For Bob. Sleep well.
I would like to thank Anne Sowards, my marvelous editor, my agent, Jenn Jackson, and my poor deluded beta readers. I’ve been facing the kinds of problems authors only dream about having, and you all have been a tremendous help to me. With luck, I’ll figure out how best to repay you for the time and effort you’ve all given me.
And, always, for Shannon and JJ, who like me even when I vanish into my own head for days at a time.
The summer sun was busy broiling the asphalt from Chicago’s streets, the agony in my head had kept me horizontal for half a day, and some idiot was pounding on my apartment door.
I answered it and Morgan, half his face covered in blood, gasped, “The Wardens are coming. Hide me. Please.”
His eyes rolled back into his skull and he collapsed.
Up until that moment, I’d been laboring under the misapprehension that the splitting pain in my skull would be the worst thing to happen to me today.
“Hell’s frickin’ bells!” I blurted at Morgan’s unconscious form. “You have got to be kidding me!” I was really, really tempted to slam the door and leave him lying there in a heap. He sure as hell deserved it.
I couldn’t just stand there doing nothing, though.
“You need to get your head examined,” I muttered to myself. Then I deactivated my wards—the magical security system I’ve got laid over my apartment—grabbed Morgan under the arms, and hauled him inside. He was a big man, over six feet, with plenty of muscle—and he was completely limp. I had a hard time moving him, even though I’m no junior petite myself.
I shut the door behind me and brought my wards back up. Then I waved a hand at my apartment in general, focused my will, and muttered, “Flickum bicus.” A dozen candles spaced around the room flickered to life as I pronounced the simple spell, and I knelt beside the unconscious Morgan, examining him for injuries.
He had half a dozen nasty cuts, oozing and ugly and probably painful, but not life-threatening. The flesh on his ribs, beneath his left arm, was blistered and burned, and his plain white shirt had been scorched away. He also had a deep wound in one leg that was clumsily wrapped in what looked like a kitchen apron. I didn’t dare unwrap the thing. It could start the bleeding again, and my medical skills are nothing I’d want to bet a life on.
Even Morgan’s life.
He needed a doctor.
Unfortunately, if the Wardens of the White Council were pursuing him, they probably knew he was wounded. They would, therefore, be watching hospitals. If I took him to one of the local emergency rooms, the Council would know about it within hours.
So I called a friend.
Waldo Butters studied Morgan’s injuries in silence for a few moments, while I hovered. He was a wiry little guy, and his black hair stood up helter-skelter, like the fur of a frightened cat. He wore green hospital scrubs and sneakers, and his hands were swift and nimble. He had dark and very intelligent eyes behind black wire-rimmed spectacles, and looked like he hadn’t slept in two weeks.
“I’m not a doctor,” Butters said.
We’d done this dance several times. “You are the Mighty Butters,” I said. “You can do anything.”
“I’m a medical examiner. I cut up corpses.”
“If it helps, think of this as a preventative autopsy.”
Butters gave me an even look and said, “Can’t take him to the hospital, huh?”
Butters shook his head. “Isn’t this the guy who tried to kill you that one Halloween?”
“And a few other times before that,” I said.
He opened a medical kit and started rummaging through it. “I was never really clear on why.”
I shrugged. “When I was a kid, I killed a man with magic. I was captured by the Wardens and tried by the White Council.”
“I guess you got off.”
I shook my head. “But they figured that since I was just trying to survive the guy killing me with magic, maybe I deserved a break. Suspended sentence, sort of. Morgan was my probation officer.”
“Probation?” Butters asked.
“If I screwed up again, he was supposed to chop my head off. He followed me around looking for a good excuse to do it.”
Butters blinked up at me, surprised.
“I spent the first several years of my adult life looking over my shoulder, worrying about this guy. Getting hounded and harassed by him. I had nightmares for a while, and he was in them.” Truth be told, I stillhad nightmares occasionally, about being pursued by an implacable killer in a grey cloak, holding a wicked cold sword.
Butters began to wet the bandages over the leg wound. “And you’re helping him?”
I shrugged. “He thought I was a dangerous animal and needed to be put down. He really believed it, and acted accordingly.”
Butters gave me a quick glance. “And you’re helping him?”
“He was wrong,” I said. “That doesn’t make him a villain. It just makes him an asshole. It isn’t reason enough to kill him.”
Butters lifted his eyebrows. “Then why’d he come to you for help?”
“Last place anyone would look for him be my guess.”
“Jesus Christ,” Butters muttered. He’d gotten the improvised bandage off, and found a wound maybe three inches long, but deep, its edges puckered like a little mouth. Blood began drooling from it. “It’s like a knife wound, but bigger.”
“That’s probably because it was done with something like a knife, but bigger.”
“A sword?” Butters said. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“The Council’s old school,” I said. “Really, really, really old school.”
Butters shook his head. “Wash your hands the way I just did. Do it thorough—takes two or three minutes. Then get a pair of gloves on and get back here. I need an extra pair of hands.”
I swallowed. “Uh. Butters, I don’t know if I’m the right guy to—”
“Oh bite me, wizard boy,” Butters said, his tone annoyed. “You haven’t got a moral leg to stand on. If it’s okay that I’m not a doctor, it’s okay that you aren’t a nurse. So wash your freaking hands and help me before we lose him.”
I stared at Butters helplessly for a second. Then I got up and washed my freaking hands.
For the record, surgeries aren’t pretty. There’s a hideous sense of intimately inappropriate exposure to another human being, and it feels something like accidentally walking in on a naked parent. Only there’s more gore. Bits are exposed that just shouldn’t be out in the open, and they’re covered in blood. It’s embarrassing, disgusting, and unsettling all at the same time.
“There,” Butters said, an infinity later. “Okay, let go. Get your hands out of my way.”
“It cut the artery?” I asked.
“Oh, hell no,” Butters said. “Whoever stabbed him barely nicked it. Otherwise he’d be dead.”
“But it’s fixed, right?”
“For some definitions of ‘fixed.’ Harry, this is meatball surgery of the roughest sort, but the wound should stay closed as long as he doesn’t go walking around on it. And he should get looked at by a real doctor soonest.” He frowned in concentration. “Just give me a minute to close up here.”
“Take all the time you need.”
Butters fell silent while he worked, and didn’t speak again until after he’d finished sewing the wound closed and covered the site in bandages. Then he turned his attention to the smaller injuries, closing most of them with bandages, suturing a particularly ugly one. He also applied a topical antibiotic to the burn, and carefully covered it in a layer of gauze.
“Okay,” Butters said. “I sterilized everything as best I could, but it wouldn’t shock me to see an infection anyway. He starts running a fever, or if there’s too much swelling, you’ve got to get him to one of two places—the hospital or the morgue.”
“Got it,” I said quietly.
“We should get him onto a bed. Get him warm.”
We lifted Morgan by the simple expedient of picking up the entire area rug he was lying on, and settled him down on the only bed in the place, the little twin in my closet-sized bedroom. We covered him up.
“He really ought to have a saline IV going,” Butters said. “For that matter, a unit of blood couldn’t hurt, either. And he needs antibiotics, man, but I can’t write prescriptions.”
“I’ll handle it,” I said.
Butters grimaced at me, his dark eyes concerned. He started to speak and then stopped, several times.
“Harry,” he said, finally. “You’re on the White Council, aren’t you?”
“And you are a Warden, aren’t you?”
Butters shook his head. “So, your own people are after this guy. I can’t imagine that they’ll be very happy with you if they find him here.”
I shrugged. “They’re always upset about something.”
“I’m serious. This is nothing but trouble for you. So why help him?”
I was quiet for a moment, looking down at Morgan’s slack, pale, unconscious face.
“Because Morgan wouldn’t break the Laws of Magic,” I said quietly. “Not even if it cost him his life.”
“You sound pretty sure about that.”
I nodded. “I am. I’m helping him because I know what it feels like to have the Wardens on your ass for something you haven’t done.” I rose and looked away from the unconscious man on my bed. “I know it better than anyone alive.”
Butters shook his head. “You are a rare kind of crazy, man.”
He started cleaning up everything he’d set out during the improvised surgery. “So. How are the headaches?”
They’d been a problem, the past several months—increasingly painful migraines. “Fine,” I told him.
“Yeah, right,” Butters said. “I really wish you’d try the MRI again.”
Technology and wizards don’t coexist well, and magnetic resonance imagers are right up there. “One baptism in fire-extinguishing foam per year is my limit,” I said.
“It could be something serious,” Butters said. “Anything happens in your head or neck, you don’t take chances. There’s way too much going on there.”
“They’re lightening up,” I lied.
“Hogwash,” Butters said, giving me a gimlet stare. “You’ve got a headache now, don’t you?”
I looked from Butters to Morgan’s recumbent form. “Yeah,” I said. “I sure as hell got one now.”
Morgan slept. My first impression of the guy had stuck with me pretty hard—tall, heavily muscled, with a lean, sunken face I’d always associated with religious ascetics and half-crazy artists. He had brown hair that was unevenly streaked with iron, and a beard that, while always kept trimmed, perpetually seemed to need a few more weeks to fill out. He had hard, steady eyes, and all the comforting, reassuring charm of a dental drill.
Asleep, he looked . . . old. Tired. I noticed the deep worry lines between his brows and at the corners of his mouth. His hands, which were large and blunt-fingered, showed more of his age than the rest of him. I knew he was better than a century old, which was nudging toward active maturity, for a wizard. There were scars across both of his hands—the graffiti of violence. The last two fingers of his right hand were stiff and slightly crooked, as if they’d been badly broken, and healed without being properly set. His eyes looked sunken, and the skin beneath them was dark enough to resemble bruises. Maybe Morgan had bad dreams, too.
It was harder to be afraid of him when he was asleep.
Mouse, my big grey dog, rose from his usual napping post in the kitchen alcove, and shambled over to stand beside me, two hundred pounds of silent companionship. He looked soberly at Morgan and then up at me.
“Do me a favor,” I told him. “Stay with him. Make sure he doesn’t try to walk on that leg. It could kill him.”
Mouse nudged his head against my hip, made a quiet snorting sound, and padded over to the bed. He lay down on the floor, stretching out alongside it, and promptly went back to sleep.
I pulled the door most of the way shut and sank down into the easy chair by the fireplace, where I could rub my temples and try to think.
The White Council of Wizards was the governing body for the practice of magic in the world, and made up of its most powerful practitioners. Being a member of the White Council was something akin to earning your black belt in a martial art—it meant that you could handle yourself well, that you had real skill that was recognized by your fellow wizards. The Council oversaw the use of magic among its members, according to the Seven Laws of Magic.
God help the poor practitioner who broke one of the Laws. The Council would send the Wardens to administer justice, which generally took the form of ruthless pursuit, a swift trial, and a prompt execution—when the offender wasn’t killed resisting arrest.
It sounds harsh, and it is—but over time I’d been forced to admit that it might well be necessary. The use of black magic corrupts the mind and the heart and the soul of the wizard employing it. It doesn’t happen instantly, and it doesn’t happen all at once—it’s a slow, festering thing that grows like a tumor, until whatever human empathy and compassion a person might have once had is consumed in the need for power. By the time a wizard has fallen to that temptation and become a warlock, people are dead, or worse than dead. It was the duty of the Wardens to make a quick end of warlocks—by any means necessary.
There was more to being a Warden than that, though. They were also the soldiers and defenders of the White Council. In our recent war with the Vampire Courts, the lion’s share of the fighting had been carried out by the Wardens, those men and women with a gift for swift, violent magic. Hell, in most of the battles, such as they were, it had been Morgan who was in the center of the fighting.
I’d done my share during the war, but among my fellow Wardens, the only ones who were happy to work with me had been the newer recruits. The older ones had all seen too many lives shattered by the abuse of magic, and their experiences had marked them deeply. With one exception, they didn’t like me, they didn’t trust me, and they didn’t want anything to do with me.
That generally suited me just fine.
Over the past few years, the White Council had come to realize that someone on the inside was feeding information to the vampires. A lot of people died because of the traitor, but he, or she, had never been identified. Given how much the Council in general and the Wardens in particular loved me, the ensuing paranoia-fest had kept my life from getting too boring—especially after I’d been dragooned into joining the Wardens myself, as part of the war effort.
So why was Morgan here, asking for help from me?
Call me crazy, but my suspicious side immediately put forward the idea that Morgan was trying to sucker me into doing something to get me into major hot water with the Council again. Hell, he’d tried to kill me that way, once, several years ago. But logic simply didn’t support that idea. If Morgan wasn’t really in trouble with the Council, then I couldn’t get into trouble for hiding him from a pursuit that didn’t exist. Besides, his injuries said more about his sincerity than any number of words could. They had not been faked.
He was actually on the lam.
Until I found out more about what was going on, I didn’t dare go to anyone for help. I couldn’t very well ask my fellow Wardens about Morgan without it being painfully obvious that I had seen him, which would only attract their interest. And if the Council was after Morgan, then anyone who helped him would become an accomplice to the crime, and draw heat of his own. I couldn’t ask anyone to help me.
Anyone else, I corrected myself. I’d had little option but to call Butters in—and frankly, the fact that he was not at all involved in the supernatural world would afford him some insulation from any consequences that might arise from his complicity. Besides which, Butters had earned a little good credit with the White Council the night he’d helped me prevent a family-sized order of necromancers from turning one of their number into a minor god. He’d saved the life of at least one Warden—two, if you counted me—and was in far less danger than anyone attached to the community would be.
Me, for example.
Man, my head was killing me.
Until I knew more about what was going on, I really couldn’t take any intelligent action—and I didn’t dare start asking questions for fear of attracting unwanted attention. Rushing headlong into a investigation would be a mistake, which meant that I would have to wait until Morgan could start talking to me.
So I stretched out on my couch to do some thinking, and began focusing on my breathing, trying to relax the headache away and clear my thoughts. It went so well that I stayed right there doing it for about six hours, until the late dusk of a Chicago summer had settled on the city.
I didn’t fall asleep. I was meditating. You’re going to have to take my word for it.
I woke up when Mouse let out a low guttural sound that wasn’t quite a bark, but was considerably shorter and more distinct than a growl. I sat up and went to my bedroom, to find Morgan awake.
Mouse was standing next to the bed, leaning his broad, heavy head on Morgan’s chest. The wounded man was idly scratching Mouse’s ears. He glanced aside at me and started to sit up.
Mouse leaned harder, and gently flattened Morgan to the bed again.
Morgan exhaled in obvious discomfort, and said, in a croaking, dry voice, “I take it I am undergoing mandatory bed rest.”
“Yeah,” I said quietly. “You were banged up pretty bad. The doctor said that walking on that leg would be a bad idea.”
Morgan’s eyes sharpened. “Doctor?”
“Relax. It was off the books. I know a guy.”
Morgan grunted. Then he licked cracked lips and said, “Is there anything to drink?”
I got him some cold water in a sports bottle with a big straw. He knew better than to guzzle. He sipped at it slowly. Then he took a deep breath, grimaced like a man about to intentionally put his hand in a fire, and said, “Thank y—”
“Oh shut up,” I said, shuddering. “Neither of us wants that conversation.”
Maybe I imagined it, but it looked like he relaxed slightly. He nodded and closed his eyes again.
“Don’t go back to sleep yet,” I told him. “I still have to take your temperature. It would be awkward.”
“God’s beard, yes,” Morgan said, opening his eyes. I went and got my thermometer, one of the old-fashioned ones filled with mercury. When I came back, Morgan said, “You didn’t turn me in.”
“Not yet,” I said. “I’m willing to hear you out.”
Morgan nodded, accepted the thermometer, and said, “Aleron LaFortier is dead.”
He stuck the thermometer in his mouth, presumably to attempt to kill me with the suspense. I fought back by thinking through the implications, instead.
LaFortier was a member of the Senior Council—seven of the oldest and most capable wizards on the planet, the ones who ran the White Council and commanded the Wardens. He was—had been—skinny, bald, and a sanctimonious jerk. I’d been wearing a hood at the time, so I couldn’t be certain, but I suspected that his voice had been the first of the Senior Council to vote guilty at my trial, and had argued against clemency for my crimes. He was a hard-line supporter of the Merlin, the head of the Council, who had been dead set against me.
All in all, a swell guy.
But he’d also been one of the best-protected wizards in the world. All the members of the Senior Council were not only dangerous in their own rights, but protected by details of Wardens, to boot. Attempted assassinations had been semiregular events during the war with the vampires, and the Wardens had become very, very good at keeping the Senior Council safe.
I did some math from there.
“It was an inside job,” I said quietly. “Like the one that killed Simon at Archangel.”
“And they blamed you?”
Morgan nodded and took the thermometer out of his mouth. He glanced at it, and then passed to me. I looked. Ninety-nine and change.
I met his eyes and said, “Did you do it?”
I grunted. I believed him.
“Why’d they finger you?”
“Because they found me standing over LaFortier’s body with the murder weapon in my hand,” he replied. “They also turned up a newly created account, in my name, with several million dollars in it, and phone records that showed I was in regular contact with a known operative of the Red Court.”
I arched an eyebrow. “Gosh. That was irrational of them, to jump to that conclusion.”
Morgan’s mouth turned up in a small sour smile.
“What’s your story?” I asked him.
“I went to bed two nights ago. I woke up in LaFortier’s private study in Edinburgh, with a lump on the back of my head and a bloody dagger in my hand. Simmons and Thorsen burst into the room maybe fifteen seconds later.”
“You were framed.”
I exhaled a slow breath. “You got any proof? An alibi? Anything?”
“If I did,” he said, “I wouldn’t have had to escape custody. Once I realized that someone had gone to a lot of effort to set me up to take the blame, I knew that my only chance—” He broke off, coughing.
“Was to find the real killer,” I finished for him. I passed him the drink again, and he choked down a few sips, slowly relaxing.
A few minutes later, he turned exhausted eyes to mine. “Are you going to turn me in?”
I looked at him for a silent minute, and then sighed. “It’d be a lot easier.”
“Yes,” Morgan said.
“You sure you were going down for it?”
Something in his expression became even more remote than usual. He nodded. “I’ve seen it often enough.”
“So I could leave you hanging out to dry.”
“But if I did that, we wouldn’t find the traitor. And since you’d died in his place, he’d be free to continue operating. More people would get killed, and the next person he framed—”
“—might be you,” Morgan finished.
“With my luck?” I said glumly. “No might about it.”
The brief sour smile appeared on his face again.
“They’re using tracking spells to follow you,” I said. “I assume you’ve taken some kind of countermeasure, or they’d already be at the door.”
“How long is it going to last?”
“Forty-eight hours. Sixty at the most.”
I nodded slowly, thinking. “You’re running a fever. I’ve got some medical supplies stashed. I’ll get them for you. Hopefully we can keep it from getting any worse.”
He nodded again, and then his sunken eyes closed. He’d run out of gas. I watched him for a minute, then turned and started gathering up my things.
“Keep an eye on him, boy,” I said to Mouse.
The big dog settled down on the floor beside the bed.
Forty-eight hours. I had about two days to find the traitor within the White Council—something no one had been able to do during the past several years. After that, Morgan would be found, tried, and killed—and his accomplice, your friendly neighborhood Harry Dresden, would be next.
Nothing motivates like a deadline.
Especially the literal kind.
I got in my busted-up old Volkswagen bug, the mighty Blue Beetle, and headed for the cache of medical supplies.
The problem with hunting down the traitor in the White Council was simple: because of the specific information leaks that had occurred, there were a limited number of people who could have possessed the information. The suspect pool was damn small—just about everyone in it was a member of the Senior Council, and everyone there was beyond reproach.
The second someone threw an accusation at one of them, things were going to get busy, and fast. If an innocent was fingered, they would react the same way Morgan had. Knowing full well that the justice of the Council was blind, especially to annoying things like facts, they would have little choice but to resist.
One punky young wizard like me bucking the system was one thing, but when one of the heavyweights on the Senior Council did it, there would be a world of difference. The Senior Council members all had extensive contacts in the Council. They all had centuries of experience and skill to back up enormous amounts of raw strength. If one of them put up a fight, it would mean more than resisting arrest.
It would mean internal strife like the White Council had never seen.
It would mean civil war.
And, under the circumstances, I couldn’t imagine anything more disastrous for the White Council. The balance of power between the supernatural nations was a precarious thing—and we had barely managed to hang on throughout the war with the Vampire Courts. Both sides were getting their wind back now, but the vampires could replace their losses far more quickly than we could. If the Council dissolved into infighting now, it would trigger a feeding frenzy amongst our foes.
Morgan had been right to run. I knew the Merlin well enough to know that he wouldn’t blink twice before sacrificing an innocent man if it meant holding the Council together, much less someone who might actually be guilty.
Meanwhile, the real traitor would be clapping his hands in glee. One of the Senior Council was already down, and if the Council as a whole didn’t implode in the next few days, it would become that much rifer with paranoia and distrust, following the execution of the most capable and highly accomplished combat commander in the Wardens. All the traitor would need to do was rinse and repeat, with minor variations, and sooner or later something would crack.
I would only get one shot at this. I had to find the guilty party, and I had to be right and irrefutable the very first time.
Colonel Mustard, in the den, with the lead pipe.
Now all I needed was a clue.
No pressure, Harry.
My half brother lived in an expensive apartment on the very edge of the Gold Coast area, which, in Chicago, is where a whole lot of people with a whole lot of money live. Thomas runs an upscale boutique, specializing in the kind of upper-crust clientele who seem to be willing to pay a couple hundred dollars for a haircut and a blow-dry. He does well for himself, too, as evidenced by his expensive address.
I parked a few blocks west of his apartment, where the rates weren’t quite so Gold Coasty, and then walked in to his place and leaned on his buzzer. No one answered. I checked the clock in the lobby, then folded my arms, leaned against a wall, and waited for him to get home from work.
His car pulled into the building’s lot a few minutes later. He’d replaced the enormous Hummer that we’d managed to trash with a brand-new ridiculously expensive car—a Jaguar, with plenty of flash and gold trim. It was, needless to say, pure white. I kept on lurking, waiting for him to come around to the doors.
He did, a minute later. He was maybe a hair or three under six feet tall, dressed in midnight blue leather pants and a white silk shirt with big blousy sleeves. His hair was midnight black, presumably to complement the pants, and fell in rippling waves to just below his shoulders. He had grey eyes, teeth whiter than the Ku Klux Klan, and a face that had been made for fashion magazines. He had the build to go with it, too. Thomas made all those Spartans in that movie look like slackers, and he didn’t even use an airbrush.
He raised his dark brows as he saw me. “ ’Arry,” he said in the hideously accurate French accent he used in public. “Good evening, mon ami.”
I nodded to him. “Hey. We need to talk.”
His smile faded as he took in my expression and body language, and he nodded. “But of course.”
We went on up to his apartment. It was immaculate, as always, the furnishings expensive, modern, and oh so trendy, with a lot of brushed nickel finish in evidence. I went in, leaned my quarterstaff against the frame of the front door, and slouched down onto one of the couches. I looked at it for a minute.
“How much did you pay for this?” I asked him.
He dropped the accent. “About what you did for the Beetle.”
I shook my head, and tried to find a comfortable way to sit. “That much money, you’d think they could afford more cushions. I’ve sat on fences more comfy than this.”
“That’s because it isn’t really meant to be sat upon,” Thomas replied. “It’s meant to show people how very wealthy and fashionable one is.”
“I got one of my couches for thirty bucks at a garage sale. It’s orange and green plaid, and it’s tough not to fall asleep in it when you sit down.”
“It’s very you,” Thomas said, smiling as he crossed to the kitchen. “Whereas this is very much me. Or very much my persona, anyway. Beer?”
“Long as it’s cold.”
He returned with a couple of dark brown bottles coated in frost, and passed me one. We took the tops off, clinked, and then he sat down on the chair across from the couch as we drank.
“Okay,” he said. “What’s up?”
“Trouble,” I replied. I told him about Morgan.
Thomas scowled. “Empty night, Harry. Morgan? Morgan!? What’s wrong with your head?”
I shrugged. “I don’t think he did it.”
“Who cares? Morgan wouldn’t cross the street to piss on you if you were on fire,” Thomas growled. “He’s finally getting his comeuppance. Why should you lift a finger?”
“Because I don’t think he did it,” I said. “Besides. You haven’t thought it through.”
Thomas slouched back in the chair and regarded me with narrowed eyes as he sipped at his beer. I joined him, and let him mull it over in silence. There was nothing wrong with Thomas’s brain.
“Okay,” he said, grudgingly. “I can think of a couple of reasons you’d want to cover his homicidal ass.”
“I need the medical stuff I left with you.”
He rose and went to the hall closet—which was packed to groaning with all manner of household articles that build up when you stay in one place for a while. He removed a white toolbox with a red cross painted on the side of it, and calmly caught a softball that rolled off the top shelf before it hit his head. He shut everything in again, got a cooler out of his fridge, and put it and the medical kit on the floor next to me.
“Please don’t tell me that this is all I can do,” he said.
“No. There’s something else.”
He spread his hands. “Well?”
“I’d like you to find out what the Vampire Courts know about the manhunt. And I need you to stay under the radar while you do it.”
He stared at me for a moment, and then exhaled slowly. “Why?”
I shrugged. “I’ve got to know more about what’s going on. I can’t ask my people. And if a bunch of people know you’re asking around, someone is going to connect some dots and take a harder look at Chicago.”
My brother the vampire went completely still for a moment. It isn’t something human beings can do. All of him, even the sense of his presence in the room, just . . . stopped. I felt like I was staring at a wax figure.
“You’re asking me to bring Justine into this,” he said.
Justine was the girl who had been willing to give her life for my brother. And who he’d nearly killed himself to protect. “Love” didn’t begin to cover what they had. Neither did “broken.”
My brother was a vampire of the White Court. For him, love hurt. Thomas and Justine couldn’t ever be together.
“She’s the personal aide of the leader of the White Court,” I said. “If anyone’s in a good position to find out, she is.”
He rose, the motion a little too quick to be wholly human, and paced back and forth in agitation. “She’s already taking enough risks, feeding information on the White Court’s activities back to you when it’s safe for her to do it. I don’t want her taking more chances.”
“I get that,” I said. “But situations like this are the whole reason she went undercover in the first place. This is exactly the kind of thing she wanted to do when she went in.”
Thomas mutely shook his head.
I sighed. “Look, I’m not asking her to deactivate the tractor beam, rescue the princess, and escape to the fourth moon of Yavin. I just need to know what she’s heard and what she can find out without blowing her cover.”
He paced for another half a minute or so before he stopped and stared at me hard. “Promise me something, first.”
“Promise me that you won’t put her in any more danger than she already is. Promise me that you won’t act on any information they could trace back to her.”
“Dammit, Thomas,” I said wearily. “That just isn’t possible. There’s no way to know exactly which information will be safe to use, and no way to know for certain which bits of data might be misinformation.”
“Promise me,” he said, emphasizing both words.
I shook my head. “I promise that I’ll do absolutely everything in my power to keep Justine safe.”
His jaws clenched a few times. The promise didn’t satisfy him—though it was probably more accurate to say that the situation didn’t satisfy him. He knew I couldn’t guarantee her complete safety and he knew that I’d given him everything I could.
He took a deep, slow breath.
Then he nodded.
“Okay,” he said.
About five minutes after I left Thomas’s place, I found myself instinctively checking the rearview mirror every couple of seconds and recognized the quiet tension that had begun to flow through me. My gut was telling me that I’d picked up a tail.
Granted, it was only an intuition, but hey. Wizard, over here. My instincts had earned enough credibility to make me pay attention to them. If they told me someone was following me, it was time to start watching my back.
If someone was following me, it wasn’t necessarily connected to the current situation with Morgan. I mean, it didn’t absolutely have to be, right? But I hadn’t survived a ton of ugly furballs by being thick all of the time. Generally, maybe, but not all the time, and I’d be an idiot to assume that my sudden company was unconnected to Morgan.
I took a few turns purely for fun, but I couldn’t spot any vehicles following mine. That didn’t necessarily mean anything. A good surveillance team, working together, could follow a target all but invisibly, especially at night, when every car on the road looked pretty much like the same pair of headlights. Just because I couldn’t see them didn’t mean that they weren’t there.
The hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and I felt my shoulders ratcheting tighter with each passing streetlight.
What if my pursuer wasn’t in a car?
My imagination promptly treated me to visions of numerous winged horrors, soaring silently on batlike wings just above the level of the ambient light of the city, preparing to dive down upon the Blue Beetle and tear it into strips of sheet metal. The streets were busy, as they almost always were in this part of town. It was one hell of a public location for a hit, but that didn’t automatically preclude the possibility. It had happened to me before.
I chewed on my lower lip and thought. I couldn’t go back to my apartment until I was sure that I had shaken the tail. To do that, I’d have to spot him.
I wasn’t going to get through the next two days without taking some chances. I figured I might as well get started.
I drew in a deep breath, focused my thoughts, and blinked slowly, once. When I opened my eyes again, I brought my Sight along with them.
A wizard’s Sight, his ability to perceive the world around him in a vastly broadened spectrum of interacting forces, is a dangerous gift. Whether it’s called spirit vision, or inner sight, or the Third Eye, it lets you perceive things you’d otherwise never be able to interact with. It shows you the world the way it really is, matter all intertwined with a universe of energy, of magic. The Sight can show you beauty that would make angels weep humble tears, and terrors that the Black-Goat-with-a-Thousand-Young wouldn’t dare use for its kids’ bedtime stories.
Whatever you see, the good, the bad, the insanity-inducing—it sticks with you forever. You can’t ever forget it, and time doesn’t blur the memories. It’s yours. Permanently.
Wizards who run around using their Sight willy-nilly wind up bonkers.
My Third Eye showed me Chicago, in its true shape, and for a second I thought I had been teleported to Vegas. Energy ran through the streets, the buildings, the people, appearing to me as slender filaments of light that ran this way and that, plunging into solid objects and out the other side without interruption. The energies coursing through the grand old buildings had a solid and unmoving stability about them, as did the city streets—but the rest of it, the random energies generated by the thoughts and emotions of eight million people, was completely unplanned and coursed everywhere in frenetic, haphazard, garish color.
Clouds of emotion were interspersed with the flickering campfire sparks of ideas. Heavy flowing streams of deep thought rolled slowly beneath blazing, dancing gems of joy. The muck of negative emotions clung to surfaces, staining them darker, while fragile bubbles of dreams floated blissfully toward kaleidoscope stars.
Holy crap. I could barely see the lines on the road through all of that.
I checked over my shoulder, seeing each occupant of the cars behind me clearly, as brilliantly lit shapes of white that skittered with other colors that changed with thoughts, moods, and personalities. If I’d been closer to them, I’d have been able to see more details about them, though they would be subject to my subconscious interpretation. Even at this distance, though, I could tell that they were all mortals.
That was a relief, in some ways. I’d be able to spot any wizard strong enough to be one of the Wardens. If whoever was pursuing me was a normal, it was almost certain that the Wardens hadn’t caught up to Morgan yet.
I checked up above me and—
Try to imagine the stench of rotten meat. Imagine the languid, arrhythmic pulsing of a corpse filled with maggots. Imagine the scent of stale body odor mixed with mildew, the sound of nails screeching across a chalkboard, the taste of rotten milk, and the flavor of spoiled fruit.
Now imagine that your eyes can experience those things, all at once, in excruciating detail.
That’s what I saw: a stomach-churning, nightmare-inducing mass, blazing like a lighthouse beacon upon one of the buildings above me. I could vaguely make out a physical form behind it, but it was like trying to peer through raw sewage. I couldn’t get any details through the haze of absolute wrongness that surrounded it as it bounded from the edge of one rooftop to another, moving more than fast enough to keep pace with me.
Someone screamed, and I dimly noted that it was probably me. The car hit something that made it shriek in protest. It jounced hard up and down, wham-wham. I’d drifted into the curb. I felt the front wheels shimmy through the steering wheel, and I slammed on the brakes, still screaming, as I fought to close my Third Eye.
The next thing I knew, car horns were blaring an impatient symphony.
I was sitting in the driver’s seat, gripping the wheel until my knuckles were white. The engine had died. Judging from the dampness on my cheeks, I must have been crying—unless I’d started foaming at the mouth, which, I reflected, was a distinct possibility.
Stars and stones. What on God’s green earth was that thing?
Even brushing against the subject in my thoughts was enough to bring the memory of the thing back to me in all its hideous terror. I flinched and squeezed my eyes shut, shoving hard against the steering wheel. I could feel my body shaking. I don’t know how long it took me to fight my way clear of the memory—and when I did, everything was the same, only louder.
With the clock counting down, I couldn’t afford to let the cops take me into custody for a DWI, but that’s exactly what would happen if I didn’t start driving again, assuming I didn’t actually wreck the car first. I took a deep breath and willed myself not to think of the apparition—
I saw it again.
When I came back, I’d bitten my tongue, and my throat felt raw. I shook even harder.
There was no way I could drive. Not like this. One stray thought and I could get somebody killed in a collision. But I couldn’t remain there, either.
I pulled the Beetle up onto the sidewalk, where it would be out of the street at least. Then I got out of the car and started walking away. The city would tow me in about three point five milliseconds, but at least I wouldn’t be around to get arrested.
I stumbled down the sidewalk, hoping that my pursuer, the apparition, wasn’t—
When I looked up again, I was curled into a ball on the ground, muscles aching from cramping so tight. People were walking wide around me, giving me nervous sidelong glances. I felt so weak that I wasn’t sure I could stand.
I needed help.
I looked up at the street signs on the nearest corner and stared at them until my cudgeled brain finally worked out where I was standing.
I rose, forced to lean on my staff to stay upright, and hobbled forward as quickly as I could. I started calculating prime numbers as I walked, focusing on the process as intently as I would any spell.
“One,” I muttered through clenched teeth. “Two. Three. Five. Seven. Eleven. Thirteen . . .”
And I staggered through the night, literally too terrified to think about what might be coming after me.
By the time I’d reached twenty-two hundred and thirty-nine, I’d arrived at Billy and Georgia’s place.
Life had changed for the young werewolves since Billy had graduated and started pulling in serious money as an engineer, but they hadn’t moved out of the apartment they’d had in college. Georgia was still in school, learning something psychological, and they were saving for a house. Good thing for me. I wouldn’t have been able to walk to the suburbs.
Georgia answered the door. She was a tall woman, lean and willowy, and in a T-shirt and loose, long shorts, she looked smarter than she did pretty.
“My God,” she said, when she saw me. “Harry.”
“Hey, Georgia,” I said. “Twenty-two hundred and . . . uh. Forty-three. I need a dark, quiet room.”
She blinked at me. “What?”
“Twenty-two hundred and fifty-one,” I responded, seriously. “And send up the wolf-signal. You want the gang here. Twenty-two hundred and, uh . . . sixty . . . seven.”
She stepped back from the door, holding the door open for me. “Harry, what are you talking about?”
I came inside. “Twenty-two hundred and sixty . . . not divisible by three, sixty-nine. I need a dark room. Quiet. Protection.”
“Is something after you?” Georgia said.
Even with the help of Eratosthenes, when Georgia asked the question and my brain answered it, I couldn’t keep the image of that thingfrom invading my thoughts, and it drove me to my knees and would have sent me all the way to the floor—except that Billy caught me before I could get there. He was a short guy, maybe five six, but he had the upper body of a professional wrestler and moved with the speed and precision of a predator.
“Dark room,” I gasped. “Call in the gang. Hurry.”
“Do it,” Georgia said, her voice low and urgent. She shut the door and locked it, then slammed down a heavy wooden beam the size of a picnic table’s bench that they had installed themselves. “Get him into our room. I’ll make the calls.”
“Got it,” Billy said. He picked me up the way you’d carry a child, barely grunting as he did. He carried me down the hall and into a dark bedroom. He laid me down on a bed, then crossed to the window—and pulled and locked a heavy steel security curtain over it, evidently another customization that he and Georgia had installed.
“What do you need, Harry?” Billy asked.
“Dark. Quiet. Explain it later.”
He put a hand on my shoulder and said, “Right.” Then he padded out of the room and shut the door.
It left me in the dark with my thoughts—which is where I needed to be.
“Come on, Harry,” I muttered to myself. “Get used to the idea.”
And I thought about the thing I’d Seen.
It hurt. But when I came back to myself, I did it again. And again. And again.
Yes, I’d Seen something horrible. Yes, it was a hideous terror. But I’d Seen other things, too.
I called up those memories, too, all of them just as sharp and fresh as the horror pressing upon me. I’d Seen good people screaming in madness under the influence of black magic. I’d Seen the true selves of men and women, good and bad, Seen people kill—and die. I’d Seen the Queens of Faerie as they prepared for battle, drawing all their awful power around them.
And I’d be damned if I was going to roll over for one more horrible thing doing nothing but jumping from one rooftop to another.
“Come on, punk,” I snarled at the memory. “Next to those others, you’re a bad yearbook picture.”
And I hit myself with it, again and again, filling my mind with every horrible and beautiful thing I had ever Seen—and as I did, I focused on what I had bloody well done about it. I remembered the things I’d battled and destroyed. I remembered the strongholds of nightmares and terrors that I had invaded, the dark gates I’d kicked down. I remembered the faces of prisoners I’d freed, and the funerals of those I’d been too late to save. I remembered the sounds of voices and laughter, the joy of loved ones reunited, the tears of the lost and bereaved.
There are bad things in the world. There’s no getting away from that. But that doesn’t mean nothing can be done about them. You can’t abandon life just because it’s scary, and just because sometimes you get hurt.
The memory of the thing hurt like hell—but pain wasn’t anything special or new. I’d lived with it before, and would do it again. It wasn’t the first thing I’d Seen, and it wouldn’t be the last.
I was not going to roll over and die.
Sledgehammers of perfect memory pounded me down into blackness.
When I pulled myself back together, I was sitting on the bed, my legs folded Indian-style. My palms rested on my knees. My breathing was slow and rhythmically heavy. My back was straight. My head pounded painfully, but not cripplingly so.
I looked up and around the room. It was dark, but I’d been in there long enough for my eyes to adjust to the light coming under the door. I could see myself in the dresser mirror. My back was straight and relaxed. I’d taken my coat off, and was wearing a black T-shirt that read “PRE-FECTIONIST” in small white letters, backward in the mirror. A thin, dark runnel of blood had streamed from each nostril and was now drying on my upper lip. I could taste blood in my mouth, probably from where I’d bitten my tongue earlier.
I thought of my pursuer again, and the image made me shudder—but that was all. I kept breathing slowly and steadily.
That was the upside of being human. On the whole, we’re an adaptable sort of being. Certainly, I’d never be able to get rid of my memory of this awful thing, or any of the other awful things I’d Seen—so if the memory couldn’t change, it would have to be me. I could get used to seeing that kind of horror, enough to see it and yet remain a reasoning being. Better men than I had done so.
I shivered again, and not because of any memory. It was because I knew what it could mean, when you forced yourself to live with hideous things like that. It changed you. Maybe not all at once. Maybe it didn’t turn you into a monster. But I’d been scarred and I knew it.
How many times would something like this need to happen before I started bending myself into something horrible just to survive? I was young for a wizard. Where would I be after decades or centuries of refusing to look away?
I got up and went into the bathroom attached to the bedroom. I turned on the lights, and winced as they raked at my eyes. I washed the blood from my face, and cleaned the sink of it carefully. In my business, you don’t leave your blood where anyone can find it.
Then I put my coat back on and left the bedroom.
Billy and Georgia were in the living room. Billy was at the window that led out to the tiny balcony. Georgia was on the phone.
“I’m not getting anything out here,” Billy said. “Is he sure?”
Georgia murmured into the phone. “Yes. He’s sure it circled this way. It should be in sight from where you are.”
“It isn’t,” Billy said. He turned his head over his shoulder and said, “Harry. Are you all right?”
“I’ll survive,” I said, and paced over to the window. “It followed me here, huh?”
“Something’s outside,” Billy said. “Something we’ve never run into before. It’s been playing hide-and-seek with Kirby and Andi for an hour. They can’t catch it or get a good look at it.”
I gave Billy a sharp look. There weren’t many things that could keep ahead of the werewolves, working together. Wolves are just too damn alert and quick, and Billy and company had been working Chicago almost as long as I had. They knew how to handle themselves—and in the past couple of months, I’d been teaching my apprentice a little humility by letting her try her veiling spells against the werewolves. They’d hunted her down in moments, every time.
“So whatever’s out there, it isn’t human,” I said. “Not if it can stay ahead of Kirby and Andi.” I crossed to the window and stared out with Billy. “And it can veil itself from sight.”
“What is it?” Billy asked quietly.
“I don’t know,” I said. “But it’s real bad.” I glanced back at Georgia. “How long was I down?”
She checked her watch. “Eighty-two minutes.”
I nodded. “It’s had plenty of time to try to come in, if that’s what it wanted.” I felt a nauseated little quiver in my stomach as a tight smile stretched my lips. “It’s playing with me.”
“What?” Billy said.
“It’s dancing around in front of us out there, under a veil. It’s daring me to use my Sight so that I’ll be able to spot it.”
From outside, there was a sound, a cry. It was short and high-pitched, loud enough to make the windows quiver. I’d never heard anything like it before. The hair stood up on the back of my neck, a purely instinctive reaction. My instincts had been tracking this thing well, so far, so I trusted them when they told me one more thing—that cry was a statement. The hunt was on.
An instant later, every light in sight blew out in a shower of sparks, and darkness swallowed several city blocks.
“Tell Andi and Kirby to get back here to the apartment!” I snapped at Georgia. I grabbed my staff from where it leaned against the wall by the door. “Billy, you’re with me. Get your game face on.”
“Harry?” Georgia said, confused.
“Now!” I snapped, flinging the bar off the door.
By the time I’d reached the bottom of the stairs, there was the sound of a heavy, controlled impact, and a wolf with hair the same dark brown as Billy’s hit the floor next to me. It was an enormous beast, easily as heavy as Mouse, but taller and leaner—a wolf the world has rarely seen between here and the last ice age. I slammed open the door and let Billy out ahead of me. He bounded over a parked car—and I mean completely over it, lengthwise—and shot toward the buildings at the back of the complex.
Billy had been in contact with Andi and Kirby, and knew their approximate positions. I followed him, my staff in hand, already summoning up my will. I wasn’t sure what was out here, but I wanted to be ready for it.
Kirby appeared from around the northernmost corner of the other building. He hurried along with a cell phone pressed to his ear, a lanky, dark-haired young man in sweat pants and a baggy T-shirt. The active phone painted half his face like a miniature floodlight. I checked the southern corner of the building at once, and saw a dark, furry shape trotting around the corner—Andi, like Billy, in her wolf form.
Wait a minute.
If the whatever-it-was had taken out the local lights, how in the hell had Kirby’s cell phone survived the hex? Magic and technology don’t get along so well, and the more complex electronic devices tended to fall apart most quickly. Cell phones were like those security guys in red shirts on old Star Trek: as soon as something started happening, they were always the first to go.
If the creature, whatever it was, had blown out the lights, it would have gotten the phone, too. Unless it hadn’t wanted to take the phone out.
Kirby was the only clearly lit object in sight—an ideal target.
When the attack came, it came fast.
There was a ripple in the air, as something moving beneath a veil crossed between me and the light cast by Kirby’s phone. There was an explosive snarl, and the phone went flying, leaving Kirby hidden in shadow.
Billy flung himself forward, even as I ripped the silver pentacle amulet from around my neck and lifted it, calling forth silver-blue wizard light with my will. Light flooded the area between the complex’s buildings.
Kirby was on his back, in the center of a splatter of black that could only be blood. Billy was standing crouched over him, his teeth bared in a snarl. He suddenly lunged forward, teeth ripping, and a distortion of the air in front of him bounded up and then to one side. I lurched forward, feeling as if I was running through hip-deep peanut butter. I got the impression of something four-legged and furry evading Billy’s attack, a raw flicker of vision like something seen out of the very corner of the eye.
Then Billy was on his back, slashing with canine claws, ripping savagely with his teeth, while something shadowy and massive overbore him, pinning him down.
Andi, a red-furred wolf that was smaller and swifter than Billy’s form, hurtled through the air and tore at the back of the attacker.
It screamed again, the sound deeper-chested than before, more resonant. The creature whirled on Andi, too swiftly to be believed, and a limb slammed into her, sending her flying into a brick wall. She hit with a yipping cry of pain and a hideous snapping sound.
I raised my staff, anger and terror and determination surging down into the wooden tool, and shouted, “Forzare!”
My will unspooled into a lance of invisible energy and slammed into the creature. I’ve flipped over cars with blasts of force like that, but the thing barely rocked back, slapping at the air with its forelimbs. The blast shattered against it in a shower of reddish sparks.
The conflicting energies disrupted its veil, just for a second. I saw something somewhere between a cougar and a bear, with sparse, dirty golden fur. It must have weighed several hundred pounds. It had oversized fangs, bloodied claws, and its eyes were a bright and sickly yellow that looked reptilian, somehow.
Its snarling mouth twisted in a way that no animal’s could, forming words, albeit words that I did not understand. Its form twisted, changing with liquid speed, and in maybe half a second, a cougar bigger than any mountain lion I’d ever even heard about was hurtling toward me, vanishing into the rippling colors of a veil as it came.
I brought up my left hand, slamming my will into the bracelet hung upon it. The bracelet, a braid of metals hung with charms in the shape of medieval shields, was another tool like the staff, a device that let me focus the energies I wielded more quickly and efficiently.
A quarter dome of blue-white light sprang into existence before me, and the creature slammed into it like a brick wall. Well. More like a rickety wooden wall. I felt the shield begin to give as the creature struck it—but at least initially, it stopped it in its tracks.
Billy hit it low and hard.
The great dark wolf sailed in, teeth ripping, and got hold of something. The creature howled, this time more in pain than fury, and whirled on Billy—but the leader of Chicago’s resident werewolves was already on the way back out, and he bounded aside from the creature’s counterattack.
It was faster than Billy was. It caught him, and I saw Billy hunch his shoulders against its attack, his fur being bloodied as he crouched low, standing his ground.
So that Georgia could hit it low and hard.
Georgia ’s wolf form was dusty brown, taller and lither than Billy’s, and moved with deadly precision. She raked at the creature, forcing it to turn to her—only to be forced to keep whirling as Billy went after its flank.
I brandished my staff, timing my shot with my teeth gritted, and then screamed again as I sent another lance of force at the creature, aiming for its legs. The blast tore gashes in the asphalt and brought the nearly invisible thing to the ground, once more disrupting its veil. Billy and Georgia rushed toward it to keep it pinned down, and I raised my staff, calling up more energy. My next shot was going to pile-driver the thing straight down into the water table, by God.
But once more, its shape turned liquid—and suddenly a hawk with a wingspan longer than my car tore into the air, reptilian yellow eyes glaring. It soared aloft, its wings beating twice, and vanished into the night sky.
I stared after that for a second. Then I said, “Oh, crap.”
I looked around in the wildly dancing light of my amulet, and rushed toward Andi. She was unconscious, her body reverted to its human form—that of a redhead with a killer figure. One entire side of her body was a swelling purple bruise. She had a broken arm, shoulder, ribs, and her face was so horribly damaged that I had to worry about her skull as well. She was breathing, barely.
The shapeshifter had been strong.
Georgia arrived at my side in wolf form, her eyes, ears, and nose all alert, scanning around us, above us.
I turned my head to see Billy, nude and in human form, crouched over Kirby. I lifted my light and moved a couple of steps over toward him so I could see.
Kirby’s throat was gone. Just gone. There was a scoop of flesh as wide as my palm missing, and bare vertebrae showed at the back of it. The edges of the gaping wound were black and crumbling, as if charred to black dust. Kirby’s eyes were glassy and staring. His blood was everywhere.
“Hell’s bells,” I breathed. I stared at the dead young man, a friend, and shook my head hard once. “Billy, come on. Andi’s still alive. We can’t leave her out here. We’ve got to get her behind your threshold and get her an ambulance, now.”
Billy crouched over Kirby, his face twisted in confusion and rage.
“Will!” I shouted.
He looked up at me.
“Andi,” I said. “Help me get her inside.”
He nodded jerkily. Then the two of us went to her. We laid my duster out on the ground and got her onto it as gently as we could. Then we picked her up and carried her back toward the apartment building. People were calling out in the buildings around us, now. Flashlights and candles and chemical glow lights had begun to appear. I had no doubt that within a few minutes, we’d get sirens, too.
From somewhere above us, there was a contemptuous brassy cry—the same tone I heard before, though modulated differently now, coming from an avian throat.
“What was that?” Billy asked, his tone dull and heavy. “What was that thing?”
“I’m not certain,” I answered, breathing hard. Georgia was coming along behind us, dragging my staff in her jaws. “But if it’s what I think it is, things just got a lot worse.”
Billy looked up at me, Kirby’s blood all over his face and hands. “What is it, Harry?”
“A Native American nightmare,” I said. I looked at him grimly. “A skinwalker.”
Georgia told the EMTs she was Andi’s sister, which was true in a spiritual sense, I suppose, and rode with her in the ambulance to the hospital. The EMTs looked grim.
The cops had gathered around Kirby’s body, and were busy closing off the scene.
“I have to be here,” Billy said.
“I know,” I said. “I’m on the clock, Billy. I can’t stay. I can’t lose the time.”
He nodded. “What do I need to know about skinwalkers?”
“They’re . . . they’re just evil, man. They like hurting people. Shape-shifters, obviously—and the more afraid of them you are, the more powerful they get. They literally feed on fear.”
Billy eyed me. “Meaning you aren’t going to tell me anything more. Because it won’t help me. You think it will scare me.”
“We knew it was here, we were ready for a fight, and you saw what happened,” I said. “If it had hit us from a real ambush, it would have been worse.”
He bared his teeth in a snarl. “We had it.”
“We had it at a momentary disadvantage—and it saw that, and it was smart enough to leave and come back later. All we did was prove to it that it would have to take us seriously to kill us. We won’t get another opportunity like that one.” I put a hand on his shoulder. “You and Georgia stay close to Andi. This thing likes hurting people. And it gets off on hunting down wounded prey. She’s still in danger.”
“Got it,” he said quietly. “What are you going to do?”
“Find out why it’s here,” I said. “There’s Council business afoot. Christ, I didn’t mean to bring you into this.” I stared toward the knot of officers around Kirby’s corpse. “I didn’t mean for this to happen.”
“Kirby was an adult, Dresden,” Billy said. “He knew what could happen. He chose to be here.”
Which was the truth. But it didn’t help. Kirby was still dead. I hadn’t known what the skinwalkerwas before, beyond something awful, but that didn’t change anything.
Kirby was still dead.
And Andi . . . God, I hadn’t even thought about that part. Andi and Kirby had been an intense item. She was going to be heartbroken.
