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Death Masks, Page 19

Jim Butcher

Chapter Nineteen

  The downtown Marriott was huge, brilliantly lit, and busy as an anthill. Several blue-and-whites were parked nearby, and a couple of officers were helping to direct traffic in front of the hotel. I could see maybe twenty limos on the street and pulling through the archway in front of the hotel doors, and every one of them looked bigger and nicer than ours. Valets rushed around to park the cars of guests who had driven themselves. There were a dozen men in red jackets standing around with bored expressions that some might mistake for inattention. Hotel security.

  Martin pulled up to the entryway and said, "I'll wait for you out here. " He passed a palm-sized cell phone to Susan. She slipped it into a black clutch. "If you get into trouble, speed-dial one. "

  At that point, a valet opened the door on my side, and I slipped out of the car. My rental tux felt a little awkward. The shoes were long enough for me but they were an inch and a half too wide. I shrugged my jacket into place, straightened the cummerbund, and offered a hand to Susan. She slid out of the car with a brilliant smile, and straightened my tie.

  "Smile," she said quietly. "Everyone here is worried about image. If you walk in scowling like that we won't blend in. "

  I smiled in what I thought was a camouflaging manner. Susan regarded the expression critically, nodded, and slipped her arm through mine. We walked in under the cover our smiles provided. One of the security guards stopped us inside the door, and Susan presented the tickets to him. He waved us through.

  "First thing to do is find some stairs," I said from behind my smile. "The loading docks will be near the kitchens, and they're below us. That's where they'll be bringing in the art stuff. "

  Susan held her course toward the stairs. "Not yet," she said. "If we snoop around the second we get in the door someone is likely to notice. We should mingle until the auction is running. People will be distracted then. "

  "If we wait, the whole thing could go down while we hobnob. "

  "Maybe," Susan said. "But odds are that Anna Valmont and the buyer are both thinking the same thing. "

  "When does the auction start?"

  "Eleven. "

  "Assuming the note means that the sale is at eleven forty-five, that doesn't give us much time to look around. This place is huge. "

  We got onto an escalator and Susan arched an eyebrow at me. "Do you have any better ideas?"

  "Not yet," I said. I caught a glimpse of myself in a polished brass column. I didn't look half-bad. There's a reason the tux has weathered a century virtually unchanged. You don't fix what isn't broken. Tuxedos make anyone look good, and I was a living testament to it. "Think they will have anything to eat? I'm starving. "

  "Just keep the shirt clean," Susan muttered.

  "No problem. I can wipe my fingers on the cummerbund. "

  "I can't take you anywhere," Susan said. She leaned a little against me, and it felt nice. I felt nice, generally speaking. I cleaned up pretty well, it would seem, and I had a lovely woman-no, I had Susan on my arm, looking lovely. It was a small silver lining compared to the troubled clouds I'd been floundering through, but it was something, and it lasted all the way up the escalator. I take the good moments wherever I can get them.

  We followed the flow of formally dressed men and women up another escalator or three to a cavernous ballroom. Chandeliers hung from the ceiling and tables laden with expensive-looking snacks and ice sculptures all but overflowed onto the floor. A group of musicians played on the far side of the ballroom. They didn't seem to be stretching themselves with some relaxed and classy jazz. Couples who also weren't stretching themselves danced together on a floor the size of a basketball court.

  The room wasn't crammed with people, but there were a couple of hundred there already, and more coming in behind us. Polite but insincere chatter filled the space, accompanied by equally insincere smiles and laughter. There were a number of city officials whom I recognized in the immediate area, plus a couple of professional musicians and at least one motion-picture actor.

  A waiter in a white jacket offered us a tray of champagne glasses, and I promptly appropriated a pair of them, passing the first to Susan. She lifted the glass to her mouth but didn't drink. The champagne smelled good. I took a sip, and it tasted good. I'm not a terribly impressive drinker, so I stopped after the first sip. Chugging down champagne on an empty stomach would probably prove inconvenient if it turned out I needed to do any quick thinking. Or quick leaving. Or quick anything.

  Susan said hello to an older couple, and stopped for introductions. I kept my duck blind of a smile in place, and mouthed appropriately polite phrases in the right spots. My cheeks had already started hurting. We repeated that for half an hour or so, while the band played a bunch of low-key dance music. Susan knew a lot of people. She'd been a reporter in Chicago for five or six years before she'd had to leave town, but she had evidently managed to ingratiate herself to more people than I would have guessed. You go, Susan.

