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Death Masks, Page 16

Jim Butcher

Chapter Sixteen

  Shiro came out of the office and showed me an address written on a piece of paper. "We meet them tonight at eight. "

  "After sundown," I noted. "I know the place. I'll pick you up here?"

  "Yes. I will need a little time to prepare. "

  "Me too. Around seven. " I told them good-bye and headed for the door. Charity didn't answer me but Shiro did. I got into my car. More kids came pelting into the house as I did, two boys and a girl. The smaller of the two boys stopped to peer at my car, but Charity appeared in the door and chivvied him inside. She frowned at me until I coaxed the Blue Beetle to life and pulled out.

  Driving home left me with too much time to think. This duel with Ortega was something I had no way to prepare for. Ortega was a warlord of the Red Court. He'd probably fought duels before. Which meant that he'd killed people before. Hell, maybe even wizards. I'd squared off against various toughs but that had been free-for-all fighting. I had been able to find ways to cheat, by and large. In a one-on-one duel, I wasn't going to be able to fall back on cleverness, to take advantage of whatever I could find in my environment.

  This was going to be a straight fight, and if Ortega was better than me, he'd kill me. Simple as that. The fear was simple, too. Simple and undeniable.

  I swallowed, and my knuckles turned white. I tried to relax my fingers but they wouldn't. They were too afraid to let go of the wheel. Stupid fingers.

  I got back to my apartment, pried my fingers off the steering wheel, and found my door halfway open. I ducked to one side, in case someone had a gun pointed up the narrow stairway down to my apartment door, and drew out my blasting rod.

  "Harry?" called a quiet, female voice from my apartment. "Harry, is that you?"

  I lowered the blasting rod. "Murph?"

  "Get inside," Murphy said. I looked down the stairway and saw her appear in the doorway, her face pale. "Hurry. "

  I came down the stairs warily, feeling out my wards as I did. They were intact, and I relaxed a little. I had given Murphy a personalized talisman that would let her through my defenses, and it would only have worked for her.

  I slipped into my apartment. Murphy shut the door behind me and locked it. She'd started a fire in the fireplace and had one of my old kerosene lamps lit. I went to the fireplace and warmed up my hands, watching Murphy in silence. She stood with her back and shoulders rigid for a moment, before she came over to stand beside me, facing the fire. Her lips were held into a tense, neutral line. "We should talk. "

  "People keep saying that to me," I muttered.

  "You promised me you'd call me in when you had something. "

  "Whoa, there, hang on. Who said I had anything?"

  "There is a corpse on a pleasure ship in Burnham Harbor and several eyewitnesses who describe a tall, dark-haired man leaving the scene and getting into a multicolored Volkswagen Beetle. "

  "Wait a second-"

  "There's been a murder, Dresden. I don't care how sacred client confidentiality is to you. People are dying. "

  Frustration made me clench my teeth. "I was going to tell you about it. It's been a really busy day. "

  "Too busy to talk to the police about a murder you may have witnessed?" Murphy said. "That is considered aiding and abetting a first-degree murder in some places. Like courts of law. "

  "This again," I muttered. My fingers clenched into fists. "I remember how this one goes. You slug me in the jaw and arrest me. "

  "I damn well should. "

  "Hell's bells, Murph!"

  "Relax. " She sighed. "If that was what I had in mind you'd be in the car already. "

  My anger evaporated. "Oh. " After a moment, I asked, "Then why are you here?"

  Murphy scowled. "I'm on vacation. "

  "You're what?"

  Murphy's jaw twitched. Her words sounded a little odd, since she kept her teeth ground together while she talked. "I've been taken off the case. And when I protested I was told that I could either be on vacation or collecting unemployment. "

  Holy crap. The muckety-mucks at CPD had ordered Murphy off a case? But why?

  Murphy answered the question I hadn't asked yet. "Because when Butters looked at the victim from the harbor, he determined that the weapon used to kill her and the one used on that victim you saw last night were the same. "

  I blinked. "What?"

  "Same weapon," Murphy said. "Butters seemed pretty confident about it. "

  I turned that over in my head a few times, trying to shake out the kinks in the chains of logic. "I need a beer. You?"

  "Yeah. "

  I went over to the pantry and grabbed a couple of brown bottles. I used an old bottle opener to take off the lids and took the drinks back to Murphy. She took her bottle in hand and eyed it suspiciously. "It's warm. "

  "It's the new recipe. Mac would kill me if he heard I served his brown cold. " I took a pull from my bottle. The ale had a rich, full flavor, a little nutty, and it left a pleasant aftertaste lingering in the mouth. Make what jokes you will about trendy microbrews. Mac knew his stuff.

