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Proven Guilty, Page 13

Jim Butcher

Chapter 23

  Chapter Twenty-three

  The room was typical of my usual hotel experience: clean, plain, and empty. I made sure the blinds were pulled, looked around, and shoved the small round table at one side of the room over against the wall to leave me some open space in the middle of the floor. I slung my backpack down on the bed.

  "Need anything?" Murphy asked. She stood in the doorway to the room. She didn't want to come in.

  "Think I have it all. Just need some quiet to get it set up. " There was no reason not to give Murphy a way out of the awkwardness the conversation had brought on. "There's something I'm curious about. Maybe you could check it out. "

  "Pell's theater," Murphy guessed. I could hear some relief in her voice.

  "Yes. Maybe you could cruise by it and see what's to be seen. "

  She frowned. "Think there might be something in there?"

  "I don't know enough to think anything yet, but it's possible," I said. "You get a bad feeling about anything, don't hang around. Just vamoose. "

  "Don't worry," she said. "I already planned to do that. " She went to the door. "Shouldn't take me long. I'll contact you in half an hour, let's say?"

  "Sure," I said. Neither one of us voiced what we both were thinking- that if Murphy missed the check-in, she'd probably be dead, or dying, or worse. "Half an hour. "

  She nodded and left, shutting the door behind her. Mouse went over to the door, sniffed at it for a moment, then walked in a little circle three times and settled down on the floor to sleep. I frowned down at the carpet and opened my backpack. Chalk wouldn't do for a circle, not on carpet like that. I'd have to go with the old standby of fine, white sand. The maids would doubtless find it annoying to clean up, but life could be hard sometimes. I pulled out a glass bottle of specially prepared sand and put it on the table, along with the main blob of Play-Doh and Bob the skull.

  Orange lights kindled in the skull's eye sockets. "Can I talk now?"

  "Yeah," I said. "You been listening to things?"

  "Yeah," Bob said, depressed. "You are never going to get laid. "

  I glared at the skull.

  "I'm just sayin'," he said, voice defensive. "It isn't my fault, Harry. She'd probably bang you if you didn't take it so godawful seriously. "

  "The subject. Change it," I suggested in a flat voice. "We're working now. "

  "Right," Bob said. "So you're planning on a standard detection web-ward for the building?"

  "Yeah," I said.

  "It isn't going to be very helpful," Bob said. "I mean, by the time something manifests enough to set off your web, it's going to be all the way into the real world. While you're running for the stairs, it's already going to be tearing into somebody. "

  "It isn't perfect," I said. "But it's all I've got. Unless you have a better idea?"

  "The thing about having several centuries of experience and knowledge at my disposal is that it doesn't do me any good unless I know what it is you want me to help you fight," Bob said. "So far, all you know is that you've got an inbound phobophage. "

  "That's not specific enough?"

  "No!" Bob said. "I can think of about two hundred different kinds of phobophages off the top of my head, and I could probably come up with two hundred more if I took a minute to think about it. "

  "That many of them who can do what this thing did? Take a solid form and attack?"

  Bob blinked his eyes at me as though he thought me very thick. "Believe it or not, the old 'take the form of the victim's worst fear' routine is pretty much the most common move in the phobophage handbook. "

  "Oh. Right. " I shook my head. "But this whole place is open territory. There's no threshold to use to anchor anything heavier than a web. At least if I do that much, maybe I can get into position fast enough to directly intervene when the thing shows up again. "

  "Things," Bob corrected me. "Plural. Phages are like ants. First one shows up, then two, then a hundred. "

  I exhaled. "Crap," I said. "Maybe we can come at this from a different angle. Is there any way I can redirect them while they're crossing over? Make it harder for them to get here?"

  Bob's eyelights brightened. "Maybe. Maybe, yes. You might be able to raise a veil over this whole place-from the other side. "

  "Urk," I said. "You're saying I could hide this place from the phages, but only from the Nevernever?"

  "Pretty much," Bob said. "Even then, it would be a calculated risk. "

  "How so?"

