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Grave Peril, Page 20

Jim Butcher

Chapter Twenty

  I wouldn't have thought you could find a peaceful, suburbanish neighborhood in the city of Chicago. Michael had managed, not too far west of Wrigley Field. Ancient old trees lined either side of the street in stately splendor. The homes were mostly old Victorian affairs, restored after a fluctuating economy and a century of wear and tear had reduced them to trembling firetraps. Michael's house looked like it was made of gingerbread. Fancy trim, elegant paint in ivory and burgundy - and, perhaps inevitably, a white picket fence around the house and its front yard. The porch light cast a circle of white radiance out onto the front lawn, almost to the edge of the property.

  I slewed the Beetle up onto the curb in front of the house and pushed my way through the swinging gate, clomping up the stairs to rattle the knocker against the front door. I figured that it would take Michael a minute to stagger out of bed and come down the stairs, but instead I heard a thump, a pair of long steps, and then the curtains of the window beside the door stirred. A second later, the door opened, and Michael stood there, blinking sleep out of his eyes. He wore a pair of jeans and a T-shirt with JOHN 3:16 across his chest. He held one of his kids in his brawny arms, one I hadn't seen yet - maybe a year old, with a patch of curly, golden hair, her face pressed against her daddy's chest as she slept.

  "Harry," Michael said. His eyes widened. "Merciful Father, what's happened to you?"

  "It's been a long night," I said. "Have I been here yet?"

  Michael peered at me. "I'm not sure what you mean, Harry. "

  "Good. Then I haven't. Michael, you've got to wake your family up, now. They could be in danger. "

  He blinked at me again. "Harry, it's late. What on earth - "

  "Just listen. " In terse terms, I outlined what I'd learned about the Nightmare, and how it was getting to its victims.

  Michael stared at me for a minute. Then he said, "Let me get this straight. The ghost of a demon I killed two months ago is rampaging around Chicago, getting into people's dreams, and eating their minds from the inside. "

  "Yeah," I said.

  "And now it's taken a part of you, manifested a body that looks like you, and you think it's coming here. "

  "Yes," I said. "Exactly. "

  Michael pursed his lips for a moment. "Then how do I know that you aren't this Nightmare, trying to get me to invite you in?"

  I opened my mouth. Closed it again. Then said, "Either way, it's better if I stay out here. Charity would probably gouge out my eyes for showing up at this hour. "

  Michael nodded. "Come on in, Harry. Let me put the baby to bed. "

  I stepped inside, into a small entry hall with a polished hardwood floor. Michael nodded toward his living room, to the right, and said, "Sit down. I'll be back in a second. "

  "Michael," I said. "You should wake your family up. "

  "You said this thing is in a solid body, right?"

  "It was a few minutes ago. "

  "Then it's not in the Nevernever. It's here, in Chicago. It can't get into people's dreams from here. "

  "I don't think so, but - "

  "And it's going to be after the people who were near it when it died. It's going to come after me. "

  I chewed on my lip for a second. Then I said, "It's got a part of me in it, too. "

  Michael frowned at me.

  "If I was going to come after you, Michael," I said. "I wouldn't start with you. "

  He looked down at the child he carried. His face hardened, and he said, in a very soft voice, "Harry. Sit. I'll be down in a moment. "

  "But it might - "

  "I'll see to it," he said in that same soft, gentle voice. It scared me. I sat down. He took the child, walking softly, and vanished up a stairway.

  I sat for a moment in a big, comfortable easy chair, the kind that rocks back and forth. There was a towel and a half-emptied bottle off to my left, on the lamp table. Michael must have been rocking the little girl to sleep.

  Beside the bottle was a note. I leaned forward and picked it up, reading:

  Michael. Didn't want to wake you and the baby. The little one is demanding pizza and ice cream. I'll be back in a few minutes - probably before you wake up and read this. Love, Charity.

  I stood up, and started toward the stairs. Michael appeared at the top of them, his face pale. "Charity," he said. "She's gone. "

  I held up the note. "She went to the store for pizza and ice cream. Pregnant cravings, I guess. "

  Michael came down the stairs and brushed past me. Then he reached into the entry hall closet and pulled out a blue Levi's jacket and Amoracchius in its black scabbard.

  "What are you waiting for, Harry? Let's go find her. "

  "But your kids - "

  Michael rolled his eyes, took a step to the door, and jerked it open without looking away from me. Father Forthill stood on the other side, his thinning hair windblown, his bright blue eyes surprised behind his wire-rimmed spectacles. "Oh. Michael. I didn't mean to stop by so late, but my car stalled only a block from here on the way back from taking Mrs. Hamish home, and I thought I might borrow - " He paused, looking from me to Michael and then back to me again. "You need a babysitter again, don't you. "

  Michael shrugged into his jacket and slung the sword belt over his shoulder. "They're already asleep. Do you mind?"

  Father Forthill stepped in. "Never. " He made the Cross over each of us again and murmured, "God go with you. "

  We started out of the house and to Michael's truck. "You see, Harry?"