  Murphy made a face. "Ugh. Too much taste. "

  "Wimpy American," I said.

  Murphy almost smiled. "Homicide got wind that there was a link between the killing in Italy, the one here by the airport, and the one this morning. So they pulled strings and hogged the whole thing. "

  "How did they find out?"

  "Rudolph," Murphy spat. "There's no way to prove anything but I'll bet you the little weasel heard me on the phone with Butters and ran straight over there to tell them. "

  "Isn't there anything you can do?"

  "Officially, yes. But in real life people are going to start accidentally losing reports and forms and requests if I try to file them. And when I tried to apply some pressure of my own, I got put down hard. " She took another angry drink. "I could lose my job. "

  "That both sucks and blows, Murph. "

  "Tell me about it. " She frowned and looked up at my eyes briefly. "Harry. I want you to back off on this case. For your own sake. That's why I came over here. "

  I frowned. "Wait a minute. You mean people are threatening you with me? That's a switch. "

  "Don't joke about it," Murphy said. "Harry, you've got a history with the department, and not everyone thinks well of you. "

  "You mean Rudolph. "

  "Not just Rudolph. There are plenty of people who don't want to believe you're for real. Besides that, you were near the scene of and may have witnessed a felony. They could put you away. "

  Obviously my life was too easy already. I swigged more beer. "Murph, cop, crook, or creature, it doesn't matter. I don't back off because some bully doesn't like what I do. "

  "I'm not a bully, Harry. I'm your friend. "

  I winced. "And you're asking me. "

  She nodded. "Pretty please. With sugar. "

  "With sugar. Hell, Murph. " I took a drink and squinted at her. "How much do you know about what's going on?"

  "I had some of the files taken away before I could read them. " She glanced up at me. "But I can read between the lines. "

  "Okay," I said. "This might take a little explaining. "

  "You aren't backing off, are you?"

  "It isn't an option. "

  "Stop there then," Murphy said. "The less you tell me, the less I can testify to. "

  Testify? Hell. There should be some kind of rule about being forced to dodge several kinds of legal land mines at the same time. "This isn't a friendly situation," I said. "If straight cops go into it like it's normal business, they're going to get killed. I'd be really worried even if it were SI. "

  "Okay," Murphy said. She didn't look happy. She drank her beer in a long pull and set the bottle on my mantel.

  I put my hand on her shoulder. She didn't snap it off at the wrist. "Murph. This looks bad already. I have a hunch it could get worse, fast. I have to. "

  "I know," she said. "I wish I could he
lp. "

  "Did you get the information on that cell phone?"

  "No," she said. But as she said it, she passed me a folded piece of paper. I unfolded it with my fingers and read Murphy's printing: Quebec Nationale, Inc, owner. No phone number. Address a P. O. box. Dead end.

  A dummy company, probably, I thought. The Churchmice could have it set up to do a lot of the buying and selling for them. Maybe dead Gaston had been from Quebec instead of France.

  "Got it. Thanks, Murph. "

  "I don't know what you're talking about," Murphy said. She picked up her jacket from where she'd tossed it on my couch and shrugged into it. "There's no APB out for you yet, Harry, but I'd be discreet if I were you. "

  "Discreet. That's me. "

  "I'm serious. "

  "Serious, yep. "

  "Dammit, Harry. " But she smiled when she said it.

  "You probably don't want me to call you if I need help. "

  She nodded. "Hell, no. That would be illegal. Keep your nose clean, walk the straight and narrow. "

  "Okay. "

  Murphy paused and asked, "I don't think I've seen you without that coat outside of summer. Where's your duster?"

  I grimaced. "Missing in action. "

  "Oh. You talk to Susan?"

  I said, "Yeah. "

  I felt Murphy's eyes on my face. She got it without being told. "Oh," she said again. "Sorry, Harry. "

  "Thanks. "

  "See you. " She opened my door, kept her hand near her gun, and then warily padded on out.

  I shut my door after her and leaned against it. Murphy was worried. She wouldn't have come to me in person if she weren't. And she'd been extra careful with the legal stuff. Were things that dicey in the CPD?

  Murphy was the first head of Special Investigations not to get her rear bounced onto the street after a token week or three of unsolvable cases. Generally speaking, when the administration wanted someone off the force, they'd get promoted to running SI. Or at least working in it. Every cop there had some kind of failing that had landed them what everyone else considered to be a cruddy assignment. It had, by and large, created a strong sense of camaraderie among the SI officers, a bond only made tighter by the way they occasionally faced off with one kind of nightmarish creature or another.

