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White Night, Page 6

Jim Butcher

Chapter 10~12

  Chapter Ten

  I swept the Beetle for bombs again and got the impression that I was going to get heartily sick of the chore, fast. It was clean, and off we went.

  I parked illegally on a street about a block from Anna Ash's apartment, and walked the rest of the way in. I rang buzzers more or less at random until someone buzzed me in, and headed back up the stairs to Anna's apartment.

  This time, though, I went in armed for bear. As I rode up in the elevator, I got out my jar of unguent, a dark brown concoction that stained the skin for a couple of days. I dabbed a finger in it and smeared it lightly onto my eyelids and at the base of my eyes. It was an ointment originally intended to counter faerie glamour, allowing those who had it to see through illusion to reality. It wasn't quite right for seeing through a veil wrought with mortal magic, but it should be strong enough to show me something of whatever the veil was hiding. I should be able to glimpse any motion, and that would at least give me an idea of which way to face if things got dicey.

  I brought Mouse for a reason, too. Besides being a small moun tain of loyal muscle and ferocious fangs, Mouse could sense bad guys and dark magic when they were nearby. I had yet to encounter the creature that could sneak by Mouse unobserved, but just in case today was the day, I had the unguent as a backup plan.

  I got off the elevator, and the hairs on the back of my neck immediately rose up. Mouse lifted his head sharply, looking back and forth down the hall. He'd felt what I had.

  A fine cloud of magic hung over the entire floor.

  I touched it carefully and found a suggestion of sleep - one of the classics, really. This one wasn't heavy, as such things go. I'd seen one sleep spell that flattened an entire ward of Cook County Hospital. I'd used another to protect Murphy's sanity, and it had kept her out for nearly two days.

  This one wasn't like that. It was light, barely noticeable, and not at all threatening. It was delicate and fine enough to filter into homes even through their thresholds - most of which were weak enough: Apartments never seemed to have as much defense as a real, discrete home. If those other spells had been sleeping medication, this one would have been a glass of warm milk. Someone wanted the residents of the floor to be insensible enough not to notice something, but not so out as to be endangered should there be an emergency, like the building catching fire and burning down.

  Don't look at me like that. It's a lot likelier than you'd think.

  Anyway, the suggestion was another finely crafted spell: delicate, precise, subtle, much like the earlier veil Lasciel had spotted. Whoever or whatever was crafting these workings was a pro.

  I made sure my shield bracelet was ready to go, and marched up to Anna's door. I could sense the ward there, still active, so I thumped my staff on the floor immediately in front of the door. "Ms. Ash?" I called. It wasn't like I was going to wake anyone up. "It's Harry Dresden. We need to talk. "

  There was silence. I repeated myself. I heard a sound, that of someone striving to move silently, a scuff or a creak so faint that I wasn't sure it had been real. I checked Mouse. His ears were pricked up, swiveled forward. He'd heard it too.

  Someone flushed a toilet on the floor above us. I heard a door open and close, a faint sound, also on another floor. There was no further sound from Anna Ash's apartment.

  I didn't like where this was going at all.

  "Stand back, buddy," I told Mouse. He did, backing away in that clumsy reverse waddle-walk dogs do.

  I turned to the ward. It was like the little pig's straw house. It wouldn't last more than a second or two against a big bad wolf. "And I'll huff and I'll puff," I muttered. I drew up my will, took the staff in both hands, and pressed one end slowly toward the door. "Solvos," I murmured. "Solvos. Solvos. "

  As the staff touched the door, I sent a gentle surge of will coursing down through its length. It passed through the wood visibly, the carved runes in it briefly illuminated from within by pale blue light. My will hit Anna's door and scattered out in a cloud of pinprick?; sparkles of white light as my power unbound the patterns of the ward and reduced them to mere anarchy.

  "Anna?" I called again. "Ms. Ash?"

  No answer.

  I tried the doorknob. It was unlocked.

  "That can't be good," I told Mouse. "Here we go. " I quietly opened the door, giving it a gentle push so that it would swing wide and let me see inside the darkened apartment.

