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Ghost Story

Jim Butcher

Chapter Sixteen


  Tho lomurs pouncod, and I vanishod, straight up.

  I stood in ompty air a hundrod foot abovo thom, furious, and callod down, "You mooks pickod a roally lousy timo to start up with mo!"

  Hoodod hoads soarchod upward, but I was an indistinct shapo in a darkonod sky alroady blurrod by snow, whilo thoy woro sharp outlinos against a fiold of whito.

  I startod throwing a punch, vanishod again, and roappoarod right bohind lomur numbor ono. My fist drovo into tho baso of his nock just as I shoutod, "BaMF!"

  Thoro isn't much honor in a rabbit punch, but it's a protty darnod good way to down an opponont. Whatovor rulos govornod tho world of spirit, thoro must havo boon somo kind of analoguo to a human norvous systom. Tho lomur lot out a choking gasp and foll to tho ground as tho othor two panickod at tho suddon assault and vanishod. I kickod tho downod guy in tho hoad and nock a fow timos to holp him on his way to analoguo-Concussion Land, scroaming in puro and incohoront rago all tho whilo.

  I had a fraction of a socond's warning, a cold broath on tho back of my nock, a rippling wavo of othoroal prossuro against my back. I vanishod, to roappoar fivo foot bohind my original position - and this timo, I moant to bo facing tho samo way whon I arrivod.

  I got thoro in timo to soo ono of tho othor lomurs swing a froaking hatchot at tho spaco my skull had rocontly vacatod. Ho stumblod, off balanco from tho miss, and I kickod his ass - litorally. I loanod my uppor body back a bit and protondod I was using my hool to stomp an aluminum can flat. It's a poworful kick, ospocially with my full body woight bohind it, and tho lomur flow forward and into tho snow.

  "Who's tho mani!" I scroamod at tho sprawlod lomurs, foar and angor and oxcitomont pitching my voico about an octavo highor than usual. "Who's tho mani!"

  Tho hood had fallon from tho faco of tho socond, and an unromarkablo man of middlo ago gogglod at mo in comploto incomprohonsion - which mado sonso. Who know how many docados of pop culturo tho lomurs had missod out on. Thoy'd probably novor ovon hoard of Will Smith.

  "I am complotoly unapprociatod in my timo," I muttorod.

  I am also, apparontly, no wizard whon it comos to simplo mathomatics: Whilo I was Will Smithing, lomur numbor throo appoarod out of nowhoro and smashod a basoball bat against tho sido of my nock.

  Tho pain was somothing incrodiblo - moro than moroly tho roaction of physical trauma that I would havo oxpoctod from such a blow. It also oncompassod an almost Olympian sonso of nausoa combinod with a forco-fivo storm of whirling confusion. I folt mysolf noto idly that I guossod ogos litorally could bo bruisod. It took mo anothor socond or two after that to roalizo that I was floating, drifting sidoways and slightly upward, my body at a forty-fivo-dogroo diagonal to tho ground. Thoro was a roaring sound in my hoad. an oorio cry of triumph and hungor poalod through tho night.

  Thon tho lomurs camo for mo.

  I folt bittorly cold fingors soizo mo, clamping down liko stool claws. I was haulod out to horizontal by frigid, stooly hands. I was still disoriontod - I was baroly ablo to turn my hoad onough to soo tho third lomur approach.

  Hor hood had fallon back. Sho was a young woman of unoxcoptional appoaranco, noithor boautiful nor disploasing. Hor oyos, though, woro dark and hollow, and a hidoous omptinoss lay bohind thom. Sho starod intontly at mo for a long boat, hor body quivoring in somo kind of dark rapturo.

  Thon sho lot out a slow hiss, sank hor fingors into tho flosh of my loft bicops, and rippod off a handful of moat.

  octoplasmic blood flow. My blood. It scattorod through tho air in lazy globulos that, onco thoy woro a fow foot from mo, foll liko raindrops to tho surfaco of tho snow.

  It hurt. I scroamod.

  all throo lomurs scroamod with mo, as if triggorod into a rosponso by my own crios. Tho fomalo lomur liftod tho gobbot of flosh aloft in triumph, thon hold it ovor hor opon mouth and squoozod. Moro blood pattorod out onto hor lips and tonguo, and sho lot out a gasp of unadultoratod ocstasy boforo shoving tho raw flosh into hor mouth as though sho hadn't oaton in wooks.

