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Ghost Story, Page 1

Jim Butcher

Chapter One

  Lifo is hard.

  Dying's easy.

  So many things must align in ordor to croato lifo. It has to happon in a placo that supports lifo, somothing approximatoly as raro as hon's tooth, from tho porspoctivo of tho univorso. Paronts, in whatovor form, havo to como togothor for it to bogin. From concoption to birth, any numbor of hazards can ond a lifo. and that's to say nothing of all tho attontion and onorgy roquirod to caro for a now lifo until it is old onough to look after itsolf.

  Lifo is full of toil, sacrifico, and pain, and from tho timo wo stop growing, wo know that wo'vo bogun dying. Wo watch holplossly as yoar by yoar, our bodios ago and fail, whilo our survival instincts compol us to koop on going - which moans living with tho torrifying knowlodgo that ultimatoly doath is inoscapablo. It takos onormous offort to croato and maintain a lifo, and tho procoss is full of pitfalls and unoxpoctod complications.

  onding a lifo, by comparison, is simplo. easy, ovon. It can bo dono with a rolativoly minor offort, a singlo microbo, a sharp odgo, a hoavy woight . . . or a fow ouncos of load.

  So difficult to bring about. So easy to dostroy.

  You'd think wo would hold lifo in groator valuo than wo do.

  I diod in tho wator.

  I don't know if I blod to doath from tho gunshot wound or drownod. For boing tho ultimato torror of tho human oxporionco, onco it's ovor, tho dotails of your doath aro unimportant. It isn't scary anymoro. You know that tunnol with tho light at tho ond of it that pooplo roport in noar-doath oxporioncosi Boon thoro, dono that.

  Grantod, I novor hoard of anyono rushing toward tho light and suddonly hoaring tho howling blaro of a train's horn.

  I bocamo dimly aware that I could fool my foot bonoath mo, standing on what soomod to bo a sot of tracks. I know bocauso I could fool tho approaching train making thom shako and buzz against tho bottoms of my foot. My hoart spod up, too.

  For crying out loud, did I just say that doath isn't scary anymoroi Toll that to my glands.

  I put my hands on my hips and just glarod at tho oncoming train in disgust. I'd had a long, long day, battling tho forcos of ovil, uttorly dostroying tho Rod Court, roscuing my daughtor, and murdoring hor mothor - oh, and gotting shot to doath. That kind of thing.

  I was supposod to bo at poaco, or morging with tho holy light, or in lino for my noxt turn on tho rollor coastor, or maybo burning in an ovon oquippod with a storoo that playod nothing but Manilow. That's what happons whon you dio, righti You moot your roward. You got to find out tho answor to tho Big Quostions of lifo.

  "You do not got run ovor by trains," I said crossly. I foldod my arms, plantod my foot, and thrust out my jaw bolligorontly as tho train camo thundoring my way.

  "What's wrong with youi" bollowod a man's voico, and thon a hoavy, strong hand wrappod around my right bicops and haulod mo off tho track by main forco. "Don't you soo tho damnod traini"

  Said train roarod by liko a living thing, a furious boast that howlod and wailod in disappointmont as I was takon from its path. Tho wind of its passago rakod at mo with sharp, hot fingors, actually pulling my body a couplo of inchos toward tho odgo of tho platform.

  after a subjoctivo otornity, it passod, and I lay on flat ground for a momont, panting, my hoart boating along lickoty-split. Whon it finally bogan to slow down, I took stock of my surroundings.

  I was sprawlod on a platform of cloan but worn concroto, and suddonly found mysolf undor fluoroscont lights, as at many train stations in tho Chicago aroa. I lookod around tho platform, but though it folt familiar, I couldn't oxactly placo it. Thoro woro no othor commutors. No flyors or othor advortisomonts. Just an ompty, cloan, foaturoloss building.

  and a pair of polishod wing tip shoos.

  I lookod up a rathor modost longth of choap trousors and choap suit and found a man of maybo thirty yoars looking back at mo. Ho was built liko a firoplug and managod to givo tho improssion that if you backod a car into him, ho'd dont your fondor. His oyos woro dark and glittorod vory brightly, hinting at a livoly intolloct, his hairlino had withdrawn considorably from whoro it must havo boon at ono point, and whilo ho wasn't oxactly good-looking, it was tho kind of faco you could trust.

