “You just don’t get this, do you?”

“I guess not.”

“Okay. Let’s say he finds out that someone is going to steal your car tomorrow.”

“Heh,” I said bitterly. “Okay, let’s say that.”

“Right. Well, he can’t just call you up and tell you to move your car.”

“Why not?”

“Because if he significantly altered what happened with his knowledge of the future it could cause all sorts of temporal instabilities. It could cause new parallel realities to split off from the point of the alteration, ripple out into multiple alterations he couldn’t predict, or kind of backlash into his consciousness and drive him insane.” Bob glanced at me again. “Which, you know, might not do much to deter you, but other wizards take that kind of thing seriously.”

“Thank you, Bob,” I said. “But I still don’t get why any of those things would happen.”

Bob sighed. “Okay. Temporal studies 101. Let’s say that he hears about your car being stolen. He comes back to warn you, and as a result, you keep your car.”

“Sounds good so far.”

“But if your car never got stolen,” Bob said, “then how did he know to come back and warn you?”

I frowned.

“That’s paradox, and it can have all kinds of nasty backlash. Theory holds that it could even destroy our reality if it happened in a weak enough spot. But that’s never been proven, and never happened. You can tell, on account of how everything keeps existing.”

“Okay,” I said. “So what’s the point in sending the message at all, if it can’t change anything?”

“Oh, it can,” Bob said. “If it’s done subtly enough, indirectly enough, you can get all kinds of things changed. Like, for example, he tells you that your car is going to be stolen. So you move it to a parking garage, where instead of getting stolen by the junkie who was going to shoot you and take the car on the street, you get jacked by a professional who takes the car without hurting you-because by slightly altering the fate of the car, he indirectly alters yours.”

I frowned. “That’s a pretty fine line.”

“Yes, which is why not mucking around with time is one of the Laws,” Bob said. “It’s possible to change the past-but you have to do it indirectly, and if you screw it up you run the risk of Paradox-egeddon.”

“So what you’re saying is that by sending me this warning, he’s indirectly working some other angle completely?”

“I’m saying that the Gatekeeper is usually a hell of a lot more specific about this kind of thing,” Bob said. “All of the Senior Council take black magic seriously. There’s got to be a reason he’s throwing it at you like this. My gut says he’s working from a temporal angle.”

“You don’t have any guts,” I said sourly.

“Your jealousy of my intellect is an ugly, ugly thing, Harry,” Bob said.

I scowled. “Get to the point.”

“Right, boss,” said the skull. “The point is that black magic is very hard to find when you look for it directly. If you try to bring up instances of black magic on your model, like Little Chicago is some kind of evil-juju radar array, it’s probably going to blow up in your face.”

“The Gatekeeper put me on guard against black magic,” I said. “But maybe he’s telling me that so that I can watch for something else. Something black-magic related.”

“Which might be a lot easier to find with your model,” Bob said cheerfully.

“Sure,” I said. “If I had the vaguest idea of what to look for.” I frowned, scowling. “So instead of looking for black magic, we look for the things that go along with black magic.”

“Bingo,” Bob said. “And the more normal the better.”

I pulled out my stool and sat down, frowning. “So, how about we look for corpses? Blood. Fear. Those are pretty standard black wizardry accessories.”

“Pain, too,” Bob said. “They’re into pain.”

“So’s the BDSM community,” I said. “In a city of eight million there are tens of thousands like that.”

“Oh. Good point,” Bob said.

“One would almost think you should have thought of that one,” I gloated. “But for the BDSM crowd, the pain isn’t something they fear. So you just look for the fear instead. Real fear, not movie-theater fear. Terror. And there can’t be a lot of spilled human blood in places with no violent activity, unless someone slips at the hospital or something. Ditto the corpses.” I drummed the fingers of my good hand thoughtfully on the table beside Bob. “Do you think Little Chicago could handle that?”

He considered for a long moment before he said, in a cautious tone, “Maybe one of them. But this will be a very difficult, very long, and very dangerous spell for you, Harry. You’re good for your years, but you still don’t have the kind of fine control you’ll get as you age. It’s going to take all of your focus. And it will take a lot out of you-assuming you can manage it at all.”

I took a deep breath and nodded slowly. “Fine. We treat it as a fullblown ritual, then. Cleansing, meditation, incense, the works.”

“Even if you do everything right,” Bob said, “it might not work. And if Little Chicago turns out to be flawed, it would be very bad for you.”

I nodded slowly, staring at the model city.

There were eight million people in my town. And out of all of them, there were maybe two or three who could stand up to black magic, who had the kind of knowledge and power it took to stop a black wizard. Not only that, but odds were good that I was the only one who could actively find and counter someone before he got the murder-ball rolling. I was also, presumably, the only one who was forewarned.

Maybe it would be better to slow this down. Wait for developments my friends would report to me. Then I could get a better read on the threat, and how to deal with it. I mean, was it worth as much as my life to try this spell, when patience would get me information that was almost as good?

It might not be worth my life, but it would probably cost someone else’s. Black magic isn’t the kind of thing that leaves people whole behind it-and sometimes the victims it kills are the lucky ones. If I didn’t employ the model, I’d have to wait for the bad guys to make the first move.

So I had to do it.

I was tired of looking at corpses and victims.

“Pull together everything you know about this kind of spell, Bob,” I told him quietly. “I’m going to get some food and then we’ll lay out the ritual. I’ll start looking for fear come sundown.”

“Will do,” Bob said, and for once he was serious and didn’t sass me.

Yikes.

I started back up my ladder before I thought about it too much and changed my mind.

Chapter Seven

Ritual magic is not my favorite thing in the whole world. It doesn’t matter what I’m trying to accomplish; I still feel sort of silly when it comes time to bathe and then dress myself up in a white robe with a hood, lighting candles and incense, chanting, and mucking around with a small arsenal of candles, wands, rods, liquids, and other props used in ritual magic.

Self-conscious as I might be, though, the props and the process offered an overriding advantage when it came to working with heavy magic-they freed up my attention from the dozens of little details that I would normally be forced to imagine and keep firmly in mind. Most of the time I never gave the proper visualization a second thought. I’d been doing it for so long that it was practically second nature. That was fine for short-term work, where I had to hold my thoughts in perfect balance only for a few seconds, but for a longer spell I would need an exponentially greater amount of focus and concentration. It took someone with a lot more mental discipline than me to cast a spell through a half-hour ritual without help, and while there were probably experienced wizards who could manage it, few bothered to try it when the alternative was usually simpler, safer, and more likely to work.

I rounded up the props I would need for the ritual, with the elements first. A silver cup, which I would fill with wine, for water. A geode the size of my fist, its internal crystals vibrant shades of purple and green, for earth. Fire would be represented by a faerie-made candle, formed from unused beeswax, its wick braided from the hairs of a unicorn’s mane. Air would be anchored by a pair of hawk-wing feathers wrought from gold with impossibly fine detail and precision by a band of svartalves whose mortal contact sold examples of their craftsmanship out of a shop in Norway. And for the fifth element, spirit, I would use my mother’s silver pentacle amulet.

Other props followed, to engage the senses. Incense for scent and fresh grapes for taste. Tactile forces would depend upon a double-sided three-inch square I’d made from velvet on one side and sandpaper on the other. A rather large, deeply colored opal set within a silver frame reflected back every color of the rainbow, and would hold down the sight portion of the spell. And when I got rolling I would strike my old tuning fork against the floor for sound.

Mind, body, and heart came last. For mind, I would use an old K-Bar military knife as my ritual athame, as I usually did. Fresh droplets of my blood upon a clean white cloth would symbolize my physical body. For heart, I placed several photos of those who were dear to me inside a sack of silver-white silk. My parents, Susan, Murphy, Thomas, Mouse and Mister (my thirty-pound grey tomcat, currently on walkabout), and after a brief hesitation, Michael and his family.

I prepared the ritual circle on my lab floor, carefully sweeping it, mopping it, sweeping it again, then cleansing it with captured rainwater poured from a small, silver ewer. I brought in all the props and laid them out, ready to go.

Then I prepared myself. I lit sandalwood incense and more faerie-candles in the bathroom, started up the shower, then went step by step through a routine of washing, while focusing my mind on the task at hand. The water sluicing over me would drain away any random magical energies, a crucial step in the spell-contaminating the spell’s energy with other forces would cause it to fail.

I finished bathing, dried, and slipped into my white robe. Then I knelt on the floor at the head of the stairs down to the lab, closed my eyes, and began meditating. Just as no other energies could be allowed into the ritual, my concentration had to be of similar purity. Random thoughts, worries, fears, and emotions would sabotage the spell. I focused on my breathing, upon stilling my thoughts, and felt my limbs grow a little chill as my heartbeat slowed. Worries of the day, my aches and pains, my thoughts of the future-all had to go. It took a while to get myself in the proper frame of mind, and by the time I was finished it had been dark for two hours and my knees ached somewhere in the background.

I opened my eyes and everything came into a brilliantly sharp focus that discounted the existence of anything except myself, my magic, and the ritual awaiting me. It had been a long, wearying preparation, and I hadn’t even started with the magic yet, but if the spell could help me nail the bad guys quicker, the hours of effort would be well worth it.

Silence and focus ruled.

I was ready.

And then the fucking phone rang about a foot from my ear.

It is possible that I made some kind of unmanly noise when I jumped. My posture-numbed legs didn’t respond as quickly as I needed them to, and I lurched awkwardly to one side, half falling onto the nearest couch.

“Dammit!” I screamed in sudden frustration. “Dammit, dammit, dammit!”

Mouse looked up from his lazy drowse and tilted his head to one side, ears up and forward.

“What are you looking at?” I snarled.

Mouse’s jaw dropped open into a grin, and his tail wagged.

I rubbed my hand at my face while the phone kept on ringing. It had been a while since I’d done any seriously focused magic like that, and granted, I really don’t get very many calls, but all the same I should have remembered to unplug the phone. Four hours of preparation gone to waste.

The phone kept ringing, and my head pounded in time with it. I ached. Stupid phone. Stupid car crash. I tried to think positive, because I read somewhere that it’s important to do that at times of stress and frustration. Whoever wrote that was probably selling something.

I picked up the phone and growled, “Screw thinking positive,” into the handset.

“Urn,” said a woman’s voice. “What did you say?”

“Screw thinking positive!” I half shouted. “What the hell do you want?”

“Well. Maybe I have the wrong number. I was calling to speak to Harry Dresden?”

I frowned, my mind taking in details despite my temper’s bid to take over the show. The voice was familiar to me; rich, smooth, adult-but the speaker’s speech patterns had an odd hesitancy to them. Her words had an odd, thick edge on them, too. An accent?

“Speaking,” I said. “Annoyed as hell, but speaking.”

“Oh. Is this a bad time?”

I rubbed at my eyes and choked down a vicious response. “Who is this?”

“Oh,” she said, as if the question surprised her. “Harry, it’s Molly. Molly Carpenter.”

“Ah,” I said. I clapped one palm to my face. My friend Michael’s oldest daughter. Way to role-model, Harry. You sure do come off like a calm, responsible adult. “Molly, didn’t recognize you at first.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.

The “s” sound was a little bit thick. Had she been drinking? “Not your fault,” I said. Which it hadn’t been. For that matter, the interruption might have been a stroke of luck. If my head was still too scrambled from that afternoon’s automobile hijinks to remember to unplug the phone, I didn’t have any business trying to cast that spell. Probably would have blown my own head off. “What do you need, Molly?”

“Urn,” she said, and there was nervous tension in her voice. “I need… I need you to come bail me out.”

“Bail,” I said. “You’re being literal?”

“Yes.”

“You’re in jail?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Oh my God,” I said. “Molly, I don’t know if I can do that. You’re sixteen.”

“Seventeen,” she said, with sparks of indignation and another thick

“s.”

“Whatever,” I said. “You’re a juvenile. You should call your parents.”

“No!” she said, something near panic in her voice. “Harry, please. I can’t call them.“

“Why not?”

“Because I only get the one call, and I used it to call you.”

“Actually, I don’t think that’s exactly how it works, Molly.” I sighed.

“In fact, I’m surprised that…”I frowned, thinking. “You lied about your age.”

“If I hadn’t, Mom and Dad would be here already,” she said. “Harry, please. Look, there’s… there’s a lot of trouble at home right now. I can’t explain it here, but if you’ll come get me, I swear, I’ll tell you all about it.”

I sighed again. “I don’t know, Molly…”

“Please?” she said. “It’s just this once, and I’ll pay you back, and I’ll never ask something like this of you again, I promise.”

Molly had long since earned her PhD in wheedling. She managed to sound vulnerable and hopeful and sad and desperate and sweet all at the same time. I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t need half that much effort to wrap her father around a finger. Her mother, Charity, was probably a different story, though.

I sighed. “Why me?” I asked.

I hadn’t been talking to Molly, but she answered. “I couldn’t think who else to call,” she said. “I need your help.”

“I’ll call your dad. I’ll come down with him.”

“Please, no,” she said quietly, and I didn’t think she was feigning the quiet desperation in her voice. “Please.”

Why fight the inevitable? I’ve always been a sucker for ye olde damsel in distress. Maybe not as big a sucker now as I had been in the past, but the insanity did not seem much less potent than it had always been.

“All right,” I said. “Where?”

She gave me the location of one of the precincts not too far from my apartment.

“I’m coming,” I told her. “And this is the deal: I’ll listen to what you have to say. If I don’t like it, I’m going to your parents.”

“But you don’t-”

“Molly,” I said, and I felt my voice harden. “You’re already asking me for a lot more than I feel comfortable with. I’ll come down there to get you. You tell me what’s up. After that, I make the call, and you abide by it.”

“But-”

“This isn’t a negotiation,” I said. “Do you want my help or not?”

There was a long pause, and she made a frustrated little sound. “All right,” she said. After a beat she hurried to add, “And thank you.”

“Yeah,” I said, and eyed the candles and incense, and thought about all the time I’d thrown away. “I’ll be along within the hour.”

I would have to call a cab. It wasn’t the most heroic way to ride to the rescue, but walkers can’t be choosers. I got up to dress and told Mouse, “I’m a sucker for a pretty face.”

When I came out of the bedroom in clean clothes, Mouse was sitting hopefully by the door. He batted a paw at his leash, which hung over the doorknob.

I snorted and said, “You ain’t pretty, furface.” But I clipped the leash to his collar, and called for a cab.

Chapter Eight

The cabby drove me to the Eighteenth District of the CPD, on Larrabee. The neighborhood around it has seen a couple of better days and thousands of worse ones. The once-infamous Cabrini Green isn’t far away, but urban renewal and the efforts of local neighborhood watches, community groups, church congregations from several faiths, and cooperation with the local police department had changed some of Chicago’s nastier streets into something resembling actual civilization.

The nasty hadn’t left the city, of course-but it had been driven away from what had once been a stronghold of decay and despair. What was left behind wasn’t the prettiest section of town, but it bore the quiet, steady signs of a place that had a passing acquaintance with law and order.

Of course, the cynical would point out that Cabrini Green was only a short walk from the Gold Coast, one of the richest areas of the city, and that it was no coincidence that funds had been sent that way by the powers that be through various municipal programs. The cynical would be right, but it didn’t change the fact that the people of the area had worked and fought to reclaim their homes from fear, crime, and chaos. On a good day, the neighborhood made you feel like there was hope for us, as a species; that we could drive back the darkness with enough will and faith and help.

That kind of thinking had taken on whole new dimensions for me in the past year or two.

The police station wasn’t new, but it was free of graffiti, litter, and shady characters of any kind-at least until I showed up, in jeans and a red T-shirt, bruised and unshaven. I got a weird look from the cabby, who probably didn’t get all that many sandalwood-scented fares to drop off there. Mouse presented his head to the cabby while I paid through the driver’s window, and got a smile and a polite scratching of the ears in reply.

Mouse has better people skills than me.

I turned to walk up to the station, stubbornly putting my money back in my wallet with my stiff left hand as I walked, and Mouse walked beside me. The hair on the back of my neck suddenly crawled, and I looked up at the reflection in the glass doors as I approached them.

A car had pulled up on the far side of the street behind me, and was stopped directly under a No Parking sign. I saw a vague shadow inside the car, a white sedan I did not recognize and which certainly wasn’t the dark grey car that had run me off the road earlier. But my instincts told me I was being tailed by someone. You don’t park illegally like that, in front of a police station no less, just because you’re bored.

Mouse let out a low rumble of a growl, which made me grow a shade more wary. Mouse rarely made noise at all. When he did, I had begun to think it was because there was some kind of dark presence around-evil magic, hungry vampires, and deadly necromancers had all earned snarls of warning. But he never made a peep when the mailman came by.

So adding it up, someone from the nasty end of my side of the supernatural street was following me around town. Good grief; at least I usually know who I’m pissing off, and why. By the time an investigation gets to the point where I’m being followed, there’s usually been at least one crime scene and maybe even a corpse or two.

Mouse growled another warning.

“I see him,” I told Mouse quietly. “Easy. Just keep walking.”

He fell silent again, and we never broke stride up to the door.

Molly Carpenter appeared and opened the door for us.

The last time I’d seen Molly, she’d been an awkward adolescent, all skinny legs, bright-eyed interest, and hesitation of movement offset by an appealing personal confidence and frequent smiles and laughter. But that had been years ago.

Since then, Molly had gotten all growed up.

She strongly favored her mother, Charity. Both of them were tall for women, only an inch or two under six feet, both of them blond, fair, blue-eyed, and both of them built like the proverbial brick house, somehow managing to combine strength, grace, and beauty that showed as much in their bearing, expression, and movement as it did in their appearance. Charity was a rose wrought of stainless steel. Molly could have been her younger self.

Of course, I doubted Charity had ever worn an outfit like Molly’s.

Molly stood facing me in a long, gauzy black skirt, shredded artistically in several places. She wore fishnet tights beneath it, showing more leg and hip than any mother would prefer. The tights, too, were artfully torn in patches to display pale, smooth skin of thigh and calf. She had army-surplus combat boots on her feet, laced up with neon pink and blue laces. She wore a tight tank top, its fabric white, thin, and strained by the curves of her breasts, and a short black bolero jacket bearing a huge, gaudy button printed with the logo “SPLATTERCON!!!” in dripping red letters. Black leather gloves covered her hands.

But wait, that’s not all.

Her blond hair had been dyed, parti-colored, one half of her head bubblegum pink, the other sky blue, and it had been cut at a uniform length that ended just below her chin and left most of her face covered by a close veil of hair. She wore a lot of makeup; way too much eye liner and mascara, and black lipstick colored her mouth. Bright rings of gold gleamed in both nostrils, her lower lip, and her right eyebrow, and there was a bead of gold in that little dent just under her lower lip. There were miniature barbell-shaped bulges at the tips of her breasts, where the thin fabric emphasized rather than concealed them.

I didn’t want to know what else had been pierced. I know I didn’t, because I told myself that very sternly. I didn’t want to know, even if it was, hell, a little intriguing.

But wait, that’s still not all.

She had a tattoo on the left side of her neck in the shape of a slithering serpent, and I could see the barbs and curves of some kind of tribal design flickering out from the neckline of her tank top. Another design, whirling loops and spirals, covered the back of her right hand and vanished up under the sleeve of the jacket.

She watched me with one eyebrow arched, waiting for me to react. Her posture and expression both made the effort to say that she was way too cool to care what I thought, but I could practically taste the uncertainty she was working to hide, and her anxiety.

“Long time, no see,” I said, finally.

“Hello, Harry,” she replied. The words came out a little thick, and I saw more gold flash near the tip of her tongue.

Of course.

“It’s odd,” I said. “From here, it doesn’t look like you’re in jail at all.”

“I know,” she said. She managed to keep her voice mostly steady, but her face and throat colored pink in a guilty flush. She shifted her weight restlessly, and an odd clicking sound came from her mouth. Good grief. She’d picked up a tic of rattling her tongue piercing against her teeth when she was nervous. “Urn. I should apologize, I guess. Uh…”

She floundered. I let her. A long silence made her look more flustered, but I had no intention of politely helping her out of it.

Mouse sat down between me and Molly, watching her intently.

Molly smiled at the dog and reached down to pet him.

Mouse tensed up, and a low rumbling came from his chest. Molly moved her hand toward him again, and my dog’s chest suddenly rumbled with a deep and warning growl.

The last time Mouse had growled at anything-for that matter, made much noise at all-it had been a crazed sorcerer who made fair headway toward eviscerating me, and summoned a twenty-foot-long demon cobra to kill my dog. Mouse killed it instead. Then, at my command, Mouse killed the sorcerer, too.

And now he was growling at Molly.

“Be polite,” I told him firmly. “She’s a friend.”

Mouse gave me a look and then fell quiet again. He sat calmly as Molly let him sniff her hand and scratch at his ears, but his wary body language didn’t change.

“When did you get a dog?” Molly asked.

Mouse was spooked, though not the way he was when serious bad guys were around. Interesting. I kept my tone neutral. “Couple years ago. His name is Mouse.”

“What breed is he?”

“He’s a West Highlands Dogasaurus,” I said.

“He’s huge.”

I said nothing, and the girl floundered some more. “I’m sorry,” she said, finally. “I lied to you to get you to come down here.”

“Really?”

She grimaced. “I’m sorry. I just… I really need your help. I just thought that if I could talk to you in person about it, you might be… I mean…”

I sighed. Regardless of how intriguingly rounded her tight shirt was, she was still a kid. “Call a spade a spade, Molly,” I said. “You figured if you could get me to come all the way down here, you’d have a chance to flutter your eyelashes and get me to do whatever it is you really want me to do.”

She glanced aside. “It isn’t like that.”

“It’s just like that.”

“No,” she began. “I didn’t want this to be a bad thing…”

“You manipulated me. You took advantage of my friendship. How is that not a bad thing?” My headache started rising up again. “Give me one reason I shouldn’t turn and walk away right now.”

“Because my friend is in trouble,” she said. “I can’t help him, but you can.”

“What friend?”

“His name is Nelson.”

“In jail?”

“He didn’t do it,” she assured me.

They never did. “He’s your age?” I asked.

“Almost.”

I arched an eyebrow.

“Two years older,” she amended.

“Then tell legal-adult Nelson he should call a bail bondsman.”

“We tried that. They can’t get to him before tomorrow.”

“Then tell him to bite the bullet and spend a night in the lockup or else to call his parents.” I turned to go.

Molly caught my wrist. “He can’t,” she said, desperation in her voice. “There’s no one for him to call. He’s an orphan, Harry.”

I stopped walking.

Well, dammit.

I’d been an orphan, too. It hadn’t been fun. I could tell you some stories, but I make it a personal policy not to review them often. They amount to a nightmare that started with my father’s death, followed by years and years of feeling acutely, perpetually alone. Sure, there’s a system in place to care for orphans, but it’s far from perfect and it is, after all, a system. It isn’t a person looking out for you. It’s forms and carbon copies and people with names you quickly forget. The lucky kids more or less randomly get tapped by foster parents who genuinely care. But for all the puppies at the pound who don’t get chosen, life turns into one big lesson on how to look out for yourself-because there’s no one in this world who cares enough to do it for you.

It’s a horrible feeling. I don’t care to experience even the faded memory of it-but if I just hear the word “orphan” aloud, that empty fear and quiet pain come rushing back from the darker corners of my mind. For a long time I’d been stupid enough to assume that I could handle everything on my own. That’s vanity, though. Nobody can handle everything by themselves. Sometimes, you need someone’s help-even if that help is only giving you a little of their time and attention.

Or bailing you out of jail.

“What’s your friend Nelson in for?”

“Reckless endangerment and aggravated assault.” She took a breath and said, “It’s kind of a long story. But he’s a sweet guy, Harry. There isn’t a violent bone in his body.”

Which emphasized to me just how young Molly really was. There are violent bones in everyone’s body, if you look deep enough. About two hundred and six of them. “What about your dad? He saves people all the time.”

Molly hesitated for a second, and her cheeks turned pink. “Urn. My parents don’t like Nelson very much. Especially my dad.”

“Ah,” I said. “Nelson’s that kind of friend.” Things started adding up. I asked the loaded question. “Why is it so important for him to get out tonight?”

Wait for it.

Molly let go of my wrist. “Because he might be in danger. The weird kind of danger. He needs your help.”

And there it was.

Sometimes it’s almost as though I’m psychic.

Chapter Nine

Boyfriend Nelson had been arraigned two hours before. His bail had been set at enough money to make me glad that over the past year I had made it a habit to keep a chunk of cash around, just in case I needed it in a hurry. I got the fisheye from a hard-faced office matron as I counted it out in twenties. She counted it, too.

“Thank you,” I said. “It’s a wonderful feeling to be trusted.”

She did not look amused. She pushed some papers at me. “Sign here, please. And here.”

I signed, while Molly hovered nervously in the background holding Mouse’s leash. Then we sat down and waited. Molly fidgeted until they brought her honey-bunny out to sign the last couple of papers before being released.

Boyfriend Nelson wasn’t what I’d expected. He was an inch or two taller than Molly. He had a long, narrow face, and I would have hesitated to touch his cheekbones for fear of slicing my fingers on them. He was thin, but it was that kind of lean, whipcord thinness rather than anything that would denote frailty. He moved well, and I pegged him as a fencer or a martial artist of some other kind. Dark hair fell around his head in an even mop. He wore square-shaped, silver-rimmed spectacles, chinos, and a black T-shirt with another SPLATTERCON!!! logo on it. He looked tired and needed a shave.

The second he was free, he hurried over to Molly and they hugged, speaking quietly to one another. I didn’t listen in. It didn’t seem right to invade their privacy. Besides, body language told me enough. The hug went on a second or two longer than Molly wanted it to. Then, when Nelson bent his head down to kiss her, she gave him a sweet smile, turning her cheek to meet his lips. After that, he got the point. He bit his lower lip a little and stepped back from her, rubbing his hands on his pants as if unsure what else to do with them.

“Save me from awkward relationship melodrama,” I muttered to Mouse under my breath, and got onto a pay phone to call a cab. Being a learned wizardly type I had, of course, discovered the cure for tangling up an otherwise orderly life with relationship issues: Don’t have a relationship. It was better that way.

If I repeated it to myself often enough, I almost believed it.

Molly and boyfriend Nelson walked over to me a minute later. Nelson didn’t look up at me when he offered me his hand. “Uh. I guess, thank you.”

I shook his hand and squeezed hard enough to hurt a little. Me annoyed alpha male, ungh. “How could I refuse such a polite and straightforward request for help?” I took Mouse’s leash from Molly, who looked away, turning pink again.

“I don’t want to seem ungrateful,” Nelson said, “but I have to get moving now.”

“No, you don’t,” I said.

His weight had already shifted to move into his first step, and he blinked at me. “Excuse me?”

“I just got you out of a cage. Now comes the part where you tell me what happened to you. Then you can go.”

His eyes narrowed and his weight shifted again, centering his balance. Definitely a student of martial arts. “Are you threatening me?”

“I’m telling you how it’s going to be, kid. So talk.”

“And if I don’t?” he demanded.

I shrugged. “If you don’t, maybe I’ll knock your block off.”

“I’d like to see you try,” he said, more anger in his voice.

“Suit yourself,” I said. “But we’re in sight of the cop at the entry desk. He probably won’t see who threw the first punch. You just got out on bail. You’ll go back, probably for assault, committed within two minutes of being freed. There isn’t a judge in town who would grant you bail again.”

I saw him think about it furiously, which impressed me. A lot of men his age, when angry, wouldn’t bother with actual thought. Then he shook his head. “You’re bluffing. You’d be arrested too.”

“Hell’s bells, kid,” I said. “When did you fall off the turnip truck? They’ll interview me. I’ll tell them you threw the first punch. Who do you think they’re going to believe? I’ll be out in an hour.”

Nelson’s knuckles popped as he clenched his fists. He stared at me, and then at the building behind him.

“Nelson,” Molly urged quietly. “He’s trying to help you.”

“He’s got a hell of a way of showing it,” Nelson spat.

“Just balancing the scales a bit,” I said, glancing at Molly. Then I sighed. Nelson was holding on to his pride. He didn’t want to back down in front of Molly.

Insecurity, thy name is teenager.

It wouldn’t kill me to help Nelson save face. “Come on, kid. Give me five minutes to talk to you and I’ll pay your fare back to wherever you’re heading. I’ll throw in some fast food.”

Nelson’s stomach made a gurgling sound and he licked his lips, glancing aside at Molly. The wary focus slid out of his posture and he nodded, brushing his hand back through his hair. He let out a long exhale and said, “Sorry. Just… been a bad day.”

“I had one of those once,” I said. “So talk. How’d you wind up in jail?”

He shook his head. “I’m not sure what actually happened. I was in the bathroom-”

I held up my hand, interrupting him with the gesture. Eat your heart out, Merlin. “What bathroom? Where?”

“At the convention,” he said.

“Convention?” I asked.

“SplatterCon,” Molly offered. She waved a hand at her button and at Nelson’s shirt. “It’s a horror movie convention.”

“There’s a convention for that?”

“There’s a convention for everything,” Nelson said. “This one screens horror movies, invites in directors, special-effects guys, actors. Authors, too. There are discussion panels. Costume contests. Vendors. Fans show up to the convention to get together and meet the industry guests, that kind of thing.”

“Uh-huh. You’re a fan, then?”

“Staff,” he said. “I’m supposed to be in charge of security.”

“Okay,” I said. “Get back to the bathroom.”

“Right,” he said. “Well. I’d had a lot of coffee and potato chips and pretzels and stuff, so I was just sitting in there with the stall door closed.”

“What happened?”

“I heard someone come in,” Nelson said. “The door was really squeaky.” He licked his lips nervously. “And then he started screaming.”

I arched an eyebrow. “Who?”

“Clark Pell,” he said. “He owns the old movie theater next to the hotel. We rented it out for the weekend so we could play our favorites on the big screen. Nice old guy. Always supports the convention.”

“Why was he screaming?”

Nelson hesitated for a second, clearly uncomfortable. “He… you have to understand that I didn’t actually see anything.”

“Sure,” I said.

“It sounded like a fight. Scuffling sounds. I heard him let out a noise, right? Like someone had startled him.” He shook his head. “That’s when he started screaming.”

“What happened?”

“I jumped up to help him, but…” His cheeks turned red. “You know. I was kind of in the middle of something. It took me a second to get out of the stall.”

“And?”

“And Mr. Pell was there,” he said. “He was unconscious and bleeding. Not real bad. But he looked like he’d taken a real pounding. Broken nose. Maybe his jaw, too. They took him to the hospital.”

I frowned. “Could someone have slipped in or out?”

“No,” Nelson said, and his voice was confident on that point. “That damned door all but screams every time it swings.”

“Could someone have come in at the same time as Pell?” I asked.

“Maybe,” he said. “On the same opening of the door. But-”

“I know,” I said. “But they would have had to open the door to leave.” I rubbed at my chin. “Could someone have held the door open?”

“The hall was crowded. You could hear the people when the door was open,” Nelson said. “And there was a cop standing right outside. He was the first one in, in fact.”

I grunted. “And with no other obvious suspects, they blamed you.”

Nelson nodded. “Yes.”

I mused for a moment and then said, “What do you think happened?”

He shook his head, several times, and very firmly. “I don’t know. Someone must have gotten in and out somehow. Maybe there’s an air vent or something.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Maybe that’s it.”

Nelson checked his watch, and swallowed. “Oh, God, I’ve got to get to the airport. I’m supposed to meet Darby in thirty minutes and take him to the hotel.”

“Darby?” I asked.

“Darby Crane,” Molly supplied. “Producer and director of horror films. Guest of honor at SplatterCon.”

“He do any work I might have seen?” I asked.

Molly nodded. “Maybe. Did you ever see Harvest? The one with the Scarecrow?”

“Uh,” I said, thinking. “Where it smashes through the wall of the convent and eats the nuns? And the librarian sets it on fire and it burns down the library and himself with it?”

“That’s the one.”

“Heh,” I said. “Not bad. But I’ll take a Corman flick any day.”

“Excuse me,” Nelson said, “but I really need to get moving.”

As he spoke, the cab I’d called pulled up to the curb. I checked, and found my shadowy tail still outside, patient and motionless.

Mouse let out another almost subaudible growl.

My shadow wasn’t exactly going out of his way not to be noticed, which meant that he almost certainly wasn’t a hit man. A hired gun would do everything he could to stay invisible, preferably until several hours after I was cold and dead. Of course, he could be trying reverse psychology, I supposed. But that kind of circular reasoning could trigger a paranoia-gasm and drive me loopy fast.

Odds were good he was just supposed to keep an eye on me, whoever he was. Better, then, to keep him in sight, rather than trying to shake him. I was happier knowing where he was than worrying about him being out of sight. I’d play it cool-give him a while to see if I could figure out what he was up to. I nodded to myself, and strode out to the curb, Mouse at my side.

“Okay, kids,” I called over my shoulder. “Get in the cab.”

Mouse and I took the backseat. Molly didn’t give Nelson a chance to choose. She got into the passenger seat in front, and boyfriend Nelson settled into the backseat beside me.

“Which?” I asked him.

“O’Hare.”

I told the driver, and we took off for the airport. I watched my shadow in vague reflections in the windows. The car’s lights came on and followed us all the way out to O’Hare. We got Nelson there in time to meet his B-movie mogul, and he all but leapt from the car. Molly opened her door to follow him.

“Wait,” I said. “Not you.”

She shot me a glance over her shoulder, frowning. “What?”

“Nelson’s out of jail and he’s talked to me about what happened, and he’s in time to meet Darby Crane. I think I pretty much lived up to what I said I would do.”

She frowned prettily. “Yes. So?”

“So now it’s your turn. Close the door.”

She shook her head. “Harry, don’t you see that he’s in some kind of trouble? And he doesn’t believe in…” She glanced at the cabby and back to me. “You know.”

“Maybe he is,” I said. “Maybe not. I’m going to get over to the convention tonight and see if there’s anything supernatural about the assault on Mr. Pell. Right after we get done talking to your parents.”

Molly blanched. “What?”

“We had a deal,” I said. “And in my judgment, Molly, we need to go see them.”

“But…” she sputtered. “It isn’t as though I need them to bail me out or anything.”

“You should have thought about that before you made the deal,” I said.

“I’m not going there,” she said, and folded her arms. “I don’t want to.”

I felt cold stone flow into the features of my face, into the timbre of my voice. “Miss Carpenter. Is there any doubt in your mind-any at all- that I could take you there regardless of what you want to do?”

The change in tone hit her hard. She blinked at me in surprise for a second, lips parted but empty of sound.

“I’m taking you to see them,” I said. “Because it’s the smart thing to do. The legal thing to do. The right thing to do. You agreed to do it, and by the stars and stones, if you try to weasel out on me I will wrap you in duct tape, box you up, and send you UPS.”

She stared at me in utter shock.

“I’m not your mom or your dad, Molly. And these days I’m not a very nice person. You’ve already abused my friendship tonight, and diverted my attention from work that could have saved lives. People who really need my help might get hurt or die because of this stupid stunt.” I leaned closer, staring coldly, and she leaned away, declining to make eye contact. “Now buckle the fuck up.”

She did.

I gave the cabby the address and closed my eyes. I hadn’t seen Michael in… nearly two years. I regretted that. Of course, not seeing Michael meant not seeing Charity either, which I did not regret. And now I was going to drive up in a cab with their daughter. Charity was going to like that almost as much as I like cleaning up after Mouse on our walks. In her eyes, my mere presence near her daughter would make me guilty of uncounted (if imaginary) transgressions.

The angelic sigil on my left palm burned and itched furiously. I poked at it through the leather glove, but it didn’t help. I’d have to keep the glove on. If Michael saw the sigil, or if he somehow sensed the shadow of Lasciel running around in my head, he might react in a manner similar to his wife’s-and that didn’t take into consideration a father’s desire to protect his… physically matured daughter from any would-be, ah, invaders.

I predicted fireworks of one kind or another. Fun, fun, fun.

Should I survive the conversation, I would then be off to a horror convention, where a supernatural assault might or might not have happened, with a mysterious stranger following me while an unknown would-be assassin ran around loose somewhere, probably practicing his offensive driving skills so that he could polish me off the next time he saw me.

Let the good times roll.

Chapter Ten

I told the cabby to keep the meter running and headed for the Carpenters’ front door. Molly remained cool, distant, and untouchably silent all the way over the small lawn. She walked calmly up the steps to the porch. She faced the door calmly-and then broke out into a sweat the moment I rang the bell.

Nice to know I wasn’t the only one. I wasn’t looking forward to speaking with Michael. As long as I kept the conversation brief and didn’t get too close to him, he might not sense the presence of the demon inside me. Things might work out.

My already sore head twinged a little more.

Beside me, Molly rolled her shoulders in a few jerky motions and pushed at her hair in fitful little gestures. She tugged at her well-tattered skirts, and grimaced at her boots. “Can you see if there’s any mud on them?”

I paused to consider her for a second. Then I said, “You have two tattoos showing right now, and you probably used a fake ID to get them. Your piercings would set off any metal detector worth the name, and you’re featuring them in parts of your anatomy your parents wish you didn’t yet realize you had. You’re dressed like Frankenhooker, and your hair has been dyed colors I previously thought existed only in cotton candy.” I turned to face the door again. “I wouldn’t waste time worrying about a little mud on the boots.”

In the corner of my eye, Molly swallowed nervously, staring at me until the door opened.

“Molly!” shrieked a little girl’s voice. There was a blur of pink cotton pajamas, a happy squeal, and then Molly caught one of her little sisters in her arms in a mutual hug.

“Hiya, hobbit,” Molly said, catching the girl by an ankle and dangling her in the air. This elicited screams of delight from the girl. Molly swung her upright again. “How have you been?”

“Daniel is the boss kid now, but he isn’t as good as you,” the girl said. “He yells lots more. Why is your hair blue?”

“Hey,” I said. “It’s pink, too.”

The girl, a golden-haired moppet of six or seven, noticed me for the first time and promptly buried her face against Molly’s neck.

“You remember Hope,” Molly said. “Say hello to Mister Dresden.”

“My name is Hobbit!” the little girl declared boldly-then lowered her face into the curve of Molly’s neck and hid from me. Meanwhile, the house erupted with thudding feet and more shouts. Lights started flicking on upstairs, and the stairwell shuddered as brothers and sisters pounded down it and ran for the front door.

Another pair of girls made it there first, both of them older than Hope. They both assaulted Molly with shrieks and flying hugs. “Bill,” the smaller of the pair greeted me, afterward. “You came back to visit.”

“My name is Harry, actually,” I said. “And I remember you. Amanda, right?”

“I’m Amanda,” she allowed cautiously. “But we already have a Harry. That’s why you’re Bill.“

“And this is Alicia,” Molly said of the other, a child as gawky and skinny as Molly had been when I first met her. Her hair was darker than the others, trimmed short, and she wore black-rimmed glasses over a serious expression. “She’s the next oldest girl. You remember Mister Dresden, don’t you, Leech?”

“Don’t call me Leech,” she said in the patient tone of someone who has said something a million times and plans on saying it a million times more. “Hello, sir,” she told me.

“Alicia,” I said, nodding.

Evidently the use of her actual name constituted a gesture of partisanship. She gave me a somewhat relieved and conspiratorial smile.

A pair of boys showed up. The oldest might have been almost ready to take a driver’s test. The next was balanced precariously between grade school and pimples. Both had Michael’s dark hair and solid, sober expression. The younger boy almost threw himself at Molly upon seeing her, but restrained himself to a hello and a hug. The older boy only folded his arms and frowned.

“My brother Matthew,” Molly said of the younger. I nodded at him.

“Where have you been?” the oldest boy said. He stood there frowning at Molly for a moment.

“Nice to see you too, Daniel,” she replied. “You know Mister Dresden.”

He gave me a nod, said to Molly, “I’m not kidding. You just took off. Do you have any idea of how much it messed things up here?”

Molly’s mouth firmed into a line. “You didn’t think I was going to just hang around forever did you?”

“Is it Halloween wherever it is you live?” Daniel demanded. “Look at you. Mom is going to freak out.”

Molly stepped forward and half tossed Hope into Daniel’s chest. “When does she do anything else? Shouldn’t these two be in bed?”

Daniel grimaced as he caught Hope and said, “That’s what I was trying to do before someone interrupted bedtime.” He took Amanda’s hand, and over half-hearted protests took the two youngest girls back into the house.

There was a creak from the upstairs of the house and Alicia thumped Matthew firmly with her elbow. The two vanished as heavy steps descended from the second floor.

Michael Carpenter was almost as tall as me and packed a lot more muscle. He had the kind of face that told anyone who looked that he was a man of honesty and kindness who nonetheless could probably kick the crap out of you if you offered him violence. I wasn’t sure how he managed that. Something about the strength of his jawline, maybe, bespoke the steady power of both body and mind. But as for the kindness, that went all the way down to his soul. You could see it in the warmth of his grey eyes.

He wore khaki pants and a light blue T-shirt. A hard-cased plastic cylinder, doubtless the one he used to transport his sword, hung from a strap over one shoulder. An overnight bag hung over the other, and his hair was damp from the shower. He came down the stairs at the pace of a man with places to be-until he looked up and saw Molly and me standing in the doorway.

He froze in place, a smile of surprised delight illuminating his face as he saw Molly. The overnight bag thumped to the floor as he strode forward and crushed his oldest daughter to his chest in a hug.

“Daddy,” she protested. “Hush,” he told her. “Let me hug you.”

Her eyes flickered to the case still held against one shoulder, and her expression became tainted with a sudden worry. “When are you going?”

“You just caught me,” he said. “I’m glad.”

She hugged her father back, and closed her eyes. “It’s just a visit,” she said.

He rose from the hug a moment later, studying her face, worry in his eyes. Then he nodded, smiled, and said, “I’m glad anyway.” He jerked his head back a moment later, as if the rest of her appearance had only then registered on him, and his eyes widened. “Margaret Katherine Amanda Carpenter,” he said, his voice hushed. “God’s blood, what have you done to your…” He looked her up and down, gentle dismay on his face. “… your…”

“Self,” I suggested. “Yourself.”

“Yourself,” Michael sighed. He looked Molly up and down again. She was doing that thing where she tried to display how much she didn’t care what her daddy thought of her look, and it was almost painfully obvious that she cared a great deal. “Tattoos. The hair wasn’t so bad, but…” He shook his head and offered me his hand. “Tell me, Harry. Am I just too old?”

I didn’t want to shake Michael’s hand. Lasciel’s presence in me, even if it wasn’t the full-blown version, wasn’t something he would miss-not if he made actual physical contact with me. For a couple of years I had been avoiding him with every excuse I had, hoping I could take care of my little demon issue without bothering him about it.

More accurately, I supposed, I had been too ashamed to let him see what had happened. Michael was probably the most honest, decent human being I had ever had the privilege to know. He had always thought well of me. It had been something that had given me comfort in a low spot or two, and I hated the thought of losing his trust and friendship. Lasciel’s presence, the collaboration of a literal fallen angel, would destroy that.

But friendship isn’t a one-way street. I had brought his daughter back because I had thought it was the right thing to do-and because I thought he’d do the same for someone else in a similar circumstance. I respected him enough to do that. And I respected him too much to lie to him. I had avoided the confrontation long enough.

I shook his hand.

And nothing in his manner or expression changed. Not an ounce.

He hadn’t sensed Lasciel’s presence or mark.

“Well?” he asked, smiling.

“If you think she looks silly, you’re too old,” I said after a moment. “I’m moderately ancient by the standards of the younger generation, and I think she only looks a little over the top.”

Molly rolled her eyes at us both, her cheeks pink.

“I suppose a good Christian should be willing to turn the other cheek when it comes to matters of fashion,” Michael said.

“Let he who hath never stonewashed his jeans cast the first stone,” I said, nodding.

Michael laughed and gripped my shoulder briefly. “It’s good to see you, Harry.”