  "It all depends on how they're finding this place," Bob said. "I mean, if these are just naturally arriving phages finding a hunting ground, a veil won't stop them. It might slow them down, but it won't stop them. "

  "Let's assume that it isn't a coincidence," I said.

  "Okay. Assuming that, the next variable is finding out whether they're being summoned or sent. "

  I frowned. "There are things strong enough to send them through from the other side? I didn't think that ever happened anymore. Hence the popularity of working through mortal summoners. "

  "Oh, it's doable," Bob assured me. "It just takes a hell of a lot more juice to open the way to the mortal world from the other side. "

  I frowned. "How much power are we talking?"

  "Big," Bob assured me. "Like the Erlking, or an archangel, or one of the old gods. "

  I got a shivery feeling in my stomach. "A Faerie Queen?"

  "Oh, sure. I guess so. " He frowned. "You think this is Faerie work?"

  "Something is definitely screwy in elfland," I said. "More so than normal, I mean. "

  Bob made a gulping sound. "Oh. We're not going to go visiting the faeries or anything, are we?"

  "Not if I can help it," I said. "I wouldn't take you with me, if it came to that. "

  "Oh," he sighed. "Good. "

  "One of these days, you're gonna have to tell me what you did to make Mab want to kill you. "

  "Yeah, sure," Bob said, in that tone of voice you use while sweeping things under the rug. "But we should also consider the third possibility. "

  "A summoner," I said. "Given that someone actually threw a ward in my way the last time the phage showed up, that seems to be the most likely of the three. "

  "I think so, too," Bob said. "In which case, you're in trouble. "

  I grunted, and started unpacking candles, matches, and my old army-surplus knife. "Why?"

  "Without a threshold to build on, you can't put up any proper defense. And even if you do cross over and set up a veil to try to keep the phages from finding the place. . . "

  "Their summoner is going to draw them in," I finished, following the line of reasoning. "It's like. . . I could blanket the surrounding area in fog, but if they have someone on this end, the phages will have a beacon they can use to home in on the hotel. "

  "Right," Bob said. "And then the summoner just opens the door from his side, and they're in. "

  I frowned and said, "It's all about finding the summoner, then. "

  "Which you can't do, until they actually summon something," Bob said.

  "Hell's bells," I complained. "There's got to be something we can do to prevent it. "

  "Not especially," Bob said. "Sorry, boss. Until you know more, you can't do anything but react. "

  I scowled. "Dammit. Then it's the web or nothing. At least if I use that, I might be able to identify the summoner. " At the low, low cost of the phages mauling or killing someone else. Unless. . .

  "Bob," I said, frowning over the idea. "What if I didn't try to hide the hotel or keep these things away. What if I, uh. . . just put a little topspin on the phages on the way in?"

  Bob's eyelights brightened even more. "Ooooooo, classic White Council doctrine. When the phages come through, you point them straight at the guy who summoned them. Give him a dose of his own medicine. "

  "Right up the ass," I confirmed.

  "There's an image," Bob said. "A summoning suppository. "

It's doable, isn't it?"

  "Sure," Bob said. "I mean, you have everything you need for that. You know the phages are after fear, and that they're probably using his power as a beacon. Your web tells you something is stirring. You conjure up a big ball of fear, target the same beacon the phages are using, and let it fly. "

  "It'll be like hanging a steak around his neck and throwing him to the lions," I said, grinning.

  "Hail Caesar," Bob confirmed. "The phages will go right after him. "

  "And once he's out of the game, I veil the hotel from the phages. No more convention attendees get hurt. Bad guy gets a lethal dose of dramatic irony. "

  "The good guys win!" Bob cheered. "Or at least you do. You're still a good guy, right? You know how confusing the whole good-evil concept is for me. "

  "I'm thinking about changing it to 'them' and 'us,' for simplicity's sake," I said. "I like this plan. So there's got to be a catch to it somewhere. "

  "True," Bob admitted. "It's gonna be a little tricky when it comes to the timing. You won't be able to sense the beacon until the phages actually step through from the Nevernever and take material form. If you haven't redirected them by then, it'll be too late. "

  I nodded, frowning. "That gives me what? Maybe twenty seconds?"