  At which point the trap sprang.

  For traps to work, though, they need to catch their target off guard. I had my new and improved shield bracelet ready when greenish light flashed in the dark apartment and rushed swiftly toward me. I lifted my left hand. Bound around my wrist was a chain made of braided strands of several metals, silver predominant. The metal shields that hung from the bracelet had, in its previous incarnation, been solid silver as well. They had been replaced with shields of silver, iron, copper, nickel, and brass.

  The new shield wasn't like the old one. The old one had provided an intangible barrier meant to deflect solid matter and kinetic energy. It hadn't been made to stop, for example, heat. That's how my left hand got roasted practically down to the bones. It had been of only limited use against other forms of magic or energy. If there hadn't been a war on, and if I hadn't been spending so much time drilling Molly in the fundamentals - and therefore getting in all kinds of extra practice, myself - I would never have considered attempting to create such a complex focus. It was far more complicated than almost anything I'd done before. Five years ago, it would have been beyond me completely. More to the point, five years ago, I wouldn't have been as experienced or as strongly motivated.

  But that was then, and this was now.

  The shield that formed in front of me was not the familiar, translucent part-dome of pale blue light. Instead it flared into place in a blurring swirl of colors that solidified in an instant into a curving rampart of silver energy. The new shield was far more thorough than the old. Not only would it stop everything the old one had, but it would provide shelter against heat, cold, electricity - even sound and light, if I needed it to. It had also been designed to turn aside a fairly broad spectrum of supernatural energies. It was this last that was important at the moment.

  A globe of green lightning sizzled over the apartment's threshold and abruptly expanded, buzzing arcs of verdant electricity interconnected in a diamond pattern like the weave of a fisherman's net.

  The spell fell on my shield and the meeting of energies yielded a torrent of angry yellow sparks that rebounded from the shield, scattering over the hall, the doorway, and bouncing back into the apartment.

  I dropped the shield as I brandished my staff, sent a savage torrent of power down my arm, and snarled, "Forzare!"

  Unseen force lashed through the doorway - and splashed against the apartment's threshold. Most of the spell's power struck that barrier, grounded out, and was dissipated. What amounted to less than a percent of the power I had cast out actually made it through the doorway, as I had known it would. Instead of delivering a surge of energy strong enough to flip over a car, I delivered only a blow strong enough to knock an adult from her feet.

  I heard a woman's voice let out a surprised grunt at the impact, and heavy objects clattered to the floor.

  "Mouse!" I shouted.

  The big dog bounded forward through the doorway, and I went in right behind him. Once again, the apartment's threshold stripped away my power, leaving me all but utterly unable to wield magic.

  Which is why I'd brought my . 44 revolver with me, tucked into a duster pocket. I had it in my left hand as I came through the door and hit the main light switch with my right elbow, bellowing, "I have not had a very good day!"

  Mouse had someone pinned on the ground, and kept them there by virtue of simply sitting on them. Two hundred pounds of Mouse: is an awfully effective restraint, and though he had his teeth bared, he wasn't actively struggling or making any noise.

  To my right, Anna Ash stood frozen like a rabbit in a spotlight and my gun tracked to her immediately. "Don't move," I warned her. "I don't have any magic at the moment, and that always make me really, really ready to pull the trigger. "

  "Oh, God," she said, her voice a rough whisper. She licked her lips, visibly trembling. "Okay," she said. "Okay. D-don't hurt me please. You don't have to do this. "

  I told her to walk over to Mouse and his prisoner. Once she was standing where I could watch both of them at once, I could relax a little, and though I did not lower the gun, I took my finger off the trigger. "Do what?"

  "What you've done to the others," Anna said, her voice thread "You don't have to do this. Not to anyone. "

  "The others?" I demanded. I probably sounded at least half as disgusted as I felt. "You think I came here to kill you?"

  She blinked at me a few times. Then she said, "You came here, broke down my door, and pointed a gun at me. What am I supposed to think?"