“And you,” I said, trying a smile. I glanced at the plastic case on his shoulder. “Business trip?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Where to?”

He smiled. “I’ll know when I get there.”

I shook my head. Michael was entrusted to wield one of the blades of the Knights of the Cross. He was one of only two men in the world who were entrusted with such potent weapons against dark powers. As such, he had a lot of planet to cover. I wasn’t clear exactly how his itinerary was established, but he was often called away from his home and family, apparently summoned to where his strength was most needed.

I don’t go in big for religion-but I believe in the Almighty. I had seen a vast power at work supporting Michael’s actions. Coincidence seemed to go to insane lengths, at times, to make sure he was where he needed to be to help someone in trouble. I had seen that power strike down seriously twisted foes without Michael so much as raising his voice. That power, that faith, had carried him through dangers and battles he had no business surviving, much less winning.

But I hadn’t ever thought too much about how hard it must be for him to leave his home when the Archangels or God or Whoever sent up a flare and called him off to a crisis.

I glanced aside at Molly. She was smiling, but I could see the strain and worry beneath the surface.

Hard on his family, too.

“Haven’t you left?” called a woman’s voice from upstairs. The house creaked again and Michael’s wife appeared at the top of the stairway, saying, “You’ll be-”

Her voice cut off suddenly. I hadn’t ever seen Charity in a red silk kimono before. Like Michael, her hair was damp from the shower. Even wet, it still looked blond. Charity had nice legs, clearly defined muscles in her calves shifting as she stepped to the head of the stairs, and what I could see of the rest of her looked much the same-strong, fit, healthy. She bore a sleeping child on one hip-my namesake, Harry, the youngest of the bunch. His arms and legs splayed in perfect relaxation, and his head was pillowed on her shoulder. His cheeks were pink with that look very young children get while sleeping.

Blue eyes widened in utter surprise and for just a moment she froze, staring at Molly. She opened her mouth for a second, words hesitating on her tongue. Then her eyes shifted to me and surprise fell to recognition, which was followed by a melange of anger, worry, and fear. She clutched her kimono a little more tightly to her, her mouth working for a second more, then said, “Excuse me for a moment.”

She vanished and reappeared a moment later, sans little Harry, this time covered in a long terrycloth bathrobe, her feet inside fuzzy slippers.

“Molly,” she said quietly, and came down the stairs.

The girl averted her eyes. “Mother.”

“And the wizard,” she said, her mouth hardening into a line. “Of course he’s here.” She titled her head to one side, her expression hardening further. “Is this who you’ve been with, Molly?”

The air pressure in the room quadrupled, and Molly’s face darkened from pink to scarlet. “So what if it is?” she demanded, defiance making the words ring. “That’s no business of yours.”

I opened my mouth to assure Charity that I had nothing to do with anything (not that it would actually alter the nature of the conversation), but Michael glanced at me and shook his head. I zipped my lips and awaited developments.

“Wrong,” Charity said, her stance belligerent and unyielding. “You are a child and I am your mother. It is precisely my business.”

“But it’s my life” Molly replied.

“Which you clearly lack the discipline and intelligence to manage.”

“Here we go again,” Molly said. “Go go gadget control freak.”

“Do not take that tone of voice with me, young lady.”

“Young lady,” Molly singsonged back in a nasal impersonation of her mother’s voice, her fists now on her hips. “What’s the point? Stupid of me to think that you might actually be willing to talk with me instead of telling me how to live every second of my life.”

“I fail to see the error in that when you clearly have no idea what you’re doing, young lady. Look at you. You look like… like a savage.”

My mouth went off on reflex. “Ah, yes, a savage. Of the famous Chro-motonsorial Cahokian Goth tribe.”

Michael winced.

The look Charity turned on me could have withered the life from small animals and turned potted flowers black. “Excuse me, Mister Dresden,” she said, words clipped. “I do not recall speaking to you.”

“Beg pardon,” I said, and gave her my sweetest smile. “Don’t mind me. Just thinking out loud.”

Molly turned to glare at me, too, but hers was a pale imitation of her mother’s. “I do not need you to defend me.”

Charity’s attention shifted back to her daughter. “You will not speak to an adult in that tone of voice so long as you are in this house, young lady.”

“Not a problem,” Molly shot back, and then she whirled on her heel and opened the door.

Michael put his hand out, not with any particular effort, and the door slammed shut again with a sharp, booming impact.

Sudden silence fell over the Carpenter household. Both Molly and Charity stared at Michael with expressions of utter shock.

Michael took a deep breath and then said, “Ladies. I try not to involve myself in these discussions. But obviously your conversation this evening is unlikely to resolve the differences you’ve had.” He looked at them in turn, and his voice, while still gentle, became something more immovable than a mountain’s bones. “I don’t have any feeling that my trip will be an extended one,” he said, “but we never know what He has planned for us. Or how much time is left to any of us. This house has been upset long enough. The strife is hurting everyone. Find a way to resolve your troubles before I return.”

“But…” Molly began.

“Molly,” Michael said, his tone of voice inexorable. “She is your mother. She deserves your respect and courtesy. You will give them to her for the length of a conversation.”

Molly set her jaw, but looked away from her father. He stared at her for a moment, until she gave him a brief nod.

“Thank you,” he said. “I want you both to make an effort to set the anger aside, and talk. By God, ladies, I will not go forth to answer the call only to come home to more conflict and strife. I get enough of that while I’m gone.”

Charity stared at him for a second longer, and then said, “But Michael… surely you aren’t going to leave now. Not when…” She gestured vaguely at me. “There will be trouble.”

Michael stepped over to his wife and kissed her gently. Then he said, “Faith, my love.”

She closed her eyes and looked away from him after the kiss. “Are you sure?”

“I’m needed,” he said with quiet certainty. He touched her face with one hand and said, “Harry, would you walk me to the car?”

I did. “Thank you,” I said, once we were outside. “I’m glad to get out of there. Tension, knife.”

Michael nodded. “It’s been a long year.”

“What happened to them?” I asked.

Michael tossed his case and his bag into the back of his white pickup truck. “Molly was arrested. Possession.”

I blinked at him. “She was possessed?”

He sighed and looked at me. “Possession. Marijuana and Ecstasy. She was at a party and the police raided it. She was caught holding them.”

“Wow,” I said, my voice subdued. “What happened?”

“Community service,” he said. “We talked about it. She was clearly repentant. I thought that the humiliation and the sentence of the law were enough to settle matters, but Charity thought we were being too gentle. She tried to restrict which people Molly was allowed to spend time with.”

I winced. “Ah. I think I can see how this played out.”

Michael nodded, got into his truck, and leaned on the open window, looking up at me. “Yes. Both of them are proud and stubborn. Friction rose until it exploded this spring. Molly left home, dropped out of school. It’s been… difficult.”

“I can see that,” I said, and sighed. “Maybe you should pitch in with Charity. Maybe the two of you could sit on her until she gets back on the straight and narrow.”

Michael smiled a little. “She’s Charity’s daughter. A hundred parents sitting on her couldn’t make her surrender.” He shook his head. “A parent’s authority can only go so far. Molly has to start thinking and choosing for herself. At this point, twisting her arm until she cries uncle isn’t going to help her do that.”

“Doesn’t seem like Charity agrees with you,” I said.

Michael nodded. “She loves Molly very much. She’s terrified of the kinds of things that could happen to her little girl.” He glanced at the house. “Which brings me to a question for you.”

“Yeah?”

“Is there some kind of dangerous situation developing?”

I chewed on my lip and then nodded. “It seems probable, but I don’t have anything specific yet.”

“Is my daughter involved in it?”

“Not to my knowledge,” I told him. “Her boyfriend got arrested tonight. She talked me into bailing him out.”

Michael’s eyes narrowed a little, but then he caught himself, and I saw him force the angry expression from his face. “I see. How in the world did you get her to come here?”

“It was what I charged for my help,” I said. “She tried to back out, but I convinced her not to.”

Michael grunted. “You threatened her?”

“Politely,” I said. “I’d never hurt her.”

“I know that,” Michael said, his tone gently reproving. Behind us, the front door opened. Molly stepped out onto the porch, hugging herself with her arms. She stood that way for a moment, ignoring us. A few seconds later, a light on the second floor came on. Charity, presumably, had gone back upstairs.

Michael watched his daughter for a moment, pain in his eyes. Then he took a deep breath and said, “May I ask a favor of you?”

“Yes.”

“Talk to her,” Michael said. “She likes you. Respects you. A few words from you might do more than anything I could tell her right now.”

“Whoa,” I said. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t have to negotiate a treaty,” Michael said, smiling. “Just ask her to talk to her mother. To be willing to give a little.”

“Compromise has to work both ways,” I said. “What about Charity?”

“She’ll come around.”

“Am I the only one who has noticed that Charity really doesn’t regard me with what most of the world thinks of as fairness? Or fondness? I am the last person in the world likely to get her to sit down for a reconciliation talk.”

He smiled. “Have a little faith.”

“Oh, please.” I sighed, but there wasn’t any real feeling behind it.

“Will you try to help?” Michael asked.

I scowled at him. “Yes.”

He smiled at me, mostly in his eyes. “Thank you. I’m sorry you walked into the cross fire tonight.”

“Molly told me there had been trouble at home. Bringing her here seemed like the right thing to do.”

“I appreciate it.” Michael frowned, his eyes distant for a moment, then said, “I’ve got to get moving.”

“Sure,” I said.

He met my eyes and said, “If something arises, will you keep an eye on them for me? It would make me feel a lot better to know you were watching over them until I return.”

I glanced back at his house. “What happened to having faith?”

He smiled. “Seems a bit lazy to expect the Lord to do all the work, doesn’t it?” His expression grew serious again. “Besides. I do have faith, Harry. In Him-and in you.”

Demon-infested me writhed in uncomfortable guilt on the inside. “I’ll keep an eye on them, of course.”

“Thank you,” Michael said, and put the truck in gear. “When I get back, I need to talk business with you, if you have the time.”

I nodded. “Sure. Good hunting.”

“God be with you,” he replied with a deep nod, and then he pulled out and left. Have sword, will travel. Hi-yo, Silver, away.

Get Molly and Charity to sit down and talk things out. Right. I had about as much chance to do that as I did of backpacking my car to the top of Mount Rushmore. I was gloomily certain that even if I did manage to get them together, it would only make things go more spectacularly wrong once they were there. The whole house would probably go up in an explosion when mother met antimother.

No good could come of this one. Why in the world had I agreed to it?

Because Michael was my friend, and because I was in general too stupid to turn down people in need. And maybe because of something more. Michael’s house had always been fulll of hectic life, but it had been a place, in general, of talk and warmth and laughter and good food. The ugly shouts and snarls of Molly and Charity’s quarrel had stained the place. They didn’t belong there.

I had never had a home like that, growing up. Even now that Thomas and I had found one another, when I thought of a family, I thought of the Carpenter household. I had never had that kind of intimacy, closeness. Those who have such a family seldom realize how rare and precious it is. It was something worth preserving. I wanted to help.

And Michael had a point. I might have a chance to get through to Molly. That was only half the battle, so to speak, but it was probably more than he could manage from his own position.

But whatever higher power arranged these things had a demented sense of timing, given how much I had on my plate already. Hell’s bells.

Molly came over to me after Michael’s truck had vanished. She stood beside me in the quiet summer evening, silent.

“I guess you need a ride back to your place,” I said.

“I don’t have any money,” she replied quietly.

“Okay,” I said. “Where do you need to go?”

“The convention,” she replied. “I have friends there. A room for the weekend.” She glanced over her shoulder at the house.

“The rug rats seemed glad to see you,” I observed.

She smiled fleetingly and her voice warmed. “I didn’t realize how much I missed them. Dumb little Jawas.”

I thought about nudging her toward her mother for a second, and decided against it. She might decide to do it if she wasn’t pressured, but the second she thought I was trying to force her into something, she’d dig in her heels. So all I said was, “They’re cute kids.”

“Yes,” she replied quietly.

“I’m heading for the convention anyway,” I told her. “Get in the cab.”

“Thank you,” she said.

“You’re welcome,” I said.

Chapter Eleven

When people say the word “convention,” they are usually referring to large gatherings of the employees of companies and corporations who attend a mass assembly, usually in a big hotel somewhere, for the purpose of pretending to learn stuff when they are in fact enjoying a free trip somewhere, time off work, and the opportunity to flirt with strangers, drink, and otherwise indulge themselves.

The first major difference between a business convention and a fan-dom convention is that fandom doesn’t bother with the pretenses. They’re just there to have a good time. The second difference is the dress code- the ensembles at a fan convention tend to be considerably more novel.

SplatterCon!!! (apparently the name of the con was misspelled if the three exclamation points were left out) had populated the hotel with all kinds of costumed fans, unless maybe the costumes were actually clothing trends. Once in a while, it gets hard to tell make-believe and avant-garde fashion apart. The hotel had an entry atrium, which in turn branched off into a pair of long, wide hallways leading to combination ball- and dining rooms, the ones with those long, folding partitions that can be used to break the larger rooms up into smaller halls for seminars and talk panels and so on. There were a couple hundred people in sight, and I could see more entering and leaving various panel rooms.

“I kind of expected a few more people to be here,” I said to Molly. I had stopped at my apartment to grab my stuff and drop off Mouse.

“It’s Thursday night,” she said, as if that should be significant. “And it’s getting late, at least for a weeknight. We have more than three thousand people already registered.”

“Is that a lot?”

“For a first-year convention? It’s a Mongol horde.” There was pride in her voice as she spoke. “And we have a really young staff, to boot. But old hands at putting conventions together.” She went on like that for a few moments, naming names and citing their experience as though she expected me to whip out a licensing manual or something to make sure the convention was up to code.

Two girls, both too young for me to think adult thoughts about, sidled by in black-and-purple clothing and makeup that left a lot of skin bare, their faces painted pale, trickles of fake blood at the corners of their mouths. One of them smiled at me, and she had fangs.

I had my hand on my staff and the harsh, clear scent of wood smoke filled my nose before I stopped myself from unleashing an instant, violent, and noisily pyrotechnic assault upon the vampire five feet from me. A second’s study showed irregular lumps and finger marks on the teeth-the girls had probably made them with their own fingers from craft plastic. I let out my breath in a steady exhalation and relaxed again, releasing the power I’d begun to channel through my staff.

Relax, Harry. Hell’s bells, that would be a great story for the papers. Professional Wizard Incinerates Amateur Vampire. News at ten.

The two girls went on by, none the wiser, and even Molly only frowned at them and then back at me for a second, her face tilted into an expression of silent inquiry.

I shook my head. “Sorry, sorry. Been a long day already. Look, I need to get a look at the bathroom where this theater owner was attacked.”

“All right,” Molly said. “But first we’ll get you a name tag at registration.”

“We will?” I asked. “Why?”

“Because you’re not supposed to have access to the convention if you haven’t registered for it,” she said. “Con security and hotel security might get confused. It would be inconvenient for you.”

“Right,” I said. “Good thinking. I’m not sure how I’d react to inconvenience.”

I followed her over to a set of tables set up to receive dozens or hundreds of people at once, each designated with white paper signs marked with “A-D,” “E-J,” and so on down the alphabet. A tired-looking, brown-haired woman of early middle age sat behind the first table, doing some kind of paperwork.

“Molly,” she said, and her voice warmed with tired but genuine pleasure. “Who is your friend?”

“Harry Dresden,” Molly said. “This is Sandra Marling. She’s the convention chair.”

“You’re a horror fan?” Sandra Marling asked me.

“My life is all about horror, these days.”

“You should find plenty here to entertain you,” she assured me. “We’re showing movies in several rooms as well as in the theater, and there’s the vendors’ room, and some autograph signings tomorrow, and of course there are several parties active already, and the costume contests are always fun to watch.”

“Isn’t that something,” I said, and tried not to drown in my enthusiasm.

“Sandy,” Molly said, stepping in, “I want to use my freebie for Harry, here.”

Sandra nodded. “Oh, Rosanna was looking for you a few minutes ago. Have you spoken to her yet?”

“Not since this afternoon,” Molly said, and fretted at her lower lip. “Did she remember to take her vitamins?”

“Rest easy, girl. I reminded her for you.”

Molly looked visibly relieved. “Thank you.”

Sandra, meanwhile, had me filling out a registration form, which I scribbled through fairly quickly. At the end, she passed me a plastic badge folded around a card that said, SPLATTERCON!!! HI, I’m… She gave me a black ink marker to go with it and said, “Sorry, the printer’s been off-line all day. Just write your name in.”

I promptly wrote the words An Innocent Bystander onto the name tag before folding it up in the plastic badge and pinning it to my shirt.

“I hope you enjoy SplatterCon, Harry,” Sandra said.

I picked up a schedule and glanced at it. “Make Your Own Blood and Custom Fangs” at ten A.M., to be followed by “How to Scream Like a Pro.”

“I don’t see how I can avoid being entertained.”

Molly gave me a level look as we walked away. “You don’t have to make fun of it.”

“Actually I do,” I said. “I make fun of almost everything.”

“It’s mean,” she said. “Sandra has poured her whole life into this convention for a year, and I don’t want to see her feelings hurt.”

“Where do you know her from?” I asked. “Not church, I guess.”

Molly looked at me obliquely for a second and then said, “She’s a part-time volunteer at one of the shelters where I’m doing community service.

She helped Nelson out when he was younger. Rosie too, and her boyfriend.“

I lifted a hand in acquiescence. “Fine, fine. I’ll play nice.”

“Thank you,” she said, her voice still prim. “It’s very adult of you.”

I started to get annoyed, but was struck by the disturbing thought that if I did, I would be coming down on the same side of the situation as Charity, which might be one of the signs of the apocalypse.

Molly led me down to the end of one of the long conference room hallways, where there were the usual restroom doors. One of them had been marked over with three bars of police tape, shutting it, and a uniformed cop sat in a chair beside the door.

The cop was a large black man, grey in his hair at the temples, and he sat with the chair leaned on its rear two legs so that his head rested back against the wall. He had on his uniform, but had added on a SplatterCon!!! name tag. He had filled in the name on the card with a marker, too, though his blocky script under the HI, I’m read An Authority Figure. The uniform name stripe on his shirt read RAWLINS.

“Well now,” the cop said as I walked over to him. He opened his mostly closed eyes and gave me a wary smile. He read my name tag and snorted. “It’s the consultant guy. Thinks he’s a wizard.”

“Rawlins,” I said, smiling, and offered him my hand. He took it, his grip lazily strong.

“So you’re one of those horror movie fans, huh?” he rumbled.

“Um, yes,” I said.

He snorted again.

“I was sort of hoping I could get into the bathroom there.”

Rawlins pursed his lips. “There’s two more on this floor. One’s back near the front desk, and there’s another at the end of the other conference hall.”

“I like this one,” I said.

Rawlins squinted at me and said, “Maybe you can’t read so good. You see that tape there, says crime scene and such?”

“The bright yellow and black stuff?” I asked.

“That’s it exactly.”

“Yep.”

“Well, that’s what we police use when we have a crime scene and we don’t want nosy private investigators stomping all over it in their big boots and contaminating everything,” he drawled.

“What if I promise to walk on tippy toe?”

“Then I promise I will stop bouncing you off walls just as soon as I think you’re not resisting arrest,” he said in a cheerful tone. The smile faded a little and his eyes hardened. “It’s a crime scene. No.”

“Molly,” I said quietly. “Would you mind if I talked to the officer alone?”

“Sure,” she said. “There are things I need to handle anyway. Excuse me.” She walked away without looking back.

“Do you mind talking about it?” I asked Rawlins.

“Naw,” he said. “Look, you seem okay, Dresden. I’ll talk. But I’m not letting you in there.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because it might make things harder on the kid we took in for it.”

I frowned and tilted my head. “Yeah?”

Rawlins nodded. “Kid didn’t do it,” he said. “But hotel security cameras show him going in there, then the victim, and no one else. And I was sitting right here in this spot the whole time. I’m sure no one else went in or out.”

“So how do you know the kid didn’t attack the old man?” I asked.

Rawlins gave an easy shrug. “Didn’t fit him. He wasn’t breathing hard, and giving a beating runs you out of breath quick. No damage to his hands or knuckles. No blood on him.”

“So why’d you arrest him?” I asked.

“Because the record shows that there’s no one else who could have done it,” Rawlins said. “And because the old man was too out of it to talk and clear him. Kid didn’t beat on the old man, but that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t in with whoever did. I figured maybe he knows how the attacker got in and out unseen, so I took him down and booked him. I figured if he was an accomplice, he’d spill rather than take the whole fall himself.” Rawlins grimaced. “But he didn’t spill. Didn’t know a damn thing.”

“Then why’d he get put away?” I asked.

“Didn’t know he had a record until the paperwork was already going. Repeat offender got a real steep hill to climb as a suspect. Makes it look bad for him. He might take the fall on this even if he’s innocent.”

I shook my head. “You’re sure no one could have gone in or out?”

“I was right here,” he said. “Anyone went past me without me noticing, they were a Jedi Knight or something.”

“Or something,” I muttered, glancing at the door.

“The girlfriend,” Rawlins said, nodding after the departed Molly. “She get you involved in this?”

“Daughter of a friend,” I said, nodding. “Bailed him out.”

Rawlins grunted. “Damn shame for that kid. I played it by the book, but…” He shook his head. “Sometimes the book don’t do enough.”

“The girl thinks he’s innocent,” I said.

“The girl always thinks they’re innocent, Dresden,” Rawlins said, without malice. “Problem is that there’s pretty good evidence that says he ain’t. Good enough to send a repeat offender upstate, unless the lab guys find something in there or on the old man to clear him. Which brings us back to why you ain’t going in.”

I nodded, frowning. “What if I told you it might be something weird?”

He shrugged. “What if you did?”

“Might be something that I could recognize, if I could just get a look at the room. I might be able to help the kid.”

He squinted at me. “You think there’s spooky afoot?”

“I told the girl I’d look into it.”

Rawlins frowned, but then shook his head. “Can’t let you in there.”

“Could I just look?” I asked. “You open the door, and I don’t even go in. I just look. That couldn’t hurt anything, could it? And you’ve already been in there, the EMTs, maybe a detective. Am I right? I couldn’t contaminate it all that much just from looking in the door.”

Rawlins gave me a long, level stare and then sighed. He grunted, and the front legs of his chair thunked down to the floor. He rose and said, “All right. Not one step inside.”

“You’re an officer and a gentleman,” I told him. I used my elbow to nudge the restroom door open. It squealed ferociously. I leaned my head in, my chin just over the level of the top strip of tape, and looked around the bathroom.

Standard stuff. A bathroom. White tile. Stalls, urinals, sinks, a long mirror.

The blood wasn’t standard, of course.

There was a large splotch of it on the floor, and it had been smeared around when it had been making the tile all slippery. There were a couple of different footmarks on the floor, outlined in blood, and more smears of it on one of the sinks, where the victim had apparently tried to pull himself up off the floor. It looked fairly gruesome, which wasn’t really a surprise. There wasn’t as much blood as there would have been at, say, a murder, but there was plenty all the same. Someone had laid into Clark Pell, the victim, with a will. I picked out small blood splatter on the mirror, high on the wall, and in a spot on the ceiling.

“Jesus,” I muttered. “It was an unarmed assault? No knives or anything?”

Rawlins grunted. “Old man had broken ribs, bruises, gashes from being slammed around. No cuts or stabs, though.”

“No kid did this,” I said.

“Wasn’t a professional, either. Crowded spot like this. Witness in the bathroom. Cop twenty feet away. Dumbest thug in Chicago wouldn’t open up that big a can of whoopass where he’d be seen and caught.”

“Someone strong,” I muttered. “And really, really vicious. He had to have hit the old guy a few times after he went down.”

Rawlins grunted again. “Sound like anyone you know?”

I shook my head. I stared at the room for a second and then chewed on my lower lip for a second, coming to a decision. I closed my eyes, clearing my thoughts.

“That’s enough,” Rawlins said. “Shut the door before people start to stare.”

“One second,” I murmured. Then with an effort of focus and will, and a faint sense of illusory pressure on my forehead, I opened my wizard’s Sight.

The Sight is something anyone born with enough talent has. It’s an extra sense, though when using it almost everyone experiences it as a kind of augmented vision. It shows you the primal nature of things, the true and emotional core of what they are. It also shows you the presence of magical energies that course through pretty much everything on the planet, showing you how that energy flowed and pulsed and swirled through the world. The Sight was especially useful for looking for any active magical constructs- that’s spells, for the newbie-and for cutting through illusions and spells meant to obfuscate what was true.

I opened my Sight and it showed me what my physical eyes could not see about the room. It showed me something that, with as many bad things as I had seen in my life, still made me clench my fists and fight to keep from losing control of my stomach.

The site of the attack, the blood, the brutality and pain inflicted upon the victim, had not been a simple matter of desire, conflict, and violence.

It had been a deliberate, gleeful work of art.

I could see patterns in the bloodstain, patterns that showed me the terrified face of an old man, pounded into a lumpy, unrecognizable mass by sledgehammer fists, each one a miniature portrait painted in the medium of terror and pain. When I looked at the smears on the sink, I could hear a short series of grunts meant to be desperate cries for help. And then the old man was hurled back down for another round of splatter portraits of pain.

And just for a second, I saw a shadow on the wall-a brief glimpse, a form, a shape, something that left an outline of itself on the wall where it had absorbed the agonized energy of the old man’s suffering.

I fought to push the Sight away from my perceptions again, and staggered. That was the drawback to using the Sight. The Sight could show you a lot of things, but everything you saw with it was there to stay. It wrote everything you perceived with it upon your memory in indelible ink, and those memories were always there, fresh and harsh when you went back to them, never blurring with the passage of time, never growing easier to endure. The little demonic diorama of bad vibes painted over the white tiles of that bathroom was going to make some appearances in my darker dreams.

It looked like I’d found the black magic the Gatekeeper warned me about. Just as well that I hadn’t tried the dangerous spell with Little Chicago.

I took a couple of steps away, shaking away the flickers of color and sparkles of light on my vision that remained for a time when the Sight was gone once more. Rawlins had a hand under one of my elbows.

“You all right, man?” he rumbled a moment later, his voice very quiet.

“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah. Thanks.”

He looked from me to the closed door and back. “What did you see in there?”

“I’m not sure yet,” I said. My voice sounded shaky. “Something bad.”

Almost too quietly to be heard, he said, “This wasn’t just some thug, was it.”

My stomach twisted again. In my mind’s eye, I could see a malicious smile reflected in the eyes of the old man, the memory absolutely crystalline. “Maybe not,” I mumbled. “It could have been a person, I think. Someone really sick. Or… maybe not. I don’t know.” More words struggled to bubble out of my mouth and I clamped my lips resolutely shut until I’d gotten my thoughts back under control.

I looked around me and realized that the hairs on the back of my neck were not crawling around at the memory of the energy I’d just brushed.

They were reacting to more of it drifting through the air. Now. Nearby.

“Rawlins,” I said. “How many other cops are here?”

“Just me now,” he said quietly. He took a look at my face and then peered around, his heavy-lidded eyes deceptively alert, his hand on his gun. “We got trouble?”

“We got trouble,” I said quietly, shifting my staff into my right hand.

The lights went out, all of them at once, plunging the hotel into pure blackness.

And the screaming started.

Chapter Twelve

No more than two or three seconds went by before Rawlins had his flashlight out and he flicked it on. The light flashed white and clean for maybe half a second, and then it dimmed down, as though some kind of greasy soot had coated it, until the light, though still bright, was so vague and veiled that it accomplished little more than to cast a faint glow to maybe an arm’s length from Rawlins.

“What the hell,” he said, and shook the light a few times. He had his hand on his gun, the restraining strap off, but he hadn’t drawn it yet. Good man. He knew as well as I did that the hotel was going to have far more panicked attendees than potential threats.

“We’ll try mine,” I said, and got the silver pentacle on its chain from around my neck. A gentle whisper and an effort of will and the amulet began to emit a pure, silver-blue light that reached into the darkness around us, burning it away as swiftly as it pressed in, until we could see for maybe fifteen feet around us. Beyond that was just a murky vagueness- not so much a cloud or a mist as a simple lack of light.

I gripped my staff in my right hand, and more of my will thrummed through it, setting the winding spirals of runes and sigils along its length to burning with a gentle, ember orange light.

Rawlins stared at me for a second and then said, “What the hell is going on?”

There were running footsteps and shouts and cries in the gloom. All of them sounded choked, muffled somehow. One of the two teenaged “vampires” stumbled into the circle of my azure wizard’s light, sobbing. Several young men blundered along a moment later, blindly, and all but trampled her. Rawlins grabbed the girl with a grunt of, “Excuse me, miss.” and hauled her from their path. He lifted her more or less by main strength and pushed her gently against the wall. He forced her to look at him and said, “Follow the wall that way to the door. Stay close to the wall until you get out.”

She nodded, tears making her makeup run in a mascara mudslide, and stumbled off, following Rawlins directions.

“Fire?” Rawlins blurted, turning back to me. “Is this smoke?”

“No,” I said. “Believe me. I know burning buildings.”

He gave me an odd look, grabbed an older woman who was passing blindly, and sent her off to follow the wall to the door out. He shivered then, and when he exhaled his breath came out in a long, frosty plume. The temperature had dropped maybe forty degrees in the space of a minute.

I struggled to ignore the sounds of frightened people in the dark and focused on my magical senses. I reached out to the cold and the gloom, and found it a vaguely familiar kind of spellworking, though I couldn’t remember precisely where I’d encountered it before.

I spun in a slow circle with my eyes closed, and felt the murk grow deeper, darker as I faced back down the hall to the hotel’s front desk. I took a step that way, and the murk thickened marginally. The spell’s source had to be that way. I gritted my teeth and started forward.

“Hey,” Rawlins said. “Where are you going?”

“Our bad guy is this way,” I said. “Or something is. Maybe you’d better stay here, help get these people outside safely.”

“Maybe you ought to shut your fool mouth,” Rawlins replied, his tone one of forced cheer. He looked scared, but he drew his gun and kept the barrel down, close to his side, and held his mostly useless flashlight in his other hand. “I’ll cover you.”

I nodded once at him, turned, and plunged into the darkness, Rawlins at my back. Screams erupted around us, sometimes accompanied by the sight of stumbling, terrified people. Rawlins nudged them toward the walls, barked at them in a tone of pure paternal authority to stay near them, to move carefully for the exits. The gloom began to press in closer to me, and it became an effort of will to hold up the light in my amulet against it. A few steps more and the air grew even colder. Walking forward became an effort, like wading through waist-deep water. I had to lean against it, and I heard a grunt of effort come out of my mouth.

“What’s wrong?” Rawlins asked, his voice tight.

We passed under one of the hotel’s emergency light fixtures, its floodlights only dim orange rings in the murk until my amulet’s light burned the shadows away. “Dark magic,” I growled through clenched teeth. “A kind of ward. Trying to keep me from moving ahead.”

He huffed out a breath and muttered, “Christ. Magic. That isn’t real.”

I stopped and gave him a steady look over my shoulder. “Are you with me or not?”

He swallowed, staring up at the dim circles of light that were all he could see of another set of emergency lights. “Crap,” he muttered, wiping a sudden beading of sweat from his brow despite the cold air. “You need me to push you or something?”

I let out a bark of tense laughter, and forced my power harder against the gloomy ward, hacking at it with the machete of my will until I began to chop a path through the dark working, picking up speed. As I did, the sense of the spell became more clear to me. “It’s coming from up ahead of us,” I said. “The first conference room in this hall.”

“They got it set up for movies,” Rawlins said. He seized a sobbing and terrified man in his middle years and deflected him bodily to the wall, snapping the same orders to him. “God, it was packed in there. If the crowd panicked-”

He didn’t finish the sentence, and he didn’t need to. Chicago has seen more than a few deaths due to a sudden panic in a movie theater. I redoubled my efforts and broke into a heavy, labored jog that led us to a pair of doors leading into the first conference room. One of the doors was shut, and the other had been slammed open so hard that it had wrenched its way clear of one of the hinges.

From inside the room came a sudden burst of terrified screams-not the canned screams you get in horror movies. Real screams. Screams of such base, feral intensity that you could hardly tell they had come from a human throat. Screams you only really hear when there are terrible things happening.

Rawlins knew what they meant. He spat out a low curse, lifting his gun to a ready position, and we rushed forward to the room side by side.

The murk began to do more than simply drag at me when I hit the doorway. The air almost seemed to congeal into a kind of gelatin, and it suddenly became a fight to keep my legs moving forward. I snarled in sudden frustration, and transformed it into more will that I sent coursing down through my silver pentacle amulet. The soft radiance emanating from the symbol became a white-and-cobalt floodlight, driving back the gloom, burning it from my path. It left the large room still coated in shadow, but it was no longer the total occlusion of the magical murk.

It was a long room, about sixty feet, maybe half that wide. At the far end of the room was a very large projection screen. Chairs faced it in two columns. At one point in the aisle between them, a projector sat, running at such a frantic speed that smoke was rising from the reels of celluloid. The projected movie still appeared clearly on the screen, in a frantic fast-motion blur of faces and images from a classic horror film from the early eighties. The soundtrack could only be heard as a single, long, piercing howl.

There were still about twenty people in the room. Immediately beside the door was an old woman, curled on her side on the ground, sobbing in pain. Nearby a wheelchair lay overturned, and a man with braces of some kind on his legs and hips had fallen into an awkward, painful-looking sprawl from which he could not arise. One of his arms was visibly broken, bone pushing at skin. Other people cringed against the walls and beneath chairs. When my wizard light flooded the place, they got up and started staggering away, still screaming in horror.

Straight ahead of me were bodies and blood.

I couldn’t see much of them. Three people were down. There was a lot of blood around. A fourth person, a young woman, crawled toward the door making frantic mewling sounds.

A man stood over her. He was nearly seven feet tall and so thick with slabs of muscle that he almost seemed deformed-not pretty bodybuilder muscle, either, but the thick, dull slabs that come from endless physical labor. He wore overalls, a blue shirt, and a hockey mask, and there was a long, curved sickle in his right hand. As I watched, he took a pair of long steps forward, seized the whimpering girl by her hair, and jerked her body into a backward bow. He raised the sickle in his right hand.

Rawlins didn’t bother to offer him a chance to surrender. He took a stance not ten feet away, aimed, and put three shots into the masked maniac’s head.

The man jerked, twisting a bit, and released the girl’s hair abruptly, tossing her aside with a terrible, casual strength. She hit a row of chairs and let out a cry of pain.

Then the maniac turned toward Rawlins and, even though the mask hid his features, the tilt of his head and the tension of his posture showed that he was furious. He went toward Rawlins. The cop shot him four more times, flashes of bright white burning the image of the maniac and the room onto my eyes.

He brought the sickle down on Rawlins. The cop managed to catch the force of it upon his long flashlight. Sparks flew from the steel case, but the light held. The maniac twisted the sickle, so that the tip plowed a furrow across Rawlins’s forearm. The cop snarled. The flashlight spun to the ground. The maniac raised the sickle again.

I braced myself, raised my staff and my will, and cried, “Forzare!”

Unseen power lashed from my staff, pure kinetic energy that ripped through the air and hit the maniac like a wrecking ball. The blow drove him back down the aisle, through the air. He hit the projector on its stand. It shattered. He went through it without slowing down. He kept going, the flight of his passage tearing through the large projection screen, and hit the back wall with a thunderous impact.

I sagged in sudden exhaustion, the effort of the spell an enormous drain on me, and had to plant my staff on the ground to keep from falling over. My headache flared up with a vengeance, and the light of my amulet and staff both faded.

There were a few more screams, the quick, light sound of frightened feet, and I whirled. I saw someone flee the room from the corner of my eye, but I didn’t get much of a look at them. A second later, the room returned to normal, the lights back, the broken projector still spinning one reel at reduced speed, a loose tongue of film slap-slap-slapping the broken casing.

Rawlins advanced, gun still out, his eyes very wide, down to the far end of the room. He went past the screen and looked behind it, gun in firing position. He looked around for a second, then back at me, his expression baffled.

“He’s not here,” Rawlins said. “Did you see him go that way?”

I just didn’t have enough left in me to speak right at that moment. I shook my head.

“There’s a dent in the wall,” he reported. “Covered in… I dunno what. Some kind of slime.”

“He’s gone,” I grunted. Then I started forward, toward the downed people. Two of them were young men, the third a young woman. “Help me.”

Rawlins holstered his weapon and did. One of the young men was dead. There was a crescent-shaped cut in his thigh that had opened an artery. Another lay mercifully unconscious, a bruise on his head, several hideous inches of bloody innards protruding from a slash across his belly. I was afraid that if we moved him, his guts might come popping out. The girl was alive, but the sickle’s tip had drawn a pair of long lines down her back along the spine, and the cuts had been vicious and deep. Bits of bone showed and she lay on her belly, her eyes open and blinking but utterly unfocused, either unwilling or unable to move.

We did what we could for them, which wasn’t much more than jerking the tablecloths off the water tables in the corner and improvising soft pads out of them to apply to open wounds. The second girl lay on her side nearby, sobbing hysterically I checked on the old woman, who had just had the wind knocked out of her. I hauled the guy who’d fallen from his wheelchair into a slightly more comfortable position and he nodded thanks at me.

“See to the other victim,” Rawlins said. He held the pad against the boy’s opened abdomen, putting gentle pressure on it as he jerked out his radio. It squealed with feedback and static when he used it, but he managed to get emergency help headed our way.

I went to the sobbing girl, a tiny little brunette wearing much the same clothes as Molly had been. She’d been bruised up pretty well, and from the way she lay on the floor she could evidently not move without feeling agony. I went to her and felt over her left shoulder gently. “Be still,” I told her quietly. “It’s your collarbone, I think. I know it hurts like hell, but you’re going to be all right.”

“It hurts, it hurts, hurts, hurts, hurts,” she panted.

I found her hand with mine and squeezed tight. She returned it with a desperate pressure. “You’ll be all right,” I told her.

“Don’t leave me,” she whimpered. Her hand was all but crushing mine. “Don’t leave.”

“It’s all right,” I said. “I’m right here.”

“What the hell is this?” Rawlins said, panting. He looked around him, at the corpse, at the movie screen, at the dent in the wall beyond. “That was the Reaper, the freaking Reaper. From the Suburban Slasher films. What kind of psycho dresses up as the Reaper and starts…” His face twisted in sudden nausea. “What the hell is this?”

“Rawlins,” I said, in a sharp voice, to get his attention.

His frightened eyes darted to me.

“Call Murphy,” I told him.

He stared at me blankly for a second, then said, “My captain is the one who has to make the call on that one. He’ll decide.”

“Up to you,” I said. “But Murphy and her boys might actually be able to do something with this. Your captain can’t.” I nodded at the corpse. “And we aren’t playing for pennies here.”

Rawlins looked at me. Then at the dead boy. Then he nodded once and picked up his radio again.

“Hurts,” the girl whimpered, breathless with pain. “Hurts, hurts, hurts.”

I held her hand. I patted it awkwardly with my gloved left hand while we heard sirens approach.

“My God,” Rawlins said again. He shook his head. “My God, Dresden. What happened here?”

I stared at the enormous rip in the movie screen and at the Reaper-shaped dent in the wooden panels of the wall behind it. Clear gelatin, the physical form of ectoplasm, the matter of the spirit world, gleamed there against the broken wood. In minutes it would evaporate, and there would be nothing left behind.

“My God,” Rawlins whispered again, his voice still stunned. “What happened here?”

Yeah.

Good question.

Chapter Thirteen

The authorities arrived and replaced crisis with aftermath. The EMTs rushed the more badly injured girl and the eviscerated young man to an emergency room, while police officers who arrived on the scene did what they could to take care of the other injured attendees until more medical teams could show up. I stayed with the injured girl, holding her hand. One of the EMTs had examined her briefly, saw that though in considerable pain she was not in immediate danger, and ordered me to stay with her and keep anyone from moving her until the next team could arrive.

That suited me fine. The thought of standing up again was daunting.

I sat with the girl as more police arrived. She had become quiet and listless as her fear faded and her body produced endorphins to dull the pain. I heard a gasp and the sudden sound of pounding feet. I looked up to see Molly slip by a patrolman and fling herself down beside the girl.

“Rosie!” she cried, her face very pale. “Oh my God!”

“Easy, easy,” I told her, putting a hand against Molly’s shoulder to prevent her from embracing the wounded girl. “Don’t jostle her.”

“She’s hurt,” Molly protested. “Why haven’t they put her in an ambulance?”

“She’s not in immediate danger,” I said. “Two other people were. The ambulance took them first. She goes on the next one.”

“What happened?” Molly asked.

I shook my head. “I’m not sure yet. I didn’t see much of it. They were attacked.”

The girl on the floor suddenly stirred and opened her eyes. “Molly?” she said.

“I’m here, Rosie,” Molly said. She touched the injured girl’s cheek. “I’m right here.”

“My God,” the girl said. Tears welled from her eyes. “He killed them. He killed them.” Her breathing began to come faster, building toward panic.

“Shhhhhhh,” Molly said, and stroked Rosie’s hair back from her forehead as one might a frightened child. “You’re safe now. It’s all right.”

“The baby,” Rosie said. She slid her hand from mine and laid it over her belly. “Is the baby all right?”

Molly bit her lip and looked at me.

“She’s pregnant?” I asked.

“Three months,” Molly confirmed. “She just found out.”

“The baby,” Rosie said. “Will the baby be all right?”

“They’re going to do everything possible to make sure that you’re both all right,” I said immediately. “Try not to worry about it too much.”

Rosie closed her eyes, tears still streaming. “All right.”

“Rosie,” Molly asked. “Can you tell me what happened?”

“I’m not sure,” she whispered. “I was sitting with Ken and Drea. We’d already seen our favorite scene in the movie and we decided to go. I was bending over to get my purse and Drea was checking her makeup and then the lights went out and she started screaming… And then when I could see again, he was there.” She shuddered. “He was there.”

“Who?” Molly pressed.

Rosie’s eyes opened too wide, showing white all around. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “The Reaper.”

Molly frowned. “Like in the movie? Someone in a costume.”

“It couldn’t be,” Rosie said, her trembling growing more pronounced. “It was him. It was really him.”

The next medical team arrived and headed right for us. Rosie seemed to be on the verge of another panic attack when she saw them, and started thrashing around. Molly leaned in close, whispering to her and continually touching her head, until the EMTs could get to work.

I stepped back. They got Rosie loaded onto a stretcher. When they laid her arm down by her side, I could see several small, round marks, irregular bruises, and damaged capillaries just under the surface of the skin at the bend of her arm.

Molly stared at me for a second, her eyes wide. Then she helped the EMTs throw a blanket over Rosie and her track marks. The EMTs counted to three and lifted the stretcher, flicked out the wheels underneath, and rolled her toward the doors. The girl stirred and thrashed weakly as they did this, letting out whimpering little cries.

“She’s frightened,” Molly told the EMTs. “Let me ride with her, help keep her calm.”

The men traded a look and then one of them nodded. Molly let out a breath of relief, nodded to them, and went to walk by the head of the stretcher, where Rosie could see her.

“Don’t worry,” said the other EMT “We’ll be right back for you, sir.”

“What, this?” I asked, and waved vaguely at my head. “Nah, I didn’t get hurt here. This is from earlier. I’m good.”

The man’s expression was dubious. “You sure?”

“Yep.”

They took the girl out. I dragged myself to the wall and propped my back up against it. A minute later, a man in a tweed suit came in and walked directly to Rawlins. He spoke to the officer for a moment, glancing over at me once as they talked, then turned and walked over to me. Of only average height, the man was in his late forties, thirty pounds overweight, balding, and had watery blue eyes. He nodded at me, grabbed a chair, and settled down into it, looking down at me. “You’re Dresden?”

“Most days,” I said.

“My name is Detective Sergeant Greene. I’m with homicide.”

“Tough job,” I said.

