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White Night, Page 7

Jim Butcher

Chapter 13~14

  Chapter Thirteen

  Thoughtlessly running headlong after someone alone, at night, in Chicago, is not generally a bright idea.

  "This is stupid," I panted to myself. "Harry, you jackass, this is how you keep getting yourself into trouble. "

  Grey Cloak moved with the long, almost floating stride of an athlete running the mile and turned into an alley, where the shadows grew thicker and where we would be out of sight of any of the cops or emergency response people.

  I had to think about this. I needed to figure out what he was doing.

  Okay, so I'm Grey Cloak. I want to gack Anna Ash, so I start a fire - no, wait. So I use one of the incendiary devices like the one in Murphy's Saturn, put it on a kitchen timer a couple of floors below Anna's place, cut the building's power, phones, and alarms, and set the whole shebang on fire, boom. Then I wait outside Anna's door for her to emerge in a panic, so that I can murder her, leave, and let the evidence burn in the subsequent inferno. Now it all looks like an accident. Only I don't expect Anna to have a pair of world-class wizards on hand, and I sure as hell never saw Mouse coming. The dog barks and all of a sudden the hall is full of people who can witness the murder, and there's no way to make it look accidental. Someone is almost certain to contact the authorities and send in the whirling lights within a few moments, and there goes my whole evening. No use trying to complete a subtle hit now.

  So what do I do?

  I don't want attention, that's for sure, or I wouldn't be trying so hard to make this murder look like an accident. I'm cautious, smart, and patient, or I wouldn't have gotten away with it in four other cities. I do what a smart predator does when a stalk goes sour.

  I bug out.

  I've got a car nearby, a getaway vehicle.

  Grey Cloak reached the end of the alley and turned left with me about twenty feet behind him. Then he rounded a corner and sprinted into a parking garage.

  I did not follow him.

  See, since I'm such a competent and methodical killer, I assume the worst - that anyone in pursuit will display just as much intelligence and resourcefulness. So what I do is pull the chase into the parking garage, where there's lots of angles that will break line of sight - but my getaway car isn't parked there. There's no way I'm going to wait around to pay the attendant, and smashing my way out would attract the attention I'm trying to avoid. The plan is to lose a pursuer in the ample shadows, ramps, doorways, and parked cars in the maze of the garage, and go to my car once I've given him the slip.

  I kept sprinting down the street and rounded a corner. Then I stopped, crouched and ready to continue running. The far side of the garage had no parking places; nor did the alley. So Grey Cloak's car had to be either on the street in front of the garage, or on the street along its side. From that corner, I could watch both.

  I hunkered down beside a city trash can and hoped that I was as clever as I seemed to think I was. I was pretty sure it would have been at best stupid and at worst lethal to pursue Grey Cloak into the dark of the parking garage. I might have one hell of a punch, but I was as fragile as the next person, and cornering Grey Cloak might draw out the savagery of desperation. If I slipped up, and he got too close to me, he might drop me like a pair of dirty socks.

  Always assuming, of course, that he wasn't an actual Warden, in which case he might well hit me with lightning or fire or any number of other nasty attacks of choice. That was a thought I found more than a little. . . comfortable, really.

  I'd spent most of my adult life living in fear of the Council's Wardens. They'd been my persecutors, my personal furies, and despite the fact that I'd become one, I felt an almost childish glee in the notion that a Warden might be my bad guy. It would give me a perfect opportunity to lay out some long-deserved payback with perfect justification.

  Unless, of course, it was a Warden doing it under orders. Once upon a time, I'd have told you that the White Council was made up of basically decent people who valued human life. Now, I knew better. The Council broke the Laws when it saw fit to do so. It executed children who, in their ignorance, violated those same laws. The war, too, had made the Council desperate, more willing to take chances and "make hard decisions" that amounted to other people getting killed while the Council's bony collective ass stayed as covered as possible.

  It didn't seem reasonable to think that a legitimate Warden could have sunk to such measures, or that Captain Luccio, the Wardens' commander, would condone it - but I've gotten used to being disappointed in the honor and sincerity of the Council in general, and the Wardens in particular. For that matter, I probably shouldn't expect too much rationality out of Grey Cloak, either. My scenario to predict his behavior was plausible, rational, but a rational person wouldn't be going around murdering people and making it look like suicide, would he? I was probably wasting my time.