  "Food," I said, after a stooped older man kissed Susan's cheek and walked away. "Feed me, Seymour. "

  "It's always the brain stem with you," she murmured. But she guided us over to the refreshment tables so that I could pick up a tiny sandwich. I didn't wolf the thing down in one bite, which was just as well, since it had a toothpick through it to hold it together. But the sandwich didn't last long.

  "At least chew with your mouth closed," Susan said.

  I took a second sandwich. "Can't help it. I got all kinds of joie de vivre, baby. "

  "And smile. "

  "Chew and smile? At the same time? Do I look like Jackie Chan?"

  She had a retort but it died after a syllable. I felt her hand tighten on my arm. I briefly debated wolfing the second sandwich, just to get it out of the way, but I took the more sophisticated option instead. I put it in my jacket pocket for later, and turned to follow Susan's gaze.

  I looked just in time to meet the gaze of Gentleman Johnny Marcone. He was a man of slightly above average height and unassuming build. He had handsome but unremarkable features. Central casting would have placed him as the genial next-door neighbor. He didn't have the usual boater's tan, it being February and all, but the crow's-feet at the corners of his pale green eyes remained. He looked a lot like the fictional public image he projected-that of a normal, respectable businessman, an American tale of middle class made good.

  That said, Marcone scared me more than any single human being I'd ever met. I'd seen him produce a knife from his sleeve faster than a hyperstrong psychotic could swing a tire iron at him. He'd thrown another knife through a rope while spinning in circles as he hung upside down in the dark, later the same night. Marcone may have been human, but he wasn't normal. He'd taken control of Chicago's organized crime during a free-for-all gang war, and he'd run it ever since despite the efforts of both everyday and supernatural threats. He'd done it by being deadlier than anything that came after him. Of all the people in the room, Marcone was the only one I could see who wasn't wearing a fake smile. It didn't look like he was particularly troubled by the fact, either.

  "Mister Dresden," he said. "And Miss Rodriguez, I believe. I didn't realize you were an art collector. "

  "I am the foremost collector of velvet Elvii in the city of Chicago," I said at once.

  "Elvii?" Marcone inquired.

  "The plural could be Elvises, I guess," I said. "But if I say that too often, I start muttering to myself and calling things 'my precious,' so I usually go with the Latin plural. "

  Marcone did smile that time. It was a cool expression. Tigers with full stomachs wear smiles like Marcone's when they're watching baby deer play. "Ah. I hope you can find something to suit your tastes tonight. "

  "I'm easy," I said. "Any old rag will do. "

  Marcone narrowed his eyes. There was a short, pointed silence while he met my gaze. He could do that. I'd gotten into a soulgaze with him in the past. It was one of the reasons he scared me. "In that case, I would a
dvise you to exercise caution in your acquisitions. "

  "Cautious, that's me," I said. "You sure you wouldn't rather make this simple?"

  "In deference to your limitations, I almost would," Marcone said. "But I'm afraid I'm not quite sure what you're talking about. "

  I felt my eyes narrow and I took a step forward. Susan's hand pressed against my arm, silently urging restraint. I lowered my voice to something between Marcone and myself. "Tell you what. Let's start with one of your monkeys trying to punch my ticket in a parking garage. From there, we can move along to the part where I come up with a suitable reply. "

  I didn't expect what happened next.

  Marcone blinked.

  It wasn't a huge giveaway. At a card table, only a couple of the players would have seen it. But I was right in his face, and I knew him and I saw it. My words startled Marcone, and for half a second it showed. He covered it, bringing out a businessman's smile that was a lot better than my fake smile, and clapped a hand gently to my arm. "Don't try me in public, Dresden. You can't afford to do it. I can't afford to let you. "

  A shadow fell over Marcone, and I looked up to see Hendricks hulk into view behind him. Hendricks was still huge, still redheaded, still looked vaguely like a defensive lineman a little too awkward to make it from college to pro ball. His tux was nicer than mine. I wondered if he was wearing body armor under it again.

  Cujo Hendricks had a date. He had a blond date. He had a gorgeous, leggy, blue-eyed, elegant, tall, Nordic angel of a date. She was wearing a white gown, and silver flashed at her throat, on each wrist, and on one ankle. I'd seen bikinis in issues of Sports Illustrated that might have felt too plain to be worn by Hendricks's date.