“Most days,” he agreed. “Now, Rawlins back there tells me you were an eyewitness to what happened. Is that correct.”

“Mostly,” I said. “I only saw what happened at the very end in here.”

“Uh-huh,” he said. He blinked his watery eyes and absently removed a pen and a small notebook from his pocket. Behind him, cops were surrounding the area where the victims had lain with a circle of chairs and stringing crime scene tape between them. “Can you tell me what happened?”

“The lights went out,” I said. “People panicked. We heard screams. Rawlins went to help and I went with him.”

“Why?” he asked.

“What?”

“Why,” Greene said, his tone mild. “You’re a civilian, Mr. Dresden. It’s Rawlins’s job to help people in emergencies. Why didn’t you just head for the door?”

“It was an emergency,” I said. “I helped.”

“You’re a hero,” Greene said. “Is that it?”

I shrugged. “I was there. People needed help. I tried to.”

“Sure, sure,” Greene said, blinking his eyes. “So what were you doing to help?”

“Holding the light,” I said.

“Didn’t Rawlins have his own flashlight?”

“Can’t have too many flashlights,” I replied.

“Sure,” Greene said, writing things. “So you held the light for Rawlins. What then?”

“We heard screams in here. We came in. I saw the attacker over that girl they just took out.”

“Can you describe him?” Greene asked.

“Almost seven feet tall,” I said. “Built like a battleship, maybe three hundred, three twenty-five. Hockey mask. Sickle.”

Greene nodded. “What happened.”

“He attacked the girl. There were other people behind him, already down. He was about to cut her throat with the sickle. Rawlins shot him.”

“Shot at him?” Greene asked. “Since we don’t have a dead bad guy on the floor?”

“Shot at him,” I amended. “I don’t know if he hit him. The bad guy dropped the girl and swung that sickle at Rawlins. Rawlins blocked it with his flashlight.”

“Then what?”

“Then I hit the guy,” I said.

“Hit him how?” Greene asked.

“I used magic. Blew him thirty feet down the aisle and through the projector and the movie screen.”

Greene slapped his pen down onto the notebook and gave me a flat look.

“Hey,” I said. “You asked.”

“Or maybe he turned to run,” Greene said. “Knocked the projector over and jumped through the screen to get to the back of the room.”

“If that makes you feel better,” I said.

He gave me another hard look and said, “And then what?”

“And then he was gone,” I said.

“He ran out the door?”

“No,” I said. “We were pretty much right next to the door. He went through the screen, hit the wall behind it, and poof. Gone. I don’t know how.”

Greene wrote that down. “Do you know where Nelson Lenhardt is?”

I blinked. “No. Why would I?”

“He apparently attacked someone else at this convention today and beat him savagely. You bailed him out of jail. Maybe you’re friends with him.”

“Not really,” I said.

“Seems a little odd, then, that you dropped two thousand dollars to bail out this guy you’re not friends with.”

“Yeah.”

“Why did you do it?”

I got annoyed. “I had personal reasons.”

“Which are?”

“Personal,” I said.

Greene regarded me with his watery blue eyes, silent for a long minute. Then he said, patiently and politely, “I’m not sure I understand all of this. I’d appreciate it if you could help me out. Could you tell me again what happened? Starting with when the lights went out?”

I sighed.

We started over.

Four more times.

Greene was never so much as impolite to me, and his mild voice and watery eyes made him seem more like an apologetic clerk than a detective, but I had a gut instinct that there was a steely and dangerous man underneath the tweed camouflage, and that he had me pegged as an accomplice, or at least as someone who knew more than he was saying.

Which, I suppose, was true. But going on about black magic and ectoplasm and boogeymen that disappeared at will wasn’t going to make him like me any better. That was par for the course, when it came to cops. Some of them, guys like Rawlins, had run into something nasty at some point in their careers. They never talked much about it with anyone- other cops tend to worry about it when one of their partners starts talking about seeing monsters, and all kinds of well-intentioned counseling and psychological evaluations were sure to follow.

So if a cop found himself face-to-face with a vampire or a ghoul (and survived it), its only existence tended to be in the landscape of memory. Time has a way of wearing the sharpest edges away from that kind of thing, and it’s easy to avoid thinking about terrifying monsters, and even more terrifying implications, and get back to the daily routine. If enough time went by, a lot of cops could even convince themselves that what happened had been exaggerated in their heads, bad memories amplified by darkness and fear, and that since everyone around them knew monsters didn’t exist, they must therefore have seen something normal, something explainable.

But when the heat was on, those same cops changed. Somewhere deep down, they know that it’s for real, and when something supernatural went down again, they were willing, at least for the duration, to forget about anything but doing whatever they could to survive it and protect lives, even if in retrospect it seemed insane. Rawlins would poke fun at me for “pretending” to be a wizard when there was a fan convention in progress. But when everything had hit the proverbial fan, he’d been willing to work with me.

Then there was the other kind of cop-guys like Greene, who hadn’t ever seen anything remotely supernatural, who went home to their house and 2.3 kids and dog and mowed their lawn on Saturdays, who watch Nova and the Science Channel and subscribe to National Geographic, and keep every issue stored neatly and in order in the basement.

Guys like that were dead certain that everything was logical, everything was explainable, and that nothing existed outside the purview of reason and logic. Guys like that also tend to make pretty good detectives. Greene was a guy like that.

“All right, Mr. Dresden,” Greene said. “I’m still kind of unclear on a few points. Now, when the lights went out, what did you do?”

I rubbed at my eyes. My head ached. I wanted to sleep. “I’ve already told you this. Five times.”

“I know, I know,” Greene said, and offered me a small smile. “But sometimes repeating things can jiggle forgotten little details loose. So, if you don’t mind, can you tell me about when it went dark?”

I closed my eyes and fought a sudden and overwhelming temptation to levitate Greene to the ceiling and leave him there for a while.

Someone touched my shoulder, and I opened my eyes to find Murphy standing over me, offering me a white Styrofoam cup. “Evening Harry.”

“Oh, thank God,” I muttered, and took the cup. Coffee. I sipped some. Hot and sweet. I groaned in pleasure. “Angel of mercy, Murph.”

“That’s me,” she agreed. She was wearing jeans, a T-shirt, and a very light cotton blazer. She had circles under her eyes and her blond hair was messy. Someone must have gotten her out of bed for this one. “Detective Greene,” she said.

“Lieutenant,” Greene replied, all courtesy on the surface. “I didn’t realize I’d called Special Investigations for help. Maybe someone bumped the speed dial on my phone.” He reached into a pocket and took out a cell.

He regarded it gravely for a moment and then said, “Oh, wait. My mistake. You aren’t on my speed dial. I must have slipped into some kind of fugue state when I wasn’t looking.”

“Don’t worry, Sergeant,” Murphy said, smiling sweetly “If I find out whodunit, I’ll tell you so you can get the collar.”

Greene shook his head. “This is messy enough already,” he said. “Some clown in a horror movie costume cuts a bunch of horror fans to ribbons. The press is going to make piranhas look like goldfish.”

“Yep,” Murphy said. “Seems to me you should take all the help you can get. Don’t want to screw it up in front of all those cameras.”

He gave her another flat look and then shook his head. “You aren’t exactly famous for your friendly spirit of cooperation with your fellow officers, Lieutenant.”

“I get the job done,” Murphy said easily. “I can help you. Or I can see to it that the press knows that you’re refusing assistance in finding a murderer because of departmental rivalry. Your call.”

Greene stared at her for another long minute, then said, “Does calling someone an overbearing, egotistical bitch constitute sexual harassment?”

Murphy’s smile grew sunnier. “Come to the gym sometime and we’ll discuss it.”

Greene grunted and rose, stuffing his pad and pen into his pocket. “Dresden, don’t leave town. I might need to speak to you again.”

“Won’t that be nice,” I mumbled, and sipped more coffee.

Greene handed Murphy a card. “My cell number is on it. In case you actually do want to cooperate.”

Murphy traded him for one of hers. “Ditto.”

Greene shook his head, gave her a barely polite nod, and walked off to speak to the officers near the taped-off section of floor.

“I think he likes you,” I told Murphy.

Murphy snorted. “He’s had you running in a circle, huh?”

“For an hour.” I tried not to sound too disgusted.

“It’s annoying,” she said. “But it really does work. Greene’s probably the best homicide detective in the state. If he had a personality he’d have made captain by now.”

“I don’t think he’s going to be much help on this one.”

Murphy nodded, and sat down in the chair Greene had vacated. “So. You want to give me the rundown here?”

“I haven’t even finished my coffee,” I complained. But I told her, starting with bailing Nelson out of jail and skipping over the details of the visit to Michael’s house. I told her about the attack, and how Rawlins and I had presumably cut it short.

She exhaled slowly. “So this thing must have been from the spirit world, right? If it got shot full of bullets, didn’t die, then dissolved into v goor

“That’s a reasonable conclusion,” I said, “but I didn’t exactly have time to make a thorough analysis. It could have been anything.”

“Any chance you killed it?”

“I didn’t hit it all that hard. Must have had some kind of self-destruct.”

“Dammit,” Murphy said, missing the reference. No one loves the classics anymore. “Will it come back?”

“Your guess is as good as mine,” I said.

“That’s not good enough.”

I sighed and nodded. “I’ll see what I can figure out. How’s Rawlins?”

“Hospital,” she reported. “He’ll need a bunch of stitches for that cut he took.”

I grunted and rose. It was an effort, and I wobbled a little, but as soon as I got my balance I walked over to the remains of the projector on its stand. I bent down and picked up a large round tin, the one the movie reel had come in. I flipped it over and read the label.

“Hunh,” I said.

Murphy came over and frowned at the tin. “Suburban Slasher II?”

I nodded. “This means something.”

“Other than the death of classic cinema?”

“Movie fascist,” I said. “The guy that jumped them looked like the Reaper.”

Murphy gave me a blank look.

“The Reaper,” I told her. “Come on, don’t tell me you haven’t ever seen the Reaper. The killer from the Suburban Slasher films. He can’t be slain, brings death to the wicked-which includes anyone who is having sex or drinking, apparently If that’s not classic cinema, I don’t know what is.“

“I guess I missed that one,” Murphy said.

“There have been eleven films featuring the Reaper so far,” I replied.

“I guess I missed those eleven,” Murphy amended. “You think this was someone trying to look like the Reaper character?”

“Someone,” I murmured with exaggerated menace. “Or some thing.

She gave me a level look. “How long have you been waiting to use that one?”

“Years,” I said. “The opportunity doesn’t come up as often as you’d think.”

Murphy smiled, but it was forced, and we both knew it. The jokes didn’t change the facts. Something had killed one young man only a few feet from where we sat, and the lives of at least two of the wounded hung on the skills of the doctors attending them.

“Murph,” I said. “There’s a theater right down the street. Run by a guy named Clark Pell. Could you find out what movie was showing there this afternoon?”

Murphy flipped to an earlier page of her notebook and said, “I already did. Something called Hammerhands.”

“Oldie but a goodie,” I said. “Ruffians push this farmer out onto train tracks and the train cuts his hands off at the wrist. They leave him for dead. But he survives, insane, straps sledgehammer heads to the stumps, and hunts them down one at a time.”

“And Clark Pell was the victim beaten here earlier today,” Murphy said. “Badly beaten with some kind of blunt instrument.”

“Maybe it’s a coincidence,” I said.

She frowned. “Can someone do that? Bring movie monsters to life?”

“Sorta looks that way,” I said.

“How do we stop them?” she asked.

I dragged the con schedule out of my pocket and paged through it. “The real question is, how do we stop them before tomorrow night?”

“What’s tomorrow night?”

“Movie fest,” I said, and held up the film schedule. “Haifa dozen films showing here. Another half a dozen in Pell’s theater. And most of their monsters aren’t nearly as friendly as Hammerhand and the Reaper.”

“God almighty,” Murphy breathed. “Any chance this could be regular folks playing dress up?”

“I doubt it. But it’s possible.”

She nodded. “We’ll let Greene cover that angle, then. Consider yourself to be on the clock for the department, Harry. What’s our next move?”

“We talk to the surviving victims,” I said. “And I try to figure out how many ways there are for someone to do something this crazy.”

She nodded, and then frowned at me. “First, you get some sleep. You look like hell.”

“Thanks,” I said. “Feel like I’m about to fall down.”

She nodded. “I’ll see if I can talk to Pell, if he’s even awake. I doubt we’ll get to the others before morning. Assuming they survive.”

“Right,” I said. “I’ll need to get back here and do some snooping tomorrow With any luck, we can track down our bad guy before something else jumps off the movie screen.”

Murphy nodded and rose. She offered me a hand. I took it and she hauled me up. Murphy is a lot stronger than she looks.

“Give me a ride home?” I asked.

She already had her keys in her hand. “Do I look like your driver?”

“Thanks, Murph.”

We headed for the door. Usually I have to shorten my steps to match Murphy’s, but tonight I was so tired that she was waiting for me.

“Harry,” she said. “What if we can’t find out who is doing it in time?”

“We’ll find them,” I said.

“But if we don’t?”

“Then we fight monsters.”

Murphy took a deep breath and nodded as we stepped out into the summer night. “Damn right we do.”

Chapter Fourteen

Murphy drove me home and parked in the gravel lot next to the century-old converted boardinghouse. She killed the engine in the car, and it made those clicking noises they do. We sat there with the windows rolled down for a second. A cool breeze coming off the lake whispered through the car, soothing after the unrelenting heat of the day.

Murphy checked her rearview mirror and then scanned the street. “Who were you watching for?”

“What?” I said. “What do you mean?”

“You rubbernecked so much on the way here, I’m surprised your shoulders aren’t bruising your ears.”

I grimaced. “Oh, that. Someone was tailing me tonight.”

“And you’re just now telling me about it?”

I shrugged. “No sense worrying you over nothing. Whoever he is, he’s not there now.” I described the shadowy man and his car.

“Same one who ran you off the road, do you think?” she asked.

“Something tells me no,” I said. “He wasn’t making any effort to avoid being spotted. For all I know, he could just be a PI gathering information on me for the lawsuit.”

“Christ,” Murphy said. “Isn’t that thing over with?”

I grimaced. “For a talk show host, Larry Fowler can really hold a grudge. He keeps doing one thing after another.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t have burned down his studio and shot up his car, then.”

“That wasn’t my fault!”

“That’s for a court to decide,” Murphy said in a pious tone. “You got an attorney?”

“I helped a guy find his daughter’s lost dog five or six years ago. He’s an attorney. He’s giving me a hand with the legal process, enough so it hasn’t actually bankrupted me. But it just keeps going and going.”

Neither of us got out of the car.

I closed my eyes and listened to the summer night. Music played somewhere. I could hear the occasional racing engine.

“Harry?” Murph asked after a while. “Are you all right?”

“Hungry. Little tired.”

“You look like you’re hurting,” she said.

“Maybe a little achy,” I said.

“Not that kind of hurt.”

I opened my eyes and looked at her, and then away. “Oh. That.”

“That,” she agreed. “You look like you’re bleeding, somehow.”

“I’ll get over it,” I told her.

“Is this about last Halloween?”

I shrugged a shoulder.

She was quiet for a moment. Then she said, “There was a lot of confusion in the blackout and right after. But they found a corpse in the Field Museum that had been savaged by an animal. Lab guessed it was a large dog. They found three different blood types on the floor, too.”

“Did they?” I asked.

“And at Kent College. They found eight dead bodies there. Six of them had no discernable means of death. One had its head half severed by a surgically sharp blade. The other had taken a.44 round to the back of the head.”

I nodded.

She stared at me for a while, frowning and waiting for me to continue. Then she said, in a quiet, certain voice, “You killed them.”

My memory played some bad clips in my head. My stomach twisted. “I didn’t do the headless guy.”

Her cool, blue eyes stayed steady and she nodded. “You killed them. It’s eating at you.”

“It shouldn’t. I’ve killed a lot of things.”

“True,” Murphy said. “But they weren’t faeries or vampires or monsters this time. They were people. And you weren’t in the heat of battle when they died. You made the choice cold.”

I couldn’t lift my eyes for some reason. But I nodded and whispered, “More or less.”

She waited for me to say more, but I didn’t. “Harry,” she said. “You’re tearing yourself up over it. You’ve got to talk to someone. It doesn’t have to be me or here, but you’ve got to do it. There’s no shame in feeling bad about killing someone, not for any reason.”

I let out a short little laugh. It tasted bitter. “You’re the last person I’d expect to tell me not to feel bad about committing murder.”

She shifted uncomfortably. “Sort of surprised myself,” she said. “But dammit, Harry. You remember when I shot Agent Denton?”

“Yeah.”

“Took me some time to deal with it, too. I mean, I know he’d lost it. And he was going to kill you if I didn’t do it. But it made me feel…” She squinted out at the Chicago night. “Stained. To take a life.” She swallowed. “And those poor people the vampires had controlled at the shelter. That was even worse.”

“All of those people were trying to kill you, Murph. You had to do it. You didn’t have an option. You thought about it. You knew that when you pulled the trigger.”

“Do you think you had an option?” she asked.

I shrugged and said, “Maybe. Maybe not.” I swallowed. “The point is that I never bothered to consider it. Never hesitated. I just wanted them dead.”

She was quiet for a long time.

“What if the Council is right about me?” I asked Murphy quietly. “What if I grow into some kind of monster? One who takes life without consideration for anything but his own will. Who cares more about end than means. More about might than right. What if this is the first step?”

“Do you think it is?” Murphy asked.

“I don’t-”

“Because if you think so, Harry, then it probably is. And if you decide that it isn’t, it probably isn’t.”

“The power of positive thinking?” I asked.

“No. Free will,” she said. “You can’t change what has already happened. But you choose what to do next. Which means that you only cross over to the dark side if you choose to do it.”

“What makes you think that I won’t?” I asked.

Murphy snorted, and reached over to touch my chin lightly with the fingers of one hand. “Because I’m not an idiot. Unlike some other people in this car.”

I reached up and gripped her fingers with my right hand, squeezing gently. Her hand was steady and warm. “Careful. That was almost a compliment.”

“You’re a decent man,” Murphy said, lowering her hand without removing it from my fingers. “Painfully oblivious, sometimes. But you’ve got a good heart. It’s why you’re so hard on yourself. You’re tired, hungry, and hurting, and you saw the bad guys do something you couldn’t stop. Your morale is low. That’s all.”

Her words were simple, frank, and direct. There was no sense of false comfort to her tone, not a trace of indulgent pity. I’ve known Murphy for a while. I knew that she meant every single word. Knowing that I had her support, even in the face of violation of the laws she worked to preserve, was a sudden and vast comfort.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.

Murphy is good people.

“Maybe you’re right,” I said. “Hell’s bells, I’ve got to stop feeling sorry for myself and get to work.”

“Start with food and rest,” she said. “If you don’t hear from me, assume I’ll pick you up in the morning.”

“Right,” I said.

We sat there holding hands for a minute. “Karrin?” I asked.

She looked up at me. Her eyes looked very large, very blue. I couldn’t stare at them too long. “Have you ever thought about… you know. Us?”

“Sometimes,” she said.

“Me too,” I said. “But… the timing always seems to be off, somehow.”

She smiled a little. “I noticed.”

“Do you think it’ll ever be right?”

She squeezed my hand gently, and then withdrew hers from mine. “I don’t know. Maybe sometime.” She frowned at her hand, and then said, “It would change a lot of things.”

“It would,” I said.

“You’re my friend, Harry,” Murphy said. “No matter what happens. Sometimes in the past… I haven’t really done right by you.”

“Like when you handcuffed me in my office,” I said.

“Right.”

“And when you chipped one of my teeth arresting me.”

Murphy blinked. “I chipped a tooth?”

“And when-”

“Yes, all right,” she said. She gave me a mild glare, her cheeks pink.

“The point is that I should have seen that you were one of the good guys a lot sooner than I did. And…”

I blinked at her ingenuously, and waited for her to say it.

“And I’m sorry,” she growled. “Jerk.”

That had cost her something. Murphy has more pride than is good for her. And yes, I am aware of the proverb about glass houses and stones. So I didn’t give her any more of a hard time than I already had. “Don’t go all romantic on me now, Murph.”

She smiled a little and rolled her eyes. “If we ever did get together, I’d kill you inside a week. Now, go get some rest. You’re useless to me like this.”

I nodded and swung out of the car. “In the morning, then.”

“Around eight,” she said, and pulled out and back onto the street. She called to me, “Be careful!”

I looked after the car and sighed. My feelings about Murphy were still in a hopelessly complicated tangle. Maybe I should have said something to her sooner. Shared my feelings with her sooner. Acted more swiftly, taken the initiative.

Be careful, she said.

Why did I feel like I’d been too careful already?

Chapter Fifteen

My Mickey Mouse alarm clock went off at seven, and buzzed stubbornly at me until I kicked off the covers, sat up, and shut it off. I ached all over, felt stiff all over, but that sense of overwhelming exhaustion had faded, and since I was already vertical, I got moving.

I got into the shower, and tried not to jump too much when the first shock of freezing water hit me. I’ve had some practice at it. I’ve never had a water heater last me more than a week without some kind of technical problem coming up-and that was the kind of thing you just did not want to take chances on when you have a gas heater. So my showers were always either cold or colder. Given my dating life, and the inhuman charms available to some of the beings who occasionally faced off with me, it was probably just as well.

But, especially when I had bumps and bruises and sore muscles, I wished I could have a skin-blistering hot shower like everyone else in the country.

And suddenly the water shifted from ice-cold to piping hot. It was a shock, and I actually let out a little yelp and danced around in the shower until I could redirect the shower head so that it wasn’t scalding my bits and pieces. After the initial shock of the temperature change, I leaned my aching head and neck into the spray for a second, and let out a long groan. Then I said, “Dammit, I told you to stop that.”

Lasciel’s voice murmured in a quiet laugh under the sound of the water. The sensation of phantom fingertips dug into the wire-tight muscles at the base of my neck, easing soreness away. “You should use the technique I taught you last autumn to block out the discomfort.”

“I don’t need to,” I said, and tried for grouchy. But the heated water and massaging fingers, illusory though they were, were simply delicious. “I’ll be fine.”

“Your discomfort is my discomfort, my host,” she said, and sighed. “Literally, as all my perceptions can come only through your own.”

“This isn’t real,” I said quietly. “The water isn’t really hot. No one is actually massaging my neck. It’s an illusion you’re laying over my senses.”

“Does it not feel soothing?” her disembodied voice asked. “Does it not ease the tension?”

“Yes,” I sighed.

“What matter, then? It is real enough.”

I waved a hand as though trying to brush off an annoying fly from my neck, and the sensation of those strong, steady fingers retreated. “Go on,” I said. “Hands off. I don’t want to start my day with a psychic cage match, but if you push me to it, I will.”

“As you wish,” her voice said, and the sense of presence retreated. Then paused. “My host, I note that you made no mention of the hot water.”

I grunted and mumbled something under my breath, ducked my head under the seemingly scalding water for a few seconds, and then said, “Did you pick up on what happened last night?”

“Indeed,” the fallen angel replied.

“What was your read, then?”

There was a moment of thoughtful silence, and then Lasciel responded, “That Karrin feels a certain distance between the pair of you is a professional necessity, but that she is considering that time and circumstance might someday render it irrelevant.”

I sighed. “No,” I said. “Not that. Stars and stones, I don’t want dating advice from a freaking helltart. I meant the things that attacked people at the convention.”

“Ah,” Lasciel said, with no trace of offense in her tone. “It was obviously the attack of a spiritual predator.”

Takes one to know one, I thought. I rolled a stiff shoulder under the hot water. “If that’s true, then the attacks weren’t about violence,” I said thoughtfully. “Which explains what I saw in that bathroom, where the old man had been attacked. Whatever did it was intent on causing fear. Causing pain. Then devouring the… what? The psychic energy it generated in the victims?”

“That is a somewhat simplistic description,” she said, “but one that is as close as I expect a mortal can come to understanding.”

“What, you’re a mortality bigot now?”

“Now and always,” she replied. “I mean no insult by it, but you should know that your ability to comprehend your environment is very strongly defined by your belief in a number of illusions. Time. Truth. Love. That kind of thing. It isn’t your fault, of course-but it does impose limits upon your ability to perceive and understand some matters.”

“I’m only human,” I said. “So enlighten me.”

“To do so, you would have to release your hold on mortality.”

I blinked and said, “I’d have to die?”

She sighed. “Again, you have only a partial understanding. But in the interest of expediency, yes. You would have to cease living.”

“Then don’t bother enlightening me,” I said. “I have plenty of would-be teachers already.” I rinsed and repeated my shampoo and made myself smell like Irish Spring. “The survivors of the attacks, then. They’re going to have taken a spiritual mauling.”

“If the theory is correct,” Lasciel’s voice responded. “If they are indeed wounded in spirit, it would seem conclusive.”

I shuddered. That kind of damage showed itself in a number of ways, and none of them were pretty. I’d seen men driven to agonies of madness by spiritual attacks. Murphy had been subjected to such an assault and spent years learning to cope with the night terrors it had spawned, until the spiritual and psychological wounds had finally healed. I’d seen some who had been subjected to a psychic sandblasting by vampires of the Black Court who had become nearly mindless bodies, obeying orders, and others of the same ilk who had turned into psychotic killing machines in service to their masters.

The worst part of it all was that almost the only way for me to see something like that was to open my Sight. Which meant that every horribly mangled psyche I’d come across remained fresh and bright in my memory. Always.

The top shelf of my mental trophy case was getting crowded with hideous keepsakes.

The not-truly-hot water coursed over me, a small but suddenly significant comfort. “Go away,” I told Lasciel. Then I added, “Leave me the hot water. Just this once.”

“As you wish,” the fallen angel’s voice replied, polite satisfaction in her tone. The sense of her presence vanished entirely.

I stayed in the shower until my fingers shriveled up. Or, more accurately, I stayed there until the fingers of my right hand shriveled up. The skin of my burned left hand always looked withered and shriveled, these days. The second I turned the water off, the full sensation of icy cold returned, and I shivered violently as I toweled off and got dressed.

I took care of Mouse and Mister’s various needs, ate several leftover biscuits from the fridge for breakfast, and opened a can of Coke. After a moment’s thought, I headed down to my lab and grabbed Bob’s skull from the shelf.

Faint orange lights flickered in the sockets. “Hey,” Bob mumbled in a sleep-slurred voice. “Where are we going?”

“Investigating,” I said. I went back upstairs with the skull and dropped it into my nylon backpack. “I might need you today. But there are going to be straights around, so keep your mouth shut unless I open the pack.”

“ ‘Kay,” Bob said with a yawn, and the lights in the skull’s eye sockets winked out again.

I strapped on the magical arsenal-my shield bracelet, the energy ring, and my silver pentacle amulet. I slipped my newly carved blasting rod into a side pocket of the pack, leaving the handle out where I could reach up behind my right ear and whip it out in a hurry. I picked up my staff and eyed my leather duster, hanging on its hook by the door. I had layered spells over the duster in an effort to provide myself with a measure of protection against various fangs and claws and bullets and such, and as a result the coat had effectively become a suit of armor.

But, like most suits of armor, it lacked its own air-conditioning system-and if I wore it around in the blazing summer heat, I’d probably die of heat prostration before anyone had the chance to bite, slice, or shoot me. Hell, even the blue jeans I was wearing would feel too heavy long before noon. The duster stayed on its hook.

That rattled me a little. I’m used to the duster, and the spells on its leather had saved my life before. It made me feel a little vulnerable to think of getting into some kind of supernatural conflict without it. So I grabbed Mouse’s lead, much to the dog’s tail-wagging approval, and clipped it onto his collar. “You’re with me today,” I told him. “I need someone to watch my back. Maybe to help me eat a hot dog later.”

Mouse’s tail wagged even more at the mention of hot dogs. He chuffed out a breath, nudged my hip with the side of his head in a fond gesture, and we went outside to wait for Murphy.

She pulled up and eyed Mouse warily as I opened the back door and he jumped up onto the backseat. The car rocked back and forth with his weight and sank a little.

“He’s car-broken, right?”

Mouse wagged his tail and gave Murphy an enthusiastic, vacant doggie grin, tilting his head back and forth quizzically. It was easy for my imagination to subtitle the look: Car-broken? What is that?

“Wiseass,” I muttered at the dog, and got in the passenger side. “Don’t worry, Murph. We did an insane amount of work on the whole bodily function issue as soon as I realized how big he was going to get. He’ll be good.” I glared at the backseat. “Won’t you?”

Mouse gave me that same grin and puzzled tilting of his head. I frowned at him more deeply. He leaned forward to nuzzle my shoulder with his heavy muzzle, and settled down in the backseat.

Murphy sighed. “If it was any other dog, I’d make him ride in the trunk.”

“That’s right,” I said. “You have dog issues.”

“Big dog issues,” Murphy corrected me. “Just big dogs.”

“Mouse isn’t big. He’s compactly challenged.”

She gave me an arch look as she pulled out and said, “You’d fit in the trunk, too, Harry.” Then she frowned at me and said, “Your lips are blue.”

“Long shower,” I said.

She gave me a sudden, swift grin. “Wanted to keep your mind on business? I think I’ll interpret that as a compliment to my sexual appeal.”

I snorted and buckled in. “You heard anything from the hospital?”

Murphy’s smile faded and she kept her eyes on the road. She nodded without looking at me, her face impossible to read.

“Bad, huh?” I asked.

“The young man the paramedics carried off died. The girl who was already down when you came in is going to make it, but she’s in some kind of shock. Catatonic. Doesn’t focus her eyes or anything. Just lies there.”

“Yeah,” I said quietly. “I was sort of expecting that. What about the other girl? Rosie?”

“Her injuries were painful but not life-threatening. They closed the cuts and set the bones, but when they heard she was pregnant they kept her at the hospital for observation. It looks like she’ll come through without losing the child. She’s awake and talking.”

“That’s something,” I said. “And Pell?”

“Still in ICU. He’s an old man, and his injuries were severe. They think he’ll be all right as long as there aren’t any complications. He’s groggy, but he’s conscious.”

“ICU,” I said. “Any chance we could talk to him somewhere else?”

“Those doctors can be real funny about not wanting people in critical condition to nip out for a walk to the vending machines,” she said.

I grunted. “You might have to solo him, then. I don’t dare go walking in there with all the medical equipment around.”

“Even if it was just for a few minutes?” she asked.

I shrugged. “I don’t have any control over when things break down.” I paused and said, “Well, not exactly. I could blow out the whole floor in a few seconds, if I was trying to do it, but there’s not much I can do to keep things from breaking down. Odds are good that if I was only in there for a few minutes, nothing bad would happen. But sometimes things go haywire the second I walk by them. I can’t take any chances when there are people on life support.”

Murphy arched a brow at me, and then nodded in understanding. “Maybe we can get you on a speaker phone or something.”

“Or something.” I rubbed at my eyes. “I think this is gonna be a long day.”

When you get right down to it, all hospitals tend to look pretty much the same, but Mercy Hospital, where the victims in the attack had been taken, somehow managed to avoid the worst of the sterile, disinfected, quietly desperate quality of many others. The oldest hospital in Chicago, the Sisters of Mercy had founded the place, and it remained a Catholic institution. Thought ridiculously large when it was first built, the famous Chicago fires of the late nineteenth century filled Mercy to capacity. Doctors were able to handle six or seven times as many patients as any other hospital during the emergency, and everyone stopped complaining about how uselessly big the place was.

There was a cop on guard in the hallway outside the victims’ rooms, in case the whacko costumed killer came after them again. He might also be there to discourage the press, whenever they inevitably smelled the blood in the water and showed up for the frenzy. It did not surprise me much at all to see that the cop on guard was Rawlins. He was unshaven and still had his SplatterCon!!! name tag on. One of his forearms was bound up in neatly taped white bandages, but other than that he looked surprisingly alert for someone who had been injured and then worked all through the night. Or maybe his weathered features just took such things in stride.

“Dresden,” Rawlins said from his seat. He’d dragged a chair to the hall’s intersection. He was dedicated, not insane. “You look better. ‘Cept for those bruises.”

“The best ones always show up the day after,” I said.

“God’s truth,” he agreed.

Murphy looked back and forth between us. “I guess you’ll work with anybody, Harry.”

“Shoot,” Rawlins drawled, smiling. “Is that little Karrie Murphy I hear down there? I didn’t bring my opera glasses to work today.”

She grinned back. “What are you doing down here? Couldn’t they find a real cop to watch the hall?”

He snorted, stuck his legs out, and crossed his ankles. I noted that for all of his indolent posture, his holstered weapon was clear and near his right hand. He regarded Mouse with pursed lips and said, “Don’t think dogs are allowed in here.”

“He’s a police dog,” I told him.

Rawlins casually offered Mouse the back of one hand. Mouse sniffed it politely and his tail thumped against my legs. “Hmmm,” Rawlins drawled. “Don’t think I’ve seen him around the station.”

“The dog’s with me,” I said.

“The wizard’s with me,” Murphy said.

“Makes him a police dog, all right,” Rawlins agreed. He jerked his head down the hall. “Miss Marcella is down that way. They got Pell and Miss Becton in ICU. The boy they brought in didn’t make it.”

Murphy grimaced. “Thanks, Rawlins.”

“You’re welcome, little girl,” Rawlins said, his deep voice grandfatherly.

Murphy gave him a brief glare, and we went down the hall to visit the first of the victims.

It was a single-bed room. Molly was there, in a chair beside the bed, where she had evidently been asleep while mostly sitting up. By the time I got in the room and shut the door, she was looking around blearily and mopping at the corner of her mouth with her sleeve. In the bed beside her was Rosie, small and pale.

Molly touched the girl’s arm and gently roused her. Rosie looked up at us and blinked a few times.

“Good morning,” Murphy said. “I hope you were able to get some rest.”

“A l-little,” the girl said, her voice raspy. She looked around, but Molly was already passing her a glass of water with a straw in it. Rosie sipped and then laid her head tiredly back, then murmured a thank you to Molly. “A little,” she said again, her voice stronger. “Who are you?”

“My name is Karrin Murphy. I’m a detective for the Chicago Police Department.” She gestured at me, and took a pen and a small notebook from her hip pocket. “This is Harry Dresden. He’s working with us on the case. Do you mind if he’s here?”

Rosie licked her lips and shook her head. Her uninjured hand moved fitfully, stroking over the bandages on the opposite forearm in nervous motions. Murphy engaged the girl in quiet conversation.

“What are you doing here?” Molly asked me in a half whisper.

“Looking into things,” I replied as quietly. “There’s something spooky going on.”

Molly chewed on her lip. “You’re sure?”

“Definitely,” I said. “Don’t worry. I’ll find whatever hurt your friend.”

“Friends,” Molly said, emphasizing the plural. “Have you heard anything about Ken? Rosie’s boyfriend? No one will tell us anything.”

“He the kid that they took from the scene?”

Molly nodded anxiously. “Yes.”

I glanced at Murphy’s back and didn’t say anything.

Molly got it. Her face went white and she whispered, “Oh, God. She’ll be so…” She folded her arms and shook her head several times. Then she said, “I’ve got to…” She looked around, and in a louder voice said, “I’m dying for coffee. Anyone else need some?”

Nobody did. Molly picked up her purse and turned around to walk for the door. In doing so, she brushed within a foot or two of Mouse. Instead of growling, though, Mouse leaned his head affectionately against her leg as she went by, and cadged a few ear scratches from the girl before she left.

I frowned at Mouse after Molly had gone. “Are you going bipolar on me?”

He settled down again immediately. Murphy went on asking Rosie fairly predictable questions about the attack.

The clock was running. I pushed the question about Mouse’s odd behavior aside for the moment, and let Mouse watch the door while I reached for my Sight.

It was a slight effort of concentration to push away the concerns of the material world, like aches and pains and bruises and why my dog was growling at Molly, and then the mere light and shadow and color of the everyday world dissolved into the riot of flowing energy and currents of light and power that lay beneath the surface.

Murphy looked like Murphy had always looked beneath my Sight. She appeared almost as herself, but clearer, somehow, her eyes flashing, and she was garbed in a quasi angelic tunic of white, stained in places with the blood and mud of battle. A short, straight sword, its blade made of almost viciously bright white light, hung beneath her left arm, where I knew her light cotton blazer hid her gun in its shoulder rig. She looked at me and I could see her physical face as a vague shadow beneath the surface of the aspect I saw now. She smiled at me, a sunny light in it, though her body’s face remained a neutral mask. I was seeing the life, the emotion behind her face, now.

I shied away from staring at her lest I make eye contact for too long- but that smile, at least, was something I wouldn’t mind remembering. Rosie was another story.

The physical Rosie was a small, slight, pale young woman with thin, frail features. The Rosie my Sight revealed to me was entirely different. Pale skin became a pallid, dirty, leathery coating. Large dark eyes looked even bigger, and flicked around with darting, avian jerks. They were furtive eyes, giving her the dangerous aspect of a stray dog or maybe some kind of rat-the eyes of a craven, desperate survivor.

Winding veins of some kind of green-black energy pulsed beneath her skin, particularly around the inside bend of her left arm. The writhing strings of energy ended at the surface of her skin, in dozens of tiny, mindlessly opening and closing little mouths-the needle tracks I’d seen the night before. Her right hand kept darting back and forth over the other arm as if trying to scratch a persistent itch. But her fingers couldn’t touch. There was a kind of sheath of sparkling motes around her hands, almost like mittens, and she couldn’t actually touch those mindlessly hungry mouths. Worse, there were what looked almost like burn marks on her temples- small, black, neat holes, as if someone had bored a hot needle through the skin and skull beneath. There was a kind of phantom blood around the injuries, but her eyes were wide and vague, as if she didn’t even notice them. What the hell? I had seen the victims of spiritual attacks before, and they’d never been pretty. Usually they looked like the victim of a shark attack, or someone who had been mauled by a bear. I hadn’t ever seen someone with damage like Rosie’s. It looked almost like some kind of demented surgeon had gone after her with a laser scalpel. That pushed the weirdometer a couple of clicks beyond the previous record.

My head started pounding and I pushed the Sight away. I leaned my hip against the wall for a second and rubbed at my temples until the throbbing subsided and I was sure that my normal vision had returned.

“Rosie,” I said, cutting into the middle of one of Murphy’s questions. “When was your last fix?”

Murphy glanced over her shoulder at me, frowning. Behind her, the girl gave me a guilty look, her eyes shifting to one side. “What do you mean?” Rosie asked.

“I figure it’s heroin,” I said. I kept my voice pitched to the barest level needed to be audible. “I saw the tracks on you last night.”

“I’m diab-” she began.

“Oh please,” I said, and let the annoyance show in my voice. “You think I’m that stupid?”

“Harry,” Murphy began. There was a warning note in her voice, but my head hurt too much to let it stop me.

“Miss Marcella, I’m trying to help you. Just answer the question.”

She was silent for a long moment. Then she said, “Two weeks.”

Murphy arched a brow, and her gaze went back to the girl.

“I quit,” she said. “Really. I mean, once I heard that I was pregnant… I can’t do that anymore.”

“Really?” I asked.

She looked up and her eyes were direct, though nothing like confident. “Yes. I’m done with it. I don’t even miss it. The baby’s more important than that.”

I pursed my lips and then nodded. “All right.”

“Miss Marcella,” Murphy said, “thank you for your time.”

“Wait,” she said, as Murphy turned away. “Please. No one will tell us anything about Ken. Do you know how he’s doing? What room he’s in?”

“Ken’s your boyfriend?” Murphy asked in a careful tone.

“Yes. I saw them load him in the ambulance last night. I know he’s here…” Rosie stared at Murphy for a second, and then her face grew even more pale. “Oh, no. Oh, no, no, no.”

I was glad I’d gotten a gotten a look at her before she found out about her boyfriend. My imagination provided me with a nice image of watching the emotional wounds open up as though an invisible sword had begun slicing into her, but at least I didn’t have to see it with my Sight, too.

“I’m very sorry,” Murphy said quietly. Her voice was steady, her eyes compassionate.

Molly picked that moment to return with a cup of coffee. She took one look at Rosie, put the coffee down, and then hurried to her. Rosie broke down in choking sobs. Molly immediately sat on the bed beside her, and hugged her while she wept.

“We’ll be in touch,” Murphy said quietly. “Come on, Harry.”

Mouse stared at Rosie with a mournful expression, and I had to tug on his leash a couple of times to get him moving. We departed and headed for the nearest stairwell. Murphy headed for ICU, which was in the neighboring building.

“I didn’t see the track marks on her last night,” she said after a minute. “You pushed her pretty hard.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because it might mean something. I don’t know what, yet. But we didn’t have time to waste listening to her denial.”

“She wasn’t straight with you,” Murphy said. “No one kicks heroin that fast. Two weeks. She should still be feeling some of the withdrawal.”

“Yeah,” I said. We went outside to go to the other building. Bright morning sunlight made my head hurt even more, and the sidewalk began revolving. I stopped to wait for my eyes to adjust to the light.

“You all right?” Murphy asked.

“It’s hard. Seeing someone like that,” I said quietly. “And she’s probably the least mangled of the three.”

She frowned. “What did you see?”

I tried to tell her what Rosie had looked like. It sounded surreal and garbled, even to me. I didn’t think I had conveyed it very well.

“You look terrible,” she said when I finished.

“It’ll pass. Just got this damned headache.” I shook my head and focused on taking steady breaths until I could force the pain to recede. “Okay. I’m good.”

“Did you learn what you were hoping for?” Murphy asked.

“Not yet,” I said. “I’ll need to look at the others, too. See if the injuries on them give me some kind of pattern.”

“They’re in ICU.”

“Yeah. I need to find a way to them without getting too close to someone on life support. I can’t stay around to talk. I’ll need maybe a minute, ninety seconds to look at them both. Then I’ll get out. Let you talk.”

Murphy took a deep breath and said, “You sure you should do this?”

“No,” I told her. “But I can’t help you if I don’t get to look at them. I can’t do that any other way. If I can stay calm and relaxed, it shouldn’t hurt anything for me to be there for a minute or two.”

“But you can’t be sure.”

“When can I?”

She frowned at me, but nodded. “Let me go ahead of you,” she said. “Wait here.”

I found a chair, and took it down the hall and sat down with Mouse and Rawlins. We shared a companionable silence. I leaned my head back against the wall and closed my eyes.

My headache finally began to fade away just as Murphy returned. “All right,” she said quietly. “We need to go down a floor and then use the back stairs. A nurse is going to let us in. You won’t have to walk past any of the other rooms before you get to our witnesses.”

“Okay,” I said, and stood up. “Let’s get this over with.”

Chapter Seventeen

I wasted no time. We went up the stairs, and I was already preparing my Sight. A nurse opened the door to the stairway, and I simply stepped into the first door on my left-the catatonic girl’s, Miss Becton’s. I stepped into the doorway and raised my Sight.

She was a young girl, still in her late teens, nervously thin, her hair a shocking color of red that for some reason did not strike me as a dye job. She lay on her front, her head turned to the side, muddy brown eyes open and blank. Her back had been covered in bandages.

As my Sight focused on her, I saw more. The girl’s psyche had been savagely mauled, and as I watched her, phantom bruises darkened a few patches of skin that remained, and blood and watery fluids oozed from the rest of her torn flesh. Her mouth was set in a continual, silent wail, and beneath the real-world glaze, her eyes were wide with terror. If there’d been enough left of her behind those eyes, Miss Becton would have been screaming.

My stomach rolled and I barely spotted a trash can in time to throw up into it.

Murphy crouched down at my side, her hand on my back. “Harry? Are you okay?”

Anger and empathy and grief warred for first place in my thoughts. Across the room, I was dimly conscious of a clock radio warbling to life and dying in a puff of smoke. The room’s fluorescent lights began to flicker as the violent emotions played hell with the aura of magic around me.

“No,” I said in a vicious, half-strangled growl. “I’m not okay.”

Murphy stared at me for a second, and then looked at the girl. “Is she…”

“She isn’t coming back,” I said.

