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Proven Guilty, Page 14

Jim Butcher

Chapter 24~25

  Chapter Twenty-four

  I shut the door again and rushed to prepare the beacon spell, hurrying, certain that every second counted. I would only get one shot at diverting the phages, and I finished my preparations in feverish haste.

  Nothing happened.

  The sun set, leaving me mostly in the dark, since I hadn't bothered to turn on any lights.

  Nothing continued happening.

  I knelt in my circle of sand until my legs cramped and then went numb, and my knees felt like they were resting in molten lead.

  And all that nothing just kept on coming.

  "Oh come on," I snarled. "Bring on the doom, already. "

  From his spot near the door, Mouse heaved a sigh.

  "Oh, shut up," I told him. I didn't dare take a break. If the bad guys moved and I wasn't ready, people would get hurt. So I knelt there, holding the spell ready in my mind, uncomfortable as hell, and swearing sulfurously under my breath. Stupid, lame-ass summoner. What the hell was he waiting for? Any half-competent villain would have had monsters roaming the halls hours ago.

  Mouse's tail thumped against the wall, and a moment later the room's lock clicked, and Rawlins opened the door. He was wearing jeans and a long-sleeved shirt that concealed the bandages on his wounded arm, and he carried a wardflame candle in one hand. The blocky, dark-skinned officer leaned down and held his hand out to Mouse, who sniffed Rawlins in typical canine fashion and wagged his tail some more.

  Rawlins remained in the doorway and said, "Hello? Dresden?"

  "Here," I muttered.

  Rawlins thumped at the wall until he found the lights and flicked them on. He stared at me for a minute, eyebrows slowly rising. "Uh-huh. There's something I don't see every day. "

  I grimaced. "Murphy found you, I see. "

  "Almost like she's a detective," Rawlins said, grinning.

  "Your boss know you're here?" I asked.

  "Not so far," he replied. "But I expect someone might notice and tell him about me at some point. "

  "He won't be happy," I said.

  "I just hope I can live with myself later. " He waved his little candle. "Murphy sent me up here to make sure you was still alive. "

  "I'm going to need knee surgery," I sighed. "I never planned on it taking this long. "

  "Uh-huh," Rawlins said again. "You ain't one of those Satan worshipers are you?"

  "No," I said. "More like Pythagoras. "

  "Pih-who?"

  "He invented triangles. "

  "Ah," Rawlins said, as if that had explained everything. "So, what are you doing here?"

  I explained it to him, though it looked like he was having trouble accepting my words. Maybe I lacked credibility. "But I figured he would have moved by now. "

  "Crooks are funny that way," he agreed. "No respect. "

  I scrunched up my face in thought. I was hungry, thirsty, tired, hurting, and I had to use the bathroom in the worst way. None of those things were going to become easier to bear as the night went on, and I needed to have all the concentration I could get.

  "Okay," I said. "Be smart. Take a break. " I leaned down and broke the circle by sweeping the sand aside with my hand, letting the energy of the spell I'd been holding ready drain away. At least I'd already done it once. Getting it back into position wouldn't take nearly as long as the first time.

  I tried to rise, but my legs were incommunicado. I grimaced at Rawlins and said, "Give me a hand here?"

  He set his candle aside and helped me up. I wobbled precariously for a couple of seconds, but then stumbled to the bathroom and back out.

  "You okay?" he asked.

  "I'm good. Tell Murphy to hold steady. "

  Rawlins nodded. "We'll be downstairs. " He paused and said, "Hope this happens soon. There's some kind of costume contest going on. "

  "Is it bad?"

  "There are a lot of skimpy getups, and some of those people should not be wearing them. "

  "Call the fashion police," I said.

  Rawlins nodded gravely. "They've crossed a line. "

  "Do me a favor?" I asked him. "Take Mouse out for a walk?" I dug a couple of bills from my back pocket and passed them to Rawlins. "Maybe get him a hot dog or something?"