  "I did not break down your door! It was unlocked!"

  "You tore apart my ward!"

  "Because I thought you might be in trouble, you twit!" I hollered. "I thought the killer might be here already. "

  A woman let out a couple of choking gasps. After a moment, I realized that it was the person Mouse had pinned down, letting out breathless laughter.

  I lowered the gun and put it away. "For crying out loud. You thought the killer was coming for you? So you laid a trap for him?"

  "Well, no," Anna said, now looking somewhat confused again. "I mean, I didn't do it. The Ordo. . . we hired a private investigator to look into it. It was her idea to trap the killer when he came here. "

  "A private investigator?" I looked over at the other woman and said, "Mouse. "

  My dog, tail waving gently, backed off right away and trotted over to stand beside me. The woman he'd been holding down sat up.

  She was pale - not the sickly pallor of no time in the sun, but the color of the living, healthy skin of a tree beneath the outer bark. Her lean face was intensely attractive - more intriguing than beautiful, with wide, intelligent eyes set over an expressive, generous mouth. She had a slim build, all long legs and long arms, and wore a simple pair of jeans along with a black Aerosmith T-shirt, and brown leather Birkenstocks. She propped herself up on her elbows, a tendril of wheat-colored hair falling to almost insolently conceal one eye, and gave me a wry smile.

  "Hello, Harry. " She dabbed her fingers at a little bloody spot on her lower lip and winced, though there was still amusement in her voice. "Is that a new staff, or are you just happy to see me?"

  And after my heart had skipped a couple of beats, I blinked and said, in a very quiet voice, to the first woman I'd ever everythinged, "Hello, Elaine. "

  Chapter Eleven

  I sat on the love seat while Anna Ash made coffee. Mouse, ever hopeful to cadge a snack, followed Anna into the kitchen, and sat there giving her his most pathetic, starving-doggy body language and wagging his tail.

  We sat down together with coffee, like civilized people, a few minutes later.

  "Ms. Ash," I said, taking my cup.

  "Anna, please. "

  I nodded to her. "Anna. First, I wish to apologize for frightening you. It wasn't my intention. "

  She sipped her coffee, frowning at me, and then nodded. "I suppose I can understand your motivations. "

  "Thank you," I said. "I'm sorry I blew up your ward. I'll be glad to replace it for you. "

  "We put a lot of hours in on that thing. " Anna sighed. "I mean, I know it wasn't. . . expert work. "

  "We?" I asked.

  "The Ordo," she said. "We worked together to protect every one's home. "

  "'Community' project. Sort of a barn raising," I said.

  She nodded. "That's the idea. " She bit her lip. "But there were more of us, when we did that. "

  For just a second, the capable exterior wavered, and Anna looked very tired and very frightened. I felt a little pang inside at the sight. Real fright isn't like the movies. Real fear is an ugly, quiet, relentless thing. It's a kind of pain, and I hated seeing it on Anna's face.

  I found Elaine watching me, her eyes thoughtful. She sat on the sofa, leaning forward so that her elbows rested on her spread knees. She held her cup in one hand at a slight, negligent angle. On anyone else, it would have looked masculine. On Elaine, it only looked relaxed, strong, and confident.

  "He truly meant you no harm, Anna," she said, turning to our host. "He's got this psychosis about charging to the rescue. I always thought it gave him a certain hapless charm. "

  "I think we should focus on the future, for the time being," I said. "I think we need to pool our information and try to work together on this. "

  Anna and Elaine exchanged a long look. Anna glanced at me again and asked Elaine, "Are you sure?"

  Elaine gave a single, firm nod. "He isn't the one trying to hurt you. I'm sure now. "

  "Sure now?" I said. "Is that why you veiled yourself when I was here earlier?"

  Elaine's fine eyebrows lifted. "You didn't sense it when you were here. How did you know?"

  I shrugged. "Maybe a little bird told me. Do you really think I'm capable of something like that?"