Assuming she didn’t die, too.
Billy—I just couldn’t think of him as Will—blinked tears out of his eyes and said, “You didn’t know it was going to come down like that, man. We all owe you our lives, Harry. I’m glad we got the chance to be there for you.” He nodded toward the police. “I’ll do the talking, then get to Georgia. You’d better go.”
We traded grips, and his was crushingly tight with tension and grief. I nodded to him, and turned to leave. The city lights were starting to come back on as I went out the back entrance to Will’s building, down a side street, and through an alley that ran behind an old bookstore where I wasn’t welcome anymore. I passed the spot in that alley where I’d nearly died, and shivered as I did. I’d barely dodged the old man’s scythe, that day.
Tonight, Kirby hadn’t.
My head felt dislocated, somehow. I should be feeling more than I was. I should be madder than hell. I should be shaking with fear. Something. But instead, I felt like I was observing events from a remote cold place somewhere up above and behind me. It was, I reasoned, probably a side effect of exposing myself to the skinwalker’s true form. Or rather, a side effect of what I’d had to do to get over it.
I wasn’t worried about the skinwalker sneaking up on me. Oh, sure, he might do it, but not cold. Supernatural beings like the skinwalker had so much power that reality itself gets a little strained around them wherever they go, and that has a number of side effects. One of them is a sort of psychic stench that goes with them—a presence that my instincts had twigged to long before the skinwalker had been in a position to do me any real harm.
Read a little folklore, the stuff that hasn’t been prettied up by Disney and the like. Start with the Brothers Grimm. It won’t tell you about skinwalkers, but it will give you a good idea of just how dark some of those tales can be.
Skinwalkers are dark compared to that. You’ve got to get the real stories from the peoples of the Navajo, Ute, and other Southwestern tribes to get the really juicy material. They don’t talk about them often, because the genuine and entirely rational fear the stories inspire only makes the creatures stronger. The tribes rarely talk about them with outsiders, because outsiders have no foundation of folklore to draw upon to protect themselves—and because you never know when the outsider to whom you’re telling dark tales might be a skinwalker, looking to indulge a sense of macabre irony. But I’ve been in the business awhile, and I know people who know the stories. They’d confided a handful to me, in broad daylight, looking nervously around them as they spoke, as if afraid that dredging up the dark memories might catch a skinwalker’s attention.
Because sometimes it did.
That’s how bad skinwalkers are. Even amongst the people who know the danger they represent, who know better than anyone else in the world how to defend against them, no one wants to talk about skinwalkers.
But in a way, it worked in my favor. Walking down a dark alley in the middle of a Chicago night, and stepping over the spot on the concrete where I’d almost been ripped to pieces just wasn’t spooky enough to encompass the presence of a skinwalker. If things got majorly Tales from the Darksidecreepy and shivery, I’d know I was in real trouble.
As it was, the night was simply—
A small figure in a lightweight Cubs jacket stepped around the corner at the end of the alley. The newly restored streetlight shone on blond hair, and Sergeant Karrin Murphy said, “Evening, Dresden.”
“Murph,” I responded woodenly. Murphy was a sergeant with Chicago PD’s Special Investigations department. When something supernaturally bad happened and the cops got involved, Murphy often contacted me to get my take on things. The city didn’t want to hear about “imaginary” things like skinwalkers or vampires. They just wanted the problem to go away—but Murphy and the rest of SI were the people who had to make it happen.
“I tip a guy down at impound to keep an eye out for certain vehicles,” Murphy said. “Pay him in bottles of McAnally’s ale. He calls me and tells me your car got brought in.”
“Uh-huh,” I said.
Murphy fell into pace beside me as I turned out onto the sidewalk. She was five feet nothing, with blond hair that fell a little past her shoulders and blue eyes. She was more cute than pretty, and looked like someone’s favorite aunt. Which seemed likely. She had a fairly large Irish Catholic family.
“Then I hear about a power outage,” she said, “and a huge disturbance at the same apartments where your werewolf friends live. I hear about a girl who might not make it and a boy who didn’t.”
“Yeah,” I said. It might have come out a little bleak.
“Who was it?” Murphy asked.
“Kirby,” I said.
“Jesus,” Murphy said. “What happened?”
“Something fast and mean was following me. The werewolves jumped it. Things went bad.”
Murphy nodded and stopped, and I dimly realized that we were standing next to her Saturn—an updated version of the one that had been blown up—blithely parked in front of a hydrant. She went around to the trunk and popped it open. “I took a look at that pile of parts you call a car.” She drew out the medical toolbox and cooler from her trunk and held them up. “These were on the passenger seat. I thought they might have been there for a reason.”
Hell’s bells. In the confusion of the attack and its aftermath, I had all but forgotten the whole reason I’d gone out in the first place. I took the medical kit from her as she offered it. “Yeah. Stars and stones, yeah, Murph. Thank you.”
“You need a ride?” she asked me.
I’d been planning on flagging down a cab, eventually, but it would be better not to spend the money if I didn’t need to. Wizarding might be sexy, but it didn’t pay nearly as well as lucrative careers like law enforcement. “Sure,” I said.
“What a coincidence. I need some questions answered.” She unlocked the door with an actual key, not the little what’s-it that does it for you automatically with the press of a button, and held it open for me with a gallant little gesture, like I’d done for her about a million times. She probably thought she was mocking me with that impersonation.
She was probably right.
This mess was getting stickier by the minute, and I didn’t want to drag Murphy into it. I mean, Jesus, the werewolves had been capable defenders of their territory for a long while, and I’d gotten half of them taken out in the first couple hours of the case. Murphy wouldn’t fare any better in the waters through which I was currently swimming.
On the other hand, I trusted Murph. I trusted her judgment, her ability to see where her limits lay. She’d seen cops carved to pieces when they tried to box out of their weight division, and knew better than to attempt it. And if she started throwing obstacles in my way—and she could, a lot of them, that I couldn’t do diddly about—then my life would get a whole lot harder. Even though she wasn’t running CPD’s Special Investigations department anymore, she still had clout there, and a word from her to Lieutenant Stallings could hobble me, maybe lethally.
So I guess you could say that Murphy was threatening to bust me if I didn’t talk to her, and you’d be right. And you could say that Murphy was offering to put her life on the line to help me, and you’d be right. And you could say that Murphy had done me a favor with the medical kit, in order to obligate me to her when she told me that she wanted to be dealt in, and you’d be right.
You could also say that I was standing around dithering when time was critical, and you’d be right about that, too.
At the end of the day, Murphy is good people.
I got in the car.
“So let me get this straight,” Murphy said, as we approached my apartment. “You’re hiding a fugitive from your own people’s cops, and you think the guy’s been set up in order to touch off a civil war within the White Council. And there’s some kind of Navajo boogeyman loose in town, following you around and attempting to kill you. And you aren’t sure they’re related.”
“More like I don’t know how they’re related. Yet.”
Murphy chewed on her lip. “Is there anyone on the Council who is in tight with Native American boogeymen?”
“Hard to imagine it,” I said quietly. “Injun Joe” Listens-to-Wind was a Senior Council member who was some kind of Native American shaman. He was a doctor, a healer, and a specialist in exorcisms and restorative magic. He was, in fact, a decent guy. He liked animals.
“But someone’s a traitor,” Murphy said quietly. “Right?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Someone.”
Murphy nodded, frowning at the road ahead of her. “The reason treachery is so reviled,” she said in a careful tone of voice, “is because it usually comes from someone you didn’t think could possibly do such a thing.”
I didn’t say anything in reply. In a minute, her car crunched to a stop in the little gravel lot outside my apartment.
I picked up the medical kit, the cooler, and my staff, and got out of the car.
“Call me the minute you know something,” she said.
“Yep,” I told her. “Don’t take any chances if you see something coming.”
She shook her head. “They aren’t your kids, Harry.”
“Doesn’t matter. Anything you can do to protect them in the hospital . . .”
“Relax,” she said. “Your werewolves won’t be alone. I’ll see to it.”
I nodded and closed my eyes for a second.
“Harry?” she asked me.
“You . . . don’t look so good.”
“It’s been a long night,” I said.
“Yeah,” she said. “Look. I know something about those.”
Murphy did. She’d had more than her share of psychic trauma. She’d seen friends die, too. My memory turned out an unwelcome flash from years before—her former partner, Carmichael, half eviscerated and bleeding to death on white institutional tile flooring.
“I’ll make it,” I said.
“Of course you will,” she said. “There’s just . . . there’s a lot of ways you could deal, Harry. Some of them are better than others. I care about what happens to you. And I’m here.”
I kept my eyes closed in order to make sure I didn’t start crying like a girl or something. I nodded, not trusting myself to speak.
“Take care, Harry,” she said.
“You, too,” I said. It came out a little raspy. I tilted the toolbox at her in a wave, and headed into my apartment to see Morgan.
I had to admit—I hated hearing the sound of my friend’s car leaving.
I pushed those thoughts away. Psychic trauma or not, I could fall to little pieces later.
I had work to do.
Morgan woke up when I opened the bedroom door. He looked bad, but not any worse than he did before, except for some spots of color on his cheeks.
“Lemme see to my roommates,” I said. “I got the goods.” I put the medical kit down on the nightstand.
He nodded and closed his eyes.
I took Mouse outside for a walk to the mailbox. He seemed unusually alert, nose snuffling at everything, but he didn’t show any signs of alarm. We went by the spot in the tiny backyard that had been designated as Mouse’s business area, and went back inside. Mister, my bobtailed grey tomcat, was waiting when I opened the door, and tried to bolt out. I caught him, barely: Mister weighs the next best thing to thirty pounds. He gave me a look that might have been indignant, then raised his stumpy tail straight in the air and walked haughtily away, making his way to his usual resting point atop one of my apartment’s bookcases.
Mouse looked at me with his head tilted as I shut the door.
“Something bad is running around out there,” I told him. “It might decide to send me a message. I’d rather he didn’t use Mister to do it.”
Mouse’s cavernous chest rumbled with a low growl.
“Or you, either, for that matter,” I told him. “I don’t know if you know what a skinwalker is, but it’s serious trouble. Watch yourself.”
Mouse considered that for a moment, and then yawned.
I found myself laughing. “Pride goes before a fall, boy.”
He wagged his tail at me and rubbed up against my leg, evidently pleased to have made me smile. I made sure both sets of bowls had food and water in them, and then went in to Morgan.
His temperature was up another half a degree, and he was obviously in pain.
“This isn’t heavy-duty stuff,” I told him, as I broke out the medical kit. “Me and Billy made a run up to Canada for most of it. There’s some codeine for the pain, though, and I’ve got the stuff to run an IV for you, saline, intravenous antibiotics.”
Morgan nodded. Then he frowned at me, an expression I was used to from him, raked his eyes over me more closely, and asked, “Is that blood I smell on you?”
Damn. For a guy who had been beaten to within a few inches of death’s door, he was fairly observant. Andi hadn’t really been bleeding when we picked her up in my coat. She was only oozing from a number of gouges and scrapes—but there had been enough of them to add up. “Yeah,” I said.
I told him about the skinwalker and what had happened to Kirby and Andi.
He shook his head wearily. “There’s a reason we don’t encourage amateurs to try to act like Wardens, Dresden.”
I scowled at him, got a bowl of warm water and some antibacterial soap, and started cleaning up his left arm. “Yeah, well. I didn’t see any Wardens doing anything about it.”
“Chicago is your area of responsibility, Warden Dresden.”
“And there I was,” I said. “And if they hadn’t been there to help, I’d be dead right now.”
“Then you call for backup. You don’t behave like a bloody superhero and throw lambs to the wolves to help you do it. Those are the people you’re supposed to be protecting.”
“Good thinking,” I said, getting out the bag of saline, and suspending it from the hook I’d set in the wall over the bed. I made sure the tube was primed. Air bubbles, bad. “That’s exactly what we need: more Wardens in Chicago.”
Morgan grunted and fell silent for a moment, eyes closed. I thought he’d dropped off again, but evidently he was only thinking. “It must have followed me up.”
“The skinwalker,” he said. “When I left Edinburgh, I took a Way to Tucson. I came to Chicago by train. It must have sensed me when the tracks passed through its territory.”
“Why would it do that?”
“Follow an injured wizard?” he asked. “Because they get stronger by devouring the essence of practitioners. I was an easy meal.”
Morgan nodded. “Adds its victims’ power to its own.”
“So what you’re telling me is that not only did the skinwalker get away, but now it’s stronger for having killed Kirby.”
He shrugged. “I doubt the werewolf represented much gain, relative to what it already possessed. Your talents, or mine, are orders of magnitude greater.”
I took up a rubber hose and bound it around Morgan’s upper arm. I waited for the veins just below the bend of his elbow to pop up. “Seems like an awfully unlikely chance encounter.”
Morgan shook his head. “Skinwalkers can only dwell on tribal lands in the American Southwest. It wasn’t as if whoever is framing me would know that I was going to escape and flee to Tucson.”
“Point,” I said, slipping the needle into his arm. “Who would wanna go there in the summer, anyway?” I thought about it. “The skinwalker’s got to go back to his home territory, though?”
Morgan nodded. “The longer he’s away, the more power it costs him.”
“How long can he stay here?” I asked.
He winced as I missed the vein and had to try again. “More than long enough.”
“How do we kill it?” I frowned as I missed the vein again.
“Give me that,” Morgan muttered. He took the needle and inserted it himself, smoothly, and got it on the first try.
I guess you learn a few things over a dozen decades.
“We probably don’t,” he said. “The true skinwalkers, the naagloshii, are millennia old. Tangling with them is a fool’s game. We avoid it.”
I taped down the needle and hooked up the catheter. “Pretend for a minute that it isn’t going to cooperate with that plan.”
Morgan grunted and scratched at his chin with his other hand. “There are some native magics that can cripple or destroy it. A true shaman of the blood could perform an enemy ghost way and drive it out. Without those our only recourse is to hit it with a lot of raw power—and it isn’t likely to stand still and cooperate with that plan, either.”
“It’s a tough target,” I admitted. “It knows magic, and how to defend against it.”
“Yes,” Morgan said. He watched me pick a preloaded syringe of antibiotics from the cooler. “And its abilities are more than the equal of both of us put together.”
“Jinkies,” I said. I primed the syringe and pushed the antibiotics into the IV line. Then I got the codeine and a cup of water, offering Morgan both. He downed the pills, laid his head back wearily, and closed his eyes.
“I saw one once, too,” he said.
I started cleaning up. I didn’t say anything.
“They aren’t invulnerable. They can be killed.”
I tossed wrappers into the trash can and restored equipment to the medical kit. I grimaced at the bloodied rug that still lay beneath Morgan. I’d have to get that out from under him soon. I turned to leave, but stopped in the doorway.
“How’d you do it?” I asked, without looking behind me.
It took him a moment to answer. I thought he’d passed out again.
“It was the fifties,” he said. “Started in New Mexico. It followed me to Nevada. I lured it onto a government testing site, and stepped across into the Nevernever just before the bomb went off.”
I blinked and looked over my shoulder at him. “You nuked it?”
He opened one eye and smiled.
It was sort of creepy.
“Stars and stones . . . that’s . . .” I had to call a spade a spade. “Kind of cool.”
“Gets me to sleep at night,” he mumbled. He closed his eye again, sighed, and let his head sag a little to one side.
I watched over his sleep for a moment, and then closed the door.
I was pretty tired, myself. But like the man said:
“I have promises to keep,” I sighed to myself.
I got on the phone, and started calling my contacts on the Paranet.
The Paranet was an organization I’d helped found a couple of years before. It’s essentially a union whose members cooperate in order to protect themselves from paranormal threats. Most of the Paranet consisted of practitioners with marginal talents, of which there were plenty. A practitioner had to be in the top percentile before the White Council would even consider recognizing him, and those who couldn’t cut it basically got left out in the cold. As a result, they were vulnerable to any number of supernatural predators.
Which I think sucks.
So an old friend named Elaine Mallory and I had taken a dead woman’s money and begun making contact with the marginal folks in city after city. We’d encouraged them to get together to share information, to have someone they could call for help. If things started going bad, a distress call could be sent up the Paranet, and then I or one of the other Wardens in the U.S. could charge in. We also gave seminars on how to recognize magical threats, as well as teaching methods of basic self-defense for when the capes couldn’t show up to save the day.
It had been going pretty well. We already had new chapters opening up in Mexico and Canada, and Europe wouldn’t be far behind.
So I started calling up my contacts in those various cities, asking if they’d heard of anything odd happening. I couldn’t afford to get any more specific than that, but as it turned out, I didn’t need to. Of the first dozen calls, folks in four cities had noted an upswing in Warden activity, reporting that they were all appearing in pairs. Only two of the next thirty towns had similar reports, but it was enough to give me a good idea of what was going on—a quiet manhunt.
But I just had to wonder. Of all the places the Wardens could choose to hunt for Morgan, why would they pick Poughkeepsie? Why Omaha?
The words “wild-goose chase” sprang to mind. Whatever Morgan was doing to mask his presence from their tracking spells, it had them chasing their tails all over the place.
At least I accomplished one positive thing. Establishing rumors of Wardens on the move meant that I had a good and non-suspicion-arousing motivation to start asking questions of my own.
So next, I started calling the Wardens I was on good terms with. Three of them worked for me, technically speaking, in several cities in the Eastern and Midwestern United States. I’m not a very good boss. I mostly just let them decide how to do their job and try to lend a hand when they ask me for help. I had to leave messages for two, but Bill Meyers in Dallas answered on the second ring.
“Howdy,” Meyers said.
I’m serious. He actually answered the phone that way.
“Bill, it’s Dresden.”
“Harry,” he said politely. Bill was always polite with me. He saw me do something scary once. “Speak of the devil and he appears.”
“Is that why my nose was itching?” I asked.
“Likely,” Bill drawled. “I was gonna give you a call in the morning.”
“Yeah? What’s up?”
“Rumors,” Bill said. “I spotted two Wardens coming out of the local entrance to the Ways, but when I asked them what was up, they stone-walled me. I figured you might know what was going on.”
“Darn,” I said. “I called to ask you.”
He snorted. “Well, we’re a fine bunch of wise men, aren’t we?”
“As far as the Council is concerned, the U.S. Wardens are a bunch of mushrooms.”
“Kept in the dark and fed on bullshit.”
“I hear that,” Meyers said. “What do you want me to do?”
“Keep an ear to the ground,” I told him. “Captain Luccio will tell us sooner or later. I’ll call you as soon as I learn anything. You do the same.”
“Gotcha,” he said.
We hung up, and I frowned at the phone for a moment.
The Council hadn’t talked to me about Morgan. They hadn’t talked to any of the Wardens in my command about him, either.
I looked up at Mister and said, “It’s almost like they want to keep me in the dark. Like maybe someone thinks I might be involved, somehow.”
Which made sense. The Merlin wasn’t going to be asking me to Christmas dinner anytime soon. He didn’t trust me. He might have given the order to keep me fenced out. That wouldn’t hit me as a surprise.
But if that was true, then it meant that Anastasia Luccio, captain of the Wardens, was going along with it. She and I had been dating for a while, now. Granted, she had a couple of centuries on me, but a run-in with a body-switching psychopath several years before had trapped her in the body of a coed, and she didn’t look a day over twenty-five. We got along well. We made each other laugh. And we occasionally had wild-monkey sex to our mutual, intense satisfaction.
I would never have figured Anastasia to play a game like that with me.
I got on the phone to Ramirez in LA, the other regional commander in the United States, to see if he’d heard anything, but just got his answering service.
At this rate, I was going to have to go to the spirit world for answers—and that was risky in more ways than one, not the least of which was the very real possibility that I might get eaten by the same entity I called up to question.
But I was running a little low on options.
I pulled back the rug that lay over the trapdoor leading down to my lab, and was about to go down and prepare my summoning circle when the phone rang.
“I’m meeting Justine in half an hour,” my brother told me.
“Okay,” I said. “Come get me.”
Chicago ’s club scene is wide and diverse. You want to listen to extemporaneous jazz? We got that. You want a traditional Irish pub? A Turkish-style coffeehouse? Belly dancers? Japanese garden party? Swing dancing? Ballroom dancing? Beat poetry? You’re covered.
You don’t have to look much harder to find all sorts of other clubs—the kind that Ma and Pa Tourist don’t take the kids to. Gay clubs, lesbian clubs, strip clubs, leather clubs, and more subtle flavors within the genre.
And then there’s Zero.
I stood with Thomas outside what looked like a fire-exit door at the bottom of a stairway, a story below street level in the side of a downtown building. A red neon oval had been installed on the door, and it glowed with a sullen, lurid heat. The thump of a bass beat vibrated almost sub-audibly up through the ground.
“Is this what I think it is?” I asked him.
Thomas, now dressed in a tight-fitting white T-shirt and old blue jeans, glanced at me and arched one dark eyebrow. “Depends on if you think it’s Zero or not.”
Zero’s one of those clubs that most people only hear rumors about. It moves around the city from time to time, but it’s always as exclusive as a popular nightspot in a metropolis can possibly be. I’ve been a PI in Chicago for better than a decade. I’d heard of Zero, but that was it. It was where the rich and beautiful (and rich) people of Chicago went to indulge themselves.
“You know somebody here?” I asked. “Because they aren’t going to let us—”
Thomas popped a key into the lock, turned it, and opened the door for me.
“In,” I finished. A wash of heat and smoke heavy with legally questionable substances pushed gently against my chest. I could hear the whump-whump-whump of techno dance music somewhere behind the red-lit smoke.
“It’s a family business,” Thomas explained. He put the keys back in his pocket, an odd expression on his face. “I met Justine at Zero.”
“There any more of the other side of the family in there?” I asked him. White Court vampires were the least physically dangerous of any of the various vamps running around—and the most scary. Creatures of seduction, they fed upon the emotions and life energy of those they preyed upon. Their victims became addicted to the act, and would willingly offer themselves up over and over, until eventually there was nothing left to give. The poor suckers in thrall to a White Court vampire were virtually slaves. Tangling with them in any sense of the word was a bad idea.
Thomas shook his head. “I doubt it. Or Justine wouldn’t have chosen to meet us here.”
Unless she’d been forced to do so, I thought to myself. I didn’t say anything. I like to stay cozy with my paranoia, not pass her around to my friends and family.
“After you,” Thomas said, and then he calmly stripped his shirt off.
I eyed him.
“The club has an image they strive to maintain,” he said. He might have been just a little bit smug, the bastard. His abs look like they were added in with CGI. My abs just look like I can’t afford to feed myself very well.
“Oh,” I said. “Do I need to take my shirt off, too?”
“You’re wearing a black leather coat. That’s wardrobe enough.”
“Small favors,” I muttered. Then I went through the door.
We walked down a hallway that got darker, louder, and more illicitly aromatic as we went. It ended at a black curtain, and I pushed it aside to reveal a few more feet of hallway, a door, and two politely formidable-looking men in dark suits standing in front of it.
One of them lifted a hand and told me, “I’m sorry, sir, but this is a private—”
Thomas stepped up next to me and fixed the man with a steady grey gaze.
He lowered his hand, and when he spoke, it sounded rough, as if his mouth had gone dry. “Excuse me, sir. I didn’t realize he was with you.”
Thomas kept staring.
The bouncer turned to the door, unlocked it with a key of its own, and opened the door. “Will you be in need of a table, sir? Drinks?”
Thomas’s unblinking gaze finally shifted from the guard, as if the man had somehow vanished as a matter of any consequence. My brother walked by him without saying anything at all.
The bouncer gave me a weak smile and said, “Sorry about that, sir. Enjoy your evening at Zero, sir.”
“Thanks,” I said, and followed my brother into a scene that split the difference between a Dionysian bacchanal and a Fellini flick.
There was no white light inside Zero. Most of it was red, punctuated in places with pools of blue and plenty of black lights scattered everywhere so that even where shadows were thickest, some colors jumped out in disquieting luminescence. Cigarette smoke hung in a pall over the large room, a distance-distorting haze under the black lights.
We had entered on a kind of balcony that overlooked the dance floor below. Music pounded, the bass beat so loud that I could feel it in my lower stomach. Lights flashed and swayed in synchronicity. The floor was crowded with sweating, moving bodies dressed in a broad spectrum of clothing, from full leather coverings including a whole-head hood, at one extreme, to one girl clad in a few strips of electrical tape on the other. There was a bar down by the dance floor, and tables scattered around its outskirts under a thirty-foot-high ceiling. A few cages hung about eight feet over the dance floor, each containing a young man or woman in provocative clothing.
Stairways and catwalks led up to about a dozen platforms that thrust out from the walls, where patrons could sit and overlook the scene below while gaining a measure of privacy for themselves. Most of the platforms were furnished with couches and chaise longues rather than tables and chairs. There were more exotic bits of furniture up on the platforms, as well: the giant X shape of a St. Andrew’s cross, which was currently supporting the bound form of a young man, his wrists and ankles secured to the cross, his face to the wood, his hair falling down over his naked back. Another platform had a shiny brass pole in its center, and a pair of girls danced around it, in the middle of a circle of men and women sprawled over the couches and lounges.
Everywhere I looked, people were doing things that would have gotten them arrested anywhere else. Couples, threesomes, foursomes, and nineteensomes were fully engaged in sexual activity on some of the private platforms. From where I stood, I could see two different tables where lines of white powder waited to be inhaled. A syringe disposal was on the wall next to every trash can, marked with a bright biohazard symbol. People were being beaten with whips and riding crops. People were bound up with elaborate arrangements of ropes, as well as with more prosaic handcuffs. Piercings and tattoos were everywhere. Screams and cries occasionally found their way through the music, agony, ecstasy, joy, or rage all indistinguishable from one another.
The lights flashed constantly, changing and shifting, and every beat of the music created a dozen new frozen montages of sybaritic abandon.
The music, the light, the sweat, the smoke, the booze, the drugs—it all combined into a wet, desperate miasma that was full of needs that could never be sated.
That’s why the place was called Zero, I realized. Zero limits. Zero inhibitions. Zero restraint. It was a place of perfect, focused abandon, of indulgence, and it was intriguing and hideous, nauseating and viscerally hungry.
I felt a shudder run through me. This was the world as created by the White Court. This is what they would make of it, if they were given the chance. Planet Zero.
I glanced aside at Thomas and saw him staring around the club. His eyes had changed hue, from their usual grey to a paler, brighter silver, actual flecks of metallic color in his eyes. His eyes tracked over a pair of young women who were passing by us, dressed in black lingerie under long leather coats, and holding hands with their fingers intertwined. The women both turned their eyes toward him as if they’d heard him call their names, and stared for a second, their steps slowing and faltering.
Thomas dragged his eyes away, and let that inhuman stillness fill him again. The women blinked a few times, then continued on their way, their expressions vaguely puzzled.
“Hey,” I yelled through the music. “You all right?”
He nodded once, and then twitched his chin up at the highest platform in the building, on the far side of the dance floor. “Up there.”
I nodded, and Thomas took the lead. We negotiated the maze of catwalks and stairs. They had been purposefully designed to be just barely too narrow for two people to pass one another without touching, as I found out when Thomas and I passed a girl in leather shorts and a bustier, both of which strained to match themselves to a body whose curves were made ripe and inviting by the red light’s primitive rhythm. She slid by Thomas, her eyes locked on his chest, as if she was about to lean over and bite him.
He ignored her, but then the girl reached me—and I take up more room than Thomas. I felt her hip brush me, and she arched her back as I stepped past her, turned sideways. Her breasts pressed against my sternum, pliant, resilient warmth, and her lips were parted, her eyes too bright. Her hand brushed over my thigh, a touch that could have been accidental but wasn’t, and my body was suddenly demanding that I stop for a moment and see where this would lead.
You can’t trust your body when it tells you stuff like that. It doesn’t understand about things like actual affection, interaction, pregnancy, STDs. It just wants. I tried not to pay any attention to it—but there were other people on the catwalks, and evidently there was no such thing as a less than gorgeous woman inside Zero’s walls. Most of them seemed perfectly happy to make sure I knew it as they went by.
So did some of the men, for that matter, but that was less of an issue, as far as my focus went.
It probably didn’t help matters that we were walking by things that I hadn’t ever seen before, not even in movies. There was this one girl doing a thing with her tongue and an ice cube that—
Look, just trust me on this one. It was distracting as hell.
Thomas was walking faster as we approached the stairway leading up to the highest platform, and he took the last steps three at a time. I followed along behind him, scanning around me steadily, trying to be on the lookout for potential bad guys. This had the side effect of me getting to ogle more pretty girls than I’d ever seen in one place at one time. But it was professional ogling. One of them could have been concealing—
Well, actually, I was sort of shocked at what one of them was concealing.
I made it up the last stairway just in time to see Thomas throw himself into a woman’s arms.
Justine wasn’t particularly tall, for a girl, or at least she hadn’t been before she’d put on the boots with the five-inch heels. She looked like I remembered her last—a gorgeous face that still fell into the girl-next-door category, with a heart-melting smile. Her hair was silver-white, and was being held in a tight bun up high on the back of her head with a pair of white chopsticks.
Of course, the last time I’d seen her, she hadn’t been dressed in a formfitting white rubber cat suit that included gloves over her fingers. It emphasized absolutely everything and did it well.
Thomas fell to his knees and wrapped his arms around her waist, drawing her to him. She twined her rubber-covered arms around his neck and clung tightly. Both of them closed their eyes, and just stood there for a long minute, embracing without moving, just holding each other close.
It was an alien act in that place.
I turned away, leaned on the platform’s safety railing, and stared down at the club, trying to give my brother and the woman he loved a moment of privacy. Justine hadn’t worn the cover-everything suit for the sake of fashion. The touch of honest love, real and selfless love, was anathema to the White Court. Thomas had told me about White Court vampires who had been badly burned by the touch of some wedding rings, or the brush of a sweetheart’s rose. But most dangerous of all to them was the touch of someone who was loved and who loved in return.
I’d seen Thomas give himself a second-degree burn on his lips and mouth the last time he’d kissed Justine.
They hadn’t been together since the night she had laid down her life to save his, offering herself up to his hunger so that he could survive the evening. Thomas, in turn, had refused to devour her, denying his own darker nature. It had nearly killed her anyway, turning her hair white literally overnight. It had taken her years to recover her mind, after a long-term addiction to being fed upon by an incubus, but she’d done it. She was currently an assistant to Thomas’s older sister, Lara, and positioned to find out all kinds of juicy details about the White Court. Being protected by love meant that the vamps couldn’t feed on Justine, which Lara thought ideal in a personal assistant.
It also meant that my brother couldn’t touch the woman he loved. If he’d been like most of the White Court, only interested in feeding his hunger, he’d have been able to have her all he wanted. Instead . . .
Sometimes irony is a lot like a big old kick in the balls.
I stared down at the dance floor for a while, not so much ogling as simply taking in the light and motion as a whole, until I saw them part in my peripheral vision. Then I turned and walked over to join them, as Justine gestured for us to sit on a pair of couches that had been moved to face each other.
Thomas sat down in a corner of the couch, and Justine pressed up close against him, careful to keep what little of her was exposed from touching his skin. I settled down across from them, leaning my elbows forward onto my knees.
I smiled at Justine and nodded to her. The floor and half-wall railing of the platform must have been made from sound-absorbing material. The roar of the club was much reduced up here. “Justine. You look like the Michelin Man’s wet dream.”
She laughed, pink touching her cheeks. “Well. The club has a look we try to maintain. How are you, Harry?”
“Half buzzed on this smoke, and floundering,” I said. “Thomas told me you had some information.”
Justine nodded seriously, and picked up a manila file folder from the couch beside her. “Word is out about a hunt for a renegade Warden,” she said. “There weren’t a lot of details, but I was able to turn up this.”
She slid the folder over to me, and I opened it. The first page was a printout of a Web site of some kind. “What the hell is Craigslist?”
“It’s a site on the Internet,” Justine said. “It’s sort of like a giant classified ads section, only you can get to it from anywhere in the world. People use it to advertise goods they want to buy or sell.”
“Goods,” Thomas put in, “and services. Help wanted, with veiled language for the less-legal things. A lot of shady deals happen there because it’s relatively easy to do so anonymously. Escorts, mercenaries, you name it.”
There was an ad printed on it:
WANTED FOR PERMANENT POSITION,
DONALD MORGAN, 5MIL FINDER’S FEE,
“Hell’s bells,” I cursed quietly.
I passed the page to Thomas. “A wanted poster,” he said.
I nodded. “And not dead or alive, either. They just want him dead.”
Every supernatural hitter on the bloody planet was going to be coming after Morgan. Not so much for the money, probably, as for the favors that the ad promised. They carry a hell of a lot more weight than cash in the world of the weird. The five million was just there to provide scope, a sense of scale for the favors that would come with it.
“Every button man in the world and his brother,” I muttered. “This just keeps getting better and better.”
“Why would your people do that?” Justine asked.
“They wouldn’t,” I said.
Thomas frowned. “How do you know?”
“Because the Council solves things in-house,” I said. Which was true. They had their own assassin for jobs like this, when he was needed. I grimaced. “Besides, even if they did put out a hit, they sure as hell wouldn’t use the Internet to do it.”
Thomas nodded, fingers idly stroking Justine’s rubberized shoulder. “Then who did?”
“Who indeed,” I said. “Is there any way to find out who put this here? Or who this e-mail thingy belongs to?”
Justine shook her head. “Not with any confidence.”
“Then we’ll have to make contact ourselves,” Thomas said. “Maybe we can draw them out.”
I scratched my chin, thinking. “If they’ve got a lick of sense, they won’t show themselves to anyone who isn’t established in the field. But it’s worth a try.” I sighed. “I’ve got to move him.”
“Why?” Thomas asked.
I tapped the page with my finger. “When the hard cases start coming out of the woodwork, things are going to get messy, and old people live upstairs from me.”
Thomas frowned and nodded. “Where?”
I began to answer when the tempo of the beat suddenly changed below, and a wave of frenzied cries rolled up, deafening despite any soundproofing. A second after that, an odd frisson crawled across my nerves, and I felt my heart pound a little more quickly, and the earlier demands my body had been making returned in a rush.
Across from me, Justine shivered and her eyes slid almost completely closed. She took a deep breath, and her nipples tightened against the rubber cat suit. Her hips shifted in a small, unconscious movement, brushing against Thomas’s thigh.
My brother’s eyes flashed from light grey to cold, hard silver for a second, before he narrowed them and rose, carefully disentangling himself from Justine. He turned to face the dance floor, his shoulders tense.
I followed his example. “What is it?”
“Trouble,” he said, and looked over his shoulder at me. “Family’s come to visit.”
Thomas stared hard at the floor below, and then nodded once, as if in recognition. “Harry,” he said in a steady, quiet voice, “stay out of this.” in recognition. “Harry,” he said in a steady, quiet voice, “stay out of this.” “Stay out of what?” I asked.
He turned to look at me, his expression inhumanly remote. “It’s family business. It won’t involve you. The House has given orders that wizards are not to be molested without clearance. If you don’t get involved, I won’t have to worry about you.”
“What?” I said. “Thomas . . .”
“Just let me handle it,” he said, his voice hard.
I was going to answer him when the vampire entered the room.
It was one of those sensations you have trouble remembering afterward—like the last moments of the dream you have just before waking. You know that once you’re outside the dream, you’re going to forget—and you can’t believe you could lose something so significant, so undeniably tangible.
I turned to look the second she entered—just like everyone else in the room.
She wore white, of course. A white dress, a simple shift made of some kind of glistening silken fabric, which fell to the top of her thighs. She was at least six feet tall, more so in the partially transparent shoes she wore. Her skin was pale and perfect, her hair dark and shining with highlights that changed color in the beat of the strobe lighting of the club. Her face was perfect beauty that remained unmarred by the obvious arrogance in her expression, and her body could have been used on recruiting posters for wet dreams.
She descended to the dance floor and crossed to the stairways and catwalks with a predator’s easy motion, each stride making her hips roll and shoulders sway, somehow in time to the music, and far more graceful than the efforts of the sweating dancers, more sensual than the frantic lovers.
At the foot of the first stairway, she came to a young man in leather pants and the scraps of a shirt that looked like it had been torn to pieces by ardent admirers. Without hesitation, she pushed him up against the railing beside the stairway and pressed her body up against his.
She twined her arms slowly around his neck and kissed him. A kiss, and that was all—but apparently no one told the young man that. From his reaction, you’d have thought that she’d mounted him then and there. Her lips were sealed to his, their tongues lashing one another, for maybe a minute. Then she turned away with that same precise grace, and began walking up the stairs—slowly, so that every shift and change of muscle in her perfectly formed legs danced in mesmerizing ripples beneath her soft white skin.
The young man simply melted onto the floor, muscles twitching, his eyes closed. I didn’t think he was actually aware that she had left.
The woman had every eye in the building and she knew it.
It wasn’t an enormous event, the way she took the attention of everyone there. It wasn’t a single large simultaneous, significant motion when everyone turned to look. There was no sudden silence, no deepening stillness. That would have been bad enough.
Her influence was a lot scarier than that.
It was simply a fact, like gravity, that everyone’s attention should be directed to her. Every person there, men and women alike, glanced up, or tracked her movement obliquely with their eyes, or paused for half a beat in their . . . conversations. For most of them it was an entirely unconscious act. They had no idea that their minds had already been ensnared.
And as I realized that, I realized that mine was in danger, too.
It was a real effort to close my eyes and remind myself of where I was. I could feel the succubus’s aura, like the silken brush of cobwebs against my eyelashes, something tingling and delicious and fluttering that swayed up my legs and through my groin on its way to my brain.
It was only a promise, a whisper to the flesh—but it was a goodwhisper. I had to make an effort to wall it away from my thoughts, until suddenly reason reasserted itself, and that fluttering haze froze and cracked and blew away under the chill wind of sensible fear.
When I opened my eyes, the woman was stalking toward us along that last catwalk, slithering nearer in her thin white dress as she mounted the last few stairs. She paused there, letting us look at her, knowing what effect she was having. Even on guard against it, I could feel the subtle sweetness of her presence calling out to me, whispering that I should relax and let my eyes run over her for a while.
She turned her cornflower blue eyes to me for a moment, and her mouth parted, spreading slowly into a smile that shrunk my pants about three sizes in as many seconds.
“Cousin Thomas,” she purred. “Still noble and starving, I see.”
“Madeline,” Thomas replied, a small smile showing white, perfect teeth. “Still undisciplined and blatant, I see.”
Madeline Raith’s mouth and eyes reacted in completely different ways to my half brother’s remark. Her smile widened into a beauty-pageant expression, wide and immobile, but her eyes narrowed and went completely white, the pale blue vanishing from her irises. She looked from Thomas to Justine.
“Lara’s little pet mortal,” Madeline said. “I wondered where you were running off to. Now I find you meeting with your old flame and . . .” Her eyes slid to me. “The enemy.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Justine replied. Though her voice was calm, her cheeks were bright pink, her eyes dilated. “I came to go over the books, the way I do every week.”
“But this time you wore perfume,” Madeline said. “And a rather provocative ensemble, not that you don’t do it justice, darling. I find it”—her tongue touched her upper lip—“interesting.”
“Madeline,” Thomas said, in a tone of exaggerated patience, “please go away.”
“I have every right to be here,” she murmured. It didn’t seem right that she should be able to keep her voice so maddeningly soft and sensual over the beat of the club’s music. She turned to me and took a few steps my way, with her full attention on me.
I suddenly felt like a teenager—a little bit afraid, a whole lot excited, and filled with so many hormones demanding so many inexplicable things that I nearly lost the ability to focus my eyes.
She stopped just out of the reach of my hand. “Don’t mind my cousin’s horrible manners. The infamous Harry Dresden hardly needs an introduction.” She looked me up and down and twined a finger through a tendril of dark hair. “How could I come to Chicago so many times without meeting you?”
“But I’ve seen you,” I said. My voice was a little rough, but it worked.
“Oh?” she asked, the sexy smile widening. “Are you the sort who likes to watch, Harry?”
“You betcha,” I said. “And that time, I was watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”
Her smile faltered a fraction.
“You are Jessica Rabbit, right?” I asked. “All slinky and overblown and obvious?”
The smile vanished.
“Because I know I’ve seen you somewhere, and gosh, I’ll be embarrassed if it turns out that you were the evil princess from Buck Rogersinstead.”
“What?” she said. “Buck what?”
I gave her my best forced smile. “Hey, don’t get me wrong. You do that ensemble justice. But you’re trying too hard.” I leaned a little closer and fake-whispered, “Lara does more for me just sitting in a chair than you did with your whole entrance.”
Madeline Raith became as still and cold as a statue of a furious goddess, and the air temperature around us dropped several degrees.
I suddenly sensed Thomas’s presence beside me, and found my brother had leaned back against the railing on his elbows, his hands loose and relaxed. He was standing just a tiny bit closer to Madeline than I was.
“Madeline,” he said in the precise same tone he’d used a moment before, “go away before I beat you to death with my bare hands.”
Madeline jerked her head back as if Thomas had slapped her. “What?”
“You heard me,” he said calmly. “It isn’t quite cricket as family squabbles go, I know, but I’m tired, I don’t give a fuck what you or anyone else in the House thinks of me, and I don’t respect you enough to play games with you, even if I was in the mood.”
“How dare you?” Madeline snarled. “How dare you threaten me? Lara will have the skin flayed from your body for this.”
“Oh?” Thomas gave her a wintry smile. “After what you projected at the wizard, he’d be well within his rights to burn you right down to your overpriced shoes.”
“And despite the orders handed down from the King,” Thomas said, shaking his head. “Lara’s getting tired of cleaning up after you, Mad. She’d probably buy me a new set of steak knives if I found a way to make her life a bit less trying.”
Madeline laughed. It reminded me of glass breaking. “And do you think she loves you any better, cousin mine? You refuse to appear with the House at meetings of the Court, and spend your time among the kine, grooming them and bringing shame upon your family. At least tell me you are planning to take the beasts to some sort of auction.”
“You aren’t capable of understanding why I do what I do,” Thomas said.
“Who would want to?” she retorted. “You’re as much a degenerate as any of those fools in Skavis and Malvora.”
Thomas’s mouth ticked at the corner, but that was all the reaction he gave her. “Go away, Madeline. Last warning.”
“Two members of the oldest bloodlines in Raith murdering each other?” Madeline said, sneering. “The White King could not tolerate such a divisive act and you know it.” She turned away from Thomas and walked toward Justine. “You’re bluffing,” she said over her shoulder. “Besides. We haven’t heard from our little pink rose yet.”
Her voice sank to a throaty purr, and Justine quivered in place, seemingly unable to move as Madeline approached.
“Pretty Justine.” Madeline put a hand on Justine’s shoulder and slid a single fingertip down the slope of one breast. “I don’t generally enjoy does as much as some, darling, but even I find the thought of taking you delicious.”
“You c-can’t touch me,” Justine stammered. She was breathing faster.
“Not yet,” Madeline said. “But there’s not enough will left in your pretty little head to control yourself for long.” Madeline stepped closer, sliding her hand along Justine’s waist. “Some night, perhaps I’ll come to you with some beautiful young buck and whisper pretty things to you until you’re mad to be taken. And after he has made use of you, little doe, I’ll take you in one big bite.” She licked her lips. “I’ll take you whole and make you scream how much you love it as it happen—”
Thomas broke a chair over Madeline’s head.
It was particularly impressive, given that all the chairs on the balcony were made of metal.
It happened fast, during an eye blink. One instant he was standing beside me, tightening with anger, and the next there were popped rivets zinging everywhere and Madeline had been crushed to the floor of the balcony.
The air went cold. Thomas dropped the ruined chair. Madeline bounced up from the floor and threw a blow at Thomas’s jaw. He hunched and twisted, a boxer’s defense, and took it on the shoulder with a grunt of pain. Then he seized her ankle and slammed her in a half circle, smashing a 36-24-36 dent into the drywall.
Madeline cried out and her limbs went loose. Thomas swung her in another arc that brought her crashing down onto the low coffee table between the couches. She lay there and let out a single choked gasp, her eyes unfocused. Without pausing, my brother snatched both chopsticks from Justine’s hair, letting the white-silver locks tumble down her back.
Then, in two sharp, swift motions, he slammed the chopsticks through Madeline’s wrists and into the table beneath them, pinning her like a butterfly to a card.
“You’re right of course,” he snarled. “Lara couldn’t ignore one member of the family murdering another. It would make the King look weak.” His hand closed over Madeline’s face, and he pulled her head up toward his, making her arms strain at a painful angle. “I was bluffing.”
He shoved her back down against the table. “Of course,” he said, “you’re family. Families don’t murder one another.” He looked up at Justine and said, “They share.”
She met his eyes. A very small, very hard smile graced Justine’s features.
“You wanted to taste her,” Thomas said, his fingers twining with Justine’s rubber-clad ones. “Well, Madeline. Be my guest.”
Justine leaned over and kissed Madeline Raith’s forehead, her silken silver hair falling to veil them both.
The vampire screamed.
The sound was lost in the pounding rhythm and flashing lights.
Justine lifted her head a few seconds later, and swept her hair slowly down the length of Madeline’s form. The vampire writhed and screamed again, while Thomas held her pinned to the table. Wherever Justine’s hair glided over exposed fleshed, the skin sizzled and burned, blackening in some places, forming blisters and welts in others. She left a trail of ruin down one of Madeline’s legs and then rose together with Thomas, two bodies making one motion.
Madeline Raith’s face was a ruin of burn marks, and the imprint of Justine’s soft mouth was a perfect black brand on pale flesh in the center of her forehead. She lay on the table, still pinned by the chopsticks, and quivered in jerking little motions, gasping and breathless with the pain.
Thomas and Justine walked, hand in hand, to the stairs leading down from our platform. I followed them.
They passed beneath an air-conditioning outlet, and a few strands of Justine’s hair blew against Thomas’s naked arm and chest. Small bright lines of scarlet appeared. Thomas didn’t flinch.
I walked over to them and passed Justine a pair of pencils, taken from my coat pocket. She took them with a nod of thanks, and quickly bound up her hair again. I looked over my shoulder as she did.
Madeline Raith lay helpless and gasping—but her white eyes burned with hate.
Thomas took his T-shirt from where he’d stowed it on a belt loop, and put it back on. Then he slid his arms around Justine again and pulled her against his chest, holding her close.
“Will you be all right?” he asked.
Justine nodded, her eyes closed. “I’ll call the House. Lara will send someone for her.”
“You leave her there and it’s going to make trouble,” I told him.
He shrugged. “I couldn’t get away with killing her. But our House has rather stern views on poaching.” Something hard and hot entered his eyes. “Justine is mine. Madeline had to be shown that. She deserved it.”
Justine clung a little bit tighter to him. He returned the gesture.
We all started down the stairs together, and I was glad to be leaving Zero.
“Still,” I said. “Seeing her like that, I feel like maybe somebody went too far. I feel a little bit bad for her.”
Thomas arched an eyebrow and glanced back at me. “You do?”
“Yeah,” I said. I pursed my lips thoughtfully. “Maybe I shouldn’t have said that Jessica Rabbit thing.”
The hot summer night outside Zero felt ten degrees cooler and a million times cleaner than what we’d left behind us. Thomas turned sharply to the right and walked until he’d found a spot of shadow between streetlights, and leaned one shoulder against the wall of the building. He bowed his head, and stayed that way for a minute, then two.
I waited. I didn’t need to ask my brother what was wrong. The display of strength and power he’d used on Madeline had cost him energy—energy that other vampires gained by feeding on victims, as Madeline had done to that poor sap inside. He wasn’t upset by what had happened in Zero. He was hungry.
Thomas’s struggle against his own hunger was complicated, difficult, and maybe impossible to sustain. That never stopped him from trying, though. The rest of the Raith family thought he was insane.
But I got it.
He walked back over to me a minute later, his cool features distant and untouchable as Antarctic mountains.
He fell into pace beside me as we began walking down the street toward the lot where he’d parked his car.
“Ask you a question?” I said.
“The White Court only get burned when they try to feed on someone touched by true love, right?”
“It isn’t as simple as that,” Thomas said quietly. “It’s got to do with how much control the hunger has over you when you touch.”
I grunted. “But when they feed, the hunger’s in control.”
Thomas nodded slowly.
“So why’d Madeline try to feed on Justine? She had to know it would hurt her.”
“Same reason I do,” Thomas said. “She can’t help it. It’s reflex.”
I frowned. “I don’t get it.”
He was quiet long enough to make me think he wasn’t going to say anything, before he finally spoke. “Justine and I were together for years. And she . . . means a lot to me. When I’m near her, I can’t think about anything else but her. And when I touch her, everything in me wants to be nearer to her.”
“Including your hunger,” I said quietly.
He nodded. “We agree on that point, my demon and I. So I can’t touch Justine without it being . . . close to the surface, I suppose you could call it.”
“And it gets burned,” I said.
He nodded. “Madeline is the other end of the spectrum. She thinks she should get to feed on anyone she wants, anywhere, anytime. She doesn’t see other people. She just sees food. Her hunger controls her completely.” He smiled a bitter little smile. “So for her it’s reflex, just like for me.”
“You’re different. For her it’s everyone,” I said, “not only Justine.”
He shrugged. “I don’t care about everyone. I care about Justine.”
“You’re different,” I said.
Thomas turned to face me, his expression rigid and cold. “Shut up, Harry.”
His voice dropped to a low snarl. “Shut. Up.”
It was a little scary.
He stared hard at me for a while longer, then shook his head and exhaled slowly. “I’ll get the car. Wait here.”
“Sure,” I said.
He walked away on silent feet, his hands in his pockets, his head bowed. Every woman he passed, and some of the men, turned their heads to watch him go by. He ignored them.
I got a lot of looks, too, but that was because I was standing on a sidewalk near a lot of Chicago’s night spots on a hot summer night wearing a long leather coat and carrying a quarterstaff carved with mystic runes. Thomas’s looks had all been subtitled: Yum. My looks all said: Weirdo.
Tough to believe I was coming out ahead on that one.
While I waited, my instincts nagged me again, a hairs-on-the-back-of-my-neck certainty that someone was focused on me. My instincts had been on a streak, so I paid attention to them, quietly preparing my shield bracelet as I turned my head in a slow, casual look up and down the street. I didn’t spot anybody, but my vision sort of flickered as it passed over an alley across the street. I focused on that point intently for a moment, concentrating, and was able to make out a vaguely human shape there.
Then the flicker was abruptly replaced with the form of Anastasia Luccio, who raised a hand and beckoned me.
I jaywalked over to her, timing my crossing in between the occasional passing car, and we took several steps back into the alley.
“Evening, Stacy,” I said.
She turned to me and, in a single motion, drew a curved saber from a sheath at her hip and produced a gun in her other hand. The tip of the blade menaced my face, and I had to jerk my head back, which put me off balance, and I wound up with my shoulders pressed up against a wall.