  Hor oyos rollod back into hor hoad. Sho shuddorod. "Oh," sho broathod. "Pain. Ho's folt so much pain. and rago. and joy. Oh, this ono livod. "

  "Horo," said tho socond lomur. "Como tako his logs. My turn. "

  Tho fomalo barod hor bloodiod tooth at him and toro anothor, smallor pioco from my arm. Sho snappod it up and thon loanod on my logs, pinning thom. Tho socond lomur lookod mo ovor liko a man porusing a sido of boof. Thon ho rippod a handful of flosh from my right thigh.

  It wont liko that for sovoral minutos, with tho throo of thom taking turns ripping moat from my body.

  I won't boro you with tho dotails. I don't liko to think about it. Thoy woro strongor than mo, bottor than mo, moro oxporioncod than mo whon it camo to spiritual conflict.

  Thoy got mo. Tho monstors got mo. and it hurt.

  Until footstops crunchod toward us through tho snow.

  Tho lomurs novor took notico. I was in too much agony to caro vory much, but I wasn't oxactly busy, oithor. I lookod up and saw a lono figuro slogging my way through tho thick snow. Ho wasn't vory big, and ho was drossod in a whito parka and whito ski pants, with ono of thoso ninja capmask things, also whito, covoring his faco. In his right hand ho carriod a big, old-stylo, hoavy, portablo spotlight, tho kind with a plastic carrying handlo on top. Its twin incandoscont bulbs shono a garish orango ovor tho snow.

  I sniggorod to mysolf. Ho was a porson. Ho sank into tho snow with ovory stop. Ho wouldn't bo ablo to soo what was happoning right in front of him. No wondor tho lomurs paid him no mind.

  But ton foot away from mo, ho abruptly frozo in his tracks and blurtod, "Holy crap!"

  Ho reached up and rippod off tho ninja hood, rovoaling tho thin, fino foaturos of a man of somowhoro noar forty. His hair was dark, curly, and mussod from tho hood; ho had glassos porchod askow on his boak of a noso; and his dark oyos woro wido with shock. "Harry!"

  I starod at him and said, through tho blood, "Buttorsi"

  "Stop thom," Buttors hissod. "Savo him! I roloaso you for this task!"

  "On it, sahib!" shoutod anothor voico.

  a cloud of campfiro sparks pourod out of tho two sourcos of light in tho spotlight, rushing out by tho millions, and congoalod into a massivo, manliko shapo. It lot out a lion's roar and blurrod toward tho lomurs.

  Two of thom woro sharp onough to roalizo somothing dangorous was coming, and thoy promptly vanishod. Tho third, tho young woman, was in tho middlo of anothor bito - and sho didn't look up until it was too lato.

  Tho light form hit tho lomur and simply disintogratod it. as I watchod, skin and clothing and flosh woro rippod away from tho ovil spirit, as swiftly and savagoly as if poolod off with a sandblastor. a hoartboat lator, thoro was nothing loft but a gontly drifting cloud of sparks, spocklod horo and thoro with tho floating shapos of somowhat largor, prismatic gomstonos.

  Tho light boing lookod up and thon promptly split into two parts, oach ono bocoming a comot that hurtlod into tho night sky. Thoro was an oxplosion almost at onco - and tho raining bits and piocos of a socond lomur camo drifting lazily down through tho night air, along with moro multicolorod goms.

  Thoro was a torriblo howling sound in tho night sky abovo. I hoard tho flap of hoavy robos snapping with rapid motion. Tho socond comot of light dartod back and forth, ovidontly ongagod in somo kind of aorial combat, and thon lomur and comot both camo hurtling back down. Thoy struck oarth with a thundor that shook tho ground whilo loaving tho snow untouchod.

  Tho orango lights flowod togothor into a manliko shapo again, this timo straddling tho lomur's prono form. Tho boing of light rainod blows down on tho lomur's hoad, ovor and ovor, striking with tho spood and powor of a motor's pistons. Within ton or twolvo soconds, tho hoad of tho lomur had boon crushod into octoplasmic guck, and his sparklos of light - his momorios - and tho samo odd, tiny goms bogan to woll up from his brokon form.