I spat a few times into the trash can and stood up. My headache started to return. The girl’s terrified eyes stayed bright and clear in my imagination. She’d been out for a fun time. A favorite movie. Maybe coffee or dinner with friends afterward. She sure as hell hadn’t woken up yesterday morning and wondered if today would be the day some kind of nightmarish thing would rip away her sanity.

“Harry,” Murphy said again, her voice very gentle. “You didn’t do this to her.”

“Dammit,” I said. I sounded bitter. She found my right hand with hers and I closed my fingers around hers with a kind of quiet desperation. “Dammit, Murph. I’m going to find this thing and kill it.”

Her hand was steady and strong, like her voice. “I’ll help.”

I nodded and held tight to her hand for a minute. There wasn’t any tension in that contact, no quivering sensation of excitement. Murphy was human and alive. She held my hand to remind me that I was too. I somehow managed to push the sense of visceral horror I’d seen filling the girl from my immediate thoughts, until I felt steadier. I squeezed her hand once and released it.

“Come on,” I said, my voice rough. “Pell.”

“Are you sure you don’t need a minute?”

“It won’t help,” I said. I gestured at the radio and the lights. “I need to get this over with and leave.”

She chewed on her lip but nodded at me, and led me to the door across the hall. I didn’t want to do it, but I hauled up my Sight again and braced myself as I followed on Murphy’s heels and Looked at Clark Pell.

Pell was a sour-looking old cuss made out of shoe leather and gristle. One arm and both legs were in casts, and he was in traction. One side of his face was swollen with bruising. A plastic tube for oxygen ran beneath his nose. Bandages swathed his head, though bits of coarse grey hair stuck out. One eye was swollen mostly shut. The other was open, dark, and glittering.

Beyond the physical surface, his wounds were very nearly as dire as those the girl had suffered. He had been brutally beaten. Phantom bruises slid around his wrinkled skin, and the shapes of distorted bones poked disquietingly at the surface. And I saw something about the old man, too. Beneath the shoe leather and gristle, there were more shoe leather and gristle. And iron. The old man had been badly beaten, but it wasn’t the first such he had endured-physically or spiritually. He was a fighter, a survivor. He was afraid, but he was also angry and defiant.

Whatever had done this to him hadn’t gotten what it wanted-not like it had with the girl. It had to settle for a physical beating when its attack hadn’t elicited the terror and anguish it had expected. The old man had faced it, and he didn’t have any power of his own, beyond a lifetime of stubborn will. If he’d done it, as painful and as frightening as it must have been, I could steel myself against Looking at the aftermath.

I released my Sight slowly and took a deep breath. Murphy, poised beside me as if she expected me to abruptly collapse, tilted her head and peered at me.

“I’m all right,” I told her quietly.

Pell made a weak but rude sound. “Whiner. Not even a cast.”

I faced the old man and said, “Who did this to you.”

He shook his head, a feeble motion. “Crazy.”

Murphy started to say something but I raised my hand and shook my head at her, and she fell silent, waiting.

“Sir,” I said to Pell. “I swear to you. I’m not a cop. I’m not a doctor. I think you saw something strange.”

He stared at me, his one eye narrowed.

“Didn’t you?” I asked quietly.

“Ha… H-h-” he tried to say, but the word broke into a wracking, quiet cough.

I held up my hand and waited for him to recover. Then I said, “Hammerhands.”

Pell’s lip lifted, a faint little sneer. His good hand moved weakly, and I stepped over closer to him.

“You told Greene it was someone dressed like Hammerhands,” I guessed.

Pell closed his eye tiredly. “Pretty much.”

I nodded. “But it wasn’t just a costume,” I said quietly. “This was something more.”

Pell gave a slow shudder, before opening his eye again, dull with fatigue. “It was him” the old man whispered. “Don’t know how. Don’t make no sense. But… you could feel it.”

“I believe you,” I told him.

He watched me for a second and then nodded, closing his eye. “Thing is. That was the only damn movie ever scared me. Wasn’t even all that good.” He gave a weak shake of his head and said, “Buzz off.”

“Thank you,” I told him quietly. Then I turned and walked toward the door.

Murphy followed at my side, and we headed back down the stairs. “Harry?” she asked. “What was that?”

“Pell,” I said. “He gave us what we needed.”

“He did?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I think he did. This thing has got to be some kind of phobophage.”

“A what?”

“It’s a spiritual entity that feeds on fear. It attacks in order to scare people, and feeds on the emotion.”

“It didn’t give Pell those broken bones by shouting ‘boo!’ ” Murphy said.

“Yeah. It’s got to manifest a physical body in order to come to the real world. Pretty standard for all those demon types.”

“How do we beat it?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know yet. First I have to find out what kind of phobophage it is. But I’ve got a place to pick up a trail now. There are only going to be so many beings who could have crossed over to Chicago from the Nevernever to do what this thing did.”

We emerged into the sunshine and I stopped for a minute, lifting my face up to the light.

The horror and misery I’d seen on the victims remained in place, a clear and terrible image, but the sunlight and the equally sharp memory of old Pell’s defiance took the edge off.

“You going to be all right?” Murphy asked.

“I think so,” I said quietly.

“Can you tell me what you saw?”

I did, in as few words as I could.

She listened, and then nodded slowly. “It hardly seems like what happened to them happened to Rosie.”

“Maybe Rawlins and I got there in time,” I said. “Maybe it hadn’t had time to do more than a little foreplay”

“Or maybe there’s another reason,” Murphy said.

“Remind me to lecture you about the interest rate on borrowed trouble,” I said. “Simplest explanation is the one to go with until we find out something to the contrary.”

Murphy nodded. “If this creature hit the convention twice, it will probably do it again. Seems to me that maybe we should advise them to close it down. No convention, no attacks, right?”

“Too late for that,” I said.

She tilted her head. “What do you mean?”

“The creature feeds on fear. It’s attracted to it,” I said. “If they shut down the convention, it will scare a lot of people.”

“News reports will do that, too.”

“Not the same way,” I said. “A news report might unsettle some folks. But the people at the convention here, the ones who knew the victims, who were in the same buildings-it will hit them harder. It will make what happened here something dangerous. Something real.”

“If the attacker is that dangerous, they should be afraid,” Murphy said.

“Except that intense fear will attract the attacker again,” I said. “In fact, enough of it would attract more predators of the same nature.”

“More?” Murphy said, her voice sharp.

“Like blood in the water draws in sharks,” I said. “Only instead of being at the convention, the targets will be scattered all over Chicago. Right now, the only advantage we have is that we know generally where the thing is going to strike again. If the convention closes, we lose that advantage.”

“And the next chance we get to pick up its trail will be when the next corpse turns up.” Murphy shook her head. “What do you need from me?”

“For now, a ride home,” I said. “I’ll have some consulting to do, and…” I suddenly ground my teeth. “Dammit, I almost forgot.”

“What?”

“I’ve got a lunch meeting I can’t miss.”

“More important than this?” she asked.

“I can’t let it slide,” I said. “Council stuff. Maybe important.”

She shook her head. “You take too much responsibility on yourself, Harry. You’re just one man. A good man, but you’re still only human.”

“This is what happens when I don’t wear the coat,” I opined. “People start thinking I’m not a superhero.”

She snorted and we started back toward her car. “I’m serious,” she said. “You can’t be everywhere at once. You can’t stop all the bad things that are going to happen.”

“Doesn’t mean someone shouldn’t try,” I said.

“Maybe. But you take it personal. You tear yourself up over it. Like with that girl just now.” She shook her head. “I hate to see you like that. You’ve got worries enough without beating yourself up for things you didn’t do.”

I shrugged and fell quiet until we got back to the car. Then I said, “I just can’t stand it. I can’t stand seeing people get hurt like that. I hate it.”

She regarded me steadily and nodded. “Me too.”

Mouse thumped his head against my leg and leaned on me so that I could feel his warmth.

That settled, we all got into Murphy’s car, so that I could track down I knew not what, just as soon as I got done opening an entirely new can of worms with the Summer Knight.

Chapter Eighteen

At my request, Murphy dropped me off a couple of blocks from home so that I could give Mouse at least a little chance to stretch his legs. He seemed appreciative and walked along sniffing busily, his tail fanning the air. I kept a watch out behind me, meanwhile, but my unknown tail did not appear. I kept an eye out for any other people or vehicles that might have been following me, in case he was working with a team, but I didn’t spot anyone suspicious. That didn’t stop me from keeping a paranoid eye over my shoulder until we made it back to the old boardinghouse, and I went down the stairs to my apartment door.

I muttered my defensive wards down, temporarily neutralizing powerful constructions of magic that I had placed around my apartment shortly after the beginning of the war with the Red Court. I opened the dead bolt on the steel door, twisted the handle, and then slammed my shoulder into the door as hard as I could to open it.

The door flew open to a distance of five or six whole inches. I kicked it a few times to open it the rest of the way, then tromped in with Mouse and looked up to find the barrel of a chopped-down shotgun six inches from my face.

“Those things are illegal, you know,” I said.

Thomas scowled at me from the other end of the shotgun and lowered the weapon. I heard a metallic click as he put the safety back on. “You’ve got to get that door fixed. Every time you come in it sounds like an assault team.”

“Boy,” I replied, letting Mouse off his lead. “One little siege and you get all paranoid.”

“What can I say.” He turned and slipped the shotgun into his bulging sports bag, which sat on the floor by the door. “I never counted on starring in my own personal zombie movie.”

“Don’t kid yourself,” I said. Mister flew across the room and pitched all thirty pounds of himself into a friendly shoulder block against my legs. “It was my movie. You were a spear-carrier. A supporting role, tops.”

“It’s nice to be appreciated,” he said. “Beer?”

“Sure.”

Thomas sauntered over to the icebox. He was wearing jeans, sneakers, and a white cotton T-shirt. I frowned at the sports bag. His trunk, an old military-surplus footlocker, sat on the ground beside the bag, padlocked shut. Between the trunk and the bag, I figured pretty much every material possession he owned now sat on the floor by my door. He came back over to me with a couple of cold brown bottles of Mac’s ale, and flicked the tops off of both of them at the same time with his thumbs. “Mac would kill you if he knew you were chilling it.”

I took my bottle, studying his face, but his expression gave away little. “Mac can come over here and install air-conditioning, then, if he wants me to drink it warm in the middle of summer.”

Thomas chuckled. We clinked bottles and drank.

“You’re leaving,” I said a minute later.

He took another sip, and said nothing.

“You weren’t going to tell me,” I said.

He rolled a shoulder in a shrug. Then he nodded at an envelope on the fireplace’s mantel. “My new address and phone number. There’s some money in there for you.”

“Thomas…” I said.

He swigged beer and shook his head. “No, take it. You offered to let me stay with you until I got on my feet. I’ve been here almost two years. I owe you.”

“No,” I said.

He frowned. “Harry, please.”

I stared at him for a minute, and struggled with a bunch of conflicting emotions. Part of me was childishly relieved that I would have my tiny apartment to myself again. A much larger part of me felt suddenly empty and worried. Still another part felt a sense of excitement and happiness for Thomas. Ever since he started crashing on my couch, Thomas had been recovering from wounds of his own. For a while there, I had feared that despair and self-loathing were going to cause him to implode, and I had somehow known that his desire to get out on his own again was a sign of recovery. Part of that recovery, I was sure, was Thomas regaining a measure of pride and self-confidence. That’s why he’d left the money on the mantel. Pride. I couldn’t turn down the money without taking that pride from him.

Except for scattered memories of my father, Thomas was the only blood family I’d ever had. Thomas had faced danger and death beside me without hesitation, had guarded me in my sleep, tended me when I’d been injured, and once in a while he’d even cooked. We got on each other’s nerves sometimes, sure, but that hadn’t ever altered the fundamental fact of who we were to one another.

We were brothers.

Everything else was temporary.

I met his eyes and asked, quietly, “Are you going to be all right?”

He smiled a little and shrugged. “I think so.”

I tilted my head. “Where’d the money come from?”

“My job.”

I lifted my eyebrows. “You found a job you could hold?”

He winced a little.

“Sorry,” I said. “But… I know you’d had so much trouble.” Specifically, he’d been subjected to the amorous attentions of various fellow employees who had been drawn to him to such a degree that it had practically been assault. Being an incubus was probably easier at night clubs and celebrity parties than at a drive-through or a cash register. “You found something?”

“Something without people,” he said. He smiled easily as he spoke, but I sensed an undercurrent of deception in it. He wasn’t telling me the whole truth. “I’ve been there a while.”

“Yeah?” I asked. “Where?”

He evaded me effortlessly. “A place down off Lake View. I’ve finally earned a little extra. I just wanted to pay you back.”

“You must be getting all kinds of overtime,” I said. “As near as I can figure it, you’ve been putting in eighty- and ninety-hour weeks.”

He shrugged, his smile a mask. “Working hard.”

I took another sip of beer (which was excellent, even cold) and thought it over. If he didn’t want to talk about it, he wasn’t going to talk about it. Pushing him wouldn’t make him any more likely to tell me. I didn’t get the sense that he was in trouble, and while he had one hell of a poker face, I’d lived with him long enough to see through it most of the time. Thomas hadn’t ever supported himself before. Now that he was sure he could do it, it had become something he valued.

Getting out on his own was something he needed to do. I wouldn’t be doing him any favors by interfering.

“You sure you’ll be okay?” I asked him.

Something showed through the mask, then-embarrassment. “I’ll be all right. It’s past time for me to get out on my own.”

“Not if you aren’t ready,” I said.

“Harry, come on. So far we’ve been lucky. The Council hasn’t noticed me here. But with all of your Warden stuff, sooner or later somebody’s going to show up and find you rooming with a White Court vampire.”

I grimaced. “That would be a mess,” I agreed. “But I don’t mind chancing it if you need the time.”

“And I don’t mind getting out on my own to avoid making trouble for you with the Council,” he said. “Besides, I’m just covering my own ass. I don’t want to cross them, myself.”

“I wouldn’t let them-”

Thomas burst out in a brief, genuine laugh. “Christ, Harry. You’re my brother, not my mother. I’ll be fine. Now that I won’t be here to make you look bad, maybe you can finally start having girls over again.”

“Bite me, prettyboy,” I said. “You need any help moving or anything?”

“Nah.” He finished the beer. “I just have one box and one bag. Cab’s on the way.” He paused. “Unless you need my help with a case or something. I’ve got until Monday to move in.”

I shook my head. “I’m working with SI on this one, so I’ve got plenty of support. I think I can get things locked down by tonight.”

Thomas gave me a flat look. “Now you’ve done it.”

“What?” I asked.

“You predicted quick victory. Now it’s going to get hopelessly complicated. Jesus, don’t you know any better than that by now?”

I grinned at him. “You’d think that I would.”

I finished my beer and offered my brother my hand. He gripped it. “If you need anything, call me,” he said.

“Ditto.”

“Thank you, little brother,” he said quietly.

I blinked my eyes a couple of times. “Yeah. My couch is always open. Unless there’s a girl over.”

Outside, wheels crunched on gravel and a car horn sounded.

“There’s my ride,” he said. “Oh. Do you mind if I borrow the shotgun? Just until I can replace it.”

“Go ahead,” I told him. “I’ve still got my.44.”

“Thanks.” He bent over and swung the heavy footlocker onto one shoulder without effort. He picked up the sports bag, slung the strap over his other shoulder, and opened the door easily with one hand. He glanced back, winked at me, and shut the door behind him.

I stared at the closed door for a minute. Car doors opened and closed. Wheels crunched as the cab drove away, and my apartment suddenly seemed a couple of sizes too large. Mouse let out a long sigh and came over to me to nudge his head underneath my hand. I scratched his ears for a minute and said, “He’ll be all right. Don’t worry about him.”

Mouse sighed again.

“I’ll miss him too,” I told the dog. Then I shook myself and told Mouse, “Don’t get comfortable. We’re going to go visit Mac. You can meet the Summer Knight.”

I went around getting everything I needed for a formal meeting with the Summer Knight, called another cab, and sat in my too-quiet apartment wondering what it was my brother was hiding from me.

Chapter Nineteen

McAnally’s pub is on the bottom floor of a building not too far from my office. Chicago being what it is-essentially a giant swamp with a city sinking into it-the building had settled over the years, and to enter the pub you had to come in the door and take a couple of steps down. It’s a low-ceilinged room, or at least it’s always felt that way to me, and it offers the added attraction of several whirling ceiling fans at my eye level, just as I come in the door, and after stepping down into the room they’re still uncomfortably close to my head.

There’s a sign Mac’s got hanging up at the door that reads ACCORDED NEUTRAL GROUND. It means that the place was supposed to be a no-combat zone, under the terms laid out in the Unseelie Accords, the most recent and influential set of principles agreed upon by most of the various nations of the supernatural maybe ten or twelve years ago. By the terms of the Accords, there’s no fighting allowed between members of opposing nations in the bar, and we’re not supposed to attempt to provoke anybody, either. If things do get hostile, the Accords say you have to take it outside or risk censure by the signatory nations.

More importantly, at least to me, Mac was a friend. When I came to his place to eat, I considered myself a guest, and he my host. I’d abide by his declared neutrality out of simple respect, but it was good to know that the Accords were there in the background. Not every member of the supernatural community is as polite and neighborly as me.

Mac’s place is one big room. There are a baker’s dozen of thick wooden support pillars spread through the room, each of them carved with figures from Old World nursery tales. There’s a bar with thirteen stools, thirteen tables spread irregularly throughout the room, and the whole place has an informal, comfortable, asymmetrical sort of feel to it.

I came through the door armed for bear and projecting an attitude to match. I bore my staff in my left hand, and I’d slipped my new blasting rod, a shaft of wood two feet long and as thick as my two thumbs together, through my belt. My shield bracelet hung on my left hand, my force ring was on my right, and Mouse walked on my right side on his lead, looking huge and sober and alert.

A couple of people inside looked at my face and immediately tried to look like they had no interest in me. I wasn’t in a bad mood, but I wanted to look that way. Since the war with the Red Court had gotten rolling, I had learned the hard way that predators, human and otherwise, sense fear and look for weakness. So I walked into the place like I was hoping to kick someone in the neck, because it was a hell of a lot easier to discourage potential predators ahead of time than it was to slug it out with them when they followed me out afterward.

I crossed the room to the bar, and Mac nodded at me. Mac was a lean man somewhere between thirty and fifty. He wore his usual dark clothes and spotless white apron while simultaneously managing all the bartending and a big wood-burning grill where he cooked various dishes for the customers. The summer heat was fairly well blunted by the shade and the fans and the partially subterranean nature of the room, but there were still dark spots of sweat on his clothes and beading along the bare skin of his scalp.

Mac knew what the tough-guy face was about, and it clearly didn’t bother him. He nodded to me as I sat down on a stool.

“Mac. You got any cold beer back there somewhere?”

He gave me an unamused look.

I leaned my staff on the bar, lifted both hands in a placating gesture, and said, “Kidding. But tell me you’ve got cold lemonade. It’s a zillion degrees out there.”

He answered with a glass of lemonade cooled with his patented lemonade ice cubes, so that you could drink it cold and not have it get watered down, all at the same time. Mac is pretty much a genius when it comes to drinks. And his steak sandwiches should be considered some kind of national resource.

“Business?” he asked me.

I nodded. “Meeting with Fix.”

Mac grunted and went out to a corner table, one with a clear view of the door. He nudged it out a bit from the wall, polished it with a cloth, and straightened the chairs around it. I nodded my thanks to him and settled down at the table with my lemonade.

I didn’t have long to wait. A couple of minutes before noon, the Summer Knight opened the door and came in.

Fix had grown, and I mean that literally. He’d been about five foot three, maybe an inch or so higher. Now he had towered up to at least five nine. He’d been a wiry little guy with white-blond hair, and most of that remained true. The wire had thickened to lean cable, but the shock of spikes he’d worn as a hairdo had gotten traded in on a more typical cut for faerie nobles-a shoulder-length do. Fix hadn’t been a good-looking guy, and the extra height and muscle and the hair did absolutely nothing to change that. What had changed was his previous manner, which had been approximately equal parts nervous and cheerful.

The Summer Knight projected confidence and strength. They shone from him like light from a star. When he opened the door, the dim shadows retreated somewhat, and a whispering breeze that smelled of pine and honeysuckle rolled through the room. The air around him did something to the light, throwing it back cleaner, more pure, more fierce than it had been before it touched him.

Fix wasn’t putting on a face, like I had. This was what he had become: the Summer Knight, mortal champion of the Seelie Court, a thunderstorm in blue jeans and a green cotton shirt. His gaze went first to Mac, and he gave the barkeep a polite little bow of respect. Then he turned to me, grinned, and nodded. “Harry.”

“Fix,” I said. “Been a while. You’ve grown.”

He looked down at himself and looked briefly like the flustered young man I had first met. “It sort of snuck up on me.”

“Life has a way of doing that,” I agreed.

“I hope you don’t mind. Someone else wanted to speak to you, too.”

He turned his head and said something, and a breath later the Summer Lady entered the tavern.

Lily had never been hard on the eyes. The daughter of one of the Sidhe and a mortal, she’d had the looks usually reserved for magazines and movie stars. But, like Fix, she had grown; not physically, though a somewhat juvenile eye might have made certain comparisons to the past and somehow found them even more appealing. What had changed most was the bashful uncertainty that had filled her every word and movement. The old Lily had hardly been able to take care of herself. This was the Summer

Lady, youngest of the Seelie Queens, and when she came in the room, the whole place suddenly seemed more alive. The lingering taste of lemonade on my tongue became more intensely sour and sweet. I could hear every whisper of wind around every lazily spinning fan blade in the room, and all of them murmured gentle music together. She wore a simple sundress of green, starkly contrasting the silken waterfall of purest white tresses that fell to her waist.

More than that, she carried around her a sense of purpose, a kind of quiet, gentle strength, something as steady and warming and powerful as summer sunlight. Her face, too, had gained character, the awkward shyness in her eyes replaced with a kind of gentle perception; a continual, quiet laughter leavened with just a touch of sadness. She stepped forward, between two of the carved wooden columns, and the flowers wrought into the wood upon them twitched and then burst into sudden blooms of living color.

Everyone there, myself included, stopped breathing for a second.

Mac recovered first. “Lily,” he said, and bowed his head to her. “Good to see you.”

She smiled warmly at his use of her name. “Mac,” she replied. “Do you still make those lemonade ice cubes?”

“Two,” Fix said, grinning more broadly. He offered his arm to Lily, and she laid her hand upon it, both gestures so familiar to them that they didn’t need to think about them anymore. They came over to the table, and I rose politely until Fix had seated Lily. Then we mere menfolk sat down again. Mac came with drinks and departed.

“So,” Fix said. “What’s up, Harry?”

Lily sipped lemonade through a straw. I tried not to stare and drool. “Um. I’ve been asked to get in touch with you,” I said. “After the Red Court’s attack last year, when they encroached on Faerie territory, we were kind of expecting a response. We were wondering why there hadn’t been one.”

“We meaning the Council?” Lily asked quietly. Her voice was calm, but something just under its surface warned me that the answer might be important.

“We meaning me and some people I know. This isn’t exactly, ah, official.”

Fix and Lily exchanged a look. She nodded once, and Fix exhaled and said, “Good. Good, I was hoping that would be the case.”

“I am not permitted to speak for the Summer Court to the White Council,“ Lily explained. ”But you have a prior claim of friendship to both myself and my Knight. And there is nothing to prevent me from speaking to an old friend regarding troubled times.“

I glanced back and forth between them for a moment before I said, “So why haven’t the Sidhe laid the smack down on the Red Court?”

Lily sighed. “A complicated matter.”

“Just start at the beginning and explain it from there,” I suggested.

“Which beginning?” she asked. “And whose?”

I felt my eyebrows arch up. “Hell’s bells, Lily. I wasn’t expecting the usual Sidhe word games from you.”

Calm, remote beauty covered her face like a mask. “I know.”

“Seems to me that you’re a couple of points in the red when it comes to favors given and received,” I said. “Between that mess in Oklahoma and your predecessor.”

“I know,” she said again, her expression showing me less than nothing.

I leaned back into my chair for a second, glaring at her, feeling that same old frustration rising. Damn, but I hated trying to deal with the Sidhe. Summer or Winter, they were both an enormous pain in the ass.

“Harry,” Fix said with gentle emphasis. “She isn’t always free to speak.”

“Like hell she isn’t,” I said. “She’s the Summer Lady.”

“But Titania is the Summer Queen,” Fix told me. “And if you’ll forgive me for pointing out something so obvious, it wasn’t so long ago that you murdered Titania’s daughter.”

“What does that have to do with anything,” I began, but snapped my lips closed over the last word. Of course. When Lily had become the Summer Lady, she got the whole package-and it went way beyond simply turning her hair white. She would have to follow the bizarre set of limits and rules to which all of the Faerie Queens seemed bound. And, more importantly, it meant she would have to obey the more powerful Queens of Summer, Titania and Mother Summer.

“Are you telling me that Titania has ordered you both not to help me?” I asked them.

They stared back at me with faerie poker faces that told me nothing.

I nodded, beginning to understand. “You aren’t permitted to speak officially for Summer. And Titania’s laid some kind of compulsion on you both to prevent you from helping me on a personal level,” I said. “Hasn’t she?”

Had there been crickets, I would have heard them clearly. Had my table companions been statues, I’d have gotten more reaction from them.

“You’re not supposed to help me. You’re not supposed to tell me about the compulsion.” I followed the chain of logic a step further. “But you want to help, so here you are. Which means that the only way I could get information out of you is to approach it indirectly. Or else the compulsion would force you to shut up. Am I close?”

Cheep-cheep. If it went on much longer, they’d have to worry about inbound pigeons.

I frowned a little and thought about it for a minute. Then I asked, “Theoretically speaking,” I said, “what kinds of things might prevent Winter and Summer from reacting to an incursion by another nation?”

Lily’s eyes sparkled, and she nodded to Fix. The little guy turned to me and said, “In theory, only a few things could do it. The simplest would be a lack of respect for the strength of the incurring nation. If the Queens considered them no threat, there would be no need to act.”

“Uh-huh,” I said. “Go on.”

“A much more serious reason would be an issue of the balance of power between the Courts of Summer and Winter. Any reaction to the invasion would alter what resources one would have at hand. If one Court did not act in concert with the other, it would provide an ideal opportunity for a surprise assault while the other had its strategic back turned.”

I rubbed my hands along my thighs, squinting one eye shut. “Let me see if I’ve put this together right. Summer’s ready to throw down. But Winter isn’t gonna help, because apparently they’d rather take a poke at you guys when you were focused on another threat.”

I took Fix’s silence as an affirmative.

“That’s insane,” I said. “If that happens, both Courts are going to suffer. Both of you will be weakened. No matter who came out on top, they’d be easy pickings for the Reds. Theoretically speaking.”

“An imbalance between Winter and Summer is nothing new,” Lily said. “It has existed since the time when we first met you, Harry. It continues today because of the fate of the current Winter Knight.”

I grimaced. “Christ. He’s still alive? After… what, almost four years?”

Fix shuddered. “I saw him once. The man was a psycho, a drug addict and a murderer-”

“And a rapist,” Lily interjected in a quiet, sad voice.

“And that,” Fix agreed, his expression grim. “I could break his neck and not lose a minute’s sleep. But no one deserves…” He swallowed, his face going pale. “That.”

“The moron betrayed Mab,” I said quietly. “He knew the risks when he did it.”

“No,” Fix said, with another shudder. “Believe me, Harry. He didn’t know what would happen to him. He couldn’t have.”

Fix’s obvious discomfort made a certain impression on me, especially given that Mab had displayed an unnerving amount of interest in me, and that I still owed her a couple of favors. I shifted uneasily in my chair and tried to blow it off. “Whatever,” I said. “There’s a Summer Knight. There’s a Winter Knight. What’s unbalanced about that?”

“He isn’t exerting his power,” Fix replied. “He’s a prisoner, and everyone knows it. He has no freedom, no will. He can’t stand on the side of Winter as its champion. So far as the tension between the Courts goes, the Winter Knight might as well not exist.”

“All right,” I murmured. “Mab’s got a man in the penalty box. She wants to take the offensive before Summer pushes a power play, and she’s looking for ways to even the odds. If Summer goes running off to take on the Reds, it will give her a chance to strike.” I shook my head. “I don’t pretend to know Mab very well, but she isn’t suicidal. If the imbalance is so dangerous, why is she keeping the Winter Knight alive to begin with? And she must see what the consequences of another Winter-Summer war would be.” I looked back and forth between them. “Right?”

“Unfortunately,” Lily said quietly, “our intelligence about the internal politics of Winter is very limited-and Mab is not the sort to reveal her mind to another. I do not know if she realizes the potential danger. Her actions of late have been…” She closed her eyes for a moment and then said, with some obvious effort, “Erratic.”

I propped up my chin on the heel of my hand, thinking. “Mab’s a lot of things,” I said thoughtfully. “But she sure as hell isn’t erratic. She’s like some damned big glacier. Not a thing you can do to stop her, but at least you know just how she’s going to move. What’s the bard say? Constant as the northern star.”

Fix frowned, as if struggling with an internal decision for a minute, then let out an exasperated sigh and said, “I think many who know the Sidhe would agree with you.”

Which was neither a confirmation nor a denial-technically, at any rate. But then, Sidhe magic and bindings tended to lean heavily toward the technical details.

I sat back slowly again, thoughts flickering over dozens of ideas and bits of information, putting them together into a larger picture. And it wasn’t a pretty one. The last time one of the Faerie Queens had come a little bit unbalanced, the situation had become a potential global catastrophe on the same order of magnitude as a middling large meteor impact or a limited nuclear exchange. And that had been the youngest Queen of the gentler and more reasonable Summer, Lily’s predecessor. Aurora. The late Aurora, I suppose.

If Mab had blown a gasket, matters wouldn’t be just as bad.

They would be worse.

A lot worse.

“I’ve got to know more about this one,” I told them quietly.

“I know,” Lily said. She lifted her hand to a temple and closed her eyes in a faint frown of pain. “But…” She shook her head and fell silent again as Titania’s binding sealed her tongue.

I glanced at Fix, who managed to whisper, “Sorry, Harry,” before he too closed his eyes and looked vaguely ill.

“I need answers,” I murmured, thinking aloud. “But you can’t give them to me. And there can’t be all that many people who know what’s going on.”

Silence and faint expressions of pain. After a few seconds, Fix said, “I think we’ve done all we can here.”

I racked my brains for a few seconds more and then said, “No, you haven’t.”

Lily opened her eyes and looked at me, arching a perfect, silver-white brow.

“I need someone with the right information and who isn’t under a compulsion not to help me. And I can only think of one person who fits the bill.”

Lily’s eyes widened a second after I got done speaking.

“Can you do it?” I asked her. “Right now?”

She chewed her lower lip for a second, then nodded.

“Call her,” I said.

Fix looked back and forth between us. “I don’t understand. What are you doing?”

“Something stupid, probably,” I said. “But this is too big. I need more information.”

Lily closed her eyes and folded her hands on her lap, her expression relaxing into one of deep concentration. I could feel the subtle stir of energy around her.

My stomach rumbled. I asked Mac to whip me up a steak sandwich and settled down to wait.

It didn’t take long. My sandwich wasn’t halfway done when Mouse let out a sudden, rumbling growl of warning, and the temperature in the bar dropped about ten degrees. The whirling ceiling fans let out mechanical moans of protest and spun faster. Then the door opened and let in sunlight made wan by a patch of dreary grey clouds. The light cast a slender black silhouette.

Fix’s eyes narrowed. His hands slid casually out of sight beneath the table, and he said, “Oh. Her”

The young woman who entered the bar could have been Lily’s sister. She had the same exotic beauty, the same canted, feline eyes, the same pale, flawless skin. But this one’s hair was worn in long, ragged strands of varying lengths, like a Raggedy Ann doll, each one dyed a slightly different color from frozen seas-pale blues and greens, as though each had borrowed its color from a different glacier. Her eyes were a cold, brilliant shade of green, almost entirely darkened by pupils dilated as though with drugs or arousal. A slender silver hoop gleamed at one side of her nose, and a collar of black leather studded with silver snowflakes encircled the graceful line of her slender throat. She wore sandals and cut-off blue jean shorts-very cut-off, and very tight. A tight, white T-shirt strained across her chest, and read, in pale blue letters stretched into intriguing curves, “YOUR BOYFRIEND WANTS ME.”

She prowled across the room to us, all hips and lips and fascinating eyes, looking far too young to move with such wanton sensuality. I knew better. She could have been a century old. She chose to look the way she did because of what she was: the Winter Lady, youngest Queen of the Un-seelie Court, Mab’s understudy in wickedness and power. When she walked by the flowers that had bloomed in Lily’s presence, they froze over, withered, and died. She gave them no more notice than Lily had.

“Harry Dresden,” she said, her voice low, lulling, and sweet.

And I said, “Hello, Maeve.”

Chapter Twenty

Maeve stared at me for a long minute and licked her lips. “Look at you,” she all but purred. “All pent up like that. You haven’t had a woman in ages, have you?”

I hadn’t. I really, really hadn’t. But that wasn’t the kind of thinking that a professional investigator allowed to clog up the gears in his brain. I could have said something back, but I decided that if I ignored the taunt, maybe she’d get bored and leave me alone. So instead of taking up the verbal epee, I rose and drew out a chair for her, politely. “Sit with us, Maeve?”

Her head tilted almost all the way to her shoulder. She stared at me with those intense green eyes. “Just boiling over. Maybe you and I should have a private talk. Just the two of us.”

My libido seconded the suggestion, and heartily.

My libido and I generally don’t see eye to eye. Dammit.

“I’d rather just sit and have a nice chat,” I said to her.

“Liar,” Maeve said, smiling.

I sighed. “All right. There are a lot of things I’d love to do. But the only thing that’s going to happen is a nice chat. So you might as well sit down and let me get you a drink.”

Her head tilted the other way. Her hips shifted in a kind of counterpoint that drew the eye. “How long has it been for you, wizard? How long since you sated yourself.”

The answer was depressing. “Last time I saw Susan, I guess.”

Maeve made a disgusted sound. “No, not love, wizard. Need. Flesh.”

“The two aren’t mutually exclusive,” I said.

She waved that off with an expression of contempt. “I want an answer.

“Looks to me like there’s all kinds of things you want that you aren’t going to get,” I told her. I glanced at Fix and Lily, throwing a mute appeal into it.

Fix gave me an apologetic shrug and Lily sighed. “You might as well indulge her, Harry. She’s as stubborn as any of us, the only one who might give you the answers you need, and she knows it.”

I looked back at Maeve, who gave me that same eerie, intensely sensual smile. “Tell me, mortal. When was the last time flesh, new and strange to your hand, lay quivering beneath you, hmm?” She leaned down until her eyes were inches from mine. I could smell winter mint and something lush and corrupt, like rotted flowers, on her breath. “When was the last time you could taste and feel some little lovely’s cries?”

I regarded her without any expression and said, in a gentle voice, “Technically? When I killed Aurora.”

Maeve’s expression flickered with an instant of uncertainty.

“You remember Aurora,” I told her quiedy. “The last Summer Lady. Your peer. Your equal. When she died, she’d been cut several dozen times with cold iron. She was bleeding out. But she was still trying to stick a knife in Lily. So I tackled her and held her down. She kept struggling until she lost too much blood. And then she died in the grass on the hill of the Stone Table.”

Dead silence filled the whole place.

“It sort of surprised me,” I said, never putting any particular emotion on the words. “How fast it happened. It surprised her, too. She was confused when she died.”

Maeve only stared at me.

“I never wanted to kill her. But she didn’t leave me any choice.” I let the silence fill the room for a moment and stared at Maeve’s eyes.

The Winter Lady swallowed and eased her weight a tiny bit away from me.

Then I gestured with one hand at the chair I still held out for her and said, “Let’s be polite to one another, Maeve. Please.”

She took a slow breath, soulless, inhuman eyes on mine, and then said, “I know now why Mab wants you.” She straightened and gave me an odd little bow, which might have looked more courtly had she been wearing a gown. Then she sat and said, “Does the barkeep still have those sweet-lemon chips of ice?”

“Of course,” I said. “Mac. Another lemonade for the Lady, please?”

Mac provided it in his usual silence. As he did, the few people who were in the place cleared out. Most of the magical community of Chicago knew the Ladies by reputation, if not on sight, and they wanted nothing to do with any kind of incident between Winter and Summer. They were safer if they were never noticed.

Hell, if I could have snuck out, I would have led the way. When I’d defeated Aurora, there had been a healthy chunk of luck involved. I caught her with a sucker punch. If she’d been focused on taking me out instead of finishing her scheme, I doubt I would have survived the evening. Sure, I might have stared Maeve down, but ultimately I was bluffing-trying to fool the oncoming shark into thinking I might be something that could eat it. If the shark decided to start taking bites anyhow, things would get unpleasant for me.

But this time, at least, the shark didn’t know that.

Maeve waited for her lemonade, wrapped her lips idly around the straw, and sipped. Then she settled back into her seat, chewing. Crunching sounds came from her mouth. The lemonade had frozen solid when it passed her lips.

Which made me feel pretty damned smart for avoiding the whole sexual temptation issue.

Maeve looked at Lily steadily as she chewed, and then said, to me, “You know, my last Knight often dragged this one before the Court for performances. All kinds of performances. Some of them hurt. And some of them didn’t. Though she still cried out prettily enough.” She smiled, her tone polite and conversational. “Do you remember the night he made you dance for me in the red shoes, Lily?”

Lily’s green eyes settled on Maeve, calm and placid as a forest pool.

Maeve’s smile sharpened. “Do you remember what I did to you after?”

Lily smiled, a tired little expression, and shook her head. “I’m sorry, Maeve. I know how much pleasure you take in gloating, but you can’t hurt me with that now. That Lily is no more.”

Maeve narrowed her eyes, and then her gaze shifted to Fix. “And this one. I’ve seen this little man weeping like a child. Begging for mercy.”

Fix sipped at his lemonade and said, “For the love of God, Maeve. Would you give the Evil Kinkstress act a rest? It gets tired pretty fast.”

The Winter Lady let out an exasperated breath, put down her drink, and folded her arms sullenly across her chest. “Very well,” Maeve said, her tone petulant. “What is it you wish to know, wizard?”

“I’d like to know why Mab hasn’t been striking back at the Red Court after they trespassed on Sidhe territory during the battle last year.”

Maeve arched a brow at me. “That is knowledge, and therefore power. What are you prepared to trade for it?”

“Forgetfulness,” I said.

Maeve tilted her head. “I can think of nothing in particular I would like to forget.”

“I can think of something you want me to forget, Maeve.”

“Can you?”

I smiled, with teeth. “I’d be willing to forget what you did at Billy and Georgia’s wedding.”

“Pardon?” Maeve said. “I don’t seem to recall being present.”

She knew the score. She knew that I knew it, too. Her legality pissed me off. “Of course,” I replied. “You weren’t there. But your handmaiden was. Jenny Greenteeth.”

Maeve’s lips parted in sudden surprise.

“I saw through her glamour. Didn’t you know who shut her down?” I asked her, lifting my own eyebrows in faux innocence. “That was petty cruelty, Maeve, even for you. Trying to ruin their marriage.”

“Your wolf children did me a petty wrong,” Maeve replied. “They killed a favorite hireling of the Winter Court.”

“They owed their loyalty to Dresden when they killed the Tigress,” Lily murmured. “Even as did the Little Folk he used against Aurora. They acted with his consent and upon his will, Maeve. You know our laws.”

Maeve gave Lily a dirty look that was almost human.

“For what happened that night, they were mine.” I put my hands flat on the table and leaned a little toward Maeve, speaking with as much quiet intensity as I could. “I protect what is mine. You should know that by now. I have lawful reason for a quarrel with you.”

Maeve’s attention moved back to me, and her expression became remote and alien. “What is it you propose?”

“I’m willing to let things go as they are, all accounts settled, in exchange for an honest answer to my question.” I settled back in my chair and asked, “Why hasn’t Winter moved against the Red Court?”

Maeve regarded me with an odd little twinkle in her eye, then nodded and said, “Mab has not allowed it.”

Fix and Lily traded a quick look of surprise.

“Sooth,” Maeve said, nodding, evidently enjoying their reaction. “The Queen has readied her forces to strike at Summer, and has furthermore given specific orders preventing her captains from conducting operations against the Red Court.”

“That’s madness,” Lily said quietly.

Maeve folded her hands on the table, frowning at something far away, and said, “It may well be. Dark things stir in Winter’s heart. Things even I have never before seen. Dangerous things. I believe they are a portent.”

I tilted my head a little, focused on her. “How so?”

“What Aurora attempted was insane. Even among the Sidhe,” Maeve replied. “Her actions could have thrown enormous forces out of balance, to the ruin of all.”

“Her heart was in the right place,” Fix said, his tone mildly defensive.

“Maybe,” I told him, as gently as I could. “But good intent doesn’t amount to much when the consequences are epically screwed up.”

Maeve shook her head. “Hearts. Good. Evil. Mortals are always concerned with such nonsense.” She abruptly rose, her mind clearly elsewhere.

Something in her expression or manner gave me a sudden sense that she was worried. Deeply, truly worried. Little Miss Overlord was frightened.

“These mortal notions,” Maeve said. “Good, evil, love. All those other things your kind natter on about. Are they perhaps contagious?”

I rose with her, politely. “Some would say so,” I told her.

She grimaced. “In the time since her death, I have often thought to myself that Aurora was stricken with some mortal madness. I believe the Queen of Air and Darkness has been taken by a similar contagion.” She suddenly shuddered and said, voice curt, “I have answered you with truth, and more than needed be said. Does that satisfy the accounting, mortal?”

“Aye,” I told her, nodding. “Good enough for me.”

“Then I take my leave.” She turned, took half a step, and there was a sudden gust of frozen air that knocked her mostly full glass of lemonade onto the floor. It froze in a lumpy puddle. Somewhere between tabletop and floor, Maeve vanished.

The three of us sat there quietly for a moment.

“She was lying,” Fix said.

“She can’t lie,” Lily and I said at exactly the same moment. Lily yielded the issue to me with a gesture of her hand, and I told Fix, “She can’t speak an outright lie, Fix. None of the Sidhe can. You know that.”

He frowned and made a frustrated, helpless little gesture with his hand. “But… Mab? Insane?”

“It does fit with our concerns,” Lily told him quietly.

Fix looked a little green around the edges. “I loved her like a sister, but Aurora’s madness was bad enough. If Mab sets out to send the world on a downward spiral… I mean, I can’t even imagine the kind of things she could do.”

“I can,” I said quietly. “I would suggest that you relay word of this to Titania, Lady. And take that as official concern from the Council. Please also convey the message that the Council is naturally interested in preserving the balance in Faerie. It would be of value to all of us to cooperate in order to learn more.”

Lily nodded once at me. “Indeed. I will do so.” She shivered and closed her eyes for a second, her expression distressed. “Harry, I’m very sorry, but the bindings on me… I stretch the bounds of my proper place.”

Fix nodded decisively and rose. He took Lily’s arm. “I wish we could have done more to help you.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said, rising politely to my feet again. “You did what you could. I appreciate it.”

Lily gave me a strained smile. She and Fix departed, quick and quiet. The door never opened, but a breath later they were both gone. Mouse sat there next to the table, cocking his head left and right, his ears attentively forward, as though trying to figure that one out.

I sat at the table and sipped lemonade without much enthusiasm. More trouble in Faerie. Bigger trouble in Faerie. And I’d be willing to bet dollars to navel lint that I knew exactly which stupid son of a bitch the Council would expect to start poking his nose around in it.

I put the lemonade down. It suddenly tasted very sour.

Mac arrived. He took my lemonade. He replaced it with a beer. I flicked the top off with my thumb and put it away in a long pull. It was warm and it tasted too much, but the gentle bite of the alcohol in it was pleasant enough to make me want another.

