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Grave Peril, Page 10

Jim Butcher

Chapter Ten

  Mortimer Lindquist had tried to give his house that gothic feel. Greyish gargoyles stood at the corners of his roof. Black iron gates glowered at the front of his house and statuary lined the walk to his front door. Long grass had overgrown his yard. If his house hadn't been a red-roofed, white-walled stucco transplant from somewhere in southern California, it might have worked.

  The results looked more like the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland than an ominous abode of a speaker to the dead. The black iron gates stood surrounded by plain chain-link fence. The gargoyles, on closer inspection, proved to be plastic reproductions. The statuary, too, had the rough outlines of plaster, rather than the clean, sweeping profile of marble. You could have plopped a pink flamingo down right in the middle of the unmowed weeds, and it would have somehow matched the decor. But, I supposed, at night, with the right lighting and the right attitude, some people might have believed it.

  I shook my head and lifted my hand to rap on the door.

  It opened before my knuckles touched it, and a well-rounded set of shoulders below a shining, balding head backed through the doorway, grunting. I stepped to one side. The little man tugged an enormous suitcase out onto the porch, never taking notice of me, his florid face streaked with perspiration.

  I sidled into the doorway as he turned to lug the bag out to the gate, muttering to himself under his breath. I shook my head and went on into the house. The door was a business entrance - there was no tingling sensation of crossing the threshold of a dwelling uninvited. The front room reminded me of the house's exterior. Lots of black curtains draped down over the walls and doorways. Red and black candles squatted all over the place. A grinning human skull leered from a bookshelf straining to contain copies of the Encyclopedia Britannica with the lettering scraped off their spines. The skull was plastic, too.

  Morty had a table set up in the room, several chairs around it with a high-backed chair at the rear, wood that had actually been carved with a number of monstrous beings. I took a seat in the chair, folded my hands on the table in front of me, and waited.

  The little man came back in, wiping at his face with a bandana handkerchief, sweating and panting.

  "Shut the door," I said. "We need to talk, Morty. "

  He squealed and whirled around.

  "Y-you," he stammered. "Dresden. What are you doing here?"

  I stared at him. "Come in, Morty. "

  He came closer, but left the door open. In spite of his pudginess, he moved with the nervous energy of a spooked cat. His white business shirt showed stains beneath his arms reaching halfway to his belt. "Look, Dresden. I told you guys before - I get the rules, right? I haven been doing anything you guys talked about. "

  Aha. The White Council had sent someone to see him. Morty was a professional con. I hadn't planned on getting any honest answers out of him without a lot of effort. Maybe I could play this angle and save myself a lot of work.

  "Let me tell you something, Morty. When I come into a place and don't say a thing except, 'Let's talk, and the first thing I hear is 'I didn't do it, it makes me think that the person I'm talking to must have done something. You know what I'm saying?"

  His florid face lost several shades of red. "No way, man. Look, I've got nothing to do with what's been going on. Not my fault, none of my business, man. "

  "With what's been going on," I said. I looked down at my folded hands for a moment, and then back up at him. "What's the suitcase for, Morty? You do something that means you need to leave town for a while?"

  He swallowed, thick neck working. "Look, Dresden. Mister Dresden. My sister got sick, see. I'm just going to help her out. "

  "Sure you are," I said. "That's what you're doing. Going out of town to help your sick sister. "

  "I swear to God," Morty said, lifting a hand, his face earnest.

  I pointed at the chair across from me. "Sit down, Morty. "

  "I'd like to, but I got a cab coming. " He turned toward the door.

  "Ventas servitas," I hissed, nice and dramatic, and threw some will at the door. Sudden wind slammed it shut right in front of his eyes. He squeaked, and backed up several paces, staring at the door, then whirling to face me.