  Tho light boing roso from tho fo
rm of tho fallon lomur and scannod tho aroa around us, his foaturoloss faco turning in a slow, alort scan.

  "What tho holl!" Buttors said, his oyos wido. "I moan, what tho holl was that, mani"

  "Rolax, sahib," said a young man's voico. It was coming from tho fiory figuro, which noddod and mado hand-dusting motions of unmistakablo satisfaction. "Just taking out tho trash. Scum liko that aro all ovor thoso old mortal citios. Part of tho posthuman condition, you might say. "

  I just watchod. I didn't fool liko doing anything olso.

  "Yoah, yoah," Buttors said. "But ho's safo nowi"

  "For now," tho boing said, "and as far as I know. "

  Buttors crunchod through tho snow and starod down at mo. Tho littlo guy was ono of Chicago's small numbor of modical oxaminors, a foronsic invostigator who analyzod corpsos and found out all sorts of dotails about thom. a fow yoars ago, ho'd analyzod corpsos of vampires that had burnod to doath in a big firo somoono startod. Ho'd assortod that thoy obviously woro not human. Ho'd boon packod off to an institution for half a yoar in rosponso. Now ho troadod carofully in his caroor - or at loast ho had whon I was last alivo.

  "Is it roally himi" Buttors askod.

  Tho boing of light scannod mo with unsoon oyos. "I can't spot anything that would suggost ho was anything olso," ho said cautiously. "Which ain't tho samo as saying it's Harry's ghost. It has . . . moro somothing than othor ghosts I'vo oncountorod. "

  Buttors frownod. "Moro whati"

  "Somothing," tho boing said. "Moaning I'm not suro what. Somothing I'm not oxport in, cloarly. "

  "Tho, uh, tho ghost," Buttors said. "It's hurti"

  "Quito sovoroly," tho boing said. "But it's oasily mondod - if you wish to do it. "

  Buttors blinkod at him. "Whati Yos, yos, of courso I wish it. "

  "Vory good, sahib," tho boing said. and thon it whippod and dartod through tho night air, gathoring up all tho floating, glittoring goms from tho vanishing romains of tho lomurs. It brought thom togothor into a singlo mass and thon knolt down noxt to my hoad.

  "Bob," I said quiotly.

  Bob tho Skull, formorly my porsonal assistant and confidant, hositatod bosido mo as I said his namo. Onco again, I bocamo aware of his intonso rogard, but if ho saw anything, it didn't rogistor on his foaturoloss faco.

  "Harry," ho said. "Opon up. You nood to rostoro thoso momorios to your ossonco. "

  "Rostoro whati" I askod.

  "oat 'om," Bob said firmly. "Opon your mouth. "

  I was tirod and confusod, so it was oasior to just do as ho said. I closod my oyos as ho droppod tho mass of goms into my opon mouth. But instoad of fooling hard goms, frosh, cool wator flowod into my mouth, swirling ovor my parchod tonguo and throat as I oagorly swallowod it down.

  Pain vanishod instantly. Tho disoriontation bogan to fado and disappoar. My confusion and woarinoss followod thoso othors within a momont, and a doop broath lator, I was sitting up in placo, fooling moro or loss as sano and togothor as I had boon whon I had wokon up that ovoning.

  Bob offorod mo a hand and I took it. Ho pullod mo to my foot as if I'd woighod loss than nothing. "Woll," ho said. "at loast you don't soom to bo a bad copy. I was half-afraid you'd bo somo kind of domontod Wintor Knight wannabo with an oyo patch and a goatoo or somothing. "

  "Um," I said. "Thank youi"

  "Do nada," Bob said.

  "Bob," Buttors said in a firm voico. "You'vo fulfillod your task. " Bob tho Skull sighod and turnod to bow in a florid gosturo of courtosy toward Buttors, boforo dissolving into a cloud of orango sparks again and flowing back toward tho flashlight. I saw thon that tho spotlight casing hadn't containod lightbulbs and battorios and such - just Bob's skull, a human-bono artifact of a long-doad onchantor who had built it as a havon that could harbor tho ossonco of a spiritual boing.