Anastasia arched an eyebrow, her soft mouth set in a hard line. “I hope for your sake that you are the true Harry Dresden, only using that abomination of a nickname to make sure that I was the true Anastasia”—she emphasized the word slightly—“Luccio.”
“Well, yes, Anastasia,” I said, being careful not to move. “And by your reaction, I can tell that it really is you.”
She dropped the sword’s point and lowered the gun. The tension faded from her body, and she put her hardware away. “Well, of course it’s me. Who else would it be?”
I shook my head. “I’ve had a bad shapeshifter night.”
She arched an eyebrow. Anastasia Luccio was the captain of the Wardens of the White Council. She had a couple of centuries of experience.
“I’ve had those,” she said, and put a hand on my arm. “Are you all right?”
We stepped into each other and hugged. I hadn’t realized how stiffly I’d been holding myself until I exhaled and relaxed a little. She felt slender and warm and strong in my arms. “So far I’m not dead,” I said. “I take it you used a tracking spell to run me down—since you don’t seem to be worried about whether or not I’m me.”
She lifted her face to mine and planted a soft kiss on my mouth. “Honestly, Harry,” she said, smiling. “Who would pretend to be you?”
“Someone who wanted to be kissed in dark alleys by seductive older women, apparently.”
Her smile widened for a second, and then faded. “I thought I was going to have to break down the door and come in after you. What were you doing in that White Court cesspit?”
I didn’t think I’d done anything to cause it, but we stepped out of each other’s arms. “Looking for information,” I said quietly. “Something’s up. And someone’s cut me out of the loop.”
Anastasia pressed her lips together and looked away. Her expression was closed, touched with anger. “Yes. Orders.”
“Orders,” I said. “From the Merlin, I guess.”
“From Ebenezar McCoy, actually.”
I grunted in surprise. McCoy had been my mentor when I was young. I respected him.
“I get it,” I said. “He was afraid that if I heard Morgan was on the run, I’d hat up and dish out some payback.”
She glanced up at me, and then across the street at Zero. She shrugged, without quite looking me in the face. “God knows you have enough cause to do so.”
“You agreed with him,” I said.
She looked up at me, her eyes a little wider. “If I did, then why am I standing here?”
I frowned at her and scratched my head. “Okay. You’ve got me on that one.”
“Besides,” she said. “I was worried about you.”
She nodded. “Morgan’s done something that is hiding him from even the Senior Council’s abilities. I was afraid that he might come here.”
Poker face don’t fail me now . “That’s crazy,” I said. “Why would he do that?”
She squared her shoulders and faced me steadily. “Maybe because he’s innocent.”
“There are a number of people who have sought permission from the Senior Council to investigate and interrogate you under the presumption that you were the traitor who has been feeding information to the Red Court.” She looked away again. “Morgan has been one of the most overt agitators.”
I took a deep breath. “You’re saying that Morgan knows he isn’t the traitor. And he thinks it’s me.”
“And he might be moving toward you, in an attempt to prove his own innocence or, failing that . . .”
“Kill me,” I said, quietly. “If he’s going to go down, you think he might have decided to take out the real traitor before he gets the axe.”
And suddenly I had to wonder if Morgan had shown up at my door for the reasons he’d given me. Anastasia had been Morgan’s mentor, when he was an apprentice. She’d known the man for the vast majority of his life, literally for generations.
What if her judgment of him was better than mine?
Sure, Morgan wasn’t in any shape to kill me personally—but he wouldn’t need to. All he had to do is call the Wardens and tell them where he was. A lot of people in the Council didn’t like me much. I’d go down with Morgan, for giving aid and comfort to a traitor.
I suddenly felt naive and vulnerable and maybe a little stupid.
“He was already in custody,” I said. “How did he get away?”
Luccio smiled faintly. “We aren’t sure. He thought of something we didn’t. And he put three Wardens in the hospital when he left.”
“But you don’t think he’s guilty.”
“I . . .” She frowned for a moment and then said, “I refuse to let fear turn me against a man I know and trust. But it doesn’t matter what I think. There’s enough evidence to kill him.”
“What evidence?” I asked.
“Other than finding him standing over LaFortier’s corpse with a literal bloody knife in his hand?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Other than that.”
She raked her fingers back through her curly hair. “The information the Red Court has attained was exclusive to a very small pool of suspects, of which he was one. We have telephone records of him in frequent contact with a known operative of the Red Court. We also tracked down an offshore account belonging to him, in which several million dollars had recently been deposited.”
I snorted derisively. “Yeah, that’s him. Morgan the mercenary, nothing but dollar signs in his eyes.”
“I know,” she said. “That’s what I mean about fear clouding people’s judgment. We all know that the Red Court is going to come after us again. We know that if we don’t eliminate the traitor, their first blow could be fatal. The Merlin is desperate.”
“Join the club,” I muttered. I rubbed at my eyes and sighed.
She touched my arm again. “I thought you had a right to know,” she said. “I’m sorry I wasn’t able to get here sooner.”
I covered her hand with mine and pressed gently. “Yeah,” I said. “Thanks.”
“You look awful.”
“You sweet talker, you.”
She lifted her hand to touch my face. “I’ve got a few hours before I need to be back on duty. I was thinking a bottle of wine and a massage might be in order.”
I only barely kept from groaning in pleasure at the very thought of one of Anastasia’s massages. What she didn’t know about inflicting merciless pleasure on a man’s aching body hadn’t been invented. But I sure as hell couldn’t have her back over to the apartment. If she found out about Morgan, and if he truly intended to betray me, it would be frighteningly easy for her head to wind up on the floor next to Morgan’s and mine.
“I can’t,” I told her. “I’ve got to go to the hospital.”
She frowned. “What happened?”
“A skinwalker picked up my trail earlier tonight, when I was at Billy Borden’s place. Kirby’s dead. Andi’s in the hospital.”
She sucked in a breath, wincing in empathy. “Dio, Harry. I’m so sorry.”
I shrugged. I watched my vision blur, and realized that I wasn’t only making an excuse to keep her away from my place. Kirby and I hadn’t been blood brothers or anything—but he was a friend, a regular part of my life. Emphasis on the was.
“Is there anything I can do?” she asked.
I shook my head. Then I said, “Actually, yeah.”
“Find out whatever you can about skinwalkers. I’m going to kill this one.”
“All right,” she said.
“Meanwhile,” I said, “is there anything I can do for you?”
“For me?” She shook her head. “But . . . Morgan could use whatever help he can get.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Like I’m gonna help Morgan.”
She lifted her hands. “I know. I know. But there’s not much I can do. Everyone knows he was my apprentice. They’re watching me. If I try to help him openly, they’ll suspend me as captain of the Wardens, at best.”
“Don’t you just love it when justice can’t be bothered with petty concerns like fact?”
“Harry,” she said. “What if he’s innocent?”
I shrugged. “The way I was all those years? I’m too busy admiring the karma to lend a hand to the bastard.” Out on the street, Thomas’s Jag cruised by the end of the alley, then pulled up to the curb and stopped.
I glanced at the car and said, “There’s my ride.”
Anastasia arched an eyebrow at Thomas and his car. “The vampire?”
“He owed me a favor.”
“Mmmm,” Anastasia said. Her look at Thomas did not say yum. She looked more like someone who was trying to judge by how much she would need to lead a moving target. “You’re sure?”
I nodded. “The White King told him to play nice. He will.”
“Until he doesn’t,” she said.
“Walkers can’t be choosers,” I said.
“The Beetle died again?”
“Why don’t you get a different car?” she asked.
“Because the Blue Beetle is mycar.”
Anastasia smiled faintly up at me. “I wonder how you make something like that so endearing.”
“It’s my natural good looks,” I said. “I could make athlete’s foot endearing, if I really had to.”
She rolled her eyes, but was still smiling. “I’ll head back to Edinburgh and help coordinate the search. If there’s anything I can do . . .”
I nodded. “Thank you.”
She put her hands on my cheeks. “I’m sorry about your friends. When this is over, we’ll find some quiet spot and relax.”
I turned my head to one side and kissed the pulse in her wrist, then gently clasped her hands with mine. “Look, I’m not making any promises. But if I see something that might help Morgan, I’ll let you know.”
“Thank you,” she said quietly.
She stood up on her toes and kissed me goodbye. Then she turned and vanished into the shadows farther down the alley.
I waited until she was gone to turn around and join my brother in the white Jag.
“Damn, that girl is fit,” Thomas drawled. “Where to?”
“Stop looking,” I said. “My place.”
If Morgan was going to give me the shaft, I might as well find out now.
Thomas stopped his Jag in front of the boardinghouse where my apartment was and said, “I’ll have my cell phone on me. Try to call me before things start exploding.”
“Maybe this time it’ll be different. Maybe I’ll work everything out through reason, diplomacy, dialogue, and mutual cooperation.”
Thomas eyed me.
I tried to look wounded. “It could happen.”
He reached into his jeans pocket, pulled out a plain white business card with a phone number on it, and passed it to me. “Use this number. It’s to a clone.”
I looked at him blankly.
“It’s a supersecret sneaky phone,” he clarified. “No one knows I have it, and if someone traces your calls and goes looking for me, they’ll find someone else.”
“Oh,” I said. “Right.”
“You sure you don’t want to just load Morgan up and go?”
I shook my head. “Not until I give him the score. He sees me coming in with a vampire in tow, he’s going to flip out. As in try to kill us both.” I got out of the Jag, glanced at the house, and shook my head. “You stay alive for a dozen decades doing what Morgan does, paranoia becomes reflex.”
Thomas grimaced. “Yeah. Give me an hour or so to get what you need. Call me when you’ve got him ready to go.”
I glanced at the number, committed it to memory, and pocketed the card. “Thanks. I’ll pay you back for the gear.”
He rolled his eyes. “Shut up, Harry.”
I snorted out a breath, and nodded my head in thanks. We rapped knuckles, and he pulled out onto the street and cruised out into the Chicago night.
I took a slow look around the familiar shapes of dark buildings where only a few lights still burned. I’d lived in this neighborhood for years. You’d think I’d be confident about spotting anything out of the ordinary fairly quickly. But, call me crazy, there were just too many players moving in this game, with God only knew what kinds of abilities to draw upon.
I didn’t spot anyone out there getting set to kill me to get to Morgan. But that didn’t mean that they weren’t there.
“If that’s not paranoid reflex,” I muttered, “I don’t know what is.”
I shivered and walked down the steps to my apartment. I disarmed the wards, and reminded myself, again, that I really needed to do something about the deep divots in the steel security door. The last thing I needed was for old Mrs. Spunkelcrief, my near-deaf landlady, to start asking me why my door looked like it had been shot a dozen times. I mean, I could always tell her, “because it has been,” but that isn’t the sort of conversation one has with one’s landlady if one wants to keep one’s home.
I opened the bullet-dented door, went inside, turned toward the bedroom door, and was faced with a bizarre tableau.
Morgan was off the bed, sitting on the floor with his back to it, his wounded leg stretched out in front of him. He looked awful, but his eyes were narrowed and glittered with suspicion.
Sprawled in the bedroom doorway was my apprentice, Molly Carpenter.
Molly was a tall young woman with a bunch of really well-arranged curves and shoulder-length hair that was, this month, dyed a brilliant shade of sapphire. She was wearing cutoff blue jeans and a white tank top, and her blue eyes looked exasperated.
She was sprawling on the floor because Mouse was more or less lying on top of her. He wasn’t letting his full weight rest on her, because it probably would have smothered her, but it seemed obvious that she was not able to move.
“Harry!” Molly said. She started to say something else, but Mouse leaned into her a little, and suddenly all she could do was gasp for air.
“Dresden!” Morgan growled at about the same time. He shifted his weight, as if to get up.
Mouse turned his head to Morgan and gave him a steady look, his lips peeling back from his fangs.
Morgan settled down.
“Hooboy,” I sighed, and pushed the door shut, leaving the room in complete darkness. I locked the door, put the wards back up, and then muttered, “Flickum bicus.” I waved my hand as I spoke, and sent a minor effort of will out into the room, and half a dozen candles flickered to life.
Mouse turned to me and gave me what I could have sworn was a reproachful look. Then he got up off of Molly, padded into the alcove that served as my kitchen, and deliberately yawned at me before flopping down on the floor to sleep. The meaning was clear: now it’s your problem.
“Ah,” I said, glancing from Mouse to my apprentice to my guest. “Um. What happened here, exactly?”
“The warlock tried to sneak up on me while I slept,” Morgan spat.
Molly quickly stood up and scowled at Morgan, her hands clenched into fists. “Oh, that’s ridiculous.”
“Then explain what you’re doing here this late at night,” Morgan said. “What possible reason could you have to show up here, now?”
“I’m making concentration-supporting potions,” she said from between clenched teeth, in a tone that suggested she’d repeated herself about a hundred times already. “The jasmine has to go in at night. Tell him, Harry.”
Crap. In all the excitement, I’d forgotten that the grasshopper was scheduled to show up and pull an all-nighter. “Um,” I said. “What I meant to ask was, how is it that Mouse came to be sitting on you both?”
“The warlock summoned up her will and prepared to attack me,” Morgan said frostily. “The dog intervened.”
Molly rolled her eyes and glared at him. “Oh, please. You are such an asshole.”
The air in the room seemed to tighten a little, as power gathered around the young woman.
“Molly,” I said gently.
She glanced over at me, scowling. “What?”
I cleared my throat and gestured at her with one hand.
She blinked for a second, then seemed to catch on. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and exhaled it slowly. As she did, the ominous sense of stormy energy faded. Molly ducked her head a little, her cheeks flushing. “Sorry. But it wasn’t like that.”
I ignored him. “Go on,” I told Molly. “Talk.”
“He just . . . I just got so angry,” Molly said. “He made me so upset. I couldn’t help it.” She gestured to Mouse. “And then he just . . . just flattened me. And he wouldn’t let me up, and he wouldn’t let Morgan move, either.”
“Seems to me that the dog had better sense than you,” I said. I glanced up at Morgan. “Either of you. You’re supposed to stay still. You wanna kill yourself?”
“It was a reaction to her approach,” Morgan said calmly. “I survived it.”
I shook my head. “And you,” I said to Molly. “How many months have we spent working on your emotional control?”
“I know, I know,” she said. “It’s never good to use magic in anger. I know, Harry.”
“You’d better know it,” I said quietly. “If it’s so easy to get a rise out of you that one bitter old washed-up Warden can blow your O-ring, the first reactionary goomba to come along looking for an excuse to take you out is going to put you in a casket, claim it was self-defense, and get away with it.”
Morgan bared his teeth in an expression only remotely resembling a smile. “You’d know all about that, Dresden, wouldn’t you?”
“You son of a bitch!” Molly snarled and whirled toward Morgan, seizing a candlestick and hefting it like a club. The candle on it tumbled to the floor.
Morgan sat perfectly still with that same gruesome smile on his face, never flinching.
I lurched forward and grabbed Molly’s arm on her backswing, an instant before she would have brought the heavy candlestick crashing down on Morgan’s skull. Molly was strong for a woman, and I had to make a pretty serious effort to hold her back, my fingers digging into her wrist, while I snagged her around the waist with my other arm and bodily hauled her away from Morgan.
“No!” I demanded. “Dammit, Molly, no!” I actually had to lift her feet off the ground to turn her away from the bedroom. I tightened my grip on her wrist and said, “Drop the candlestick, Molly. Now.”
She let out a sound full of anger and laced with a little pain, and the heavy candlestick dropped to the floor, making a dull thud as it hit the rug-covered concrete. The air around her was alive with power, buzzing against my skin like a thousand tiny sparks of static electricity in a dry winter. “He can’t talk to you like that,” Molly snarled.
“Think,” I told her, my voice hard but measured. “Remember the lessons. They’re just words, Molly. Look for the thought behind them. He set you up for this reaction. You’re allowing him to make you embarrass me.”
Molly opened her mouth on an angry retort, then forced her mouth closed and turned her face away from me. She remained rigidly tense, and after a fuming half minute, she said, her voice more calm, “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry,” I replied as gently as I could. “Be disciplined. You can’t afford to let them rattle you. Not ever.”
She took another deep breath, exhaled, and then I felt her begin to ease down, relaxing her mental grasp on the power she’d instinctively prepared. “Okay,” she said. “Okay, Harry.”
I let her go slowly. She began to rub at her right wrist with her other hand. I winced a little on her behalf. I thought I’d left bruises on her skin.
“Do me a favor,” I said. “Take Mouse and grab the mail.”
“I’m fine. I don’t need—” she began. Then she stopped herself, shook her head, and looked at Mouse.
The big dog heaved himself up, walked over to the basket next to the door, grasped his leather lead in his jaws, and dragged it out. Then he looked up at Molly, his head cocked to one side, his tail wagging hopefully.
Molly let out a rueful little laugh and knelt down to hug the big dog. She clipped his lead onto his collar, and the two of them left.
I turned and eyed the candle. It had spilled hot wax onto a genuine Navajo rug on the floor, but it hadn’t set anything on fire. I bent down and picked up the candle, then started trying to clean up the spilled wax as best I could.
“Why?” I asked in a hard voice.
“It’s one way to take a measure of a man,” he said. “Looking at his students.”
“You didn’t look,” I said. “You needled her until she broke.”
“She’s a self-proclaimed warlock, Dresden,” he replied. “Guilty of one of the most hideous and self-destructive crimes a wizard can commit. Is there some reason she shouldn’t be tested?”
“What you did was cruel,” I said.
“Was it?” Morgan asked. “There are others she is going to meet, one day, who will be even less gracious. Are you preparing her to deal with those people?”
I glared at him.
His gaze never wavered. “You aren’t doing her any favors by going easy on her, Dresden,” he said, more quietly. “You aren’t preparing her for exams. She doesn’t receive a bad mark if she fails.”
I was quiet for a minute. Then I asked, “Did you learn shields as an apprentice?”
“Of course. One of my earliest lessons.”
“How did your master teach you?”
“She threw stones at me,” he said.
I grunted, without looking at him.
“Pain is an excellent motivator,” he said. “And it teaches one to control one’s emotions at the same time.” He tilted his head. “Why do you ask?”
“No reason,” I told him. “She could have broken your head open, you know.”
He gave me that same unsettling smile. “You wouldn’t have let her.”
Molly came back into the apartment, carrying a handful of mail, including one of those stupid Circuit City fliers that they just won’t stop sending me. She shut the door, put the wards back up, and took Mouse’s lead off. The big dog went over to the kitchen and flopped down.
Molly put the mail on the coffee table, gave Morgan a level pensive look, and then nodded at him. “So . . . what’s he doing here, boss?”
I stared at Molly for a moment, and then at Morgan. “What do you think?” I asked him.
He shrugged a shoulder. “She already knows enough to implicate her. Besides, Dresden—if you go down with me, there’s no one left to take responsibility for her. Her sentence will not remain suspended.”
I ground my teeth together. Molly had made a couple of bad choices a few years back, and violated one of the Laws of Magic in doing so. The White Council takes a harsh view of such things—their reactions start with beheadings, and become progressively less tolerant. I’d staked my own life on the belief that Molly wasn’t rotten to the core, and that I could rehabilitate her. When I did it, I’d known that I was risking my own well-being. If Molly backslid, I’d bear the responsibility for it, and get a death sentence about twenty seconds after she did.
I hadn’t really considered that it would also work the other way around.
Say for a minute that it was Morgan’s intention to get caught and take me down with him. It also meant that Molly would take a fall. He’d get rid of both of the Council’s former warlocks with the same move. Two birds, one stone.
“Okay,” I sighed. “I guess you’re in.”
“I am?” Molly looked at me with widening eyes. “Um. In what?”
I told her.
“I don’t like it,” Morgan growled, as I pushed the wheelchair over the gravel toward the street and the van Thomas had rented.
“Gee. There’s a shock,” I said. Morgan was a lot to push around, even with the help of the chair. “You upset with how I operate.”
“He’s a vampire,” Morgan said. “He can’t be trusted.”
“I can hear you,” Thomas said from the driver’s seat of the van.
“I know that, vampire,” Morgan said, without raising his voice. He eyed me again.
“He owes me a favor,” I said, “from that coup attempt in the White Court.”
Morgan glowered at me. “You’re lying,” he said.
“For all you know it’s true.”
“No, it isn’t,” he said flatly. “You’re lying to me.”
He looked from me to the van. “You trust him.”
“To a degree,” I said.
“Idiot,” he said, though he sounded like his heart wasn’t in it. “Even when a White Court vampire is sincere, you can’t trust it. Sooner or later, its demon takes control. And then you’re nothing but food. It’s what they are.”
I felt a little surge of anger and clubbed it down before it could make my mouth start moving. “You came to me, remember? You don’t like how I’m helping you, feel free to roll yourself right out of my life.”
Morgan gave me a disgusted look, folded his arms—and shut his mouth.
Thomas turned on the hazard lights as the van idled on the street; then he came around and opened up the side door. He turned to Morgan and picked up the wheelchair the wounded Warden sat in with about as much effort as I’d use to move a sack of groceries from the cart into my car’s trunk. Thomas put the wheelchair carefully into the van, while Morgan held the IV bag steady on its little metal pole clamped to the chair’s arm.
I had to give Morgan a grudging moment of admiration. He was one tough son of a bitch. Obviously in agony, obviously exhausted, obviously operating in the shambles of his own shattered pride, he was still stubborn enough to be paranoid and annoying. If he wasn’t aiming it all at me, I probably would have admired him even more.
Thomas slid the door shut on Morgan, rolled his eyes at me, and got back into the driver’s seat.
Molly came hurrying up, carrying a pair of backpacks, holding one end of Mouse’s leash. I held out my hand, and she tossed me the black nylon pack. It was my trouble kit. Among other things, it contained food, water, a medical kit, survival blankets, chemical light sticks, duct tape, two changes of clothing, a multitool, two hundred dollars in cash, my passport, and a couple of favorite paperbacks. I always kept the trouble kit ready and available, in case I need to move out in a hurry. It had everything I would need to survive about ninety percent of the planet’s environments for at least a couple of days.
Molly, acting on her own initiative, had begun putting her own trouble kit together the same day she’d learned about mine. Except that her backpack was pink.
“You sure about this?” I asked her, pitching my voice low enough that Morgan wouldn’t hear.
She nodded. “He can’t stay there alone. You can’t stay with him. Neither can Thomas.”
I grunted. “Do I need to search your bag for candlesticks?”
She gave me a chagrined shake of her head.
“Don’t feel too bad, kid,” I told her. “He had a couple of hours to work you up to that. And he’s the guy who nearly cut your head off, during that mess around SplatterCon.”
“It wasn’t that,” she said quietly. “It’s what he said to you. What he’s done to you.”
I put my hand on her arm and squeezed gently.
She smiled faintly at me. “I’ve never . . . never really felt . . . hate before. Not like that.”
“Your emotions got the better of you. That’s all.”
“But it isn’t,” she insisted, folding her arms against her stomach, her shoulders hunching a little. “Harry, I’ve seen you all but kill yourself to help people who were in trouble. But for Morgan, that doesn’t matter. You’re just this . . . thisthing that did something wrong once, and you’ll never, ever be anything else.”
“Kid,” I said quietly, “maybe you should think about who you were really angry with back there.”
“What do you mean?”
I shrugged. “I mean there’s a reason you snapped when he started in on me. Maybe the fact that he was being Morgan just happened to be coincidental.”
She blinked her eyes several times, but not fast enough to stop one tear.
“You did a bad thing once,” I said. “It doesn’t make you a monster.”
Two more tears fell. “What if it does?” She wiped at her cheeks with a brusque frustrated motion. “What if it does, Harry?”
I nodded. “Because if Morgan’s right, and I’m just a ticking time-bomb, and I’m trying to rehabilitate you, you haven’t got a chance in hell. I get it.”
She pressed her lips together, and it made her words sound stiff. “Just before Mouse knocked me down, I wanted to . . . to do things to Morgan. To his mind. To make him act differently. I was so angry, and it felt right.”
“Feeling something and acting on it are two different things.”
She shook her head. “But who would want to do that, Harry? What kind of monster would feel that?”
I slung the pack over one shoulder so that I could put my hands on either side of her face and turn her eyes to mine. Her tears made them very blue.
“The human kind. Molly, you are a good person. Don’t let anyone take that away from you. Not even yourself.”
She didn’t even try to stop the tears. Her lip quivered. Her eyes were wide and her cheeks were fever-warm under my fingers. “A-are you sure?”
She bowed her head, and her shoulders shook. I leaned down to rest my forehead against hers. We stayed that way for a minute. “You’re okay,” I told her quietly. “You aren’t a monster. You’re gonna be all right, grasshopper.”
A series of sharp, rapping sounds interrupted us. I looked over my shoulder and found Morgan glowering at me. He held up a pocket watch—an honest to God gold pocket watch—and jabbed a forefinger at it impatiently.
“Jerk,” Molly mumbled, sniffling. “Big fat, grumpy jerk.”
“Yes. But he has a point. Tick-tock.”
She swiped a hand at her nose and collected herself. “Okay,” she said. “Let’s go.”
The storage rental facility was located a couple of blocks from Deerfield Square in a fairly upscale suburban neighborhood north of Chicago proper. Most of the buildings nearby were residential, and it was tough to go more than a quarter of an hour without spotting a patrol car.
I’d picked it as the spot for my bolt hole for one reason: shady characters would stand out against the upper-middle-class background like mustard stains under a black light.
Granted, it would probably work even better if I wasn’t oneof them.
I used my key at the security gate, and Thomas pulled the van around to my unit, a storage unit the size of a two-car garage. I unlocked the steel door and rolled it up while Thomas got Morgan out of the van. Molly followed, and when I beckoned, she wheeled Morgan into the storage space. Mouse got down out of the van and followed us. I rolled the door back down, and called wizard light to the amulet I held up in my right hand, until its blue-white glow filled the unit.
The interior of the place was mostly empty. There was a camp cot, complete with sleeping bag and pillow, placed more or less in the middle of the room, along with a footlocker I had filled with food, bottled water, candles, and supplies. A second footlocker sat next to the first one, and was filled with hardware and magical gear—a backup blasting rod, and all manner of useful little items one could use to accomplish a surprisingly broad spectrum of thaumaturgic workings. A camp toilet with a couple of jugs of cleaning liquid sat on the opposite side of the cot.
The floor, the walls, and the ceiling were covered in sigils, runes, and magical formulae. They weren’t proper wards, like the ones I had on my home, but they worked on the same principles. Without a threshold to build them upon, no single one of the formulae was particularly powerful—but there werelots of them. They began to gleam with a silvery glow in the light coming from my amulet.
“Wow,” Molly said, staring slowly around her. “What is this place, Harry?”
“Bolt hole I set up last year, in case I needed someplace quiet where I wouldn’t get much company.”
Morgan was looking, too, though his face was pale and drawn with pain. He swept his eyes around and said, “What’s the mix?”
“Concealment and avoidance, mostly,” I replied. “Plus a Faraday cage.”
Morgan nodded, glancing around. “It looks adequate.”
“What’s that mean?” Molly asked me. “A Faraday what?”
“It’s what they call it when you shield equipment from electromagnetic pulses,” I told her. “You build a cage of conductive material around the thing you want to protect, and if a pulse sweeps over it, the energy is channeled into the earth.”
“Like a lightning rod,” Molly said.
“Pretty much,” I said. “Only instead of electricity, this is built to stop hostile magic.”
“Once,” Morgan corrected me primly.
I grunted. “Without a threshold to work with, there’s only so much you can do. The idea is to protect you from a surprise assault long enough for you to go out the back door and run.”
Molly glanced at the back of the storage unit and said, “There’s no door there, Harry. That’s a wall. It’s kind of the opposite of a door.”
Morgan nodded his head at the back corner of the space, where a large rectangular area on the floor was clear of any runes or other markings. “There,” he said. “Where’s it come out?”
“About three long steps from one of the marked trails the Council has right of passage on in Unseelie territory,” I said. I nodded at a cardboard box sitting in the rectangle. “It’s cold there. There’re a couple of coats in the box.”
“A passage to the Nevernever,” Molly breathed. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
“Hopefully whoever was coming after me wouldn’t, either,” I said.
Morgan eyed me. “One can’t help noting,” he said, “that this place seems ideally suited to hiding and sheltering a fugitive from the Wardens.”
“Hunh,” I said. “Now that you mention it, yeah. Yeah it does seem kind of friendly to that sort of purpose.” I gave Morgan an innocent look. “Just an odd coincidence, I’m sure, since I happen to be one of those paranoid lunatics, myself.”
“You came to me for a reason, Chuckles,” I said. “Besides. I wasn’t thinking about the Wardens nearly so much as I was . . .” I shook my head and shut my mouth.
“As who, Harry?” Molly asked.
“I don’t know who they are,” I said. “But they’ve been involved in several things lately. The Darkhallow, Arctis Tor, the White Court coup. They’re way too handy with magic. I’ve been calling them the Black Council.”
“There is no Black Council,” Morgan snapped, with the speed that could only have been born of reflex.
Molly and I traded a look.
Morgan let out an impatient breath. “Any actions that may have been taken are the work of isolated renegades,” he said. “There is no organized conspiracy against the White Council.”
“Uh-huh,” I said. “Gosh, I’d have thought you’d be right on board with the conspiracy thing.”
“The Council is not divided,” he said, his voice as hard and cold as I had ever heard it. “Because the moment we turn upon one another, we’re finished. There is no Black Council, Dresden.”
I lifted both eyebrows. “From my perspective, the Council’s been turning on me for most of my life,” I said. “And I’m a member. I have a robe and everything.”
“You,” Morgan spat, “are . . .” He almost seemed to be choking on something before he blew out a breath and finished, “. . . vastly irritating.”
I beamed at him. “That’s the Merlin’s line, isn’t it?” I said. “There is no conspiracy against the Council.”
“It is the position of the entire Senior Council,” Morgan shot back.
“Okay, smart guy,” I said. “Explain what happened to you.”
He glowered again, only with more purple.
I nodded sagely, then turned to Molly. “This place should protect you from most tracking spells,” I said. “And the avoidance wards should keep anyone from wandering by or asking any questions.”
Morgan made a growling noise.
“Suggestions, not compulsions,” I said, rolling my eyes. “They’re in common usage and you know it.”
“What do I do if someone does come?” she asked.
“Veil and run,” I said.
She shook her head. “I don’t know how to open a way to the Nevernever, Harry. You haven’t shown me yet.”
“I can show her,” Morgan said.
Both of us stopped and blinked at him.
He was very still for a second and then said, “I can do it. If she watches, maybe she’ll learn something.” He glared at me. “But doors open both ways, Dresden. What if something comesin through it?”
Mouse went over to the open space and settled down about six inches away from it. He sighed once, shifted his weight a bit, and went to sleep again, though his ears twitched at every noise.
I went to the first footlocker and opened it, took out a boxed fruit drink, and passed it to him. “Your blood sugar’s getting low. It’s making you grumpy. But if you do get an unexpected visitor from the other side . . .” I went to the second locker, opened it, and drew out a pump-action shotgun, its barrel cut to well below the minimum legal length. I checked it, and passed the weapon to Molly. “It’s loaded with a mix of steel shot and rock salt. Between that and Mouse, it should discourage anything that comes through.”
“Right,” Molly said. She checked the weapon’s chamber and then worked the pump, chambering a shell. She double-checked the safety, and then nodded at me.
“You taught her guns,” Morgan said. “But not how to open passages to the Nevernever.”
“There’s enough trouble right here in the real world,” I said.
Morgan grunted. “True enough. Where are you going?”
“Only one place I can go.”
He nodded. “Edinburgh.”
I turned toward the door and opened it. I looked from Morgan with his juice box to Molly with her shotgun. “You two play nice.”
Wizards and technology don’t get on so well, and that makes travel sort of complicated. Some wizards seemed to be more of a bad influence on technology than others, and if any of them were harder on machinery than me, I hadn’t met them yet. I’d been on a jet a couple of times and had one bad experience—just one. After the plane’s computers and guidance system went bad, and we had to make an emergency landing on a tiny commercial airfield, I wasn’t eager to repeat the experience.
Buses were better, especially if you sat toward the back, but even they had problems. I hadn’t been on a bus trip longer than three or four hundred miles without winding up broken down next to the highway in the middle of nowhere. Cars could work out, especially if they were fairly old models—the fewer electronics involved, the better. Even those machines, though, tended to provide you with chronic problems. I’d never owned a car that ran more than maybe nine days in ten—and most of them were worse than that.
Trains and ships were the ideal, especially if you could keep yourself a good way from the engines. Most wizards, when they traveled, stuck with ships and trains. Either that or they cheated—like I was about to do.
Back at the beginning of the war with the Vampire Courts, the White Council, with the help of a certain wizard private investigator from Chicago who shall remain nameless, negotiated the use of Ways through the near reaches of the Nevernever controlled by the Unseelie Court. The Nevernever, the world of ghosts and spirits and fantastic beings of every description, exists alongside our own mortal reality—but it isn’t the same shape. That meant that in places, the mortal world touched upon the Nevernever at two points that could be very close together, while in the mortal realm, they were very far apart. In short, use of the Ways meant that anyone who could open a path between worlds could use a major shortcut.
In this case, it meant I could make the trip from Chicago, Illinois, to Edinburgh, Scotland, in about half an hour.
The closest entry point to where I wanted to go in the Nevernever was a dark alley behind a building that had once been used for meat packing. A lot of things had died in that building, not all of them cleanly and not all of them cows. There’s a dark sense of finality to the place, a sort of ephemeral quality of dread that hangs so lightly on the air that the unobservant might not notice it at all. In the middle of the alley, a concrete staircase led down to a door that was held shut with both boards and chains—talk about overkill.
I walked down the steps to the bottom of the stairs, closed my eyes for a moment, and extended my otherworldly senses, not toward the door, but toward the section of concrete beside it. I could feel the thinness of the world there, where energy pulsed and hummed just beneath the seemingly rigid surface of reality.
It was a hot night in Chicago, but it wouldn’t be on the Ways. I wore a long-sleeved shirt and jeans, and a couple of pairs of socks beneath my hiking shoes. My heavy leather duster had me sweating. I gathered up my will, reached out my hand, and with a whisper of “Aparturum,” I opened a Way between worlds.
Honestly, it sounds quite a bit more dramatic than it looks. The surface of the concrete wall rippled with a quick flickering of color and began to put out a soft glow. I took a deep breath, gripped my staff in both hands, and stepped directly forward into the concrete.
My flesh passed through what should have been stone, and I emerged in a dark wood that lay covered in frost and a thin layer of snow. At least this time the ground in Chicago had been more or less level with the ground in the Nevernever. Last time, I’d had a three-inch drop I hadn’t expected, and I’d fallen on my ass into the snow. No harm done, I suppose, but this part of the Nevernever was just chock-full of things you did notwant to think you were clumsy or vulnerable.
I took my bearings with a quick look around. The woods were the same, all three times I’d been through them. A hillside sank down ahead of me, and climbed steadily into the night behind me. At the top of the small mountain I stood upon, I was told, was a narrow and bitterly cold pass that led into the interior of the Unseelie Mountains, to Mab’s stronghold of Arctis Tor. Below me, the land sank into foothills and then into plains, where Mab’s authority ended and that of Titania the Summer Queen began.
I stood at a crossroads—which was only sensible, since I’d arrived from Chicago, one of the great crossroads of the world. One trail led upslope and down. The other crossed it at almost perfect right angles, and ran along the face of the hillside. I took a left, following the face of the hillside in a counterclockwise direction, also known as widdershins, in the parlance of the locals. The trail ran between frozen trees, their branches bowed beneath their burden of frost and snow.
I moved quickly, but not quickly enough to slip and blow out an ankle or brain myself on a low-hanging branch. The White Council had Mab’s permission to move through the woods, but they were by no means safe.
I found that out for myself about fifteen minutes into my walk, when snow suddenly fell softly from the trees all around, and silent black shapes descended to encircle me. It happened quickly, and in perfect silence—maybe a dozen spiders the size of ponies alit upon the frozen ground or clung to the trunks and branches of the surrounding trees. They were smooth-surfaced, sharp-edged creatures, like orbweavers, long-limbed and graceful and deadly-looking. They moved with an almost delicate precision, their bodies of a color of grey and blue and white that blended flawlessly with the snowy night.
The spider who had come down onto the trail directly in front of me raised its two forelegs in warning, and revealed fangs longer than my forearm, dripping with milky-white venom.
“Halt, man-thing,” said the creature.
That was actually scarier than the mere appearance of economy-sized arachnids. Between its fangs, I could see a mouth moving—a mouth that looked disturbingly human. Its multiple eyes gleamed like beads of obsidian. Its voice was a chirping, buzzing thing. “Halt, he whose blood will warm us. Halt, intruder upon the Wood of the Winter Queen.”
I stopped and looked around the circle of spiders. None of them seemed to be particularly larger or smaller than the others. If I had to fight my way clear, there wasn’t any obvious weak link to exploit. “Greetings,” I said, as I did. “I am no intruder, honored hunters. I am a Wizard of the White Council, and I and my folk have the Queen’s permission to tread these paths.”
The air around me shivered with chitters and hisses and clicks.
“Man-things speak often with false tongues,” said the lead spider, its forelimbs thrashing the air in agitation.
I held up my staff. “I guess they always have one of these, too, huh?”
The spider hissed, and venom bubbled from the tips of its fangs. “Many a man-thing bears such a long stick, mortal.”
“Careful, legs,” I said. “I’m on speaking terms with Queen Mab herself. I don’t think you want to play it like this.”
The spider’s legs shifted in an undulating motion, and the spider rippled two or three feet closer to me. The other spiders all shifted, too, moving a bit nearer. I didn’t like that, not even a little. If one of them jumped, they’d be all over me—and there were just too many of the damn big things to defend myself against them effectively.
The spider laughed, the sound hollow and mocking. “Mortals do not speak to the Queen and live to tell the tale.”
“It lies,” hissed the other spiders, the phrase a low buzzing around me. “And its blood is warm.”
I eyed all those enormous fangs and had an acutely uncomfortable flashback to Morgan driving his straw through the top of that damn juice box.
The spider in front of me flowed a little to the left and a little to the right, the graceful motion intended to distract me from the fact that it had gotten about a foot closer to me. “Man-thing, how are we to know what you truly are?”
In my professional opinion, you rarely get handed a straight line that good.
I thrust the tip of my staff forward, along with my gathered will, focusing it into an area the size of my own clenched fist as I shouted, “Forzare!”
An invisible force hammered into the lead spider, right in its disturbing mouth. It lifted the huge beast off all eight of its feet, drove it fifteen feet backward through the air, and ended at the trunk of an enormous old oak. The spider smacked into it like an enormous water bottle, making a hideous splattering sound upon impact. It bounced off the tree and landed on the frozen ground, its legs all quivering and jerking spasmodically. Maybe three hundred pounds of snow shaken loose by the impact came plummeting down from the oak tree’s branches and half buried the body.
Everything went still and silent.
I narrowed my eyes and swept my gaze around the circle of monstrous arachnids. I said nothing.
The spider nearest its dead companion shifted its weight warily from leg to leg. Then, in a much quieter voice, it trilled, “Let the wizard pass.”
“Damn right let him pass,” I muttered under my breath. Then I strode forward as though I intended to smash anything else that got in my way.
The spiders scattered. I kept walking without slowing, breaking stride, or looking back. They didn’t know how fast my heart was beating or how my legs were trembling with fear. And as long as they didn’t, I would be just fine.
After a hundred yards or so, I did look back—only to see the spiders gathered over the body of their dead companion. They were wrapping it up in silk, their fangs twitching and jerking hungrily. I shuddered and my stomach twisted onto itself.
One thing you can count on when visiting the Nevernever: you don’t ever get bored.
I turned off the forest path onto a foot trail at a tree whose trunk had been carved with a pentacle. The trees turned into evergreens and crowded close to the trail. Things moved out of sight among the trees making small scuttling noises, and I could barely hear high-pitched whispers and sibilant voices coming from the forest around me. Creepy, but par for the course.
The path led up to a clearing in the woods. Centered in the clearing was a mound of earth about a dozen yards across and almost as high, thick with stones and vines. Massive slabs of rock formed the posts and lintel of a black doorway. A lone figure in a grey cloak stood beside the doorway, a lean and fit-looking young man with cheekbones sharp enough to slice bread and eyes of cobalt blue. Beneath the grey cloak, he wore an expensive dark blue cashmere suit, with a cream-colored shirt and a metallic copper-colored tie. A black bowler topped off the ensemble, and instead of a staff or a blasting rod, he bore a silver-headed walking cane in his right hand.
He was also holding the cane at full extension, pointed directly at me with narrowed, serious eyes as I came down the trail.
I stopped and waved a hand. “Easy there, Steed.”
The young man lowered the cane, and his face blossomed into a smile that made him look maybe ten years younger. “Ah,” he said. “Not too obvious a look, one hopes?”
“It’s a classic,” I said. “How you doing, Chandler?”
“I am freezing off my well-tailored ass,” Chandler said cheerily, in an elegant accent straight from Oxford. “But I endure thanks to excellent breeding, a background in preparatory academies, and metric tons of British fortitude.” Those intense blue eyes took a second look at me, and though his expression never changed, his voice gained a touch of concern. “How are you, Harry?”
“Been a long night,” I said, walking forward. “Aren’t there supposed to be five of you watching the door?”
“Five of me guarding the door? Are you mad? The sheer power of the concentrated fashion sense would obliterate visitors on sight.”
I burst out in a short laugh. “You must use your powers only for good?”
“Precisely, and I shall.” He tilted his head thoughtfully. “I can’t remember the last time I saw you here.”
“I only visited once,” I said. “And that was a few years ago, right after they drafted me.”
Chandler nodded soberly. “What brings you out of Chicago?”
“I heard about Morgan.”
The young Warden’s expression darkened. “Yes,” he said quietly. “It’s . . . hard to believe. You’re here to help find him?”
“I’ve found murderers before,” I said. “I figure I can do it again.” I paused. For whatever reason, Chandler was almost always to be found working near the Senior Council. If anyone would know the scuttlebutt, he would. “Who do you think I should talk to about it?”
“Wizard Liberty is coordinating the search,” he replied. “Wizard Listens-to-Wind is investigating the scene of the murder. Ancient Mai is getting the word out to the rest of the Council to convene an emergency session.”
I nodded. “What about Wizard McCoy?”
“Standing by with a strike team, when last I heard,” Chandler replied. “He’s one of the few who can reasonably expect to overpower Morgan.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Morgan’s a pain in the ass, all right.” I shivered and stamped my feet against the cold. “I’ve got some information they’re going to want. Where do I find them?”
Chandler considered. “Ancient Mai should be in the Crystalline Hall, Wizard Liberty is in the Offices, Wizard McCoy should be somewhere near the War Room and Wizard Listens-to-Wind and the Merlin are in LaFortier’s chambers.”
“How about the Gatekeeper?” I asked.
Chandler shrugged. “Gatekeeping, I daresay. The only wizard I see less frequently than he is you.”
I nodded. “Thanks, Chandler.” I faced him soberly and put a formal solemnity in my voice as I adhered to security protocols more than five centuries old. “I seek entry to the Hidden Halls, O Warden. May I pass?”
He eyed me for a moment and gave me a slow, regal nod, his eyes twinkling. “Be welcome to the seat of the White Council. Enter in peace and depart in peace.”
I nodded to him and walked forward through the archway.
I’d come in peace, sure. But if the killer was around and caught onto what I was doing, I wouldn’t depart in peace.
Just in pieces.
The Hidden Halls of Edinburgh were the redoubt and fortress of the White Council of Wizardry from time immemorial. Well, actually, that last bit isn’t true. It’s been our headquarters for a little under five hundred years.
The White Council has existed since pre-Roman times, in one form or another, and its headquarters has shifted from time to time, and place to place. Alexandria, Carthage, Rome—we were in the Vatican in the early days of the Church, believe it or not—Constantinople and Madrid have all been home to the Council’s leadership at one time or another—but since the end of the Middle Ages, they’ve been located in the tunnels and catacombs hewn from the unyielding stone of Scotland.
Edinburgh ’s tunnel network is even more extensive than those beneath the city of Chicago, and infinitely more stable and sturdy. The main headquarters of the complex is located deep beneath the Auld Rock itself—Castle Edinburgh, where kings and queens, lords and ladies, have defied, besieged, betrayed and slaughtered one another since pre-Christian times.
There’s a reason a fortress has been there for as long as mankind can remember—it is one of the world’s largest convergences of ley lines. Ley lines are the natural currents of magical energy running through the world. They are the most powerful means of employing magic known to man—and the lines that intersect in the earth deep below the Auld Rock represent a staggering amount of raw power waiting to be tapped by someone skilled or foolish enough.
I walked over a ley line about three steps after I entered the Hidden Halls, and I could feel its shuddering energy beneath my feet, rushing by like an enormous, silent subterranean river. I walked a bit faster for a few paces, irrationally nervous about being swept off of my feet by it, until I could only sense it as a dim and receding vibration in the ground.
I didn’t need to call up a light. Crystals set in the walls glowed in a rainbow of gentle colors, bathing the whole place in soft, ambient illumination. The tunnel was ancient, worn, chilly, and damp. Water always seemed ready to condense into a half-frozen dew the instant it was given the opportunity by an exhaled breath or a warm body.
The tunnel was about as wide as my spread arms, and maybe eight feet high. The walls were lined with bas-relief carvings in the stone. Some of them were renditions of scenes of what I’d been told were the historical high points of the White Council. Since I didn’t recognize anyone in the images, I didn’t have much context for them, so they mostly just looked like the crudely drawn cast of thousands you see on the Bayeux Tapestry. The rest of the carvings were wards—seriously world-class heavyweight wards. I didn’t know what they did, but I could sense the deadly power behind them, and I tread carefully as I passed deeper into the complex.
The entry tunnel from the Nevernever was more than a quarter of a mile long, sloping gently downward the whole way. There were metal gates every couple of hundred yards, each of them manned by a Warden backed up by a pair of Ancient Mai’s temple-dog statues.
The things were three feet high at the shoulder, and looked like escapees from a Godzilla movie. Carved from stone, the blocky figures sat inert and immobile—but I knew that they could come to dangerous life at an instant’s notice. I tried to think about what it might be like to be facing a pair of aggressive temple-dog statues in the relatively narrow hallway. I decided that I’d rather wrestle an oncoming subway locomotive. At least then it would be over quickly.
I exchanged polite greetings with the Wardens on guard until I passed the last checkpoint and entered the headquarters proper. Then I took a folded map from my duster pocket, squinted at it, and got my bearings. The layout of the tunnels was complex, and it would be easy to get lost.
Where to begin?
If the Gatekeeper had been around, I would have sought him out first. Rashid had been my supporter and ally on more than one occasion, God knew why. I wasn’t on what anyone would call good terms with the Merlin. I barely knew Martha Liberty or Listens-to-Wind. I found Ancient Mai to be a very scary little person. That left Ebenezar.
I headed for the War Room.
It took me the better part of half an hour to get there. Like I said, the tunnel complex is enormous—and after the way the war had reduced the ranks of the Council, it seemed lonelier and emptier than ever. My footsteps echoed hollowly back from stone walls for minutes at a time, unaccompanied by any other sound.
I felt intensely uncomfortable as I paced the Hidden Halls. I think it was the smell that did it. When I’d been a young man, hauled before the Council to be tried as a violator of the First Law of Magic, they had brought me to Edinburgh. The musty, wet, mineral smell of the place had been almost all I knew while I had waited, hooded and bound, in a cell for a full day. I remember being horribly cold and tortured by the knots my muscles worked themselves into after so many hours tied hand and foot. I remember feeling more alone than ever in my life, while I awaited whatever was going to happen.
I had been scared. So scared. I was sixteen.
It was the same smell, and that scent had the power to animate the corpses of some of my darkest memories and bring them lurching back into the front of my thoughts. Psychological necromancy.
“Brains,” I moaned to myself, drawing the word out.
If you can’t stop the bad thoughts from coming to visit, at least you can make fun of them while they’re hanging around.
In a stroke of improbable logic, the War Room was located between the central chambers of the Senior Council and the barracks rooms of the Wardens, which included a small kitchen. The smell of baking bread cut through the musty dampness of the tunnel, and I felt my steps quickening.
I passed the barracks, which would doubtless be empty, for the most part. Most of the Wardens would be out hunting Morgan, as evidenced by the skeleton guard I’d seen at Chandler’s post. I took the next left, nodded to the very young Warden on guard, opened a door, and passed into the War Room of the White Council.
It was a spacious vault, about a hundred feet square, but the heavy arches and pillars that supported the ceiling took away a lot of that room. Illuminating crystals glowed more brightly here, to make reading easier. Bulletin boards on rolling frames took up spaces between pillars, and were covered by maps and pins and tiny notes. Most of them had one or more chalkboards next to them, which were covered in diagrams, cryptic, brief notation, and cruder maps. Completely ordinary office furniture occupied the back half of the vault, broken up into cubicles.
Typewriters clacked and dinged. Men and women of the administrative staff, wizards all, moved back and forth through the room, speaking quietly, writing, typing, and filing. A row of counters on the front wall of the room supported coffeepots warmed by propane flames, and several well-worn couches and chairs rested nearby.
Half a dozen veteran Wardens lay sprawled on couches napping, sat in chairs reading books, or played chess with an old set upon a coffee table. Their staves and cloaks were all at hand, ready to be taken up at an instant’s notice. They were dangerous, hard men and women, the Old Guard, survivors of the deadly days of the early Vampire War. I wouldn’t have wanted to cross any of them.
Sitting in a chair slightly apart from them, staring at the flames crackling in a rough stone fireplace, sat my old mentor, Ebenezar McCoy. He held a cup of coffee in his thick, work-scarred fingers. A lot of the more senior wizards in the Council had a sense of propriety they took way too seriously, always dressed to the nines, always immaculate and proper. Ebenezar wore an old pair of denim overalls with a flannel shirt and leather work boots that could have been thirty or forty years old. His silver hair, what he had left of it, was in disarray, as if he’d just woken from a restless sleep. He was aging, even by wizard standards, but his shoulders were still wide, and the muscles in his forearms were taut and visible beneath age-spotted skin. He stared at the fire through wire-rimmed spectacles, his dark eyes unfocused, one foot slowly tapping the floor.
I leaned my staff against a handy wall, got myself a cup of coffee, and settled down in the chair beside Ebenezar’s. I sipped coffee, let the warmth of the fire drive some of the wet chill out of my bones, and waited.
“They always have good coffee here,” Ebenezar said a few moments later.
“And they don’t call it funny names,” I said. “It’s just coffee. Not frappalattegrandechino.”
