Summer Knight, Page 11Jim Butcher
I made a couple of phone calls, slapped a few things into a nylon backpack, and sallied forth to break into Ronald Reuel's apartment.
Reuel had lived at the south edge of the Loop, in a building that looked like it had once been a theater. The lobby yawned up to a high ceiling and was spacious and pretty enough, but it left me looking for the velvet ropes and listening for the disorganized squawking of an orchestra warming up its instruments.
I walked in wearing a hat with an FTD logo and carrying a long white flower box under one arm. I nodded to an aging security guard at a desk and went on past him to the stairs, my steps purposeful. You'd be surprised how far a hat, a box, and a confident stride can get you.
I took the stairs up to Reuel's apartment, on the third floor. I went up them slowly, my wizard's senses open, on the lookout for any energies that might yet be lingering around the site of the old man's death. I paused for a moment, over the spot where Reuel's body had been found, to be sure, but there was nothing. If a lot of magic had been put to use in Reuel's murder, someone had covered its tracks impressively.
I went the rest of the way up to the third floor, but it wasn't until I opened the door to the third-floor hallway that my instincts warned me I was not alone. I froze with the door from the stairway only half open, and Listened.
Listening isn't particularly hard. I'm not even sure it's all that magical. I can't explain it well, other than to say that I'm able to block out everything but what I hear and to pick up things I would normally miss. It's a skill that not many people have these days, and one that has been useful to me more than once.
This time, I was able to Listen to a half-whispered basso curse and the rustle of papers from somewhere down the hall.
I opened the flower box and drew out my blasting rod, then checked my shield bracelet. All in all, in close quarters like this, I would have preferred a gun to my blasting rod, but I'd have a hell of a time explaining it to security or the police if they caught me snooping around a dead man's apartment. I tightened my grip on the rod and slid quietly down the hall, hoping I wouldn't need to use it. Believe it or not, my first instinct isn't always to set things on fire.
The door to Reuel's apartment stood half open, and its pale wood glared where it had been freshly splintered. My heart sped up. It looked like someone had beaten me to Reuel's place. It meant that I must have been on the right track.
It also meant that whoever it was would probably not be thrilled to see me.
I crept to the door and peered inside.
What I could see of the apartment could have been imported from 429-B Baker Street. Dark woods, fancy scrollwork, and patterns of cloth busier than the makeup girl at a Kiss concert filled every available inch of space with Victorian splendor. Or rather, it once had. Now the place looked wrecked. A sideboard stood denuded of its drawers, which lay upturned on the floor. An old steamer chest lay on its side, its lid torn off, its contents scattered onto the carpet. An open door showed me that the bedroom hadn't been spared the rough stuff either. Clothes and broken bits of finery lay strewn about everywhere.
The man inside Reuel's apartment looked like a catalog model for Thugs-R-Us. He stood a hand taller than me, and I couldn't tell where his shoulders left off and his neck began. He wore old frayed breeches, a sweater with worn elbows, and a hat that looked like an import from the Depression-era Bowery, a round bowler decorated with a dark grey band. He carried a worn leather satchel in one meat-slab hand, and with the other he scooped up pieces of paper, maybe index cards, from a shoe box on an old writing desk, depositing them in the bag. The satchel bulged, but he kept adding more to it with rapid, sharp motions. He muttered something else, emitted a low rumble, and snatched up a Rolodex from the desk, cramming it into the satchel.
I drew back from the door and put my back against the wall. There wasn't any time to waste, but I had to figure out what to do. If someone had shown up at Reuel's place to start swiping papers, it meant that Reuel had been hiding evidence of one kind or another. Therefore, I needed to see whatever it was Kong had in that satchel.
Somehow, I doubted he would show me if I asked him pretty please, but I didn't like my other option, either. In such tight quarters, and with other residents nearby, I didn't dare resort to any of my kaboom magic. Kaboom magic, or evocation, is difficult to master, and I'm not very good at it. Even with my blasting rod as a focus, I had accidentally dealt out structural damage to a number of buildings. So far, I'd been lucky enough not to kill myself. I didn't want to push it if I didn't have to.
Of course, I could always just jump the thug and try to take his bag away. I had a feeling I'd be introduced to whole new realms of physical discomfort, but I could try it.
I took another peek at the thug. With one hand, he casually lifted a sofa that had to weigh a couple of hundred pounds and peered under it. I drew back from the door again. Fisticuffs, bad idea. Definitely a bad idea.
I chewed on my lip a moment more. Then I slipped the blasting rod back into the flower box, squared up my FTD hat, stepped around the corner, and knocked on the half-open door.
The thug's head snapped around toward me, along with most of his shoulders. He bared his teeth, anger in his eyes.
"FTD," I said, trying to keep my voice bland. "I got a delivery here for a Mr. Reuel. You want to sign for it?"
The thug glowered at me from beneath the shelter of his overhanging brow. "Flowers?" he rumbled a minute later.
"Yeah, buddy," I said. "Flowers. " I came into the apartment and thrust the clipboard at him, idly wishing I had some gum to chomp. "Sign there at the bottom. "
He glowered at me for a moment longer before accepting the clipboard. "Reuel ain't here. "
"Like I care. " I pushed a pen at him with the other hand. "Just sign it and I'll get going. "
This time he glared at the pen, then at me. Then he set the satchel on the coffee table. "Whatever. "
"Great. " I stepped past him and put the flower box down on the table. He clutched the pen in his fist and scrawled on the bottom of the paper. I reached down with one hand as he did, plucked a piece of paper a little bigger than a playing card from the satchel, and palmed it. I got my hand back to my side just before he finished, growled, and shoved the clipboard at me.