  "Sure," Rawlins agreed. "I like dogs. "

  The dog's tail thumped rapidly against the wall.

  "Whatever you do, don't give him nachos. I didn't bring my gas mask with me. "

  Rawlins nodded. "Sure. "

  "Keep your eyes open," I said. "Tell Murph I'll be reset in a couple of minutes. "

  Rawlins grunted and left.

  I had a canteen of fruit punch in my backpack, along with some beef jerky and some chocolate. I went to the bag and started wolfing down all three while pacing back and forth to stretch my legs. Holding myself ready to strike had been more than simply a physical strain. My head felt like someone had packed it in wool, while at the same time my senses seemed slighdy distorted; edges made sharper, curves more ambiguous, the whole combining to make the hotel room feel like a toned-down Escher painting. There was no help for that. The use of magic was mostly in the mind, and holding a spell together for a long time often triggered disconcerting side effects.

  I polished off the food as fast as I could gulp it down, went easy on the drink, in case I was there for another several hours, and settled back down in my circle, preparing to close it again.

  When the room's phone rang.

  "Deja vu," I commented to the empty room. I stood up, my knees creaking, and went to the phone.

  "Dresden Taxidermy," I said. "You snuff it, we'll stuff it. "

  There was a beat of startled silence from the phone, and then a young man's voice said, "Urn. Is this Harry Dresden?"

  I recognized the voice-Boyfriend Nelson. That made my ears perk up, metaphorically speaking. "Yeah, this is him," I said.

  "This is. . . "

  "I know who it is," I told him. "How did you know where I was?"

  "Sandra," he said. "I called her cell. She told me you'd checked in. "

  "Uh-huh. Why are you calling me?"

  "Molly said. . . she said you helped people. " He paused to take a breath, and then said, "I think I need your help. Again. "

  "Why?" I asked. Keep the questions open, I thought. Never give him one with a simple answer. "What's going on?"

  "Last night, during the attacks. I think I saw something. "

  I sighed. "It was going around," I agreed. "But if you saw something, you're a witness to a crime, kid. You need to show up and work with the cops. They get sort of unreasonable with people who go all evasive when they want to ask questions about a murder. "

  "But I think some. . . thing is following me," he said. An unsteady tremor shook Nelson's voice. "Look, they're just cops, man. They just have guns. I don't think they can help me. I hope you can. "

  "Why?" I asked him. "What is it that you saw?"

  "No," he said. "Not on the phone. I want to meet with you. I want you to promise me your help. I'll tell you then. "

  Right. Because it wasn't like I had anything better to be doing. "Look, kid. . . "

  Nelson's voice suddenly went thready with breathless fear. "Oh, God. I can't stay here. Please. Please. "

  "Fine, fine," I said, trying to keep my voice strong, steady. The kid was scared-the bone-deep, knee-watering, half-crazy kind of scared that makes rational thinking all but impossible. "Listen to me. Stay around people, as many of them as you can. Go to Saint Mary of the Angels Church. It's holy ground, and you'll be safe there. Ask for Father Forthill. He's a little guy, mostly bald, glasses, bright blue eyes. Tell him everything and tell him I'm coming to collect you as soon as I can. "

  "Yes, all right, thank you," Nelson said, the words hysterically rushed. There was a brief clatter, and then I heard running footsteps on concrete. He hadn't even gotten the phone back into its cradle before he'd taken off at a dead spri
nt.

  I chewed on my lip. The kid was definitely in trouble, or at least genuinely believed that he was. If so, it meant that maybe he had seen something last night, something that made it important for someone to kill him-i. e. , some kind of damning evidence that would probably help me figure out what the hell was going on. I felt a stab of anxiety. Holy ground was a powerful deterrent to the things that went bump in the night-or in this case, things that went stab, stab, hack, slash, rip in the night-but it wasn't invulnerable. If something of sufficient supernatural strength really was after the kid, it might be able to force its way into the church.