  SI cops had taken down several half-assed dark spellslingers, half a dozen vampires, seven or eight ravening trolls, and a demon that had manifested itself out of a mound of compost-heated garbage behind a pawnshop in Chinatown. SI could handle itself pretty well because they played careful, they worked together, and they understood that there were unnatural beings that sometimes had to be dealt with in ways not strictly in accordance with police procedure. Oh, and because they had a hired wizard to advise them about bad guys, of course. I liked to think that I had contributed too.

  But I guess every bucket of fruit has something go rotten sooner or later. In SI the stinker was Detective Rudolph. Rudy was young, good-looking, clean-cut, and had slept with the wrong councilman's daughter. He had applied some industrial-strength denial to his experiences with SI despite freak encounters with monsters, magic, and human kindness. He had clung to a steadfast belief that everything was normal, and the realm of the paranormal was all make-believe.

  Rudy didn't like me. Rudy didn't like Murphy. If the kid had sabotaged Murphy's investigation in order to curry favor with the folks in Homicide, maybe he was angling to get out of SI.

  And maybe he'd lose a bunch of teeth the next time he walked through a quiet parking garage. I doubted Murphy would take that kind of backstabbing with good grace. I spent a moment indulging myself in a pleasant fantasy in which Murphy pounded Rudy's head against the door of her office at SI's home building until the cheap wood had a Rudolph-shaped dent in it. I enjoyed the thought way too much.

  I gathered up a few things from around my apartment, including the antivenom potions Bob had helped me with. I checked on Bob while I was in the lab, and got a sleepy and incoherent response that I understood to mean that he needed more rest. I let him, went back upstairs, and called my answering service.

  I had a message from Susan, a phone number. I called it, and a second later she answered. "Harry?"

  "You've become clairvoyant. If you can do a foreign accent you could get a hot line. "

  "Like, sure, as if," Susan drawled ditzily.

  "California isn't foreign," I said.

  "You'd be surprised. How did things go?"

  "Okay, I guess," I said. "I got a second. "

  "Michael?" she asked.

  "Shiro. "

  "Who?"

  "He's like Michael but shorter and older. "

  "Oh, uh. Good. I did the legwork. "

  I thought of some work I'd seen Susan's legs do before. But I only said, "And?"

  "And the downtown Marriott is hosting an art gala this very night, including a gallery sale and a fundraiser auction for charity. "

  I whistled. "Wow. So lots of art and money moving around, changing hands, being shipped hither and yon. "

  "Hither maybe, but I don't think UPS does yon," Susan said. "Seems like a good place to sell a hot article or three. And it's all sponsored by the Chicago Historical and Art Society. "

  "Who?"

  "A very small and very elite club for the upper crust. Gentleman Johnny Marcone is chairman of its board of directors. "

  "Sounds like smuggling country all right," I said. "How do I get in?"

  "You put up a five-thousand-dollar-per-plate donation to charity. "

  "Five thousand," I said. "I don't think I've ever had that much all in one place at one time. "

  "Then you might try option two. "

  "Which is?"

  Susan's voice took on a note of satisfaction. "You go with a reporter from the Midwest Arcane on her last assignment for her editor. I talked to Trish and got two tickets that had originally been given to a reporter on the Tribune. "

  "I'm impressed," I said.

  "It gets better. I got us formal wear. The gala begins at nine. "

  "Us? Uh, Susan. I don't want to sound like an ass, but do you remember the last time you wanted to come on an investigation with me?"

  "This time I'm the one with the tickets," she said. "Are you coming with me or not?"

  I thought about it for a minute but didn't see any way around it. There wasn't time for a long argument, either. "I'm in. I have to meet the Reds at McAnnally's at eight. "

  "Meet you there with your tux. Eight-thirty?"

  "Yeah. Thank you. "

  "Sure," she said quietly. "Glad I could help. "

  Silence stretched long enough to become painful for both of us. I finally broke it at the same time as Susan. "Well, I'd better-"

  "Well, I'd better let you go," Susan said. "I have to hurry to get all of this done. "

  "All right," I said. "Be careful. "

  "Stones and glass houses, Harry. See you this evening. "

  We hung up, and I made sure I was ready to go.

  Then I went to pick up my second, and work out the terms to a duel I was increasingly certain I had little chance of surviving.