  "Only if they're really lame," Bob said. "Probably ten seconds. Maybe even less. "

  I frowned. "Dammit, that's a small window. " I thought of another problem. "Not only that, but I'll be shooting blind. There won't be any way to tell who I'm setting the phages after. What if he's standing in a crowd?"

  "He's going to be summoning fiends from the netherworld to wreak horror and death on the populace," Bob pointed out in a patient voice. "That won't lend itself to blending into a crowd. "

  "Good point. He'll probably be somewhere private, quiet. " I shook my head. "Even so, I'd be a lot happier if this was a little less dicey. But I don't see any other way to stop these things from hurting anyone else. "

  "Until we have more information, I don't see what else you could do, boss. "

  I grunted. "I'd better get this web up and running, then. "

  Mouse's collar tag clinked against the buckle, and I looked over my shoulder. The dog had lifted his head from the floor, staring intently at the door. A second later, someone knocked.

  Mouse hadn't started growling, and his tail thumped the wall a few times as I went to the door, sounding the all-clear. "That was fast," I said, opening the door. "I thought you were going to be half an hour, Murph-"

  Molly stood in the hallway, an overnight bag hung over her shoulder. She drooped, the way my house plants always used to when I was still optimistic enough to keep buying new ones. Her pink-and-blue hair hung down listlessly, and her cheeks were marked with the remains of several mascara-laden tear tracks. She looked rumpled, tired, uncertain, and lonely-

  "Hi," she said. Her voice wasn't much more than a whisper.

  "Hey," I told her. "I thought you were waiting for your mom. "

  "I was," she said. "I am. But. . . I'm kind of messed up. " She waved her hand gingerly at herself. "I wanted to clean up a little, but they won't let me use the bathroom in Nelson's room. I was hoping I could borrow yours. Just for a minute. "

  It would have been easier to dropkick a puppy than to turn the kid away. "Sure," I said. "Just keep it quiet. Okay?"

  I stepped back into the room, and Molly followed me, pausing to scratch Mouse behind the ears. She looked past me, to the open floor space and the things I had sat out.

  "What are you doing?" she asked me.

  "Magic," I said. "What's it look like I'm doing?"

  She smiled a little. "Oh. Right. "

  I waved a hand at my materials. "I'm going to try to prevent another attack from hurting anyone. "

  "Can you do that?" she asked.

  "Maybe," I said. "I hope so. "

  "I can't believe. . . I mean, I knew there were things out there, but my friends. . . Rosie. " Her lower lip quivered and her eyes filled with tears that didn't quite fall.

  I didn't have much I could say to comfort her. "I'm going to stop it from happening again," I said quietly. "I'm sorry I didn't move fast enough the first time. "

  She looked down again, and nodded without speaking. She swallowed several times.

  "Listen," I told her quietly. "This is serious stuff. You need to talk about it. Not with me," I added, as she looked up at me. "With your mom. "

  Molly shook her head. "She isn't-"

  "Molly," I sighed. "Life can be short. And cruel. You saw that last night. You got a look at the kind of thing your dad deals with all the time. "

  She didn't respond.

  I said quietly, "Even Knights can die, Molly. Shiro did. It could happen to Michael, too. "

  She lifted her head abruptly, staring at me as if in shock.

  "How does that make you feel?" I asked.

  She chewed on her lip. "Scared. "

  "It scares your mom, too. It scares her a lot. She deals with it by holding on hard to the people around her. Maybe too hard, sometimes. That's why you feel like she's trying to keep you a little kid. She probably is. But it isn't because she's a control freak. It's because she loves you all so much-you, your dad, your family-and she's frightened that something bad could happen. She's desperate to do everything she can to keep you all safe. "

  Molly didn't look up or respond.