  Dammit, but what choice did I have? If I left my position here, any fresh attack could make last night's look like a friendly round of Candy-land. What could he possibly have seen that would make him worth killing? Why the hell was he being followed? I felt like I was floundering around in the dark inside someone else's house, benighted of savoir faire enough to move with assurance. I was spread too thin. If I didn't start finding more pieces of the puzzle and put them together, and soon, more people would die.

  I could only be in one place at one time. If the kid was in real trouble, he'd be as safe at the church, with Forthill, as anywhere in town short of the protection of my heavily warded apartment. Meanwhile, there were a bunch of other kids here who looked to be the next meal on the phobophage buffet. I had to act where I could do the most good. It was a cold sort of equation, the calculus of survival, but undeniable. I'd get to Nelson after I had taken care of business at the hotel.

  I settled down on my knees again, carefully, closed the circle, and began to pick up the pieces of the redirection spell once more.

  The single wardflame candle on the room's dresser suddenly exploded into lurid red light. Simultaneously, I felt a heavy thrumming in the air, where the strands of my web spell had suddenly encountered powerful magic in motion, drawing my thoughts and attention to a back hallway in the hotel, not far from the kitchens, up to the hall outside the hotel's exercise room, and a swift double-thrum from another of the hotel's bathrooms.

  Four attackers, this time. Four of them at least.

  I had ten seconds to get the spell off.

  Nine.

  Maybe less.

  Eight.

  I threw myself into the spell.

  Seven.

  It had to be fast.

  Six.

  It had to be perfect on the first attempt.

  Five.

  If I screwed this one up, someone else would pay for it.

  Four.

  They'd pay for it in blood.

  Three.

  Two.

  One. . .

  Chapter Twenty-five

  I readied my spell, terrified that I was already too late, terrified that I had made a critical mistake, terrified that more innocents were about to face hideous agony and death.

  That was how it had to be. If I wanted to lure the phages from their rampage by directing them after a richer source of fear, it had to come from somewhere-specifically, it had to come from me. If I'd tried to use falsified emotion, it would no more have worked on them than an attempt to make a gorilla interested in a plastic banana. The fear had to be genuine.

  Of course, I hadn't really planned on being quite this afraid. Being taken off my guard and handed a time limit had added an edge of panicked hysteria to the ample anxiety I already had.

  The spell coalesced, and time came to an abrupt stop.

  In that illusory stasis, my senses were on fire. The presence of the dangerous entities now entering the material world rippled through my detection web; a jittery, fluttering sensation. The energy of the spell burned like an invisible star before my outstretched hands, and my terror rushed into it and fused with the spell. Streamers from the lure whipped out along the lines of power that constituted my detection web, brushing lightly at the entities, attracting their attention, giving them a whiff of rich sustenance.

  And somewhere in the middle of all that, I felt a single, quiet, quivering pulse-a living presence that could only be the phages' summoner and beacon.

  "Gotcha," I hissed, and with an effort of will broke the circle and sent the spell winging toward him.

  Time resumed its course. The energy that powered the spell fled out of me in another rush, and left me lying on my side, struggling to draw in enough breath. I could feel the spell sizzling down the lines of power for the summoner, and a heartbeat later there was a sense of impact as the spell went home. As it happened, the entities my web touched went abruptly still, the web ceasing its trembling-and then they all surged forward into sudden motion, vanishing from the web, and presumably streaking after the lure.

  All but one.

  A breath or two after the entities had departed, my web trembled again, now growing more agitated, its motion a kind of subliminal pressure against my thoughts.

  I had missed one. My spell had gotten out in time to draw away the others, but either my web had failed me at some point or the remaining phage had been quicker on the draw than his buddies from the Never-never. I could feel it moving from the hotel's kitchens toward the convention halls.

  I wanted to curl into a fetal position and go into a coma. Instead, I shoved my wobbly way to my feet, took up my pack, and opened the drawer to get Bob.