  A shadowy figure vaulted from the roof of the parking garage and dropped six stories to the ground, landing on the sidewalk in a crouch. Grey Cloak was still for a second, maybe listening, and then rose and began to walk, quickly but calmly, toward the street and the cars parked along it.

  I blinked.

  Son of a gun.

  I guess sometimes logic does work.

  I clenched my teeth, gripped my staff, and rose to confront Grey Cloak and blow him straight to hell.

  And stopped.

  If Grey Cloak truly was part of the Black Council, working to undermine the White Council and generally do whatever large-scale badness they intended to do, blowing him to hell might not be the smart thing to do. The Black Council had been, if you will pardon the phrasing, a phantom menace. I was sure that they were up to no good, and their methods thus far seemed to indicate that they had no inhibitions about the ending of innocent lives - reinforced by Grey Cloak's willingness to burn a building full of people to death to cover up the murder of a single target. It fit their pattern: shadowy, nebulous, leaving no direct, obvious evidence of who they were or what they wanted.

  If they existed at all, that is. So far, they were just a theory.

  Then again, Grey Cloak's getaway car had been just a theory, too.

  This could be a chance to gain badly needed intelligence on the Black Council. Knowledge is the ultimate weapon. It always has been.

  I could let Grey Cloak go and tail him to see what I could learn before I brought the hammer down. Maybe he'd lead me to something vital, something as critical as Enigma had been to the Allies in WWII. On the other hand, maybe he'd lead me back to nothing. No covert organization worth its salt would allow an operative into the field without planning for the contingency of said operative being compromised. Hell, even if Grey Cloak volunteered everything he knew, there would almost certainly be cutouts in place.

  All of which assumed he really was part of the Black Council. A big assumption. And when you assume, you make an ass out of you and umption. If I didn't stop him while I had the chance, Grey Cloak would strike again. More people would die.

  Yeah, Harry. And how many more people will die if the Black Council keeps rising to power?

  Dammit. My gut told me to drop Grey Cloak right now. The faces from police photos flickered through my thoughts, and in my imagination the slain women stood beside me, behind me, their glassy, dead eyes intent upon their killer and their desire to be avenged. I longed with an almost apocalyptic passion to step into the open and lay waste to this murdering asshole.

  But reason told me otherwise. Reason told me to slow down, think, and consider how to do the most good for the most people.

  Hadn't I been telling myself only hours ago that reason had to guide my actions, my decisions, if I was to keep control of myself?

  It was hard. It was really, really hard. But I fought off the adrenaline and lust for a fight, and hunkered back down, thinking furiously, while Grey Cloak got into a green sedan, started it, and pulled out onto the street. I crouched between two parked cars and waited, out
of sight, until Grey Cloak drove by me.

  I pointed the end of my staff at the car's back panel, gathered my will, and whispered, "Forzare. " Raw force lanced out, focused into the tiniest area I could envision, and struck the car with a little pop no louder than that produced by stray bits of gravel tossed up against the vehicle's undercarriage. The car went by without slowing, and I got the license number as it left.

  Once it was gone, I murmured, "Tractis, " keeping my will focused on the staff, and drew it back until I could rise into the light of a street lamp and peer at the end of the length of oak.

  A fleck of green paint, half the size of a dime, had adhered to the end of the staff. I licked my fingertip and pressed it to the paint, lifting it off the staff. I had a small box of waterproof matches in one pocket of the duster. I opened it with one hand, dumped the matches, and then carefully placed the fleck of paint inside.

  "Gotcha," I muttered.

  Grey Cloak, in all probability, would ditch the car before long, so I didn't have much time. If he slipped away, any further harm he caused would be on my own head. I refused to let that happen.

  I put the closed matchbox into in my pocket, turned, and ran back toward Elaine and Anna. By the time I got there, the block was lit nearly daylight-bright with the roaring flames from the apartment building and a steadily increasing number of flashing emergency lights. I found Elaine, Anna, and Mouse, and walked toward them.

  "Harry," Elaine said, relief on her face. "Hey. You get him?"