  "Life is short," I said. "Too short to waste it on stupid arguments. I'm not saying your mom is perfect, because God knows she isn't. But my God, Molly, you've got the kind of family people like me would kill for. You think they'll always be there later-but they might not be. Life doesn't give you any guarantees. "

  I let that sink in for a minute, and then said, "I promised your dad that I'd ask you to talk to her. I told him I'd do my best to get the two of you to work things out. "

  She looked up at me, crying now, silently. More dark makeup trailed down her cheeks.

  "Will you sit down with her, Molly? Talk?"

  She took a shaking breath and said, "I don't know if it will do any good. We've said so much. . . "

  "I can't force you to do it. No one can do that but you. "

  She sniffled for a moment. "It won't do any good. "

  "I don't expect miracles. Just try to talk to her. Please. "

  She took a breath, and then nodded, once.

  "Thank you," I said.

  She tried to smile once, and hovered outside the bathroom door for a moment more.

  "Molly?" I asked. "Are you okay?"

  She nodded, but she didn't move, either.

  I frowned. "Something you want to say?"

  She looked up at me for just a second. "No," she said then, and shook her head. "No, it's nothing, really. Thank you. I won't be long. " She stepped into the bathroom, shut the door, and locked it. The shower started a moment later.

  "Wow," Bob said from behind me, somehow inserting a leer into the word. "I didn't realize you liked them quite that. . . fresh, Harry. "

  I glared at him. "What?"

  "Did you see the body on her? Magnificent rack! Blond Nordic babe-age, but all pierced and dressed in black, which means she's probably into at least one kind of kink. And all tender and emotional and vulnerable to boot. Taking her clothes off right here in your room. "

  "Kink? You don't-look, there's no way to. . . " I sputtered. "No, Bob. Just no. For crying out loud. She's seventeen. "

  "Better move quick, then," Bob said. "Before anything starts to droop. Taste of perfection while you can, that's what I always say. "


  "What?" he said.

  "That isn't how things are. "

  "Not now,'" Bob said. "But you go get in that shower with her and you've got your own personal cable TV erotic movie come true. "

  I rubbed at the bridge of my nose. "Hell's bells. The whole idea is wrong, Bob. Just. . . wrong. "

even a nerd should know that it's no coincidence when a girl shows up at a man's hotel room. You know all she really wants is to-"

  "Bob," I snapped, cutting him off. "Even if she wanted to, which she doesn't, nothing is happening with the girl. I'm trying to work, here. You aren't helping. "

  "I'd hate to disrupt your most recent attempt to court death and agony," he said brightly. "You should stick me somewhere else, where I won't distract you. On the counter in the bathroom, for example. "

  I slapped open one of the empty dresser drawers and tossed the skull in there, instead. Bob sputtered a few muffled curses in ancient Greek, something about sheep and a skin rash.

  I looked up from the drawer into the room's mirror, and found myself facing not my reflection, but Lasciel's image instead, angelic and lovely and poised. "The perverted little creep has a point, my host," she said.

  I jabbed a finger at the mirror and said, "Bob is my little creep, and the only one who gets to call him names is me. Now go away. "

  "Ah," Lasciel said, and the image faded to translucence, my own reflection appearing to replace it. "Fascinating, though," she added, just before vanishing, "that boyfriend Nelson bears quite the striking physical resemblance to you. "

  Then she was gone. Dammit. Stupid demons. Always with the last word.

  Worse, she had a point. I eyed the bathroom door and reviewed the past day or so, and my interactions with the girl before that. I had always been someone her father respected and her mother disapproved of. I showed up once in a blue moon in a big black coat, usually looking roughed-up and dangerous, and I'd been doing so since she was young enough to be very impressionable. Hell, when you got right down to it, Charity's disapproval alone might have been enough to make me seem interesting to a rebellious teenage girl.

  I came to the reluctant conclusion that it was possible Molly might have certain ideas in her head. It might well explain the most recent awkward silences and halting pauses. She'd always liked me, and it wasn't outrageous to think that it might have developed into something more-and that I'd be a right bastard to do anything that might encourage those ideas, even inadvertently. Maybe Bob and Lasciel were wrong, and in fact nothing like that was going on, but the passions of youth, its attractions and desires, were a minefield one took lightly at one's own peril.