  "Did it work?" he chirped.

  "Almost," I said. "There's one left. Keep your head down. "

  "Oh, very funny. . . " he began.

  I zipped the skull into my pack, took up my staff and blasting rod, and shuffled wheezily out to find the remaining phage before it found someone else.

  My legs almost gave out just thinking about taking the stairs, so I rode the elevator down to the first floor. I heard nothing until the floor indicator told me we'd just passed the second floor, at which point I began to hear frightened, muffled screams. The elevator hit the first floor, and the doors had just begun to roll open when the power went out.

  Blackness fell over the hotel. The screams redoubled. I took out my pentacle amulet and sent enough of my will into it to make it glow with pale blue wizard's light. I jammed my staff into the slightly open elevator doors and levered them apart, then slipped out into the hotel.

  Though the sun had set more than an hour before, the crowded convention hall had remained stuffy while its air conditioners labored in vain. I got my bearings and headed for the kitchen. As I did, the air temperature plummeted, sending the hotel's climate from near-sauna to near-freezing in a handful of seconds. The suddenly cooled air could no longer contain the oppressive humidity it had been holding, and this resulted in a sudden, thick fog that coalesced out of nowhere and cut visibility down to maybe three or four long steps.

  Dammit. The phages that had appeared so far seemed to be specialists in the up-close-and-personal venue of violence, whereas wheezy wizards like me prefer to do business from across the street, or down the block, or maybe from a neighboring dimension. Farther away, if possible. Wizards have a capacity for recovering from injury that might be more than most humans', but that was a long-term deal. In a bar fight, it wasn't going to do me any good. Hell, I didn't even have my duster with me, and now that the cold had rolled over the hotel, I missed it for multiple reasons.

  I put my amulet back on, then shook out my shield bracelet and readied it for use, creating a second source of glowing blue light-though by accident, not design. The silver bracelet I used to focus magic into a tangible plane of force had been damaged in the same fire that took most of my left hand, and sparks of blue light tended to dribble from it whenever I moved my arm around. I had to be ready to use the shield at an instant's notice. It would be the only thing between me and whatever might come rushing from the fog.

  I went with my staff in my right hand. When it came to taking apart rampaging monsters, I preferred my blasting rod, but I've had an incident or two involving buildings and fire. If I went blazing away at the thing in
a crowded hotel and burned the place down, it would kill more people than the rampage would have. The staff was a subtle tool, not as potent a weapon as the blasting rod, but it was more versatile, magically speaking.

  Plus, in a pinch, I could brain someone with it-which isn't subtle, but sure as hell is reassuring.

  The emergency lights hadn't snapped on, so either someone had sabotaged them or there was enough raw magical energy flying around to take them out. But as I moved out toward the kitchens, I didn't feel anything like the kind of ambient energy it would take to blow out something as simple as a battery-powered light. That meant that someone had deliberately taken the emergency lights off-line, by magical means or otherwise, and it wasn't hard to guess why.

  Gunshots rang out, weirdly muted by the building's acoustics; flat, heavy sounds like someone swinging a baseball bat at a metal trash can. Screams and sounds of confusion, fear, worry, and even pain continued all around me as people fumbled in the dark, tripped, fell, or collided with furniture and one another. The building was already emptying, at least here on the first floor, but the sudden darkness had resulted in a panicked stampede, and people had been injured in the crush. The darkness had created confusion, slowed the intended prey from fleeing, and left wounded behind who could neither defend themselves nor flee the building. Their helplessness would be driving them mad with fear.

  It would make them juicier targets for the phage.

  A metallic, piercing shriek hit my ears in a sudden, stunning shock wave, and my legs stopped moving. I didn't choose to do it. The sound just hit something primitive in my brain stem, something that made my instincts scream at me to freeze, to not be seen. I dropped to one knee, terror suddenly falling onto my shoulders like a physical weight. In the wake of the shriek, I could hear human throats screaming in fear, nearby to me, and I could see the shapes of people moving around, lumpy shadows in the faint light from my shield bracelet.