  "Not yet," I said. "Got some follow-up work to do. You have somewhere safe?"

  "My room at the hotel should be safe enough. I don't think anyone here knows who I am. The Amber Inn. "

  "Right. Take Anna there. I'll call you. "

  "No," Anna said firmly.

  I glanced at the burning building and squinted at Anna. "I guess you'd rather have a quiet night at home, huh?"

  "I'd rather make sure the rest of the Ordo is all right," she said. "What if the killer decides to go after one of them?"

  "Elaine," I said, expecting her support.

  Elaine shrugged. "I'm working for her, Harry. "

  I muttered a quiet curse under my breath, and shook my head. "Fine. Get them all and fort up. I'll call you by morning. "

  Elaine nodded.

  "Come on, Mouse," I said.

  I took his lead, and we headed for home - and Little Chicago.

  Chapter Fourteen

  When we got back to my apartment, Mouse shambled straight to the plastic punch bowl that holds his kibble. He ate it with a steady, famished determination until it was all gone. Then he emptied his water bowl, went to his usual nap spot, and slumped to the floor without even turning in a circle first. He was asleep almost before he stopped moving.

  I stopped by him to ruffle his ears and check his nose, which was wet and cold like it was supposed to be. His tail twitched faintly at my touch, but he was clearly exhausted. Whatever it was about those barks that had impossibly roused an entire building all at once must have taken something out of him. I took my duster off, draped it over him, and let him sleep.

  I called Toe-moss's place once again, but got only his answering machine. So I grabbed my heavy flannel robe - for warmth, since the lab was far enough underground to always be chilly - pulled up the throw rug that covers the door in the living room floor, and stumped down the folding stair steps, flicking candles to life with a gesture and a whisper of will as I went.

  My lab had always been a little crowded, but it had become more so since I had begun teaching Molly. The lab was a rectangular concrete box. Simple wire shelves covered three walls, stacked up high with books and containers of various ingredients I would use (like the thick, sealed lead box that contained an ounce and a half of depleted uranium filings), and loaded down with various objects of arcane significance (like the bleached human skull that occupied its own shelf, along with several paperback romance novels) or professional curiosity (like the collection of vampire fangs the Wardens in the United States, me and Ramirez, mostly, had gathered in the course of several skirmishes over the past year).

  At the far end, on the open wall, I had managed to shoehorn a tiny desk and chair into the lab. Molly did some of her studying there, kept her journal, learned power calculations, and had several books I'd told her to read. We'd begun working on some basic potions, and the beakers and burners occupied most of the surface of her desk, which was just as well, considering the stains that got left on it during her first potion meltdown. Set into the concrete floor beside the desk was a simple ring of silver I used as a summoning circle.

  The table in the middle of the room had once been my work area. No longer. Now it was wholly occupied by Little Chicago.

  Little Chicago was a scale model of Chicago itself, or at least of the heart of the town, which I'd expanded from its original design to include everything within about four miles of Burnham Harbor. Every building, every street, every tree was represented by a custom-made scale model of pewter. Each contained a tiny piece of the reality it represented - bark chipped from trees, tiny pieces of asphalt gouged from the streets, flakes of brick broken from the buildings with a hammer. The model would let me use my magic in new and interesting ways, and should enable me to find out a lot more about Grey Cloak than I would have been able to do in the past.

  Or. . . it might blow up. You know. One of the two.

  I was still a young wizard, and Little Chicago was a complex toy containing an enormous amount of magical energy. I had to work hard to keep it up-to-date, matched to the real Chicago, or it wouldn't function correctly - i. e. , it would fail, possibly in a spectacular fashion. Releasing all that energy in the relatively cramped confines of the lab would most likely render me extra crispy. It was an elaborate and expensive tool, and I never would have so much as considered creating it if I didn't have an expert consultant.

  I took the matchbox from my pocket and set it on the edge of the table, glanced up at the skull on its shelf, and said, "Bob, up and at em. "

  The skull quivered a little on its wooden shelf, and tiny, nebulous orange lights appeared in its empty eyes. There was a sound like a human yawn, and then the skull turned slightly toward me and asked, "What's up, boss?"