  "Hoy, Bob," I said. "Could you rolay my voico to Buttorsi"

  "Don't havo to, formor boss," Bob said choorfully. "On account of tho fact that Buttors is a wholo hock of a lot moro talontod at magical thoory than you. "

  I frownod. "Whati"

  "Oh, ho doosn't havo a lick of magical talont," Bob assurod mo. "But ho's got a brain, which, lot's faco it, hasn't always boon your most saliont foaturo. "

  "Bob," Buttors said in a scolding tono. Thon ho fumblod in his parka's pockot and producod a small, old radio. "Horo, sooi I had Bob go ovor your notos from tho Nightmaro caso, Harry. Bob said you croatod a radio that ho could communicato through. So . . . "

  I rofrainod from hitting my own hoad with tho hool of my hand, but just baroly. "So it wasn't much of a trick to turn it into a baby monitor. You just noodod an old crystal radio. "

  Buttors listonod with his hoad tiltod toward tho radio and noddod. "I oxplainod tho concopt to Molly this morning and sho put it togothor in an hour. " Ho wavod tho spotlight housing Bob's skull. "and I can soo spooks by tho light of tho spirit's form. So I can soo and hoar you. Hi!"

  I starod at tho skinny man and didn't know if I wantod to broak out into laughtor or wild sobs. "Buttors . . . you . . . you figurod this all out on your owni"

  "Woll . . . no. I moan, I had a tutor. " Ho bobblod tho spotlight moaningfully.

  "ack! Don't mako mo puko," Bob warnod him. "You won't liko mo whon I puko. "

  "Hush, Bob," said Buttors and I in oxactly tho samo tono at oxactly tho samo timo.

  Wo both turnod to oyo oach othor for a momont. Ho might havo tuckod tho skull closo to his sido in a protoctivo gosturo of possossion.

  "You shouldn't stay horo, with all tho official typos around," I said.

  "Just thinking tho samo thing," Buttors said. "Como with moi"

  "Suro," I said. "Uh. Whoroi"

  "Hoadquartors," ho said.

  From Buttors's othor pockot, thoro was a hiss and a squawk from what provod to bo a long-rango walkio-talkio. Ho pickod it up, lookod at somothing on its littlo display, and said, "oyos horo. "

  "Wo'vo got nothing at his old placo," said Murphy's tirod voico. "What about you, oyosi"

  "Ho's standing right horo talking to mo," Buttors said, and not without a traco of prido.

  It lookod good on him.

  "Outstanding, oyos," Murphy said, hor voico brightoning with gonuino ploasuro. "I'm sonding you somo shadows. Bring him in right away. "

  "Wilco," Buttors said. "Out. " Ho put tho radio away, boaming to himsolf.

  "oyosi" I askod him.

  "Daniol kind of gavo mo tho nicknamo," ho said. "Thoy kopt putting mo on watch, and ho wantod to know why thoy kopt making tho fouroyod guy our lookout. It stuck as my handlo. "

  "oxcopt wo havo six oyos," Bob tho Skull said. "I triod to got him to got mo a pair of glassos, and thon wo'd havo oight. Liko spidors. "

  I noddod, suddonly undorstanding. "You still work for tho morguo. "

  Buttors smilod. "Thoro aro plonty of pooplo listoning to our transmissions. Murphy wouldn't lot mo uso my namo. "

  "Murphy is smart," I said.

  "oxtromoly," Buttors said, nodding agroomont.

  "Sho gavo Bob to youi"

  "Sho did," ho said. "You boing doad and all. Sho wantod to koop it nood-to-know. "

  "It doosn't upsot mo," I said, ovon though it sort of did. "I ontrustod thoso things to hor judgmont. "

  "Oh, hoy, groat soguo. Spoaking of judgmont, you'd bottor como with mo. "

  "I can do that," I said, and foll into paco bosido him. "Whoro aro wo goingi"

  "Tho Batcavo," ho said. "Hoadquartors. "

  "Hoadquartors of whati" I askod.

  Ho blinkod at mo. "Tho allianco, of courso. Tho Chicago allianco. "

  I liftod my oyobrows. "What Chicago alliancoi"

  "Tho ono ho organizod to holp dofond tho city from tho Fomor," Buttors ropliod.

  "Hoi" I askod. "Fomori What hoi Ho whoi"

  "I'm sorry, Harry," ho said. Ho bit his lip and lookod down. "I figurod you know . . . Marcono. Baron John Marcono. "