  She spoke, and her voice was a throaty purr. "Mister Marcone. Is there a problem?"

  Marcone arched an eyebrow. "Is there, Mister Dresden?"

  I probably would have said something stupid, but Susan's nails dug into my forearm through my jacket. "No trouble," Susan said. "I don't believe we've met. "

  "No," said the blonde, with a faint roll of her eyes. "We haven't. "

  "Mister Dresden, Miss Rodriguez, I believe you both know Mister Hendricks. And this is Miss Gard. "

  "Ah," I said. "She's an employee, I take it?"

  Miss Gard smiled. Professional smiles all around tonight, it would seem. "I'm from the Monoc Foundation," she said. "I'm a consultant. "

  "Regarding what, one wonders," said Susan. She definitely had the sharpest smile of those present.

  "Security," Gard said, unruffled. She focused on me. "I help make sure that thieves, spies, and poor wandering spirits don't wind up all over the lawn. "

  And I got it. Whoever Miss Gard was, it seemed fairly likely that she was responsible for the wards that had torn Bob up so badly. My head of righteous fury died out, replaced by caution. Marcone had been concerned about my talents. He'd started taking steps to balance things, and Marcone wasn't one to show his hand early, which meant that he was already prepared for trouble of one kind or another with me. He was ready to fight me.

  Marcone read my features and said, "Neither one of us wants any unpleasantness, Dresden. " His eyes became flat and hard. "If you want to talk, call my office tomorrow. In the meantime, I suggest you search for your classic renditions of Elvis elsewhere. "

  "I'll take it under advisement," I answered. Marcone shook his head and walked away to do his own mingling, which seemed to consist mainly of shaking hands, and nodding in the appropriate spots. Hendricks and the Amazonian Gard shadowed Marcone, never far away.

  "What a charmer you are," Susan murmured.

  I grunted.

  "Such diplomacy. "

  "Me and Kissinger. " I scowled after Marcone and said, "I don't like this. "

  "Why not?"

  "Because he's up to something. He set up magical defenses around his house. "

  "Like he was expecting trouble," Susan said.

  "Yeah. "

  "You think he's the buyer for the Shroud?"

  "Would make a lot of sense," I said. "He's got enough contacts and money to do it. The buy is apparently going down here at his gala. " I scanned the room as I spoke. "He doesn't do anything without planning it out to his advantage. He's probably got friends in hotel security. It would give him all kinds of freedom to meet Valmont where no one was watching. "

  I spotted Marcone as he found a spot near a wall and lifted a tiny cell phone to his ear. He spoke into it, his eyes hard, and he had the look of a man who wasn't listening, only giving orders. I tried to Listen in on what he was saying, but between the band, the ballroom, and the chatter of voices I wasn't able to make anything out.

  "But why?" Susan asked. "He's got the means and the resources but what reason would he have to buy the Shroud?"

  "Hell if I know. "

  Susan nodded. "He certainly isn't happy to see you here. "

  "Yeah. Something unsettled him, gave him a nasty surprise. Did you see his face?"

  Susan shook her head. "What do you mean?"

  "A reaction, during the conversation. I'm sure I saw it. He got caught flat-footed when I was talking to him, and he didn't like it. "

  "You rattled him?"

  "Maybe," I said.

  "Enough to push him into moving early?" Susan's dark eyes had also picked out Marcone, who snapped the cell phone closed and headed for one of the service doors with Gard and Hendricks behind him. Marcone paused to speak to a red-jacketed security guard and glanced in our direction.

  "Looks like we'd better get moving," I said. "I need a minute to use the spell on this thread sample and lead us to the Shroud. "

  "Why haven't you done that already?"

  "Limited range," I said. "And the spell won't last long. We need to be close. "

  "How close?" Susan asked.

  "Maybe a hundred feet. "

  Marcone left the room, and the security guard lifted his radio to his mouth.

  "Crap," I said.

  "Relax," Susan said, though her own voice sounded tight. "These are the upper crust of Chicago. The security guards won't want to make a scene. "

  "Right," I said, and started for the door.

  "Slowly," Susan said, her smile in place again. "Don't rush. "

  I tried not to rush, despite the security guard closing in behind us. I saw red jackets moving in my peripheral vision as well. We kept up the slow, graceful walk of people wandering around a party, and Susan smiled enough for both of us. We got as far as the doors before another red jacket appeared in the doors in front of us, cutting us off.