  "Evil's afoot. "

  "Well, sure," Bob said, "because it refuses to learn the metric system. Otherwise it'd be up to a meter by now. "

  "You're in a mood," I noted.

  "I'm excited. I get to meet the cookie now, right?"

  I gave the skull a very firm look. "She is not a cookie. Neither is she a biscuit, a Pop-Tart, SweetTART, apple tart, or any other kind of pastry. She is my apprentice. "

  "Whatever," Bob said. "I get to meet her now, yeah?"

  "No," I said firmly.

  "Oh," Bob said, his tone as disappointed and petulant as a six-year-old child who has just been told that it is bedtime. "Why not ?"

  "Because she still hasn't got a very good idea of how to handle power wisely," I said.

  "I could help her!" Bob said. "She could do a lot more if I was helping. "

  "Exactly," I said. "You're under the radar until I say otherwise. Do not draw attention to yourself. Do not reveal any of your nature to her. When Molly's around, you're an inanimate knickknack until I say otherwise. "

  "Hmph," Bob said. "At this rate, I'm never gonna get to see her naked in time. "

  I snorted. "In time for what?"

  "In time to behold her in her full, springy, nubile, youthful glory! By the time you let me talk to her, she'll have started to droop!"

  "I'm almost certain you'll survive the trauma," I said.

  "Life is about more than just survival, Harry. "

  "True," I said. "There's also work. "

  Bob rolled his eyelights in the skull's empty sockets. "Brother. You're keeping her cloistered and working me like a dog, too. That's not fair. "

  I started getting out the stuff I'd ne
ed to fire up Little Chicago. "Dog, right. Something odd happened tonight. " I told Bob about Mouse and his barking. "What do you know about Temple Dogs?"

  "More than you," Bob said. "But not much. Most of what I got is collected hearsay and folklore. "

  "Any of it likely true?"

  "A bit," he said. "There are a few points of confluence where multiple sources agree. "

  "Hit me. "

  "Well, they're not entirely mortal," Bob said. "They're the scions of a celestial being called a Foo Dog and a mortal canine. They're very intelligent, very loyal, tough, and can seriously kick ass if they need to do it. But mostly, they're sentinels. They keep an eye out for dark spirits or dark energy, guard the people or places they're supposed to guard, and alert others to the presence of danger. "

  "Explains why Ancient Mai made those Temple Dog statues to assist the Wardens in maintaining security, I suppose. " I got out a short-handled duster made of a rowan wand and a bundle of owl feathers, and began to carefully clean the dust from the model city. "What about the barking thing?"

  "Their bark has some kind of spiritual power," Bob said. "A lot of stories say that they can make themselves be heard from fifty or sixty miles away. It isn't just a physical thing, either. It carries over into the Nevernever, and can be heard clearly by noncorporeal entities. It startles them, drives most of them away - and if any of them stick around, Mouse could take his teeth to them, even though they're spirits. I figure that this alarm-clock bark he did was a part of that protective power, alerting others to danger. "

  I grunted. "Superdog. "

  "But not bulletproof. They can be killed just like anything else. "

  There was a thought. I wondered if I could find someone to make Mouse a Kevlar vest. "Okay, Bob," I said. "Get it fired up and give it a once-over. "

  "Right, boss. I hope you will note that I am doing this without once complaining how unfair it is that you've seen the cupcake nekkid and I haven't. "

  "So noted. " I picked up the skull and set it down on the sheet of translucent, rubbery blue plastic that represented Lake Michigan. "Check it out while I get my spell face on. "

  The skull spun around to face the city while I settled down on the floor, legs crossed, hands resting lightly on my knees, and closed my eyes, focusing on drawing my thoughts to stillness, my heart to a slow, slow beat. I breathed slowly, deeply, systematically walling out worries, emotions, everything but purpose.

  One time, when we'd been discussing martial arts, Murphy told me that eventually, no one can teach you anything more about them. Once you reach that state of knowledge, the only way to keep learning and increasing your own skill is to teach what you know to others. That's why she teaches a children's class and a rape-defense course every spring and fall at one of her neighborhood's community centers.