Ebenezar snorted and sipped from his cup. “Nice trip in?”
“Got tripped up by someone’s thugs on the Winter trail.”
He grimaced. “Aye. We’ve had our people harassed several times, the past few months. How are you, Hoss?”
“Uninformed, sir,” I said.
He eyed me obliquely. “Mmmm. I did as I thought best, boy. I won’t apologize for it.”
“Don’t expect you to,” I said.
He nodded. “What are you doing here?”
“What do you think?”
He shook his head. “I won’t take you on the strike team, Hoss.”
“You think I can’t pull my weight?”
He turned his eyes to me. “You have too much history with Morgan. This has got to be dispassionate, and you’re just about the least dispassionate person I know.”
I grunted. “You’re sure it was Morgan who did LaFortier?”
His eyes returned to the fire. “I would never have expected it. But too many things are in place.”
“No chance it’s a frame?”
Ebenezar blinked and shot me a look. “Why do you ask?”
“Because if the ass is finally getting his comeuppance, I want to make sure it’s on the level,” I said.
He nodded a couple of times. Then he said, “I don’t see how it could have been done. It looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, odds are it’s a damn duck. Occam’s razor, Hoss.”
“Someone could have gotten into his head,” I said.
“At his age?” Ebenezar asked. “Ain’t likely.”
I frowned. “What do you mean?”
“As a mind grows older, it gets established,” he said, “more set in its ways. Like a willow tree. Supple when it’s young, but gets more brittle as it ages. Once you’ve been around a century or so, it generally ain’t possible to bend a mind without breaking it.”
“You can’t push it that far,” Ebenezar said. “Push a loyal man into betraying everything he believes in? You’d drive him insane before you forced him into that. Which means that Morgan made a choice.”
“If he did it.” I shook my head. “I just keep asking myself who profits most if we axe Morgan ourselves.”
Ebenezar grimaced. “It’s ugly all the way around,” he said, “but there it is. I reckon you ’gazed him, Hoss, but it ain’t a lie detector. You know that, too.”
I fell silent for a while and sipped coffee. Then I asked, “Just curious. Who holds the sword when you catch him? It’s usually Morgan who does the head chopping.”
“Captain Luccio, I reckon,” Ebenezar said. “Or someone she appoints. But she ain’t the kind to foist something like that off on a subordinate.”
I got treated to the mental image of Anastasia decapitating her old apprentice. Then of me, taking Molly’s head. I shuddered. “That sucks.”
Ebenezar kept staring at the fire, and his eyes seemed to sink into his head, as if he had aged twenty years right in front of me. “Aye.”
The door to the War Room opened and a slender, reedy little wizard in a tan tweed suit entered, lugging a large portfolio. His short white hair was curled tightly against his head and his fingers were stained with ink. There was a pencil tucked behind one ear, and a fountain pen behind the other. He stopped and peered around the room for a moment, spotted Ebenezar, and bustled right on over.
“Pardon, Wizard McCoy,” he said. “If you have a moment, I need you to sign off on a few papers.”
Ebenezar put his coffee on the floor and accepted a manila folder from the little guy, along with the fountain pen. “What this time, Peabody?”
“First, power of attorney for the office in Jakarta to purchase the building for the new safe house,” Wizard Peabody said, opening the folder and turning a page. Ebenezar scanned it, then signed it. Peabody turned more pages. “Very good. Then an approval on the revision of wages for Wardens—initial there, please, thank you. And the last one is approval for ensuring Wizard LaFortier’s holdings are transferred to his heirs.”
“Only three?” Ebenezar asked.
“The others are eyes-only, sir.”
Ebenezar sighed. “I’ll drop by my office when I’m free to sign them.”
“Sooner is better, sir,” Peabody said. He blinked and seemed to notice me for the first time. “Ah. Warden Dresden. What brings you here?”
“I thought I’d come see if someone wanted help taking Morgan down,” I drawled.
Peabody gulped. “I . . . see.”
“Has Injun Joe found anything?” Ebenezar asked.
Peabody ’s voice became laced with diffident disapproval as he answered. “Wizard Listens-to-Wind is deep in preparations for investigative divination, sir.”
“So, no,” I said.
Peabody sniffed. “Not yet. Between him and the Merlin, I’m sure they’ll turn up precisely how Warden Morgan managed to bypass Senior Council security.” He glanced at me and said, in a perfectly polite tone, “They are both wizards of considerable experience and skill, after all.”
I glowered at Peabody, but I couldn’t think of a good dig before he had accepted the papers and pen back from Ebenezar. Peabody nodded to him and said, “Thank you, sir.”
Ebenezar nodded absently as he picked up his coffee cup, and Peabody bustled out again.
“Paper-pushing twit,” I muttered under my breath.
“Invaluable paper-pushing twit,” Ebenezar corrected me. “What he does isn’t dramatic, but his organizational skills have been a critical asset since the outbreak of the war.”
I snorted. “Bureaucromancer.”
Ebenezar smiled faintly as he finished his cup, the first couple of fingertips of his right hand stained with blue ink. Then he rose and stretched, drawing several faint popping sounds from his joints. “Can’t fight a war without clerks, Hoss.”
I stared down at my half cup of coffee. “Sir,” I said quietly. “Speaking hypothetically. What if Morgan is innocent?”
He frowned down at me for a long moment. “I thought you wanted a piece of him.”
“I’ve got this weird tic where I don’t want to watch wrongly accused men beheaded.”
“Well, naturally you do. But, Hoss, you’ve got to underst—” Ebenezar froze abruptly and his eyes widened. They went distant with thought for a moment, and I could all but hear gears turning in his head.
His eyes snapped back to mine and he drew in a slow breath, speaking in a murmur. “So that’s it. You’re sure?”
I nodded my head once.
“Hell’s bells,” the old man sighed. “You’d best start asking your questions a lot more careful than that, Hoss.” He lowered his chin and looked at me over the rims of his spectacles. “Two heads fall as fast as one. You understand?”
I nodded slowly. “Yeah.”
“Don’t know what I can do for you,” he said. “I’ve got my foot nailed to the floor here until Morgan’s located.”
“Assuming it’s not a duck,” I said, “where do I start looking?”
He pursed his lips for a moment. Then he nodded slowly and said, “Injun Joe.”
The Senior Council members, as it turned out, do not live like paupers.
After I passed through still more security checkpoints, the stone hallway yielded to a hall the size of a ballroom that looked like something out of Versailles. A white marble floor with swirls of gold in it was matched in color to elegant white marble columns. A waterfall fell from the far wall, into a pool around which grew a plethora of plants, from grass to roses to small trees, forming a surprisingly complex little garden. The faint sound of wind chimes drifted through the air, and the golden light that poured down from crystals in the ceiling was indistinguishable from sunlight. Birds sang in the garden, and I saw the quick, darting black shape of a nightingale slalom between the pillars and settle in one of the trees.
A number of expensive, comfortable-looking sets of furniture were spaced in and near the garden, like the sets you sometimes see at the pricier hotels. A small table against one wall was covered with an eclectic buffet of foods, everything from cold cuts to what looked like the sautéed tentacles of an octopus, and a wet bar stood next to it, ready to protect the Senior Council members from the looming threat of dehydration.
A balcony ran around the entire chamber, ten feet up, and doors opened onto the Senior Council members’ private chambers. I paced through the enormous, grandiose space of the Ostentatiatory to a set of stairs that swept grandly up one wall. I looked around until I spotted which door had a pair of temple-dog statues standing guard along with a sleepy-looking young man in a Warden’s cape and a walking cast. I walked around the balcony and waved a hand at him.
I was just about to speak when both temple-dog constructs abruptly moved, turning their heads toward me with a grating sound of stone sliding against stone.
I stopped in my tracks, and held my hands up a little. “Nice doggy.”
The young Warden peered at me and said something in a language I didn’t recognize. He looked like someone from eastern Asia, though I couldn’t have guessed at his nation of origin. He stared at me for a second, and I recognized him abruptly as one of the young men on Ancient Mai’s personal staff. The last time I’d seen him, he’d been frozen half to death, trying to bear a message to Queen Mab. Now a broken ankle had presumably kept him from joining the search for Morgan.
Some people are just born lucky, I guess.
“Good evening,” I said to him, in Latin, the official tongue of the White Council. “How are you?”
Lucky stared at me for another moment before he said, “We are in Scotland. It is morning, sir.”
Right. My half hour walk had taken me six time zones ahead. “I need to speak with Wizard Listens-to-Wind.”
“He is occupied,” Lucky told me. “He is not to be disturbed.”
“Wizard McCoy sent me to speak to him,” I countered. “He felt it was important.”
Lucky narrowed his eyes until they were almost closed. Then he said, “Wait here, please. Do not move.”
The temple dogs continued staring at me. Okay, I knew they weren’t really staring. They were just rock. But for essentially mindless constructs, they had an intense gaze.
“That will not be a problem,” I told him.
He nodded and vanished through the door. I waited for ten uncomfortable minutes before he returned, touched each dog lightly on the head, and nodded to me. “Go in.”
I took a wary step, watching the constructs, but they didn’t react. I nodded and went on by them, trying not to look like a nervous cat as I passed from the Ostentatiatory into LaFortier’s chambers.
The first room I came to was a study, or an office, or possibly a curio shop. There was a massive desk carved out of some kind of unstained wood, though use and age had darkened the front edge, the handles of the drawers, and the area immediately in front of the modern office chair. A blotter lay precisely centered on the desk, with a set of four matching pens laid in a neat row. Shelves groaned with books, drums, masks, pelts, old weaponry, and dozens of other tokens that looked as though they came from exotic lands. The wall spaces between the shelves were occupied by shields fronted with two crossed weapons—a Norman kite shield with crossed broadswords, a Zulu buffalo-hide shield with crossed assegais, a Persian round shield with a long spike in its center with crossed scimitars, and many others. I knew museums that would declare Mardi Gras in the galleries if they could get their hands on a collection half that rich and varied.
A door at the far end of the study led into what was evidently a bedroom. I could see a dresser and the foot of a covered bed approximately the size of a railroad car.
I could also see red-black droplets of blood on the walls.
“Come on, Harry Dresden,” called a quiet, weathered voice from the bedroom. “We’re at a stopping point and waiting on you.”
I walked into the bedroom and found myself standing in a crime scene.
The stench hit me first. LaFortier had been dead for days, and the second I crossed the threshold into the room, the odor of decay and death flooded my nose and mouth. He lay on the floor near the bed. Blood was sprinkled everywhere. His throat gaped wide-open, and he was covered in a black-brown crust of dried blood. There were defensive wounds on his hands, miniature versions of the slash on his throat. There might have been stab wounds on his torso, under the mess, but I couldn’t be sure.
I closed my eyes for a second, swallowed down my urge to throw up, and looked around the rest of the room.
A perfect circle of gold paint had been inscribed on the floor around the body, with white candles burning at five equidistant points. Incense burned at five more points halfway between the candles, and take it from me—the scent of sandalwood doesn’t complement that of a rotting corpse. It just makes it more unpleasant.
I stood staring down at LaFortier. He had been a bald man, a little over average height, and cadaverously skinny. He didn’t look skinny now. The corpse had begun to bloat. The front of his shirt was stretched tight against its buttons. His back was arched and his hands had locked into claws. His teeth were bared in a grimace.
“He died hard,” said the weathered voice, and “Injun Joe” Listens-to-Wind stepped out of a doorway that led to a bathroom, drying his hands on a towel. His long hair was grey-white, with a few threads of black in it. His leathery skin was the ruddy bronze of a Native American complexion exposed to plenty of sunshine, and his eyes were dark and glittering beneath white brows. He wore faded blue jeans, moccasin boots, and an old Aerosmith T-shirt. A fringed leather bag hung from a belt that ran slantwise across his body, and a smaller, similar bag hung from a thong around his neck. “Hello, Harry Dresden.”
I bowed my head to him respectfully. Injun Joe was generally regarded as the most skilled healer on the White Council, and maybe in the world. He had earned doctoral degrees in medicine from twenty universities over the years, and he went back to school every decade or two to help him stay current with modern practice. “Went down fighting,” I agreed, nodding to LaFortier.
Injun Joe studied the body for a moment, his eyes sad. Then he said, “I’d rather go in my sleep, I think.” He glanced back at me. “What about you?”
“I want to be stepped on by an elephant while having sex with identical triplet cheerleaders,” I said.
He gave me a grin that briefly stripped a century or two of care and worry from his face. “I’ve known a lot of kids who wanted to live forever.” The smile faded as he looked back to the dead man. “Maybe someday that will happen. But maybe not. Dying is part of being alive.”
There wasn’t much I could say to that. I was quiet for a minute. “What are you setting up here?”
“His death left a mark,” the old wizard replied. “We’re going to reassemble the psychic residue into an image.”
I arched an eyebrow. “Is . . . that even possible?”
“Normally, no,” Injun Joe said. “But this room is surrounded on all sides by wards. We know what they’re all supposed to look like. That means we can extrapolate where the energy came from by what impact it had on the wards. It’s also why we haven’t moved the body.”
I thought about it for a minute. What Injun Joe was describing was possible, I decided, but only barely. It would be something like trying to assemble an image illuminated by a single flash of light by backtracking how the light in the flash had all bounced around the room. The amount of focus, concentration, and the sheer mental process that would be involved in imagining the spell that could reassemble that image were staggering.
“I thought this was open and shut already,” I said.
“The evidence is conclusive,” Injun Joe said.
“Then why are you bothering with this . . . this . . . thing?”
Injun Joe looked at me steadily and didn’t say anything.
“The Merlin,” I said. “He doesn’t think Morgan did it.”
“Whether he did it or not,” Injun Joe said, “Morgan was the Merlin’s right hand. If he is tried and found guilty, the Merlin’s influence, credibility, and power will wane.”
I shook my head. “Gotta love politics.”
“Don’t be a child,” Injun Joe said quietly. “The current balance of power was largely established by the Merlin. If he is undone as the leader of the Council, it will cause chaos and instability across the supernatural world.”
I thought about that for a minute. Then I asked, “You think he’s going to try to fake something?”
Injun Joe didn’t react for a moment, and then he shook his head slowly and firmly. “I won’t let him.”
“Because LaFortier’s death has changed everything.”
Injun Joe nodded toward the study. “LaFortier was the member of the Council with the most contacts outside of the Western nations,” he said. “Many, many members of the Council come from Asia, Africa, South America—most of them from small, less powerful nations. They feel that the White Council ignores their needs, their opinions. LaFortier was their ally, the only member of the Senior Council who they felt treated them fairly.”
I folded my arms. “And the Merlin’s right-hand man killed him.” “Whether Morgan is guilty or not, they think he did it, possibly on the Merlin’s orders,” Injun Joe said. “If he is found innocent and set free, matters could turn ugly. Very ugly.”
My stomach turned again. “Civil war.”
Injun Joe sighed and nodded.
“Where do you stand?” I asked him.
“I would like to say that I stood with the truth,” he said, “but I cannot. The Council could survive the loss of Morgan without falling to pieces, even if it means a period of chaos while things settle out.” He shook his head. “A civil war would certainly destroy us.”
“So Morgan did it, and that’s all there is to it,” I said quietly.
“If the White Council falls, who will stand between humanity and those who would prey upon it?” He shook his head, and his long braid gently bumped his back. “I respect Morgan, but I cannot permit that to happen. He is one man balanced against mankind.”
“So it’s going to be Morgan, when you’re finished,” I said. “No matter who it really is.”
Injun Joe bowed his head. “I . . . doubt that it will work. Even with the Merlin’s expertise.”
“What if it does? What if it shows you another killer? You start picking who lives and who dies, and to hell with the truth?”
Injun Joe turned his dark eyes to me, and his voice became quiet and harder than stone. “Once, I watched the tribe I was expected to guide and protect be destroyed, Harry Dresden. I did so because my principles held that it was wrong for the Council or its members to involve itself in manipulating the politics of mortals. I watched and restrained myself, until it was too late for me to make a difference. When I did that, I chose who would live and who would die. My people died for my principles.” He shook his head. “I will not make that mistake again.”
I looked away from him, and remained silent.
“If you would excuse me,” he said, and walked from the room.
I had been hoping to enlist Injun Joe’s aid—but I hadn’t counted on the additional political factors. I didn’t think he’d try to stop me if he knew what I was up to, but he certainly wasn’t going to help. The more I dug, the messier this thing kept getting. If Morgan was vindicated, doom. If he wasn’t vindicated, doom.
Doom, doom, and doom.
I couldn’t even be angry at Injun Joe. I understood his position. Hell, if it was me on the Senior Council and I was the one making the call, I wasn’t completely confident that I wouldn’t react the same way.
My headache started coming on again.
How the hell was I supposed to do the right thing if there wasn’t a right thing?
I stared at LaFortier’s corpse for a moment longer, shook my head, and then pulled one of those disposable cameras you can get from a vending machine out of my duster pocket. I walked around the room snapping pictures of the body, the blood splatters, and the broken bits of furniture. I ran through the entire role of film, making the most complete record of the scene that I could, and then pocketed the camera again and turned to leave LaFortier’s chambers.
Back in the Ostentatiatory, I heard voices drifting up from below. I nodded pleasantly to Lucky, who gave me an inscrutable look, and walked to the balcony railing.
Listens-to-Wind and the Merlin were standing by the buffet table, speaking quietly. Peabody hovered in the background, carrying a different set of folders, ledgers, and pens.
I paused for a moment to Listen. It’s a trick I picked up somewhere along the line—not really magic, per se, as much as it is turning my mental focus completely to my sense of hearing.
“. . . to find out the truth,” the Merlin was saying as he loaded up a plate with tiny sandwiches and wedges of cheese and fresh green grapes. “Surely you have no objection to that.”
“I think the truth is already well established,” Listens-to-Wind replied quietly. “We’re just wasting time here. We should be focusing on controlling the fallout.”
The Merlin was a tall man, regal of bearing, with a long white beard and long white hair to go with it—every inch the wizard’s wizard. He wore a blue robe and a silver circlet about his brow, and his staff was an elegant length of pure white wood, completely free of any marking. He paused in loading his plate and regarded Injun Joe with a level gaze. “I’ll take it under advisement.”
Injun Joe Listens-to-Wind sighed and held up his hands palms forward in a conciliatory gesture. “We’re ready to begin.”
“Let me get some food in me and I’ll be right in.”
“Ahem,” Peabody said diffidently. “Actually, Wizard Listens-to-Wind, if you could sign a few papers for me while the Merlin eats, it would be greatly appreciated. There are two files on your desk that need your approval and I have three . . .” He paused and began to juggle the load in his arms until he could peer into a folder. “No four, four others here with me.”
Injun Joe sighed. “Okay,” he said. “Come on.” The two of them walked toward the stairs leading up to the balcony, turned the opposite way I had when they reached the top, and entered a chamber on the far side of the room.
I waited until they were gone to descend the staircase to the ground level.
The Merlin had seated himself in the nearest group of chairs and was eating his sandwiches. He froze for a second as he saw me, and then smoothly resumed his meal. Funny. I didn’t like the Merlin much more than I would a case of flaming gonorrhea, but I had never seen him in this context before. I’d always seen him at the head of a convened Council, and as this remote and unapproachable figure of unyielding authority and power.
I’d never even considered the notion that he might eat sandwiches.
I was about to go on past him, but instead swerved and came to a stop standing over him.
He continued eating, apparently unconcerned, until he’d finished the sandwich. “Come to gloat, have you, Dresden?” he asked.
“No,” I said quietly. “I’m here to help you.”
He dropped the bit of cheese he’d been about to bite into. It fell to the floor, unnoticed, as his eyes narrowed, regarding me suspiciously. “Excuse me?”
I bared my teeth in a cold little smile. “I know. It’s like having a cheese grater shoved against my gums, just saying it.”
He stared at me for a silent minute before taking in a slow breath, settling back into the chair, and regarding me with steady blue eyes. “Why should I believe you would do any such thing?”
“Because your balls are in a vise and I’m the only one who can pull them out,” I said.
He arched an elegant silver eyebrow.
“Okay,” I said. “That came out a little more homoerotic than I intended.”
“Indeed,” said the Merlin.
“But Morgan can’t stay hidden forever and you know it. They’ll find him. His trial will last about two seconds. Then he falls down and breaks his crown and your political career comes tumbling after.”
The Merlin seemed to consider that for a moment. Then he shrugged a shoulder. “I think it’s far more likely that you will work very, very hard to make sure he dies.”
“I like to think I work smarter, not harder,” I said. “If I want him dead, all I need to do is stand around and applaud. It isn’t as though I can make his case any worse.”
“Oh,” said the Merlin. “I’m not so certain. You have vast talents in that particular venue.”
“He’s already being hunted. Half the Council is howling for his blood. From what I hear, all the evidence is against him—and anything I find out about him is going to be tainted against him by our antagonistic past.” I shrugged. “At this point, I can’t do any more damage. So what have you got to lose?”
A small smile touched the corners of his mouth. “Let’s assume, for a moment, that I agree. What do you want from me?”
“A copy of his file,” I said. “Everything you’ve found out about LaFortier’s death, and how Morgan pulled it off. All of it.”
“And what do you intend to do with it?” the Merlin asked.
“I thought I’d use the information to find out who killed LaFortier,” I said.
“Just like that.”
I paused to think for a minute. “Yeah. Pretty much.”
The Merlin took another bite of cheese and chewed it deliberately. “If my own investigations yield fruit,” he said, “I won’t need your help.”
“The hell you won’t,” I said. “Everyone knows your interests are going to lie in protecting Morgan. Anything you turn up to clear him is going to be viewed with suspicion.”
“Whereas your antagonism with Morgan is well-known,” the Merlin mused. “Anything you find in his favor will be viewed as the next best thing to divine testimony.” He tilted his head and stared at me. “Why would you do such a thing?”
“Maybe I don’t think he did it.”
His eyebrows lifted in amusement that never quite became a smile. “And the fact that the man who died was one of those whose hand was set against you when you were yourself held in suspicion has nothing to do with it.”
“Right,” I said, rolling my eyes. “There you go. There’s my self-centered, petty, vengeful motivation for wanting to help Morgan out. Because it serves that dead bastard LaFortier right.”
The Merlin considered me for another long moment, and then shook his head. “There is a condition.”
“A condition,” I said. “Before you will agree to let me help you get your ass out of the fire.”
He gave me a bleak smile. “My ass is reasonably comfortable where it is. This is hardly my first crisis, Warden.”
“And yet you haven’t told me to buzz off.”
He lifted a finger, a gesture reminiscent of a fencer’s salute. “Touché. I acknowledge that it is, technically, possible for you to prove useful.”
“Gosh, I’m glad I decided to be gracious and offer my aid. In fact, I’m feeling so gracious, I’m even willing to listen to your condition.”
He shook his head slowly. “It simply isn’t sufficient to prove that Morgan is innocent. The traitor within our ranks is real. He must be found. Someone must be held accountable for what happened to LaFortier—and not just for the sake of the Council’s membership. Our enemies must know that there are consequences to such actions.”
I nodded. “So not only prove Morgan innocent, but find the guy who did it, too. Maybe I can set the whole thing to music and do a little dance while I’m at it.”
“I feel obligated to point out that you approached me, Dresden.” He gave me his brittle smile again. “The situation must be dealt with cleanly and decisively if we are to avoid chaos.” He spread his hands. “If you can’t present that sort of resolution to the problem, then this conversation never happened.” His eyes hardened. “And I will expect your discretion.”
“You’d hang your own man out to dry. Even though you know he’s innocent.”
His eyes glittered with a sudden cold fire, and I had to work not to flinch. “I will do whatever is necessary. Bear that in mind as you ‘help’ me.”
A door opened upstairs, and in a few seconds Peabody began a precarious descent of the stairs, balancing his ledgers and folders as he did.
“Samuel,” the Merlin said, his eyes never leaving me. “Be so good as to provide Warden Dresden with a complete copy of the file on LaFortier’s murder.”
Peabody stopped before the Merlin, blinking. “Ah. Yes, of course, sir. Right away.” He glanced at me. “If you would come this way, Warden?”
“Dresden,” the Merlin said in a pleasant tone. “If this is some sort of ruse, you would be well-advised to be sure I never learn of it. My patience with you wears thin.”
The Merlin was generally considered to be the most capable wizard on the planet. The simple words with their implied threat were almost chilling.
“I’m sure you’ll last long enough for me to help you out of this mess, Merlin.” I smiled at him and held up my hand, palm up, fingers spread, as if holding an orange in them. “Balls,” I said. “Vise. Come on, Peabody.”
Peabody blinked at me as I swept past him on the way to the door, his mouth opening and closing silently several times. Then he made a few vague, sputtering sounds and hurried to catch up with me.
I glanced back at the Merlin as I reached the door.
I could clearly see his cold, flat blue eyes burning with fury while he sat in apparent relaxation and calm. The fingers of his right hand twitched in a violent little spasm that did not seem to touch the rest of his body. For an instant, I had to wonder just how desperate he had to be to accept my help. I had to wonder how smart it was to goad him like that.
And I had to wonder if that apparent calm and restrained exterior was simply a masterful control of his emotions—or if, under the pressure, it had become some kind of quiet, deadly madness.
Damn Morgan, for showing up at my door.
And damn me, for being fool enough to open it.
Peabody went into an immaculate office lined with shelves bearing books arranged with flawless precision, grouped by height and color. Many of the shelves were loaded with binders presumably full of files and documents, similarly organized, in a dazzling array of hues. I files and documents, similarly organized, in a dazzling array of hues. I guess it takes all kinds of colors to make a bureaucratic rainbow.
I started to follow him inside, but he turned on me with a ferocious glare. “My office is a bastion of order, Warden Dresden. You have no place in it.”
I looked down at him for a second. “If I was a sensitive guy, that would hurt my feelings.”
He gave me a severe look over his spectacles and said, as if he thought the words were deadly venom and might kill me, “You are an untidy person.”
I put my hand over my heart, grinning at him. “Ow.”
The tips of his ears turned red. He turned around stiffly and walked into the office. He opened a drawer and started jerking binders out of it with more force than was strictly necessary.
“I read your book, by the way,” I said.
He looked up at me and then back down. He slapped a binder open.
“The one about the Erlking?” I said. “The collected poems and essays?”
He took a folder out of the binder, his back stiff.
“The Warden from Bremen said you got the German wrong on the title,” I continued. “That must have been kind of embarrassing, huh? I mean, it’s been published for like a hundred years or something. Must eat at you.”
“German,” said Peabody severely, “is also untidy.” He walked over to me with the folder, a pad of paper, an inkwell, and a quill. “Sign here.”
I reached out for the quill with my right hand, and seized the folder with my left. “Sorry. No autographs.”
Peabody nearly dropped the inkwell, and scowled at me. “Now see here, Warden Dresden—”
“Now, now, Simon,” I said, taking vengeance on behalf of the German-speaking peoples of the world. “We wouldn’t want to screw up anyone’s plausible deniability, would we?”
“My given name is Samuel,” he said stiffly. “You, Warden Dresden, may address me as Wizard Peabody.”
I opened the file and skimmed over it. It was modeled after modern police reports, including testimony, photographs, and on-site reports from investigating Wardens. The militant arm of the White Council, at least, seemed to be less behind the times than the rest of us dinosaurs. That was largely Anastasia’s doing. “Is this the whole file, Sam?”
He gritted his teeth. “It is.”
I slapped it shut. “Thanks.”
“That file is official property of the Senior Council,” Peabody protested, waving the paper and the ink. “I must insist that you sign for it at once.”
“Stop!” I called. “Stop, thief!” I put a hand to my ear, listened solemnly for a few seconds and shook my head. “Never a Warden around when you need one, is there, Sam?”
Then I walked off and left the little wizard sputtering behind me.
I get vicious under pressure.
The trip back was quieter than the one in. No B-movie escapees tried to frighten me to death—though there were a few unidentifiable bits wrapped up in spider silk, hanging from the trees where I’d established the pecking order, apparently all that was left of the bug I’d smashed.
I came out of the Nevernever and back into the alley behind the old meatpacking plant without encountering anything worse than spooky ambience. Back in Chicago, it was the darkest hour of night, between three and four in the morning. My head was killing me, and between the psychic trauma the skinwalker had given me, the power I’d had to expend during the previous day, and a pair of winter wonderland hikes, I was bone-weary.
I walked another five blocks to the nearest hotel with a taxi stand, flagged down a cab, and returned to my apartment. When I first got into the business, I didn’t think anything of sacrificing my sleeping time to the urgency of my cases. I wasn’t a kid in my twenties anymore, though. I’d learned to pace myself. I wouldn’t help anyone if I ran myself ragged and made a critical error because I was too tired to think straight.
Mister, my bobtailed grey tomcat, came flying out of the darkened apartment as I opened the door. He slammed his shoulder into my legs, startled me half to death, and nearly put me on my ass. He’s the next best thing to thirty pounds of cat, and when he hits me with his shoulder block of greeting I know it.
I leaned down to grab him and prevent him from leaving, and wearily let myself into the house. It felt a lot quieter and emptier without Mouse in it. Don’t get me wrong: me and Mister were roommates for years before the pooch came along. But it had taken considerable adjustments for both of us to get used to sharing our tiny place with a monstrous, friendly dust mop, and the sudden lack of his presence was noticeable and uncomfortable.
But Mister idly sauntered over to Mouse’s bowl, ate a piece of kibble, and then calmly turned the entire bowl over so that kibble rolled all over the floor of the kitchen alcove. Then he went to Mouse’s usual spot on the floor and lay down, sprawling luxuriously. So maybe it was just me.
I sat down on the couch, made a call, left a message, and then found myself lacking sufficient ambition to walk all the way into my bedroom, strip the sheets Morgan had bloodied, and put fresh ones on before I slept.
So instead I just stretched out on the couch and closed my eyes. Sleep was instantaneous.
I didn’t so much as stir until the front door opened, and Murphy came in, holding the amulet that let her in past my wards. It was morning, and cheerful summer sunlight was shining through my well windows.
“Harry,” she said. “I got your message.”
Or at least, that’s what I think she said. It took me a couple of tries to get my eyes open and sit up. “Hang on,” I said. “Hang on.” I shambled into the bathroom and sorted things out, then splashed some cold water on my face and came back into the living room. “Right. I think I can sort of understand English now.”
She gave me a lopsided smile. “You look like crap in the morning.”
“I always look like this before I put on my makeup,” I muttered.
“Why didn’t you call my cell? I’d have shown up right away.”
“Needed sleep,” I said. “Morning was good enough.”
“I figured.” Murphy drew a paper bag from behind her back. She put it down on the table.
I opened it. Coffee and donuts.
“Cop chicks are so hot,” I mumbled. I pushed Peabody’s file across the table to her and started stuffing my face and guzzling.
Murphy went through it, frowning, and a few minutes later asked, “What’s this?”
“Warden case file,” I said. “Which you are not looking at.”
“The worm has turned,” she said bemusedly. “Why am I not looking at it?”
“Because it’s everything the Council has about LaFortier’s death,” I said. “I’m hoping something in here will point me toward the real bad guy. Two heads are better than one.”
“Got it,” she said. She took a pen and a notepad from her hip pocket and set them down within easy reach. “What should I be looking for?”
“Anything that stands out.”
She held up a page. “Here’s something,” she said in a dry tone. “The vic was two hundred and seventy-nine years old when he died.”
I sighed. “Just look for inconsistencies.”
“Ah,” she said wisely.
Then we both fell quiet and started reading the documents in the file.
Morgan had given it to me straight. A few days before, a Warden on duty in Edinburgh heard a commotion in LaFortier’s chambers. She summoned backup, and when they broke in, they found Morgan standing over LaFortier’s still-warm corpse holding the murder weapon. He professed confusion and claimed he did not know what had happened. The weapon had been matched to LaFortier’s wounds, and the blood had matched as well. Morgan was imprisoned and a rigorous investigation had turned up a hidden bank account that had just received a cash deposit of a hell of a lot of money. Once confronted with that fact, Morgan managed to escape, badly wounding three Wardens in the process.
“Can I ask you something?” Murphy said.
“One of the things that make folks leery of pulling the trigger on a wizard is his death curse, right?”
“Uh-huh,” I said. “If you’re willing to kill yourself to do it, you can lay out some serious harm on your killer.”
She nodded. “Is it an instantaneous kind of thing?”
I pursed my lips. “Not really.”
“Then how long does it take? Minutes? Seconds?”
“About as long as it takes to pull a gun and plug somebody,” I said. “Some would be quicker than others.”
“A second or three, then.”
“Did Morgan get blasted by LaFortier’s death curse then?”
I lifted an eyebrow. “Um. It’s sort of hard to say. It isn’t always an immediate effect.”
I sipped at the last of the coffee. “LaFortier was a member of the Senior Council. You don’t get there without some serious chops. A violent death curse from someone like that could turn a city block to glass. So if I had to guess, I’d say no. LaFortier didn’t throw it.”
I frowned some more.
“He had time enough,” Murphy said. “There was obviously a struggle. The vic has defensive wounds all over his arms—and he bled to death. That doesn’t take long, but it’s plenty of time to do the curse thing.”
“For that matter,” I mused, “why didn’t either of them use magic? This was a strictly physical struggle.”
“Could their powers have canceled each other out?”
“Technically, I guess,” I said. “But that sort of thing needs serious synchronization. It doesn’t often happen by accident.”
“Well. That’s something, then,” she said. “Both men either chose not to use magic or else were unable to use magic. Ditto the curse. Either LaFortier chose not to use it, or he was incapable of using it. The question is, why?”
I nodded. “Sound logic. So how does that help us get closer to the killer?”
She shrugged, unfazed. “No clue.”
That’s how investigation works, most of the time. Cops, detectives, and quixotic wizards hardly ever know which information is pertinent until we’ve actually got a pretty good handle on what’s happening. All you can do is accumulate whatever data you can, and hope that it falls into a recognizable pattern.
“Good thought, but it doesn’t help yet,” I said. “What else have we got?”
Murphy shook her head. “Nothing that I can see yet. But do you want a suggestion?”
She held up the page with the details on the incriminating bank account. “Follow the money.”
“Witnesses can be mistaken—or bought. Theories and deductions can throw you completely off target.” She tossed the page back onto the coffee table. “But the money always tells you something. Assuming you can find it.”
I picked up the page and scanned it again. “A foreign bank. Amsterdam. Can you get them to show you where the payment came from?”
“You’re kidding,” Murphy said. “It would take me days, weeks, maybe months to go through channels and get that kind of information from an American bank, if I could get it at all. From a foreign bank specializing in confidentiality? I’ve got a better chance of winning a slam-dunk contest against Michael Jordan.”
I grunted. I got the disposable camera out of my duster pocket and passed it over to Murphy. “I snapped some shots of the scene—a lot more of them than are in the Wardens’ file. I’d like to get your take on them.”
She took the camera and nodded. “Okay. I can take them by a photo center and—”
My old rotary telephone rang, interrupting her. I held up a hand to her and answered it.
“Harry,” Thomas said, his voice tight. “We need you here. Now.”
I felt my body thrum into a state of tension. “What’s happening?”
“Hurry!” my brother snapped. “I can’t take them on by m—”
The line went dead.
I looked up at Murphy, who took one look at my face and rose to her feet, car keys in hand, already moving toward the door. “Trouble?”
I rose, seizing my staff and blasting rod. “Storage rental park off Deerfield Square.”
“I know it,” Murphy said. “Let’s go.”
The handy part about riding with a cop was that she has the cool toys to make it simpler to get places quickly, even on a busy Chicago morning. The car was still bouncing from sweeping into the street from the little parking lot next to my apartment when she slapped a whirling blue light on the roof and started a siren. That part was pretty neat.
The rest of the ride wasn’t nearly as fun. Moving “fast” through a crowded city is a relative term, and in Chicago it meant a lot of rapid acceleration and sudden braking. We went through half a dozen alleys, hopped one bad intersection by driving up over the curb through a parking lot, and swerved through traffic at such a rate that my freshly imbibed coffee and donuts started swirling and sloshing around in a distinctly unpleasant fashion.
“Kill the noise and light,” I said a couple of blocks from the storage park.
She did it, asking, “Why?”
“Because whatever is there, there are several of them and Thomas didn’t think he could handle them.” I drew my .44 out of my duster pocket and checked it. “Nothing’s on fire. So let’s hope that nothing’s gone down yet and we’ll be all sneaky-like until we know what’s happening.”
“Still with the revolvers,” Murphy said, shaking her head. She drove past the street leading to the storage units and went one block past it instead before she turned and parked. “When are you going to get a serious gun?”
“Look,” I said, “just because you’ve got twice as many bullets as me—”
“Three times as many,” Murphy said. “The SIG holds twenty.”
“Twenty!? Look the point is that—”
“And it reloads a lot faster. You’ve just got some loose rounds at the bottom of your pocket, right? No speed loader?”
I stuck the gun back in my pocket and tried to make sure none of the bullets fell out as we got out of the car. “That’s not the point.”
Murphy shook her head. “Damn, Dresden.”
“I know the revolver is going to work,” I said, starting toward the storage park. “I’ve seen automatics jam before.”
“Well, no . . .”
Murphy had placed her own gun in the pocket of her light sports jacket. “It’s a good thing you’ve got options. That’s all I’m saying.”
“If a revolver was good enough for Indiana Jones,” I said, “it’s good enough for me.”
“He was a fictionalcharacter, Harry.” Her mouth curved up in a small smile. “And he had a whip.”
I eyed her.
Her eyes sparkled. “Do you have a whip, Dresden?”
I eyed her even more. “Murphy . . . are you coming on to me?”
She laughed, her smile white and fierce, as we rounded a corner and found the white rental van where Thomas had left it, across the street from the storage park.
Two men in similar grey suits and grey fedoras were standing nonchalantly in the summer-morning sunshine on the sidewalk next to the van.
On second glance, they were wearing the exact same grey suit, and the exact same grey hat, in fact.
“Feds?” I asked Murphy quietly as we turned down the sidewalk.
“Even feds shop at different stores,” she said. “I’m getting a weird vibe here, Harry.”
I turned my head and checked out the storage park through the ten-foot-high black metal fencing that surrounded it.
I saw another pair of men in grey suits going down one row of storage units. Two more pairs were on the next. And two more on the one after that.
“That makes twelve,” Murphy murmured to me. She hadn’t even turned her head. Murphy has cop powers of observation. “All in the same suit.”
“Yeah, they’re from out of town,” I said. “Lot of times when beings from the Nevernever want to blend in, they pick a look and go with it.” I thought about it for a couple of steps. “The fact that they all picked the same look might mean they don’t have much going for them in the way of individuality.”
“Meaning I’d only have to go on a date with one of them to know about the rest?” Murphy asked.
“Meaning that you need a sense of selfto have a sense of self-preservation.”
Murphy exhaled slowly. “That’s just great.” She moved a hand toward her other pocket, where I knew she kept her cell. “More manpower might help.”
“Might set them off, too,” I said. “I’m just saying, if the music starts, don’t get soft and shoot somebody in the leg or something.”
“You’ve seen too many movies, Harry,” she said. “If cops pull the trigger, it’s because they intend to kill someone. We leave the trick shots to SWAT snipers and Indiana Jones.”
I looked at the booth beside the entrance to the storage park. There was normally an attendant there, during the day. But there was no one in the booth—or in sight on the street, for that matter.
“Where is your unit?” Murphy asked.
I waggled my eyebrows at her. “Right where it’s always been, dollface.”
She made a noise that sounded like someone about to throw up.
“First row past the middle,” I said. “Down at the far end of the park.”
“We have to walk past those two jokers by the van to see it.”
“Yeah,” I said. “But I don’t think these suits have found it yet. They’re still here, and still looking. If they had located Morgan, they’d be gone already.” As we approached, I noticed that the two tires next to the curb on the white rental van were flat. “They’re worried about a getaway.”
“Are you sure they aren’t human?” Murphy asked.
She shook her head. “Not good enough. Are they from the spirit world or not?”
“Might not be able to tell until we get closer,” I said. “Might even need to touch one of them.”
She took a slow, deep breath. “As soon as you’re certain,” she said, “tell me. Shake your head if you’re sure they aren’t human. Nod if you can’t tell or if they are.”
We were less than twenty feet away from the van and there was no time to argue or ask questions. “Okay.”
I took a few more steps and ran smack into a curtain of nauseating energy so thick and heavy that it made my hair stand on end—a dead giveaway of a hostile supernatural presence. I twitched my head in a quick shake, as the two men in grey suits spun around at precisely the same time at precisely the same speed to face me. Both of them opened their mouths.
Before any sound could come out, Murphy produced her sidearm and shot them both in the head.
Double-tapping the target like that is a professional killer’s policy. There’s a small chance that a bullet to the head might strike a target at an oblique angle and carom off of the skull. It isn’t a huge possibility—but a double tap drops the odds from “very unlikely” to “virtually impossible.”
Murphy was a cop and a competition shooter, and less than five feet away from her targets. She did the whole thing in one smooth move, the shots coming as a single pulsing hammer of sound.
The men in grey suits didn’t have time to so much as register her presence, much less do anything to avoid their fate. Clear liquid exploded from the backs of their skulls, and both men dropped to the sidewalk like rag dolls, their bodies and outfits deforming like a snowman in the spring, leaving behind nothing but ectoplasm, the translucent, gooey gel that was the matter of the Nevernever.
“Hell’s bells,” I choked, as my adrenaline spiked after the fact.
Murphy kept the gun on the two until it was obvious that they weren’t going to take up a second career as headless horsemen. Then she looked up and down the street, her cold blue eyes scanning for more threats as she popped the almost-full clip from the SIG and slapped a fully loaded one back in.
She may look like somebody’s favorite aunt, but Murph can play hardball.
A couple of seconds later, what sounded like the howls of a gang of rabid band saws filled the air. There were a lot more than twelve of them.
“Come on!” I shouted, and sprinted forward.
The grey suits weren’t individualists. It wasn’t unthinkable that they would possess some kind of shared consciousness. Whacking the look-outs had obviously both alerted and enraged the others, and I figured that they would respond the way any colony-consciousness does when one of its members gets attacked.
The grey suits were coming to kill us.
We couldn’t afford to run, not when they were this close to Morgan and Molly, but if the grey suits caught us on the open street, we were hosed. Our only chance was to move forward, fast, to get into the storage park while they went screaming out of it, looking for us. If we were quick enough, we might have time to get to the storage unit, collect Morgan and company, and make a quick escape through the portal in the floor and into the Nevernever.
I pounded across the street and through the entrance, with Murphy on my heels. I threw myself forward as the howls grew louder, and made it into the center row just as maybe twenty or twenty-five grey suits came rushing out of the other rows. Some of them saw us and slammed on the brakes, throwing up gravel with their expensive shoes, putting up a new tone of howl. The others belatedly began to turn as well, and then we were all the way into the center row of storage units, still moving at a dead run.
The grey suits rushed after us, but Murphy and I had a good forty-yard lead, and they didn’t appear to be superhumanly light on their feet. We were going to make it.
Then I remembered that the door to the storage bay was locked shut.
I fumbled for the key as I ran, trying to pull it out of the front pocket of my jeans so that it would be ready. I figured that if I didn’t get the door unlocked and open on the first try, the grey suits would catch up to us and kill us both.
So naturally I dropped the damn key.
I cursed and slid to a stop, slipping on the gravel. I looked around wildly for the dropped key, horribly aware of the mob of grey suits rushing toward us, now in eerie silence.
“Harry!” Murphy said.
She appeared beside me in a shooting stance, aiming at the nearest grey suit. “Harry!”
Metal gleamed amongst the gravel and I swooped down on it as Murphy opened fire with precise, measured shots, sending the nearest grey suit into a tumbling sprawl. The others just vaulted over him and kept coming.
I’d found the key, but it was already too late.
Neither of us was going to make it to the shelter of my hideaway.
“Stay close!” I shouted. I thrust the end of my staff into the gravel and dragged it through, drawing a line in the dust and stones. I swiftly inscribed a quick, rough circle maybe four feet across around Murphy and me, actually getting between her gun and the grey suits for a second.
“Dammit, Harry, get down!” she shouted.
I did so, reaching out to touch the line in the gravel, slamming a quick effort of will into the simple design. Murphy’s gun barked twice. I felt the energy gather in the circle and coalesce in a rush, snapping into place in a sudden and invisible wall.
The nearest of the grey suits staggered, and then flung itself into a forward dive. Murphy flinched back, and I grabbed her, hard, before she could cross the circle and disrupt it.
The grey suit slammed into the circle as if striking a solid wall, rebounding from its surface in a flash of blue-white light that described a phantom cylinder in the air. An instant later, more of the grey suits did exactly the same thing, maybe twenty of them, each of them bouncing off the circle’s field.
“Easy!” I said to Murphy, still holding her against me. “Easy, easy!” I felt her relax a little, ceasing to struggle against being held in place. “It’s okay,” I said. “As long as we don’t break the circle, they can’t get through.”
We were both shaking. Murphy took a pair of gulping breaths. We just stood there for a moment, while the grey suits spread out around the circle, reaching out with their hands to find its edges. I had time to get a better look at them while they did.
They were all the same height and weight. Their features were unremarkable and similar, if not quite identical. They looked as if they could have all been from the same family. Their eyes were all the same color, an odd grey-green, and there was no expression, none whatsoever, on their faces.
One of them reached out as if to try to touch me, and his open hand flattened against the circle’s field. As it did, a freaking mouth opened on his palm, parallel to his fingers. It was lined with serrated sharklike teeth, and a slithering, coiling purple-black tongue emerged to lash randomly against the circle, as if seeking a way through. Yellowish mucus dripped thickly from the tongue as it did.
“Okay,” Murphy said in a small, toneless voice. “That is somewhat disturbing.”
“And it’s gonna get better,” I muttered.
Sure enough, the other grey suits started doing the same thing. Within seconds, we were completely surrounded by eerie hand-mouths, writhing tongues, and dripping slime.
Murphy shook her head and sighed. “Eckgh.”
“Tell me about it.”
“How long will this thing keep them off?”
“They’re spirit beings,” I said. “As long as the circle’s here, they’re staying outside it.”
“Couldn’t they just scuff dirt on it or something?”
I shook my head. “Breaking the circle isn’t just a physical process. It’s an act of choice, of will—and these things don’t have that.”
Murphy frowned. “Then why are they doing anything at all?”
I had to restrain myself from smacking my forehead with the heel of my hand. “Because someone summoned them from the Nevernever,” I said. “Their summoner, wherever he is, is giving them orders.”
“Could he break the circle?” Murphy asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Easily.”
“Which is an excellent note upon which to begin our conversation,” said a man’s voice with a heavy Cockney accent. “Make a hole, lads.”
The suits on one side of the circle lowered their hands and stood back, revealing a blocky bulldog of a man in a cheap maroon suit. He was average height, but heavy and solid with muscle, and he wore a few too many extra beers around his middle. His features were blunt and rounded, like water-worn stone. His hair was graying and cut into the shortest buzz you could get without going bald, and his eyes were small and hard—and the exact same color as those of the grey suits, a distinctive grey-green.
“Ah, love,” said the man, grinning. “I think it’s quite fine to see couples who aren’t afraid to express their affection for each other.”
I blinked at him, then down at Murphy, and realized I was still holding her loosely against me. By the expression on her face, Murph hadn’t really taken note of the fact, either. She cleared her throat and took a small step back from me, being careful not to step on the circle in the gravel.
He nodded at us, still grinning. “ ’Allo, Dresden. Why not make this easy for all of us and tell me which unit Donald Morgan is hiding in?”
I suddenly realized that I recognized this jerk from the profile the Wardens had on him. “Binder,” I said. “That’s what they call you, isn’t it?”
Binder’s smile widened and he bowed slightly at the waist. “The same.”
Murphy frowned at Binder and said, “Who is this asshole?”
“One of the guys the Wardens wish they could just erase,” I said.
“He’s a wizard?”
“I do have some skills in that direction, love,” Binder said.
“He’s a one-trick hack,” I said, looking directly at him. “Got a talent for calling up things from the Nevernever and binding them to his will.”
“So, Binder,” Murphy said, nodding.
“Yeah. He’s scum who sells his talent to the highest bidder, but he’s careful not to break any of the Laws of Magic, so the Wardens haven’t ever been able to take him down.”
“I know,” Binder said cheerfully. “And that’s why I am positively savoring the exquisite irony of me being the one to take down the famous Warden Donald Morgan. The self-righteous prig.”
“You haven’t got him yet,” I said.
“Matter of time, my lad,” Binder said, winking. He stooped and picked up a single piece of gravel. He bounced it thoughtfully on his palm and eyed us. “See, there’s a bit of competition for this contract, and it’s a fair bit of quid. So I’m willing to give you a chance to make my job easier in exchange for considerations.”
“What considerations?” I asked.
He held up the pebble between his thumb and forefinger. “I won’t pitch this into your circle and break it. That way, my lads won’t need to kill you both—and won’t that be nice?”
Behind Binder, down at the end of the row of storage units, the dust stirred. Something unseen moved across the gravel. Given how my life had been going, odds were good that it couldn’t be a good thing. Unless . . .
“Come on, Binder,” I said. “Don’t be a simp. What makes you think I won’t ask the lady here to put a bullet through that empty spot in your head where your brain’s supposed to go?”
“She does that, she lowers the circle, and my lads tear you apart,” Binder replied.
“That won’t be your problem, by then,” I said.
Binder grinned at me. “All of us go down in a blaze of gory, is it?”
Murphy calmly raised her gun and settled it on Binder’s face.
Binder faced her, his grin never fading. “Now, little lady. Don’t you be doing nothing you’ll regret. Without my, ah, personal guidance, my lads here will tear this good gentleman’s throat out right quick. But they’re considerably less, ah, professional with ladies.” His grin faded. “And you, miss, do not want to know what they’re like when they’re not professional.”
Fingers and slimy tongues and fangs continued pressing against the outer edge of the circle’s protective field.
Murphy didn’t let it show on her face, but I saw her shudder.
“Decision time, miss,” Binder said. “Either pull that trigger, right now, and live with what happens—or put it down like a proper lady and work through this politely.”
Murphy’s eyes narrowed at his comments. “For all I know, you’re about to toss that rock at us. I think I’ll keep the gun right where it is.”
“Bear something else in mind, Binder,” I said. “I know that you think you can just have your pets step in front of you and throw the rock from behind a wall of them, but think about what happens to you if you kill me.”
“Your death curse, is it?” he asked. Binder raised his hands and flattened his palms against his cheek in mock horror. “Oh no. A death curse. Whatever shall I do?”
I faced him with a chilly little smile. “You’ll spend the rest of your life unable to use magic, I think,” I said in a quiet, hopefully confident-sounding voice. “When I die, I take away your power. Forever. No more summoning. No more binding.”
