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Death Masks, Page 12

Jim Butcher

Chapter Twelve

  When I first came to Chicago I thought of a harbor as a giant bowl of ocean with ships and boats in the foreground and the faded outline of the buildings on the far side in the background. I had always imagined political subversives dressed up as tribal natives and a huge hit in the profit margin of the East India Company.

  Burnham Harbor looked like the parking lot of an oceangoing Wal-Mart. It might have been able to hold a football field or three. White wharves stretched out over the water with pleasure boats and small fishing vessels in rows within a placid oval of water. The scent of the lake was one part dead fish, one part algae-coated rock, and one part motor oil. I parked in the lot up the hill from the harbor, got out, and made sure I had my equipment with me. I wore my force ring on my right hand and my shield bracelet on my left wrist, and my blasting rod thumped against my leg where I had tied it to the inside of my leather duster. I'd added a can of self-defense spray to my arsenal, and I slipped it into my pants pocket. I would rather have had my gun, but toting it around in my pocket was a felony. The pepper spray wasn't.

  I locked up the car and felt a sudden, slithering pressure on my back-my instincts' way of screaming that someone was watching me. I kept my head down, my hands in my pockets, and walked toward the harbor. I didn't rubberneck around, but I tried to get a look at everything while moving only my eyes.

  I didn't see anyone, but I couldn't shake the impression that I was being observed. 1 doubted it was anyone from the Red Court. The morning hadn't reached full brightness yet, but it was still light enough to parboil a vampire. That didn't rule out any number of other flavors of assassin, though. And it was possible that if the thieves were here, they were keeping an eye on everyone coming and going.

  All I could do was walk steadily and hope that whoever was watching me wasn't one of Marcone's thugs, a vampire groupie or a rent-a-gun aiming a rifle at my back from several hundred yards away.

  I found the Etranger in a few minutes, moored at a slip not far from the entrance. It was a pretty little ship, a white pleasure boat roomy enough to house a comfortable cabin. The Etranger wasn't new, but she looked neat and well cared for. A Canadian flag hung from a little stand on the ship's afterdeck. I moved on past the ship at a steady pace and Listened as I did.

  Listening is a trick I'd picked up when I was a kid. Not many people have worked out the trick of it, blocking out all other sound in order to better hear one sound in particular-such as distant voices. It isn't as much about magic, I think, as it is focus and discipline. But the magic helps.

  "Unacceptable," said a quiet, female voice in the Etranger's cabin. It was marked with a gentle accent, both Spanish and British. "The job entailed a great deal more expense than was originally estimated. I'm raising the price to reflect this, nothing more. " There was a short pause, and then the woman said, "Would you like an invoice for your tax return then? I told you the quote was only an estimate. It happens. " Another pause, and then the woman said, "Excellent. As scheduled, then. "

  I stared out at the lake, just taking in the view, and strained to hear anything else. Evidently the conversation was over. I checked around, but there weren't any people in sight moving around the harbor on a February weekday morning. I took a breath to steady myself, and moved closer to the ship.

  I caught a glimpse of motion through a window in the cabin, and heard a chirping sound. A cell phone rested on a counter beside a pad of hotel stationary. A woman appeared in the window dressed in a long gown of dark silk, and picked up the cell phone. She answered it without speaking and a moment later said, "I'm sorry. You've the wrong number. "

  I watched as she put the phone down and casually let the nightgown slide to the floor. I watched a little more. I wasn't being a peeping Tom. This was professional. I noted that she had some intriguing curves. See? Professionalism in action.

  She opened a door, and a bit of steam wafted out, the sound of the water growing louder. She stepped in and closed the door again, leaving the cabin empty.

  I had an opportunity. I'd seen only one woman, and not well enough to positively identify her as either Anna Valmont or Francisca Garcia, the two remaining Churchmice. I hadn't seen the Shroud hanging from a laundry line or anything. Even so, I had the feeling I'd come to the right place. My gut told me to trust my spiritual informer.

  I made my decision and stepped up a short gangplank onto the Etranger.

  I had to move fast. The woman on the ship might not be a fan of long showers. All I needed to do was get inside, see if I could find anything that might verify the presence of the Shroud, and get out again. If I moved quickly enough, I could get in and out without anyone the wiser.

  I went down the stairs to the cabin with as much stealth as I could manage. The stairs didn't creak. I had to duck my head a bit when I stepped into the cabin. I stayed close to the door and checked around, listening to the patter of the water from the shower. The room wasn't large and didn't offer a bonanza of places to hide. A double bed took up nearly a quarter of the space in the room. A tiny washing machine and dryer were stacked one on another in a corner, a basket of laundry stowed atop them. A counter and kitchenette with a couple of small refrigerators used up most of the rest.

  I frowned. Two fridges? I checked them out. The first was stocked with perishables and beer. The second was a fake, and opened onto a cabinet containing a heavy metal strongbox. Bingo.

  The shower kept running. I reached out to pick up the strongbox, but a thought struck me. The Churchmice may have gotten themselves into a lot of trouble, but they'd evidently been good enough to avoid Interpol for a number of years. The hiding place for the strongbox was too clumsy, too obvious. I shut the fake fridge and looked around the room. I was starting to get nervous. I couldn't have much time left to find the Shroud and get out.

  Of course. I took a couple of long steps to the washer and dryer and grabbed the laundry basket. I found it under several clean, fluffy towels, an opaque plastic package a little larger than a folded shirt. I touched it with my left hand. A tingling sensation pulsed against my palm, and the hairs along my arm rose up straight.

  "Damn, I'm good," I muttered. I picked up the Shroud and turned to go.

  A woman stood behind me, dressed in black fatigue pants, a heavy jacket, and battered combat boots. Her peroxide-blond hair was cut very short, but it did nothing to detract from the appeal of her features. She was elegantly pretty and pleasant to look at.