  It sounded kind of flaky-Zen to me at the time, but Hell's bells, she'd been right. Once upon a time, it would have taken me an hour, if not more, to attain the proper frame of mind. In the course of teaching Molly to meditate, though, I had found myself going over the basics again for the first time in years, and understanding them with a deeper and richer perspective than I'd had when I was her age. I'd been getting almost as much insight and new understanding of my knowledge from teaching Molly as she'd been learning from me.

  It took me ten minutes, twelve at the most, to prepare my thoughts and will. By the time I stood up again, there was nothing left in the whole world but me, Little Chicago, and my need to find a murderer.

  "Bob?" I whispered.

  "Everything's nominal. We're in the green, Captain," he said, affecting a Scottish accent.

  I nodded without speaking. Then I drew in my will, and the skull's eyelights dwindled to the size of pinpricks. So did all the candles. Newborn black shadows began stretching between the pewter buildings, overlaying the model streets. The temperature in the lab dropped another degree or two as I pulled in energy from all around me, and my skin flushed as my body temperature went up a couple of degrees. When I slowly exhaled, my heated breath formed vapor that drifted around my nose and mouth.

  I moved slowly, precisely, and picked up the matchbox. Then I opened it and exposed the fleck of paint inside, and leaned over to carefully place the paint down on the tiny model of my apartment building. I stood over the table, my hand touching the paint and the map, and released my will with a repeated murmur of, "Reperios. Invenios. "

  I felt my senses blur for a moment, and then Little Chicago rushed toward me, its buildings growing, until I stood upon the street outside the now life-sized pewter replica of my apartment building.

  I took a moment to look around. It looked like Chicago. Flickers of motion surrounded me. Faint outlines of leaves stirred in the pewter trees, ghostly images of the real-world leaves on the trees of the actual Chicago. Faint lights emanated from blank pewter windowpanes. Ghostly cars whispered by on the streets. I could hear the muted sounds of the city, catch the barest hints of scents on the air,

  Unnervingly, I could look up and see. . . myself, my actual, physical body, towering over the model city like Godzilla's hyperthyroid cousin. The sky over Little Chicago held twinkling lights - the dim glows of the lab's candles and Bob's eyelights, all too large to be stars, the way the sun is supposed to look from the outer planets.

  I held up the matchbox, my will surging down my arm. It touched on the little flake of paint, which erupted into viridian light and rose into the air above my hand, hovered for a moment, and then streaked off to the north like a miniature comet.

  "Maybe you got away with this crap in other towns, Grey Cloak," I muttered. "But Chicago's mine. "

  My own flesh dissolved into flickering silver light, and I felt myself rush after the energy of the seeking spell, streaking through the ghostly images of Chicago's nightlife in the model all around me, one more insubstantial shade among thousands.

  The seeking spell came to rest a block and a half south of Goudy Square Park, a little slice of green the city managed to squeeze in amidst a bunch of architecture. The brilliant mote of light settled onto a ghostly image of a moving car and the image suddenly became solid and visible.

  "Gotcha," I growled under my breath, and drifted close to the car, hovering right over its rear bumper, and focused on the driver.

  The ghost image remained hazy, dammit. My magic had latched onto the car, and it wasn't going to be easy to get a better look at the driver than I already had. I might be able to pour more energy into the spell, attain greater clarity, but I wanted to save that as a last resort. Too much could cause the whole thing to blow - and it would certainly leave me too exhausted to maintain the connection. Better to hover now, and listen. Sound would be easier to pick up, resonating against the car, against the surrounding city I had modeled for the spell.

  The car stopped a stone's throw from the park. It's a bifurcated little place, simultaneously trying to contain a designer garden and a children's playground, and every time I'd look at it, it seemed to me that the kids were winning. Good for them. Nobody who is four, or six, or eight years old needs to feel conflicted about their play area impeding the Italian Renaissance sensibilities of a landscape artist. Heck, I was probably at least that mature, and I was pretty sure I didn't need it, either.

  I focused on the spell, and the sounds of the city night came to life around me, growing in volume, rising from a distant, ghostly murmur to simple ambience, as if I'd been standing there. Traffic sounds. A distant siren. The almost subliminal sound of wheels rushing by on the highway a mile off. The cricketlike chirrup of a car alarm. To me, it was the orchestra tuning and warming up before the overture.

  Footsteps, swift and confident, coming closer. The curtain was going up.