  Magnificent rack notwithstanding, Molly was still, in every important way, a child-my friend's child, to boot. She was hurting. It bothered me, and I wanted to help her, but I had to be aware of the fact that my sympathy could be misinterpreted. The kid had issues and she needed someone to help her work things out. She didn't need someone who would only make her more confused.

  Steam curled out from under the bathroom door. An actual hot shower. Not merely the illusion of one.

  I shook my head and got back to the detection web.

  As spells went, this one was pretty big, but it wasn't complicated. I'd created a long-term version of the same basic working in the neighborhood around my apartment, in order to detect approaching mystical entities. The one I wanted for the hotel was the same thing, but I didn't have to bother with setting it up as a long-term construct. A sunrise, or two at most, would erode the spell, but with any luck I wouldn't need it for any longer.

  I took the Play-Doh in hand, grabbed three candles in their own wooden holders, poured the sand in a circle around me, and began gathering in my power, painstakingly creating mental images of the web of energy I needed to weave between the points of the hotel I'd marked out with Play-Doh. It didn't take me a terribly long time to set it up. Anyone with some basic skills and desire enough could have done something like this- or at least, they could have done it on a smaller scale. Weaving a web throughout the whole building took a lot of heavy lifting, magically speaking, but it wasn't complicated, and fifteen minutes later I solidified the image of the energy patterns in my mind, and whispered, "Magius, orbius, spiritus oculus. "

  I poured my will and my magic out with the words as I spoke them, and my body briefly lit up with a flood of tingling energy that raced along all of my limbs, down into the lump of Play-Doh, and swirled in tight spirals around the three candles that would serve as my ward-flames. The spell's energy flashed, appearing as a tiny stream of faint flickers, like bursts of static electricity, and the candles each flickered to life, steady little flames born of the spell. I broke the circle of sand as I spoke, and the power blossomed out through the hotel, into the shape I'd imagined, invisible strands flickering into instant shape, like ice crystals forming in the space of a heartbeat, spreading unseen strands throughout the hotel.

  My balance wobbled a bit as I finished the spell and the energy left me, submerging me in a temporary flood of fatigue. I sat there with my head down, breathing hard for a minute.

  "Wow," Murphy said, her tone less than impressed. I looked up to see her shutting the room's door behind her. "What did you do?"

  I waved around to indicate the hotel and panted, "If bad mojo shows up in the hotel, the spell will sense it. " I gestured at the three candles. "Take one with you. If you see it flare up, it means we've got incoming. "

  Murphy frowned but nodded. "How much warning will they give us?"

  "Not much," I said. "A couple minutes, maybe less. Maybe a lot less. "

  "Three candles," she said. "One for you, one for me, and. . . "

  "I thought we'd see if Rawlins wanted one. "

  "Is he here?" Murphy said.

  "Gut feeling," I said. "He seems like the kind who sees something through. "

  "He also seems like the kind who's been injured. No chance he'd get active duty here. "

  "He didn't have it at the hospital, either," I pointed out.

  "True," Murphy said.

  I caught my breath a little, and asked, "Anything at Pell's theater?"

  Murphy nodded and crossed the room to pick up two of the candles. "A lot of nothing. Place was locked up tight. Chains on the front doors, and the back door was locked. Sign on the door said they were closed until further notice. "

  I grunted. "You'd think Pell would be wild to have the place open, if the convention was providing a significant amount of his income-even if he was in a hospital bed. Hell, especially if he was in a hospital bed. "

  "Unless he doesn't have anyone he trusts to run it for him. "

  "But he does have someone he trusts enough to lock it up?" I said. "That doesn't track. Pell sure as hell didn't lock up after he was attacked. "

  Murphy frowned, but she didn't disagree with me. "I tried to call him to ask him about it, but the nurse said he was sleeping. "

  I ran my fingers back through my hair, frowning over the situation. "Curiouser and curiouser," I said. "We're missing something here. "

  "Like what?" Murphy asked.