  I used the remnants of the same spell to push out a chair opposite me. "Sit down, Morty. I've got a few questions. Now, if you cut the crap, you'll make your cab. And, if not . . . " I left the words hanging. One thing about intimidation is that people can always think up something worse that you could do to them than you can, if you leave their imagination some room to play.

  He stared at me, and swallowed again, his jowls jiggling. Then he moved to the chair as though he expected chains to fly out of it and tie him down the moment he sat. He balanced his weight on the very edge of the chair, licked his lips, and watched me, probably trying to figure out the best lies for the questions he expected.

  "You know," I said. "I've read your books, Morty. Ghosts of Chicago. The Spook Factor. Two or three others. You did good work, there. "

  His expression changed, eyes narrowing in suspicion. "Thank you. "

  "I mean, twenty years ago, you were a pretty damn good investigator. Sensitivity to spiritual energies and apparitions - ghosts. What we call an ectomancer in the business. "

  "Yeah," he said. His eyes softened a little, if not his voice. He avoided looking directly in my face. Most people do. "That was a long time ago. "

  I kept my voice in the same tone, the same expression. "And now what? You run seances for people. How many times do you actually get to contact a spirit? One time in ten? One in twenty? Must be a real letdown from the actual stuff. Playacting, I mean. "

  He was good at covering his expressions, I'll give him that. But I'm used to watching people. I saw anger in the way he held his neck and shoulders. "I provide a legitimate service to people in need. "

  "No. You play on their grief to take them for all you can. You don't believe that you're doing right, Morty, deep down. You can justify it any way you want, but you don't like what you're doing. If you did, your powers wouldn't have faded like they have. "

  His jaw set in a hard line, and he didn't try to hide the anger anymore - the first honest reaction I'd seen out of him since he'd cried out in surprise. "If you've got a point, Dresden, get to it. I've got a plane to catch. "

  I spread my fingers over the tabletop. "In the past two weeks," I said, "the spooks have been going mad. You should see the trouble they've caused. That poltergeist in the Campbell house. The Basement Beast at U. of C. Agatha Hagglethorn, down at Cook County. "

  Morty grimaced and wiped at his face again. "Yeah. I hear things. You and the Knight of the Sword have been covering the worst of it. "

  "What else has been happening, Morty? I'm getting a little cranky losing sleep, so keep it short and simple. "

  "I don't know," he said, sullen. "I've lost my powers, remember. "

  I narrowed my eyes. "But you hear things, Morty. You've still got some sources in the Nevernever. Why are you leaving town?"

  He laughed, and it had a shaky edge to it. "You said you read all of my books? Did you read They Shall Rise?"

  "I glanced over it. End-of-the-world-type stuff. I figured you had been talking to the wrong kind of spirits too much. They love trying to sell people on Armageddon. A lot of them are cons like you. "

  He ignored me. "Then you read my theory on the barrier between our world and the Nevernever. That it's slowly being torn away. "

  "And you think it's falling to pieces, now? Morty, that wall has been there since the dawn of time. I don't think it's going to collapse right now. "

  "Wall. " He said the word with a sneer. "More like Saran Wrap, wizard. Like Jell-O. It bends and wiggles and stirs. " He rubbed his palms on his thighs, shivering.

  "And it's falling now?"

  "Look around you!" he shouted. "Good God, wizard. The past two weeks, the border's been waggling back and forth like a hooker at a dockworker's convent
ion. Why the hell do you think all of these ghosts have been rising?"

  I didn't let the sudden volume of his tone make me blink. "You're saying that this instability has been making it easier for ghosts to cross over from the Nevernever?"

  "And easier to form bigger, stronger ghosts when people die," he said. "You think you've got some pissed-off ghosts now? Wait until some honor student on her way out of the south side with a college scholarship gets popped by accident in a gang shootout. Wait until some poor sap who got AIDS from a blood transfusion breathes his last. "

  "Bigger, badder ghosts," I said. "Superghosts. That's what you're talking about. "

  He laughed, a nasty little laugh. "New generation of viruses is coming, too. Things are going to hell all over. Eventually, that border's going to get thin enough to spit through, and you'll have more problems with demon attacks than gang violence. "

  I shook my head. "All right," I said. "Let's say that I buy that the barrier is fluid rather than concrete. There's turbulence in it, and it's making crossing over easier, both ways. Could something be causing the turbulence?"