Binder’s expression began to flatten out into neutrality.
“You ever had a job that you liked, Binder?” I asked him. “I’m betting you haven’t. I’ve read your file. You’re the kind who likes to sleep late, spend a lot of money impressing people. Always buys room service, always with the champagne. And you like the women the money gets you.” I shook my head. “How many bottles of champagne you think you’ll be able to afford when a paper hat becomes part of your professional wear? You’ve got enough talent to live a nice, long life, man. As a nobody.”
He stared at me in silence for a second. “You can’t do that,” Binder said. “Take away my talent. That isn’t possible.”
“I’m a wizard of the White Council, Binder. Not some stupid hack who spent his life using his gift to hurt people. Do you think we go around advertising everything we can do? If you knew half the things I’ve done that you think are impossible, you’d already be running.”
Binder faced me, beads of sweat suddenly standing out on his jowls.
“So I’d think real careful before I threw that rock, Binder. Real careful.”
A police siren sounded, from fairly nearby.
I smiled, showing teeth. “Hey, cops. This’ll get interesting.”
“You?” he asked, incredulously. “You’d bring the cops into a private matter?”
I pointed a finger sideways at Murphy, who produced her badge and tucked the back of its folder into her belt, so that the shield faced Binder.
“Already did,” Murphy said.
“Besides, the whole reason I picked this joint was how heavily the neighborhood was policed,” I said. “One gunshot and nobody reports anything. Half a dozen and people get nervous.”
Binder’s eyes narrowed, and he looked from us toward the front of the park.
“Tick-tock,” I said, applying the pressure as hard as I could. “It’s just a matter of time, my lad.”
Binder looked around him again, then shook his head and sighed. “Balls. It’s always messy when I have to deal with the cops. Idiots dying by the truckload. Buckets of blood.” He gestured at his men. “Identical suspects fleeing in all directions. Everyone out chasing them, and more people dying when they manage to catch them.” He stared hard at me. “How about it, wizard? Cop? Maybe you’ve got stones enough to take it when I threaten you. I can admire that.”
My stomach got a little sinking feeling. I had been counting out seconds, hoping that my nerves didn’t make me rush. There should have been enough time by now.
“How about those policemen? You willing to have their deaths on your conscience?” He rolled his neck a little, like a prizefighter warming up. “Because I’ll tell you right now that they aren’t going to stop me.”
I put my hand out and touched Murphy’s wrist. She glanced aside at me, and then lowered the gun.
“That’s better,” Binder said. There was no hint of jocularity in his manner now. “All I want is the Warden. He’s a dead man already, and you know it. What does it matter who takes him?”
Something stirred at the end of the row, behind Binder, and I started smiling.
“I’ve got no quarrel with you or with this town,” Binder continued. “Tell me where he is, I’ll leave peaceful, and Bob’s your uncle.”
Murphy drew in a sharp breath.
“Okay,” I said. “He’s right behind you.”
Binder’s smile, this time, was positively vulpine. “Dresden. We have a bit of banter going between us. We’re both here in a moment where neither of us wants to act rashly. And that’s all good fun. It’s one of the little things that makes a day more enjoyable.” His voice hardened. “But don’t do me the incredibly insulting disservice of assuming that I’m a bloody moron.”
“I’m not,” I told him. “He’s about forty feet behind you. In a wheelchair.”
Binder gave me a gimlet stare. Then he rolled his eyes and shot a brief glance over his shoulder—then did a double take as his mouth dropped open.
Morgan sat in his wheelchair about forty feet away from Binder, my shotgun in his hands. Mouse stood beside the chair, focused intently upon Binder and his minions, his body tensed and ready to spring forward.
“Hello, Binder,” Morgan said in a flat, merciless tone of voice. “Now, Miss Carpenter.”
Molly appeared out of literally nowhere as she dropped the veil she’d been holding over herself since I’d first seen her moving at the beginning of the conversation with Binder. She was holding my spare blasting rod in her hand, its far end covered with pale dust from being dragged through the gravel. She knelt beside the long, lazy arc of the circle she’d drawn in the dust and touched her hand to it, frowning in concentration.
Circles of power are basic stuff, really. Practically anyone can make one if they know how to do it, and learning how to properly establish a circle is the first thing any apprentice is taught. Circles create boundaries that isolate the area inside from the magical energies of the world outside. That’s why Binder’s minions couldn’t cross the plane of the circle I’d drawn on the ground—their bodies were made up of ectoplasm, held into a solid form by magical energy. The circle cut off that energy when they tried to cross it.
As it sprang to life at my apprentice’s will, Molly’s circle did the same thing as mine—only this time the grey suits were inside it. As the energy field rose up, it cut off the grey suits from the flow of energy they needed to maintain their solid forms.
And suddenly the next best thing to forty demonic thugs collapsed into splatters of transparent gook.
Binder let out a cry as it happened, spinning around desperately, mumbling some kind of incantation under his breath—but he should have saved himself the effort. If he wanted them back, he would have to get out of the isolating field of the enormous circle first, and then he would have to start from scratch.
“Ow, Binder,” I said in patently false empathy. “Didn’t see that one coming, did ya?”
“Ernest Armand Tinwhistle,” Morgan thundered in a tone of absolute authority, raising the shotgun to his shoulder. “Surrender yourself or face destruction, you worthless little weasel.”
Binder’s intense grey-green eyes went from Morgan to the two of us. Then he seemed to reach some kind of conclusion and charged us like a bull, his head down, his arms pumping.
Murphy’s gun tracked to him, but with a curse she jerked the barrel up and away from Binder. He slammed a shoulder into her chest, knocking her down, even as I received a stiff arm in the belly.
I threw a leg at his as he went by, but I was off balance from the shove, and although I wound up on my ass, I forced him to stumble for a step or three. Murphy took the impact with fluid grace, tumbled onto her back, rolled smoothly over one shoulder, and came back up on her feet.
“Get them out of here,” she snarled as she spun and took off at a sprint after Binder.
Mouse came pounding up to my side, staring after Murphy with worried doggy eyes, then glancing at me.
“No,” I told him. “Watch this.”
Binder was running as hard as he could, but I doubted he had been all that light on his feet when he was young, much less twenty years and forty pounds later. Murphy worked out practically every day.
She caught him about ten feet before the end of the row, timed her steps for a second, and then sharply kicked his rearmost leg just as he lifted it to take his next step. His foot got caught on the back of his own calf as a result, and he went down in a sprawl.
Binder came to his feet with an explosive snarl of rage and whirled on Murphy. He flung a handful of gravel at her face, and then waded in with heavy, looping punches.
Murph ducked her head down and kept the gravel out of her eyes, slipped aside from one punch, and then seized his wrist on the second. The two of them whirled in a brief half circle, Binder let out a yelp, and then his bald head slammed into the steel door of a storage unit. I had to give the guy credit for physical toughness. He rebounded from the door a little woozily, but drove an elbow back at Murphy’s head.
Murphy caught that arm and continued the motion, using her own body as a fulcrum in a classic hip throw—except that Binder was facing in the opposite direction than usual for that technique.
You could hear his arm come out of its socket fifty feet away.
And then he hit the gravel face-first.
Binder got extra points for brains in my book, after that: he lay still and didn’t put up a struggle as Murphy dragged his wrists behind his back and cuffed him.
I traded a glance with Mouse and said, wisely, “Hard-core.”
The police sirens were getting louder. Murphy looked up at them, and then down the row at me. She made an exasperated shooing motion.
“Come on,” I said to Mouse. The two of us hurried down the row to Morgan’s chair.
“I couldn’t shoot him with this scatter pipe with the two of you standing there,” Morgan complained as I approached. “Why didn’t you do it?”
“That’s why,” I said, nodding to the park entrance, where a patrol car was screeching to a halt, its blue bubbles flashing. “They get all funny about corpses with gunshot wounds in them.” I turned to scowl at Molly. “I told you to bug out at the first sign of danger.”
She took the handles of Morgan’s wheelchair and we all started back toward the storage unit and its portal. “We didn’t know what was going on until we heard them all start shrieking,” she protested. “And then Mouse went nuts, and started trying to dig his way through a metal door. I thought you might be in trouble. And you were.”
“That isn’t the point,” I said. I glanced at the circle drawn in the gravel as we crossed it, breaking it and releasing its power. “Whose idea was the circle?”
“Mine,” Morgan said calmly. “Circle traps are a standard tactic for dealing with rogue summoners.”
“I’m sorry it took so long to draw,” Molly said. “But I had to make it big enough to get them all.”
“Not a problem. He was happy to kill time running his mouth.” We all entered the storage bay, and I rolled the door closed behind us. “You did good, grasshopper.”
I looked around us and said, “Hey. Where’s Thomas?”
“The vampire?” Morgan asked.
“I had him watching the outside of the park, just in case,” I said.
Morgan gave me a disgusted look and rolled himself forward toward the prepared portal into the Nevernever. “The vampire goes missing just before a bounty hunter who couldn’t possibly know my location turns up. And you’re actually surprised, Dresden?”
“Thomas called me and told me there was trouble,” I said, my voice tight. “If he hadn’t, you’d have been drowning in grey suits by now.”
Molly chewed her lip worriedly and shook her head. “Harry . . . I haven’t seen him since he dropped us off.”
I glanced back toward the entrance of the park, clenching my teeth.
Where was he?
If he’d been able to do otherwise, Thomas would never have let Murphy and me fight alone against Binder’s minions. He would have been right in there beside us. Except he hadn’t been.
Why not? Had circumstances forced him to leave before I arrived? Or worse, had someone else involved in the current crisis decided to take measures against him? Psycho bitch Madeline came uncomfortably to mind. And the skinwalker had already demonstrated that it was happy to murder my allies instead of striking directly at me.
Or maybe he’d simply been overwhelmed by a crowd of grey-suited demons. Maybe his body was already cooling in some nook or cranny of the storage park. My mouth went dry at the thought.
What had happened to my brother?
Morgan spoke a quiet word and opened a shimmering rectangular portal in the floor. Molly walked over to it and stared down, impressed.
“Dresden,” Morgan said. “We can’t afford to become entangled with the local authorities.”
I wanted to scream at him, but he was right. More sirens had closed in on the park. We had to leave. I grabbed the handles to Morgan’s chair, started for the portal, and said, “Let’s go, people.”
Dammit, Thomas , I snarled to myself. Where the hell are you?
The portal in my hideaway opened three steps from the trail in the Nevernever, all right, but those three steps weren’t handicapped-accessible. Molly and I each had to get under one of Morgan’s arms and half carry him to the trail. I left Molly and Mouse with him, went back half carry him to the trail. I left Molly and Mouse with him, went back and got the wheelchair, and dragged it up the frozen slope to a path that was all but identical to the one I’d been on earlier.
We loaded Morgan into the wheelchair again. He was pale and shaking by the time we were finished. I laid a hand against his forehead. It was hot with fever.
Morgan jerked his head away from my fingers, scowling.
“What is it?” Molly asked. She had thought to grab both coats I’d had waiting, and had already put one of them on.
“He’s burning up,” I said quietly. “Butters said that could mean the wound had been infected.”
“I’m fine,” Morgan said, shivering.
Molly helped him into the second coat, looking around at the frozen, haunted wood with nervous eyes. “Shouldn’t we get him out of the cold, then?”
“Yeah,” I said, buttoning my duster shut. “It’s maybe ten minutes from here to the downtown portal.”
“Does the vampire know about that, too?” Morgan growled.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“That you’d be walking into an obvious trap, Dresden.”
“All right, that’s it,” I snapped. “One more comment about Thomas and you’re going body sledding.”
“Thomas?” Morgan’s pale face turned a little darker as he raised his voice. “How many corpses is it going to take to make you come to your senses, Dresden?”
Molly swallowed. “Harry, um, excuse me.”
Both of us glared at her.
She flushed and avoided eye contact. “Isn’t this the Nevernever?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Obviously,” Morgan said at the same time.
We faced each other again, all but snarling.
“Okay,” Molly said. “Haven’t you told me that it’s sort of dangerous?” She took a deep breath and hurried her speech. “I mean, you know. Isn’t it sort of dumb to be standing here arguing in loud voices? All things considered?”
I suddenly felt somewhat foolish.
Morgan’s glower waned. He bowed his head wearily, folding his arms across his belly.
“Yeah,” I said, reining in my own temper. “Yeah, probably so.”
“Not least because anyone who comes through the Ways from Edinburgh to Chicago is going to walk right over us,” Morgan added.
Molly nodded. “Which would be sort of . . . awkward?”
I snorted quietly. I nodded my head in the proper direction, and started pushing the wheelchair down the trail. “This way.”
Molly followed, her eyes darting left and right at the sounds of movement in the faerie wood around us. Mouse fell into pace beside her, and she reached down to lay a hand on the dog’s back as she walked, an entirely unconscious gesture.
We moved at a steady pace and in almost complete silence for maybe five minutes before I said, “We need to know how they found out about you.”
“The vampire is the best explanation,” Morgan replied, his tone carefully neutral.
“I have information about him that you don’t,” I said. “Suppose it isn’t him. How did they do it?”
Morgan pondered that for a time. “Not with magic.”
He sounded like it.
“Your countermeasures arethat good?” I asked.
I thought about that for a minute. Then it dawned on me what Morgan had done to protect himself from supernatural discovery. “You called in your marker. The silver oak leaf. The one Titan—” I forced myself to stop, glancing uneasily around the faerie forest. “The one the Summer Queen awarded you.”
Morgan turned his head slightly to glance at me over his shoulder.
I whistled. I’d seen Queen Titania with my Sight once. The tableau of Titania and her counterpart, Mab, preparing to do battle with each other still ranked as the most humbling and awe-inspiring display of pure power I had ever witnessed. “That’s why you’re so certain no one is going to find you. She’s the one shielding you.”
“I admit,” Morgan said with another withering look, “it’s no donut.”
I scowled. “How’d you know about that?”
“Titania’s retainer told me. The entire Summer Court has been laughing about it for months.”
Molly made a choking sound behind me. I didn’t turn around. It would just force her to put her hand over her mouth to hide the smile.
“How long did she give you?” I asked.
Thirty-six hours, give or take. A few hours more than I’d believed I had, but not much. “Do you have the oak leaf on you?”
“Of course,” he said.
“May I see it?”
Morgan shrugged and drew a leather cord from around his neck. A small leather pouch hung from the cord. He opened it, felt around inside, and came out with it—a small, exquisitely detailed replica of an oak leaf, backed with a simple pin. He held it out to me.
I took it and pitched it into the haunted wood.
Morgan actually did growl, this time. “Why?”
“Because the Summer Queen bugged them. Last year, her goon squad was using mine to track me down all over Chicago.”
Morgan frowned at me, and glanced out toward where I had thrown it. Then he shook his head and rubbed tiredly at his eyes with one hand. “Must be getting senile. Never even considered it.”
“I don’t get it,” Molly said. “Isn’t he still protected, anyway?”
“He is,” I said. “But that leaf isn’t. So if the Summer Queen wants him found, or if someone realizes what she’s doing and makes her a deal, she can keep her word to Morgan to hide him, and give him away. All she has to do is make sure someone knows to look for the spell on the oak leaf.”
“The Sidhe are only bound to the letter of their agreements,” Morgan said, nodding. “Which is why one avoids striking bargains with them unless there are no options.”
“So Binder could have been following the oak leaf?” Molly asked.
I shrugged. “Maybe.”
“It is still entirely possible that the Summer Queen is dealing in good faith,” Morgan said.
I nodded. “Which brings us back to the original question: how did Binder find you?”
“Well,” Molly said, “not to mince words, but he didn’t.”
“He would have found us in a matter of moments,” Morgan said.
“That’s not what I mean,” she said. “He knew you were in the storage park, but he didn’t know which unit, exactly. I mean, wouldn’t tracking magic have led him straight to you? And if Thomas sold you out, wouldn’t he have told Binder exactly which storage bay we were in?”
Morgan started to reply, then frowned and shut his mouth. “Hngh.” I glanced over my shoulder at the grasshopper and gave her a nod of approval.
Molly beamed at me.
“Someone on the ground following us?” Morgan asked. “A tailing car wouldn’t have been able to enter the storage park without a key.”
I thought of how I’d been shadowed by the skinwalker the previous evening. “If they’re good enough, it would be possible,” I admitted. “Not likely, but possible.”
“So?” Morgan said. “Where does that leave us?”
“Baffled,” I said.
Morgan bared his teeth in a humorless smile. “Where to next, then?”
“If I take you back to my place, they’ll pick us up again,” I said. “If someone’s using strictly mortal methods of keeping track of our movements, they’ll have someone watching it.”
Morgan looked back and up at me. “I assume you aren’t just going to push me in circles around Chicago while we wait for the Council to find us.”
“No,” I said. “I’m taking you to my place.”
Morgan thought about that one for a second, then nodded sharply. “Right.”
“Where the bad guys will see us and send someone else to kill us,” Molly said. “No wonder I’m the apprentice; because I’m so ignorant that I can’t see why that isn’t a silly idea.”
“Watch and learn, grasshopper. Watch and learn.”
We left the trail again, and for the second time in a day I emerged from the Nevernever into the alley behind the old meatpacking plant. We made two stops and then walked until we could flag down another cab. The cabbie didn’t seem to be overly thrilled with Mouse, or the wheelchair, or how we filled up his car, but maybe he just didn’t speak enough English to ably convey his enthusiasm. You never know.
“These really aren’t good for you,” Molly said through a mouthful of donut, as we unloaded the cab.
“It’s Morgan’s fault. He started talking about donuts,” I said. “And besides—you’re eating them.”
“I have the metabolic rate of youth,” Molly said, smiling sweetly. “You’re the one who needs to start being health-conscious, O venerable mentor. I’ll be invincible for another year or two at least.”
We wrestled Morgan into his chair, and I paid off the cabbie. We rolled Morgan over to the steps leading down to my apartment, and between the two of us managed to turn his chair around and get him down the stairs and into the apartment without dropping him. After that, I grabbed Mouse’s lead, and the two of us went up to get the mail from my mailbox, and then ambled around to the boardinghouse’s small backyard and the patch of sandy earth set aside for Mouse’s use.
But instead of loitering around waiting for Mouse, I led him into the far corner of the backyard, which is a miniature jungle of old lilacs that hadn’t been trimmed or pruned since Mr. Spunkelcrief died. They were in bloom, and their scent filled the air. Bees buzzed busily about the bushy plants, and as I stepped closer to them, the corner of the building cut off the traffic sounds.
It was the only place on the property’s exterior that was not readily visible from most of the rest of the buildings on the street.
I pressed past the outer branches of the lilacs and found a small and relatively open space in the middle. Then I waited. Within seconds, there was a buzzing sound, like the wings of a particularly large dragonfly, and then a tiny winged faerie darted through the lilacs to come to a halt in front of me.
He was simply enormous for a pixie, one of the Wee Folk, and stood no less than a towering twelve inches high. He looked like an athletically built youth dressed in an odd assortment of armor made from discarded objects and loose ends. He’d replaced his plastic bottle-cap helmet with one made of most of the shell of a hollowed-out golf ball. It was too large for his head, but that didn’t seem to concern him. His cuirass had first seen service as a bottle of Pepto-Bismol, and hanging at his hip was what looked like the blade to a jigsaw, with one end wrapped in string to serve as a grip. Wings like those of a dragonfly buzzed in a translucent cloud of motion at his back.
The little faerie came to attention in midair, snapped off a crisp salute, and said, “Mission accomplished, my lord of pizza!”
“That fast?” I asked. It hadn’t been twenty minutes since I’d first summoned him, after we’d gotten donuts and before we’d gotten into the cab. “Quick work, Toot-toot, even for you.”
The praise seemed to please the little guy immensely. He beamed and buzzed in a couple of quick circles. “He’s in the building across the street from this one, two buildings toward the lake.”
I grunted, thinking. If I was remembering right, that was another boardinghouse converted into apartments, like mine. “The white one with green shutters?”
“Yes, that’s where the rapscallion has made his lair!” His hand flashed to his waist and he drew his saw-toothed sword from its transparent plastic scabbard, scowling fiercely. “Shall I slay him for you, my lord?”
I very carefully kept the smile off of my face. “I don’t know if things have escalated to that level just yet,” I said. “How do you know this guy is watching my apartment?”
“Oh, oh! Don’t tell me this one!” Toot jittered back and forth in place, bobbing in excitement. “Because he has curtains on the windows so you can’t see in, and then there’s a big black plastic box with a really long nose poking through them and a glass eye on the end of the nose! And he looks at the back of it all the time, and when he sees someone going into your house, he pushes a button and the box beeps!”
“Camera, huh?” I asked. “Yeah, that probably makes him our snoop.” I squinted up at the summer sunshine and adjusted the uncomfortably warm leather duster. I wasn’t taking it off, though. There was too much hostility flying around for that. “How many of your kin are about, Toot?”
“Hundreds!” Toot-toot declared, brandishing his sword. “Thousands!”
I arched an eyebrow. “You’ve been splitting the pizza a thousand ways?”
“Well, lord,” he amended. “Several dozen, at any rate.”
The Wee Folk are a fractious, fickle bunch, but I’ve learned a couple of things about them that I’m not sure anyone else knows. First, that they’re just about everywhere, and anywhere they aren’t, they can usually get. They don’t have much of an attention span, but for short, simple tasks, they are hell on wheels.
Second—they have a lust for pizza that is without equal in this world. I’ve been bribing the Wee Folk with pizza on a regular basis for years, and in return they’ve given me their (admittedly erratic) loyalty. They call me the Za-Lord, and the little fair folk who take my pizza also serve in the Za-Lord’s Guard—which means, mostly, that the Wee Folk hang around my house hoping for extra pizza and protecting it from wee threats.
Toot-toot was their leader, and he and his folks had pulled off some very helpful tasks for me in the past. They had saved my life on more than one occasion. No one in the supernatural community ever expected everything of which they were capable. As a result, Toot and his kin are generally ignored. I tried to take that as a life lesson: never underestimate the little people.
This was a job that was right up Toot-toot’s alley. Almost literally.
“Do you know which car is his?” I asked.
Toot threw back his head, Yul Brynner style. “Of course! The blue one withthis on the hood.” He threw his arms out and up at an angle and stood ramrod straight in a Y shape.
“Blue Mercedes, eh?” I asked. “Okay. Here’s what I want you to do. . . .”
Five minutes later, I walked back around the side of the house to the front opposite the street. Then I turned to face the house where the snoop was set up and put on my most ferocious scowl. I pointed directly at the curtained second-floor windows, then turned my hand over and crooked my finger, beckoning. Then I pointed to the ground right in front of me.
One of the curtains might have twitched. I gave it a slow count of five, and then started walking briskly toward the other boardinghouse, crossing the busy street in the process.
A young man in his twenties wearing khaki shorts and a green T-shirt came rushing out of the converted boardinghouse and ran toward a blue Mercedes parked on the street, an expensive camera hanging around his neck.
I kept walking, not changing my pace.
He rushed around to the driver’s door, pointing some kind of handheld device at the car. Then he clawed at the door but it stayed closed. He shot another glance at me, and then tried to insert his key into the lock. Then he blinked and stared at his key as he pulled it back trailing streamers of a rubbery pink substance—bubble gum.
“I wouldn’t bother,” I said as I got closer. “Look at the tires.”
The young man glanced from me to his Mercedes and stared some more. All four tires were completely flat.
“Oh,” he said. He looked at his gum-covered key and sighed. “Well. Shit.”
I stopped across the car from him and smiled faintly. “Don’t feel too bad about it, man. I’ve been doing this longer than you.”
He gave me a sour look. Then he held up his key. “Bubble gum?”
“Coulda been superglue. Take it as a professional courtesy.” I nodded toward his car. “Let’s talk. Turn the air-conditioning on, for crying out loud.”
He eyed me for a moment and sighed. “Yeah. Okay.”
We both got in the car. He scraped the gum off of his key and put it in the ignition, but when he turned it, nothing happened.
“Oh. Pop the hood,” I said.
He eyed me and did. I went around to the front of the car and reconnected the loose battery cable. I said, “Okay,” and he started the engine smoothly.
Like I said, give Toot-toot and his kin the right job, and they are formidable as hell.
I got back in the car and said, “You licensed?”
The young man shrugged and turned his AC up to “deep freeze.” “Yeah.”
I nodded. “How long?”
“In Joliet,” he said.
“But not now.”
“Why are you watching my place?”
He shrugged. “I got a mortgage.”
I nodded and held out my hand. “Harry Dresden.”
He frowned at the name. “You the one used to work for Nick Christian at Ragged Angel?”
“Nick has a good reputation.” He seemed to come to some kind of conclusion and took my hand with a certain amount of resignation. “Vince Graver.”
“You got hired to snoop on me?”
“You tail me last night?”
“You know the score, man,” Graver said. “You take someone’s money, you keep your mouth shut.”
I lifted my eyebrows. A lot of PIs wouldn’t have the belly to be nearly so reticent, under the circumstances. It made me take a second look at him. Thin, built like someone who ran or rode a bicycle on his weekends. Clean-cut without being particularly memorable. Medium brown hair, medium height, medium brown eyes. The only exceptional thing about his appearance was that there was nothing exceptional about his appearance.
“You keep your mouth shut,” I agreed. “Until people start getting hurt. Then it gets complicated.”
Graver frowned. “Hurt?”
“There have been two attempts on my life in the past twenty-four hours,” I said. “Do the math.”
He focused his eyes down the street, into the distance, and pursed his lips. “Damn.”
He nodded morosely. “There go the rest of my fees and expenses.”
I arched an eyebrow at him. “You’re bailing on your client? Just like that?”
“ ‘Accomplice’ is an ugly word. So is ‘penitentiary.’ ”
Smart kid. Smarter than I had been when I first got my PI license. “I need to know who backed you.”
Graver thought about that one for a minute. Then he said, “No.”
“I make it a personal policy not to turn on clients or piss off people who are into murder.”
“You lost the work,” I said. “What if I made it up to you?”
“Maybe you didn’t read that part of the book. The ‘I’ in PI stands for ‘investigator.’ Not ‘informer.’ ”
“Maybe I call the cops. Maybe I tell them you’re involved in the attacks.”
“Maybe you can’t prove a damned thing.” Graver shook his head. “You don’t get ahead in this business if you can’t keep your teeth together.”
I leaned back in my seat and crossed my arms, studying him for a moment. “You’re right,” I said. “I can’t make you. So I’m asking you. Please.”
He kept on staring out the windshield. “Why they after you?”
“I’m protecting a client.”
“Old guy in the wheelchair.”
Graver squinted. “He looks like a hard case.”
“You have no idea.”
We sat in the air-conditioning for a moment. Then he glanced at me and shook his head.
“You seem like a reasonable guy,” Graver said. “Hope you don’t get dead. Conversation over.”
I thought about pushing things, but I’ve been around long enough to recognize someone who was genuinely tough-minded when I see him. “You got a business card?”
He reached into his shirt pocket and produced a plain white business card with his name and a phone number. He passed it over to me. “Why?”
“Sometimes I need a subcontractor.”
He lifted both eyebrows.
“One who knows how to keep his teeth together.” I nodded to him and got out of the car. I leaned down and looked in the door before I left. “I know a mechanic. I’ll give him a call and he’ll come on out. He’s got a compressor on his truck, and he can fill up your tires. I’ll pay for it.”
Graver studied me with calm, intelligent eyes and then smiled a little. “Thanks.”
I closed the door and thumped on the roof with my fist. Then I walked back to my apartment. Mouse, who had waited patiently in the yard, came shambling up to greet me as I stepped out of the street, and he walked alongside me as I went back to the apartment.
Morgan was lying on my bed again when I came back in. Molly was just finishing up changing his bandages. Mister watched the entire process from the back of the couch, his ears tilted forward, evidently fascinated.
Morgan nodded to me and rasped, “Did you catch him?”
“Yeah,” I said. “A local PI had been hired to keep track of me. But there was a problem.”
I shrugged. “He had integrity.”
Morgan inhaled through his nose and nodded. “Pretty rare problem.”
“Yeah. Impressive young man. What are the odds?”
Molly looked back and forth between us. “I don’t understand.”
“He’s quitting the job, but he won’t tell us what we want to know about his client, because he doesn’t think it would be right,” I said. “He’s not willing to sell the information, either.”
Molly frowned. “Then how are we going to find out who is behind all of this?”
I shrugged. “Not sure. But I told him I’d get someone to come by and put the air back in his tires. Excuse me.”
“Wait. He’s still out there?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Blue Mercedes.”
“And he’s a young man.”
“Sure,” I said. “A little older than you. Name’s Vince Graver.”
Molly beamed. “Well, then, I’ll go get him to tell me.” She walked over to my icebox, opened it, pulled out a dark brown bottle of micro-brewery beer, and walked toward the door.
“How you gonna do that?” I asked her.
“Trust me, Harry. I’ll change his mind.”
“No,” Morgan said fiercely. He coughed a couple of times. “No. I would rather be dead—do you hear me? Be dead than have you use black magic on my behalf.”
Molly set the beer down on the shelf by the door and blinked at Morgan. “You’re right,” she said to me. “He is kind of a drama queen. Who said anything about magic?”
She pulled one arm into her T-shirt, and wriggled around a little. A few seconds later, she was tugging her bra out of the arm hole of her shirt. She dropped it on the shelf, picked up the bottle, and held it against each breast in turn. Then she turned to face me, took a deep breath, and arched her back a little. The tips of her breasts pressed quite noticeably against the rather strained fabric of her shirt.
“What do you think?” she asked, giving me a wicked smile.
I thought Vince was doomed.
“I think your mother would scream bloody murder,” I said.
Molly smirked. “Call the mechanic. I’ll just keep him company until the truck gets there.” She turned with a little extra hip action and left the apartment.
Morgan made a low, appreciative sound as the door closed.
I eyed him.
Morgan looked from the door to me. “I’m not dead yet, Dresden.” He closed his eyes. “Doesn’t hurt to admire a woman’s beauty once in a while.”
“Maybe. But that was just . . . just wrong.”
Morgan smiled, though it was strained with discomfort. “She’s right, though. Especially with a young man. A woman can make a man see everything in a different light.”
“Wrong,” I muttered. “Just wrong.”
I went to call Mike the mechanic.
Molly came back about forty-five minutes later, beaming.
Morgan had been forced to take more pain medication and was tossing in a restless sleep. I closed the door carefully so that we wouldn’t wake him.
“Well?” I asked.
“His car has really good air-conditioning,” Molly said smugly. “He never had a chance.” Between two fingers, she held up a business card like the one I’d gotten.
I did the same thing with mine, mirroring her.
She flipped hers over, showing me a handwritten note on the other side. “I’m worried about my job as your assistant.” She put the back of her hand against her forehead melodramatically. “If something happens to you, whatever will I do? Wherever shall I go?”
She held out the card to me. “And Vince suggested that I might consider work as a paralegal. He even suggested a law firm. Smith Cohen Mackleroy.”
“His job-hunting suggestion, eh?” I asked.
She smirked. “Well, obviously he couldn’t just tell me who hired him. That would be wrong.”
“You are a cruel and devious young woman.” I took the card from her and read it. It said: Smith Cohen Mackleroy, listed a phone number, and had the name “Evelyn Derek” printed under that.
I looked up to meet Molly’s smiling eyes. Her grin widened. “Damn, I’m good.”
“No argument here,” I told her. “Now we have a name, a lead. One might even call it a clue.”
“Not only that,” Molly said. “I have a date.”
“Good work, grasshopper,” I said, grinning as I rolled my eyes. “Way to take one for the team.”
Smith Cohen and Mackleroy, as it turned out, was an upscale law firm in downtown Chicago. The building their offices occupied stood in the shadow of the Sears Tower, and must have had a fantastic view of the lake. Having plucked out the enemy’s eyes, so to speak, I thought that I might have bought us some breathing space. Without Vince on our tail, I hoped that Morgan could get a few hours of rest in relative safety.
I’d figure out somewhere else to move him—just as soon as I leaned on Ms. Evelyn Derek and found out to whom she reported Vince’s findings.
I guess I looked sort of mussed and scraggly, because the building’s security guard gave me a wary look as I entered solidly in the middle of lunch hour. I could practically see him deciding whether or not to stop me.
I gave him my friendliest smile—which my weariness and stress probably reduced to merely polite—and said, “Excuse me, sir. I have an appointment with an attorney at Smith Cohen and Mackleroy. They’re on the twenty-second floor, right?”
He relaxed, which was good. Beneath his suit, he looked like he had enough muscle to bounce me handily out the door. “Twenty-four, sir.”
“Right, thanks.” I smiled at him and strode confidently past. Confidence is critical to convincing people that you really are supposed to be somewhere—especially when you aren’t.
“Sir,” said the guard from behind me. “I’d appreciate it if you left your club here.”
I paused and looked over my shoulder.
He had a gun. His hand wasn’t exactly resting on it, but he’d tucked his thumb into his belt about half an inch away.
“It isn’t a club,” I said calmly. “It’s a walking stick.”
“Six feet long.”
“It’s traditional Ozark folk art.”
“With dents and nicks all over it.”
I thought about it for a second. “I’m insecure?”
“Get a blanket.” He held out his hand.
I sighed and passed my staff over to him. “Do I get a receipt?”
He took a notepad from his pocket and wrote on it. Then he passed it over to me. It read:
Received, one six foot traditional Ozark walking club from Mr. Smart-ass.
“That’s Doctor Smart-ass,” I said. “I didn’t spend eight years in insult college to be called Mister.”
He leaned the staff against the wall behind his desk and sat back down at his chair.
I went to the elevator and rode up. It was one of those express contraptions that goes fast enough to compress your spine and make your ears pop. It opened on the twenty-fourth floor facing a reception desk. The law office, apparently, took up the entire floor.
The receptionist was, inevitably, a young woman, and just as unavoidably attractive. She went with the solid-oak furnishings, the actual oil paintings, and the handcrafted furniture in the reception area, and the faint scent of lemon wood polish in the air—variations on a theme of beautiful practicality.
She looked up at me with a polite smile, her dark hair long and appealing, her shirt cut just low enough to make you notice, but not so low as to make you think less of her. I liked the smile. Maybe I didn’t look like a beaten-up bum. Maybe on me it just looked ruggedly determined.
“I’m sorry, sir,” she said, “but the addiction-counseling center is on twenty-six.”
“I’m actually here to see someone,” I said. “Assuming that this is Smith Cohen and Mackleroy?”
She glanced rather pointedly—but still politely—at the front of her desk, where a plaque bore the firm’s name in simple sans serif lettering. “I see, sir. Who are you looking for?”
“Ms. Evelyn Derek, please.”
“Do you have an appointment?”
“No,” I said. “But she’ll want to talk to me.”
The receptionist looked at me as though she had some kind of bitter, unpleasant taste in her mouth. I’d timed my arrival correctly, then. The young lady clearly would have been much more comfortable handing me off to a secretary, or executive assistant, or whatever you’re supposed to call them now, and letting someone else decide if I was supposed to be there. And Ms. Evelyn Derek’s assistant was just as clearly out to lunch, which was the point of showing up during lunch hour. “Who shall I say is here?”
I produced Vincent Graver’s business card and passed it to her. “Please tell her that Vince has acquired some unexpected information and that she needs to hear about it.”
She pushed a button, adjusted her headset, and dutifully passed on the message to whoever was on the other end. She listened and nodded. “Straight back down the hall, sir, the second door on the left.”
I nodded to her and walked through the door behind her. The carpet got even thicker and the decor more expensive. A nook in the wall showcased a small rock fountain between a pair of two-thousand-dollar leather chairs. I shook my head as I walked through a hall that absolutely reeked of success, power, and the desire for everyone to know about it.
I bet they would have been seethingly jealous of the Ostentatiatory in Edinburgh.
I opened the second door on the left, went in, and closed it behind me, to find a secretary’s desk, currently unoccupied, and an open door to what would doubtless be an executive office appropriate to the status of Evelyn Derek, attorney at law.
“Come in, Mr. Graver,” said an impatient woman’s voice from inside the office.
I walked in and shut the door behind me. The office was big, but not monstrous. She probably wasn’t a full partner in the firm. The furnishings were sleek and ultramodern, with a lot of glass and space-age metal. There was only one small filing cabinet in the room, a shelf with a row of legal texts, a slender and fragile-looking laptop computer, and a framed sheepskin from somewhere expensive on the wall. She had a window, but it had been frosted over into bare translucency. The glass desk and sitting table and liquor cabinet all shone, without a smudge or a fingerprint to be seen anywhere. It had all the warmth of an operating theater.
The woman typing on the laptop might have come with the office as part of a complete set. She wore rimless glasses in front of the deepest green eyes I had ever seen. Her hair was raven black, and cut close to her head, showcasing her narrow, elegant features and the slender line of her neck. She wore a dark silk suit jacket with a matching skirt and a white blouse. She had long legs, ending in shoes that must have cost more than most mortgage payments, but she wore no rings, no earrings, and no necklace. There was something cold and reserved about her posture, and her fingers struck the keys at a rapid, decisive cadence, like a military drummer.
She said nothing for two full minutes, focusing intently on whatever she was typing. Obviously, she had something to prove to Vince for daring to intrude upon her day.
“I hope you don’t think you can convince me to rehire you, Mr. Graver,” she said, eventually, without looking up. “What is it that you think is so important?”
Ah. Vince had quit already. He didn’t let much grass grow under his feet, did he?
This woman was evidently used to being taken very seriously. I debated several answers and decided to start things off by annoying her.
I know. Me. Shocking, right?
I stood there treating her the same way she had treated me, saying nothing, until Evelyn Derek exhaled impatiently through her nose and turned a cool and disapproving stare toward me.
“Hi, cuddles,” I said.
I’ll give the lady this much—she had a great poker face. The disapproval turned into a neutral mask. She straightened slightly in her chair, though she looked more attentive than nervous, and put her palms flat on the desktop.
“You’re going to leave smudges,” I said.
She stared at me for a few more seconds before she said, “Get out of my office.”
“I don’t see any Windex in here,” I mused, looking around.
“Did you hear me?” she said, her voice growing harder. “Get. Out.”
I scratched my chin. “Maybe it’s in your secretary’s desk. You want me to get it for you?”
Spots of color appeared on her cheeks. She reached for the phone on her desk.
I pointed a finger at it, sent out an effort of will, and hissed, “Hexus.”
Fouling up technology is a fairly simple thing for a wizard to do. But it isn’t surgical in its precision. Sparks erupted from the phone, from her computer, from the overhead lights, and from something inside her coat pocket, accompanied by several sharp popping sounds.
Ms. Derek let out a small shriek and tried to flinch in three directions at once. Her chair rolled backward without her, and she wound up sprawled on the floor behind her glass-topped desk in a most undignified manner. Her delicate-looking glasses hung from one ear, and her deep green eyes were wide, the whites showing all around them.
Purely for effect, I walked a couple of steps closer and stood looking down at her in silence for a long moment. There was not a sound in that room, and it was a lot darker in there without the lights.
I spoke very, very quietly. “There are two shut doors between you and the rest of this office—which is mostly empty anyway. You’ve got great carpets, solid-oak paneling, and a burbling water feature out in the hallway.” I smiled slightly. “Nobody heard what just happened. Or they would have come running by now.”
She swallowed, and didn’t move.
“I want you to tell me who had you hire a detective to snoop on me.”
She made a visible effort to gather herself together. “I-I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I shook my head, lifted my hand, and made a beckoning gesture at the liquor cabinet as I murmured, “Forzare,” and made a gentle effort of will. The door to the cabinet swung open. I picked a bottle of what looked like bourbon and repeated the gesture, causing it to flit from the opened cabinet across the room to my hand. I unscrewed the cap and took a swig. It tasted rich and burned my throat pleasantly on the way down.
Evelyn Derek stared at me in pure shock, her mouth open, her face whiter than rural Maine.
I looked at her steadily. “Are you sure?”
“Oh, God,” she whispered.
“Evelyn,” I said in a chiding voice. “Focus. You hired Vince Graver to follow me around and report on my movements. Someone told you to do that. Who was it?”
“M-my clients,” she stammered. “Confidential.”
I felt bad scaring the poor woman. Her reaction to the use of magic had been typical of a straight who had never encountered the supernatural before—which meant that she probably had no idea of the nature of whoever she was protecting. She was terrified. I mean, I knew I wasn’t going to hurt her.
But I was the only one in the room who did.
The thing about playing a bluff is that you have to play it all the way out, even when it gets uncomfortable.
“I really didn’t want this to get ugly,” I said sadly.
I took a step closer and put the bottle down on the desk. Then I slowly, dramatically, raised my left hand. It had been badly burned several years before, and while my ability to recover from such things was more intense than other human beings, at least in the long term, my hand still wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t quite horror-movie special effects anymore, but the molten scars covering my fingers, wrist, and most of my palm were still startling and unpleasant, if you hadn’t ever seen them before.
“No, wait,” Evelyn squeaked. She backed across the floor on her buttocks, pressed her back to the wall and lifted her hands. “Don’t.”
“You helped your client try to kill people, Evelyn,” I said in a calm voice. “Tell me who.”
Her eyes widened even more. “What? No. No, I didn’t know anyone would get hurt.”
I stepped closer and snarled, “Talk.”
“All right, all right!” she stammered. “She—”
She stopped speaking as suddenly as if someone had begun strangling her.
I eased up on the intimidation throttle. “Tell me,” I said, more quietly.
Evelyn Derek shook her head at me, fear and confusion stripping away the reserve I’d seen in her only moments before. She started shaking. I saw her open her mouth several times, but only small choked sounds emerged. Her eyes lost focus and started flicking randomly around the room like a trapped animal looking for an escape.
That wasn’t normal. Not even a little. Someone like Evelyn Derek might panic, might be cowed, might be backed into a corner—but she would never be at a loss for words.
“Oh,” I said, mostly to myself. “Ihate this crap.”
I sighed, and walked around the desk to stand over the cowering lawyer. “Hell, if I’d known that someone had . . .” I shook my head. She wasn’t really listening very hard to me, and she’d started crying.
It was one of about a thousand possible reactions when someone’s free will has been directly abrogated by some kind of psychic interdiction. I’d just created a situation in which every part of her logical, rational mind had been completely in favor of telling me who had hired her. Her emotions had been lined up right behind her reasoned thoughts, too.
Only I was betting that someone had gotten into her head. Someone had left something inside her that refused to let Ms. Derek speak about her employer. Hell, she might not even have a conscious memory of who hired her—despite the fact that she wouldn’t just hire some detective to spy on somebody for no reason.
Everyone always thinks that such obvious logical inconsistencies wouldn’t hold up, that the mind would somehow tear free of the bonds placed upon it using those flaws. But the fact is that the human mind isn’t a terribly logical or consistent place. Most people, given the choice to face a hideous or terrifying truth or to conveniently avoid it, choose the convenience and peace of normality. That doesn’t make them strong or weak people, or good or bad people. It just makes them people.
It’s our nature. There’s plenty to distract us from the nastier truths of our lives, if we want to avoid them.
“Evelyn Derek,” I said in a firm, authoritative voice. “Look at me.”
She flinched closer to the wall, shaking her head.
I knelt in front of her. Then I reached out to touch her chin, and gently lifted her face to mine. “Evelyn Derek,” I said in a gentler voice. “Look at me.”
The woman lifted her dark green eyes to mine and I held her gaze for the space of a long breath before the soulgaze began.
If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then wizards are the souls’ voyeurs. When a wizard looks into another person’s eyes, we get to see something of that person, a vision of the very core of their being. We each go through the experience a little differently, but it amounts to the same thing—a look into another person’s eyes gives you an insight into the most vital portions of their character.
Evelyn Derek’s deep green eyes almost seemed to expand around me, and then I found myself staring at a room that was, if anything, almost identical to the woman’s office. The furniture was beautiful and minimalistic. Ms. Derek, it seemed, was not the kind of person to overly burden her soul with the care and mementos most people collect over the course of a lifetime. She had devoted her life to her mind, to the order and discipline of her thoughts, and she had never left herself much room for personal entanglements.
But as I stared at the room, I saw Ms. Derek herself. I would have expected her in her business clothing, or perhaps in student’s attire. Instead, she was wearing . . .
Well. She was wearing very expensive, very minimalistic black lingerie. Stockings, garters, panties, and bra, all black. She wore them, ahem, very well. She was kneeling on the floor, her knees apart, her hands held behind the small of her back. She faced me with her lips parted, her breath coming in quickened pants. I was able to change my viewpoint slightly, as if walking around her, and those green eyes followed me, pupils wide with desire, her hips shifting in little yearning rolls with every tiny correction of her balance.
Her wrists were bound behind her back with a long, slender ribbon of white silk.
I caught a motion in the corner of my eye, and I snapped my gaze up, to see a slender, feminine form vanish into the corridors of Evelyn Derek’s memory, showing me nothing more than a flash of pale skin—
—and a gleam of silver eyes.
Son of a bitch.
Someone had bound up Ms. Derek’s thoughts, all right, and woven those restraints together with her natural sexual desire, to give them permanence and strength. The method and the glimpses I’d seen of the perpetrator, flashes of memory that had managed to remain in her thoughts, perhaps, gave strong indicators as to who was responsible.
A vampire of the White Court.
And then there was a wrenching sensation and I was kneeling over Evelyn Derek. Her eyes were wide, her expression a mixture of terror and awe as she stared up at me.
Oh, yeah. That was the thing about a soulgaze. Whoever you look at gets a look back at you. They get to see you in just as much detail as you see them. I’ve never had anyone soulgaze me who didn’t seem . . . disconcerted by the experience.
Evelyn Derek stared at me and whispered, “Who are you?”
I said, “Harry Dresden.”
She blinked slowly and said, her voice dazed, “She ran from you.” Tears started forming in her eyes. “What is happening to me?”
Magic that invades the thoughts of another human being is just about as black as it gets, a direct violation of the Laws of Magic that the Wardens uphold. But there are grey areas, like in any set of laws, and there are accepted customs as to what was or was not allowed in practice.
There wasn’t much I could do for Evelyn. It would take a hand lighter and more skilled than mine to undo the harm that had been done to her mind, if it could be undone at all. But there was one thing I could do for her, a bit of grey magic that even the White Council acknowledged as an aid and a mercy, especially for those who had suffered the kind of psychic trauma Evelyn had.
I called up my will as gently as I could, and reached out with my right hand. I passed my fingertips gently over her eyes, causing her to close them, and as I passed my palm from her forehead down to her chin, I released that will with as much care as I possibly could, murmuring, “
Dorme, dormius , Evelyn. Dorme, dormius.”
She let out a little whimpering sound of relief, and her body sagged to the floor in sudden and complete relaxation. She breathed in deeply once, exhaled, and then passed into simple and dreamless slumber.
I made her as comfortable as I could. With luck, when she woke, she would pass most of our confrontation off as a bad dream. Then I turned and left the law office behind me, quiet anger growing inside me with every step. I went by the security guard at the door as the anger started nudging over into fury. I slapped the receipt down on his desk, and with a gesture and a muttered word caused my staff to leap from where it leaned against the wall and into my hand.
The guard fell out of his chair, and I left without looking back.
The White Court was involved. They were trying to get Morgan killed—and mewith him—and what’s more, they were preying on people in my town, ripping into their psyches and inflicting harm that could blossom into madness given the right circumstances. There was a broad difference between their usual predation and what had been done to Evelyn Derek.
Someone was going to answer for it.
I got back to my apartment, shouldered open my door, and found a bizarre tableau.
Morgan lay on the floor about five feet from the bedroom door. He’d apparently seized my walking cane from the old popcorn tin by the door, where I keep things like Ozark folk art carved quarter staves, blasting rods, umbrellas, and so on. The cane is an old Victorian-style sword-cane. You twist the handle and pull, and you can draw a slender thirty-inch spring steel blade from the wooden cane. Morgan had. He lay on his side on the floor, his arm extended up at about a forty-five-degree angle, holding the sword.
Its tip rested against Molly’s carotid artery, just under her left ear.
Molly, for her part, leaned back against one of my bookcases, her knees bent a little, her arms spread out to either side, as if she’d stumbled over something and flung out her hands to brace herself against the bookcase as she fell back.
To the left of the door, Mouse crouched with his fangs bared and resting lightly against Anastasia Luccio’s throat. She lay on her back, and her gun lay on the rug-covered floor about two feet beyond the reach of her hand. She appeared to be quite relaxed, though I couldn’t see much of her face from where I stood.
Mouse’s deep brown eyes were focused steadily on Morgan. Morgan’s steely gaze was locked on Mouse’s jaws.
I stared at them aghast for a minute. No one moved. Except Mouse. When I looked at him, his tail wagged hopefully once or twice.
I blew out a heavy breath, set my staff aside, and plodded to the icebox, stepping over Anastasia’s leg on the way. I opened it, considered the contents for a moment, and then pulled out a cold Coke. I opened it and took a long drink. Then I picked up a dry kitchen towel, went to the couch, and sat down.
“I would ask what the hell happened,” I said to the room at large. “Except that the only one with any sense who witnessed it can’t actually talk.” I eyed the dog and said, “This had better be good.”
Mouse wagged his tail tentatively again.
“Okay,” I said. “Let her go.”
Mouse opened his jaws and sat up and away from Anastasia at once. He immediately padded over to me, and leaned against me as his gaze flicked from Anastasia to Morgan and back.
“Morgan,” I said. “Ease off the psycho throttle a little and put down the sword.”
“No,” Morgan said in a voice half strangled with fury. “Not until this little witch is bound and wearing a gag and a blindfold.”
“Molly’s already done duty as a beer-calendar model today,” I said. “We’re not dressing her up for a BDSM shoot next.” I put the Coke down and thought about it for a second. Threats weren’t going to have any effect on Morgan, except to make him more determined. It was one of the charming side effects of having such a rigid old-school personality.
“Morgan,” I said quietly. “You are a guest in my home.”
He flashed me a quick, guilty glance.
“You came to me for help and I’m doing my best. Hell, the kid has put herself into harm’s way, trying to protect you. I’ve done everything for you that I would have for blood family, because you are my guest. There are monsters from whom I would expect better behavior, once they had accepted my hospitality. What’s more, they’d give it to me.”
Morgan let out a pained sound. Then he turned his head sharply away from Molly and dropped the sword at the same time. The steel of the blade chimed as it bounced off the thin rug.
Morgan settled into a limp heap on the floor, and Molly sagged, lifting her hand and covering the vulnerable skin of her throat for a moment.
I waited until Anastasia sat up to toss her the towel I’d brought from the kitchen. She caught it, her expression neutral, and lifted it to begin drying her neck. Mouse is a great dog, but he has to work hard to control his slobber issues.
