Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

White Night

Jim Butcher

Chapter 34

  Chapter Thirty-Four

  I let Mister back in after his morning ramble, which happened to fall between three and four P. M. that day - Mister has a complicated ramble schedule that changes on a basis so mystifying that I have never been able to predict it - and took Mouse out for a stroll to the area of the boardinghouse's little backyard set aside for him.

  Tick, tock, tick, tock.

  I took a bit of sandpaper to my staff and cleaned off some gunk on the bottom and some soot along the haft. I put on all my silver battle rings and took them to the heavy bag I'd hung in the corner. Half an hour's worth of pounding on the bag wouldn't bring them all up to charge, but something was better than nothing.

  Tick, tock.

  I showered after my workout. I cleaned my gun and loaded it. I pushed aside my coffee table and couch to lay out my coat on the floor and took the leather cleaner to it, being careful not to disrupt the protective spells I'd scored in the hide with tattoo needles and black ink.

  In short, I did everything I could to avoid thinking about Anna Ash's corpse in that cheap, clean little hotel room shower while the time crawled by.

  Tick, tock.

  At a quarter to six, there was a rapping sound outside my door. I checked out the peephole. Ramirez stood outside, dressed in a big red basketball-type tank top, black shorts, and flip-flops. He had a big gym bag over one shoulder and carried his staff, nearly as battle-scarred as mine, despite the difference in our ages, in his right hand. He rapped the end of the staff down on the concrete outside again, instead of touching my door.

  I took down the wards and opened the steel security door. It didn't take me more than five or six hard pulls to get it to swing all the way open.

  "I thought you were going to get that fixed," Ramirez said to me. He peered around the doorway before he eased forward through it, where I knew the presence of all the warding spells would be buzzing against his senses like a locomotive-sized electric razor, even though they were temporarily deactivated. "Jesus Christ, Harry. You beefed them up even more. "

  "Got to exercise the apprentice's talent somehow. "

  Ramirez gave me an affable leer. "I'll bet. "

  "Don't even joke about that, man," I told him, without any heat in the words. "I've known her since she was in pigtails. "

  Ramirez opened his mouth, paused, then shrugged and said, "Sorry. "

  "No problem," I said.

  "But since I'm not an old man whose sex drive has withered from lack of use - "

  (Don't get me wrong. I like Carlos. But there are times, when his mouth is running, that I want to punch him in the head until all his teeth fall out. )

  " - I'll be the first to admit that I'd sure as hell find some uses for her. That girl is fine. " He frowned and glanced around - a little nervously, I thought. "Um. Molly's not here, is she?"

  "Nope," I said. "I didn't ask her on this operation. "

  "Oh," he said. His voice seemed to hold something of both approval and disappointment. "Good. Hey, there, Mouse. "

  My dog came over to greet Ramirez with a gravely shaken paw and a wagging tail. Ramirez produced a little cloth sack and tossed it up to Mister, where he lay in his favored spot atop one of my bookcases. Mister immediately went ecstatic, pinning the sack down with one paw and rubbing his whiskers all over it.

  "I disapprove of recreational drug use," I told Ramirez sternly.

  He rolled his eyes. "Okay, Dad. But since we all know who really runs this house" - Ramirez reached up to rub a finger behind one of Mister's ears - "I'll just keep on paying tribute lest I incur His Nibs's imperial displeasure. "

  I reached up to rub Mister's ears when Ramirez was done. "So, any questions?"

  "We're going to stomp into the middle of a big meeting of the White Court, call a couple of them murderers, challenge them to a duel, and kill them right in front of all of their friends and relatives, right?"

  "Right," I said.

  "It has the advantage of simplicity," Ramirez said, his tone dry. He put his bag on my coffee table and opened it, drawing out a freaking Desert Eagle, one of the most powerful semiautomatic sidearms in the world. "Call them names and kill them. What could possibly go wrong with that ?"

  "We're officially in a cease-fire," I said. "And as we've announced ourselves as parties arriving to deliver challenge, they'd be in violation of the Accords to kill us. "

  Ramirez grunted, checked the slide on the big handgun, and slapped a magazine into it. "Or we show up, they kill us, and then play like we left in good shape and vanished, and oh, dear, what a shame and loss to all those hot young women that that madman Harry Dresden dragged good-looking young Ramirez down with him when he went. "

  I snorted. "No. In the first place, the Council would find out what happened one way or another. "

  "If any of them looked," Ramirez drawled.

  "Ebenezar would," I stated with perfect confidence.

  "How do you know?" Ramirez asked.

  I knew because my old mentor was the Blackstaff of the Council, their completely illegal, immoral, unethical, and secret assassin, free to break the Laws of Magic whenever he deemed it fit - such as the First Law, "Thou shalt not kill. " When Duke Ortega of the Red Court had challenged me to a formal duel and cheated, Ebenezar had taken it personally. He'd pulled an old Soviet satellite down onto the vamps' heads, killing Ortega and his whole crew. But I couldn't tell Carlos that.