Mac showed up with another.

Mac can sometimes be downright angelic.

“They’ve changed,” I told him. “Fix and Lily. It’s like they aren’t even the same people anymore.”

Mac grunted once. Then he said, “They grew up.”

“Maybe that’s it.” I fell back into a brooding silence, and Mac left me to it. I finished the second beer more slowly, but I didn’t have a lot of time to lose. I nodded my thanks to Mac, left money on the table, and took up Mouse’s leash. We headed for the door.

I had other business to take care of. Nebulous maybe-threats would have to wait for the monsters I was sure would show up in a few hours. At least I’d gotten out of the whole situation without someone trying to kill me or declaring war on the Council. I’d had a civil conversation with both Lady Winter and Lady Summer and come away from it unscathed.

As I walked toward the door, though, an idle thought gnawed at me.

It had hardly been like pulling out teeth at all.

Chapter Twenty-one

I headed back for SplatterCon!!! before the afternoon was half gone, this time with my backpack of wizard toys, my staff, my blasting rod, my dog, my gun, and a partridge in a pear tree. I didn’t have a concealed-carry permit for the.44, but working on the theory that it was better to have the gun and not need it than to need it and not have it, I put it in the backpack.

When I got to SplatterCon!!!, I decided that it very well might have been better not to have the damned gun on me; there was something of a police presence in evidence.

Two patrol cars were parked in plain sight outside the hotel, and one cop in uniform stood, sweating and miserable-looking, outside the doors. As I paid off the cabby, I picked out at least two loiterers in street clothes who were paying too much attention to who and what approached the building to be casual strollers taking advantage of spots of shade outside the hotel. I clipped on my SplatterCon!!! name tag.

The cop’s eyes flicked over me and I could all but see him take stock of me-tall guy, gaunt, mussed hair, dark eyes, big dog, sticks, backpack, I one hand in a leather glove… and a horror convention name tag. Evidently, in this guy’s head, a name tag gave you carte blanche to look weird without being threatening, because when his eyes got to that, he just traded a nod with me and waved me through.

Inside, not only was the convention in full swing, but they had added a press conference to it to boot. The conference wing outside the room where the killer struck was packed with a half circle of reporters and photographers, while industrious satellite personnel held up lights and even a couple of boom microphones. From the door I could see three more uniformed officers. Between the cops, the conference, and the passersby, that whole section of the hotel was packed with a lot of noisy people. The air-conditioning had been pushed well beyond its limits, and it was stuffy and smelled like most crowded buildings.

Mouse sneezed and looked mournful. I agreed with him.

Murphy appeared out of the crowd and made her way to me. She gave me a tight nod, and knelt down to speak to Mouse and scratch behind his ears. “How’d your meeting go?” she asked.

“Survived it. Storm clouds on the horizon.” I looked around the place a minute more and said, “For crying out loud, it’s a zoo.”

“It gets better,” Murphy said. “I’ve been speaking with the convention staff, and they say that since the story hit the news and the radio stations at noon, they’ve almost doubled the number of attendees.”

“Crap,” I sighed.

“There’s more. Greene called in the Feds,” she said.

I frowned. “Last time the Feds showed up was less than fun.”

“Tell me about it.” She hesitated and then said, “Rick is with them.”

I blinked at her for a second, and then remembered. “Oh, right. The ex.”

“Ex-husband,” Murphy said, her tone sour. Her back was rigidly straight, and her eyes flickered with stormy emotions. “Current brother-in-law.”

“Which is icky,” I said.

“And I don’t like him being here,” Murphy said. “But it isn’t my call. And it’s possible that I have issues.”

I snorted.

She gave me a brief smile. “This has been splashy enough that they’ve got one of the major forensics units from the East Coast on the way.”

I scowled. “Maybe he should have blown a few trumpets, too. Or brought in a marching band. I think if he hurries, he can probably rent some of those big swiveling spotlights before dark.”

She rolled her eyes. “I get the point, Harry. You don’t like all the noise.”

“I don’t like all the potential victims,” I said. “Fifty bucks says the extra attendees are mostly minors.”

“No bet,” she replied. “Does it matter?”

“Maybe. In general, young people, especially adolescents, feel emotions much more intensely. The whole hormone thing. It can make them easier targets. Richer sources of energy.”

“Then why did it hit an old geezer like Pell first?”

I opened my mouth, and then closed it again. “Good point.”

“Besides,” she continued, “isn’t it a good thing if more people are paying attention? From what you’ve told me, things from the spooky side of the street don’t like crowds.”

“In general, no,” I said. “But the place wasn’t exactly a ghost town yesterday when the phobophage showed up.”

“You think it will appear right in front of all these people?” she asked.

“I think crowds aren’t going to deter it. I think that if something bad happens, the more people there are around, the more fear it’s going to generate and the more our killer gets to eat. And a panic with more people means even more people get hurt.”

Murphy’s pale golden brows knitted into a frown. “So, what options can you give me?”

“There’s no guarantee, but I think we’ll have until nightfall.”

“Why?”

“Because it will be stronger after dark.”

Murphy frowned. “You think that’s why Pell survived his attack,” she murmured. “It was still daylight.”

“Got it in one,” I said. “Assuming we have until sundown, it gives us a little time to work.”

“Doing what?”

“Setting up some wards,” I said.

“Like at your place?”

I shook my head. “Nothing that complex. There’s no time. I can’t build a moat around this place, but I think I can throw together a web that will let us know when and where something comes over from the Nevernever. I’ll need to walk around a lot of the building to cover it all.”

She nodded. “That doesn’t address the crowd issue.”

I grimaced. “You know anyone in the fire department?”

“A cousin,” she said.

“This place must be over maximum occupancy. Maybe if the fire marshal heard about how crowded it was, they’d clear at least some of these people out. We only need a crowd big enough to tempt the killer in.”

She nodded. “I’ll see to it.”

“And I know it’s a long shot, but has CPD turned up anything? Or the ME?”

“Nothing on the autopsy. They didn’t give this one to Butters. Brioche handled it, and he didn’t find anything out of the ordinary.”

“Naturally,” I sighed. “Greene?”

“Theories. He had some vague notion that the attack might have been some kind of publicity stunt to attract attention to the convention.”

“That’s a little cynical,” I said.

“Greene isn’t a believer,” Murphy said. “And he’s a trained investigator looking for a solid motive. If he accepts that the killer was just some kind of lunatic, it means he’s got almost nothing to work with. So he’s grasping at straws and hoping he can find something familiar he can use to nail the killer fast.”

I grunted. “Guess I can see that.”

“I don’t envy him,” Murphy said. “I don’t like him much, but he’s a cop, and he’s in a tight spot. Chances are, there’s not a damned thing he could do about it. And he doesn’t even know it.”

There was a little extra weight on the last phrase, something that contained personal pain.

Murphy had faced the same situations as Greene, more or less. Something wild happened, and none of it made any sense. Murphy had her first face-off with the supernatural while she was still a beat cop on patrol. It gave her an advantage as a detective, because at least she knew how much she didn’t know. Greene didn’t even have that much going for him. I hated to see her like that, feeling helpless to do anything. Hurting. Even if only in memory.

“How about you?” I asked. “You see anything that you think is worth mentioning?”

“Not yet. Someone around here has got to know something useful- even if they don’t know that they do.” She tilted her head and frowned at me. “Wait. You’re asking me?”

I shrugged a shoulder. “Murph, you’ve seen as much weird as most wizards. I think you’re more capable than you know.”

She studied my face for a long moment. “What do you mean?”

I shrugged again. “I mean that you’ve been there a time or two. You know what it’s like when something is lurking around. There’s commonality to it. You’ll know it when you feel it.”

“What? Am I supposed to be a wizard now?”

I grinned. “Just a savvy cop chick, Murph.”

“Cop chick?” she asked, menace in her voice.

“Sorry,” I said. “Police chick.”

She grunted. “That’s better.”

“Just don’t ignore your instincts,” I said. “They’re there for a reason.”

Murphy wasn’t listening to that last part, because she’d turned her head sharply to one side, blue eyes narrowing as she focused on a man who had emerged from a conference room doorway and was slipping down the hall.

And Mouse let out a low growl.

“Who’s that?” I asked Murphy.

“Darby Crane,” Murphy said.

“Ah,” I said. “The horror movie director.”

Mouse growled again. Murphy and he started after Crane.

Why fight the inevitable? I started walking before Mouse pulled my arms out of their sockets. “Hey, howsabout we go talk to him?”

“You think?” Murphy said.

“Take him. I’ll back you up.”

She nodded, without turning around. “Excuse me,” she told a gang of conventiongoers in front of her. “Coming through, please.”

We tried to hurry through the crowd, but it was like trying to run in chest-deep water. The faster you try to move, the more resistance there is. Crane moved through them like an eel, a spare man of medium height in slacks and a dark blazer. Murphy forged ahead, making room for me to follow, while I put my height to good use to keep an eye on Crane.

He beat us to a comparatively empty side hallway that led back to ground-floor guest rooms and elevators. By the time we got into the clear, the elevator doors had opened. Murphy hurried forward and shot a glance over her shoulder at me, then jerked her chin at the elevators.

I grinned. There are times when I hate it that technology has such problems operating around wizards. And then there are the times when it’s sort of fan.

I made a mild effort of will, focused my thoughts on the elevators, and murmured, “Hexus.” Nebulous and unseen energy fluttered down the hallway, and when the hex hit the elevators there was a sudden hiss of sparks at one edge of the panel with the call button, and an oozing smoke dribbled out a moment later. The doors started to close, then a bell went bing. The doors sprang open again. That happened a couple of more times before Murphy closed to the elevator and caught up to Darby Crane.

I slowed my pace, holding on to Mouse, and lurked several feet away, trying to blend in by reading a wall full of flyers announcing various parties at the convention.

Crane was a surprisingly good-looking man-slender, stark cheekbones, and his demeanor was more like an actor’s than that of someone on the production side. His dark hair was in a short, neat cut, dark eyes deep-set and opaque, and he carried himself in a posture that read nothing but relaxed nonaggression.

Before I’d finished looking him over, I was sure that the whole thing was a calculated lie. There was cruelty lurking below the calm of his features, contempt hiding within the modest posture of his body. As Murphy approached, he stepped out of the elevator, frowning at the smoke. His eyes snapped to her, and around the hallway at once. There were several other people standing not far away, outside of a guest room with an open door.

He judged them, then Murphy for a moment, and then turned to face her, his mouth settling into a polite, bland little perjury of a smile.

“So hard to rely upon technology these days,” he said, his glance moving over me as part of the background scenery. I thought. He had a surprisingly deep, resonant voice. “May I help you, Officer?”

“Lieutenant, actually,” she told him without rancor. “My name is Karrin Murphy. I’m with…”

“Chicago Police Department Special Investigations,” Crane said. “I know.”

Alarm bells went off in my head. I doubted Crane would recognize it, but Murphy’s stance shifted subtly, becoming more wary. “Have we met, Mr. Crane?”

“In a way. I’ve seen secondhand copies of the film of you gunning down a madman and some sort of animal several years ago. Very impressive, Lieutenant. Have you ever considered work in film?”

She shook her head. “I’ve been told the camera adds ten pounds. I have problems enough. May I take a few moments of your time, Mister Crane?”

He grinned at her, then, a grin I’m sure he meant to be boyish and flirty. The weasel. “I suppose that depends on what you intend to do with them.”

Murphy studied his face for just a moment, as though in wary amusement. “I had a few questions regarding the incident here, and I hope that you can help me out with them.”

“I can’t imagine what I know that would help you,” Crane replied. He glanced at the unmoving elevator doors and sighed. “Bother.” He drew a small black cell phone from his jacket pocket, hit a button without looking, and lifted it to his ear. Then he lowered it again and frowned down at it in silence.

Hah. Take that, weasel.

“It won’t take much of your time,” Murphy said. “I’m sure that you can see how important it is for us to be thorough in this investigation. We would all hate for anyone else to be harmed.”

“I’m sure I don’t know anything of any importance, Lieutenant,” Crane said, his voice turning a little impatient. “I was present during the blackout last night, but I was already in my room. I didn’t even come downstairs until this morning.”

“I see. Did anyone see you at that time?”

Crane let out a little laugh. “Am I a suspect, that I need an alibi?”

“As a celebrity guest, it’s entirely possible that the person or persons responsible for this attack might have an unhealthy interest in you,” Murphy replied, matching his fake laugh with her politely professional smile. “I certainly don’t mean to imply any sort of accusation-only concern for your safety.”

Someone shoved open a door that showed a set of stairs behind it, and a small man in an expensive grey suit emerged from it. He was sort of frog-faced-he had the mouth of someone much larger than he, almost grotesquely thick and wide. He had fine black hair, all limp and stringy, and someone had cut it with the ancient but trusty salad-bowl method. He had bulgy, watery eyes that required extra-large, wide-rimmed glasses to properly encircle.

“Ah, Mr. Crane,” the newcomer said. He had a wheezy, nasal voice. “I received your call, but it was apparently cut off just as I answered.”

Crane took out his phone again and tossed it underhand to the newcomer. “It seems to have died quite abruptly, Lucius. Like this elevator.”

The man caught it and frowned at the phone, then at Murphy with equal amounts of disapproval. “I see.”

“Lieutenant Murphy, may I present Lucius Glau, my personal advisor and legal counsel.”

Mouse tensed as Glau turned to regard Murphy with his froggy eyes. The little lawyer made a swallowing sound in his throat, and then said, “Is my client under arrest?”

“No,” she said. “Naturally n-”

“Then I must insist that this conversation be cut short,” Glau said over her. For a pasty little guy, he had a lot of confidence. He squared off in front of Murphy, just to one side of Crane. Murphy’s arms relaxed to her sides and I saw her blue eyes flick down to the floor and back up, gauging distances. The tension level went higher.

“We were just talking,” Murphy told Glau. I’d seen her wearing that look, right before she went for her gun, more than once. “In an amiable and cooperative fashion.”

“As I informed both the FBI and the investigator in charge of the scene with Chicago’s police department, my client was in his rooms all night and neither witnessed what happened nor even knew of what had transpired until he came down to breakfast this morning.” Glau’s voice was clipped, his bulgy eyes impossible to read. I got the feeling it was the expression he used whenever he did anything, be it eating ice cream or drowning puppies. “Continued contact could well be construed as harassment.”

“Lucius, Lucius,” Crane said, holding out his hand between them, his voice soothing. “Honestly, you react so strongly to the smallest things.” He turned that dazzling smile on Murphy and said, “I’m sorry. Lucius has worked for me for a very long time, and he’s seen a number of unreasonable people approach me. I certainly don’t think of the attentions of so striking a woman as harassment.”

Murphy’s eyes left Glau for a second as she cocked a golden brow at Crane. “Really?”

“Truly,” Crane said, the model of modern gallantry. “Lucius is doubtless concerned about my timetable for today, and I would hate to disappoint any of the fans here to meet me by falling behind my schedule.”

He glanced at Froggy as he spoke, and Froggy took a very small step back from Murphy.

Crane nodded at him, continuing to speak. “But if you would permit it, perhaps you would care to let me get you a drink of something later this evening, by way of apology?”

Murphy hesitated, which wasn’t much like her. “I don’t know…” she said.

Crane extended his hand to her to be shaken, still smiling. “If you still had questions, I’d be happy to answer them then. Please, as a token of my intentions, I insist. I would hate you to have the wrong impression of me.”

Murphy gave him a look of wary amusement and lifted her hand.

I’m not sure how I got across that much carpet that fast, but I put my hand on Murphy’s shoulder and gripped lightly just before she touched him. She froze, sensing the warning in the gesture, and drew her hand back.

Crane’s eyes narrowed, studying me, his hand still sticking out. “And who is this?”

“Harry Dresden,” I said.

Crane went still. Not still like people go still, where you can see them blinking and swaying slightly and adjusting their balance. He went still like corpses and plastic dressing dummies, and said nothing.

As I am a highly experienced investigator, I drew the conclusion that he recognized the name.

Froggy made a gulping sound in his throat, bulging eyes switching to me. I thought he shrunk in on himself a little, as if suddenly losing an inch or two of height-or tensing to crouch.

He recognized it, too. I felt famous.

Mouse let out a relaxed ripsaw of a growl, so low that it could hardly be heard.

Froggy’s eyes went to the dog and widened. He shot a look at Crane.

Everyone froze like that for a moment. Crane and Murphy still smiled their professional smiles. Froggy looked froglike. I went for bored. But I felt my heart speed up as my instincts told me that violence was a hell of a lot closer to the surface than it looked.

“There are witnesses here, Dresden,” Crane said. “You can’t move on me. It would be seen.”

I tilted my head and pursed my lips thoughtfully. “You’re right. And you’re a public figure. Which means this is a great opportunity for advertising. I haven’t been on TV since the last time I was on the Larry Fowler Show:”

His expression changed then, that cold sneer coming out of the background to twist his lips. “You wouldn’t dare reveal yourself to the world.”

I snorted at him and said, “Go read the yellow pages in your room. I’m in there. Under ‘Wizards.’ ”

Froggy gulped again.

“You’re insane,” Crane said.

“Wizards is the kway-zee-est people,” I confirmed. “And you don’t look very much like a Darby.”

Crane’s chin lifted, his eyes glittering with some sort of sudden approval. I had no idea why. Dammit, I hate it when someone knows more than me about exactly how deep a hole I’m digging under myself. “No? And what does a Darby look like?”

“I confess, the only one I ever saw was in that leprechaun movie with Sean Connery,” I said. “Call it an instinct.”

He pursed his lips and fell silent. We all enjoyed another two minutes of wordless, increasingly tense standoff.

Then Murphy said, deadpan, “Say, ten o’clock for that drink, Darby? The hotel’s lounge? We’d hate to keep you from your busy schedule.”

He glanced from Murphy to me and back, and then lowered his hand. He gave her a little bow of the head, then turned and walked away, back toward the crowd.

Froggy watched us for a three count, then turned and hurried after his boss, checking frequently over his shoulder.

I exhaled slowly, and leaned against the wall. Adrenaline without an outlet is a funny thing. The long muscles in my legs twitched and flexed without me telling them too, and the lights in the hallway suddenly seemed a little too bright. My bruised head twinged some more.

Murphy just stood there, not moving, but I could hear her consciously regulating her breathing, keeping it smooth.

Mouse sat down and looked bored, but his ears kept twitching in the direction the pair had vanished.

“Well,” Murphy said a second later, keeping her voice low. “What was that all about?”

“We almost started a fight,” I said.

“I noticed that,” Murphy said, her tone patient. “But why?”

“He’s spooky,” I murmured.

She frowned, looking over her shoulder and up at me. “What is he?”

“I told you. Spooky.” I shook my head. “Other than that I don’t know.”

She blinked. “What do you mean, you don’t know?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Something about him hit me wrong. When he offered you his hand, it seemed… off. Dangerous.”

Murphy shook her head. “I figured he was going to go for the hold-and-caress routine,” she said. “It’s a little bit insulting, but it isn’t all that dangerous.”

“Unless maybe it is,” I said.

“You’re sure he’s from your side of things?” she asked.

“Yeah. He recognized me. He started pulling out the standard Old World reasons for avoiding public confrontation. And Mouse didn’t like him-or his lawyer, either.”

“Vampire?” she asked.

“Could be,” I said, chewing on my lip. “Could be a lot of things. Hell, could be human, for that matter. Without knowing more we shouldn’t make any assumptions.”

“Think he’s involved in the attacks?”

“I like him for it,” I said. “If I was making the call alone, he’d definitely be our asshole. He’s got all the earmarks.”

“If he’s the guy, he’s out of my reach,” she said. “He’s got a hair-trigger attorney and has already spoken to Greene and Rick. Any police pressure I brought against him would be harassment. Greene won’t act on my suspicions.”

“Well,” I said. “Good thing I’m not Greene.”

Chapter Twenty-two

Murphy and I walked around the hotel, and as we did I popped open a fresh can of blue Play-Doh. At the corners of major intersections and at the exterior exits, I pinched off bits and plunked them down on top of the molding over doorways, inside flowerpots, inside fire extinguisher cabinets, and anywhere else where they wouldn’t be easily or immediately noticed. I made sure to leave plenty of them in unnoticed little spots along the hallways chiefly in use for the convention, especially Dutside the rooms that the schedule designated as showing films as evening approached.

“What are we doing again?” Murphy asked.

“Setting up a spell,” I said.

“With Play-Doh.”

“Yes.”

She gave me a level look.

I shook out the can that still had most of the original material in it, and showed it to her. “The little pieces I’ve been leaving around are part of this piece. See?”

“Not yet,” she said.

“They used to be one piece. Even when they’re separated, they still have a thaumaturgical connection to the original,” I told her. “It means that I'll be able to use the big piece to reach out and connect to the little pieces.”

“That’s what you meant by a web?”

“Yes. I’ll be able to…” I twisted up my face, searching for the words to explain. “I can extend energy out to all the smaller pieces. I’ll set it up so that if one of the little pieces picks up on a disturbance of the energies, I’ll be able to feel it through the larger piece.”

“Like… seismographs, sort of,” Murphy said.

“Yeah,” I said. “And we use blue Play-Doh. Blue for defense.”

She arched a brow at me. “Does the color really matter?”

“Yes,” I said, then thought about it for a second. “Well, probably no. But yes, for me.”

“Huh?”

“A lot of the use of magic is all tied up with your emotions. With what you believe is real. When I was younger, I learned a lot of stuff, like the role of colors in the casting of spells. Green for fertility and prosperity, red for passion and energy, white for purity, black for vengeance, and so on. It could be that the color doesn’t matter at all-but if I expect the spell to work because of the color used, then that color is important. If I don’t believe in it, the spell won’t ever get off the ground.”

“Like Dumbo’s magic feather?” Murphy asked. “It was his confidence that was really important?”

“Yes,” I said. “The feather was just a symbol-but it was an important symbol.”

I gestured with the can. “So I use blue, because I don’t have to do too much introspection, and I don’t introduce new doubts in a crisis situation. And because it was cheap at Wal-Mart.”

Murphy laughed. “Wal-Mart, huh?”

“Wizarding doesn’t pay much,” I said. “You’d be surprised how much stuff I get from Wal-Mart.” I checked a clock on the wall. “We’ve got about two hours before the first movie starts showing.”

She nodded. “What do you need?”

“A quiet space to work in,” I told her. “At least six or seven feet across. The more private and secure, the better. I’ve got to assume that the bad guy knows I’m around here somewhere. I don’t want to get a machete in the back when I’m busy running the spell.”

“How long do you need to set it up?”

I shrugged. “Twenty minutes, give or take. What I’m really concerned about is-”

“Mister Dresden!” called a voice from across the crowded convention hallway. I looked up to see Sandra Marling hurrying through the crowd toward me. The convention’s chairwoman looked exhausted and too nervous to be awake, much less standing, much less politely pushing her way through a crowd, but she did it anyway. She still wore the same black T-shirt with the red SplatterCon!!! logo on it, presumably the same I’d seen her in the night before.

“Ms. Marling,” I said, nodding to her as she approached. “Good afternoon.”

She shook her head wearily. “I’m such… this is such an enormous amount of… but I don’t know who else I can turn to about this.” Her words failed her, and she started trembling with nerves and weariness.

I traded a frown with Murphy. “Sandra. What’s wrong?”

“It’s Molly,” she said.

I frowned. “What about her?”

“She came here from the hospital a couple of hours ago. The police came to talk to her and I don’t think she’s come out since then, and none of the officers I’ve spoken to know where she is. I think-”

“Sandra.” I told her, “Take a breath. Slow down. Do you know where Molly is?”

The woman closed her eyes and shook her head, bringing herself under control, lowering her voice several pitches. “They’re still… interrogating her, I think? Isn’t that what they say? When they try to scare you and ask questions?”

I narrowed my eyes. “Yeah,” I said. “Was she arrested?”

Sandra shook her head jerkily. “I don’t think so. They didn’t handcuff her or read from that little card or anything. Can they do that? Just drag her into a room?”

“We’ll see,” I said. “Which room?”

“Other wing, second door on the right,” she said.

I nodded, slung my pack off my back, and took out a small notebook. I scribbled some phone numbers and names on a page, and gave it to Sandra. “Call both of these people.”

She blinked at the paper. “What do I tell them?”

“The truth. Tell them what’s going on and that Harry Dresden said they need to get down here immediately.”

Sandra blinked down at the page. “What are you going to do?”

“Oh, you know. The usual,” I said. “Get to that phone.”

“I’ll catch up in a minute,” Murphy said.

I nodded, slung the pack back on, jerked my head at Mouse, and started walking with purposeful strides toward the knot of reporters that had begun to dissolve at the conclusion of the official statements to the press. My dog fell in to pace at my side until I spotted Lydia Stern at the rear of the crowd.

Lydia Stern was a formidable woman, a reporter for the Midwestern Arcane, a yellow journal based out of Chicago that did its best to report on the supernatural. Sometimes they managed to get close to the truth, but more often they ran stories that had headlines like Lizard Baby Born in Trailer Park, or maybe Bigfoot and the Chupacabra, the Unholy Alliance. By and large, the stories were amusing and fairly harmless, but once in a while someone stumbled into something strange and it made it into the paper. Susan Rodriguez had been a lead reporter for the Arcane, until she’d run into exactly the wrong story. Now she lived her life somewhere in South America, fighting off the infection in her soul that wanted to turn her into one of the Red Court while she and her half-vampire buddies campaigned against their would-be recruiters.

When Lydia Stern took over Susan’s old job a couple of years back, her reporting had taken a different angle. She’d investigated strange events and then demanded to know why the appropriate institutions had been ignoring them. The woman had a scathing intellect and penetrating wit, and she employed both liberally and with considerable panache in her writing. She was unafraid to challenge anyone in her articles, from some smalltown animal control unit to the FBI.

It was a shame she was working at a rag like the Arcane instead of at a reputable paper in DC or New York. She’d have been a Pulitzer nominee inside of five years. City officials who had to deal with the cases I’d brushed up against had developed a nearly supernatural ability to vanish whenever she was around. None of them wanted to be the next person Lydia Stern eviscerated in print. She had a growing reputation as an investigative terror.

“Ms. Stern,” I said in a low, grave voice, extra emphasis on the “z” in “Ms.”

“I wonder if you might have a few moments.”

The terror of the Midwest Arcane whirled to face me, and her face broke into a cherubic grin. She was a little over five feet tall, pleasantly plump, and of Asian ancestry. She had a sparkling smile, thick glasses, curly black hair, and was wearing a pair of denim overalls over an old Queensryche T-shirt. Her tennis shoes had bright pink laces on them. “Harry Dresden,” she said. She had a sort of breathless, bubbling voice, the kind that seemed like it could barely contain laughter beneath almost every word. “Hah. I knew this one smelled right.”

“Could be,” I said. I hadn’t been real forthcoming with Lydia. It hadn’t worked out well with reporters in the past. Whenever I spoke to her, little daggers of guilt stabbed at me, reminders that I could not afford to let careless words get her into too much trouble. Despite that, we’d gotten along, and I’d never lied to her. I hadn’t bothered to try. “You busy?”

She gestured at the bag whose strap hung over her shoulder. “I’ve got recordings, and I’ll want to jot down some notes shortly.” She tilted her head to one side. “Why do you ask?”

“I need a thug to scare some guys for me,” I said.

The dimples in her cheeks deepened. “Oh?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Do this for me. I’ll give you ten minutes on this.” I waved my hand vaguely at the hotel around us. “As soon as I have some time free.”

Her eyes brightened. “Done,” she said. “What do I do?”

“Hang around outside a doorway and…” I grinned. “Just be yourself.”

“Good. I can do that.” She nodded once, curls bouncing, and followed me to the room where they were grilling my friend’s daughter.

I opened the door like I owned the place and walked in.

The room wasn’t a big one-maybe the size of a large elementary-school classroom. There was a raised platform about a foot high at one end, with chairs on it behind a long table. More chairs faced it in rows. A sign, now discarded on the floor behind the door, declared that the room was scheduled for something called “Filking” between noon and five o’clock today. “Filking” sounded suspiciously like it might be an activity somehow related to spawning salmon, or maybe some kind of bizarre mammalian discussion. I decided that it was probably one of those things I was happier not knowing.

Greene was in the room, standing on the platform with his arms folded, a sour frown on his face. Molly sat in the first row of chairs, still in the same clothes as the night before. She looked tired. She’d been crying.

Next to her was a man of medium build and unremarkable height, with brown hair just tousled enough to be fashionable. He wore a grey suit, its gravity somewhat offset by a black tie that featured Marvin the Martian. I recognized him. Rick, Murphy’s ex. He stood over Molly, passing her a cup of water, the good cop of the usual interrogation equation. He was here in his official capacity, then. Agent Rick.

“Excuse me,” Greene said, without looking over at me. “This room isn’t open to the public.”

“It isn’t?” I said, overly ingenuous. “Man. I was really looking forward to a nice afternoon of filking, too.”

Molly looked up, and her eyes widened in recognition and what looked like sudden hope. “Harry!”

“Heya, kid,” I told her, and ambled in, Mouse in tow. The dog went right over to Molly, wagging his tail and subtly begging for affection by thrusting his broad muzzle underneath her folded hands. Molly let out a little laugh and leaned down, hugging the dog, talking baby talk to him like she did to her youngest siblings.

Greene turned to glower at me. After a moment, Agent Rick did too.

“Dresden,” Greene said, his tone peremptory. “You are interfering in an investigation. Get out.”

I ignored him to speak to Molly. “How’s Rosie?”

She left her cheek on top of Mouse’s broad head and said, “Unconscious. She was very upset by the news and the doctors gave her something to help her sleep. They were afraid she would freak out and it would hurt the baby.”

“Dresden,” Greene snarled.

“Best thing for her right now,” I told Molly. “She’ll handle it better when she’s had some rest.”

She nodded and said, “I hope so.”

Greene spat a curse and reached for his radio, presumably to summon goons.

Greene was an ass.

Maybe I was going a little hex-happy, but I muttered something under my breath and made a little effort. Sparks shot out of the radio and were followed by curls of smoke. Greene stood there cursing as he tried to get the thing to work. “Dammit, Dresden,” he snarled. “Get out before I have you taken downtown.”

I kept ignoring him. “Hi there, Rick. How was the wedding?”

“That’s it,” Greene said.

Rick pursed his lips and then held up a hand toward Greene, a placating gesture. “Everyone survived it,” Agent Rick responded, studying me with a steady frown, looking between me and Molly. “Harry, we’re working here. You should go.”

“Yeah?” I asked. I plopped down into the chair beside Molly and grinned at him. “I’m thinking maybe not. I mean, I’m working, too. I’m a consultant.”

“You’re obstructing an investigation, Dresden,” Greene growled. You’re going to lose your jobs with the city. Your investigative license. Hell, I’ll even get you stuck in jail for a month or two.“

“No you won’t.”

“Have it your way, tough guy,” Greene said, and started for the door.

Molly, maybe taking it for a cue, rose herself.

“Sit down,” Greene said, his voice hard. “You aren’t finished yet.”

She hesitated for a second and then sat.

“Greene, Greene, Greene,” I said. “There’s something you’re missing here.”

He paused. Agent Rick watched me steadily.

“See, Miss Carpenter here can go any time she damned well pleases.”

“Not until she’s answered a few questions,” he said.

I made a game-show buzzing sound. “Wrong. This is a free country. She can walk out and there’s not a damned thing you can do about it. Unless you want to arrest her.” I grinned at him some more. “You didn’t arrest her, did you?”

Molly watched the exchange from the corner of her vision, being very still and keeping her face down.

“We’re questioning her in relation to an ongoing investigation,” Rick said.

“Yeah? One of you guys got the subpoena, then?”

They hadn’t, of course. No one spoke.

“See, you’re the one out on a limb here, Greene. You’ve got nothing on the young lady. No court order. You haven’t arrested her. So anything she chooses to tell you is entirely voluntary.”

Molly blinked up at me. “It is?”

I put a hand to my chest and mimed an expression of shock. “Greene! I can hardly believe this. Did you lie to this young woman to frighten her? To make her think she was under arrest?”

“I didn’t lie,” Greene snarled.

“You just led her on,” I said, nodding. “Sure, sure. Not your fault if she interpreted you wrong. Say, let’s go back and check the tape and see where the mistake was.” I paused. “You are recording this, aren’t you? All on the record and aboveboard?”

Greene looked at me like he wanted to kick my nuts up into my skull. “You’ve got nothing but speculation. Get out. Or, as lead investigator, I will have you barred from the hotel.”

“That a threat?” I asked him.

“Believe it.”

I made a show of rubbing at my mouth. “Oh, man. I’m having quite the moral quandary. Because if you do that to me, then hell, maybe the press would find out that you’re dismissing professional consultants with a positive track record with the city.” I leaned forward and added casualty

“Oh. And they might find out that you are illegally interrogating a juvenile.”

Greene stared at me, shock on his face. Even Agent Rick arched an eyebrow. “What?”

“A juvenile,” I enunciated, “i.e., one who cannot give you legal consent on her own. I took the liberty of sending for her parents. I’m sure that they and their attorney will have a whole lot of questions for you.”

“That’s blackmail,” Greene said.

“No, it’s due process,” I replied. “You’re the one who tried the end run around the law.”

Greene scowled at me and said, “You can talk all you want, but you’ve got no proof.”

My cheeks ached from smiling so much, and I chuckled.

The door, which had never fully closed, opened on cue. Lydia Stern stood there behind it, her press badge around her neck, a mini-tape recorder in her hand, held up so that Greene could clearly see it. “So, Detective,” she asked, “could you please explain why as a part of your investigation you are interrogating a juvenile without her parents’ consent? Is she a suspect in the crime? Or a witness to any of the events? And what about these rumors of interdepartmental noncooperation slowing down the investigation?”

Greene stared at the reporter. He shot a glance at Agent Rick.

Rick shrugged. “He’s got you. You took a chance. It didn’t pay off.”

Greene spat a word that authority figures oughtn’t say in front of juveniles, and then stomped out. Lydia Stern winked at me, then followed on his heels, recorder held out toward him, asking a steady stream of questions whose only reasonable answers would make Greene look like an idiot.

Rick watched him go and shook his head. Then he said to me, “What’s your stake in this?”

“The girl is my friend’s daughter,” I said. “Just looking out for her.”

He gave me a slight nod. “I see. Greene’s under a lot of pressure. I’m sorry you got treated like that.”

“Rick,” I said in a patient voice, “I’m not a teenage girl. Please don’t try to good-cop me.”

His polite, interested expression vanished for a second behind a quick, boyish grin. Then he shrugged and said, “It was worth trying.”

I snorted.

“You know he can get the subpoena. It’s just a question of running through channels.”

I rose. “That’s not my problem. I’ll leave it to the Carpenters’ attorney.”

“I see,” he said. “You actually are interfering with the investigation. He could probably make it stick.”

“Come on, Agent. I’m protecting the rights of a juvenile. The ACLU would eat that raw.” I shook my head. “Besides. What you’re doing is wrong. Bullying girls. Hell’s bells, man, that’s low.”

A flicker of anger touched Agent Rick’s expression. “Dresden, I know you don’t have a concealed carry permit. You want me to suspect you of carrying a weapon and search you for it?”

Oops. I thought nervously of the revolver in my backpack. If Agent Rick wanted to make an issue of it, I could be in trouble-but I didn’t want him to know that. I tried to shake it off with a nonchalant shrug. “How is that going to help stop the killer before he strikes again?”

Rick tilted his head to one side and frowned at me. Dammit, I’ve got to get a better poker face. He oriented on me, eyes searching over me for possible places to hide a gun. “Irrelevant,” he replied. “If you’re breaking the law, you’re breaking the law.”

From the doorway there was an impatient sigh, and then Murphy said, “Would it kill you to stop being an asshole for five minutes, Rick?”

I hadn’t noticed her arrival, and judging from Agent Rick’s expression, neither had he.

“He’s a consultant for SI, which is also working the case. We don’t have the time to get involved in a pissing contest. People are in danger. We need to work together.”

Rick glared at her, then reined in his temper and shrugged a shoulder. “You may be right. But Dresden, I want you to consider leaving of your own will. If you keep interfering, I’ll arrest you and toss you in the clink for twenty-four hours.”

“No,” Murphy said, entering the room. “You won’t.”

He rounded on her, eyes narrowed. “Dammit, Karrin. You never know when to quit, do you?”

“Of course I do,” she said, setting her jaw. “Never.”

Agent Rick shook his head. He slammed open the door and departed.

Murphy watched him go. Then she sighed and asked, “Are you all right, miss?”

Molly nodded somewhat numbly. “Yes. Just tired.”

A moment later, Sandra Marling hurried in, looked around at all of us, and then went over to give Molly a hug. The girl hugged back, tight.

“Did you reach them?” I asked Sandra.

“Yes. Mrs. Carpenter is on the way.”

Molly shuddered.

“Good,” I said. “Could you stay with Molly until she arrives?”

“Of course.”

I nodded and said to Molly, “Kid, things are getting complicated. I want you to go with your mom. All right?”

She nodded, slowly, without looking up.

I sighed and got up out of my chair. “Good.”

I left, Murphy and Mouse flanking me as I headed back into the hotel. “Nice guy, Rick,” I commented. “Maybe a little manipulative.”

“Just a tad,” Murphy said. “What happened?”

I told her.

She let out a wicked chuckle. “Wish I could have seen the look on their faces.”

“Next time I’ll take a picture.”

She nodded. “So what’s our next move?”

“Hey, we’re in a hotel.” I bobbed my eyebrows at her. “Let’s get a room.”

Under peaceful circumstances, I’m sure that no rooms would have been available. Obviously, though, circumstances were far from peaceful, and there had been a minor avalanche of cancellations and early departures from the hotel-which only goes to show that people occasionally demonstrate evidence of sound judgment. The convention might have doubled the number of folks attending, but that didn’t mean that they wanted to sleep here.

There was a room available on the fifth floor. I paid an extra fee to allow Mouse to stay, and we got checked in.

There was no one else in the elevator, and we rode in a silence that became increasingly tense. I shifted my weight from side to side and fiddled with one of the two plastic cards the desk clerk had given us. I cleared my throat.

“So here we are,” I said. “Heading up to our hotel room.”

Murphy’s cheeks turned pink. “You are a pig, Dresden.”

“Hey, I didn’t put any innuendo into that. You did it yourself.”

She rolled her eyes, smiling a little.

I watched numbers change on the elevator panel. I coughed. “Yes, sir-ree. Alone together.”

“It’s a little weird,” she admitted.

“A little weird,” I agreed.

“Should it be?” she asked. “I mean, we’re just working together. We’ve done that before.”

“We haven’t done it in a hotel room.”

“Yes, we have,” Murphy said.

“But they all had corpses in them.”

“Ah. True.”

“No corpses this time,” I said.

“Heh,” Murphy said. “The night is young.”

Her reminder of the dangers before us put a bullet through the head of that conversation. Her smile vanished, and her face regained its usual color. We went the rest of the way in silence, until the elevator doors opened. Neither one of us moved to get out. It almost felt like there was some kind of invisible line drawn across the floor.

The silence stretched. The doors tried to close. Murphy mashed down on the Door Open button with her thumb.

“Harry,” she said finally, her voice very quiet, her blue eyes focused into distance. “I’ve been thinking about… you know. Us.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“How much thinking?”

She smiled a little. “I’m not sure, really. I don’t think I wanted to admit that… you know.”

“Things might change between us?”

“Yes.” She frowned at me. “I’m not sure this is something you would want.”

“Between the two of us,” I said, “I think I probably have more insight into that one.”

She frowned. “How do you know it’s what you want?”

“Last Halloween,” I said, “I wanted to murder Kincaid.”

Murphy glanced down as her cheeks turned pink. “Oh.”

“Not literally,” I said, then paused. “Well. I guess it was literally. But the urge died down a little.”

“I see,” she said.

“Are you and him…?” I asked, leaving the question open.

“I saw him at New Year’s,” she said. “But we aren’t in anything deep. Neither of us want that. We’re friends. We enjoy the company. That’s all.

I frowned. “We’re friends too,” I said. “But I’ve never taken your pants off.”

“We’re different,” she said, her blush renewing. She gave me an oblique look from beneath pale eyelashes. “Is it something you want?”

My heart sped up a little. “Uh. Pants removal?”

She arched a brow and tilted her head, waiting for an answer.

“Murph, I haven’t been with a woman for…”I shook my head. “Look, you ask any guy if he wants to have sex and he’s going to say yes. Generally speaking. It’s in the union manual.”

Her eyes sparkled. “Including you?” she pressed.

“I’m a guy,” I said. “So yes.” I frowned, thinking about it. “And… and no.”

She smiled at me and nodded. “I know. You couldn’t do casual. You commit yourself too deeply. You care too much. We couldn’t have something light. You would never settle for that.”

She was probably right. I nodded.

“I don’t know if I could give you what you want, Harry.” Then she took a deep breath and said, “And there are other reasons. We work together.”

“I noticed.”

She didn’t quite smile. “What I mean is… I can’t let relationships come close to my job. It isn’t good for either.”

I said nothing.

“I’m a cop, Harry.”

My belly twisted a little as I realized the rejection in the words, and the lack of any room for compromise. “I know you are.”

“I serve the law.”

“You do,” I said. “You always have.”

“I can’t walk away from it. I won’t walk away from it.”

“I know that too.”

“And… we’re so different. Our worlds.”

“Not really,” I said. “We sort of hang around in the same one, most of the time.”

“That’s work,” she said quietly. “My work isn’t everything about me. Or it shouldn’t be. I’ve tried a relationship built on having that in common.”

“Rick,” I said.

She nodded. Pain flickered in her eyes. I never would have seen that a few years before. But I’d seen Murphy in good times and bad-mostly bad. She’d never say it, never want me to say anything about it, but I knew that her failed marriages had wounded her more deeply than she would ever admit. In a way, I suspected that they explained some of her professional drive and ambition. She was determined to make the career work. Something had to.

And maybe she’d been hurt even more deeply than that. Maybe badly enough that she wouldn’t want to leave herself open to it again. Long-term relationships have the potential for long-term pain. Maybe she didn’t want to go through it again.

“What if you weren’t a cop?”

She smiled faintly. “What if you weren’t a wizard?”

“Touche. But indulge me.”

She tilted her head and studied me for a minute. Then she said, “What happens when Susan comes back?”

I shook my head. “She isn’t.”

Her tone turned dry. “Indulge me.”

I frowned. “I don’t know,” I said quietly. “We decided to break it off. And… I suspect we’d see a lot of things very differently now.”

“But if she wanted to try again?” Murphy asked.

I shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“Let’s say we get together,” Murphy said. “How many kids do you want?”

I blinked. “What?”

“You heard me.”

“I don’t…” I blinked a few more times. “I hadn’t really thought about it.” So I thought about it for a second. I thought about the merry chaos of the Carpenter household. God, I’d have given anything for that when I was little.

But any child of mine would inherit more than my eyes and killer chin. There were a lot of people who didn’t think much of me. A lot of not-people thought that way, too. Any child of mine would be bound to inherit some of my enemies, and worse, maybe some of my allies. My own mother had left me a legacy of perpetual suspicion and doubt, and nasty little surprises that occasionally popped out of the hoary past.

Murphy watched me, blue eyes steady and serious. “It’s a big question,” she said quietly.

I nodded, slowly. “Maybe you’re thinking about this too much, Murph,” I said. “Logic and reason and planning for the future. What’s in your heart doesn’t need that.”

“I used to think that, too.” She shook her head. “I was wrong. Love isn’t all you need. And I just don’t see us together, Harry. You’re dear to me. I couldn’t ask for a kinder friend. I’d walk through fire for you.”

“You already did,” I said.

“But I don’t think I could be the kind of lover you want. We wouldn’t go together.”

“Why not?”