“So I take it things almost devolved into violence again,” I said to them. “And Mouse had to get involved.”
“She just came walking in here,” Molly protested. “She saw him.”
I blinked and looked at her. “And you did . . . what, exactly?”
“She blinded me,” Anastasia said calmly. “And then she hit me.” She lifted the towel and wiped at her nose. Some blood came away, though most of it stayed crusted and brown below one nostril. So they hadn’t been in the standoff for long. Anastasia gave Molly a steady gaze and said, “She hit me like a girl. For goodness’ sake, child, have you had no combat training at all?”
“There’s been a lot of material to cover,” I growled. “Blinded you?”
“Not permanently,” Molly said, more sullenly now. She rubbed at the knuckles of her right hand with her left. “I just . . . kind of veiled everything that wasn’t her.”
“An unnecessarily complicated way to go about it,” Anastasia said primly.
“For you, maybe,” Molly said defensively. “Besides, who was the one on the ground getting pounded?”
“Yes. You’re forty pounds heavier than me,” Anastasia said calmly.
“Bitch, I know you didn’t say just say that,” Molly bristled, stepping forward with her hands clenched.
Mouse sighed and heaved himself back to his feet.
Molly stopped, eyeing the big dog warily.
“Good dog,” I said, and scratched Mouse’s ears.
He wagged his tail without taking his serious brown eyes from Molly.
“I had to stop her,” Molly said. “She was going to report Morgan to the Wardens.”
“So you physically and magically assaulted her,” I said.
“What choice did I have?”
I eyed Morgan. “And you staggered up out of the bed you’re supposed to be staying in, grabbed the first pointy thing you could reach, and forced her off of Anastasia.”
Morgan eyed me wearily. “Obviously.”
I sighed and looked at Anastasia. “And you thought the only solution you had was to take them both down and sort everything out later, and Mouse stopped you.”
Anastasia sighed. “There was a blade out, Harry. The situation had to be controlled.”
I eyed Mouse. “And you wound up holding Anastasia hostage so Morgan wouldn’t hurt Molly.”
Mouse ducked his head.
“I can’t believe I’m about to say this,” I said. “So think real careful about where this is coming from. Have you people ever considered talking when you’ve got a problem?”
That didn’t please anybody, and they gave me looks with varying degrees of irritation mixed with chagrin.
Except for Mouse, who sighed and said something like, “Uh-woof.”
“Sorry,” I told him at once. “Four-footed nonvocalizing company excepted.”
“She was going to get the Wardens,” Molly said. “If that happened before we proved who really killed LaFortier, all of us would be up the creek.”
“Actually,” Anastasia said, “that’s true.”
I turned my gaze to her. She rose and stretched, wincing slightly. “I assumed,” she said quietly, “that Morgan had recruited your apprentice to assist him in his escape scheme. And that they had done away with you.”
I made a small frustrated sound. “Why the hell would you assume something like that?”
She narrowed her eyes as she stared at me. “Why would Morgan flee to the home of the one wizard in the Council who had the most reason to dislike him?” she asked. “I believe your words were: ‘that would be crazy.’ ”
I winced. Ouch. “Uh,” I said. “Yeah. I . . .”
“You lied to me,” she said in a level tone. Most people probably wouldn’t have noticed the undertone of anger and pain in her voice, or the almost imperceptible pause between each word. I could see bricks being mortared into place behind her eyes and I looked away from her.
The room was completely silent, until Morgan said, in a small and broken voice, “What?”
I looked up at him. His hard sour face had gone gray. His expression was twisted up in shock and surprise, like that of a small child discovering the painful consequences of gravity for the first time.
“Ana,” he said, almost choking on the words. “You . . . you think that I . . . How could you think that I would . . . ?”
He turned his face away. It couldn’t have been a tear. Not from Morgan. He wouldn’t shed tears if he had to execute his own mother.
But for a fraction of a second, something shone on one of his cheeks.
Anastasia rose and walked over to Morgan. She knelt down by him and put her hand on his head. “Donald,” she said gently, “we’ve been betrayed by those we trusted before. It wouldn’t be the first time.”
“That was them,” he said unsteadily, not looking up. “This is me.”
She stroked his hair once. “I never thought you had done it of your own free will, Donald,” she whispered quietly. “I thought someone had gotten into your mind. Held a hostage against your cooperation. Something.”
“Who could they have held hostage?” Morgan said in a bitter voice. “There’s no one. For that very reason. And you know it.”
She sighed and closed her eyes.
“You knew his wards,” Morgan went on. “You’ve been through them before. Often. You opened them in under a second when you came in. You have a key to his apartment.”
She said nothing.
His voice turned heavy and hollow. “You’re involved. With Dresden.”
Anastasia blinked her eyes several times. “Donald,” she began.
He looked up at her, his eyes empty of tears or pain or anything but weariness. “Don’t,” he said. “Don’t you dare.”
She met his eyes. I’d never seen such gentle pain on her face. “You’re running a fever. Donald, please. You should be in bed.”
He laid his head on the rug and closed his eyes. “It doesn’t matter.”
“It doesn’t matter,” he repeated dully.
Anastasia started crying in silence. She stayed next to Morgan, stroking her hand over his mottled silver-and-brown hair.
An hour later, Morgan was unconscious in bed again. Molly was down in the lab, pretending to work on potions with the trapdoor closed. I was sitting in the same spot with an empty can of Coke.
Anastasia came out of the bedroom and shut the door silently behind her. Then she leaned back against it. “When I saw him,” she said, “I thought he had come here to hurt you. That he had learned about the two of us and wanted to hurt you.”
“You,” I asked, “and Morgan?”
She was quiet for a moment before she said, “I never allowed it to happen. It wasn’t fair to him.”
“But he wanted it anyway,” I said.
“Hell’s bells,” I sighed.
She folded her arms over her stomach, never looking up. “Was it any different with your apprentice, Harry?”
Molly hadn’t always been the grasshopper she was today. When I’d first begun teaching her, she’d assumed that I would be teaching her all sorts of things that had nothing to do with magic and everything to do with her being naked. And that had been more than all right with her.
Just not with me.
“Not much,” I acknowledged. “But he hasn’t been your apprentice for a long, long time.”
“I have always been of the opinion that romantic involvement was a vulnerability I could not afford. Not in my position.”
“Not always,” I said, “apparently.”
She exhaled slowly. “It was a much easier opinion to hold in my previous body. It was older. Less prone to . . .”
“Life?” I suggested.
She shrugged. “Desire. Loneliness. Joy. Pain.”
“Life,” I said.
“Perhaps.” She closed her eyes for a moment. “When I was young, I reveled in love, Harry. In passion. In discovery and in new experiences and in life.” She gestured down at herself. “I never realized how much of it I had forgotten until Corpsetaker left me like this.” She opened her pained eyes and looked at me. “I didn’t realize how much I missed it until you reminded me. And by then, Morgan wasn’t . . . He was like I had been. Detached.”
“In other words,” I said, “he’d made himself more like you. Patterned himself after you. And because he’d done that, after your change he wasn’t capable of giving you what you wanted.”
I shook my head. “A hundred years is a long time to carry a torch,” I said. “That one must burn like hell.”
“I know. And I never wanted to hurt him. You must believe me.”
“Here’s where you say, ‘The heart wants what the heart wants,’ ” I said.
“Trite,” she said, “but true all the same.” She turned until her right shoulder leaned on the door, facing me. “We should talk about where this leaves us.”
I toyed with the can of Coke. “Before we can do that,” I said, “we have to talk about Morgan and LaFortier.”
She exhaled slowly. “Yes.”
“What do you intend to do?” I asked.
“He’s wanted by the Council, Harry,” she said in a gentle voice. “I don’t know how he’s managed to avoid being located by magical means, but sooner or later, in hours or days, hewill be found. And when that happens, you and Molly will be implicated as well. You’ll both die with him.” She took a deep breath. “And if I don’t go to the Council with what I know, I’ll be right there beside you.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“You really think he’s innocent?” she asked.
“Of LaFortier’s murder,” I said. “Yes.”
“Do you have proof?”
“I’ve found out enough to make me think I’m right. Not enough to clear him—yet.”
“If it wasn’t Morgan,” she said quietly, “then the traitor is still running around loose.”
“You’re asking me to discard the pursuit of a suspect with strong evidence supporting his guilt in favor of chasing a damn ghost, Harry. Someone we’ve barely been able to prove exists, much less identify. Not only that, you’re asking me to gamble your life, your apprentice’s life, and my own against finding this ghost in time.”
“Yes. I am.”
She shook her head. “Everything I’ve ever learned as a Warden tells me that it’s far more likely that Morgan is guilty.”
“Which brings us back to the question,” I said. “What are you going to do?”
She pushed off the door and came to sit down on the chair facing my seat on the couch.
“All right,” she said. “Tell me everything.”
“This is not how diplomacy is done,” Anastasia said as we approached the Château Raith.
“You’re in America now,” I said. “Our idea of diplomacy is showing up with a gun in one hand and a sandwich in the other and asking which you’d prefer.”
Anastasia’s mouth curved up at one corner. “You brought a sandwich?”
“Who do I look like, Kissinger?”
I’d been to Château Raith before, but it had always been at night, or at least twilight. It was an enormous estate most of an hour away from Chicago proper, a holding of House Raith, the current ruling house of the White Court. The Château itself was surrounded by at least half a mile of old-growth forest that had been converted to an idyllic, even gardenlike, state, like you sometimes see on centuries-old European properties. Huge trees and smooth grass beneath them dominated, with the occasional, suspiciously symmetrical outgrowth of flowering plants, often located in the center of golden shafts of sunlight that came down through the green-shadowed trees at regular intervals.
The grounds were surrounded by a high fence, topped with razor wire that couldn’t be readily seen from the outside. The fence was electrically charged, too, and the latest surveillance cameras—seemingly little more than glass beads with wires running out of them—monitored every inch of the exterior.
At night, it made for one extremely creepy piece of property. On a bright summer afternoon, it just looked . . . pretty. Very, very wealthy and very, very pretty. Like the Raiths themselves, the grounds were only scary when seen at the right time.
A polite security guard with the general bearing of ex-military had watched us get out of a cab, called ahead, and let us in with hardly a pause. We’d walked past the gate and up the drive through Little Sherwood until we reached the Château proper.
“How good are her people?” Anastasia asked.
“I’m sure you’ve read the file.”
“Yes,” she said, as we started up the steps. “But I’d prefer your personal assessment.”
“Since Lara’s taken over the hiring,” I said, “they’ve improved significantly. I don’t think they’re fed upon to keep them under control anymore.”
“And you base that assessment on what?”
I shrugged. “The before and after. The last batch of hired muscle was . . . just out of touch. Willing to die at a moment’s notice, but not exactly the sharpest tacks in the box. Pretty and vacant. And pretty vacant.” I gestured back at the entrance. “That guy back there had a newspaper nearby. And he was eating lunch when we showed up. Before, they just stood around like mannequins with muscle. I’m betting that most of them are ex-military. The hard-core kind, not the get-my-college-funded kind.”
“Officially,” she said, as we reached the top of the steps, “they remain untested.”
“Or maybe Lara’s just smart enough not to show them off until it’s necessary to use them,” I said.
“Officially,” Anastasia said dryly, “she remains untested.”
“You didn’t see her killing super ghouls with a couple of knives the way I did during the White Court coup,” I said. I rapped on the door with my staff and adjusted the hang of my grey cloak. “I know my word isn’t exactly respected among the old guard Wardens, but take it from me. Lara Raith is one smart and scary bitch.”
Anastasia shook her head with a faint smile. “And yet you’re here to hold a gun to her head.”
“I’m hoping that if we apply some pressure, we’ll get something out of her,” I said. “I’m low on options. And I don’t have time to be anything but direct.”
“Well,” she said, “at least you’re playing to your strengths.”
A square-jawed, flat-topped man in his thirties opened the door. He was wearing a casual beige sports suit accessorized by a gun in a shoulder holster and what was probably a Kevlar vest beneath his white tee. If that wasn’t enough, he had some kind of dangerous-looking little machine gun hanging from a nylon strap over one shoulder.
“Sir,” he said with a polite nod. “Ma’am. May I take your cloaks?”
“Thank you,” Anastasia said. “But they’re part of the uniform. If you could convey us directly to Ms. Raith, that would be most helpful.”
The security man nodded his head. “Before you accept the hospitality of the house, I would ask you both to give me your personal word that you are here in good faith and will offer no violence while you are a guest.”
Anastasia opened her mouth, as if she intended to readily agree, but I stepped slightly in front of her and said, “Hell, no.”
The security man narrowed his eyes and looked a little less relaxed. “Excuse me?”
“Go tell Lara that whether or not we rip this house to splinters and broken glass is still up for debate,” I said. “Tell her there’s already blood on the floor, and I think some of it is on her hands. Tell her if she wants a chance to clear the air, she talks to me. Tell her if she doesn’t that it is answer enough, and that she accepts the consequences.”
The guard stared at me for several seconds. Then he said, “You’ve got a real high opinion of yourself. Do you know what’s around you? Do you have any idea where you’re standing?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Ground zero.”
More silence stretched, and he blinked before I did. “I’ll tell her. Wait here, please.”
I nodded to him, and he walked deeper into the house.
“Ground zero?” Anastasia muttered out of the corner of her mouth. “A trifle melodramatic, don’t you think?”
I answered her in a similar fashion. “I was going to go with ‘three feet from where they’ll find your body,’ but I figured that would have made it too personal. He’s just doing his job.”
She shook her head. “Is there some reason this can’t be a civil visit?”
“Lara’s at her most dangerous when everyone’s being civil,” I said. “She knows it. I don’t want her feeling comfortable. It’ll be easier to get answers out of her if she’s worried about all hell breaking loose.”
“It might also be easier to question her if we aren’t worried about it,” Anastasia pointed out. “She does hold the advantage here. One notes that there is fairly fresh plaster on the walls on either side of us, for instance.”
I checked. She was right. “So?”
“So, if I was the one preparing to defend this place, I think I might line the walls with antipersonnel mines wired to a simple charge and cover them in plaster until I needed them to remove a threat too dangerous to engage directly.”
I’d personally seen what an AP mine could do to human bodies. It wasn’t pretty. Imagine what’s left of a squirrel when it gets hit with large rounds from a heavy-gauge shotgun. There’s not much there but scraps and stains. It’s essentially the same when a human gets hit with a load of ball bearings the size of gumballs that spew from an AP mine. I glanced at either wall again. “At least I was right,” I said. “Ground zero.”
Anastasia smiled faintly. “I just thought I’d mention the possibility. There’s a fine line between audacity and idiocy.”
“And if she thinks she’s in danger, Lara might just detonate them now,” I said. “Preemptive self-defense.”
“Mmmm. Generally the favored method for dealing with practitioners. The customs of hospitality would have protected us from her as much as her from us.”
I thought about that for a second and then shook my head. “If we were all calm and polite, she’d never give away anything. And she won’t kill us. Not until she finds out what we know.”
She shrugged. “You could be right. You’ve dealt with the smart, scary bitch more often than me.”
“I guess we’ll know in a minute.”
A minute later, we were still there, and the security guy reappeared. “This way, please,” he said.
We followed him through the wealthy splendor of the house. Hardwood floors. Custom carved woodworking. Statues. Fountains. Suits of armor. Original paintings, one of them a van Gogh. Stained-glass windows. Household staff in formal uniform. I kept expecting to come across a flock of peacocks roaming the halls, or maybe a pet cheetah in a diamond-studded collar.
After a goodly hike, the guard led us to a wing of the house that had, apparently, been converted to corporate office space. There were half a dozen efficient-looking people working in cubicles. A phone with a digital ring tone chirruped in the background. Copiers wheezed. In the background, a radio played soft rock.
We went past the office, down a short hall past a break room that smelled of fresh coffee, and to the double doors at the end of the hallway. The guard held open one of the doors for us, and we went inside, to an outer office complete with a secretary’s desk manned by a stunning young woman.
By Justine, in fact, her white hair held back in a tail, wearing a conservative grey pantsuit.
As we entered, she rose with a polite, impersonal smile that could have taken any number of competitive pageants. “Sir, ma’am. If you’ll come this way, please, Ms. Raith is ready to see you.”
She went over to the door on the wall behind her desk, knocked once, and opened it enough to say, “Ms. Raith? The Wardens are here.” A very soft feminine voice answered her. Justine opened the door all the way and held it for us, smiling. “Coffee, sir, ma’am? Another beverage?”
“No, thank you,” Anastasia said, as we entered. Justine shut the door carefully behind us.
Lara Raith’s office had a few things in common with Evelyn Derek’s. It had the same rich furnishings—though her style was more rich, dark hardwood than glass—the same clarity of function and purpose. The resemblance ended there. Lara’s office was a working office. Mail was stacked neatly on a corner of the desk. Files and envelopes each had their own specific positions upon her desk and the worktable against one wall. A pen and ink set was in evidence on the desktop. Paperwork anarchy threatened the room, but order had been strongly imposed, guided by an obvious will.
Lara Raith, de facto ruler of the White Court, sat behind the desk. She wore a silk business suit of purest white, cut close to the flawless lines of her body. The cut of the suit elegantly displayed her figure, and contrasted sharply with the long blue-black hair, which hung in waves past her shoulders. Her features had the classically immortal beauty of Greek statues, balancing sheer beauty with strength, intelligence, and perception. Her eyes were a deep, warm grey, framed by thick sooty lashes, and just looking at her full soft mouth made my lips twitch and tingle as they demanded an introduction to Lara’s.
“Warden Dresden,” she murmured, her voice soothing and musical. “Warden Luccio. Please, be seated.”
I didn’t need to check with Anastasia. Both of us just stood there, staff in hand, regarding her quietly.
She leaned back in her chair and a wicked little smile played over that mouth without ever getting as far as her eyes. “I see. I’m being intimidated. Are you going to tell me why, or do I get three guesses?”
“Stop being cute, Lara,” I said. “Your lawyer, Evelyn Derek, hired a private eye to tail me and report on my movements—and every time I turn around, something nasty has shown up to make a run at me.”
The smile remained in place. “Lawyer?”
“I took a look at her head,” I said. “And found the marks of the White Court all over it—including a compulsion not to reveal who she was working for.”
“And you think it was my doing?” she asked.
“In these parts?” I asked. “Why not?”
“I’m hardly the only member of the White Court in the region, Dresden,” Lara said. “And while I’m flattered that you think so highly of me, the others of my kind do not love me so well as to consult with me before every action they take.”
Anastasia stepped in. “But they wouldn’t engage the White Council in this sort of business without your approval.” She smiled. “Such a thing would be seen as a challenge to your—to the authority of the White King.”
Lara studied Luccio for a while, grey eyes probing. “Captain Luccio,” she said, “I saw you dance in Naples.”
“It would have been . . . what? Two centuries ago, give or take a few decades?” Lara smiled. “You were exquisitely gifted. Granted, that was before your . . . current condition.”
“Ms. Raith,” Anastasia said, “that is hardly germane to the subject at hand.”
“It could be,” Lara murmured. “You and I attended the same party after your performance. I know the sort of appetites you indulged, back then.” Her lips curled into a hungry little smile, and it was suddenly all I could do to keep my knees from buckling in sheer, sudden, irrational sexual desire. “Perhaps you’d care to revisit old times,” Lara purred.
And, as quickly as that, the desire was gone.
Anastasia took a slow, deep breath. “I’m too old to be amused by such antics, Ms. Raith,” she replied calmly. “Just as I’m too intelligent to believe that you don’t know something of what’s been happening in Chicago.”
It took me a couple of seconds to pull my mind back from the places Lara had just sent it, but I managed. “We know you’re working with someone inside the Council,” I said quietly. “I want you to tell us who it is. And I want you to release Thomas.”
Lara’s eyes snapped to me on that last. “Thomas?”
I leaned on my staff and watched her face closely. “Thomas managed to warn me about the hit man Evelyn Derek had directed to me, but he disappeared before he could get involved. He’s not answering either of his phones and no one at the salon has seen him, either.”
Lara’s eyes went distant for a moment, and a frown line marred the perfection of her brow. “Is that all you have, Dresden? A fading psychic impression that one of my kind manipulated this lawyer and the apparent disappearance of my little brother? Is that the basis of reasoning that brought you here?”
“At the moment,” I said. Now that I’d laid down a lot of truth, I threw in the little lie. “But by the time we finish tracing the money back to its source, we’ll know for certain that you’re involved. And after that, there won’t be any going back.”
Lara narrowed her eyes at that. “You won’t find anything,” she said in a firm cold tone. “Because nothing of the sort is going on.”
Aha. That had touched a nerve. I applied pressure. “Come on, Lara. You know and I know how you and your folk do business—from behind proxies and cat’s-paws. You can’t possibly expect me to believe you when you say that you don’t have a hand in what’s going on.”
Lara’s eyes flickered in color, changing from deep grey to a far paler, more metallic shade, and she rose to her feet. “Frankly, I don’t care what you believe, Dresden. I have no idea what kind of evidence you think you’ve discovered, but I am not involved in any internal affairs of the White Council.” She lifted her chin as she sneered at us. “Contrary to your own perceptions, the world is a great deal larger than the White Council of Wizardry. You aren’t a vital body in today’s world. You’re a sad little collection of self-deluded has-beens whose self-righteous prattle has always taken second place to its hypocritical practice.”
Well. I couldn’t argue with that, but the words made Anastasia’s eyes narrow dangerously.
Lara leaned the heels of her hands on her desk and faced me, her words clipped and precise. “You think you can simply walk into my home and issue commands and threats as it pleases you? The world is changing, Wardens. The Council isn’t changing with it. It’s only a matter of time before it collapses under its own obsolescent weight. This kind of high-handed arrogance will only—”
She broke off suddenly, turning toward the window, her head tilted slightly to one side.
I blinked and traded a glance with Anastasia.
An instant later, the lights went out.
Red emergency lights snapped on immediately, though they weren’t needed in the office. A few seconds after that, a rapid, steady chiming sound filled the room, coming from speakers on the wall.
I looked down from the speaker to find Lara staring intently at me.
“What’s happening?” I asked her.
Her eyes widened slightly. “You don’t know?”
“How the hell should I know?” I demanded, exasperated. “It’s your stupid alarm system!”
“Then this isn’t your doing.” She gritted her teeth. “Bloody hell.”
Her head whipped toward the window again and this time I heard it—the sound of a man screaming in high-pitched, shameless agony.
And then I felt it: a nauseating quiver of wrongness in the air, a hideous sense of the presence of something ancient and vile.
“We’re under attack,” Lara snarled. “Come with me.”
Justine knocked and entered the room, her eyes wide. “Ms. Raith?” “Security status?” Lara asked in a calm voice.
“Unknown,” Justine said. She was breathing a little too fast. “The alarm went off and I called Mr. Jones, but the radios cut out.”
“Most of your electronics are probably gone. You’ve been hexed,” I said. “It’s a skinwalker.”
Lara turned and stared hard at me. “Are you sure?”
Anastasia nodded and drew the sword from her hip. “I feel it, too.”
Lara nodded. “What can it do?”
“Everything I can, only better,” I said. “And it’s a shapeshifter. Very fast, very strong.”
“Can it be killed?”
“Yeah,” I said. “But it’s probably smarter to run.”
Lara narrowed her eyes. “This thing has invaded my home and hurt my people. Like hell.” She turned, drove her fist with moderate force into a wooden wall panel and dislodged it completely. In the empty space behind the panel was a rack hung with a belt bearing two wavy-bladed swords and a machine pistol, like a baby Uzi. She kicked out of her expensive shoes, shrugged out of her coat, and began strapping on weapons. “Justine, how many of the blood are in the house?”
“Four, counting you,” Justine replied immediately. “Your sisters, Elisa and Natalia, and your cousin Madeline.”
She nodded. “Wardens,” she said. “If you would not mind delaying our argument for a time, I would take it as a personal favor.”
“Hell with that,” I said. “This thing killed one of my friends.”
Lara glanced at the two of us. “I propose a temporary alliance against this invader.”
“Concur,” Anastasia said sharply.
“Doesn’t look like there’s any way to get out of it,” I said.
Gunfire erupted somewhere in the halls—multiple automatic weapons all going off at the same time.
Then there were more screams.
“Justine,” I said, holding out my hand. “Get behind me.”
The young woman hurried to comply, her expression strained but controlled.
Anastasia took up position on my right and Lara slid up next to me on the left. Her perfume was exquisite, and the surge of lust that hit me as I breathed it nearly had me turning to take a bite out of her, she smelled so good.
“It’s fast and tough,” I said. “And smart. But not invulnerable. We hit it from several directions at once and ran it off.”
A shotgun boomed, much closer to us than the earlier gunfire had been. It was immediately followed by the sounds of something heavy being slammed several times into the walls and floor.
The psychic stench of the skinwalker abruptly thickened and I said, “Here it comes!”
By the time I got to “it,” the skinwalker was already through the door to the outer office, seemingly moving faster than the splinters that flew off the door when the creature shattered it. Covered in a veil, it was just a flickering blur in the air.
I brought my shield up, focused far forward, filling the doorway to Lara’s office with invisible force. The skinwalker hit the barrier with all of its strength and speed. The shield held—barely—but so much energy had gone into the impact that wisps of smoke began curling up from the bracelet, and the skin on my wrist got singed. So much force surged into my shield that it physically drove me back across a foot of carpet.
As it hit, the energies of the skinwalker’s veil came into conflict with those in my shield, each canceling out the other, and for a second the creature was visible as an immensely tall, lean, shaggy, vaguely humanoid thingwith matted yellow hair and overlong forelimbs tipped in long, almost delicate claws.
As the shield fell, Anastasia pointed a finger at the thing and hissed a word, and a blindingly bright beam of light no thicker than a hair flashed out from her finger. It was fire magic not unlike my own, but infinitely more intense and focused and far more energy efficient. The beam swept past the skinwalker, intersecting with its upper left arm, and where it touched fur burned away and flesh boiled and bubbled and blackened.
The skinwalker flashed to one side of the doorway and vanished, leaving nothing behind but a view of the smoking pinprick hole in the expensive paneling of the outer office.
I pointed my staff at the door and Lara did the same thing with the gun.
For maybe ten seconds, everything was silent.
“Where is it?” Lara hissed.
“Gone?” Justine suggested. “Maybe it got scared when Warden Luccio hurt it.”
“No, it didn’t,” I said. “It’s smart. Right now it’s looking for a better way to get to us.”
I looked around the office, trying to think like the enemy. “Let’s see,” I said. “IfI was a shapeshifting killing machine, how would I get in here?”
The options were limited. There was the door in front of us and the window behind us. I turned to face the window, still looking. Silence reigned, except for the sigh of the air-conditioning, billowing steadily into the office from the—
From the vents.
I turned and thrust my staff toward a large air vent, covered with the usual slatted steel contraption, drew forth my will, and screamed, “Fulminos!”
Blue-white lightning suddenly filled the air with flickering fire, while a spear of blinding heat and force crackled forth from my staff and slammed into the metal vent. The metal absorbed the electricity, and I knew it would carry it back through the vent itself—and into anything inside.
There was a weird, chirping scream and then the vent cover flew outward, followed by a python-shaped blur in the air. Even as it arced toward us, that shape flowed and changed into that of something low-slung, stocky, and viciously powerful, like maybe a badger or a wolverine.
It hit Anastasia high on the chest and slammed her to the floor.
And on the way down, I caught a flash of golden-yellow eyes dancing with sadistic glee.
I turned to kick the thing off of Anastasia, but Lara beat me to the metaphorical punch. She slammed the barrel of her machine pistol into its flank as if driving a beer tap into a wooden keg with her bare hands, and pulled the trigger on the way.
Fire and noise filled the room, and the skinwalker went bouncing to one side. It hit the ground once, twisted itself in midair and raked its claws across Justine’s midsection. Using the reaction to control its momentum, it landed on its feet and hurled itself out of the room by way of the window behind Lara’s desk.
Justine staggered and let out a small cry of pain.
Lara stared at the window for a second, her eyes wide, then breathed, “Empty night.”
I turned to Anastasia but she waved me off with a grimace. It didn’t look like she was bleeding. I turned to Justine and tried to assess her injuries. There were six horizontal lines sliced into the soft flesh of her abdomen, as neatly as if with a scalpel. Blood was welling readily from them—but I didn’t think any of them had been deep enough to open the abdominal cavity or reach an artery.
I seized Lara’s discarded coat, folded it hastily, and pressed it against Justine’s belly. “Hold it here,” I snapped to Justine. “You’ve got to control the bleeding. Hold it here.”
Her teeth were bared in pain, but she nodded and grasped at the improvised pad with both hands as I helped her up.
Lara looked from Justine to the window, her eyes a little wide. “Empty night,” she said again. “I’ve never seen anything that fast.”
Given that I had once seen her cover ground in a dead sprint at maybe fifty miles an hour, I figured she knew what she was talking about. We were never going to get that thing to hold still long enough to kill it.
I went to the window, hoping to spot it, and found myself staring into an oncoming comet of purple flame, presumably courtesy of the skinwalker. I fell back, hurling my left arm and its shield bracelet in an instinctive gesture, and the fiery hammer of the explosion flung me supine to the floor.
That otherworldly shriek sounded again, mocking and full of spite, and then there was a crash from somewhere below us.
“It’s back inside the house,” I said. I offered my hand to Anastasia to help her up. She took it, but as I began to pull, she clenched her teeth over a scream, and I eased her back onto the floor at once.
“Can’t,” she panted, breathing hard. “It’s my collarbone.”
I spat out a curse. Of every kind of simple fracture there is, a fractured collarbone is one of the most agonizing and debilitating injuries you can get. She wasn’t going to be doing any more fighting today. Hell, she wasn’t going to be doing any morestanding.
The floor beneath my feet abruptly exploded. I felt a steel cable wrap my ankle and pull, and then I was falling with a hideous stench filling my nose. I crashed down onto something that slowed my fall but gave way, and I went farther down still. The noise was hideous. Then the fall stopped abruptly, though I wasn’t quite sure which way was up. About a hundred objects slammed into me all at the same time, pounding the wind out of my lungs.
I lay there stunned for a few seconds, struggling to remember how to breathe. The floor. The skinwalker had smashed its way up to me through the floor. It had pulled me down—but all the falling debris must have crashed through the floor the skinwalker had been standing on in turn.
I’d just fallen two stories amidst maybe a ton of debris, and managed to survive it. Talk about lucky.
And then, beneath my lower back, something moved.
The rubble shifted and a low growl began to reverberate up through it.
In a panic, I tried to force my dazed body to flee, but before I could figure out how it worked, a yellow-furred, too-long forearm exploded up out of the rubble. Quicker than you could say “the late Harry Dresden,” its long, clawed fingers closed with terrible strength on my throat and shut off my air.
Here’s something a lot of people don’t know: being choked unconscious hurts.
There’s this horrible, crushing pain on your neck, followed by an almost instant surge of terrible pressure that feels like it’s going to blow your head to tiny pieces from the inside. That’s the blood that’s being trapped in your brain. The pain surges and ebbs in time with your heartbeat, which is probably racing.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a waifish supermodel or a steroid-popping professional wrestler, because it isn’t an issue of strength or willpower—it’s simple physiology. If you’re human and you need to breathe, you’re going down. A properly applied choke will take you from feisty to unconscious in four or five seconds.
Of course, if the choker wants to make the victim hurt more, they can be sloppy about the choke, make it take longer.
I’ll let you guess which the skinwalker preferred.
I struggled, but I might as well have saved myself the effort. I couldn’t break the grip on my neck. The pile of rubble shifted and surged, and then the skinwalker sat up out of the wreckage, sloughing it off as easily as an arctic wolf emerging from a bed beneath the snow. The skinwalker’s nightmarishly long arms hung below its knees, so as it began moving down the hallway, I was able to get my hands and knees underneath me, at least part of the time, preventing my neck from snapping under the strain of supporting my own weight.
I heard boots hitting hardwood. The skinwalker let out a chuckling little growl and casually slammed my head against the wall. Stars and fresh pain flooded my perceptions. Then I felt myself falling through the air and landing in a tumble of arms and legs that only seemed to be connected to me in the technical sense.
I lifted dazed eyes to see the security guy from the entrance hall come around the corner, that little machine gun held to his shoulder, his cheek resting against the stock so that the barrel pointed wherever his eyes were focused. When he saw the skinwalker, uncovered from its veil, he stopped in his tracks. To his credit, he couldn’t have hesitated for more than a fraction of a second before he opened fire.
Bullets zipped down the hall, so close that I could have reached out a hand and touched them. The skinwalker flung itself to one side, a golden-furred blur, and rebounded off the wall toward the gunman, its form changing. Then it leapt into the air, flipping its body as it did, and suddenly a spider the size of a subcompact car was racing along the ceiling toward the security guy.
At that point, he impressed me again. He turned and ran, sprinting around a corner with the skinwalker coming hard behind.
“Now!” someone called, as the skinwalker reached the intersection of the two hallways, and a sudden howl of thunder filled the hallways with noise and light. Bullets ripped into the floor, the wall, and the ceiling, coming from some point out of sight around the corner, filling the air with splinters of shattered hardwood.
The skinwalker let out a deafening caterwaul of pain and boundless fury. The gunfire reached a thunderous, frantic crescendo.
Then men began screaming.
I tried to push myself to my feet, but someone had set the hallway on tumble dry, and I fell down again. I kept trying. Whoever had made the hall start acting like a Laundromat dryer had to run out of quarters eventually. By using the wall, I managed to make it to my knees.
I heard a soft sound behind me. I turned my head blearily toward the source of the noise and saw three pale, lithe forms drop silently from the floors above through the hole that the skinwalker had made. The first was Lara Raith. She’d torn her skirt up one side, almost all the way to her hip, and when she landed in a silent crouch, she looked cold and feral and dangerous with her sword in one hand and her machine pistol in the other.
The other two women were vampires as well, their pale skin shining with eerie beauty, their eyes glittering like polished silver coins—the sisters Justine had mentioned, I presumed. I guess I’d arrived in the middle of the night, vampire time, and gotten some people out of bed. The first sister wore nothing but weapons and silver body piercings, which gleamed on one eyebrow, one nostril, her lower lip, and her nipples. Her dark hair had been cropped close to her head except for where her bangs fell to veil one of her eyes, and she carried a pair of wavy-bladed swords like Lara’s.
The second seemed to be taller and more muscular than the other two. She wore what looked like a man’s shirt, closed with only a single button. Her long hair was a mess, still tousled from sleep, and she held an exotic-looking axe in her hands, its blade honed along a concave edge instead of the more conventional convex one.
Without any visible signal, they all started prowling forward at the same time—and it was a prowl, an atavistic, feline motion that carried what were very clearly predators forward in total silence. Lara paused when she reached me, glanced over my injuries with cold silver eyes and whispered, “Stay down.”
No problem, I thought dully. Down is easy.
The screaming stopped with a last stuttering burst of gunfire. The security guy came staggering around the corner. Blood matted his hair and covered half of his face. There was a long tear through his jacket on the left side. His left arm hung uselessly, but he still gripped the handle of his miniature assault weapon with his right. He wavered and dropped to one knee as he spotted the three vampires.
Lara gestured with a hand, and the other two spread out and moved forward, while she came to the side of the wounded guard. “What happened?”
“We hit it,” he said, his voice slurred. “We hit it with everything. Didn’t even slow it down. They’re dead. They’re all dead.”
“You’re bleeding,” Lara said in a calm tone. “Get behind me. Defend the wizard.”
He nodded unsteadily. “Yeah. Okay.”
Lara’s guy had to be either incredibly lucky or really good to have survived a close-quarters battle with the skinwalker. I stared dully at security guy for a second before my impact-addled brain sent up a warning flag. Nobody was that lucky.
“Lara!” I choked out.
Security guy turned in a blur of motion, sweeping the machine gun at Lara’s head like a club—but she had begun moving the instant she’d heard my warning and he missed knocking her head off her shoulders by a fraction of an inch. She flung herself to one side and rolled as security guy’s other arm flashed out, lengthening and sprouting yellow fur and claws as it came. She avoided the worst of it, but the skinwalker’s claws left a triple line of incisions down one shapely thigh, and they welled with blood a little too pale and pearly to be human.
The skinwalker followed her motion, surging forward, its body broadening and thickening into the form of something like a great bear with oversized jaws and vicious fangs. It overbore her by sheer mass, slapping and raking with its clawed paws, snapping with its steely jaws. I heard a bone break, heard Lara cry out in rage—and then the skinwalker flew straight up into the ceiling, its head and shoulders slamming into it with such force that it went cleanly through it, and out onto the floor above.
Lara had rolled to her back, and had launched the thing away from her with her legs. They were long and smoothly muscled and utterly desirable, even as she lowered them and rolled lightly to her feet, holding one arm tucked in close to her side. Her skin shone with cold, alien power, and her eyes had become spheres of pure white. She stared at the ceiling for a few seconds, slowly lifting and straightening her arm as she did.
Her forearm had received a compound fracture. I could see bone poking out through the flesh. But over the next few seconds, the flesh seemed to ripple and become more malleable. The bone withdrew, vanishing beneath the skin of her arm—even the hole that the bone had torn in the skin sealed slowly closed, and in ten seconds I couldn’t even tell she’d been hurt.
She turned those empty white eyes to me and stared at me with an expression of focused naked hunger. For a second, I felt my body responding to her desire, even as woozy as I was, but that was quickly snuffed out by a surge of nausea. I turned my head and threw up onto the expensive floor while my head and neck screamed with pain.
When I looked up again, Lara had turned her head away from me. She picked up her fallen weapon—but the machine pistol had been bent into the shape of a comma by a blow from the skinwalker’s sledgehammer paws. She discarded it, recovered her sword, and drew the matching weapon from her belt. She was breathing quickly—not in effort, but in raw excitement, and the tips of her breasts strained against her dirtied blouse. She licked her lips slowly and said, evidently for my benefit, “I sometimes see Madeline’s point.”
There was a feminine scream from somewhere close by, a challenge that was answered by a leonine roar that shook the hallway. The short-haired sister flew into the wall at the T intersection ahead, and collapsed like a rag doll. There were sounds of swift motion from around the corner, and a gasp.
A moment later, a blur came around the corner, dragging the axe-wielding sister’s limp form by the hair. The veil faded as the skinwalker came closer, once more showing us its bestial, not-quite-human form. It stopped in front of us, maybe ten feet away. Then, quite casually, it lifted one of the unconscious vampire’s hands to its fanged mouth and, never looking away from Lara, calmly nipped off a finger and swallowed it.
Lara narrowed her eyes, and her rich mouth split into a wide, hungry smile. “Did you need a break before we continue?”
The skinwalker spoke, its voice weirdly modulated, as if several different creatures were approximating speech at the same time. “Break?”
With the word, it calmly snapped the vampire girl’s left arm in midhumerus.
“I am going to kill you,” Lara said calmly.
The skinwalker laughed. It was a hideous sound. “Little phage. Even here at the center of your power, you could not stop me. Your warriors lay slain. Your fellow phages are fallen. Even the foolish pretenders to power visiting your house could not stop me.”
I’d gotten enough of my head back together to push myself to my feet. Lara never looked at me, but I could sense her attention on me nonetheless. I didn’t have time to gather my will for a magical strike. The skinwalker would feel me doing it long before it became a fact.
Fortunately, I plan for such contingencies.
The eight silver rings I wore, one on each of my fingers, served a couple of purposes. The triple bands of silver were moderately heavy, and if I had to slug someone, they made a passably good imitation of brass knuckles. But their main purpose was to store back a little kinetic energy every time I moved one of my arms. It took a while to build up a charge, but when they were ready to go, I could release the force stored in each ring with instant precision. A blast from a single band of a ring could knock a big man off his feet and take the fight out of him in the process. There were three bands to each ring—which meant that I had a dozen times that much force ready to go on each hand.
I didn’t bother to say anything to Lara. I just lifted my right fist and triggered every ring on it, unleashing a pile driver of kinetic energy at the skinwalker. Lara bounded forward at the same instant, swords spinning, ready to lay into the skinwalker when my strike threw it off balance and distracted it.
But the skinwalker lifted its left hand, fingers crooked into a familiar defensive gesture, and the wave of force that should have knocked it tail over teakettle bounced back from it like light from a mirror—and struck Lara full-on instead.
Lara let out a startled whuffas the equivalent force of a speeding car slammed into her, knocked her back, and flattened her against the mound of rubble still filling the hallway behind me.
The skinwalker’s mouth split into a leering smile of its own, and its bestial voice purred, “Break, little phage. Break.”
Lara gasped and lifted herself up with her arms. Her white eyes were fixed on the skinwalker, her lips twisted into a defiant snarl.
I stood there staring at the skinwalker. It was hard, and I had to use the wall to help me balance. Then I took a deep breath and stepped away from the wall, moving very carefully, until I stood between the skinwalker and Lara. I turned to face it squarely.
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s have it.”
“Have what, pretender?” the skinwalker growled.
“You aren’t here to kill us,” I said. “You could have done it by now.”
“Oh, so true,” it murmured, its eyes dancing with malicious pleasure.
“You don’t have to gloat about it, prick,” I muttered under my breath. Then I addressed the skinwalker again. “You must want to talk. So why don’t you just say what you came to say?”
The skinwalker studied me, and idly nipped another finger from the unconscious vampire girl. It chewed slowly, with some truly unsettling snapping, popping sounds, and then swallowed. “You will trade with me.”
I frowned. “Trade?”
The skinwalker smiled again and tugged something from around its neck with one talon. Then it caught the object and tossed it to me. I caught it. It was a silver pentacle necklace, a twin to my own, if considerably less battered and worn.
It was Thomas’s necklace.
My belly went cold.
“Trade,” the skinwalker said. “Thomas of Raith. For the doomed warrior.”
I eyed the thing. So it wanted Morgan, too. “Suppose I tell you to fuck off.”
“I will no longer be in a playful mood,” it purred. “I will come for you. I will kill you. I will kill your blood, your friends, your beasts. I will kill the flowers in your home and the trees in your tiny fields. I will visit such death upon whatever is yours that your very name will be remembered only in curses and tales of terror.”
I believed the creature.
No reflexive comeback quip sprang from my lips. Given what I’d seen of the skinwalker’s power, I had to give that one a five-star rating on the threatometer.
“And to encourage you . . .” Its gaze shifted to Lara. “If the wizard does not obey, I will unmake you as well. I will do it every bit as easily as I have done today. And it will bring me intense pleasure to do so.”
Lara stared at the skinwalker with pure white eyes, her expression locked into a snarl of hate.
“Do you understand me, little phage? You and that rotting bag of flesh you’ve attached yourself to?”
“I understand,” Lara spat.
The skinwalker’s smile widened for an instant. “If the doomed warrior is not delivered to me by sundown tomorrow, I will begin my hunt.”
“It might take more time than that,” I said.
“For your sake, pretender, pray it does not.” It idly flung the unconscious vampire away from it, to land in a heap atop the other sister. “You may reach me through his speaking devices,” the skinwalker said.
Then it leapt lightly up through one of the holes in the ceiling, and was gone.
I slumped against the wall, almost falling.
“Thomas,” I whispered.
That nightmare had my brother.
Lara took charge of the aftermath. A dozen security guards were dead, another dozen maimed and crippled. The walls in the hallway where the guards had sprung their ambush were so covered in blood that it looked like they had been painted red. At least a dozen more personnel hadn’t been able to reach the battle before it was over, it had all happened so swiftly—which meant that there was someone available to help stabilize the wounded and clean up the bodies.
The skinwalker’s hex had effectively destroyed every radio and cell phone in the Château, but the land lines, based on much older, simpler technology, were still up. Lara called in a small army of other employees, including the medical staff that the Raiths kept on retainer.
I sat with my back against the wall while all this happened, a little apart from the activity. It seemed appropriate. My head hurt. When scratching an itch, I noticed that there was a wide stripe of mostly dried blood covering my left ear and spreading down my neck. Must have been a scalp wound. They bleed like crazy.
After some indeterminately fuzzy length of time, I looked up to see Lara supervising the movement of her two wounded relatives. The two vampires were liberally smeared with their own blood, and both were senseless. When they were carried off in stretchers, the medics began helping wounded security guards, and Lara walked over to me.
She knelt down in front of me, her pale grey eyes concealing whatever thought was behind them. “Can you stand, wizard?”
“Can,” I said. “Don’t want to.”
She lifted her chin slightly and looked down at me, one hand on her hip. “What have you gotten my little brother involved in?”
“Wish I knew,” I said. “I’m still trying to figure out where the bullets are coming from.”
She folded her arms. “The doomed warrior. The skinwalker meant the fugitive Warden, I presume.”
“It’s one way to interpret that.”
Lara studied me intently and suddenly smiled, showing neat white teeth. “You have him. He came to you for help.”
“Why the hell would you think that?” I asked.
“Because people in hopeless situations come to you for help on a regular basis. And you help them. It’s what you do.” She tapped her chin with one finger. “Now, to decide what is more advantageous. To play along with the skinwalker’s demands. Or to write Thomas off as a loss, take the Warden from you, and turn him into fresh political capital for those who are hunting him. There is a rather substantial reward for his capture or death.”
I eyed her dully. “You’re going to play along. You’re hoping that you’ll be able to act reluctant and get some concessions from me in exchange for your cooperation, but you’re going to give it to me anyway.”
“And why should I do that?” Lara asked.
“Because after the coup attempt in the Deeps, Thomas is a White Court celebrity. If you let some big bad shagnasty come along and kill him after it openly defies you in your own home, you look weak. We both know you can’t live with that.”
“And by giving in to his demands, I avoid the appearance of weakness?” she asked skeptically. “No, Dresden.”
“Damn right, no,” I said. “You’re going to play along, set Shagnasty up, and then take him out in the true, treacherous tradition of the White Court. You get Thomas back. You lay low a heavyweight. You gain status among your own folk.”
She narrowed her eyes at me, her expression giving me no hint to the direction of her thoughts. Then she said, “And when that is done, what if I should take the Warden and turn him over to the White Council myself? It would be a formidable bargaining chip to bring to the table with your folk in the future.”
“Sure it would. But you won’t do that.”
“Won’t I?” Lara asked. “What’s stopping me?”
“I always enjoy dealing with a man possessing a well-developed sense of self-worth.”
It was my turn to show my teeth in a smile. “Slugging matches aren’t your style, Lara. If you play this situation right, it will further your reputation and influence. Why jeopardize that by throwing down with me?”
“Mmmm,” she said, her eyes wandering over me. She idly smoothed her skirt with one hand, instantly drawing my eyes to the pale length of thigh showing through the torn seam. Trickles of blood from her wounds slithered lovingly over smooth flesh. “I wonder, occasionally, what it might be like to throw down with you Dresden. To go to the mat. I wonder what might happen.”
I licked my lips and jerked my eyes away with an effort, incapable of speech.
“Do you know how to really control someone, Harry?” she asked, her voice a low purr.
I cleared my throat and rasped, “How?”
Her pale grey eyes were huge and deep. “Give them what they want. Give them what they need. Give them what no one else can give. If you can do that, they’ll come back to you again and again.” She leaned down close and whispered in my ear, “I know what I can give you, Harry. Shall I tell you?”
I swallowed and nodded, not daring to look at her.
“Surcease,” she breathed into my ear. “I can make it stop hurting, wizard. I can take away the pains of the body. Of the mind. Of the heart. For a little time, I could give you something no one else can—freedom from your burdens of responsibility and conscience.” She leaned even closer, until I could feel the coolness of the air around her lips. “Sweet Dresden. I could give you peace. Imagine closing your eyes with no worries, no pain, no fears, no regrets, no appetites, and no guilt. Only quiet and darkness and stillness and my flesh against yours.”
I shivered. I couldn’t stop myself.
“I can give you that,” Lara said, her lips slinking into a smile. “You wear your pain like a suit of armor. But one day, it will be too heavy to bear. And you’ll remember this moment. And you’ll know who can give you what you need.” She let out a small, sensual sigh. “I don’t require more food, Dresden. I have that in plenty. But a partner . . . You and I could do much together that we could not alone.”
“Sounds swell,” I croaked, barely able to get the words out. “Maybe we’ll start with getting Thomas back.”
She straightened her spine and leaned back from me, her beautiful pale face full of lust and hunger. She closed her eyes and stretched a little in place, the way cats sometimes will. It was a mind-numbing display of lithe femininity. She nodded slowly, then rose and regarded me with her usual cool detachment. “You’re right, of course. Business first. You want me to help you.”
“I want you to help yourself,” I said. “We’ve both got the same problem.”
“And that would be?” she asked.
“Traitors within the organization,” I said. “Inciting conflict and destabilizing the balance of power.”
She arched a raven black eyebrow. “The Warden is innocent?”
“Only if I can find the guy who set him up.”
“You think there’s a connection between your traitor and the skinwalker.”
“And another connection that led me here,” I said. “One of your folk paid that lawyer and rewired her head.”
Lara’s mouth twisted with distaste. “If that’s true, then someone was hideously gauche. One never leaves such obvious and overt blocks behind—and especially not in a contact only one layer removed. Such things call too much attention to themselves.”
“So,” I said. “A White Court vampire who is gauche, overt, impatient. Oh, and who did not show up to defend the homestead when the skinwalker broke in. And who Thomas recently beat and humiliated in public.”
“Madeline,” Lara murmured.
“Madeline,” I said. “I think whoever is pulling the strings on this operation is using her. I think we need to find her and follow the strings back to the puppeteer.”
I reached into my duster pocket and took out the sheet of paper with Morgan’s supposed account on it, along with a photocopy of the huge deposit check. “Find out who set up this account. Find out where the money came from.” I passed her the pages. “After that, see if you can’t find some way to track down where Thomas’s cell phone is.”
“His cell phone?”
“Shagnasty said we could contact him by calling Thomas’s phones. Isn’t there some way that they can track where those things are?”
“It depends on a number of factors.”
“Well I’m betting the skinwalker doesn’t have a subscription to
Popular Science . He’ll probably have some kind of countermeasure for a tracking spell, but he might not even realize that it’s possible to physically trace the phone.”
“I’ll see what I can find out,” she said. One of the medics approached us and stood back respectfully. Lara turned to the young man. “Yes?”
He held up a clipboard. “The triage report you wanted.”
She held out her hand. He passed her the clipboard as if he didn’t want to move his feet too close to her. Lara scanned over the topmost page, and murmured, “Hennesy and Callo both have broken backs?”
“It’ll take an X-ray to confirm it,” the medic said nervously. “But from what I was told, the, uh, the attacker just broke them over his knee and threw them down. They’re paralyzed. Probably permanently.”
“And Wilson lost both eyes,” Lara murmured.
The medic avoided looking at her. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Very well,” Lara said. “Take Hennesy to Natalia’s chambers. Callo will go to Elisa.”