  "I know the old man," I said. "He would. "

  "You know that," Ramirez said. "What if the Whites don't?"

  "We count on our second safety net. King Raith doesn't want to get his finely accoutred ass deposed. Our challenge is going to remove a couple of potential deposers. He'll want us to succeed. After that, I figure quid pro quo should be enough to get us out in one piece. "

  Ramirez shook his head. "We're doing the White King, our enemy, with whom we are at war, a favor by stabilizing his grasp on the throne. "

  "Yeah. "

  "Why are we doing that again?"

  "Because it might give the Council a chance to catch its breath, at least, if we can recover while Raith hosts peace talks. " I narrowed my eyes. "And because those murdering sons of bitches have to pay for killing a lot of innocent people, and this is the only way to get to them. "

  Ramirez pulled three round-sided grenades from the pack and put them down next to the Desert Eagle. "I like that second one better. It's a fight I can get behind. Do we have any backup?"

  "Maybe," I said.

  He paused and blinked up at me. "Maybe?"

  "Most of the Wardens are in India," I told him. "A bunch of old bad guys under some big daddy rakshasa started attacking some monasteries friendly to us while we were distracted with the vamps. I checked, and Morgan and Ebenezar have been hammering them for two days. You, me, your guys, and Luccio's trainees are the only Wardens in North America right now. "

  "No trainees. " Ramirez grunted. "And my guys haven't had their cloaks for a year yet. They. . . are not up for something like this yet. Half a dozen vamps in an alley, sure, but there's only the three of them. "

  I nodded. "Keep this simple. Swagger in, look confident, kick ass. You dealt with White Court before?"

  "Not much. They stay clear of our people on the coast. "

  "They're predators like the rest of them," I said. "They react well to body language that tells them that you are not food. They've got some major mental influence skills, so keep focused and make sure your head is clear. "

  Ramirez produced a well-worn web belt of black nylon. He clipped a holster to it and then fixed the grenades in place. "What's going to stop them from smashing us the second we win this duel?"

  That's one of the things I love about working with Ramirez. The possibility of losing the duel simply didn't enter into his calculations. "Their nature," I said. "They like to play civilized, and do their wet work through cat's-paws. They are not fond of direct methods and
direct confrontation. "

  Ramirez lifted his eyebrows, drew a slender, straight, double-edged blade of a type he called a willow sword from the bag, and laid it on the table, too. The tassel on the hilt had been torn off by a zombie the night we'd first fought together. He had replaced it, over the last few years, with a little chain strung with fangs taken from Red Court vampires he'd killed with it. They rattled against one another and the steel and leather of the hilt. "I get it. We're the White King's cat's-paws. "

  I walked to the icebox. "Bingo. And we can't hang around as potential threats to his rebellious courtiers if he kills us outright after we help him out. It would damage his credibility with his allies, too. "

  "Ah," Ramirez said. "Politicians. "

  I returned with two opened beers. I gave one to him, clinked my bottle against his, and we said, in unison, "Fuck 'em," and drank.

  Ramirez lowered the bottle, squinted at it, and said, "Can we do this?"

  I snorted. "Can't be any harder than Halloween. "

  "We had a dinosaur then," Ramirez said. Then he turned and pulled fatigue pants and a black Offspring T-shirt out of his bag. He gave me an up-and-down look. "Of course, we still do. "

  I kicked the coffee table into his shins. He let out a yelp and hobbled off to change clothes in my bedroom, snickering under his breath the whole way.

  When he came back out, the smile was gone. We got suited up. Swords and guns and grey cloaks and staves and magical gewgaws left and right, yeehaw. One of these days, I swear, as long as I'm playing supernatural sheriff of Chicago, I'm getting myself some honest-to-God spurs and a ten-gallon hat.

  I got out a yellow legal pad and a pen, and Ramirez and I sat down over another beer. "The meeting is at the Raith family estate north of town. I've been in the house, but only part of it. Here's what I remember. "

  I started sketching it out for Ramirez, who asked plenty of smart questions about both the house and exterior, so that I had to go to a new page to map out what I knew of the grounds. "Not sure where the vamps will be having their meeting, but the duel is going to be in the Deeps. It's a cave outside the house, somewhere out here. " I circled an area of the map. "There's a nice deep chasm in them. It's a great place to dispose of bodies, and no chance of being seen or heard. "

  "Very tidy," Ramirez noted. "Especially if we're the ones who need disposing of. "

  The doorknob twisted and began to open.