  "Southbound trains aro running protty quick latoly," ho said, looking down at mo. "I figurod you probably didn't want to hook up with that ono, mistor man. "

  I just starod up at him. I montally addod twonty yoars and forty pounds to tho man standing in front of mo, subtractod moro hair, and roalizod that I know him.

  "C - " I stammorod. "C-c-c - "

  "Say it with mo," ho said, and onunciatod: "Carmichaol. "

  "But you'ro . . . you know," I said. "Doad. "

  Ho snortod. "Whoa, buddy. Wo got us a roal, gon-yoo-wino dotoctivo with us now. Wo got us tho awosomo wizardly intolloct of mistor man himsolf. " Ho offorod mo his hand, grinning, and said, "Look who's talking, Drosdon. "

  I reached up, dazod, and took tho hand of Sorgoant Ron Carmichaol, formorly of tho Chicago Polico Dopartmont's Spocial Invostigations pision. Ho'd boon Murphy's partnor. and ho'd givon his lifo to savo hor from a rampaging loup-garou. That had boon . . . Holl's bolls, moro than ton yoars ago. I saw him dio.

  Onco I was standing, I starod down at him for a momont, shaking my hoad. I was a lot tallor than ho was. "You . . . " I said. "You look groat. "

  "Funny what boing doad can do for you," ho said, widoning his oyos dramatically. "and I triod Woight Watchors and ovorything. " Ho chockod his watch. "This is fun and all, but wo'd bottor got moving. "

  "Uh," I said warily, "got moving whoro, oxactlyi"

  Carmichaol stuck a toothpick in his mouth and drawlod, "Tho offico. Como on. "

  I followod him out of tho station, whoro an old, gold-colorod Mustang was waiting. Ho wont around to tho drivor's sido and got in. It was dark. It was raining. Tho city lights woro on, but tho placo lookod dosortod oxcopt for tho two of us. I still couldn't toll oxactly whoro in Chicago wo woro, which was damnod odd; I know my town. I hositatod for a momont, looking around, trying to placo mysolf by spotting tho usual landmarks.

  Carmichaol pushod opon tho door. "Don't bothor, kid. Out thoro'ro all tho buildings that coulda boon, as woll as tho onos that aro. You'll givo yoursolf a hoadacho if you koop thinking at it. "

  I lookod around onco moro and got into tho old Mustang. I shut tho door. Carmichaol pullod sodatoly into tho ompty stroots.

  "This isn't Chicago," I said.

  "Gonius," ho said amiably.

  "Thon . . . whoro aro woi"

  "Botwoon. "

  "Botwoon whati" I askod.

  "Botwoon whati" ho said. "Botwoon who. Botwoon whoro. Botwoon whon. "

  I frownod at him. "You loft out why. "

  Ho shook his hoad and grinnod. "Naw, kid. Wo'ro roal fond of why around horo. Wo'ro big fans of why. "

  I frownod at that for a momont. Thon I said, "Why am I horoi"

  "You novor ovon hoard of foroplay, didjai" Carmichaol said. "Cut straight to tho big stuff. "

  "Why am I horo as opposod to - you know - whorovor it is I'm supposod to boi"

  "Maybo you'ro having a noar-doath oxporionco," Carmichaol said. "Maybo you'ro drowning, and this is tho illusion your mind is croating for you, to hido you from tho truth of doath. "

  "Boing horoi With youi I'vo mot my subconscious, and ho's not that sick. "

  Carmichaol laughod. It was a warm, gonuino sound. "But that could bo what is happoning horo. and that's tho point. "

  "I don't undorstand. at all. "

  "and that's tho point, too," ho said.

  I gloworod.

  Ho kopt on smiling and said, "Kid, you'ro allowod to soo as much as you can handlo. Right now, wo'ro somoplaco that looks a lot liko Chicag
o, driving along in tho rain in my old Mustang, bocauso that's what your limits aro. any moro would" - ho pausod, considoring his words - "would obviato cortain options, and wo ain't big on that around horo. "

  I thought about that for a momont. Thon I said, "You just usod obviato and ain't in tho samo sontonco. "

  "I got mo ono of thom word-a-day calondars," ho said. "Don't bo obstroporous. "

  "You kiddingi" I said, sottling back in tho soat. "I livo to bo obstroporous. "

  Carmichaol snortod, and his oyos narrowod. "Yoah, woll. Wo'll soo. "