  A flame suddenly appeared ahead of me, and I got a look at a young woman who crouched down, holding up a cigarette lighter in a hand that shook so badly that it seemed a miracle the lighter stayed aflame.

  "No!" I screamed at her. I rose to my feet and lunged toward her. "Put out the light!"

  Her face swiveled toward me, ghostly in the light of the tiny flame, her mouth working soundlessly-and then something the size of a mountain lion hit her across the shoulders and flung her to the ground. The lighter flew from her hand, the little lick of flame showing me something black and gleaming and spattered with scarlet gore.

  The woman screamed. The dark hallway became a river of terrified people plunging through the darkness. Someone fell against me, and as I stumbled away from them I stepped on someone's fingers in the darkness and tripped when I tried to pull my weight off of them.

  I snarled, slammed my back against the wall, held up my staff, and called up Hellfire.

  Power flooded down the length of the carved oak, its sigils and runes filling with red-white liquid fire that ran from the base of the staff to its head in a ripple of energy. The crisp, clean scent of wood smoke filled the air, tainted with the barest hint of sulfur, and lurid light washed through the hallway.

  I saw people scrambling, screaming, weeping. They were moving away, taking advantage of the light while they had it, and the hall around me cleared rapidly. It left the woman with the lighter. She lay on her side, curled into a fetal position, her arms clasped around her head while. . . the thing mauled her.

  It was equal parts feline and insect, all lanky arms, powerful legs, and a whipping tail tipped with a serrated point. Its skin was a black, shining carapace, and it had an elongated, eyeless head ending in viscous, slime-covered jaws full of teeth. Though it had no eyes, it somehow sensed the light of my powered staff, and it whipped around toward me with a hiss, body tensing in sinuous grace, jaws gaping, slime dripping from its teeth while a slow, enraged hissing sound emerged from its throat.

  I stared at it for all of a second in the shock of recognition. Then I gritted my teeth, got my feet underneath me, pointed the end of my staff at the creature, and snarled, "Get away from her, you bitch. "

  The phage shifted its position, the wounded girl now forgotten, its limbs weirdly jointed, its motion sinuous and eerie. It hissed again, louder. A second pair of jaws emerged from between the first, and they too hissed and parted and drooled in challenge.

  "Is this gonna be a standup fight or just another bug hunt?" I taunted.

  The phage leapt at me, faster than I would have thought possible-but that's how fast always works. Lots of people and not-people are faster than me, and I'd learned to plan for it a long time ago. A lot of people think that, in a fight, speed is the only thing that matters. It isn't true. Oh, sure, it's enormously advantageous to have greater speed, but a smart opponent can counter it with good footwork, calculating distance to give him the advantage of economy of movement. The phage was fast, but it had to cross eight or nine feet of carpet to get to me. I had to move my hand about ten inches and harden the shield before my left hand with my will. It wasn't that fast.

  The phage hit my shield, bringing a ghostly blue quarter dome into shape and sending a cascade of blue sparks flying back around me. At the last second, I turned and angled the shield to deflect the creature's momentum. It caromed off the shield and went tumbling along the hallway beyond me for a good twenty feet.

  "You want some of this?" I stepped into the middle of the hall to put myself between the phage and the wounded girl. The phage rose, turning to flee. Before it could move I thrust the end of my staff in its direction and cried, "Forzare!"

  I hadn't ever used quite that much Hellfire before.

  Power rushed out of my staff. Usually, when I employed it like this, the force I unleashed was invisible. This time, it rushed out like a scarlet comet, like a blazing cannonball. The force dipped at the last second, then came up at the phage. The impact threw it against the ceiling with bone-crushing force, and at least twice as much energy as I'd intended. The phage came down, limbs thrashing wildly, bouncing and skittering frantically, like a half-smashed bug.