  "No," Elaine said. "But I had to be sure. "

  "You know me better than that," I said, unable to keep a little heat out of my voice.

  "I trust you," Elaine said, without a trace of apology in her tone, "but it might not have been you, Harry. It could have been an impostor. Or you could have been acting under some form of coercion. People's lives were at stake. I had to know. "

  I wanted to snarl back at her that if she so much as thought I might be the killer, she didn't know me at all. If that's how it was going to be, I might as well get up and walk right out of the apartment before -

  And then I sighed.

  Ah, sweet bird of irony.

  "You were obviously expecting the killer to show up," I said to Anna. "The sleeping spell. The ambush. What made you think he might be coming?"

  "Me," Elaine said.

  "And what made you think that?"

  She gave me a dazzling, innocent smile and imitated my tone and inflection. "Maybe a little bird told me. "

  I snorted.

  Anna's eyes suddenly widened. "You two were together. " She turned to Elaine. "That's how you know him. "

  "It was a long time ago," I said.

  Elaine winked at me. "But you never really forget your first. "

  "You never forget your first train wreck, either. "

  "Train wrecks are exciting. Fun, even," Elaine said. She kept smiling, though her eyes turned a little sad. "Right up until the very last part. "

  I felt half a smile tug up one side of my mouth. "True," I said. "But I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't try to dodge questions by throwing up a smoke screen of nostalgia. "

  Elaine took a long sip of coffee and shrugged a shoulder. "I'll show you mine if you'll show me yours. "

  I folded my arms, frowning. "Sixty seconds ago, you said that you trusted me. "

  She arched an eyebrow "Trust is a two-way street, Harry. "

  I leaned back, took another sip of coffee, and said, "Maybe you're right. I put it together after the fact, when I was making notes of our conversation. I couldn't remember noticing anything about the woman on the love seat, which doesn't happen to me. So I figured it must have been a veil, and came over here because it was possible that whoever was under it was a threat to the Ordo. "

  Elaine pursed her lips, frowning for a moment. "I see. "

  "Your turn. "

  She nodded. "I've been working out of L. A. , taking a lot of cases referred my way - like this one. And Chicago isn't the first city where this has happened. "

  I blinked at her. "What?"

  "San Diego, San Jose, Austin, and Seattle. Over the past year, members of a number of small organizations like the Ordo Lebes have
been systematically stalked and murdered. Most of them have appeared to be suicides. Counting Chicago, the killer's taken thirty-six victims. "

  "Thirty-six. . . " I ran my thumb over the handle of the coffee Cup, frowning. "I haven't heard a word about this. Nothing. A year?"

  Elaine nodded. "Harry, I've got to know. Is it possible that the Wardens are involved?"

  "No," I said, my tone firm. "No way. "

  "Because they're such easygoing, tolerant people?" she asked.

  "No. Because I know Ramirez, the regional commander for most of those cities. He wouldn't be a part of something like that. " I shook my head. "Besides, we've got a manpower shortage. The Wardens are stretched pretty thin. And there's no reason for them to go around killing people. "

  "You're sure about Ramirez," Elaine said. "Can you say the same about every Warden?"


  "Because," Elaine said, "in every single one of those cities, a man in a grey cloak was seen with at least two of the victims. "


  I put the coffee cup down on an end table and folded my arms, thinking.

  It wasn't general knowledge, but someone on the Council was leaking information to the vamps on a regular and devastating basis. The traitor still had not been caught. Even worse, I had seen evidence that there was another organization at work behind the scenes, manipulating events on a scale large enough to indicate a powerful, well-funded, and frighteningly capable group - and that at least some of them were wizards. I had dubbed them the Black Council, because it was obvious, and I'd been keeping my ear to the ground for indications of their presence.

  And look. I found one.

  "Which explains why I hadn't heard anything about it," I said. "If everyone thinks the Wardens are responsible, there's not a prayer they'd draw attention to themselves by reporting what was happening and asking for help. Or call in a gumshoe who happens to be a Warden, himself. "

  Elaine nodded. "Right. I started getting called in about a month after I got my own license and opened my business. "

  I grunted. "How'd they know to call you?"