  The gun she had pointed at my nose wasn't pretty, though. It was an ugly old. 38 revolver, a cheap Saturday-night special.

  I was careful not to move. Even a cheap gun can kill you, and I doubted I could raise a shield in time to do me any good. She'd taken me off guard. I'd never heard her coming, never sensed her presence.

  "Damn, I'm good," the woman echoed, her accent high British, a touch of amusement in her voice. "Put the package down. "

  I held it out to her. "Here. "

  I wouldn't have tried for the gun, but if she stepped closer to me it might show that she was an amateur. She wasn't, and remained standing out of grab range. "On the counter, if you please. "

  "What if I don't?" I said.

  She smiled without humor. "In that case, I'll have a dreary day of chores dismembering the body and cleaning up the blood. I'll leave it up to you. "

  I put the package on the counter. "Far be it from me to inconvenience a lady. "

  "What a dear boy you are," she said. "That's a very nice coat. Take it off. Slowly, if you please. "

  I slipped out of the coat and let it fall to the floor. "You tricked me onto the boat," I said. "That second phone call was you, telling your partner to draw me in. "

  "The shocking thing is that you fell for it," the woman said. She kept giving directions and she knew what she was doing. I leaned forward and put my hands against the wall while she patted me down. She found the pepper spray and took it, along with my wallet. She made me sit down on the flo
or on my hands while she took my coat and stepped back.

  "A stick," she said, looking at my blasting rod. "How very preneolithic of you. "

  Aha. A professional she might be, but she was a straight. She didn't believe in the supernatural. I wasn't sure if that was going to help or hurt. It might mean that she would be a little less eager to shoot me. People who know what a wizard can do get really nervous if they think the wizard is about to try a spell. On the other hand, it meant that I didn't have either the support of the rest of the Council or the threat of my own retribution to use as leverage. I decided it was best to act like a normal for the time being.

  The blonde laid my coat on the counter and said, "Clear. "

  The door to the bathroom opened, and the woman I'd heard before came out. She now wore a knit fabric dress the color of dark wine, and a couple of combs held her hair back from her face. She wouldn't stand out in a crowd but she wasn't unattractive. "He's not Gaston," she said, frowning at me.

  "No," said the blonde. "He was here for the merchandise. He was just about to leave with it. "

  The dark- haired woman nodded and asked me, "Who are you?"

  "Dresden," I said. "I'm a private investigator, Ms. Garcia. "

  Francisca Garcia's features froze, and she traded a look with the gun-wielding blond. "How did you know my name?"

  "My client told me. You and Ms. Valmont could be in a lot of trouble. "

  Anna Valmont kicked the wall and spat, "Bollocks. " She glared at me, gun steady on me despite her outburst. "Are you working with Interpol?"

  "Rome. "

  Anna looked at Francisca and said, "We should scrub this sale. It's falling apart. "

  "Not yet," Francisca said.

  "There's no point in waiting. "

  "I'm not leaving yet," the dark-haired woman said, her eyes hard. "Not until he gets here. "

  "He isn't coming," Anna said. "You know he isn't. "

  "Who?" I asked.

  Francisca said, "Gaston. "

  I didn't say anything. Evidently Francisca could read faces well enough that I didn't have to. She stared at me for a moment and then closed her eyes, the blood draining from her face. "Oh. Oh, Dio. "

  "How?" Anna said. The gun never wavered. "How did it happen?"

  "Murder," I said quietly. "And someone set it up to point the police at Chicago. "

  "Who would have done that?"

  "Some bad people after the Shroud. Killers. "

  "Terrorists?"

  "Not that playful," I said. "As long as you have the Shroud, your lives are in danger. If you come with me, I can get you to some people who will protect you. "

  Francisca shook her head and blinked her eyes a couple of times. "You mean the police. "

  I meant the Knights, but I knew darn well what their stance would be on what to do with the thieves once any supernatural peril was past. "Yeah. "

  Anna swallowed and looked at her partner. Something around her eyes softened with concern, with sympathy. The two of them weren't solely partners in crime. They were friends. Anna's voice softened as she said, "Cisca, we have to move. If this one found us, others may not be far behind. "

  The dark- haired woman nodded, her eyes not focused on anything. "Yes. I'll get ready. " She rose and stepped across the cabin to the washing machine. She drew out a pair of gym bags and put them on the counter, over the package. Then she slipped into some shoes.

  Anna watched for a moment and then said to me, "Now. We can't have you running to the police to tell them everything. I wonder what to do with you, Mister Dresden. It really does make a great deal of sense to kill you. "

  "Messy, remember? You'd have that dreary day," I pointed out.

  That got a bit of a smile from her. "Ah, yes. I'd forgotten. " She reached into her pocket and drew out a pair of steel handcuffs. They were police quality, not the naughty fun kind. She tossed them to me underhand. I caught them. "Put one on your wrist," she said. I did. "There's a ring on that bulkhead. Put the other through it and lock the cuffs. "

  I hesitated, watching Francisca slip into a coat, her expression still blank. I licked my lips and said, "You don't know how much danger you two are in, Ms. Valmont. You really don't. Please let me help you. "

  "I think not. We're professionals, Mister Dresden. Thieves we might be, but we do have a work ethic. "

  "You didn't see what they did to Gaston LaRouche," I said. "How bad it was. "

  "When isn't death bad? The bulkhead, Mister Dresden. "

  "But- "

  Anna lifted the gun.

  I grimaced and lifted the cuffs to a steel ring protruding from the wall beside the stairs.

  As a result, I was looking up them to the ship's deck when the second Denarian in twelve hours came hurtling down the stairway straight toward me.