  "Another player," I said. "Someone we haven't seen yet. "

  Murphy made a thoughtful sound. "Maybe. But imagining invisible perpetrators or hidden conspiracies veers pretty close to paranoia. "

  "Maybe not another suspect, then," I said thoughtfully. "Maybe another motive. "

  "Like what?" she asked, though I could see the wheels turning in her head as she followed the logic chain from the notion.

  "These phage attacks look fairly simple at first glance. Like. . . I don't know. Shark attacks. Something hungry shows up to eat someone and then leaves. Natural occurrences. Or rather, typical supernatural occurrences. "

  "But they aren't random," Murphy said. "Someone is sending them to a specific place. Someone who used magic to try to stop you when you interfered with one of the phages. "

  "Which begs the obvious question. . . " I began.

  Murphy nodded and finished the thought. "Why do it in the first place?"

  I stuck my left hand out to one side of me and said, "Look over here. " Then I mimed a short jab with my right fist.

  "It's a rope-a-dope," Murphy said, her eyes narrowing. "A distraction. But from what?"

thing worse than homicidal, shapeshifting, supernatural predators, apparently," I mused. "Something we'd want to stop a lot more. "

  "Like what?"

  I shook my head and shrugged. "I don't know. Not yet, anyway. "

  Murphy grimaced. "Leave it to you to make paranoia sound plausible. "

  "It's only paranoia if I'm wrong," I said.

  Murphy glanced over her shoulder and shivered a little. "Yeah. " She turned back to me, squared her shoulders, and took a steadying breath. "Okay. What's the play, here? I assume you've got something in mind beyond having a minute or two of warning. "

  "Yes," I said.

  "What?" she asked.

  "It gets kind of technical," I said.

  "I'll try to keep up," she said.

  I nodded. "Anytime something from the spirit world wants to cross into the mortal world, it has to do a number of things to cross the border. It has to have a point of origin, a point of destination, and enough energy to open the way. Then it has to cross over, summon ectoplasm from the Nevernever, and infuse it with more energy to give itself a physical body. "

  She frowned. "What do you mean by points of origin and destination?"

  "Links," I told her. "Sort of like landmarks. Usually, the creature you're calling up can serve as its own point of origin. Whoever is opening the way across is usually the destination. "

  "Can anyone be the destination?" she asked.

  "No," I said. "You can't call up anything that isn't. . . " I frowned, looking for words. "You can't call up anything that doesn't have some kind of reflection inside you, a kind of point of reference for the spirit being. If you want evil, nasty, hungry beings, there's got to be evil, nasty, and hunger inside of you. "

  She nodded. "Does the way have to be opened from this side?"

  "Generally," I said. "It takes a hell of a lot more oomph to get it done from the other side. "

  She nodded. "Go on. "

  I told her about my plan to turn the phages back upon their summoner.

  "I like that," she said. "Using their own monsters against them. But what does that leave me to do?"

  "You buy me time," I said. "There will be a moment just when the phage or phages cross over, where they will be vulnerable. If you're able to see one and distract it, it will give me more time to aim them back at their summoner. And it's possible that my spell might not work. If it goes south, you'll be near enough to help clear people out, maybe do them some good. "

  Murphy began to speak-then she paused, turned around, and asked, "Harry. Is there someone in the shower?"

  "Uh. Yeah," I said, and rubbed at the back of my neck.

  She arched a brow and waited, but I didn't offer any explanation. Maybe it was my way of getting petty vengeance for her brutal honesty in the elevator.

  "All right then," she said, and took up the candles. "I'll get downstairs and look for Rawlins. Otherwise, I'll grab one of my guys from SI. "

  "Sounds good," I said.

  Murphy left, while I started planning out my redirection spell. It didn't take me long.

  Mouse lifted his head suddenly, and a second later someone knocked at the door. I went over and opened it.

