Turn Coat, Page 10Jim Butcher
"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. "
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 thing with 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. "If I 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 oncomi
ng 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 more standing.
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.