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Summer Knight, Page 10

Jim Butcher

Chapter Ten

  I wasn't too tired to dream. Evidently, my subconscious - we've met, and he's kind of a jerk - had something on his mind, because the dream was a variation on the theme that had taken up most of my sleeping hours since I'd last seen Susan.

  The dream began with a kiss.

  Susan has a gorgeous mouth. Not too thin and not too full. Always soft, always warm. When she kissed me, it was like the world went away. Nothing mattered but the touch of her lips on mine. I kissed the dream-Susan, and she melted against me with a soft sound, the length of her body pliant, eager. Her fingers reached up and trailed over my chest, nails lightly raking.

  I leaned back from the kiss after a long moment, and my eyes felt almost too heavy to open. My lips quivered and tingled with sensation, a feeling that begged for more kisses to make it cease. She looked up at me, dark eyes smoldering. Her hair had been pulled back into a long, silken tail that fell between her shoulder blades. It had grown longer, in the dreams. Her lovely aquiline face tilted up toward mine.

  "Are you all right?" I asked her. I always did. And, as always, she gave me a small, sad smile and did not answer. I bit my lip. "I'm still looking. I haven't given up. "

  She shook her head and drew back from me. I had the presence of mind to look around. A dark alley this time, with the heavy, pounding music of a dance club making the nearest wall vibrate. Susan wore dark tights and a sleeveless blouse, and my black-leather duster had been draped over her shoulders and fell to brush her feet. She looked at me intently and then turned toward the entrance to the club.

  "Wait," I said.

  She walked to the door and turned back to me, extending her hand. The door opened, and dim, reddish light flooded out over her, doing odd things to the shadows over her face. Her dark eyes grew larger.

  No, that wasn't right. The black of her pupils simply expanded, until the whites were gone, until there was nothing but darkness where her eyes should have been. They were vampire eyes, huge and inhuman.

  "I can't," I said. "We can't go in there, Susan. "

  Her features grew frustrated, angry. She extended her hand to me again, more forcefully.

  Hands came out of the darkness in the doorway, slim, pale, androgynous. They slipped over Susan, slowly, caressingly. Tugging at her clothing, her hair. Her eyes fluttered closed for a moment, her body growing stiff, before her weight shifted slowly toward the doorway.

  Longing shot through me, sudden, mindless, and sharp as a scalpel's blade. Hunger, a simple and nearly violent need to touch, to be touched, followed it into me, and I suddenly could not think. "Don't," I said, and stepped toward her.

  I felt her hand take mine. I felt her press herself to me with another moan, and her lips, her mouth, devoured mine with ravenous kisses, kisses I answered with my own, harder and more demanding as my doubts faded. I felt it when her kiss turned poisonous, when the sudden narcotic numbness swept through my mouth and began to spread through my body. It didn't make any difference. I kissed her, tore at her clothes, and she tore at mine. The hands helped, but I didn't pay any attention to them anymore. They were an unimportant background sensation in comparison to Susan's mouth, her hands, her skin velvet and warm beneath my fingers.

  There was no romance, nothing but need, animal, carnal. I pushed her against a wall in the dim scarlet light, and she wrapped herself around me, frantic, her body urging me on. I pressed into her, sudden sensation of silk and honey, and had to fight for control, throwing my head back.

  She quivered then, and as always, she struck. Her mouth closed on my throat, a flash of heat and agony that melted into a narcotic bliss like that of her kiss - but more complete. Languid delight spread through me, and I felt my body reacting, all traces of control gone, thrusting against her, into her. The motion slowly died as sheer, shivering ecstasy spread through me. I began to lose control of my limbs, muscles turning to gelatin. I sank slowly to the floor. Susan rode me down, her mouth hot and eager on my throat, her body, her hips moving now, taking over the rhythm.

  The pleasure of the venom melted my thoughts, and they slid free of my flesh, floating over the ground. I looked down on my body, beneath Susan, pale and still on the floor, eyes empty. I saw the change take her. I saw her body twist and buck, saw her skin split and rip open. I saw something dark and horrible tear its way out, all gaping dark eyes and slippery black hide. Blood, my blood, smeared its mouth.