  I recognized the man-the gunman outside the television studio, the one who had nearly ventilated Father Vincent and me in the parking garage. His eyes widened in recognition and his hand moved toward his jacket, where a gun would be inside a shoulder holster. The body language was clear: Come along quietly or get shot.

  I looked around us, but other than the partygoers, the dance floor, and the other security guards, nothing really seemed to present itself as an option. Then the band struck up something a little faster with a syncopated Latin beat, and several of the younger couples who hadn't been dancing previously moved out onto the floor.

  "Come on," I said, and guided Susan with me.

  "What are you doing?" she asked.

  "Buying some time to get across the room to those other doors," I said. I turned to her, put one hand on her waist and took her other hand in mine, and led off onto the dance floor with an uncomplicated two-step. "Just follow. "

  I looked back to her to see her mouth open in shock. "You told me you couldn't dance. "

  "Not like in clubs and stuff," I said. She followed me well enough to let me do a little dip and step into a restrained hustle. "I don't do so well with rock and roll. Ballroom is something else. "

  Susan laughed, her dark eyes shining, even as she watched the crowd around us for more red jackets. "Between this and the tux, you're threatening to bec
ome classy. Where did you learn?"

  I kept us moving down the dance floor, rolling Susan out to the length of our arms and then drawing her in again. "When I first came to Chicago, I had a bunch of jobs until I hooked up with Nick Christian at Ragged Angel Investigations. One of them was as a dance partner with a senior-citizen organization. "

  "You learned from little old ladies?"

  "Tough to tango with someone with lumbago," I said. "It requires great skill. " I spun Susan again, this time bringing her back to me with her back to my chest, one hand still on her hip with the other holding her arm out. There was a subtle electricity in touching her, her waist slender and supple under my hand. Her hair smelled of cinnamon, and her dress left quite a bit of her back naked to view. It was distracting as hell, and when she glanced over her shoulder at me, her eyes were growing heated. She felt it too.

  I swallowed. Focus, Harry. "See those doors behind the food tables?"

  Susan nodded.

  I checked over my shoulder. The security guards had been slowed down by the press of the crowd, and we had beaten them to the other side of the room. "That's where we're going. We need to ditch these guys and find Valmont before Marcone gets to her. "

  "Won't security just follow us through the kitchen?"

  "Not if Vanilla Martin diverts their attention before we leave the floor. "

  Susan's eyes glittered and she kept dancing with me, drawing the tiny cell phone from her clutch. "You have a devious mind. "

  "Call me crazy but I'd rather not have Marcone's goons walk us out. " A little luck came our way, and the band moved to a somewhat slower number. Susan was able to stay closer to me, half concealing her cell phone. I heard the phone dialing numbers, and I tried to still my thoughts and feelings. It hadn't worked for long at the Larry Fowler studio, but if I could rein in my emotions, Susan should at least be able to make a call.

  It worked. She spoke quietly into the phone for all of three or four seconds, then clicked it closed and put it away. "Two minutes," she said.

  Damn. Martin was good. I could pick out a couple of security guards at the main doors. Marcone's dark-haired hitter was closer. He had trouble making his way politely through the crowd, and we had managed to gain a small lead on him as we danced.

  "Do we have a signal or anything?"

  "I think we wait for something distracting to happen," Susan said.

  "Like what?"

  The sudden shriek of braking tires cut through the band music. There was a loud crunch, and the sound of plate glass breaking, along with shrieks from the hotel lobby below. The band stopped in confusion, and people crowded toward the exit to see what was happening.

  "Like that," Susan said. We had to swim upstream, so to speak, but it didn't look like anyone was bothering to look at us. I caught a glimpse of Marcone's hitter, heading out toward the ruckus. The ass had his gun in his hand, despite any possible field of fire he might have picked being filled with rich and influential socialites. At least he was holding the weapon low and against his leg.

  The staff were just as interested in the disturbance as anyone else, and we were able to duck back into the service hallway without comment from anyone. Susan took a quick look around and said, "Elevator?"