  The passenger door of the green car opened, and a second shadowy figure joined the first. The door closed, harder than it needed to.

  "Are you insane," the passenger asked, "meeting here?"

  "What's wrong wit
h here?" Grey Cloak asked. His voice was a light tenor, though it sounded distant, hazy, like a partially obscured radio transmission. An accent? Something from Eastern Europe, maybe. It was hard to make out the particulars.

  "It's a bloody upper-class WASP neighborhood," the passenger snarled. His voice was deeper, similarly obscured, and bore no trace of foreign accent. He sounded like a newscaster, standard Midwestern American. "There's private security here. Police. If anyone raises any kind of alarm, it's going to attract a great deal of attention in short order. "

  Grey Cloak let out a low laugh. "Which is why we are safe. It's late at night. All the little dears are sleeping the sleep of the fat and happy. No one is awake to see us here. "

  The other said something rude. There was a flicker of light in the passenger seat, and it took me a second to work out that he'd just lit a cigarette. "Well?"

  "No. "

  "No?" the passenger said. "No kine? No wizard? What do you mean, no?"

  "Both," Grey Cloak said. His tone turned cold. "You told me he was afraid of fire. "

  "He is," the passenger said. "You should see his fucking hand. "

  I felt my left hand clench tight, and the crackle of popping knuckles in my very real laboratory drifted through the magical simulation of the city.

  Grey Cloak's head whipped around.

  "What?" the passenger asked.

  "Did you hear that?"

  "Hear what?"

  "Something. . . " Grey Cloak said.

  I felt myself holding my breath, willing my fingers to unclench.

  The passenger looked around for a moment, then snorted. "You're nervous about him. That's all. You missed him and you're nervous. "

  "Not nervous," Grey Cloak said. "Understandably cautious. He has more resources and more versatility than your people realize. It's quite possible that he's keeping track of me in some way. "

  "I doubt that. It would take a subtle worker of the Art to manage that. He isn't one. "

  "No?" Grey Cloak asked. "He managed to sense the fire before it could cut him off, to somehow waken the entire building from sound sleep all at the same time, and to track me after I departed. "

  The passenger tensed. "You came here with him behind you?"

  "No. I lost him before he could do so. But that does not preclude the use of more subtle means to engage in pursuit. "

  "He's a thug," the passenger said. "Plain and simple. His talents make him good at destruction and little else. He's a beast to be prodded and directed. "

  There was silence for a moment. "It amazes me," Grey Cloak said then, "that an idiot such as you survived crossing the wizard once. "

  Aha. Interesting. The passenger, at least, was someone I'd seen before. He'd walked away from it, too. Most of the individuals I'd faced hadn't done that - which bothered me a hell of a lot, at times - but even so, there'd been more than a couple, and the passenger could be any number of them. That did narrow it down considerably from the several billion possibilities I'd had a moment before, though.

  And I felt something of a chill at Grey Cloak's words. He was more aware of his surroundings than anyone running on five simple senses should be, and he was a thinker. That's never a good quality in an enemy. A smart foe doesn't have to be stronger than you, doesn't have to be faster, and doesn't even really have to be there to be a lethal threat. Hell, if that car bomb hadn't been set off early, he'd have cooked Murphy and me both, and I would have died without even knowing he existed.

  "To be honest, I'm surprised the wizard lived the night," the passenger said. "It doesn't matter, either way. If we'd killed him, we could have claimed credit for his demise and it would have served our purpose. Now we let him rampage over the Skavis, and it does nothing but help. "

  "Unless," Grey Cloak said sourly, "he happens to rampage over us as well. "

  They were both quiet for a moment. Then the passenger said, "At least one thing is accomplished. He's interested in stopping the culling. "

  "Oh, yes," Grey Cloak said. "You've gotten his attention. The question, of course, is whether or not he will be as cooperative as you seem to believe. "

  "With a gathering of female wizardlings at risk? Oh, yes. He won't be able to help himself. Now that he knows what the Skavis is up to, Dresden will be falling all over himself to protect them. "

  Aha. The Skavis. And they were maneuvering me to kick his ass.

  Finally, something useful.

  "Will he strike at the kine soon?" Grey Cloak asked, referring to the Skavis, I presumed.