  The creature froze in shock, staring down at my corpse. And as I began to drift away, the creature threw back its head, its body rubbery and sinuous as a snake's, and let out an inhuman, screeching yowl full of rage, pain, and need.

  I bolted up out of sleep with a short cry, my skin sheathed in a cold sweat, my muscles aching and stiff.

  I panted for a moment, looking around my apartment. My lips tingled with remembered kisses, my skin with dreamed caresses.

  I forced myself to my feet with a groan and staggered toward my shower. There were times when it was just as well that I had disconnected the water heater to head off magically inspired mishaps. It made bathing sheer torture in the winter, but sometimes there's no substitute for a cold shower.

  I stripped and stood under chilly water for a while, shaking. Not necessarily from cold, either. I shook with a lot of things. First with raw and mindless lust. The shower took the edge off of that in a few moments. Don't get me wrong. I didn't have any particular death-sex fixation. But I had been used to a certain amount of friendly tension relieving with Susan. Her absence had killed that for me, completely - except for rare moments during the damned dreams when my hormones came raging back to the front of my thoughts again as though making up for lost time.

  Second, I trembled with fear. My nightmares might be one part lusty dream, but they were also a warning. Susan's curse could kill me and destroy her. I couldn't forget that.

  And finally, I shook with guilt. If I hadn't let her down, maybe she wouldn't be in this mess. She was gone, and I didn't have the vaguest idea where she was. I should have been doing more.

  I stuck my head in the water, and shoved those thoughts away, washing myself off with a ton of soap and the last shampoo in the bottle. I scrubbed at my beard and finally reached out and got my straight razor, then spent a few minutes and a lot of care removing it. Dark, wiry black hair fell in clumps to the shower floor, and my face tingled as it breathed its first air for a couple of months. But it felt good, and as I went through the routine of grooming, my thoughts cleared.

  I dug some clean clothes out of my closet, padded out into the living room, and pulled back the rug that covered the trapdoor leading to the subbasement. I swung the door open, lit a candle, and descended the stepladder staircase into my lab.

  My lab, in contrast to the havoc upstairs, looked like something run by a particularly anal-retentive military clerk. A long table ran down the middle of the room, between a pair of other tables, one on either wall, leaving only narrow walkways. White steel wire shelves on the walls held the host of magical components I used in research. They resided in a variety of jars, bottles, boxes, and plastic containers, most with labels listing the contents, how much was left, and when I had acquired the item. The tables were clean except for stacks of notes, a jar of pens and pencils, and myriad candles. I lit a few of them and walked down to the other end of the lab, checking the copper summoning circle set into the floor and making sure that nothing lay across it. You never knew when a magic circle would come in handy.

  One area of the lab had retained the casual chaos that had been its major theme before I'd taken up nearly full-time residence last year. One shelf, still battered old wood, hadn't been changed or updated. Candleholders, covered in multiple shades of melted wax that had spilled down over them, sat at either end of the shelf. Between them was a scattering of various articles - a number of battered paperback romances, several Victoria's Secret catalogs, a scarlet scrap of a silk ribbon that had been tied into a bow on a naked young woman named Ju
stine, one bracelet from a broken set of handcuffs, and a bleached old human skull.

  "Bob, wake up," I said, lighting candles. "I need to pick your brain. "

  Lights, orange and nebulous, kindled deep in the shadows of the skull's eye sockets. The skull quivered a little bit on its shelf and then stretched its toothy mouth open in an approximation of a yawn. "So was the kid right? Was there some portent-type action going on?"

  "Rain of toads," I said.

  "Real ones?"