  "Stairs if they have them. If someone shoots at us on stairs, we can scream and flail around a lot more. " I spotted a fire alarm diagram on the wall and traced my finger over it. "Here, down the hall and left. "

  Susan stepped out of her shoes while I did that. It left her a lot shorter, but her feet were silent on the utilitarian carpet. We went down the hall, found the stairs, and started down them. We went down three flights, which put us at ground level again, I guessed. I opened the door from the stairwell and took a look around. A dingy little elevator opened, and a couple of guys in the food-stained white of kitchen hands went walking down the hallway, peering ahead and chattering. I heard a siren or two wailing outside.

  "I'll say this for Martin," I muttered. "When he distracts, he distracts. "

  "He has a strong work ethic," Susan agreed.

  "Keep an eye out," I said, and stepped back from the door. Susan's gaze flicked around the stairwell and over the hallway while I stepped back to kneel on the ground, drawing out what I would need for my seeking spell.

  I pulled out a black Magic Marker and drew a smooth circle on the tiled landing, all the way around me. The marker squealed as I did, and as I closed the circle I willed it shut. A gentle barrier, something I couldn't see but could easily feel closed around me, screening out disruptive forces so that I could work my spell.

  "Is that a permanent marker?" Susan asked.

  "Thus do I strike a blow for anarchy whenever the mood takes me," I muttered. "Just a minute. " I took out the sample from Father Vincent and a windup plastic duck.

  Which isn't as goofy as it sounds. Stay with me.

  I touched the thread to the duck's bill, then wound the duck up. I muttered a low chant, mostly nonsense syllables, and focused on what I wanted. I set the duck down on the floor, but instead of beginning to waddle, it instead waited, completely still. I had to use a rubber band to attach the tiny thread to the duck's bill. It was too short to tie on. I focused, brushing aside any thoughts besides those I needed for the spell, and let the gathered magic go with a whispered, "Seek, seek, seek. "

  The power poured out of me, leaving me a bit short of breath. The little yellow duck quivered and then lurched into motion, spinning about in an aimless circle. I nodded once, reached out a hand, and with an effort of will to support the gesture, I broke the circle. The screen vanished as quickly as it had arrived, and the little yellow duck quacked and marched toward the door.

  I glanced up at Susan. Her dark and lovely eyes watched the duck with what could charitably be termed extreme skepticism.

  I scowled at her. "Don't say it. "

  "I didn't say anything. "

  "Well, don't. "

  She fought down a smile. "I won't. "

  I opened the door. The duck waddled out into the hallway, quacked, and turned to the left. I stepped out, picked the duck up, and said, "It's close. Let's move. We just check the duck at intersections. "

  "Does the duck know about stairs?"

  "More or less. Come on; I don't know how long the spell will last. "

  I led the way. I'm not the world's mightiest athlete, but I exercise a bit, I have really long legs, and I can walk faster than some run. The duck led us down a pair of long hallways to a door with an EMPLOYEES ONLY sign on it.

  I opened the door, peeked in, and reported in a whisper, "Big laundry room. "

  Footsteps sounded behind us, coming down another hallway. Susan looked at me with wide eyes. I pushed into the room, Susan close behind me. I closed the door almost all the way, holding it from closing completely so that the lock wouldn't click and give us away.

  The footsteps came closer, a couple sets of them, and two shapes went quickly by, passing close to the cracked doorway.

  "Hendricks and Gard," I murmured to Susan.

  "How do you know?" she whispered back.

  "Smelled the blonde's perfume. " I counted silently to ten and opened the door, looking out. The hallway was clear. I closed the door and turned on the lights. The room was fairly large, with several commercial washing machines ranked against one wall. A bank of dryers faced them on the opposite side of the room, and in between were several long counters that held stacks and stacks of folded white sheets and towels. I put the duck on the floor, and it waddled off down the row of counters. "This is how they had it hidden on the yacht. Concealed among laundry. "

  "And those professional-thief types tend to be so predictable?" Susan asked.

  I frowned and put the duck on the floor. "Watch the door. "

  The duck waddled at once over to the far side of the room, and bumped into some hanging laundry. I pulled the hanging sheets to one side, and found a large ventilation grate beh
ind them. I knelt down, running my fingers and eyes over the edges of the grate, and found a pair of holes where screws had been. A quick tug on the grate had it off the wall, revealing a vent maybe three feet square. I stuck my head in and found a ventilation shaft running between the walls. The duck waddled in and took a determined right.