“Yes, ma’am. Should I send Wilson to the infirmary?”
Lara stared at him with absolutely no expression on her lovely face. Then she said, “No, Andrew. I’ll come for him in a moment.” She held out the clipboard, and the medic took it and hurried away.
I watched Lara for a moment and said, “You’re going to kill those men. When Elisa and Natalia wake up . . .”
“They will feed and their lives will be spared. Annoying as it may be to lose what I invested in those men, I can replace hired guns,” she said. “I cannot so easily replace members of my family and my House. As their leader, it is my responsibility to provide adequate care and sustenance in times of need—particularly when loyalty to the House is what created that need.”
“They’re your own men,” I said.
“That was before they became useless to the House,” she replied. “They know too much of our internal affairs to be allowed to leave. Lives must be lost if my kin are to survive their injuries. Rather than inflict that upon one who can still be of use to us, I preserve lives by seeing to it that these men serve us one last time.”
“Yeah. You’re a real humanitarian. A regular Mother Teresa.”
She turned that flat, empty gaze to me again. “At what point did you forget that I am a vampire, Dresden? A monster. A habitually neat, polite, civil, and efficient monster.” Her eyes drifted down the hallway, to where a well-muscled young man was being helped to sit down, while a medic secured bandages over his eyes. Lara stared intently at him, the color of her eyes lightening to silver, and her lips parted slightly. “I am what I am.”
I felt sick to my stomach. I pushed myself to my feet, and said, “So am I.”
She glanced obliquely at me. “Is that a threat, Dresden?”
I shook my head. “Just a fact. One day I’m going to take you down.”
Her eyes went back to the wounded man, her lips shifting to one side in a smirk. “One day,” she murmured. “But not today.”
“No. Not today.”
“Is there anything else I can do for you, wizard mine?”
“Yeah,” I said.
She glanced at me and raised an eyebrow.
“I need a car.”
I sort of shambled up one floor and down a wing to the Château’s infirmary, escorted there by a guard who was being very careful not to limp on a wounded leg. The skinwalker had smacked my bean against hardwood and knocked something loose. I felt fairly confident that if I jumped up and down and wiggled my head, my brain would slosh squishily around the inside of my skull.
Not that I was going to be doing any of those things. Walking was hard enough.
In the infirmary, I found a white-coated young woman tending to the wounded. She moved with the brisk professional manner of a doctor, and was just finishing seeing to Justine’s injuries. The young woman was laid out on a bed, her midsection swathed in bandages, her eyes glazed with the distant, peaceful expression of someone on good drugs.
Anastasia sat on the bed next to Justine’s, her back straight, her expression calm. Her right arm was bound up close against her body in a black cloth sling. She came to her feet as I entered the room. She looked a little pale and shaky, but she stood without leaning on her slender wooden staff. “We’re leaving now?”
“Yeah,” I said. I moved to her side to support her. “You okay to walk?”
She leaned her staff toward me, stopping me from coming any closer, though she smiled slightly as she did. “I’ll bloody well walk out of here,” she said. And she said it in an atrocious Scottish accent.
I lifted both eyebrows at her in shock. “You told me you fell asleep during Highlander.”
Her dark eyes sparkled. “I always say that when I find myself at a vintage movie showing at a drive-in theater while in the company of a man two centuries younger than me.”
“And not because you didn’t want to hurt my feelings with your professional opinion of the swordsmanship on display?”
“Young men can be so delicate,” she said, her dimples making a brief appearance.
“We should get you to a hospital,” I said, nodding at her sling.
She shook her head. “The break is set back in place already. From here, all one can do is wear a sling and wait for it to stop hurting so badly.”
I grimaced. “I’ve got some meds at my place.”
She smiled again, but this time I could see how much she was straining to keep up appearances. “That would be lovely.”
“Harry,” said a soft voice.
I turned to face the wounded Justine, who looked at me with drowsy eyes. I turned to the bed and bent down to smile at her. “Hey there.”
“We heard that thing talking,” she said. All the hard consonants in her words had blurred, rounded edges. “We heard it talking to you and Lara.”
I glanced up at Anastasia, who gave me a short nod of her head.
“Yeah,” I said to Justine. I desperately did not want her to say anything she ought not to be saying. “I’ll take care of it.”
Justine smiled at me, though she looked like she could hardly keep her eyes open. “I know you will. He loves you, you know.”
I did not look up at Anastasia. “Uh. Yeah.”
Justine took my hand in one of hers, her eyes reaching for mine. “He always worried that he’d never be able to talk to you. That the world he came from was so different. That he wouldn’t know enough about being human to relate. That he wouldn’t know about being a br—”
“Brass-plated pain in my ass,” I said. “He knows that plenty well.” I avoided her eyes. The last thing I needed was to endure another soulgaze now. “Justine, you need to rest. I’ll dig him up. Don’t worry.”
She smiled again and her eyes closed all the way. “You’re like family to me, Harry. You always care.”
I bowed my head, embarrassed, and settled Justine’s hands back on the bed, then tugged the thin hospital blankets up over her.
Anastasia watched me with thoughtful eyes as I did.
We walked back to the front of the house, and past the fairly fresh plaster that might have hidden ridiculously lethal booby traps, out over a front porch the size of a tennis court, and down several steps to the circular drive, where the car Lara had lent me was waiting.
I stopped so suddenly that Anastasia nearly walked into my back. She caught her balance with a hiss of discomfort, and then looked up and caught her breath. “Oh, my.”
Nearly two tons of British steel and chrome sat idling in the drive. Its purring engine sounded like a sewing machine. The white Rolls limo was an old model, something right out of a pulp-fiction adventure film, and it was in gorgeous condition. Its panels shone, freshly waxed and without blemish, and the chrome of its grill gleamed sienna in the light of dusk over the Château.
I walked down to peer inside the Rolls. The passenger seating in the back was larger than my freaking apartment. Or at least it looked that way. The interior was all silver-grey and white leather and similarly colored woodwork, polished to a glowing sheen and accented with silver. The carpet on the floor of the Rolls was thicker and more luxurious than a well-kept lawn.
“Wow,” I said quietly.
Anastasia, standing beside me, breathed, “That’s a work of bloody art.”
“Wow,” I said quietly.
“Look at the filigree.”
I nodded. “Wow.”
Anastasia gave me a sidelong look. “And there’s plenty of room in back.”
I blinked and looked at her.
Her expression was innocent and bland. “All I’m saying is that it is rather crowded in your apartment right now. . . .”
“Anastasia,” I said. I felt my face getting a little warm.
The dimples reappeared. She was just teasing me, of course. In her condition it would be some time before she could engage in that kind of activity.
“What model is this?” she asked.
“Um,” I said. “Well, it’s a Rolls-Royce. It’s . . . I think it’s from before World War Two. . . .”
“It’s a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith, of course,” said Lara’s voice from behind me. “At this house? What else would it be?”
I looked over my shoulder, to see Lara Raith standing in the shadowy doorway of the house.
“You have special needs, obviously,” she said. “So I provided you with an appropriate vintage. Nineteen thirty-nine.” She folded her arms, rather smugly, I thought, and said, “Bring it back with a full tank.”
I tilted my head at her in a gesture that wasn’t quite an affirmation, and muttered, as I opened the passenger-side door, “The loan officer will have to run a check on my credit first. What’s this thing get, about two gallons per mile?”
Anastasia slid into the car with a brief sound of discomfort. I winced and held out my hands in case she fell back, but she managed it without any other difficulty. I shut the door, and caught a glimpse of Lara taking a sudden step forward.
She focused sharply on Anastasia for a moment—and then upon me.
Lara’s eyes flickered several shades paler as her ripe lips parted in dawning realization. A very slow smile crept over her mouth as she stared at me.
I turned away from her rather hurriedly, got into the Rolls, and got it moving. And I didn’t look back again until the vampires’ house was five miles behind us.
Anastasia let me get most of the way back to town before she looked at me and said, “Harry?”
“Hmmm?” I asked. Driving the Rolls was like driving a tank. It had all kinds of momentum behind it, no power steering, and no power brakes. It was a vehicle that demanded that I pay my respects to the laws of physics and think a little bit further ahead than I otherwise might.
“Is there something you want to tell me?” she asked.
“Dammit,” I muttered.
She watched me with eyes much older than the face around them. “You were hoping I didn’t hear Justine.”
“But I did.”
I drove for another minute or two before asking, “Are you sure?”
She considered that for a moment before she said, more gently, “Are you sure there’s nothing you want to tell me?”
“I have nothing to say to Captain Luccio,” I said. It came out harder than I had anticipated.
She reached out and put her left hand on my right, where it rested on the gearshift. “What about to Anastasia?” she asked.
I felt my jaw tighten. It took me a moment to make them relax and ask, “Do you have any family?”
“Yes,” she said. “Technically.”
“The men and women I grew up with, who I knew? They’ve been dead for generations. Their descendants are living all over Italy, in Greece, and there are a few in Algeria—but it isn’t as though they invite their great-great-great-great-great-great-grandaunt to their Christmas celebrations. They’re strangers.”
I frowned, thinking that over, and looked at her. “Strangers.”
She nodded. “Most people aren’t willing to accept a radical fact like the life span of our kind, Harry. There are some families who have—Martha Liberty, for example, lives with one of her multiple-great-granddaughters and her children. But mostly, it ends badly when wizards try to stay too close to their kin.” She bowed her head, apparently studying her sling as she spoke. “I look in on them every five or six years, without them knowing. Keep an eye out for any of the children who might develop a talent.”
“But you had a real family once,” I said.
She sighed and looked out the window. “Oh, yes. It was a very long time ago.”
“I remember my father, a little. But I was raised an orphan.”
She winced. “
Dio , Harry.” Her fingers squeezed mine. “You never had anyone, did you?”
“And if I did find someone,” I said, feeling my throat constricting as I spoke, “I would do anything necessary to protect him. Anything.”
Anastasia looked out the window, letting out a hiss of what sounded like anger. “Margaret. You selfish bitch.”
I blinked and looked at her, and nearly got us both killed when a passing car cut me off and I almost couldn’t stop the monster Rolls in time. “You . . . you knew my mother?”
“All the Wardens knew her,” Anastasia said quietly.
“She was a Warden?”
Anastasia was silent for a moment before shaking her head. “She was considered a threat to the Laws of Magic.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that she made it a point to dance as close to the edge of breaking the Laws as she possibly could whenever she got the chance,” Anastasia replied. “It took her all of a year after she was admitted to the Council to start agitating for change.”
I had to focus on the road. This was more than I had ever heard from anyone in the Council about the enigmatic figure who had given me life. My hands were sweating and my heart was thudding. “What kind of change?”
“She was furious that ‘the Laws of Magic have nothing to do with right and wrong.’ She pointed out how wizards could use their abilities to bilk people out of their money, to intimidate and manipulate them, to steal wealth and property from others or destroy it outright, and that so long as the Laws were obeyed, the Council would do nothing whatsoever to stop them or discourage others from following their example. She wanted to reform the Council’s laws to embrace concepts of justice as well as limiting the specific use of magic.”
I frowned. “Wow. What a monster.”
She exhaled slowly. “Can you imagine what would happen if she’d had her way?”
“I wouldn’t have been unjustly persecuted by the Wardens for years?”
Anastasia’s lips firmed into a line. “Once a body of laws describing justice was applied to the Council, it would only be a short step to using that body to involve the Council in events happening in the outside world.”
“Gosh, yeah,” I said. “You’re right. A bunch of wizards trying to effect good in the world would be awful.”
“Whose good?” Anastasia asked calmly. “No one is an unjust villain in his own mind, Harry. Even—perhaps even especially—those who are the worst of us. Some of the cruelest tyrants in history were motivated by noble ideals, or made choices that they would call ‘hard but necessary steps’ for the good of their nation. We’re all the hero of our own story.”
“Yeah. It was really hard to tell who the good guys and bad guys were in World War Two.”
She rolled her eyes. “You’ve read the histories written by the victors of that war, Harry. As someone who lived through it, I can tell you that at the time of the war, there was a great deal less certainty. There were stories of atrocities in Germany, but for every one that was true, there were another five or six that weren’t. How could one have told the difference between the true stories, the propaganda, and simple fabrications and myths created by the people of the nations Germany had attacked?”
“Might have been a bit easier if there’d been a wizard or three around to help,” I said.
She gave me an oblique look. “Then by your argument, you would have had the White Council destroy the United States.”
“Your government has drenched its hands in innocent blood as well,” she replied, still calm. “Unless you think the Indian tribesmen whose lands were conquered were somehow the villains of the piece.”
I frowned over that one. “We’ve gone sort of far afield from my mother.”
“Yes. And no. What she proposed would inevitably have drawn the Council into mortal conflicts, and therefore into mortal politics. Tell me the truth—if the Council, today, declared war upon America for its past crimes and current idiocy, would you obey the order to attack?”
“Hell, no,” I said. “The U.S. isn’t a perfect place, but it’s better than most people have managed to come up with. And all my stuff is there.”
She smiled faintly. “Exactly. And since the Council is made up of members from all over the world, it would mean that no matter where we acted, we would almost certainly be faced with dissidence and desertion from those who felt their homelands wronged.” She shrugged—and grimaced in pain before arresting the motion. “I myself would have issues if the Council acted against any of the lands where my family has settled. They may not remember me, but the reverse is not true.”
I thought about what she’d said for a long moment. “What you’re saying is that the Council would have to turn on some of its own.”
“And how many times would that happen before there was no Council?” she asked. “Wars and feuds can live for generations even when there isn’t a group of wizards involved. Settling the conflicts would have required even more involvement in mortal affairs.”
“You mean control,” I said quietly. “You mean the Council seeking political power.”
She gave me a knowing look. “One of the things that makes me respect you more than most young people is your appreciation for history. Precisely. And for gaining control over others, for gathering great power to oneself, there is no better tool than black magic.”
“Which is what the Laws of Magic cover already.”
She nodded. “And so the Council limits itself. Any wizard is free to act in whatever manner he chooses with his power—provided he doesn’t break any of the Laws. Without resorting to black magic, the amount of damage an individual can inflict on mortal society is limited. As harsh an experience as it has created for you, Harry, the Laws of Magic are not about justice. The White Council is not about justice. They are about restraining power.” She smiled faintly. “And, occasionally, the Council manages to do some good by protecting mankind from supernatural threats.”
“And that’s good enough for you?” I asked.
“It isn’t perfect,” she admitted. “But it’s better than anything else we’ve come up with. And the things I’ve spent my lifetime building are there.”
“Touché,” I said.
I stroked her fingers with my thumb. “So you’re saying my mother was short-sighted.”
“She was a complex woman,” Anastasia said. “Brilliant, erratic, passionate, committed, idealistic, talented, charming, insulting, bold, incautious, arrogant—and short-sighted, yes. Among a great many other qualities. She loved pointing out the areas of ‘grey’ magic, as she called them, and constantly questioning their legitimacy.” She shrugged. “The Senior Council tasked the Wardens to keep an eye on her. Which was damn near impossible.”
“The woman had a great many contacts among the Fey. That’s why everyone called her Margaret LaFey. She knew more Ways through the Nevernever than anyone I’ve ever seen, before or since. She could be in Beijing at breakfast, Rome at lunch, and Seattle for supper and stop for coffee in Sydney and Capetown in between.” She sighed. “Margaret vanished once, for four or five years. Everyone assumed that she’d finally run afoul of something in Faerie. She never seemed able to restrain her tongue, even when she knew better.”
“I wonder what that’s like.”
Anastasia gave me a rather worn sad smile. “But she didn’t spend all that time in Faerie, did she?”
I looked up at the rearview mirror, back toward Château Raith.
“And Thomas is the son of the White King himself.”
I didn’t answer.
She exhaled heavily. “You look so different from him. Except perhaps for something in the jaw. The shape of the eyes.”
I didn’t say anything until we got to the apartment. The Rolls went together with the gravel lot like champagne and Cracker Jacks. I turned the engine off and listened to it click as it began to cool down. The sun was gone over the horizon by that time, and the lengthening shadows began to trigger streetlights.
“Are you going to tell anyone?” I asked quietly.
She looked out the window as she considered the question. Then she said, “Not unless I think it relevant.”
I turned to look at her. “You know what will happen if they know. They’ll use him.”
She gazed straight out the front of the car. “I know.”
I spoke quietly to put all the weight I could into each word I spoke next. “Over. My. Dead. Body.”
Anastasia closed her eyes for a moment, and opened them again. Her expression never flickered. She took her hand slowly, reluctantly from mine and put it in her lap. Then she whispered, “I pray to God it never comes to that.”
We sat in the car separately.
It seemed larger and colder, for some reason. The silence seemed deeper.
Luccio lifted her chin and looked at me. “What will you do now?”
“What do you think?” I clenched my fists so that my knuckles popped, rolled my neck once, and opened the door. “I’m going to find my brother.”
Two hours and half a dozen attempted tracking spells later, I snarled and slapped a stack of notepads off the corner of the table in my subbasement laboratory. They thwacked against the wall beneath Bob the Skull’s shelf, and fell to the concrete floor.
“It was to be expected,” Bob the Skull said, very quietly. Orange lights like the flickers of distant campfires glittered in the eye sockets of the bleached human skull that sat on its own shelf high up on one wall of my lab, bracketed by the remains of dozens of melted candles and half a dozen paperback romances. “The parent-to-child blood bond is much more sympathetic than that shared by half siblings.”
I glared at the skull and also kept my voice down. “You just can’t go a day without saying that you told me so.”
“I can’t help it if you’re wrong all the time yet continually ignore my advice, sahib. I’m just a humble servant.”
I couldn’t scream at my nonmaterial assistant with other people in the apartment above me, so I consoled myself by snatching up a pencil from a nearby work shelf and flinging it at him. Its eraser end hit the skull between the eyes.
“Jealousy, thy name is Dresden,” Bob said with a pious sigh.
I paced up and down the length of my lab, burning off frustrated energy. It wasn’t much of a walk. Five paces, turn, five paces, turn. It was a dank little concrete box of a room. Work benches lined three of the walls, and I had installed cheap wire shelving above them. The work benches and shelves were crowded with all manner of odds and ends, books, reagents, instruments, various bits of gear needed for alchemy, and scores of books and notebooks.
A long table in the middle of the room was currently covered by a canvas tarp, and the floor at the far end of the lab had a perfect circle of pure copper embedded in it. The remains of several differently structured tracking attempts were scattered on the floor around the circle, while the props and foci from the most recent failure were still inside it.
“One of them should have gotten me something,” I told Bob. “Maybe not a full lock on Thomas’s position—but a tug in the right direction, at least.”
“Unless he’s dead,” Bob said, “in which case you’re just spinning your wheels.”
“He isn’t dead,” I said quietly. “Shagnasty wants to trade.”
“Uh-huh,” Bob scoffed. “Because everyone knows how honorable the naagloshii are.”
“He’s alive,” I said quietly. “Or at least I’m going to proceed on that assumption.”
Bob somehow managed to look baffled. “Why?”
Because you need your brother to be all right, whispered a quiet voice in my head. “Because anything else isn’t particularly useful toward resolving this situation,” I said aloud. “Whoever is behind the curtains is using the skinwalker and probably Madeline Raith, too. So if I find Thomas, I find Shagnasty and Madeline, and I’ll be able to start pulling threads until this entire mess unravels.”
“Yeah,” Bob said, drawing out the word. “Do you think it’ll take long to pull all those threads? Because the naagloshii is going to be doing something similar to your intestines.”
I made a growling sound in my throat. “Yeah. I think I got its number.”
“I keep trying to punch Shagnasty out myself,” I said. “But its defenses are too good—and it’s fast as hell.”
“He’s an immortal semidivine being,” Bob said. “Of course he’s good.”
I waved a hand. “My point is that I’ve been trying to lay the beating on it myself. Next time I see it, I’m going to start throwing bindings on it, just to trip it up and slow it down, so whoever is with me can get a clean shot.”
“It might work . . .” Bob admitted.
“. . . if he’s such an idiot that he only bothered to learn to defend himself from violent-energy attacks,” Bob continued, as if I hadn’t spoken. “Which I think is almost as likely as you getting one of those tracking spells to work. He’ll know how to defend himself from bindings, Harry.”
I sighed. “I’ve got gender issues.”
Bob blinked slowly. “Uh. Wow. I’d love to say something to make that more embarrassing for you, boss, but I’m not sure how.”
“Not my . . . augh.” I threw another pencil. It missed Bob and bounced off the wall behind him. “With the skinwalker. Is it actually a male? Do I call it a he?”
Bob rolled his eyelights. “It’s a semidivine immortal, Harry. It doesn’t procreate. It has no need to recombine DNA. That means that gender simply doesn’t apply. That’s something only you meat sacks worry about.”
“Then why is it that you stare at naked girls every chance you get,” I said, “but not naked men?”
“It’s an aesthetic choice,” Bob said loftily. “As a gender, women exist on a plane far beyond men when it comes to the artistic appreciation of their external beauty.”
“And they have boobs,” I said.
“And they have boobs!” Bob agreed with a leer.
I sighed and rubbed at my temples, closing my eyes. “You said the skinwalkers were semidivine?”
“You’re using the English word, which doesn’t really describe them very precisely. Most skinwalkers are just people—powerful, dangerous, and often psychotic people, but people. They’re successors to the traditions and skills taught to avaricious mortals by the originals. The naagloshii.”
“Originals like Shagnasty,” I said.
“He’s the real deal, all right,” Bob replied, his quiet voice growing more serious. “According to some of the stories of the Navajo, the naagloshii were originally messengers for the Holy People, when they were first teaching humans the Blessing Way.”
“Messengers?” I said. “Like angels?”
“Or like those guys on bikes in New York, maybe?” Bob said. “Not all couriers are created identical, Mr. Lowest-Common-Denominator. Anyway, the original messengers, the naagloshii, were supposed to go with the Holy People when they departed the mortal world. But some of them didn’t. They stayed here, and their selfishness corrupted the power the Holy People gave them. Voila, Shagnasty.”
I grunted. Bob’s information was anecdotal, which meant it could well be distorted by time and by generations of retelling. There probably wasn’t any way to know the objective truth of it—but a surprising amount of that kind of lore remained fundamentally sound in oral tradition societies like those of the American Southwest. “When did this happen?”
“Tough to say,” Bob said. “The traditional Navajo don’t see time the way most mortals do, which makes them arguably smarter than the rest of you monkeys. But it’s safe to assume prehistory. Several millennia.”
Thousands of years of survival meant thousands of years of accumulated experience. It meant that Shagnasty was smart and adaptable. The old skinwalker wouldn’t still be around if it wasn’t. I upgraded the creature, in my thoughts, from “very tough” to “damned near impossibly tough.”
But since it still had my brother, that didn’t change anything.
“Don’t suppose there’s a silver bullet we can use?” I asked.
“No, boss,” Bob said quietly. “Sorry.”
I grimaced, did a half-assed job of cleaning up the mess I’d made, and began to leave the lab. I paused before I left and said, “Hey, Bob.”
“Any thoughts as to why, when LaFortier was being murdered by a wizard, no one threw any magic around?”
“People are morons?”
“It’s damned peculiar,” I said.
“Irrationality isn’t.” Bob said. “Wizards just aren’t all that stable to begin with.”
Given what I had done with my life lately, I could hardly argue with him. “It means something,” I said.
“Yeah?” Bob asked. “What?”
I shook my head. “Tell you when I figure it out.”
I went back up into my living room through the trapdoor in its floor. The door was a thick one. Sound didn’t readily travel up from the lab when it was closed. Luccio was loaded with narcotics and asleep on my couch, lying flat on her back with no pillow, and covered with a light blanket. Her face was slack, her mouth slightly open. It made her look vulnerable, and even younger than she already appeared. Molly sat in one of the recliners with several candles burning beside her. She was reading a paperback, carefully not opening the thing all the way to avoid creasing the spine. Pansy.
I went to the kitchen and made myself a sandwich. As I did, I reflected that I was getting really tired of sandwiches. Maybe I ought to learn to cook or something.
I stood there munching, and Molly came to join me.
“Hey,” she said in muted tones. “How are you?”
She’d helped me bandage the fairly minor cut on my scalp when I had returned. Strips of white gauze bandage were wound around my head to form a lopsided, off-kilter halo. I felt like the fife player in Willard’s iconic
Spirit of ’76 .
“Still in one piece,” I replied. “How are they?”
“Drugged and sleeping,” she said. “Morgan’s fever is up another half of a degree. The last bag of antibiotics is almost empty.”
I clenched my jaw. If I didn’t get Morgan to a hospital soon, he was going to be just as dead as he would be if the Council or Shagnasty got hold of him.
“Should I get some ice onto him?” Molly asked anxiously.
“Not until the fever goes over one hundred and four, and stays there,” I said. “That’s when it begins to endanger him. Until then, it’s doing what it’s supposed to do and slowing the infection.” I finished the last bite of sandwich. “Any calls?”
She produced a piece of notebook paper. “Georgia called. Here’s where Andi is. They’re still with her.”
I took the paper with a grimace. If I hadn’t let Morgan in my door half an eternity ago, he wouldn’t have been in Chicago, Shagnasty wouldn’t have been tailing me to find him, Andi wouldn’t be hurt—and Kirby would still be alive. And I hadn’t even tried to call and find out how she was. “How is she?”
“They still aren’t sure,” Molly said.
I nodded. “Okay.”
“Did you find Thomas?”
I shook my head. “Total bust.”
Mouse came shambling over. He sat down and looked up at me, his expression concerned.
She chewed on her lip. “What are you going to do?”
“I . . .” My voice trailed off. I sighed. “I have no idea.”
Mouse pawed at my leg and looked up at me. I bent over to scratch his ears, and instantly regretted it as someone tightened a vise on my temples. I straightened up again in a hurry, wincing, and entertained wild fantasies about lying down on the floor and sleeping for a week.
Molly watched me, her expression worried.
Right, Harry. You’re still teaching your apprentice. Show her what a wizard should do, not what you want to do.
I looked at the paper. “The answer isn’t obvious, which means that I need to put some more thought into it. And while I’m doing that, I’ll go look in on Andi.”
Molly nodded. “What do I do?”
“Hold down the fort. Try to reach me at the hospital if anyone calls or if Morgan gets any worse.”
Molly nodded seriously. “I can do that.”
I nodded and grabbed my gear and the key to the Rolls. Molly went to the door, ready to lock it behind me when I left. I started to do just that—and then paused. I turned to my apprentice. “Hey.”
She blinked at me. “Um. What did I do?”
“More than I asked of you. More than was good for you.” I leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. “Thank you, Molly.”
She lifted her chin a little, smiling. “Well,” she said. “You’re just so pathetic. How could I turn away?”
That made me laugh, if only for a second, and her smile blossomed into something radiant.
“You know the drill,” I said.
She nodded. “Keep my eyes open, be supercareful, don’t take any chances.”
I winked at her. “You grow wiser, grasshopper.”
Molly started to say something, stopped, fidgeted for half a second, and then threw her arms around me in a big hug.
“Be careful,” she said. “Okay?”
I hugged her back tight and gave the top of her head a light kiss. “Hang in there, kid. We’ll get this straightened out.”
“Okay,” she said. “We will.”
Then I headed out into the Chicago night wondering how—or if—that was possible.
I don’t like hospitals—but then, who does? I don’t like the clean, cool hallways. I don’t like the stark fluorescent lights. I don’t like the calm ring tones on the telephones. I don’t like the pastel scrubs the nurses and attendants wear. I don’t like the elevators, and I don’t like the soothing colors on the walls, and I don’t like the way everyone speaks in measured, quiet voices.
But mostly, I don’t like the memories I’ve collected there.
Andi was still in intensive care. I wouldn’t be able to go in to see her—neither would Billy and Georgia, if they hadn’t arranged for power of attorney for medical matters, a few years back. It was long after standard visiting hours, but most hospital staffs stretch rules and look the other way for those whose loved ones are in ICU. The world has changed a lot over the centuries, but death watches are still respected.
Billy had come to me on the down low to set up power of attorney for me, in case he should be hospitalized without Georgia being nearby to handle matters. Though neither of us said so, we both knew why he really did it. The only reason Georgia wouldn’t be there is if she was dead—and if Billy was in no shape to make decisions for himself, he didn’t want to hang around and find out what his world would be like without her in it. He wanted someone he could trust to understand that.
Billy and Georgia are solid.
I’d spent some endless hours in Stroger’s ICU waiting room, and it hadn’t changed since I’d been there last. It was empty except for Georgia. She lay on the sofa, sleeping, still wearing her glasses. A book by what was presumably a prominent psychologist lay open on her stomach. She looked exhausted.
I bypassed the waiting room and went to the nurses’ desk. A tired-looking woman in her thirties looked up at me with a frown. “Sir,” she said, “it’s well after visiting hours.”
“I know,” I said. I took my notepad out of my pocket and scribbled a quick note on it. “I’ll go back to the waiting room. The next time you go past Miss Macklin’s room, could you please give this to the gentleman sitting with her?”
The nurse relaxed a little, and gave me a tired smile. “Certainly. It will just be a few minutes.”
I went back to the waiting room and settled into a chair. I closed my eyes, leaned my head back against the wall, and drowsed until I heard footsteps on tile.
Billy entered with a rolled-up blanket under his arm, glanced around the room, and nodded to me. Then he went immediately to Georgia. He took her glasses off, very gently, and picked up the book. Georgia never stirred. He put the book on the end table, and her glasses on top of it. Then he took the blanket from under his arm and covered her up. She murmured and stirred, but Billy shushed her quietly and stroked his hand over her hair. She sighed and shifted onto her side, then snuggled down under the blanket.
I reached up a hand and flicked the light switch beside my head. It left the room dim, if not really dark.
Billy smiled his thanks to me, and nodded toward the door. I got up and we walked out into the hallway together.
“Should have tried to call you sooner,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
He shook his head. “I know how it is, man. No apology needed.”
“Okay,” I said, without actually agreeing with him. “How is she?”
“Not good,” he replied simply. “There was internal bleeding. It took two rounds of surgery to get it stopped.” The blocky young man shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “They told us if she makes it through the night, she’ll be out of the worst of it.”
“How are you holding up?”
He shook his head again. “I don’t know, man. I called Kirby’s folks. I was his friend. I had to. The police had already contacted them, but it isn’t the same.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“They took it pretty hard. Kirby was an only child.”
I sighed. “I’m sorry.”
He shrugged. “Kirby knew the risks. He’d rather have died than stand by and do nothing.”
“I’d have lost it without her. Pillar of strength and calm,” Billy said. He glanced back toward the waiting room and a smile touched the corners of his eyes. “She’s good at setting things aside until there’s time to deal with them. Once things have settled out, she’ll be a wreck, and it’ll be my turn to hold her up.”
Like I said.
“The thing that did Kirby took Thomas Raith,” I said.
“The vampire you work with sometimes?”
“Yeah. As soon as I work out how to find it, I’m taking it down. The vampires are probably going to help—but I might need backup I can trust.”
Billy’s eyes flickered with a sudden fire of rage and hunger. “Yeah?”
I nodded. “It’s part of something bigger. I can’t talk to you about everything that’s going on. And I know Andi needs you here. I understand if you don’t—”
Billy turned his eyes to me, those same dangerous fires smoldering. “Harry, I’m not going to move forward blind anymore.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that for years, I’ve been willing to help you, even though you could barely ever tell me what was actually happening. You’ve played everything close to the chest. And I know you had your reasons for that.” He stopped walking and looked up at me calmly. “Kirby’s dead. Maybe Andi, too.”
My conscience wouldn’t let me meet his gaze, even for an instant. “I know.”
He nodded. “So. If I’d had this conversation with you sooner, maybe they wouldn’t be. Maybe if we’d had a better idea about what’s actually going on in the world, it would have changed how we approached things. They follow my lead, Harry. I have a responsibility to make sure that I do everything in my power to make them aware and safe.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I can see your point.”
“Then if you want my help, things are going to change. I’m not charging ahead blindfolded again. Not ever.”
“Billy,” I said quietly. “This isn’t stuff you can unlearn. Right now, you’re insulated from the worst of what goes on because you’re . . . I don’t want to be insulting, but you’re a bunch of amateurs without enough of a clue to be a real threat to anyone.”
His eyes darkened. “Insulated from the worst?” he asked in a quiet, dangerous voice. “Tell that to Kirby. Tell that to Andi.”
I took several steps away, pinched the bridge of my nose between thumb and forefinger, and closed my eyes, thinking. Billy had a point, of course. I’d been careful to control what information he and the Alphas had gotten from me, in an effort to protect them. And it had worked—for a while.
But now things were different. Kirby’s death had seen to that.
“You’re sure you don’t want to back out?” I asked. “Once you’re part of the scene, you aren’t getting out of it.” I clenched my jaw for a second. “And believe it or not, Billy, yes. Youhave been insulated from the worst.”
“I’m not backing off on this one, Harry. I can’t.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him fold his arms. “You’re the one who wants our help.”
I pointed a finger at him. “I don’t want it. I don’t want to drag you into what’s going on. I don’t want you walking into more danger and getting hurt.” I sighed. “But . . . there’s a lot at stake, and I think I might need you.”
“Okay, then,” Billy said. “You know what it will cost.”
He stood facing me solidly, tired eyes steady, and I realized something I hadn’t ever made into a tangible thought before: he wasn’t a kid anymore. Not because he’d graduated, and not even because of how capable he was. He’d seen the worst—death, heartless and nasty, come to lay waste to everything it could. He knew in his heart of hearts, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it could come for him, take him as easily as it had taken Kirby.
And he was making a choice to stand his ground.
Billy Borden, kid werewolf, was gone.
Will was choosing to stand with me.
I couldn’t treat him like a child anymore. Will was ignorant of the supernatural world beyond the fairly minor threats that lurked around the University of Chicago. He and the other werewolves had been kids who learned one really neat magic trick, almost ten years before. I hadn’t shared more with them, and the paranormal community in general is careful about what they say to strangers. He had, at best, only a vague idea of the scope of supernatural affairs in general, and he had not the first clue about how hot the water really was around me right now.
Will had picked his ground. I couldn’t keep him in the dark and tell myself that I was protecting him.
I nodded to a few chairs sitting along the wall at a nearby intersection of hallways. “Let’s sit down. I don’t have much time, and there’s a lot to cover. I’ll tell you everything when I get a chance, but for now all I can give you is a highlights reel.”
By the time I got done giving Will the CliffsNotes version of the supernatural world, I still hadn’t come up with a plan. So, working on the theory that the proper answers just needed more time to cook, and that they could do so while I was on the move, I went back to my borrowed car and drove to the next place I should have visited sooner than I had.
Murphy used to have an office at the headquarters of CPD’s Special Investigations department. Then she’d blown off her professional duty as head of the department to cover me during a furball that went bad on an epic scale. She’d nearly lost her job altogether, but Murph was a third-generation cop from a cop clan. She’d managed to gain enough support to hang on to her badge, but she had been demoted to Detective Sergeant and had her seniority revoked—a dead end for her career.
Now her old office was occupied by John Stallings, and Murphy had a desk in the large room that housed SI. It wasn’t a new desk, either. One leg was propped up with a small stack of triplicate report forms. It wasn’t unusual in that room. SI was the bottom of the chute for cops who had earned the wrath of their superiors or, worse, had taken a misstep in the cutthroat world of Chicago city politics. The desks were all battered and old. The walls and floor were worn. The room obviously housed at least twice as many work desks as it had been meant to contain.
It was late. The place was quiet and mostly empty. Whoever was on the night shift must have been out on a call of some kind. Of the three cops in the room, I only knew one of them by name—Murphy’s current partner, a blocky, mildly overweight man in his late fifties, with hair going steadily more silver in sharp contrast to the dark coffee tone of his skin.
“Rawlins,” I said.
He turned to me with a grunt and a polite nod. “Evening.”
“What are you doing here this late?”
“Giving my wife ammunition for when she drags my ass to court to divorce me,” he said cheerfully. “Glad you made it in.”
“Murph around?” I asked.
He grunted. “Interrogation room two, with the British perp. Go on down.”
I went down the hall and around the corner. To my left was a security gate blocking the way to the building’s holding cells. To the right was a short hallway containing four doors—two to the bathrooms, and two that led to the interrogation rooms. I went to the second room and knocked.
Murphy answered it, still wearing the same clothes she’d been in at the storage park. She looked tired and irritated. She grunted almost as well as Rawlins had, despite her complete lack of a Y-chromosome, and stepped out into the hall, shutting the door behind her.
She looked up and studied my head for a second. “What the hell, Harry?”
“Got a visit from Shagnasty the Skinwalker when I went to talk to Lara Raith. Any trouble with Binder?”
She shook her head. “I figured he’d have a hard time doing whatever he does if he can’t get out of his chair or use his hands. I’ve been sitting with him, too, in case he tried to pull something.”
I lifted an eyebrow, impressed. There hadn’t been time to advise her how to handle Binder safely, but she’d worked it out on her own. “Yeah, that’s a pretty solid method,” I said. “What’s he in for, officially?”
“Officially, I haven’t charged him yet,” she said. “If I need to stick him with something, I can cite trespassing, destruction of property, and assault on a police officer.” She shook her head. “But we can’t keep this close an eye on him forever. If I do press charges, it won’t be long before he’s under lighter security. I don’t even want to think about what could happen if he got to turn those things loose inside a precinct house or prison.”
“Yeah,” I said, nodding. “Long term, I don’t think you can hold him.”
Her mouth twisted bitterly. “Hate it when I have to let pricks like that walk.”
“All the time,” she said. “Legal loopholes, incorrect procedures, crucial evidence declared inadmissible. A lot of perps who are guilty as hell walk out without so much as a reprimand.” She sighed and twitched her shoulders into something like a shrug. “Ah, well. It’s a messed-up world. Whatcha gonna do?”
“I hear that,” I said. “Want to compare notes?”
“Sure,” she said. “What did you get?”
I gave her the rundown of what had happened since I’d last seen her.
She grunted again when I finished. “Isn’t that sort of dangerous? Involving the vampires?”
“Yeah,” I said. “But it’s Thomas. I think Lara is probably sincere about getting him back. Besides. Why worry about smoking in bed when your building is already on fire?”
“Point,” she said. “I got the photos. They don’t tell me anything new. I ran those account numbers you gave me through the system to see if anything came up. Brick wall.”
“It was a long shot anyway,” she said.
“Binder give you anything?”
Her mouth scrunched up as if she wanted to spit out something that tasted terrible. “No. He’s a hard case. Career criminal. He’s been grilled before.”
“Yeah,” I said. “And he knows that you can’t do anything but make him sit still for a little while. If he gives us anything on his employer, he’ll lose his credibility with clients—assuming that he lives that long.”
She leaned her shoulders back against the wall. “You say this Shagnasty thing has Thomas’s cell phone?”
“Yeah. Think you can track it?”
“As part of what investigation?” she asked. “I don’t have the kind of freedom to act that I used to. If I wanted to get what amounts to a wiretap, I’d have to get approval from a judge, and I don’t know any of them who would take ‘my friend the wizard’s vampire brother was kidnapped by a demonic Navajo shapeshifter’ as a valid justification for such a measure.”
“I hadn’t really thought of it like that,” I said.
She shrugged. “Honestly, I suspect Lara’s resources and contacts are better than mine, given the time constraints.”
I couldn’t quite suppress a growl of frustration. “If she learns anything. If she’s honest about what she learns.”
Murphy frowned, scrunching up her nose. “Where was Thomas taken from?”
“I’m not certain, but I think he was at the storage park. His rental van was there, and he said something about not being able to handle all of them on his own.”
“Them? The grey suits?”
I nodded. “Most likely. But since Thomas never pitched in during the fight, I figure Shagnasty probably snuck up on him and grabbed him while he was being distracted by Binder and his pets.”
“And you can’t track him down with magic.”
“No,” I growled through clenched teeth. “Shagnasty is countering it somehow.”
“How is that possible?”
I took a moment to assemble my thoughts. “Tracking spells are like any kind of targeted thaumaturgy. You create a link, a channel to the target, and then pour energy into that channel. In the case of a tracking spell, you’re basically just setting up a continuous trickle of energy, and then following it to the target—kind of like pouring water on a surface when you want to see which way is downhill.”
“Okay,” she said. “I get that, mostly.”
“The way to stymie a tracking spell is to prevent that channel from ever being formed. If it never gets created, then it doesn’t matter when the water gets poured. There’s nothing to cause it to start flowing. And the way you prevent the channel from forming is to shield the target away from whatever focus you’re using to create the link.”
“Well, for example. If I had one of your hairs and wanted to use it as part of a tracking spell, you might beat it by shaving off your hair. If the hair in my spell doesn’t match up to an end somewhere on your head, no link gets created. So, unless I had a hair that had been torn out from the roots, and fairly recently, you’d be hidden.”
“And that’s the only way to beat a tracking spell?”
“Nah,” I said. “A good circle of power could probably screen you off, if you took the time and money to give it serious juice. Theoretically, you could also cross into the Nevernever. Thaumaturgy originating on the earth doesn’t cross into the spirit world very efficiently—and before you ask, yeah, I tried it from the Nevernever side, too. It was failed spell number three.”
Murphy frowned. “What about Justine?” she asked. “Justine was able to find him once before.”
I grimaced. “She was able to give us a vague direction a few hours after Thomas had ripped most of the life out of her. It isn’t the same this time.”
“Because she wasn’t sensing Thomas so much as the missing part of her own life force. They haven’t been together like that in years. Thomas—digested, I guess you could say—all of that energy a long time ago.”
Murphy sighed. “I’ve seen you do some neat stuff, Harry. But I guess magic doesn’t fix everything.”
“Magic doesn’t fix anything,” I said. “That’s what the person using it is for.” I rubbed at my tired eyes.
“Speaking of,” she said. “Any thoughts as to why these wizards didn’t seem to be using magic?”
“Not yet,” I said.
“Any thoughts as to the nature of our perpetrator?”
“A couple,” I said. “There are all these disparate elements in play—Shagnasty, Binder, Madeline Raith. There is serious money moving around. And if we don’t find this cockroach and drag him into the light, things are going to be bad for everyone. I don’t know what that tells us about him.”
“That he’s really smart,” Murphy said. “Or really desperate.”
I arched an eyebrow. “How do you figure?”
“If he’s superbrilliant, it’s possible that we haven’t even seen the shape of his plan yet. All of this could be one big boondoggle to set us up for the real punch.”
“You don’t sound like you think that’s the case.”
She gave me a faint smile. “Criminals aren’t usually the crispiest crackers in the box. And you have to remember that even though we’re flailing around looking for answers, the perp is in the same situation. He can’t be sure where we are, what we know, or what we’re doing next.”
“Fog of war,” I said thoughtfully.
She shrugged. “I think it’s a much more likely explanation than that our perp is some kind of James Bond super-genius villain slowly unfolding his terrible design. They’ve shown too much confusion for that.”
“Shagnasty was following you a couple of nights ago, right?”
“Well, so was this PI you told me about. Why stick you with two tails? Maybe because the right hand didn’t know what the left one was doing.”
“Hngh,” I agreed.
“From what you say, Shagnasty isn’t exactly an errand boy.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“But it’s apparently coordinating with the perp, taking orders. It didn’t absolutely need to deliver its demand in person. I think it’s pretty obvious that it smashed its way into the Château to provide a distraction so that Madeline could make her getaway.”
I blinked. Once I’d alerted Lara to the probability of Madeline’s treachery, she most certainly would have taken steps to detain her. Madeline must have known that. I tried to remember how long it had been between the time Luccio and I arrived, and when the naagloshii attacked. Time enough for Madeline to hear about our presence, assume that the worst had happened, and make a phone call for help?
Murphy peered at me. “I mean, it is obvious, right?”
“I got hit on the head, okay?”
She smirked at me.
“Hell’s bells,” I muttered. “Yes, it’s obvious. But not necessarily stupid.”
“Not stupid, but I don’t think it would be unfair to call it a desperation move. I think Shagnasty was the perp’s ace in the hole. I think that when Morgan escaped, the perp figured out where he was headed, the pressure got to him, and he played his hole card. Only when Shagnasty found you, you weren’t actually with Morgan. He got spooked when you and the werewolves nearly pinned him down, and ran off.”
“The perp grabs one of his other tools,” I said, nodding. “Madeline. Tells her to find me and take me out, make me talk, whatever. Only Thomas beats her senseless instead.”
“Makes sense,” Murphy said.
“Doesn’t mean that’s how it happened.”
“Had to happen some way,” she said. “Say we’re in the right ballpark. What does that tell us?”
“Not much,” I said. “Some very bad people are in motion. They’re tough. The one guy we’ve managed to grab won’t tell us a damned thing. The only thing we’re certain we know is that we’ve got nothing.”
I was going to continue, but a thought hit me and I stopped talking.
I gave it a second to crystallize.
Then I started to smile.
Murphy tilted her head, watching, and prompted, “We’ve got nothing?”
I looked from Murphy to the door to the interrogation room.
“Forget it,” she said. “He isn’t going to put us on to anyone.”
“Oh,” I drawled. “I’m not so sure about that. . . .”
Murphy went back into the interrogation room. Twenty minutes later, I came in and shut the door behind me. The room was simple and small. I A table sat in the middle, with two chairs on each side. There was no long two-way mirror on the wall. Instead, a small security camera perched up high in one corner of the ceiling.
Binder sat on the far side of the table. His face had a couple of bruises on it, along with an assortment of small cuts with dark scabs. His odd green eyes were narrowed in annoyance. A foot-long hoagie sat on the table in front of him, its paper wrapper partially undone. He’d have been able to reach it easily—if he could have moved his arms. They were cuffed to the arms of the chair. A handcuff key rested centered on the edge of Murphy’s side of the table, in front of her chair.
I had to suppress a smile.
“Bloody priceless,” Binder said to Murphy as I entered. “Now you bring this wanker. It’s police torture, is what it is. My solicitor will swallow you whole and spit out the bones.”
Murphy sat down at the table across from Binder, folded her hands, and sat in complete silence, spearing him with an unfriendly stare.
Binder sneered at her, and then at me, presumably so I wouldn’t feel left out. “Oh, I get this now,” he said. “Good cop, bad cop, is it?” He looked at me. “Stone-cold bitch here makes me sit for bloody hours in this chair to soften me up. Then you come in here, polite and sympathetic as you please, and I buckle under the stress, yeah?” He settled more comfortably into the chair, somehow conveying an insult with the motion. “Fine, Dresden,” he said. “Knock yourself out. Good cop me.”
I looked at him for a second.
Then I made a fist and slugged his smug face hard enough to knock him over backward in the chair.
He just lay there for a minute, on his side, blinking tears out of his eyes. Blood trickled from one nostril. One of his shoes had come off in the fall. I stood over him and glanced at my hand. It hurts to punch people in the face. Not as much as it hurts to get punched in the face, granted, but you know you’ve done it. My knuckles must have grazed his teeth. They’d lost a little skin.
“Don’t give me this lawyer crap, Binder,” I said. “We both know the cops can’t hold you for long. But we also both know that you can’t play the system against us, either. You aren’t an upstanding member of the community. You’re a hired gun, wanted for questioning in a dozen countries.”
He looked up at me with a snarl. “Think you’re a hard man, do you?”
I glanced at Murphy. “Should I answer that one, or just kick him in the balls?”
“Seeing is believing,” Murphy said.
“True.” I turned to Binder and drew back my foot.
“Bloody hell!” Binder barked. “There’s a bloody camera watching your every move. You think you won’t get dragged off for this?”
An intercom on the wall near the camera clicked and buzzed. “He’s got a point,” said Rawlin’s voice. “I can’t see it all from here. Move him a couple of feet to the left and give me about thirty more seconds before you start on his nads. I’m making popcorn.”
“Sure,” I said, giving the camera a thumbs-up. Odds were good that it would fold if I was in the room for any length of time, but we’d made our point.
I sat down on the edge of the table, maybe a foot away from Binder and, quite deliberately, reached over to pick up the hoagie. I took a bite and chewed thoughtfully. “Mmm,” I said. I glanced at Murphy. “What kind of cheese is that?”
“Beef tastes great, too.”
“Teriyaki,” Murph said, still staring at Binder.
“I was really hungry,” I told her, my voice brimming with sincerity. “I haven’t eaten since, like, this morning. This is excellent.”
Binder muttered darkly under his breath. All I caught was “. . . buggering little bastard . . .”
I ate half the hoagie and put it back on the table. I licked a stray bit of sauce off of one finger and looked down at Binder. “Okay, tough guy,” I said. “The cops can’t keep you. So that leaves the sergeant, here, with only a couple of options. Either they let you walk . . .”
Murphy made a quiet growling sound. It was almost as impressive as her grunt.
“She just hates that idea.” I got off the table and hunkered down beside Binder. “Or,” I said, “we do it the other way.”
He narrowed his eyes. “You’ll kill me—is that it?”
“Ain’t no one gonna miss you,” I said.
“You’re bluffing,” Binder snapped. “She’s a bloody cop.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Think about that one for a minute. You think a police detective couldn’t work out a way to disappear you without anyone being the wiser?”
He looked back and forth between us, his cool mask not quite faltering. “What do you want?”
“Your boss,” I said. “Give me that and you walk.”
He stared at me for half a minute. Then he said, “Set my chair up.”
I rolled my eyes and did it. He was heavy. “Hell’s bells, Binder. I get a hernia and the deal’s off.”
He looked at Murphy and jiggled his wrists.
“Bloody hell,” he snarled. “Just one of them. I haven’t eaten since yesterday.”
I snorted. “Looks to me like you aren’t in any immediate danger of starvation.”
“You want cooperation,” he spat, “you’re going to have to show me some. Give me the bloody sandwich.”
Murphy reached out, picked up the handcuff key, and tossed it to me. I unlocked his left wrist. Binder seized the sandwich and started chomping on it.
“All right,” I said, after a moment. “Talk.”
“What?” he said through a mouthful of food. “No soda?”
I swatted the last inch or two of hoagie out of his hand, scowling.
Binder watched me, unperturbed. He licked his fingers clean, picked a bit of lettuce out of his teeth, and ate it. “All right then,” he said. “You want the truth?”
“Yeah,” I said.
He leaned a bit toward me and jabbed a finger at me. “The truth is that you ain’t killing no one, biggun. You ain’t and neither is the blond bird. And if you try to keep me, I’ll bring down all manner of horrible things.” He leaned back in his chair, openly wearing the smug smile again. “So you might as well stop wasting my valuable time and cut me loose.
That’s the truth.”
I turned my head to Murphy, frowning.
She got up, walked around the table, and seized Binder by his close-cut head. It didn’t provide much of a grip, but she used it to shove his head roughly down to the top of the table. Then she took the key back from me, undid the other set of cuffs, and released him.