  Ramirez went for his gun and had it out almost as quickly as I had my blasting rod pointed at the door. Something slammed against it, opening it five or six inches. I flicked my gaze aside for a minute, and then lowered the blasting rod. I put a hand on Ramirez's wrist and said, "Easy, tiger. It's a friendly. "

  Ramirez glanced at me and lowered the gun, while I watched Mouse rise to his feet and pad toward the door, tail wagging.

  "Who is it?" he asked.

  "That backup we might be getting," I said quietly.

  The door banged open by inches and Molly slipped inside.

  She'd ditched the Goth-wear almost entirely. She didn't sport any of the usual piercings - nose rings are great fashion statements, but in anything like a fight, they just aren't a good idea. Her clothing wasn't all ripped up, either. She wore heavy, loose jeans, and not slung so low on the hips that they'd threaten to fall off and trip her if she twitched her spine just right. Her combat boots had been divested of their brightly colored laces. She wore a black shirt with a Metallica logo on it, and a web belt that bore a sheathed knife and the small first-aid kit I'd seen her mother carry into battle. She wore a dark green baseball cap, with her hair gathered into a tail and tucked up under it, where it wouldn't provide an easy handle for anyone wanting to grab it.

  Molly didn't look up at us. She greeted the big dog first, kneeling to give him a hug. Then she rose, facing me, and looked up. "Um. Hi, Harry. Hello, Warden Ramirez. "

  "Molly," I replied, keeping my voice neutral. "Is this the third or fourth time in the last two days I've told you to stay home only to have you ignore me?"

  "I know," she said, looking down again. "But. . . I'd like to talk to you. "

  "I'm busy"

  "I know. But I really need to talk to you, sir. Please. "

  I exhaled slowly. Then I glanced aside at Ramirez. "Do me a favor? Gas up the Beetle? There's a station two blocks down the street. "

  Carlos looked from me to Molly and back, then shrugged and said, "Um. Sure, yeah. "

  I took the keys from my pocket and tossed them. Carlos caught them with casual dexterity, gave Molly a polite nod, and left.

  "Shut the door," I told her.

  She did, pressing her back against it and using her legs to push. It cost her a couple of grunts of effort and a few ounces of dignity, but she got it shut.

  "You can barely shut the door," I said. "But you think you're ready to fight the White Court?"

  She shook her head and started to speak.

  I didn't let her. "Again, you're ignoring me. Again, you're here when I told you to stay away. "

  "Yes," she said. "But - "

  "But you think I'm a frigging idiot too stupid to make these kinds of judgments on my own, and you want to go with me anyway. "

  "It isn't like that," she said.

  "No?" I said, thrusting out my chin belligerently. "How many beads can you move, apprentice?"

  "But - "

  I roared at her, "How many beads?"

  She flinched away from me, her expression miserable. Then she lifted the bracelet and dangled it, heavy black beads lining up at the bottom of the strand. She faced it, her blue eyes tired and haunted, and bit her lip.

  "Harry?" she asked softly.

  She sounded very young.

  "Yes?" I asked. I spoke very gently.

  "Why does it matter?" she asked me, staring at the bead bracelet.

  "It matters if you want to go into this with me," I said quietly.

  She shook her head and blinked her eyes several times. It didn't stop a tear from leaking out. "But that's just it. I. . . I don't want to go. I don't want to see that. . . " She glanced aside at Mouse and shuddered. "Blood, like that. I don't remember what happened when you and Mother saved me from Arctis Tor. But I don't want to see more of that. I don't want it to happen to me. I don't want to. hurt anyone. "

  I let out a low, noncommittal sound. "Then why are you here?"

  "B-because," she said, searching for words. "Because I need to do it. I know that what you're doing is necessary. And it's right. And I know that you're doing it because you're the only one who can. And I want to help. "

  "You think you're strong enough to help?" I asked her.

  She bit her lip again and met my eyes for just a second. "I think. . . I think it doesn't matter how strong my magic is. I know I don't. . . I don't know how to do these things like you do. The guns and the battles and. . . " She lifted her chin and seemed to gather herself a little. "But I know more than most. "

  "You know some," I admitted. "But you got to understand, kid. That won't mean much once things get nasty. There's no time for thinking or second chances. "

  She nodded. "All I can promise you is that I won't leave you when you need me. I'll do whatever you think I can. I'll stay here and man the phone. I'll drive the car. I'll walk at the back and hold the flashlight. Whatever you want. " She met my eyes and her own hardened. "But I can't sit at home being safe. I need to be a part of this. I need to help. "

  There was a sudden, sharp sound as the leather strand of her bracelet snapped of its own volition. Black beads flew upward with so much force that they rattled off the ceiling and went bouncing around the apartment for a good ten seconds. Mister, still batting playfully at his gift sack of catnip, paused to watch them, ears flicking, eyes alertly tracking their movement.