"Now," he said, "leave. "
"You bet," I told him. "Thanks. "
I turned to go, but his hand shot out and his fingers clamped on to my arm like a steel band. I looked back. He narrowed his eyes, nostrils flared, and then growled, "I don't smell flowers. "
The bottom fell out of my stomach, but I tried to keep the bluff going. "What are you talking about, Mr. , uh" - I glanced down at the clipboard - "Grum. "
He leaned down closer to me, and his nostrils flared again, this time with a low snuffling sound. "I smell magic. Smell wizard. "
My smile must have turned green to go with my face. "Uh. "
Grum took my throat in one hand and lifted me straight up off the ground with a strength no human could duplicate. My vision reduced itself to a hazy tunnel, and the clipboard fell from my fingers. I struggled against him uselessly. His eyes narrowed, and he bared more teeth in a slow smile. "Should have minded your own business. Whoever you are. " His fingers started tightening, and I thought I heard something crackle and pop. I had to hope it was his knuckles instead of my trachea. "Whoever you were. "
It was too late by far to use my shield bracelet, and my blasting rod lay out of reach on the coffee table. I fumbled in my pocket, as my vision started to go black, for the only weapon I had left. I had to pray that I was right in my guess.
I found the old iron nail, gripped it as best I could, and shoved it hard at Grum's beefy forearm. The nail bit into his flesh.
He screamed, a throaty, basso bellow that shook the walls. He flinched and spun, hurling me away from him. I hit the door to Reuel's bedroom, slamming it all the way open, an
d got lucky. I landed on the bed rather than on one of the wooden pillars at its corners. If I'd hit one of those, I'd have broken my back. Instead, I hit the bed, bounced, fetched up hard against the wall, then tumbled back to the bed again.
I glanced up to see that Grum looked very different than he had a moment before.
Rather than the film noir tough-guy getup, he wore a loincloth of some kind of pale leather - and nothing more. His skin was a dark russet, layered with muscle and curling dark hair. His ears stood out from the sides of his head like satellite dishes, and his features had flattened, becoming more bestial, nearly like those of a gorilla. He was also better than twelve feet tall. He had to hunch over to stand, and even so his shoulders pressed against the ten-foot ceiling.
With another roar, Grum tore the nail from his arm and flung it to one side. It went completely through the wall, leaving a hole the size of my thumb. Then he spun back to me, baring teeth now huge and jagged, and took a stalking step toward me, the floor creaking beneath his feet.
"Ogre," I wheezed. "Crap!" I extended my hand toward the blasting rod and focused my will. "Ventas servitas!"
A sharp and sudden torrent of air caught up the flower box and hurled it straight toward me. It hit me in the chest hard enough to hurt, but I snatched it, brought out my blasting rod, and trained it on Grum as he closed on me. I slammed more will through the rod, its tip bursting into scarlet incandescence.
"Fuego!" I barked as I released the energy. Fire in a column the size of my clenched fist flashed out at Grum and splashed against his chest.
It didn't slow him down, not by a second. His skin didn't burn - his hair didn't even singe. The fire of my magic spilled over him and did absolutely nothing.
Grum shouldered his way through the bedroom door, cracking the frame as he did, and raised his fist. He slammed it down at the bed, but I didn't wait around to meet it. I flopped over to the far side of the bed and tumbled down to the space between the bed and the wall. He reached for me, but I rolled underneath the bed, bumped against his feet, and scrambled toward the door.
I almost made it. But something heavy and hard slammed against my legs, taking them out from under me and knocking me down. I only had time to realize, dimly, that Grum had picked up an antique Victorian chair that resembled, more than anything else, a throne, and hurled it at me.
The pain kicked in a second later, but I crawled toward the door. The ogre's feet pounded in rapid succession, and the floor shook as he grew closer and closer to me.
From the hall, a querulous female voice demanded, "What's all that racket? I have already called the police, I have! You fruits get out of our hall, or they'll lock you away!"
Grum stopped. I saw frustration and rage flicker over his apelike features. Then he snarled, stepped over me, and picked up the satchel. When he headed for the door, I rolled out of his way. He was big enough to simply crush my chest if he stepped on me, and I didn't want to make it easy for him.
"You got lucky," the ogre growled. "But this is not over. " Then his form blurred and shifted, growing smaller, until he wore the same appearance he had a few moments before. He settled his bowler with one hand, then stalked out the door, aiming a kick at me in passing. I cringed away from it. and he was gone.
"Well?" demanded that same voice. "What's it going to be, you fruit? Get out!"
Police sirens wailed somewhere outside. I got up, wobbled for a moment, and put my hand against the wall to help myself stay up. I turned the other hand over to look at the piece of paper I'd stolen from Grum's satchel.
It wasn't paper. It was a photograph. Nothing fancy - just an instant-camera shot. It showed old white-haired Reuel, standing in front of the Magic Castle at one of the Disney parks.
Several young people stood beside him and around him, smiling, sunburned, and apparently happy. One was a tall, bull-necked young woman in faded jeans, with her hair dyed a shade of muddy green. She had a wide smile and a blunt, ugly face. Standing beside her was a girl who should have been in a lingerie catalog, all curves and long limbs in her brief shorts and bikini top, her hair also green, but the color of summer grass rather than that of pond scum. On the other side of Reuel was a pair of young men. One of them, a short, stocky fellow with a goatee and sunglasses, had his fingers lifted into a V behind the head of his companion, a small, slender man with his skin sunburned to the color of copper and his blond hair bleached out to nearly white.
Who were they? Why had Reuel been with them? And why had Grum seemed so intent on removing their picture from Reuel's apartment?
The sirens grew closer, and if I didn't want to get locked up by some well-meaning member of Chicago's finest, I needed to leave. I rubbed at my aching throat, winced at the wrenching, cramping pain in my back, wondered about the photograph, and stumbled out of the building.