  "Air duct," I said. I twisted out of the tuxedo jacket and absently ripped off the tie from around my neck. I stepped out of the clumsy shoes and rolled up my shirtsleeves, baring my shield bracelet to view. "Be right back. "

  "Harry," Susan began, her voice worried.

  "I saw Alien. I'm not Tom Skerritt. " I winked at Susan, picked up the duck, and entered the air duct, moving as quietly as I could.

  Evidently, it was very quiet. The duct ran straight, grates opening into utility rooms every fifteen or twenty feet. I had gone past three of the grates when I heard voices.

  "This isn't according to the deal," came Marcone's voice. It had the scratchy edges of a radio transmission to it.

  Anna Valmont's smooth British accent answered it from the other side of the next grate. "Neither was an early rendezvous. I don't like it when a buyer changes the plan. "

  A radio clicked. Marcone's voice came through it, smooth and calm. "I assure you that I have no interest in breaking faith with your organization. It isn't good business. "

  "When I have confirmation of the transfer of funds, you'll get the article. Not a second before. "

  "My factor in Zurich-"

  "Do you think I'm an idiot? This job has already cost us more than any of us bargained for. Clear off the bloody radio and contact me when you have something worth saying or I'll destroy the bloody thing and leave. "

  "Wait," Marcone said. There was tension in his voice. "You can't-"

  "Can't I?" Valmont answered. "Don't fuck with me, Yank. And add another million to the bill for telling me my job. I'm calling off the deal if the money isn't there in ten minutes. Out. "

  I came up to the grate and found it sitting not quite squarely in its frame. Valmont must have entered the hotel and moved around through the air shafts. I peered out through the grate. Valmont had set up in a storage room of some kind. The only light in the room was a dim green shimmer that rose up from what must have been a palmtop computer. Valmont muttered something to herself beneath her breath, her eyes on the screen. She was wearing a lot of tight-fitting black clothing and a black baseball cap. She wasn't wearing my coat, dammit, but I guess I couldn't have expected to find everything wrapped up in a nice package.

  I checked the duck, setting it down facing toward me. It immediately walked in a little circle and pointed toward Anna Valmont.

  The thief paced the room like a restless cat, eyes on the palmtop. My eyes adjusted to the dimness over the course of a few minutes of waiting, and I saw that Valmont was pacing back and forth around a tube with a carrying strap. The tube wasn't more than five or six feet from me.

  I watched Valmont pace until her expression and steps froze, eyes locking hard on the palmtop. "Great Jupiter's balls," she said quietly. "He paid it. "

  Now or never. I put my hands on the grate and pushed it as gently as I could. It slid soundlessly from the wall and I set it to one side. Valmont was focused entirely on her little computer. If the prospect of payment distracted Valmont for a moment more, I'd be able to slip away with the Shroud, which would be very James Bond of me. Hopefully the tuxedo would help out with that. I needed only a few seconds to creep out, nip the Shroud, and get back into the vents.

  I almost died when Valmont's radio crackled again and Marcone's voice said, "There. As agreed, plus your additional fee. Will that be sufficient?"

  "Quite. You will find your merchandise in a storage closet in the basement. "

  Marcone's voice gained an edge. "Please be more specific. "

  I slipped out of the vents, thinking silent thoughts. A long stretch put my fingertips on the tube's carrying strap.

  "If you wish," Valmont replied. "The article is in a locked room, in a courier's tube. The tube itself is outfitted with an incendiary. A radio transmitter in my possession has the capacity to disarm or to trigger the device. Once I am safely on my way from the city, I will disarm the device and notify you via telephone. Until that time, I suggest you do not try to open it. "

  I jerked my fingers away from the tube.

  "Again you have altered our agreement," Marcone said. He said it in a voice as smooth and cold as the inside wall of a refrigerator.

  "It does seem to be a seller's market. "

  "There are very few people able to speak about taking advantage of me. "

  Valmont let out a quiet, bitter little laugh. "Come, now. This is nothing more than an entirely reasonable piece of insurance," Valmont said. "Be a good boy and your precious cloth is in no danger. Attempt to betray me, and you'll have nothing. "

  "And if the authorities find you on their own?" Marcone asked.

  "You'll need a broom and a dustpan when you come for the article. I should think you would be wise to do whatever you can to clear the path for me. " She turned the radio off.