  She smiled. "I'm in the book under 'Wizards. '"

  I snorted. "I knew you were copying my test answers all those years. "

  "If it ain't broke, don't fix it. " She pulled a strand of hair back behind one ear, an old and familiar gesture that brought with it a pang of remembered desire and a dozen little memories. "Most of the business has come in on referral, though, because I do good work. In any case, one fact about the killer's victims was almost always the same: people who lived alone or were isolated. "

  "And I," Anna said quietly, "am the last living member of the Ordo who lives alone or were isolated. "

  "These other cities," I said. "Did the killer leave anything behind? Messages? Taunts?"

  "Like what?" Elaine asked.

  "Bible verses," I said. "Left in traces, something only one of us would recognize. "

  She shook her head. "No. Nothing like that. Or if there was, I never found it. "

  I exhaled slowly. "So far, two of the deaths here have had messages left behind. Your friend Janine and a woman named Jessica Blanche. "

  Elaine frowned. "I gathered, from what you said earlier. It doesn't make any sense. "

  "Yes, it does," I said. "We just don't know why. " I frowned. "Could any of the other deaths be attributed to the White Court?"

  Elaine frowned and rose. She took her coffee cup to the kitchen and came back, a pensive frown on her brow. "I. . . can't be certain they haven't, I suppose. I certainly haven't seen anything to suggest it. Why?"

  "Excuse me," Anna said, her voice quiet and unsure. "White Court?"

  "The White Court of vampires," I clarified.

  "There's more than one kind?" she asked.

  "Yeah," I said. "The Red Court are the ones the White Council is fighting now. They're these bat-monster things that can look human. Drink blood. The White Court are more like people. They're psychic parasites. They seduce their victims and feed on human life energy. "

  Elaine nodded. "But why did you ask me about them, Harry?"

  I took a deep breath. "I found something to suggest that Jessica Blanche may have died as the result of being fed upon by some kind of sexual predator. "

  Elaine stared at me for a moment and then said, "The pattern's been broken. Something's changed. "

  I nodded. "There's something else involved in the equation. "

  "Or someone. "

  "Or someone," I said.

  She frowned. "There's one place to start looking. "

  "Jessica Blanche," I said.

  Without warning, Mouse came to his feet, facing the door to the apartment, and let out a bubbling basso growl.

  I rose, acutely conscious of the fact that my power was still interdicted by the apartment's threshold, and that I didn't have enough magic to spell my way out of a paper bag.

  The lights went out. Mouse continued to growl.

  "Oh, God," Anna said. "What's happening?"

  I clenched my teeth and closed my eyes, waiting for them to adjust to the sudden darkness, when a very slight, acrid scent tickled my nose.

  "You smell that?" I asked.

  Elaine's voice was steady, calm. "Smell what?"

  "Smoke," I said. "We've got to get out of here. I think the building's on fire. "

  Chapter Twelve

  "Light," I said.

  Almost before I was finished saying the word, Elaine murmured quietly, and the pentacle amulet she wore, nearly a twin to mine, began to glow with a green-white light. She held it overhead by its silver chain.

  By its light, I crossed to the door and felt it, like those cartoons when I was little said you were supposed to do. It felt like a door. "No fire in the hall," I said.

  "Fire stairs," Elaine said.

  "They're not far," Anna said.

  Mouse continued staring at the door, growling in a low and steady rumble. The smoke smell had thickened.

  "Something's waiting for us in the hall. "

  "What?" Anna said.

  Elaine looked from Mouse to me and bit her lip. "Window?"

  My heart was skipping along too fast. I don't like fire. I don't like getting burned. It hurts and it's ugly. "Might be able to handle the fall," I said, forcing myself to breathe slowly, evenly. "But there's a building full of people here, and none of the alarms or sprinklers have gone off. Someone must have hexed them. We've got to warn the residents. "

  Mouse's head whipped around and he stared intently at me for a second. Then he trotted in a little circle, shook his head, made a couple of chuffing sounds, and started doing something I hadn't heard him do since he was a puppy small enough to fit in my duster pocket.