  "Not yet. It isn't his style. He'll wait a day or two before moving again. He wants them to suffer, waiting for him. "

  "Mmmm," Grey Cloak said. "I normally think the Skavis's tastes repulsive, but in this particular instance, I suspect his might intersect with my own. Anticipation makes them taste sweeter. "

  "Oh, of course, by all means," the passenger said sourly. "Throw away everything we might achieve in order to indulge your sweet tooth. "

  Grey Cloak let out a low chuckle. "Alas, not yet. I hardly think the Circle would react well to such a course. Speaking of which, how does your own endeavor fare?"

  "Less than well," the passenger said. "He isn't talking to me. "

  "Did you really expect him to?"

  The passenger shrugged. "He is family. But that's of no matter. I'll find them in time, whether he cooperates or not. "

  "For your sake, I hope so," Grey Cloak said. "The Circle has asked me for a progress report. "

  The passenger shifted uneasily. "Have they. What are you going to tell them?"

  "The truth. "

  "You can't be serious. "

  "On the contrary," Grey Cloak said.

  "They react badly to incompetence," the passenger said.

  "And murderously to deception. "

  The passenger took another long drag on his cigarette and cursed again. Then he said, "No help for it, then. "

  "There is no need to soil yourself. We are not yet past our dead-line, and they do not destroy tools that may still be of use. "

  The passenger let out a nasty laugh. "They're hard but fair?"

  "They're hard," Grey Cloak replied.

  "If necessary," the passenger said, "we can remove him. We have the resources for it. I could always - "

  "I believe it premature unless he proves more threatening than he has been thus far," Grey Cloak said. "I expect the Circle would agree. "

  "When do I meet them?" the passenger asked. "Face-to-face. "

  "That is not my decision. I am a liaison. Nothing more. " He shrugged. "But, should this project proceed, I suspect they will desire an interview. "

  "I'll succeed," the passenger said darkly. "He can't have taken them far. "

  "Then I suggest you get moving," Grey Cloak said. "Before the Skavis beats you to the prize. "

  "Beats us," the passenger said.

  I could hear a faint smile touch Grey Cloak's voice. "Of course. "

  There was a smoldering silence, and then the passenger shoved the door open, exited the car, and left without a further word.

  Grey Cloak watched him until he'd vanished into the night, Then he got out of the car. Insubstantial, I willed myself forward into the vehicle and looked. The steering column had been cracked open, the vehicle hot-wired.

  I was torn for a second, which of the two to follow. The passenger was trying to get information out of someone. That could mean that he had a prisoner somewhere he was interrogating. On the other hand, it could just as likely mean that no matter how many drinks he poured, he couldn't get an informant to open up on a given topic. I also knew that he had confronted me before at some point - which was a great deal more than I knew about Grey Cloak.

  He was something very different. He had tried to kill me a couple of times already, and was apparently responsible for at least some of the recent deaths. He was smart, and was connected to some kind of shady group called "the Cir
cle. " Could this be the reality of my heretofore theoretical Black Council?

  He was walking away from the car now, my spell's anchor, and growing rapidly hazier as he walked away. If I didn't pursue him closely, he'd vanish into the vastness of the city.

  Whoever the passenger had been, I had apparently sent him running once already. If I'd done it once, I could do it again.

  Grey Cloak, then.

  I pressed in close to Grey Cloak, focusing to keep the spell clearly fixed, and followed him. He walked several blocks, turned down a sharp alley, and then descended a flight of stairs that ended at a boarded-over doorway to what must have originally been a basement apartment like my own. He glanced around, tugged down a chain that looked like it had rusted flat to the wall beside the door, and opened it, disappearing within.

  Crap. If this place had a threshold on it, I'd never be able to follow him inside. I'd just bang my metaphysical head against the doorway like a bird hitting a windshield. Never mind that if it had the proper kinds of wards, they could conceivably disintegrate my spiritual self, or at least inflict some fairly horrible psychic damage. I could wind up on the floor of my lab, drooling, transformed from professional wizard into unemployed vegetable.

  Screw it. You don't do a job like mine by running away at any hint of danger.

  I steeled myself and willed myself forward, following Grey Cloak.