“At the end of the day,” she said quietly, “we’re too different. You’re going to live for a long time, if you don’t get killed. Centuries. I’m going to be around another forty, fifty years at the most.”

“Yeah,” I said. It was one of those things I tried really hard not to dwell on.

She said, even more quietly, “I don’t know if I’ll get serious with a man again. But if I do… I want it to be someone who will build a family with me. Grow old with me.” She reached up and touched the side of my face with warm fingers. “You’re a good man, Harry. But you couldn’t be what I need, either.”

Murphy took her thumb from the button and left the elevator.

I didn’t follow her right away.

She didn’t look back.

Stab.

Twist.

God, I love being a wizard.

Chapter Twenty-three

The room was typical of my usual hotel experience: clean, plain, and empty. I made sure the blinds were pulled, looked around, and shoved the small round table at one side of the room over against the wall to leave me some open space in the middle of the floor. I slung my backpack down on the bed.

“Need anything?” Murphy asked. She stood in the doorway to the room. She didn’t want to come in.

“Think I have it all. Just need some quiet to get it set up.” There was no reason not to give Murphy a way out of the awkwardness the conversation had brought on. “There’s something I’m curious about. Maybe you could check it out.”

“Pell’s theater,” Murphy guessed. I could hear some relief in her voice.

“Yes. Maybe you could cruise by it and see what’s to be seen.”

She frowned. “Think there might be something in there?”

“I don’t know enough to think anything yet, but it’s possible,” I said. “You get a bad feeling about anything, don’t hang around. Just vamoose.”

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I already planned to do that.” She went to the door. “Shouldn’t take me long. I’ll contact you in half an hour, let’s say?”

“Sure,” I said. Neither one of us voiced what we both were thinking- that if Murphy missed the check-in, she’d probably be dead, or dying, or worse. “Half an hour.”

She nodded and left, shutting the door behind her. Mouse went over to the door, sniffed at it for a moment, then walked in a little circle three times and settled down on the floor to sleep. I frowned down at the carpet and opened my backpack. Chalk wouldn’t do for a circle, not on carpet like that. I’d have to go with the old standby of fine, white sand. The maids would doubtless find it annoying to clean up, but life could be hard sometimes. I pulled out a glass bottle of specially prepared sand and put it on the table, along with the main blob of Play-Doh and Bob the skull.

Orange lights kindled in the skull’s eye sockets. “Can I talk now?”

“Yeah,” I said. “You been listening to things?”

“Yeah,” Bob said, depressed. “You are never going to get laid.”

I glared at the skull.

“I’m just sayin‘,” he said, voice defensive. “It isn’t my fault, Harry. She’d probably bang you if you didn’t take it so godawful seriously.”

“The subject. Change it,” I suggested in a flat voice. “We’re working now.”

“Right,” Bob said. “So you’re planning on a standard detection web-ward for the building?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“It isn’t going to be very helpful,” Bob said. “I mean, by the time something manifests enough to set off your web, it’s going to be all the way into the real world. While you’re running for the stairs, it’s already going to be tearing into somebody.”

“It isn’t perfect,” I said. “But it’s all I’ve got. Unless you have a better idea?”

“The thing about having several centuries of experience and knowledge at my disposal is that it doesn’t do me any good unless I know what it is you want me to help you fight,” Bob said. “So far, all you know is that you’ve got an inbound phobophage.”

“That’s not specific enough?”

“No!” Bob said. “I can think of about two hundred different kinds of phobophages off the top of my head, and I could probably come up with two hundred more if I took a minute to think about it.”

“That many of them who can do what this thing did? Take a solid form and attack?”

Bob blinked his eyes at me as though he thought me very thick. “Believe it or not, the old ‘take the form of the victim’s worst fear’ routine is pretty much the most common move in the phobophage handbook.”

“Oh. Right.” I shook my head. “But this whole place is open territory. There’s no threshold to use to anchor anything heavier than a web. At least if I do that much, maybe I can get into position fast enough to directly intervene when the thing shows up again.”

“Things,” Bob corrected me. “Plural. Phages are like ants. First one shows up, then two, then a hundred.”

I exhaled. “Crap,” I said. “Maybe we can come at this from a different angle. Is there any way I can redirect them while they’re crossing over? Make it harder for them to get here?”

Bob’s eyelights brightened. “Maybe. Maybe, yes. You might be able to raise a veil over this whole place-from the other side.”

“Urk,” I said. “You’re saying I could hide this place from the phages, but only from the Nevernever?”

“Pretty much,” Bob said. “Even then, it would be a calculated risk.”

“How so?”

“It all depends on how they’re finding this place,” Bob said. “I mean, if these are just naturally arriving phages finding a hunting ground, a veil won’t stop them. It might slow them down, but it won’t stop them.”

“Let’s assume that it isn’t a coincidence,” I said.

“Okay. Assuming that, the next variable is finding out whether they’re being summoned or sent.”

I frowned. “There are things strong enough to send them through from the other side? I didn’t think that ever happened anymore. Hence the popularity of working through mortal summoners.”

“Oh, it’s doable,” Bob assured me. “It just takes a hell of a lot more juice to open the way to the mortal world from the other side.”

I frowned. “How much power are we talking?”

“Big,” Bob assured me. “Like the Erlking, or an archangel, or one of the old gods.”

I got a shivery feeling in my stomach. “A Faerie Queen?”

“Oh, sure. I guess so.” He frowned. “You think this is Faerie work?”

“Something is definitely screwy in elfland,” I said. “More so than normal, I mean.”

Bob made a gulping sound. “Oh. We’re not going to go visiting the faeries or anything, are we?”

“Not if I can help it,” I said. “I wouldn’t take you with me, if it came to that.”

“Oh,” he sighed. “Good.”

“One of these days, you’re gonna have to tell me what you did to make Mab want to kill you.”

“Yeah, sure,” Bob said, in that tone of voice you use while sweeping things under the rug. “But we should also consider the third possibility.”

“A summoner,” I said. “Given that someone actually threw a ward in my way the last time the phage showed up, that seems to be the most likely of the three.”

“I think so, too,” Bob said. “In which case, you’re in trouble.”

I grunted, and started unpacking candles, matches, and my old army-surplus knife. “Why?”

“Without a threshold to build on, you can’t put up any proper defense. And even if you do cross over and set up a veil to try to keep the phages from finding the place…”

“Their summoner is going to draw them in,” I finished, following the line of reasoning. “It’s like… I could blanket the surrounding area in fog, but if they have someone on this end, the phages will have a beacon they can use to home in on the hotel.”

“Right,” Bob said. “And then the summoner just opens the door from his side, and they’re in.”

I frowned and said, “It’s all about finding the summoner, then.”

“Which you can’t do, until they actually summon something,” Bob said.

“Hell’s bells,” I complained. “There’s got to be something we can do to prevent it.”

“Not especially,” Bob said. “Sorry, boss. Until you know more, you can’t do anything but react.”

I scowled. “Dammit. Then it’s the web or nothing. At least if I use that, I might be able to identify the summoner.” At the low, low cost of the phages mauling or killing someone else. Unless…

“Bob,” I said, frowning over the idea. “What if I didn’t try to hide the hotel or keep these things away. What if I, uh… just put a little topspin on the phages on the way in?”

Bob’s eyelights brightened even more. “Ooooooo, classic White Council doctrine. When the phages come through, you point them straight at the guy who summoned them. Give him a dose of his own medicine.”

“Right up the ass,” I confirmed.

“There’s an image,” Bob said. “A summoning suppository.”

“It’s doable, isn’t it?”

“Sure,” Bob said. “I mean, you have everything you need for that. You know the phages are after fear, and that they’re probably using his power as a beacon. Your web tells you something is stirring. You conjure up a big ball of fear, target the same beacon the phages are using, and let it fly.”

“It’ll be like hanging a steak around his neck and throwing him to the lions,” I said, grinning.

“Hail Caesar,” Bob confirmed. “The phages will go right after him.”

“And once he’s out of the game, I veil the hotel from the phages. No more convention attendees get hurt. Bad guy gets a lethal dose of dramatic irony.”

“The good guys win!” Bob cheered. “Or at least you do. You’re still a good guy, right? You know how confusing the whole good-evil concept is for me.”

“I’m thinking about changing it to ‘them’ and ‘us,’ for simplicity’s sake,” I said. “I like this plan. So there’s got to be a catch to it somewhere.”

“True,” Bob admitted. “It’s gonna be a little tricky when it comes to the timing. You won’t be able to sense the beacon until the phages actually step through from the Nevernever and take material form. If you haven’t redirected them by then, it’ll be too late.”

I nodded, frowning. “That gives me what? Maybe twenty seconds?”

“Only if they’re really lame,” Bob said. “Probably ten seconds. Maybe even less.”

I frowned. “Dammit, that’s a small window.” I thought of another problem. “Not only that, but I’ll be shooting blind. There won’t be any way to tell who I’m setting the phages after. What if he’s standing in a crowd?”

“He’s going to be summoning fiends from the netherworld to wreak horror and death on the populace,” Bob pointed out in a patient voice. “That won’t lend itself to blending into a crowd.”

“Good point. He’ll probably be somewhere private, quiet.” I shook my head. “Even so, I’d be a lot happier if this was a little less dicey. But I don’t see any other way to stop these things from hurting anyone else.”

“Until we have more information, I don’t see what else you could do, boss.”

I grunted. “I’d better get this web up and running, then.”

Mouse’s collar tag clinked against the buckle, and I looked over my shoulder. The dog had lifted his head from the floor, staring intently at the door. A second later, someone knocked.

Mouse hadn’t started growling, and his tail thumped the wall a few times as I went to the door, sounding the all-clear. “That was fast,” I said, opening the door. “I thought you were going to be half an hour, Murph-”

Molly stood in the hallway, an overnight bag hung over her shoulder. She drooped, the way my house plants always used to when I was still optimistic enough to keep buying new ones. Her pink-and-blue hair hung down listlessly, and her cheeks were marked with the remains of several mascara-laden tear tracks. She looked rumpled, tired, uncertain, and lonely-

“Hi,” she said. Her voice wasn’t much more than a whisper.

“Hey,” I told her. “I thought you were waiting for your mom.”

“I was,” she said. “I am. But… I’m kind of messed up.” She waved her hand gingerly at herself. “I wanted to clean up a little, but they won’t let me use the bathroom in Nelson’s room. I was hoping I could borrow yours. Just for a minute.”

It would have been easier to dropkick a puppy than to turn the kid away. “Sure,” I said. “Just keep it quiet. Okay?”

I stepped back into the room, and Molly followed me, pausing to scratch Mouse behind the ears. She looked past me, to the open floor space and the things I had sat out.

“What are you doing?” she asked me.

“Magic,” I said. “What’s it look like I’m doing?”

She smiled a little. “Oh. Right.”

I waved a hand at my materials. “I’m going to try to prevent another attack from hurting anyone.”

“Can you do that?” she asked.

“Maybe,” I said. “I hope so.”

“I can’t believe… I mean, I knew there were things out there, but my friends… Rosie.” Her lower lip quivered and her eyes filled with tears that didn’t quite fall.

I didn’t have much I could say to comfort her. “I’m going to stop it from happening again,” I said quietly. “I’m sorry I didn’t move fast enough the first time.”

She looked down again, and nodded without speaking. She swallowed several times.

“Listen,” I told her quietly. “This is serious stuff. You need to talk about it. Not with me,” I added, as she looked up at me. “With your mom.”

Molly shook her head. “She isn’t-”

“Molly,” I sighed. “Life can be short. And cruel. You saw that last night. You got a look at the kind of thing your dad deals with all the time.”

She didn’t respond.

I said quietly, “Even Knights can die, Molly. Shiro did. It could happen to Michael, too.”

She lifted her head abruptly, staring at me as if in shock.

“How does that make you feel?” I asked.

She chewed on her lip. “Scared.”

“It scares your mom, too. It scares her a lot. She deals with it by holding on hard to the people around her. Maybe too hard, sometimes. That’s why you feel like she’s trying to keep you a little kid. She probably is. But it isn’t because she’s a control freak. It’s because she loves you all so much-you, your dad, your family-and she’s frightened that something bad could happen. She’s desperate to do everything she can to keep you all safe.”

Molly didn’t look up or respond.

“Life is short,” I said. “Too short to waste it on stupid arguments. I’m not saying your mom is perfect, because God knows she isn’t. But my God, Molly, you’ve got the kind of family people like me would kill for. You think they’ll always be there later-but they might not be. Life doesn’t give you any guarantees.”

I let that sink in for a minute, and then said, “I promised your dad that I’d ask you to talk to her. I told him I’d do my best to get the two of you to work things out.”

She looked up at me, crying now, silently. More dark makeup trailed down her cheeks.

“Will you sit down with her, Molly? Talk?”

She took a shaking breath and said, “I don’t know if it will do any good. We’ve said so much…”

“I can’t force you to do it. No one can do that but you.”

She sniffled for a moment. “It won’t do any good.”

“I don’t expect miracles. Just try to talk to her. Please.”

She took a breath, and then nodded, once.

“Thank you,” I said.

She tried to smile once, and hovered outside the bathroom door for a moment more.

“Molly?” I asked. “Are you okay?”

She nodded, but she didn’t move, either.

I frowned. “Something you want to say?”

She looked up at me for just a second. “No,” she said then, and shook her head. “No, it’s nothing, really. Thank you. I won’t be long.” She stepped into the bathroom, shut the door, and locked it. The shower started a moment later.

“Wow,” Bob said from behind me, somehow inserting a leer into the word. “I didn’t realize you liked them quite that… fresh, Harry.”

I glared at him. “What?”

“Did you see the body on her? Magnificent rack! Blond Nordic babe-age, but all pierced and dressed in black, which means she’s probably into at least one kind of kink. And all tender and emotional and vulnerable to boot. Taking her clothes off right here in your room.”

“Kink? You don’t-look, there’s no way to…” I sputtered. “No, Bob. Just no. For crying out loud. She’s seventeen.”

“Better move quick, then,” Bob said. “Before anything starts to droop. Taste of perfection while you can, that’s what I always say.”

“Bob!”

“What?” he said.

“That isn’t how things are.”

“Not now,‘” Bob said. “But you go get in that shower with her and you’ve got your own personal cable TV erotic movie come true.”

I rubbed at the bridge of my nose. “Hell’s bells. The whole idea is wrong, Bob. Just… wrong.”

“Harry, even a nerd should know that it’s no coincidence when a girl shows up at a man’s hotel room. You know all she really wants is to-”

“Bob,” I snapped, cutting him off. “Even if she wanted to, which she doesn’t, nothing is happening with the girl. I’m trying to work, here. You aren’t helping.”

“I’d hate to disrupt your most recent attempt to court death and agony,” he said brightly. “You should stick me somewhere else, where I won’t distract you. On the counter in the bathroom, for example.”

I slapped open one of the empty dresser drawers and tossed the skull in there, instead. Bob sputtered a few muffled curses in ancient Greek, something about sheep and a skin rash.

I looked up from the drawer into the room’s mirror, and found myself facing not my reflection, but Lasciel’s image instead, angelic and lovely and poised. “The perverted little creep has a point, my host,” she said.

I jabbed a finger at the mirror and said, “Bob is my little creep, and the only one who gets to call him names is me. Now go away.”

“Ah,” Lasciel said, and the image faded to translucence, my own reflection appearing to replace it. “Fascinating, though,” she added, just before vanishing, “that boyfriend Nelson bears quite the striking physical resemblance to you.”

Then she was gone. Dammit. Stupid demons. Always with the last word.

Worse, she had a point. I eyed the bathroom door and reviewed the past day or so, and my interactions with the girl before that. I had always been someone her father respected and her mother disapproved of. I showed up once in a blue moon in a big black coat, usually looking roughed-up and dangerous, and I’d been doing so since she was young enough to be very impressionable. Hell, when you got right down to it, Charity’s disapproval alone might have been enough to make me seem interesting to a rebellious teenage girl.

I came to the reluctant conclusion that it was possible Molly might have certain ideas in her head. It might well explain the most recent awkward silences and halting pauses. She’d always liked me, and it wasn’t outrageous to think that it might have developed into something more-and that I’d be a right bastard to do anything that might encourage those ideas, even inadvertently. Maybe Bob and Lasciel were wrong, and in fact nothing like that was going on, but the passions of youth, its attractions and desires, were a minefield one took lightly at one’s own peril.

Magnificent rack notwithstanding, Molly was still, in every important way, a child-my friend’s child, to boot. She was hurting. It bothered me, and I wanted to help her, but I had to be aware of the fact that my sympathy could be misinterpreted. The kid had issues and she needed someone to help her work things out. She didn’t need someone who would only make her more confused.

Steam curled out from under the bathroom door. An actual hot shower. Not merely the illusion of one.

I shook my head and got back to the detection web.

As spells went, this one was pretty big, but it wasn’t complicated. I’d created a long-term version of the same basic working in the neighborhood around my apartment, in order to detect approaching mystical entities. The one I wanted for the hotel was the same thing, but I didn’t have to bother with setting it up as a long-term construct. A sunrise, or two at most, would erode the spell, but with any luck I wouldn’t need it for any longer.

I took the Play-Doh in hand, grabbed three candles in their own wooden holders, poured the sand in a circle around me, and began gathering in my power, painstakingly creating mental images of the web of energy I needed to weave between the points of the hotel I’d marked out with Play-Doh. It didn’t take me a terribly long time to set it up. Anyone with some basic skills and desire enough could have done something like this- or at least, they could have done it on a smaller scale. Weaving a web throughout the whole building took a lot of heavy lifting, magically speaking, but it wasn’t complicated, and fifteen minutes later I solidified the image of the energy patterns in my mind, and whispered, “Magius, orbius, spiritus oculus.”

I poured my will and my magic out with the words as I spoke them, and my body briefly lit up with a flood of tingling energy that raced along all of my limbs, down into the lump of Play-Doh, and swirled in tight spirals around the three candles that would serve as my ward-flames. The spell’s energy flashed, appearing as a tiny stream of faint flickers, like bursts of static electricity, and the candles each flickered to life, steady little flames born of the spell. I broke the circle of sand as I spoke, and the power blossomed out through the hotel, into the shape I’d imagined, invisible strands flickering into instant shape, like ice crystals forming in the space of a heartbeat, spreading unseen strands throughout the hotel.

My balance wobbled a bit as I finished the spell and the energy left me, submerging me in a temporary flood of fatigue. I sat there with my head down, breathing hard for a minute.

“Wow,” Murphy said, her tone less than impressed. I looked up to see her shutting the room’s door behind her. “What did you do?”

I waved around to indicate the hotel and panted, “If bad mojo shows up in the hotel, the spell will sense it.” I gestured at the three candles. “Take one with you. If you see it flare up, it means we’ve got incoming.”

Murphy frowned but nodded. “How much warning will they give us?”

“Not much,” I said. “A couple minutes, maybe less. Maybe a lot less.”

“Three candles,” she said. “One for you, one for me, and…”

“I thought we’d see if Rawlins wanted one.”

“Is he here?” Murphy said.

“Gut feeling,” I said. “He seems like the kind who sees something through.”

“He also seems like the kind who’s been injured. No chance he’d get active duty here.”

“He didn’t have it at the hospital, either,” I pointed out.

“True,” Murphy said.

I caught my breath a little, and asked, “Anything at Pell’s theater?”

Murphy nodded and crossed the room to pick up two of the candles. “A lot of nothing. Place was locked up tight. Chains on the front doors, and the back door was locked. Sign on the door said they were closed until further notice.”

I grunted. “You’d think Pell would be wild to have the place open, if the convention was providing a significant amount of his income-even if he was in a hospital bed. Hell, especially if he was in a hospital bed.”

“Unless he doesn’t have anyone he trusts to run it for him.”

“But he does have someone he trusts enough to lock it up?” I said. “That doesn’t track. Pell sure as hell didn’t lock up after he was attacked.”

Murphy frowned, but she didn’t disagree with me. “I tried to call him to ask him about it, but the nurse said he was sleeping.”

I ran my fingers back through my hair, frowning over the situation. “Curiouser and curiouser,” I said. “We’re missing something here.”

“Like what?” Murphy asked.

“Another player,” I said. “Someone we haven’t seen yet.”

Murphy made a thoughtful sound. “Maybe. But imagining invisible perpetrators or hidden conspiracies veers pretty close to paranoia.”

“Maybe not another suspect, then,” I said thoughtfully. “Maybe another motive.”

“Like what?” she asked, though I could see the wheels turning in her head as she followed the logic chain from the notion.

“These phage attacks look fairly simple at first glance. Like… I don’t know. Shark attacks. Something hungry shows up to eat someone and then leaves. Natural occurrences. Or rather, typical supernatural occurrences.”

“But they aren’t random,” Murphy said. “Someone is sending them to a specific place. Someone who used magic to try to stop you when you interfered with one of the phages.”

“Which begs the obvious question…” I began.

Murphy nodded and finished the thought. “Why do it in the first place?”

I stuck my left hand out to one side of me and said, “Look over here.” Then I mimed a short jab with my right fist.

“It’s a rope-a-dope,” Murphy said, her eyes narrowing. “A distraction. But from what?”

“Something worse than homicidal, shapeshifting, supernatural predators, apparently,” I mused. “Something we’d want to stop a lot more.”

“Like what?”

I shook my head and shrugged. “I don’t know. Not yet, anyway.”

Murphy grimaced. “Leave it to you to make paranoia sound plausible.”

“It’s only paranoia if I’m wrong,” I said.

Murphy glanced over her shoulder and shivered a little. “Yeah.” She turned back to me, squared her shoulders, and took a steadying breath. “Okay. What’s the play, here? I assume you’ve got something in mind beyond having a minute or two of warning.”

“Yes,” I said.

“What?” she asked.

“It gets kind of technical,” I said.

“I’ll try to keep up,” she said.

I nodded. “Anytime something from the spirit world wants to cross into the mortal world, it has to do a number of things to cross the border. It has to have a point of origin, a point of destination, and enough energy to open the way. Then it has to cross over, summon ectoplasm from the Nevernever, and infuse it with more energy to give itself a physical body.”

She frowned. “What do you mean by points of origin and destination?”

“Links,” I told her. “Sort of like landmarks. Usually, the creature you’re calling up can serve as its own point of origin. Whoever is opening the way across is usually the destination.”

“Can anyone be the destination?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “You can’t call up anything that isn’t…” I frowned, looking for words. “You can’t call up anything that doesn’t have some kind of reflection inside you, a kind of point of reference for the spirit being. If you want evil, nasty, hungry beings, there’s got to be evil, nasty, and hunger inside of you.”

She nodded. “Does the way have to be opened from this side?”

“Generally,” I said. “It takes a hell of a lot more oomph to get it done from the other side.”

She nodded. “Go on.”

I told her about my plan to turn the phages back upon their summoner.

“I like that,” she said. “Using their own monsters against them. But what does that leave me to do?”

“You buy me time,” I said. “There will be a moment just when the phage or phages cross over, where they will be vulnerable. If you’re able to see one and distract it, it will give me more time to aim them back at their summoner. And it’s possible that my spell might not work. If it goes south, you’ll be near enough to help clear people out, maybe do them some good.”

Murphy began to speak-then she paused, turned around, and asked, “Harry. Is there someone in the shower?”

“Uh. Yeah,” I said, and rubbed at the back of my neck.

She arched a brow and waited, but I didn’t offer any explanation. Maybe it was my way of getting petty vengeance for her brutal honesty in the elevator.

“All right then,” she said, and took up the candles. “I’ll get downstairs and look for Rawlins. Otherwise, I’ll grab one of my guys from SI.”

“Sounds good,” I said.

Murphy left, while I started planning out my redirection spell. It didn’t take me long.

Mouse lifted his head suddenly, and a second later someone knocked at the door. I went over and opened it.

Charity stood on the other side, dressed in jeans, a knit tank top, and a blue blouse of light cotton. Her features were drawn with stress, her shoulders clenched in unconscious tension. When she saw me, her features became remote and neutral, very controlled. “Hello, Mister Dresden.”

It was probably the friendliest greeting I could expect from her. “Heya,” I said.

Standing beside her was an old man, a little under average height. What was left of his hair was grey, trimmed neatly, though hardly a fringe remained. He had eyes the color of robin’s eggs, spectacles, a comfortably heavy build, and wore black slacks and a black shirt. The white square of his clerical collar stood out distinctively against the shirt. He smiled when he saw me, and offered me his hand.

I shook it, smiling, and had no need to fake it. “Father Forthill. What are you doing here?”

“Harry,” he said amiably. “Lending some moral support, by and large.”

“He’s my attorney,” Charity added.

I blinked. “He is?”

“He is,” Forthill said, smiling. “I passed the bar before I entered the orders. I’ve kept my hand in on behalf of the diocese and my parishioners. I do some pro bono work from time to time, too.”

“He’s a lawyer,” I said. “He’s a priest. This does not compute.”

Forthill let out a belly laugh. “Oxymoronic.”

“Hey, did I start calling you names?” I grinned at him. “What can I do for you?”

“Molly was supposed to be waiting for us downstairs,” Charity said. “But we haven’t found her. Do you know where she is?”

The universe conspired against me. If Charity had asked the question ten seconds sooner, I would have been fine. But instead, the bathroom door opened, and Molly appeared in a swirl of steam. She had a towel wrapped around her hair, and was holding another around her torso. Hotel towels and Molly’s torso being what they were, the towel didn’t quite get all the way around her, and barely maintained modesty. “Harry,” she said. “I left my bag out he-” She broke off suddenly, staring at Charity.

“This, uh, isn’t what it looks like,” I stammered, turning back to Charity.

Her eyes blazed with cold, righteous rage. An old Kipling axiom about the female of the species being more deadly than the male flashed through my mind, right about the time Charity introduced my chin to her right hook.

Light flashed behind my eyes and I found myself flat on my back while the ceiling spun around a little.

“Mother,” Molly said in a shocked voice.

I looked up in time to see Forthill put a firm hand on Charity’s arm, preventing her from following up the first blow. She narrowed her eyes at Forthill, but the old man’s fingers dug into her biceps until she gave him a slight nod and took a small step back into the hallway.

“Dress,” she told Molly, implacable authority in her tone. “We’re leaving.”

The kid looked like she might just start falling apart on the spot. She grabbed her bag, ducked into the bathroom, and was dressed in under a minute.

“There was nothing going on,” I mumbled. It came out sounding more like, “Mmrphg ggggh oonng.”

“I may not be able to keep you away from my husband,” Charity said, her tone cold, her diction precise. “But if you come near one of my children again, I will kill you. Thank you for calling me.”

She left, the weary Molly following her.

“There was nothing going on,” I said again, to Forthill. This time it sounded mostly like English.

He sighed, looking after the pair. “I believe you.” He gave me a smile that was one part amusement to four parts apology, and followed them.

Murphy must not have reached the elevators before Charity and Forthill had arrived. She appeared in the doorway, peering inside the room, and then back the way Charity had gone. “Ah,” she said. “You all right?”

“I guess,” I sighed.

Her mouth twitched, but she didn’t quite smile or laugh at me. “Seems to me that you should have seen that one coming.”

“Don’t laugh at me,” I said. “It hurts.”

“You’ve had worse,” she said heartlessly. “And it serves you right for letting a little girl into your hotel room. Now get up. I’ll be downstairs.”

She left, too.

Mouse came over and started patiently nuzzling my chin and putting slobbering dog kisses on the bruise I could feel forming there.

“Women confuse me,” I told him.

Mouse sat down, jaws dropping open into a doggie grin. I groaned, pushed myself to my feet, and set about preparing the redirection spell, while outside my room’s window the sun raced for its nightly rendezvous with the western horizon.

Chapter Twenty-four

I shut the door again and rushed to prepare the beacon spell, hurrying, certain that every second counted. I would only get one shot at diverting the phages, and I finished my preparations in feverish haste.

Nothing happened.

The sun set, leaving me mostly in the dark, since I hadn’t bothered to turn on any lights.

Nothing continued happening.

I knelt in my circle of sand until my legs cramped and then went numb, and my knees felt like they were resting in molten lead.

And all that nothing just kept on coming.

“Oh come on,” I snarled. “Bring on the doom, already.”

From his spot near the door, Mouse heaved a sigh.

“Oh, shut up,” I told him. I didn’t dare take a break. If the bad guys moved and I wasn’t ready, people would get hurt. So I knelt there, holding the spell ready in my mind, uncomfortable as hell, and swearing sulfurously under my breath. Stupid, lame-ass summoner. What the hell was he waiting for? Any half-competent villain would have had monsters roaming the halls hours ago.

Mouse’s tail thumped against the wall, and a moment later the room’s lock clicked, and Rawlins opened the door. He was wearing jeans and a long-sleeved shirt that concealed the bandages on his wounded arm, and he carried a wardflame candle in one hand. The blocky, dark-skinned officer leaned down and held his hand out to Mouse, who sniffed Rawlins in typical canine fashion and wagged his tail some more.

Rawlins remained in the doorway and said, “Hello? Dresden?”

“Here,” I muttered.

Rawlins thumped at the wall until he found the lights and flicked them on. He stared at me for a minute, eyebrows slowly rising. “Uh-huh. There’s something I don’t see every day.”

I grimaced. “Murphy found you, I see.”

“Almost like she’s a detective,” Rawlins said, grinning.

“Your boss know you’re here?” I asked.

“Not so far,” he replied. “But I expect someone might notice and tell him about me at some point.”

“He won’t be happy,” I said.

“I just hope I can live with myself later.” He waved his little candle. “Murphy sent me up here to make sure you was still alive.”

“I’m going to need knee surgery,” I sighed. “I never planned on it taking this long.”

“Uh-huh,” Rawlins said again. “You ain’t one of those Satan worshipers are you?”

“No,” I said. “More like Pythagoras.”

“Pih-who?”

“He invented triangles.”

“Ah,” Rawlins said, as if that had explained everything. “So, what are you doing here?”

I explained it to him, though it looked like he was having trouble accepting my words. Maybe I lacked credibility. “But I figured he would have moved by now.”

“Crooks are funny that way,” he agreed. “No respect.”

I scrunched up my face in thought. I was hungry, thirsty, tired, hurting, and I had to use the bathroom in the worst way. None of those things were going to become easier to bear as the night went on, and I needed to have all the concentration I could get.

“Okay,” I said. “Be smart. Take a break.” I leaned down and broke the circle by sweeping the sand aside with my hand, letting the energy of the spell I’d been holding ready drain away. At least I’d already done it once. Getting it back into position wouldn’t take nearly as long as the first time.

I tried to rise, but my legs were incommunicado. I grimaced at Rawlins and said, “Give me a hand here?”

He set his candle aside and helped me up. I wobbled precariously for a couple of seconds, but then stumbled to the bathroom and back out.

“You okay?” he asked.

“I’m good. Tell Murphy to hold steady.”

Rawlins nodded. “We’ll be downstairs.” He paused and said, “Hope this happens soon. There’s some kind of costume contest going on.”

“Is it bad?”

“There are a lot of skimpy getups, and some of those people should not be wearing them.”

“Call the fashion police,” I said.

Rawlins nodded gravely. “They’ve crossed a line.”

“Do me a favor?” I asked him. “Take Mouse out for a walk?” I dug a couple of bills from my back pocket and passed them to Rawlins. “Maybe get him a hot dog or something?”

“Sure,” Rawlins agreed. “I like dogs.”

The dog’s tail thumped rapidly against the wall.

“Whatever you do, don’t give him nachos. I didn’t bring my gas mask with me.”

Rawlins nodded. “Sure.”

“Keep your eyes open,” I said. “Tell Murph I’ll be reset in a couple of minutes.”

Rawlins grunted and left.

I had a canteen of fruit punch in my backpack, along with some beef jerky and some chocolate. I went to the bag and started wolfing down all three while pacing back and forth to stretch my legs. Holding myself ready to strike had been more than simply a physical strain. My head felt like someone had packed it in wool, while at the same time my senses seemed slighdy distorted; edges made sharper, curves more ambiguous, the whole combining to make the hotel room feel like a toned-down Escher painting. There was no help for that. The use of magic was mostly in the mind, and holding a spell together for a long time often triggered disconcerting side effects.

I polished off the food as fast as I could gulp it down, went easy on the drink, in case I was there for another several hours, and settled back down in my circle, preparing to close it again.

When the room’s phone rang.

“Deja vu,” I commented to the empty room. I stood up, my knees creaking, and went to the phone.

“Dresden Taxidermy,” I said. “You snuff it, we’ll stuff it.”

There was a beat of startled silence from the phone, and then a young man’s voice said, “Urn. Is this Harry Dresden?”

I recognized the voice-Boyfriend Nelson. That made my ears perk up, metaphorically speaking. “Yeah, this is him,” I said.

“This is…”

“I know who it is,” I told him. “How did you know where I was?”

“Sandra,” he said. “I called her cell. She told me you’d checked in.”

“Uh-huh. Why are you calling me?”

“Molly said… she said you helped people.” He paused to take a breath, and then said, “I think I need your help. Again.”

“Why?” I asked. Keep the questions open, I thought. Never give him one with a simple answer. “What’s going on?”

“Last night, during the attacks. I think I saw something.”

I sighed. “It was going around,” I agreed. “But if you saw something, you’re a witness to a crime, kid. You need to show up and work with the cops. They get sort of unreasonable with people who go all evasive when they want to ask questions about a murder.”

“But I think some… thing is following me,” he said. An unsteady tremor shook Nelson’s voice. “Look, they’re just cops, man. They just have guns. I don’t think they can help me. I hope you can.”

“Why?” I asked him. “What is it that you saw?”

“No,” he said. “Not on the phone. I want to meet with you. I want you to promise me your help. I’ll tell you then.”

Right. Because it wasn’t like I had anything better to be doing. “Look, kid…”

Nelson’s voice suddenly went thready with breathless fear. “Oh, God. I can’t stay here. Please. Please.

“Fine, fine,” I said, trying to keep my voice strong, steady. The kid was scared-the bone-deep, knee-watering, half-crazy kind of scared that makes rational thinking all but impossible. “Listen to me. Stay around people, as many of them as you can. Go to Saint Mary of the Angels Church. It’s holy ground, and you’ll be safe there. Ask for Father Forthill. He’s a little guy, mostly bald, glasses, bright blue eyes. Tell him everything and tell him I’m coming to collect you as soon as I can.”

“Yes, all right, thank you,” Nelson said, the words hysterically rushed. There was a brief clatter, and then I heard running footsteps on concrete. He hadn’t even gotten the phone back into its cradle before he’d taken off at a dead sprint.

I chewed on my lip. The kid was definitely in trouble, or at least genuinely believed that he was. If so, it meant that maybe he had seen something last night, something that made it important for someone to kill him-i.e., some kind of damning evidence that would probably help me figure out what the hell was going on. I felt a stab of anxiety. Holy ground was a powerful deterrent to the things that went bump in the night-or in this case, things that went stab, stab, hack, slash, rip in the night-but it wasn’t invulnerable. If something of sufficient supernatural strength really was after the kid, it might be able to force its way into the church.

Dammit, but what choice did I have? If I left my position here, any fresh attack could make last night’s look like a friendly round of Candy-land. What could he possibly have seen that would make him worth killing? Why the hell was he being followed? I felt like I was floundering around in the dark inside someone else’s house, benighted of savoir faire enough to move with assurance. I was spread too thin. If I didn’t start finding more pieces of the puzzle and put them together, and soon, more people would die.

I could only be in one place at one time. If the kid was in real trouble, he’d be as safe at the church, with Forthill, as anywhere in town short of the protection of my heavily warded apartment. Meanwhile, there were a bunch of other kids here who looked to be the next meal on the phobophage buffet. I had to act where I could do the most good. It was a cold sort of equation, the calculus of survival, but undeniable. I’d get to Nelson after I had taken care of business at the hotel.

I settled down on my knees again, carefully, closed the circle, and began to pick up the pieces of the redirection spell once more.

The single wardflame candle on the room’s dresser suddenly exploded into lurid red light. Simultaneously, I felt a heavy thrumming in the air, where the strands of my web spell had suddenly encountered powerful magic in motion, drawing my thoughts and attention to a back hallway in the hotel, not far from the kitchens, up to the hall outside the hotel’s exercise room, and a swift double-thrum from another of the hotel’s bathrooms.

Four attackers, this time. Four of them at least.

I had ten seconds to get the spell off.

Nine.

Maybe less.

Eight.

I threw myself into the spell.

Seven.

It had to be fast.

Six.

It had to be perfect on the first attempt.

Five.

If I screwed this one up, someone else would pay for it.

Four.

They’d pay for it in blood.

Three.

Two.

One…

Chapter Twenty-five

I readied my spell, terrified that I was already too late, terrified that I had made a critical mistake, terrified that more innocents were about to face hideous agony and death.

That was how it had to be. If I wanted to lure the phages from their rampage by directing them after a richer source of fear, it had to come from somewhere-specifically, it had to come from me. If I’d tried to use falsified emotion, it would no more have worked on them than an attempt to make a gorilla interested in a plastic banana. The fear had to be genuine.

Of course, I hadn’t really planned on being quite this afraid. Being taken off my guard and handed a time limit had added an edge of panicked hysteria to the ample anxiety I already had.

The spell coalesced, and time came to an abrupt stop.

In that illusory stasis, my senses were on fire. The presence of the dangerous entities now entering the material world rippled through my detection web; a jittery, fluttering sensation. The energy of the spell burned like an invisible star before my outstretched hands, and my terror rushed into it and fused with the spell. Streamers from the lure whipped out along the lines of power that constituted my detection web, brushing lightly at the entities, attracting their attention, giving them a whiff of rich sustenance.

And somewhere in the middle of all that, I felt a single, quiet, quivering pulse-a living presence that could only be the phages’ summoner and beacon.

“Gotcha,” I hissed, and with an effort of will broke the circle and sent the spell winging toward him.

Time resumed its course. The energy that powered the spell fled out of me in another rush, and left me lying on my side, struggling to draw in enough breath. I could feel the spell sizzling down the lines of power for the summoner, and a heartbeat later there was a sense of impact as the spell went home. As it happened, the entities my web touched went abruptly still, the web ceasing its trembling-and then they all surged forward into sudden motion, vanishing from the web, and presumably streaking after the lure.

All but one.

A breath or two after the entities had departed, my web trembled again, now growing more agitated, its motion a kind of subliminal pressure against my thoughts.

I had missed one. My spell had gotten out in time to draw away the others, but either my web had failed me at some point or the remaining phage had been quicker on the draw than his buddies from the Never-never. I could feel it moving from the hotel’s kitchens toward the convention halls.

I wanted to curl into a fetal position and go into a coma. Instead, I shoved my wobbly way to my feet, took up my pack, and opened the drawer to get Bob.

“Did it work?” he chirped.

“Almost,” I said. “There’s one left. Keep your head down.”

“Oh, very funny…” he began.

I zipped the skull into my pack, took up my staff and blasting rod, and shuffled wheezily out to find the remaining phage before it found someone else.

My legs almost gave out just thinking about taking the stairs, so I rode the elevator down to the first floor. I heard nothing until the floor indicator told me we’d just passed the second floor, at which point I began to hear frightened, muffled screams. The elevator hit the first floor, and the doors had just begun to roll open when the power went out.

Blackness fell over the hotel. The screams redoubled. I took out my pentacle amulet and sent enough of my will into it to make it glow with pale blue wizard’s light. I jammed my staff into the slightly open elevator doors and levered them apart, then slipped out into the hotel.

Though the sun had set more than an hour before, the crowded convention hall had remained stuffy while its air conditioners labored in vain. I got my bearings and headed for the kitchen. As I did, the air temperature plummeted, sending the hotel’s climate from near-sauna to near-freezing in a handful of seconds. The suddenly cooled air could no longer contain the oppressive humidity it had been holding, and this resulted in a sudden, thick fog that coalesced out of nowhere and cut visibility down to maybe three or four long steps.

Dammit. The phages that had appeared so far seemed to be specialists in the up-close-and-personal venue of violence, whereas wheezy wizards like me prefer to do business from across the street, or down the block, or maybe from a neighboring dimension. Farther away, if possible. Wizards have a capacity for recovering from injury that might be more than most humans‘, but that was a long-term deal. In a bar fight, it wasn’t going to do me any good. Hell, I didn’t even have my duster with me, and now that the cold had rolled over the hotel, I missed it for multiple reasons.

I put my amulet back on, then shook out my shield bracelet and readied it for use, creating a second source of glowing blue light-though by accident, not design. The silver bracelet I used to focus magic into a tangible plane of force had been damaged in the same fire that took most of my left hand, and sparks of blue light tended to dribble from it whenever I moved my arm around. I had to be ready to use the shield at an instant’s notice. It would be the only thing between me and whatever might come rushing from the fog.

I went with my staff in my right hand. When it came to taking apart rampaging monsters, I preferred my blasting rod, but I’ve had an incident or two involving buildings and fire. If I went blazing away at the thing in a crowded hotel and burned the place down, it would kill more people than the rampage would have. The staff was a subtle tool, not as potent a weapon as the blasting rod, but it was more versatile, magically speaking.

Plus, in a pinch, I could brain someone with it-which isn’t subtle, but sure as hell is reassuring.

The emergency lights hadn’t snapped on, so either someone had sabotaged them or there was enough raw magical energy flying around to take them out. But as I moved out toward the kitchens, I didn’t feel anything like the kind of ambient energy it would take to blow out something as simple as a battery-powered light. That meant that someone had deliberately taken the emergency lights off-line, by magical means or otherwise, and it wasn’t hard to guess why.

Gunshots rang out, weirdly muted by the building’s acoustics; flat, heavy sounds like someone swinging a baseball bat at a metal trash can. Screams and sounds of confusion, fear, worry, and even pain continued all around me as people fumbled in the dark, tripped, fell, or collided with furniture and one another. The building was already emptying, at least here on the first floor, but the sudden darkness had resulted in a panicked stampede, and people had been injured in the crush. The darkness had created confusion, slowed the intended prey from fleeing, and left wounded behind who could neither defend themselves nor flee the building. Their helplessness would be driving them mad with fear.

It would make them juicier targets for the phage.

A metallic, piercing shriek hit my ears in a sudden, stunning shock wave, and my legs stopped moving. I didn’t choose to do it. The sound just hit something primitive in my brain stem, something that made my instincts scream at me to freeze, to not be seen. I dropped to one knee, terror suddenly falling onto my shoulders like a physical weight. In the wake of the shriek, I could hear human throats screaming in fear, nearby to me, and I could see the shapes of people moving around, lumpy shadows in the faint light from my shield bracelet.

A flame suddenly appeared ahead of me, and I got a look at a young woman who crouched down, holding up a cigarette lighter in a hand that shook so badly that it seemed a miracle the lighter stayed aflame.

“No!” I screamed at her. I rose to my feet and lunged toward her. “Put out the light!”

Her face swiveled toward me, ghostly in the light of the tiny flame, her mouth working soundlessly-and then something the size of a mountain lion hit her across the shoulders and flung her to the ground. The lighter flew from her hand, the little lick of flame showing me something black and gleaming and spattered with scarlet gore.

The woman screamed. The dark hallway became a river of terrified people plunging through the darkness. Someone fell against me, and as I stumbled away from them I stepped on someone’s fingers in the darkness and tripped when I tried to pull my weight off of them.

I snarled, slammed my back against the wall, held up my staff, and called up Hellfire.

Power flooded down the length of the carved oak, its sigils and runes filling with red-white liquid fire that ran from the base of the staff to its head in a ripple of energy. The crisp, clean scent of wood smoke filled the air, tainted with the barest hint of sulfur, and lurid light washed through the hallway.

I saw people scrambling, screaming, weeping. They were moving away, taking advantage of the light while they had it, and the hall around me cleared rapidly. It left the woman with the lighter. She lay on her side, curled into a fetal position, her arms clasped around her head while… the thing mauled her.