  He barked.

  Loud. Steady. WOOF, WOOF, WOOF, with the mechanical regularity of a metronome.

  Now, saying he was barking might give you the general shape of things, but it doesn't convey the scale. Everyone in Chicago knows what a storm-warning siren sounds like. They're spread liberally through the Midwestern states that comprise Tornado Alley. They make your usual warning siren sound. But I had an apartment about thirty yards from one of them once upon a time, and take it from me, that sound is a whole different thing when you're next to it. It isn't an ululating wail. When you're that close to the source, it's a tangible flood, a solid, living, sonic cascade that rattles your brain against your skull.

  Mouse's bark was like that - but on several levels. Every time he barked, I swear to you, several of my muscles tightened and twitched as if hit with a miniature jolt of adrenaline. I couldn't have slept through half as much racket, even without the odd little jabs of energy that hit me like separate charges of electricity with each bark. It was deafening in the little apartment, nearly as loud as gunfire. He let out twelve painfully loud barks, and then stopped. My ears rang in the sudden silence that followed.

  Within seconds I began to
hear thumping sounds on the floor above me, bare feet swinging out of beds and landing hard on the floor, almost in unison, like something you'd expect in a training barracks. Someone shouted in the apartment neighboring Anna's. Other dogs started barking. Children started crying. Doors started slamming open.

  Mouse sat down again, his head tilting this way and that, ears twitching at each new noise.

  "Hell's bells, Harry," Elaine breathed, her eyes wide. "Is that. . . ? Where did you get a real Temple Dog?"

  "Uh. A place kind of like this, now that you mention it. " I gave Mouse's ears a quick ruffling and said, "Good dog. "

  Mouse wagged his tail at me and grinned at the praise.

  I opened the door with the hand that wasn't holding a gun, and took a quick look around in the hall. Flashlights were bobbing and sweeping from several places, each one producing a visible beam in the thickening pall of smoke. People were screaming, "Fire, fire, get everybody out!"

  The hallway was in chaos. I couldn't see if anyone out there looked like a lurking menace, but odds were good that if I couldn't see them, they wouldn't see me, either, in all the milling confusion of hundreds of people fleeing the building.

  "Anna, where are the fire stairs?"

  "Um. Where everyone's running," Anna said. "To the right. "

  "Right," I said. "Okay, here's the plan. We follow all the other flammable people out of the building before we burn to death. "

  "Whoever did this is going to be waiting for us outside," Elaine warned.

  "Not a very private place for a murder anymore," I said. "But we'll be careful. Me and Mouse first. Anna, you right behind us. Elaine, cover our backside. "

  "Shields?" she asked me.

  "Yeah. Can you do your half?"

  She arched an eyebrow at me.

  "Right," I said. "What was I thinking?" I took Mouse's lead in one hand, glanced at my staff, and then said, "We're working on the honor system, here. " Mouse calmly opened his mouth and held on to his own lead. I picked up my staff in my right hand, kept the gun in the other, and slipped it into my duster's pocket to conceal the weapon. "Anna, keep your hand on my shoulder. " I felt her grab on to the mantle of my duster. "Good. Mouse. "

  Mouse and I hit the hallway with Anna right on my heels. We fled. I'm not too manly to admit it. We scampered. Retreated. Vamoosed. Amscrayed. Burning buildings are freaking terrifying, and I should know.

  This was the first time I'd been in one quite this occupied, though, and I expected more panic than I sensed around us. Maybe it was the way Mouse had woken everyone. I saw no one stumbling along the way they would if they had been suddenly roused from deep sleep. Everyone was bright eyed and bushy tailed, metaphorically speaking, and while they were clearly afraid, the fear was aiding the evacuation, not hindering it.