  I bit my lip, thinking furiously. Even if I took the Shroud now, Marcone would be upset when he didn't get his hands on it. If he didn't have Valmont killed, he'd at least tip off the police to her. Valmont, in turn, would destroy the Shroud. If I took it, I would have to move fast to get the Shroud away from the device. I couldn't count on simply blowing the device out with magic. It was as likely to malfunction and explode as it was to just go dead.

  I would need the transmitter too, and there was only one way to get it.

  I stepped up behind Valmont and pressed the bill of the plastic duck against her spine. "Don't move," I said. "I'll shoot. "

  She stiffened. "Dresden?"

  "Let me see your hands," I said. She held them up, the green light of the palmtop showing columns of numbers. "Where's the transmitter?"

  "What transmitter?"

  I pushed the duck against her a little harder. "I've had a long day too, Miss Valmont. The one you just told Marcone about. "

  She let out a small sound of discomfort. "If you take it, Marcone will kill me. "

  "Yeah, he takes his image seriously. You'd be smart to come with me and get protection from the authorities. Now where is the transmitter?"

  Her shoulders slumped and she bowed her head forward for a moment. I felt a twinge of guilt. She had planned on being here with friends. They'd been killed. She was a young woman, alone in a strange land, and regardless of what happened, she wasn't likely to come out of this situation ahead of the game. And here I was holding a duck to her back. I felt like a bully.

  "My left jacket pocket," Valmont said, her tone quiet. I reminded myself that I was a professional and reached into her pocket to get the transmitter.

  She clobbered me.

  One second, I was holding the duck to her back and reaching into her pocket. The next, I was falling to the ground with a bruise shaped like one of her elbows forming on my jaw. The light from the palmtop clicked out. A small red-tinted flashlight came on, and Valmont kicked the duck out of my hand. The beam of the flashlight followed the duck for a silent second, and then she laughed.

  "A duck," she said. She dipped a hand into her pocket and came out with a small silver semiautomatic. "I was fairly certain you wouldn't shoot, but that goes a step beyond ridiculous. "

  I've got to get a concealed-carry permit. "You won't shoot either," I said, and started to get up. "So you might as well put the gun d-"

  She pointed the gun at my leg and pulled the trigger. Pain flashed through my leg and I let out an involuntary shout. I grabbed at my thigh as the red flashlight settled on me.

  I pawed at my leg. I had a couple of smallish cuts, but I hadn't been shot. The bullet had hit the concrete floor next to me and gouged a bite out of the concrete. A flying chip or two must have cut my leg.

  "Terribly sorry," Valmont said. "
Were you saying something?"

  "Nothing important," I responded.

  "Ah," Valmont said. "Well, it would be bad etiquette to leave a corpse here for my buyer to clean up, so it seems as though I'll be hand-delivering to Marcone after all. We can't have you running off with what everyone is so excited over. "

  "Marcone is the least of your worries," I said.

  "No, actually, he's quite prominent among them. "

  "Marcone isn't going to sprout horns and claws and start tearing you apart," I said. "Or at least, I don't think he is. There's another group after that Shroud. Like the thing from the ship this morning. "

  I couldn't see her face from the other end of the red flashlight, but her voice sounded a little shaky. "What was it?"

  "A demon. "

  "A real demon?" There was a strained tone in her voice, as though she couldn't decide whether to laugh or sob. I'd heard it before. "You expect me to believe it was a literal demon?"

  "Yeah. "

  "And you're some sort of angel, I suppose. "

  "Hell, no," I said. "I'm just working for them. Sort of. Look, I know people who can protect you from those things. People who won't hurt you. They'll help. "

  "I don't need help," Valmont said. "They're dead, they're both dead. Gaston, Francisca. My friends. Whoever these people, these things are, they can't hurt me any more. "

  The locked door of the storeroom screamed as something tore it off its hinges and out into the hall. The hallway lights poured in through the gap in a blinding flood, and I had to shield my eyes against them for a second.

  I could see dim shapes, shadows in front of the light. One was lean and crouched, with shadowy tendrils of razor-edged hair slithering around it in a writhing cloud. One was sinuous and strong-looking, like a man who had traded its legs in on the scaled body of an enormous snake. Between them stood a shape that looked human, like a man in an overcoat, his hands in his pockets-but the shadows the shape cast writhed and boiled madly, making the lights flicker and swim in a nauseating fashion.

  "Cannot hurt you any more," said the central shape in a quietly amused, male voice. "No matter how many times I hear that one, it's always a fresh challenge. "