It was equal parts feline and insect, all lanky arms, powerful legs, and a whipping tail tipped with a serrated point. Its skin was a black, shining carapace, and it had an elongated, eyeless head ending in viscous, slime-covered jaws full of teeth. Though it had no eyes, it somehow sensed the light of my powered staff, and it whipped around toward me with a hiss, body tensing in sinuous grace, jaws gaping, slime dripping from its teeth while a slow, enraged hissing sound emerged from its throat.

I stared at it for all of a second in the shock of recognition. Then I gritted my teeth, got my feet underneath me, pointed the end of my staff at the creature, and snarled, “Get away from her, you bitch.”

The phage shifted its position, the wounded girl now forgotten, its limbs weirdly jointed, its motion sinuous and eerie. It hissed again, louder. A second pair of jaws emerged from between the first, and they too hissed and parted and drooled in challenge.

“Is this gonna be a standup fight or just another bug hunt?” I taunted.

The phage leapt at me, faster than I would have thought possible-but that’s how fast always works. Lots of people and not-people are faster than me, and I’d learned to plan for it a long time ago. A lot of people think that, in a fight, speed is the only thing that matters. It isn’t true. Oh, sure, it’s enormously advantageous to have greater speed, but a smart opponent can counter it with good footwork, calculating distance to give him the advantage of economy of movement. The phage was fast, but it had to cross eight or nine feet of carpet to get to me. I had to move my hand about ten inches and harden the shield before my left hand with my will. It wasn’t that fast.

The phage hit my shield, bringing a ghostly blue quarter dome into shape and sending a cascade of blue sparks flying back around me. At the last second, I turned and angled the shield to deflect the creature’s momentum. It caromed off the shield and went tumbling along the hallway beyond me for a good twenty feet.

“You want some of this?” I stepped into the middle of the hall to put myself between the phage and the wounded girl. The phage rose, turning to flee. Before it could move I thrust the end of my staff in its direction and cried, “Forzare!”

I hadn’t ever used quite that much Hellfire before.

Power rushed out of my staff. Usually, when I employed it like this, the force I unleashed was invisible. This time, it rushed out like a scarlet comet, like a blazing cannonball. The force dipped at the last second, then came up at the phage. The impact threw it against the ceiling with bone-crushing force, and at least twice as much energy as I’d intended. The phage came down, limbs thrashing wildly, bouncing and skittering frantically, like a half-smashed bug.

I hit it again, the runes in my staff blazing, bathing the whole length of the hall in scarlet radiance, slamming the phage into a wall with more crunching sounds. Yellowish liquid splattered, there was an absolutely awful smell, and sudden holes pocked the wall and the floor where the yellow blood fell.

I cried havoc in the hellish light and hit it again. And again. And again. I bounced the murdering phage around that hallway until acid burned a hundred holes in the walls, ceiling, and floor, and my blood sang with the battle, with the power, with triumph.

I lost track of several seconds. The next thing I remember, I stood over the crushed, twitching phage. “It’s the only way to be sure,” I told it. And then, with cool deliberation, I slammed the end of my staff into the thing’s eyeless skull, muscle and magic alike propelling the blow. Its head crunched and fractured like a cheap taco shell, and suddenly there was no phage, no creature. There was only the damaged hallway, the tainted smell of hellish wood smoke, and a mound of clear, swiftly dissolving ectoplasm.

My knees shook and I sat down in the hallway. I closed my eyes. The red light of Hellfire continued to pulse through my staff, lighting the hall, illuminating my eyelids.

The next thing I knew, Mouse pressed up against my side, an enormous, warm, silent presence. Bright lights bobbed toward me. Flashlights. Footsteps. People were shouting a lot.

“Jesus,” Rawlins breathed.

Murphy knelt down by me and touched my shoulder. “Harry?”

“I’m okay,” I said. “The girl. Behind me. She’s hurt.”

Rawlins stood shining his flashlight on a bloody section of the hallway. “Jesus Christ.”

The phage had killed three people before I got there. I hadn’t been able to see much of them during the fight. It was a scene of horror, worse than any slaughterhouse. The phage had taken out a cop. I could see a piece of shirt with a bloodstained CPD badge on it. The second victim might have been a middle-aged man, judging by a bloodied orthopedic shoe that still held a foot. White leg bone showed two or three inches above the shoe.

The third victim had been one of the little vampire girls I’d seen the previous evening. I could only tell because her head had landed facing me. The rest of her was hopelessly intermixed with the other two bodies.

They’d need someone good at jigsaw puzzles to put them back together.

Murphy went to the girl with the lighter, and knelt over her.

“How is she?” I asked.

“Gone,” Murphy replied.

I blinked. “What?”

“She’s dead.”

“No,” I said. I was too tired to feel much of the sudden frustration that went through me. “Hell’s bells, she was moving just a second ago. I got here in time.”

Murphy grimaced. “She bled out.”

“Wait,” I said, staggering to my feet. “This isn’t… She shouldn’t be…”

I felt a sudden sickness in my stomach.

Was she still alive when the phage had turned to run? Could I have stopped or slowed the bleeding, if I had let the thing retreat to the Nevernever?

I thought of the fight again. I thought of the satisfaction of turning the hunter into prey, of extracting vengeance for those it had slain. I thought about the power that raged through me, the sheer, precise strength of the Hellfire-assisted assault, and how good it felt to use it on something that had it coming. I’d barely given a thought to the girl’s condition.

Had I let her die?

My God. I could have let the phage run.

I could have helped her.

The girl’s body lay curled up, still, like a sleeping child. Her dead eyes were open and glassy.

I lunged for a potted plant near me and threw up.

After I did, Rawlins observed, “You don’t look so good.”

“No,” I whispered. The words tasted bitter. “I don’t.”

Mouse let out one of his not-whine breaths and laid his chin on my shoulder. My eyes couldn’t get away from the dead people, not even when they were closed. The hellish light in my staff slowly faded and went dark.

“I’ve got to organize this clusterfuck,” Murphy sighed. “Rawlins, keep an eye on him.”

“Yeah.”

She nodded once and rose, briskly moving away, snapping orders.

“You, you,” Murphy said, pointing at two nearby cops. “Get over there and help the wounded. Airway, bleeding, heartbeat. Move.” She raised her voice and shouted, “Stallings! Where the hell is my ambulance?”

“Two minutes!” a man shouted down a dimly lit hall leading to the lobby. It looked like someone had pulled a patrol car or three up to the front of the hotel to shine their headlights into the darkened building.

“Clear them a path and call for more EMTs,” Murphy barked. She took her radio off her belt and started giving more orders.

Rawlins looked at the remains, and at the acid-scarred walls and the enormous areas of smashed drywall and ceiling that looked like they’d been kissed by a wrecking ball. He shook his head. “What the hell happened here?”

“Bad guy,” I said. “I got him. Not fast enough.”

Rawlins grunted. “Come on. Best we get up to the lobby. Until they get the lights back on, it might not be safe out here.”

“What happened on your end?” I asked.

“Damn candle blew up in my face. Then the lights went out. Thought for a second I’d gone blind.”

I grunted. “Sorry.”

“Some of the civilians were carrying. That howling thing went by in the dark and everyone panicked. Stampede in the dark. People got trampled and scared. Civilians opened fire, cops opened fire. We got one dead and a couple of dozen wounded by one thing or another.”

We reached the lobby and found more police arriving along with the emergency crews. The EMTs set up shop at once in a makeshift triage area, where Murphy had brought most of the wounded. The EMTs started stabilizing, evaluating, resuscitating. They had the worst cases loaded in the ambulance and rushing for the hospital within six or seven minutes.

Murphy’s stream of peremptory commands had slowed to a stop, and she stood near the triage area. I sidled over to her and loomed. Mouse pushed his head underneath her hand, but Murphy only patted him absently. I followed her worried blue gaze. The EMTs were working on Rick.

Greene sat in a chair nearby. He had wiped his face with a towel, but it hadn’t taken the blood out of the creases. It made a sanguine masque of his features. He held the towel against his head with his left hand.

Murphy said nothing for a while. Then she asked, “Did the spell work?”

“Mostly,” I said. “I missed one.”

She tensed. “Is it still…”

“No. I picked up the spare.”

She pressed her lips firmly together and closed her eyes. “When the candle went off, I hit the fire alarm. I wanted to clear the building fast. But someone had broken it. Just like the power and the emergency lights. Something went right by me and hit Greene early on. Now I’m the one in charge of this mess.”

“What happened to Rick?”

She spoke dispassionately. “Hit by panic fire. Gut shot. I don’t know how bad.”

“He’ll be all right,” I told her. “The EMTs would have taken him out first if he was in real trouble.”

She watched a pair of them labor over Rick. “Yeah,” she said. “He’ll be okay. He’ll be all right.”

She forced herself to look away from her ex-husband with a visible effort. “I’ve got to get things under control here, until we get the chain of command straightened out, and I make sure the wounded are cared for. Families notified, God.” She shook her head, and watched the EMTs lift Rick onto a stretcher and carry him out. Unspoken apology infused her tone. “After that, there will be questions, and a rain forest worth of paperwork.”

“I get it,” I told her quietly. “It’s your job.”

“It’s my job.” She focused her eyes in the distance. I could feel the trembling tension in her. I’ve known Murphy for a while now. I’d seen her like that before, when she wanted to fall apart but couldn’t take the time to do it. She was better at managing that kind of thing than me. There was nothing in her expression but calm and confidence. “I’ll put off everything I can and get back to you as soon as possible. Tomorrow sometime.”

“Don’t worry about me, Murph,” I told her. “And don’t be too hard on yourself. If you hadn’t gotten in Greene’s face and stayed here, a lot of people would be dead right now.”

“A lot of people are dead right now,” she said. “What about our bad guy?”

I felt my mouth stretch into a sharp-edged, wolfish smile. “He’s entertaining unexpected guests.”

“Is he going to survive them?”

“I doubt it,” I told her cheerfully. “If one of those things had jumped me, instead of vice versa, it would have taken me out. Three of them would filet me.”

Murphy’s attention was drawn to the door. Several men in wrinkled suits came in and stood around rubbernecking. Murphy straightened her clothing. “What about collateral damage?”

“I don’t think it will be an issue. I’ll track them and make sure.”

Murphy nodded. “Rawlins,” she called.

The veteran had been hovering not far away, feigning disinterest.

She hooked a thumb up at me. “Babysit for me?”

“Shoot,” Rawlins drawled. “Like I got nothing better to do.”

“Suffer,” she told him, but she smiled when she said it. She put her hand on my arm and squeezed hard, letting out some of the pressure behind her calm facade through the contact. Then she strode over to the rubbernecking suits.

Rawlins watched her go, his lips pursed. “That is one cast-iron bitch,” he said. His tone revealed a quiet respect. “Cast iron.”

“Hell of a cop,” I said.

Rawlins grunted. “Problem with cast iron. It’s brittle. Hit it right and it shatters.” He looked around the foyer and shook his head. “This isn’t going to go well for her.”

“Huh?” I said.

“Department is going to crucify someone for it,” Rawlins said. “They have to.”

I let out a bitter bark of laughter. “After all, she probably saved a lot of lives tonight.”

“No good deed goes unpunished,” Rawlins agreed.

Greene blinked blearily at us from his chair and then slurred, “Rawlins? What the hell are you doing down here? I sent you home.” Anger gathered on his vague expression. “You son of a bitch. You’re defying a direct order. I’ll have your ass on a platter.”

Rawlins sighed. “See what I mean?”

I lifted my hand with my thumb and first two fingers extended, the others against my palm, and moved it in a vaguely mystical gesture from left to right. “That isn’t Rawlins.”

Green blinked at me, and his eyes blurred in and out of focus. The distraction derailed the train of thought he’d been laboriously assembling. It wasn’t magic. I’ve taken head shots before. It takes a while for your brain to start doing its job again, and the vaguest kinds of confusion make things into one big blur.

I repeated the gesture. “That isn’t Rawlins. You can go about your business. Move along.”

Greene fumbled with a couple of words, then shook his head and closed his eyes and went back to holding the towel against his head.

Rawlins arched an eyebrow. “You ever handle any divorce negotiations?

I jerked my head at Mouse and said, “Come on. Before his brains unscramble.”

Rawlins fell into pace beside me. “Where are we going?”

I gave him the short version of what I’d done with the other three phages. “So now I track them, and make sure the guy who called them up is out of play.”

“Demons,” Rawlins said. “Wizards.” He shook his head.

“Look, man-”

He held up a hand. “No. I think about this too much and I won’t be any good to you. Don’t explain it. Don’t talk about it. Let me get through tonight and you can blow my mind all you want.”

“Cool,” I told him. “You got a car?”

“Yup.”

“Let’s go.”

We went outside and down the street to the nearest parking garage. Rawlins drove an old, blue station wagon. A bumper sticker on the back read my kid is too pretty to date your honor student.

Mouse let out a sudden warning growl. An engine raced. The dog flung his weight at my thigh and sent me slamming up against Rawlins’s station wagon. A van rushed at me in my peripheral vision, too fast for me to try to avoid. It missed me by less than six inches.

It didn’t miss Mouse. There was a meaty sound. The dog let out a bawl of pain. Brakes screeched.

I turned, furious and terrified, and the runes in my staff seethed with sudden Hellfire.

I had a split second to see Darby Crane swinging a tire iron. Then stars exploded in front of my eyes and the parking garage rotated ninety degrees. I saw Mouse, sprawled motionless on the concrete thirty feet away. Glau, Crane’s lawyer, stood beside the open driver’s door of the van, holding a gun on Rawlins.

See what I mean about head shots?

Fade to black.

Chapter Twenty-six

I came to with a headache, and my stomach attempted to slither out of my mouth. Its escape attempt was blocked by some kind of gag. I had the taste of metal in my mouth, and my jaws were forced uncomfortably wide. The blindfold on my face was almost a mercy, given the headache. I was pretty sure any light that got into my eyes would hurt like hell.

My nose was filled with scents. Old motor oil. Gasoline vapors. Dust. Something metallic and elusively familiar. I knew the smell, but I couldn’t place it.

I lay prostrate on some cold, hard surface-concrete, at a guess. My arms were held up above my head, my wrists bound in something cold that prickled with many tiny, sharp points. Thorn manacles, then. They were meant, along with the gag and blindfold, to keep me from using my magic. If I tried to start focusing my will, they would bite and freeze. I didn’t know where the damned things came from, but Crane wasn’t the first bad guy I’d met who kept a pair on hand. Maybe there’d been a sale.

I’d heard one person claim that they’d been invented by a two-thousand-year-old lunatic named Nicodemus, and I’d heard others claim they were of faerie make. Personally, I figured they were more likely a creation of the Red Court, materiel for their war with the Council. It would certainly be to their advantage to make sure as many people as possible had a set of restraints with no purpose but to render a mortal wizard helpless.

Hell, if I was in the Red Court, I’d be giving the things away like Halloween candy. It was a scary notion, and for more than one reason.

I was in trouble up to my eyebrows, but my nausea was severe enough that it took me several minutes of effort to care. Come on, Harry. You aren’t fighting your way clear of this. Use your head.

For starters, I was still alive, and that told me something all by itself. If Crane had wanted to kill me, he’d had all the time he would need to do it. He wouldn’t even have had to worry about the death curse a wizard could lay down on his enemies on his way into the hereafter. Unconscious wizards can’t throw curses. I was still breathing, which meant…

I swallowed. Which meant that he had other plans for me. It did not seem like a promising way to begin thinking my way clear.

I tried to say Rawlins’ name, but my tongue was being held in place by something, and it sounded like, “Lah-tha?”

“Here,” Rawlins replied, his tone very quiet. “How you doing?”

“La tha yahnah.”

“They got me cuffed to a wall,” he said. “My own damned cuffs, too, and they took my keys. I can’t get to you, man. Sorry.”

“Ooahahyee?”

“Where? Where are we?” he asked.

I nodded. “Yah.”

“Looks like an old auto workshop,” he replied. “Abandoned. Metal walls. Windows are painted over. Doors chained shut. Lots and lots of cobwebs.”

“Ooah lah kuh phruh?”

“The light? Big old shop lamp.”

“Ah eeoh heh?”

“Anyone here?” Rawlins asked.

“Yah.”

“Creepy little guy with fish lips. He won’t talk to me, even when I asked pretty please. He’s sitting in a chair about three feet from you pretending he’s a guard dog.”

Anger returned to me in full force, and made my head pound even harder. Glau. Glau’d been driving the van. Glau had killed my dog. Without consciously making the effort, I found myself reaching for my magic, for fire enough to cremate the little toad. The manacles became a frozen agony that wiped anything resembling thought from my head.

I bit down on the mouthpiece and forced myself to relax my will. I could not afford to allow my impulses to control me, or I’d never get out of this. There would come a time when I wouldn’t have to bite back on my emotions-but that time was not yet here.

Wait, I promised my anger. Wait. I need to think for now, to get clear of my captors.

And as soon as I did, Glau was going to have a real bad day.

I relaxed my will and the pain of the manacles faded. Patience, Harry. Patience.

A door creaked open and footsteps approached. A moment later, Crane’s voice murmured, “Awake, I see, Dresden. Your head must be as hard as everyone says. Mr. Glau, if you would be so kind?”

Someone fumbled at the hood over my face, and it withdrew along with the mouthpiece, and I could see that hood and gag were all of a piece. Charming. The mouthpiece had gripped my tongue with two little clamps. I spat the taste of metal out of my mouth, along with a little bit of blood. The hood and muzzle had torn my gums open in a couple of places.

I lay on my back, staring up at a corrugated metal ceiling, then looked around at a dim, ugly, forlorn-looking auto shop. The nagging sense of familiarity increased. The only doors leading out were chained shut and padlocked on the inside, and no keys were in sight.

Crane stood over me, looking down, smiling, as tall and dark and handsome as you please. My eyes went past him to Rawlins. The dark-skinned cop stood leaning against the wall, one wrist cuffed to a metal ring in a steel support beam. A bruise severe enough to show even on his dark skin covered one cheek entirely. Rawlins looked calm, remote, and unafraid. I was fairly sure it was only an act, but if so, it was a good one.

“Crane,” I said. “What do you want?”

He smiled a nasty smile. “To build the future,” he replied. “Networking is very important in my business.”

“Cut the crap and talk,” I said in a flat tone.

The smile vanished. “You would be wise not to anger me, wizard. You’re hardly in a position to make demands.”

“If you were going to kill me, you’d have done it already.”

Crane let out a rueful laugh. “I suppose that’s true enough. I was going to finish you and drop you in the lake, but imagine my surprise when I made some calls and it turns out that you’re…”

“Infamous?” I suggested. “Tough? A good dancer?”

Crane showed me his teeth. “Marketable. For an insignificant young man, you’ve managed to irritate a great many people.”

A little chill went through me. I kept it off my face.

Crane’s eyes glittered anyway. “Ah. Yes. Fear.” He inhaled deeply, his smile turning smug. “You’re smart enough to know when you are powerless, at least. In my experience, most wizards are fairly cowardly, when push comes to shove.”

I felt a hot reply coming, but again I set my anger aside-temporarily.

Crane was trying to push my buttons. He could only get away with it if I allowed him to do so. I met his dark eyes and let one corner of my mouth tilt up into a smile.

“In my experience,” I replied, gaze unwavering, “people who have underestimated me regretted it.”

I didn’t feel like being drawn into a soulgaze with Crane, but I had little to lose. If nothing else, it might provide me with some valuable insight to his character.

Crane’s nerve broke first. He turned to walk away from me, pretending that he’d just received a call on his cell phone-he already had a new one. He stood in the shadows on the other side of the room.

I spat more metal taste out of my mouth and wished I had a glass of water. Glau sat in a chair nearby, watching me. The little man had a gun resting in his lap, in hand and ready to go. A briefcase sat on the floor beside his chair.

“You,” I said.

Glau looked at me without any readable expression.

“You killed my dog,” I said. “Get your affairs in order.”

Something ugly flickered through his eyes. “An idle threat. You will not live to see the dawn.”

“You’d best hope I do,” I said. “Because if I go down, I know where my death curse is going.”

Glau’s lips peeled back from his teeth, and I swear to God that they were pointed-not like a vampire’s fangs or a ghoul’s canines, but in solid, serrated triangles, like a shark. He rose, the gun twitching in his hand.

“Glau!” snapped Crane.

Glau froze for a second, and then relaxed and let the gun fall to his side.

Crane shoved the cell phone into his pocket and stalked over to me. “Keep your tongue in your mouth, wizard.”

“Or what?” I asked. “You’ll kill me? From where I’m standing, that isn’t a worst-case scenario.”

“True,” Crane murmured. He withdrew a small handgun from his pocket and without so much as blinking shot Rawlins in the foot.

The big cop jerked against the cuffs that held him. His face contorted in surprised pain and he fell. The cuffs, fastened to the beam at shoulder level, cut cruelly into his wrists. Rawlins got his legs underneath him and let out a string of sulfurous curse words.

Crane regarded Rawlins for a moment, smiled, and then pointed the gun at the cop’s head.

“No!” I shouted.

“It’s entirely up to you, wizard, whether or not his children lose their father. Behave.” He smiled again. “We’ll all be happier.”

Again the rage threatened to drown any rational thought in my head. Threatening me is one thing. Threatening someone else to get to me is another. I’m sick of seeing decent people suffer. I’m sick of seeing them die.

Patience, Harry. Calm. Rational. I was going to have to discourage Crane from this tactic with extreme prejudice as a deterrent to future weasels. But not yet. Keep him talking.

“Do you understand me?” Crane said.

I jerked my chin in a brief nod.

He smirked. “I want to hear you say it.”

I clenched my jaw and said, “I understand.”

“I’m so glad we had this talk,” he said. There was a low buzzing sound, the almost-silent alert of his cell phone, I suppose, and he walked away again, taking it out of his pocket and lifting it to his ear.

“How long have we been here?” I asked Rawlins.

“Hour,” he mumbled. “Hour and a half.”

I nodded. “You okay?”

He let out a pained grunt. “Tore open the stitches on my arm,” he panted. “Foot, I don’t know. Can’t feel it. Doesn’t look like it’s bleeding much.”

“Hang in there,” I said. “We’ll get out of this.”

Glau’s rubbery lips stretched out into a silent little smile, though he looked at neither of us.

“Bull,” Rawlins said. “If you can get out, you should go. Once he gets what he wants, he’s going to kill me anyway. Don’t stay on my account.”

“You’re siphoning my noble hero vibe,” I told him. “Cease and desist or I’ll sue.”

Rawlins tried to smile, and leaned against the wall, weight off his injured foot. The lower portion of his left sleeve had soaked through with blood.

Crane returned a moment later, smiling like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. “Start building more tax shelters, Glau. This is going rather well.”

“Yeah?” I asked. “So who’s going to pony up for one Harry Dresden, slightly used?”

Crane showed me all his teeth. “I’m holding an auction as we speak. A rather energetic one.”

“Yeah?” I asked. “Who’s leading?”

His smiled widened. “Why, Paolo Ortega’s widow. Duchess Arianna of the Red Court.”

I suddenly felt cold, all over.

I was captured by the Red Court once. Held in the dark by a crowd of hissing, monstrous shapes.

They did things.

There was nothing I could do about it.

I still had the nightmares to remind me. Not every night, maybe, but often enough. Often enough.

Crane closed his eyes and inhaled with a satisfied expression. “She’ll be quite creative when it comes to dealing with her husband’s bane. I don’t blame you for feeling terrified. Who wouldn’t?”

“Hey,” I told him, grasping at straws. “Call the White Council. If nothing else, maybe they’ll run the bidding up for you.”

Crane laughed. “I already have,” he said.

Hope twitched somewhere inside me. If the Council knew I was in trouble, then maybe they would be able to do something. They might be on the way even now. I needed to stall Crane, keep him occupied. “Yeah? What did they say?”

His smile widened. “That the White Council’s unyielding policy is one of nonnegotiation with terrorists.”

Hope’s corpse went through some postmortem twitching.

His phone buzzed again. He stepped away and spoke quietly, his back to us. After a moment he snapped his fingers and said, “Glau, get on the computer. The auction is closing in five minutes and there’s always a last-second rush. We’ll need to verify an account.” He turned back to the phone. “No, unacceptable. A numbered account only. I don’t trust those people at PayPal.”

“Hey!” I protested. “Are you selling me on eBay?”

Crane winked at me. “Ironic, eh? Though I confess a bit of surprise. How do you know what it is?”

“I read,” I told him.

“Ahhh,” he said. “Glau. Computer.”

Glau nodded but said, “They should not be unwatched.”

“I can see them,” Crane replied, irritation in his voice. “Move.”

By his expression, Glau clearly did not agree with Crane, but he went.

I licked my lips, struggling to think through my headache and anxiety and a solid lump of despair. There had to be a way out of this. There was always a way out. I had found ways out of desperate straits before.

Of course, I’d had my magic available then. Damn those manacles. As long as they kept my power constrained, I would never be able to free myself or Rawlins.

So, moron, I thought to myself. Get rid of the manacles. Get around them. Do something. Ifs your only chance.

“How?” I muttered out loud. “I don’t know a damned thing about them.”

Rawlins blinked at me. I grimaced, shook my head at him, and closed my eyes. I shut away the distractions and turned my focus inward. It was easy to imagine an empty place; flat, dark floor illuminated from above by a single light shining without apparent source. I imagined myself standing beneath it.

“Lasciel,” my image-self said quietly. “I seek counsel.”

She appeared at once, stepping into the circle of light. She wore her most familiar form, the functional white tunic, the tall, lovely figure, but her golden hair now appeared as a waist-length sheet of deep auburn. She bowed deeply and murmured, “I am here, my host.”

“You changed your hair,” I said.

Her mouth flirted with a smile. “There are too many blondes in your life, my host. I feared I would be lost in the press.”

I sighed. “The manacles,” I said. “Do you know of them?”

She bowed again. “Indeed, my host. They are of an ancient make, wrought by the troll-smiths of the Unseelie Court, and employed against those of your talents for a thousand years and more.”

I blinked at her. “Faeries made those?”

I was dimly aware that, in my surprise, I had spoken the words aloud. I clenched my physical jaws shut and focused on the image-me, briefly wondering just how badly cracked my engine block was going to get by trying to keep track of my own personal internal reality in addition to the actual, threatening reality where Rawlins and I were in deep trouble. Hell, for that matter, I supposed it was entirely possible that I already had snapped. It wasn’t as though anyone but me had ever seen Lasciel. Perhaps, in addition to existing only in my head, she was all in my imagination, kind of a waking dream.

For a minute, I thought about abandoning the wizarding biz and taking up a career that would let me crawl under rocks and hide, professionally.

“You needn’t attempt to keep your inner self separate from your physical self,” Lasciel said in a reasonable tone. “I should be happy to advise you from the outside, so to speak.”

“Oh, no,” I said, keeping all the conversation on the inside. “I’ve got problems enough without adding a sentient hallucination to the mix.”

“As you wish,” Lasciel replied. “You are, I take it, seeking a way to overcome the bindings of the thorn manacles?”

“Obviously. Can it be done?”

“All things are possible,” Lasciel assured me. “Though some of them are extremely unlikely.”

“How?” I demanded of her. “This is not the time to get coy with me. If I die, you’re coming along for the ride.”

“I am aware,” she replied, arching an eyebrow. “They are a crafting of faerie make, my host. Seek that which is bane to they who made it.”

“Iron,” I said at once, nodding. “And sunlight. Trolls can’t stand either.” I opened my actual eyes and glanced around the interior of the garage. “Sunlight’s out of town for a few hours yet, but we’ve got lots and lots of iron. Rawlins has a free hand. If I get a tool to him, maybe he could shatter a link of the manacles’ chain. Then I could break his cuffs or something.”

“Point of logic,” the fallen angel pointed out. “Given that you are not free to retrieve a tool, getting one to Rawlins seems problematic.”

“Yeah, but-”

“In addition,” she continued, “you are exhausted, and it is reasonable to assume that Crane will finish his negotiations shortly and turn you over to one of your foes. You have insufficient time to recover your strength.”

“I guess-”

She continued in the firm tone of a schoolteacher addressing a stubborn child. “You have in the past expressed much frustration and doubt that your control of physical forces was precise enough to break handcuffs without breaking the person held in them.”

I sighed. “True, but-”

“The only egress from this place is chained shut and you do not have the key.”

“It isn’t-”

“And finally,” she finished, “lest you forget, you are being guarded by at least one supernatural being who will hardly stand gawking while you attempt escape.”

I glowered. “Anyone ever told you that you have a very negative attitude?”

She arched a brow, the expression an invitation to continue the line of thought.

I chewed on my lip and forged another couple of links in the chain of thought. “Which isn’t helpful. But your ass is as deep in alligators as mine, and you want to help. So…” My stomach sank a little. “You can offer me another option.”

She smiled, pleased. “Very good.”

“I don’t want it,” I said.

“Why ever not?”

“Because a freaking fallen angel is offering it, that’s why ever not. You’re poison, lady. Don’t think I don’t know it.”

She lifted a long-fingered hand to me, palm out. “I ask only that you hear me out. If what I offer is not to your liking, I will of course support your efforts to form an alternate plan.”

I upgraded the glower to a glare. She regarded me in perfect calm.

Dammit. The best way to keep yourself from doing something grossly self-destructive and stupid is to avoid the temptation to do it. For example, it is far easier to fend off inappropriate amorous desires if one runs screaming from the room every time a pretty girl comes in. Which sounds silly, I know, but the same principle applies to everything else.

If I let her talk to me, Lasciel would propose something calm and sane and reasonable and effective. It would require a small price of me, if nothing else by making me a tiny bit more dependent upon her advice and assistance. Whatever happened, she’d gain another smidgen of influence over me.

Baby steps on the highway to hell. Lasciel was an immortal. She could afford patience, whereas I could not afford temptation.

It came down to this: If I didn’t hear her out and didn’t get out of this mess, Rawlins’s blood would be on my hands. And whoever was behind the slaughter around the convention might well keep right on escalating. More people could die.

Oh. And I’d wind up enjoying some kind of Torquemada-esque vacation with whichever fiend had the most money and the least lag.

When a concept like that is an afterthought, you know things are bad.

Lasciel watched me with patient blue eyes.

“All right,” I told her. “Let’s hear it.”

Chapter Twenty-seven

We plotted, the fallen angel and me. It went fast. It turns out that holding an all-mental conversation gets things done at the literal speed of thought, without all those clunky phonemes to get in the way.

Barely a minute had passed when I opened my eyes and said very quietly to Rawlins, “You’re right. They’ll kill you. We have to get out of here.”

The cop gave me a pained grimace and nodded. “How?”

I struggled and sat up. I rolled my shoulders a little, trying to get some blood flowing through my arms, which had been manacled together underneath me. I tested the chain. It had been slipped through an inverted U-bolt in the concrete floor. The links rattled metallically as they slid back and forth.

I checked Crane at the noise. The man kept speaking intently into his cell phone, and took no apparent notice of the movement.

“I’m going to slip one of these manacles off my wrist,” I told him. I nodded at a discarded old rolling tool cabinet. “There should be something in there I can use. I’ll cut us both out.”

Rawlins shook his head. “Those two going to stand there watching while we do all that?”

“I’ll do it fast,” I said.

“Then what?”

“I kill the lights and we get out.”

“Door is chained shut,” Rawlins said.

“Let me worry about that.”

Rawlins squinted. He looked very tired. “Why not,” he said, nodding. “Why not.”

I nodded and closed my eyes, slowed my breathing, and began to concentrate.

“Hey,” Rawlins said. “How you going to slip your cuffs?”

“Ever heard about yogis, out east?”

“Yogi Berra,” he said at once. “And Yogi Bear.”

“Not those yogis. As in snake charmers.”

“Oh. Right.”

“They spend a lifetime learning to control their body. They can do some fairly amazing stuff.”

Rawlins nodded. “Like fold themselves up into a gym bag and sit inside it at the bottom of a pool for half an hour.”

“Right,” I said. I followed Lasciel’s instructions, sinking into deeper and deeper focus. “Some of them can collapse the bones in their hands. Use their muscles and tendons to alter tensions. Change the shape.” I focused on my left hand, and for a moment was a bit grateful that it was already so badly maimed and mostly numb. What I was about to do, even with Lasciel’s instruction, was going to hurt like hell. “Keep an eye out and be ready.”

He nodded, holding still and not turning his head toward either Crane or Glau.

I dismissed him, the warehouse, my headache, and everything else that wasn’t my hand from my perceptions. I had the general idea of what was supposed to happen, but I didn’t have any practical, second-to-second knowledge of it. It was a terribly odd sensation, as though I were a skilled pianist whose fingers had suddenly forgotten their familiarity with the keys.

Not too quickly, murmured Lasciel’s voice in my head. Your muscles and joints have not been conditioned to this. There was an odd sensation in my thoughts, somehow similar to abruptly remembering how to tie a knot that had once been thoughtlessly familiar. Like this, Lasciel’s presence whispered, and that same familiarity suddenly thrummed down my arm.

I flexed my thumb, made a rippling motion of my fingers, and tightened every muscle in my hand in a sudden clench. I dislocated my thumb with a sickly little crackle of damaged flesh.

For a second, I thought the pain would drop me unconscious.

No, Lasciel’s voice said. You must control this. You must escape.

I know, I snarled back at her in my mind. Apparently nerve damage from burns doesn’t stop you from feeling it when someone pulls your fingers out of their sockets.

Someone? Lasciel said. You did it to yourself, my host.

Would you back off and give me room to work?

That’s ridiculous, Lasciel replied. But the sense of her presence abruptly retreated.

I took deep, quiet breaths, and twisted my left hand. My flesh screamed protest, but I only embraced the pain and continued to move, slow and steady. I got the fingers of my right hand to lightly grasp the manacle on my left wrist, and began to draw my hand steadily against the cold, binding circle of metal. My hand folded in a way that was utterly alien in sensation, and the screaming pain of it stole my breath.

But it slipped an inch beneath the metal cuff.

I twisted my hand again, in exactly the same motion, never letting up the pressure, working to encompass the pain as something to aid me, rather than distract.

I slipped an inch closer to freeing my hand. The pain became more and more intense despite my efforts to divert it, like an afternoon sun that burns brightly into your eyes even though they’re closed. Only a moment more. I only needed to remain silent and focused for a few more seconds.

I bore the pain. I kept up the pressure, and abruptly I felt the cold metal of the cuff flick over the outside of my thumb, one of the few spots on my fingers where much tactile sensation remained. My hand came free, and I clutched tightly to the empty cuff with my right hand, to keep it from rattling.

I opened my eyes and glanced around the garage. Crane paced back and forth in conversation on his phone. I waited until his back was mostly turned to move. Then I rose and slipped the chain through the U-bolt on the floor, until the circle of the cuff pressed against the bolt. I was still tethered by a chain perhaps a foot long, but I moved as silently as I could and reached out with my throbbing left hand for the wheeled tool cabinet.

I had trouble getting my fingers to cooperate, but I slipped the cabinet open. The tools inside it had been there for a long time-several years, at least. They were spotted with rust. I could only see about half the cabinet from where I crouched, and there wasn’t anything there that could help me. I hated to do it, but I felt around the unseen portion of the cabinet with my clumsy fingers. I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to feel a tool even if my fingers found it, and even more frightened by the knowledge that I might knock something over and draw attention.

My hand shook, but I felt through the cabinet as quickly and lightly as I could, starting at the top and moving down.

On the floor of the cabinet, I felt an object, the handle of some kind of tool. I drew it out as quietly as I could, and found myself holding a hacksaw. My heart leapt with excitement.

I returned to more or less my original position, with my captors seemingly none the wiser, and took a grip on the saw. My distorted thumb hurt abominably, so I took the hacksaw in my right hand, took a deep breath, and then began slicing at the chain link immediately below the empty manacle.

I could only cut in strokes eight or nine inches long because of the chain still attached to my right wrist, and it made a low, buzzing racket that could not be mistaken for anything but a saw. I was sure I would not have time to cut myself free-but the heavy-duty steel of the hacksaw’s blade ripped into the silvery metal chain as if it were made of pine. Three, four, five strokes of the hacksaw and the link parted. I jerked hard with my right hand and the chain slid through the U-bolt, the broken link snapping as the cuffs struck the bolt.

I rose, free.

Crane let out a sudden, startled sound, dropped his cell phone, and went for his gun. There was no time to free Rawlins, so I tossed him the hacksaw and then threw myself to one side as Crane let off a shot. Sparks leapt up from the rolling cabinet’s surface, and a rush of adrenaline made the pains of my body vanish. I kept my head down as low as I could and scurried to one side, attempting to put the bulk of an old, rusted pickup truck between Crane and me. I reached for my magic, but the cuff still attached to my arm reacted with that same burst of agony, splintering my concentration.

I caught a glimpse of movement. Crane circled to one side, looking for a clear line of fire. I maneuvered like a squirrel, keeping the truck between us and crouching low to deny him a clean shot. I went for the passenger door, hoping to find something, anything I could use to defend myself in the truck.

Locked.

“Glau!” Crane shouted. His second shot shattered the truck’s passenger window, the bullet passing within a few inches of my head.

I reached up, unlocked the truck’s door, and swung it open. The cab was cluttered with empty cigarette packs, discarded fast-food wrappers, crushed beer cans, a heavy-duty claw hammer, and three or four glass beer bottles.

Perfect.

I clutched the hammer’s wrapped steel handle in my teeth, scooped up the bottles, and threw one at the far side of the garage. It shattered loudly. I rose at once, another bottle ready, and hurled it with as much force as I could.

The first bottle had caused Crane to snap his head to one side, looking for the source of the sound. He looked away from me for only a second, but it was distraction enough to allow me to throw.

The bottle tumbled end over end and smashed into the work lamp with a crash of breaking glass. Sparks showered up in a brief cloud of electric outrage, and then heavy darkness slammed down upon us.

Now, I thought to Lasciel.

Darkness vanished, replaced with lines and planes of silver light that outlined the garage, the truck, the tool cabinets and workbenches, as well as the doors and windows and the bolt on the wall where Rawlins was chained.

I was not actually seeing the garage, of course, for there was no physical light for my eyes to see. Instead, I was looking at an illusion.

The portion of Lasciel in my head was capable of creating illusory sensations of almost any kind, though if I suspected any tampering I could defend myself against it easily enough. This illusion, however, was not meant to deceive. She’d placed it there to help me, gleaning the precise dimensions and arrangements of the garage from my own senses and projecting them to my eyes to enable me to move in the dark.

It wasn’t a perfect illusion, of course. It was merely a model. It didn’t keep track of animate objects, and if anything moved around I wouldn’t know it until I’d knocked myself unconscious on it-but I wouldn’t need it for long. I ran for Rawlins.

“Glau!” Crane screamed, no more than ten or twelve feet away. “Cover the door!”

I flung the third bottle to the floor at my feet. It was an exceedingly odd sensation, for the bottle was outlined in silver light until it left my hand. It vanished into the darkness, and shattered on the floor near me.

There was a moment of frozen silence, broken only by the rasp of a hacksaw against Rawlins’s cuffs. Crane took a couple of steps toward me, then hesitated, and though I could not see him, I could sense the hesitation. Then he moved again, away from me, probably assuming I was attempting another distraction. My lips stretched into a wolfish smile, and I padded to Rawlins, my steps sure and steady even in the total darkness.

I reached the bolt on the steel beam, and found Rawlins standing beneath it, breathing hard, sawing as fast as he could. He jumped when I touched his shoulder, but I took the hammer in hand and whispered, “It’s Harry. Get your head down.”

He did. I looked up at the silvery illusion of the bolt, steadied my breathing, and drew the hammer back very slowly, focusing upon that movement and nothing else. Then I hissed out a breath and struck at the bolt with every ounce of force I could physically muster.

I’m not a weightlifter, but no one’s ever accused me of being a sissy, either. More importantly, years and years of my metaphysical studies and practice had given me considerable skill at focus and concentration. The hammer struck the bolt that held the other ring of Rawlins’s cuffs. Sparks flew. The bolt, as rusted and ruined as the rest of the building, snapped.

Rawlins dragged me to the ground a heartbeat before Crane’s pistol thundered again from the far side of the garage. A bullet caromed off the metal beam with an ugly, high-pitched whine.

“Come on,” I hissed. I seized Rawlins’s shirt. He grunted and stumbled blindly after me, trying to be quiet, but given his injuries there was only so much he could do. Speed would have to serve where stealth was not available. I hauled him directly across the garage floor, skipping around a mechanic’s pit and several stacks of old tires.

“Where are we going?” Rawlins gasped. “Where is the door?”

“We aren’t taking the door,” I whispered-which was true. I wasn’t sure that we’d have a way out of the garage, but we certainly wouldn’t leave via the door.

The Full Moon Garage had been abandoned since the disappearance of its previous owners, a gang of lycanthropes with a notable lack of common sense when it came to choosing enemies. It wasn’t as big a coincidence as it seemed, that Crane was using the same building. It was old, abandoned, had no windows, was close to the convention center, and easy to get in and out of. More to the point, it had been a place where fairly horrible things happened, and the ugly energy of them still lingered in the air. I wasn’t sure what Crane and Glau were, exactly, but a place like this would feel comfortable and familiar to many denizens of the dark side.

I’d been held captive in the building before and my means of egress was still there-a hole beneath the edge of the cheap corrugated metal wall, dug down into the earth and out into the gravel parking lot by a pack of wolves. I got to the wall and knelt down to check Lasciel’s mental model against the reality it represented. The hole was still there. If anything, the years had worn it even deeper and wider.

I shoved Rawlins’s hands down to let him feel it. “Go,” I whispered. “Under the wall and out.”

He grunted assent and started hauling himself through it. Rawlins was built a lot heavier than me, but he fit through the time-widened hole. I crouched down to follow him, but heard running footsteps just behind me.

I ducked to one side, my eyes now adjusting enough to let me see faint, ambient city light trickling through the hole. I saw a vague shape in the darkness, and then saw Glau’s hands seize Rawlins’s wounded foot. Rawlins screamed.

I lunged forward and smashed the claw hammer down onto Glau’s forearm. It hit with brutal force and a sound of breaking bone.

Glau let out a wild, falsetto, ululating scream, like that of some kind of primitive warrior. The hammer jerked out of my hands. I heard a whirr in the air, and ducked in time to avoid Glau returning the favor. I twisted, swinging the chain still attached to the remaining manacle along at what I estimated to be Glau’s eye level. The chain hit. He let out another shrieking cry, falling backward.

I dove for the hole and wriggled through it like a greased weasel. Crane’s gun went off again, punching a hole in the wall ten feet away. Running footsteps retreated, and metal clinked. I heard myself whimpering, and had a flashback to any number of nightmares where I could not move swiftly enough to escape the danger. Any second I expected to take a bullet, or for Glau to lay into me with the hammer or his sharklike teeth.

Rawlins grabbed my wrist and pulled me through. I got to my feet, looking around the little gravel lot wildly for the nearest cover-several stacks of old tires. I didn’t have to point at it for Rawlins to get the idea. We ran for it. Rawlins’s wounded leg almost gave out, and I slowed to help him, looking back for our pursuers.

Glau wriggled out of the hole just as we had, rose to a crouch, and threw the claw hammer. It tumbled end over end, flying as swiftly as a major-league fastball, and hit me in the ass.

A shock went through me on impact, and my balance wavered as half of my lower body went numb. I tried to clutch at Rawlins for balance, but the hand I’d distorted wasn’t strong enough to hold, and the force of the blow threw me down to the gravel. The impact tore open all the defenses I’d rallied against my body’s various pains, and for a second I could barely move, much less flee.

Glau drew a long, curved blade from his belt, something vaguely Arabic in origin. He bounded after us. It was hopeless, but Rawlins and I tried to run anyway.

There were a couple of light footsteps, a blurring figure running far too swiftly to be human, and Crane kicked my functional leg out from underneath me. I dropped. He delivered a vicious blow to Rawlins’s belly. The cop went down, too.