  "Yeah. "

  "Ouch," said Bob the Skull. Bob wasn't really a skull. The skull was just a vessel for the spirit of intellect that resided inside and helped me keep track of the constantly evolving metaphysical laws that govern the use of magic. But "Bob the Skull" is a lot easier to say than "Bob the Spirit of Intellect and Lab Assistant. "

  I nodded, breaking out my Bunsen burners and beakers. "Tell me about it. Look, Bob, I've got kind of a difficult situation here and - "

  "Harry, you aren't going to be able to do this. There is no cure for vampirism. I like Susan too, but it can't be done. You think people haven't looked for a cure before now?"

  "I haven't looked for one before now," I said. "And I've had a couple of ideas I want to look at. "

  "Aye, Cap'n Ahab, arr har har har! We'll get that white devil, sir!"

  "Damn right we will. But we've got something else to do first. "

  Bob's eyelights brightened. "You mean something other than hopeless, pointless vampire research? I'm already interested. Does it have to do with the rain of toads?"

  I frowned, got out a pad of paper and a pencil, and started scratching things down. Sometimes that helped me sort things out. "Maybe. It's a murder investigation. "

  "Gotcha. Who's the corpse?"

  "Artist. Ronald Reuel. "

  Bob's eyelights burned down to twin points. "Ah. Who is asking you to find the killer?"

  "We don't know he was killed. Cops say it was an accident. "

  "But you think differently. "

  I shook my head. "I don't know a thing about it, but Mab says he was killed. She wants me to find the killer and prove that it wasn't her. "

  Bob fell into a shocked silence nearly a minute long. My pen scratched on the paper until Bob blurted, "Mab? The Mab, Harry?"

  "Yeah. "

  "Queen of Air and Darkness? That Mab?"

  "Yeah," I said, impatient.

  "And she's your client?"

  "Yes, Bob. "

  "Here's where I ask why don't you spend your time doing something safer and more boring. Like maybe administering suppositories to rabid gorillas. "

  "I live for challenge," I said.

  "Or you don't, as the case may be," Bob said brightly. "Harry, if I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times. You don't get tangled up with the Sidhe. It's always more complicated than you thought it would be. "

  "Thanks for the advice, skull boy. It wasn't like I had a choice. Lea sold her my debt. "

  "Then you should have traded her something for your freedom," Bob said. "You know, stolen an extra baby or something and given it to her - "

  "Stolen a baby? I'm in enough trouble already. "

  "Well, if you weren't such a Goody Two-shoes all the time . . . "

  I pushed at the bridge of my nose with my thumb. This was going to be one of those conversations that gave me a headache, I could tell already. "Look, Bob, can we stick to the subject, please? Time is important, so let's get to work. I need to know why Reuel would have been knocked off. "

  "Gee whiz, Harry," Bob said. "Maybe because he was the Summer Knight?"

  My pencil fell out of my fingers and rolled on the table. "Whoa," I said. "Are you sure?"

  "What do you think?" Bob replied, somehow putting a sneer into the words.

  "Uh," I said. "This means trouble. It means . . . "

  "It means that things with the Sidhe are more complicated than you thought. Gee, if only someone had warned you at some point not to be an idiot and go making deals. "

  I gave the skull a sour look and recovered my pencil. "How much trouble am I in?"

  "A lot," Bob said. "The Knights are entrusted with power by the Sidhe Courts. They're tough. "

  "I don't know much about them," I confessed. "They're some kind of representative of the faeries, right?"

  "Don't call them that to their faces, Harry. They don't like it any more than you'd like being called an ape. "

  "Just tell me what I'm dealing with. "

  Bob's eyelights narrowed until they almost went out, then brightened again after a moment, as the skull began to speak. "A Sidhe Knight is mortal," Bob said. "A champion of one of the Sidhe Courts. He gets powers in line with his Court, and he's the only one who is allowed to act in affairs not directly related to the Sidhe. "

  "Meaning?"

  "Meaning that if one of the Queens wants an outsider dead, her Knight is the trigger man. "

  I frowned. "Hang on a minute. You mean that the Queens can't personally gun down anyone who isn't in their Court?"

  "Not unless the target does something stupid like make an open-ended bargain without even trying to trade a baby for - "

  "Off topic, Bob. Do I or don't I have to worry about getting killed this time around?"