  I went up to the girl, who was staring at them, mystified.

  "It was the vampire, wasn't it," I said. "Seeing him die. "
r />   She blinked at me. Then at the scattered beads. "I. . . I didn't just see it, Harry. I felt it. I can't explain it any better than that. Inside my head. I felt it, the same way I felt that poor girl. But this was horrible. "

  "Yeah," I said. "You're a sensitive. It's a tremendous talent, but it has some drawbacks to it. In this case, though, I'm glad you have it. "

  "Why?" she whispered.

  I gestured at the scattered beads. "Congratulations, kid," I told her quietly. "You're ready. "

  She blinked at me, her head tilted. "What?"

  I took the now-empty leather strand and held it up between two fingers. "It wasn't about power, Molly. It was never about power. You've got plenty of that. "

  She shook her head. "But. . . all those times. . . "

  "The beads weren't ever going to go up. Like I said, power had nothing to do with it. You didn't need that. You needed brains. " I thumped a forefinger over one of her eyebrows. "You needed to open your eyes. You needed to be truly aware of how dangerous things are. You needed to understand your limitations. And you needed to know why you should set out on something like this. "

  "But. . . all I said was that I was scared. "

  "After what you got to experience? That's smart, kid," I said. "I'm scared, too. Every time something like this happens, it scares me. But being strong doesn't get you through. Being smart does. I've beaten people and things who were stronger than I was, because they didn't use their heads, or because I used what I had better than they did. It isn't about muscle, kiddo, magical or otherwise. It's about your attitude. About your mind. "

  She nodded slowly and said, "About doing things for the right reasons. "

  "You don't throw down like this just because you're strong enough to do it," I said. "You do it because you don't have much choice. You do it because it's unacceptable to walk away, and still live with yourself later. "

  She stared at me for a second, and then her eyes widened. "Otherwise, you're using power for the sake of using power. "

  I nodded. "And power tends to corrupt. It isn't hard to love using it, Molly. You've got to go in with the right attitude or. . . "

  "Or the power starts using you," she said. She'd heard the argument before, but this was the first time she said the words slowly, thoughtfully, as if she'd actually understood them, instead of just parroting them back to me. Then she looked up. "That's why you do it. Why you help people. You're using the power for someone other than yourself. "

  "That's part of it," I said. "Yeah. "

  "I feel. . . sort of stupid. "

  "There's a difference in knowing something" - I poked her head again - "and knowing it. " I touched the middle of her sternum. "See?"

  She nodded slowly. Then she took the strand back from me and put it back on her wrist. There was just enough left to let her tie it again. She held it up so that I could see and said, "So that I'll remember. "

  I grinned at her and hugged her. She hugged back. "Did you get a lesson like this?"

  "Pretty much," I said. "From this grumpy old Scot on a farm in the Ozarks. "

  "When do I stop feeling like an idiot?"

  "I'll let you know when I do," I said, and she laughed.

  We parted the hug and I met her eyes. "You still in?"

  "Yes," she said simply.

  "Then you'll ride up with Ramirez and me. We'll stop outside the compound and you'll stay with the car. "

  She nodded seriously. "What do I do?"

  "Keep your eyes and ears open. Stay alert for anything you might sense. Don't talk to anyone. If anyone approaches you, leave. If you see a bunch of bad guys showing up, start honking the horn and get out. "

  "Okay," she said. She looked a little pale.

  I pulled a silver cylinder out of my pocket. "This is a hypersonic whistle. Mouse can hear it from a mile away. If we get in trouble, I'll blow it and he'll start barking about it. He'll face where we are. Try to get the car as close as you can. "

  "I'll have Mouse with me," she said, and looked considerably relieved.

  I nodded. "Almost always better not to work alone. "

  "What if. . . what if I do something wrong?"

  I shrugged. "What if you do? That's always possible, Molly. But the only way never to do the wrong thing - "

  " - is never to do anything," she finished.

  "Bingo. " I put a hand on her shoulder. "Look. You're smart enough. I've taught you everything I know about the White Court. Keep your eyes open. Use your head, your judgment. If things get bad and I haven't started blowing the whistle, run like hell. If it gets past ten P. M. and you haven't heard from me, do the same. Get home and tell your folks. "

  "All right," she said quietly. She took a deep breath and let it out unsteadily. "This is scary. "

  "And we're doing it anyway," I said.

  "That makes us brave, right?"

  "If we get away with it," I said. "If we don't, it just makes us stupid. "

  Her eyes widened for a second and then she let out a full-throated laugh.

  "Ready?" I asked her.

  "Ready, sir. "

  "Good. "

  Outside, gravel crunched as Ramirez returned with the Beetle. "All right, apprentice," I said. "Get Mouse's lead on him, will you? Let's do it. "