  I hit it again, the runes in my staff blazing, bathing the whole length of the hall in scarlet radiance, slamming the phage into a wall with more crunching sounds. Yellowish liquid splattered, there was an absolutely awful smell, and sudden holes pocked the wall and the floor where the yellow blood fell.

  I cried havoc in the hellish light and hit it again. And again. And again. I bounced the murdering phage around that hallway until acid burned a hundred holes in the walls, ceiling, and floor, and my blood sang with the battle, with the power, with triumph.

  I lost track of several seconds. The next thing I remember, I stood over the crushed, twitching phage. "It's the only way to be sure," I told it. And then, with cool deliberation, I slammed the end of my staff into the thing's eyeless skull, muscle and magic alike propelling the blow. Its head crunched and fractured like a cheap taco shell, and suddenly there was no phage, no creature. There was only the damaged hallway, the tainted smell of hellish wood smoke, and a mound of clear, swiftly dissolving ectoplasm.

  My knees shook and I sat down in the hallway. I closed my eyes. The red light of Hellfire continued to pulse through my staff, lighting the hall, illuminating my eyelids.

  The next thing I knew, Mouse pressed up against my side, an enormous, warm, silent presence. Bright lights bobbed toward me. Flashlights. Footsteps. People were shouting a lot.

  "Jesus," Rawlins breathed.

  Murphy knelt down by me and touched my shoulder. "Harry?"

  "I'm okay," I said. "The girl. Behind me. She's hurt. "

  Rawlins stood shining his flashlight on a bloody section of the hallway. "Jesus Christ. "

  The phage had killed three people before I got there. I hadn't been able to see much of them during the fight. It was a scene of horror, worse than any slaughterhouse. The phage had taken out a cop. I could see a piece of shirt wit
h a bloodstained CPD badge on it. The second victim might have been a middle-aged man, judging by a bloodied orthopedic shoe that still held a foot. White leg bone showed two or three inches above the shoe.

  The third victim had been one of the little vampire girls I'd seen the previous evening. I could only tell because her head had landed facing me. The rest of her was hopelessly intermixed with the other two bodies.

  They'd need someone good at jigsaw puzzles to put them back together.

  Murphy went to the girl with the lighter, and knelt over her.

  "How is she?" I asked.

  "Gone," Murphy replied.

  I blinked. "What?"

  "She's dead. "

  "No," I said. I was too tired to feel much of the sudden frustration that went through me. "Hell's bells, she was moving just a second ago. I got here in time. "

  Murphy grimaced. "She bled out. "

  "Wait," I said, staggering to my feet. "This isn't. . . She shouldn't be. . . "

  I felt a sudden sickness in my stomach.

  Was she still alive when the phage had turned to run? Could I have stopped or slowed the bleeding, if I had let the thing retreat to the Nevernever?

  I thought of the fight again. I thought of the satisfaction of turning the hunter into prey, of extracting vengeance for those it had slain. I thought about the power that raged through me, the sheer, precise strength of the Hellfire-assisted assault, and how good it felt to use it on something that had it coming. I'd barely given a thought to the girl's condition.

  Had I let her die?

  My God. I could have let the phage run.

  I could have helped her.

  The girl's body lay curled up, still, like a sleeping child. Her dead eyes were open and glassy.

  I lunged for a potted plant near me and threw up.

  After I did, Rawlins observed, "You don't look so good. "

  "No," I whispered. The words tasted bitter. "I don't. "

  Mouse let out one of his not-whine breaths and laid his chin on my shoulder. My eyes couldn't get away from the dead people, not even when they were closed. The hellish light in my staff slowly faded and went dark.

  "I've got to organize this clusterfuck," Murphy sighed. "Rawlins, keep an eye on him. "

  "Yeah. "

  She nodded once and rose, briskly moving away, snapping orders.