  "Of course you do," Bob said in a cheerful tone. "It just means that the Queen isn't allowed to actually, personally end your life. They could, however, trick you into walking into quicksand and watch you drown, turn you into a stag and set the hounds after you, bind you into an enchanted sleep for a few hundred years, that kind of thing. "

  "I guess it was too good to be true. But my point is that if Reuel was the Summer Knight, Mab couldn't have killed him. Right? So why should she be under suspicion?"

  "Because she could have done it indirectly. And Harry, odds are the Sidhe don't really care about Reuel's murder. Knights come and go like paper cups. I'd guess that they were upset about something else. The only thing they really care about. "

  "Power," I guessed.

  "See, you can use your brain when you want to. "

  I shook my head. "Mab said something had been taken, and that I'd know what it was," I muttered. "I guess that's it. How much power are we talking about?"

  "A Knight of the Sidhe is no pushover, Harry," Bob said, his tone earnest.

  "So we're talking about a lot of magic going AWOL. Grand theft mojo. " I drummed my pen on the table. "Where does the power come from originally?"

  "The Queens. "

  I frowned. "Tell me if I'm off track here. If it comes from the Queens, it's a part of them, right? If a Knight dies, the power should snap back to the Queen like it was on a rubber band. "

  "Exactly. "

  "But this time it didn't. So the Summer Queen is missing a load of power. She's been weakened. "

  "If everything you've told me is true, yes," Bob said.

  "There's no more balance between Summer and Winter. Hell, that could explain the toads. That's a serious play of forces, isn't it?"

  Bob rolled his eyelights. "The turning of the seasons? Duh, Harry. The Sidhe are closer to the mortal world than any other beings of the Nevernever. Summer's had a slight edge for a while now, but it looks like they've lost it. "

  "And here I thought global warming was due to cow farts. " I shook my head. "So, Titania loses a bunch of juice, and naturally suspicion falls on her archenemy, Mab. "

  "Yeah. It is kind of an archenemy-ish thing to do, you have to admit. "

  "I guess. " I frowned down at my notes. "Bob, what happens if this imbalance between the Courts continues?"

  "Bad things," Bob said. "It will mess around with weather patterns, cause aberrant behavior in plants and animals, and sooner or later the Sidhe Courts will go to war with one another. "

  "Why?"

  "Because, Harry. When the balance is destroyed, the only thing the Queens can do is to blow everything to flinders and let it settle out into a nat
ural distribution again. "

  "What does that mean to me?" I asked.

  "Depends on who has the edge when everything is settled," Bob said. "A war could start the next ice age, or set off an era of rampant growth. "

  "That last one doesn't sound so bad. "

  "No. Not if you're an Ebola virus. You'll have lots of friends. "

  "Oh. Bad, then. "

  "Yeah," Bob said. "Keep in mind that this is theory, though. I've never seen it happen. I haven't existed that long. But it's something the Queens will want to avoid if they can. "

  "Which explains Mab's interest in this, if she didn't do it. "

  "Even if she did," Bob corrected me. "Did she ever actually tell you she was innocent?"

  I mulled it over for a moment. "No," I said finally. "She twisted things around a lot. "

  "So it's possible that she did do it. Or had it done, at any rate. "

  "Right," I said. "So to find out if it was one of the Queens, we'd need to find her hitter. How tough would it be to kill one of these Knights?"

  "A flight of stairs wouldn't do it. A couple of flights of stairs wouldn't do it. Maybe if he went on an elevator ride with you - "

  "Very funny. " I frowned, drumming my pen on the table. "So it would have taken that little something extra to take out Reuel. Who could manage it?"

  "Regular folks could do it. But they wouldn't be able to do it without burning buildings and smoking craters and so on. To kill him so that it looked like an accident? Maybe another Knight could. Among the Sidhe, it was either the Winter Knight or one of the Queens. "

  "Could a wizard do it?"