“Get out,” she said quietly.
Binder stood up slowly, straightening his clothes. He leered at Murphy, winked, and said, “I’m a professional. So there’s nothing personal, love. Maybe next time we can skip business and give pleasure a go.”
“Maybe next time you’ll get your neck broken resisting arrest,” Murphy said. “Get out.”
Binder smirked at Murphy, then at me, and then sauntered out of the room.
“Well?” I asked her.
She turned and held out her hand. Several short hairs, some dark and some grey, clung to her fingers. “Got it.”
I grinned at her, and took the hairs, depositing them in a white envelope I’d taken from Rawlin’s desk. “Give me about a minute and I’ll have it up.”
“Hubba hubba,” Rawlins said through the intercom speaker. “I like this channel.”
“This is a great way of chasing down the bad guy,” Murphy said half an hour later. She gave me a pointed look from her chair at her desk. “Sit here and don’t do anything.”
I sat in a chair next to her desk, my hand extended palm down in front of me, holding a bit of leather thong that ended in a simple quartz crystal in a copper-wire setting. My arm was getting tired, and I had gripped it under my forearm with the other hand to support it. The crystal didn’t hang like a plumb line. It leaned a bit to one side, as if being supported by a steady, silent puff of wind.
“Patience,” I said. “Binder might not be a crispy cracker, but he’s been in business for a couple of decades. He knows why you grabbed him by the hair. He’s learned to shake off something like this.”
Murphy gave me an unamused look. She glanced at Rawlins, who sat at his desk. The desks were set up back-to-back, so that they faced each other.
“Don’t look at me,” he said, without glancing up from his sudoku puzzle. “I don’t run as fast as I used to. I could get used to chasing down bad guys like this.”
The crystal abruptly dropped and began swinging back and forth freely.
“Ah!” I said. “There, there, you see?” I let them look for a second and then lowered my arm. I rubbed my sore muscles for a moment. “What did I tell you? He shook it off.”
“Oh, good,” Murphy said. “Now we have no clue where he is.”
I put the crystal into my pocket and grabbed Murphy’s desk phone. “Yet,” I said. I punched in a number and found out that you had to dial nine to get out. I started over, added a nine to the beginning of the number, and it rang.
“Graver,” Vince said.
“It’s Dresden,” I said. “Tell me what he just did, like thirty seconds ago.”
“Be patient,” Vince said, and hung up on me.
I blinked at the phone.
Murphy looked at me for a second and then smiled. “I just love it when I don’t know part of the plan, and the guy who does is all smug and cryptic,” she said. “Don’t you?”
I glowered at her and put the phone down. “He’ll call back.”
“The PI who is following Binder,” I said. “Guy named Vince Graver.”
Murphy’s eyebrows went up. “You’re kidding.”
Rawlins began to chortle, still working on his puzzle.
“What?” I said, looking back and forth between them.
“He was a vice cop in Joliet a couple of years ago,” Murphy said. “He found out that someone was beating up some of the call girls down there. He looked into it. Word came down to tell him to back off, but he went and caught a Chicago city councilman who liked to pound on his women for foreplay. What’s-his-name.”
“Dornan,” Rawlins supplied.
“Right, Ricardo Dornan,” Murphy said.
“Huh,” I said. “Took some guts.”
“Hell, yeah,” Rawlins said. “And some stupid.”
“It’s a fine line,” Murphy said. “Anyway, he pissed off some people. Next thing he knows, he finds out he volunteered for a transfer to CPD.”
“Three guesses where,” Rawlins said.
“So he resigns,” Murphy said.
“Yeah,” Rawlins said. “Without even giving us a chance to meet him.”
Murphy shook her head. “Went into private practice. There’s a guy who is a glutton for punishment.”
“He drives a Mercedes,” I said. “Has his own house, too.”
Rawlins put his pencil down and they both looked up at me.
I shrugged. “I’m just saying. He must be doing all right for himself.”
“Hngh,” Rawlins said. Then he picked up his pencil and went back to the puzzle. “Ain’t no justice.”
Murphy grunted with nigh-masculine skill.
A couple of minutes later, the phone rang, and Murphy answered it. She passed it to me.
“Your guy’s a nut,” Vince said.
“I know that,” I told him. “What’s he doing?”
“Took a cab to a motel on the highway north of town,” Vince said. “Stopped at a convenience store on the way. Then he goes to his room, shaves himself bald, comes out in his skivvies, and jumps in the damn river. Goes back inside, takes a shower—”
“How do you know that?” I asked.
“I broke into his room while he was doing it,” Vince said. “Maybe you could save your questions until the end of the presentation.”
“Hard to imagine you not fitting in with the cops,” I said.
Vince ignored the comment. “He takes a shower and calls another cab.”
“Tell me you followed the cab,” I said.
“Tell me your check cleared.”
“I’m good for it.”
“Yeah, I’m following the cab right now,” Vince said. “But I don’t need to. He’s headed for the Hotel Sax.”
“Who are you, the Amazing Kreskin?”
“Listened in on the cabbie’s CB,” he said. “ETA, eighteen minutes.”
“Eighteen?” I asked.
“Usually found between seventeen and nineteen,” he said. “I can’t guarantee I can stay on him at the hotel, especially if he tumbles to the tail. Too many ways out.”
“I’ll take it from there. Do not get close to him, man. You get an instinct he’s looking in your direction, run for the hills. This guy’s dangerous.”
“Yeah,” Vince said. “Hell, I’m lucky I haven’t wet my pants already.”
“I know you are. It’s cute. Seventeen minutes.”
“I’ll be there.”
“With my check. I’ve got a two-day minimum. You know that, right?”
“Right, right,” I said. “I’ll be there.”
“What have we got?” Murphy asked as I put the phone down.
“Binder thinks he shook me,” I said. “He’s headed for a meeting at Hotel Sax.”
She stood up and grabbed her car keys. “How do you know it’s a meeting?”
“Because he’s been made. If he was here alone, he’d be on his way out of town right now.” I nodded. “He’s running back to whoever hired him.”
“Who is that?” Murphy asked.
“Let’s find out.”
The Hotel Sax is a pretty good example of its kind in the beating heart of downtown Chicago. It’s located on Dearborn, just across the street from the House of Blues, and if you look up while standing outside of the place, it looks like someone slapped one of those fish-eye camera lenses on the sky. Buildings stretch up and up and up, at angles that seem geometrically impossible.
Many similar sections of Chicago have wider streets than you find in other metropolises, and it makes them feel slightly less claustrophobic, but outside of the Sax, the street was barely three narrow lanes across, curb to curb. As Murphy and I approached, looking up made me feel like an ant walking along the bottom of a crack in the sidewalk.
“It bugs you, doesn’t it?” Murphy said.
We walked under a streetlight, our shadows briefly equal in length. “What?”
“Those big things looming over you.”
“I wouldn’t say it bothers me,” I said. “I’m just . . . aware of them.”
She faced serenely ahead as we walked. “Welcome to my life.”
I glanced down at her and snorted quietly.
We entered the lobby of the hotel, a place with a lot of glass and white paint with rich red accents. Given how late it was, it was no surprise only one member of the staff was visible: a young woman who stood behind one of the glass-fronted check-in counters. One guest reading a magazine sat in a nearby chair, and even though he was the only guy in the room, it took me a second glance to realize that he was Vince.
Vince set the magazine aside and ambled over to us. His unremarkable brown eyes scanned over Murphy. He nodded to her and offered me his hand.
I shook it, and offered a check to him with my left as we did. He took it, glanced at it noncommittally, and put it away in a pocket. “He took an elevator to the twelfth floor,” Vince said. “He’s in room twelve thirty-three.”
I blinked at him. “How the hell did you get that? Ride up with him?”
“Good way for me to get hurt. I stayed down here.” He shrugged. “You said he was trouble.”
“He is. How’d you do it?”
He gave me a bland look. “I’m good at this. You need to know which chair he’s in, too?”
“No. That’s close enough,” I said.
Vince looked at Murphy again, frowned, and then frowned at me. “Jesus,” he said. “You two look pretty serious.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I told you, this guy’s dangerous. He have anyone with him?”
“One person,” he said. “A woman, I think.”
Murphy suddenly smiled.
“How the hell do you know that?” I asked him.
“Room service,” she said.
Vince smiled in faint approval at Murphy and nodded his head. “Could have been someone else on twelve who ordered champagne and two glasses two minutes after he got off the elevator. But this late at night, I doubt it.” Vince glanced at me. “I’ll take the bill I duked the steward out of my fee.”
“Appreciated,” I said.
He shrugged. “That it?”
“Yeah. Thanks, Vince.”
“As long as the check clears,” he said, “you’re welcome.” He nodded to me, to Murphy, and walked out of the hotel.
Murphy eyed me, after Vince left, and smiled. “The mighty Harry Dresden. Subcontracting detective work.”
“They’re expecting me to be all magicky and stuff,” I said. “And I gave them what they expected to see. Binder wouldn’t have been looking for someone like Vince.”
“You’re just annoyed because they pulled that trick on you,” Murphy said. “And you’re taking your vengeance.”
I sniffed. “I like to think of it as symmetry.”
“That does make it sound nobler,” she said. “We obviously can’t just go up there and haul them off somewhere for questioning. What’s the plan?”
“Get more information,” I said. “I’m gonna listen in and see what they’re chatting about.”
Murphy nodded, glancing around. “Hotel security is going to have an issue with you lurking about the hallways. I’ll go have a word with them.”
I nodded. “I’ll be on twelve.”
“Don’t kick down any doors without someone to watch your back,” she warned me.
“No kicking at all,” I said. “Not until I know enough to kick them where it’s going to hurt.”
I went up to the twelfth floor, left the elevator, and pulled a can of Silly String out of my duster pocket. I shook it up as I walked down the hallway until I found room twelve thirty-three. Then, without preamble, I blasted a bit of the Silly String at the door. It slithered cheerfully through the air and stuck.
Then I turned and walked back down the hall until I found a door that opened onto a tiny room containing an ice dispenser and a couple of vending machines. I sat down, drew a quick circle around me on the tile floor with a dry-erase marker, and got to work.
I closed the circle with an effort of will, and it sprang up around me in a sudden invisible screen. It wasn’t exactly a heavy-duty magical construct, but such a quick circle would still serve perfectly well to seal away external energies and allow me to gather my own and shape it for a specific purpose without interference. I took the Silly String and sprayed a bunch of it into the palm of my left hand so that it mounded up sort of like shaving cream. Then I set the can down, held the mound of Silly String out in front of me, closed my eyes, and gathered my will.
Working magic is all about creating connections. Earlier, I’d taken Binder’s hairs to create a link back to him and used it for a tracking spell. I could have done any number of things with that connection, including some that were extremely nasty and dangerous. I’d seen it happen before, generally from the receiving end.
This time, I was creating a link between the Silly String in my hand, and the bit stuck to the door down the hall. They’d both come from the same can, and they’d been part of one distinct amount of liquid when they’d been canned. That meant I would be able to take advantage of that sameness and create a connection between them.
I focused my will on my desired outcome, gathered it all up together, and released it with a murmur of “Finiculus sonitus.” I reached out and smeared away a section of the circle I’d drawn, breaking it, and instantly began feeling a buzzing vibration in the palm of my left hand.
Then I tilted my head far to my right and slapped a bunch of Silly String into my left ear.
“Don’t try this at home folks,” I muttered. “I’m a professional.”
The first thing I heard was hectic-sounding, hyperactive music. A singer was screaming tunelessly and drums were pounding and someone was either playing electric guitars or slowly dipping partially laryngitic cats in boiling oil. None of the supposed musicians appeared to be paying attention to anything anyone else in the band was doing.
“Christ,” came Binder’s accented voice. “Not even you could dance to that tripe.”
There was a low-throated female laugh, and a slurred and very happy-sounding Madeline Raith replied, “This music isn’t about skill and precision, my sweet. It’s about hunger and passion. And I could dance to it to make your eyes fall out.”
“I am not ‘your sweet,’ ” Binder said, his voice annoyed. “I am not your anything, ducks, excepting your contracted employee.”
“I’m not sure I’d emphasize that if I were you, Binder,” Madeline said. “Since you’ve been a crushing disappointment as a hireling.”
“I told you when I got started that if anyone from the White Council showed up, I couldn’t make you any promises,” he shot back, his voice annoyed. “And lo and behold, what happens? That buggering lunatic Harry Dresden shows up with backup—and with the support of the local constabulary, to boot.”
“I’m getting so sick of this,” Madeline said. “He’s only one man.”
“One bloody member of the White bloody Council,” Binder countered. “Bear in mind that someone like him can do everything I can do and considerable besides. And even people on the bloody Council are nervous about that one.”
“Well, I’m sick of him,” spat Madeline. “Did you find out where he’s got Morgan hidden?”
“Maybe you didn’t hear, love, but I spent my day chained to a chair getting popped in the mouth.”
Madeline laughed, a cold, mocking sound. “There are places you’d have to pay for that.”
“Not bloody likely.”
“Did you find Morgan?”
Binder growled. “Dresden had him stashed in rental storage for a bit, but he hared off before the cops could pick him up. Probably took him into the Nevernever. They could be anywhere.”
“Not if Dresden is back in Chicago,” Madeline said. “He’d never let himself be too far from Morgan.”
“So check his bloody apartment,” Binder said.
“Don’t be an idiot,” Madeline said. “That’s the first place anyone would look. He’s not a total moron.”
Yeah. I wasn’t. Ahem.
Binder snickered. “You’re money, Raith. Money never really gets it.”
Madeline’s voice turned waspish. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“That not everyone has a bloody string of mansions around the world that they live in or extra cars that they never really drive or cash enough to not think twice about dropping two hundred bloody dollars on a bottle of forty-dollar room service champagne.”
“So, Dresden’s a bloody kid by Council standards. Lives in that crappy little hole. And pays for an office for his business, to boot. He ain’t had a century or two of compounded interest to shore up his accounts, now, has he? And when he set himself up an emergency retreat, did he buy himself a furnished condo in another town? No. He rents out a cruddy little storage unit and stacks some camping gear inside.”
“All right,” Madeline said, her tone impatient. “Suppose you’re right. Suppose he’s got Morgan at his apartment. He won’t have left him unprotected.”
“Naturally not,” Binder replied. “He’ll have a bloody minefield of wards around the place. Might have some conjured guardians or some such as well.”
“Could you get through them?”
“Give me enough time and enough of my lads, and yeah,” he said. “But it wouldn’t be quick, quiet, or clean. There’s a simpler way.”
“Burn the bloody place down,” Binder said promptly. “The apartment’s got one door. If Morgan comes scurrying out, we bag him. If not, we collect his bones after the ashes cool. Identify him with dental records or something and claim the reward.”
I felt a little bit sick to my stomach. Binder was way too perceptive for my comfort level. The guy might not be overly smart, but he was more than a little cunning. His plan was pretty much exactly the best way to attack my apartment, defensive magicks notwithstanding. What’s more, I knew he was capable of actually doing it. It would kill my elderly neighbors, the other residents of the building, but that wouldn’t slow someone like Binder down for half of a second.
“No,” Madeline said after a tense moment of silence. “I have my instructions. If we can’t take him ourselves, we at least see to it that the Wardens find him.”
“The Wardens havefound him,” Binder complained. “Dresden’s a bloody Warden. Your boss should have paid up already.”
There was a quiet, deadly silence, and then Madeline purred, “You’ve been modestly helpful to him in the past, Binder. But don’t start thinking that you would survive telling him what he should or should not do. The moment you become more annoying than useful, you are a dead man.”
“No sin to want money,” Binder said sullenly. “I did my part to get it.”
“No,” Madeline said. “You lost a fight to one overgrown Boy Scout and one pint-sized mortal woman, got yourself locked up by thepolice, of all the ridiculous things, and missed your chance to earn the reward.” Sheets rustled, and soft footsteps whispered on the carpet. A moment later, a lighter flicked—Madeline smoked.
Binder spoke again, in a tone of voice that indicated he was changing the topic of conversation. “You going to clean that up?”
“That’s exactly why it’s there,” Madeline said. She took a drag and said, “Cleaning up. It’s too bad you didn’t get here five minutes sooner.”
“And why is that?”
“Because I probably would have waited to make the call.”
I felt myself leaning forward slightly and holding my breath.
“What call?” Binder said.
“To the Wardens, naturally,” Madeline said. “I told them that Morgan was in town and that Dresden was sheltering him. They should be here within the hour.”
I felt my mouth drop open and my stomach did a cartwheeling back-flip with an integrated quadruple axle.
Murphy looked at the Rolls and said, “You’re kidding.” We’d driven down to the Sax separately, and she hadn’t seen the wheels I was using. I was parked closer to the hotel, so we were about to get into the Silver Wraith together.
“It’s a loaner,” I said. “Get in.”
“I am not a material girl,” she said, running a hand over the Rolls’s fender. “But . . . damn.”
“Can we focus, here?” I said. “The world’s coming to an end.”
Murphy shook her head and then got in the car with me. “Well. At least you’re going out in style.”
I got the Rolls moving. It got plenty of looks, even in the dead of night, and the other motorists out so late gave it a generous amount of room, as if intimidated by the Wraith’s sheer artistry.
“Actually,” I said, “I’m kind of finding the Rolls to be irrationally comforting.”
Murphy glanced aside at me. “Why’s that?”
“I know how I’m going to die, you know? One of these days, maybe real soon, I’m going to find out I’ve bitten off more than I can chew.” I swallowed. “I mean, I just can’t keep from sticking my nose in places people don’t want it. And I always figured it would be the Council who punched my ticket, regardless of who believed what about me. Because there’s a bunch of assholes there, and I just can’t let them wallow in their own bull and pretend it’s an air of nobility.”
Murphy’s expression became more sober. She listened in silence.
“Now the Council’s coming. And they’ve got good reason to take me out. Or it looks like it to them, which is the same thing.” I swallowed again. My mouth felt dry. “But . . . I somehow just have the feeling that when I go out . . . it isn’tgoing to be in style.” I gestured at the Rolls with a vague sweep of one hand. “This just isn’t the car I drive to my death. You know?”
Murph’s mouth tucked up at one corner, though most of the smile was in her eyes. She took my hand between hers and held it. Her hands felt very warm. Maybe mine were just cold. “You’re right, of course, Harry.”
“Definitely,” she said. “This car just isn’t you. You’ll die in some badly painted, hideously recycled piece of junk that seems to keep on running despite the laws of physics that say it should be melted scrap by now.”
“Whew,” I said. “I thought I might be the only one who thought that.”
Her fingers tightened on mine for a moment, and I clung back.
The Council was coming.
And there wasn’t anything I could do to fight them.
Oh sure, maybe I could poke someone in the nose and run. But they would catch up to me sooner or later. There would be more of them than me, some of them every bit as strong as I was, and all of them dangerous. It might take a day or a week or a couple of weeks, but I had to sleep sooner or later. They’d wear me down.
And that pissed me off. My sheer helplessness in the face of this whole stupid mess was infuriating.
It wasn’t as if I didn’t have options. . . . Mab still held a job offer open to me, for example. And it was more than possible that Lara Raith might have the resources to shield me, or broker me a better deal than the Council was going to offer. When I thought of how unfair the whole thing was, I had more than a passing desire to grab whatever slender threads I could reach, until I could sort things out, later.
Put that way, it almost sounded reasonable. Noble, even. I would, after all, be protecting other wrongly persecuted victims of the Council who littered the theoretical landscape of the future. It didn’t sound nearly so much like entering bargains that went against everything I believed so that I could forcibly impose my will over those who were against me.
I knew the truth. But just because it was true didn’t make it any less tempting.
What the hell was I going to do? I had a hidey-hole planned out, but it had already been compromised. There was nowhere even a little bit safe I could take Morgan but my apartment, and the Wardens were going to find him there. And on top of all that, I still had no freaking clue as to the identity of our mysterious puppet master.
Maybe it was time to admit it.
This one was too big for me. It had been from the very start.
“Murph,” I said quietly. “I don’t know how I’m going to get out of this.”
Silence filled the beautiful old car.
“When’s the last time you slept?” Murphy asked.
I had to take my hand back from hers to work the clutch. I gestured at my bandaged head. “I can barely remember what day of the week it is. This morning, a couple hours, I think?”
She nodded judiciously. “You know what your problem is?”
I eyed her and then started laughing. Or at least making an amused, wheezing sound. I couldn’t help it.
“Problem, singular,” I choked out, finally. “No, what?”
“You like to come off like you’re the unpredictable chaos factor in any given situation, but at the end of the day you obsess about having everything ordered the way you want it.”
“Have you seen my lab?”
“Again with the inappropriately timed come-ons,” Murphy said. “I’m serious, Harry.”
“I know some people who would really disagree with you. Like what’s-his-face, Peabody.”
“Yeah. Says I have no place in his bastion of order.”
She smirked. “The problem is that your bastion of order is sort of tough to coexist with.”
“I have no bastions. I am bastionless.”
“Hah,” Murphy said. “You like the same car, the same apartment, the same restaurant. You like not needing to answer to anyone, and doing the jobs your conscience dictates you should do, without worrying about the broader issues they involve. You hang out, fairly happy without much in the way of material wealth and follow your instincts, and be damned to anyone who tells you otherwise. That’s your order.”
I eyed her. “Is there some other way it should be?”
She rolled her eyes. “I rest my case.”
“And how is this my problem?”
“You’ve never really compromised your order for someone else’s, which is why you drive the Wardens nuts. They have procedures, they have forms, they have reports—and you ignore them unless someone twists your arm to make you do it. Am I right?”
“Still don’t see how that’s a problem.”
She rolled down the passenger-side window and let one hand hang out. “It’s a problem because you never learned how to adjust inside someone else’s order,” she said. “If you had, you’d realize what an incredible force you have working on your side.”
“Bureaucracy,” Murphy said.
“I would rather have the A-Team.”
“Listen and learn, maverick,” Murphy said. “The Wardens are an organization, right?”
“Lots of members.”
“Almost three hundred and growing,” I said.
“Lots of members who all have many obligations, who live in different areas, who speak different languages, but who have to communicate and work together somehow?”
“Behold,” Murphy said. “Bureaucracy. Organization to combat the entropy that naturally inhibits that kind of cooperative effort.”
“Is there going to be a quiz later, or . . . ?”
She ignored me. “Bureaucracies share common traits—and I think you’ve got more time to move in than you realize. If you weren’t tired and hurting and an obnoxious fly in the ointment to anyone’s order but your own, you’d see that.”
I frowned. “How so?”
“Do you think Madeline Raith called up the White Council on her home phone, identified herself, and just told them you were helping Morgan?” Murphy shook her head. “ ‘Hello, I’m the enemy. Let me help you for no good reason.’ ”
I sucked thoughtfully on my lower lip. “The Wardens would probably assume that she was trying to divert their resources during a manpower-critical situation.”
Murphy nodded. “And while they will look into it, they’ll never really believe it, and it will go straight to the bottom of their priority list.”
“So she calls in an anonymous tip instead. So?”
“So how many tips do you think the Wardens have gotten?” Murphy asked. “Cops go through the same thing. Some big flashy crime goes down and we have a dozen nuts claiming credit or convinced their neighbor did it, another dozen jerks who want to get their neighbor in trouble, and three times that many well-meaning people who have no clue whatsoever and think they’re helping.”
I chewed on that thought for a moment. Murphy wasn’t far off the mark. There were plenty of organizations and Lord only knew how many individuals who would want to stay on the Wardens’ good side, or who would want to impress them, or who would simply want to have a real reason to interact with them. Murph was probably right. There probably were tips flooding in from all over the world.
“They’ll check the tip out,” Murphy said. “But I’m willing to bet you real money that, depending on their manpower issues, it won’t happen until several hours after the tip actually makes it into the hands of the folks running the show—and with any luck, given the Council’s issues with technology and communication,that will take a while as well.”
I mulled that one over for a minute. “What are you saying?”
She put her hand on my arm and squeezed once. “I’m saying don’t give up yet. There’s still a little time.”
I turned my head and studied Murphy’s profile for a moment.
“Really?” I asked her quietly.
She nodded. “Yeah.”
Like “love,” “hope” is one of those ridiculously disproportional words that by all rights should be a lot longer.
I resettled my grip on the Rolls’s steering wheel. “Murph?”
“You’re one hell of a dame.”
“Sexist pig,” she said. She smiled out the windshield. “Don’t make me hurt you.”
“Yeah,” I said. “It wouldn’t be ladylike.”
She shook her head as we neared my apartment. “If you like,” she said, “take him to my place. You can hide out there.”
I didn’t actually smile, but her words made me feel like doing it. “Not this time. The Wardens know where you live, remember? If they start looking hard at me . . .”
“. . . they’ll check me out, too,” Murphy said. “But you can’t keep him at your place.”
“I know that. I also know that I can’t drag anyone else into the middle of this clust—this mess.”
“There’s got to be somewhere,” she said. “Someplace quiet. And not well-known. And away from crowds.” She paused. “And where you can protect him from tracking magic. And where you’d have the advantage, if it did come to a fight.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Okay,” Murphy said. “I guess maybe there aren’t any places like that around here.”
I snapped my head up straight.
“Hell’s bells!” I breathed. I felt a grin stretch my mouth. “I think maybe there is!”
I came through my apartment door, took one look around the candlelit place, and half shouted, “Hell’s bells! What is wrong with you people!?”
Morgan sat slumped against the wall with the fireplace, and fresh spots of blood showed through his bandages. His eyes were only partly open. His hand lay on the floor beside him, limp, the fingers half curled. A tiny little semiautomatic pistol lay on the floor beneath his hand. It wasn’t mine. I have no idea where he’d been hiding it.
Molly was on the floor in front of the sofa, with Mouse literally sitting on her back. She was heaving breaths in and out, making the big dog rise and settle slightly as she did.
Luccio lay where I’d left her on the couch, flat on her back, her eyes closed, obviously still unconscious. Mouse had one of his paws resting lightly on her sternum. Given the nature of her recent injury, it seemed obvious that he would need to exert minimal pressure on her to immobilize her with pain, should she awaken.
The air smelled of cordite. Mouse’s fur, all down his left foreleg, was matted and caked with blood.
When I saw that, I rounded on Morgan in a fury, and if Murphy hadn’t stepped forward and grabbed my arm with both hands, I would have started kicking his head flat against my wall. I settled for kicking the gun away instead. If I got a couple of his fingers, too, it didn’t bother me much at the time.
Morgan watched me with dull, hardly conscious eyes.
“I swear,” I snarled. “I swear to God, Morgan, if you don’t explain yourself I’m going to strangle you dead with my own hands and drag your corpse back to Edinburgh by the balls.”
“Harry!” Murphy shouted, and I realized that she had positioned her entire body between me and Morgan and she was leaning against me like a soldier struggling to raise a flag.
Morgan bared his teeth, more rictus than smile. “Your warlock,” he said, his voice dry and leathery, “was trying to enter Captain Luccio’s mind against her will.”
I surged forward, and Murphy pushed me back again. I weighed twice what she did, but she had good leverage and focus. “And so you shot my dog?” I screamed.
“He interposed himself,” Morgan said. He coughed, weakly, and closed his eyes, his face turning greyer. “Never meant . . . to hit . . .”
“I swear to God,” I snarled, “that’s it. That is it. Molly and I are going right to the wall for you, and this is how you repay us? I am pushing your paranoid ass out my door, leaving you there, and starting a pool on who comes for you first—the Black Council, the Wardens, or the goddamn buzzards.”
“H-Harry,” Molly said in a weak, nauseated, and . . . shamedvoice barely more than a whisper.
I felt my anger abruptly drain away, to be replaced by a wave of denial and a slowly dawning sense of horror. I turned, slowly, to look at Molly.
“He was right,” she wheezed, not looking at me, struggling to speak over the burden of Mouse’s weight. I could hear the tears reflected in her voice as they began to fall. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Harry. He was right.”
I leaned my shoulders back against the wall and watched as Mouse looked at me with grave, pained eyes and stayed right where he was—both holding Molly down and shielding her body with his.
We got Morgan put back into bed, and then I went over to Mouse. “Okay,” I said. “Move.”
Only then did Mouse remove himself from Molly’s back, limping heavily to one side. I knelt down by him and examined his leg. He flattened his ears and leaned away from me. I said firmly, “Stop that. Hold still.”
Mouse sighed and looked miserable, but he let me poke at his leg. I found the wound, up near his shoulder, and a hard lump under the skin.
“Get up,” I said to Molly, my tone steady. “Go to the lab. Get the medical kit under the table. Then get the little scissors and a fresh razor from the cabinet in my bathroom.”
She pushed herself up slowly.
“Move,” I said, my voice quiet and level and unyielding.
She was obviously still recovering from being pinned to the floor. But she moved quicker, and staggered down to my lab.
Murphy knelt down next to me and ruffled Mouse’s ears. He gave her a miserable look. She held up Morgan’s gun. “Twenty-five caliber,” she said. “Big as he is, wouldn’t have been easy to kill him with it, even on purpose.” She shook her head. “Or Molly, for that matter.”
“Meaning what?” I asked her.
“Meaning maybe Morgan didn’t intend the attack to be lethal. Maybe he used the smaller weapon for that reason.”
“He used the smaller weapon because it was the only one he had,” I said, my voice harsh. “He’d have killed Molly if he could have.”
Murphy was quiet for a moment before she said, “That’s attempted murder.”
I glanced up at her for a second. Then I said, “You want to arrest him.”
“It isn’t an issue of what I want,” she said. “I’m an officer of the law, Harry.”
I thought about that for a moment. “The Council might—they might—respect it,” I said quietly. “In fact, I’m certain they would. It would be the Merlin’s call, and he’d love nothing better than to buy more time to work out how to get Morgan out of this mess.”
“But others wouldn’t,” she said.
“Madeline and Shagnasty sure wouldn’t,” I said. “And if Morgan’s in jail, there’s no way to force Shagnasty into a confrontation where I have a chance to take Thomas back.” I looked at Mouse’s wound. “Or trade him.”
“You’d do that?” she asked.
“Morgan? For Thomas?” I shook my head. “I . . . Hell’s bells, it would make a mess. The Council would go berserk. But . . .”
But Thomas is my brother. I didn’t say it. I didn’t need to. Murphy nodded.
Molly reappeared with the things I’d sent her for, plus a bowl and a pair of needle-nose pliers. Smart girl. She poured rubbing alcohol into a bowl and started sterilizing the suture needle, the thread, the scalpel, and the pliers. Her hands moved like they knew what they were doing without need for her to consciously direct them. That probably shouldn’t have surprised me. Michael and Charity Carpenter’s eldest daughter had probably been taught to deal with injuries since the time she was physically large enough to do so.
“Mouse,” I said. “There’s a bullet inside you. Do you know what that is? The thing that a gun shoots that hurts?”
Mouse looked at me uncertainly. He was shaking.
I put my hand on his head and spoke steadily. “We’ve got to take it out of you or it could kill you. It’s going to hurt, a lot. But I promise you that it won’t take long and that you’re going to be all right. I’ll protect you. Okay?”
Mouse made a very soft noise that only the ungracious would have called a whine. He leaned his head against my hand, trembled, and then very slowly licked my hand, once.
I smiled at him and leaned my head against his for a second. “It will be all right. Lie down, boy.”
Mouse did, stretching slowly, carefully out on his side, the wounded shoulder up.
“Here, Harry,” Molly said quietly, gesturing at the tools.
I looked at her, my face hard. “You’re doing it.”
She blinked at me. “What? But what I did . . . I don’t even—”
“I? I? Mouse just took a bullet for you, Miss Carpenter,” I said, my words precise. “He wasn’t thinking of himself when he did it. He was putting his life at risk to protect you. If you want to remain my apprentice, you will stop saying sentences that begin with ‘I’ and repay his courage by easing his pain.”
Her face went white. “Harry . . .”
I ignored her and moved around to kneel by Mouse’s head, holding him down gently, stroking my hands over his thick fur.
My apprentice looked from me to Murphy, her expression uncertain. Sergeant Murphy stared back at her with calm cop eyes, and Molly averted her gaze hurriedly. She looked from her own hands to Mouse, and started crying.
Then she got up, went to the kitchen sink, and put a pot of water on the stove to boil. She washed her hands carefully, all the way to the elbow. Then she came back with the water, took a deep breath, and settled down beside the wounded dog, taking up the instruments.
She cut and shaved the area around the injury first, making Mouse flinch and quiver several times. I saw her cringe at each pained movement from the dog. But her hands stayed steady. She had to widen the tear in the dog’s flesh with the scalpel. Mouse actually cried out when the knife cut him, and she closed her eyes tight for a long count of three before she went back to work. She slid the pliers into the shallow injury and pulled out the bullet. It was a tiny thing, smaller than the nail on the end of my pinky, a distorted, oblong bit of shiny metal. Mouse groaned as she tugged it free.
She cleaned the site of the wound again, using the boiled water and disinfectant. Mouse flinched and cried out when she did so—the most agonized sound I had ever heard him make.
“I’m sorry,” Molly said, blinking tears out of the way. “I’m sorry.”
The injury was big enough to need a trio of stitches. Molly did them as swiftly as she possibly could, drawing more shudders of pain from Mouse. Then she cleaned the site again and covered it with a small pad that she cut to the proper size, affixing it to the bare-shaved skin around the injury with medical tape.
“There,” she said quietly. She leaned down and buried her face in the thick ruff of fur around Mouse’s throat. “There. You’ll be all right.”
Mouse moved very gingerly, moving his head to nudge against her hand. His tail thumped several times on the floor.
“Murph,” I said. “Give us a minute?”
“Sure,” she said quietly. “I need to make a call anyway.” She nodded to me and walked quietly to the apartment door—pointedly pausing to close the door from the living room to my small bedroom, shutting Morgan out of the conversation.
I sat with Mouse, stroking his head gently. “Okay,” I said to Molly. “What happened?”
She sat up and looked at me. She looked like she wanted to throw up. Her nose was running, now.
“I . . . it occurred to me, Harry, that . . . well, if the traitor wanted to really set the Council at one another’s throats, the best way to do it would be to force one of them to do something unforgiveable. Like, maybe force Morgan to kill Wizard LaFortier.”
“Gee,” I said. “That never once occurred to me, though I am older and wiser than you and have been doing this for most of your life, whereas you’ve been in the business for just under four years.”
She flushed. “Yes. Well. Then I thought that the best way to use that sort of influence wouldn’t be to use it on Morgan,” she said. “But on the people who would be after him.”
I lifted my eyebrows. “Okay,” I said. “At this point, I have to ask you if you know how difficult it is to manipulate the mind and will of anyone of significant age. Most wizards who are eighty or a hundred years old are generally considered more or less immune to that kind of gross manipulation.”
“I didn’t know that,” Molly said humbly. “But . . . what I’m talking about wouldn’t be a severe alteration to anyone. It wouldn’t be obvious,” she said. “You wouldn’t make someone turn into a raving lunatic and murderer. I mean, that’s sort of noticeable. Instead, you make sure that you just . . . sort of nudge the people who are chasing after Morgan into being a little bit more like you want them to be.”
I narrowed my eyes. It was an interesting line of thought. “Such as?”
“Well . . .” she said. “If someone is naturally quick to anger and prone to fighting, you highlight that part of their personality. You give it more importance than it would have without intervention. If someone is prone to maneuvering politically to take advantage of a situation, you bring that to the forefront of their personality. If someone is nursing a grudge, you shine a spotlight on it in their thoughts, their emotions, to get them to act on it.”
I thought about that one for a second.
“It’s how I’d do it,” Molly said quietly, lowering her eyes.
I looked at the young woman I’d been teaching. When I saw Molly, I always saw her smile, her sense of humor, her youth, and her joy. She was the daughter of a close friend. I knew her family and was often a guest in their home. I saw my apprentice, the effort she put into learning, her frustrations, and her triumphs.
I had never, until that very moment, thought of her as someone who might one day be a very, very scary individual.
I found myself smiling bitterly.
Who was I to throw stones?
“Maybe,” I said finally. “It would be one hell of a difficult thing to prove.”
She nodded. “But if it was going to be used, there’s one person who would without doubt be a target.”
I glanced at Luccio. Her mouth was open slightly as she slept. She was drooling a little. It was ridiculous and adorable.
“Yeah,” Molly said. “But she would never have let me look. You know she wouldn’t have.”
“For good reason,” I said.
Molly’s jaw tensed up for a second. “I know.”
“So you thought you’d look while everyone was unconscious,” I said. “When you wouldn’t get caught.”
She shrugged her shoulders.
“You told yourself that you were doing the right thing,” I said. “Just a peek, in and out.”
She closed her eyes. “I was . . . Harry, what if she isn’t being honest with you? What if all this time, she’s been getting close to you because she doesn’t trust you. What if she’s just like Morgan—only a lot better at hiding it?”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.
“No?” She met my eyes. “Whose apprentice was he, Harry? Who taught him to be the way he is? Who did he idolize so much that he modeled himself after her?”
I just sat there for a second.
Molly pressed the issue. “Do you honestly think that she never knew how Morgan treated you?”
I took a deep breath. Then I said, “Yeah. I think that.”
She shook her head. “You know better.”
“No,” I said. “I don’t.”
“You should,” she said fiercely. “I couldn’t take the chance that she would let you go down with Morgan. I had to know.”
I stared at her for a minute. Then I said, in a very quiet voice, “I always know when I’m being tempted to do something very, very wrong. I start sentences with phrases like, ‘I would never, ever do this—but.’ Or ‘I know this is wrong but.’ It’s the but that tips you off.”
“Harry,” Molly began.
“You broke one of the Laws of Magic, Molly. Willfully. Even though you knew it could cost you your life. Even though you knew that it could also cost mine.” I shook my head and looked away from her. “Hell’s bells, kid. I choose to trust Anastasia Luccio because that’s what people do. You don’t ever get to know for sure what someone thinks of you. What they really feel inside.”
“But I could—”
“No,” I said gently. “Even psychomancy doesn’t give you everything. We aren’t meant to know what’s going on in there. That’s what talking is for. That’s what trust is for.”
“Harry, I’m sorr—”
I lifted a hand. “Don’t apologize. Maybe I’m the one who let you down. Maybe I should have taught you better.” I petted Mouse’s head gently, looking away from her. “It doesn’t matter at the moment. People have died because I’ve been trying to save Morgan’s life. Thomas might still die. And now, if we do manage to save Morgan’s crusty old ass, he’s going to report that you’ve violated your parole. The Council will kill you. And me.”
She stared at me helplessly. “I didn’t mean to—”
“Get caught,” I said quietly. “Jesus Christ, kid. I trusted you.”
She wept more heavily now. Her face was a mess. She bowed her head.
“If Morgan goes down for this,” I said, “there’s going to be trouble like you wouldn’t believe. And even more people are going to die.” I stood up slowly. “So. I’m going to do everything in my power to save him.”
She nodded without looking up.
“So you’ve got a choice to make, grasshopper. You can come with me, knowing the cost if we succeed. Or you can go.”
“Go?” she whispered.
“Go,” I said. “Leave now. Run, for as long as you can. Hell, it looks a lot like I’m going to get myself killed anyway. Probably Morgan, too. In that case, things will go to hell, but the Wardens will be way too busy to chase you. You’ll be able to ignore what’s right all you want, do whatever you like—as long as you don’t get caught.”
She pressed her arms against her stomach. She sounded like she was about to throw up, through the sobs.
I put a hand on her head and said, “Or you can come with me. You can do something right. Something that has meaning.”
She looked up at me, her lovely young face discolored in anguish.
“Everyone dies, honey,” I said, very quietly. “Everyone. There’s no ‘if.’ There’s only ‘when.’ ” I let that sink in for a moment. “
When you die, do you want to feel ashamed of what you’ve done with your life? Feel ashamed of what your life meant?”
She stared at my eyes for a minute and a half of silence broken only by the sound of her muted weeping. Then her head twitched in a single tiny shake.
“I promise that I’ll be beside you,” I said. “I can’t promise anything else. Only that I’ll stand beside you for as long as I can.”
“Okay,” she whispered. She leaned against me.
I put my hand on her hair for a minute. Then I said gently, “We’re out of time. The Wardens will know Morgan is in Chicago within a few hours at most. They might be on their way already.”
“Okay,” she said. “Wh-what are we going to do?”
I took a deep breath. “Among other things, I’m going to attempt a sanctum invocation,” I said.
Her eyes widened. “But . . . you said that kind of thing was dangerous. That only a fool would take such a chance.”
“I agreed to help Donald freaking Morgan when he showed up at my door,” I sighed. “I qualify.”
She wiped at her eyes and nose. “What do I do?”
“Get my ritual box. Put it in the car Murphy’s cuddling up with outside.”
“Okay,” Molly said. She turned away but then paused and looked back over her shoulder at me. “Harry?”
“I know it was wrong, but . . .”
I looked at her sharply and frowned.
She shook her head and held up her hands. “Hear me out. I know it was wrong, and I didn’t get much of a look but . . . I swear to you. I think someone has tampered with Captain Luccio. I’d bet my life on it.”
I ignored the little chill that danced down my spine.
“Could be that you have,” I said quietly. “And mine, too. Go get the box.”
Molly hurried to comply.
I waited until she was outside to look at Mouse. The big dog sat up, his eyes gravely concerned. He wasn’t favoring his shoulder at all, and his movement was completely unimpaired.
Mouse got hit by the driver of a minivan once. He got back up, ran it down, and returned the favor. The Foo dog was very, very tough. I doubted he’d really needed the medical attention to recover, though I was also sure it would help speed things along. But I hadn’t been completely certain the injury wasn’t as serious as it looked.
In other words, the freaking dog had fooled Molly and me both.
“You were acting?” I said. “To make it hit Molly harder?”
His tail wagged back and forth proudly.
“Damn,” I said, impressed. “Maybe I should have named you Denzel.”
His jaws opened in a doggy grin.
“Earlier tonight,” I said, “when I was trying to figure out how to find Thomas, you interrupted me. I didn’t think about it before now, but you helped him track me down when Madrigal Raith was auctioning me off on eBay.”
His tail wagged harder.
“Could you find Thomas?”
“Woof,” he said, and his front paws bounced a couple of inches off the floor.
I nodded slowly, thinking. Then I said, “I’ve got another mission for you. One that could be more important. You game?”
He shook his fur out and padded to the door. Then he stopped and looked back over his shoulder at me.
“Okay,” I told him, walking to the door myself. “Listen up. Things are about to get sort of risky.”
I looked at Luccio’s still-unconscious form. The stress of coordinating the search for Morgan for who knows how long before he showed up, coupled with the pains of her injuries and the sedative effect of the painkillers I’d given her, meant that she’d never stirred. Not when the gun went off, not when we’d been talking, and not when we’d all had to work together to get Morgan back up the stairs and out to the silver Rolls.
I made sure she was covered with a blanket. The moment I did, Mister descended from his perch atop one of my bookcases, and draped himself languidly over her lower legs, purring.
I scratched my cat’s ears and said, “Keep her company.”
He gave me an inscrutable look that said maybe he would and maybe he wouldn’t. Mister was a cat, and cats generally considered it the obligation of the universe to provide shelter, sustenance, and amusement as required. I think Mister considered it beneath his dignity to plan for the future.
I got a pen and paper and wrote.
I’m running out of time, and visitors are on the way. I’m going someplace where I might be able to create new options. You’ll understand shortly.
I’m sorry I didn’t bring you, too. In your condition, you’d be of limited assistance. I know you don’t like it, but you also know that I’m right.
Help yourself to whatever you need. I hope that we’ll talk soon.
I folded the note and left it on the coffee table, where she’d see it upon waking. Then I bent over, kissed her hair, and left her sleeping safe in my home.
I parked the Rolls in the lot next to the marina. If we hurried, we could still get there before the witching hour, which would be the best time to try the invocation. Granted, trying it while injured and weary with absolutely no preritual work was probably going to detract more than enough from the ritual to offset the premium timing, but I was beggared for time and therefore not spoiling for choice.
“Allow me to reiterate,” Murphy said, “that I feel that this is a bad idea.”
“So noted,” I said. “But will you do it?”
She stared out the Rolls’s windshield at the vast expanse of Lake Michigan, a simple and enormous blackness against the lights of Chicago. “Yes,” she said.
“If there was anything else you could do,” I said, “I’d ask you to do it. I swear.”
“I know,” she said. “It just pisses me off that there’s nothing more I can add.”
“Well, if it makes you feel any better, you’re going to be in danger, too. Someone might decide to come by and try to use you against me. And if word gets back to the Council about how much you know, they’re going to blow a gasket.”
She smiled a bit. “Yes, thank you. I feel less left out now that I know someone might kill me anyway.” She shifted, settling her gun’s shoulder harness a little more comfortably. “I am aware of my limits. That isn’t the same thing as liking them.” She looked back at me. “How are you going to reach the others?”
“I’d . . . really rather not say. The less you know—”
“The safer I am?”
“No, actually,” I said. “The less you know, the safer I am. Don’t forget that we might be dealing with people who can take information out of your head, whether you want to give it or not.”
Murphy folded her arms and shivered. “I hate feeling helpless.”
“Yeah,” I said, “me, too. How’s he doing, Molly?”
“Still asleep,” Molly reported from the back of the limo. “I don’t think his fever is any higher, though.” She reached out and touched Morgan’s forehead with the back of one hand.
Morgan’s arm rose up and sharply slapped her arm away at the wrist, though he never changed the pace of his breathing or otherwise stirred. Christ. It was literally a reflex action. I shook my head and said, “Let’s move, people.”
Molly and I wrestled the wounded Warden into his wheelchair again. He roused enough to help a little, and sagged back into sleep as soon as he was seated. Molly slung the strap of my ritual box over her shoulder and started pushing Morgan across the parking lot to the marina docks. I grabbed a couple of heavy black nylon bags.
“And what do we have in there?” Murphy asked me.
“Party favors,” I said.
“You’re having a party out there?”
I turned my eyes to the east and stared out over the lake. You couldn’t see the island from Chicago, even on a clear day, but I knew it was there, a sullen and threatening presence. “Yeah,” I said quietly. A real party. Practically everyone who’d wanted to kill me lately would be there.
Murphy shook her head. “All of this over one man.”
“Over a hero of the Council,” I said quietly. “Over the most feared man on the Wardens. Morgan nearly took out the Red King himself—a vampire maybe four thousand years old, surrounded by some disgustingly powerful retainers. If he hadn’t bugged out, Morgan would have killed him.”
“You almost said something nice about him,” Murphy said.
“Not nice,” I said. “But I can acknowledge who he is. Morgan has probably saved more lives than you could count, over the years. And he’s killed innocents, too. I’m certain of it. He’s been the Council’s executioner for at least twenty or thirty years. He’s obsessive and tactless and ruthless and prejudiced. He hates with a holy passion. He’s a big, ugly, vicious attack dog.”
Murphy smiled faintly. “But he’s your attack dog.”
“He’s our attack dog,” I echoed. “He’d give his life without hesitation if he thought it was necessary.”
Murphy watched Molly pushing Morgan down the dock. “God. It’s got to be awful, to know that you’re capable of disregarding life so completely. Someone else’s, yours, doesn’t really matter which. To know that you’re so readily capable of taking everything away from a human being. That’s got to eat away at him.”
“For so long there’s not a lot left, maybe,” I said. “I think you’re right about the killer acting in desperation. This situation got way too confused and complicated for it to be a scheme. It’s just . . . a big confluence of all kinds of chickens coming home to roost.”
“Maybe that will make it simpler to resolve.”
“World War One was kind of the same deal,” I said. “But then, it was sort of hard to point a finger at any one person and say, ‘That guy did it.’ World War Two was simpler, that way.”
“You’ve been operating under the assumption that there is someone to blame,” Murphy said.
“Only if I can catch him.” I shook my head. “If I can’t . . . well.”
Murphy turned to me. She reached up with both hands, put them on the sides of my head, and pulled me down a little. Then she kissed my forehead and my mouth, neither quickly nor with passion. Then she let me go and looked up at me, her eyes worried and calm. “You know that I love you, Harry. You’re a good man. A good friend.”
I gave her a lopsided smile. “Don’t go all gushy on me, Murph.”
She shook her head. “I’m serious. Don’t get yourself killed. Kick whatsoever ass you need to in order to make that happen.” She looked down. “My world would be a scarier place without you in it.”
I chewed my lip for a second, feeling very awkward. Then I said, “I’d rather have you covering my back than anyone in the world, Karrin.” I cleared my throat. “You might be the best friend I’ve ever had.”
She blinked quickly several times and shook her head. “Okay. This is going somewhere awkward.”
“Maybe we should take it from ‘whatsoever ass,’ ” I suggested.
She nodded. “Find him. Kick his ass.”
“That is the plan,” I confirmed. Then I bent down and kissed her forehead and her mouth, gently, and leaned my forehead against hers. “Love you, too,” I whispered.
Her voice tightened. “You jerk. Good luck.”
“You, too,” I said. “Keys are in the ignition.”
Then I straightened, hitched up the heavy bags, and stalked toward the docks. I didn’t look at her as I walked away, and I didn’t look back.
That way, we could both pretend that I hadn’t seen her crying.
My brother owned an ancient battered commercial fishing boat. He told me it was a trawler. Or maybe he said troller. Or schooner. It was one of those—unless it wasn’t. Apparently, nautical types get real specific and fussy about the fine distinctions that categorize the various vessels—but since I’m not nautical, I don’t lose much sleep over the misuse of the proper term.
The boat is forty-two feet long and could have been a stunt double for Quint’s fishing boat in Jaws. It desperately needed a paint job, as the white of its hull had long since faded to grey and smoke-smudged black. The only fresh paint on it was a row of letters on the bow that read Water Beetle.
Getting Morgan on board was a pain—literally, in his case. We got him settled onto the bed in the little cabin and brought all the gear aboard. After that, I climbed up onto the bridge, started the engines with my copy of the Water Beetle’s key, and immediately realized I hadn’t cast off the lines. I had to go back down to the deck to untie us from the dock.
Look, I just told you—I’m not nautical.
Leaving the marina wasn’t hard. Thomas had a spot that was very near the open waters of the lake. I almost forgot to flick on the lights, but got them clicked on before we got out of the marina and onto the open water. Then I checked the compass next to the boat’s wheel, turned us a degree or two south of due east, and opened up the engine.
We started out over the blackness of the lake, the boat’s engines making a rather subdued, throaty lub lub dub lub sound. The boat had originally been built for charter use in the open sea, and it had some muscle. The water was calm tonight, and the ride remained smooth as we rapidly built up speed.
I felt a little nervous about the trip. Over the past year, Thomas and I had gone out to the island several times so that I could explore the place. He’d been teaching me how to handle the boat, but this was my first solo voyage.