  The smoke got thicker as we went down one flight of stairs, then another. It started getting hard to breathe, and I was choking on it as we descended. I began to panic. It's the smoke that kills most people, long before the fire ever gets to them. But there seemed little to do but press on.

  Then we were through the smoke. The fire had begun three floors below Anna's apartment, and the fire door to that floor was simply missing from its hinges. Black smoke rolled thickly out of the hall beyond it. We had made it down through the smoke, but there were four floors above ours, and the smoke was being drawn up the stairs like they were an enormous chimney. The people still above us would be blinded by it, unable to breathe, and God only knew what would happen to them.

  "Elaine!" I choked out.

  "Got it!" she called back, coughing - and then she was beside the doorway, black smoke trying to envelop her. She extended her right hand in a gesture that somehow managed to be imperious, and the smoke abruptly vanished.

  Well, not exactly. There was a faint shimmer of light over the open doorway, and on the other side of it the smoke roiled and billowed as if pressing up against glass. The acoustics of the stairway altered, the chewing roar of fire suddenly muted, the sound of footsteps and panting people becoming louder.

  Elaine examined the field over the doorway for a moment, nodded once, and turned to catch up with us, her manner brisk and businesslike.

  "You need to stay to let anyone through?" I asked her. Mouse leaned against my legs, clearly afraid and eager to leave the building.

  She held up a hand to silence me. After a moment she said, "No. Permeable to the living. Concentrating. We have a minute, maybe two. "

  Permeable? Holy moly. I could never have managed that on the fly. But then, Elaine always was more skilled than me when it came to the complex stuff. "Right," I said. I took her hand, plopped it down on Anna's shoulder, and said, "Move, come on. "

  After that, it was nothing but stairs, bobbing flashlights, echoing voices, and footsteps. I run. Not because it's good for me, even though it is, but because I want to be able to run whenever something's chasing me. It did me a limited amount of good, given that I was spending half of my time coughing on the still-present smoke, but I at least had enough presence of mind to keep an eye on Anna and the distracted Elaine, as well as making sure that I didn't trip over Mouse or get trampled from behind.

  When we got to the second floor, I prepped my shield and called over my shoulder, "Elaine!"

  She let out a gasping breath, her head bowing forward. She wavered and clutched at the stair's handrail. Anna moved at once to support her and keep her moving. There was a crashing, roaring sound above us, and cries of fright came down the stairs.

  "Move, move," I told them. "Elaine, be ready to shield. "

  She nodded once and twisted a simple silver ring on her left forefinger around, revealing a kite-shaped shield device not unlike one of my own charms.

  We went down the last flight of stairs and hit the door to the street.

  Outside, it was not dark. Though the streetlight beside the building was out, the others on the street worked just fine. Added to that was the fire from the burning apartment. It wasn't blinding or anything, since you could see it only through windows, and whenever one of those was open or broken it tended to billow black smoke. I could see clearly, though.

  People came hustling out of the building, all coughing. Someone outside the building - or with a cell phone - must have called in the fire, because an impressive number of emergency vehicle sirens were drawing nigh. The escapees filed across the street, for the most part, getting to what seemed a safe distance and turning back to look at their homes. They were in various states of dishabille, including one rather generously appointed young lady wearing a set of red satin sheets and dangling a pair of six-inch heels from one hand. The young man with her, with a red silk bathrobe belted kiltlike around his waist, looked understandably frustrated.

  I noticed only because, as a professional investigator, I have trained myself to be a keen observer.

  That's why, as I looked around the rest of the crowd to see if red satin sheets and spike heels were becoming a new fad, and if maybe I should have some on hand, just in case, I saw the tall man in the grey cloak.

  He was shadowed by the headlights of fire trucks coming down the street toward us, but I saw the sway of the grey cloak. As if he'd sensed my attention, he turned. I got nothing useful out of his silhouette for identifying him.

  I guess the grey-cloaked man didn't know that. He froze for a full second, facing me, and then turned and sprinted around the corner.

  "Mouse!" I snapped. "Stay with Anna!"

  Then I took off after Grey Cloak.