  "That goes without saying. But you'd have to be a pretty brawny wizard, have plenty of preparation and a good channel to him. Even then, smoking craters would be easier than an accident. "

  "The wizards have all been in duck-and-cover mode lately. And there are too many of them to make a practical suspect pool. Let's assume that it was probably internal faerie stuff. That cuts it down to three suspects. "

  "Three?"

  "The three people who could have managed it. Summer Queen, Winter Queen, Winter Knight. One, two, three. "

  "Harry, I said it could have been one of the Queens. "

  I blinked up at the skull. "There are more than two?"

  "Yeah, technically there are three. "

  "Three?"

  "In each Court. "

  "Three Queens in each Court? Six?" That's just silly. "

  "Not if you think about it. Each Court has three Queens: The Queen Who Was, the Queen Who Is, and the Queen Who Is to Come. "

  "Great. Which one does the Knight work for?"

  "All of them. It's kind of a group thing. He has different duties to each Queen. "

  I felt the headache start at the base of my neck and creep toward the crown of my head. "Okay, Bob. I need to know about these Queens. "

  "Which ones? The ones Who Are, Who Were, or Who Are to Come?"

  I stared at the skull for a second, while the headache settled comfortably in. "There's got to be a simpler parlance than that. "

  "That's so typical. You won't steal a baby, but you're too lazy to conjugate. "

  "Hey," I said, "my sex life has nothing to do with - "

  "Conjugate, Harry. Conju - oh, why do I even bother? The Queen is just the Queen. Queen Titania, Queen Mab. The Queen Who Was is called the Mother. The Queen Who Is to Come is known as the Lady. Right now, the Winter Lady is Maeve. The Summer Lady is Aurora. "

  "Lady, Queen, Mother, gotcha. " I got a pencil and wrote it down, just to help me keep it straight, including the names. "So six people who might have managed it?"

  "Plus the Winter Knight," Bob said. "In theory. "

  "Right," I said. "Seven. " I wrote down the titles and then tapped the notebook thoughtfully and said, "Eight. "

  "Eight?" Bob asked.

  I took a deep breath and said, "Elaine's alive. She's on the investigation for Summer. "

  "Wow," Bob said. "Wow. And I told you so. "

  "I know, I know. "

  "You think she might have gacked Reuel?"

  "No," I said. "But I never saw it coming when she and Justin came after me, either. I only need to think about if she had the means to do it. I mean, if you think it would have been tough for me, maybe she wasn't capable of taking down Reuel. I was always a lot stronger than her. "

  "Yeah," Bob said, "but she was better than you. She had a lot going for her that you didn't. Grace. Style. Elegance. Breasts. "

  I rolled my eyes. "So she's on the list, until I find some reason she shouldn't be. "

  "How jaded and logical of you, Harry. I'm almost proud. "

  I turned to the folder Mab had given me and went through the newspaper clippings inside. "Any idea who the Winter Knight is?"

  "Nope. Sorry," Bob said. "My contacts on the Winter side are kinda sketchy. "

  "Okay, then," I sighed and picked up the notebook. "I know what I need to do. "

  "This should be good," Bob said dryly.

  "Bite me. I have to find out more about Reuel. Who was close to him. Maybe someone saw something. If the police assumed an accident, I doubt there was an investigation. "

  Bob nodded, somehow managing to look thoughtful. "So are you going to take out an ad in the paper or what?"

  I went around the lab and started snuffing candles. "I thought I'd try a little breaking and entering. Then I'll go to his funeral, see who shows. "

  "Gosh. Can I do fun things like you when I grow up?"

  I snorted and turned to the stepladder, taking my last lit candle with me.

  "Harry?" Bob said, just before I left.

  I stopped and looked back at him.

  "For what it's worth, be careful. " If I hadn't known any better, I'd have said Bob the Skull was almost shaking. "You're an idiot about women. And you have no idea what Mab is capable of. "

  I looked at him for a moment, his orange eyes the only light in the dimness of my frenetically neat lab. It sent a little shiver through me.

  Then I clomped back up the stepladder and went out to borrow trouble.