  I scowled. "Handy fringe benefit. "

  Michael drove, the big white truck rumbling down the local streets toward a corner grocery on Byron Street, within a long sprint of the famous Graceland Cemetery. The lowering clouds rumbled and started dumping a steady, heavy rain down onto the city, giving all the lights golden halos and casting ghostly reflections on the wet streets.

  "This time of night," Michael said, "Walsham's is the only place open. She'll be there. " Thunder rumbled again in growling punctuation to the statement. I drummed my fingers on my scorched staff, and made sure that my blasting rod was hanging loosely by its thong around my wrist.

  "There's her van," Michael said. He pulled the truck up into the row of parking spots in front of the grocery, next to the white Suburban troop transport. He barely took the time to take his keys with him - instead just snatching out Amoracchius and loosening the great blade in its sheath as he strode toward the store's front doors, his eyes narrowed, his jaw set. The rain pasted his hair down to his head after a few steps, soaking his Levi's jacket dark blue. I followed him, wincing at the damage to my leather duster, and reflecting that the old canvas job would have fared better in this weather.

  Michael slammed the heel of his hand into the door, and it swept open with a jangling of tinny bells. He strode into the store, swept his eyes around the visible displays and the cash registers, and then bellowed, "Charity! Where are you?"

  A couple of teenage cashiers blinked at him, and an elderly woman perusing the vitamins turned to gawk at him through her spectacles. I sighed, then nodded to the nearest cashier, a too-skinny, too-blonde girl who looked as though she were impatient for her cigarette break. "Uh, hi," I said. "Did you see me come in here a minute ago?"

  "Or a pregnant woman," Michael said. "About this high. " He stuck his hand out flat about at the level of his own ear.

  The female cashier traded a look with her counterpart. "Seen you, mister?"

  I nodded. "Another guy, like me. Tall, skinny, all in black - jacket like mine, but all black clothes underneath. "

  The girl licked her lips and gave us a calculating look. "Maybe I have," she said. "What's in it for me?"

  Michael rolled forward a step, a growl bubbling up out of his throat. I grabbed at his shoulder and leaned back. "Whoah, whoah, Michael," I yelped. "Slow down, man. "

  "There isn't time to slow down," Michael muttered. "You detect. I'm looking. " With that, he turned and s
trode off deeper into the store, casually carrying the sword in his left hand, his right upon the weapon's grip. "Charity!"

  I muttered something unflattering under my breath, then turned back to the cashier. I fumbled in my pockets for my billfold, and managed to produce a sorry trio of wrinkled fives. I held them up and said, "Okay. My evil twin or else a pregnant woman. You seen either one?"

  The girl looked at the bills and then back at me and rolled her eyes. Then she leaned out from her counter and plucked them from my hands. "Yeah," she said. "She went down aisle five a few minutes ago. Back toward the freezer section. "

  "Yeah?" I asked. "Then what?"

  She smiled. "What? Is this your brother or something, running around with your woman? Am I going to see this on Larry Fowler tomorrow?"

  I narrowed my eyes. "It's complicated," I said. "What else did you see?"

  She shrugged. "She paid for some stuff, and went to that van out there. It wouldn't start. I saw you - or the guy that looks like you, come up to her and start talking to her. She looked pretty pissed at him, but she walked off with him. I didn't think anything of it. "

  My stomach gave a little lurch. "Walked off?" I said. "Which way?"

  The cashier shrugged. "Look, mister, she just looked like she was getting a ride somewhere. She wasn't fighting or nothing. "

  "Which way!" I thundered. The cashier blinked, and her jaded exterior wobbled for a moment. She pointed down the street - toward Graceland.

  "Michael!" I shouted. "Come on!" Then I turned around and banged my way back outside and into the rain and the dark. I stopped at Charity's van for a second, and tapped at the hood. It wobbled up without resistance, to reveal a mess of torn wires and shredded belts and broken pieces of metal. I winced, and shielded my eyes from the rain, trying to scan down the street toward the cemetery.

  In the far distance, just barely, I saw two figures - one ungainly, with long hair. The other stood tall over her, slender, walking toward the cemetery holding her firmly by the hair.

  They vanished into the shadows at the base of the stone wall around Graceland. I gulped, and looked around. "Michael!" I shouted again. I peered through the grocery's windows, but I couldn't see him anywhere.

  "Dammit!" I said, and kicked at the front bumper of the van. I was in no shape to go after the Nightmare on my own. It was full of power it had stolen from me. It had the booga booga factor going for it. And it had my friend's wife and unborn child as hostages.

  Hell's bells, all I had was a headache, an hourglass quickly running out of sand, and a case of the shakes. Chicago's biggest cemetery, on a dark, rainy night, when the border between here and the spirit world was leaking like a sieve. It would be full of spooks and crawlies, and I would be alone.

  "Yeah," I muttered. "That figures. "

  I sprinted for the darkness into which I had seen the Nightmare disappear with Charity.