  "You, you," Murphy said, pointing at two nearby cops. "Get over there and help the wounded. Airway, bleeding, heartbeat. Move. " She raised her voice and shouted, "Stallings! Where the hell is my ambulance?"

  "Two minutes!" a man shouted down a dimly lit hall leading to the lobby. It looked like someone had pulled a patrol car or three up to the front of the hotel to shine their headlights into the darkened building.

  "Clear them a path and call for more EMTs," Murphy barked. She took her radio off her belt and started giving more orders.

  Rawlins looked at the remains, and at the acid-scarred walls and the enormous areas of smashed drywall and ceiling that looked like they'd been kissed by a wrecking ball. He shook his head. "What the hell happened here?"

  "Bad guy," I said. "I got him. Not fast enough. "

  Rawlins grunted. "Come on. Best we get up to the lobby. Until they get the lights back on, it might not be safe out here. "

  "What happened on your end?" I asked.

  "Damn candle blew up in my face. Then the lights went out. Thought for a second I'd gone blind. "

  I grunted. "Sorry. "

  "Some of the civilians were carrying. That howling thing went by in the dark and everyone panicked. Stampede in the dark. People got trampled and scared. Civilians opened fire, cops opened fire. We got one dead and a couple of dozen wounded by one thing or another. "

  We reached the lobby and found more police arriving along with the emergency crews. The EMTs set up shop at once in a makeshift triage area, where Murphy had brought most of the wounded. The EMTs started stabilizing, evaluating, resuscitating. They had the worst cases loaded in the ambulance and rushing for the hospital within six or seven minutes.

  Murphy's stream of peremptory commands had slowed to a stop, and she stood near the triage area. I sidled over to her and loomed. Mouse pushed his head underneath her hand, but Murphy only patted him absently. I followed her worried blue gaze. The EMTs were working on Rick.

  Greene sat in a chair nearby. He had wiped his face with a towel, but it hadn't taken the blood out of the creases. It made a sanguine masque of his features. He held the towel against his head with his left hand.

  Murphy said nothing for a while. Then she asked, "Did the spell work?"

  "Mostly," I said. "I missed one. "

  She tensed. "Is it still. . . "

  "No. I picked up the spare. "

  She pressed her lips firmly together and closed her eyes. "When the candle went off, I hit the fire alarm. I wanted to clear the building fast. But someone had broken it. Just like the power and the emergency lights. Something went right by me and hit Greene early on. Now I'm the one in charge of this mess. "

  "What happened to Rick?"

  She spoke dispassionately. "Hit by panic fire. Gut shot. I don't know how bad. "

  "He'll be all right," I told her. "The EMTs would have taken him out first if he was in real trouble. "

  She watched a pair of them labor over Rick. "Yeah," she said. "He'll be okay. He'll be all right. "

  She forced herself to look away from her ex-husband with a visible effort. "I've got to get things under control here, until we get the chain of command straightened out, and I make sure the wounded are cared for. Families notified, God. " She shook her head, and watched the EMTs lift Rick onto a stretcher and carry him out. Unspoken apology infused her tone. "After that, there will be questions, and a rain forest worth of paperwork. "

  "I get it," I told her quietly. "It's your job. "

  "It's my job. " She focused her eyes in the distance. I could feel the trembling tension in her. I've known Murphy for a while now. I'd seen her like that before, when she wanted to fall apart but couldn't take the time to do it. She was better at managing that kind of thing than me. There was nothing in her expression but calm and confidence. "I'll put off everything I can and get back to you as soon as possible. Tomorrow sometime. "

  "Don't worry about me, Murph," I told her. "And don't be too hard on yourself. If you hadn't gotten in Greene's face and stayed here, a lot of people would be dead right now. "

  "A lot of people are dead right now," she said. "What about our bad guy?"

  I felt my mouth stretch into a sharp-edged, wolfish smile. "He's entertaining unexpected guests. "

  "Is he going to survive them?"