  "How the hell should I know?" he snarled. "You don't know what it's like, Dresden. To speak to things that exist in the past and in the future as well as in the now. To have them walk up to you at the salad bar and start telling you how they murdered their wife in her sleep.

  "I mean, you think you've got a hold on things, that you understand, but in the end it all falls to pieces. A con is simpler, Dresden. You make order. People don't give a flying fuck if Uncle Jeffrey really forgives them for missing his last birthday party. They want to know that the world is a place where Uncle Jeffrey can and should forgive them. " He swallowed, and looked around the room, at the fake tomes and the fake skull. "That's what I sell them. Closure. Like on television. They want to know that it's all going to work out in the end, and they're happy to pay for it. "

  A car honked outside. Morty glared at me. "We're through. "

  I nodded.

  He jerked to his feet, splotches of color in his cheeks. "God, I need a drink. Get out of town, Dresden. Something came across last night like nothing I've ever felt. "

  I thought of ruined cars and rosebushes planted in consecrated ground. "Do you know what it is?"

  "It's big," Morty said. "And it's pissed off. It's going to start killing, Dresden. And I don't think you or anyone else is going to be able to stop it. "

  "But it's a ghost?"

  He gave me a smile that showed me his canines. It was creepy on that florid, eyes-too-wide face. "It's a nightmare. " He started to turn away. I wanted to let him go, but I couldn't. The man had become a liar, a sniveling con, but he hadn't always been.

  I rose and beat him to the door, taking his arm in one hand. He spun to face me, jerking his arm away, glaring defiantly at my eyes. I avoided locking gazes. I didn't want to take a look at Mortimer Lindquist's soul.

  "Morty," I said, quietly. "Get away from your seances for a while. Go somewhere quiet. Read. Relax. You're older now, stronger. If you give yourself a chance, the power will come back. "

  He laughed again, tired and jaded. "Sure, Dresden. Just like that. "

  "Morty - "

  He turned away from me and stalked out the door. He didn't bother to lock the place up behind him. I watched him head out to the cab, which waited by the curb. He lugged his bag into the backseat, and then followed it.

  Before the cab pulled out, he rolled down the window. "Dresden," he called. "Under my chair there's a drawer. My notes. If you want to kill yourself trying to stand up to this thing, you might as well know what you're getting into. "

  He rolled the window back up as the cab pulled away. I watched it go, then went back inside. I found the drawer hidden in the base of the carved wooden chair, and inside I found a trio of old leather-bound journals, vellum pages covered in script that started out neat in the oldest one and became a jerky scrawl in the most recent entries. I held the books up to my mouth and inhaled the smell of leather, ink, paper; musty and genuine and real.

  Morty hadn't had to give me the notes. Maybe there was some root of the person he had been, deep down somewhere, that wasn't dead yet. Maybe I'd done him a little good with that advice. I'd like to think that.

  I blew out a breath, found a phone and called a cab of my own. I needed to get the Beetle out of impound if I could. Maybe Murphy could fix it for me.

  I gathered the journals and went to the porch to wait for the cab, shutting the door behind me. Something big was coming through town, Morty had said.

  "A nightmare," I said, out loud.

  Could Mort be right? Could the barrier between the spirit world and our own be falling apart? The thought made me shudder. Something had been formed, something big and mean. And my gut instinct told me that it had a purpose. All power, no matter how terrible or benign, whether its wielder is aware of it or not, has a purpose.

  So this Nightmare was here for something. I wondered what it wanted. Wondered what it would do.

  And worried that, all too soon, I would find out.