Crane, his face pale and furious, snarled, “I warned you to behave, wizard.” He lifted the gun and pointed it at Rawlins’s head. “You’ve just killed this man.”

Chapter Twenty-eight

A dark figure stepped out of the deep shadows behind the stacks of tires, pointed a sawed-off shotgun at Glau, and said, “Howdy.”

Glau whirled to face the newcomer, hand already lifting the knife. The interloper pulled the trigger. Thunder filled the air. The blast threw Glau to the gravel like an enormous, flopping fish.

Thomas stepped out into the wan light of a distant streetlamp, dressed all in loose black clothing, including my leather duster, which fell all the way to his ankles. His hair was ragged and wind-tossed, and his grey eyes were cold as he worked the action on the shotgun, ejecting the spent shell and levering a fresh one into the chamber. The barrel of the shotgun snapped to Crane.

Son of a bitch.

Now I knew who’d been following me around town.

“You,” Crane said in a hollow-sounding voice, staring at Thomas.

“Me,” Thomas agreed, insouciant cheer thick in his voice. “Lose the gun, Madrigal.”

Crane’s lip lifted into a sneer, but he did lower the pistol and drop it to the ground.

“Kick it over here,” Thomas said.

Crane did it, ignoring me completely. “I thought you’d be dead by; now, coz. God knows you made enemies enough within the House, much less the rest of the Court.”

“I get by,” Thomas drawled. Then he used a toe to flick the gun over to me.

Crane’s eyes widened in surprise, then narrowed.

I picked up the revolver and checked the cylinder. My distorted left hand functioned, weakly, but it hurt like hell, and would until I could get enough quiet and focus to get everything back into its proper place. My headache intensified to a fine, distracting agony as I bent over, but I ignored that, too. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of trauma, I will fear no concussion.

Crane’s revolver held freshly loaded rounds, all six of them. I put them back and checked on Rawlins. Between the pain of his recent injuries and the strain of our flight and recapture, the big cop did not look well.

“Isn’t bad,” he said quietly. “Just hurts. Tired.”

“Sit tight,” I told him. “We’ll get you out of here.”

He nodded and lay there, watching developments, his eyes only half aware.

I made sure he wasn’t bleeding too badly, then rose, pointed the gun at Crane, and took position between him and Rawlins.

“How’s it going, Dresden?” Thomas asked.

“Took you long enough,” I said.

Thomas grinned, but it didn’t touch his eyes. His gaze never left Crane. “Have you ever met my cousin, Madrigal Raith?”

“I knew he didn’t look like a Darby,” I said.

Thomas nodded. “Wasn’t that a movie with Janet Munro?”

“And Sean Connery.”

“Thought so,” Thomas said.

Madrigal Raith watched the exchange through narrowed eyes. Maybe it was a trick of the light, but he looked paler now, his features almost eerily fine. Or maybe now that Thomas had identified him as a White Court vampire, I could correctly interpret the warnings my instincts had shrieked at me during our first talk. There was little but contempt in Madrigal’s eyes as he stared at my brother. “You have no idea what you’re getting yourself involved in, coz. I’ll not surrender this prize to you.”

“Oh, but you will,” Thomas said in his best Snidely Whiplash villain voice.

Crane’s eyes flickered with something hot and furious. “Don’t push me, little coz. I’ll make you regret it.”

Thomas’s laugh rang out, full of scorn and confidence. “You couldn’t make water run downhill. Walk away while you still can.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Madrigal replied. “Do you know what kind of money he’s worth?”

“Is it the kind that spends in hell?” Thomas asked. “Because if you keep this up, you’ll need it.”

Madrigal sneered. “You’d kill family in cold blood, Thomas? You?”

There are statues that don’t have a poker face as good as Thomas’s. “Maybe you haven’t put it together yet, Madrigal. I’m banished, remember? You aren’t family.”

Madrigal regarded Thomas for a long minute before he said, “You’re bluffing.”

Thomas looked at me, a quality of inquiry to his expression, and said, “He thinks I’m bluffing.”

“Make sure he can talk,” I said.

“Cool,” Thomas said, and shot Madrigal in the feet.

The light and thunder of the shotgun’s blast rolled away, leaving Madrigal on the ground, hissing out a thready shriek of agony. He curled up to clutch at the gory ruins of his ankles and feet. Blood a few shades too pale to be human spattered the gravel.

“Touche,” grunted Rawlins, a certain satisfaction in his tone.

It took Madrigal a while to control himself and find his voice. “You’re dead,” he whispered, pain making the words quiver and shake. “You gutless little swine. You’re dead. Uncle will kill you for this.”

My half brother smiled and worked the action of the shotgun again. “I doubt my father cares,” he replied. “He wouldn’t mind losing a nephew. Particularly not one who has been consorting with scum like House Malvora.”

“Aha,” I said quietly, putting two and two together. “Now I get it. He’s like them.”

“Like what?” Thomas asked.

“A phobophage,” I said quietly. “He feeds on fear the way you feed on lust.”

Thomas’s expression turned a bit nauseated. “Yes. A lot of the Malvora do.”

Madrigal’s pale, strained face twisted into a vicious smile. “You should try it some night, coz.”

“It’s sick, Mad,” Thomas said. There was an almost ghostly sense of sadness or pity in his tone, so subtle that I would not have seen it before living with him. Hell, I doubt he realized it was there himself. “It’s sick. And it’s made you sick.”

“You feed on mortal desires for the little death,” Madrigal said, his eyes half closing. “I feed on their desire for the real thing. We both feed. In the end, we both kill. There’s no difference.”

“The difference is that once you’ve started, you can’t let them go running off to report you to the authorities,” Thomas said. “You keep them until they’re dead.”

Madrigal let out a laugh, unsettling for how genuine it sounded given his situation. I got the sneaking suspicion that the vampire was a couple of Peeps short of an Easter basket.

“Thomas, Thomas,” Madrigal murmured. “Always the self-righteous little bleeding heart. So concerned for the bucks and does-as though you never tasted them yourself. Never killed them yourself.”

Thomas’s expression went opaque again, but his eyes were flat with sudden anger.

Madrigal’s smile widened at the response. His teeth shone white in the evening’s gloom. “I’ve been feeding well. Whereas you… well. Without your little dark-eyed whore to take-”

Without warning, without a flicker of expression on Thomas’s face, the shotgun roared again, and the blast took Madrigal across the knees. More too-pale blood spattered the gravel.

Holy crap.

Madrigal went prone again, body arching in agony, the pain choking his scream down to an anemic little echo of a real shriek.

Thomas planted his boot on Madrigal’s neck, his expression cold and calm but for the glittering rage in his eyes. He pumped the next shell in, and held the shotgun in one hand, shoving the barrel against Madrigal’s cheekbone.

Madrigal froze, quivering in agony, eyes wide and desperate.

“Never,” Thomas murmured, very quietly. “Ever. Speak of Justine.”

Madrigal said nothing, but my instincts screamed again. Something in the way he held himself, something in his eyes, told me that he was acting. He’d maneuvered the conversation to Justine deliberately. He was playing on Thomas’s feelings for Justine, distracting us.

I spun to see Glau on his feet just as though he hadn’t been given a lethal dose of buckshot in the chest from ten feet away. He shot across the parking lot at a full sprint, running for the van parked about fifty feet away. He ran in utter silence, without the crunch of gravel or the creak of shoes, and for a second I thought I saw maybe an inch and a half of space between where he planted his running feet and the ground.

“Thomas,” I said. “Glau’s running.”

“Relax,” Thomas said, and his eyes never left Madrigal.

I heard the scrabble of claws on gravel and then Mouse shot out of the shadows that had hidden Thomas. He flashed by me in what was for him a relaxed lope, but as Glau approached the van, Mouse accelerated to a full sprint. In the last couple of steps before Glau reached the van, I thought I saw something forming around the great dog’s forequarters, tiny flickers of pale colors, almost like Saint Elmo’s fire. Then Mouse threw himself into a leap. I saw Glau’s expression reflected in the van’s windshield, his too-wide eyes goggling in total surprise. Then Mouse slammed his chest and shoulder into Glau’s back like a living battering ram.

The force of the impact took Glau’s balance completely, and sent the man into a vicious impact with the van’s dented front bumper. Glau hit hard, hard enough that I heard bones breaking from fifty feet away, and his head whiplashed down onto the hood and rebounded with neck-breaking force. Glau bounced off the van’s front bumper and hood, and landed in a limp, boneless pile on the ground.

Mouse landed, skidded on the gravel, and spun to face Glau. He watched the downed man for a few seconds, legs stiff. His back legs dug twice at the gravel, throwing up dust and rocks in challenge.

Glau never stirred.

Mouse sniffed and then let out a sneeze that might almost have been actual words: So there.

Then the dog turned and trotted right over to me, favoring one leg slightly, grinning a proud canine grin. He shoved his broad head under my hand in his customary demand for an ear scratching. I did it, while something released in my chest with a painful little snapping sensation. My dog was all right. Maybe my eyes misted up a little. I dropped to one knee and slid an arm around the mutt’s neck. “Good dog,” I told him.

Mouse’s tail wagged proudly at the praise, and he leaned against me.

I made sure my eyes were clear, then looked up to find Madrigal staring at the dog in shock and fear. “That isn’t a dog,” the vampire whispered.

“But he’ll do anything for a Scooby Snack,” I said. “Spill it, Madrigal. What are you doing in town? How are you involved with the attacks?”

He licked his lips and shook his head. “I don’t have to talk to you,” he said. “And you don’t have time to make me. The gunshots. Even in this neighborhood, the police will be here soon.”

“True,” I said. “So here’s how it’s going to work. Thomas, when you hear a siren, pull the trigger.”

Madrigal made a choking sound.

I smiled. “I want answers. That’s all. Give them to me, and we go away. Otherwise…” I shrugged, and made a vague gesture at Thomas.

Mouse stared at him and a steady growl bubbled from his throat.

Madrigal shot a look over at the fallen Glau, who, by God, was moving his arms and legs in an aimless, stunned fashion. Mouse’s growl grew louder, and Madrigal tried to squirm a little farther from my dog. “Even if I did talk, what’s to keep you from killing me once I’ve told you?”

“Madrigal,” Thomas said quietly. “You’re a vicious little bitch, but you’re still family. I’d rather not kill you. We left your jann alive. Play ball and both of you walk.”

“You would side with this mortal buck against your own kind, Thomas?”

“My own kind booted me out,” Thomas replied. “I take work where I can get it.”

“Pariah vampire and pariah wizard,” Madrigal murmured. “I suppose I can see the advantages, regardless of how the war turns out.” He watched Thomas steadily for a moment and then looked at me. “I want your oath on it.”

“You have it,” I said. “Answer me honestly and I let you leave Chicago unharmed.”

He swallowed, and his eyes flicked to the shotgun still pressed to his cheek. “My oath as well,” he said. “I’ll speak true.”

And that settled that. Pretty much everything on the supernatural side of the street abided by a rigid code of traditional conduct that respected things like one’s duties as a host, one’s responsibility as a guest, and the integrity of a sworn oath. I could trust Madrigal’s oath, once he’d openly made it.

Probably.

Thomas looked at me. I nodded. He eased his boot off of Madrigal’s neck and took a step back, holding the shotgun at his side, though his stance became no less wary.

Madrigal sat up, wincing at his legs. There was a low, crackling kind of noise coming from them. The bleeding had already stopped. I could see portions of his calf, where the pants had been ripped away. The skin there actually bubbled and moved, and as I watched a round lump the size of a pea formed in the skin and burst, expelling a round buckshot that fell to the parking lot.

“Let’s start simple,” I said. “Where’s the key to the manacles?”

“Van,” he replied, his tone calm.

“My stuff?”

“Van.”

“Keys.” I held out my hand.

Madrigal drew a rental-car key ring from his pocket and tossed it to me, underhand.

“Thomas,” I said, holding them up.

“You sure?” he asked.

“Mouse can watch him. I want this fucking thing off my arm.”

Thomas took the keys and paced over to the van. He paused to idly check his hair in the reflection in the windshield before opening the van. Vanity, thy name is vampire.

“Now for the real question,” I told Madrigal. “How are you involved with the attacks?”

“I’m not involved,” he said quietly. “Not in the planning and not in the execution. I’ve been scheduled here for more than a year.”

“Doesn’t scream alibi to me,” I said.

“I’m not,” he insisted. “Of course, I thought them entertaining. And yes, the…” His eyelids half lowered and his voice went suddenly husky. “The… storm of it. The horror. Empty night, so sweet, all those souls in fear…”

“Get off the creepy psychic vampire train,” I said. “Answer the question.”

He gave me an ugly smile and gestured at his healing legs. “You see. I’ve fed, and fed well. Tonight, particularly. But you have my word, wizard, that whatever these creatures are, they are none of my doing. I was merely a spectator.”

“If that’s true,” I said, “then why the hell did you grab me and bring me here?”

“For gain,” he said. “And for enjoyment. I don’t let any buck talk to me as you did. Since I’d planned on replying to your arrogance anyway, I thought I might as well turn a profit on it at the same time.”

“God bless America,” I said. Thomas returned with my magical gear- staff, backpack, a paper sack with my various foci in it, and an old-fashioned key with big teeth. I popped it in the slot on the manacles, fumbling with the stiff, uncooperative fingers of my left hand, and got the thing off my arm. My skin tingled for a moment, and I reached experimentally for my magic. No whiteout of pain. I was a wizard again.

I put on my amulet, bracelet, and ring. I felt the backpack to make sure Bob’s skull was still in there. It was, and I breathed a mental sigh of relief. Bob’s arcane knowledge was exceeded only by his inability to distinguish between moral right and wrong. His knowledge, in the wrong hands, could be dangerous as hell.

“No,” I said quietly. “It isn’t a coincidence that you’re there, Madrigal.”

“I just told you-”

“I believe you,” I said. “But I don’t think it was a coincidence, either. I think you were there for a reason. Maybe one you didn’t know.”

Madrigal frowned at that, and looked, for a moment, a little bit worried.

I pursed my lips and thought aloud. “You’re high-profile. You’re known to feed on fear. You’re at war with the White Council.” Two and two make four. Four and four make eight. I glanced up at Thomas and said, “Whoever it is behind the phage attacks, they wanted me to think that Darby, here, was it.”

Thomas’s eyebrows went up in sudden understanding. “Madrigal’s supposed to take the fall.”

Madrigal’s face turned even whiter. “What do you-”

He didn’t get to finish the question.

Glau screamed. He screamed in pure, shrieking terror, his voice pitched as high as a woman’s.

Everyone turned in surprise, and we were in time to see something haul the wounded Glau out of sight on the other side of the van. Red sprayed into the air. A piece of him, probably an arm or a leg, flew out from behind the van and tumbled for several paces before falling heavily to earth. Glau’s voice abruptly went silent.

Something arched up from behind the van and landed, rolling. It bumped over the gravel and came to a stop.

Glau’s head.

It had been physically ripped from his body, the flesh and bone torn and wrenched apart by main strength. His face was stretched into a scream, showing his sharklike teeth, and his eyes were glazed and frozen in death.

Orange light rose up behind the van, and then something, a creature perhaps ten or eleven feet in height, rose up and turned to face us. It was dressed all in rags, like some kind of enormous hobo, and was inhumanly slender. Its head was a bulbous thing, and it took me a second to recognize it as a pumpkin, carved with evil eyes like a jack-o‘-lantern’s. Those eyes glowed with a sullen red flame, and flashed intensely for a moment as it spied us.

Then it took a long step over the hood of the van and came at us with strides that looked slow but ate up yards with every step.

“Good God,” Rawlins breathed.

Mouse snarled.

“Harry?” Thomas said.

“Another phage in a horror movie costume. The Scarecrow, this time,” I murmured. “I’ll handle it.” I took my staff in hand and stepped out to meet the oncoming phage. I called up the Hellfire once more, as I had against the other phage, until my skin felt like it was about to fly apart. I gathered up energy for a strike more deadly than I had used earlier in the night. Then I cried out and unleashed my will against the creature, hitting it as hard as I possibly could.

The resulting cannonball of blazing force struck the Scarecrow head-on while it was twenty feet away, exploding into a column of searing red flame, an inferno of heat and light that went off with enough force to throw the thing halfway across Lake Michigan.

Imagine my surprise when the Scarecrow stepped through my spell as if it had not existed. Its eyes regarded me with far too much awareness, and its arm moved, striking-snake fast.

Fingers as thick and tough as pumpkin vines suddenly closed around my throat, and in a rush of sudden, terrifying understanding, I realized that this phage was stronger than the little one I’d beaten at the hotel. This creature was far older, larger, stronger, more dangerous.

My vision darkened to a star-spangled tunnel as the Scarecrow wrapped its other hand around my left thigh, lifted me to the horizontal over its head, and started to rip me in half.

Chapter Twenty-nine

“Harry!” Thomas shouted. I heard a rasp of steel, and saw Thomas draw an old U.S. Cavalry saber from inside my duster. He tossed the shotgun to the wounded Rawlins and rushed forward.

Mouse beat him there. The big dog snarled and threw himself at the Scarecrow, obliging the creature to release my leg so that it could swing a spindly arm and fist at my dog. The Scarecrow was strong. It struck Mouse in midleap and batted him into the corrugated steel wall of the Full Moon Garage like he was a tennis ball. There was a crash, and Mouse bounced off the wall and landed heavily on his side, leaving a dent in the steel where he’d hit. He thrashed his legs and managed to rise to a wobbly stand.

Mouse had given Thomas an opening, and my brother leapt to the top of an old metal trash bin, then bounded fifteen feet through the air, whipping the sword down on the wrist of the arm that held me in choke. Thomas was never weak, but he was tapping into his powers as a vampire of the White Court as he attacked, and his skin was a luminous white, his eyes metallic silver. The blow parted the Scarecrow’s hand from its arm, and dropped me a good five or six feet to the ground.

Even as I fell, I knew I had to move away from the creature, and fast. I managed to have my balance more or less in place when I hit, and I fell into a roll, using the momentum to help me rise to a running start. But a problem developed.

That damned Scarecrow’s hand had not ceased choking me, and had not lost any of its strength. My headlong retreat turned into a drunken stumble as my air ran out, and I clutched at the tough vine-fingers crushing my windpipe shut. I went to my knees and one hand, and out of the corner of my eye I saw Rawlins lift the shotgun and begin pumping rounds into the oncoming Scarecrow from where he sat on the ground. The rounds slowed the oncoming creature, but they did nothing to harm it.

My throat was on fire, and I knew I had only seconds of consciousness left. In pure desperation, I took my staff and, in a dizzying gesture, dragged it through a complete circle in the gravel at my feet. I touched my hand to the circle, willing power into it, and felt the field of magic that it formed spring up around me in a silent, invisible column.

The circle’s power cut the Scarecrow’s severed hand off from the main body of the creature, and like the phage in the hallway of the hotel, it abruptly transformed into transparent jelly that splattered down onto the gravel beneath my chin and soaked my shirt in sticky goo.

I sucked in a breath of pure euphoria, and though I was on my knees, I turned to face the Scarecrow and did not retreat. So long as the circle around me maintained its integrity, there was no way for the phage to get to me. It should buy me a little time, to get the air back into my lungs and to work out my next attack.

The Scarecrow let out an angry hissing sound and swung its stump of an arm down at Rawlins. The veteran cop saw it coming and rolled out of the way as though he were an agile young man, barely avoiding the blow. Thomas used an old metal oil drum as a platform for another leap, this time driving his heels into the Scarecrow’s back, at what would have been the base of its spine on a human. The impact sent the Scarecrow to the ground, but as it landed it kicked a long leg at Thomas and struck his saber arm, breaking it with a wet snap of bone.

Thomas howled, scrambling back, leaving his fallen sword on the ground. The Scarecrow whirled back to me, eyes blazing with an alien rage, and I could swear that I saw recognition in them. It looked from me to Rawlins, and then with a hissing cackle it went after the cop.

Dammit. I waited until the last second and then broke the circle with a sweep of my foot, snatching up Thomas’s sword. I charged forward.

The Scarecrow whirled the moment the circle went down, sweeping out a great fist that could have broken my neck, but it hadn’t expected me to charge, and I was inside its reach before it realized what I had done. I let out a shout and struck at one of the Scarecrow’s legs, but it was quicker than I thought, and the saber’s blade barely clipped the thick, sturdy, viny limb. The Scarecrow let out a hiss loud and sharp enough to hurt my ears and tried to kick me, but I slipped to one side just in time, and the blow intended for me instead scattered several stacks of tires.

Madrigal Raith rose up from among the fallen tires only a couple of feet away from me, shrieking with fear. The Scarecrow’s eyes blazed into painfully bright flames when it saw Madrigal, and it started for him.

“Get to the van!” I shouted, hopping back to stand beside Madrigal. “We need wheels if we’re going to get away from this-”

Without so much as a second’s hesitation, Madrigal stuck out his hand and shoved me between himself and the monster, sending me into a sprawl at the Scarecrow’s feet while he turned to flee in the opposite direction.

Before I hit the ground, I was already calling power into my shield bracelet and I twisted to land on my right side, holding my left hand and its shield up. If I’d been half a second slower, the Scarecrow would have stomped its foot down onto my skull. Instead, it hit the half sphere of my sorcerous shield with so much force that the shield sent off a flare of light and heat, so that it looked like an enormous blue-white bowl above me.

Furious, the Scarecrow seized an empty barrel and hurled it down at my shield. I hardened my will as it struck, and turned the force of the throw, sending the barrel bouncing over the gravel, but it had gotten closer to me than the first blow. A second later, its fist hammered down, and then it found a bent aluminum ladder in a pile of junk and slammed it down at me.

I managed to block the attacks, but each one came a little closer to my hide. I didn’t dare to let up my concentration for a moment in an effort to move away. The damned thing was so strong. I wouldn’t survive a mistake. A single blow from one of its limbs or improvised weapons would probably kill me outright. But if I didn’t get away, the creature would hammer through the shield anyway.

Mouse charged in again, on three legs this time, bellowing an almost leonine battle roar as he did so. The Scarecrow struck out at Mouse, but the dog’s attack had been a feint, and he avoided the blow while remaining just out of the Scarecrow’s reach. The Scarecrow turned back to me, but Mouse rushed it again, forcing the Scarecrow to abandon its attack lest Mouse close in from behind.

I rolled clear of the Scarecrow’s reach and regained my feet, sword in my right hand, shining blue shield blazing on my left. I’d been throwing an awful lot of magic around tonight, and I was feeling it. My legs trembled, and I wasn’t sure how much more I could do.

Mouse and I circled the monster opposite one another, playing wolf pack to the Scarecrow’s bear, each of us menacing the creature’s flanks when it turned to the other. We held our own for maybe a minute, but it was a losing bet, long-term. Mouse was moving on three legs and tiring swiftly. I wasn’t much better off. The second one of us slipped or moved too slowly, the Scarecrow would drive us into the ground like a fence post. A wet, red, squishy fence post.

Light shone abruptly on my back, an engine roared, and a car horn blared. I hopped to one side. Madrigal’s rental van shot past me and slammed into the Scarecrow. It knocked the creature sprawling all the way across the parking lot to the edge of the street.

Thomas leaned his head out the window and shouted, “Get in!”

I hurried to oblige him, snatching up my staff on the way, and Mouse was hard on my heels. We piled into the van, where I found Rawlins unconscious in the back. I slammed the side door shut. Thomas threw up a cloud of gravel whirling the van around, banged over the concrete median between the gravel lot and the street, and shot off down the road.

A wailing, whistling shriek of rage and frustration split the air behind us. I checked out the window, and found the Scarecrow pursuing us. When Thomas reached an intersection and turned, the Scarecrow cut across the corner, bounding over a phone booth with ease, and slammed into the back quarter of the van. The noise was horrible and the van wobbled, tires screeching and slithering while Thomas fought to control the slide.

The Scarecrow shrieked and slammed the van again. The wounded Mouse added his battle roar to the din.

“Do something!” Thomas shouted.

“Like what?” I screamed. “It’s immune to my fire!”

Another crunch blasted my ears, rocked the van, and sent me sprawling over Rawlins.

“We’re going to find traffic in a minute!” Thomas called. “Figure something out!”

I looked frantically around the van’s interior, trying to think of something. There was little enough there: Glau’s briefcase, an overnight bag containing, presumably, Glau’s shower kit and foot powder, and two flats of expensive spring water in plastic bottles.

I could hear the Scarecrow’s heavy footsteps outside the van, now, and a motion in the corner of my eye made me look up to see its blazing, terrifying eyes gazing into the van’s window.

“Left!” I howled at Thomas. The van rocked, tires protesting. The Scarecrow drove its arm through the van’s side window, and its long fingers missed me by an inch.

Do something. I had to do something. Fire couldn’t hurt the thing. I could summon wind, but it was large enough to resist anything but my largest gale, and I didn’t have the magical muscle to manage that, exhausted as I was. It would have to be something small. Something limited. Something clever.

I stared at the bottled water, then thought of something and shouted, “Get ready for a U-turn!” I shouted.

“What?” Thomas yelled.

I picked up both flats of bottles and shoved them out the broken window. They vanished, and I checked out the rear window to see them tumbling along in our wake, still held together by heavy plastic wrapping. I took up my blasting rod, pointed it at them, and called up the smallest and most intense point of heat I knew how, releasing it with a whispered, “Fuego.”

The rear window glass flashed; a hole the size of a peanut suddenly appeared, the glass dribbling down, molten. Bottles exploded as their contents heated to boiling in under a second, spattering that whole section of road with a thin and expensive layer of water.

“Now!” I hollered. “U-turn!”

Thomas promptly did something that made the tires howl and almost threw me out the broken window. I got an up-close look at the Scarecrow as the van slewed into a bootlegger reverse. It reached for me, but its claws only raked down the van’s quarter panel, squealing as they ripped through the paint. The Scarecrow, though swift and strong, was also very tall and ungainly, and we reversed directions more quickly than it could, giving us a couple of seconds’ worth of a lead.

I gripped my blasting rod so hard that my knuckles turned white, and struggled to work out an evocation on the fly. I’m not much of an evocator. That’s, the whole reason I used tools like my staff and blasting rod to help me control and focus my energy. The very thought of spontaneously trying out a new evocation was enough to make sweat bead on my forehead, and I tried to remind myself that it wasn’t a new evocation. It was just a very, very, very skewed application of an old one.

I leaned out the broken window, blasting rod in hand, watching behind us until the Scarecrow’s steps carried it into the clump of empty plastic bottles in a shallow puddle.

Then I gritted my teeth, pointed my blasting rod at the sky, and reached out for fire. Instead of drawing the power wholly from within myself, I reached out into the environment around me-into the oppressive summer air, the burning heat of the van’s engine, from Mouse, from Rawlins, from the blazing streetlights.

And from the water I’d spread in front of the Scarecrow.

Fuego!” I howled.

Flame shot up into the Chicago sky like a geyser, and the explosion of sudden heat broke some windows in the nearest buildings. The van’s engine stuttered in protest, and the temperature inside the van dropped dramatically. Lights flickered out on the street, the abrupt temperature change destroying their fragile filaments as my spell sucked some of the heat out of everything within a hundred yards.

And the expensive puddle of water instantly froze into a sheet of glittering ice.

The Scarecrow’s leading foot hit the ice and slid out from under its body. Its too-long limbs thrashed wildly, and then the Scarecrow went down, awkward limbs flailing. Its speed and size now worked against it, throwing it down the concrete like a tumbleweed until it smacked hard into a municipal bus stop shelter.

“Go, go, go!” I screamed.

Thomas gunned the engine, recovering its power, and shot down the street. He turned at the nearest corner, and when he did the Scarecrow had only begun to extricate its tangle of limbs from the impact. Thomas hardly slowed, took a couple more turns, and then found a ramp onto the freeway.

I watched behind us. Nothing followed.

I sagged down, breathing hard, and closed my eyes.

“Harry?” Thomas demanded, his voice worried. “Are you all right?”

I grunted. Even that much was an effort. It took me a minute to manage to say, “Just tired.” I recovered from that feat and added, “Madrigal pushed me into that thing and bugged out.”

Thomas winced. “Sorry I wasn’t there sooner,” he said. “I grabbed Rawlins. I figured you’d have told me to get him out anyway.”

“I would have,” I said.

He looked up at me in the rearview mirror, his eyes pale and worried. “You sure you’re all right?”

“We’re all alive. That’s what counts.”

Thomas said nothing more until we slid off the highway and he began to slow the van. I busied myself checking Rawlins. The cop had kept going in the face of severe pain and even more severe weirdness. Damned heroic, really. But even heroes are human, and human bodies have limits you can’t exceed. Everything had finally caught up to Rawlins. His breathing was steady, and his wounded foot had swollen up so badly that his own shoe held down the bleeding, but I don’t think a nuclear war could have woken him.

I ground my teeth at what I had to do next. I set my deformed left hand on the floor of the van at the angle Lasciel had shown me and let my weight fall suddenly onto it. There was an ugly pop, more pain, and then the agony subsided somewhat. It was a giddy feeling, and my hand looked human again, if bruised and swollen.

“So,” I said, after I had worked up the energy. “It was you following me around town.”

“I didn’t want to be seen openly with you,” he said. “I figured the Council might take it badly if they found out you had taken a White Court vampire on a Warden ride-along.”

“Probably,” I said. “I take it you followed them from the parking garage?”

“No, actually,” Thomas said. “I tried but I lost them. Mouse didn’t. I followed him. How the hell did they keep him away from you when they grabbed you?”

“They hit him with this van,” I said.

Thomas raised his eyebrows and glanced back at Mouse. “Seriously?” He shook his head. “Mouse led me to you. I was trying to figure out how to get into that garage without getting us shot. Then you made your move.”

“You stole my coat,” I said.

“Borrowed,” he corrected.

“They never talk about this kind of crap when they talk about brothers.”

“You weren’t wearing it,” he pointed out. “Hell, you think I’m going to walk into one of your patented Harry Dresden anarchy-gasms without all the protection I can get?”

I grunted. “You looked good tonight.”

“I always look good,” he said.

“You know what I mean,” I told him quietly. “Better. Stronger. Faster.”

“Like the Six Million Dollar Man,” Thomas said.

“Stop joking, Thomas,” I told him in an even tone. “You used a lot of energy tonight. You’re feeding again.”

He drove, eyes guarded, his face blank.

I chewed on my lip. “You want to talk about it?”

He ignored me, which I took as a “no.”

“How long have you been active?”

I was sure he was stonewalling when he said, in a very quiet voice, “Since last Halloween.”

I frowned. “When we took on those necromancers.”

“Yeah,” he said. “There’s… look, there’s something I didn’t tell you about that night.”

I tilted my head, watching his eyes in the rearview mirror.

“Remember, I said Murphy’s bike broke down?”

I did. I nodded.

“It wasn’t the bike,” Thomas said. He took a deep breath. “It was the Wild Hunt. They came across me while I was trying to catch up with you. Sort of filled up the rest of my evening.”

I arched my eyebrows. “You didn’t have to lie about something like that, man. I mean, everyone who won’t join the Hunt becomes its prey. So it’s not your fault the Hunt chased you around.” I scratched at my chin. Stubble. I needed a shave. “Hell, man, you should be damned proud. I doubt that more than five or six people in history have ever escaped the Hunt.”

He was quiet for a minute and then said, “I didn’t run from them, Harry.”

My shoulders twitched with sudden tension.

“I joined them,” he said.

“Thomas…” I began.

He looked up at the mirror. “I didn’t want to die, man. And when push comes to shove, I’m a predator. A killer. Part of me wanted to go. Part of me had a good time. I don’t like that part of me much, but it’s still there.”

“Hell’s bells,” I said quietly.

“I don’t remember very much of it,” he said. He shrugged. “I let you down that night. Let myself down that night. So I figured this time I’d try to help you out, once you told me you were on a job again.”

“You’ve got a car now, too,” I said quietly.

“Yeah.”

“You’re making money. And feeding on people.”

“Yeah.”

I frowned. I didn’t know what to say to that. Thomas had tried to fit in. He tried to get himself an honest job. He tried it for most of two years, but always ended badly because of who and what he was. I had begun to wonder if there was anyplace in Chicago that hadn’t fired him.

But he’d had this job, whatever it was, for a while now.

“There anything I need to know?” I asked him.

He shook his head, a tiny gesture. His reticence worried me. Though he’d been repeatedly humiliated, Thomas had never had any trouble talking-complaining, really-about the various jobs he’d tried to hold. Once or twice, he’d opened up to me about the difficulty of going without the kind of intense feeding he’d been used to with Justine. Yet now he was clamming up on me.

An uncharitable sort of person would have gotten suspicious. They would have thought that Thomas must have been engaging in something, probably illegal and certainly immoral, to make his living. They would have dwelt on the idea that, as a kind of incubus, it would be a simple matter for him to seduce and control any wealthy woman he chose, providing sustenance and finances in a single package.

Good thing I’m not one of those uncharitable guys.

I sighed. If he wasn’t going to talk, he wasn’t going to talk. Time to change the subject.

“Glau,” I said quiedy. “Madrigal’s sidekick, there. You said he was a jann?”

Thomas nodded. “Scion of a djinn and a mortal. He worked for Madrigal’s father. Then my father arranged to have Madrigal’s father go skydiving naked. Glau stuck with Madrigal after that.”

“Was he dangerous?” I asked.

Thomas thought about it for a moment and then said, “He was thorough. Details never slipped by. He could play a courtroom like some kind of maestro. He was never finished with something until it was dissected, labeled, documented, and locked away in storage somewhere.”

“But he wasn’t a threat in a fight.”

“Not as such things go. He could kill you dead enough, but not much better than any number of things.”

“Funny, then,” I said. “The Scarecrow popped him first.”

Thomas glanced back at me, arching a brow.

“Think about it,” I said. “This thing was supposed to be a phobophage, right? Going after the biggest source of fear.”

“Sure.”

“Glau was barely conscious when it grabbed him,” I said. “It was probably me or Madrigal who was feeling the most tension, but it took out Glau, specifically.”

“You think someone sent it for Glau?”

“I think it’s a reasonable conclusion.”

Thomas frowned. “Why would anyone do that?”

“To shut him up,” I said. “I think Madrigal was supposed to go down for these attacks, at least in front of the supernatural communities. Maybe Glau was in on it. Maybe Glau arranged for Madrigal to be here.”

“Or maybe the Scarecrow went after Glau because he was wounded and separate from the rest of us. It might have been a coincidence.”

“Possible,” I allowed. “But my gut says it wasn’t. Glau was their cutout man. They killed him to cover their trail.”

“Who do you think ‘they’ is?”

“Uhhhhhh.” I rubbed at my face, hoping the stimulation might move some more blood around in my brain and knock loose some ideas. “Not sure. My head hurts. I’m missing some details somewhere. There should be enough for me to piece this together, but damned if I can see it.” I shook my head and fell quiet.

“Where to?” Thomas asked.

“Hospital,” I said. “We’ll drop Rawlins off.”

“Then what?”

“Then I pick up the trail of those phages, and see if I can find out who summoned them.” I told him briefly about the events of the afternoon and evening. “If we’re lucky, all we’ll find is some maniac’s corpse with a surprised look on his face.”

“What if we aren’t lucky?” he asked.

“Then it means the summoner is a hell of a lot better than I am, to fight off three of those things.” I rubbed at one eye. “And we’ll have to take him down before he hurts anyone else.”

“The fun never ends,” Thomas said. “Right. Hospital.”

“Then circle the block around the hotel. The spell I diverted the phages with had the tracking element worked into it. Sunrise will unravel it, and we don’t know how long it will take to follow the trail.”

I directed Thomas to the nearest hospital, and he carried the unconscious Rawlins through the emergency room doors. He came back a minute later and told me, “They’re on the job.”

“Let’s go, then. Otherwise someone will want to ask us questions about gunshot wounds.”

Thomas was way ahead of me, and the van headed back to the hotel.

I got the spell ready. It wasn’t a difficult working, under normal circumstances, but I felt as wrung out as a dirty dishrag. It took me three tries to get the spell up and running, but I managed it. Then I climbed into the passenger seat, where I could see evidence of the phages’ passing as a trail of curling, pale green vapor in the air. I gave Thomas directions. We followed the trail, and it led us toward Wrigley.

Not a whole hell of a lot of industry was going on in my aching skull, but after a few minutes something began to gnaw at me. I looked blearily around, and found that the neighborhood looked familiar. We kept on the trail. The neighborhood got more familiar. The vapor grew brighter as we closed in.

We turned a last street corner.

My stomach twisted in a spasm of horrified nausea.

The green vapor trail led to a two-story white house. A charming place, somehow carrying off the look of suburbia despite being inside the third largest city in America. Green lawn, despite the heat. White picket fence. Children’s toys in evidence.

The vapor led up to the picket fence, first. There were three separate large holes in the fence, where some enormous force had burst the fence to splinters. Heavy footprints gouged the lawn. An imitation old-style, wrought-iron gaslight had been bent to parallel with the ground about four feet up. The door had been torn from its hinges and flung into the yard. A minivan parked in the driveway had been crushed, as if by a dropped wrecking ball.

I couldn’t be sure, but I thought I saw blood on the doorway.

The decorative mailbox three feet from me read, in cheerfully painted letters: THE CARPENTERS.

Oh, God.

Oh, God.

Oh, God.

I’d sent the phages after Molly.

Chapter Thirty

I got out of the van, too shocked to see anything but the destruction. It made no sense. It made no sense at all. How in the hell could this have happened? How could my spell have turned the phages and sent them here?

I stood on the sidewalk outside the house with my mouth hanging open. The streetlights were all out. Only the lights of the van showed the damage, and Thomas turned them off after only a moment. There was no disturbance on the street, no outcry, no police presence. Whatever had happened, something had taken steps to keep it from disturbing the neighbors.

I don’t know how long I stood there. I felt Mouse’s presence at my side. Then Thomas’s, on the other side of me.

“Harry?” he said, as if he was repeating himself. “What is this place?”

“It’s Michael’s house,” I whispered. “His family’s home.”

Thomas flinched. He looked back and forth and said, “Those things came here?”

I nodded. I felt unsteady.

I felt so damned tired.

Whatever happened here, it was over. There was nothing I could do at this point, except see who had been hurt. And I did not want to do that. So I stood there staring at the house until Thomas finally said, “I’ll keep watch out here. Circle the house, see if there’s anything to be seen.”

“Okay,” I whispered. I swallowed, and my stomach felt like I’d swallowed a pound of thumbtacks. I wanted nothing in the world so much as to run away.

But instead, I dragged my tired ass over the damaged lawn and through the house’s broken doorway. Mouse, walking on three legs, followed me.

There were sprinkles of blood, already dried, on the inside of the doorway.

I went on inside the house, through the entry hall, into the living room. Furniture lay strewn all over the place, discarded and broken and tumbled. The television lay on its side, warbling static on its screen. A low sound, all white noise and faint interference, filled the room.

There was utter silence in the house, otherwise.

“Hello?” I called.

No one answered.

I went into the kitchen.

There were school papers on the fridge, most of them written in exaggerated, childish hands. There were crayon drawings up there, too. One, of a smiling stick figure in a dress, had a wavering line of letters underneath that read: I LOW OU MAMA.

Oh, God.

The thumbtacks in my belly became razor blades. If I’d hurt them… I didn’t know what I would do.

“Harry!” Thomas called from outside. “Harry, come here!”

His voice was tense, excited. I went out the kitchen door to the backyard, and found Thomas climbing down from a tree house only a little nicer than my apartment, built up in the branches of the old oak tree behind the Carpenters’ house. He had a still form draped over his shoulder.

I drew out my amulet and called wizard light as Thomas laid the oldest son, Daniel, out on the grass in the backyard. He was breathing, but looked pale. He was wearing flannel pajama pants and a white T-shirt soaked with blood. There was a cut on his arm; not too deep, but very messy. He had bruises on his face, on one arm, and the knuckles on both his hands were torn and ragged.

Michael’s son had been throwing punches. It hadn’t done him any good, but he’d fought.

“Coat,” I said, terse. “He’s cold.”

Thomas immediately took off my duster and draped it over the boy. I propped his feet up on my backpack. “Stay here,” I told him. I went in the house, fetched a glass of water, and brought it out. I knelt down and tried to wake the boy up, to get him to drink a little. He coughed a little, then drank, and blinked open his eyes. He couldn’t focus them.

“Daniel,” I said quietly. “Daniel, it’s Harry Dresden.”

“D-dresden?” he said.

“Yeah. Your dad’s friend. Harry.”

“Harry,” he said. Then his eyes flew open wide and he struggled to sit up. “Molly!”

“Easy, easy,” I told him. “You’re hurt. We don’t know how bad yet. Lie still.”

“Can’t,” he mumbled. “They took her. We were… is Mom okay? Are the little ones okay?”

I chewed on my lip. “I don’t know. Do you know where they are?”

He blinked several times and then he said, “Panic room.”

I frowned. “What?”

“S-second floor. Safe room. Dad built it. Just in case.”

I traded a look with Thomas. “Where is it?”

Daniel waved a vague hand. “Mom had the little ones upstairs. Molly and me couldn’t get to the stairs. They were there. We tried to lead them away.”

“Who, Daniel? They who?”

“The movie monsters. Reaper. Hammerhand.” He shuddered. “Scarecrow.”

I snarled a furious curse. “Thomas, stay with him. Mouse, keep watch.” I stood up and stalked into the house, crossed to the stairs, and went up them. The upstairs hallway had a bunch of bedrooms off it, with the oldest children’s rooms being at the opposite end of the hall from the master bedroom, the younger children being progressively closer to mom and dad. I looked inside each room. They were all empty, though the two nearest the head of the stairs had been torn up pretty well. Broken toys and shattered, child-sized furniture lay everywhere.

If I hadn’t been looking for it, I wouldn’t have noticed the extra space between the linen closet and the master bedroom. I checked the closet in the master bedroom and turned up nothing. Then I opened the door to the linen closet, and found the shelves in complete disarray, sheets and towels and blankets strewn on the floor. I hunkered down and held up my mother’s amulet, peering closely, and then found a section of the back wall of the closet just slightly misaligned with the corner it met. I reached out and touched that part of the wall, closed my eyes, extending my senses through my fingertips.

I felt power there. It wasn’t a ward, or at least it was unlike any ward I had ever encountered. It was more of a quiet hum of constant power, and was similar to the power I’d felt stirring around Michael on several occasions-the power of faith. There was a form of magic protecting that panel.

“Lasciel,” I murmured quietly. “You getting this?”

She did not appear, but her voice rolled through my thoughts. Yes, my host. Angelic work.

I exhaled. “Real angels?”

Aye. Rafael or one of his lieutenants, from the feel of it.

“Dangerous?”

There was an uncertain pause. It is possible. You are touched by more darkness than my own. But it is meant to conceal the room beyond, not to strike out at an intruder.

I took a deep breath and said, “Okay.” Then I reached out and rapped hard on the panel, three times.

I thought I heard a motion, weight shifting on a floorboard.

I knocked again. “Charity!” I called. “It’s Harry Dresden!”

This time, the motion was definite. The panel clicked, then rolled smoothly to one side, and a double-barreled shotgun slid out, aimed right at my chin. I swallowed and looked down the barrel. Charity’s cold blue eyes faced me from the other end of the gun.

“You might not be the real Dresden,” she said.

“Sure I am.”

“Prove it,” she said. Her tone was quiet, balanced, deadly.

“Charity, there’s no time for this. You want me to show you my driver’s license?”

“Bleed,” she said instead.

Which was a good point. Most of the things who could play doppel-ganger did not have human plumbing, or human blood. It wasn’t an infallible test by any means, but it was as solid as anything a nonwizard could use for verification. So I pulled out my pen knife and cut my already mangled left hand, just a little. I couldn’t feel it in any case. I bled red, and showed her.

She stared at me for a long second, and then eased the hammers on the shotgun back down, set the weapon aside, and wriggled out of the space beyond the panel. I saw a c