  "I doubt it," I told her cheerfully. "If one of those things had jumped me, instead of vice versa, it would have taken me out. Three of them would filet me. "

  Murphy's attention was drawn to the door. Several men in wrinkled suits came in and stood around rubbernecking. Murphy straightened her clothing. "What about collateral damage?"

  "I don't think it will be an issue. I'll track them and make sure. "

  Murphy nodded. "Rawlins," she called.

  The veteran had been hovering not far away, feigning disinterest.

  She hooked a thumb up at me. "Babysit for me?"

  "Shoot," Rawlins drawled. "Like I got nothing better to do. "

  "Suffer," she told him, but she smiled when she said it. She put her hand on my arm and squeezed hard, letting out some of the pressure behind her calm facade through the contact. Then she strode over to the rubbernecking suits.

  Rawlins watched her go, his lips pursed. "That is one cast-iron bitch," he said. His tone revealed a quiet respect. "Cast iron. "

  "Hell of a cop," I said.

  Rawlins grunted. "Problem with cast iron. It's brittle. Hit it right and it shatters. " He looked around the foyer and shook his head. "This isn't going to go well for her. "

  "Huh?"
I said.

  "Department is going to crucify someone for it," Rawlins said. "They have to. "

  I let out a bitter bark of laughter. "After all, she probably saved a lot of lives tonight. "

  "No good deed goes unpunished," Rawlins agreed.

  Greene blinked blearily at us from his chair and then slurred, "Rawlins? What the hell are you doing down here? I sent you home. " Anger gathered on his vague expression. "You son of a bitch. You're defying a direct order. I'll have your ass on a platter. "

  Rawlins sighed. "See what I mean?"

  I lifted my hand with my thumb and first two fingers extended, the others against my palm, and moved it in a vaguely mystical gesture from left to right. "That isn't Rawlins. "

  Green blinked at me, and his eyes blurred in and out of focus. The distraction derailed the train of thought he'd been laboriously assembling. It wasn't magic. I've taken head shots before. It takes a while for your brain to start doing its job again, and the vaguest kinds of confusion make things into one big blur.

  I repeated the gesture. "That isn't Rawlins. You can go about your business. Move along. "

  Greene fumbled with a couple of words, then shook his head and closed his eyes and went back to holding the towel against his head.

  Rawlins arched an eyebrow. "You ever handle any divorce negotiations?

  I jerked my head at Mouse and said, "Come on. Before his brains unscramble. "

  Rawlins fell into pace beside me. "Where are we going?"

  I gave him the short version of what I'd done with the other three phages. "So now I track them, and make sure the guy who called them up is out of play. "

  "Demons," Rawlins said. "Wizards. " He shook his head.

  "Look, man-"

  He held up a hand. "No. I think about this too much and I won't be any good to you. Don't explain it. Don't talk about it. Let me get through tonight and you can blow my mind all you want. "

  "Cool," I told him. "You got a car?"

  "Yup. "

  "Let's go. "

  We went outside and down the street to the nearest parking garage. Rawlins drove an old, blue station wagon. A bumper sticker on the back read my kid is too pretty to date your honor student.

  Mouse let out a sudden warning growl. An engine raced. The dog flung his weight at my thigh and sent me slamming up against Rawlins's station wagon. A van rushed at me in my peripheral vision, too fast for me to try to avoid. It missed me by less than six inches.

  It didn't miss Mouse. There was a meaty sound. The dog let out a bawl of pain. Brakes screeched.

  I turned, furious and terrified, and the runes in my staff seethed with sudden Hellfire.

  I had a split second to see Darby Crane swinging a tire iron. Then stars exploded in front of my eyes and the parking garage rotated ninety degrees. I saw Mouse, sprawled motionless on the concrete thirty feet away. Glau, Crane's lawyer, stood beside the open driver's door of the van, holding a gun on Rawlins.

  See what I mean about head shots?

  Fade to black.