  Charity stood on the other side, dressed in jeans, a knit tank top, and a blue blouse of light cotton. Her features were drawn with stress, her shoulders clenched in unconscious tension. When she saw me, her features became remote and neutral, very controlled. "Hello, Mister Dresden. "

  It was probably the friendliest greeting I could expect from her. "Heya," I said.

  Standing beside her was an old man, a little under average height. What was left of his hair was grey, trimmed neatly, though hardly a fringe remained. He had eyes the color of robin's eggs, spectacles, a comfortably heavy build, and wore black slacks and a black shirt. The white square of his clerical collar stood out distinctively against the shirt. He smiled when he saw me, and offered me his hand.

  I shook it, smiling, and had no need to fake it. "Father Forthill. What are you doing here?"

  "Harry," he said amiably. "Lending some moral support, by and large. "

  "He's my attorney," Charity added.

  I blinked. "He is?"

  "He is," Forthill said, smiling. "I passed the bar before I entered the orders. I've kept my hand in on behalf of the diocese and my parishioners. I do some pro bono work from time to time, too. "

  "He's a lawyer," I said. "He's a priest. This does not compute. "

  Forthill let out a belly laugh. "Oxymoronic. "

  "Hey, did I start calling you names?" I grinned at him. "What can I do for you?"

  "Molly was supposed to be waiting for us downstairs," Charity said. "But we haven't found her. Do you know where she is?"

  The universe conspired against me. If Charity had asked the question ten seconds sooner, I would have been fine. But instead, the bathroom door opened, and Molly appeared in a swirl of steam. She had a towel wrapped around her hair, and was holding another around her torso. Hotel towels and Molly's torso being what they were, the towel didn't quite get all the way around her, and barely maintained modesty. "Harry," she said. "I left my bag out he-" She broke off suddenly, staring at Charity.

  "This, uh, isn't what it looks like," I stammered, turning back to Charity.

  Her eyes blazed with cold, righteous rage. An old Kipling axiom about the female of the species being more deadly than the male flashed through my mind, right about the time Charity introduced my chin to her right hook.

  Light flashed behind my eyes and I found myself flat on my back while the ceiling spun around a little.

  "Mother," Molly said in a shocked voice.

  I looked up in time to see Forthill put a firm hand on Charity's arm, preventing her from following up the first blow. She narrowed her eyes at Forthill, but the old man's fingers dug into her biceps until she gave him a slight nod and took a small step back into the hallway.

  "Dress," she told Molly, implacable authority in her tone. "We're leaving. "

  The kid looked like she might just start falling apart on the spot. She grabbed her bag, ducked into the bathroom, and was dressed in under a minute.

  "There was nothing going on," I mumbled. It came out sounding more like, "Mmrphg ggggh oonng. "

  "I may not be able to keep you away from my husband," Charity said, her tone cold, her diction precise. "But if you come near one of my children again, I will kill you. Thank you for calling me. "

  She left, the weary Molly following her.

  "There was nothing going on," I said again, to Forthill. This time it sounded mostly like English.

  He sighed, looking after the pair. "I believe you. " He gave me a smile that was one part amusement to four parts apology, and followed them.

  Murphy must not have reached the elevators before Charity and Forthill had arrived. She appeared in the doorway, peering inside the room, and then back the way Charity had gone. "Ah," she said. "You all right?"

  "I guess," I sighed.

  Her mouth twitched, but she didn't quite smile or laugh at me. "Seems to me that you should have seen that one coming. "

  "Don't laugh at me," I said. "It hurts. "

  "You've had worse," she said heartlessly. "And it serves you right for letting a little girl into your hotel room. Now get up. I'll be downstairs. "

  She left, too.

  Mouse came over and started patiently nuzzling my chin and putting slobbering dog kisses on the bruise I could feel forming there.

  "Women confuse me," I told him.

  Mouse sat down, jaws dropping open into a doggie grin. I groaned, pushed myself to my feet, and set about preparing the redirection spell, while outside my room's window the sun raced for its nightly rendezvous with the western horizon.